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Tell Me What You Want

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Victor throws him the ball and Conor does what he knows best. He kicks it, and it’s soaring, and everyone in the stands behind him his standing, all holding the same breath and the ball goes through the uprights and they all exhale, throwing their hands into the air, cheering for him,cheering for Wally, and Victor, and Weasel too probably. He catches Victor who jumps into his side, pounding on his arms in pure joy and he shakes Pascal’s hand and the crowd floods onto the field and Ned’s right there, impossible to miss and his arms are open, coming in for the hug that Conor returns with a vigor he wouldn’t have thought himself capable of until that very moment, and Ned’s head is buried in his shoulder and Conor wants to kiss him.

There are so many reasons he doesn’t. For one thing they’re in front of everyone, and despite the show of support his team had put on in the locker room, Conor’s still fairly certain there are some things that just wouldn’t fly. His dad’s somewhere in the stands, sitting with his mother, no doubt swelling with pride. And Walter can see, and Conor would quite like to be allowed to keep his current roommate arrangement. But mostly, Conor doesn’t kiss Ned because he’s not sure if Ned even wants that.

Ned had ever actually told anyone he was gay, he’d skirted around the question when Conor asked and he had that poster… but still, he was artsy, it was hard to tell. So Conor doesn’t kiss him at the end of the rugby match. He doesn’t tell him how he feels, how his heart skipped a beat when he saw him standing on that dock, how it felt like someone had taken a rusty knife and twisted it into his stomach when he shouted his secret in front of the entire school. They don’t talk about anything.

Conor’s father invites the team to the pub again, buys the boys pints and Walter pretends to look the other way. Ned tags along but is among the first to leave after finishing half a beer. Conor stands his ground this time when his father tries to hand him a glass of beer, he toasts the win with a glass of water and no one on the team thinks to give him grief for it. Just before 10, Pascal starts to herd the team towards the last round of coaches back to the school. He ignores Conor and Conor’s not sure if it’s because he’s with his father or because Pascal’s still swallowing his pride, but either way, Conor is alone with his father in the parking beside the pub once more.

His father sways from foot to foot, he has to look up at his son, but somehow he still makes Conor feel small.

“Your mother and I are so proud to be able to call you our son.”

“Thanks,” Conor mumbles.

“I know I said it before but moving past all that rubbish… it takes a big man.”

Still riding a little high from the win, still feeling a little defiant, he meets his father’s gaze, “And by rubbish you mean?”

His father shifts, uncomfortable, “Well y’know what I mean. The rubbish… the fighting over…”

“Over what, dad?”

“Well it’s just... “ His father takes a breath, inhaling deeply before breaking into a smile on his exhale, “It’s a relief to know that you’re not… like that”

“Like That?”

“Yes, like that. You’re my son, the rugby player, strong, and proud. You’re a winner, Conor.”

“So I can’t be both then?”

His father shakes his head, laughs, “Now you’re just looking for a fight. Come on, can’t we just be happy?”

“I’ll drive,” is all Conor says in response.

They drive in silence. He doesn’t reach for the radio since his choice in station might just lead to another passive aggressive fight. So he just drives out to his parents’ house. The town evaporates behind them and Conor does his best to keep his eyes trained ahead of him but sometimes he can’t help but steal a glance at his father, just to see if he’s looking at him, in pride, or disgust. He’s never looking, slumped back in his seat, head resting on the window, breath smelling of too much beer.

His mother comes out onto the porch when he pulls up the drive. She’s wearing a housecoat and slippers, helps his father up the steps and then turns her attention to Conor.

“You’re welcome to stay the night, we’ll take you back in the morning.”

She puts her hand on his shoulder but Conor shakes his head.

“I was gonna walk for the train,” he says.

“Don’t be silly, that’s at least an hours walk, all alone? I don’t think so.”

“I have to be back for classes,” He makes up a reason on the spot, truthfully he doesn’t want Ned to think he’s disappeared for the second time in as many days.

“Well then I’ll just have to drive you.”

“Mam!” He protests.

“You got your father home in one piece, consider this my returning the favour.”

Conor knows he’s not winning this one so he gets in the passenger side. His mother puts on some shoes but otherwise, doesn’t dress up much for the drive, something that’s quite unlike her, but Conor figures it’s the time of night.

They drive out of the neighbourhood and through town without saying a word. It’s only on the long and winding road through the fields that his mother finally speaks up.

“He’s very proud of you, you know?” She says.

“It’d be nice if he could tell me sometime before his fifth pint,” Conor says.

He doesn’t mean to sound as harsh as he does, generally tries to keep his mother out of it when he and his father really get into it as they had tonight.

She shakes her head, rolls her eyes slightly, “Conor, he loves you.”

“He loves the rugby player.”

“So be the rugby player,” she impatiently taps on the steering wheel.

“And if I want to be something else?”

“He’ll find a way to love that too.”

Conor scoffs and that ends the discussion. They don’t say another word to each other until they’re arriving at the gates. She puts her hand on his shoulder and smiles sadly.

“Remember to call, darling.”

“I will,” he says and then opens his door.

His bag went back with the team on the coach so he’s empty handed as he walks up the lawn. Shoves his hands into his pockets, doesn’t bother watching his mother drive away. He’s sure Walter’s somewhere in his office watching for him to get back. He wonders if Ned’s still in the infirmary, or if they stuck to their guns and expelled him. He realizes that he doesn’t actually know how Ned had found him, where he’d been before. The last he’d heard his parents were coming to collect him.

He dreads the idea of going back to an empty room with posters peeled off the wall and drawers bare of clothes, so he takes his steps slowly. Pulls open the oak doors, careful not to let them slam behind him. Takes the steps one at a time, stopping to look at the alumni photos on the walls above the railing for the first time. Looks for anyone sharing his last name just for the fun of it. The closest is a Harry Marsters from 1964.

He eases his door open, hears the sound of Ned’s soft breathing and sighs in relief. His hair pokes out from under the covers, feelings aside, Conor’s happy to see a friend.

Chapter Text

Sherry’s started on poetry, and Conor kind of hates it. At least when they were reading Lord of the Flies, Conor could put his head down and wait until it was his turn to read, but poetry was different. Sherry would ask the class how they felt, what they thought, and because they trusted him, they told him. 

Conor doesn’t, he doesn’t tell Sherry how he feels and he doesn’t trust him. He nods, he passes the question to another pupil, mumbling something about naturalistic imagery until Sherry relents and leaves him alone. 

Conor sits down in the English room a few days after the Senior Cup. The excitement has died out and for the most part, life has returned to normal. He explained the situation to Walter who had reduced Ned’s punishment to “community service” and allowed him to stay, much to the relief of his parents. 

Sherry is standing at his desk, greets Conor the same he does all the other boys and waits for the bell to ring. The bags under his eyes are omnipresent but almost cancelled out by the spark that overcomes him when he begins to teach. 

There is still a poem from yesterday’s class scrawled on the chalkboard. Langston Hughes, he remembered. He reads it one more time before Sherry wipes it from the board

 

I could take the Harlem night

and wrap around you,

Take the neon lights and make a crown,

Take the Lenox Avenue busses,

Taxis, subways,

And for your love song tone their rumble down.

Take Harlem's heartbeat,

Make a drumbeat,

Put it on a record, let it whirl,

And while we listen to it play,

Dance with you till day--

Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.

 

Mostly this one had just made him sad, which wasn’t the point, he supposed, but the writer seemed so free, and once Sherry had explained to the boys, where Harlem was, Conor was overcome by a want to be there, dancing to the sound of a record player. Maybe with Ned, if Ned wanted that. 

“Poetry, gentlemen, is the way we have expressed feelings that cannot be summed up in simple sentences for as long as we have had words. The emotions, the wonders of nature, the horrors of love. We began analyzing a few poems yesterday, but today I’d like to dive right in to one of my personal favourites by an american called Walt Whitman,” Sherry passes out photocopies of the poem as he speaks. 

Conor tunes him out as he begins to read.It’s all too much. All the words are too long, the whole thing feels like it had been written to impress someone, not to make anyone feel anything other than bored. 

But Ned seems transfixed, Conor can’t understand why, when, to the best of his ability, this guy is writing about some spider. And why does he keep saying “O my soul?”

It just makes no sense to him. 

The bell is a welcome relief but Sherry stops the boys, holds up a package of photocopied paper.

“Find a poem from this package that you enjoy, you need not read all of them but please, for the love of god don’t pick the first one you come across. Come tomorrow prepared to discuss.”

Conor slips it into his notebook without looking at it, doesn’t acknowledge Sherry or Ned as he walks out of the room. 

The Senior Cup was nice, but real life started again the next morning. Weasel didn’t magically grow a brain and Pascal didn’t suddenly learn a life lesson about sexual identity and sport. He and Ned didn’t suddenly realize they were in love. 

Ned is plucking at the strings on his guitar (he’s learned a new chord) when Conor returns from his afternoon run. He wipes the sweat from his brow and changes his shirt. It’s not like he wants Ned to see, but he wouldn’t mind if he did see, wouldn’t mind if he walked up behind him, wrapped his arms around his waist and told Conor exactly what he wants. 

“Conor?” Ned says. 

“Wha?” Conor turns, pulling his shirt the rest of the way down. 

“Have you done any of the reading for Sherry?”

“Why too lazy to do your own?” he teases. 

Ned sighs, “No, I was just wondering what you thought.”

“I think…” Conor says, “I fucking hate poetrty.”

This gets a laugh out of Ned, which Conor is grateful for. 

“I like it,” he admits 

Conor shakes his head, “How, I don’t understand half of what they’re saying. Doesn’t make any sense.”

“I guess it’s like song lyrics, but without the music to distract you from the words.”

“That’s pretentious.”

“Maybe you just haven’t found the right one.”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing.”

“Well you’ve got to pick one for tomorrow, haven’t you?”

“I’ll just pick the first one and make something up.”

Ned rolls his eyes, “Yeah alright then.”

“Can we just go listen to some music or something?”

Ned throws his schoolwork aside, “Thought you’d never ask.”

So they sneak out of their room, wearing pajama pants and hoodies and slip into their not-so-secret secret room. 

“I found this one while I was in town,” Ned holds up a record that Conor doesn’t recognize. 

“Didn’t think anyone still sold records.”

“It’s making a comeback. Lots of artists are doing vinyl releases along with digital.”

Ned always seems to know everything, and Conor never fails to be impressed. 

“Wanna listen?”

“Oh… uh… yeah,” Conor nods. 

“Cool,” Ned says. 

So they listen quietly, Conor sitting on the cement, Ned perched on a creaking chair. He’s never sure what Ned’s thinking, so he’s never sure what to say. He just wishes Ned would say something. Something about that terrible, awful day but that would bring it back to the surface, it would mean Conor having to talk to Ned about who he is, and he’s not sure he can do that without accidentally blurting out how he feels, and Conor’s already decided he forgives Ned, so what’s the point? 

“You have one of his songs as a quote on your board, don’t you?” Conor finally says to break the silence. 

Ned nods, “Bowie, the absolute coolest of the cool, he absolutely did not give a shit what anyone else thought.”

“He dyed his hair red too.” 

“Shut up,” Ned punches Conor on the shoulder, “Ass.”

“He seems a bit less… punk rock… than your usual discography.”

“Big word, Sherry teach you that?”

Conor feels his face go hot, hopes Ned doesn’t notice. Thankful when he continues to speak.

“But he’s a legend. Made some of the best albums of all time, of all genres.”

“You’re such a hipster.”

“Fuck you.”

And that’s how Conor decides that he no longer has a crush on Ned. Everything is back to normal, with school, and rugby, and Ned, and he’s not going to mess that up just because he had the urge to kiss his roommate one time… a couple times, but it’s fine, no big deal. He was out, sure, but that didn’t mean he had to change anything. At all. Ever.


Chapter Text

Sherry continues on his poetry tirade and Conor continues drifting off in class. Maybe he wouldn’t feel as bad about it if he weren’t the only one completely unable to understand what Sherry was getting at. Even has perked up considerably in class, and Ned hates class.

“None of it makes any fucking sense!” he wants to shout every time Sherry calls on him. 

Instead he shrugs until Sherry moves on to the next student. 

Conor considers dropping out when he elects to extend the unit since everyone was participating, even Weasel was giving it his best go. Everyone but Conor who still can’t understand why someone would go to all that trouble and use all those words when they could have just as easily said, “I love you,” or “That tree is really nice.”

He runs after class, takes the long way back to the grounds. It’s quiet. He likes to run, knowing that he has a place to run back to once he’s done. It’s simple, and it all makes complete sense to him, plain english, run. Breathe. Run. Breathe. Run. None of it rhymes, there is no metaphor, no deeper meaning or theme.

The sun is beginning to dip below the horizon when he begins his return. It’s dark by the time he pulls open the door. Winter is coming and the sun sets earlier now, but he’s still been out for hours. 

Ned is in the room sprawled out on his bed, half reading half skimming something that Conor doesn’t think he’d be able to understand in a million years. He’s not alone, Victor and Wallace are perched against Conor’s mattress. Keith Shaffrey leans against the wall. There’s a bottle of gin between them and they’ve mostly changed out of their uniforms. 

“What’s goin’ on in here boys?” Conor closes the door behind him. 

“We were waiting for you to come back for ages,” Wally says. 

“I was out on a run,” Conor answers simply. 

“Well get changed man, there’s a party at the girls’ school, we’re all sneaking out to go,” Victor says. 

“Ned?” Conor looks over at his roommate who’s set down his book. 

“Figure I might as well give the whole ‘party’ thing a try,” he shrugs. 

Conor hopes that maybe they’ll change their minds between the time he leaves for the showers and the time he returns but no such luck. Victor hands him the gin and he takes a short swig. Weasel has joined them and Conor can see that Ned’s body language has shifted. He’s gone from wide open, to slightly hunched over, legs pointed towards the door rather than the rest of the boys. It’s something small that only Conor notices. 

“Are we really bringing the little queer?” Weasel says. 

“Oh shut up Weasel,” Shaffrey rolls his eyes. 

“What? I said the little one,” he looks nervously at Conor. 

“Let’s go.” Victor says, ignoring Weasel completely. 

The boys sneak out a back door near the kitchens. They have to endure the smell of the dumpsters as they begin their trek but no one complains. 

Victor seems to know where they’re going, he and Wallace leading the way. They pass the bottle between themselves as they walk across the fields. They have to jump a fence and Conor’s certain that they’ve trespassed at least once but it’s dark, and they certainly aren’t the first boys to take this shortcut to the girls’ school.

“Where exactly are we going, Victor?” Ned finally asks the question that Conor’s been wanting him to ask for about half an hour now. 

“It’s not far, there’s a cabin out here that someone’s uncle or something leaves empty in the winter. The girls use it for parties all the time.”

He looks down at his cell phone and then points ahead, “This way.”

Conor worries, if only for a moment, that they’re about to get lost in all the trees but he soon hears the unmistakable sound of teenagers laughing, and music playing. Soon the trees start to clear and the light from the cabin becomes visible. A few kids are standing on the porch, drinks in hand. Victor jogs up the steps, seems to know everybody. He opens the door and leads the boys inside. He immediately spots some people that he knows, Conor’s not sure where from but they all seem enamoured with Victor. He can see why, Victor’s smart, kind, has a Senior cup under his belt. Conor thinks that if he hadn’t have been so hung up on Ned for so long, Victor might have caught his unrequited attention. 

Conor doesn’t know where to go, who to talk to. Ned either, so it seems. Wally comes to collect them, insists they take a drink. They stand over the drink table, Conor mixes himself a weak rum and coke, doesn’t see what Ned makes but he can smell the alcohol coming off his cup. Turns away for a moment, to laugh at something Wally’s said and when he looks back, Ned’s struck up a conversation with a girl.

“I love your jacket,” she says. 

He watches Ned blush and thank her. Ned does have a nice jacket, patches sewn on the denim, the little scrabble letters that Conor loves but has never been able to figure out how they stay stuck on. Maybe he should have noticed his jacket a bit more. 

And Ned’s walking away with the girl. She looks like his type too, pretty but not like a model or anything, kind of alternative, hair dyed black and ripped jeans with fishnets underneath. Luckily for Conor, Wally insists that he join the rest of the boys for a game. There are cups set up in a triangle at each end of the dining room table. 

“Beer pong. Quite American, isn’t it?” The girl who speaks has a high, lilting voice, her cheeks are red and everything seems to excite her and Conor’s not entirely sure the alcohol in her cup is to blame. She’s hanging off of Victor’s arm, giggling at anything she says. 

“Conor!” She bursts into a smile and peels herself off of Victor and pats him on the shoulder, “You and Wally have to be a team!” She hands him a ping pong ball. 

“Victor and Keith can be the other team!”

She returns to Victor’s side of the table, kisses him on the cheek and whispers something in her ear that makes him blush. 

Conor can’t see a scenario where he can say no to the game so he smiles, claps Wally on the back and dips his ping pong ball in the nearest cup. His shot hits the rim of one of the glasses and bounces out. 

“Damn,” he says, still with a smile on his face. 

As Wally takes his turn, he looks back to where Ned had been. He’s sharing one of the kitchen chairs with the girl from before, their heads tilted towards one another engaged in a conversation. Weasel is on the couch, fourth beer in his hand, he’s slurring what Conor hopes is a complement at some poor girl. 

He turns back to the game and Wally’s landed his shot. He high fives him. Allows his shoulders to relax as Victor drinks the contents of the glass. Keith misses, Victor gets one in. Wally volunteers to drink. He looks back to Ned. He and the girl have stood up, her hand on his shoulder. Conor watches as they slink out the front door. 

“Conor?” Wally taps him on the shoulder, hands him a ball. 

“It’s your turn, man.”

“Right… ehm, sorry.” 

Conor takes the ball and misses by at least half a metre. 

Wally lets out a low whistle. 

“I’m a kicker not a thrower,” Conor laughs it off. 

Victor and Keith both make the next two shots, forcing Conor and Wally to drink. After two more misses, and two more drinks, Conor starts to get flushed. 

“Ehm,” he says, turning quickly, “Hey Weasel!” He shouts. 

Weasel shoots up from the couch, turns to Conor. 

“Wha-?” 

“Sub in?” 

Wally starts to protest but Conor taps him on the shoulder and laughs, “Come on it’ll be fine.”

“He’s absolutely wasted, man.”

“You’ll do fine, I’m gonna get some air.”

Conor sees Victor raising an eyebrow at him. Chooses to ignore his gaze and slips out the front door. There are a few kids standing on the porch so he decides to walk around to the side of the house. He can still hear the music faintly pounding through the wood. He takes in lungfuls of the cold air. Leans against the wood, presses his head into the wall and sighs. He’s not jealous. He’s not jealous. He just… wants to hang out with Ned and that girl’s got him all to herself and… he’s jealous. 

You’re not supposed to want to kiss your roommate. That’s just not something that’s supposed to happen, and yet there he was. Thinking about Ned’s lips, thinking about how they were probably pressed against that girl’s and how he wished that he could be that girl, only for a second, only long enough to get to kiss Ned, hold his hand even. His stomach feels like it’s twisting into a million different knots, his chest is tight, as if his heart actually physically hurts even though he knows that’s not possible and it’s just too much. He slides down the wall until he’s sitting, knees almost touching his chest. 

He hears footsteps crushing the dead grass as they get closer to him. He doesn’t look up, eyes half closed he hopes they walk right past him. 

“Conor?” And of course it’s Ned. 

He looks up immediately. Does his best to look less sad, less drunk, and less hopelessly in love with his best friend. 

“Are you okay?” Ned says, looking down. He doesn’t sit but shoves his hands in his pockets and squats beside Conor. 

“Yeah. I uh… needed some air.”

“Right. Yeah, me too,” Ned says. 

Conor notices that the girl has gone, doesn’t want to ask about it. 

Ned runs his hand through his hair and shrugs, “Kind of a lame party.”

“Weasel seemed to be having a pretty good time,” Conor snorts. 

Ned half laughs, “That poor girl.”

“Do you want to head back?” Conor asks. 

“Yeah, okay.”

Conor gets up and he and Ned just start walking, they don’t tell anyone they’re leaving, don’t pull out their cell phones to make sure they’re going the right way. They just go. 

Doing their best to remember the way that Victor had led them, they don’t speak for a while. Ned finally breaks the silence. 

“So beer pong, huh?” 

Conor shrugs, “Victor and his friends were playing.”

“Victor’s got a lot of friends.”

“He’s a good guy.”

It’s quiet again. They can hear the wind rustling through the trees and nearby crops. 

“So who was that girl?” Conor asks. Finally decides he can handle the answer, decides it might be for the best if they had been together. 

Ned smiles but shrugs anyway, “She was cool.”

“Just cool?” Conor raises an eyebrow, teasing.

“Smoked a bit, talked about music. It was nice.”

“And is that all you did?”

“What are you talking about?”

Conor feels the tips of his ears go red. Shakes his head. 

“Never mind.”

“Alright then, weirdo.”

Conor smiles. Ned stumbles slightly as they walk. Conor’s arm shoots out instinctively, catches him by his jacket and pulls him back to his feet. Ned’s hands are warm, so’s the rest of him. Ned leans against Conor’s shoulder as they walk. Conor feel his heart wrench in his chest, shoves the hand furthest from Ned into his pocket and keeps his mouth shut. He doesn’t want to do something he’ll regret, knows that the beers he had are already clouding his judgement. 

“You’re quiet,” Ned says. 

“I’m always quiet.” 

“Not with me.”

“Well… I just don’t feel like talking, okay?”

“Alright… jesus man!” Ned throws his hands up and straightens his posture. His shoulder no longer touching Conor’s arm. He misses the warmth, decides it’s for the best that he can’t feel Ned next to him. 

“Do you know where we are?” Ned asks. 

“We just have to get to the road, come on, we jumped that fence on the way,” Conor points and takes off for the fence. 

Conor leaps over first, easily. Waits on the other side, holds his hand out for Ned to take. Lets go as soon as he has his balance. Gravel of the road crunches under their shoes, Ned’s boots and Conor’s trainers. 

They sneak in the back door, back in the way they came. Their footsteps are light as they jog up the stairs and into their room. Ned closes the door behind them. They turn their backs to one another to change. Conor doesn’t look, never will. 

“Good night, Conor.”

“Good night, Ned” 

Conor doesn’t sleep until the sun’s almost peeking above the horizon.

Chapter Text

Ned’s gone when Conor wakes up. He checks his phone. It’s nine in the morning on a Sunday, Ned would normally be fast asleep. Then he remembers. The essay contest. Ned and Sherry will be long gone by now, Walter too probably. 

With nothing better to do, he starts on his classwork. Quietly, methodically makes his way through the stack of textbooks. Maths first, he’s sure that at least half of his answers are wrong, he’ll compare with Ned when he gets back. Geography’s easy, History too, just has to do some readings. English is what he dreads the most. Sherry’s given them another poem to read, asked them to turn in a paragraph of their thoughts at the beginning of the next class. The only problem is that Conor doesn’t have any thoughts. 

His eyes run over the words over and over again, “Lucy V by William Wordsworth,” it’s a last name that Conor decides must be fake. He reads the words, sure that they must mean something but unable to decide what. The words are in English, he speaks English, so why does it feel so foreign?

He rips a page out of his notebook, “I think it is interesting how the author compares the woman to rocks and trees. This is an example of nature.”

It’s horrible, and he knows it, but at least it’s done. The irony isn’t lost on him, that his best friend is somewhere crafting his words into a beautiful essay, stringing sentences together to evoke feelings and memories, and he’s sitting in their room writing about how trees are nice. 

His classwork is done so he goes out to run. Pulls his hoodie over his head and focuses on keeping his legs moving and his lungs breathing. He looks over to the grass, half expect to see Ned sitting there, fiddling with something in his lap, but of course he’s not. 

He takes the long route for the second time that weekend, through the path by the trees, then up the road to the driveway, and back to the field. When he gets back to the school, it’s dark. Has to be close to dinner time so he showers quickly. Slips into his uniform, puts his hoodie on over top and heads to the dining hall. He sees Sherry sitting at the teachers table, means Ned must be back already. Scans the hall for Ned, sees his bright red hair before he sees the rest of him.

He’s standing by the counter, ladling stew into his bowl, Conor jogs over to him, unable to contain his smile. 

“Ned!” he says. 

Ned turns, almost surprised. Conor makes an effort to drop his smile just a little before picking up his own bowl. 

“How was the competition?”

“Good. It was Good,” Ned says. 

“How’d you do?” 

“I ehm… didn’t win but I made the final. Read my essay for the judges… and Sherry I guess.”

“What was it about?”

“Ehm… friendship I guess.”

Ned’s turned away from Conor picking up a slice of bread while Conor slops stew into his bowl. 

“Wish I could have been there to hear it,” Conor says and immediately regrets it. 

“It wasn’t a big deal.”

“Right.”

They sit together at their own table, most of the other boys have already left. They find something to talk about, always do. This time it’s about Weasel and his new girlfriend. Ned has seen him sneaking off to the girls’ school after the party. They laugh about it. The idea of Weasel having to be nice to a girl is almost inconceivable. 

“Do you want to mess around with the guitars?” Conor says when Ned has finished his last bites. 

“I have to do the dishes. Community service, remember?”

“Right,” Connor says, “Let me help.”

“I don’t know if that’s how punishment is supposed to work,” Ned laughs. 

Conor shrugs, “Who’s going to notice?”

“I won’t turn down help.”

They’re the last two in the hall save for a few teachers and custodians. They take their bowls to the kitchen and Conor gets started on filling the sink while Ned gathers all the plates and bowls and silverware. 

“This must take you ages,” Conor says. 

“Yeah, well. Don’t think I’m supposed to enjoy it.”

“Right,” Conor says, remembering why Ned’s being punished in the first place, “Maybe I could talk to Walter.”

“No,” Ned says hands Conor a stack of dishes and goes to collect more. 

When he comes back, he looks like he wants to say something more but instead he just picks up a wash cloth and starts scrubbing. Conor takes the dishes from his hands and dries them.

“I am really sorry, you know?” Ned says. 

Conor doesn’t look up, “You’ve already apologized. It’s okay.”

“Yeah but it’s not,” Ned stretches out his yeah in the way that Conor finds incredibly endearing. 

“I really just want to forget about it.”

“Oh. Ok.” 

“Yeah.”

They finish the dishes, it takes half the time it would have taken Ned to do them alone, but it still takes two hours. Both of their sleeves are wet, Conor has soap in his hair from when Ned threw the washcloth at his head. 

Walter’s standing in the hallway when Conor and Ned start back to their room. 

“What have you gentlemen been up to tonight,” Walter holds his hands behind his back, eyebrow raised. 

“Dish duty, sir. Conor kept me company,” Ned says. 

“I don’t think that was my intention when I set your punishment.”

Conor steps in quickly, “I insisted, sir.”

Conor can see the confusion on Walter’s face, doesn’t think he owes him much more of an explanation so he just shrugs. 

“Alright boys. Off to bed then.”

Ned and Conor smirk at one another as they run up the stairs. Ned shoves Conor playfully, Conor shoves back. Ned shoves him through the doorway of their room. They both laugh before sitting down on their respective sides of the room. Ned kicks his shoes off and crosses his legs underneath of him. 

“So what’d you get up to today?” Ned asks. 

“Homework. Went for a run.”

“Boring.”

“What’d you expect? Nothing interesting ever happens here… well, most of the time.”

“It’s enough to drive you mad.”

“Don’t quite know what to do with myself now that the season’s over.”

“No practice?”

“Pascal doesn’t want to start until the spring term. He’ll have to have tryouts, especially with Victor and Wally, and Weasel leaving.”

Ned nods, “You reckon I should try out?”

He keeps a straight face just long enough to make Conor burst into a laugh, Ned joining in. 

There’s a bang on the wall. 

“Shut Up!” It’s Victor on the other side of the wall. 

Conor and Ned start to laugh even harder, wheezing and gasping for air. Conor slides down his mattress onto the ground clutching at his sides. It’s long since stopped being funny but every time they stop laughing, they make eye contact and burst into giggles again. They try to keep their voices down and eventually manage to regain their breath. Conor lays on the floor, arms splayed out looking at the ceiling. He feels Ned slide down next to him, still shaking with laughter. 

Conor has to fight the twisting in his chest once more. Doesn’t reach over and grab Ned’s hand in his, trace his knuckles and plant a kiss on his face. Can’t. Won’t unless Ned asks him to, because what if he’s wrong? What if he loses the best friend he’s ever had? Just because of a silly crush, a crush that he’s decided he doesn’t have any more. 

“I’m going to go hit the showers,” Ned says eventually.

“Right.”

Ned gathers his things and slips out of the door. Conor squeezes his eyes shut, clenches his fist and hits the floor. 

“Fuck,” He mumbles to himself.

Chapter Text

“Conor? can I have a word with you?” Sherry says after their next English class. 

Conor nods, stays behind while the rest of the class trudges to their maths lesson. He catches Ned’s eye. Ned gives him a smile, Conor shrugs. Sherry doesn’t close the door, rather, leans against his desk 

“Is this about my paragraph, sir?”

“Calling it a paragraph seems generous.”

“I’m sorry sir, I just couldn’t think of anything to say.”

“I appreciate your honesty, Conor, but really? Was there nothing else you could have said.”

“I’m afraid I just don’t get it… all the words and metaphors. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just say how you feel?”

Sherry smiles, shakes his head, “Simpler, yes, but beautiful? I don’t think so. The wonder of poetry is in expressing the things that we can’t find the exact words for, feelings of awe, and wonder, and love.”

“So we write too many words that don’t make any sense?”

Sherry laughs, “I think you’re smarter than you give yourself credit for. Next time something doesn’t make sense, I want to know. Write about it, tell me why. Tell me what’s preventing you from connecting."

“With all due respect, sir, sometimes it just feels too… personal.”

“Poetry is supposed to be personal Conor.”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

Maths was delightfully impersonal. It wasn’t Conor’s best subject, but at least his teacher wasn’t asking for a personal revelation every time he turned in an assignment. 

Conor finds Ned after their classes and before dinner. He runs up and down the field while Ned sits and messes around with a notebook. It’s getting colder, the leaves are starting to fall, Conor wears his jacket and a hat, Ned wears a jumper under his usual denim jacket. 

His runs are one of the few times he allows himself to think about Ned in any way other than as friends. The running is a distraction, and as soon as he’s done the thoughts go away. His breath is laboured when he returns to Ned, crouches over to catch it. He doesn’t tell Ned what he’d been thinking moments ago, but rather sits down next to him as if he wasn’t harbouring his secret. 

“What did Sherry want?” Ned asks. 

“To talk about poetry,” Conor rolls his eyes. 

“Gross,” Ned agrees. 

“I thought you liked it.”

“I do, but you don’t.”

“I still can’t quite understand how someone can put themself out there like that.”

Ned shrugs, “So that girl at that party…”

Conor cringes, waiting for Ned to tell him that they’ve been together this whole time. 

“She sold me some pot.”

“Oh?” Conor says

“Yeah, and I’ve been hiding it under my mattress waiting for the right time to smoke it.”

“Is that what that smell was?”

Ned laughs along with Conor. 

“I was thinking tonight’s the night.”

“What’s so special about tonight?”

“I’m off dish duty.”

“It’s about time.”

“So… you want to join me?”

Conor doesn’t hesitate before saying, “Yeah, sure.”

“Let’s go,” Ned’s up, Conor follows. 

Ned leads the way. Head up, like it always is. They know no one’s going to miss them at dinner, or notice them sneaking off into the woods, so they don’t bother with discretion. 

There’s a collection of rocks in some sort of vague arrangement so that’s where they hole up. Conor can’t help but stare at Ned’s hands as he gently takes some rolling paper out of his pocket. Conor’s smoked before, at parties, outside of bars but it’s never really been his thing. Of course, he’d pretend crack cocaine was his thing if it meant he got to be alone with Ned. 

His fingers are long and deft. He twists one end of the joint, places it in his mouth, and lights it. 

“That… is passable,” he says on the exhale. 

He hands it to Conor. He coughs, sputtering. Ned laughs as Conor passes it back.. Conor shakes his head. 

“Not much of a smoker, I guess.”

“No shit,” Ned says. 

“Fuck you, I’m an athlete.”

“Wouldn’t call rugby athletics so much as brute force.”

Conor punches Ned in the shoulder. 

“Besides, season’s over,” Ned hands the joint back to Conor who manages to take a pull without sputtering. 

They pass it back and forth, not speaking much until Conor feels his head start to float. Ned finishes it off on his own and then lays back on one of the rocks. Conor, once again, worries that if he starts talking he’ll say something he regrets, so he just sits there, looking at Ned looking at the sky. 

“Conor?” Ned says. 

“Yeah,” Conor answers. 

“I’m really sorry about that day.”

“Ned, you really have to stop apologizing for something that happened ages ago.”

“It wasn’t ages, it was last month, and would you just listen to me, please.”

Conor stays silent. Ned’s not looking at him, his gaze is still fixed upwards. Conor looks down at his own hands as Ned opens his mouth to speak again. 

“It was stupid, and it was wrong.”

“Ned, really…”

“No, Conor, I need to say this.”

“I was just so tired of everybody shoving me around… and when you didn’t show up to sing, when you shoved me after that rugby match… I just wanted to hurt you. I wanted to do the one thing that I knew would absolutely crush you. When I saw you walk into that bar I guess I felt like you’d been hiding something, like you were different but you weren’t telling anybody and that made me angry too because I was getting shoved around every day for being different and I couldn’t hide it the same way you could… I just… Fuck,” Ned sighs.. 

Conor doesn’t have anything to say, but he sneaks a glance at Ned, still looking up at the sky. It’s orange, the clouds are wispy and blowing lazily across Conor’s field of vision. 

“And I guess the way I feel doesn’t really matter because it’s you that I hurt. I was a lousy friend.”

“Ned…” Conor sighs, “You weren’t the only lousy friend.”

Ned shakes his head but Conor isn’t having any of it. 

“I was,” he says, Conor can’t help the words coming out of his mouth, might be the pot, or it might just be time for him to talk. 

“I left you alone to sing, I let Weasel push you around, I pushed you to that point.”

“You were scared.”

“I should’ve told you.”

Conor moves, shifts closer to Ned so that he’s on the ground leaning against the rock. Ned moves his hand, puts it on Conor’s shoulder. Conor doesn’t pull away but his chest does seize up. Ned’s fingers lazily trace circles on Conor’s shoulder. A shiver goes up his spine, Ned hesitates, Conor hopes desperately that he won’t stop and he doesn’t. His fingers lightly scratch at Conor’s clothed shoulder.

“I think… I think we both have things to be sorry for,” Conor says. 

“Yeah,” Ned replies. 

He rests an open palm on Conor’s shoulder. Without thinking, Conor rests his own hand on top of Ned’s. Ned’s hands feel like they’re burning underneath of Conor’s freezing hands. 

“You’re frozen, man,” Ned sits up, Conor’s hand still in his. 

“I just have cold hands… so does my mam, always have I guess.”

Ned joins Conor on the ground, takes his hand in between his and rubs them together. 

“Better?” Ned asks. 

“S’pose,” Conor answers, quietly. 

He looks away from Ned for a moment but when he turns back, Ned’s eyes are still on him. Conor wishes he could tell what Ned’s thinking, then he might know what to do, but instead he just sits there, eyes darting around Ned’s face. Briefly pausing to glance at his lips, trying to look anywhere but into his eyes because he doesn’t know what he’d do if he did. 

Ned rubs his thumb over Conor’s knuckles. Conor closes his eyes and takes a breath but before he can open them again, Ned’s lips are pressed to his. Conor opens his eyes in surprise but quickly closes them again, sighing into the kiss. Ned’s hands are cupping the sides of his face, his hands are gently but there’s an impatience behind him. His tongue is in his mouth and his teeth scrape against Conor’s lower lip. As quickly as he was there, he’s gone, pulling away. Conor can see a hint of a smirk on his lips. 

“We should head back,” Ned says. 

“Okay,” Conor answers. 

Conor sets off, two paces behind Ned. He still wonders. Ned couldn’t possibly like Conor the way Conor liked Ned, and there was still that girl. They’ve missed dinner by the time they got back so they eat from the tupperware of cookies that Conor’s mam had sent back with him the last time he’d been home. They polish them off and then head to bed. Ned doesn't  reach for his hand as they brushed their teeth, he doesn't climb into Conor’s bed and hold him close. Doesn't kiss him again.

Chapter Text

Of course Conor dreams about the kiss. Bites his own bottom lip just to remember how it felt. Wakes up in a cold sweat, looks over at Ned’s side of the room to see him sleeping soundly. Check their alarm clock, hears the birds chirping. It’s hours before breakfast and his thoughts are racing. He dresses for a run. Ned stays fast asleep the entire time. He runs until breakfast, joins Ned at their usual table, because where else is he supposed to sit? Ned’s acting like everything’s normal, so Conor might as well too. 

The kiss seems like something they’re meant to forget. They were both high, and emotional. It was something that happened between mates and was meant to just disappear in the morning. 

Ned’s half asleep at the breakfast table, looks like he might collapse into his oatmeal at any moment. 

“Were you running? ” Ned asks. 

Conor nods, “It’s a nice morning.”

“That’s just unbearable

“Maybe you should start running. Chicken Legs.”

“Lay off,” Ned protests

“Just the truth,” Conor shrugs. 

Ned shakes his head and shovels more oatmeal into his mouth. 

“Your roots are growing out,” Conor says, and they are. He can see the brown underneath of the patchy orange and red dye job. 

“Oh?” Ned says, “I’ll have to pick up some more dye next time we’re in town.”

“Why don’t you just let it grow out?”

“I like it red.”

“Doesn’t exactly help you blend in, does it?”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“Dunno,” Connor says, “I guess it might make your life a bit easier.”

“At least if my hair looks stupid, I don’t have to worry about people looking at me, I know that they are and I know exactly why.”

 

They go back to the room to  get dressed for class. Ned doesn’t bother putting on his blazer and Conor would never tell him this, but he likes it when Ned looks a little bit disheveled, when his tie is a little loose around his neck and his sleeves are unbuttoned. Conor buttons his shirt up to his neck and straightens his tie. He puts the blazer on and does up the middle button before picking up his books. He doesn’t wait for Ned to leave with him, knows he’ll be right behind him in a minute. 

He thinks he catches Sherry looking at them funny when they take their seats next to one another but he can’t be sure. He sets and assignment, another essay, due in a week about how they saw poetry and its place in modern society. Conor already knows he’s going to turn in something pitiful. Sherry seems to know it when he hands him the assignment sheet and shakes his head. 

They make it to Friday without any major incidents. Ned doesn’t mention the kiss, in fact he doesn’t even seem to remember it, Ned decides to follow suit.

Conor’s on his bed, doing his assigned reading for history class when Ned appears in the doorway, a bag of vegetable crisps in his hand.

“Wally’s got a bottle of whiskey. Victor’s invited us to share it,” Ned says, leaning casually against the door frame. 

“Why’s he told you?”

“I s’pose we’re mates now.”

“Ned Roche? Getting on with the rugby team?”

“Don’t push it. I still wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Weasel.”

Conor laughs, looks back down at his book. 

“So are you coming?”

Conor slams the book closed and gets up. 

“Yeah alright.”

“Sweet.”

No one at Woodhill really pays much attention to the boys and where their going. Everybody figures that as long as they turn up to class, that they must be alive and well. The rest of their friends are in Victor and Wally’s room, Keith is sitting on the edge of Wally’s bed, Tom Quinlan is sitting on Victor’s. Wally and Victor at leaning against the wall. 

“And now the party can begin,” Tom smirks. 

“I’m sorry, Quin, but the party’s always on when I’m around,” Wally fronts. 

Victor rolls his eyes, “Woods, gentlemen?” 

“Why yes, I think that would be a perfectly acceptable place to consume this fine beverage,” Wally puts on a posh voice as he speaks.

The boys laugh and head out the door. They keep their footsteps and voices quiet, being only careful enough not to tempt fate. 

They run to the edge of the grounds, not so much in discretion, but more in excitement. Wally uncorks the bottle and takes the first of many long swigs. Conor takes a small sip, he’s always careful to keep his sips small, overthinks the alcohol. Worries that every time it passes his lips he’s going to turn into his father. He passes the bottle to Ned who takes a longer swig than Conor but not quite as long as Wally’s. 

 

Quin and Shaffrey have a sip each before passing the bottle back to Wally. 

“We should start a fire,” Wally says. 

“What?” Conor’s surprise is evident in his tone. 

“Just a little one, to keep warm.”

Wally’s already gathering twigs and bits of dried grass. Victor shrugs and helps him build a little circle of rocks to keep the flames from spilling out onto the grass. 

“Anyone have matches or something?”

Without speaking, Ned hands over a pack of matches, Wally strikes one and lights his pitiful pile of twigs and grass on fire. 

Wally tends to his fire, taking swigs out of the bottle occasionally while the rest of the boys sit and talk. 

“I was thinking about starting up practices again,” Victor says suddenly and out of nowhere. 

“Oh?” Quin says, “Why?”

“Just to give us something to do, stay in shape. We already won the cup, and Wally and I won’t be able to repeat, but you three are going to be back next year and you should stay in fighting shape. And there’s the exhibition games in March.”

“Oh come on man, you know those are for a laugh.”

“Yeah, maybe when we sucked, but now we’re the defending champions,” Victor insists. 

“I’d be down,” Conor pipes up, because of course he’d be down. The training gives him something to do, a reason to get up in the morning. 

“What about Pascal? He’s fucked off until the new year,” Shaffrey complains. 

“I can run practices… bet we won’t even need Pascal by the time he gets back,” Victor says. 

“Oh I’m sure that’ll absolutely thrill him.” Wally pulls the bottle, downs another huge gulp. 

“Who gives a shit,” Victor says. 

“Yeah, alright. I’m in too,” Wally shrugs

They agree to resume regular practices, if not as intense as in the days leading up to the Senior Cup. 

Ned is curled up into himself, looks cold, Conor hands him his hoodie without asking if he wants it. Ned accepts it. Wraps it around his shoulders without zipping it up. 

They amuse themselves by burning up sticks, and leaves. Wally coats a leaf in whiskey and the boys watch it go up in flames. Conor’s head gets fuzzier and fuzzier the less whiskey in the bottle. They end up in a worse state than any of them had thought they would when they first snuck out to the woods. Wally has his school tie around his head, Ned has somehow managed to singe off some of his arm hair. 

Conor looks over at Ned, he’s staring but doesn’t quite realize it yet. He still hasn’t fixed his brown roots, it’s almost endearing. His hands are shoved into the pockets of Conor’s sweater and he’s laughing at something Victor just said. Conor missed the joke but turns to Victor quickly to see him doing an incredible impression of Pascal strutting up the field. His hand is on his hip, jutted out, a stern expression on his face. He jumps up and down comically, switching from anger to excitement on a turn. 

The boys laughs echo over the grounds.

“Rugby is W A R,” Victor pounds his chest, “It’s a battlefield, you don’t need no pansy fookin’ education!” 

The boys are beside themselves laughing, Wally’s fallen to the ground, wheezing but Victor keeps going. 

“It’s Blood, and Sweat and Tears and… various other bodily fluids,”

Ned snorts at this. 

“Now get out there and win, because I am a grown man dependent on teenage boys to fulfill my unfulfilled boyhood dream of winning a Senior Cup!”

Conor’s grinning, it’s something they’ve all thought at some point but no one had ever put into words. 

“We should mess with his office before he gets back,” Wally says from his spot in the dirt, staring up at the sky. 

“Whadd’ya mean?” Keith says. 

“I dunno, like fill his drawers with shaving cream or switch the hinges on his door so that it pushes instead of pulls.”

“Sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into this, Wally,” Victor says. 

“Older brothers, I’ve got a list of pranks just bursting to ruin someone’s day.”

“Remind me to never get on your bad side,” Conor raises his eyebrows. 

“I’d never cross you, Masters, I’ve seen what your fists can do to a man’s face.”

Conor’s throat tightens. He doesn’t like to be known as the guy who fights, but it’s the reputation that seems to follow him wherever he goes, but he laughs at Wally’s joke nonetheless. 

“Conor’s only violent if you deserve it,” Ned says. 

Conor gives a slight nod of his head as Ned’s gaze meets his, thanking him for sticking up for him, however small a comment it was. 

“I like the sounds of shaving cream,” Quin says, Ketih agrees, nodding his head. 

“Okay, what about whipped cream,” Ned provides. 

“What’s wrong with my shaving cream plan,” Wally fakes offence.

“Well nothing… just a bit amateurish is all,” Conor catches a faint outline of a smirk on Ned’s lips. 

Wally starts to protest but Ned keeps talking before he can start his sentence. 

“I mean think about it… it’s sticky, it’s gross, relatively the same consistency as shaving cream, and it’ll be a bigger ball ache to clean up,” Ned says. 

“I like your style, Roche,” Wally said. 

“Besides, how many of you actually shave?”

None of them answered, even Conor only has to shave about once a week to keep the patchy moustache that sometimes grows in under control. 

“And there’s plenty of whipped cream in the kitchens it’d be so easy to steal some.”

Victor looks around at the group of boys, he shrugs. 

“Senior pranks are a right of passage. As long as Pascal doesn’t ever find out it was us, I’m in,”

The rest of the boys agree and spend the next few minutes doing their best impression of Pascal finding his desk drawer full of whipped cream, Victor, of course, has the best one. Ned scrunches up his nose and acts like he’s been betrayed in the most horrific way imaginable, it’s a close second. 

“I have an idea,” Quin says. 

“Is it the same as mine?” Keith smirks. 

They’re roommates, partners on the field, and best friends in real life, it’s rare that the brain cell that they share doesn’t give them the same idea. 

“Does your involve the pond?” Quin says. 

“Oh come on, fellas, it’s freezing,” Wally protests. 

“Are you a coward Wallace?” Keith stands behind Quin, arms crossed. 

“Don’t you dare,” Wally’s words were starting to slur together, “call me a coward,”

“Well then, let’s go.”

Victor shakes his head, “Boys, this is how you get the flu.”

Conor is inclined to agree, doesn’t say anything, just puts his hands up and shakes his head. 

“Well…” Ned claps his hands, “I’m ccertainly not a coward,” he throws Conor’s sweatshirt back at him and joins Ketih and Quin, standing, “Let’s go boys.”

Quin lets out a whoop and the three of them take off running through the brush. Ned strips off his shirt and Conor sees his pale skin reflecting the moonlight. 

“S’pose we should follow ‘em,” Victor says. 

“Or we could let them freeze,” Conor says.

“Come on, even we’re not that cruel.”

Conor sighs. They slowly walk through the trees, they hear three splashes, one after the other. The other boys are already submerged. Their clothes left discarded in a pile on the banks. 

Ned once told Conor that the pond had once been a pool, dug out by WoodHill students and faculty fifty or so years ago. The swim team had practiced there for decades until the school had scrounged up the money for an actual swimming facility. Now the pond is just something that’s kind of there for the boys to stumble across, filled with rainwater that flows off into a nearby stream. A few wooden benches line the edge but most of them have started to rot, so Conor, Victor, and Wally just sit on the packed dirt

“How’s the water?” Wally shouts. 

“Fuckin freezing!” Keith shouts back

“I regret nothing!” Quin throws his hands in the air, shouting. 

Conor squats at the edge of the pond, nearest Ned. Ned gives him a devilish smile and splashes him a little bit. 

“You should come in,” Ned says simply.

Conor wipes the pond water off of his face.

“Ned, it’s freezing,” Conor says. 

“It’s warm once you get used to it.”

“That’s called hypothermia.”

Conor looks over at Victor and Wally. They’ve both been convinced to jump in and are slowly ridding themselves of their uniforms. 

“You don’t want to be the only one sitting on the edge,” Ned wiggles his eyebrows. 

“You traitors,” Conor says to Victor and Wally. 

Wally shrugs before holding his nose and plunging into the water. 

“Get iiiin,” Ned whines. 

Conor takes a deep breath. He sighs. How can he say no to Ned? For once someone’s telling him exactly what they want him to do, and who’s he to deny Ned the pleasure of seeing him naked from the waist up. 

He quickly unbuttons his shirt. Doesn’t look away from Ned as he throws his tie behind him. Ned’s shoulders are sticking out of the water, Conor can see his collar bones, never thought about how such a small part of someone’s body could take his breath away until now. 

The cold air rushes over his thighs as he pulls his khaki pants down. He’s wearing a pair of black boxer-briefs,he hugs himself, crossing his arms. It’s freezing and the last place he wants to be is in the water. 

“Fuck Masters! You’re fucking stacked,” Wally shouts. 

And Conor’s in the water, arms still crossed over his chest. 

“Happy now?” Conor says when he breaches the surface, pushes his hair out of his eyes and glares at Ned. 

“Incredibly.”

Conor wants to slap the shit eating grin off of Ned’s face as he treads water, shivering. 

“I’m fucking freezing,” Conor’s teeth chatter. 

Quin and Keith are roughousing, taking turns holding one another’s heads under the water. Wally’s drunk drunk and has just resorted to floating on his back and looking up at the sky. Victor keeps a close eye on his mates while still managing to laugh along and send a splash Wally’s way. 

“Oi Conor!” Quin shouts. 

Conor turns. 

“You put ‘roids in your cornflakes or something because your shoulders are massive, mate,” Quin says. 

“You’re acting like this is the first time you’ve seen the man without a shirt on,” Wally mumbles. 

“Well it is.”

“Tom we change together every day,” Victor says incredulously. 

“Yeah, but I’m not lookin,” Quin insists. 

“Oh come one, everybody looks,” Wally says. 

“What?” Ned’s voice comes out as a squeak. 

“Everybody looks,” Victor says as if it’s the most logical thing in the world. 

For the record, Conor looks the least out of anybody, doesn’t want anyone to think he could possibly be checking them out, so he keeps his eyes up or on the floor all the time… but even he’s snuck a peak. 

Conor nods, looking at Quin with a raised eyebrow. 

Keith puts his arm on Quin’s shoulder, “Everybody looks man, you’re lyin’ to yourself.”

The rugby boys laugh while Ned just floats, looking incredibly confused. 

“I’m sorry, ” He says, “Everybody looks ?” 

Victor shrugs. 

“At ehm… what exactly?” Ned says. 

“What do you think you idjit,” Quin says.

Ned’s ears are bright red, he opens his mouth to ask another question, but Conor holds his breath and dives down underneath the water. He can vaguely make out his friends legs, pretty sure Ned’s are the ones closest to him, he’s wearing blue briefs and his legs are so pale they’re almost translucent. His teammates legs are tanned, lined from their rugby shorts. He swims to the other side of the pond and when he comes back up for air everyone’s laughing. Conor pushes the hair out of his eyes, makes sure they’re not laughing at him, and smiles. 

“That is painfully homoerotic,” Ned says.

Honestly, Conor doesn’t want to know. 

He hoists himself out of the pond, runs his hand through his hair in an attempt to dry it slightly. Victor hoists himself out next while the others continure splashing around. 

“Y’alright, mate,” Victor says, his back is turned from the group and he says it low enough that no one else will hear. 

“Why woudn’t I be?” Conor says. 

“I dunno, you’ve been through the ringer, it’d be chill if you weren’t 100%”

Conor shrugs, “I’m over it,” and he truly thinks he is. 

“Right, well. You’re a mate. Door’s always open or whatever,” 

Victor picks up his shirt and throws it on, doesn’t bother doing up the buttons. 

“The team’s cool with it, right?” Conor finally says. 

“What?” Victor asks. 

“Well, with me.”

“Thought we made it clear.”

“Well no one ever actually said, is all,” Conor runs his hands through his hair as he pulls his pants on. 

Victor sighs, “Yes Conor. We’re cool with you.”

“Ehm… good, right. Cool”

Conor turns just in time to see Ned hoisting himself out of the pond. The muscles in his arms tense but he makes it look effortless. 

Ned pulls Conor’s sweater on, doesn’t bother putting his shirt back on so it’s just his bare skin underneath. He pulls his pants on. Everybody looks, Conor thinks, Everybody looks.

Chapter Text

Who does homework on a Saturday? Conor usually. He likes to run on Sundays with his head clear, but Ned and Victor recruit him to start planning the senior prank sometime after breakfast. 

He’s not sure if surprised is the right emotion, but he definitely wasn’t expecting Ned and Victor to become such fast friends. 

“He left his office unlocked after he left like a bloody fool,” Victor says before even saying hello. 

Conor, nursing a hangover, takes a moment to remember what he’s talking about

“Pascal, right,” Conor says. 

“Yeah, heard Walter talking and he’s due back tomorrow, it’s tonight or never, boys,” Victor’s reluctance to prank Pascal that he’d harboured the night before has all but vanished. 

“Where’s everybody else?” Conor asks. 

He’s amazed at how quickly Ned and Victor got back on their feet after last night. Victor points to the breakfast line where Keith and Tom are shuffling towards the eggs. They look more Conor’s speed. 

“My head’s killing me,” Conor says, looking down at the plate of truly unappetizing food. 

“Drink some water, mate, you’ll clean up.”

“Where’s Wally?Ha, where’s Wally,” Conor says. 

“He’s got his head in a toilet, somewhere,” Victor says. 

“Ouch,” Ned winces, empathizing with Wally. 

“He’ll join us once he stops seeing double.”

Once Tom and Keith set their plates down, Victor gets into the planning. 

“Right, so we’ll sneak in tonight, once it’s dark, hopefully whoever’s on dish duty finishes up quick, if they don’t we’ll just have to be twice as quiet. Ned knows where all the supplies are, he’ll take point in the kitchen,”

Conor forces a smirk off his face. 

“From there we make a beeline for Pascal’s office. Now I’ve divided the room into thirds, Wally and I will take one, Conor and Ned, you’ll have the other, and Quin and Keith have the last one. You’ll be putting whiped cream in anything you can find, in, not on. That way no one sees until Pascal starts investigating. 

“Awful serious, aren’t you Vic?” Conor can’t help the smirk that graces his lips. 

“Pranks are deadly serious, Masters.”

Conor can’t tell if he’s joking so he just chugs the rest of his orange juice and heads back to the room. Ned hangs out at breakfast with the rest of the boys for a little longer and when he comes back to the room, Conor is half asleep, face buried in a pillow. 

“Still hungover?” Ned says.

Conor grunts in response, rubs his temple with his fingers. Without moving his head from the pillow, he opens his eyes to look at Ned. 

“How’d you and Victor get so lucky.”

“You think I wasn’t hungover this morning?”

“You didn’t seem like it.”

“Maybe I’m just not a giant baby.”

“Bastard.”

“You know you’ll have to at least look at Sherry’s assignment sometime.”

“Tomorrow”

Conor pulls his pillow over his head. He can hear Ned moving around the room, hears the sound of his pen scratching at his notebook. He must fall asleep because Ned’s shaking him awake for dinner now.

“Come on sleeping beauty, I’m not gonna kiss you awake,” it’s a joke but Conor’s eyes shoot open, he sits upright and gets to his feet so quickly that he gets a little dizzy. 

“Jesus,” Ned mutters. 

Victor’s always there before they are, some way, somehow, he’s already sitting at their table with a plate full of food, patiently waiting for his friends to begin eating. Dinner tonight is a stir-fry, it’s not a good one, but it is technically a stir fry. Wally’s at the table when they sit down. 

“Glad to see you’re alive, Wallace,” Ned nods his head. 

Wally grunts.No doubt he’s been in a worse state than Conor all day. He can see the bags under his eyes. 

The boys take longer than usual to finish their food, talking, and laughing and doing everything possible not to look suspicious. They hand their dishes over to the kitchen staff and hide out in the hallway between the kitchen and the dining hall. 

“It fucking stinks in here,” Ned gags. 

The boys are crouched behind a few of the garbage bins outside of the kitchen. 

Victor punches Ned in the arm, and tells him to shut up. Conor can feel his heart pounding in his chest, he knows that he and the boys couldn’t get in any ream trouble for being there but his instincts to keep his head down are screaming at him to turn the other way and go back to the room. 

“Get off my foot,” Quin whispers. 

“Sorry,” Wally mutters. 

“Quiet someone’s coming,” Victor hisses. 

Weasel and another boy come trudging out of the kitchen. 

“What’d Weasel do to get thrown on dish duty?” Ned whispers. 

“Probably got caught sneaking out again,” Wally  leaned closer to answer him to answer. 

“How stupid do you have to be to get caught,” Ned sneers. 

“Bout as stupid as Weasel probably.”

They wait until the door slams behind Weasel and the other boy to come out of their hiding place. 

“Alright let’s do this,” Victor rubs his hands together, a grin on his face. 

“Erica keeps the desert stuff at the back of the kitchen, there are at least a couple dozen cans of whipped cream,” Ned says. 

“Who the fuck is Erica?” Quin says.

“She runs the kitchen,” Ned says it as if it were common knowledge. 

“Of course you’re friends with the dinner lady,” Wally snorts. 

“Oi,” Ned protests, “Sorry I’m polite to the woman who decides what we eat every day.”

“Oh so that’s why you always get extra jam for your toast,” Victor smirks. 

“Yeah, maybe.” Ned eases the door open, careful to avoid the squeak in the hinges. 

Ned looks so confident as he walks through the shelves of preserved food and produce. Conor’s breath hitches in his throat when he bends down to look at something on one of the bottom shelves. He quickly looks away; there’s no way he’s going to let his teammates see what’s really going on in his head. 

He stands up, with a couple canisters of whipped cream in his hand. 

“What are you waiting for, load up.”

The boys don’t hesitate, they load their pockets with the stuff, Ned dumps it into his backpack and then they take off. They run out the kitchen and through the back doors, letting them slam behind them. Pascal’s office is in the building with all the other offices. They sprint, not out of fear but out of genuine excitement. They can’t wait to fuck with Pascal. Conor was less excited when Ned laid out the plan, quite know why he was going along with it, because his friends were, he assumed. The faster they run , the more excited he feels. It’s not that he wants any kind of revenge on Pascal for what he’d put him through, but there is something inherently fun about pulling the kind of prank they were about to attempt. 

 

Victor eases open the door to Pascal’s office, after a quick sweep of the room he waves for the other boys to follow him. 

They can’t help but giggle as they stumble into the office. 

“Tom, Keith, you take the part closest to the doors, Wally and I will take the closet and the filing cabinet, Ned, Conor, you boys have the honour of taking the desk.”

“Nice!” Ned says, “I’m honoured,”

Ned tosses Conor a can of whipped cream and Conor almost doesn’t catch it because he’s not expecting it and because he’s distracted. Ned’s nose scrunches up when he’s excited and Conor thinks that it’s pretty cute, not that he thinks Ned is cute, and not that he gets distracted by Ned being cute… the point is, he catches the whipped cream and cracks a smile. Ned makes eye contact with Conor and grins. 

“Catharsis,” is all he says as he opens up Pascal’s top desk drawer. 

Conor sees a few papers and pens in the drawer before Ned releases the entire can of cream into the desk. He hears the air rushing out of five other cans at the same time, decides that he needs to join in. He lifts the cushion of of Pascal’s office chair and puts his forefinger on the nozzle. He watches the whipped cream come out in a circle. He replaces the cushion so that it looks like nothing is out of the ordinary. He looks over at Keith and Quin, they’re lining the door frame with whipped cream so that when Pascal opens the door it’ll fall on his head. Wally and Victor are filling individual files and notebooks with the stuff. 

Conor laughs at the sight of Wally dragging a chair to the centre of the room so he can reach the ceiling fan. 

“Find anything skeezy in there lads?” Wally says from his perch. 

“Not as of yet,” Ned says, opening the bottom drawers.

“He probably doesn’t have any regular porn,” Quin says. 

“Probably jerks it to rugby practice manuals,” Keith groans as he pushes a chest of drawers back to its rightful place

“Oh my god Shaffrey! What the fuck!” Wally hisses. 

Keith shrugs.

When the boys leave the office, it looks exactly the same as when they’d walked in but underneath, is about fifty cans of whipped cream hiding in drawers, and under cushions and in the pockets of his sweatpants. 

They’re laughing, and Ned puts his arm around Conor’s shoulder. In a friendly way, Conor tells himself. It’s a little silly, seeing as Ned has to reach up a bit to really hold on to him. He lets go quicker than Conor would have liked him to. 

“That was fucking brilling lads!” Victor whispers. 

“I just wish we’d be able to see it when he finds it all,” Quin sighs. 

“Oh, we’ll hear it,” Victor rolls his eyes. 

“If there’s one thing that man’s good for, it’s shouting,” Ned chimes in, “I swear he used to wake me up with your practices.”

Victor chuckles, “I don’t doubt that.”

Ned and Conor have the first room after the stairs so they’re the first to wave goodbye to their friends. Victor and Wally slip into the next room, still laughing at a joke that Ned made about Sherry’s affinity for Walt Whitman. 

“Wasn’t really that funny,” Ned quips before he and Conor close their door. 

Ned strips off his shirt almost immediately. Tossing his tie on the floor, Conor picks it up and throws it in their shared laundry hamper and rolls his eyes. 

“Really, it’s just as close to you as the floor, and it keeps the room clean.”

“Neat freak.”

“Slob.”

“Fuck you,” Ned makes a point of picking his tie out of the hamper and balling it up to throw at Conor’s head. Conor knows that Ned’s not gross but he is the most disorganized person Conor’s ever shared a room with. His laundry sits at the end of his bed for weeks until it either falls onto the floor or gets worn. When he opens a notebook in english class, he doesn’t start writing where he left off, he just opens to a blank page and starts taking notes, it’s mad! He gets distracted easily too, his bed’s often half made because he’ll start writing a note to himself or start on his homework forgetting the task at hand. 

Conor supposes he should find this annoying, but he often smiles to himself when he finds Ned’s sweaters in a pile at the bottom of their closet or when he finds notebook paper taped to the wall with a single word or a handful of numbers scrawled on it. Sometimes he’ll make Ned’s bed for him. Peeling off the sheets and washing them with his own, laying them back over the mattress, flattening out his pillowcases. Sometimes Ned doesn’t notice, but Conor doesn’t really mind. When he does notice, all Conor gets is a mumbled “thanks, mate,” that he answers with a shrug, “I was already doing my own.”

Conor always tries to keep his back completely turned while Ned’s undressing. It’s respectful, he tells himself. He has to try not to be pervy, especially around Ned. 

“You don’t have to do that, you know,” Ned says. 

Conor doesn’t turn, makes himself look busy folding his tie, “What?”

“Look away like some Victorian lady who’s never seen nipples before.”

Conor laughs, shakes his head, “Don’t wanna be weird, I guess.”

“Conor, turn around,” he says. 

Conor does. And he looks. Ned’s not built like Victor, or Wally, or himself. There’s not a lot of muscle under his skin, not a lot of fat. He can’t see his ribs but his collar bones stick out farther than most.

“I’m your roommate, it’s not a big deal.”

And there’s the confidence that Ned has. Nothing’s ever a big deal to him, everything’s casual, and nothing can bother him. At least that’s what it looks like. 

“‘Course,” Conor says, “Just didn’t want you to think that…”

“What? That you were looking?”

Conor half nods, half shrugs.

“Wasn’t it you and your teammates who told me that everybody looks?”

“S’pose so,” Conor says. 

Conor turns again to get his pajamas out of his dresser. He hears Ned unbuckling his belt. He doesn’t look, rifles through his drawer long enough for Ned to pull on the sweatpants that he wears to bed. He doesn’t know if Ned looks while he gets changed, doesn’t think he’d mind if he did. He resists the urge to look over his shoulder and see. Walks over to the light switch and flicks it off. 

Conor never falls asleep first, no matter how tired he is, he always falls asleep hearing Ned’s snores, hearing him toss and turn under his sheets. Sometimes he’ll mutter something in his sleep but Conor never listens on purpose. Sometimes he hears him talking about his mum, small sentences, sometimes calling out for her. Conor sometimes thinks that if he were a better friend he’d ask. After spending so much time with him, he decides he wants to be. 

“Hey, Ned?” he says, both of their faces are hidden by the mask of darkness. 

“What?” Ned mutters. 

“How come you never talk about your mother?”

Ned’s slow, gentle breathing suddenly stops, he hears him roll over. 

“I do. I’ve told you about her.”

“Well, not really,” Conor doesn’t know why he’s pressing, maybe he should stop, but Ned answers him and he has no choice. 

“Not really? So I’ve got a dead mum? There’s not much more to it than that. 

“Well yeah, but she was a real person, you never talk about what she was like.”

“Not much point, is there?”

“I dunno.”

“Why do you care all of a sudden?” Ned’s not aggressive when he asks, he’s hardly ever aggressive when he talks to Conor. 

“It’s just… ehm… sometimes you call for her… in your sleep. I thought maybe there was something you wanted to talk about.”

“Oh,” Ned says.

 Conor can’t see but he’s certain his face is red.

“Sorry,” Ned says, “I don’t want to wake you or anything.”

“What? No. I don’t care about that… I dunno… we’re friends… I thought maybe-”

“Conor,” Ned cuts him off, “It’s fine, I dream about her sometimes is all.”

“Bad dreams?” Conor asks. 

“Not really.”

“So what do you dream about?”

Ned sighs, “Conor you don’t need to do this.”

“Ned, we’re mates.”

Conor hears him shrug. “Sometimes I dream that she’s back. And that dad’s back to being how he was when she was alive, not so distant. Still strict but here at least. That we’re a family again and I don’t have to be here. It’s just normal stuff, eating dinner, going for a drive, shopping for my uniform, stuff that I hated when she was here but I’d give anything to do again. Then she fades, and I guess that’s probably when you hear me calling for her because I remember that she’s dead and I’m not going to see her again, and everything gets a bit darker.”

Conor doesn’t know how to respond for a moment, Ned;s breath is slightly more ragged than usual, Conor doesn’t want to assume he’s crying, but he might be. 

“Ned?” he says. 

“Yeah.”

“Can I come sit with you.”

“Yeah,” Ned whispers. 

Conor crawls out from under his own covers and moves to the end of Ned’s bed. He can make out Ned’s red face with the light from the stars shining in through their window. Ned’s sitting up, his legs crossed. The boys don’t say anything for a while, they look down at their own hands. 

“What was she like?” Conor finally asks, and Ned smiles, he hadn’t quite been crying before, but he wasn’t grinning either. 

“She was warm,” Ned says. 

“Like the temperature?” Conor teases. 

Ned leans forward and hits his thigh gently with a closed fist, “It was like the sun was always shining when she was around, even here, when it was cloudy, or raining. Everything seemed kind of yellow, and bright when she was there.”

Conor nods, leaning his head against the wall. 

“And it’s not like my dad was the bad guy and she was the good guy. They loved each other… I think. He was better when she was around, still wanted me to get my act together and figure out what I wanted to do with myself, and so did she. I guess I just always thought she’d be around to help me when I decided to figure it out.”

“I’m sorry, man,” Conor says. 

“Not your fault.”

“Guess I don’t know what else to say.”

“No one really does. There’s lots of things people say because they think they’re supposed to. I remember being at the funeral. There were so many aunts I’d never met acting like they have but that’s not my problem,”

Conor laughs at this, even telling a terrible story, he found a way to be funny. 

“They kept saying that they were sorry, which I could handle but it was the other stuff. God Works in mysterious ways , that one was awful.”

Conor nods, agreeing. 

“Like you’re really going to say that to some kid whose mum just died, that this was part of a bigger plan, fuck off. They used to say she was strong, which I guess was true, y’know, she fought and stuff but she was strong when she was alive, when she was still fighting. But by the time she died, she was just skin and bones, and pale, couldn’t hold herself up in her own hospital bed, couldn’t open her throat to say goodbye.”

Ned’s not as upset as Conor thinks his words warrant, he just seems angry, and frustrated. 

Ned swallows a lump in his throat, Conor watches his adam’s apple bob. 

“I think the worst was what my dad kept saying. That she fought hard and she was tired.It was like he was saying that it was right… that she should have died when she did. Like he gave up on her getting better, like he was letting her give up.”

Conor can see his eyes starting to get glassy. 

“Ned.”

“She gave up,” he’s choking back tears, Conor regrets asking.

“She gave up on me and my dad… and I just wanted her to keep fighting and fight harder. I didn’t know why she couldn’t, why she wouldn’t do that... so she could stay with me,” the tears are streaming down his cheeks, he sniffles, wipes his nose with his sleeve. 

“I keep thinking that if I was better… she would have fought it for longer. She’d still be here.”

Conor brings Ned into his arms. He lets Ned cry into his t-shirt. Wraps his arms around his friend’s torso, holding him tight. Ned grasps at the back of Conor’s shirt and holds on like Conor might vanish at any second. 

“You’re worth fighting for, Ned. There’s no way you weren’t.”

Ned just sobs harder into Conor’s shoulder, mumbles something but Conor doesn’t hear it, he doesn’t ask either. 

Ned shakes his head. Conor puts his hand on the back of his hair, running his hands through the brown roots, other arm pulling him closer to his chest. 

“I’m sorry I asked,” Conor says, voice low. 

“No… I feel better, weirdly.”

“Okay.”

Ned nuzzles into Conor’s chest, Conor doesn’t dare move, hopes Ned can’t feel his heart speed up. 

Ned eventually untangles himself from Conor and looks him in the eye. 

“I…ehm. Will you stay?” he asks. 

Conor can’t imagine ever saying no, so he nods. Not too eagerly he, hopes. 

Conor lays down closer to the wall, head resting on half of Ned’s pillow. Ned settles into Conor’s chest. Conor slings his arm over him and sighs. Doesn’t know what this means, doesn’t care at this particular moment, he’s just happy to feel Ned against him. He’s happy to know that he can make him feel better. Ned’s warm against him, he sighs closing his eyes. Conor doesn’t dare move, lest he disturb his sleeping friend.

Chapter Text

Conor’s running when Ned wakes up the next morning, at least that’s what he assumes. He’s gone from the bed and his runners aren’t sitting by the closet door. Ned touches his shoulder, trying to remember where Conor’s arm had been draped over him. Throws his blankets off and leaves them in a ball at the foot of his bed. He looks over at Conor’s side of the room. Perfectly made bed, he looks back at his own, sighs and spreads the blanket over his mattress. He’s not sure if his mess bothers Conor and he’s never asked. 

He picks a clean(ish) shirt off the floor, buttons it over his undershirt and throws his tie under his collar. He puts a navy vest over top of the shirt, leaves his blazer in the closet in favour of his jacket. He looks out the window. It’s grey and drizzling, the rain splashes down from the clouds hanging overhead. Ned’s always wondered how Conor forces himself out of bed every morning, especially on mornings like these where it’s cold, and wet, and the sun hasn't fully come up yet. Ned wishes that he could have woken up with Conor still holding him but he knows that it would have been weird. 

Last night was weird. For one thing, he’d been hanging out with the rugby team, he was in on their jokes in a way that he never expected to be. Then when they got back to the room… He’s never talked about his mother like that, not with his dad, not with Natalie, or his friends, not with the grief counselor that the hospital made him see. Conor asked, though, and when he asked, Ned felt safe. He knew, somewhere deep inside of him, that Conor wouldn’t laugh at him or tell him he was being dramatic. He listened, and he let Ned say what he’s been wanting to say for years. He was messy and unsure, he was angry, and frustrated, and devastated all at the same time and Conor let him be everything even if it didn’t make sense. 

And then when Conor climbed into his bed, looked him in the eyes, all Ned wanted was for him to stay and then he did and he held him, slept next to him. He felt safe again, for the first time since he was a little kid, someone was holding him. Ned didn’t kiss him, he thinks maybe he should have, but in that moment where they were holding on to one another, that felt like enough. Ned doesn’t know for sure that Conor wants to kiss him, that he wants to cross that bridge with him. Maybe he wants to prove to himself that he doesn’t immediately fall for the first gay guy to cross his path. Just because they both like other boys, doesn’t mean that they have to like each other.

He kissed him once, that night in the woods, and it wasn’t like Conor shoved him away but he didn’t say anything. Neither one of them said anything, and they probably won’t say anything about sleeping together. Conor will come back from his run, he’ll shower, he’ll meet Ned and the rugby team for breakfast and they’ll talk about anything and everything as long as it’s not important. 

He combs his hands through his hair, messing it up sufficiently and heads to breakfast. Victor’s the only one at their table, scarfing down a bowl of oatmeal and knocking back a second glass of orange juice. 

“Morning,” Ned says. He’s cool to hang out with him when Conor’s around, or when the other boys were the focus of his attention, but Ned isn’t sure that he and Victor have all that much in common. 

“Morning,’ Victor answers, he’s cheery, as usual. 

“Where’s Wally?” Ned asks. 

“Slept in. He’s not much of a breakfast guy.”

Ned shrugs, takes a bit out of his apple. 

“He was buzzing about the prank, it was impossible to get him to shut up about it.”

Ned snorts, “I just wish we could see his face when he gets back.

Victor shrugs, “We can imagine,” Ned understands why the boys follow Victor, he takes everything he does so seriously and with a smile. 

“Thanks for helping us by the way,” Victor says. 

“Thanks for letting me tag along.”

“We couldn’t have pulled it off without you and your dinner lady connections, ” He deepens his voice for dramatic effect pulling a laugh out of Ned. 

“I dunno, I guess I never thought I’d be hanging out with you lot.”

“Us lot?”

“Victor, Weasel flushed my head down the toilet last year.”

“Well yeah, but that’s just Weasel.”

“You were there.

“Right… ehm.”

“And it’s not like any of you exactly said anything while he was making my life miserable, and I’m sure Keith’s still got some of the pockets off my shirts.”

Victor inhales, shakes his head, “I’m sorry about that, mate.”

“Thanks. It’s not really that big of a deal.”

“I dunno about that, like you said, we made your life suck for ages.”

Ned waves him off. 

“I guess we didn’t really know how to react to you… you were…”

“Different?”

“Yeah,” Victor laughs dryly, “You always kept to yourself.”

“Glad I don’t anymore.”

“Well, I still think you’re pretty fuckin’ weird but I can appreciate that.”

“Thanks, Victor.”

Conor skips breakfast, so Ned doesn’t see him until english class. He’s already sitting in his desk when Ned slides into his set. Conor always looks straight ahead, never looking to his sides or out the windows. Ned thinks it’s hyperfocus. Conor always wanted to be the best, to be paying attention. Anything he could do to keep on top of things. 

Ned opens his notebook to a blank page, writes the date at the top and looks to Sherry for further instruction. The last of the boys file in and he stands. 

“Morning, lads,” Sherry greets them, “I trust that you’ve been getting on well with your essays.”

Ned’s already finished his, nods honestly. Conor, he knows, must be sweating in his seat, he hasn’t so much as opened the assignment booklet. It’s sitting on top of his dresser underneath the piles of work that he doesn’t mind doing. 

“Before we begin with today’s lesson, does anyone have any questions about the assignment?”

No one does. It’s straightforward, they don’t even have to do any research, Sherry just wants to know what they think. Ned can’t understand why Conor’s having so much trouble just saying what he feels. 

Once Sherry’s double checked that everyone’s on the right track, he instructs them to move their desks to the side of the room. They’d been working through the booklet of poetry a couple poems per class over the past week. Sherry likes to have the boys read it out loud. 

“Poetry is meant to be read, it is meant to be spoken, it is meant to be felt,” he reminds them as the metal chair legs scrape against the linoleum. 

Conor ends up across the circle from Ned. Ned avoids his glance, careful not to give too much away with his eyes. 

Sherry starts. They go stanza by stanza, each boy reads four or so lines before they stop to talk about it. 

“The Hug, by Thom Gunn,”

Perhaps a few months ago, the very title would have prompted a round of giggles from the class, but Sherry has somehow managed to tame the crowd of once unruly boys into sensitive, introspective gentlemen, at least when they’re in his class. Out in the hallways, it’s still a jungle, but Ned’s thankful for the one hour refuge that Sherry provides. 

Peter Heburry, the boy to Sherry’s left started to read. 

 

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined

    Half of the night with our old friend

        Who'd showed us in the end

    To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.

        Already I lay snug,

And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

Sherry holds up his hands, and Peter stops reading, Ned looks up, does his best to pay attention to what Sherry is saying about couplets and rhythm, but something about the poem prompts him to read ahead.

 

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug, 

        Suddenly, from behind, 

In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:

        Your instep to my heel,

    My shoulder-blades against your chest

 It was not sex, but I could feel

    The whole strength of your body set,

           Or braced, to mine,

        And locking me to you

    As if we were still twenty-two

    When our grand passion had not yet

        Become familial.

    My quick sleep had deleted all 

    Of intervening time and place.

        I only knew

The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

Ned’s mouth gets dry, he swallows hard, hoping no one will notice the blush creeping up his neck. Sherry asks the boys what they think, and of course to them it’s about a man and a woman, or a man writing from a woman’s perspective, they could not fathom the idea that this was about two men, which Ned is certain it is. He looks up from the paper that he’s been so intensely studying and glances at Conor. He’s read ahead too, and from the way he’s trying to hide his mouth with his hand, he gets it too. 

He feels like he’s in on a secret, like he’s realized something that only a few others know, like the author’s reaching through time and winking at him, “you get it, kid,” he’d say. And even if Conor hadn’t been in his bed last night, holding him, Ned’s shoulder blades against his chest, full strength of him pressed up against his back, he thinks he’d still get it. 

“Thoughts, lads?” Sherry says when finally Quin has finished reading the last line. 

The other boys give their opinions, most of them are painfully superficial, “It’s like the writer doesn’t.. Want to have sex with the girl, like they’re just happy to be together,” Keith pipes up at a certain point. He’s on the right track, Ned thinks, but there’s more to it. 

Ned can tell Sherry wants them to say more, he glances at Ned, hoping he’ll raise his hand, or speak unprompted. Ned’s always suspected, and Conor’s alluded to it. No straight man could have cared so deeply about poetry, nor would he have slipped this particular poem into their booklet without fully understanding what it means. He doesn’t call on Ned, or Conor, probably knows that would be going too far. When no one else shares their thoughts, he prompts them. 

“So far the pieces we’ve read have either been entirely clear in their romantic intentions, or devoid of romance entirely, so what do we think of this? Is the author platonic in his feelings, is the romance perhaps more subtle and how does that affect the overall impact of the piece?”

The boys argue, back and forth for a moment about whether or not sharing a bed is inherently intimate. Sherry smirks. 

“Are you telling me that you’ve never shared a bed with a friend at a boyhood sleepover, a party without a couch for you to crash on?”

This prompts another round of arguing with boys attempting to talk over one another. 

“Well it’s different when it’s with a bird, innit?” 

“Why should it be?” is all Sherry says to them. 

It’s Conor who finally speaks. The room quiets, Conor speaks so rarely, that when he does, everyone seems to want to listen. 

“I think… the author clearly loves the person he’s writing about, otherwise he wouldn’t have written a poem about… her.”

“Interesting insight, Conor, anything else?” Sherry’s voice is gentle, but prodding. 

“Well… it seems like maybe they’d been in love once, or shared a bed in a time when it was less platonic but he’s not sure if she wants to go back to that. Doesn’t know how to ask, maybe doesn’t know if she feels the same way. But he’s happy to be there… like at that time or whatever like happy enough to write a poem about it.”

Sherry nods. 

Ned’s ears are completely red now. He knows Conor can’t be talking about him, but the parallels are unavoidable, and maybe Conor realizes it. Ned sinks slightly into his chair, not so much that anyone notices, but enough that he feels a little more comfortable. He’s told himself over and over that Conor does not feel that way about him. If Conor was going to feel that way about anyone it would be someone cooler, someone with more friends, more social skills, a hair color that didn’t come out of a box and a brain that didn’t overcompensate with bitchy remarks. Conor would fall in love with another athlete, maybe not another rugby player, but someone who understands, a football star, or a swimmer. Someone who understands what it was like to wake up early in the morning and sculpt their own muscles. Someone who was as calm, and as simple as Conor. 

The class moves on, not soon enough. Ned is asked to read, and he does but beyond that he’s gone. Still wondering about that poem, about what Conor said. He wonders so much so that he deliberately takes longer to pack up his things. Waits for the other boys to leave before approaching Sherry at his desk. 

“Ned, what can I do for you?” 

“I just wanted to ask about one of the poems, sir,” Ned’s looking down. 

“Alright,” Sherry’s smirking.

“Well I was just wondering sir...if ehm…the poem by Thom…”

“Thom Gunn, yes?”

“Well I was wondering if it was maybe possible if ehm… well do you think,” Ned doesn’t know why he’s so flustered, he supposes it’s because he’s never talked to anyone about this before, everyone just assumes, and he has the poster, he never denies anything, so everyone just thinks he’s cool about it. But the truth is, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, doesn’t really know what he’s doing. That night that he kissed Conor was the first night he’d kissed someone he thought he might actually like, the first time kissed another boy. 

“Do you think he could have been writing about another man?” Ned finally spits it out. 

Sherry leans back in his chair, “I think there’s a distinct possibility.”

“Oh… okay,” Ned says, taking a breath. 

“Yes, indeed I think it’s more likely than not,” Sherry seems to be studying Ned.

“And you think he loved him?”

“Well, Ned. I think that there was certainly a fondness about the words, but you need to remember, that when it comes to poetry, everyone brings their own experiences, what I feel when I read that poem will be vastly different than what you or your peers feel.”

“Right, sir, I believe that.”

“Ned, you are at a point where you’re discovering all kinds of things about yourself and the people around you, if these poems can help, then I’m doing my job.”

“Right… well. Thank you sir.” He straightens up. 

“Of course, Ned.”

Ned turns to walk out the door, Sherry yells as he leaves, “And tell Conor Masters to at least try to turn in something tomorrow.”

Ned laughs and turns out of the classroom. 

Here’s the thing about Ned. He’s not sure. He’s never sure about anything, really. He knows some things, knows what he doesn’t like, knows what he hates, where he doesn’t want to be, what he doesn’t want to do, but when it comes to the positive, he hasn’t got a clue. He doesn’t know who he wants to be, or who he wants to be with. He likes Conor, sure, but that girl at the party was pretty cool too, and it’s not like he was repulsed by the idea of being more fluid than not in his identity, but he still wasn’t sure . He can’t spend the rest of his life writing personal essays, eventually he’s going to have to decide what he does with the rest of the life he never asked to be thrown into. Eventually he’s going to come to a crossroads where he has to make a choice or let a choice be made for him, and in itself that would be a choice… it’s a lot.

Chapter Text

Conor Masters is Not A Writer. But he doesn’t need to tell you that. He spends his entire study period in the library doing his best to find something to say about poetry and the intersection of modern life but he can’t get past the first sentence. He writes something out and then crosses it out just as quickly. 

He doesn’t have a single word on the page when the bell rings for his last period. He buries his head in his hands and sighs. Packs up his things, throws them in his book bag and files out into the hallway. Ned’s in their Geography class, scratching something into the corner of his textbook. Conor sits down, smiles at Ned and opens his own textbook. He takes down his notes with an almost obsessive precision, writing in a shorthand that only he’ll understand when he comes back to it. Mr. O’Hare assigns them another chapter of reading to be done for class tomorrow and dismisses them ten minutes early. The boys like O’Hare, he’s an easy marker, never asks too much of them and lets them go early more often than not. His simplistic assignments make for easy grades. 

Conor goes back to his room, throws his english notebook down on his bed and sighs. When Ned opens the door, Conor’s leaning against the wall, notebook strewn aside. 

“You okay, there, mate?” Ned says. 

Conor groans, “I can not write a single word for this stupid essay,” Conor throws his notebook against the wall, it narrowly misses Ned’s head. 

“Jesus, man!” Ned says. 

“Sorry,” Conor mumbles. 

“What’s your problem with the essay, anyway?” Ned says. 

“Sherry wants to know what I think but I don’t think anything!” Conor says. 

“Oh come on, you have to have something to say.”

“About poetry? Absolutely not,” He says flatly. 

“I mean you hate it.”

“I hate poetry, great I have three words, I need about seven hundred more.”

He sighs again, “And I was supposed to go out for a bit of practice with the team before it gets too cold. God I hate this.”

Ned bites his lip, “You know… I could probably bang out an essay for you in half an hour.”

“Way to rub it in.”

“No… I mean I could write your essay for you.”

It takes Conor a minute to process Ned’s offer, he freezes in his place. 

“You’d do that?”

“I mean yeah, sure. It’s not a big deal.”

So Ned follows Conor to rugby practice. He sits in the top row while Victor runs drills with the boys. Pascal won’t be back from his leave until Monday but the last thing the lads want is to be out of shape when Pascal returns. So they run. Conor looks up at Ned, he wonders if he’s watching him. Every time Conor looks he’s buried in his notebook. 

He can fall into the practice in a way he can fall into nothing else. The drills are pure muscle memory, absolute grunt work, there’s no brain to it. Sweat pours down his face, mud collects on his knees and the familiar burning in his calves rises. Everyone’s lungs are burning by the time Victor calls it quits. 

“Showers lads,” 

Conor gives Ned a chaste wave as he walks into the building with the rest of his team. The tile floor of the shower quickly becomes covered in mud. Grass clogs the drain in the middle and the boys argue over who’s going to stick their hand in to get it out. Victor quells the argument by shoving his middle finger down the drain and throwing the clump of grass and dirt at the wall beside Weasel’s head. 

“Oi! Go fuck yourself,” Weasel shouts. 

The boys laugh but Weasel’s fuming. 

“Calm down, mate,” Victor slaps him on the shoulder as he walks past. 

“I’ll see you at dinner,” he says to Conor. 

“You fucking Masters there, are ya Hines?” Weasel says. 

“Oh fuck off Weasel, it’s called having friends, you should try it some time,” Victor snaps back just as quickly as Weasel had opened his mouth. 

“Fuckin’ bender,” Weasel mutters. 

“Find a new insult,” Victor says. 

Conor turns off the water and wraps his towel around his waist, follows Victor into the changing room. 

“You didn’t have to do that, mate.” Conor says quietly. 

“Yeah, actually, I did,” Victor answers, pulling his uniform back on. 

“I can handle that stuff.”

“Conor,” Victor sighs, “I know you can, but I’m the captain, this is my team but this is your team too. He shouldn’t be allowed to say that shit.”

“It wasn’t an issue before.”

“Yeah, well… I was wrong before. Doesn’t mean I can’t start now.”

Conor rolls his eyes. “thanks , mate.”

“Hurry up, I think Roche is waiting for you.”

“Right.”

Ned is leaning up against the wall outside the locker room. He’s holding his notebook. 

“I present to you, one perfectly passable essay.” 

He hands Conor two pages, “You might want to rewrite it in your own handwriting, but the words are all there.”

“Thanks mate! You really have no idea how great this is.”

“Any time.”

The boys eat dinner together. Keith and Quin eat quickly then head off to work on a group project with some other boys from their advanced history class. Victor sticks around for a while but then heads off to start working on his reading. Conor spends the next half hour copying Ned’s essay into his own assignment book. 

“This is brilliant, Ned,” he says. 

“Oh, thanks,” Ned takes another bite of his chicken soup and shrugs. 

“You’re a really good writer,” Conor says after copying over a particularly beautiful turn of phrase.

“Ehhhh,” Ned waves him off. 

“Ned, I mean it. It’s like you know exactly what you want to say and you just find a way to put it down on the page.”

Ned laughs dryly, Conor can’t understand why.

“I can never figure out what I want to say,” Conor says. 

“I can never figure out what I want.”

They both laugh quietly. They don’t speak for a few minutes while Conor finishes copying the last paragraph. 

“So… what did you think of that poem Sherry read yesterday?” Ned asks finally. 

“Which one,” Conor asks even though he knows already. 

There had been a burden of knowledge that day in the classroom, even though Conor didn’t understand much about poetry, and prose, he understands what it’s like to hold another man to his chest, he could recognize that feeling anywhere. 

“The Hug,” Ned says, “Wonder why Sherry put that in there.”

“Yeah…” Conor says, fiddling with his pencil, he knows exactly why. 

“It was pretty cool, I liked how it was structured.”

“I guess,” Conor says. 

They sit in silence, 

“Do you ever try to figure out what you want?” Conor says suddenly, circling back to Ned’s earlier comment. 

Ned seems startled, “Dunno, I guess,”

“Right.”

Conor looks around, they’re the only two left in the hall, “We should go,” he says. 

“Yeah,” Ned says. 

They walk the stairs back up to their room. Conor doesn’t hide his face while Ned changes but he still makes a concerted effort to look the other way. They climb into their own beds. Talk for a minute, but not about anything important,

 “Do you think snakes don’t have legs anymore or they don’t have legs yet,” Ned says. 

“Lizards,” Conor responds, “Lizards are just snakes with legs.”

Ned nods in agreement and then it’s silence. Conor rolls over, looking at the wall. 

“Just tell me what you want Ned,” he whispers at nobody in particular. 

“Wha?” Ned mutters. 

“Nothing,” Conor answers. 

“Whatever,” he says. 

Conor hears his sheets rustling as he rolls over and he sighs again. 

The thing about Conor is that he knows what he wants. When it comes to Ned at least. He has two options, really. He wants to get over this. Wants to forget about a silly schoolboy crush and move on with his life. The second option, he wants Ned to like him back, he wants Ned to tell him that. He wants Ned to crawl into his bed, and wrap himself up in Conor, he wants him to tell Conor just how much he wants this. 

Conor falls asleep eventually, wakes up before Ned to go for his morning run. It’s like clockwork, the routine helps him stay focused, let’s him know what he’s allowed to think about at any given time. When he runs, he’s allowed to think about the hard stuff. It’s mostly been Ned these past few weeks but sometimes he thinks about school, what he’s going to do after. Today it’s his family, the winter break his coming fast, he knows he’s going to have to go back home, spend a week hiding in his room, avoiding his parents. It’s not that he hates them, but they don’t understand him. His mom doesn’t know how to talk to him and his dad can only talk about rugby. Neither one of them can fathom the possibility that their son might be something more than what they want him to be. 

He showers after the run, letting the steam surround him, letting the heat cut through the layers of sweat and grime on top of his skin. Then he goes to breakfast. Eats a bowl of oatmeal, whatever fruit happens to be available and two glasses of water. He and the other boys talk about their classes, sometimes Wally shows up, sometimes he doesn’t. 

He walks to Sherry’s class with Ned. Today he hands in his essay. 

“Almost thought you weren’t going to make it Mr. Masters,” Sherry smirks. 

Conor shrugs and takes his seat. 

“You lads hear Pascal’s back?” Quin whispers from behind them. 

Ned smirks, “Wonder if he found the surprise yet.”

Just as Ned turns around, Pascal comes into the class, absolutely fuming. 

Sherry stands up, putting himself between Pascal and the students. 

“Pascal, what can I do for you?” 

Pascal’s face is beet red, Conor sits up straighter, throat squeezing shut. 

“I just got back from my 2 weeks off,” he wears a vicious smile. 

“Pascal I have a class to teach.”

“Well, Dan! You can imagine my surprise when I went to my office to prepare my lesson for today and a fat load of Whipped Cream fell into my hair,” he pulls on his own hair, “Opened my filing cabinet? Whipped Cream! My desk drawers? Whipped fucking cream, turned on the ceiling fan to get rid of the smell? Fucking Whipped Cream comes raining down on my head!”

Sherry has a dumbfounded smirk on his face. Conor is doing everything he can not to run out of the room. He can feel Ned next to him stifling a laugh. 

“And why are you interrupting my class to let us know this?”

“Well, I was wondering if any of your students had anything to say about it?”

Pascal points at the various members of the rugby team. 

Everybody shakes their head. 

“Alright, Pascal, calm down,” Sherry places his hand on his chest and escorts him out of the room. 

“I’ll find out who did this!” He shouts. 

Sherry slams the door shut behind him and the entire class erupts into laughter. 

“Quiet down boys,” Sherry rolls his eyes, “Yes, yes, it’s all very funny, now can we please begin the wonderful lesson I have planned for today.”

Sherry has them arrange the chairs in the circle again. Conor zones out almost as soon as they start reading. 

The next two weeks are a blur. Conor goes to class, he hands in his homework, does his readings, and runs. The rugby practices stop one the sleet and snow starts falling in the mornings. Pascal eventually gives up in his search for the pranksters and returns to his usual miserably aggressive self. He teaches the games class for the younger boys, a class that both Conor and Ned have gotten out of taking, Conor by way of rugby, and Ned by way of a dubious doctor’s note. Sherry has finally moved on to his Shakespeare unit, and while Conor has absolutely no idea what any of it means, it’s a sizeable improvement. 

The night before they leave for winter break the dining hall serves Christmas dinner. 

“Erica really went all out,” Wally says, half in earnest, half poking fun at Ned. 

Conor shoves his potatoes around the plate. 

“Something wrong?” Victor asks

“What?” Conor says suddenly realizing that his friends can still see him and forcing a smile, “Oh yeah, nothing, just zoned out.”

They drop it almost immediately. 

“Can you believe Pascal let us get away with the whipped cream?” Quin says.

“Absolutely legendary,” Wally says, mouth full of potatoes. 

“Did I tell you Weasel cornered me after practice?” Keith snorts. 

“What?” Victor says, eyebrow cocked. 

“Bastard shoved me against the wall and demanded to know if it was us.”

“What an absolute kiss ass,” Wally says. 

“It’s like he’s in Pascal’’s pocket,” Victor nods. 

“Who’d have thought my schoolboy bully would turn out to be the teacher’s pet,” Ned says. 

The entire table laughs, Conor smiles, shoves a bite of dinner into his mouth. 

“So, I have gotten my hands on a bottle of peppermint schnapps, which I think is fairly seasonally appropriate, I say we ditch this dinner and go get absolutely liquored,” Wally says. 

“Where do you keep getting all this stuff?” Ned says. 

“That’s for me to know and you to wonder,” Wally winks. 

The boys hand their plates to the dinner ladies and head to their rooms. 

“I still have to finish packing up, so meet us in our room after lights out,” Victor says. 

Conor and Ned go back to their room. Ned throws his clothes into a duffel bag, gathers his papers and shoves them on top. It takes Conor a little longer as he elects to fold his clothes and neatly place his textbooks on top. He reaches into the bottom of his book bag and pulls out a brown package. He’d bought it last week when him, Victor, and Wally had gone into town for the weekend. He turned it over in his hand, still not sure about whether he should give it to Ned at all. He didn’t know what the protocol was for Christmas gifts, Ned had gotten him a birthday present after all, but he wasn’t sure if Christmas was different in anyway. Finally he sucks it up and turns to Ned. 

“Ehm… Merry Christmas, mate,” he thrusts his hands out towards Ned. 

“Oh! You didn’t have to… I didn’t… I mean,”

“It’s fine,” Conor smiles, “Consider it a thank you for doing my essay for me.”

Ned takes the package out of Conor’s hand and sits down in his bed. 

He slowly unwraps it. It’s a record. Ned turns it over in his hand, gently tracing the letters on the front. 

“Mother Mother?” He reads the band name. 

“I’ve never actually heard of them but I told the bloke at the record shop what you usually listen to, he said you’d like this… I have the receipt if you don’t like it.”

“No!” Ned says quickly, “I can’t wait to listen to it. It looks brilliant.”

“Good… Good, great. I’m glad.”

Ned smiles and sets the record on his bed. 

“Shall we head over?”

Conor looks at his watch and nods. 

“If Victor’s not packed by now I don’t wanna know what he’s trying to fit in his suitcase.”

Ned holds the door open for Conor and then gently taps on Victor’s. 

“Come on in.”

Keith and Quin are already sitting on the floor, bottle of green liqueur in between them. Victor and Wally are sitting on their beds. 

“Cheers lads,” Wally picks up the bottle and presses it to his lips. He hands it to Victor, then Quin, then Keith. Ned takes it from Keith then hands it to Conor. The liquid is sweet, tastes more like warm syrup than alcohol. Ned sits next to Victor while Conor leans against the wall. 

“Anybody up for a game?” Victor asks. 

“Always,” Wally answers. 

“Truth or dare, but if you’re lying you have to take a drink, and if you half ass the dare, you have to take a drink.”

The boys nod. 

“I’ll start,” Wally volunteers. 

“Victor, truth or dare?”

“Dare.”

“I dare you to drink from the bottle of orange juice I’ve had in my dresser drawer for the last month.”

Victor snorts, raises his eyebrow and gets up. He walks over to the dresser and picks up the bottle. Conor can see the mold growing on the top, he gags as Victor gulps down nearly half the bottle. He coughs, the boys laugh. 

“Chunky,” He grimaces. 

He completed the dare but he takes a swig of the schnapps anyway, swishing it around in his mouth like mouthwash. 

“Ned?” Victor says. Ned looks surprised that he’s been chosen. 

“Ehm… dare, I guess,” Ned says. 

“I dare you to spend the next two rounds sitting in Wally’s hamper.”

“Gross!” Ned says. 

He positions himself on top of the mountain of dirty laundry.

“Keith, truth or dare,” he says from his new ‘seat’. 

Keith gets dared to lick the doorknob, the next round Quin tells his friends that he didn’t have his first kiss until last year. Ned gets out of the laundry basket, Victor confesses to faking illness to get out of practice “once, a couple years ago” Ned wraps his tie around his head, Wally gets dared to use his sock as a puppet for the next 10 minutes, and then it’s his turn, Conor picks truth

“Conor,” Wally says, “If you had to play the proverbial fuck, marry, kill, game with the rugby team, who would it be and why?”

“Oh come on, that’s like five questions in one.”

“Answer the question Masters,” Wally smirks. 

“Fuck you guys, I’m drinking.” He knocks back a swig of the schnapps and shakes his head. 

“I don’t know about you guys, but I’d kill Weasel,” Ned says. 

“Well yeah, that ones a given,” Victor says. 

Wally’s hanging upside down from his bed, “I’d marry Victor,” he says. 

“Honoured, mate,” Victor jokes. 

“We’d be the ultimate power couple,” Wally says. 

“Brangelina who?” Victor laughs. 

“I think I’d fuck Spainer,” Shaffrey says. 

“Do elaborate,” Quin says with the bottle in his hand. 

“I dunno, he’s graceful.”

The laughter that ensues is uncontrollable. 

“What?” Keith protests, but even he’s doubled over clutching at his sides giggling. 

The game fizzles out like all games of truth or dare eventually do and they just pass the bottle back and forth. Conor feels his cheeks getting warm the more he drinks. Victor hands Ned his speaker, lets him play music quietly, they sit, just listening, occasionally talking about something that they won’t remember in the morning. 

“I’m gonna head to bed, lads,” Quin yawns. It has to be past midnight but no one’s looked at a clock in hours. Shaffrey nods, “Yeah I should hit the hay too,”

Wally yawns, nods, leans back against his pillow. 

“We should head off too,” Ned says maybe five minutes after the other boys have left. 

Victor stands up, pats Conor on the shoulder, hugs Ned, “Have a good Christmas lads, come back in one piece, alright?”

The both laugh. 

Conor closes the door quietly behind him, not wanting to alert anyone that the boys are still awake. He turns and sees Ned walking away from their door. 

“Ned,” Conor hisses. 

“What?”

“Our room is this way,” he whispers. 

“I know,” Ned smirks, “I don’t feel like sleeping just yet. Come with me.”

So Conor follows, they make it down the hallways before Ned pauses, looking like he’s got an idea, “Wait! Stay here, I’m gonna grab something.”

So Conor listens, stands, leaning against the wall for what feels like ages until Ned comes running back, he’s holding his book bag, it looks full but Conor doesn’t ask. 

“Where are we even going?” Conor whispers. 

“Surprise,” Ned says simply and jumps up the stairs to the third floor of the dorms. 

Ned opens up a maintenance door and flicks on the light switch. 

“Sometimes instead of dish duty, Walter would get me to help out the custodians, so now I know that this is here,” he knocks on a rusted metal ladder and starts to climb. 

“Ned we shouldn’t be here,” Conor says, following him anyway. 

Ned pushes open the maintenance access to the roof and a wave of cold air hits Conor’s face. Conor watches as he swings his arms out and hoists himself up. Conor doesn’t even hesitate before following him. Doesn’t care how much trouble they’ll get in if they get caught. He’s sure the alcohol has something to do with the impulse decision, but it’s not entirely to blame. 

Ned gently closes access hatch as soon as Conor’s on his feet. It’s chilly on the roof, but not unbearably so. It’s still warm for December. 

“What did you have to run back to get?” Conor asks, his arms are crossed. He’s glancing across the horizon looking out at the trees dotting the skyline. He can see some cows grazing in the fields next to the school, but other than that, he and Ned feel like the only creatures for miles. 

“This,” Ned says, he holds up the record Conor had given him just hours earlier. 

“Ned,” Conor says slowly, “What are you going to play that on?”

“This,” Ned pulls what looks like a small blue suitcase out of his book bag. It has hinges on the edge and when Ned opens it, it’s clearly a record player. 

“Dad and Natalie aren’t coming home for Christmas, so they sent me this,” he shrugs. 

“That’s kind of sad, spending Christmas alone?”

“Are you kidding, it’ll be an absolute laugh.”

“Sometimes I forget that you’re such a loner.”

“Yeah, well, works for me, I guess.” 

Ned peels the plastic off the record sleeve, gently crumples it up and stuffs it in his pocket. He pulls the vinyl out and sets the sleeve on top of his backpack. He holds the record up to the moonlight and lets out a low whistle.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. 

The vinyl itself is a light blue colour, almost see-through and with darker blue speckles all over. 

“I’m glad you like it,” Conor hopes the darkness hides his blush. 

“Haven’t even listened to it yet,” Ned says. 

“Well, it’s all yours.”

Ned turns on the record player, Conor supposes there must be a battery in it somewhere. He gently sets the record on top and then lets the needle drop. Ned sets the volume as low as it can be while still being audible. The lean in close to listen. Conor pulls his knees up to his chest while Ned leans back and rifles through his bag. 

“I don’t have much left, but we can share,” he hands Conor a clear bottle of what looks like cheap vodka. Conor takes a small sip, and then hands it back to Ned. 

The thrum of a bass kicks in the song, Conor decides it was a good purchase. Ned lays down, after a moment, Conor decides to join him, the record player is just above their heads, and if they moved their arms just a few centimeters, they’d be touching. 

“So are you going home for Christmas?” Ned asks. 

“Yeah,” Conor says. 

“Y’know, it just occurred to me that I don’t know if you’re an only child.”

A lump forms in Conor’s throat, “Ehm…” he swallows hard, “It’ll just be me and my parents.”

“So no siblings?” Ned asks. 

“Not anymore,” Conor answers. Doesn’t know why he’s telling Ned this, but he is. It would be so much easier to say he was an only child and move on, but that would be a lie, and lying to Ned felt wrong. 

Ned takes a breath, “I don’t know what you mean by that but whatever it is it doesn’t sound great,” his tone is dry, flat, and Conor realizes that there’s no better person than Ned to confide in. 

“I had a brother who I never knew,” he says finally, “He died while my mam was pregnant with me.”

“Shit,” Ned whispers. 

“It’s weird, I never knew him, and how can you miss a person you never knew? Maybe I just miss the idea of him, or I feel like someone stole him from me.”

“How old was he?” Ned says. 

“He was eight, I think. Car accident with my parents.”

“Woah.”

“Bad luck, huh?” Conor jokes. 

“Extremely.”

“I didn’t know he existed until I was like 13. Every year on his birthday my dad would go to the pub and never come back and my mam would leave my with my gran and take flowers to the cemetery. Finally I asked my gran and she told me about him.”

“What was his name?”

“Michael. He’d be 24 now.”

And then it all comes rushing forwards, all the feelings, all the longing, sadness, mourning for a person he’s never met all of that comes flooding forward and he has to tell Ned. 

“My dad wasn’t always a drunk but it got worse every year on Michael’s birthday, and then it started getting worse on holidays, the first day of school, then it was all the time. I always felt like mum kind of resented me because I lived and he didn’t, because I got to have the life that was taken away from him. And I feel like I don’t even have a right to miss him because I never fucking knew him, but sometimes I think that it’d be easier if I had someone to talk to, someone who just gets how crazy my parents are. Someone who’s bed I could have hidden in when dad started throwing things or when mum wouldn’t leave her room for weeks.” 

Conor’s tone hasn’t changed this entire time, he starts talking faster the more he goes on, but he’s not close to tears, he’s not angry, he’s not pissed off, he’s just talking. Talking about something that he’s never talked about that he really, really needs to. 

Ned’s next to him, and Conor can feel his chest rise and fall with his breath, “I think you’re allowed to miss him,” he says. 

“Thanks, mate. Sometimes I wonder though.”

“How?”

“Just... I dunno, what if he would have been better than me. The way I imagine him, the way my gran talked about him, he was perfect. And I’m just not.”

Ned props himself up on his elbow. 

“I think you’re pretty perfect,” Ned says. 

The lump returns to Conor’s throat, for a different reason entirely, now. 

“Shut up,” Conor mutters. 

The both look up at the stars, just listening to the record and the sound of each other’s breathing. 

“You know, it doesn’t matter what your dad thinks of you,” Ned says. 

And although Conor hasn’t specifically mentioned that insecurity to Ned, of course he knows about it. 

“He’s my dad,” Conor says. 

“So what.”

“So what?” Conor considers, “So everything I’ve ever done has been to impress him. To make him love me.”

“If your dad doesn’t love you right now, then he’s missing out.” 

Conor chuckles, Ned hands him the bottle, they both drink. Ned offers Conor the last sip but he turns it down. Ned finishes it himself and then throws the bottle to the side. 

“You impress me pretty much every day,” Ned finally says. 

Conor shakes his head, “Your the impressive one.”

“I haven’t done a single remarkable thing in my life.”

“You don’t give a shit what anyone thinks, you walk around just being yourself.”

“You think I don’t care?”

“I dunno, seems like it.”

“Can I tell you a secret,” Ned whispers. 

Conor giggles, “Yeah.”

“It’s all fake,” Ned giggles back. 

“What?” Conor says. 

“It’s an act. I figured it was the best way to get people to leave me alone.”

Conor and Ned both burst into laughter. They’ve both done so much pretending around everyone else at their school, in front of the entire world. 

“You don’t have to pretend with me,” Conor whispers. 

Ned rolls over onto his side, and looks Conor in the eyes. He nods. 

“I’m going to kiss you now,” Ned whispers. 

Conor just nods, let’s Ned put his hand on his cheek and gently press his lips to Conor’s. Conor’s eyes slip closed. His hand rests on Ned’s waist, he sighs happily. Ned scoots closer to him. Conor wraps him fully in his arms, Ned rests his leg in between Conor’s and slips his tongue into his mouth. Conor pulls back, Ned opens his eyes and locks his with Conor’s. 

“I like you a lot, Conor,” Ned says. 

“I like you a lot, too,” says Conor. 

“What does this mean?” Ned asks. 

“I don’t know,” Conor says and presses his lips to Ned’s. 

He wraps his arms completely around Ned’s torso, holding him as close as possible. The world is going on, somewhere underneath of them, eventually the sun will come up, eventually they’ll have to descend the stairs but that doesn’t matter now. All that matters is Ned’s hand in his, his head buried in Conor’s shoulder.

Chapter Text

“Shit!” Conor mutters as he wakes up, he can tell from the position of the sun that it’s after six. Ned’s still in his arms, although they’ve moved to their own bedroom. 

Ned groggily opens his own eyes. 

“Morning?” Ned says. 

“Mmm, sorry, thought we overslept,” Conor looks over at the alarm clock, relaxes, remembering that it’s Saturday. 

“No class today,” Ned looks up and kisses Conor. 

Conor nods, pulling Ned closer. 

“You’re so warm,” he mumbles. 

Ned smiles as Conor runs his hand through his hair. 

“So is this a thing now?” Conor asks. 

“Ehm…” Ned says, “A thing?”

“Like are we… this isn’t going to be like that night you kissed me in the woods, where we just go to bed and don’t talk about it.”

“Well we’re sharing a bed, and talking about it,” Ned smirks. 

Conor laughs and nuzzles up against Ned. 

“Yeah… I think this is a thing,” Ned smiles into Conor’s chest. 

“Just you and me?” Conor asks. He knows that they can’t let anyone else in. He can’t tell his parents, he can’t tell his friends, if Walter finds out he’s certain they’ll have to switch rooms. 

“Just you and me,” Ned confirms. 

“I don’t ever want to leave this bed,” Conor says. 

“They’ll have to peel me off of you.” 

Eventually they do get up, slowly, and gradually. They finish their packing, with plenty of distractions. Ned wraps his arm around Conor while Conor tries to fold his uniforms. Conor nuzzles into Ned’s back while Ned takes down a few of his posters. Ned plants himself firmly in Conor’s lap once everything’s been sorted. 

“Promise you’ll call me?” Ned asks, looking down at Conor. 

“I promise.” Conor cranes his neck to kiss Ned on the jaw. 

For a moment, he considers pinching himself, he can’t believe that Ned is here, and holding him, and kissing him and making him promise to call. 

Ned reaches up, drapes his hand around Conor’s neck, pulls him down to kiss him. They’re sloppy, and clumsy and inexperienced but they make up for it in sheer want to be together. They want to be touching, they want to be kissing, they want to hold each other, Conor couldn’t care less if he was doing it right. 

His phone vibrates in his pocket and he groans. 

“It’s my mother. She’ll be on her way.” 

“I’ll help you take your things out.”

“Thanks.”

Ned picks up one of Conor’s duffels, Conor takes the other two. The share a chaste kiss before opening the door. There are boys and their parents running around outside of their door trying to wrangle their luggage. 

“Oi! Conor! Ned!” 

Both boys turn at the same time, they see Victor’s head poking out of his room

“Have a good vacation.”

“Thanks Vic,” Conor smiles at their friend. 

“Come back in one piece, alright?”

Ned and Conor laugh. 

“I’d be more worried about your roommate,” Ned quips.

Victor laughs, “I’ll miss you lads.”

Conor’s sometimes amazed that Victor Hines decided to be his friend. Victor is almost certainly the most admired boy at the school. Captain of the rugby team, good grades, good looks. He could hang out with anyone he wanted, but him and Wally made the choice to befriend Ned and Conor. Conor’s amazed that he has friends at all. The fighting at his old school, the rumours and the constant sneaking out, it didn’t bode well for his social life. 

“See you in two weeks, mate,” Ned says. 

Victor gives them a final wave and they turn again. Almost as soon as they get down the stairs, Walter stops them. 

“Boys,” he says. 

Conor tenses up, it’s unlikely, nearly impossible, but what if Walter knew what had happened last night. If a boy had seen them up on the roof, or a custodian saw them sneaking back to their room in the earliest hours of the morning. They could be in trouble, they could end up separated if he put the pieces together. 

“Good morning Mr. Curly,” Ned says in an overly chipper tone. 

“You enjoy your vacation, understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Conor says. 

“Ah but not too much.Where would we be without our out-half and National Essay competition finalist!” He claps them both on the shoulder. 

Conor sees Ned roll his eyes, the corner of his lip turns up in a smirk. 

“I’m sure you wish I’d won that competition, sir,” Ned says. 

“Well, there’s always next year, Mr. Roche.”

Conor and Ned stand silently for a moment, eye to eye with Curly. 

“Well, off you go, men” 

He gently, playfully shoves them forward. They hear him shouting at another boy as they walk towards the door. 

It’s like everyone they’ve ever met has decided to stop them on their way to Conor’s mother’s car. Sherry comes flying around the corner with a stack of assignment books in his hand. 

“Boys!” He says, slightly out of breath. 

“Sir,” Ned says. 

It’s almost comical at this point, Ned has an amused smile plastered across his face but all Conor wants is to get to the car. The faster he gets home, he decides, the faster he can come back to Ned. 

“I have your essays marked,” he shuffles through the stack of books, searching for the right ones. A purple assignment book falls off the top stack. Conor’s hand shoots out for it immediately, catches it and hands it back to Sherry. 

“Excellent reflexes, though I suppose that’ll be thanks to the rugby.”

Conor’s face flushes, he shrugs. 

“Anyway… here they are,” Sherry produces the assignment books with their names on them. 

“I was particularly impressed with yours Conor, you really dug deep.”

“Er, thanks, sir.”

“Yours was a delight to read, as always, Ned.”

And just like that Sherry’s off again, chasing down Keith and Quin to return their assignments. 

“You think he knows?” Conor mutters as soon as their out of earshot. 

“Didn’t seem like it, besides, he can’t prove anything, it’s in your handwriting.”

Conor opens his book to the first page, “B, what’d you get?”

“It’s an A,” Ned flips his book opening quickly and shrugs, “Couldn’t let you get a better mark than me, that would be suspicious.”

They stand on the steps outside the school, looking for Conor’s mother, there are plenty of other boys hugging their parents, getting into cars and saying goodbye to their friends. 

They sit at the side of the steps when they don’t see his mother. 

“You don’t have to wait with me,” Conor says. 

“My train doesn’t leave until 2.”

Ned’s hand is on the stone staircase. Conor rests his beside it, their not holding hands, but their pinky fingers just barely graze one another. It’s electric, every moment of contact, every sneaky glance, every single second that they spend together, finally knowing how the other feels. 

“I’m glad,” Conor smiles. 

Ned smiles back, grin so wide it’s almost goofy. 

A car horn honks and they both jump. Conor moves his hand almost instantly, looks up. 

“That’s her,” he says. 

Ned nods, hands Conor his bag. 

“Thanks.”

Conor walks down the stairs to his mother’s car, looks over his shoulder and waves to Ned. 

He throws his bags in the trunk. Opens the passenger side door. 

“Is that Ned?” his mother asks. 

Conor nods. 

“Well call him over, I’d like to say hello,” she insists. 

“Mam,” he sighs. 

“Now, please.”

Conor turns, he gestures for Ned to come down the stairs. 

“My mother wants to say hello,” Conor mumbles. 

Ned leans against the door, “Good morning Mrs. Masters,” Ned turns on the charm immediately. 

“Call me Lindy, Ned,” she smiles. 

“It’s great to finally meet you.”

“I’m glad to finally put a face to the name,” Lindy says. 

Conor just wishes it would stop, he knows that they know, thinks that they know. He’s worried that his face will betray him, that the fond way he looks at Ned’s face, and his hands, and his lips will give it away. 

“Are your parents coming to collect you any time soon?” Lindy asks. 

“Well, no, not exactly. I’m about to walk for the train station.”

“That’s awfully far isn’t it? Why don’t they just send someone for you?”

“My parents live in Dubai, ma’am, they don’t come home for the holidays.”

“Grandparents? Aunts? Uncles?”

“None to speak of.”

“Go get your things, Ned, I’ll take you to the train station.”

“You really don’t have to.”

“This is me insisting, go get your things.”

He looks at Conor sheepishly, Conor shrugs in response. When his mother’s set on something, there’s rarely any stopping her. 

Conor slips into the passenger seat, “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Don’t be silly. He’s your roommate.”

“Yep. Roomate,” Conor mutters. 

“Do you think he could be convinced to spend the break with us?”

“That’s just excessive.”

“It’s the right thing to do. I don’t like the idea of him being alone on the holiday.”

“He likes being alone.”

“We’re good Christians Conor.”

Conor rolls his eyes at this.

Ned emerges from the building with his bags soon after. 

“This is really too generous, Lindy, I promise I’m okay to walk.”

“Get in the car Ned,” Lindy insists.

Conor sinks into his seat. His mother chooses a radio station. Ned politely bobs his head along to the song while Lindy practically interrogates him. Conor stares out the window until they arrive at the train station. 

“Ned?” Lindy says. 

Conor cringes, knows it’s coming. It’s not that he doesn’t want to spend the break with Ned, it’s just that he doesn’t want to spend this Christmas with his mother, and his father, and Ned. 

“Could I be able to convince you to spend the holiday with us.”

Conor doesn’t look into the backseat but he knows Ned is flustered. 

“I’d hate to impose…” he says. 

“It would hardly be an imposition. I don’t like the idea of you being all alone.”

“Mom,” Conor protests.  

“Conor, please. I’m asking Ned. I can’t see any good reason why he shouldn’t stay with us.”

Conor can see a perfectly good reason, and he’s certain that Ned sees the same reason, but Lindy can’t know that, neither can his father or anyone else. 

Conor meets Ned’s eye in the rear-view mirror. He shrugs, giving Ned permission to say yes, in a sense. 

“Thank you very much, Mrs. Masters. I’d love to.”

Ned meets Conor’s gaze, cocking his head to the side. Both boys look defeated, anxious. If they’re found out, Conor doesn’t know what he’ll do, how he’ll explain, but if they can make it work… the next two weeks might turn out to be pretty good for the both of them.

Chapter Text

Conor’s mother seems nice enough to Ned. She’s kind, sweet, but generally meek. What strikes Ned most about the car-ride to Conor’s house is how silent it is.

“How was the term?” Lindy asks. 

“Fine.”

“Are you excited to be home?”

“I guess.”

Ned doesn’t know why his answers are so monosyllabic but he’s sure there’s a good reason. Everything Ned knows about Conor’s home life, he’s pieced together himself. The conversation about his older brother, the way Conor seemed to tense up when his dad came to congratulate him after the Senior Cup win. It all seems very impersonal. Ned could say whatever he wants about his dad, he’s never around, he’s a hardass who re-married six months after his wife died, but at least he knows his son. Ned’s not afraid to slouch in the back seat or tell him that he wants to drop out of school. Conor’s back is ramrod straight as he watches the countryside roll past them. 

“So where exactly is it that your parents live, Ned?” Lindy says. 

There’s a permanent nervousness to her, makes her voice seem airy, like she’s never certain that she’s allowed to be talking. 

“My father lives with his wife in Dubai,” Ned provides

“Wife? Your mother doesn’t live with him?”

“Mom,” Conor says. 

“No, er, it’s fine,” Ned says, and really it is, “My mum died when I was 13, actually.”

“Oh honey, I’m so sorry,” Lindy clasps her hand over her mouth. 

“Thank you Ma’am, it’s fine, really. I get the house to myself for most of the holidays,” he laughs. 

Lindy doesn’t laugh but she smiles politely. The rest of the ride is complete silence. Ned wishes he could find something to say to slice through the tension but everything he comes up with would only make it worse. 

Conor’s family lives just outside of town. It was a normal, suburban, house, semi-detatched with brown window shutters. The railing over top of the cement stairs is spray-painted the same shade of reddish brown but it’s starting to flake. There’s a garden planter box underneath of the window but it looks long abandoned. 

“Conor’s dad works late so he’ll miss dinner, but I’m making your favourite.” 

Lindy sets the keys down on the counter and reaches up to ruffle Conor’s hair, Conor ducks away and picks an apple up off the counter. 

“You’re always eating,” Lindy tuts.

There’s a slow cooker sitting on the counter, Lindy takes the lid off, Ned smells what he’s pretty sure is roast beef. 

“Dinner should be ready by 5, Conor you can get the air mattress out of the closet and set it up on your floor for Ned.”

“Okay,” Conor takes a bite of his apple and jerks his head toward the stairs. He seems to know where every creaky floorboard is, expertly avoids them, seemingly out of habit. 

“My dad sleeps in the basement, that’s my mom’s room,” he points at the first door on the right. 

His bedroom is the second door on the left, right after the bathroom. He pushes open the door and sets his duffel down on the bed. His room is immaculately clean. The hardwood floor looks freshly mopped and his sheets are tucked firmly under the mattress, not a wrinkle in sight. There are trophies and medals displayed proudly on shelves that line the wall, though they haven’t been dusted in some time. It’s almost exactly what Ned would have expected. Conor opens his closet and pulls an air mattress from the top shelf. 

Neither of them moves for the pump yet, they know they’ll eventually have to set up a bet for Ned, but Conor’s double looks so spacious after the night they spent squished together in Ned’s twin. 

“I’m glad you’re here,” Conor says. 

“Really?” 

“Really.”

“Because before it seemed like you didn’t want…”

Conor puts his hand on Ned’s arm, “I want you to be here, it’s just… my parents, y’know?”

“What? Don’t want your parents to meet me?” Ned teases. 

“I don’t want you to have to meet my parents, they’re a lot.”

“Your mum seems nice.”

“She is.”

“Am I allowed to kiss you?” Ned says. He’s only half joking.

Conor smiles, “Just a second.”

He stands up, walks over to the door and clicks it shut. He sits down next to Ned on the bed. Ned smirks, puts his hand on Conor’s cheek and pulls his face close. He lightly presses his lips to Conor’s. He runs his fingers over his soft jawline, tracing his lips with the pad of his thumb. 

“Ned,” Conor whispers, breathy and sweet. 

Ned presses their lips together again. 

“Your mum’s not gonna walk in randomly, right?”

Conor shakes his head, “She leaves me alone most of the time, and when she doesn’t she always knocks.”

“Good,” Ned says, he rests his head against Conor’s chest. 

Conor’s really not that much taller than Ned, a few inches at most, Ned has to look up to meet his gaze, and Conor has to crane his neck to kiss him. Their height difference isn’t all that pronounced but Conor is built, Ned supposes that he’s naturally broad shouldered but his arms, his chest, his thighs (oh my god his thighs ) are the result of hours upon hours of work. He doesn’t have a chiseled jawline or a visible six pack, but he’s strong, he’s sturdy, and his cheekbones could probably cut glass. 

Ned yawns, Conor rests his hand on his shoulder. 

“You can sleep, if you want.”

Ned nods, they hadn’t gotten to bed until the sun was almost above the horizon. It’s finally starting to catch up with him. Conor’s bed is so comfortable, and his eyelids are so heavy. 

He kicks off his shoes and curls up against Conor’s pillow. 

“Lay with me,” he mumbles and that’s the literal only thing he wants right now. 

“Ned.”

“Please, just for a minute.”

Ned reaches up, pulls Conor’s hands to his chest, “You’re so cold, c’mere,” Ned pulls Conor down on top of him. Conor sighs. 

“I never want to say no to you,” he mumbles. 

Ned realizes that Conor must be just as tired as he is. Closes his eyes and reaches over to run his fingers through his hair. Conor is soft, soft hair, soft skin, and soft lips. His fingernails gently scratch at Conor’s scalp. Conor’s eyes fall closed and he rests his arm on top of Ned as his breathing gets slower and heavier. 

“I know what you’re doing,” Conor mumbles. 

“Is it working?” 

“Yes,” Conor groans and buries his head in his pillow. 

Ned doesn’t falls asleep soon after, he feels Conor plant a kiss on his forehead and he’s out. When he wakes up, the sun is lower in the sky and the air mattress is blown up, he doesn’t know how Conor managed to make the bed without waking him. Conor’s side of the bed is warm but he’s not in his room. He takes a minute to look around. He’s drawn to the trophies. They’re not all for rugby, like he thought they might have been, a good chunk of them are from cross-country, one’s from a football tournament. There’s a photo of Conor and his father on their boat, one of him and his mother standing at the finish line of a marathon together. 

Conor’s walls are painted a navy blue, his dresser is a dark oak colour, pushed up against the wall next to the one window. He looks at another photo hanging on the wall. Conor’s front and centre, he looks older than in the other photos, maybe 14, he’s sitting on the bleachers at some school event, wearing a rugby uniform. There’s a boy next to him that Ned doesn’t recognize. He has light brown skin with curly dark hair and a dazzling grin. Conor looks shy, like he didn’t want his photo to be taken in that particular moment. 

He hears the door hinges squeak, looks over and sees Conor looking at him. 

“Dinner’s ready.”

Ned nods, follows Conor out of his bedroom and to the dining room. Lindy’s brought out the fine china, which feels a little sad for a party of three. 

Ned finishes every last bite of the roast, helps himself to seconds of his mashed potatoes. Lindy smiles. 

“I can’t imagine the last time you boys have had a good meal, all that school food must get boring.”

Conor nods politely, Ned more enthusiastically. The dining hall does their best but their best was often painfully bad. 

Ned helps Lindy clear up. She seems grateful for the help, happy for the small bit of attention that Ned’s paying her as they do the washing up. Conor silently puts away the dishes and then invites Ned back upstairs. 

“Goodnight, Lindy,” Ned says sincerely. 

“Night, mom,” Conor says before bounding up the stairs. 

“She’ll take a sleeping pill with a glass of wine. Won’t be awake until morning.”

“That seems like… not the healthiest way to go to sleep.”

Conor shrugs,”Dad usually gets home already blacked out, so her coping methods are pretty tame in comparison.”

Ned nods, he’s not there to judge, and after what Conor told him about their own family tragedy, he doesn’t think he can blame them. 

“So what’s yours?” Ned asks, he sits on the edge of Conor’s bed. 

“My what?”

“Your coping method.”

Conor thinks for a moment, “running,” he finally says. 

“You cope a lot then.”

“Just thinking.”

“About?”

“It was you, for a while, actually.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah”

“What was there to think about?”

“How I was going to convince you to like me back,” Conor smirks. 

“Didn’t take much convincing,” Ned kisses Conor on the bottom of his jaw. 

Conor laughs, “Thank god for that.” 

Ned thanks god for a lot of things. That Conor ended up sharing a room with him, that the Berlin wall came down so quickly, that Sherry made them enter that contest together (although he’s not thankful that Conor ditched their set). He’s thankful for that party where that girl sold him the joint that gave him the courage to kiss Conor for the first time, thankful for Wally and his seemingly endless supply of alcohol that gave him the courage to kiss him for the second time. 

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“How do you cope?”

“Cynicism?” Ned scrunches up his nose, joking, “A good sense of humour… Irish stoicism.” He shrugs. 

Conor laughs. 

“I don’t know that I really do cope all that well.”

“Well you had me fooled.”

Conor wraps his arms around Ned, pulls him down into the bed and kisses him. 

“Oh,” Ned says, startled before relaxes on top of him. 

He’s more than happy to kiss Conor for the rest of his life. If he had the choice, he would never leave this bed, he would keep his head buried in the crook between Conor’s neck and shoulder. He kisses Conor’s collarbone and smiles. Both boys eventually drift off. 

The next morning, Ned does literally have to peel himself out of Conor’s bare chest. He doesn’t meet Conor’s father until 3 days into the holiday. Lindy has an office secretary job that keeps her busy during the days and Conor’s dad heads off to work at about noon and doesn’t get home until Conor and Ned have gone to sleep. He’s home one morning when the 

boys shuffle down the stairs to get breakfast, sitting at the dining room table. 

Ned shook his hand at the pub after the Senior cup but this will be their first (hopefully) sober, encounter. 

“You must be Ned,” He says, his voice is no less enthusiastic when sober, but less loud and less breathy. 

“Yes,” Ned says simply. He sets his cereal bowl down on the table and pulls out his chair. Conor’s still in the kitchen setting the kettle to boil. 

“Yes, Lindy told me you were staying with us, would have loved to introduce myself sooner but work keeps me busy.”

Ned nods, Conor sits down next to him. He doesn’t touch Ned, doesn’t even sit that close to him, his body language is entirely closed, but still, there’s a protective nature about the way he makes eye contact with his father and then looks at Ned. 

Conor’s father clears his throat, “So Ned’s not on the rugby team, right?”

“No dad, not everyone’s on the rugby team,” Conor says. 

“No… well that’s not what I meant… what do you usually get up to Ned?”

“Well.... this and that… ehm…” the truth is Ned doesn’t get up to all that much, certainly not anything he wants to tell Conor’s dad about. 

“Ned plays guitar,” Conor supplies a perfectly reasonable hobby with the ease of someone who’s been telling his parents half-truths for years. 

“Guitar!” he exclaims, “Well the girls must be all over you for that.”

Ned laughs, maybe too hard because Conor kicks him under the table. 

“Not really… I guess it could come in handy though.”

“Well at least ya recognize it. Not like my son over here,”

Conor rolls his eyes. 

“Could have any gal he wants but he’s… what is it you used to say… decidedly uninterested in dating ,”

“It’s distracting,” Conor mutters. 

“First lad I’ve ever heard say those words, but if it helps with the rugby-”

“And school.”

“Yes of course.”

Conor’s father leaves for work, and they have the house to themselves. They flop down on the couch in the sitting room, Conor rests his head on Ned’s shoulder, lazily flipping through TV channels as Ned absentmindedly plays with his hair. 

“Is that true what you said to your dad?”

“Huh?”

“Do you actually think dating’s a distraction? Or is that just something you say to your folks to keep them off your back… because-”

“Ned.”

“I could definitely see how it could be with all the stuff you have to-”

“Ned!” Conor says more firmly, he looks up at Ned.

“I am happily distracted by you, Ned Roche,”

Ned hadn’t thought it was possible to feel more butterflies in his stomach when it came to Conor. He thought his heart had skipped every beat it possibly could without killing him, thought he had held every breath he had and pinched himself as hard as he could without leaving a bruise. But there’s Conor, the full weight of him pressed up against Ned’s shoulder, telling him, unequivocally that he’s happy to be with him and for a moment Ned doesn’t believe him. His mind races back to that football star, or that swimmer, the one with a normal hair colour and a regular sleep cycle, the one who Conor should have fallen for, the one who is definitely not Ned, but also definitely not here. 

“Yeah,” Ned sighs, “Me too.”

Chapter Text

Conor wants one thing for Christmas. To wake up one morning and find that everything is alright. That no one cares that he’s… different. He wants his mother to insist that they not be left alone with the door closed because that’s what a mom does when her son brings home their significant other, he wants his father to threaten Ned within an inch of his life if he ever hurts Conor, because that’s what a dad is supposed to do when he finds out his son is in love. He wants his Gran to be confused but sneak Ned extra cookies after dinner. He wants to take a walk after the dishes have been cleared and the presents have been opened, he wants to slip his hand into Ned’s and not look over his shoulder to make sure no one’s following him. He wants his heart to skip a beat because he’s so head over heels for this boy, not because he’s afraid. He wants to take shit from his teammates, but not any differently than Weasel does about his friend at the girls’ school. He wants, more than anything, to be normal. For the world to wake up and realize that he’s normal

He gets a pair of socks and a jumper.

Lindy insists on giving Ned a gift as well. She’s not particularly creative when it comes to giving gifts so Conor’s not surprised when Ned rips open the paper to find the same jumper as Conor had just opened, green instead of red, and a few sizes smaller, but definitely the same jumper. 

“I do hope you like it, dear, green seems like it would look nice on you.”

“Thank you very much, you really didn’t have to get me anything.” 

Ned folds the sweater, holds it in his lap. He’s smiling like he can’t help it, Conor supposes it’s been a while since Ned’s had a proper Christmas morning. It’s a nice scene, and of course he’s glad that his mother likes Ned, but he can’t help but think that she wouldn’t be buying him jumpers and insisting he have seconds at every meal if she knew the truth about their relationship. His father certainly wouldn’t be so chummy. Conor can tell that he’s drunk on Christmas morning, but honestly it’s for the best. He doesn’t remember a time that his father had been cheery without a few beers in him. 

The Masters clan aren’t particularly close, he doesn’t have a relative that he speaks to more often than once every few months at some holiday dinner. Despite this, every Christmas the family packs into the house for dinner. 

“Conor!”

Conor sits up in his chair, looks out the window, he sees his aunt (his mother’s sister) helping his grandmother out of her car. 

“Go help the old bird,” his father says. He thinks it’s quite funny. 

Ned stands up too, “I’ll come with you,:

Conor nods, he and Ned run out the front door. Conor, always a gentleman, takes his gran’s bags and offers his arm. 

“Who’s this?” she says about Ned before even introducing herself. 

“My roommate. He’s spending the holiday with us.”

“I’m Ned.” He says. 

“You’re a handsome lad.”

Conor blushes, his gran doesn’t seem to see the issue, but his aunt Lee shrugs and makes apologetic eye contact with her nephew. 

“Where are your parents, Ned?” Aunt Lee asks. 

“Dubai,” Ned says without hesitation, “It’s a long story.”

“Alright then, interesting…” aunt Lee says. 

“Don’t be nosy Lee,” Gran hits Lee in the arm with her handbag. She could stop armies with that handbag, Conor never wanted to be on the receiving end of one of her whacks, all the hard caramels rattling around in there, the can of diet cola that she never traveled without. 

“Conor, can you help me with the gifts,” Lee asks. 

She’s always been overly chipper, Conor’s mothers sister has always felt a need to make up for Lindy’s soft, sullen demeanour. She never married or had kids of her own and lives with Conor’s grandmother. Conor supposes she had a life and a career once, but that’s all long gone. 

“Can I take your bag, ma’am,” 

Conor smiles, hearing Ned offer as he circled round the back of the car to pull out a basket of immaculately wrapped gifts. He sees Ned’s tufts of red hair poking above the car. Holds his arm out for Conor’s Gran and helps her up the stairs. Ned has always seemed like a rebel, completely and totally anti-authority, and in some ways he is. In many ways he bucks tradition, blows off convention and flat out disrespects anyone whose in charge. But he’s also sweet, he calls Lindy ma’am, listens attentively to his father and makes small talk with his Grandmother. He’s the perfect gentleman, with his arm outstretched and his smile, polite and inoffensive. 

“Ned seems nice,” Lee says offhandedly, pulling a few more gifts from the trunk. 

“He’s a good roommate,” Conor says bucking under the weight of the basket. 

“Strong lad,” Lee laughs. 

Conor carries the basket into the house. Ned is offering his seat to his Gran and then politely stands against the wall. Conor arranges the gifts underneath the tree. He sees a fair few with his own name on them, he’s Lee’s only nephew, his Gran’s only grandchild, there were a few for his smaller cousins on his dad’s side, a couple for Lindy, and one for his father. 

“What time are your people getting here?” Gran directs her question to Conor’s father who suddenly realizes that she’s arrived. 

“Oh, yes. Well my brother’s bringing his wife ‘round for dinner, they’re spending the morning with her folks, and my sister and the kids should be here by noon,” he answers. 

Conor knows this only because his mother had been repeating it for the past two days as she furiously cleaned. Conor’s dad is a middle child, older sister, younger brother, both were happily married (or at least looked like it, Conor knows better than to judge a marriage from the outside). 

“Right, well, let’s go help Lindy in the kitchen,” Lee says after some brief conversation. 

Gran gets up, Ned moves immediately to help her. 

“You’re such a gentleman, Edward,” She says. 

Ned’s blush creeps up his neck and wraps around his ears, Conor looks down, eyes flitting up for only a moment to meet Ned’s embarrassed gaze.

“I can help in the kitchen if you need,” he offers but the women turn him down.

Conor smiles to himself. He really is the perfect boy, and if either one of them were a girl, this would all be so much easier, Conor tries not to think about that right now, it'll only make him feel bad when he doesn't need to.

He hears the sound of snow crunching under tires, turns to look out the window. 

“That’ll be Eleanor,” Conor’s father sits up in his chair and turns. 

“Conor!” he says but Conor’s already up pushing the door open to let his cousins in. 

There are four of them getting out of the car, Aunt Eleanor, and the three kids, Fionn, Siobhan, and Axel. Axel is in Eleanor’s arms, he’s old enough to walk (though Conor can’t remember exactly how old that is) but still clumsy enough not to be trusted on the ice. Siobhan is wearing a red dress and white tights, her hair is fastened behind her ears with a green bow, it stands out against her naturally ginger hair. Fionn has to be told to leave his football in the car. 

“Conor!” Eleanor shouts giddily, “You’ve gotten so big!”

Conor knows for a fact that he hasn’t grown at all. 

Siobhan runs up the front steps, ballet flats slapping against the wood. She hugs Conor’s legs and he scoops her up. 

“Conor! Dad signed me up for rugby!” Fionn shouts as he slams the car door shut. 

“Brilliant,” Conor smiles down at him. He knows not to mention his uncle too often during the holidays. He works overseas, and every couple years he has to stay for Christmas, Eleanor says it’s hardest on the little ones but Conor suspects it’s harder for her than she lets on. 

He holds the door for Eleanor and Axel and then carries Siobhan in with him. Eleanor puts Axel down immediately, but Siobhan clings to Conor. 

“Oh Patrick it smells wonderful,” Eleanor plants a kiss on Conor’s dad’s cheek. He’s only slightly startled hearing someone refer to his father by his first name, nobody ever does.

“Aunt Eleanor,” Conor says, “This is Ned, he’s my roommate. His parents are out of the country so mam invited him to spend Christmas with us.”

“Well that’s just like your mother,” Eleanor sits down next to her brother, “Lovely to meet you Ned.”

Conor quickly introduces his cousins, Ned politely nods at them, Conor hopes he doesn’t feel overwhelmed. 

“Conor!” His father shouts, and he jumps. 

“Go get us a bottle of wine, will you lad, should be a couple in the basement.”

Conor nods.

“I’ll come with you,” Ned volunteers.

“Thanks,” Conor says. 

The din of the small party fades as they walk down the stairs. Conor flicks the light on. His father’s bedroom is on the left and the pantry is on the right. He pushes open the door, shuts it behind him. He grabs Ned by the wrist and pulls him closer to him. 

“Woah,” Ned says, looking up slightly. 

“Are you okay with all this?” Conor gestures up at the ceiling, upstairs where the family is currently laughing raucously 

Ned nods, “I’m okay,” he plants a quick kiss on Conor’s jaw. 

“I know my family can be a lot, and once my dad gets the wine in him he’s gonna get loud… and the kids are gonna be all over me and you don’t have to be so nice to my grandmother, it’s not like-”

Ned cuts him off, squeezing his bicep, he kisses him again. Conor tenses up, he’s gotten used to kissing Ned in this house over the past few days, but only ever behind closed doors, only ever when they’re the only people in the house. Ned puts his other hand on Conor’s shoulder, he relaxes, kisses Ned back, Ned pulls away, takes his hand off his arm and strokes Conor’s cheek.

“Everything’s fine, your family are fine, I can handle it. We can handle it.”

Conor can’t help it, for the next few seconds he doesn’t care about what might happen if someone walks into the pantry, doesn’t care that someone might come looking if they take too long. He wraps Ned in his arms kisses him. He runs his fingers over the soft material of Ned’s new green jumper and smiles. 

“Red or white?” Conor asks, looking over Ned’s shoulder at the few bottles of wine on the top shelf of the pantry. 

“I couldn’t care less.”

Ned smiles and steps away, Conor misses his warm hands but he knows they would have had to let go eventually anyway. 

“Grab one of each, I guess,” Conor shrugs. 

They ascend the creaky stairs, not holding hands but brushing fingers every now and then. Conor closes the door to the basement and brings the bottles into the kitchen, puts the white into the fridge and pours two glasses of red for his father and aunt. He offers one to his Gran but she waves him off, gesturing to her light gray can of cola. She’s sitting at the kitchen table looking through a recipe book while his mother and aunt chop vegetables. 

Conor hands the glasses to his father and aunt and then sits on the sofa, Ned sits next to him, not too close, but close enough that the sofa seat sags next to him. 

“Conor! You’ve got to tell me all about the senior cup,” Fionn sits down on the other side of the sofa and crosses his legs under him. Conor feels Ned smile next to him. 

So Conor and Fionn talk sports while Eleanor and Patrick occasionally butt into their conversation. Conor turns his head, sees Ned sliding off the sofa to sit with Siobhan on the floor. 

“What do you have there?” Conor hears Ned ask. 

“S’just a notebook,” Siobhan replies. 

“Drawing?” Ned asks. 

Siobhan nods. 

Fionn demands Conor’s attention once again, asking him something about form, or kicking, or whatever. He answers the smaller Masters’ questions easily. 

Soon, Gran comes back into the living room with Lindy and Lee. Lee and Lindy are both holding glasses of white wine. They can smell the turkey cooking in the oven. It’s all polite family talk, none of it actually means anything. Siobhan and Ned have the most meaningful conversation, accidentally. He compliments her drawings and that somehow leads them into a discussion about the value of teaching the arts in school. Conor, Fionn and his father talk about rugby. 

Uncle Rich and his wife, Claudia arrive shortly before dinner’s on the table. Claudia is visibly pregnant, Conor thinks it can’t be that long since he’s seen them but clearly it has. 

Siobhan insists on sitting next to Conor at dinner, Fionn insists on sitting on the other side of him. Ned sits across the table, beside Axel’s high chair. 

Conor can’t help but beam as Ned distracts and quickly soothes the crying toddler when his mother disappears into the kitchen for a few moments, he catches Ned’s eye and they exchange a look, neither one of them sure what it means. 

Even though Conor’s father did none of the work preparing the meal, he gets to stand at the head of the table with the electric carving knife and bask in the credit. 

Conor swallows half a plate of overly dry turkey and lumpy mashed potatoes. Ned accepts seconds happily. Lee manages to convince Lindy to let the boys have a glass of wine and he finds himself struggling to choke down the bitter red that his aunt had poured for them. He would rather have water. 

“Do you have a girlfriend, Ned?” Siobhan asks suddenly. 

The adults at the table laugh, and smile. Conor can’t help but smile too, he can see why Siobhan would pick Ned to crush on. 

Ned shakes his head good naturedly, everything’s good natured with Ned. 

“Conor and I go to an all boys school.”

“Mmm,” Siobhan says. 

“The other lads manage just fine, don’t they Conor?” His father says, he can see the red creeping up his Neck, his eyes are lazy and his gestures are large. 

“If that’s how they decide to spend their attention. Then yes.” Conor's words are purposefully cold. It's one thing to have to hide from his dad. It's another thing for his dad to be incredibly aware, to have been made aware, and still refuse to acknowledge it. That's a different kind of pain. 

Conor shoves potatoes into his mouth. 

“Is Conor a good roommate?” Siobhan bombards Ned with questions, all of which he patiently answers. 

“Do you play rugby?” “Can girls play rugby?” “do you like girls who play rugby?” “Can I go to an all boys school?” “But what if I pretended to be a boy?” “Are you sure I couldn’t come”

Gran brings out dessert but the children are already buzzing with excitement to open the presents. The adults relent and let them head to the living room. Conor receives another jumper, a new pair of cleats, and a notebook that he’s certain Claudia and Richard picked up last minute, he’ll give it to Ned. 

The children open all kinds of toys, start playing with them. Ned helps Fionn assemble his remote control car, Conor sits on the floor with Axel. Axel has his fist in his mouth, drool dripping down his arm as Conor stacks his alphabet blocks in front of him. Every now and then Axel reaches forward and knocks over the tower. He giggles and Conor pretends to be mad and re-stacks it. 

Fionn convinces his parents to let them go into the backyard and play with his new rugby ball, courtesy of Conor’s dad. 

Ned picks up Siobhan and they head out to the back porch. Conor turns on the porch light. Ned and Siobhan sit on the steps while Conor and Fionn throw the ball to each other. Axel stands next to them, Conor occasionally throws(gently handing) the ball to the toddler. 

He sees Siobhan and Ned laughing, “Go on,” he hears Ned say and Siobhan stands up. 

“I’d like to play, please,” she announces. 

Fionn starts to protest, but Conor holds up a hand, “Come on then,” 

Conor helps Siobhan learn how to hold the ball, how to throw it to her side, and catch it without dropping it. Soon she’s keeping up with her older brother. 

Conor turns to Ned, “You want in?” He holds the ball with one hand. Ned laughs. 

“I won’t tell anyone,” Conor teases. 

Ned shakes his head again. 

“C’mere,” Conor walks over to Ned, grabs him by the arm. 

“Conor, I barely know how to throw.”

“Put your hand here,” Conor guides Ned’s hand over the rubber of the ball. He adjusts Ned’s elbow, “Now snap your wrist,” he says. He helps Ned throw the ball, Siobhan catches it easily. 

Ned’s blushing, and maybe Conor knows that he didn’t have to touch him,to brush his fingers across his wrist, but his little cousins weren’t about to understand what was actually going on. 

They play catch until Aunt Eleanor steps out onto the porch, she watches the children for a few moments, leaning over the railing. 

“Alright littl’uns, it’s time to hit the road,” she says. 

All three cousins groan. 

“Come on,” Conor says, he picks up Axel and brings him onto the porch, “I’ll see you out,” he says. 

Ned takes Siobhan by the hand, Fionn follows them around the side of the house to the driveway. Axel’s already falling asleep in Conor’s arms and Fionn is stifling his yawns. He helps to buckle Axel into his car seat while Ned promises Siobhan that he’ll see her again and look at her drawings. Fionn puts his ball in the trunk and helps his mother put the rest of the gifts in the car. 

“Are you sure you’re good to drive?” Conor puts his arm on his aunt’s shoulder. 

“Don’t be silly, love. I’ve only had a couple glasses.”

Conor believes his aunt when she tells him this. After so many years living with his dad’s drinking, he can tell when someone’s good to drive and when someone’s not. He offers to drive them home anyway. 

Gran is the last to leave. Claudia and Richard are long gone, left without saying goodbye. Conor waves to his grandmother and Aunt Lee. Ned politely stands behind them. 

Lindy puts away the leftovers and yawns. 

“I’m headed to bed, you boys can have the TV room,” she’s put on her house coat and poured herself a new glass of wine. She heads up the stairs before either boy can respond. 

Conor’s father has dozed off on the couch, wakes up at the sound of the stairs creaking. 

“Your grandmother leave?” He asks. 

Conor nods. 

“Daft old bird,” he mumbles and gets up. 

“I’m gonna make a turkey sandwich, you lads want anything.”

Neither one of them says yes but neither one says no either so Patrick sets to work getting out the bread and leftovers that Lindy had just meticulously wrapped. Patrick takes his leftovers downstairs, leaving Conor and Ned to whisper at the dining table. 

Conor rests his hand on top of Ned’s. 

“So do I have to worry about you leaving me for Siobhan?”

Ned laughs, “I think there’s a different Masters that caught my eye,” he smirks. 

“Not Gran,” Conor groans, “I knew I couldn’t trust her, what did it? Was it the way she sipped her third can of diet pepsi?”

Ned smirks, “It was the fact that she refused to call me Ned and insisted on my Christian name,

“Is Ned even short for Edward?”

“Ed win ,”

“That’s so much worse.”

“Shut up.”

Ned scarfs down his sandwich and finishes Conor’s crusts. 

“I wish I could have kissed you,” Conor whispers. 

“Nothing stopping you now,” Ned whispers back. 

He’s right of course. Conor kisses him, quickly, nervously, eyes darting to the basement door. His lips taste like turkey and stale wine. 

“The kids really liked you,” Conor says. 

Ned shrugs, “Just gotta listen I guess. They’re good kids.”

“Aunt Eleanor tries her best.”

“That seemed like a good Christmas though.”

Conor nods, “It was. It really was.”

He remembers Christmases from years past, where dad had been drunker, his mother had been more neurotic, his grandmother more outspoken, the children, smaller and more shrill. It used to scare him, it still does a little bit, but for different reasons. 

“I think they were behaving for you.”

“I’m honoured.”

Conor takes Ned’s hand, traces small circles around his knuckles, “I think they liked you.” 

Ned smiles the kind of smile that Conor has come to recognize doesn’t actually mean he’s happy. 

“It’s been a while since I’ve had a proper family Christmas.”

“What do you usually do?”

“Even when mum was alive we didn’t really do much, they were both only children, no cousins, no aunts, grandparents died when I was little. We’d open presents and then get Chineese for dinner.”

“That still sounds nice.”

“It was. Always wondered what this,” he gestures at Conor’s house, at the leftovers in front of them, “would be like.”

Conor nods. 

“Nowadays I’m lucky if we eat dinner together.” 

Conor leans his head on Ned’s shoulder.

“I’m never gonna let you spend another Christmas alone.”

Ned runs his fingers through Conor’s hair. He’ll never say it but he loves it when Ned does this, he loves to be touched and held, and caressed but he’d never ask for it. 

“I’d be happy to spend the rest of my Christmases with you, regardless of screaming children or drunk dads.”

“What about caffeinated grandmothers?”

“I’d gladly sit with a hundred if it meant I could be with you.”

Chapter Text

Boxing day. Conor wakes up with Ned in his arms, it feels like some kind of Christmas miracle to be so warm. Ned’s body is pressed against every inch of him, their fingers have been intertwined all night. Conor lifts his hand and presses Ned’s hand to his lips, Ned groans slightly. Conor stops, not sure if it’s a happy groan or a discontented one. Ned, mumbles, “how are your lips cold?” 

Conor smiles, “‘Dunno,” 

A bolder man would have said something clever, why don’t you warm them up , Conor thinks, but he’s not a bold man, can’t imagine those words falling out of his mouth in that moment, he’s only just managed to get comfortable making the first move, initiating contact, leaning in for a kiss. 

Ned’s plenty bold enough for both of them, in Conor’s eyes at least. Ned rolls over so that his chest is pressed to Conor’s torso, “I might know a way to fix that.” 

Conor closes his eyes as Ned hungrily kisses him. He gently bites down on Conor’s bottom lip, Conor almost yelps. He’s never quite been able to get used to the motion, the way it sends a jolt down his spine and makes him lean in for more. Ned slips his tongue between Conor’s lips, he’s pushing so Conor pushes back. Their teeth knock, Ned’s teeth scrape against Conor’s tongue, he can’t help the deep moan that escapes his throat. This only encourages Ned, he places his knees on either side of Conor, grinds his hips down absentmindedly as he kisses either side of Conor’s neck. Conor’s hand finds its way to Ned’s hair, runs his fingers through it and makes a fist. Ned mumbles happily. 

“Ned,” Conor whispers. 

“Mmm,” Ned purrs, scraping his teeth against the vein in Conor’s neck. 

Conor doesn’t want him to stop, if anything, he wants them to keep going, to see how far they can press on, but he presses the palm of his hand into Ned’s chest,not hard enough to shove him off, but hard enough to give him pause. 

“My parents,’ he whispers, “They’re downstairs.”

Ned flops over, nods. 

“I’m sorry,” Conor says. 

Ned shakes his head, they’re both slightly out of breath. 

“Don’t apologize. I get it.”

“You do?”

“Not exactly,” He sits up. 

Conor sits up beside him, propped up on his elbows. 

“Have you told your folks?”

Ned shakes his head, “Sort of but not really.”

“What could that possibly mean?”

“S’pose I’ve never tried to hide it, never really could. Everyone always assumes, my dad included.”

Conor just sits back listening, entirely engaged, utterly focused on Ned. 

“It’s one of those things that they know but don’t really acknowledge. They don’t expect it to change, I don’t think but they’re happy not to talk about it.” 

Conor runs his index finger over Ned’s palm. Ned shrugs. 

“But I get being afraid.”

Conor squeezes Ned’s hand in his. 

“I wish you didn’t;”

“Stop being so damn endearing, Masters, or I’ll forget your parents are downstairs again.”

Conor smiles to himself. Ned swings his legs over the edge of the bed, he steps over the air mattress that he’s not once considered sleeping in. He pulls his tooth brush out of his duffel. His sock feet shuffle out of the bedroom and across the hall. Conor hears the sink running, smiles imagining Ned humming to himself as he brushes his teeth, ruffles his hair until it’s sufficiently messy.

Conor pulls a pair of jeans and one of his new jumpers from the drawer. Hops to get his jeans over his thighs before putting on some deodorant and sweeping his hair out of his eyes. He turns around, hearing a low whistle. Ned’s leaning against the door, still in his pajamas. 

“What?” Conor feels the urge to cross his arms over his chest

“You’re just nice to look at.”

“Perv,” Conor teases. 

He pulls a white tank top over his head and then the red jumper. He makes himself busy with his laundry hamper while Ned changes. He turns around just as Ned’s pulling his own jumper over his chest, Conor catches a glimpse of his protruding hip bones. 

The boys bound down the stairs. Conor’s parents are sitting together watching a film, her hand is on his shoulder in a rare display of intimacy. 

“What are you boys up to today?” Lindy asks. 

Conor shrugs, “Breakfast, right now.”

He looks out the back door, it’s snowed overnight, it’s early enough in the morning that it still looks untouched. Conor pours two bowls of cereal and sets them on the table. 

“Why don’t you lads head into town, you don’t have to be cooped up with us boring old folks all day,” Conor’s dad calls from the sitting room. 

His father seems to be in a good mood this morning, it’s nice but his hair still stands on end when he hears his dad talk. 

Conor nods, “Yeah. That’d be nice.”

“Would you mind picking up a loaf of bread for dinner, then, dear?” Lindy calls. 

“Don’t trouble the boy,” his father scolds. 

“No. It’s fine. We can do that.” Conor says. 

They make polite conversation with his parents as they finish their breakfast then get ready to go. Ned puts on his denim jacket and his boots. Conor throws a navy jacket over his jumper and laces up his snow boots. 

“There’s a tenner on the table for the bread, dear!” Lindy says. 

Conor snatches it as they slip out the door. 

He likes the sound of the snow crunching under his boots, they’re the first people to walk down this particular part of the sidewalk, most people electing to spend the day sleeping off their Christmas dinners and watching films as a family. That’s not an option for Conor. Things are awkward with his family,always feeling like there’s something they’re not talking about, it makes his chest seize, makes it harder to breathe even when no one’s said anything particularly hostile. 

But he doesn’t have to think about that now. He’s not with his family and he doesn’t have to return until dinner time. As always, he wishes he could be closer to Ned out here in the street, but he doesn’t know who might see them, doesn’t know who might try to hurt them. He puts his gloved hand in his pocket to resist the urge to reach out. 

Ned kicks up a flurry of snow, it hits Conor in the legs. 

“Dick,” Conor says and kicks a flurry Ned’s way. 

Ned runs into the middle of the road, bends down, and before Conor has time to react a snowball comes flying through the air, hits him in the chest. 

“You didn’t.”

“I did!” Ned smirks. 

Conor ducks behind a bush and gathers the snow in his hands. It’s not really packing snow, so Conor runs after Ned, catching him easily. He shoves a handful of snow down the back of Ned’s jacket. Ned’s back arches, shooting straight up. He shoves Conor, a grin on his face. Conor shoves back, Ned runs up the street making Conor chase after him. Conor jogs to keep up, reaches out to grab Ned by the arm. He snags his jacket, Ned’s boot catches a patch of slush and he falls, pulling Conor with him. Both boys laugh, lying in the snow for a few moments before struggling to their feet. 

“You really need to get a real pair of boots,” Conor says. 

Ned just laughs, “How often does it actually snow in Ireland? Like twice a year?”

Conor can’t argue that. 

The boys spend the afternoon wandering around town. They hole up in a coffee shop for a few hours playing paper football with a sugar packet, slowly sipping on their hot chocolates. Ned insists that they look around the record shop. There’s not much that catches Conor’s eye, but this is Ned’s specialty. His fingers flip through stacks, he always makes sure to inspect the two dollar discount bin. He picks up a polka album. 

“This’ll be good for a laugh,” he says. 

He picks up a few other records. The one on top has a pink, upside down triangle on the front behind an image of a few men in leather, with mohawks or shaggy hair smashing guitars, the name “Pansy Division,” was scrawled in a messy font on the cover. 

Ned hands the girl at the register a few banknotes. She has short, messy, blue hair and those weird earrings that stretch your earlobes. She smiles at Ned as she rings up his purchases. 

“What are you boys doing out today?”

Ned shrugs. 

“Well, you have interesting taste.”

Ned shrugs again and Conor swears that half his answers are shrugs. 

She taps the Pansy Division album with her short fingernail, “I think you’ll like this, maybe make sure you’re folks aren’t in the room when you put it on,” she winks at Ned then at Conor who’s standing a good distance behind Ned.

“Your boyfriend over there like this stuff?”

She must see Conor’s eyes widen and head swivel around to make sure no one else is in the store. 

“Relax, I’m one of yous,” she rolls her eyes, points to her hair and sighs. 

Conor steps forward stammering. Neither one of them had ever really referred to the other as his boyfriend, mostly because they didn’t have a reason to. He introduces Ned as his roommate, as his friend. Though he supposes he is his boyfriend, and when Ned doesn’t correct her, he decides that it’s a sure thing. 

She leans over the counter, Conor reluctantly takes a step forward. 

“They’re pretty punk, right?” Ned asks. 

“More than that polka album you’ve got. I assume that’s a joke.”

“Can’t turn down a cheap polka record.”

Conor looks around, despite the cashier’s reassurance, he still feels out of place. This isn’t the kind of shop he looks like he should be in. He’s the kind of boy who’d look right at home in a sporting goods shop, or maybe the pub up the street, but a record store just doesn’t feel like it’s for him. He’s long since accepted that he’s never going to belong one hundred percent to either side. 

She wraps up the records and puts them in a bag for Ned. 

“I’ll be seeing you again,” she says to Ned. It’s a fact not a request. 

He feels the wind whip against his face the second he opens the door. The snow blows up from the ground, and sleet is raining from the sky. 

“Home?” Conor says. 

“My dad’s place is closer!” Ned shouts above the wind. 

“Lead the way!” Conor says. 

The boys trudge through the streets, not lifting their feet too much to avoid slipping in the slush. Ned comes to a stop at a four story walk up, they duck into the lobby. Ned presses the buzzer and an older woman answers. 

“Hullo!” she shouts. 

“Hi Mrs. Miller, it’s Ned, would you mind buzzing me in. 

“Of course love, will you be coming round for a cup of tea?”

“Maybe after, I really just want to get out of these wet clothes first,” he laughs and the door buzzes. They take the elevator to the fourth floor where Ned digs in the soil of a potted plant and produces a key. He unlocks the door and invites Conor in. 

He takes off his jumper immediately and throws it on the couch. The flat itself is fairly empty, unlived in. The refrigerator is unplugged and it’s eerily quiet. Conor’s hair is matted to his head and he can feel his waterlogged clothes clinging to his skin. 

“Let me get you a towel,” Ned says. 

Conor agrees and follows Ned into his bedroom. He pulls a fluffy looking white towel from the top shelf of his closet. His room doesn’t have any hallmarks of his personality, it’s well decorated but it looks like someone else picked everything out for him. Like everything else in the flat, it looks un-lived in. Ned’s still not wearing a shirt and Conor falls into the habit of averting his eyes while he changes. 

“Stop that,” Ned says suddenly, there’s an edge to his voice that Conor knows he tries to keep buried most of the time.

“You’re allowed to look at me.”

Conor looks at Ned’s face, “I do… I… I dunno-d’you want me to?”

“I want you to want to,” Ned mutters, he seems almost ashamed, Conor’s heart wrenches in his chest. 

“I just don’t want to do anything that you… wouldn’t want me to… I dunno, I just…” He stammers. 

“Sit,” He puts his hands on Conor’s shoulders and pushes him down onto the edge of his bed. 

Conor’s breath hitches in his throat, his heart is pounding so fast he worries that Ned will be able to see it through his rib cage. 

“I am going to get changed. And you aren’t going to look away, even for a second,” he says. 

And Conor’s not going to say no to that, what kind of man would he be to look away, to turn from such a clear invitation. Ned turns, rummages through his top drawer, and Conor doesn’t look away even for a second. He watches the muscles on Ned’s back as he pulls a long sleeved shirt from the dresser. He pulls a pair of track bottoms. Turns around and looks at Conor, undoes the button of his jeans, slowly undoes the zipper and shimmies out of his pants. He’s wearing the same blue boxer-briefs that he’d worn on that night at the pond. Conor wonders what it would be like to slip his hands below the waistband but he doesn’t think that’s what Ned wants in this moment. He pulls the trackies over his legs and shrugs the shirt on and then smirks at Conor. 

“Was that a big deal?”

Conor shakes his head and Ned presses his hands to Conor’s cheeks. 

“I have a pair of sweats that might fit you.”

He turns and picks them up from the drawer and throws them at Conor. Ned doesn’t look away for a single second as Conor changes. He takes off his jumper, leaves on the white tank even though it’s slightly damp. 

Ned walks out to the living room and looks out the balcony. The wind has picked up and more snow is falling from the sky. Conor walks up behind Ned and wraps his arms around his waist, rests his head on Ned’s shoulder. 

“When’s the last time you’ve seen a blizzard?” Ned asks. 

“Can’t remember,” Conor says, he nuzzles into Ned’s neck trying to soak up every ounce of seemingly endless warmth Ned has to offer. 

“You should tell your parents your here.”

“They’ll call if they’re worried,” Conor kisses Ned on the side of his cheek. 

“I’m serious,” Ned shrugs his shoulder but Conor persists, he scrapes his teeth against Ned’s collar bone. 

“Give me your phone,” Ned pulls Conor’s cell phone out of his pocket and unlocks it himself . Conor watches as he types out a quick message.

Got caught in the storm, going to spend the night with Ned. 

“Who said I’m spending the night?” Conor challenges. 

“Me,” Ned says, he turns around, and hands him his phone. 

Conor slips it in the pocket of Ned’s pants. 

“Your shirt’s wet,” Ned complains. 

“What do you want me to do about it?”

“Lose the shirt, Masters,” Ned cocks his eyebrow. Conor is all too willing to oblige. He puts the shirt on the arm of the sofa. 

Ned puts his hand on his chest and smiles. 

“You look very happy with yourself.”

“Incredibly,” Ned says. 

“Well I am incredibly cold.”

Ned takes Conor’s hands in his and pulls him onto the sofa. He pulls a knit blanket from under the coffee table and wraps it around them. Conor relaxes into Ned’s chest. 

“Imagine if our parents could see us now,” Ned whispers. 

“I think my dad might kill me and then have a heart attack, which sucks because I think he liked you.”

“He liked me?”

“Whole family liked you,” Conor says. 

“Think they’d like me if…?”

“If they knew?”

“Yeah.”

“Probably not,” Conor says honestly. 

Ned drags his fingers through Conor’s thin hair, rolling it between his fingertips. Conor sighs, closes his eyes slightly. 

“Y’know, the stuff at my old school?”

“You’ve mentioned it.”

“That fucked my dad up for a while, I think.”

“What happened?” Ned scratches at the little bit of hair behind Conor’s ear. 

“I was just… figuring things out, I’d sneak out, go to… bars and things,” he says, an ounce of regret slipping into his voice. 

“So that night at the bar, it wasn’t-”

“Wasn’t the first time, no,” Conor concedes, and much like so many of the things he’s found himself telling Ned, this is the first time he’s ever talked about it, “That doesn’t make you…”

“No,” Ned quickly reassures him. 

“I never did anything to… serious but I did some things and I guess word got ‘round but I was so determined to keep living these kind of separate lives and I guess I just… hit anyone who threatened that. My best friend since I was a kid, we grew up together… broke his nose when he asked me about it.”

Ned wraps his arms around Conor’s broad shoulders and sighs. 

“That’s when my dad found out. Sucks because I already had to talk to him about it once, now I’m gonna have to again.”

“You don’t owe him anything.”

“I guess I know that, but I still want to try, I feel like I have to or I’m not gonna know.”

Ned nods understandingly, it feels like Ned always understands. 

“Figure I’ll wait ‘til university, there’s always going to be a reason not to but I think having to share a roof with them for one more year is a good enough one.”

“D’you think your mum would be cool?”

“She’s good at ignoring things that aren’t right in front of her face, I think it’d take a big gay wedding for her to acknowledge it, maybe not even then.”

“You want to get gay married?” Ned’s voice is teasing, but Conor blushes nonetheless. 

In truth, it’s something he’s always wanted. Never thought it was achievable, up until this year he was fairly content to be a closet case for most of his life, but on the few occasions he’d allowed himself to fantasize about living that far, his fantasy life had always included a wedding, a husband who straightened his bow tie at the altar, a general, faceless fantasy of a man, though Conor’s sure that if he indulged himself in that particular daydream once more, it would be Ned straightening his tie. 

“I think I’d like to,” Conor says quietly. 

Ned nods. 

“You don’t seem like the marrying type,” he doesn’t look up at Ned because then he’d have to acknowledge the reality that he’s sitting alone, with his boyfriend talking about weddings. 

“It’s never seemed that important to me, dunno though. I might.” 

Conor feels Ned’s hand in his hair again, it’s comforting, reassuring, Conor knows that it’s going to be there for the foreseeable future. He always worries about Ned finally waking up and realizing that he can do better. Realizing that he could be with someone cooler, and funnier and more outspoken. He can be with any number of someones who are smarter and wittier than Conor is, but for now, they’re stuck. Ned isn’t going anywhere in this storm, and Conor doesn’t want to let him. 

Conor turns around suddenly, he pins Ned underneath of him and kisses him, hard. He takes a page out of Ned’s books and bites down on his bottom lip. Ned is startled at first but relaxes almost as soon as he tenses up and squirms happily under Conor. Under Conor. Conor’s never -ehr- on top when they do this kind of thing, and when he is it’s only for the briefest of moments. Doesn’t know why he’s opposed to it, maybe he’s worried about hurting Ned, maybe he doesn’t know how to take control, or maybe it’s just been Ned making the first move every time they’ve done this so far. But now he’s wondering why he didn’t do this sooner, he loves the feeling of Ned’s small body pressed up against his, loves knowing that he has him exactly where he wants him. 

“Woah,” Ned says when he finally has time to choke out a breath. 

“Yeah,” Conor mutters before claiming Ned’s mouth once again. 

Ned’s tongue forces it’s way into Conor’s mouth, Conor pushes back. Tenderness is replaced by aggression, it becomes a competition to see who can make the other squirm more. Ned’s hands fan out over Conor’s chest as if he’s exploring it, warming Conor with every last touch. He’s not the first person you’d expect to be self conscious about his body, but he is, a little bit at least. He doesn’t hide himself away but he’s aware of it. Rugby doesn’t make you lean, it doesn’t chisel out a six pack, and that’s the idea, isn’t it? That’s the best you can look? Conor’s muscles fall on his thighs, in his shoulders and in his back. Ned doesn’t seem to mind… but what if? 

His mind goes blank when Ned nips at the side of his neck, tongue flicking out, and Conor knows for sure that this’lll leave a mark, but right now he doesn’t care. He’ll wear turtle necks for the rest of his life if it mean’s Ned’s going to keep doing this. 

“Don’t stop,” he manages to choke out. 

 


 

Holy Shit. Ned looks up at Conor and he can’t believe where he is. Conor’s never been the best at communicating what he wants, and it frustrates Ned, until Conor asks what he wants and Ned kind of forgets whatever he’d been thinking about in the first place. But here he is, Don’t Stop, it’s such a clear instruction that could mean so many things. Ned buries his head in the crook of Conor’s neck, sucking a mark slightly lower than the last one. The noise that Conor makes should be illegal, a low, guttural moan, almost a yelp as Ned’s teeth scrape over Conor’s skin again. 

Ned will be the first to admit that he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, but if Conor likes it, he’s sure as fuck about to keep doing it. Conor’s hips buck and Ned’s suddenly aware of a part of Conor that he hasn’t had the pleasure of becoming aquainted with yet. 

“Ehm… sorry,” Conor says

Ned just licks his lips, he can see it in Conor’s eyes, the lust, the fire, the wanting, he can see it but he wants Conor to be the one to tell him. 

“Ned,” Conor says his name like it’s a confession. 

Ned kisses a new mark onto Conor’s neck.

“Ned I want to…”

Ned looks up, raising an eyebrow, say it. 

“I want to… more than kiss you.” close enough. 

“I think we’d better move to my bedroom, then,” Ned whispers. 

“Right,” Conor says. 

And in a moment that Ned is certain he’ll dream about for the rest of his natural existence, Conor hoists him off the couch, Ned wraps his legs around his waist and keeps kissing him as Conor stumbles in the dark to the bedroom. Ned jumps down, pulls Conor by the hand and leads him to his bed. He pulls Conor down on top of him. He kisses either side of Ned’s neck, then lower, and lower, and lower. Ned squirms in a way he’s never squirmed before as Conor slips his sweatpants off. Ned closes his eyes, throws his head back. Conor’s mouth is the only part of his body that seems to be consistently warm. 

“Fuck,” Ned lets the obscenity escape his lips as Conor flops over.

There’s a self satisfied smirk on Conor’s face, he kisses the dimple at the side of his lips. 

“You’ve… done that before?” Ned says, he can’t help the insecurities that creep into his voice. 

Conor shrugs, it’s half a nod. 

“Y’know what?” Ned says, “We can talk later,” and his own head disappears under the covers. 

Ned knows it’s stupid to think, but in this moment, he really does feel like there’s no going back. He measures time in Before Conor Masters, After Conor Masters, and After he finally decided to kiss Conor Masters, he wonders if there’ll be a fourth category after this currently life altering moment.

Chapter Text

Ned’s in the shower when Conor wakes up, he thinks about joining him for more than a few moments but the confidence from last night has mostly evaporated and Ned’s bed is so soft . He can still feel where Ned slept, it’s warmer than the rest of the bed. Conor hears the shower turn off, raises his head from the pillow and watches Ned come back into the room. Conor looks up at the ceiling while Ned gets changed. He hears Ned sigh, he turns to see him putting on a shirt and smiles, still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He notices that Ned has a clear plastic bag wrapped around his hair, red dye stains his fingertips. 

“You do your hair?”

Ned nods

Conor smiles into his pillow. 

“You’re gonna have to get out of my bed at some point.”

“Really? I was hoping I could die here.”

“Not any time soon, I’m hoping.”

“I was thinking I could spend at least the next 65 years here.”

Conor stands up. He’s only wearing his black boxers that he’d slipped on after last night’s events. Ned is completely unashamed as he drinks in every inch of Conor’s form.

Conor grabs his jumper from off the floor and puts it on. The sleeves are a little stretched out from the rain but it’s otherwise dry and comfortable. It’s not that he sees Ned differently now, not exactly, but there’s something more to the energy that’s crackling between them, something new that he finds himself able to focus on. 

Conor’s never been here before. He’s kissed, and touched, and held and been held, but he’s never had a morning after, never slept really slept with someone else, and it had never been with someone he was actually, properly in love with (Conor had thought about it last night and he’s decided that, yes, he’s very much in love with Ned Roche). 

Ned finds a box of pancake mix buried deep in a cupboard and insists that Conor sits on the counter while he makes breakfast. He sprinkles blueberries on top, throws one in Conor’s direction, Conor catches it with his teeth and swallows it whole. 

“Gross,” Ned says. He flips the pancakes onto a plate and pulls up two stools to the granite topped kitchen island. Conor hops off the counter and sits next to Ned. The plastic bag is still on his head, and although it makes him look ridiculous, Conor still gets those all too familiar butterflies in his stomach when Ned looks at him. 

“So is this the first time a man’s made you breakfast?”

Conor turns a deep shade of red, knows what Ned’s getting at, doesn’t think he wants to go there. 

He just shrugs and forces a strained laugh. Ned doesn’t seem to notice. 

“When I said I didn’t mind last night, I really don’t. I promise,” Ned’s saying something to try and make him feel better but Conor doesn’t quite realize. 

“We don’t have to talk about it.”

“Why?” Ned says in complete earnest. 

“We just don’t. S’not a big deal.”

“Conor, it’s not like I’m gonna be jealous. We’ve talked about everything else so far, what makes this any different?”

“I’ve done that before. I liked it better with you. Is there anything else you need to know?” Conor doesn’t notice the hard edge creeping into his voice, but it’s there. 

“I ehm… I guess not,” 

“Then let’s eat.”

Conor’s voice is cold but things seem to go back to normal. Ned scarfing down his breakfast, Conor slowly pushing it round his plate before eating it. 

After lunch, Ned makes a bowl of popcorn with the fancy popcorn machine that his father had purchased and used once. They have time to kill before the snow plows hit the road and Conor’s mother will insist on coming to collect him. It’s not a foreign film that Ned puts on, not exactly, but it has that energy, and if you told Conor that it was produced by an aging sand crab in a country no one’s ever heard of with a black and white camera that came out of a cereal box, he wouldn’t have questioned you. Ned seems to love it though, and for that reason, he sits without complaint. 

“It’s just so weird ” Ned says with an irreverence in his voice that Conor thinks is charming. 

He nods. It was weird, might be the weirdest fil he’s ever sat through on purpose. 

“So what was your favourite part?”

Conor scrambles to remember any part of the film, much less a part he enjoyed. He wanted to like it, really, he did but it was so strange and it didn’t seem to want to pay attention. Every part of it seemed designed to make him want to look away, either in disgust or sheer boredom. 

“I uh… I liked the part when the woman was dancing.”

“The lady in the radiator?” Ned asks. 

Conor’s unaware that the characters had even been named, just smiles and nods. Ned launches into a story about the film and how the director found that particular actress in a circus or something. Conor doesn’t know. He wants to listen, he really does but he feels so dumb whenever Ned gets like this. Ned talks about art like it’s the most important thing, and it very well might be but if it is, Conor will be the last to know. He’s happy to look, and say that things are “nice” but he’ll never be able to tell you why poetry, and paintings and plays and all the other things that Ned has words to describe make him feel the way they do. 

Conor’s thinking of a way he can get Ned to stop talking (kissing him probably) when he pauses in the middle of a sentence and looks at Conor. The now empty popcorn bowl is between them. 

“Are you okay?” Ned asks. Conor can see the concern written all over his face and he makes a mental note to challenge him to a game of poker when they get back to school. 

Conor shrugs, “S’fine,” He says. 

“Conor.” 

“Ned,” Conor mocks. 

“You’ve been weird all day,” Ned insists. “Why?”

Conor’s not about to tell Ned that the film made him feel stupid because then he’ll just feel stupid and pathetic and he’s not about to do that in front of his incredibly smart, charming, probably out of his league, boyfriend, “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Conor says, and it hurts him somewhere deep in his chest. 

“Conor, please don’t lie to me.” 

If Conor weren’t so well practiced in hiding the way he feels, he might start crying. He wants to do something to stop the hurt in Ned’s voice but he doesn’t have the words. 

“It’s not because… last night… because we-because you… I mean because I…” Ned stammers, “You don’t regret…” His question trails off and Conor shoots forward, moves the popcorn bowl out of the way and kisses Ned on the jaw. 

“Absolutely not.”

“It’s just because… I dunno, you have and I haven’t and I thought maybe…”

“No,” Conor whispers. Whatever he had been feeling doesn’t go away exactly, but it takes a back seat to reassuring Ned, “I told you I wanted to and you… If you’re glad it happened then I’m glad it happened.”

“When you didn’t want to talk about it this morning I thought maybe…”

“Talk about what?”

“What you’d done before… I uh…” For all the confidence Ned exudes, he sure has turned into a blushy, stuttering, mess now that he’s the subject of conversation. 

“Ned, you made me pancakes. No one’s ever done that before.”

He holds Ned’s cheek in the cup of his hand. A smile starts to creep up on Ned’s face and Conor presses his lips to it. 

Ned’s questions dissolve under their tongues, wandering hands and lazy touches give Conor more distance. It’s not the plan, to distract Ned this way, but if it works it works. 

There are things that Conor is ashamed of. Things that have embarrassed him, hurt him, made him want to crawl into the smallest hole he can find and die the slowest death he can. He’s done things he’d rather not revisit, he’s let other people do things to him that might kill him to revisit. He’s been scared or angry and said things he wishes he could take back. There are things Conor is ashamed of, probably hundreds, thousands, millions, but loving Ned Roche is never going to be one of them.

Chapter Text

Conor’s parents insist that he come home as soon as the roads are cleared, they invite Ned back, of course, but he declines. Lindy puts up less of a fight this time since Christmas has come and gone. 

“I still don’t like the idea of you being all alone,” she says. 

She and Conor leave after much reassurance. He’s almost grateful that he’s not coming back with them. It’s not that he doesn’t want to spend time with Ned, he very much does, and going to sleep without a warm body next to him will prove difficult tonight, but he doesn’t think they’ll be able to manage the remaining week of Christmas without being discovered. Something would have pushed them over the edge, Lindy would have walked in, his father would have caught on, something. 

Conor tells his mother to wait in the car while he gathers his things. He doesn’t have any things, he just wants to say goodbye to Ned. Properly. 

They wait until they hear the door click behind her to embrace. It’s not furious or hungry like so many of their previous embraces have been. It’s just a hug. Gentle, reassuring, they know it’s not goodbye. 

Conor cranes his neck down to kiss Ned softly on the lips. He loves it when he can feel Ned smiling against his face. He’d do, possibly, anything for that feeling. 

“I’ll see you at Victor’s for New Year’s?” Ned asks. 

“What?” Conor says. This is the first he’s hearing about any New Year’s plans. 

“He told me the night before we left. I could have sworn you heard him. 

Conor shrugs, he very well could have and then forgotten. 

“I guess his parents are going away or something… anyway. Meet me at the train station and we can go together?”

Conor nods. 

“I’ll text you.”

“Please do.”

A final kiss and Conor has to leave. 

His mother’s by the car, leaning, patient as always. 

She gets into the driver’s side. 

“I’m glad you have friends like Ned,” she says when Conor finally manages to un-jam his seat belt. 

“Oh… uh. Yeah. S’pose I’ve got more friends than I thought I would.”

“And I’m glad it’s not just all rugby all the time. I know your father would certainly like it to be that way but Ned seems like a breath of fresh air.”

There’s a pang of guilt somewhere within him. Guilt for not telling his mother more. They’re not close but part of him wants them to be, part of him wants to be able to tell her just how amazing Ned really is, to gush and rave and ask for advice. To tell her that he loves him and he doesn’t know how to say it and maybe she’ll know because she’s his mother and those are the kinds of things she’d know. 

“Mom…” he says. 

She turns, looking attentively at him. They’re at a stop sign, no one else is at the intersection so they could be driving, but she waits until he speaks to put her foot back on the gas. 

“Yes, dear?”

He chickens out almost immediately, “Yeah. Ned’s a great friend. All my new friends are great. Woodhill’s been… great.”

She smiles. It doesn’t go all the way to her eyes, but Conor tells himself that her smiles never do. 

“I agree.” she says and carries on driving through town. 

His father’s gone when they get back. 

“Are you hungry?” 

His mother sets on doting him almost immediately. 

“Ned made pancakes,” he says simply. 

“Oh. How kind. He’s such a kind boy, I like him very much.”

“Oh. I guess,” is what he says.

What he wants to say is something entirely different. Ned is so kind, so handsome, so gentle, so loving. He sees the world in the most amazing way and he’s so clever. Of course he doesn’t say this, but he wants to. Wants to shout it from the rooftops. 

He accepts a glass of water from his mother and then heads up to his room. It’s irreversibly tainted now. Not in a bad way but he can’t not think of Ned in the space that they shared. He packs up the air mattress that never got used. Stashes it away in his closet. He finds one of Ned’s school jumpers under his duvet. He’ll return it once they get back, but for now he just wants to hold it in his lap. 

There’s nothing to do for the next five days but the reading that his teachers set for the break. A chapter of history, a worksheet in geography, a few problems in maths. Sherry wants them to read up to act II of Much Ado About Nothing, a play that he keeps insisting is meant to be funny but Conor can’t quite get past all the words to find the jokes. 

His father comes home drunk the next night while Conor’s making notes about the history reading. He bursts into Conor’s room and sits on his bed. He never does this and Conor wants to jump up and turn to face him but he’s quickly learned that the best way to deal with his father is to act like absolutely nothing is wrong, he turns his head slightly, nods at his father. 

“What ya workin’ on son?” his dad’s voice lilts. 

“History,” Conor stays tight lipped. 

“Mmmm,” His father pretends to nod. 

It’s important to know how things have changed since Woodhill. Once Conor joined the rugby team, once he won the senior cup, his father found a way to forget about the “nonsense” at his old school. He stopped pushing him around, trying to convince him to man up (even though Conor’s certain that he’s plenty manly enough). 

It’s almost… calm between him and his father. His father’s come to admire him, says he loves him, says he’s proud of him but Conor doesn’t forget easily. His body remembers. His body jumps when his dad drops a glass, or when he raises his voice at his mother about the grocery list. His fists clench in his pockets, his hairs stand on end. Completely involuntary, he wishes he could forget. 

It’s one night that stands out to him. One moment that his brain forces him to relive every time his father’s face reminds it to. 

Last year, at his old school, Conor got caught sneaking in from a night out. It was the third time that month (that he’d been caught, he’d snuck out far more often). He wasn’t drunk but he wasn’t sober either. The headmaster decided this was the last straw, and even though Conor begged and pleaded, “Call my mother instead,” the headmaster called his father, who, to both of their surprise, picked up on the night shift. Conor wouldn’t wish that feeling on his worst enemy (yes including Weasel). Sitting in that office, with the headmaster demanding to know where he’d been. “I’m aware of the rumours Mr. Masters,” he’d say in a practiced tone. He was stone faced but his stomach was turning. He was certain he was about to throw up and it wasn’t the alcohol. 

“Normally for this kind of behaviour we’d simply deal with internally. Detention, dish duty, what have you,” Conor can remember every word that teacher said to his father. 

“But there are… certain rumours floating around the school about your son, and this combined with all the fighting lead me to believe this is an issue best adressed by his family.”

Conor remembers seeing the gears turning in his father’s head. His worst nightmare, his biggest fear, he almost couldn’t admit it to himself. 

“What sort of rumours?” 

“They pertain to your son’s… late night activities. Certain behaviours that we might consider… immoral.”

Conor’s eyes were trained on his hands so he didn’t see his father’s response. He swallowed hard as his father grabbed him by his shirt collar and pulled him to his feet. 

“We’ll deal with this.”

He remembers his father’s icy face as he pulled him down the hallway to the parking lot. He shoved him against the car, pinned his arms there. Conor could feel his hot breath on his face, he could smell the gin. 

“You want to explain?” he spat. 

Conor shook his head. 

“What you been doin’? Sneaking out? Heh? What’s that about? Where the fuck you going?” 

Conor turned his head away, attempting to escape but there was nowhere to go. 

“Because I have my theories, the boys at school have their theories. How’s that make you feel? Everyone thinks you’re a little fucking queer,” His father’s voice was filled with vitriol, “That your teammates don’t respect you because they know once practice is over you’re gonna hop the fence and go to those clubs, get down on your knees and let some fucking faggot fuck you up the arse! The fights… I thought maybe that meant they were lying, that you really were a man but now I see you were trying to make it go away. You think you could scare them away? You think you could hide the truth with your fists. No one’s going to be afraid of you as long as they know.”

He can still feel his father’s hand on his shoulder, pulling him away from the car and then throwing him back against it. He can still hear the metal ringing from when his head hit the door. His father shoved him into the back seat.

“I’ll let your fucking mother fuckin deal with you.”

All Conor wanted was for them to crash so he didn’t have to face her. 

And now he wants to act like they’re best friends. Now he’s sitting on the edge of his bed eating a cheese sandwich like it never happened. And why? Because he was playing rugby? Like that changed everything. If only he fucking knew that he’d held his boyfriend on that very bed, kissed him, groped him, been straddled and shushed by him. If only he fucking knew that this wasn’t just a phase and that he didn’t hate himself for loving Ned. 

“Any plans for the New Year, son?” His father asks. 

Conor turns in his desk chair. 

“Party at Victor’s.”

“Victor? He’s your captain. Good lad.”

Conor shrugs. 

“Will your friend be there. Ned.”

“I’m sure he will be.”

“Right. Liked him. He was very funny. Kind of a strange boy but your mother seemed to think he was an alright lad.”

“Yeah dad. He’s a good roommate.”

“Right. Right. Well your mother wanted me to let you know we’ll be going to the McClarty’s for New Year’s.”

“Right. Well, have fun.”

“Your mother wanted me to ask you… They have a daughter.”

Conor doesn’t sigh but the impulse is there. What’s the best way to ignore the fact that your son is gay? Consistently try to set him up with every teenage girl you’ve ever met. 

“She doesn’t have many friends I s’pose, she was wondering if you’d take her along with you to whatever you’re going to.”

The last thing Conor wanted was to show up with a date. 

“I don’t know that she’d have all that much fun.”

“As a favour to your mother?”

So Conor agrees, reluctantly. His father hints that he’ll look the other way if he wants to raid the liquor cabinet. He’ll be taking him up on that offer. There are no other advantages to having an alcoholic for a father. 

When the McClarty’s show up on New Year’s, Conor quick;y realizes that when his dad said “teenage daughter” he meant 14 year old. She’s small, quiet, and buried under three layers of shirts. A grey hat keeps her tawny hair out of her face. 

“This is Ingrid.” Mrs. McClarty pushes her forward. 

Conor smiles at her. It’s not her fault that their parents were forcing them to hang out, he doesn’t see a reason to hold what she can’t control against her. His backpack is filled with two bottles of gin and a white wine that was buried in the back of the pantry. He wonders if he’ll be responsible for giving this kid her first drink and he suddenly feels like he has to protect her. 

He warns her at the train station. There will be drinking (she figured). There probably won’t be many people her age there (Yeah probably). Sometimes the boys might get a bit rowdy (No shit). Then he tells her about Ned, not about Ned, just that he’s meeting them at the train station. 

“I’m not gonna babysit you, but you can come find either of us if you get uncomfortable,” he tells her. 

She nods. 

Ned’s waiting for them at the station. Conor explains the Ingrid situation and he doesn’t seem to mind. If anything, he decided to make her into a new friend. 

“You’re shirt’s cool,” Ned points to the t-shirt underneath of both her flannel and her denim jacket. 

She seems to light up at that. 

“Oh… thanks. I got it at the record shop in town.”

“I love that shop.” 

Conor decides that Ingrid’s going to be just fine as long as she doesn’t steal his boyfriend. 

They take the train out of town. 

Victor’s house is bigger than Conor’s, it’s detached and the flower beds are well tended to. There’s already music coming from somewhere and Conor can see the vague outline of bodies moving in the window. 

They knock and Victor throws open the door. He smiles, hugs both of them. 

“God I’ve missed you lads.”

His eyes fall on Ingrid. 

“Who’s this?” It’s not angry or malicious but Conor rather gets the impression that he’s genuinely wondering. 

“Ingrid. Family friend, parents asked if she could tag along.”

“You can hang out with my sister,” Victor jerks his head to the living room where another girl is sitting on the couch. 

She has a red cup in her hand and looks decidedly uninterested in the festivities. Her blonde hair is pulled up into a high pony-tail. She’s wearing adidas track pants and an under-armour t-shirt. Victor’s whole family must be sporty. 

“Oi! Olivia,” Victor calls and she stands up and walks towards them. 

“This is Ingrid,” he says. 

“Cool,” she takes a sip of her drink, “You want something?” She holds up the cup and shakes whatever’s in it. 

“Didn’t know you had a sister,” Ned says as the two girls walk away. 

“Half sister,” Victor shrugs, “She spends most of her time with us when she’s not in school, sometimes my mom will take her for a weekend though. Likes it better here I suppose.”

Conor doesn’t even know that Victor’s parents are divorced let alone that he had a half sister. He realizes just how little he knows about his friends outside of school, doesn’t know how to change that. 

“Come on, I’ll get you boys a drink.”

“I brought a couple bottles,” Conor swings his backpack off his shoulder. 

“Thanks mate! I can pay ya back.”

“Don’t. I swiped ‘em from my dad.”

Victor raises an eyebrow and nods. From the looks of this house, he has no doubt that Victor would be able to pay him for the gin and the bottle of wine. 

“Step- mom sold a start-up when I was 12,” Victor says, seeming to notice his guests taking in their surroundings. It’s not exactly lavish but the counters are marble and there are two fridges in the kitchen. The ceilings are high and all the furniture appears pretty new. Conor doesn’t mind but it’s just another place he feels like he doesn’t quite belong. 

Victor hands them cups, tells them to go nuts. Ned fills his cup with wine, of course he does. Why would he care what anyone thought about what he’s drinking. Conor opens a beer and pours it into his own cup. 

There are a few people in the sitting room upstairs but the real party’s in the basement. Conor immediately picks out some classmates, not all of them could make it, Quin and Shaffrey are noticeably missing, they’re from the same small town in the countryside. They’re probably at a barn party right now. Wally is on the couch with a girl, the same girl Victor had been with at that party, the one with the airy voice. This time it seems like Wally has her attention. He’s whispering something in her ear that makes her giggle. 

“Didn’t know Wally was such a charmer,” Ned snorts. 

“You don’t know the half of it,” Victor rolls his eyes and takes a long sip of his drink. 

There are smaller groups of people sitting on couches, standing in corners, all preoccupied in their own conversations. 

Victor’s basement is a schoolboy’s dream. It’s huge, for one thing, with a bar in the corner, a pool table, a foosball table and a regular folding table that now holds 18 red solo cups for a game of beer pong. The 40 inch television is tuned to the New Year’s eve coverage. Conor doesn’t know what to do with himself other than follow Ned around. He makes an effort to chat but more people know him than he knows people and he ends up on the back deck smoking a cigarette from the pack that he’d stolen from his dad. He doesn’t like the taste or the way it makes him kind of dizzy if he stands up too fast. He doesn’t like the smell and he definitely doesn’t like the way it burns his lungs, but it’s something to do. Ned is, predictably, better at this than he is. It’s funny, once Victor and the rest of the boys made sure they weren’t making his life hell, Ned had become the life of the party. He always has a story to tell or a joke to crack. Conor keeps falling flat in that department. Something about having your deepest secret revealed to your hyper-masculine friends, who eventually come around despite your fears but you never really end up talking about it, really does that to a person. 

The snow has melted, a few days ago everything was mud, but it’s gotten cold again so the ground has mostly frozen. There are a few other people on the deck. He can smell someone smoking a joint around the side of the house. He’s sitting on the bottom step, mostly cloaked in darkness, doesn’t bother to turn around when someone comes out the backdoor. There are two of them, he hears them lean on the railing. He takes a sip of his drink to wash away the taste of smoke, it doesn’t help much. 

The girls at the railing are whispering and Conor can see their shadows casting on the lawn. The girl with a ponytail on the top of her head reaches her hand out and touches the other girl’s face. He hears her giggle, they whisper something. He’s not eavesdropping, he swears, but he’s pretty sure that they can’t see him and how fucking awkward would it be if he just popped up. The girls’ heads get very close and the talking stops. Conor really doesn’t want to turn around now. He hears the screen door swing open and someone’s heavy footsteps follow. 

“Conor?” It’s Ned. 

Conor immediately turns around, and in addition to Ned standing above him, Ingrid and Victor’s sister are standing, casting the shadows Conor had been watching. 

“Didn’t realize you were out here, mate,” Victor’s sister, (Olivia?) says to him. 

Conor stammers something that makes him seem more like a voyeur than an innocent bystander. 

Ned’s face is red, he either hasn’t noticed or doesn’t care what’s going on in front of him. 

“Lost track of you,” he says, pulls Conor to his feet, “Victor and the lads are looking for you,” 

“Right,” Conor says. 

“And I want to get another drink in you.”

Conor and Ned are alone in the kitchen, he lets Ned talk him into doing shots. Conor downs his without grimacing, feels the alcohol hitting his stomach and grins. 

“Brilliant.”

“I love vodka,” Ned smiles and pulls him by the arm into the living room. Wally’s sitting on the floor and he’s absolutely hammered, he’s trying to recount some kind of story and Conor can’t, to save his life, figure out what the story’s about because he keeps changing topics so much. A small crowd has assembled to listen to him, including the girl with the airy voice. 

Ned walks upstairs without anyone noticing, Conor supposes he might as well follow. All of the bedroom doors are locked so he opens the bathroom door, locking it behind them. Conor raises an eyebrow. 

“I’m not going to get to kiss you at midnight, so I want to do it now,” Ned whispers. 

Conor smiles, kisses him immediately, Ned’s hand is wrapped around the back of his neck pulling him closer. 

“Happy New Year,” Ned whispers. 

“Happy New Year,” Conor whispers back. 

“Cheers?” Ned smiles deviously, producing a bottle of gin from behind his back. 

“Where did you… Never mind.”

He watches Ned unscrew the cap and accepts the bottle once Ned’s taken a swig. They sit down on the edge of Victor’s fancy bathtub. Ned holds Conor’s hand and they don’t talk for a moment. This happens sometimes, especially when they’re drunk. They run out of things to tell each other, so they just sit. It’s less awkward when there’s more gin in their blood than blood. 

“I think Ingrid was kissing Victor’s sister,” Conor finally remembers that he has something to share. 

“Unsurprising,” Ned barely flinches. 

“What?”

“Ingrid’s wearing three different shirts and a denim jacket, babe,” Ned kisses the spot between Conor’s neck and earlobe. 

“What’s that even mean.”

“It means she’s gay.”

“How? Why? What?” Conor says. It’s not secret that he hasn’t spent a lot of time around other gay people, up until he was 14 he thought he might be the only one, “what about Victor’s sister.”

“God you’re thick,” Ned rolls his eyes, he means it in a fond way but it gets to Conor more than it should. 

“Sorry I’m not an expert on lesbians,” Conor snaps. 

Ned just laughs, and Conor’s drunk so he joins in. 

“I guess I am a lesbian expert, girl from the record shop, girl who sold me that joint, and now Ingrid.”

(Conor wishes he would have known that the girl at the party was gay like a month ago, might have made some things easier)

“You think Victor knows?”

“That his sister was snogging your family friend?”

“I mean just in general.”

“Nah.”

“You think we should tell him.”

“Yeah, let me get my megaphone.”

They both laugh. 

“Dick,” Conor says but kisses him anyway. 

“This is for you,” Ned pulls a folded up package of paper from his pocket and hands it to Conor. 

“What’s this?”

“Your essay. For Sherry. I know you hate Shakespeare and I feel bad about not getting you anything for Christmas…”

“Thank you,” Conor kisses Ned again and shoves the essay in his pocket

They hear a commotion downstairs, stand up immediately. It’s Victor shouting, they unlock the door and peak their heads out. 

“Oi! Ten minutes to midnight. Everybody get their arses in front of the TV.”

Ned and Conor look at each other and shrug. 

“One more,” Ned says and pecks Conor on the lips before bounding down the stairs. The living room is almost entirely empty except for Wally who has passed out under the coffee table, and the girl he’s been with all night who’s gently petting his hair. 

“He alright?” Conor asks. 

“Just a little sleepy,” the girl says. 

Both boys shrug and head to the basement. People are draped over the arms of the couch, girls drunkenly sling their legs over their boyfriends. Conor spots Ingrid and Olivia sitting in an arm chair together, Olivia’s arm is around Ingrid’s shoulder and she’s wearing Ingrid’s hat. It’s three minutes to midnight. The broadcast is showing video from around the world, fireworks in Australia, people in the states huddled in Times Square, it’s still light out in Miami. Sixty seconds now. Conor watches the numbers count down, Ned’s leaning on the wall behind him. 

“Ten! Nine! Eight!” Everyone’s shouting and Conor and Ned join in. 

“Seven! Six!” They’re getting rowdier now, a few couples have already smashed their faces together. 

“Five! Four!”

“THREE! TWO! ONE!” 

Everyone erupts into cheers, people are kissing, friends are hugging. Conor and Ned share a glance. Conor smiles. He’s really, genuinely happy with the way things are. He’s with his friends, his boyfriend, and sure it’d be nice to kiss him right now, but he’ll take what he can get. 

Then he looks over at Ingrid. The shy quiet girl doesn’t seem so shy or quiet anymore. Her lips are pressed to Olivia’s and what Conor feels is ugly. It’s fear, and panic, and a certain amount of anger. I can’t do that you shouldn’t do that stop doing that what are you doing they can’t see you do that. 

And thank god no one seems to notice, all too wrapped up in their own drunken shit. Conor’s still shaken but he looks away because Victor’s coming in for the hug. 

It’s nearly three in the morning now. Most of the partygoers have left. Conor and Victor managed to get Wally to roll onto the sofa about an hour ago. At some point between midnight and now, Ned threw up, kept drinking, threw up again and then sat down at the island in the kitchen with three glasses of water. Ingrid and Olivia are nowhere to be seen but Conor can’t forget what he saw. He came to the conclusion that they must not know. He doesn’t like that he’ll have to be the one to tell Ingrid but it’s the only option, the only way to keep her safe. 

The last of the guests leave and only the friends, Wally’s snoring on the couch, his new girlfriend long gone. Conor sets about clearing away the cans, dumping half empty ones into the sink. 

“You don’t have to do that, mate,” Victor grumbles, walking into the kitchen in a pair of pajama pants. He’s not wearing a shirt. He pours himself a glass of water and joins Ned at the kitchen island. 

“It’s 3am, you’re not allowed to be hungover yet.”

“Not hungover, I’m just fucking tired,” Ned complains. 

Ingrid shuffles into the kitchen. She’s wearing a sweater that he doesn’t recognize. He decides to take the opportunity to pull her aside. 

“I’m gonna go see if there’s any trash in the yard, come with me?” He asks making it clear that it’s really not a question.

“Ehhh, sure?” She says and shrugs.

He spends a few minutes pacing around the lawn, she follows behind him. 

“I saw you and Olivia,” Conor finally comes out with it. 

Ingrid turns slowly to face him, “So?”

“So… so… So you can’t just do that,”

“Kiss someone on New Year’s Eve?”

  “Anyone could have seen someone could have gotten angry, someone could have hurt you!”

“Dude, I met you like six hours ago, you’re not my brother,” she’s frustrated, confused. 

“So? I can’t just let you think that that’s… safe,” he finally says,”I mean… I-I”

“Conor, are you gay?” she cocks her head to side. Her tone is too joking in Conor’s opinion. 

“That’s none of your business.”

“I’m gonna take that as a yes, I mean why else would you care… and Ned, oh yeah that makes sense,” she says. 

Conor feels himself going red. 

“Ingrid.” he says patiently,”It’s great that you know who you are but… I mean it’s cool if you want to tell people… but you have to be careful ” he says. 

Ingrid shakes her head, “I don’t think you get it.”

“I do.”

“So just because I kissed a girl instead of a boy, it’s different to you? Do you have any idea what you sound like?”

“I don’t like it either!” Conor argues, “I’ve been told it gets better.”

She shakes her head. 

“That’s not enough,” she says finally. 

And Conor doesn’t know what to say. 

“It’s not enough. People tell me constantly that it gets better but no one ever does anything to make it better for me. Right Now. I want it to be better now.”

“But it’s not,” Conor whispers. 

“No. It’s not. And I’m angry. So I’m going to kiss the pretty girl at the party while my dad’s friend’s son stares because he’s too scared to kiss his own boyfriend. I’m going to dress like a fucking dyke because people are going to call me that anyway so I might as well be one. I’m going to act like it’s better until it is.”

Conor still doesn’t have anything to say. 

“Maybe someone’s gonna punch me, maybe my dad’s gonna find out and yell, but maybe they won’t and maybe I’ll miss the opportunity to kiss that really pretty girl at the party because I was afraid of something that never ended up happening. So yeah, it gets better, we get better, all that shit. But I’m tired of waiting.” 

She stands there for a moment and Conor soaks in what this girl has just said to him, this 14 year old, this kid. 

“I’m gonna take the train. I’ll tell your parents one of your friends drove me home so you don’t get in shit for staying.”

“Yeah… thanks.” Conor can only stand there open mouthed. 

because I was afraid of something that never ended up happening. 

That one sentence plays in his head as he picks the cans up from the grass and walks up the stairs back into the kitchen. He sets the cans on the counter. Victor’s sitting at the island. Ned’s in the sitting room, curled up in a ball on the armchair, his soft breaths occasionally come out as snores. 

“Hey Vic?” He says turning to face him. 

Victor looks up, there are bags under his eyes. He looks tired but still singularly focused on Conor. 

“I’m gay,” Conor says. 

“Yeah, I know mate.”

“I guess I just never said the words out loud to you.”

“I got the idea.” 

Conor laughs. They both look into the living room at Ned, it’s far enough in the past that they can laugh about it now. Conor’s gaze stays on Ned longer. He thinks about what Ned wants, what he deserves, he doesn’t deserve to hide, not from his friends especially. They’re both still looking at the boy curled up in the chair when Conor says, 

“I think I love him.”

“What? Like for real?”

“Yeah.”

Chapter Text

“My sister did what?”

Conor and Victor are coming back from a run. It’s been silent up until this point, just the sound of their heavy breathing, and their trainers hitting the still frozen ground. 

“It’s not a big deal,” Conor says. 

“What’s not a big deal,” Ned’s sitting in the grass like he always does, though it can’t be very comfortable this time of year.

“My sister shagging Ingrid on New Years”

“I never said they shagged,” Conor says. 

“Mmm yeah, whatever. I mean good for her I guess,” Victor shrugs and flops down beside Ned leaving Conor standing above them.

“Wait, so you don’t care?” Conor says. 

“I mean I guess I always kind of figured,” Victor says casually. 

“Figured? Like how?” 

“You’re awful curious aren’t you.”

“I dunno, I guess I was just wondering”

“Well she’s damn good at rugby,” Victor starts. 

“Does being good at rugby automatically make you gay?” Conor asks, rugby had never seemed like a very progressive sport to him. 

“All sports really, if you’re a girl,” Ned says. 

“What?” 

Ned laughs at the expression of pure confusion. 

“Is there some kind of gay code I don’t know about?” He asks, his voice teetering between amused and insecure. 

This sends both Victor and Ned into a fit of giggles. Conor just stands there looking down at them, completely serious. 

“Wait? Really?” Ned asks.

Conor shrugs but Ned can tell he’s sincere. 

“I guess it’s just uh… I dunno there are certain things… I guess a little stereotypical because they’re not always true but a lot of the time they are… I guess… S’pose… Y’know,” Ned’s awkward talking about it but Victor quickly (surprisingly takes over)

“Maybe it’s a bunch of them all coming together. Like Olivia’s a rugby star which wouldn’t automatically make her gay but she’s also watched all of that show, The L Word, in like 3 days last summer, and she wears a lot of like… patterned button ups. So I guess it wasn’t exactly a surprise that she shagged your friend.”

“I didn’t say they… whatever,” Conor finally relents and joins them on the ground. It’s cold but not wet so he settles in. 

He can see Victor studying him and Ned a little more intensely than usual. Both boys remember what Conor had confided in Victor on New Years but neither one of them has brought it up to the other. Ned, is blissfully oblivious to this new dynamic, picking at the grass and looking down at his notebook. 

“Oh god, this Chemistry test is going to kick my ass,” Ned groans. 

Conor nods sympathetically, he’s not in Chemistry, but Victor took it last year. 

“I’d offer you my notes, but the bugger changes the test every time,” Victor says. 

“Absolute bastard,” Ned says, “I don’t know why I’ve even done this to myself it’s not like I’m ever gonna be a chemist.”

Victor shrugs, “It’s about patterns, once you get the basics everything else kind of makes sense from there.”

“Pity I’m too stupid to find figure them out,” Ned closes his book shut and sighs. 

“I don’t think you’re stupid,” Conor says immediately. 

“Thanks,” Ned relents but shakes his head. He groans as he leans back, throwing his hands above his head, flopping into the grass. 

“You reckon Wally’s back yet?” Ned asks after a moment of silence. 

Victor shrugs, “Dunno, haven’t been in the room since breakfast.”

“See if he’s there and then grab lunch?” Ned says. 

Victor’s room is empty when they get there. It’s not too alarming, the boys don’t technically have to be back until tomorrow morning but Wally almost always comes back from breaks the day before classes start. 

“Weird,” Victor shrugs. He throws his sweatshirt onto his mattress and changes out of his gym shirt, not bothering to shoo Ned and Conor out of the room. Conor’s surprised that it doesn’t feel like a big deal to see Victor half naked. It seems that he only gets flustered around Ned, and maybe it’s because he’s used to Victor’s body after so many months of sharing a locker room… but surely he should be used to Ned by now. He’s getting flustered just thinking about it, and Ned’s fully clothed! And Victor, the absolute prototype of male beauty, is pulling a t-shirt over his toned abdomen. Conor looks away, pretending to have heard something in the hallway so he can stop thinking about it. 

Keith and Tom are already sitting at their usual lunch table so the boys grab the tuna sandwiches from the lunch line and join them. 

“Tom, you don’t understand!” Keith is whining when they sit down. 

“Interrupting something?” Victor smirks. 

“Tom has spent the past ten minutes trying to convince me that my sister was trying to get off with him at my parents New Years party!”

“She was!” Tom insists. 

“You’re delusional,” Keith says

“Isn’t she like 20?” Victor interrupts.

“Which is exactly why she’s not interested in my dweeby mate!” Keith shouts. 

“I am not dweeby! And she was so!”

“What happened” Ned asks. 

Victor and Conor groan because they know Tom and Keith can bicker for hours. 

“She wouldn’t leave me alone all night, we drank a bottle of wine together, wine! Wine Keith!”

“It was New Years she was being polite.”

“She kept asking me if I’d ever had a girlfriend,” Tom points out. 

Keith rolls his eyes, “Because she’s known you since you were a baby!”

“Oh come on, just admit that your sister’s into me!”

“I absolutely will not!”

“Fine! Live a lie!” 

Everyone but Tom and Keith is laughing now. 

“It’s not funny! She’s my fucking sister!” Keith says stifling his own laughter. 

“And she’s the love of me life!” Tom joins in the laughter. 

Keith throws a piece of his sandwich at his mate’s head. Tom pretends to fall back like he’s been shot. Conor smiles, rolling his eyes. 

The boys eventually part ways to finish unpacking from the break, agreeing that they’ll all be at dinner. 

Ned decides to rearrange his posters while Conor sits down to copy the essay Ned’s written for him into his own handwriting. He signs his name and the date on the top and sets it to the side. 

“Ow!” Ned says. 

Conor turns around quickly and sees Ned holding his index finger in his mouth. A corner of one of the posters is hanging off the wall. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s happened. 

“Paper cut?” 

Ned nods, “Fuck, he mutters.”

Conor stands up, the usual smirk on his face. He pulls Ned’s hand towards him and places a sarcastic kiss on his finger. 

“Better?”

“No, not really,” Ned deadpans.

“Alright well fuck you then,” Conor teases. 

“Is that a promise?” Ned says, and then the bastard winks at him, how is that fair?

Conor’s eyes are the size of saucepans. Ned knows exactly what he’s doing. 

“It’s so easy to make you blush,” Ned smirks, he takes a step forward and kisses Conor. 

Conor doesn’t protest when Ned grabs him by the belt and pulls him closer. Conor kisses the edge of his smirk. Ned reaches up and grabs the scruff of hair at the back of his neck, Conor needs a haircut judging by how much Ned grabs hold of. Conor kisses the side of Ned’s jaw. Ned shudders and pulls Conor’s lips back to his. Ned’s breath is hot and heavy. His hands slide down Conor’s shoulders and rest on his hips. He starts to pull at the top of Conor’s belt. Conor bites his lip, unsure if this is the time or the place but then Ned nips at his neck, just below where his collar covers his skin and nothing about time or place matters any more. 

“Please,” Conor mumbles as Ned’s fingers fiddle with his belt buckle. 

Ned starts to drop to his knees but shoots back up when they hear banging on their door followed by the sound of Victor’s voice. 

“Dinner, dipshits!” He shouts and then runs up the hall, they hear him banging on Tom’s door next. 

Ned drops his hands and laughs. There’s nothing that kills the mood quite like Victor. Conor bashfully fixes his belt. He runs his thumb over his lips hoping that will stop them looking swollen (it won’t) and pulls his collar back into place covering the newly forming hickey on his neck. Ned’s messing his hair up in the usual way rather than the rumpled post make-out session way. 

Dinner’s a stew (half the dinners in the winter are stew, it gets old fast) and a slice of thick bread. Wally has miraculously returned. He sits across from Victor. Tom and Keith have thankfully settled their argument about Keith’s sister (maybe she was into him but only because she was drunk) and are now talking about the best way to get out of running the mile once Pascal starts practice again. There’s a lull in the conversation until Victor speaks. 

“So what’s that on your neck, Wallace?” he’s smirking when he asks, takes a bite of his stew. 

Wally’s eyes widen and he looks down like a child who’s been caught. 

“Ooooh Shit!” Tom cries in glee. 

“Wally’s got a hickey,” Keith whispers. 

“Shut up,” Wally mumbles. 

“Who did it to ya?” Conor joins in the ribbing. 

Wally just sinks down farther in his chair, he’s not properly ashamed, just embarrassed.

“Christine,” Victor says. It’s not a question. 

“Bastard,” Wally says and everyone knows Victor’s right. 

“Was she the one at the party?” Ned asks. 

“What’s it to ya?” Wally says. 

“Yes,” Victor says at the same time, grinning. 

“Weren’t you two…” Conor gestures at Victor, “Y’know… for a while.”

“Not really,” Victor shakes his head, “She was kind of dull… perfect for Wally, though,”

“Go fuck yourself,” Wally says.

“Oooh, defensive,” Keith elbows him. 

“She’s really nice, okay?” Wally shoves a spoonful of potato into his mouth. 

“Well yeah, she practically resuscitated you when you passed out under my coffee table.”

“Jesus, Wally,” Keith says sounding more impressed than anything else

“She invited me round to hers this morning,” he shrugs.

“I see you were busy,” Ned smirks. 

“Watch it, Roche,” Wally threatens but there’s no real weight behind it. 

Conor instinctively pulls at his shirt collar to ensure the marks Ned left are covered. He scratches the back of his neck to cover up the motion. 

Ned smirks and takes a long drink of his milk. 

“So is it a serious thing, then?” Victor asks. 

Wally shrugs, “I think I’d like it to be.”

“Awww,” Ned says. 

“Fuck, don’t make me feel bad about making fun of you by being sweet,” Victor whines. 

“Sorry,” Wally shrugs, “I like her.”

“I’m happy for you, mate,” Conor says. 

“Thanks,” Wally says. 

The boys part ways after dinner. Wally hasn’t had time to top up his booze supply, and drinking has thus far been their excuse for hanging out. Conor doesn’t mind the prospect of spending some time alone with Ned though.

 Ned disappears to the showers and Conor can’t say he’s not a little disappointed, but he decides it’s probably for the best since they have class in the morning. Conor puts on his pajamas and climbs into bed (he’s a perpetual morning  showerer). He turns out the light and turns over onto his side. 

He hears the door creak open. He can tell that Ned is trying to be quiet but it’s not working as well as he’d like it to. He hears a loud bang and then Ned swearing under his breath. Just knowing that he’s there, and as uncoordinated as ever, makes Conor smile to himself. Ned eases his drawers open and pulls on his pajama bottoms and a green t-shirt that’s slightly too big for him to wear during the day. Ned stops in the middle of the room. He sighs and then Conor feels the mattress sag behind him as Ned climbs under his duvet. 

“This alright?” Ned asks. 

“Mhmm,” Conor mumbles. 

“Good,” Ned says. 

He wraps his arms around Conor and nuzzles against his back. Conor relishes in the warmth. 

“You smell good,” he blurts out, he’s half asleep but he’s pretty sure he would have said that fully awake. 

“And you smell like boy,” Ned mumbles. 

“I’m not giving up my morning showers, even for you

“I’d never ask you to…” Conor feels Ned lazily smiling into his back, “Your sweat smells perfect.”

“Gross!” Conor laughs, Ned joins in. 

Conor reaches behind him and takes Ned’s hand in his. They fall asleep holding each other. Conor thinks that he might be irritated by the breath on his neck if it were anyone but Ned.

Chapter Text

Ned climbs into bed with Conor the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that. Conor wakes up without an alarm every morning, ( “like a fucking robot or some shit” Ned had said once.) It’s easier to slip away when he holds Ned, when Ned holds him it’s a bit more complicated, Ned puts up a good fight, holding onto him with a vice grip. 

“Please, just this once,” he’ll say every morning, his eyes still closed. 

Conor gets up regardless most of the time. 

“I’ll bring you breakfast,” he says on this particular morning. 

“I don’t want breakfast, I want you to stay in bed,” Ned whines into their pillow (because let’s be honest, it’s not really Conor’s any more)

“Sunday,” Conor promises. 

“Sunday, I’ll sleep in,”

Ned groans but doesn’t put up more of a fight, wanting to go back to sleep. 

Conor quietly gets dressed to run. He’s mastered the art of quietly moving around the room, not that Ned’s going to wake up before 7am for literally anything. He puts a second pair of socks on over the first, it rained last night so it’ll be muddy. He stretches in the court-yard and then runs his usual short route through the grass and around the back of the school. He does this all in complete silence, listening only to his thoughts and the sounds of the early morning. He’s surprised to turn around and find Weasel leaning against the wall when he returns. 

“Morning,” Conor says, swinging his arms behind his back, stretching them out. 

“Masters,” Weasel says.

“All right, there?”

“Yeah… yeah. I just thought I’d let you know I’m planning on putting my name in for captain next year.”

“I didn’t know you were coming back,” Conor says and suddenly the prospect of another year with Weasel weighs on him. 

“Yeah… just for the first term. I failed English last year and I need a better mark in Maths… so you’ll be seeing more of me,” the smirk on his face says everything Conor needs to know. 

“Well… Good luck.”

“Oh fuck you.”

“S’cuse me?” 

“Don’t act like you don’t want to be captain.”

“Hadn’t thought about it.”

“Well… Pascal’s gonna give it to me… so don’t even try. Promised my dad I’d captain the team once Victor’s gone.”

“I’m sure he’d be proud,” Conor doesn’t know what else to say. Weasel’s an absolute shitcunt but it’s not his fault his dead dad was so rugby crazy. 

Weasel’s fist is flying before Conor knows to react. It hits him just below the eye. He doubles over clutching his face. 

“What the fuck!” Conor shouts, shoving him back, his instincts take over and he readies him for the fight. 

“Don’t talk about my dad like you know what he’d feel.”

“Jesus Christ, man,” Conor says.

Weasel storms off and Conor lets him. 

He gingerly presses his fingertips to his cheekbone, it’s tender. He’s not looking forward to explaining the black eye forming. 

He books it to the showers then heads back to the room. Ned’s still sleeping so Conor slips his uniform on without any noise. He heads to the kitchen and picks up a plate of breakfast for Ned as promised. It’s seven by the time all this is done and he returns to their room. 

He sets the plate down on his night stand loudly and sits on the bed next to Ned. He runs his hand through his hair and whispers. 

“Ned.”

Ned groans. 

Conor scratches the back of Ned’s neck and then leans down to kiss his cheek. 

“I have breakfast.”

“Breakfast is for morning people.”

“Breakfast is for people who have class in an hour.”

Ned makes a noise that comes from deep in the back of his throat, it’s the longest groan that Conor’s ever heard but Ned does roll over onto his back and open his eyes. 

“What the fuck happened to your face?” Ned sits up quicker than he would have otherwise. 

“Ran into a door.”

Ned looks suspicious but Conor shrugs. 

“Walter was comin’ in, I was goin’ out. Accident.”

Conor doesn’t know why he’s covering for Weasel, but that’s what’s happening. 

“Mhmm,” Ned says. 

He picks up the muffin that Conor brought and picks the top off. He takes small bites sitting on the edge of Conor’s bed. He leans against Conor’s shoulder and sighs. 

“Fuck history.”

Conor nods. It really is a pretty boring class. Conor doesn’t mind it because it’s straight forward and simple, which is exactly why Ned hates it. 

Ned finishes the muffin and Conor scarfs down his toast and jam. Ned gets dressed. He lazily slings his tie around his shirt collar, grumbling about it the whole time. 

Ned puts on his denim jacket instead of his blazer, it’s technically against the dress code but no one’s ever bothered to call him out on it. Ned steals a kiss while Conor’s putting his papers and books into his back. 

Conor’s able to float through his morning classes without much trouble. He has history with Ned, and then maths. They take half an hour for lunch and then head to Sherry’s class. As much as he admires him as a person, Conor finds himself dreading the class. 

He sits next to Ned. 

“Today we’ll be finishing the play. Your essays are due on Friday,” Sherry says, closing the door behind him. 

As usual, they push the desks to the side and arrange the chairs in a circle. They take turns reading. Keith gives an Oscar winning performance when his turn lands on one of the female leads’ monologues. Everybody laughs. Sherry stops to explain how this is actually in the spirit Shakespeare intended. He explains a few of the jokes, and then Tom reads the next line. 

Sherry gets really worked up when he speaks. It’s like he cares so deeply about the characters on the page and that’s pretty cool, but Conor doesn’t get how. 

On Friday, Conor hands Sherry the essay that Ned wrote for him. They discuss the themes of the play, Conor zones out, Ned speaks, Conor’s sure he says something smarter than he’s capable of thinking. 

The bell rings and Ned shuffles to chemistry, and Conor to geography. He spends most of the period staring at the blackboard, listening but not really. He can learn most of the exam material from the textbook anyway. The bruise under his eye has started to fade, and after reassuring all of his friends that it was an accident, they’ve mostly started to ignore it. 

Sherry did confront him, after class, though. Conor’s heart stopped for a moment, worried that he’d been caught submitting essays that he didn’t write. But he simply looked at his bruise and said,

“You alright?”

“Yeah, accident,” Conor lied easily. 

“Alright, well… Just be careful, Conor.”

“Thank you sir.”

Ned and Conor are sitting in their room now. It’s a truly miserable day outside. The sky is grey and drizzling. Every now and then a crack of thunder can be heard in the distance. 

“I forgot to show you this,” Conor pulls a book out of his dresser drawer. 

Ned turns. The book is dusty and old he catches it easily. 

“Guitar for beginners?” Ned says, reading the title as a question. 

“I found it in my dad’s stuff. He won’t miss it. It’s got all the chords right there in the beginning, strumming patterns and stuff. Thought you might be into it.”

“It’s sick!” Ned flips through the pages. 

Conor watches intently as he runs his fingers over the spine. 

“Lot of beatles,” he comments. 

“Guess they’re easy to learn,” Conor shrugs, “Dad likes them a lot.”

“What dad doesn’t?”

“That’s a fair point.”

“This is so cool, thank you Conor. I love it.”

Ned stands up and wraps his arms around Conor, he kisses him on the cheek. 

“I just remembered that we had it one day, thought it’d get more use with you than it does with us these days.”

“Did your dad play?”

“Mom actually. When we used to go sailing, sometimes she’d come along. We’d drop anchor and get out her guitar. I think she studied music before I was born… she was good at it.”

“That sounds really nice.”

“It was…. Haven’t done that in a while though.”

“Well…” Ned says, “I’m glad the book gets to live on.”

“Yeah,” Conor says, perhaps a bit more sad than he intends to. 

Ned pulls out his guitar from under his bed and starts strumming a new chord. 

The thing about Ned and guitar… well he’s not good. Not in any traditional (or really any modern) sense of the word. But he tries hard and he loves it and that’s enough for him. By dinner he has the strumming pattern down. It’s starting to sound okay, even if he has trouble switching between chords during the bridge. 

“You’re eye looks absolutely rancid, mate,” Wally says as he sits down. 

“Nice to see you too,” Conor says. 

“It is most definitely not nice to see that face,” Keith says. 

The bruise has turned an unpleasant yellow colour, Conor poked at it in the mirror this morning. It hurts less than it did yesterday, and certainly hurts less than when Weasel’s fist connected with his face. 

“Oi, I’m classically handsome,”  Conor jokes back. 

“Not when you’ve got a knuckle shaped bruise on the side of your face,” Victor sits down across from him. 

“It was a door.”

“Okay, liar.”

“I’m telling the truth.”

“Oh, double liar, I see how it is.”

“Fuck off,” Conor rolls his eyes and they drop the subject. 

Ned’s still in the dinner line and Conor’s thankful, the last thing he wants is that idea being put in Ned’s head. Conor doesn’t like to be worried over but he feels especially bad when it’s Ned. 

Victor drowns his boiled vegetables in salt and pepper. 

“I just want one flavour, is that so much to ask?” 

Ned sits down next to him. 

The food at Woodhill was never intended to be enjoyed. The kitchen staff make sure that they get their fruit and veg, and have enough protein in their diets, but beyond that, it’s not great. The boys eat a lot of boiled potatoes and watery stews. 

Ned skewers a potato and holds it up to the light. He takes a cautious bite and then spits it back out. 

“Raw,” he says. 

“Damn,” Victor says and sighs. 

“The joys of Irish cuisine,” Ned shrugs and stabs at another potato, poking and prodding to make sure it’s cooked all the way through. 

“I like boiled potatoes,” Tom says. 

“Of course you do,” Wally says. He shoves a steamed carrot into his mouth and frowns. 

“I’d kill for a decent steak,” Victor groans. 

Conor just shoves another forkful of dry pork chop into his mouth, “Meal’s a meal, I guess.”

“Yeah but this is a particularly terrible one.”

Ned’s the only one with food on his plate when they finally clean up. 

“I’m heading for run, if anyone wants to join me.”

“Are you mental? It’s freezing,” Wally balks. 

“So put on a hat.”

“Hard pass,” Wally says. 

Even though Conor’s already gone on his run today, he says he’ll meet Victor out front steps. 

“Didn’t you already go once today?” 

Ned’s changing into his pajamas when Conor gets out his track pants. 

“No harm in going again.”

“You’re a fucking fitness robot, my god.”

Conor smiles and kisses Ned on the cheek. He pulls his hoodie over his head. 

“I’ll be back before you go to bed.”

“You better be.”

Victor’s stretching when Conor comes jogging down the stairs. He’s wearing the same sweater as Conor but his pants are black instead of navy blue. There’s a gray winter hat on his head and gloves on his hands. Conor pulls his own gloves out of his pockets and stretches out his legs. 

“Let’s go then.”

Victor sets off on a light jog, Conor keeps up. Instead of circling around the rugby field he takes the path through the forest. It’s solid ground so Conor doesn’t think anything of it. Just a different way of running, he supposes. 

“So are you going to tell me the truth about what happened to your eye or am I gonna have to guess.”

“Ran into a door, I told you.”

“Stop lying, mate,” Victor says. 

Conor’s glad he doesn’t have to look him in the eyes, because he can hear the disappointment in his friend’s voice, it would be even worse if he could see it. 

“You’re not clumsy.”

“Happens to everybody.”

“Mhmm,” He knows Victor doesn’t believe him but he’s not going to give in. 

“You know who’s gonna be captain next year, yet?” He changes the subject. 

“Was actually hoping you’d do it.”

“What?”

“Be captain.”

“Well… yeah I know that’s what you meant but… I dunno, I don’t think I’m much of a leader.”

“People would listen to you, mate.”

“Dunno if I’d want them to.”

“Well who else is gonna do it?”

“Weasel was saying he was going to put his name in.”

“All the more reason for you to do it… why were you talking to Weasel.”

“Ran into him.”

“Ran into him, or ran into his fist?”

Conor doesn’t say anything. 

Their jog slows to a walk, Victor sits down on a fallen log. 

“You could kick his ass any day of the week, why let him get a punch in,” Victor says. 

“Surprised me.”

“Still, why didn’t you break his fucking face?”

“Guess I’m trying not to be that guy anymore,” Conor says.

“Hope the pacifism doesn’t extend to the rugby field.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Victor turns to look at Conor. 

“At least consider being captain.”

“I’ll think about it.”

The truth is that Conor doesn’t think he has it in him. Victor’s charming, and funny, and he knows how to lead a room. Conor can play, he’ll never doubt that, but he doesn’t know that he can tell everyone else how to play. 

“Good,” Victor says. He stands up and extends his hand to Conor. Conor takes it and pulls himself to his feet. 

“So what’s up with Ned?” Victor asks once they pick up the pace slightly. 

“We are not having this conversation.”

“We absolutely are.”

“Listen, I don’t know if you remember New Years, but you can forget anything I told you, I was drunk.”

“Mhmm. Okay. You’ve got a hickey on your neck,” Victor smirks. 

Conor’s hand flies to his neck, he tugs at his collar, Victor’s a few paces ahead of him now, and laughing. 

“Dude,” Conor says, his tone is more pleading than anything else. 

Victor stops again, catches his breath and laughs even harder. Conor’s ears are burning. 

“Please don’t make this a big deal.”

“Why would I? I’ve got a gay sister now, remember?”

This pulls a laugh out of Conor. 

“D’you… um… D’you remember exactly what I told you on New Years,” Conor finally asks the only question he really wants the answer to. 

“I think I love him.”

“What? Like for real?”

“Yeah.”

 

“Ehm… D’you?” Victor scratches the back of his head

“Not really,” Conor lies. 

“Me either, I guess.”

“We’re both lying.”

“Yeah.”

“Shit,” Victor says. 

“So ehm… how long have you been…”

“S’complicated,” Conor mutters. 

“Riiiight…”

They both start to run again, not quite comfortable with the direct eye contact they’re making. 

“I won’t tell anybody,” Victor promises. 

“Thanks,” Conor mutters. 

The school becomes visible again as they clear the trees. Instead of heading for the stairs, they head for the bleachers by the rugby field. They climb to the top and just sit. The metal is cold against Conor’s ass and he thinks to complain but it doesn’t really feel like the time. 

They look out at the field, not speaking, just silently thinking. A cow from the farm has wandered out of its pen and is now grazing at the 30 yard line. They boy laugh. 

“I don’t know what to do if I’m not the captain,” Victor finally says. 

“What?”

“I’ve got fuck all clue what I want to do with myself.”

“You can go play in uni,” Conor offers. 

“I won’t be captain.”

“You could be.”

“Not right away… Y’know this year… it wasn’t the rugby that was magical anymore, that was just a part of it. It was feeling like I was helping. Like what I was doing was genuinely important to you guys…”

“It was,” Conor says. 

“Thanks, mate.”

“You could coach.”

“What and end up like Pascal?”

“Better than Pascal.”

“I used to think he was the absolute best, ‘til you got here.”

“He’s still a good coach. Cares a lot.”

“How can you of all people think that?”

“Because he does. Maybe no one ever told him that people could be different and good at rugby.”

“I think you give him too much credit.”

Victor pulls his knees up to his chest, looks up at the sky. 

“I guess I was thinking about my sister a lot after you told me ‘bout her, sent her a couple texts… y’know, givin her the opportunity to come out or whatever… just askin how Ingrid is, y’know?”

Conor nods. 

“But she didn’t say anything.”

“Maybe she wants to wait to tell you in person?”

“Or maybe she thinks I wouldn’t accept it.”

Victor seems absolutely devastated by this prospect, Conor shakes his head instinctively. 

“I’ve never heard you… I mean you were never like Weasel… or Pascal for that matter.”

“I never told them it wasn’t okay, though.”

“You didn’t know.”

“So what? I should have.”

“Okay now you’re being too hard on yourself.”

“I just don’t want her to feel like she can’t tell me… but I can also understand why she wouldn’t… I mean it’s not like anyone ever told her it wasn’t okay… not explicitly. But no one ever told her it was. I dunno,” Victor finally sighs and leans back, “She’s my sister, I don’t want to fuck this up.”

“I think the fact that you’re thinking about it is enough.”

“I fucking hope so.”

“You were on my side when it really mattered, just do the same for her.”

Victor puts his hand on Conor’s shoulder and squeezes. 

“Head back? It’s cold and I’m sure the love of your life is waiting for you inside.”

“He’s not the…”

Victor raises an eyebrow. 

“Okay, so he might be…” Conor says. 

He stands up, and then turns back to Victor, “But if you tell anyone, especially him, I will kill you.”

“Hand of god, your adorable secret is safe with me.”

“Bastard.”

“Race ‘ya,” Victor says and pushes past Conor on the bleachers. 

Conor leaps down the next two steps and over the final row of bleachers to catch up. Victor will always win in a flat out sprint, he’s built for running, but Conor comes close. They both flop down on the stairs and laugh. 

They end up in the showers at the same time. They don’t talk but occasionally one of them will laugh and the other will join in without reason. 

Ned’s sitting at the edge of Conor’s bed, reading. He’s in his pajamas, teeth brushed, completely ready for bed, but he’s waited for Conor. He can’t help but smile at that. 

“Took you long enough,” Ned shuts the book and puts it on the night stand. 

“Sorry, Victor’s chatty.” 

Conor, towel wrapped around his waist, kisses Ned on the cheek and moves towards the dresser.

“Oh no ya don’t”

Ned grabs Conor by the wrist and pulls him into the bed. 

“Ned, it’s freezing,” Conor protests. 

“Then get under the covers with me.”

“Ned, it’s a Thursday, we have class in the morning, let me put pants on.”

Ned pouts but lets go of Conor’s wrist. 

“Fine.”

Conor drops the towel in their hamper and pulls on a pair of fleece pajama pants. He goes to grab a shirt but Ned’s hand is behind him to stop him. 

“You said pants.”

“You’re insufferable,” Conor says making it very clear that he’s happy to suffer at Ned’s hands. 

Conor wraps his arms around Ned and flops into bed, still holding onto him. He lets Ned’s hand rest on top of his chest, and puts his own arm around the smaller boy’s waist. Conor kisses Ned gently on the back of his head and listens to his breathing slow and eventually turn to snores. 

There was once a time when Conor wished he wasn’t gay. A time when he got on his knees and folded his hands and prayed that he could be any other way. There was a time that he wished he could stop looking at other boys like that, even a time when he wished he could stop looking at Ned like that. It would make everything so much easier. Conor’s never been happier to be wrong.

Chapter Text

Conor’s going to drop out. He’s going to walk out the front doors right now and just keep walking. This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to him. It’s the absolute last straw. He’ll fling himself in front of a moving train, or disappear into the Welsh countryside, never to be seen again… He’ll-

“Conor!” Ned finally says. 

Conor stops in his tracks, having been frantically pacing the room. 

“It’s just a monologue!” He grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him. 

“I can’t do it”

“Conor he’s made us do them before, what’s different?”

“I…”

Really Conor doesn’t know. Ever since that night on the rugby field, he’s felt different around Sherry. Like he’d seen him, like he’d been seen. The idea of getting up and putting on a performance in front of his class scares him in a new way. 

He assigned each of the boys one of three monologues from the play that they’ve been studying. Conor picked his out of a hat and groaned when he saw that his was one of the longest. 

“At least you don’t have the lady’s part,” Keith grumbled after class. 

Conor picked up his book and looked down at the monologue. There’s a part in the play where Benedick overhears his friends saying that Beatrice (who he hated up until that point) is in love with him. The monologue is about his feelings and he quickly goes from hatred to love struck stupidity. There’s some other plot points that are more complicated than Conor cares to pay attention to but that’s about the gist. 

He doesn’t want to get up in front of his class and speak about love… especially when Benedick is so clearly in love with a woman. Nobody’s going to believe that anymore, not now that everybody knows. They’ll laugh, and he’ll freeze, and Sherry will try to spin some kind of lesson out of it and he’ll be humiliated.

So Conor does what he always does when he has a problem. He decides to ignore it until the last possible minute

“Guess you’re right,” he mumbles to reassure Ned. Then he walks over to the other side of the room and puts his arm around him. 

“Wait, really?” Ned says incredulously. 

“I’ll worry about it later.”

He cuts off whatever Ned was about to say with his mouth. Words are forgotten under their tongues and contented sighs. Classwork is strewn across the room, textbooks left open on their desks. It’s Friday, they have the entire weekend to work, right now they just want each other. Ned holds on to Conor’s arm with a vice grip and swings his legs over his lap. Conor groans and lets ed settle into his lap. Gently, Ned tilts his chin up and kisses the bottom of his jaw. 

“Can I…” Ned whispers, his hands rest on the top button of Conor’s shirt. 

“If you… yeah, yeah you can.”

There’s a brief look of confusion that flickers across Ned’s face but it’s quickly replaced by a hunger. He tears open Conor’s top button, Conor helps with the rest, taking his tie off and throwing it onto the ground. He shrugs off the shirt, letting it fall on the bed behind him. Ned takes off his own jumper, doesn’t bother with the buttons on the shirt underneath, just pulls it over his head and throws it across the room. Conor kisses his collarbone, then the side of his shoulder working his way up to Ned’s neck. 

“Conor,” Ned sighs.

Conor kisses the sigh off of his lips. 

“Ehm… just a second,” Conor says. 

He holds Ned by the waist and gently pushes him off his lap. He slides off the bed, onto the his knees and turns to face Ned, he looks up, Ned just nods and guides Conor’s hands to his own thighs. 

In the next room over, Victor’s sitting at his desk. He’s fairly oblivious to what’s going on on the other side of the wall but he could guess if he had to. His laptop is open but his classwork is still in his bag. He’s scrolling intently, eyes trained on the screen. Wally’s watching a movie on his phone, despite Walter’s rules about technology being used for academic pursuits only. 

Victor has about eighty different tabs open at any given time, it drives everyone crazy but he never knows when he might need to come back to one. His e-mail is open, a youtube video about the american civil war that he started watching but never finished. There’s a link to some rugby practice drills, and a sparknotes page for the first act of Much Ado About Nothing. There are a few college websites up, none of them looked at for more than five minutes. A buzzfeed quiz that told him what kind of cutlery he was (a serving spoon, if you were wondering). 

Despite his aversion to closing tabs, he knows that the one he’s looking at right now will be closed and cleared from your browser history. A handful of google searches have lead him to the video current;y on his screen. How do I know if my sisters gay? What do lesbians look like? (this one provided mostly porn), how to let someone know that it’s okay to come out to you? i know my sister is gay? Finally he just types, Coming Out and stumbles on a small YouTube subgenre. He plugs in his headphones. There are at least a hundred videos of young people telling the camera about their sexualities. At first he doesn’t get it. Why would someone need to announce that to everybody when you could just tell the people who’d care. 

But then he watches more, he clicks on a video with a girl in the thumbnail, it’s from almost a year ago. The video’s nearly twenty minutes long and when it’s over, his hands are shaking. He’s angry, and he’s sad, and he’s scared. The young woman in the video had to have been at least a few years older than he is now, and she’d known for so long?

He can’t imagine keeping something like that a secret for so long, can’t imagine his sister having to wait until she was a fully grown adult to feel safe telling anyone. He closes the laptop and walks out of the room. Wally doesn’t say anything and Victor’s grateful. They’re both good at minding their own business. 

He walks down the hallway and out of the dorms. He sits on a bench in the entrance hall and dials his sister without even giving thought to the time. 

“What?” Olivia answers on the fourth ring and he forgets everything he wanted to say. 

“Hi,” he manages. 

“Uh… what’s up?”

“I uh… wanted to say hi?”

“Vic, are you okay? It’s almost midnight.”

“I uh…”

“Is there something wrong?”

“No… No!” He answers. 

“What is it?”

“I miss you. You should come for lunch on Sunday. I’ll meet you in town.”

“Oh. I dunno,” his sister hesitates. 

“Please? We never talk, I want to talk.”

“Vic, you’re being weird.”

“Please.”

She sighs, “I have a match at noon. Come watch and I’ll meet you after.”

Olivia plays rec-league rugby as well as for her school’s team and her season had started last week. Victor supposes he must have known that but it still takes him a moment to realize that she was talking about her summer league. 

“I’ll be there.”

“Okay… um. Anything else?”

“No… uh.”

“Okay, dumbass, I’ll see you on sunday.”

“Love you,”

“Love you too.”

Victor turns off his phone and shoves it in his pocket. He sighs, buries his head in his hands. 

He notices the footsteps but can’t bring himself to care. His heart is racing thinking about it, about Olivia. About how unfair it all is and that she shouldn’t even have to tell anybody, that it shouldn’t matter, that he shouldn’t care, but that she does, and it does, and he does. 

“Mate?” Of course, it’s Conor. 

The person that he didn’t expect to see, but probably most needs to. 

“Oh.” Victor says, looking up at him. 

“Alright?” 

Victor shrugs. 

“Where you headed?” Victor asks. 

“Needed some air.”

Conor’s wearing his jogging pants and a hoodie without a shirt on underneath. 

“Everything okay… is Ned?”

“He’s asleep. It’s fine. You look like you’re in a right state,” Conor turns the focus to Victor. 

“I uh. It’s complicated.”

“Wanna walk?”

Victor just nods and stands. For a while they just walk. Eventually they get to the bleachers and Conor sits down, Victor just keeps pacing. 

“It’s my sister,” Victor finally blurts out. 

“Right.”

“Like… I dunno. I’m trying, man. I really want to try to make this okay for her but I just don’t know how to help her. Like rugby… we can talk about rugby, it’s the same game for both of us I can tell her what I know because I’ve been there before… I’ve never been where she is now.”

Conor nods, Victor wishes he weren’t so damn quiet all the time and sighs. He steps over one of the benches and paces back and forth. 

“I’m seeing her on Sunday and I don’t know if I should tell her I know, I feel like you’re not supposed to but maybe it would take the pressure off, but then maybe it would add more or maybe she’d deny it and I’d just make everything so much worse for her. I just want her to know I care about her and that… it’s okay.”

“You’re a good brother,” is all Conor says. 

“I was watching these videos… because I didn’t know what else to do so I googled some stuff, and they were all so… sad… well not sad but I got sad thinking about it. Because it was all these people and they were at least our age or older and they were telling the truth for the first time… Liv’s 15, I can’t imagine her having to keep that secret for so long… It just feels wrong… to know and have to hide.”

Conor thinks he might cry. In admiration for Victor, in sheer platonic love of this man who cares so much about everyone around him, in jealousy, that Olivia has this older brother to look out for her and love her, and care, and protect her. That she has someone between her and their parents. He thinks briefly of Michael but throws that thought to the back of his brain as quickly as it arrived. 

Conor’s voice is shaky as he speaks, “She’s lucky to have you.”

“She shouldn’t have to be lucky.”

“Can I tell you… the truth… I guess,” Conor finally says. 

Victor stops pacing and sits next to him, “Course you can.”

“It relates to your current situation so I promise I’m not like… ignoring you.”

“Don’t worry, mate,”

“It sucks when no one knows… and you know… and… fuck,” Conor doesn’t know how to get the words out. 

“Is this about your old school?”

Conor nods.

“Kind of.”

“Like the fights?”

He nods again.

“There were rumours about me, I’m sure Weasel filled you in. So I fought. I thought if I hit hard enough the truth would stop being true.”

“That you were gay?”

“More than that… I snuck out… a lot… and I’d go… places. Fuck, you don’t have to listen to this, I’m sorry.”

“No, talk,” Victor says, and that’s enough for Conor. 

“It’s just. I did things I’m not proud of. I let myself get wasted pretty much every night didn’t care what happened after that. I let…” He sighs, Victor looks on encouragingly before looking forward “Let myself get taken advantage of I s’pose. It’s not like anyone ever did anything I said no to… Felt like the ultimate fuck you to everyone around me, including myself, I guess.”

“People found out?”

“They always find out, especially if it’s true.”

“I’m real sorry, mate.”

“It’s not on you,” Conor says. 

Victor shrugs, “Wish it was so I could fix it.”

Conor laughs. 

“I just… we- well, you. You have the opportunity to make sure your sister doesn’t do to herself what I did to myself,” he blurts out the last sentence, a couple of the words melt together, but Victor gets the gist.

“You can’t blame yourself.”

“Not entirely. But I hated that part of myself so much, that I didn’t think I deserved… better,” his voice cracks at the end of the sentence but Victor doesn’t call attention to it, “You can get to her before she has the chance to start hating that part of herself so much she doesn’t care what happens.”

Conor’s eyes are glassy and he suspects Victor’s might be too.

“Ned…” Victor says. 

“He’s hope.” It’s cheesy and Conor briefly hates that that’s the best he can come up with to describe his feelings, but it’s right. 

Victor doesn’t laugh, just smiles. 

“I’m trying to learn, for him. How to be better.”

“Does he know the full story?”

He half shakes his head, half shrugs, “We don’t talk about that, but I feel bad,” he considers, “Like I broke something that was supposed to be his.”

“You really are an old romantic, huh?”

Conor shrugs, “I keep feeling like he deserves better than me.”

“Dunno about that, pal.

He rolls his eyes, but smiles anyway. 

“It sounds like you love him… I mean you told me you love him so…” Victor clicks his tongue and smirks.

Conor laughs, “Yeah. I do,” he finally completely admits it out loud, there’s no maybe, no I think, just a firm Yes. 

“Tell him.”

Conor shakes his head. 

“Why not.”

“Dunno. Don’t want to scare him.”

“Are you worried he wouldn’t say it back?”

“No… No I think he would. I just don’t want… I don’t want him to stay with me because I threw myself at him, because he thinks he has to.”

“You think too much.”

“Yeah, probably.”

Their eyes wander to discover that the fucking cow has returned to graze at their wonderfully kept rugby pitch. 

“Hungry fucker,” Victor says. 

Conor snorts. 

“Will you come with me? Just to the rugby match, Ned can come too if he likes. I just.. I dunno if I’ll be able to keep from screaming if I’m alone, just waiting,” Victor blurts out. 

Conor nods, “Yeah, mate. Yeah I’ll be there. Ned too.”

“Thank you,” Victor says, and Conor can tell that he means it. 

Victor leans his head against Conor’s shoulder and sighs. It’s not weird, not even for a second. Conor just slings his arm round Victor’s shoulder and hugs him. 

“She’s gonna be alright mate.”

Victor nods like he doesn’t believe in anything anymore. 

“I promise.”

Victor’s thinking, Conor gives him the time.

“I just...she deserves the same chances anyone else has.”

Conor smiles sadly. The truth is that she might not get them, the truth is that people might hate her and everything she represents, but the truth is also that if he told Victor any of that, he might start sobbing on his shoulder. 

“It’s a fight. But she can get there.”

He lets Victor lean against him for the next little while, just staring at that god damn cow. Life would be easier if all he had to worry about was eating some idiots’ rugby field. Life would be simpler, he thinks. But now, he’s not entirely sure if that means it would be better anymore. He thinks about that kid, he thinks about Ingrid and how sure she is already and how much she just gets it already. He thinks about Olivia and all the reasons she has for not telling Victor and all the reasons Victor has to help her. He thinks about how lucky he is to be here with a friend who gets it, who wants to help make it better. Sherry told him that it gets better, and he was right, but Conor’s certain that he didn’t know how soon it would be. It’s not perfect. But it’s better. This is better. This is making it better.

Chapter Text

Conor wakes up on Sunday without having read a single line of the monologue he’s supposed to be memorizing. He starts to stir and then remembers his promise to sleep in on Sunday. He’s restless by nature but the snoring boy in his arms is enough motivation to stay exactly where he is. He brushes a piece of Ned’s hair out of his face and rubs the pad of his thumb over the bridge of his nose. Ned sighs in his sleep. 

Conor relaxes back into his pillow and lazily scratches at Ned’s scalp, twirling his hair around his fingers. He looks over at the alarm clock, they have to be up to catch the train to town with Victor by noon, but before then, they have so much time. Conor’s internal clock woke him at seven but he can’t bear the idea of leaving this bed. He dozes off somewhere between staring at Ned’s sleeping face and petting his hair. He doesn’t really dream, instead it’s just warm, and comfortable, like he’s wrapped in several large blankets with no obligations anywhere outside of them. 

He feels Ned shift beside him, rolling over. Conor opens his eyes at the same time as Ned looks up at him. 

“Morning,” Conor says, his voice, gentle and husky. 

“Hi,” Ned rubs the sleep out of his eyes and snuggles farther into Conor’s chest. 

“We do have to get up eventually.”

Ned grumbles. 

“The train leaves at noon,” He whispers and then kisses the back of Ned’s neck. 

Ned sits up slowly, still leaning against Conor’s chest. 

“Oh so I’m gonna get up so you can make me watch a rugby game.”

“I mean it’s girls rugby,” Conor shrugs. 

“Oh, so instead of being intimidated by men my own age I get to be intimidated by 14 year old children.”

“Yeah. And then I’ll take you on a date while Victor has the most awkward conversation ever.”

“Is this our first date?” Ned teases. 

“You mean getting high in the forest didn’t count?” Conor comes back. 

Ned laughs and kisses him. 

“I think for the sake of storytelling we should call this our first date.”

“Okay,” Conor agrees. 

Victor is, to put it politely, fucking shitting himself on the train into town. Ned and Conor are sitting in the seats opposite him. He’s not doing it on purpose but he is kind of studying them. They’re so good at maintaining a guise of friendship when they’re in public. Victor supposes Ned thinks he doesn’t know. He can see their hands twitch every now and then, begging to be allowed to reach out but being denied every time. 

“How’s the team?” Conor asks, “Olivia’s team, I mean.”

Victor looks up, pulled away from whatever speck of dirt he was transfixed by. 

“Oh… good. Undefeated, I think,” he says. 

“Impressive,” Ned speaks up, “I think…” He trails off. 

Conor and Victor laugh, but nod anyway. 

“Yeah. Liv’s a real good captain.”

“Must run in the family,” Conor says. 

“Thanks, mate.” 

The field is muddy when they get there. There are a few parents on the small bleachers, some friends holding signs. The boys climb to the top of the wooden bleachers. They’re only a few rows tall but there’s still plenty of room for all of them. Victor spots Olivia immediately, he points her out. 

“Number eight,” he says. 

“Speedy,” Conor says immediately, “She carries well?”

Victor nods, “She plays out-half every once in a while but she’s a speedy little fucker.”

Ned nods along but Victor can see he’s completely lost. 

“Number Eight’s a carryer, she’s allowed to pick the ball out of the scrum and carry it forward. Out half’s the one who carries out the attack, that’s your lad right here,” He gestures to Conor, “Decides what the back line does, whether to pass or kick, that kind of thing.”

Ned nods, genuinely engaged which Victor is surprised by. He wonders if maybe the reason he was always so decidedly anti-rugby is that nobody ever bothered to take the time to explain it to him. 

He watches Liv speaking to her team in the huddle, she claps and they take the field. 

He’s always admired his sister’s strength. He’s never been afraid that she was going to get hurt in a scrum, maybe that she’d accidentally hurt someone else, but that’s about as far as his fretting went. In all honesty, he thinks she’ll grow up to be a better player than he is, it’s just the truth. She has an eye for the ball that he’s only ever seen in her and Conor. 

Liv scores twice, and the team maintains their undefeated record. Victor walks onto the field after the match and grabs her by the shoulder. He wraps her in a one armed hug. 

“Congratulations.”

Liv blushes, “Thanks. But it was the team not me.”

“Don’t be so humble, you scored two tries.”

“And turned over the ball.”

“You won anyway.”

“I would have liked to win by more,” she says as she walks off the field. 

“Next time,” Victor says, like it’s a promise he can keep, “Enough rugby, let’s get lunch,” he puts his arm around her and she shrugs him off, punching him playfully. Conor and Ned are waiting for them underneath the bleachers near the entrance to the field. 

“You’ve met my friends before?”

“Ned and Conor, right?” Liv says. 

Both Conor and Ned nod. 

“We’re gonna head into town while you guys grab lunch, if that’s okay with you?” Conor says. This was the plan all along but Victor can’t help the grin that spreads across his face when confronted with the idea of his friends happy, away from the school, on a proper date. It’s sweet, it’s almost reassuring. 

“Yeah, I’ll see you at the train station. 

Ned’s beaming, and Conor notices as they get farther away from the field. For a moment, they’re free. 

Conor’s planned it, he’s going to take Ned to the little diner where his mother used to take him on his birthday, they’ll sit, they’ll eat, they’ll talk, Conor will pick up the bill and it will be a perfectly normal first date. 

Of course, to anyone looking, they’ll have to be two friends sharing a meal, but he’s fine with that, he thinks Ned is fine with that.

The sit down in a booth across from one another and neither one of them can stop smiling. 

“My mom and I used to come here on my birthday just for the desserts,” Conor says. 

“That sounds brilliant,” Ned grins. He puts his hand on top of Conor’s.

Conor’s hand jumps back slightly but he turns and sees there’s no one around them and relaxes. 

The waitress (who Conor is pretty sure has worked here longer than he’s been alive) comes out of the kitchen laughing at something. Conor stashes his hand under the table, Ned looks at him but does the same. 

“What can I get for you boys?”

They order milkshakes, a slice of cake, each, and a slice of cherry pie to share

“Sweet tooth?” The waitress asks. 

“It’s a tradition,” Conor shrugs, and it is, in a way. 

Pascal would have his head if he saw the meal that she sets down in front of him. A strawberry milkshake for Ned, vanilla for Conor. 

“It’s delicious,” Ned says after his first sip, “Does your mom still come here with you.”

“We don’t do much together anymore,” Conor shrugs. 

“Oh.”

“It’s not a big deal. She’s more tired than she used to be, I think,” he puts a forkful of cake in his mouth and chews for longer than he needs to, hoping Ned starts talking about something else. 

“How d’you think Victor’s making out?” He asks, thank god. 

Victor and Liv are in a McDonalds. It’s nothing fancy or special, which is exactly how they like it. Their family has money. And both know it. When they were a few years younger they’d be dressed up and dragged to fancy restaurants for fancy parties, paraded in front of business people. A quick stop at McDonalds after one of their rugby matches quickly became a welcome tradition. There are no expectations in a McDonalds. No one cares if your tie is ironed or you have a flyaway hair.  

They weren’t always so well off, when Victor was younger and his mother was still around, they lived more modestly. They were never poor but there were no marble countertops or elite boarding schools. He looks over at Liv, she’s standing at one of those touch screen kiosks trying to decide what she wants. She bites her lip. He wonders what his life would have been like without her. Worse, he thinks. He came so close to being an only child, more than once.

When Victor says his family’s complicated, he really does mean it. His parents married young, they were high school sweethearts. His mum was 19 when he was born. When he was 3, his parents separated. His mother got pregnant soon after and had Olivia. When Olivia was 3 her father left and Victor’s parents got back together, bringing Olivia into his life. It only lasted a year and they divorced for real, his mom taking Olivia with him. They were on okay terms so the children saw each other every once in a while. Their mom was never great at being a mom so sometimes Victor would get texts from Olivia, asking if she could come over for dinner because she hadn’t gotten groceries in a month. Eventually Victor’s dad and step-mom asked her if she wanted them to set up a room in the house for her and she accepted with tears in her eyes. She goes back to their mom’s house sometimes since she’s still her legal guardian, but she lives with Victor’s family pretty much full time. The last time Victor saw his mom was nearly two years ago, Olivia had told him about a particularly nasty fight where their mother had accused her of stealing a necklace, only to remember she’d sold it to pay rent, “she didn’t actually hit me,” Liv said but that was enough for Victor. He stopped answering the phone when she called and started calling his step-mother “mom” instead of Victoria (unfortunate coincidence). 

“Vic?” Liv says.

He looks down and sees the receipt in his hand, hears his number being called. Liv grabs her order and they go to sit down. 

“How’s Victoria?” He asks, because although he’s comfortable calling her his mother, she’s never quite gotten to that point. 

“Better, doctor says she can take off the cast next week.”

She’d been cleaning the windows and taken a nasty fall a few months ago. 

It’s small talk for a while. Rugby, and family. 

“Mom called me the other day,” Oliva says suddenly. 

“Did you answer?”

She nods. 

“I don’t know why you do. Nothing good ever happens when you do.”

“Victoria says she’s making an effort.”

“I don’t care Liv, she slapped you.”

“Like four years ago, dude,”

“Which makes it arguably worse!”

“Stop yelling.”

“Sorry.”

“You don’t have to take care of me. I’m a big girl now,” she smirks. 

Victor doesn’t. 

“Why have you been so serious recently?”

“I haven’t been serious.”

“You haven’t cracked a single joke with me since like… New Years.”

Victor’s heart falls in his chest. 

“Sorry. Got a lot on my mind… I guess.”

“Like what?” She props her elbows up on the table and rests her chin in her hands, leaning forward. 

He shrugs. There’s so much he wants to say, but can’t. And not even about what Conor told him about her and Ingrid, although that’s the elephant in the room. He’s worried that he’s peaked, that he’s won the senior cup and nothing good will ever happen again. He’s worried about what Conor’s going to do next year without him and Wally, with Weasel and Pascal running the show. He wants to say how happy he is for his friends, how scared he is for them at the same time. How scared he is all the time, for everyone but himself. 

He shrugs again. 

“Vic,” she groans, “Stop that.”

“What.”

“Acting like you can handle every burden all by yourself.”
“When did you get so smart?”

“Don’t change the subject.”

“I dunno. I really don’t, Liv.”

“What are you worrying about?”

He can’t tell her what he truly worries about, that it’s her. 

“I’m just worried in general. School, life, what I’m gonna do for the rest of it.”

Liv nods. 

“I won the cup. That was my dream for so long. I don’t know what to do now that I don’t have anything to push for.”

“Thought you wanted to go to Uni?”

“Dunno where.”

“You’ve got time to decide.”

“Not as much as I need. “

She laughs, “God, you’re 18, man.”

“I guess… I just don’t wanna go. I’ll miss my friends, I’ll miss being the Captain. I’ll miss being close to you.”

“Who am I gonna find to tell all my secrets to,” She’s joking but Victor’s face sinks. 

She raises an eyebrow, pushes her hair out of her face.

“Are your friends on a date right now?”

She dips a french fry into her paper ketchup cup and doesn’t look him in the eyes.

Victor smiles, “Conor and Ned? Yeah… Think so anyway.”

“And you’re like… cool with that?” She bites her bottom lip. She looks so much like their mother but with kinder eyes. 

He nods, “Yeah,” he says. 

He takes a breath, “I wasn’t always… there for them… I mean Conor’s on the team, and I never… never stuck my neck out for him. I let Pascal say shit that wasn’t cool, let Weasel torture Ned for years . It wasn’t cool. I wasn’t cool. Feel like I failed as a captain, since he wasn’t comfortable, he felt like he had to hide, couldn’t come to me. Y’know?” He says. 

She nods, swirling another french fry around in the ketchup. She doesn’t say it though. She doesn’t say anything, and Victor knows he can’t make her, but all he wants is for her to say it, so she can stop looking up at him cautiously, stop looking like she wants to say something and then biting her own words back. 

“I see why he wouldn’t… but I hope that now at least… I hope I’m at least becoming the kind of person he could tell.”

“Right.”

They sit in silence while she rips her chicken nuggets into quarters, dipping them one at a time and then popping them into her mouth. 

“I’m thinking of taking biology,” she changes the subject after a few minutes. 

Victor loves talking to his sister, and he’s not going to complain when they have an average conversation about their lives, and their parents but he knows, he’s absolutely certain that something is weighing on her, and whether it’s about being gay or not, he wants her to feel like he’s there to listen. 

They clean up their garbage wordlessly. Liv thanks the girl working behind the cash and they leave. Liv has her hands in her pockets to protect from the cold air, her back is hunched, which is unusual for her. 

“Liv”

“Vic”

They say each other’s names at the same time. 

“You go first,” Olivia says. 

“No. I want to hear what you have to say.”

She takes a deep breath, looking ahead, not at him. 

“Did Conor ever tell you how he knew he’s… y’know.”

Victor realizes that that’s one of the things they haven’t talked about and shakes his head. 

“No. But he seems happier now.”

Liv nods. 

“Because he has someone?”

“I think just because he’s finally telling the truth.”

She takes another deep breath. 

“I think… maybe… maybe I have my own truth to tell,” she says. 

Victor doesn’t respond, doesn’t really react all that much. 

“I guess maybe I’ve known for a while but I didn’t know how you’d react… I think maybe uh… I think I like girls, Vic,” she mutters. 

Victor puts his arm around his sister and hugs her close. 

“That’s cool with me. It’s totally cool with me.”

He feels her shaking in his arm so he pulls her into a full embrace, lets her bury her head in his chest. 

“I love you so much,” she says, voice shaky but not sobbing. 

“I love you too little bean,” he says. 

“You won’t tell dad?”

He shakes his head, “That’s for you to do.”

“And all those times you asked about Ingrid you were trying… you knew?”

He nods, “I might have thought.”

“Thank you for trying so hard,” she wraps her arm around his waist, and they walk arm in arm towards the train. 

Ned has pulled Conor into an alley a block away from the train station. They’re pressed up against one another, hidden away from anyone who might be walking the streets. Ned has both of Conor’s hands in his and he’s looking up at him. Conor’s heart is pounding in his chest, terrified by the idea that anyone could see them, too caught up in Ned to pull away. They’re both full of desserts. 

“That was a brilliant date,” Ned says between kisses. 

“You deserve the best dates,” Conor answers before being silenced by Neds lips. 

Their hands fall away from one another as they return to the train station. They see Victor and Olivia already waiting for them. Their both beaming. Conor meets Victor’s eye and he nods slightly. Olivia’s looking at Ned and Conor like she knows something and strangely, Conor doesn’t mind the idea that she might. He lets Ned fall asleep on his shoulder in the empty carriage on the train back to the school. Liv gets off at her stop leaving Conor and Victor alone (unconscious Ned not being counted)

“She told me,” Victor says and he sounds so happy that he might cry right there just thinking about how lucky that girl is. 

He smiles, pets Ned gently on the head and whispers, “I’m glad.”

“Me too,” Victor says, “Me fucking too.”

Chapter Text

Conor’s panicking. That’s the thing about waiting until the last possible minute to confront your problems, it works great… until the last possible minute rolls around and your left without an inkling of the plan. He woke up this morning with a sense of dread deep in his stomach. Tried not to wake Ned as he slid out of bed to go for a run. He didn’t let himself think about the monologue that he still hadn’t looked at, let alone memorized. He thought about Ned, about his Dad, and Christmas. He decided he just wouldn’t get up when Sherry called his name, he’d admit he didn’t do the homework, what’s the worst that could happen?

He didn’t go to breakfast, his stomach was tossing so violently. He just sat in the showers until he was certain Ned had joined their friends at breakfast and went back to their room. In a moment of… anger? Fear? Denial? He tore the monologue to shreds. He couldn’t memorize it even if he wanted to. Ha. That’ll show them. 

New found confidence (resignation) in his chest, he walked to class. Ned was already sitting in his desk. He glanced at him, Conor could see the concern in his face as he took out his notebook and turned his focus to the blackboard. He elected to ignore it, thinking they could talk later. 

Sherry started with some analysis of the final act, asking the boys what they thought about certain lines. Conor thought he’d escaped for the briefest moment. Then Sherry stood up, clapped his hands together and smiled sideways. No one else was sweating in his seat like Conor was. Sherry started to open his mouth, and Conor just stood up. Suddenly, no warning. He left his books in his desk, his bag hanging off the back of the chair, and walked out. Sherry stood there in shock, Conor didn’t care, he just breezed out of the door. Walked down the hallway and didn’t stop. He turned the corner, into the bathroom, past the stalls and into the accessible toilet. He locked the door and sat on the floor, curled in on himself and stayed like that. 

He was worried someone might come looking at first, but it’s been at least ten minutes and no one’s come looking for him yet. He guesses they figured out that disappearing twice a term was either unlikely or meant he didn’t want to be found. 

No one’s coming in here. Everyone’s in class and this is the bathroom with the broken sinks.  Everyone goes upstairs, or back to the bathrooms in the dorms. He’s still shaking, legs curled underneath of him, arms crossed, posture hunched. He didn’t realize when he sat down but the floor is freezing. Too late to do anything about it now. He doesn’t realize he’s crying until he feels tears running over his lips. He brings his sleeve to his nose and wipes them away. It’s embarrassing, honestly, that he’s going to have to explain this eventually. 

He can’t go back now, so he resigns himself to sit in this stall for at least the rest of the period, maybe the rest of the day if that’s what it takes. Maybe he’ll stay here forever, freeze to the floor, the spider in the corner will use his body to hang webs off of. He imagines what must be happening in the classroom. Sherry will have decided to carry on, seeing as no one’s come hollering his name. He wonders if Ned’s given his performance yet, wonders if Keith and Quin have. He wonders if Ned’s worried, if he tried to get up after him but Sherry stopped him. His stomach wrenches and he’s sure he’d throw up if there was anything in his stomach. He leans against the wall. 

Ned deserves better. He’s certain of this. What kind of weird idiot can’t get up to give a two minute speech in front of his class? What kind of person spends a weekend stressing about it? Worrying that everyone can see his feelings? Ned deserves someone who doesn’t care. Who won’t be afraid to hold his hand in a restaurant or steal a kiss on the train. 

And now he’s angry. Angry with himself, angry with the world, angry with Ned for being so much better than he is. Angry with Sherry for assigning the monologue. 

“Show me who you are… if you dare”

“Well, I don’t dare,” Conor mutters to himself. 

He slams his head backwards against the wall. Feels the pain ringing in his skull. And then his stomach twists again. He can’t keep the bile down. He leans over the toilet, clutching at the porcelain. When there’s nothing left in his stomach, he heaves. 

This is so fucking stupd. So Fucking Stupid. It’s the overreaction of the century, he should have just stood up and read the monologue off the card. He didn’t have to be good, didn’t have to put any emotion behind it. He just had to read. How fucking hard could that be. Whatever issues he’s having are his own. But god, they feel like they’re unbeatable.

He catches his breath and leans against the wall again, chest heaving. He wipes his face and just closes his eyes. He needs a glass of water more than anything but he’s not about to move from the safety of this bathroom stall. His books are in the classroom, his bag, his cell phone. He’ll have to go back to get them. He’ll have to go back to the room and face Ned. The last thing he wants is to worry him because if he worries he might start thinking, and if he starts thinking he might realize that he can do better than Conor and Conor’s not sure he can handle heartbreak like that. 

The bell rings and Conor jumps. He’s not sure if that much time has passed, if he’s going crazy, or if it was later than he thought when he left class. He hears the door to the bathroom open five or so minutes later. The distinctive creak, and then a slam as it falls shut. He hears footsteps coming towards him, Tries to slow his breathing, retreats further into the corner. He can see that they’re Sherry’s dress shoes and he is not the person Conor wants to talk to right now. He wants to wipe his face, go to his room, take a nap with Ned beside him and then go to dinner with his friends. He wants everything to be normal, but disappearing is something that is very much not normal. 

“Conor?” Sherry’s voice is gentle as he taps on the outside of the stall. 

Conor doesn’t say anything. Won’t give him what he wants. 

“Conor I can see your trainers.”

Conor sighs. 

“I’m fine sir, I just needed a minute.”

“Well it’s been about forty-five.”

Conor lets a dry laugh escape his mouth. 

“Conor, can you open up?”

“No… I just can’t… I’m sorry.”

“The door, Conor, can you open up the door?”

“Oh… uh…” 

Conor sighs, crawls forward and unlatches the stall. Sherry’s standing above him but he crouches down when he sees Conor on the floor. 

“You’re in a state, aren’t you?” he asks. 

Conor shrugs. 

“Can I ask what happened?”

“I’m not sure I know myself, sir,” Conor says. 

Sherry just nods, “I understand.”

“I’m not sure you do.”

“You’d be surprised,” Sherry smirks. 

Conor just shakes his head. 

“Can we get you off this floor?”

“I’m comfortable here.”

“What about a friend?” Sherry says, “Would Ned…”

“No,” Conor says almost too quickly. 

Sherry doesn’t look confused but he is slightly taken aback. He straightens up a bit, looks Conor in the eyes. 

“If you wait much longer, final period will be over and you’ll have to walk past everyone on your way to your room. Come back to the classroom with me, and we’ll have a chat.”

Conor swallows the lump in his throat and pushes himself to his knees. He’s suddenly dizzy, and struggles to his feet. Sherry puts out his arm for him to steady himself. 

The small act of kindness is enough for the stinging of tears behind his eyes to return. He doesn’t think he deserves this. A teacher who cares, friends, the most wonderful boyfriend in the world… someone else could do so much better with what he has. 

Sherry puts his hand on Conor’s shoulder. He closes the door to the classroom behind them.He doesn’t sit down in his desk, instead he pulls out a chair, and gestures for Conor to sit down. He walks to the back of the room and pulls a paper cup out of the cupboard. He fills it at the small sink in the back of the class and returns to Conor. He hands it to him and pulls up his own chair. He crosses one leg over the other and leans forward. 

“I understand if my assignment gave you trouble but I do need you to be able to communicate that to me in order to help you.”

“Sir, I really am sorry.”

“Please don’t apologize. We can’t always control when our brains thrust us into panic mode. The class got on. They’re okay, now I want to make sure you are.”

“I am,” Conor continues to insist.

“So then you’ll have no problems making up the presentation tomorrow?”

Conor freezes, his shoulders immediately tense up. 

Sherry holds his hand up, “I’m not going to make you do that.”

“I really can go back to my room… I’ll be fine.”

“If that’s what you think is best. I won’t keep you here.”

Conor doesn’t move. 

“But if you need to speak about anything…” Sherry stops. He pauses and studies Conor’s face. 

Conor’s looking at his hands, he’s sullen but doing his best to conceal his emotions. It’s a piss poor job considering his puffy red eyes and pale complexion. 

“Conor. I want you to cut the bullshit.”

It’s so blunt that Conor has no choice but to look up, he glances quickly at his teacher and then looks back down. 

He sighs. “It’s like… everyone’s seen me,” He finally says. 

Mr. Sherry doesn’t speak, he just leans forward, tries to make eye contact. Conor’s glancing out the window. 

“I used to… I could control how they saw me. I decided what they knew about who I was… now it’s all so… different.”

Sherry shrinks back slightly in his chair but shakes his head, “You don’t owe anyone an explanation.”

“What’s left to explain? They all know anyway.”

“Reveal to them who you are…”

“If I dare,” Conor finishes his sentence for him. 

Mr. Sherry nods, “Yes Conor. If you dare.”

“If I don’t?”

“I promise you it’s so much worse that way. The aching you feel in your heart right now? The shame, the fear? They all go away eventually, not completely but they fade.”

“I just don’t know if I can… It feels like I have to choose.”

Mr. Sherry shrugs, “I can’t pretend to understand that aspect of your life.”

“Well it’s one of the most important parts. Rugby. Sport. I don’t know who I am without it.”

“That’s selling yourself short.”

“Sir, I’m sorry. I just… I can’t get up in front of them. I can’t say someone else’s words, they’ll know I’m lying.”

“It’s not lying Conor, it’s acting.” He says the final word with reverence. 

Conor laughs, “Please just don’t make me.”

“I’ll enter it as a no-mark. It won’t affect your grade but I will be expecting something good out of your next essay.”

“Yes sir.”

“Right, well. Join your friends for dinner. Tell them you had an upset stomach and I let you make up the performance just now.”

“Thank you sir.” 

Conor is genuinely thankful but the idea of turning in his next essay makes him feel queasy. Ned will do it for him if he asks but he doesn’t want to ask, he’s already done so much. 

He doesn’t go to the dining hall. Decides he can afford to miss dinner once. He just wants to go back to the room. Wants to sleep for as long as he can possibly get away with. Everyone’s at dinner so he’s able to slip into the room without being noticed. He takes off his tie, throws it in the hamper, doesn’t care when he misses. He leaves his blazer and shirts on the floor and flops into bed. His pillow smells like Ned’s shampoo. He leans into it and closes his eyes. 

When he opens them again, the door is creaking open. A sliver of light creeps across the ceiling. He rolls over. Sees Ned’s hair before anything else. 

“Conor?” He whispers. His voice is cautious, Conor turns over. Pushes himself up on his elbows. 

“Are you okay?” He sits at the edge of Conor’s bed. 

Conor nods. 

“What happened?”

“Sick,” Conor says repeating the lie that Sherry gave him, “I thought it was the flu at first, but I think it might have just been nerves. Sherry let me make up the presentation”

“Have you eaten dinner?” Ned’s fretting and Conor wants to do anything possible to make him stop so he just nods. 

“Not very hungry. But I have some protein bars under the bed.I’ll eat a big breakfast.”

He hates how easily the lies roll off his tongue but they do make everything so much simpler in the moment.

Ned crawls into bed with Conor. He kicks his socks off and slips under the duvet.

Ned wraps himself around Conor and nuzzles into his shoulder. He sighs happily and it’s all so much for Conor. Ned is so warm, and so present. He can feel him smiling into his shoulder, shifting slightly beside him. Conor can’t shake the little voice in his head telling him he doesn’t deserve this. Even as Ned absentmindedly runs his hands over Conor’s bicep, gently kisses his sternum and holds him tight, he still has the urge to cry. To scream, to shove Ned away and tell him to run. To run far away and find someone better. He resists the urge. A good boyfriend wouldn’t make him worry so much, a good boyfriend wouldn’t have to lie and tell him he was fine. He would just be fine. He lets the tears well up in his eyes but he’s careful not to let them fall on Ned, careful not to sob, or to shake. If he can’t be fine then he’ll do his best to pretend. For Ned. Ned deserves a good boyfriend.

Chapter Text

Conor wriggles out of bed the next morning. Ned turns over, curls back into a ball and continues breathing deeply. Conor puts on his track pants and a hoodie and gently closes the door behind him. His stomach is noticeably empty, it grumbles at him insistently but he ignores it. Instead jogging down the front steps. The air hurts his lungs. He pulls his gloves out of his pocket and pulls them over his fingers. 

He stretches out his legs and runs the rugby field. The ground is frozen under his shoes. He doesn’t let his mind wander, choosing only to focus on the burning in his calves, the air coming in and out of his lungs. He runs until the sun comes up then heads back into the school. Other boys are milling around the halls, heading to breakfast. He walks the opposite direction to the dorm showers. He pulls his curtain back and turns the water on hot. He warms his frozen fingers under the stream of water. Runs his hands through his hair, washes it with the shampoo that Ned bought him. He turns off the water and just stands there for a minute, letting the water drip off of his hair, down his shoulders, over his arms, and his fingertips. He watches it splash on the already wet floor. He hears the door open but doesn’t move much other than to wrap his towel around his waist. He hears shoes hitting the wet floor. Jumps when he hears something slam against the tile wall. He draws back his curtain immediately. 

It’s Weasel. He’s sitting slumped against the wall, knuckles bloody. One of the tiles is cracked. His eyes are red and puffy. Conor doesn’t know how to react to the biggest asshole he knows sitting in such a vulnerable position. 

“Weasel?” He says, not knowing what else to. 

Weasel clamours to his feet, wipes his knuckles on his pants and does his best to steel his expression.

“Are you… alright?” Conor asks. 

“Go fuck yourself.”

“You’re bleeding.”

“Stop acting like you care,” Weasel turns his back. 

Conor puts his arm on his shoulder, “At least go to the nurse.”

Weasel’s a complete and total wanker but he’s bleeding, and still his teammate. 

Weasel smacks his hand away. 

“Stop acting like you give a shit about me you fucking queer.”

Conor’s heard that word out of Weasel’s mouth so often that it’s stopped feeling like an insult and started feeling like an actual address. 

Weasel shoves Conor back, Conor stumbles slightly but remains standing. 

“I could beat the shit out of you right now,” Weasel sneers. 

Conor shakes his head, “Why aren’t you?”

Weasel launches forward, swings wide and misses Conor’s jaw but does manage to hit him in the side of the neck. It hurts and Conor doesn’t do anything to stop it. Weasel shoves him again, this time Conor loses his balance and falls to the ground. He just lies there while Weasel hits him in the face, kicks him in the side. 

“Fight back!” Weasel shouts. 

Conor does not. 

“Fight back you fucking faggot!” He shouts again. 

Conor does not. Weasel punches him square in the jaw, he hears his teeth knock. Weasel backs up. He spits in his face, and stands over him. 

“I could’ve killed you.”

He turns and walks out of the showers. Conor lays there for another minute. They tile is cold underneath of him and he can see his own blood mixing with the water on the ground. He stands, looks in the mirror and inspects the damage. It’ll be another black eye and some bruises on his jaw. He’ll tell everyone he took a ball to the face during a kicking practice with Pascal, he won’t tell them it was Weasel because then he’ll have to explain why he didn’t fight back. 

He washes the blood from under his nose. Lifts his shirt to examine the damage to his torso. The skin is flushed red and hot to the touch where Weasel had kicked him. It hurts but he doesn’t quite feel it. His ribs ache every time he takes a step and there’s a ringing in his head that persists even after he cups his hands under the sink and gulps down some water, but he doesn’t feel the pain, just knows that it’s there. 

Conor goes back to the room and changes into his uniform. 

“I didn’t see you at breakfast,” Ned mutters while Sherry hands them the marks for their monologue project. He hands Conor a fake one. 

“I ate before I went running,” he lies easily. 

“Is your eye swollen?” Ned asks. 

Conor shrugs, “I took a ball to the face at kicking practice.”

He can tell Ned doesn’t believe him but he has no reason to question him. 

“I think I’m getting sick or something,” Conor explains when he doesn’t eat much at dinner. 

He can see the hurt in Ned’s eyes as he returns an almost full plate to the kitchen. The concern that weighs on his shoulders. It quickly subsides when Keith suggests they go kick around a football for a while. All the boys agree. The idea doesn’t really excite Conor but he goes along so he can say he was there. 

Even Ned joins in, letting Victor show him how to kick the ball with the side of his foot and not the toe. Maybe Ned deserves someone like Victor. He has all the parts of Conor that are worthy of love, with none of the bullshit. It feels like a herculean effort every time he has to kick the ball, his side still aching with the impression of Weasel’s shoe. 

 

“It’s just really cold,” Conor says when Ned tries to take off his shirt later that night. Ned turns his head to the side, studying Conor, but drops his hands away from the hem of Conor’s shirt. He kisses him. His mouth his hot and aggressive, he has so much life in him, so much love. It’s like he’s trying to give it to Conor, Conor wants to let him keep it for himself. 

Ned wraps himself tightly around Conor like he’s trying to keep him from floating away. Conor feels like an anchor, keeping Ned here when he could be in the clouds, somewhere better, holding on to someone better. 

 

~~~~

“There’s something wrong with Conor,” Victor says to Ned the next morning over breakfast. 

Conor has once again skipped the morning meal. He’ll claim that he ate before but when Ned asks the dinner ladies if they’ve seen him they will shake their heads and give him a bag of fruit to bring back to the room. 

“I’m worried,” Victor continues. 

A few months ago Ned might have considered accusing Victor of only caring about rugby, that he only gave a shit about Conor because he’s the star of the team. He wouldn’t dream of it now. Victor is probably Conor’s best friend apart from Ned, he can see that now. 

Ned nods. 

“Have you seen his face?” Victor says. 

“Hard to miss.”

The bruises on his eye and under his jaw have turned a deep shade of purple, and Ned won’t tell Victor this, but last night while they slept, Conor’s shirt rode up and his entire left side was inflamed and covered in the same purple bruises. It made Ned want to puke, to call for help, to shake Conor awake and demand to know what actually happened. He’s been lying, and Ned can tell. Nothing major, just little lies, all of them seeming to say the same thing, “I’m Fine.”

Ned swallows the lump in his throat and looks up at Victor. 

“Can we go talk somewhere? I have something I need to tell you,” Ned decides in that moment that there’s no reason to hide from Victor anymore. 

They go upstairs, there’s an empty classroom that never gets used. They think it must have been an art room at one point since the tables are so wide. No one at Woodhill has taught an art class for as long as Ned’s been here. They don’t go to either of their rooms because that’s the first place their teachers will look when they notice the boys missing from class. 

“I love him,” Ned blurts out as soon as the door closes behind them. 

Victor leans against one of the tables, and nods. He’s not dismissive, but he doesn’t look surprised. 

“You knew?”

“Hard to miss.”

Ned’s eyes widen in a panic. 

“For me. Hard for me to miss, nobody else knows.”

Ned catches the breath he didn’t realize he’d lost and sits on top of the table in front of Victor. 

“I’m really worried, mate,” Ned says. He runs his hands through his hair and shakes his head, “I saw bruises… more.”

“Than just his face?”

Ned nods, “All over his side. They were purple… like bad.”

“A ball to the face wouldn’t do that.”

Ned shakes his head. 

“Who did, then?” Victor asks. 

“Weasel.”

“Why wouldn’t he tell us if it was Weasel?”

Ned sighs, “I don’t know.”

Victor pauses before asking the next question, “D’you think is dad could have…”

Ned shakes his head almost immediately, “He’s a prick but I don’t think he’s ever hit him.”

“So it was Weasel.”

“But why wouldn’t he fight back, he’s bigger and a better fighter.”

Victor looks like he’s trying to decide whether or not to tell Ned everything he knows. 

He bites down on his tongue then opens his mouth, “The first time he had a black eye… and he said it was the door?”

Ned nods. 

“When me and him went running… I got it out of him. He said it was Weasel and that he didn’t hit back because he was trying to be a better person.”

Ned sees red immediately, jumps off the desk and starts pacing the room, “That doesn’t mean letting someone beat the shit out of you.”

Victor stays standing, rooted to the spot where he stands. 

“I know.”

“It’s not a bad thing to defend yourself… God I’m gonna fucking kill Weasel.”

“Ned…”

“I’ll kill him… I’ll fucking kill him.”

Victor reaches out and grabs Ned by the shoulder, “Ned,” he says, “I think this is a bigger problem than just Weasel… I mean he let himself get beat bloody… he can’t be… I mean he can’t be doing well.”

And Ned just starts crying. He folds in on himself, slides to the floor and just sobs. He’s embarrassed to be doing this in front of Victor but God, it feels so good to finally get it out. He’s sensed it since New Years, maybe even Christmas, that Conor was off. Over the past few days it’s only gotten worse. He’s tried, doesn’t want to seem overbearing but also doesn’t want anything bad to happen. He wraps himself around him at night just to make sure he doesn’t disappear. He wakes up earlier now, so he can look out the window and make sure he can see him running, toward the school, not away from it. He’s been working on Conor’s next essay, letting himself fall behind. He knows Conor won’t ask for help but he knows that he needs it, knows he’s too proud to admit it. 

Victor sits on the floor next to Ned, puts his hand on his knee and just nods. 

“We’ll figure it out.”

Chapter Text

Ned hopes he’s enough. He wants to be. They’re curled in bed together, facing one another, Ned has his arms wrapped around Conor’s torso, their legs are intertwined. Letting go no longer feels like an option. Conor’s fingers absentmindedly stroke his forearm, Ned’s hand is in Conor’s hair. His fingers wander, they trace the bruise covering the bottom of his jaw, then gently the one under his eye. 

“Please…” he whispers and then kisses him on the forehead. 

Conor stirs a few moments later. Two minutes before the alarm, just like clockwork. Ned pretends to be asleep. Hears him shuffle over to the alarm clock and shut it off before it can wake Ned up. Ned hears the door click shut behind him and sits up. He throws the duvet to the side and posts up  beside the window. He sees Conor soon enough. He runs his laps around the rugby field. Ned does not look away, breathing a sigh of relief every time he rounds the corner. He watches him finish. He stretches and then walks back to the school. Ned gets dressed. He pulls the essay and leaves it on Conor’s desk. He sees muddy bootprints on the way to the dining hall, he hopes they’re Conor’s. 

Victor is the first one at the table. Ned sits across from him. Both are unusually quiet. 

“You look like you haven’t slept at all,” Victor finally says. 

“Guess I haven’t really.”

Victor frowns, “Has he said anything to you?”

“Dunno if he knows what to say,” Ned admits. 

Victor sighs. 

They stop talking about when Keith and Quin sit down. Wally follows soon after. Everyone tries to make conversation but Ned and Victor and noticeably sullen. Conor doesn’t show up again and Ned feels like crying. 

He can’t be certain but he’s pretty sure Conor’s lip is swollen when he sees him in English class. 

Days pass and Ned would give anything to make Conor better. He would say anything, do anything, give anything. The problem with anything is that he doesn’t know what it is. How to say it, do it, give it. The bruises on Conor’s face slowly heal but a new one crops up on his wrist, another on his shoulder, his thigh. Conor was covered in bruises during the rugby season but that’s long over. He’ll blame it on training but Ned knows for a fact that they haven’t been tackling since the ground froze. He thanks Ned for the essay he wrote for him, tells him he didn’t have to, Ned tells him he really doesn’t mind. 

It’s not exactly that things are tense between them. Ned still loves Conor, he still kisses him when they wake up, still holds him in the middle of the night. Their hands still wander in the middle of the night, Conor’s mouth is still warm. It’s quieter now, though. They talk about school, and their friends, but Ned’s gotten so used to Conor telling him everything that the small talk feels like nothing at all. 

Victor and Wally show up at their door with a bottle of something dark and strong. The weather’s starting to get warmer so they put on their jackets and head out to the clearing in the forest. They pass the bottle around like they always do but it’s noticeably quieter. Ned can hear the bugs in the air through awkward silences. Wally isn’t oblivious and Ned’s sure Victor’s told him he’s concerned about Conor but he seems to be on the outside of the silent conversation the three of them are having. 

“So where are Keith and Tom?” Wally finally asks. 

“Home for the weekend,” Victor answers, he always has these answers. 

They nod. Victor and Wally start throwing around a tennis ball that Wally had stuffed in his jacket pocket. It comes to Ned a few times. His chest tightens every time it comes close, anticipating the embarrassment that will come along with missing it. He throws the ball to Conor, he catches it, but his arm is stiff and he winces slightly. Ned’s eyes drop. For a moment he had forgotten, but it all comes racing back. 

“Conor,” Ned says. 

Conor looks up, almost startled. 

“Where did the bruises come from?”

~~~

It was Weasel, Conor knows it was Weasel, Ned knows it was Weasel, everybody knows it was Weasel. They’re staring at him. He knows that if he tells them they’ll beat the shit out of Weasel, and as much as he deserves it, Conor doesn’t think he can stomach that anymore. 

Weasel cornered him after his geography lesson. Shoved him against the brick wall and demanded a fight. “This time you fucking fight back.” 

Conor had shaken his head. He wasn’t that person anymore. He was trying not to be. Then Weasel’s fist connected with his face and instinct took over. He shoved. Hard. Weasel fell to the ground and Conor went with him, landing on his chest, holding him down. Weasel smirked, struggling underneath of him. 

“What do you want from me,” Conor said. 

“Fuck you,” Weasel spit and kicked Conor in the stomach. 

“Why do you hate me so much.”

Weasel rolled his eyes, “You just show up here and take what’s supposed to be mine. Show up and act like you fucking run the place.”

“I don’t want to take anything from you,” Conor let himself be pinned, adrenaline subsiding. 

“Everything just works out for you doesn’t it?”

Conor was confused, Weasel punched him again, he did very little to stop him. 

“Star player, everybody loves you, you’ve got all my friends, got your precious little boyfriend now too.”

Conor tensed up at the mention of Ned. 

“That makes you scared doesn’t it?”

Conor clenched his fists and shoved Weasel off of him. 

“Take your daddy issues somewhere else,” Conor said. He stood up, but not before Weasel managed to land another sloppy blow to his shoulder. 

Ned’s staring at him. He’s expecting an answer but he doesn’t know how to give one. ] “Practice,” he lies so often now he’s forgotten what it’s like to tell the truth. 

“We haven’t been tackling, mate,” Wally says. 

Everyone’s wearing the same concerned look on their face, he starts to shift, he doesn’t know how he can get out of this one. 

“It’s fine, me and Weasel had a fight, it was no big deal.”

They all look doubtful. 

“You’ve been skipping breakfast too…” Victor says, “dude, if you like… need to talk about something.”

“Jesus christ,” Conor mutters, “I’m fine .”

Ned laughs, he shakes his head, doesn’t stop laughing. 

“I can’t,” he says. “I just fucking can’t do this anymore.”

He stands up and turns away from the group. He starts off, not headed towards the field but farther down the trail. 

“Ned!” Conor says. 

Ned waves him off. 

Conor stands up. 

“Just… stay here,” he says to Victor and Wally. 

He runs after Ned. Grabs him by the shoulder, Ned snaps and turns around. 

“Don’t follow me,” he’s angry but there are tears streaming down his face, Conor doesn’t know why that would be. 

“Ned…” he whispers. 

“Don’t…” Ned says, “Don’t just think you can say my name like that and it’s all gonna be okay!”

“It is okay,” Conor says. 

Ned looks at him incredulously. 

“No.”

“What?”

You. You’re not okay,” Ned says.

“I am.”

“Now you’re lying to me.” 

The tears keep coming down Ned’s cheeks and seeing him this upset, knowing it’s his fault makes Conor want to throw up. 

“It doesn’t matter,” Conor mutters. 

“It does!” Ned says immediately, “It matters because I sleep next to you every night, because I hold you like I might lose you, like you might disappear again and this time I won’t know where to find you this time! It matters because I wake up and I watch you run to make sure you’re not running away. Fuck! Conor. It matters because I love you. I love you I love you I love you,” Ned’s words are punctuated with tears. He grabs Conor by the back of his neck and pulls him down. 

He kisses him, hot, and hungry, and sad. A few tears slip out of Conor’s eyes and fall on Ned’s shoulder. 

Ned’s lips are gonna almost as soon as they arrived, he takes a step back and shakes his head.

“I love you so fucking much it hurts… I can’t keep doing it anymore,” he says. 

“Ned…” 

Conor doesn’t know how to move. It’s like his feet are cemented to the ground, they won’t let him move, his throat is closed, won’t let him call out for Ned, won’t let him tell him that he loves him back. He just sinks. Right down onto the ground, there are no tears, he’s just there, completely and utterly empty. If he could he’d sink right down into the ground and stay there. 

Victor’s not far behind. He’s alone, no Wally. He doesn’t question it, he just sits down next to Conor. 

“What just happened?”

“I think we just broke up,” Conor says and it doesn’t feel real. 

Victor hugs Conor and Conor wishes it helped.

Chapter Text

 

Conor doesn’t cry. If he’s being honest, he’s not sure he could if he tried. 

He tells Victor to leave. 

“I can’t leave you like this, mate,” Victor says. 

“Stop.”

“No.”

So Conor just stands up. He starts walking. Not towards the school, anywhere but towards the school. Victor follows him. Conor pretends not to notice. He stalks off further into the forest, not sure where he’s going. It doesn’t feel real, it feels like the ground has fallen out from under him. Ned has been the most consistent thing in his life and now he’s gone… not gone, he’s worse than gone. Conor will have to walk back to the dorms, he’ll find Ned asleep in his own bed. He’ll have to crawl into his own bed, cold and alone. 

“Fuck!” He shouts, turning on his heel, fist smashing into the nearest tree. 

“Woah!” Victor immediately grabs him by the shoulder and tries to pull him back but Conor shoves him away. 

Victor stumbles, he looks hurt.  

“What the fuck, I didn’t do anything to you,” Victor puts his hands out in front of him. 

“Leave. Me. Alone,” Conor says. There is ice in his voice.

“Oh my God,” Victor says, “Stop acting like the entire world is against you. You have friends, we want to help you!”

“If you want to help. Go,” Conor’s voice is flat. It sends a chill up Victor’s spine.

“I don’t need it.”

“Conor,” Victor says. 

He puts his hand on Conor’s shoulder again. Conor slaps him away, and shoves him, hard. 

Victor stumbles back, catches himself on a tree branch and shakes his head. 

“You’re fucked, man,” he says. 

He turns and walks away. 

This is what Conor wanted, to be alone. It feels so empty. He walks until his feet hurt, walks until he hears the birds chirping and has to turn back. The room is stifling when he gets there. He can’t breath looking across the room at Ned. He loves him. More than anything he’s ever loved before. He looks at his hair, his face, his lips, the way his chest shudders when he exhales. It’s all so much. Quietly he strings up the curtain. The Berlin Wall is back, and he has no intention of taking it down, not for as long as he loves Ned, not for as long as he knows he has to let him go. 

He’s always known Ned deserves better, known that he’d be temporary. It’s his fault for believing that this could last, that something so good could be his. He hears Ned stir a few hours later. Thanks god he can’t see him through the curtain. 

He swallows the lump in his throat and stays in bed. For the first time since he’s arrived, he doesn’t get up to run. In fact, he stays in bed all weekend. He doesn’t move a muscle, doesn’t really sleep either. Sometimes he’ll close his eyes and suddenly it will be dark, but mostly he just stares at the wall. He thinks about Ned. He can’t have him but he can have the memories, those are his. 

He decides, some time on Saturday, that he just isn’t meant to be loved. No one comes looking for him. Ned sleeps in the room but he doesn’t come back until after dinner. No doubt he’s out with their friends. Victor will have told them all the story by now, it’ll make Conor look like an asshole, because he was. No one come looking for him. Conor doesn’t know what he’d do if they did. 

Two weeks and nothing changes. Conor eats dinner alone at a different table. He goes to his classes. Doesn’t hand in any more assignments in english class. The bags under his eyes grow. 

Weasel joins him at dinner one day. Conor rolls his eyes, shakes his head. 

“No,” he says. 

“There’s no other tables.”

Conor looks around. Weasel’s telling the truth. He shrugs. 

“Whatever.”

“Why aren’t you with your friends?” Weasel asks. 

“I didn’t say you could talk to me.”

“Jesus christ, just because you’re depressed doesn’t mean you get to be an asshole.”

“I’m not depressed,” Conor snaps, “and you don’t get to judge anyone else for being an asshole.”

Weasel rolls his eyes. 

They don’t speak to each other for the rest of the meal. The next night Weasel sits across from him, and the night after, and the night after. It becomes sort of a thing, Conor doesn’t mind even when there are empty tables Weasel could easily sit at. 

“Do you want to go throw a ball around?” Weasel asks on Thursday, completely out of the blue. 

“We’re not friends, Weasel.”

“No. But do you have anything better to do than sit around and be depressed?”

“I’m not depressed,” Conor says. 

“Then prove it.”

Weasel gets up. Conor sighs and follows him. He has a ball in his book bag because of course he does. 

“I thought you hated me, why do you want to hang out?” Conor says.

“I don’t hate you,” Weasel says. 

“You’ve called me faggot so many times I was starting to think it was my name.”

“I was just giving you a tough time,” Weasel shrugs. 

“You’ve kicked the shit out of me like four times in the last month.”

“You broke my nose. I thought you’d try to fight back.”

“What like you wanted to get hurt?”

“I wanted a fair fight.”

“What happened that day in the bathroom, when you punched the wall?”

“We’re not friends, Masters, remember?”

Weasel says, he passes the ball to Conor, it slams into his chest. He hasn’t played in half a month but the reflexes come rushing back. His brain might not remember, but his hands do. He snaps the ball back at Weasel. 

There’s no noise other than the sound of the rubber of the ball hitting the flesh of their hands with a satisfying smack. 

“What’s going on with you and Roche?” Weasel asks. 

“No,” Conor says and throws the ball back at Weasel. 

“Oh come one, I’m trying here, man.”

“Just throw the damn ball.”

Weasel does, Conor catches it easily. The sun starts to go down but neither of them really notices. There are no lights on the field, but it’s a clear enough night and the lights at the school are on. 

“So… do you really… not want to be captain?” Weasel says. 

Conor’s getting a little annoyed with all the questions. Weasel is not his friend… he just doesn’t happen to have anyone else to talk to right now. 

He shakes his head. 

“Why?”

“I’m just not… I’m not a talker,” he shrugs, “throw the ball.”

Weasel does, and Conor snaps it back to him. 

“Why do you want to do it so bad?”

“Promised my dad.”

Conor just nods. 

“Not gonna be Victor… but… promise is a promise.”

“Right.”

“I mean Victor’s the best captain I’ve ever had. Don’t tell him I said that. He just… Dunno, he’s a good guy.”

“Yeah.”

“Real good guy.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Always knows what to say… I mean I could be like that, Pascal says I’ve got the voice to lead… haven’t got the eyes for it though… says I don’t know the game.”

“You know the game as well as any of us.”

“He wants you to do it.”

“I don’t so I guess he’s stuck with you.”

“Dickhead.”

So passing a rugby ball around gets added to the Thing that Conor and Weasel have going. Neither would say that they’re friends but it’s all they really have right now. It’s enough to keep Conor from sulking in bed all day. 

“How’s Roche?” Weasel asks for the thousandth time. Conor knows he just wants to get under his skin. 

“No.”

“Jesus Christ,” Weasel drops the rugby ball. 

“Can’t you tell I’m trying?”

“What?” Conor says. 

“I don’t wanna be like Pascal. Not admitting when I’m wrong… the cup… it was… you did that. Even though you… like blokes. It didn’t matter. So uh… did some reading.”

“You can read?”

“Piss off,” Weasel rolls his eyes, “I just… I was wrong. I’m trying to be your friend.”

“Why? So you can kill me in my sleep so you can be captain?”

“Not everyone’s out to get you. You seemed down, thought you could use someone to throw a ball with. That’s all.”

“That’s all?”

“And I wanted to show you that I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry.”

Conor raises and eyebrow.

“And I was wondering if you could teach me how to kick a conversion.”

Conor can’t help but laugh. 

“Yeah,” he says, “yeah, I can do that.”

He lines Weasel up at the line, puts the ball in front of him and shows him what part of his foot to kick with. It takes a few tries but eventually, he makes a kick from the twenty yard line, they move back a few metres. 

“So… why did you let me keep beating the shit out of you.”

He shrugs, “Felt like I deserved it,” it’s the most honest he’s been in weeks. 

Weasel goes quiet, “You didn’t,” he says, “It was my damage not yours.”

“What is your damage?”

“Dead dad,” Weasel shrugs. 

Conor doesn’t speak but Weasel still stops to consider like he’s asked him a question. 

“Shite-bage dead dad… Guess I don’t want to break a promise… but he’s the one who always taught me to talk with my fists.”

Conor doesn’t know why Weasel’s telling him to this, but when he stops to consider, he figures that they’re just about the same right about now. They’ve both pushed everybody away, both alone, and the one thing that keeps both of them going when there’s nothing else is rugby. 

There’s still the problem of Ned though. As often as he tells himself that Ned is better off without him, he thinks about what it would be like to hold him again twice as much. The curtain took care of most of his problems, the longing glances, the midnight urge to crawl into his bed. Sometimes he’ll see Ned looking at him in English class, sometimes it’s Keith, or Tom. Sometimes it’s Victor from across the dining hall while he silently eats lunch with Weasel. 

He catches Sherrys studying him intently in class one day, pretends not to know it.

Like it or not, he fell in love with Ned, it’s harder to fall out of love than he had originally anticipated.

Chapter Text

Weasel has, in his life, made concerted efforts to be a better person. He was actually, quite a kind child. He was polite, soft spoken, and all the grandparents adored him. He never forgot to say please or thank you, and always made sure that the younger kids were taken care of. Once, when he was about six, his youngest cousin fell off of her bike and skinned her knee. She was crying and screaming and there wasn’t an adult in sight. Weasel very calmly knelt down beside her and wiped the blood away with his bare hands. He told her not to look, made her laugh while he helped her hop back to their nan’s house. He took a bandage from the medicine cabinet and cleaned it with some rubbing alcohol, he bandaged the scrape and kissed her knee better. None of the parents even knew she’d been hurt until dinner. 

This kind of behaviour didn’t garner him much popularity in school. No one wanted to be friends with the kid who kissed boo-boos better. So he got meaner, it got easier as he got older. The rugby made him bigger, he grew taller. The other boys thought it was funny when he’d sneer at the smaller children. He started to punch down. The same kindness that had once been within him, that was still there (deep, deep down) now made other boys a target. Sometimes he would see his little cousin, be reminded of the boy he used to be and for a while, he’d be that boy again, but the new Weasel always returned.  

When he got to Woodhill, he found Ned immediately. The perfect target. He was already a loner so Weasel thought he must have been used to it. 

Weasel quickly came to realize that he didn’t have many friends of his own. There were always people who’d talk to him, invite him to parties, and hang out after practice. But no one really knew him. Even Spainer, his roommate, supposed to be his best friend, didn’t really talk to him about much other than rugby and school. 

So forgive him, if he wants to be friends with Conor. It’s the first chance he’s had in years. And god he really is trying to be better. 

His dad wasn’t particularly awful, just tough, reserved, hardly ever home from working so hard trying to make ends meet. Weasel loved his dad, the times he was around were always good, always fun. When he died Weasel was devastated, it all happened so fast, he was diagnosed, then 2 months later he was gone. He supposed he never quite processed it all. He promised he’d bring the title to Woodhill, just like his father had done before him, and now he’s done it...but he knows it would mean more if he was captain. 

Conor’s moping again. All he seems to do is mope. Weasel joins him at the dinner table. Conor doesn’t protest this time. 

“You look miserable,” Weasel says, setting down his dinner tray. 

“Fuck off,” Conor says immediately. 

“Just an observation.”

Weasel looks over his shoulder and sees Victor, Ned and the rest of Conor’s friends still sitting at their usual table. He still hasn’t been able to figure out what happened. After dinner they wordlessly walk to the field, Weasel carries the ball. They practice kicking, they practice catching. Weasel even pulls a laugh out of Conor when he mimes an overdramatic american football celebration. 

They’re sitting on the bleachers a few hours later. The sun has gone down completely and their sharing sips of water from Weasel’s water bottle. 

“Why are you hanging out with me and not your friends?’’ Weasel tries again. 

“Fell out,” Conor answers. 

“Were you and Roche like… a thing?”

“You are the absolute last person I want to talk to about any of that,” it’s almost a laugh, the noise Conor makes. 

“Fine,” Weasel says. 

Honestly, he thinks it’s fair enough. Homo was always the worst insult he could think of, it’s what his father said, it’s what Pascal said. It kind of just escalated from there. Conor was a real person, he was a rugby player, a decent guy. Weasel doesn’t actually care whether he (or Ned for that matter) are actually gay. 

Gay is crap, or bad, or dumb, it’s not about liking guys… or whatever. 

“But I guess if he’s why you’re moping…”

“Not moping.”

“Liar.”

Conor rolls his eyes. 

“I just mean maybe there was something there… jesus, fucking… bend...:” Weasel starts but quickly stops himself. 

Conor laughes. 

“Nice try.”

They go their separate ways. The next morning, Weasel’s heading to his class when Victor corners him by the bathroom. He shoves him against the wall and sneers. 

“What the fuck are you playing at,” Victor demands. 

“What?”

“Conor. What are you trying to do.”

“He said you weren’t friends anymore.”

“‘Course he would,” Victor rolls his eyes. 

“Dunno. He seemed bummed out.”

“Asshole.”

“I didn’t mean like… he seemed down or whatever.”

“Since when are you a kind person.”

Weasel shrugs, that stings a little. 

“He’s still my friend… I don’t know what you’re playing at but I swear to god if you make things worse, I’ll fucking kill you. Ned too.”

He lets go of Weasel. Weasel doesn’t know what to say after that. He just lets Victor walk off instead of talking with his fists like he so often does. 

“D’you ever think about talking to Victor or Ned again?” Weasel asks Conor over dinner. 

“No,” Conor says. 

“Seems like they still think you’re their friend.”

“Weasel!” Conor says, “I’m not hanging out with you for deep emotional conversations, alright?”

Weasel convinces Conor to go to a party the next weekend. 

“Come on, rugby starts up next week, it’ll be our last chance to get actually liquored up”

Conor agrees and they make the trek into town. Weasel knows a guy, whose cousin lets him use his apartment for parties on weekends. They take swigs from a bottle of something bitter and sweet on the way. 

The one thing Weasel was not expecting to see upon arrival was Ned, Victor, and Wall standing against the wall. Victor’s shooting daggers with his eyes the second he sees Weasel walk through the door. Conor sees Ned immediately and tenses up. He turns away and into the kitchen where there are a couple bottles of booze and some jello shots. Weasel picks up one of the jello shots but Conor grabs two and does a regular shot. 

“Let’s fucking go.”

There’s music, and beer pong, and so many hot girls. Weasel quickly gets pulled into a conversation with one of them while Conor crushes someone at beer pong. He has a partner Weasel doesn’t recognize. Probably one of the cousins friends. He looks older, taller, he’s wearing the kind of glasses that guys who read Shakespeare for fun wear. He keeps touching the small of Conor’s back and throwing his arm around him when he makes a shot. Conor has something in his glass that Weasel can smell from across the room. 

Conor and the guy win the game. The guy whispers something to Conor and they disappear. Weasel’s not sure how the whole being gay thing works, but he’s pretty sure Conor’s about to get laid. Weasel, out of instinct, turns to Ned. He’s bright red, almost fuming. He glares at Weasel, who quickly averts his eyes. He turns back to the girl he was talking to. She puts her hand on his shoulder and laughs at something he said. He knows it wasn’t funny. His hands, in contrast, are completely still. At his sides, he’s watching Conor disappear out the front door. 

“I should kiss you,” the girl says. 

“Huh,” Weasel responds. 

“I should kiss you,” she repeats. 

“I uh… yeah. Y’should,” Weasel says. 

“What’s your name,” she puts her hand on his face. It’s so small and entirely too clammy. 

“My friends call me Weasel,” he admits. 

“That’s not very nice,” she pouts. 

“It’s a joke,” he says. 

She smiles and then leans up to kiss him. Her mouth is hot, it tastes like raspberry vodka and old cheese (or maybe it’s wine). Her tongue is immediately crashing into his mouth, he’s startled by this development but he lets her continue. His eyes are open, which he knows is kind of weird but there’s so much happening around him. He absentmindedly places his hand on the small of her back. Ned is still glaring at him, he sees this out of the corner of his eyes. Ned looks at him, they make eye contact. Weasel snaps his eyes shut immediately. The girl pulls away and smiles up at him. 

“That was fun.”

She’s gone just as quickly, off with her friends. Ned whispers something to Victor and then walks over to Weasel. Ned’s standing right in front of him and Weasel doesn’t know how to respond. Old Weasel would have just punched him in the face, but he thinks twice about it, Conor definitely wouldn’t like that. So Weasel just stands, hands in his pockets. Ned looks angry, but his face soon softens. 

“Can we talk?” Ned says. 

Weasel nods. 

They head out onto the balcony. The air is chilly but not unpleasant. It’s early spring and Weasel can feel that in the air. 

“Why are you hanging out with Conor?” Ned wastes no time. 

Weasel shrugs, “He seemed alone.”

“No shit,” Ned says. 

“What happened?” Weasel asks. 

“What?”

“You two never stopped hanging out, then he was eating alone.”

Ned sighs, “Why are you being so civil with him?”

Weasel doesn’t admit it, but that hurts a little bit. He’s trying to be better and everyone still thinks he’s the same person he was (granted he was that person like two weeks ago so he gets it). 

“I’m trying,” Weasel shrugs

“Why?” Ned asks. 

“Dunno, realized that I didn’t wanna be this guy forever…don’t wanna turn into Pascal.”

“You beat the shit out of him for a month straight.”

The pain is evident in Weasel’s expression, “Thought…I guess I thought he’d fight back. He didn’t.”

Ned sighs. 

“He surprised me in the bathroom one day, then I just kept… beatin’ the shit out of him I guess.”

“He wasn’t gonna bum you in the bathroom, Weasel,” Ned rolls his eyes. 

“Wasn’t that,” Weasel says, “I was… kind of… crying,” he mumbles. 

He expects Ned to laugh, to run back into the party and tell everyone but he doesn’t. He looks sadder for Weasel than Weasel would have expected. 

“Why did he let you…”

“He told me that he felt like he deserved it.”

Ned leans against the wall, runs his hands through his hair and sighs. 

“Were you two…” Weasel trails off. 

Ned just nods. He slides down the wall until he’s sitting. Weasel considers and then joins him. This is completely uncharted territory for him, feelings and shit. 

“I just… uh… I know that this is weird… but I’m trying to be a better person. I just wanted to say I’m sorry… I keep putting my own shit on other people. You don’t have to like… forgive me or anything but I just wanted to know.”

Ned doesn’t forgive him, at least he doesn’t say so, he just nods. 

“Guess I thought…Actually, dunno what I thought. Maybe I’m a bit gay,” he laughs, but he’s not exacly joking. There was one common theme stringing all of his victims together. He was punishing them for not being ashamed. They were all unabashedly kind, or geeky, or with Ned, queer. 

“What?” Ned says. 

“Dunno. Just a theory,” Weasel says. 

“My homophobic bully turning out to be secretly gay is not the plot twist I expected tonight.”

“I only said a bit,” Weasel protests. 

“I saw you kissing that girl, looked like you had your tongue in a dead fish’s mouth,” Ned laughs. 

Weasel looks down at his hands and shrugs. 

“I think Conor misses you.”

“I miss him too.”

Weasel can hear the cars driving past them, the partygoers chatting inside. He can hear Ned breathing and the wind rushing past them. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he puts his hand on Ned’s knee, he leans over and he kisses Ned on the lips. Neither one of them closes their eyes. Weasel can see Ned, surprised at first, then confused, then sad. He puts his hand on Weasel’s chest and gently pushes him away. 

“I’m sorry,” Ned says. 

“No. I get it,” Weasel says. 

Ned nods. It didn’t quite feel right to him either… felt right that he was kissing a boy but not Ned. Not when he knew how much Conor and Ned meant to each other. 

“Truce,” Ned holds out his hand. 

Weasel shakes it. 

“Truce,” he agrees. 

“I really do hope you two figure it out,” Weasel adds. 

“Thanks,” Ned says, and he means it.

Chapter Text

Conor didn’t sleep with him… by his definition anyway. He walked for a couple blocks, the dude had his hand on his back, and he was smiling at Conor in a way that no one really had in the last few months. It made him feel special again. He had every intention of going home with him, he was drunk, but not so drunk that he was making a decision that was out of character. They kissed outside, in an alleyway. The guy (whose name Conor had forgotten) pushed him up against the brick. Conor had forgotten what it was like to kiss someone taller than him. The man ran his hand through his hair, he tugged a little and it felt good . Like really really good. Like, so good that Conor groaned a little bit when it happened. 

“I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to,” the man said, his hand cupped Conor’s cheek, other hand still stroking his hair. 

“I want to,” Conor whispered and got down to his knees.

His hands were still in his hair, the guy held on tighter, Conor smirked, satisfied with himself. 

He stood up and the man continued to kiss him, panting hard and grinning. 

“Fuck,” was all he managed out. 

His tongue pulled at Conor’s insistent and warm. His teeth scraped Conor’s bottom lip, he bit down gently and pulled at it. 

Conor stepped back. For a moment Ned was there, kissing him, holding him, crying out his little “uhs” and “hmmphs,” whenever Conor did something particularly nice. 

Conor was straining to get out of his jeans and going home with this guy had been his intention, but he had to go home now. His home. Ned’s home.  

“At least let me help with that,” the man said, gesturing to Conor’s pants. 

Conor shook his head. 

He’s walking alone now, drunker than he’d thought, stumbling slowly back to the train station. He passes the clubs downtown and wonders if this means he’s gone back to old habits, decides it doesn’t since he’d had no intention of hooking up tonight it just kind of… happened. 

He makes his way on to the train and curls up into the seat, all he can think about is Ned’s head resting against his shoulder on these long journeys. 

There’s a bottle of gin under his bed, so he finds it, and drinks half of it. Ned’s not home yet, Conor wonders how the party’s going for him. He slumps onto the floor, leaning against his bed and sighs. He wonders if it was stupid not to sleep with that guy, there’s no use holding out fo Ned anymore, not when he’s decided to let him be better off without him. 

Ned stumbles in mere moments later, he says goodbye to Victor and Conor thinks he can hear Weasel’s voice. Conor stays quiet, he’s pretty sure Ned hasn’t noticed he’s there. Ned takes a deep breath in and lets it out in shaky spurts. Conor’s heart hurts in his chest. He sees Ned’s shadow, it’s sitting close to the curtain. Conor shuffles across the room. He sticks his hand under the curtain, it pops out on Ned’s side of the room. Conor will take whatever comes to him, whether that be Ned taking his hand or Ned swatting it away. Ned’s pinky finger grazes Conor’s thumb, he pulls away briefly but the full weight of his hand soon blankets Conor’s. His hands are so warm, Conor’s missed that. He tells himself that he can’t. That this is something he’s not allowed to feel. 

Ned turns Conor’s hand in his own, Conor’s limp. Too drunk to fight, to sober to say how he feels. Ned laces his fingers into Conor’s and sighs. 

“I miss you,” Ned says. 

The right words exist somewhere but Conor has no idea where to find them. 

“You’re better without me,” Conor mumbles. 

Ned’s hand shakes. 

“That’s not true.”

“It is,” Conor says. 

Conor feels Ned shake his head. 

“I’m a mess. You deserve better.”

“I don’t want that. I want you,” Ned says, 

Conor had never considered that and now that he has, his stomach clenches. 

Ned lifts the curtain and crawls underneath. It’s the first time in weeks that Conor has seen his face so close up. Ned runs his thumb over Conor’s jaw, his nose, his lips. Conor doesn’t move, he doesn’t pull away. Ned cups his cheek, he kisses Conor, gently. It’s soft, it’s chaste, it’s quick, and Conor wants more. Ned pulls away, looks at Conor’s eyes like he’s searching for something. 

He puts his hand on Conor’s shoulder, grabs him and pulls him close, he kisses him to make up for lost time. Tongue between his teeth, biting down in all the places that  make Conor squirm. Ned’s hands press up against Conor’s chest, they find them him of his shirt and slowly start to inch it up. Conor pulls away, out of breath. 

“Ned,” he says. 

Ned just shakes his head, “Don’t talk. Not now.”

And just like that he’s in Conor’s lap, making Conor reach for his lips. Conor does because he can’t help it, because as reluctant as he is, he can admit he missed this. 

Ned groans, pushes himself against Conor and sighs. He gets off Conor’s lap, flops to the side and lays down on the ground. Conor doesn’t know what else to do so he joins him. 

They look up at the popcorn ceiling. They both sigh at the same time. They’re not holding hands but their fingers are touching. Conor doesn’t tell him about the guy from the party, he knows he saw. Ned’s better than him in so many ways. 

Conor’s not sure who falls asleep first but they both do. 

When he wakes up, Ned is still asleep on the floor next to him. The pale sun fills their room. Ned rolls over. Not awake, just adjusting. Ned rolls into Conor’s arms, nuzzles against his chest. Conor goes back to sleep, Ned’s warmth enough to keep him on the floor. He’s always loved the smell of Ned’s hair, he’s not sure if it’s the shampoo or the hair dye, but either way is smells clean, and powdery. He doesn’t dream which is a welcome change. 

When he wakes up for real, Ned is in his own bed. 

Conor finds Weasel on the rugby pitch later, talking to Victor of all people. He can stomach talking to Weasel but not Victor. He just starts running, pretending not to notice him. Both he and Ned had been fairly un-sober when they slept together on the floor, it didn’t change anything between them. A sober mind realizes that Ned deserves better. 

“Oi! Conor,” Weasel shouts and joins him in running. 

“Fuckin hell, you’re fast,” Weasel pants. 

“What d’you want Weasel,” Conor says. 

“Just to say hello, s’pose,” Weasel says. 

“Okay,” Conor says.

This feels distinctly unlike Weasel. He doesn’t talk to Conor unless he wants something. They run in silence, stretch in silence. Walk to breakfast in silence. 

Conor sits with Weasel, feels a pang of nostalgia when he hears Wally and Victor laughing at Keith and Tom. He turns and sees Ned laughing quietly to himself. Everything has carried on without him, and that stings. He looks over at Weasel, he seems to be studying him. 

“What?” Conor snaps. 

“Nothing.”

Weasel’s not in any of his classes so he’s alone for most of the day. He still sits next to Ned in English class but they don’t look over at one another when Sherry says something ridiculous, they don’t leave the classroom one after the other. 

Sherry hands out an assignment.

“I’m giving you the next twenty minutes to answer this prompt,” he says. 

Conor turns over the paper and reads. 

Describe the Dramatic irony present in Shakespeare’s “much ado about nothing” and whether or not this enhances the experience for the viewer. 

Conor swallows a lump in his throat. He doesn’t know how to answer this, he has no ideas. An in-class assignment has been his worst nightmare. 

He picks up his pen and manages two sentences. In the first, he defines dramatic irony, in the second he summarizes the play. After twenty minutes, everyone hands their pages in. Conor makes sure to slip his underneath someone else’s so Sherry won’t call him out in that moment. He sits through the rest of class, his stomach heavy, hands shaking. He thinks he notices Ned looking at him. 

Weasel meets him after class, they get dinner and then head out to the field. 

Weasel is unusually quiet. Usually he tries to make conversation, pull something out of Conor. Sometimes he’ll make a joke, sometimes Conor will actually laugh. 

He crawls into bed without doing his homework. Ned comes back to the room without speaking. Conor pretends to be asleep so he can hear Ned being completely himself. He throws his clothes on the floor, his side of the room so it shouldn’t matter to Conor. It does a little bit. He hears the springs of Ned’s mattress heave. Hears Ned take a deep breath and flop backwards. 

And then he starts crying. Conor’s body tenses up. He doesn’t know what to do, he should be asleep, Ned thinks he’s asleep. He can’t help it. He stands up, draws the curtain back and sits next to Ned. 

Ned bounces up immediately, tears are still streaming down his face but he tries to get rid of them. Conor puts his hand on Ned’s thigh.  Runs his thumb over his pants and bites his lip. Ned looks over at him and shakes his hand.

“I have no idea what you want,” Ned says. 

Conor shakes his head. He wants to be better, he wants Ned, he wants his friends, he wants to love and be loved, he wants to want and be wanted, but the biggest want doesn’t line up with the rest of them. He wants Ned to be happy. 

Conor doesn’t say any of this. 

“I love you,” Conor says. 

Ned starts crying again, rests his head in his hands. 

“You said it the night.... The night in the forest. I never got to say it back.”

Ned’s still crying, he shakes his head. 

“Why did you let me leave?” Ned says. 

“What? Let you leave?” Conor asks. 

“Why didn’t you come after me, stop me.”

“I thought you were done. I thought you wanted to be done,” Conor says. 

“I want you. That’s all I want,” Ned says. 

There are tears in the back of Conor’s eyes. 

“I didn’t know how to handle you. I, I mean. I didn’t know what was going on and you wouldn’t tell me. I wanted you to let me help you.”

“I don’t want to make you do that.”

“What if that’s what I want?” Ned says. 

“I don’t want to hold you back.”

“Me? Conor I haven’t had anything to look forward to until you were in my life. I was never going to do anything. How could you hold me back?”

Conor doesn’t know what to say, just shakes him head. 

“Fuck,” Conor says. 

“Fuck,” Ned answers. 

Ned rests his head against Conor’s shoulder, Conor kisses the top of his head. 

Neither one of them talks. They don’t take down the curtain, they go to sleep in their own beds, but it’s a start.

Chapter Text

“Ned,” Conor whispers. 

It’s the middle of the night. The curtain is still between them but it’s thin enough that he can make out Ned’s shadow, stirring and turning to face his shadow. 

“Yeah,” Ned says.

“Did you mean it when you said you didn’t want to leave me that night?”

All Conor can hear is Ned’s breathing, he shifts slightly in his bed. 

“Yes,” Ned says. 

“What do you want?” Conor says, “What do you want to happen now?”

“I want everything to be okay,” Ned says, “but it’s not, and I know it’s not so I want you to tell me when it’s not so I can help you. So I can at least know.”

“What if I don’t know how to do that?”

“Try,” Ned says. 

Fuck, does Conor love Ned more than anything he’s ever loved before. Fuck, does he ever want this to work. He rolls over onto his side, arms wrapped around his own torso. 

“I don’t want you to have to… I dunno,” Conor plays with a piece of his shirt, “I don’t want you to have to carry my shit.”

Ned doesn’t speak for a moment, just as Conor’s certain that he’s rolled over, effectively ending the conversation, Ned sighs. 

“Conor. I love you.”

“I love you too.”

“That’s what love is. It’s carrying each other’s shit, right?” Ned says. 

“I guess- Well I guess I don’t really know.”

“I think it is. I think it’s wanting to carry each other’s shit.”

“So what’s your shit, then?” Conor asks. 

“No. You know my shit. It’s your turn,” Ned says. 

“I guess I just don’t know how to say everything.”

“Start somewhere.”

“I guess I’ve just,” he wrings his hands and sighs, “I felt like you should do better. And I know you keep saying that you want this and you want me but I can’t shake the feeling that I’m damaged goods.”

Ned doesn’t say anything. 

“I don’t want you to have to deal with it. All the shit with my dad,the fighting. It’s so easy for me to lie, and I don’t want to lie to you.”

Ned’s still quiet. 

“I guess it started because I started thinking too much after we uh… well y’know, you’d never, I had… a lot, I guess. When I was at my old school, I snuck out all the time to the bars and that club downtown. There were men, not boys, men. I just… let what happened happen. I feel like I,” he trails off, “It’s gonna sound dumb but I feel like I just gave away something that was supposed to be yours,” Conor says. 

Ned finally speaks, his words coming out with a huff, “That’s bullshit,” he says, “I don’t care about that. I didn’t and I don’t.”

“I guess I know that, but I don’t really know that.”

“Conor,” Ned sighs. 

Conor wishes words came to him as easily as they did to Ned. 

“I’m sorry. I’m an idiot, and a mess and I’m still not sure I’ve 100 per cent dealt with this whole being gay thing. I’ve got a fucked up family but not fucked up enough that I feel like I’m allowed to feel sorry for myself. I let Weasel kick the shit out of me because I felt like I deserved it, last week after the party I sucked some dude off in the alley and I can’t remember his name no matter how hard I try and it didn’t feel right no matter how hard I tried because it wasn’t you, because no matter how much I tried to convince myself that I’m not in love with you anymore, I am and I don’t know if I ever won’t be,” Conor takes in a deep breath after confessing to everything he can possibly think of. 

Another long pause and Conor’s certain he’s scared him off completely now. 

“I kissed Weasel,” Ned says. 

Conor’s jaw drops and he can’t help the snorting laugh that comes out of his mouth. 

“Are you fucking with me?”

“Nope.”

Conor sits up and looks at Ned through the curtain. 

“Technically Weasel kissed me.”

“And he didn’t explode?”

Ned laughs, “No, he actually apologized.”

“Shit,” Conor says. 

“Dunno what’s going on but everyone’s been dealing with their shit recently,” Ned says. 

“Maybe it’s our turn to deal with ours,” Conor says.

He hears the floor creaking as Ned stands up. He slowly takes down the string that’s been holding up the curtain and gently folds it up. He sets it on the ground in the centre of the room and stands, looking expectantly at Conor. Conor stands up, he meets him in the middle of the room. They just look at each other for a minute, Conor’s happy to take in every single one of Ned’s freckles. Ned reaches up and touches his face. 

Ned kisses him before he does, not making up for lost time, but knowing that they have all the time in the world. They go slow, Conor’s hands slide down Ned’s waist to rest just above his hips. 

“You’re still so cold,” Ned says between breaths. 

Conor laughs, “I’m glad you’re here to warm me up.”

The last month has been so long. The days melted together without Ned. Nothing meant anything anymore. Everything was cold. Ned’s back and he feels like fire. Like the warmest kind of fire, the kind that his grandfather built at Christmas, the kind that comes from a lone candle during a power outage, the most beautiful kind. 

“Weasel kiss you like this?” Conor smirks into a kiss. He tilts his mouth, moving closer to Ned. 

Ned laughs, “Nothing like this,” It comes out breathy and if you ask Conor, that’s pretty damn hot. 

“Couldn’t believe it was happening at first,” Ned laughs, he buries his head in Conor’s neck, kissing gently, teeth scraping just slightly against the skin. 

Conor inhales, sharply, smiles and runs his hands through Ned’s hair. He’s missed his hair, he takes in the smell of it, the feeling, the softness, the roots which always seem to grow faster than he can dye them back. 

“I love you,” Ned breathes into his neck. 

Conor doesn’t tense up. 

“I love you I love youIloveyou,” Ned says, his words running together. 

Conor holds on tighter. 

“I love you,” he says finally. 

Ned hooks his leg around the back of Conor’s, jumps so that Conor’s supporting his weight and kisses him again. Conor stumbles back, lands on Ned’s bed and stays there. Ned plants kisses on either side of his neck and swings his leg over his torso so that his legs are on either side of him. 

“You’re hot when you’re vulnerable,” Ned teases. 

Conor laughs.

“You’re hot pretty much all the time,” Conor says. 

Ned’s arms buckle and he falls into Conor, he giggles into his neck. 

“You’re such a dork.”

Ned’s right. The grin envelopes Conor’s face. He wraps his arms around Ned and just smiles. He holds him to his chest. 

“I missed you,” Ned whispers in his ear. 

Conor nods. 

“I’m sorry.”

Ned shakes his head. 

“I should have tried harder to help you. Shouldn’a left”

“No. You can’t put that on yourself.”

Ned shrugs, 

“I owe Victor an apology too.”

“He’ll take it,” Ned says. 

“Hope so. It can wait though.”

Conor looks up at the ceiling, hand resting on the back of Ned’s head, absentmindedly smoothing out his hair. 

“Oh, I’m not letting you go anywhere now that I’ve got you here,” Ned says. 

Conor relaxes under Ned’s weight, wraps his free hand around his waist. 

“So, Weasel, huh?” Conor says.  

Ned laughs. Conor knows he has no right to be jealous about Ned kissing Weasel that night, especially considering what he got up to. 

“Jealous?” Ned teases. 

Conor shakes his head, “Surprised,” he says. 

“Me too,” Ned says, “though, he only said he was a ‘bit gay’ so dunno what that means to him.”

Conor shrugs, “Maybe you’re just irresistible.”

Ned moves his head slightly so Conor can see him cocking his eyebrow. 

“Flattering,” he says. 

Conor and Ned lay silently, enjoying the feeling of being pressed up against each other once again. Both of them exist in that hazy space in between sleep and consciousness. Conor closes his eyes, not sure how much time is passing but still aware of Ned’s presence, how could he not be? Conor feels like the luckiest boy in the world. Not only did Ned pick him, but he missed him enough to come back to him. 

“Conor,” Ned says, his voice is still full of sleep. 

“Mmm,” Conor answers. 

“Are we actually doing this again?”

“Are we?”

“If we are, I need it to be different.”

“How?”

“I need it to be like this. We need to be able to talk.”

It scares Conor. He’s good at keeping things to himself, keeping his emotions bottled up in his chest until he absolutely can’t anymore. He’s comfortable like that. But for Ned? For Ned he decides it’s worth it. For Ned anything would be worth it. 

“Okay,” Conor says. 

Ned settles back into Conor, he doesn’t really mind being used as a glorified pillow in this case. Ned’s warm and soft and he feels like home. 

They wake up the next morning. Ned’s pretty much on top of Conor, mattress forgotten. Ned presses into Conor. 

“Are you going for your run?” Ned says. 

Conor shakes his head. 

“What?”

“I can skip one morning. Especially for you,” he kisses the side of Ned’s head. 

He feels Ned grinning. 

They get out of bed eventually. Slowly getting dressed. Ned lays around with his shirt half done up for nearly an hour. Conor allows himself the pleasure of looking. 

“Breakfast?” Ned finally says. 

He does up the shirt but forgoes his tie. His shirt is wrinkled, he rolls the sleeves up but one of them falls so he looks even more disheveled. 

Conor sighs. 

“S’pose I have to apologize to them some time.”

“They’re still your friends, Conor,” Ned says.

“Hope so.”

Conor and Ned get in the breakfast line together. He sees Victor and Wally in line just ahead of them, Keith and Tom have claimed their table. He for Weasel without really thinking about it. He’s nowhere to be seen. 

Conor looks down at his plate as they walk. Oatmeal, fruit, orange juice. Ned sits down first. Conor stands for slightly longer than usual, Ned jerks his head gesturing for him to sit. His friends look at him for slightly longer than usual, all wondering the same thing, but no one says anything. They return to whatever conversation they’d been having before. Rugby tryouts, everybody theorizes about who’s going to make the team, who’ll be captain and who might get cut. Wally’s heavily invested, listing off all the reasons Weasel would make a shit captain, then acknowledging that they’re exactly why Pascal would pick him. Conor doesn’t defend him. Victor’s staring at him, like he’s waiting for him to break, or swear, or start screaming and get up. He doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t say anything for the entirety of breakfast. He just sits, he laughs, he smiles. He pretends it’s normal again. No one seems to mind, even Ned. 

They head to their separate classes. Conor has the same second period study hall as Victor. Usually he does his reading, silently, in the library. He and Victor never talk during this period, Victor cares about school, he manages his time well so he can balance it all, Conor never wants to cut into that time. Victor sits across from him today. He looks over at him and shrugs slightly. 

“I was thinking we could go study outside,” Victor says. 

“Okay,” Conor nods. 

Nobody really supervises the library, Father Thomas’ office is in the back corner so occasionally he’ll shush someone, but he won’t notice if someone decides to slip out, or never shows up in the first place. 

They sit under the bleachers since the sun is beating down on top of them. Victor doesn’t open his book, he just looks at Conor, studying him the same way he did at breakfast. 

“You and Ned work things out.”

Conor nods meekly. 

“I’m glad,” Victor says. His tone is cool. 

Conor nods, “Me too.”

“I know I can’t be mad at you. Not really. Since it wasn’t really your fault. But I can’t help it sometimes. I was really fucking pissed at you.”

Conor has nothing to say. 

“When I was a kid, I had to watch my mom spiralling all the time. She made life exhausting for me and Liv. I hated her for it and I hated you for doing the same thing. For doing that to Ned especially.”

“I know.”

“Wait,” Victor says, “I’m sorry. I should’ve tried harder.”

“I didn’t want your help, wouldn’t have worked,” Conor says, “Me and Ned talked about it. I’m gonna try and go to him when things get hard, more often,” he says, “At least let him know where I’m at.”

“Why’d you hand out with Weasel? I mean you let him whale on you and then it seemed like you were pals,” Victor says. 

“Weasel’s got his own shit, too,” Conor says. 

Victor nods. 

“Just don’t… please don’t disappear again. We care about you.”

Conor nods. He supposes his heart should feel full with friendship. Knowing that so many people care about him. Instead there’s a dull ache, a weight to Victor’s words, a sense of obligation. The more people who care about him, the more people he has to let down. 

They hear the bell ring a moment later, and head in for their next class. Conor’s off to English. He sits next to Ned, smiles at him. 

Conor’s getting tired of people staring at him. Which is exactly what Sherry does the second he sits down. It’s like he’s trying to figure something out. The second bell rings and Sherry stands up. His lesson is about comedic relief. He has them study a few scenes from different plays. They discuss them, Conor doesn’t put his hand up once. 

The bell rings and everybody stands to go back to the dorms. 

“Conor!” Sherry says. It sounds slightly to enthusiastic, “Ned!” He adds. 

“Can I have a word?”

Chapter Text

Mr. Sherry leans against his small desk. His face is stern. His eager manner quickly dropped once the rest of the boys left the room. Ned and Conor stand straight backed. Conor thinks that even Ned is nervous about upsetting Sherry. The consequences for cheating won’t bother him, but the idea of disappointing their beloved english teacher would. 

Sherry sighs. 

“Walter — er Mr. Curly—  has asked me to speak with both of you,” he says. 

Conor sees Ned anxiously tapping his foot against the linoleum. 

“Sir,” Conor says quickly, 

Sherry cuts him off holding up a hand. 

“Hold on Conor, this isn’t what you think it is.”

Conor and Ned glance at each other, both wearing the same perplexed look. 

“It would appear that Ned’s performance in the National Essay Competition has given our headmaster a taste for essay writing. So, he’s elected to host a competition at the school”

Out of the corner of Conor’s eye, Ned looks down at his shoes. 

“He’d like Conor to write something,” Sherry says. 

“Sorry, sir?” Conor says. 

“He’s seen improvement in your english grade,” Sherry says this with such incredulity that Conor knows they’ve been caught. 

Sherry’s eyes narrow, “I think we both know who’s to blame for that improvement,” Sherry glances at Ned. 

Ned’s turned bright red by now, he doesn’t have anything to say but he’s biting his tongue. 

“Please don’t blame him,” Conor squeaks out. 

“I very much should, Conor. Proper procedure says that I should inform Walter and fail both of you immediately.”

Conor sees Ned’s shoulders sink.

“But,” Sherry continues, “I don’t think you’d learn anything other than to resent the system more than you already do.”

“I’m really sorry sir,” Conor scrambles, “Punish me, don’t punish Ned, please, he was only trying to help.”

“I know, Conor,” Sherry says impatiently, “That’s why I have a deal for you.”

“Sorry, sir?”

“I won’t make you re-write your essays if you participate in Walter’s essay contest. I’m disappointed in you both but I’m not sure if failing you is going to teach you anything of value,” Sherry says. 

Ned looks up. 

“I want to teach you not to speak in a borrowed voice, but you need to find your own first,” Sherry says, “find your voice, Conor. And if someone lends you his,” he shoots a pointed glance at Ned, “I will know.”

“Thank you, sir,” Conor says quietly. 

Ned’s bright red as they leave the classroom and Conor can sense a rant incoming. Their bedroom door slams behind him, he calmly steps onto his own bed looking down at Conor and goes off. 

“God that’s just like him,” Ned says, “Pontificating about plagiarism, pretentious! What gives him the right to force you to write an essay. You should write one about the history of rugby or guitar strings or something just to piss him off!” Ned shouts. 

“Ned,” Conor says. 

“What gives him the fucking right! What gives him the right,” Ned runs his hands through his hair, “You’re not a writer and he saw what the fuck happened when he made you do that fucking monologue, he’s going to make you read it in front of the entire school? What lesson is that supposed to teach?”

Conor looks up at Ned, his hand rests on his hip. “It’s fine,” he says. 

“Fucking bullshit, it’s all just fucking bullshit.”

Conor sighs and looks at Ned. He wraps his arms around Ned’s waist and pulls him down. Ned bounces on the bed and looks at Conor. 

“I’ll manage, okay?” Conor smooths Ned’s hair with the back of his hand.

 He kisses the top of his forehead, “I promise.”

“How?” Ned asks. 

“I dunno,” Conor says, “But I think I can do it.”

“How do you know?”

“Just do,” Conor says. 

“I love you,” Ned says. 

“I love you too.”

Ned lays down in his bed and sighs. Conor sits next to him and strokes his arm. 

“I’d do anything for you,” Ned says. 

“I know,” Conor answers, “You don’t have to.”

Chapter Text

Conor manages to drag Ned out of bed for dinner. He still hasn’t apologized to Wally, or Keith or Tom but he thinks everything being back to normal ought to be enough. 

Rugby tryouts are tomorrow and it’s all any of them can talk about.It’s bittersweet for Victor and Wally, knowing that they’ll only be with the team through the spring, but Keith and Tom are nervous. Conor’s spot is basically guaranteed, he’s a senior, and an out-half, no one else really knows how to play that position. Keith and Tom, however, are both props, they’ve seen some of the younger boys, boys on the junior team playing that position, playing it well and they’re a year younger than Conor, anything could happen to them. 

“Victor, you’re coming back for the spring season right?” Ned asks. 

Victor nods, “Pascal wants my help finding a decent eightman to replace me, but for the time being, I’m all you’ve got.” he shrugs. 

“You think Weasel’l be back on the wing?” Wally asks. 

“Probably. Looks like you’ll have to put up with him as your partner for another couple months,” Keith laughs. 

“Dunno,” Quin says, “He seemed a pretty good flank in the senior cup. Either way you’ll have to put up with him,”

“At least I know I’ve got a spot. You might wanna start cleaning up your grabs, we need a scrum-half,” Wally teases. 

Keith turns read and throws a bit of potato in Wally’s direction. 

“We’ll be just fine, lads,” Victor says. 

“Long as Weasel’s not captain,” Quin says. 

Conor and Ned exchange a knowing glance. 

“Even if Weasel’s captain. He’s just one guy. Spainer’s not gonna take his shit, neither should anyone else,” Victor says. It’s such a characteristically Victor thing to say that it’s almost funny. 

They all roll their eyes. 

“I think I can handle Weasel,” Conor says. He knows something that no one else does, and, if he has to, he’ll use it to keep Weasel in line. He hopes it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, his team means more to him than any semblance of friendship he’d shared with Weasel. 

“I still think Ned should come out,” Wally says, his mouth is full. 

“As a laugh? Maybe,” Ned says. 

“No seriously, you’d make a good eightman, I think. You’ve got the build for it.”

“You’re lucky to get me cheering for you. Don’t push it,” Ned says. 

They laugh and no one talks for a bit. 

“Good luck though,” Victor says, “I want you all back on the team. Even if I’m only captain for the spring training.”

Rugby is a sport best played in the mud, that’s what Conor’s always thought at least. When he was younger, it just felt cooler. Coming home caked in mud, his mother having to wash his shirt twice to get the grass stains out. It made it look like he’d fought a battle. As he got older, he realized the technical advantages that came from playing in the mud. Rain made everybody slippery, but he quickly realized that if his hands were coated in dried out mud it could give him a little extra grip on the ball and on the other players. He also quickly realized that it was easier to slide to his knees to score at the end of the field when the ground was wet. 

So you can imagine his delight when he wakes up on the morning of rugby tryouts to find that it’s lightly drizzling rain. Ned nuzzles closer to his chest. 

“You have to wake up, don’t you,” Ned grumbles. 

“If you want to keep being able to say that you’re dating a charming rugby player, then yes.”

“What about a charming man who never leaves my side?”

“Why don’t you come with me?”

“To shower?” Ned says, he’s always cheeky in the morning. 

“To tryouts… though I’m sure we could work something out, maybe just not today.”

Ned throws his leg over Conor’s torso. 

“Five minutes,” Ned says. 

“Stay for five minutes.”

“Three,” Conor says. 

“Three and a half,” Ned shoots back. 

“Fine,” Conor says and he lets himself fall back into the pillow. 

“Are you nervous?” Ned asks. 

“Not really,” Conor answers honestly. 

There are a lot of things that make him nervous but rugby, the act of playing, the physical game, has never been one of them.

“I know what I’ve got to do,” he says, “Just have to go out and do it.”

“You’re such an athlete,” Ned says. 

“Do you want me to be something else?”

“No,” Ned says, “I like you like this.”

“You’ve got thirty seconds left,” Conor says. 

Ned kisses him for all thirty of the seconds, Conor doesn’t even mind that he takes a few extra moments. 

Conor sits up, pets Ned’s hair and swings his legs over the side of the bed. He shuffles over to the closet and finds his towels and rugby kit. He’ll forgo his morning run since tryouts are so early. 

“Are you sure you don’t want to come to tryouts.”

“Don’t know that Pascal’s really my biggest fan.”

“Aw come on, people come watch all the time,” Conor says. 

“We’ll see. I do like seeing you covered in mud.”

“Your mind is filthy.”

“Absolutely.”

Conor thinks about how lucky he is on his way to the showers. He really doesn’t deserve for this to have all worked out, and yet, here he is. On his way to rugby tryouts, on his way to see his friends, there’s a beautiful boy in his bed who he can honestly say, out loud, that he’s wholeheartedly in love with. 

Weasel’s in the showers when Conor shows up, he considers turning around and coming back once he’s sure Weasel’s gone, but that would be letting Weasel win in some way. So Conor walks across the tile floor and pulls back his own curtain. It’s strange to be in a position of power over someone like Weasel. Especially after Weasel spent so long holding his secret over him. Now Weasel was the one with a secret, and now Conor was the one with the power. There was a difference though. Conor knew how Weasel felt and he didn’t want to make that worse for him. 

Weasel’s brushing his teeth in the bathroom adjacent to the showers. Conor notices his hands shaking as he reaches for the faucet. 

Conor’s pulling his rugby shirt on over his chest as he walks out of the showers. 

“Big day,” Conor says. 

Weasel nods.

“I didn’t put my name in for captain,” Conor says, “Just so y’know. One less thing to be nervous about,” He pats Weasel on the back. 

“I’m not — thank you,” Weasel says. 

“Anytime, mate,” Conor says. 

He pulls his toothbrush from his bag and stands next to Weasel. He leaves without saying goodbye, but Conor figures he has more on his mind. 

The morning air is cold. Everyone’s wearing trackies and hoodies over their rugby kits. No one wants to soak themselves to the bone until they absolutely have to. There are more boys on the pitch than could fill both the first and second teams. There are thirty spots, including the ones that Conor, Victor, Wally, Weasel and a few others are virtually guaranteed. 

Conor can see immediately the boys who won’t make the team. The youngest boys likely won’t even make the second time, though he does see one particularly tall one with an all business attitude that he thinks has a shot. There are a few boys who tried out last spring, according to Wally, Conor doesn’t think any of them have a shot once Wally tells him that they haven’t changed much. Spainer’s warming up next to Weasel, he’ll probably earn a spring spot but he’ll need a replacement come fall. 

It’s the boys who are excited that worry Conor, the ones who want to be on the team just for the sake of it. They’re not the ones who’ll put in the work. He tells this to Victor, who nods. 

“Sounds like something a captain would say.”

“Haven’t put my name in,” Conor swings his arms round his side, stretching slightly. 

“Shame,” Victor says. 

“Still time, y’know,” Wally adds. 

Tom and Keith are running up and down the bleachers behind the older boys, doing anything to keep busy. 

“You’re gonna wear yourselves out lads,” it’s Weasel who speaks now. Arriving at the bleachers. He sits next to Conor and re-laces his boots. Victor gives him a strange look but nobody outright tells him to fuck off. Victor and Weasel were friends once, Conor remembers this. There’s a pang of guilt as he thinks that Victor and Wally will have chosen Conor and Ned over Weasel. 

He smiles at Weasel. It’s a small gesture. Weasel doesn’t notice but Victor does. Conor meets his gaze and cocks his head to the side. Conor shrugs. 

Pascal’s arrival is signalled with a blow of his bright orange whistle. Conor and the boys on the bleachers turn their attention to him but they don’t stand up. Most of the new boys do, Conor swears he sees one 14 year old salute him. Pascal lives for that shit. 

Conor’s hands are clasped in his lap as Pascal stands in front of the group of fifty boys. 

“Five laps! Round the field!” Pascal says. 

Nobody dares to groan or question him. The younger boys spring up immediately. Some of them breaking into a full out sprint. Conor and Victor run alongside one another. Conor knows that Victor could beat him in a sprint, but they generally keep the same pace running long distance. The sprinters eventually fall back, wheezing and out of breath. Conor feels bad for them, they still see Pascal as infallible, as the absolute authority on all things rugby, a man who needs to be impressed at all costs. Maybe he felt like that at first, desperate to impress Pascal, but how long will it take these boys to realise that Pascal’s human.

Normally Pascal would have Victor run half the drills, but since his spot on the team is now technically up for grabs, he doesn’t want to seem biased. Everyone finishes the laps, some quicker than others, but none so slowly that Pascal dismisses them immediately, Conor’s heard horror stories about boys being humiliated at these try-outs. 

“Rugby is about work. It’s about never giving up. It’s about brotherhood, and sacrifice. It’s about putting the play above your body,” Pascal drones, the younger boys eat it up. 

Pascal has Weasel and Spainer help him remove the tackling pads from the shed and pairs them off. Conor gets one of the overeager kids as his partner.

“Domnhall Flannery,” he introduces himself, “Friends call me Dom.”

“Conor.” Conor introduces himself halfheartedly as he folds his trackies and hoodie up and sets them on the bleachers.

“Oh, I know who you are.”

 He decides to only go half as hard as he can when tackling. He holds the pad against his chest and lets the kid run full force into him. He doesn’t go flying back but he does stumble more than he would have if he properly braced himself. 

Pascal doesn’t see the tackle, he only sees Conor stumble. 

“Good effort Flannery!” He shouts from the opposite end of the pitch. 

“You made me want to join the team,” Dom says.

“What?” Conor says. He was only half paying attention, having been scannign the bleachers for Ned. 

“Well, I thought you were really cool in the senior cup, and even after all that stuff that happened with ‘ya… a lot of people tell me I’m too much of a spaz to join the team, but I thought it might be worth a shot or something, y;know?”

“Just play, Dom,” Conor says. It’s half dismissive, half genuine advice. 

He hands the pad off to Dom and knocks him (gently) to the ground with a well placed tackle. 

“That is how you tackle, fellas,” Pascal points at Conor.

Conor ignores any of his praise. 

Once Pascal has sufficiently tortured them with tackling drills, he dumps a bag of balls onto the field and announces that they’ve each got five tries to get the ball through the uprights.

“Anyone who doesn’t score at least once is at a serious disadvantage when it comes to making the team.”

He makes Conor go, of course. He doesn’t miss the first one on purpose, but when Victor asks him later, he’ll say he did to take some of the pressure off the rookies. He nails the next four, and takes his seat on the bench. 

He watches. No one makes more than two kicks, except for Weasel and Wally, they each make three, and Weasel’s fourth goes out off the post. Kicking is a specific skill set, especially from an angle, it’s a lot harder than it looks. 

Dom’s the second last to go, Victor will be last.

Conor studies his form as he eyes the ball. The boys head studies the goalposts, and then the ball, then, in one fluid motion he kicks. He makes the first kick, and the second. Then the third. Everyone’s holding their breath as he tees up for the fourth. Pascal has a giddy look on his face that only rugby related success can inspire. Dom’s fourth kick ends up a few metres off, but his fifth sails perfectly, right through the middle of the uprights. It’s a perfect kick. 

The boys on the bleacher clap, Victor doesn’t even bother taking his kicks, Pascal’s already pulling Dom to the side. The boys whisper amongst each other, Conor takes short sips from his water bottle. 

Conor knew that the process was brutal but he realizes just how brutal it is when the boys start whispering about the hourly cuts. Every couple of drills, Pascal will cut the boys that “just won’t work.” He’s studying his clipboard now, they all know it’s coming. 

He announces five boys, all of them potential rookies who won’t be making the spring squad. He encourages them to come out in the fall tryouts and they leave with their heads hung low. 

Pascal gives the group a few minutes to rest and then it’s right back to running drills. Conor can’t seem to shake this Dom kid, it’s like there’s a rubber band around his waist and any time he moves too far away from Conor, it’s snapped back into place. 

Conor’s legs are caked in mud by lunch. Everyone is. Conor’s immediately wary of the ones that complain about it. 

“I prefer turf, no mud,” one of the boys says. 

“How d’you like the road rash when you get tackled? Shit’s basically hard plastic,” Victor dismisses him.

The boy turns red and forces his attention to one of the sandwiches that the dinner ladies have brought out for the rugby team. Conor notices that Dom thanks them sincerely when they hand him his individually packaged sandwich. Conor likes that quality. 

Victor, Wally, and Conor wander off, Keith and Tom aren’t far behind. They sit at the edge of the woods near the bleachers. They’ll be able to hear when Pascal blows his whistle but are far enough away that Pascal won’t be able to hear anything they say. 

“Who you lads liking?” Victor asks. 

“I like Dom,” Conor says between bites. 

The rest of his friends agree. 

“Hell of a kicker,” Wally says. 

“And he’s a good kid. You can teach someone how to kick, harder to teach someone to not be an asshole. Same goes for the rookies complaining about the mud. It’s a little thing but it’s an attitude thing, right?” Conor says. 

“Sound like a captain, Conor,” Victor repeats his earlier sentiment. 

“Too bad I won’t put my name in,” Conor digs in his heels. 

He’s not a captain, and he’ll tell anyone who asks. 

After lunch, Victor informs him, Pascal likes to do one more round of drills and cut a few more boys before playing a scrimmage. 

“What positions do you lads like to play?” Pascal asks. 

The thing about Pascal is that he actually has a fairly friendly demeanour, he’s just really fucking intense about rugby. 

A bunch of the rookies say that they don’t have a preference and that’s a huge red flag for Conor, and Pascal evidently, because a majority of them get cut. 

A bunch of other students start to file in the bleachers, Conor’s not sure why until Weasel explains it to him. 

“Scrimmage game. Walter lets everybody out of class to watch.”

“Oh,” Conor says. 

Pascal has him play outhalf on the first team, Dom, notably, ends up playing the same position on the second. He divides the current players among the two teams so there’s not a major blowout. 

Conor scans the bleachers. Ned’s nowhere to be found. He wasn’t really expecting him to show up, he always says it’s not his team and Conor supposes he’s right. 

Conor remembers how much he loves rugby every time he steps on the field. No matter who his coach is, or what happens before a game, the act of playing makes him happier than anything ever has (maybe up to Ned). It’s chaos, really, and he knows how strange the game seems to someone who’s never played. But inside the chaos is something beautiful, something organized and co-ordinated. It’s sweaty, bloody work but it’s worth doing. 

His team comes away with the win, just narrowly. Weasel scores a try just before Pascal blows his whistle to call the game. 

Conor looks up again, and this time he does see Ned, standing by the edge of the forest. He’s leaning against a tree. He always looks so non-chalant.

Pascal announces that he’ll have the teams posted by thursday but Conor has something else on his mind. The rest of the boys head to the shower, and in all the chaos Conor manages to slip away unnoticed. He meets Ned at the treeline. 

“Congratulations,” Ned says, “Your team did win right?”

Conor nods. 

“You’re really good,” Ned smirks. 

“Am I?” Conor says. 

He remembers their earlier conversation, the heat in his stomach and across his cheeks when Ned insinuated that they might shower together. The heat returns to his face, somewhat involuntarily. 

“You make it look easy,” Ned says. 

There’s an undercurrent to their words, a charge that can only come from spending a month apart. 

“Do I?” Conor says. 

Ned’s better at this than he is, both of them know this. 

Ned licks his lips, grabs Conor by the wrist and further down the path. 

“You make it look pretty damn good,” Ned whispers. 

Conor’s certain that his entire face must be bright red by now. 

“I need to shower, Ned,” Conor says. 

“I like you in mud,” Ned teases. 

“And sweat, and a little bit of blood, I’m pretty sure?”

“Gorgeous,” Ned winks. 

“I need to go,” Conor says. 

“Fine,” Ned says, “But I’ll be waiting for you.” 

Ned swings his head around to make sure no one’s around and plants a warm kiss on Conor’s sweaty hand. 

Conor jogs to catch up with the team. He finds Victor and Wally about to enter the shower. They don’t call attention to his lateness, and he thanks them silently. The mud trickles down their arms and into the shower drain. Everyone complains that they’re sore, and one of the rookies desperately tries to stop a nosebleed. 

“Do you think Pascal will think I’m weak,” his voice is squeaky. 

Weasel comes to the rookie’s aid with a towel in hand, he shakes his head. 

“Tell him you were in a fight. Don’t tell him who. He’ll think you’re a badass.”

The rookie presses the towel to his nose and nods. 

“Thank you sir.”

Victor and Conor burst into laughter once the rookie leaves the room. 

“Sod off,” Weasel says. 

“Sorry… Sir,” Victor snorts. 

Weasel rolls his eyes but it’s not particularly antagonistic. 

Conor gets dressed and rushes back to the dorms, back to Ned.

Chapter Text

Never let it be said that Olivia Hines doesn’t know exactly what she wants, and what she wants, more than anything, is to play rugby for the rest of her life. She hasn’t told anyone this yet, not even Victor, because she knows that it’s a stupid dream. It’s not that she’s not good enough, she is and she’ll work harder to get better, it’s just that girls don’t make money playing rugby, they play in high school, and then at university, and then they go do something more sensible. 

But Liv doesn’t want that, she wants to play in high school, and then at university and then to keep playing for as long as she can. Sometimes it hurts to think about how she’s going to have to fight twice as hard as Victor does, sometimes she wants to scream, or to cry, or to punch something, but she’s a captain, and that’s not what the captain does. 

She considers calling Victor one night after a particularly great practice but something feels like he wouldn’t quite understand how she’s feeling. How she can lead the team, how she can score and play her ass off but it still doesn’t feel like enough. She hasn’t talked to Ingrid in a couple weeks, they’re still friends, they text, but it’s awkward, neither one of them knows quite how to tell the other what they want. 

Rugby’s the first love of her life, and it’s not like being gay was going to ruin that (being a girl already kind of did) but being in a relationship, she decides, is a distraction. 

She goes to see one of Victor’s night time practices after the team is named, she’s not technically allowed, but Pascal’s always liked her and her dad said he’d pick her up after so there’s really nothing to lose.

She waves at Victor as he takes the field, he nods, smiling up at her. To say that she’s learned everything she knows about rugby from her brother would be a lie, but he has taught her everything there is to know about being a captain. She wraps her sweater firmly around her arms and climbs to the top of the bleachers. She can hear Pascal’s booming voice from the other side of the field, the boys kick up mud as they do laps, they push and shove and laugh with one another and that looks like home to Liv. She picks out Conor immediately standing in between the fronts and backs looking completely at ease. 

The wood underneath of her creaks as someone climbs up behind her. She’s pretty sure it’s Ned but she can’t quite remember what he looks like. 

“Didn’t know they were letting girls in,” the boy, who is probably Ned smirks and sits down next to her. 

She laughs, “Just watching.”

“Liv, right?”

She nods. 

“Ned,” he says, “We kind of met.”

“Yeah, I remember,” she says. 

She doesn’t take her eyes off the field. 

“Connor’s really good,”she says. 

“So I’ve been told,” Ned answers. 

“Is that why you’re watching?” she turns just enough that she can see him flush. 

“They’re my friends, some of em,” Ned says. 

“Yeah alright,” Liv rolls her eyes. 

“And Conor’s… we’re good friends. Roommates.”

Ned hurries to change the subject. 

“Never really got the appeal, rugby. Seems like it hurts.”

“Not as much as you’d think. Lot of bruises, less broken bones. It’s my favourite thing in the world.”

“Right,” Ned says, “Victor told me you’re a captain.”

She shrugs, “Just for my club team. It doesn’t matter literally at all.”

“I’m sure it does.”

She shakes her head again, “It might if I were Victor but the whole being a girl thing kind of fucks with any prestige that rugby might bring me.”

Ned just nods his head, she’s not sure why she’s talking to him, probably just because she has a lot on her mind and he’s the nearest pair of ears.

“Just wish I could come somewhere like here, where rugby really matters , Vic can do anything he wants after this, could keep playing forever if he wanted. Dunno that I’ve got that option.”

“It’s no picnic going to a school where the only thing that matters is rugby.”

She looks down at the field, desperately wanting to be a part of that team. She sees a few boys that she has no doubt she could tackle, a couple who are smaller than her, and more than a few who put in less work than her. 

“Well it’s no picnic going to one where the team has no spares because only 14 girls showed up to the tryouts.”

“Fair enough. Guess I just don’t get it.”

“Not everybody does. Rugby makes Conor happy though, right?”

“Think so. It’s hard though. I think. The way they want him to be… he’s not necessarily like that”

Liv knows what he means. 

“It’s just there for him. He gets to play because he’s good enough, me, if I want to play I’ve got to captain the team, I’ve got to schedule the practices. If I want to keep playing, I’ve got to build my own fucking league. Being gay’s the least of my problems. Sucks in different ways, s’pose.”

“Agreed.”

They turn their attention back to the field. 

“He’s making Vic take kicks,” she snorts, “He’s shit at that.”

“Really? Always seemed good at everything to me.”

“Nah,” she points, “his form’s all wrong.”

A few more minutes pass and then Liv starts talking again. 

“Y’know, Vic told me you and Conor were a thing… how’d you… how’s he- Dunno. Manage?”

“Uh…”

“Sorry. That’s personal.”

“No, it’s just, I mean it is personal but it’s fine, it hasn’t always been easy, that’s all. Takes work.”

The practice ends when the sun finally disappears behind the treeline and no lights come on outside. Victor and Conor jog up the bleachers. 

“They’ll let anyone in, huh,” Victor hugs Liv. 

“Gross,” she pushes him away, “You’re disgusting

“What’d you think of the practice?”

“It was fine, your form’s still shit though.”

“Asshole.”

“Dad know you’re here?”

Liv nods. 

“We were gonna hang out for a couple hours if you want to stick around. I’ll send you back on the train.”

“I’d be cool with that,” Liv says. 


 

Olivia’s a cool kid, Conor doesn’t mind her spending time with his friends, she slots in perfectly. She’s only a year younger than Keith and Tom so it’s not really that strange to any of them, and Ned seems to really get along with her. 

Wally busts out the booze as he’s been known to do, and they head to the pond. Ned takes a few sips and drapes his arm around Conor. Conor resists the urge to scoot away. They’re amongst friends, and he knows that no one cares but him, that no one who doesn’t know won’t notice anything suspicious but the contact still makes him tense up. Ned notices and nonchalantly moves his arm. 

A good chunk of the rugby team have joined them by the pond, Weasel and Spainer tag along, bringing Spainer’s massive supply of booze with him. Most of the younger boys have hung back, too intimidated to break any of the rules, but Dom’s there, sitting on a rock by the pond laughing as Keith and Tom play with a hacky sack that they found under the bleachers. 

Dom’s a good kid, Conor supposes, one of the only rookies to make the first team, as a substitute, granted, but it’s still impressive for a kid. Most of the other rookies found a spot on the second team, Pascal promised that they might earn a better spot come fall. 

“Oi Vic!” Wally shouts. 

Victor turns from where he’s standing. 

“Dare me to do something!” he shouts. 

“Mate, you are sloshed,” Victor says. 

At the same time, Olivia turns to Wally and giggles, “Dare you to climb that tree.”

“Liv,” Victor scolds. 

“What? He asked?” She smirks. 

Dom stands up, “I’ll do it.”

Olivia turns to him, a grin on her face and a flush in her cheeks. 

“Race me?” She challenges. 

“Okay, who gave the kid liquor?” Victor’s only half joking. 

“Relax, I’m like, mostly sober.”

Victor snorts, “If you fall I’m not gonna be the one to call dad.”

Olivia looks at Dom, there’s a wild look in her eye. Usually Conor can recognize Olivia’s expressions as ones that he’s seen on Victor’s face in the past, but this one is new. She’s intense, wild in a way that Victor isn’t. 

“Let’s go,” she pats him on the shoulder and takes off running. She jumps into the first branch leaving Dom slack jawed and wide eyed. He clambers up behind her. The rest of the boys gather at the base of the tree. Olivia situates herself high up in the branches, they’re thin, barely supporting her weight. Conor’s almost certain that he can hear one of them slowly cracking. 

“Okay, Liv. You proved your point,” Victor shouts, “Come down now.”

“I like it up here,” she answers. 

Dom is still crouching on top of that first tree branch, he’s looking at Olivia like she’s the coolest girl anyone’s ever known. 

“You’re not my dad, Vic,” she shouts down. 

She moves too suddenly and her foot slips. Conor here’s her jacket catch on the branch and rip. She regains her balance but lets out a yelp of fear. 

“Alright, I’m coming down,” she surrenders. She slides down through the tree, high fiving Dom on her way down. He still looks completely in awe of her. 

“That was pretty cool,” Conor hears Dom say. 

The boys and Liv keep passing the bottles around. Eventually Keith and Tom pull out some matches and start a fire. The hacky sack gets thrown around, Weasel threatens to throw Spainer into the pond when Spainer flicks a little bit of dirt at him. All in all, it’s a good time. 

Ned and Conor are sharing a seat, well not really a seat. Conor’s laid his jacket on the ground and they’re both sitting on it. Their thighs are touching, but not much else. Conor wants to kiss him again, at least rest his head on Ned’s shoulder, hold his hand, but it’s not like they’re alone. It’s not like they’re even solely amongst friends. Dom’s just a kid, Conor doesn’t know how he’d react, and Spainer’s around, and Weasel’s a whole thing of his own. 

He settles for resting his hand gently on top of Ned’s. 

“You think Pascal’s happy with the team?” Wally asks at some point. 

Conor shrugs but Victor shakes his head. 

“He wants a new eightman, didn’t get one.”

“Someone can learn,” Spainer says. 

“Shut up Spainer,” Weasel snorts, “No one’s gonna want to.”

“Too bad Liv can’t do it,” Ned says out of nowhere, he’s lying on his back, looking up at the night sky. 

The boys laugh. 

“Never seen her play but I wouldn’t wanna crush ‘ya,” Spainer says. 

Victor snorts, “I think she could hold her own. Bigger than Dom at least.”

“Oi!” Dom shouts. 

“Not wrong,” Weasel admits. 

“I could take you right now,” Liv laughs. 

“Let’s not,” Victor says in the way that he’s perfected. He has a tone that can defuse Weasel, it certainly works on a pair of 14 year olds.

“I’m just sayin’ if I shaved my head and kept my voice down, you wouldn’t know the difference.”

Dom shrugs, “I just think it’d be weird playing with a bird,”

“If you can play, you can play,” Conor says simply. 

Dom goes silent, “Yes- uh yeah. I uh. S’pose your right.”

Conor feels Ned laugh beside him but no one else does. 

The gathering fizzles out slowly. 

Keith, Tom, Wally, Dom, and Spainer head back to the dorms at around the same time. Weasel sticks around for a half hour more, quieter than he usually is. Ned sits up after a while. 

“I think we should shave your head,” he directs the statement at Liv. 

Her eyebrows shoot up but she doesn’t look completely scandalized by the idea. 

“What?”

“Let’s shave your head. It’ll help with the rugby and I bet it would look good.”

“Ned, I am not letting you drunkenly shave my sister’s head,” Victor smirks. 

Weasel laughs. 

“It’s worth thinking about. It’d make the rugby easier,” Liv says. 

“Victoria would lose her mind.”

“Fuck Victoria,” Liv’s words are slightly slurred

“Maybe don’t make a life altering hair decision while you’re buzzed, eh?” Weasel says. 

“Thank you, someone sees sense,” Victor throws his hands in the air. 

Conor stays silent, no opinion one way or the other. 

“Next time you see me, I probably won’t have any hair,” she says in general. 

“Might make Dom lay off the flirting,” Weasel teases. 

Conor figures that he’s probably known Liv longer than he or Ned, seeing as him and Victor were mates not that long ago. 

“He was just being nice,” Liv shrugs. 

“Flirting,” Weasel says, “Barking up the wrong tree though, huh?”

“What?” Liv says. 

“Well you’re… y’know… a ladies lady,” Weasel turns a pale shade of pink. 

“Well yeah, but how’d you know.”

“Always just figured.”

Liv shrugs, “Well… he’s a nice dude either way.”

“Yeah. Like him,” Victor says, “Good player.”

The conversation dies off as the fire becomes a handful of embers sitting in the dirt. 

Ned leans into Conor, resting his head on Conor’s thigh. Conor, without thinking, starts to play with Ned’s hair. He sees Weasel staring, but he doesn’t think to stop, doesn’t care to stop. Victor and Olivia are talking about their parents, Weasel occasionally pops into their conversation, but Conor and Ned are completely in their own world. 

“Late,” Victor yawns, “Liv can stay with Wally and I, I’ll make sure you get back tomorrow.”

Weasel stands up to follow them but Ned and Conor stay on the ground. 

“We’ll head back in a few,” Conor says. 

Ned’s eyes are half closed, a lazy smile on his face as Conor holds him. Once he’s certain that everyone’s out of sight, he places a gentle kiss on Ned’s forehead. He throws a couple sticks on top of the embers and blows so they catch. There’s a couple larger tree branches lying around so he piles those next to the fire. He sits back down next to Ned and wraps his arm fully around him. Ned nuzzles into Conor’s shoulder, looking ahead at the fire. Conor loves his friends, but there’s something about being alone with Ned that makes him feel like he’s home.  

He’s smoothing Ned’s hair and gently kissing his head, Ned’s planting soft kisses along his jaw. 

“I think you’re my favourite person,” Ned says, his words are slurred by whiskey and sleep. 

Conor smiles, “Where’d that come from.”

“Just popped into my head.”

“I think you’re my favourite person too,” Conor says, and he means it. 

“Even though I don’t know anything about rugby?”

Conor pats Ned’s hair down smooth, it springs up under his fingertips. 

“Of course,” Conor says, “I think it’d take a lot for me to stop loving you.”

“Oh yeah, like what?”

Conor laughs, “Oh come on.”

“No, I’m serious.”

“I dunno, like if I found out you’d murdered a whole family or something, or if you were  a secret nazi, or like selling pictures of my feet on the internet.”

“People’d pay good money for those feet,” Ned barely manages to get the sentence out before he collapses into giggles.

“That’s not that reassuring.”

“I would never.”

Conor kisses Ned full on the lips, he pushes Ned down onto the blanket, Ned puts up only a little resistance before falling under the weight of Conor’s body. Conor doesn’t straddle Ned’s hips, rather he lies down next to him, kissing him, slowly urging his tongue into Ned’s mouth. Ned’s hands rest on Conor’s hips, pulling them closer to him. 

“We haven’t…” Ned says breathlessly. 

“I know,” Conor says. 

“Not since we…”

“I know,” Conor says. 

“I want to.”

“I know,” Conor says. 

Conor’s hands find Ned’s zipper like there’s a magnet in his fingertips. 

“Shit,” Ned whispers. 


 

“Is it weird to say that I missed doing that,” Conor says, both of them are lying next to each other, brains fuzzy, sleep deprivation, mixed with alcohol mixed with the sheer euphoria of once again getting to touch each other. 

Ned shakes his head.

Chapter Text

Ned hates it when Conor has to get up for practices and Conor knows it. Ned groans, holds him a little tighter and presses in to his neck. 

“Please,” Ned mutters. 

Conor hates that he has to shake his head and detach himself from Ned. It’s always so cold, even when they’ve moved both sets of blankets and Ned’s duvet onto Conor’s bed. He recoils as his feet hit the carpet, the air itself is freezing, the hairs on his ankle stand on end. He glances out the window and sees frost on the grass. Not ideal. Ned rolls over onto his side, eyes barely open. Conor slides out of his pajamas and into his sweats as fast as possible, trying to cover goosebumps with cotton. 

“Why does he make you practice at seven in the fucking morning,” Ned says, more into the pillow than to Conor. 

“Builds character,” Conor parrots Pascal. 

“Bullshit,” Ned pulls the blankets back over his chest and closes his eyes. 

Conor kisses Ned on the top of his forehead, smooths out his hair and turns around. He closes the door behind him, can’t help smiling to himself on the way there, the warmth carries him to the field. 

Conor has never been second to a practice. It’s a matter of pride that he beats Pascal to the field every time. Victor says it’s mad. Practice starts at 7:30, Conor’s never shown up less than half an hour early. 

The frost crunches under his feet, he walks past the bleachers and is startled to find that he’s not alone. Sitting at the edge of the field, stretching his legs, is Dom. He has a pair of earbuds in and he’s looking out at the field. The sun is just peeking above the treeline, pale light illuminating the field. 

Conor sits down next to Dom splays his legs out in front of him and reaches for his toes. He feels his back pop, his joints start to loosen and his muscles warm up. Dom doesn’t react They’re both, functionally, alone. Conor doesn’t run, Pascal makes them do enough of that during practices, but Dom does. He takes a lap around the field and then up and down the steps of the bleachers Over and over, up and down, up and down. Conor doesn’t mind him, he does wonder why he’s trying so hard. 

He’s always loved the quiet of the morning, just getting to sit, and stretch, and wait for everyone else to show up. He likes getting used to the bite of the air and having time to adjust. He likes having time. 

Pascal comes before the rest of the team, about ten minutes before practice is set to start. 

“Morning lads,” he says. 

There’s a grin on his face upon seeing the two boys already in their practice gear.

“Good morning sir!” Dom stands up straighter than before. Conor stays seated but still acknowledges his coach.

“Not working to hard, are ya?”

“No sir,” Dom says. 

“Never,” Conor teases. 

The rest of the boys are filing onto the field now, gathering in a circle around Pascal. Dom’s already covered in sweat, no one else notices. 

Pascal has them line up at the end of the field They do their running drills, high kicks, sideways skips, lateral bounds. Victor stays ahead of most of them, Conor and Dom aren’t far behind. Pascal gives them a few minutes to rest then has the first team lineup against the second team 

“I’m gonna be blunt with yous. Once Weasel fucks off, our rucks are going to be shit. Anyone who makes a decent scrum-half is guaranteed a first team spot.”

He puts Dom at the back of the ruck, but Conor knows that the kid won’t have the shoulder strength so young. He’s not built that way. 

Pascal hands the practice over to Victor once it gets boring. He sits on the bleachers with a whiteboard, drawing x’s and o’s on the field. Victor passes out balls, the boys pair off. 

“I want to see you passing fast. Don’t hold the ball longer than you absolutely have to,” Victor orders. 

Then he tosses a ball to Conor. Neither of them really need the practice. 

He keeps his eye on Dom, waiting for him to tire but he never does. He doesn’t waver, doesn’t falter, just keeps snapping the ball back to Weasel. 

Victor lets them go half an hour before classes start, if Pascal had his way they’d practice until the bell. 

“I have chemistry, Pascal. I can’t be fucking late every morning,” Victor had snapped a few months ago. Pascal let them go in early after that. 

“See you for dinner, mate,” Victor claps him on the shoulder after they’ve all showered and dressed. 

“You got it,” Conor replies. 

Classes are just obstacles. Their things he has to do, lessons he has to sit through, time he has to kill so he can see Ned and their friends. He’s starting to get sick of english class, the novelty of Mr. Sherry has slightly worn off. What gives him the right to tell Conor what to do? How to be?

“How was practice?” Ned says in between bells. 

“It happened,” Conor shrugs.

Ned snorts, he lowers his voice, “Was it worth abandoning me this morning?”

Conor rolls his eyes, “It never is. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to do it.”

He only gets through English because Ned’s next to him. 

They spend the time that most of the boys use to do homework sitting on Conor’s bed kissing. Slowly, lazily. Conor runs his hand over Ned’s jumper, plays with the smooth fabric of his pants. Ned drags his hands through Conor’s hair, Conor shudders. A smirk tugs at the corner of Ned’s mouth. 

“Mmm,” Conor mumbles. 

“If you tell me that we have to stop and go to dinner, then I swear to god I’ll never touch your dick again,” Ned says 

“Ouch,” Conor kisses the side of Ned’s jaw, “Guess I’ll starve.”   

Ned peels himself away after a few more minutes.

“It looks suspicious if neither one of us shows up, doesn’t it?”

Conor nods. 

“Okay,” Ned says, “Let’s go.”

The boys are almost done their plates when Ned and Conor sit down, but no one looks like they planned on leaving any time soon. 

Conor sits next to Victor, across from Ned.

“Pascal wants everyone’s names in for captain by the end of the week,” Victor says before anyone manages to say hello. 

“Well I’ll pass that along to Weasel.”

Victor groans. 

“Can we not have this argument again, mate. It’s not gonna end any differently.”

Victor rolls his eyes but drops it. 

“That Dom?” Wally asks, turning his head. 

The kid’s sitting alone at a table shoveling his dinner into his mouth and drawing something in a notebook. He only finishes half the plate before slipping out of the dining hall. 

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Wally turns to Victor. 

“A little recon is in order?”

“This is why we’re soulmates.”

“You’re so nosy,” Ned says. 

“Oh so you don’t want to come?”

“Oh no, I’m absolutely coming,” Ned says. 

Conor would be perfectly happy to go back to the room and pick up where they left off, but Ned’s never met a mystery he doesn’t want to solve. They set their plates on the racks near the kitchen and slip out of the hall. Weasel runs into them in the front hallway.

“Where you going looking like a bunch of fucking idiots?” He asks. 

“None of your business,” Tom and Keith say at the same time. 

“To spy on Dom,” Victor says. 

Not worth the fight. 

“Sweet,” Weasel says. 

He doesn’t ask to join them but he does anyway. 

Dom looks behind him, quickly checking to make sure no one’s following him. The boys duck behind a trophy case. Dom, satisfied that he’s alone, jogs down the steps at the front door. They wait a few seconds and then press themselves against the wall, staying in the shadows. 

Dom jogs to the rugby pitch. The boys hide behind the bleachers. Dom walks to the equipment shed, comes back with a couple balls and starts kicking. 

“Well this is fucking lame,” Keith stands up. 

Tom follows him. 

“I was hoping for a juicy secret or something,” Wally says, disappointed. 

“I mean. Good to know he practices,” Victor says, he knows that this trip was a waste of time. 

Conor can’t stop watching even as the rest of the boys move to leave. 

“I’ll be in,” he waves them off. 

Even Ned leaves with the rest of them. 

Conor watches as Dom’s foot goes through the ball, the ball soars through the uprights and he picks up another ball. That one sails through again. Dom backs up, kicking from a farther distance. 

Every single conversion sails through the yellow metal but Dom doesn’t celebrate at all. He just gathers the five or so rugby balls in his arms and sets them back on the field and starts kicking. 

Conor stands up, leans against the bleachers. Dom misses his next kick. Conor hears him swear, and grumble to himself. He drops to his stomach and starts doing press-ups. Conor counts 50. He doesn’t move or signal his presence, he just watches Dom kick another round of balls. He misses another and once again drops to his stomach, this time Conor counts 100 press-ups. The next time it’s 150, then 200. Dom just keeps going. 

Conor clears his throat, Dom jumps. 

“Didn’t know anyone was out here,” he wipes the dirt off of his hands on his shorts. 

“Sorry,” Conor says. 

“S’fine,” Dom shrugs. 

“You do this often?” Conor asks. 

“Often as it takes to stay good.”

“Almost curfew, mate, you should head in.”

“I’ve got twenty more minutes.”

Conor laughs. 

He watches Dom the next day at dinner, sees him practicing late into the night and it’s the exact same thing. He eats half a dinner and then spends hours on the field. Conor never joins him, his training happens in the morning. 

Pascal praises him at their practices, he’s improving faster than anyone else. He subs Conor off the field more often.

“I just want him developed, don’t worry about your spot,” Pascal says to Conor as he runs off the field, “You’ll be my starter in the games.”

Of course Conor worries, that’s kind of his whole thing. Conor is still a finely oiled machine that runs on fear and obligation. He wakes up earlier, runs for longer, he starts doing press-ups while he does his geography homework. 

“Not that I’m complaining about getting to see you shirtless and sweaty, but what’s with the new exercise routine?” Ned asks.

“Gotta work for it,” Conor says in between reps. 

Ned slides off his bed and onto the ground. 

“Is it because of Dom?” Ned asks. 

Conor had mentioned his worries before, and that in and of itself was an accomplishment, something new that felt good for both of them.

Conor shrugs as he lowers himself back to the floor and raises himself back up. 

“Competition’s good for sport.”

“I guess.”

Ned slides in front of him and kisses him. 

Conor smirks. Ned laughs and wraps his arms around Conor’s shoulders. Conor doesn’t push him away but he doesn’t stop either. Ned kisses the bottom of his ear, trying his absolute hardest to distract Conor. He swings his leg over Conor and rests on his back. Conor’s arms buckle slightly but he continues his press-ups, keeping the mental tally in his head. Ned’s arms are wrapped around Conor’s shoulders, nestles his head into the crook of Conor’s neck and kisses him. 

“Alright,” Conor says. 

He turns over quickly so that Ned’s knocked off balance. Conor catches him and pulls him onto his chest. 

Ned doesn’t’ miss a beat and kisses Conor full on the lips. 

“You’re not gonna get obsessed about it, right?” Ned asks. 

“Ned,” Conor says, “I promise I’m not going to do anything to make you worry again.”

“I want to worry about you,” Ned says, “I don’t mind because I love you, okay?” 

He’s pushing himself up on his elbows so that Conor has to look into his eyes. 

Conor nods. Ned rolls over so that he’s beside Conor on the floor. They both lay on their sides looking at one another. 

“You can tell me what’s on your mind.”

“I’m kinda worried about Dom if I’m being honest.”

“Is that the kid?” Ned asks. 

“Yeah, that’s the kid,” Conor sighs. 

“Why?”

“Feels like all he does is practice. I talked to Victor and he says he gets decent grades, he doesn’t seem like he’s under a lot of pressure or anything but I don’t know how he has time to do everything he does.”

Ned laughs, “You realize you’re describing yourself, right?”

“Dunno. He might be worse.”

“Ha.”

“He’s what? 15? What were you like at 15?”

“Guess I practiced a lot. Did other stuff too though.”

“Oh? Like what?”

“Well uh… I guess-- I mean. Not a lot actually.”

Ned looks smug. 

“That’s why I’m worried. That didn’t really work out that great for me!”

“Talk to him,” Ned supplies. 

“I couldn’t. Seems more like a job for Victor.”

“Victor’s not gonna be around forever.”

“Weasel then. He’s the next captain.”

“I know I’m not the only one who thinks that’s a bad idea.”

Conor just shrugs. 

“He’s an outhalf,” he says after a long pause. 

“So are you. You’ve got that in common.”

He shrugs again. 

“What? Are you worried he’s going to replace you?”

“No-- maybe. Kind of”

“You won the cup for Pascal, he’s not giving your spot up.”

“He might if it wins him another cup.”

“Conor,” Ned says. 

He reaches out and brushes Conor’s hair off of his forehead and kisses him just above his eyebrow.

“You’re gonna be just fine, okay?”

Ned doesn’t give him a reason but Conor believes him. Ned wraps his arms around him and tucks his head under Conor’s chin. 

“You thought about Sherry’s essay yet?” Ned mumbles 

“Shhh,” Conor says, “Not now.”

The boys have a weekly tradition, in the spring of having a bonfire in the woods. They practice every friday after dinner until sundown. As always, Ned’s the only one not on the rugby team who shows up, Conor wonders for the first time if that bugs him at all. 

The rugby boys are all sweaty, they cool off in the pond and then Victor and Weasel set about building the fire. 

“Just like old times, ah?” Wally hits Victor in the ass with a wet towel. 

“Shut up,” Weasel grumbles. 

Ned’s stripped his shirt off and he’s wrapped in one of the rugby team’s towels. Conor doesn’t look at him for too long, just in case. 

There are at least twenty of them out there in the woods, Conor thinks that Walter and Pascal must know about this tradition but have chosen to ignore it. As the sun dips even lower and the fire starts to lick the sky, Weasel and Wally bring out a case of cider. Conor nurses one. Ned sits next to him, they pass a can back and forth between the two of them. Dom’s sitting near a tree with his own can, he’s younger than any of the other players, why would he even decide to come to this? He’s not talking to anyone or doing anything remarkable, just watching. It’s like he’s studying the other boys. 

Victor and Wally get into a wrestling match that leads to both of them being thrown back into the pond by Weasel. 

Ned rolls his eyes and snorts. 

“What?” Conor says. 

“Just another intricate ritual,” he’s cider drunk so he’s not making as much sense as he usually does. 

“What?” Conor’s grinning goofily at him. 

“You construct intricate rituals that allow you to touch the skin of other men,” Ned says. 

“Is that a poem?”

“A painting, I think,” Ned says. 

“S’what rugby is if you think about it. When else is it acceptable and heterosexual to get that close to each other’s thighs.”

Conor snorts. 

“You’re ridiculous and drunk,” he elbows him. 

No one’s paying attention to them, everyone’s either laughing at Victor or caught up in their own conversations. 

“And entirely correct.”

“You sound like Dan Sherry.”

“Maybe I’ll grow up to be a pain in the arse english teacher.”

“Dunno if I could put up with ya,”

Ned giggles and elbows him back. 

Wally shouts for Ned to bring him a cider, Ned responds by grabbing a can and diving headfirst into the pond. Conor can’t help but grin at him. He holds Ned’s towel in his lap and finishes off their shared can of cider. 

He watches Ned throw the can at Wally and then flip off the side of the pond. For someone who insists he’s not sporty at all, that was pretty jock-like behaviour.

Dom sits next to him where Ned had been. 

“Hey,” Dom says. 

Conor’s still smiling, he turns to Dom. 

“Alright?” Conor asks. 

Dom shrugs, “Good time?”

“S’pose,” Conor answers. 

“Not much of a party person, I guess,” Dom says. 

“It’s good that you came out anyway,” Conor says

“Yeah… yeah. For sure,” Dom says. 

Dom gets up and stands at the edge of the pool. 

A couple of the younger boys pull him in. He laughs but Conor notices how generally uncomfortable he looks. Ned eventually gets out of the pond and heads back to where he and Conor had been sitting. Conor throws the towel at him and Ned catches it against his chest. Ned towels off his hair. Conor bites his lip because… well… it’s Ned. 

“Did I miss anything?” Ned asks. 

“Nope. Just watched you construct some intricate rituals,” Conor teases. 

“Smart-arse,” Ned says. 

“Always,” Conor grins. 

He looks past the rest of the boys to Dom, he’s sitting at the edge of the pond, laughing awkwardly. 

Ned recaptures his attention by gently, and secretly putting his hand on Conor’s shoulder and squeezing. 

“I love you,” Ned covers his face with his hand and whispers in Conor’s ear. 

Ned continues to whisper sweet nothings in his ear while Conor turns brighter and brighter shades of red. He smirks, but the smirk quickly disappears when he looks up and sees Dom staring at them. They make eye contact that Dom quickly breaks. 

Ned pulls him back in, convinces them to go back to their room, but Conor can’t shake the idea that Dom’s seen something he shouldn’t have. Logically he knows it shouldn’t matter, but the idea of letting someone else into what’s up until a few weeks ago been something so intensely private.

Chapter Text

Domnall Flannery is the fourth of eight children. He has three older brothers, four younger sisters, and an irish sheepdog. Coming to Woodhill was the first time he hadn’t had to share a room with more than one person. His roommate, a squirrelly bleach blond, who’s more cross-country than rugby, complains about having to share sometimes. He’s an only child. Dom’s just happy to have more than a foot between their beds. 

Woodhill’s his chance, and he’s not going to throw it away for anything. His parents sacrifice, mum worked double shifts to pay his way in (and that’s with his rugby scholarship already covering half the fees). He has to be on the team for the scholarship to kick in, he has to keep his grades up, he has to stay out of trouble and stay in shape. He doesn’t sleep a lot. 

Every morning, Dom wakes up at 4:30 to do his homework from the day before. Calculus, biology, chemistry, english, physics, and general sciences. He has to have a solid backup plan in case playing rugby for a uni scholarship doesn’t work out. He’s done his homework by 7:00, which is when Kyle (the roommate) wakes up to go to breakfast. If there’s practice, Dom skips breakfast until afterwards, but if there’s not he grabs a plate with Kyle

“How long you been awake?” Kyle asks him everyday. 

“Only an hour,” he lies. 

He’s not sure if Kyle knows he’s lying but he never mentions it. Dom gets breakfast with Kyle, but instead of eating in the dining hall with Kyle and his friends, he goes back to the room. He eats his eggs, looks over his homework one more time and does press ups in the middle of the carpet. There’s rug burn on his wrists by the end of it. 

Then he goes to class like everybody else, except he pays more attention. He has to. He takes the best notes out of any of his friends, even if he’s sick, even if he’s sleep deprived, his friends always ask to copy his homework. 

The only break he really gives himself is the half hour lunch period that they have. He sits with Kyle and their friends and laughs along with their jokes, sometimes they’ll play a quick game of cards at the lunch table before everybody heads back to class. Most of the other lads have a study hall at some point in the day, but Dom decided it was better to take physics than to have the extra time in the day. He calls his mom every day after class and she passes the phone around to his little sisters. He makes this call in the out of service bathroom on the first floor, he doesn’t want Kyle to tease him for it. Then there’s practice, if there’s no practice he makes his own practice. Drags a ball outside, and kicks it, if he misses, he does fifty press-ups, if he misses again, he does fifty more than the first time. He runs, he does crunches, sit ups, runs up and down the bleachers. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or snowing, he does it. 

It’s not until a few weeks after making the team that he really ramps it up, he stays out until curfew practicing, starts waking up earlier. 

It’s not until a few weeks after that, that he notices Conor watching him. For some reason that makes him work harder, longer. Conor looks like the guy on the team who works the hardest, he’s absolutely stacked, Dom’s seen him without a shirt on, there’s no questioning that that guy’s a rugby player. That’s who Dom wants to be. 

Victor’s cool and being a captain would be nice, but Conor’s good like actually good, he doesn’t need anything like a captaincy to prove it. 

His alarm goes off at 4:30 like it always does. It’s Wednesday so he’ll have practice after he finishes his homework. He quietly pads around the room. He starts by reading his notes, puts the finishing touches on an english paper and then solves his calculus problems. He skips breakfast and throws on his rugby kit. He has tan lines where his shorts cover his thighs, that’s how he knows he’s training hard enough. 

Conor’s on the field already, Dom decides he’ll wake up five minutes earlier next time. He has earbuds in, he’s sitting at the side of the field. Legs splayed in front of him, stretching his pelvis. Dom sits next to him, slipping his own headphones over his ears. Neither one of them acknowledges the other. 

Dom stands up as Pascal arrives. It’s a respect thing for him. Conor stays seated but gives Pascal a quick. 

“Hello.”

Dom helps get the balls out of the equipment shed. Pascal has him drag out the tackling dummies as well. 

Dom tackles right through the dummies. Pascal praises him and he goes harder. He can feel the bruises forming on his ribs but it’s worth it. Victor praises him, and Dom can’t 

help but grin. Conor doesn’t, Conor doesn’t praise much of anything but it’d be nice. 

Dom decides to make his next project impressing Conor. If there’s anyone who can teach him how to be a good outhalf it’s Conor. 

He follows behind Conor when they run, he tries to get paired up with him in drills. Everything he does he does to keep up with Conor. 

Conor’s fucking annoyed. Who does this kid think he is? It’s like he’s constantly challenging him, constantly trying to prove he’s better. It’s exhausting. 

“I’m just so tired, Ned,” Conor says one day after practice. They’re sitting in Ned’s bed. Ned’s leaning against the wall and Conor’s leaning against him. Ned’s playing with his hair, patting it down, other hand’s tracing circles on his bicep. 

“It’s because you’re working hard,” Ned says. 

“Feel like it’s not enough,” Conor mumbles. 

“You know that’s not true,” Ned kisses the top of Conor’s ear. 

“Kid’s working harder than I am.”

“Dom? He’s nuts. You said it yourself. Can’t be good for him.”

Conor nods. 

“I guess I’m just nervous. If he takes my spot, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“He’s just a kid, he’s not going to.”

Conor looks up and kisses the bottom of Ned’s jaw. 

“Y’know,” Conor says, “It’s been a while since we got the guitars out.”

“Didn’t want to distract you,” Ned’s hand absentmindedly scratches Conor’s head. 

“Distract me?”

“y’know , rugby seems more important at the moment.”

“Maybe. But maybe I could use a distraction right now. Play something for me.”

“Yeah. Okay.”

Ned pulls his own guitar out of the space under the bed. 

“Been practicing some of the songs from that book you gave me.”

“I’m glad someone’s using that book.”

Ned strums at the strings, his hands are nervous. Conor crosses his legs and sits across from him. Ned’s hands are steady, he plays slowly, methodically. 

“Can you sing too?” Conor asks. 

He recognizes the song, Love Me Do, his mother used to sing it to him before he went to bed. 

Ned blushes but nods. His voice is scratchy, a little raspy in places. He doesn’t hit any of the notes but Conor smiles at him. If you told him that Ned hung the moon and the stars in the sky every night just so Conor could see them, he’d believe you. 

Dom’s walking past their bedroom. He couldn’t stand to be in his own room for any longer without going insane, so he’s taken to pacing up and down the hallway reading over his physics notes. 

He hears the guitar, doesn’t mind it but then he hears the words. It’s a shameless love song. He rolls his eyes but then he hears Conor laughing. There are muffled sounds of guitar strings, he hears a hollow thud and he assumes that the guitar has hit the floor. He presses his ear to the door, not sure why, but he knows it’s Conor’s room. They’re laughing, and mumbling, everything sounds muffled. 

For some reason this makes Dom angry. 

He storms back to his room. Storms by Dom standards. He has a completely black face, closes the door silently and sits at his own desk, completely ignoring Kyle. 

Back in Conor’s room, Ned is insisting that Conor sing something for him now. 

“Come on, I haven’t played in ages.”

Ned forces the guitar into his lap, hands Conor the songbook and flips it open. Wonderful World. Conor sighs but places his fingers on the right frets and picks a strumming pattern. 

His mother has a beautiful voice. It never failed to but him to sleep, or calm him down after a bad day, Ned tells him that she must have passed it down to him, but Conor doesn’t think so. He just sings. His voice is smooth, but quiet, he can’t project. It’s like if a whisper was a song. Ned loves it. Conor lays down between Ned’s legs. He smiles while he gently strums the guitar, Ned plants kisses on his forehead. 

Conor leans in, forgetting mostly about the guitar, it gets knocked onto the floor as Ned presses his lips to Conor’s. Their lips are meeting upside down so Conor flips over onto his stomach. 

Conor’s worries about the rugby team are entirely forgotten as Ned kisses them away. 

Dom can’t be in his room. Kyle’s sitting on his bed watching an action movie on the portable DVD player that he snuck in, he’s wearing headphones but Dom can still hear the explosions. 

It’s past curfew but he’s long since learned that no one at Woodhill bothers to check on the boys after they go to bed (or any time really)

“Where you of to?” Kyle asks. 

“Air,” Dom says. 

“Whatever.” 

Dom doesn’t run, he just strolls around the grounds. The grass is wet with dew that will undoubtedly become frost by morning. It’s cold but he doesn’t really care. Dom struggles when he’s not busy, when he’s not moving, working, training. Otherwise his brain starts going and going and it just doesn’t stop. He paces up and down the rugby pitch. It looks different at night, he’s never really taken the time to look at it under the moonlight. It’s nice, kind of peaceful. He feels like he should be doing something, but there’s nothing to do, so he just sits down at centre field. The Woodhill logo is painted on, it’s crusty and the yellow paint rubs off on his fingers. He looks up at the moon and tries not to think. 

Victor cares about all of his teammates, he tries not to let it occupy all of his time, but sometimes he can’t help it. Especially when the younger boys join the team, they’re so naive, so much smaller than everybody else. Usually he doesn’t have to worry about them, Pascal gives them time to grow on the junior team, less pressure, less commitment, they make the senior team if and when they’re ready. Dom’s different though. He reminds Victor of Conor more than anyone else, and maybe with a little bit of Liv mixed in for good measure. It’s a perfect cocktail of worrying. 

Victor sees Dom walking alone at night.

“Where are you going ,” Wally groans when he switches on the light to find a jumper. 

“Check on Dom,” Victor mumbles. 

“You’re such a fucking mom,” Wally turns over, pulls the cover over his head and groans again. 

 He follows him. It’s past curfew, he won’t get caught, but if he does Victor thinks he’ll be able to take most of the heat. Dom sits down in the middle of the field. Victor sits down next to him. Dom looks up. He looks ever so slightly confused at Victor’s sudden presence. 

“Hey,” Dom says. 

“What you doing up?” Victor says. 

He crosses his legs, pulls them toward him. His pajama pants are red and flannel.

“Needed some air, s’pose,” Dom says. His voice is light and dismissive, “I was actually about to head in.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Why wouldn’t it be?” Dom says. 

“Yeah. Well. I guess,” Victor says. 

“I’ll see you for practice,” Dom gets up and leaves Victor sitting on the field. 

He watches Dom walk away. Straight backed, he looks totally fine. Maybe Wally’s right, and he is just acting like a mother hen. 

Dom doesn’t sleep. He just lies in bed until the sun comes up, then he goes to practice. There are bags under his eyes that he hopes no one notices. Everyone has bags under their eyes by this point in the semester. He’s not special. 

He’s paired off with Conor for a drill again. Scrum practice. The boys pick a partner, get on their hands and knees, and press their necks together. Then they push. In an actual game, four boys from each team would be doing this trying to gain possession of the ball. 

“Every rugby player needs a good strong neck!” Pascal shouts.

Conor has a rugby player’s neck, thick, muscley. Dom feels scrawny next to him. The ground is wet, but no one dares to complain about mud on their knees. 

Some of the other boys laugh as they come face to face. But Conor and Dom are locked in, completely focused on the task ahead of them. Neither one looks the other in the eyes, even as they dig their heels in and push. Even as both of them start grunting. It’s supposed to be a give and take. It’s just a warmup, a stretch, no one can win. But Conor and Dom both want to win. They have something to prove. The other boys cool off, stop pushing, stop shoving once Pascal blows the whistle but Conor and Dom persist. 

“Lads,” Victor says. 

“Alright come on,” Pascal says. 

Conor shakes his head and so does Dom. Dom digs his boots in and gives one last mighty shove. Conor relents and falls back. He’s defeated and Dom has won. 

Pascal claps sarcastically. 

“Alright. Thank you lads. We’ll move on now if it’s okay with you,” Pascal says. 

Victor stands with his arms crossed and shakes his head. 

The running drills Pascal puts them through have been known to make some of the boys through up. It’s simple. Run from one yard line to the other, they’re only a few metres apart. They have to run between Pascal’s whistles, which get closer and closer together every time. 

They run at a light jog for the first couple whistles, then it gets more intense. More of the team gives up. It’s Conor, Victor, and Dom. They’re all wheezing but Pascal doesn’t give them more than a few seconds to catch their breath. Victor waves his hand as if to say “it’s not worth it” and sits down. Dom looks at Conor, Conor’s looking at the field. They run, they sprint. Dom dives to make it before the final whistle blows. He falls to the ground, but Conor makes one more lap. 

Dom’s wheezing, sweating. The corners of his vision are blurred and black. He wanted to win and he’s pissed that he hasn’t. Pascal looks amused. Dom waits for praise but it doesn’t come. He’ll just have to work twice as hard. Conor’s eyeing him. Dom’s not sure if the expression is anger but he doesn’t look pleased. 

“Alright, sevens lads,” Pascal claps his hands together He divides the team based on position. 

Conor and Dom are in the same spot at opposite sides of the field. Dom eyes Conor up.  Wiggles his toes in his boots and waits for the kick. Dom’s not a tackler, but when Conor catches the ball, he thinks this will be the perfect opportunity. Dom bolts. His arm’s wrap around Conor’s torso, he has all the momentum but Conor manages to hang onto the ball. They struggle but Conor manages to pass the ball backwards. Dom stands and rejoins the breakdown. Conor’s glaring at him but this is just part of the game. He has no reason to be pissed off. Conor’s team scores a try, so really, it’s Dom who has the reason to be pissed off. 

It’s up to Dom to run the offence, but that’s hard to do since Victor’s on his team. He does his best but he always defaults to looking to Victor for the play. Victor just shrugs. 

Victor passes Dom the ball and he starts streaking up the field. Weasel grabs him by the leg but Dom shakes him off. Conor knocks him off balance and Weasel manages to get the ball away. He passes to Conor. Dom’s behind him but he knows he can catch up. Dom grabs Conor by the back of the jersey His hands slip so he grabs him by the waist. Conor’s foot gets stuck in a hole in the field and he stumbles. Dom grabs him by the legs and Conor goes down. His face hits the dirt and the ball bounces loose. Dom scoops it up and starts off running. He can hear Conor grunting behind him. He pulls Dom to the ground. Dom turns around and sees blood streaming from Conor’s nose. 

“Got me good,” Conor smirks. 

Weasel comes from behind and knocks Conor into Dom. His elbow comes up and hits Dom in the chest.

Pascal blows his whistle. Dom’s out of breath and he can hear Conor wheezing. 

“Lads, maybe lay off in practice,” Victor shouts. 

Conor laughs, “You know that I could never,” he elbows Victor. 

“Mate, you are bleeding ,”

“I’m fine,” Conor laughs. 

“What about you?” Victor turns to Dom. 

“A-okay,” he gives a half hearted thumbs up. 

“Conor it’s not stopping,” Victor’s voice takes on an edge. 

Conor strips off his own shirt an uses it to wipe up some of the blood. Dom makes himself busy wiping some mud off of his shoe. 

“Conor!” Pascal shouts, “See father Thomas to get patched up!”

“I will after practice.”

That’s all the convincing it takes for Pascal to let Conor back on the field. 

Dom doesn’t know why but his chest seizes up the next time he tackles Conor. He’s anxious as they both go down and he hits maybe a little harder than he should have. Conor shoves him away, Dom shoves back Conor shoves again. They stand up but the shoving continues. Dom throws the first punch. It hits Conor in the nose, he clutches at it with one hand and shoves Dom back with the other. Dom lands on his wrist, it doesn’t snap but it definitely doesn’t feel good. Dom lunges at Conor, Conor falls back and his arm twists awkwardly  Victor’s there before anyone can hurt anyone else too badly, Weasel too, pulling them back to their feet and farther away from them.

“Cool off!” Victor shouts. He holds Dom by the arms. 

He’s not really angry at Conor, doesn’t want him to be hurting, but the spur of the moment just took over. They were both riding hot. 

“Infirmary! NOW!” Victor shouts. 

Pascal doesn’t even try to protest. 

Weasel walks Conor and Dom to the nurse’s office. He stands between them, but a fair fight’s a fair fight, neither one of them is liable to start swinging again. 

“Can’t start a season with out a broken nose, ah?” Weasel chuckles. 

Weasel knocks on the door to father Thomas’ office. 

“Rugby incident?” Father Thomas says before he even opens the door. 

Weasel smirks and leaves. 

Dom glares at Conor the entire time that Father Thomas pros at his nose. He hands them both some light painkillers and gives them permission to skip class. 

Conor’s nose is screaming at him. He can smell dry blood in his nose and taste it in the back of his throat. He’s not mad at Dom, not really, just confused. Mad at himself for taking such a rough tackle. His head’s killing him and his arm is going to take a while to feel normal. He takes his painkillers and crawls into bed, tries not to think about what Ned’s going to say when he sees him. 

Chapter Text

“What an absolute moron”

Ned gets back to the dorms after class, having already been informed by Weasel about the events of the afternoon. 

He knocks gently at the door frame. Sees Conor curled up in bed. His hands are tucked under his head, legs curled under himself. He looks kind of peaceful, if you ignore the dried blood under his nose and the bruises on his face. He stirs slightly. Turns over, eyes kind of squinting to look at Ned. Ned leans against the door frame. He can’t help but smile. 

“S’pose they already told you what happened?” He groans. 

Ned nods, “Weasel gave me the play by play.”

“Course he did. Bastard.”

“Oh fuck off, he had to pull you two apart,” Ned pulls the door shut. He leans against the wall, “Don’t act innocent.”

Conor shrugs, “S’just rugby. Shit happens.”

“Victor said he was worried you’d broke your nose.”

“Nothing’s broken, just bruised,” he props himself up on one elbow, “Come sit with me.”

“I don’t know if I want to sit next to an idiot.”

“You’re dating a rugby player. It comes with the territory.”

“Fuck off,” Conor says. 

Ned takes his time crossing the room. He sits next to Conor’s head. Smooths out his hair and takes a closer look at his face. 

“Can you kiss it better,” Conor smirks. 

“You’re a bastard,” Ned says. 

He plants a small kiss on Conor’s forehead, “You’re still pretty.”

Conor smiles. His eyes are closed and Ned hates that he loves him like this. 

“Move over, you moron,” he says. 

Conor scoots over, closest to the wall to make room for Ned. Ned crawls into the bed and pulls the covers over both of them. Their forehead to forehead. Ned has has his arm slung over Conor’s torso. 

“Thought you were done fighting,” Ned whispers. 

“It’s not like before. I promise,” Conor says, “It happens in rugby sometimes. That’s all.”

“Still don’t like it,” Ned says. 

He wraps himself in Conor. Nestles his head against Conor’s chest and sighs. 

“He’s a just a kid.”

“Why’d he do it?”

“Dunno. We were at each other’s throats all practice. Something was bound to happen.”

“You’re all cavemen.”

“You got a thing for cavemen?”

“I’ll have you know that you’re the only caveman for me.”

“Glad to hear.”

He kisses Conor softly under his eye where the bruising starts. Conor shivers. 

“Sherry told me to remind you about the essay.”

Conor groans, “that is the absolute last thing I want to think about.”

“He says you’ve got a month to figure it out. Walter has the competition scheduled for the end of May and he wants a draft by the first.”

“Fuck. Alright.”

Victor brings Conor dinner, and he and Wally sit on Ned’s bed while he eats. Ned rests his head on Conor’s shoulder while he eats, neither of them afraid of being seen by their friends. Wally tells Conor what he missed in their geography lesson, Victor nags him about the captaincy again. Everything is incredibly normal. 

“Is Dom okay?” Conor finally asks. 

“He jammed his wrist but he’ll be fine,” Victor says. 

“Fiesty little bastard,” Wally says. 

“I don’t mind it,” Conor shrugs, “Means he cares.”

“Seems like he only cares about impressing you, mate,” Victor says. 

“Why?” Conor says. He spoons the last of his sweet potato into his mouth and sets his plate beside him. 

“Because you’re the best?” Wally says like it’s obvious. 

“Oh fuck off,” Conor says. 

He feels Ned roll his eyes against his shoulder. 

“Pascal wants you to take tomorrow morning off,” Victor says. 

Conor groans.

“It’s one day. You’ll live.”

Conor makes a fuss, he groans and grumbles, but secretly he’s glad. It’s another morning he gets to spend with Ned. Instead of pulling himself away, getting dressed, going out into the wet grass to freeze with the rest of the team.

“We’ll let you two have the room then,” Wally says with a wry smile. 

Ned throws a pillow at his head. 

“I’m sure you’ll behave like good Catholic lads,” Victor says, same wry smile on his face. 

“Fuck you!” Ned shouts, it’s only halfhearted. 

Sharing a room is definitely one of the best parts of this whole arrangement. Not having to worry about prying eyes, or nosy roommates. It was bliss. Behind their door, everything was on the table. It was their world. Sometimes their friends entered, and that was nice too. Not having to hide that part of themselves anymore, not having to stay hidden away in a different sort of closet than the one they’d known before. 

Ned and Conor sit against the wall, Ned’s duvet wrapped around their shoulders. Ned’s head rests on Conor’s should and Conor’s head on top of Ned’s. 

“You didn’t fight Dom because you’re getting bad again, right?” Ned says. 

Conor shakes his head, and he means it. 

“I promise. It was a little fight. Nothing else.”

“Okay,” Ned settles back into Conor. 

For a long time they just sit there, not needing to say anything. Conor rests his head in Ned’s lap and lets him drag his fingers through his hair. He needs a haircut, Ned bugs him about it sometimes but he likes it when he has enough hair that Ned can twist it around his finger. 

They kiss softly until they fall asleep in each other’s arms.

He wakes up on time out of habit, starts to roll away from Ned, then remembers that he doesn’t have to go anywhere. He rests his head against Ned’s chest. His flannel pajamas are scratchy but not in any particularly uncomfortable. He feels Ned kiss the top of his head and pulls the covers over top of them trying to trap every ounce of body head between them. 

Dom has also been told not to go to practice, but god damn if they’re going to keep him off the field. He wakes up at 4:30 again. The throbbing in his wrist doesn’t deter him as he revises his notes. His bed is cold where he hasn’t been laying. The floor is so cold it feels wet under his feet. Kyle groans as he eases his dresser open and throws on his rugby kit. He won’t go to the field, knows Victor would haul his ass off the pitch immediately. 

He sneaks into the supply shed and takes a ball. He holds it under his arm while he runs the path in the woods. He feels lost without the practice. Running with no real reason but knowing that he has to. He goes to class like nothing happened, looks forward to practice the next day. 

His classes are important, he know that that’s what will get him into a good university, find him a good job, but they start to feel like filler. Hurdles he has to overcome between practices and games. 

Pascal schedules an exhibition game for the next Saturday. Dom and Conor are cleared to play. 

Victor’s still wary.

“Maybe you want to sit out this one. Just in case,” he says after the next practice Dom is allowed to participate in. 

“Is Conor playing?”

“Well. Yes. He wouldn’t let me tell him not to.”

“Then I’m playing,” Dom says. 

He’s shorter than Victor (most everyone is) so he has to crane his neck to look up defiantly. 

Victor sighs. 

“Whatever, mate.”

“Who we playing?” Wally asks Victor. 

Conor rolls his eyes. It’s on the schedule.

“Durham,” Conor says. 

“St. Bart’s,” Victor says at the same time. 

“What?” Conor’s head swings around.

He’s trying not to be too obvious but his friends know. 

“Thought it was?” Conor says. 

“Durham bowed out last minute,” Victor explains, then a hint of realization flickers across his face, “Oh fuck!”

Conor laughs, “S’fine.”

“Are you sure? I know you ehm… left for a reason.”

“It’s fine,” Conor repeats, “I have a better team this go round.”

“Alright, mate, if you say so.”

Conor doesn’t panic until the night before the game. He comes back from dinner and gently shuts the door behind him. They were talking about the game at their table. It wasn’t anything anyone said in particular, just the reminder, the idea that he had to go back. To play on that field again, to look up into the stands where he’d never once seen a friendly face. He left dinner early. 

“Geography test,” he said. Regretted the lie slipping in but it’s too late to change it now. 

Ned’s back to the room in five minutes. Opening the door just a crack and slipping inside. Conor’s on the floor. Arms wrapped around his knees, staring at nothing in particular. He feels Ned’s hand on his shoulder and tenses up. Ned doesn’t step away, instead, sits beside him and rests his head against Conor. 

“You don’t have to go tomorrow,” Ned says. 

Conor’s glad that he just knows, that he doesn’t have to explain it. He’s relieved that Ned isn’t mad at him, for leaving, for lying about why. 

“I do,” Conor says, “I think I want to.”

Ned nods, “Okay.”

“I just… are you coming?”

“Of course,” Ned says. 

“You hate rugby.”

“I don’t hate it. Even if I did. I love you,” Ned kisses the side of his cheek. 

Conor smiles, just a little, but it’s there, undoubtedly. 

“I just… every time I played there I felt like they were watching for something. Waiting for me to fuck up and show them something they didn’t want to see.”

“Just pretend you’re playing for me, okay?” Ned places his hands on either side of Conor’s face. 

Conor nods. 

“Play for Victor, and our friends.”

Conor nods again. 

“Please don’t hurt yourself too badly?”

Conor smiles, “Okay.”

Love is not a cure for sadness but oh god, does it help. 

Conor goes to sleep pressed up against Ned and everything feels alright in that moment. Waking up to get on the bus always sucks, and now, knowing where it’s going to take him, it’s even harder. But Ned’s beside him the whole time. The team gets the back of the bus, Ned sits with them, not caring that Pascal stares at him like he’s just committed some kind of cardinal sin.

Woodhill always brings a crowd. There’s nothing better to do on a Saturday afternoon, so all the boys file onto the buses to support the team. Mr. Curly’s sitting up front, a grin on his face, the kind rugby always brings out. 

Conor would hold Ned’s hand if he weren’t still intimidated by that sort of thing. The closer they get, the worse he feels. He recognizes the rolling hills and the roads that surround his old school. The paths he used to take to escape. It’s the green and white school flag that truly makes his stomach wrench. Curly is greeted by Conor’s old headmaster. The one who told his father. 

Conor keeps his head down as the blood drains from his face. Ned places a reassuring hand on his knee and squeezes. Conor’s certain that if he doesn’t get of this bus in thirty seconds, he’s going to throw up. The spectators file out of the bus, Pascal forces Ned off with them. To Conor’s horror, his old headmaster stays near the doors of the bus and shakes the hand of every player who steps out. Conor tries to keep his head down as he sticks out his clammy hand, but the headmaster recognizes him immediately and clamps down. 

“It’s good to see you Mr. Masters. I gather the change in scenery was good for you.”

“Yes sir,” Conor says, and suddenly he feels 15 again. 

“I look forward to seeing what you’ve learned.”

“Thank you sir.”

Conor makes a beeline for the lockers and changes as quickly as his shaking hands will allow him. He wants nothing more than to just play rugby. He steps onto the field and looks up. He likes the way Ned does his hair for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is visibility. It’s never hard to pick his boyfriend out of a crowd. His nerves calm instantly just seeing his nervous smile. 

Ned spends a lot of time worrying about Conor. That’s what you do when you love someone. Especially if that someone is an anxious mess. He eyes the St. Bart’s boys coming from their dressing room, immediately distrustful of the way they look at Conor. Ned has never, in his life, had the instinct to get into a fight, but these boys might just change his mind. They’re all massive, hulking boys, he sees how Conor would have fit right in. He looks at Conor and smiles. Conor nods at him before putting in his mouthguard and lining up to start the game. 

Conor expects it, he rolls his eyes when it happens, but that doesn’t mean the first. 

“Fuck you fucking queer,” hits any less hard. 

If anything it makes him go harder. He sees dom on the sidelines chewing on his own mouthguard. Wonders if Dom knows about him, wonders if it matter. Wonders if that means he has more to prove now. In the midst of all this wondering, Conor gets himself out of position and takes a hard tackle. 

He recognizes the boy landed on top of him. 

“Once a fucking homo, always a fucking homo,” he sneers. 

Conor shoves him off.

“Fuck off, Mack,” he says. 

“Am I wrong, Masters?” 

Weasel runs up behind them, the play forgotten, pulls Mack off of Conor. 

“This your boyfriend, Masters?” Mack taunts further. 

“Go fuck yourself,” Weasel says. 

“You okay with having a fucking queer on your team?” Mack takes a step back. 

Conor recognizes the expression in Weasel’s eyes, tries to stop him but Weasel’s quick and slippery. He punches Mack square in the face before anyone can do anything about it. 

Conor’s pretty certain he hears Weasel whisper, “More than one you cunt,” before being pulled off the field by a referee. Weasel’s thrown out of the game. Victor shakes his head, and calls for Dom to take Weasel’s place. 

“I don’t play that position,” Dom says, he looks much smaller now that the St. Bart’s boys are across the field. 

“You do now,” Victor says. 

Conor’s determined to fight his own battles on his own terms now. He ignores his old teammates. Focuses on his new ones. They get to halftime, and still no one has scored. 

Pascal’s as frustrated as Conor’s ever seen him. 

“Just fucking score. I don’t know what else to say!” he says. 

Victor gives them the strategy for the second half when Pascal doesn’t have anything to say. 

The minutes tick on and still no one has scored. They go back and forth. The tackles are hard, the scrums are harder. Everyone is bruised by the end of it. They have one last shot. Two minutes to keep the game from ending in a tie. Victor picks the ball and sprints up the field, Conor takes it off him, the only guy open is Dom, so Conor sends it his way. Dom trips into the end zone but it counts. The Woodhill students errupt into cheers. The St. Bart’s boys scream in anger. Mack’s coming for Conor again. Grabs him by his collar and shoves. 

“Oi!” Victor shouts, “It’s over!”

Dom comes to his aid before anyone else. 

“Come on, man,” he says stepping between them, “It’s just rugby.”

“The little one your boyfriend, too?” Mack sneers. 

“What?” Dom says. 

“Go back to your team, Conor says.”

Weasel comes on from the sidelines and Mack retreats. 

They board the bus with the win under their belts, but Conor doesn’t feel good about it. In the darkness, he lets himself fall asleep against Ned’s chest. Woodhill might not be the most welcoming place all the time, but at least he’s safe.

Chapter Text

The rest of the boys party like mad when they get back from St. Bart’s, a second wind taking its hold over the entire team. They wait an hour or so, ensuring that Walter’s gone to bed, and the rest of the teachers had retreated to their rooms. They slink out of their rooms and head to the courtyard. Nobody ever bothers them, especially after a win. 

Ned comes too, and for some reason this bothers Dom. He’s not on the team. That’s why. He also seems to have Conor’s undivided attention, it’s not that Dom thinks they’re best friends, in fact, after their fight in practice Conor would be within his rights to completely and totally hate him. Dom just thinks that Conor should be celebrating. This party is because of rugby, not his roommate. 

The way Ned casually touches the small of Conor’s back when he moves past him to hug Victor, the way Conor’s hand lazily rests on Ned’s shoulder, it’s enough to give Dom pause. Not enough that he says anything, but enough that he downs his beer and quickly opens another. 

Conor makes a point of thanking Weasel, semi-privately, during the celebration. He leaves Ned talking to Victor and pulls Weasel aside. 

“Hey, man,” Conor says. 

“It’s what teammates do,” Weasel says quickly before Conor has a chance to even finish his sentence. 

“It wasn’t- you didn’t have to… Y’didn’t have to get kicked out of the game,” Conor says. 

“I was kinda seein’ red for a bit there.  Don’t think anyone could have stopped me from decking that guy,”

“I ehm...kind of heard what you said to him,” Conor mumbles. 

Weasel turns redder than he already is. 

“Oh-uh…”

“-We can ehm, I can just pretend I didn’t…”

“No-no, I s’pose Ned’s probably already told you what uh-”

“Oh. Yeah, I mean… it’s cool.”

“Right,” Weasel says, “So you’re welcome I guess.”

They both start laughing, uncontrollable, side splitting, beer induced laughter. The kind of laughter that says, all is forgiven.

Ned walks up beside Conor and places his chin on Conor’s shoulder, he doesn’t mind. He’d probably plant a tiny kiss on his cheek if the younger boys weren’t still around. The night starts to get cold, and most of the boys head to bed, it’s Weasel, Dom, and the usual friends who remain. Victor suggests they take the party back to his room since they’ll have the pad of Ned and Conor’s room and Weasel and Spainer’s room on either side of them to keep the noise out of the hallway. 

Conor almost wishes that Dom would just go back to his room, eventually one of them will crack, snarky remark, or a backhanded compliment could lead to the gloves coming off again. 

Victor and Wally sit on Victor’s bed with Weasel leaning on the edge. Keith sits on Wally’s desk chair, Tom sits on the desk itself. Dom sits on Victor’s chair, looking like he’s ready to run away at any second. 

Ned sits on Wally’s bed, Conor sits next to him, their thighs are touching and Conor’s hand is on Ned’s knee none of their friends even look twice. 

Wally’s leaning against Victor, lazily doing something on his phone. It’s something mates do. 

“Lads, wanna play paranoia?” Keith suggests. 

“What the actual hell is that,” Wally groans. 

“It’s fun. You don’t even really have to move” Tom says. 

The younger boys explain the rules. You whisper a question in someone’s ear, and they have to say their answer out loud, then you flip a coin, if it lands on heads you have to say the question out loud, if not it stays secret. 

Tom starts, whispers something in Keith’s ear. Keith snorts. 

“Easy, Weasel,” Keith says. 

Victor flips the coin for them.

“Tails,” Victor says.

“I don’t like this game,” Weasel pouts. 

Keith goes next. Whispers something in Wally’s ear. 

“Uh… Dom probably,” Wally says. 

The coin lands on heads. 

Wally bursts out laughing, “He wanted to know who would look best with one eye.”

“You’ve always got the weirdest fucking questions Shaffrey,” Tom leans against the wall. 

Keith asks Ned something, Ned says Conor but the question remains a mystery. Conor elbows him. 

“Tell ‘ya later,” Ned winks. 

Ned gestures for Conor to put his ear next to Ned’s mouth. For some reason this makes the hair on Conor’s neck stand up, he suddenly realizes that he’d rather be in their bed. 

“I love you,” Ned whispers before he asks his question. 

Conor wants badly to kiss him, but that’s crossing a line, he thinks. 

“Who would you pick to help get you off a deserted island,” Ned asks.

“Victor probably,” Conor says. 

They reveal the question, Victor’s flattered. 

The more they sip from their drinks, the further Ned descends into Conor’s lap. Conor runs his hands through Ned’s hair without thinking about it. 

Conor asks Dom who he’d want on his side in a fight, Weasel, obviously. Dom asks Wally who the best rugby player in the room is. Conor protests when he says it’s him. Victor giggles at Wally’s next question. 

“Loverboy over there, probably,” Victor points to Ned. 

Ned flips Victor the middle finger lazily, he’s almost sleeping in Conor’s lap. 

They don’t have to reveal the question. 

It’s almost 2am before the boys start to sober up and head to their own rooms. 

Conor wastes absolutely no time shutting the door behind them and pinning Ned against the wall. 

“So what was it that you told Wally about me?” He teases. 

Ned laughs, “Actually can’t remember.”

“Oh come on,” Conor plants a kiss in the crook of Ned’s neck, slowly working at his top button. 

“It was like an hour ago.”

“Guess I’ll have to use my imagination, then,” Conor wiggles his eyebrows. 

“I like it when you get like this,” Ned says, voice almost a purr. 

Conor picks Ned up, it’s the same way he picks his teammates up during a lineout, grabbing the smaller boy by the thighs and hoisting him up. He pushes Ned against the wall and kisses him. He’s not usually the one to take control, almost always preferring to give Ned what he wants, but when he’s in charge, he’s in charge. 

“Shit,” Ned says on an exhale. 

Conor shushes him with another kiss to the mouth. 

Ned groans against his mouth, Conor presses up against him. His arms buckle slightly but he hoists Ned up again. 

“Tired?” Ned teases. 

“Shut up,” Conor says, a smirk on his face. 

He hoists Ned up further and throws him down onto their bed. Ned lands with a bounce. The springs creak.

“Oh fuck,” Conor whispers. 

Ned claps his hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter. 

“D’you think they heard?” Conor says. 

“We fucking heard!” Wally’s voice comes through the paper thin walls. 

Conor quietly gets into bed next to Ned, making the springs creak as little as possible. 

Ned’s still slightly shaking with laughter. Conor wraps his arms around him and shakes his head. 

Ned pulls the blankets over both of them and snuggles in closer to Conor’s chest.

“Fuck these beds,” Conor mutters. 

“Makes you miss the double at my dad’s.” 

Ned, miraculously, moves on top of Conor without making the mattress creek. He presses his body flat against Conor and sucks a hickey onto the smaller boy’s neck. 

 

Dom has his suspicions all week, but when Conor comes to practice with a deep purple bruise on his neck, poorly hidden by his rugby uniform, he knows. Something’s going on between Ned and Conor, and Dom’s pretty sure he doesn’t like it. 

They play a scrimmage again and as always, Dom and Conor are at each other’s throats. Conor no more so than usual, Dom, maybe a bit harder. He doesn’t know why. Knows that Conor was gay, it was kind of… a thing in the fall. Conor being gay in theory was fine, but in practice… it’s a distraction. 

Dom’s trying to knock something into him, maybe something out of him, but he’s not aware of that impulse himself. 

Conor pops one of Dom’s joints a little awkwardly, Dom hits Conor in the jaw with his elbow. Dom cuts his knee open on a rough tackle from Weasel. He sits on the bleachers, bandaging the cut after practice. The rest of the boys ran into the showers, laughing together. Dom’s never felt like he fit in with the other boys, it wasn’t an age thing either but he couldn’t tell what it was. He’s happy to sit on the bleachers away from them. 

Victor’s hatching a plan to get Dom into the fold of their friend group. He’s never seen him hang out with a friend, his life consists of rugby and school, and Victor wonders how fulfilling that can actually be. 

He leans over to Wally in the shower. 

“You seen Dom?”

“He’s cleanin’ up his scrape I think,” Wally says. 

“Worried about him.”

“Fucking worried about everyone, mate,” says Wally. 

Victor grumbles, “hasn’t got many friends. He’s all rugby all the time.”

“He’s just a little weird.”

“Can you talk to him maybe. I feel like there’s something up with him. He won’t listen to me,” Victor says. 

Wally sighs. Victor’s been his best friend for as long as he’s been at Woodhill. They shared a room in their first year, and requested to share every year since them. Playing rugby together was like sharing a psychic link, both always knowing what the other was about to do. Wally has more respect for Victor than anyone, any of his teachers, any of his coaches, Victor’s the best captain he knows, probably the best man. He certainly cares the most. 

“Yeah, okay,” Wally sighs 

He dries his hair and throws on his uniform and heads out to sit with Dom. Dom’s still picking dirt out of the scrape. 

“Hey mate,” Wally says. 

“Hi,” Dom answers quickly. 

“Just uh… wondering how you’re doing.”

“Cut’s fine,” Dom says

“Yeah… good. Like is there anything you want to talk about.”

“Uh. No. Not really.”

“Right. Cool. Well uh. Any questons, let me know.”

“Well. Just one. I uh- Conor,” he says. 

Wally raises an eyebrow. 

“Does he wanna like play professionally.:”

“Dunno. I think he might.”

“Do you think he knows that maybe that shit with Ned could change that.”

Wally turns to him, a look of confusion on his face. 

“Mate, don’t say that. That’s not… None of our business mate.”

“Feels like it could be a distraction.”

Wally tries not to obviously roll his eyes. 

“Still the best player on the pitch.”

And that feels like a well placed punch to Dom. Everyone knows how hard he tries to be the best, everyone knows how much he hates that he’s not.  Dom’s angry, he’s concerned, but mostly he wants his rugby team to be the best.

Chapter Text

“He wouldn’t snitch on them, you don’t think?” Victor’s been ranting to Wally for about an hour now, he’s asked this question, or some variation of it at least three times. 

“I really don’t know, mate,” Wally’s laying on his own bed, upside down, head hanging off the edge while Victor paces. 

“How’d he even find out?”

“He hangs out with us. I mean, they never exactly told me, but I still figured it out”

Victor sighs. 

“Should I talk to him?”

“You said it yourself, he doesn’t listen to you.”

“Fuck. Well he’s being a right cunt in practice. We can’t be expected to compete if him and Conor are constantly tearing at each other.”

“Well who does he listen to?” Wally says. 

“Pascal,” Victor shrugs. 

“Yeah, he’s not gonna be much help.”

Victor snorts, “No shit, mate.” he says, “Did he listen to you?”

“If by listened you mean sat there while I talked, then yeah.”

“Fuck,” Victor says, “You know that if he goes to Pascal or Walter then they’ll move Conor and Ned out of the same room and Conor will be fucking miserable and we’ll be right back where we fucking started.”

“I don’t think he’s going to do that.”

“Why wouldn’t he? You said he said Ned’s a distraction, so why not remove the distraction?”

“Okay that makes it sound like Dom’s going to fucking murder Ned.”

“I wouldn’t put it past him,” Victor deadpans. 

“Drama queen.”

“I just don’t get it. Why’s he so obsessed with Conor?” Victor runs his hands through his hair, a motion that’s all too familiar to Wally, means his friend’s thinking too hard.. 

“D’you think… you think maybe he could be gay, and this is like a weird fucked up crush thing?” Victor continues. 

Wally snorts even louder, “What the fuck?”

“I mean he’s totally obsessed with Conor.”

“Yeah but in an, I want to kill you not kiss you , kind of way.”

“Mm but Weasel...Feel like he’s a good example of how it can be both.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Wally says, more confused than ever now.

“I’ve gotta go talk to him.”

Victor jumps up, turns for the door. 

“What the fuck!” Weasel turns over onto his stomach and practically falls out of his bed.

“Come on. I have to talk to him.”

“Mate!” Wally struggles to catch up, “Weasel did what?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Victor brushes him off. 

“Jesus christ,” Wally says, he follows Victor, because really, what other choice does he have. 

Wally and Vic started really getting along at Woodhill, but they’d run in the same circles before that. They both came from rugby families, they’d played each other a few times, though Victor was almost always the one who came out on top. Wally didn’t really mind. He’s always been realistic about his own skill level. Most of rugby is just trying really hard, skill’s harder to come by, Wally’s always known he doesn’t have it. He’s happy to play at Woodhill, maybe join his university team, but Victor’s got prospects, Victor’s always had prospects. 

Victor’s also always had a stubborn determination, the kind that prompts him to drag his roommate out of their room and down the hallway to deal with what he thinks is a 14 year olds’ sexuality crisis manifesting itself in unwarranted aggression directed at their out but not quite proud, friend.

Victor raises his fist, banging on Dom’s door. He’s smiling (like a fucking idiot, Wally thinks). Wally’s almost entirely certain that Victor’s wrong but he’s long since learned that there’s no way to talk him out of a rash decision. 

Dom’s roommate opens the door. He’s wearing headphones around his neck and dopey expression on his face. 

“Is Dom around?” Victor asks. 

“Try the rugby field”

Wally raises his eyebrows.

“You think he’s practicing?” Wally whispers after the roommate closes the door. 

“He’s probably overcompensating. He worries that his sexuality will make him less valuable in our eyes so he’s trying to overcome that with practice.”

“You’ve been reading too much, mate.”

“It’s a think, I swear,” Victor hisses. 

Wally rolls his eyes and follows dutifully behind his friend. 

Dom’s on the field, in the dark. He’s alone, mud on his shows and a ball in his hand. It looks like he’s been at it for a while. Victor approaches him before Wally has a chance to reaffirm what a bad idea this is. 

“Flannery,” Victor greets the rookie.

“Hines,” Dom answers, he’s confused, “Did you want the field?”

“No just a chat,” Victor says, his demeanour is eerily chipper. 

“Well uh… can it wait,” Dom gestures to no less than a dozen balls at his feet. 

“You can take a break,” Victor says and it’s not a suggestion. 

Victor and Dom sit on the bleachers, Wally sits next to Victor, though he’s a good thirty centimetres from his friend. He’s trying to look at anything but the pair of them. 

Oh! What a nice tree! Didn’t know the stars did that!

“Is this about something. I know Conor and I have sort of been going after each other in practice, if it’s too much I’ll tone it down.”

“I would never’ ask you to deny a part of yourself,” Victor says. 

“Jesus Christ,” Wally mutters. 

“Ehm… okay.”

“I was just wondering if maybe… If there was some reason you were hyperfixated on Conor in particular,” Victor prompts with the kindness of a kindergarten teacher. 

Wally wants this to be over he can’t imagine how Dom must be feeling. 

“He’s uh-- he’s really good. We’re both really good I guess and physical so it’s only natural that’d we’d maybe go a little harder.”

“Hmm. Oh yeah yeah for sure,” Victor says, it’s clear this isn’t the response he was looking for. 

“I was just thinking,” Victor says. 

Wally stares very intently at a blade of glass. 

“Maybe if there was some part of him you identified with… some part of his identity that you latched on to maybe a…”

“For fuck’s sake!” Wally finally snaps, “Conor’s gay. Victor thinks you’re gay and that’s why you keep beating the ever loving fuck out of each other. I’ve told him that’s bullshit but he never listens to me.”

“The fuck?” Dom stands up, “I’m not a fucking queer.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” Victor stands up and puts his hand on Dom’s shoulder. 

“Well yeah. I fucking know that. But I’m not. I mean if I was gonna pick someone to turn for it’d probably be Conor but… nah,” Dom says. 

“If it’s not a gay thing then what is it?” Victor asks. 

“I’m not having this conversation,” Dom says. 

He tears away from Wally and Victor and goes back to taking penalty kicks. Wally grabs Victor by the arm. 

“You’ve said enough mate.”

Victor spends the rest of the day pacing the room. Wally tries desperately to get his reading done for their english lesson but Victor seems to be hellbent on interrupting him every time he finds a rhythm. 

“I just wish he’d let me in. It can’t be healthy for him to be practicing that much.”

Wally had been nodding and passively agreeing for the past three hours but he finally decides it’s enough and snaps his book shut. 

“Mate, he’s not a problem for you to solve.”

“What?”

“That’s how you see people sometimes. As problems, cases to crack. Sometimes someone just doesn’t want to talk to you and you’ve got to learn to be chill with that.”

Victor sighs, sits on his bed. In their four years as roommates they’ve never really had a fight. Stuff like rugby sorted itself out, they’d always agreed to never let a girl come between them. They’re good best friends. 

“Do I?”

“Not always. But sometimes. It’s like you have a pathological need to solve other people’s problems.”

“S’what a captain does isn’t it?”

“Rugby problems maybe. But if Dom’s okay on the field then maybe you should leave the rest up to his friends.”

“Does he even have any friends?”

“If he doesn’t then that feels like something he needs to sort for himself.”

“Fuck,” Victor breathes, “D’you think I scared him.”

Wally shrugs. 

Dom punches the uprights at the end of the field. The yellow metal is cold and he feels the bruise forming under his knuckles almost immediately. 

He runs for the rest of the day. Only coming in for lunch. They have afteroon practice so he throws himself into that. He throws himself at Conor with extra force, Conor’s sturdy on his feet like always. If he sees a tackle coming, odds are he’ll stay on his feet. 

The rest of the boys go in and Pascal lets him stay out. He always lets him stay out for as long as he needs. 

When he’s kicking a ball, he doesn’t have to think. It’s simple, foot connects with ball, ball goes through the uprights, Dom runs to get the ball, put it back where it started and kick again. He must do this at least a hundred times before the sun goes down. 

He ignores the sound of footsteps behind him. If it’s Victor he’ll just ignore him. 

Wally stands beside Dom, hands in his pockets. He doesn’t talk, waits for Dom to finish with his kick, before turning to him. 

“You want a go?” Dom asks. 

Wally shrugs, “Don’t really kick much,” he says. 

“Right.”

“I wanted to say sorry about Victor. I promise he means well. He’s just trying too hard, I think.”

“S’fine,” Dom grunts, “I’d rather not talk about it.”

“Sure. Just uh… he cares a lot. Man doesn’t do anything but worry. It’s not just you.”

Dom sighs. He picks up his hoodie from in the grass and shrugs it on. He sits next to Wally on the bleachers. 

“So what is your deal with Conor?” Wally asks.

Dom shrugs, “He’s the best. I want to be better than that.”

Wally nods. 

“I am straight. For the record. I mean it’s not like I have anything against it, don’t really care, just… well. I dunno.”

“What about that shit you said the other day. ‘Bout it being a distraction. That didn’t seem like you were all that cool about it.”

“What?” Dom says, “Oh… I just meant… not me.. Bbut there are people who wouldn’t like who he is. Ned.” says Dom

“Well. Maybe it could change.”

“If it doesn’t? It’d be nice for him not to have that secret be out there, y’know?”

“Talk to Conor mate. If it bothers you.”

“I just… guess I’m pissed off.”

“Why? Because he fucked up your wrist.”

Dom shakes his head, “I had a friend a couple years ago who really wanted to play. He was gonna go pro. He was gay too.Tried really hard to be open. It was fine for a while but the league we were playing in didn’t like it once they heard and they kicked him off the team. He was probably my best friend and one day he was just gone. I think he’s doing better now but it was dark for him for a long time. Thought he could change who he was and then come back. He never did, hasn’t touched a rugby pitch since two years ago.”

“I guess it would be fucking annoying seeing Conor then.”

“I just think he’s really good. He shouldn’t jeopardize that for Ned.”

“I think they’re in love.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Seems obvious.”

“I guess.”

“I’m glad we got to talk, kid,” Wally says. 

“Me too, I guess,” Dom says. 

“Great.”

“Good.”

Dom’s knuckles still sting from punching the uprights. His friend was exactly like conor, except he had red hair and a slighter build, looked like Ned if Ned could run. He was sweet and kind, and damn good at rugby. His boyfriend was on another team. They were both good. Then the church that ran their summer league got wind of their romance, got wind that they were doing nothing to hide it and kicked them both off their teams. Every time Dom sees Conor he sees his friend and he gets angry. It would have been so easy to hide. He walks around every day hiding how angry and how sad he is, how worried, how anxious, surely they could have hid this one thing. 

And Conor’s a good guy, Dom likes him despite the constant fist fights but he’s angry because Conor is so dangerously close to being that kid Dom knew on a rugby field all those years ago and that’s the last thing Dom wants to have to see again.

Chapter Text

Woodhill opens their season with a loss. It’s not a terrible loss, they were within a try of the other team. Victor tells them not to beat themselves up about it, but it’s Conor, so that’s exactly what he does. 

“Conor, you were brilliant. You’ll get the win next time,” Ned says. 

They’re curled up in the bed, Conor’s head pressed against Ned’s chest, Ned running his fingers against Conor’s scalp. Conor moves in closer and sighs. Conor could tell his boyfriend all the things that went wrong, all the ways in which he fucked up the play, the times he could have done something at the breakdown but chose not to. But he knows Ned won’t get it. He’ll keep heaping reassurance on Conor and that’s fine, but sometimes he just needs to stew. 

They play two games the next weekend, one’s an exhibition match, but they lose 89-14. It weighs on them the next day and they drop that match 62-21.The first three games of the spring season are basically a wash, so suffice it to say, Conor’s miserable. 

He lets Ned know, this time, though and that makes all the difference. 

“I just feel like rugby’s my thing… you know? Being shit is new territory,” he says one day after classes but before dinner. He’s lying on his stomach in his bed. Ned’s on his own bed in the same position. 

“I still think you’re good.”

“You’d think I was good no matter what.”

Ned shrugs, “Probably.”

“Unhelpful,” Conor throws his pillow at Ned. 

Ned catches it, tucks it under his chest, “Mine now,” he teases.

Conor sighs. “Asshole.”

“You still worried about the kid taking your spot?”

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop being worried about that,” Conor sighs. 

Ned flops out of his bed, somehow landing on his feet and walks the two steps between their beds. He lays on top of Conor, his head tucked into the crook of his neck. Conor relaxes immediately, the warmth of his boyfriend covers him better than any blanket ever could.

“I love you even if you lose your rugby superpowers,” Ned kissed the back of Conor’s head and wraps his arms around Conor’s shoulders, “Like those basketball players in space jam. Maybe that’s the secret and we have to go get your talent back,” Ned teases. 

Conor can’t help but smile, he’s still miserable, of course, but Ned always makes everything feel less stressful. 

“And if we can’t get them back then we can start a really shitty band, we can go to England, or Germany… or Canada,” Ned whispers. 

“What’s even in Canada?” Conor asks.

He’s happy to talk about something that’s not rugby if only for a couple minutes. 

“Geese, I think,” Ned says

Conor laughs, the book that he was trying to study from is forgotten as he shakes his head. 

“And Broken Social Scene,” Ned muses. 

“What?”

“A band. Good one I think.”

“Edgy?”

“Would you expect anything less of me?”

“Wouldn’t dare,” Conor rolls onto his side so that he can look at Ned. 

“So Canada, huh?” He says. 

“I think we could pull it off. Maybe New Zealand, where do you want to go?”

“Never really thought about it,” Conor shrugs.

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“I used to dream about where I’d go. Far away from everyone I ever knew, France and the world.”

“Guess I was always okay right here.”

“Never wanted to be more than okay?” Ned asks. 

“Never really thought I could,” Conor says. 

He doesn’t quite get why Ned looks sad for a minute, it’s just the truth. 

“My family was here. I had friends, teammates.”

“Guess that’s the difference.”

“Did you really never have any friends?”

Ned shakes his head, “Not even a little,” he laughs bitterly. 

“I’m sorry,” Conor presses his forehead to Ned’s. 

“You were my first real friend, you’ve got nothing to be sorry about.”

“Sorry I wasn’t your friend sooner.”

“You didn’t know me sooner.”

“Wish I did.”

Victor realizes quickly how miserable his friends are and sets off to fix it. He frames it as a “fun roadtrip,” but Conor sees right through it. 

“C’mon, I want you all to see my sister play!” Victor insists. 

The team has the weekend off of games, Victor convinced Pascal to cancel practices so they could “study”. 

“Vic, we’ve seen her play,” Conor says. He throws Victor the tennis ball that they’ve been lazily bouncing against the wall. It’s gotten warmer now that mid-March has rolled around so the boys are hanging around outside more often than not. Ned lies on his stomach in the grass drawing something in his notebook. Conor and Victor catch the ball. Wally’s staring off into the distance. 

“Please!” Victor says, “My step-mum said I can borrow the van she uses for work, it’ll be a great time”

“Dude, I just want to chill.”

Despite the arguing, Conor, Ned, Wally, Weasel, Keith, Tom and Dom cram themselves into Victor’s parents’ mini-van on Saturday morning. They’d taken the train to the city and walked to Victor’s house. It’s early in the morning and neither of his parents are home. Conor feels like he’s doing something he’s not supposed to. 

Wally climbs into the passenger seat. Ned and Conor take the back row of seats, Ned leans against Conor, sandwiched between him and Weasel still tired from being dragged out of bed early. Keith, Tom and Dom sit in the row ahead of them. Conor tries not to watch as Victor fumbles with the keys. 

Olivia plays rugby at an all girls private school in Donegal, just outside of Letterkenny. She’s even further from home than Victor is during the school year but she insisted on taking a place at the best girl’s rugby program in the country. It’s a two hour drive. 

“Don’t kill us, eh?” Weasel calls as Victor blows past a stop sign. 

“Shut up, there’s no one here to see us”

“I’m not paying your fucking traffic ticket, mate”

Wally has made a playlist of truly terrible music, Conor feels Ned roll his eyes as the opening of a Wham! Song plays. Keith and Tom know every word, of course. Weasel pulls a bag of sour candy from his pocket and offers it around. Conor wonders if kissing Ned was a life changing experience for everyone seeing as Weasel had become a changed man after their encounter at that party that Conor keeps trying to forget. Ned gladly takes a handful from the giant bag. Conor steals from his pile every now and then. Keith and Tom each take a small handful and Dom refuses to take any. Weasel ties a knot in the back and

FWHIP

It hits Wally in the back of the head. 

“Oi!” Wally shouts. 

“Just sharing!” Weasel calls from the back of the van. 

He might not be an antagonist anymore, but he sure is still a dick. 

“Fuck you!” 

Wally takes a gummy shark from the bag and lobs it at Weasel it hits Ned instead. 

“Oh fuck sorry, mate!” Wally says, stifling a laugh. 

“Ass!” Ned says, throws a pair of sour cherries and Wally, Wally deflects it and it hits Tom instead. Keith reaches forward and punches Wally in the arm. Dom looks passively uncomfortable until Wally licks a cherry coke bottle and throws it at the window beside him. It sticks and even Dom cracks a laugh. 

“I’m gonna go off the road if you don’t pipe down,” Victor says through giggles. Weasel throws one last sour gummy bear and then pipes down as instructed. 

5 minutes later Ned’s threatening Wally within an inch of his life if he doesn’t play something other than that terrible VengaBoys song. 

Wally relents and hits the skip button on his phone. 

“Jesus christ,” Ned groans as the opening riff of Bohemian Rhapsody plays. 

Conor smirks and Tom and Keith glance at each other, a devious look in their eyes. By the time the first lyric is sung, all of the boys are smirking at each other. Even Ned belts out the words. Victor makes the car swerve slightly to the rhythm. Everyone in the car shrieks in glee. Weasel bangs on the roof of the van as they scream and bang their heads to the music. 

They’ve screamed their throats dry by the time the songs over. It winds down, Ned relaxes against Conor, a smile on his face. 

And Then

Wally Hits play. 

The Fucking Vengaboys.

“GOD FUCKING DAMN IT!” Ned shoots upright, a look of pure rage on his face. 

Conor puts his arm around Ned as everyone around them cackles in glee. 

“Fuck you all,” Ned groans. 

“It’s pretty funny,” Conor says quietly. 

“Traitor,” Ned whispers. 

Victor pulls over at a grocery shop twenty minutes out from the school. The boys spend the money in their pockets on lunch. Weasel buys another bag of candy. Conor and Dom make a healthy choice of a salad with extra chicken loaded on top. Wally gets chips, Victor eats a sandwich that smells fishy. Conor doesn’t mind but Ned makes a disgusted face when he takes it out of the wrap. Ned shares the bag of candy with Weasel, also gently picking at a chocolate croissant. They sit in the parking lot. Keith and Tom are mysteriously nowhere to be found. 

“Where are…” Dom starts. 

“You’ll find out probably,” Wally says exasperated. 

No sooner than he speaks, Ketih and Tom walk out of the shop holding a entire pre-cooked rotisserie chicken. 

“You’ve gotta be shitting me,” Weasel snorts. 

Ned laughs at Weasel. 

The two boys shrug. 

“D’you even have a fork?” Ned asks. 

“We couldn’t find any,” Keith says. 

“We did find these,” Tom pulls two pairs of chopsticks out of his back pocket. 

The rotisserie chicken is the gift that keeps on giving. The initial disbelief fades into entertainment as they watch them try to stab the meat with the chopsticks. 

“Should’ve got sushi,” Keith mumbles at one point sending the entire group into another fit of giggles. Conor watches Ned elbow Weasel jokingly. 

Everything everyone’s ever told him would say that he’s supposed to be jealous. To worry that Ned and Weasel had something secret going on. But Conor’s not. He trusts Ned, and weirdly, the idea of him being friendly with Weasel doesn’t make him jealous. It makes him almost happy Happy that Weasel’s changed enough to be on good terms with Ned, happy that Ned’s found it in him to forgive Weasel for all the shit he put him through. 

The half eaten chicken sits sadly in the parking lot. Weasel stands up and gestures to Conor. He takes the chicken out of the tray and sets it in front of Conor. He points at a tree on the other side of the parking lot. 

“Two points,” Weasel says simply. 

Conor smirks. Their friends are beind them watching intently, not quite sure what they’re seeing. 

Conor takes a step back and drives his foot through the half eaten meal. 

The thing about kicking a chicken is that it’s not a ball. Conor miscalculates horribly and the chicken goes spinning out. They all watch in horror as the ball flies through the air and lands on the hood of a car with a splat. Nothing looks seriously damaged, but grease and barbeque sauce run down the silver paint. 

“Oh fuck,” Conor says immediately. 

Everyone springs to their feet as someone comes out the door of the shop. 

“Haul Ass!” Victor shouts and they all trip over themselves to jump back in the van. 

Victor’s starting the car before Weasel’s even in the car. The tires screech as they peel out of the parking lot. Once they’re certain no one’s going to emerge from the store and arrest them. They pull over and shake the van with their laughter. 

“Holy shit Conor!” Ned snickers. 

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it,” Weasel says in between wheezes. 

“Listen if you tell me to kick a thing, I’m gonna kick it!”

Chapter Text

Tom rolls down his window and holds Conor’s shoe out the window. 

“It smells like barbeque sauce, mate!” he says in response to Conor’s protest. 

“You’re so fucking dramatic,” Conor hits Tom in the back of the head. 

Victor guides the van into a parking lot. There are a few parents heading onto the field, younger brothers and sisters run around in the grass. 

A banner hanging from the fence says “Welcome friends and family of Whitford Ladies Rugby Team.”

“You didn’t tell us it was family’s day, mate,” Conor says quietly as the other boys run ahead. 

Keith jumps on Tom’s back and they run to the bleachers, Ned and Weasel are still sharing that massive bag of candy. 

Victor just shrugs. 

Conor knows their parents won’t be there, his step-mother’s work trip was what allowed them to borrow the van in the first place. He smiles to himself at the idea of Olivia becoming a part of their strange and weird brotherhood. The field is bigger than the one at Woodhill. The bleachers are wooden and go up six or seven rows. There are lights for night games and the lines look freshly painted. 

“It’s serious, huh?”

“The men’s team that shares the pitch are nationally ranked. They have a game tonight. Liv says it’s a pain that the boys get all the attention but I guess it has its benefit.”

They take a seat near the botoom of the stands. Keith, Tom, Wally and Weasel sit behind Victor, Ned, Conor and Dom. 

“Where is she?” Conor asks, scanning the girls running the field. 

“She should be number eight,” Victor says looking around. 

“Is that her,” Ned leans in closer to his friends and points at a girl standing near the player’s bench.

She has her hands on her hips and what looks like the undivided attention of a group of players. Her arms are toned, Conor can see the muscles bulging in her calves and thighs. She’s not built quite like Victor, who’s lean and a little bit Lanky. Liv’s jacked. Broad shoulders and determination, her place on any pitch would be undisputed. 

Conor sees immediately why he didn’t spot her at first. Up until this point, every time he’s seen her, she’s worn her chest length dirty blonde hair in a high ponytail. Now her hair can’t be much longer than Conor’s. The back and sides of her head are completely shaved and it’s just long enough on top to be pulled into a tiny bun at the back. Conor’s sure everyone notices but no one mentions it. 

At the half, Conor realizes that this team could probably beat Woodhill. The girls are fast and physical. No one shies away from laying tackles at the breakdown and when Liv scored early in the first half, the entire team jumped to embrace her. When one of the girls gave away the ball and sacrificed a try, the entire team took ownership. It’s something kind of special to watch. 

“Still a hot shot, huh, Vic?” Weasel elbows Victor as the girls took the field for the second half. 

Victor’s absolutely beaming at his sister. They lead by over 40 points, the second half ought to be a cake walk. 

It turns out, not so much. The other team comes back to score five tries in a row, putting them two ahead of Liv’s team with five minutes left in the game. Everyone’s on the edge of their seat but Victor especially. He’s leaning so far forward Conor wonders why he doesn’t just stand. He has his hand near his mouth, biting down on his thumb, eyes trained on his sister. Liv jumps for a dropped ball after the other team fumbles a lineout and bursts up the field. She has a clear path but the other team is catching up with her. She’s big and fast but the other team has two fast wingers that are gaining on her. Rather than let herself be tackled and have to force her team into a scrum, she passes it. To a small girl. Definitely shorter than anyone else on the field. She’s wearing two braids and her knee socks keep falling. 

She catches the ball easily and takes off in a full sprint. Olivia puts herself in between the girl and the other teams wings and the small girl scores a try with thirty seconds left to go. The players’ bench erupts. Screaming and whooping. Olivia jumps at the girl and hugs her. There’s enough time for them to kick the conversion but then the whistle blows. 

There’s no tension as the girls form a circle, arms wrapped around one another’s shoulders, grinning. The coach says his piece and then lets Olivia talk. Standing at the side of the field, Conor hears her telling each and every player, specifically what they did right. 

“We’ll talk about coughing up that lead tomorrow in practice, but for now celebrate like winners,” she claps her hand and the circle breaks. 

Olivia and the small girl who had scored the try l walk over to meet the boys. She has braces on her impeccably white teeth The other girl hugs Wally. Wally punches her in the arm. Conor had been sitting in front of Wally so he hadn’t seen the reaction, but he’d heard Wally cheer louder than the rest. 

“Fucking! Brilliant!” Wally grins.

“His cousin,” Victor whispers, “Liv’s best friend.”

Wally’s aunt and uncle are waiting in the parking lot, Wally heads off with them. 

“You boys better be at the family picnic!” the man, who Conor can only assume is Wally’s uncle calls as they leave. Wally’s aunt is holding a squirming toddler. 

“But we’re not…” Ned starts. 

“You came all this way to watch the girls. Least we can do is feed ‘ya!” Wally’s aunt laughs and hands the whining toddler off to Wally. 

The rugby world is pretty small, so it’s no surprise that Keith and Tom know a few of the girls on the team. They head off to catch up, promising to meet the rest of the boys at the picnic. 

“You’ve still got the hands, huh, butch?” Weasel pats Liv on the back. 

Liv shrugs, “It was Tillie who scored the try.”

“Give yourself some credit,” Victor scolds. 

“I am,” Liv says, “Just as part of the team.”

A girl from the score table walks over to the group. She’s wearing glasses and a rain coat. She hands Olivia a clip board with the score sheet on it. 

“Just the signature captain,” she says. 

Olivia signs it haphazardly and thanks the girl genuinely, Conor’s pretty sure he catches her wink at the scorekeeper. Weasel notices too and raises an eyebrow. He shares a laugh with Liv. 

“Ladykiller, nice,” Weasel mutters as they walk of the field, a smirk on his lips. 

“Sorry what?” Victor says, turning more dramatically than necessary. 

Liv turns a slightly pale shade of pink and shrugs. 

“Nothing, your sister’s just getting more action than you!” Weasel taunts. 

“I’m gonna fucking kill you,” Victor shoves Weasel and the two take off running. Weasel climbs on top of a picnic table and jumps. Victor follows him. 

Ned and Olivia are cracking up. Dom follows behind, not sure if he’s allowed to laugh. 

“I swear to God Weasel when I catch you I’ll knock your teeth out!”

“He wasn’t wrong!” Olivia shouts in between laughs. 

Victor ignores her and knocks Weasel to the dirt. He sits on his chest and shoves at him. 

The other four sit at the picnic table watching them shove each other. 

“I’m not moving until you take it back,” Victor says. 

“Guess you’re not moving then,” Weasel taunts. 

“Jesus christ,” Liv rolls her eyes. 

Ned and Conor share a look. 

“Okay fine,” Weasel says, “Your lesbian sister definitely doesn’t pull in every vaguely curious girl withing a 4 mile radius with a haircut and biceps like that.”

Liv snorts and shrugs as if to say, “yeah.”

“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” Victor turns back to her. 

Weasel takes the opportunity to shove Victor off his chest. 

“Vic, fuck off,” Liv finally says.

“What the hell happened to Ingrid?” Victor says, Weasel’s sitting on his back looking overly self-satisfied. 

“We made out at a party once, doesn’t mean we were in love, dumbass.”

Conor can’t help but notice how violently uncomfortable Dom looks sitting on top of the picnic table. 

Liv pulls Weasel off her brother and separates them. 

“We’re gonna be late to the picnic if you two don’t stop being morons.”

“You’re right,” Victor pulls the keys out of his pockets. 

“Shotgun!” Weasel shouts. 

“Absolutely fucking not!” Olivia shouts back and the two take off in a footrace across the gravel carpark. 

“How long have you guys known Weasel?” Ned asks Victor. 

“Since I started at Woodhill, but Weasel and I played in the same summer league until last year so we saw a lot of each other. Less of a prick now. S’nice.”

The boys and Liv pile in the van. Liv claims the front seat having crushed Weasel in the race. 

There have to be at least a hundred people at the picnic. The team have set up in a park. There are tablecloths covering picnic tables and plates of food piled high. Wally’s aunt is standing next to a grill handing cooked hamburgers to his uncle. The girls are throwing the rugby ball around, little brothers and sisters squeal as they chase each other around the park. Wally’s aunt hands the plate of hamburgers off to his uncle and walks towards the boys. 

“I’m so glad you’ve come,” she hugs Conor and kisses him on the cheek, “Wally told his mum all about Conor Masters,” she smiles. 

“And the more the merrier,” she kisses Ned on the cheek as well, “You must be Ned!”

There are more than a few of the girls who want to talk to Conor. A couple of them and read about the team’s senior cup run. Conor was happy to talk rugby with them. 

When Conor turns back to his friends, he sees Ned sitting at a picnic table with Wally’s little cousin on his lap. He’s bouncing her up and down and she’s giggling. 

Weasel, Wally and Victor have joined in a game of ultra-competitive frisbee. Dom’s sitting at the other side of the picnic table picking sesame seeds off his bun. Conor sits beside Ned. 

Ned remains utterly transfixed by the baby. 

Victor dives to make a frisbee catch and in the process runs directly into a tree. 

There’s not a single person in the park who doesn’t laugh. 

“Promise me you’ll never become a rugby player, you lose all your brain cells when you do,” Ned says to the toddler in a cooing voice. 

“Oi!” Conor says. 

Ned smirks. 

“What’s her name?” Conor asks.

“Mitzie,” Ned answers. 

The baby coos at the mention of her own name. Ned bounces her on his knee some more. 

Conor can list a million reasons why he loves Ned, but most of them fall into roughly the same category. He’s kind. Even the angry punk shit, it comes from a place of love, a place of wanting the world to be better. He doesn’t look like the kind of boy who’d be entertaining a baby at a rugby family picnic, black skinny jeans and his patchy denim jacket, and yet here he is. 

“Thank you for watching her, Ned,” Wally’s aunt, who Conor has now learned is called Jeanie, says after about five more minutes of Conor unabashedly staring. 

“No problem,” Ned says, “She was an angel.”

“You’re going to be a wonderful Dad,” Jeanie pats him on the shoulder, “Gonna make a lady very lucky.”

She’s just being nice and Ned is so good at pretending that it doesn’t bother him but Conor knows it has to because it bothers him so much. He smiles and nods. 

“We’ll see,” is all he says. 

Jeanie smiles and takes Mitzie into her arms. The little girl waves goodbye to Ned. Ned scrunches up his nose and sticks out his tongue 

“You boys get home safe, okay?” Jeanie says. 

“Victor’s a passable driver,” Ned says. 

It’s gotten dark by now. The kids have gotten out sparklers and the girls are roasting marshmallows over a fire pit. Dom’s still sitting at the other side of the picnic table. Ned puts his hand on Conor’s knee, Conor puts his hand on top of that. Neither one of them looks down since that’s when it starts to look obvious. 

“Follow me,” Ned says. 

Once their out of sight, Ned grabs Conor’s hand. He leads him down a hill where there’s a small outcropping of rocks overlook a duck pond. Ned sits on top of the rocks. Conor sits next to him. 

 

Dom hates this kind of stuff. Especially when he doesn’t know anyone. He doesn’t know why he agreed to go in the first place. None of the boys on the team have ever actually been his friends. He sits at the table people watching because there’s absolutely nothing left to do. He zones out eventually. Starts thinking about assignments, returns to the familiar daydream about the senior cup, the nightmare of getting kicked off the team.

He doesn’t notice Victor’s sister sitting across from him until she clears her throat. 

“Oh. Hey,” Dom says. 

“You look miserable,” she says. 

Dom shrugs, “Not my scene.”

“Why don’t you hang out with your friends.”

“Dunno that they’re really my friends.”

“They’re your teammates, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.”

“Then they have to be your friends.”

“They don’t seem to like me very much.”

“Are you an asshole or something.”

“Well no. Not really. Maybe.”

“Are you the one who keeps fighting Conor?”

“It’s just rugby.”

She blows a piece of her bangs out of her face and sighs, “Men are stupid.”

Dom rolls his eyes. 

“You just watched us win, do you see any of us break each other’s noses.”

“Well no… but…”

“Are you saying that wasn’t rugby?”

“No. I would never- I- uh”

“I’m fucking with you mate.”

“Oh. Thank god.”

“Seriously though. Rugby doesn’t need to involve you beating the ever loving fuck out of your friends.”

 

“Babies really like you, huh?” Conor says to Ned. 

Ned shrugs, “They’re mostly sweet. She was an easy one I guess.”

“Nah, I remember Christmas. The kids loved you and they’re actual demons.”

Ned laughs and rests his head on Conor’s shoulder, “I guess I just treated them like people.”

“How are you the best person on the planet?” Conor kisses the top of Ned’s head. 

Ned just smiles, blowing a puff of air out his nose at the same time. 

“Does seeing me with a baby really make you this sentimental?” He teases. 

Conor just shrugs, “Maybe.”

Here’s the thing, Conor never liked kids. They’re so fragile and small and there’s no way to ensure you won’t fuck them up. He always knew that a family was never in the cards for him, at least he thought he knew. The way Ned’s eyes light up when he’s talking to a kid, the gentleness in his voice. The playfulness that’s always there but finally rewarded when a baby laughs, it all makes Conor feel something. Yearning, wanting, but not in the same way as when Ned’s sitting on their bed, shirt off after a shower that want is immediate, pressing. This wanting is something else entirely. It’s about imagining a future, an apartment with a double bed, a house and adoption papers. A day job where he comes home from work and kisses Ned’s cheek. A backyard and a kid with a football. It’s all so much. 

“You’re thinking hard,” Ned says, only a hint of concern in his face. 

Conor nods, “Yeah, just about how much I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Conor doesn’t want to ask about the future, doesn’t want to tell Ned about his dreams. All of that is so far away, so scary. 

“I guess Wally’s aunt won’t get her wish about you making a lady very happy one day.”

Ned chuckles, wraps his arms around Conor’s waist and lays against him, Conor relaxes backwards, brushes some of Ned’s hair out of his eyes and just looks at him, love in his eyes. 

“You promised me you’d keep telling me what you’re thinking,” Ned finally says. 

“It’s nothing bad,” Conor promises. 

“Good, then I want to hear.”

Conor sighs, “I’m just really fucking in love with you and I can’t stop thinking about spending the rest of my life with you.”

The concern in Ned’s face shatters into a massive grin. 

“I mean obviously if you want to,” Conor says quickly. 

“Of course I want to, you idiot,” Ned punches him in the shoulder. 

“Seeing you with the baby kind of tossed me into imagining that,” Conor shrugs. 

Ned nods, “I never imagined kids,” Ned admits, “I mean not ‘til recently. It’d be harder and I never thought it’d be worth it… but ehm- nevermind,” Ned says.

“Oi!” Conor pokes Ned gently in the chest, “You make me tell the whole truth, it’s a two way street.”

“I guess I’d be pretty happy if one day… y’know in a long time, if I had a kid that grew up to be like you.”

Conor wants to cry. Because that’s probably the nicest thing Ned could say, and Ned is looking at his hands like he’s embarrassed so Conor knows he’s telling the truth.Conor pulls Ned close to his chest, buries his face in his boyfriend’s hair and kisses the side of his head. 

“Me too. If I had kids that grew up like you.”

“It’s not… you’re not weirded out?”

Conor shakes his head, “I don’t know what I’m going to do after next year, but I really want to do it with you.”

Ned kisses him on the mouth, hands in Conor’s hair, gentle and soft. There are a couple tears streaming down both of their cheeks, neither one cares. 

 

Olivia and Dom walk through the park. She’s cool and Dom likes her but he can’t figure out why she’s bothering to spend so much time hanging out with him. 

“How long you been playing for?” She finally asks.

“Started when I was 5.”

“I was 6,” Liv says, a smile on her face. 

Dom nods, “How long do you think you’re going to play.”

“Probably forever,” Liv jumps up onto a log and looks down at Dom as they keep walking, “gonna try at least. What do you think of Woodhill?”

“It’s good,” Dom says, “Weird sometimes.”

“Weird how?”

“I feel like everyone’s just going the fuck through it constantly.”

Olivia laughs right in his face. He scowls, “That’s just how being alive works, dumbass.”

Dom laughs with her, “Yeah. Guess so.”

“Is it cause Conor’s gay?”

“Fucking Vic thought that too. He interrogated me the other day thinking I was fucking gay.”

“You are most definitely not,” Olivia scans him from head to toe. 

“Dunno if that’s an insult”

“You’ll never know,” she sticks her tongue out at him. 

“I guess it might be. I just wanna play rugby. Y’know?’

“Maybe you should start by playing instead of fighting.”

“S’pose Victor told you all about that.”

She nods, “Why do you do it?’

“I don’t mean to.”

“Well I figured that.”

“We just go hard in practice. We’re competitive. He’s the best and I want to be.”

“You can both be the best,” Liv says. 

Dom honest to god, had never considered that a possibility. 

“Like it’s better to be equal on a really good team than really good on a mediocre team. You’re competing for a prize that doesn’t matter, even a little bit.”

“I guess when you put it like that I feel like an idiot.”

“You’re obsessed with Conor and not even in a gay way, that’s gotta be exhausting.”

Dom sits down on the log beside Liv and nods. 

“I’m fucking exhausted all the time,” he sighs and it’s the first time he’s admitted that out loud. 

“I get it,” Liv says, he wonders how the sarcasm and goofiness can melt out of her voice to make way for empathy so quickly. 

“Trying to be the best is exhausting. It’s just… I dunno I always wanted to be the best as a kid, I don’t want to move the goalpost.”

“Maybe focus on being the best team, you’re just gonna make yourself miserable.”

Dom shrugs, “Anything for greatness, right?” He laughs bitterly. 

Olivia joins in, shaking her hood.

Liv reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone. Dom unlocks it for her. 

“Text me when shit gets miserable. I know Victor can be a bit too much. Like he wants to solve your problems for you instead of just listening.”

“Why are you being so nice to me?”

“It’s called being friends, dude.”

Dom nods. Friends. Right. People have those. Liv is his friend. 

She rests her head on his shoulder and smiles, she hugs him the way Victor hugs Conor after a really good game. 

 

Conor’s lips taste like mustard and orange soda and Ned loves him anyway. He means it every time he says that Conor changed his life. He can’t wait to see him change it more. 

“Thank you,” Ned says without really thinking about it.

“For what?” Conor mumbles.

“Being with me,” Ned says. 

“It’s not hard,” Conor says. 

Ned closes his eyes and kisses Conor’s chest through his shirt. 

“You’re my best friend,” Conor says. 

“You’re my first best friend.”

Conor pulls Ned into a tight embrace. 

“I’m lucky,” Conor says, “Don’t thank me for liking you because it’s not hard.”

Ned kisses him again. 

“I’m not gonna say everything because I don’t want Vic to make fun of me for crying, but you saved me.”

“You saved me too.”

Chapter Text

Dom has a teeny tiny crush on Olivia. He’s well aware that there’s absolutely nothing he can do about it, but it sucks nonetheless. 

The boys sleep in Victor’s parents house. Olivia and Wally’s cousin tag along with them for the rest of the weekend. 

They immediately raid the liquor cabinet. 

Olivia grabs a mickey of spiced rum, she smiles at Dom and holds it out to him. 

Dom shakes his head. 

“Do you not drink?” She asks, there’s not a lot of judgement in her tone but Dom picks up on the little bit that is there. 

Dom shrugs, “Not a lot.”

“Maybe loosen up tonight, it’s not like it’s gonna kill you.”

Dom gives in quickly. Even if he knows that he hasn’t got a chance in hell with Liv, being her friend seems like a pretty sweet deal too.

She walks across the kitchen and opens a cupboard. She pulls out two glasses and pours a larger one for herself than Dom. She opens up a can of cola and pours half in each glass. Dom can hear the rest of his teammates laughing downstairs. 

“Oh fuck!” He hears Keith yell. 

“You bastard!” Tom yells. 

“Tillie back me up here!” Wally yells to his cousin. 

Liv laughs, rolls her eyes and sits on the counter. Dom sits on one of the stools by the kitchen island. Liv watches him intently as he sips his drink. It’s not as bitter as the drinks Victor misses. He takes a larger sip. 

“Thanks,” he says. 

“No problem,” Liv smiles. 

She has a brilliant smile, one of her front teeth is slightly crooked but it suits her face. 

They finish their drinks and Olivia mixes two new ones. The sounds from the basement have mostly died down, it’s almost three in the morning. Neither one of them can sleep though. Olivia seems wired from the game, but Dom’s not quite sure what’s keeping him up. Maybe he just doesn’t want to stop talking with Olivia. 

“How’d you become the captain?” Dom asks. They’re in the fancy sitting room beside the kitchen now. Liv’s lying upside down on the couch beside Dom.

“We playing 20 questions or something.”

“We could.”

“Well in that case. I just did it.”

“What do you mean?”

“No one else cared as much as I did. They could tell.”

“Weird.”

“Also that was two questions.”

“Fuck off,” Dom laughs. 

“My turn,” she announces,

“Okay,” Dom says. 

“You ever kissed a girl?” 

“What are we, 8?”

She shrugs, “It’s a good starting point.”

“Then yeah”

“Was she you girlfriend?”

“No follow ups,” Dom chides her playfully, “She was. We broke up before I came here.”

Liv nods, “Cool.”

There are a couple more meaningless questions but the gradually circle back to the topic of girls. 

“What was she like,” Liv asks, legs tucked underneath her on the couch, leaning against the cushion. 

He shrugs, “She was a girl.”

“No shit.”

“Dunno, we just dated because that’s what ‘ya do. We were friends first, then I asked her out.”

“Romantic,” she deadpans. 

“Didn’t really like her much.”

“Oh?”

“She was just a lot. Y’know? Wanted to know where I was and what I was doing all the time. She hated the idea that I’d do anything without her.”

“That’s really gross and weird,” Liv nods. 

“S’why we broke up.”

“You’re cool. You can do better,” she says. 

“Thanks, mate. Don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time hanging out with a girl.”

“I’m honoured,” she places her hand to her chest in dramatic shock. 

“You’re cool.”

“Well girls are, after all, people too.”

“Fuck off. I know. S’just I’ve always gone to boys schools.”

“Ah. So you don’t know how to talk to girls.”

He shrugs, “Probably not.”

Dom grew up Catholic, sheltered. He knew that girls and gay people existed, in theory, but at the jesuit schools he went to when he was young, there was functionally no sign of them. 

“Gay people either, so you’re like a two’fer.”

Liv let out a giant belly laugh, didn’t stop laughing until she was wheezing. 

"I guess the dirtbag dyke is as close as a queer can get to being a straight boy."

"I don't even know what that's supposed to mean."

“You’re kind of an idiot, huh?”

“I get good grades.”

“Yeah, okay. Stupid rugby players with good grades club,” she high fives him. 

“Can I ask you a weird question?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you ever check out your teammates in the locker room.”

Liv snorts, “Do you?”

“I’m straight.”

“Okay, buddy. But no. They’re like my sisters. It’d be weird as hell.”

“So Conor probably doesn’t either then?”

“Are you worried about that?” She says incredulously. 

“Dunno. Everyone always said that’s what would happen.”

“I think Conor’s pretty happy with the lad he’s got.”

“Yeah… that’s uh… weird I guess.”

“Do you think I’m weird then?”

“Well no, you like girls.”

“It’s the same concept.”

“I mean I guess I get why you’d like girls but I don’t get why Conor would… I guess that makes sense.”

“Fucking eejit.”

They both laugh. The teeny tiny crush pretty much evaporates when she rests her head on his shoulder, trying to catch her breath. This is a friend. This is someone important but not in the way he thought she should’ve been. 

When Weasel comes upstairs, Dom and Liv are asleep on the couch together. His legs rest on her lap. He doesn’t think anything of it. Just walks into the kitchen and downs an entire glass of water. Everybody’s asleep. Conor migrated closer to Ned as they slept on the couch and now he’s resting his head on Ned’s chest. Weasel doesn’t know what the twisting in his chest is. It’s not jealousy in the way that he kissed Ned that one time, but it might be a little bit in the way that he wishes he had someone to be that close to. A friend, a partner, anything. He can’t remember the last time someone hugged him. Can’t remember the last time someone called him their best friend. 

He goes back to sleep, not really intent on overthinking anything. 

When Ned wakes up, Conor is resting on his chest. Asleep after 7am for the first time in weeks. Ned kisses the top of his head, brushes his hair out of his eyes and stares unabashedly. Conor looks so peaceful when he sleeps. He doesn’t toss or turn, and when he does, that’s how Ned knows something is really and truly wrong. This morning, nothing is wrong, everyone is happy. Their friends are asleep around them, Victor curled up in an old armchair, Tom and Keith just barely spooning on the pullout couch. An air mattress is on the floor for Wally and his cousin to share, and Ned and Conor, on top of each other on the couch that’s really only big enough for one of them. Weasel’s missing 

Sometimes if Ned thinks too hard about the tentative friendship they’ve struck up, his head starts to hurt. Weasel made his life hell for years, he can still remember the feeling of toilet water in his lungs as he coughed it out in sputtering bursts. He can still feel hands on his shoulders shoving him into a trash can. And he can remember hot lips on his own. And yeah, that happened while he and Conor were on a break, and while Conor was sucking some dude’s dick in an alley after the party, but still, it’s weird. 

It’s weird to realize that you were the start of someone’s sexuality crisis. The punching bag for all their weird repressed self hatred. When Weasel flushed Ned down the toilet, was Ned just a stand in for the part of Weasel that scared him? 

 He gets up, wraps his sweater around his arms and heads upstairs. He sets off to find Weasel. He looks out the sliding door onto the back patio. Past the sofa where Dom and Liv lie, limbs tangled up. He wonders briefly if when Liv told Victor she “liked girls,” there was an unspoken, “and boys” tacked onto the end. He doesn’t suspect so. She’s snoring heavily, mop of hair thrown around her head. And Weasel’s called her Butch for as long as any of them ca remember. 

Weasel’s standing on the patio, the wood slightly wet from last night’s rain. Ned watches as Weasel lights a cigarette. He eases open the door and joins Weasel on the patio. 

Neither one of them speaks, just leans over the railing looking out at the grass.

Chapter Text

“Who the fuck are you texting at dinner, Dom, if Walter sees your phone out he’ll have your ass,” Keith hisses.

Conor can’t remember when Dom started eating with them but it doesn’t change the dynamic all that much. Mostly; all he can focus on is Ned’s foot rubbing against his calf under the table. Ned’s carrying on a conversation with Wally as if nothing’s happening but Conor’s tense, sitting straight up, trying not to look down. He bites his lip and looks sternly at Ned, Ned doesn’t look back but Conor knows he saw, the tiny smirk on his lips gives him away. 

Conor crosses his legs, but Ned’s foot finds his thigh. 

Conor tries to focus on anything else, Weasel’s MIA, again, he hasn’t been to dinner with the boys all week. Seems like the kind of shit Weasel would pull though, probably shovin some poor fresher into a trash can. 

Dom’s sliding his phone back into his pocket. 

“Liv says she’s allowed to have phones at her school, dunno why Walter’s such a prick.”

“You’re texting Olivia?” Tom raises and eyebrow. 

“We’re friends,” Dom shrugs. 

“You know she’s never gonna date you,” Tom says. 

“Well yeah. That’s why we’re friends.”

“Better be,” Victor mumbles.

Ned finally meets Conor’s gaze, jerks his head towards the door. Conor nods. He gets up without saying a word. 

“Where you off to, mate?” Wally turns around and shouts. 

“Homework,” Conor calls back. 

Ned makes Conor wait ten minutes before he finally opens the door. He knows that’s the safe thing to do, but fuck if those weren’t the longest ten minutes of his life. 

The door creaks, Ned eases it shut behind him. 

“God, I hate you sometimes,” Conor stands up and kisses him. 

“Oi, not my fault I can drive you crazy just by touching your thigh,” Ned pulls back and laughs. 

“I’d say it’s entirely your fault, but okay.”

“Are we going to argue or are you going to shut up so I can finish what I started.”

“Mmm, I like that better,” Conor sighs into Ned’s mouth. 

He lets Ned steer them towards the bed. Ned holds both of Conor’s hands at his side, pinning him in place. Conor kisses up, utterly enthralled, Ned makes him stretch and reach, Conor kisses a smile onto his face. 

“LADS!” Victor’s voice, unmistakable followed by a single bang on their door and the back of the door slamming against the wall as it was flung open. 

Ned has just enough time to stand up before Victor’s barging in. It’s just Victor, thank god it’s just Victor because he doesn’t look twice at the buttons that Conor’s popped open on Ned’s shirt, doesn’t think twice about how messy Conor’s hair had all of a sudden become.

Conor’s lips are swollen and they’re both out of breath. 

“Fucking what?” Ned says, irritated to be interrupted. 

“I think Weasel’s having some kind of fucking breakdown,” Victor wheezes, he sounds like he’d just run a mile. 

Ned immediately drops the sour expression and grabs his sweater from the bed. 

“Where is he?”

“Rugby field,” Victor says, and turns quickly. 

Conor’s almost left in the dust as Ned and Victor book it out of the room but he catches up after closing the door behind him. Conor watches Ned and Victor jog across the field toward the uprights at the try-line. Weasel’s standing on the yellow metal bar, a good 10 metres off the ground, and he’s moving, putting one foot in front of the other, teetering slightly as he paces back and forth. 

Conor freezes, a few metres behind the rest of his friends completely paralyzed by the Weasel stands above him. Weasel is holding a gatorade bottle, it’s red, the kind they like to mix with vodka. 

“Why the fuck you bring them here for,” Weasel slurs.

Ned holds his hands out in front of him, slowly walks forward, he stands next to Wally and Dom who’ve been there the whole time. 

“I wanted to make sure you’re okay, mate,” Ned says in the gentle voice that Conor’s only ever heard Ned use with him. 

“You’re not my fuckin’ mate, are ‘ya? I’m a piece o’shit,” Weasel said. 

“Weasel, come down and we can talk, okay?”

“Why? Doesn’t matter. I like it up here.”

“I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“Oh fuck off,” Weasel waved his hand, “Go somewhere else. Go hang out with your boyfriend, and your friends.”

“If you’re not gonna come down can you at least sit?” Ned asks. 

“Where is this all coming from?” Conor whispers to Victor. 

Victor just shrugs, mouth hanging slightly open. 

“I really don’t know.” 

Conor watches Weasel cling to one of the poles, he lowers himself so that he’s sitting, legs dangling. If he were to slip, he might twist an ankle. 

“I make you all miserable, just fuck off,” Weasel groans. 

“Weasel, no,” Victor shakes his head, “We’ve been mates since we were kids.”

Weasel just grumbles, rolling his eyes, “You and Wally have been mates since you were kids. I’ve been around.”

“Weasel, you’re overreacting,” Dom shouts. 

Ned puts his hand on Dom’s shoulder and shakes his head. 

“Can I come up?” Ned says, his voice is so gentle that it sends a chill up Conor’s spine. 

Weasel shrugs. 

Ned hoists himself up, grabbing the bar and swinging his leg over. He’s straddling the metal, facing Weasel. He takes the gatorade bottle out of Weasel’s hand and throws it down to Dom. Dom catches it with one hand and backs up. Ned’s whispering. Victor turns to Conor and gives him a sad look.

“He’s a good one,” Victor says.

Conor nods. He can see something in Weasel’s eyes that scares him. He feels a guilt pulling at the bottom of his stomach. He’s not sure where it comes from, but it’s there. 

Victor takes a couple steps forward, hoists himself up on the other side of Weasel, he just rests his head on the other boy’s shoulder. 

Wally and Dom squeeze in beside Victor. Ned finds Conor’s eye. There’s not an expectation there, but Conor feels the pull. The uprights sway under the weight of the boys. Conor puts his arm around Ned. He can’t see, but he’s pretty sure Weasel might be crying. 

“M’such a cunt,” Weasel mutters. Conor feels Ned shake his head. 

“Why are you even forgiving me? I made your life fucking miserable, I was such a dick,” The words fall out of his mouth like he can’t hold them back. 

“So what?” Ned says simply, “We’re friends now.”

“Shouldn’t be.”

“Wann be,” Ned says. 

Victor turns to Weasel, “I know you’re a good person, mate.”

Weasel shakes his head. 

“Adam,” Victor turns to him. 

There’s a second where Conor wonders who the hell Adam is but he quickly puts it together. 

“We wouldn’t all be hanging out here if you weren’t at least like half a good person. We’re all assholes, dude.” 

Wally nods furiously, “Complete and utter bastards.”

“Just absolute fucking monsters,” Dom agrees. 

Conor manages a feeble nod. 

The boys sat there, surrounding Weasel. 

Adam Wellesly has friends. The same friends that Conor Masters has. Conor wonders if he could have been Weasel if he hadn’t met Ned, if he’d carried on shoving things down. 

“Where the fuck are Keith and Tom?” Victor asks and everyone laughs. 

The tension evaporates as the uprights shake. 

“We should probably get down before we knock this shit over,” Ned snorts. 

He’s the first to jump down. It’s not that far to the ground, but everyone lands with a thud. Victor wraps his arm around Weasel as they walk back to the school. 

“C’mon, we’re gonna get you some water and crisps, you’re gonna go to bed and come to breakfast, and know that we’re all your friends.”

Conor trails behind them slightly. Ned falls back, slips his hand into Conor’s. Ned rests his head on Conor’s shoulder. They don’t worry about who might see for the first time in a long time. 

It’s not easy to sneak that many boys back into the school but they manage. Victor helps Weasel up the stairs and hangs out with him and Spainer until he falls asleep. 

Coonor sits cross legged at the head of their bed. Ned joins him, sitting cross legged at the other end, he pulls his legs up to his chest. 

“Are you alright?” Conor asks. 

Ned shrugs his head to one side. Conor crawls towards Ned and wraps his arms around him. 

“I’m sorry everyone depends on you for that stuff,” He kisses the top of Ned’s head. 

“I love you guys. That’s what being friends is about.”

“I love you,” Conor kisses him on the lips, reaching up. 

“I’m just glad everyone’s okay.”

“Me too.”

Ned wraps his arms around Conor, tucks his head under Conor’s chin and closes his eyes. 

“Am I having friends the right way?” Ned says into Conor’s shirt. 

“What?”

“I don’t know, just, is this what it is? Because I just feel like… dunno how to say it.”

Conor kisses the top of his head again, he knows Ned likes it. 

“It’s like I’m worried all the time, about all of you. I love you all. Like obviously I love you in this kind of different, whole heart whole body kind of way. But Victor and Wally feel like brothers or something. And I want Dom to grow up right and I want Weasel to be okay and I want you to love me forever.”

“I think you’re doing something right, whatever it is.”

“Fuck,” Ned sighs, “It was so much easier when I hated the world.”

Conor laughs,”Yeah.”

“Now everything hurts. But then everything feels so good sometimes, like I’m surrounded by warmth all the time and even now when it’s all sad… it still feels warm. Like I’m sad but at least I have people to be sad with.”

“You feel everything so hard, huh?”

Ned nods. 

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Conor loves the feeling of Ned, warm, nestled against his body. 

“I’ve been uh.. Meaning to ask for a while…” Ned trails off. 

Conor tenses up slightly. 

“Did it bother you when I told you I kissed Weasel?”

“Do you want it to bother me?”

Ned shrugs. 

“I guess not really. I mean I don’t like the idea of it happening, but I know you’re here now.”

Ned presses himself closer to Conor. 

“I guess if you… If you think about.. You’re not the one who did the dumbest thing that night.”

Ned snorts, “I guess so, huh?”

“D’you think Weasel has a thing for you?” Conor asks, it’s all curiosity, no jealousy. 

Ned shakes his head, “The kiss was weird. I think we both knew it but it was one of those things he needed to do or whatever.”

“We’re all kind of messed up, huh?”

“Keith and Tom seem pretty well adjusted”

“S’why they always fuck off when shit hits the fan,” Ned laughs 

They both giggle until they drift off.

Chapter Text

Olivia Hines turns fifteen at the beginning of May, so of course Victor and his friends sneak out to throw her the best party ever. They’re not really sure if it counts as sneaking out anyway, it’s a Saturday morning, they’ve finished practice, and no one’s ever gotten in trouble for wandering off on the weekends, but still, Victor thinks there’s probably a rule no one enforces about leaving school grounds without permission. 

Wally has a backpack full of booze, it clinks as they walk through the mud of the woods to get to the main road. Weasel has bags under his eyes and half a smile on his face. Victor knows Weasel, knows that he’ll be more content to pretend that last night’s breakdown never happened. 

He’d thought about it, called Liv even to get her opinion, and he thinks he finally gets it. Everyone has someone. Sure, they’re all friends, mates joined at the hip, but Wally and Victor are roommates, Conor and Ned are hopelessly obviously in love, and Keith and Tom are pretty much interchangeable at this point. Weasel doesn’t have a best friend, he doesn’t have a partner and maybe that’s his fault, he drove all his friends away and has only just learned how to start re-building those bridges. Maybe it’s enough that Weasel has the boys, Victor hopes they can prove that, but Victor’s also trying to stop fixing everyone else’s problems. It’s a lot. 

He notices little things, like how Keith and Tom aren’t afraid to hug each other in public, how they wrap their arms around each other and jump into each other’s arms for a laugh, but Conor and Ned won’t even touch shoulders. He notices how Dom lights up when he gets a text from Liv and how Wally toes the line between functioning and outright alcoholic. He can tell when Conor and Ned are fighting before it makes itself apparent and he guessed something had been wrong with Weasel before they found him on the rugby field. He felt more than a little crushed by the pressure. 

They finally got to the train without much incident, other than Keith tripping over a tree branch and cussing mother nature in her entirety. 

Victor has a list and he has a plan. He reveals both of these things once the train sets off to town. 

“We’re going to make this the best fifteenth birthday a kid year old could ask for. My parents agreed to stay upstairs all night unless they smell smoke so nobody better set anything on fire,” he points at Keith and Tom in particular.

Everybody nods. Victor is pleasantly surprised by how much his friends have taken to his younger sister. 

“I want to get there before she does so we have to do the shopping quick. We gotta split up. Dom, you’re with me we’ve got to pick up the cake. Keith, Tom, you’re picking up the decorations.”

Keith and Tom fist bump each other. 

“Won’t let you down, captain.”

“We’re fuckin’ ace party decorators.”

“Conor and Ned are going to pick up her present.”

Victor hands them a slip of paper, “I’ve already ordered and payed for it, just give them the confirmation number.”

“Weasel, Wally, snacks and drinks.”

“You’ve really got a plan, huh?” Wally says, snickering a little.

“Yep.”

They split off once they get to the main road. 

Conor wants to take Ned’s hand but he doesn’t. 

They head into the sports shop at the end of the street. Conor breathes a small sigh of relief when he gets a whiff of the familiar smell of new shoes and athletic tape. Going in to town with Ned always means getting dragged into a thrift store or a record shop, and while Conor never minded all that stuff, he never felt like he belonged there. 

Ned looks around, looking at the jerseys and cleats on display. 

“I didn’t know there was this much stuff for sports.”

“It’s because you’re dating a rugby player. I need a ball and a hard head.”

And then, in the safety of the store, Conor nestles his head in the crook of Ned’s neck. They look up at the wall of football jerseys and baseball caps. Ned slips his hand into Conor’s. 

“It’s kind of cool, I guess. I don’t really hate it anymore. The sport stuff. I like the feeling of being in the stands. Especially when you do something amazing and everyone’s as happy as I am about it. Guess that’s why so may people love it.”

And then Conor kisses him on the cheek, moves his head but doesn’t let go of his hand. 

“Can I help you lads with anything,” the older man, Mr. Newsmith who manages the store walks up behind him. 

Conor’s known him for a while now. He resists the instinct to move away from Ned. 

“Our friend sent us to pick something up, Victor Hines.”

“Oh yes, I remember. How are you Conor, how’s the team.”

The man doesn’t even look twice at Conor’s fingers, interlocked with Ned’s. 

“We’re doing really well. The spring season is good.”

“Still scoring like a madman, are you?” 

Conor just laughs awkwardly, he’s never quite known how to handle praise. 

“He absolutely is,” Ned beams, “he had a three try game last weekend.”

“You’re not on the team are you, mate?” Newman asks Ned, Conor worries for a second he means it in a judgemental way, but Newman is still grinning, looking at Ned. 

“Ned;s my uh-” Conor stammers for words. 

“He’s your fella?” Newman asks. 

Conor nods. 

“Woodhill?” he asks Ned. 

“Yep. Not much of an athlete.”

“So what do you do?”

“Dunno yet,” Ned shrugs. 

Newman laughs, “You’ve got an honest one.” He looks Ned and Conor up and down and smiles, “Lets get that order then, ah?”

Keith and Tom walk into a Party City and go absolutely ape-shit. 

Wally and Weasel walk through the front door af a supermarket. Weasel pushes the shopping trolley while Wally patiently weighs the pros and cons of every potential snack food. 

“We don’t really need sweets since Vic has the cake… but Liv does like sweets. What do you think Weas?”

Weasel, already in the process of throwing mini kit-kats into the cart shrugs. 

“Butch likes chocolate.”

“Okay, yeah okay. How many chips though? And soda? What mixes with rum? Is it Coke? Would pepsi work?”

“Jesus Christ,” Weasel mutters. 

“I just want it to be perfect.”

“Whether you get the puffy cheetos or the crunchy ones isn’t going to make or break the evening.” 

The cake shop smells overpoweringly sweet. There’s a row of cookies in the display case, an entire wedding cake is on top of the counter. 

Victor rings a bell beside the register. 

Dom’s phone buzzes in his pocket. 

Liv: Don’t bullshit me here

Liv: What’s my brother making you do

Dom smiles to himself. Being friends with Liv has shown them how different the two are, but one way they’re exactly the same, is that they’re impossible to trick. 

Dom: lmao, im not telling you shit

Liv: I’ll figure it out anyway

Dom: well then why would i deny you the fun. 

“Oi!” Victor gestures at Dom. 

A young man is holding a sheet cake up proudly. Victor asks Dom what he thinks. Dom nods. 

“S’nice. No flowers or any bullshit, she’ll like it.”

It’s a white sheet cake with neon green balloons piped around the edges. In the middle it says Happy Birthday. Nothing fancy. 

When Ned and Conor get to Victor’s house, Tom and Keith have already been there for about an hour. Newman insisted on chatting about the rugby season, then he saw a patch on Ned’s vest and insisted on talking about a music festival Conor’s never heard of. 

Dom and Victor have yet to return. 

They walk through the front door and Conor’s hit in the face with a balloon. Somewhere, Keith is shouting.

“No Not there! The banner needs to be centred! It looks trashy this way!” 

Conor pops his head into the living room. Keith is on a ladder pinning a sign above the kitchen island. Wally is struggling to place it. Weasel is sitting on the floor, a lopsided party hat on his head blowing up a balloon halfheartedly. There are neon green and yellow streamers hanging from the ceiling and the walls. Weasel has already blown up at least 50 balloons already. 

“Jesus Christ,” Ned says. 

He sets the gift bag on the counter. 

“Start decorating!” Tom orders, he’s hanging from the banister adjusting his streamers. 

“You look like you’ve got it under control,” Conor says. 

“Are you kidding!” Tom points at three more bags of party supplies and a tank of helium. 

“Get started on the helium balloons.”

“Yes sir,” Conor smirks. 

He and Ned work out a system that involves Ned filling the balloons with helium, and Conor tying them off. 

Ned puts the end of one of the balloons in his mouth and inhales. 

He leans in close to Conor and whispers, 

“Do you think I sound sexy like this,” his voice is a squeak, high pitched and goofy, Conor snickers. 

He holds up his finger and plucks the balloon from Ned’s hand, he gulps down the helium and whispers something entirely filthy in Ned’s ear. 

Ned collapses in a fit of giggles. 

“Oi!” Tom shouts, “Why aren’t you working.”

“Sorry,” Ned says, voice still high from the helium. 

Even Tom, who takes balloons more seriously than war, starts to laugh. Soon everyone’s squeaking. Ned lays on the ground, clutching his sides as Wally does an impression of Pascal coaching while his voice sounds like a cartoon character. 

The helium wears off by the time Dom and Victor show up with the cake. The balloons are blown up and tied together, weighted down in the corners of the room. 

“Lads! This is fucking amazing,” he looks around, absolutely beaming. 

“It was no problem, Vic,” Conor hugs his friend with one arm. 

Then Liv’s friends show up. The sun is setting and Victor’s arranged for a few of her closest friends to bring her home around 8, but the ones who don’t go to school with her, the ones from town or her rugby league show up early with gifts and playlists of music specifically catered to Liv’s taste. 

A boy, taller than Conor, and just as muscular, sets a pizza down on the table. Conor could easily mistake him for an adult, if it weren’t for the braces. Then he recognizes Ingrid. She’s wearing a variation of the same outfit she’d been wearing when they met. The beanie is black, contrasting starkly with her freshly died bright green hair. 

It strikes Conor incredibly quickly, just how many friends Liv must have. There are enough kids to fill a couple rugby teams. Victor’s parents popped in to say hello, and then, as promised, retreated to the upstairs bedroom. 

The door clicked and Victor quickly switched off the lights. 

Conor recognizes Wally’s cousin’s voice, and he’s pretty sure the other girl is the scorekeeper from the rugby game they made the trek to see. 

She hangs her coat up in the front entryway and Victor flicks on the lights. 

“Surprise!” The living room full of teenagers shouts. 

Liv laughs, looks around at the decorations, and the cake. 

“Damn. Wow. You guys are good.”

She hugs Victor and smiles. 

Weasel ruffles her hair. 

“I say before we all get plastered, we let Butch open her gifts,” he says. 

Everyone nods in agreement. 

A couple of her friends came with gifts, a new pair of rugby socks, an album, a t-shirt, Victor saves his gift until last. 

Liv sets the paper down on the table beside her and digs through the bag. She pulls out a football shirt, it takes Conor a minute to recognize it, but it’s a US national team shirt. 

She holds it up and grins. 

“Victor,” she smiles. 

She turns it around, the back says “Rapinoe,” and Ned nods. 

“You said she had style or something, googled her, seems like the kind of gal you wanna be so…” Vic waves his hand as if to say it’s not a big deal. 

“Nah, you’re gettin’ a hug big brother.”

And then they eat cake

And then they get drunk. 

Wally and Tillie dance together, it seems like the kind of routine long perfected, choreographed in a living room. Liv has her arm around the scorekeeper from the rugby game, sneaking a kiss occasionally. 

Conor’s on his third beer, and the fuzz in his head is starting to feel warm. It’s a pleasant feeling. There’s nothing overwhelming about the music Liv’s friends have chosen. Nothing excessive about the way they dance and drink and kiss. He’s sitting in an arm chair, his eyes are on Ned, they always are. He’s talking to Ingrid, pleasantries as they both hold red solo cups. Olivia has her school tie tied around her head, she stands on a table and taps her plastic cup with a spoon. When that doesn’t get anyone’s attention, she shouts. 

“Yo! I wanna say something you fucks.”

A brief round of laughter and then everyone’s looking at her. 

The quiet lets Conor focus on who surrounds him. The girl who’s name Conor can’t remember, she’s the pretty one who Wally was under a table with at New Year’s, Christine, he remembered, anyway, she’s here. Sitting next to Wally, her head on his shoulder. Dom’s looking up, admiringly at Liv. The tall boy from earlier is sitting next to a much much smaller boy, skinny, with glasses and a button up shirt. Their hands are intertwined. Someone has her arm around Ingrid and Wally’s cousin is sitting in some boy’s lap. 

“Listen, I just wanna say thanks,” Liv says, “You’re all really good to me, the best mates I could ask for really. Whether I met you on a rugby team, or because we went to the same school, or because you’re my idiot brother’s friends, I just wanna say that I really and truly do love ‘ya. You make me feel warm and safe to be exactly who I need to be, and I hope I make you feel safe.”

And then she reaches down and kisses the scorekeeping girl. There are sarcastic cheers and a couple of whoops. The tall boy kisses the skinny boy and Wally kisses Christine. Conor wonders if Ned had been beside him, if he would have kissed him too, but the moment is lost now, he wishes he had. Ned walks up behind him a few minutes later Conor wants to kiss him, but the courage disappeared when the buzz of his beer wore off. He did slip his hand into Ned’s and put his ear real close to Ned’s mouth, but that wasn’t quite the same. 

“I have an essay written for you,” he whispers. 

“What?” Conor turns, brain still a little foggy. 

“For Sherry. The contest. Next week.”

“Shit, Conor curses under his breath, “i completely forgot.”

“Which is why I wrote you one. It’s about how much rugby means to you. It’s bad, but that way Sherry will believe that you wrote it.”

“Thanks,” Conor says and again, he wants to kiss Ned. 

It’s not the passive kind of want either. Not the way it’s been before, where Ned says something unbearably sweet and Conor thinks about how if they were in private, his lips would already be on Ned’s. He wants to kiss Ned here, right now in front of all these people. He wants them to know that he loves Ned enough to hold him, and kiss him and dance with him in a way that they just don’t in front of people. He looks over at Liv and the scorekeeper and they’re holding each other, swaying to the music, stealing kisses, and  laughing and there’s nothing more in the world he wants that to have been that carefree at 15

 

Chapter Text

Conor runs into Dan Sherry’s classroom two hours after he hands in the essay that Ned wrote for him. Dan knew this, of course he knew this, he expected nothing less.

He was expecting to have to punish them, to try to find a lesson to teach them, something he wished someone had taught him. 

He wasn’t expecting Conor to come sprinting into his classroom with dirt on his knees and sweat on his brown. There’s a look of desperation on his face, a hint of regret. 

“Sir,” he says. 

“Conor,” Sherry says. 

He hates the way his voice sounds when he greets anyone, far too cheerful, not nearly stern enough for a teacher. 

“That’s not my essay sir.”

“Well yes. I had assumed.”

“Right. Well ehm, you see… Ned wrote it because you know- he wrote all my essays and I forgot about this one. That’s kind of what I do when I have something to do that stresses me out is I forget about it so uh… but Ned, he remembered so he wrote that, he wrote it really badly so you’d think I actually did it,” Conor stammers. 

There’s a hint of a smile on his face when he mentions the other boy. 

“I’m really sorry but I just couldn’t bring myself to write it. I couldn’t be that honest but I think I’m ready sir. I promise I’ll have my own essay by Friday for the competition.”

Sherry can’t help but smile as he nods. 

“Yes, well, I’m thinking I can make an exception on requiring a draft proposal since the inspiration seems to have struck you.”

“Thank you sir,” and just like that, Conor’s gone 

Dan sits back in his desk chair. It’s special treatment, of course it is, how could it not be. Maybe it’s not the most ethical, but he tells himself he’d do it for any one of his students. And hey, maybe this is his way of giving back to the younger generation, being a guid, a mentor, an elder, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. He’s barely forty, that’s a lot of pressure for someone. He picks up his papers and sets off to his room. 

He calls Arthur, which he does every day after he finishes marking. Dan Sherry has not had a single relationship last as long as this one has, and he’ll be honest, he thought teaching was going to be what did it. Not many men fancied being with a man they could only see on the weekends because he lived in a dorm room at a boarding school. Not many men fancied being the boyfriend of someone who hadn’t told his mum yet either. 

Arthur was nothing like Dan. He worked in construction and came home with dirt on his shoes. There calluses on his hands the last time Dan held them and he loves IPAs and football. Arthur loves it when Dan reads poetry or talks about his students but there was no understanding it for the gruffer man. Dan doesn’t mind that, maybe that’s what he loves so much about him. Arthur doesn’t think about everything so intently. He can make a decision in a few minutes, he can act on impulse, not Dan, not quite 

Arthur answers after the third ring. It’s five o’clock by now, Arthur will be getting off work. 

“My love,” Arthur says, by way of greeting. 

“Hello,” Dan answers back, his cheeks turn red and he lowers his voice. 

“Why are we whispering?”

“Thin walls.”

“Oh are you planning to get dirty on the phone, because you know I’m willing but I warn you, I am on the tube so I might get some looks.”

“No just-”

“I know.”

“I miss you,” Dan breathes into the phone 

“I’ll see you this weekend. Date night?”

“Yes please.”

“How’s the whole, shaping young minds thing going?” The playful jab makes the heat in his face rise. 

“Sometimes I feel like I’m the one who has to do most of the learning.”

Arthur laughs, “God I love you,” he says as if it isn’t a big deal. Arthur is so unbearably perfect that he doesn’t even mind when Dan doesn’t say it back all the time, “It’s hard for you, but you show it. So I know,” he said one night on the couch. 

“Do you have Friday mornings off still?”

“I do.”

“Will you come to this essay contest at the school,  I understand if you don’t want to.”

“I’ll be there love.”

“I love you,” Dan whispers.

“Love you too,” Arthur says loudly and proudly. 

And then Dan flops down on his bed. It’s a single. Teachers aren’t allowed guests, of course his evenings and weekends are entirely his, he can leave certainly, but during the week, by the time his things are marked and his lessons are planned, there’s not time to go home to see Arthur. On the weekends, he tries, but Arthur likes to pick up shifts. He’s saving for something, and Dan’s pretty sure he knows what. Arthur left the jeweler’s website open on his computer once. Dan already has a ring, he’s had it for a while but he knows how important it is to Arthur that he gets to propose, so Dan just keeps it with him, knowing that he’ll drop to one knee the second his boyfriend does. 

He goes to sleep, wishing, not for the first time, that he had a friend here.

Chapter Text

Victor has his first panic attack in a year on Thursday night. He’d been as cool as a cucumber up until then. Exams, rugby, through all of it, he’s been fine. Knew he could get through it but there was still one great unknown.
Uni.
He had absolutely no idea what he wanted to do other than that he needed rugby. He doesn’t know what else he needs, so he sits on the floor, staring at his laptop pulling at his hair.
He doesn’t notice when Wally sits down on the floor across from him. He does notice when he closes the laptop and wraps him in a bear hug.
“I don’t know who I am without the rugby team,” he finally says.
“We are way too young for you to be having an identity crisis.”
“It’d help of they didn’t want me to figure out my identity before I can buy a mickey. “
“Why don’t we just apply to the same schools. That way we know we’ll at least have each other. Like no matter who they want me to be I’ll still be your friend, right?”
And Victor honestly doesn’t know how he didn’t think of that by now, he just nods and Wally hugs him again. They sit on the floor, just two friends holding on to one another. Wally’s warm and he feels like rugby. They’ve been playing together since childhood, Victor can’t look at him without seeing a rugby pitch in front of them.
“I’ve always been a captain. Now that’s Weasel’s job. What do I do now?”
“I mean for one, now you can worry about yourself instead of constantly worrying about twenty other people.”
Victor just laughs, “Guess that makes sense.”
“Get laid, go on a date, get drunk in a real bar, have friends who aren’t just rugby players. “
“We’ll do all that shit together. ‘Cept probably the getting laid part,”
“God, I fucking hope so.”
They laugh until Ned bangs on the wall to get them to stop.

Chapter Text

On Thursday, Dom is at home, he has one day of bereavement leave from school. He could have taken longer, Walter offered, laughed when he said he didn’t want more, but in his defense, his aunt Sheryl’s funeral is the last place he wants to spend more than a few hours. He’ll take the train back in tomorrow. 

He gets ready in the room he shares with his brothers. His slacks fit well enough considering they were once someone else’s. He adjusts the tie and looks himself over in the mirror. He looks down and to the left where there’s a picture of him and a few other boys at the sea over the summer. The boy in that photo wouldn’t recognize this one. 

This one has a different kind of light in his eyes, a new sense of right and wrong, a fight, and a weight lifted off his shoulders. 

He does a goofy thumbs up in the mirror and sends it to Liv. 

Dapper, she texts him in reply. 

Dom hates funerals because that means seeing his entire family. And that means putting up with silent and passive judgement. His shoes are scuffed, his hair is mess, what are his grades? How’s rugby? Why play rugby? Why is he on his phone?

His aunt Sheryl is lying stiff in the corner and all his aunt can talk about is how skinny he is, subtly implying that he or his beloved school is doing something wrong. 

His head starts spinning and his stomach starts turning. He walks to the bathroom, feeling more drunk than sober even though they haven’t even brought out the communion wine. 

He dials Liv’s number without even thinking and she picks up after an agonizingly long time. 

“Dom?” she says, an inherent concern in her voice. 

“Fuck, sorry, I shouldn’t have-” his breaths are coming out ragged. 

“Woah woah woah, no it’s fine. Keep talking, what happened.”

“Family. S’alot. Feelin like a piece of shit or whatever. Can’t really breathe.”

“Okay, where are you, are you sitting down?”

Dom grunts affirmatively. 

“Put your feet firmly on the ground and close your eyes.”

Dom has no reason not to, so he does. 

“I’m going to count to five, every time I say a number, you’re going to take a breath, and when I get to five open your eyes and tell me five things you see.”

So Dom does, he forces air in and out of his lungs and when Liv gets to five, he opens his eyes. 

“What do you see.”

“I’m in a bathroom, so the floor, it’s tile, and there’s a toilet paper holder, and a weird stain by the sink. There’s  soap dispenser and a hand towel beside the mirror.”

“Good, now tell me something you can hear.”

Dom pauses, takes in another breath and really listens. 

“The pipes are creaky.”

“Smell?”

“Bleach.”

“Okay now breathe.”

And Dom does and suddenly he’s back on this planet. 

“Thank you,” he says. 

“It’s fine. Just a panic attack.”

“A what?”

“A panic attack, was that your first one?”

“No… uh… that shit happens all the time, I just didn’t know there was a word.”

“Christ, dude. Victor used to have them all the time, so I picked some stuff up from when my dad tried to calm him down. But that’s serious shit”

“It worked.”

“I’m glad you called me.”

“I am too, like really glad. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a good friend.”

“I’ll allow you to talk like a bitch since you just had a panic attack at a funeral.”

“True friendship.”

“I’m gonna be proud of you no matter what happens.”

“Wish my family was the same way.”

“If they’re not who you need in your life, then fuck ‘em

Dom leaves the bathroom and he remembers to breathe, most importantly, he remembers he gets to go back to his friends tomorrow. 

Chapter Text

Weasel is shitting himself on Wednesday morning. Pascal said he’s be announcing the captaincy for next year today and Weasel’s pretty sure it’s going to be Conor. And he’s okay with that now. That fact doesn’t make him want to punch a wall, it doesn’t make him feel like he’s letting down his Dad, if only for the fact that he knows his dad would have a lot more to be disappointed in him for by now.

So Weasel goes out early, lets the spring chill settle into his bones, lets the dewy grass dampen his boots. Conor’s there, of course, and Dom, but Conor’s not working out. He’s sitting in the stands with a notebook, furiously scribbling. 

“You look like Ned up there,” Weasel calls. 

Conor laughs, “Sherry’s making me do the essay contest.”

“Oh fuck that’s a thing?”

“Yeah!”

“When?”

“Friday after school.”

“Cool I’ll be there.”

“Don’t have to be.”

“Want to be.”

Then the team arrives, and Weasel’s practicing hard just to stop himself from thinking. He’s pushing and shoving and falling and it all feels so good. Well bad because it hurts, but he’s not vibrating anymore, he’s sturdy and strong and his breathing is ragged. 

He’s feeling, he’s in a moment and that’s enough. He watches Conor, sees every reason he should be a captain, the quiet, the determination. The sheer skill. 

Weasel does things too, but he doesn’t play like Conor. When Pascal asks for someone to help drag out the tackling dummies, he volunteers because that’s what he always does. When someone needs extra help, he offers it because that’s what he always does. 

Pascal has them all take a knee after practice. 

“I’m sure you lads have been waiting a long time for this announcement but it took a while to make. I wanted to make sure Victor was on board since this is his team too, or so he tells me,” Pascal chuckles, no one else does.

“Hines, you wanna do the honours.”

Victor stands up, he looks at Conor and his heart sinks, but Conor shakes his head. 

“Congratulations, Adam,” 

And Weasel had forgotten his own first name just a little because when Victor pats him on the shoulder he’s surprised. Stunned into silence as everyone around him claps. As Conor cheers and Wally hugs him and Weasel would cry if he could remember how because he knows what they had said about him before. How he was a monster and a bastard and not a leader and now he’s here, being told that yes, actually, he’s all of those things, a bastard, sure, but a bastard who’s captain.

And maybe Pascal picked him for the wrong reasons, grit, and stubbornness, but Weasel promises himself, in that moment, that he’ll make sure he does it for the right reasons. 

He makes sure Conor is the first person he hugs, for a start.

Chapter Text

For whatever reason, Ned Roche has decided Weasel is worthy of his friendship. So Weasel’s going to do his best not to fuck that up, thank you very much. 

They meet up on Thursday night for dinner. Dom’s at a funeral and Victor and Wally have already eaten. Tom and Keith haven’t been around all day but Weasel’s heard some rumours about firecrackers. So it’s just him and Ned.

Ned looks over his mashed potatoes at Weasel. Neither of them is particularly well versed in making small talk, so Ned finally sets down his fork and asks him outright. 

“Did you kiss me because you wanted to or becauase I was the closest bloke who wouldn’t punch you in the face.”

Weasel put down his fork in response. He has to think for a moment.

“Well ehm… bit of both maybe. You’re cool. I wanted you to be my mate more I think.”

“Right. Would you have kissed Conor?”

“Yeah probably, actually. I was messed the fuck up that night but Conor was a bit preoccupied.”

“He told me,” Weasel thinks he sees Ned grit his teeth slightly, he quickly course corrects, “We’ve talked about it, y’kno? I don’t love the image but we were broken up and well… between pals, I think he’s always used strange men as a way to punish himself”

Weasel nods, “Yeah, I got that impression.”

“So there’s no hard feelings.”

“Don’t think so… just. I’m jealous I guess,” Weasel sees the panic on Ned’s face, “Not because I wanna like kiss you again or anything, it’d be nice to have what both of you have. It looks so… sturdy. Like you’re both so sure. Like I don’t even know what I am, I know I like blokes, I know I’ve kissed birds but I can’t remember how much I liked that.”

Ned just shrugs, “I’ve always just kind of reckoned I liked both,”

“Yeah but like… you’ve got Conor, I feel like that’s answer enough. You can just say you love him. I dunno who I’m even capable of loving.”

“Damn Weasel, you’re going deep.”

He shrugs, “There’s a lot to think about when Spainer’s not so-subtly jerking off in the middle of the night.”

“Do you like Spainer?”

“Absolutely the fuck not. Say that again and I’ll kill you. I mean he’s so loud that I can’t sleep so I just kind o’ smush my face between the pillow and the bed and I have nothing to do but think.”

“Right.”

There’s another awkward pause. 

“Why do you let everybody call you Weasel?”

“Are we playing 20 fucking questions you fucking nonce.”

“No. But you flushed my head in a toilet last year so I can ask whatever I want.”

“Fair ‘nuff.”

“Adam Wellsely, it just kind of stuck since I was a kid or whatever. Honestly I’d rather Weasel than Adam at this point.”

“Huh, Why?”

“D’you want me to start calling you Edwin?”

“It’s different.”

“Not really,” Weasel pauses, “Are you trying to distract yourself?”

Ned sighs, “I’m trying not to worry about Conor.”

“That’s a fucking first.”

“He’s so bent up about this essay contest, it’s like he’s running on anxiety or something.”

“That’s adrenaline, Ned, he’s an athlete, that’s kind of our thing.”

“Is it healthy though?”

“It works,” Weasel folds his hands in front of him and looks at Ned, “Just because he’s not doing things the way you think he should, doesn’t mean it’s not gonna work for him. He’s not always having a mental breakdown. Sometimes it’s just a regular fucking shit day, you know?”

“Right,” Ned says. The potato he spears with his fork is raw, “So uh…”

“Don’t fucking so uh… me, my tongue’s been in your fucking mouth.”

Ned laughs, and that’s exactly what Weasel wanted, for him to laugh so hard that nothing else matters. There’s not a lot Weasel can do to keep a friend, he gives bad advice and he’s notoriously unreliable, but he knows when to crack a joke, knows what to say to make milk shoot out Ned’s nose. That’s how friends work, and he’s glad he’s finally figuring it out. 

Chapter Text

Ned hears Conor scribbling in his notebook the night before the essay contest. He crumples something up and it hits the wall above the bed. Ned offered to sleep in his own bed to give Conor time to finish, but there’s not much point, Conor’s keeping him up anyway. 

Conor curses under his breath, Ned rolls over and turns on the desk lamp. 

“Fuck sorry… I didn’t mean to…”

Ned shakes his head. 

“It’s fine, I was awake anyway.”

Ned crosses the room and sits next to Conor, he puts his hand in his lap. 

“You know they give you an hour and a half to write the essay tomorrow.”

Conor nods, “I’m just worried I’ll freeze up and not have anything to say.”

“What are you writing about.”

Conor shrugs, “I thought I knew and then I just… don’t know how to say it.”

“Did I ever show you mine?” Ned asks. 

“Is that a double entendre?”

“Shut up,” Ned elbows him and then pulls a paper out from under the bed. 

Conor looks at the title. 

“Handsome Devil? Should I be concerned about whoever that is?”

“It’s you, dickhead.”

Ned doesn’t know why that surprises Conor, but it does.

“You just have to tell the truth.”

“I think I’m getting better at that.”

Ned puts his hand on top of Conor’s and takes the notebook out of his hands. 

“You can do this, okay? I’m gonna be right there, the whole time, and if it’s bad then whatever, you’re good at other shit.”

Conor sighs and Ned wraps his arm around Conor’s torso, clinging to him.

“Just… It’s like a rugby game?”

“Are you about to mix metaphors?”

“Maybe, but just listen. You’re gonna feel like everything’s against you, like you can’t possibly do it but you’re gonna do it anyway, because you have to, and because there are people there who you promised you’d do it. And I’ll be there. And I’ll be so proud of you no matter what happens.”

“Even if I pass out and throw up on Mr. Sherry?”

“Even then, okay? I love you.”

Conor lies there, looking up at the ceiling. 

“Have I ever told you that I’m proud of you too?”

“Huh?”

Conor rolls over, “I’m really proud of you, Ned.”

“I don’t think I’ve done anything to be proud of.”

“I’m proud of everything you do. All the time. The essay contest, and the music, and the way you treat the people you love… you love so many people and I don’t know how you do it and I’m so proud of you for doing that.”

And Ned must not know what to say because he holds Conor’s face and kisses him. Gentle and warm, and Conor feels the love from somewhere deep within him. 

Conor didn’t sleep the night before the senior cup. He spent the entire night on his dad’s boat, just staring at the wall. He didn’t cry, he didn’t think he could. He just sat. Looking. Trying to feel something, anything at all. He remembers missing Ned, more than anything. Hearing the deep sound of his breathing across the room from him. 

And now Ned’s here, holding on to him, kissing his forehead and stroking his forearm, and this time, Conor can sleep. 

He wakes up without bags under his eyes, warm from Ned’s presence, not even mad that he’s breathing Directly In His Face. 

Ned pulls away, looks at Conor and kisses him lazily. If Conor had to rank the ways Ned kisses him, lazy, half asleep, in the early cold of the morning, would have to be in the top three. Ned, dotting kisses around the edge of his lips, and Conor’s always known he’s got quite a lot to work with in the lip department, but it never really mattered until Ned was trying to taste every millimeter. 

“Are you going for a run today?”

“I don’t have to.”

“Do you want to?”

“Kind of.”

Conor’s a creature of routine, he knows that, and Ned knows that, but if it means spending an extra hour with Ned, he’ll break it. 

“I’ll get dressed and come with you.” 

“Really?”

“Yeah,” Ned says, “It’s not that cold.”

Ned doesn’t run with him, obviously, but he does sit in the grass while Conor does laps around the field. Conor cuts his run short to sit with Ned before class starts. 

Ned rests his head on Conor’s shoulder. He’s wearing a hoodie over his uniform and everything about him feels cozy. 

“How would you feel if I kissed you in front of people?”

“What?”

“I just… I was thinking at Liv’s party. She kissed that girl and she looked really fucking happy about it, and everyone was so cool about it and I really wanted to kiss you.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“I was scared,”  Conor says, lying to Ned isn’t even an option anymore. 

Ned nods. 

“But would you be? Would you want that?”

“Of course I would. I’d want everyone to know how much I love you. I want whatever you want.”

“I’m still trying to figure out what that is.”

“I will never say no to kissing you, Conor.”

And then Conor does, and it’s a good first step. No one’s there, no one’s looking but someone could, and Conor wouldn’t stop if they did, he’d keep holding Ned, kissing him like they have all the time in the world. 

They actually have about 20 minutes before class, but that’s not the point. 

Conor knows how to chill out the day before a game. He keeps his head down and acts like nothing’s different. So that’s what he does. 

Mr. Sherry lets him and Ned out of English class to go to the library. There are 5 other kids there, all holding pencils, looking nervous. There’s a girl chewing on the end of her pencil, and Walter’s in the corner holding a stopwatch. Walter gives a speech because of course he does. 

“You’ve all been selected as the best essay writers your respective schools have to offer. After 90 minutes, you are to hand in your essays, at 5. P.m. you will be brought to the gym to read your essays to the audience. You may not leave the room between now and then, you will be served dinner once the writing has concluded.”

Conor’s stomach feels like it’s in his throat. Ned slips his hand into Conor’s and squeezes it. Conor nods and takes his seat. It’s as far from Ned as possible, and maybe that’s for the best. 

Walter gives them the go-ahead and Conor puts his pencil to his notebook and writes. He hates the sound the pencil makes against the paper and wishes desperately for a pen, but that’s minor. He doesn’t know where the words come from, and the grammar sucks and he’s mixing metaphors, but at the end of it all, he has an essay to hand Walter. 

“Conor, you need a title,” Walter says. 

“Right, sorry,” Conor stammers. 

He hastily scribbles down a title. 

And then the seven students sit around a table in the library. He expects them to have more in common with Ned than with him, and for the most part they do. There’s a girl named Orlan with long dirty blonde hair and a denim jacket. The patches are sewn on by hand and she has a ring through her nose. The jacket is over a red school uniform. She and a boy with shaggy black hair and dark eyes talk quietly about dinner plans. The boy’s voice is barely above a whisper. A girl with kinky black hair and smooth dark skin sits next to Ned and laughs at everything he says. She has a warm, snorting laugh. The boy across from Conor is sullen, and his fingernails are painted black. A month ago Conor wouldn’t have imagined Woodhill celebrating them. They all look like Ned, quiet, loners, but hand them a pencil and they’ll have a lot to say. 

And that’s another thing Conor’s proud of Ned for. He’s forced Walter to acknowledge something other than rugby. The talent for something other than running up and down a pitch, sweaty covered in mud. And Conor loves it, he loves rugby, he loves running, he loves sport, he doesn’t love this but he’s glad he’s here. He’s glad he knows what Ned does, what Ned loves. And he’s proud of himself for trying, and fuck that’s a first. The girl across from Conor is tall and skinny and she’s wearing a pin on her dress that says she/her. There’s another pin with a flag on it, it’s pink and blue, and white and Conor can’t remember which one that is but he knows it’s one of the gay ones, or queer, Ned tried to explain the difference once but Conor didn’t retain. 

Conor’s just gay, and he supposes he’s lucky in some ways that he can be just gay and not bother with pride parades and flags. He supposes he’s one of the lucky ones who’s straight until proven gay as Ned said one time. And then he supposes that that can suck too. 

He looks up and realizes the girl is talking to him. 

“Do you usually write?” She says. 

Conor shakes his head, “It’s a long story… I play rugby.”

“Oh,” she sounds almost disappointed, “Sorry. I’m just… rugby teams aren’t usually the nicest.”

Conor gives her a halfhearted smile, “It’s not like that. I try to- I mean… I’m gay,” he says. 

“Oh,” and she’s smiling again, “Yeah, me too… well trans and queer but… same hat,” she laughs. 

“Right so you- you used to… I mean. Yeah I know what that is.”

“You’re adorable,” She smirks. 

“Thanks,” Conor tries not to blush when he sees Ned smirking at him from across the table. 

“I guess I’m not used to meeting gay rugby players, what’s that like?”

“Dunno. Like being a straight rugby player but without being straight.”

“Huh,” she says, “I guess the writing scene is different. Not bad though. 

They almost don’t notice when dinner’s served. 

“I never got your name,” Conor says, mouthful of the turkey sandwich he just took a bite of. 

“Clarie,” she smiles. 

“I like it, suits you.”

And she beams, “I picked it myself,” she winks when Conor turns red again. 

“It’s cool being somewhere where being gay isn’t a big deal,” he says unprompted. 

“I know some people who’d hold the fact that you play rugby against you before they even found out you were okay. Bro-phobia, if you will,” she giggles. 

“I don’t think I’m a bro.”

“He’s very sensitive!” Ned shouts from the end of the table

Then Walter calls them to the auditorium. 

Claire looks at him again, “Well I look forward to hearing your essay, Conor the sensitive rugby player.”

“Thanks, you too.”

Ned’s smiling at him as the writers follow Walter, he doesn’t say anything but they walk shoulder to shoulder. 

Claire stands up at the podium first and Conor tries not to notice how many people are in the auditorium. They have the writers sitting in the front row, so at least he doesn’t have to look at the back of people’s heads. But he saw when he walked in. The rugby team is there, every member, so that’s at least 30 kids right there. Victor, Wally, Weasel and Dom are sitting in the front row on the other side of the aisle. Weasel shoots them a thumbs up as they walk in. Conor stares straight ahead before he can think of anyone else. 

Claire stands up tall, Conor doesn’t notice much about people but he notices the way her purple lipgloss shines under the lights of the stage, and how white her teeth look against the dark colour as she smiles, about to read a essay entitled, Grandma Claire. 

She tells a story about sitting on her grandmother’s lap as a baby. She describes a doll, the way it felt, the way it made her feel. She describes the way her grandmother knew she was “special.” 

She finishes the essay by saying, “When it was time for me to choose a name, I knew Grandma Claire would have been proud to give me hers.”

Conor didn’t think Woodhill College would applaud and he’s never been happier to be wrong because she even gets a few cheers. And Ned smiles, sitting beside him, squeezing his hand.

Then a girl reads an essay about activism, and peace. The girl with the warm reads one about sheep herding in New Zealand. It’s sweet and really funny and Conor understands why she got along with Ned so well. The boy with the black nails tells everyone the world is slowly dying and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. It’s a bummer but it’s well written, Orla quickly and heroically uplifts the mood with an essay about self acceptance and the arts. 

And then it’s Ned’s turn. Sherry asked him if he wanted to read the essay he read at the National Essay competition but he said no, he wanted to write something different. 

And so Ned reads his essay.  

“I wrote an essay, about six months ago about what it was like to find my first friend. And since then, I’ve found more. Life was so easy when I hated the world. The only person I had to worry about was me. And then, me and my friend. But that gets harder when it’s, you, your friend, your friend’s rugby captain, your friend’s rugby captain’s best mate, your old school bully who turns out to be a nice guy, two guys named Keith and Tom who may or may not actually exist, a runt with attitude issues who keeps punching your best friend, and his 15 year old best friend who is also your friend’s rugby captain’s little sister.”

And then Ned tells the story, setting up for Olivia’s birthday, laughing, inhaling helium and throwing cheese puffs so Dom could catch them in his mouth. He tells the story with joy and jokes and the entire auditorium is captive.

“My point is. I thought love was a lie until this year, and then I thought it was for on person, that I gave every ounce of it to one person forever and that’s all I would have to give. But love is so much more. It’s like I never run out. Love is also hard and it hurts just as much as it heals. But it’s worth it. So I learned this year. I learned how to have friends, and how to love them.”

And Conor notices that Ned doesn't say boyfriend, and Conor's grateful that Ned just knows that would make things so much worse in Conor's already spinning brain. And then he's guilty about it, that Ned can't stand up and scream it to the world, that he's waiting for Conor to take the lead.

Ned returns to his seat and squeezes Conor’s hand as Walter announces that Conor will be finishing it off, because of course he will. He knows Walter put him last so the rugby team would sit through six other essays waiting to hear his. That doesn’t make him want to throw up any less. 

 

Chapter Text

“We need to find fucking flowers, Tom,” Keith shrieks an hour before their supposed to meet Victor to get seats for the essay contest. 

“What?” Tom mumbles. 

“Flowers, for Conor and Ned.”

“Well we hardly have time now.”

“If we run, we can make it.”

And that is how, Keith and Tom end up walking a country mile to the train station, sprinting to a florist.

It would have been easy if it wasn’t pouring rain. Tom, in his excitement, lands in a giant mud puddle, water pools around his ankles and his foot starts slowly sinking into the mud. He screams. 

“Holy shit!” Keith grabs him by the arm and pulls him back to his feet, Tom shakes his head. 

“We can’t turn back now.”

Keith nods. 

They’re not running anymore but their walking pace is blistering. 

On the train, Tom takes off his shoe. They open the window just a crack and Keith takes his shoelaces and strings up a clothesline. Tom hangs his shoes and socks from the clothesline. To them, this is perfectly normal, what else would they do, after all? 

The train pulls into the station and they’re sprinting out the doors. 

 Sweat is dripping down their brows as they ring a bell at the front counter. 

The florist looks tempted to kick them out. 

“Flowers,” Tom pants. 

“Yellow ones,” Keith adds. 

Then they pull all of the cash out of their pockets and set it on the counter. 

“Whatever this gets us,”

The florist nods, she plucks a single flower from a bouquet of daisies and hands it to Tom. 

“Oh… ehm,” Tom says. 

“Flowers are expensive, boys,” she looks over her glasses exasperated. 

“Right, thanks,” Keith mumbles. 

And they walk out the door, slower this time. 

The next train doesn’t come for thirty minutes, so they stat walking. 

There’s no need for the blistering pace, they’ll miss the train anyway, and to them. This is the worst day ever. 

Chapter Text

The first steps are always the hardest. Stepping on the pitch he can feel everything. He can hear the crowd or lack thereof. He can hear Pascal, feel his teammates next to him. The grass is soft under his feet and there’s almost always wind blowing across the bridge of his nose. 

There are no teammates here. Conor is alone as he ascends the hard, cold, wooden steps. There are only three of them but his legs feel like lead as he wills them to move. He’s standing behind the podium and he takes a moment to look. And Mr. Sherry’s sitting front and centre, beside Victor, of all people and Arthur’s beside him.Arthur has his hand in Sherry’s lap, holding onto his arm. Conor lets himself think for a moment, about how he can’t wait to be old and in love, to have a job and a life and Ned to be beside him, still squeezing his hand. He lets his eyes skim briefly over the rugby team and then they land on his parents shit. That wasn’t the plan, but fuck it, it’s too late to back out now. His dad won’t cause a scene here, he hopes. Conor taps the microphone and the only person he looks at is Ned, and then he looks at the EXIT sign over the door because that was the advice Ned gave him if he didn’t want to look at anyone. 

And then he starts, deep breath. 

“I came to this school looking for something I didn’t know I was looking for,” Conor was proud of that line when he wrote it but now he’s not sure, he’s not sure about anything and his voice starts to shake, but he finds Ned, and Ned nods and Conor keeps reading. 

“There were lessons I had to learn that I didn’t know existed. My teachers taught me about geography and english but the most important lesson I learned was from a tipsy fresher at a house party,” Conor says and he’s starting to just read, like nobody’s there. 

“Let me explain. In October, somebody stood on this stage and told my secret. He was right but I wasn’t ready to tell the truth. I panicked, and in that panic, I started to run, someone told me that it would get better,” he looks at Sherry and smiles, “That there would come a day I wouldn’t have to lie but for now, I had to keep things hidden, to protect myself.”

He swallows a lump of spit in his throat as his eyes travel to the next paragraph. 

“So I hid, I hid myself away. I went to my game that night, and with my team, I won a cup. I was Conor, rugby player, and that’s about it. I’m a rugby player,” he sees his dad smile, “And rugby players like to solve problems by hitting them, and since I was the problem, I started hitting myself… not literally, but if I took a hard tackle in practice, or if I got into a fight, I didn’t see it as a big deal,” his dad’s smile drops. 

It’s not a good essay, he knows that, but at this point, it’s not about the essay anymore.

“On New Years Eve, I got invited to a party. And I went with my best friends and a girl named Ingrid. Ingrid was 15 and I did not want to have to drag her around all night so I introduced her to my friend’s sister. I was still keeping my secret, parts of it anyway, but Ingrid didn’t care. At midnight, Ingrid kissed the sister in front of everybody. And I got angry. It was an ugly feeling. I was afraid.  In the backyard, I talked to her. I was protecting her, that’s what I told myself. I was still hiding at school, to most people. I was waiting patiently, for it to get better. I took her by the hand, and I thought I was explaining it to her. From one secret keeper to another. Sometimes it’s better to keep things to ourselves, I said, there are people who might want to hurt you, I told her. And she looked at me, and this kid was angry. She was fighting mad. “I’ve been told it gets better,” I said to her and then she surprised me. “Me too,” she said, “But I’m tired of waiting.” I hadn’t thought of that.”

He doesn’t want to look at Sherry but he can’t help it. Arthur’s squeezing his hand and Sherry has that glassy look in his eye that he had that night on the rugby pitch. 

“It gets better, she said to me, we get better, but she was impatient. She wanted it now and so she took it. This girl didn’t care what anyone thought. She said that she kissed that girl because she wanted to, because she wasn’t going to stop doing what she wanted just because she was afraid of something that might not actually happen.Someone might hurt us, someone might laugh, someone might kick us off of our teams, but someone might not, and then we’ll have lost that opportunity to kiss someone we really want to kiss.  And then she walked away. She’s probably still mad at me. The thing is, I’m not mad at the people who’ve told me it gets better. They’re right. It does, I’ve seen it, in the bars and the clubs. Everyone looks older and happier, and we don’t have to stay at home forever. They wanted me to be safe and happy, but sometimes you can’t be happy without a little risk.”

“My roommate, Ned, was asleep on the couch while I helped Victor clean up empty cans and bottles. There must have been a little bit of Ingrid still in me, because I looked at him, and told him my secret. All while Ned was curled up on the sleep. Messy hair and sleeping in his clothes. I looked at Victor’s hands while we moved soda cans from the counter into the recycling and I told him I’m gay. Victor knew that, but I’d never said it out loud. And then I looked at Victor, and I looked at Ned, and I told Victor something I hadn’t even told Ned yet, I think I love him.

Victor’s grinning but Conor can’t look at Ned after this because he knows he’ll jump of the stage right then and there and take Ned into his arms and kiss him like the world might just end tomorrow. And he has to remind himself to breathe, just for a second. 

“Then slowly, more people got told the secret. And then I could stop telling my friends, my friends knew, they could see it. And then I held Ned’s hand in the football section of a Sports Shop in town and he was warm and kind and I didn’t let go when the shopkeeper walked up to us and asked if we needed help. And then we were at a party and Someone else kissed someone else and I wondered if Ned was beside me, if I would have kissed him then and there. Being secretly in love with Ned Roche was fun for a while. My parents let him spend the night and it felt like something special that only the two of us got to know about. Ned. I am tired of not kissing you when I should. I am tired of not holding your hand when we walk down the street. I am tired of waiting for it to get better, because with all due respect, the future isn’t soon enough. Somebody told me it would get better, and I didn’t believe him. And then somebody told me that she was making it better right now, and I understood what she meant. My name is Conor. I play rugby, I’m really bad at beer pong, once I split my forehead open playing american football. I am also gay, 100 per cent, in love with another boy, gay.”

And then he looks at Claire and the boy with the black fingernails. He sees Weasel and Arthur, still wearing his work boots but resting his head on Sherry’s shoulder nonetheless, and he ad libs despite specific instructions to not do that.

“I am not the kind of gay person that goes to parades and waves signs, I don’t think I’d know how but am thankful for the ones that do. I am the kind who puts his head down and scores a try and then, hopefully, when I win, I will run into the sidelines, I will hug my boyfriend, and I will kiss him and it will be better right then and right there. And maybe the next person won’t have to think about it for so long because it won’t be a big deal.”

Conor doesn’t know what to say next. He didn’t actually write a conclusion, time was up before he could. So he just clears his throat.

“Ehm. Thank you.”

Then he walks down the three steps. Arthur’s arm is around Mr. Sherry, and Mr. Sherry has his face buried in his shoulder, Arthur’s whispering something and Sherry’s nodding.

Arthur walks over to Conor and shakes his hand, and Walter can’t yell at him for leaving his seat before the winners have been announced because he’s not a student. Conor doesn’t think Walter would yell at a student, even, he’s red around the collar, looks like he’s trying to swallow something sharp.

“Congratulations, Conor, that was wonderful.”

“Thank you sir… I uh… It’s not a great essay.”

Arthur nods, “I don’t know a whole lot about essays, son.”

 Victor and Wally and Weasel and Dom are standing, still clapping for Conor as they walk towards him, where are Tom and Keith? Conor has literally never known. No one keeps track of them. 

Victor, completely unaware of any of the rules that apply to speech competition, bounds across the aisle to tackle Conor in a giant bear hug. Weasel puts his hand on Conor’s shoulder and nods approvingly. Wally joins in on the hug, and Dom too. Olivia Hines is following him, hand in hand with the scorekeeper, Conor didn't know she even knew about the essay competition, wonders what about him would prompt her to come all this way. He recognizes a few of her friends in the crowd and he's sure she's promised them more than an essay competition in exchange for their company. His father is nowhere to be seen, his mother is standing in the doorway, looking torn. Whether to follow her husband or stay for Conor. In the end, Conor just turns away and back to the people surrounding him. Those are the ones that matter right now, the ones that will matter in the future.

Sherry doesn’t hug him, or shake his hand, but he does look into Conor’s eye and nod. 

“I’m glad we waited for that.”

And then the doors to the auditorium fly open. Keith and Tom.Inexplicably, they’re soaking wet and covered in mud, Keith is holding a bundle of wildflowers, dirt still clinging to the roots and falling all over the auditorium floor. 

“Congratulations on the essay thing!”

They shout, entirely out of breath. 

“Did you even hear the essays?” Dom asks. 

“Not strictly speaking, no”

Keith holds the flowers out in front of his chest and hands them to Conor and Ned.

And then they laugh, full hearty laughs as Walter takes the stage and announces the winner and the boys quiet down to give her the moment that she so decidedly earned. It’s Claire, and everyone cheers, but Conor the loudest, and he has is arm around Ned, casually, like it belongs there. 

Claire accepts the small framed certificate and smiles. 

“Congratulations to all the participants, and thank you to all who attended Woodhill College’s first annual essay competition.Conor’s friends are still standing all around them, and there’s nothing polite about the way they cheer for Claire when she walks down the steps. Nothing reserved and literary about the way they bring her into their circle of cheers and whoops. The way Weasel claps her on the shoulder and grins, tells her that the “words and stuff were good and stuff.” 

The boy with the black nails rolls his eyes, but Sherry walks up behind him, pats him on the back and says something about a persecution complex and he hesitantly hangs out along the edges of thee celebration. It’s not rugby, and really, nothing can compare to the feeling of making that kick that won him and his mates the senior cup and if he’s lucky, he’ll get to feel it again, and if he’s lucky he’ll get to kiss Ned just like he’s about to right this very second. It’s not rugby, but this is pretty good too.

There are so many reasons he wants to kiss Ned, he is the most beautiful boy in the world, the kindest, the funniest, the sweetest. He doesn’t know what Walter would do or how his parents will act when he comes home but he really really wants to kiss Ned. And so he does. He cranes his neck down and kisses him, Ned’s surprised at first but then he reaches for Conor’s lips. It’s quick and chaste and they both smile when they part, Conor’s arm still resting on Ned’s shoulders like it belongs there.

Chapter Text

They’re in the forest again. It’s a beautiful night. The kind of night where you can sit outside with a t-shirt and not really feel the air against your skin unless a gust of wind picks up. It’s not hot, it’s not cold and the air isn’t particularly humid or particularly dry. It’s the most average night anyone could imagine, and it’s perfect. 

Walter had set the essay competition the week before the boys’ exams were due to start. This was a final hurrah, no expense was spared. They brought out lawn chairs and blankets. Ned and Weasel had snuck into the kitchens a few hours ago and stole some of the better dining options. There are a few bags of crisps and four boxes of ice pops that nobody even knew existed. Weasel found them buried deep in the freezer and shoved them in the bright red cooler that Victor was keeping liquor in. They’re sticky, melting and freezer burnt, but no one would ever think to complain. 

Conor can smell someone smoking pot, and Victor’s drinking his vodka straight out of the bottle. There’s a speaker somewhere and Conor assumes Ned’s in charge of the music because it’s all really good and cool, there are some rugby team favourites mixed in for good measure. Nothing to sad or boring, everything’s high energy and fun.

Claire holds a can of cider in her hand and she laughs at something Dom says.

Olivia sits next to Conor and smiles, she good naturedly bumps her shoulder into Conor’s and he can tell she’s more than a little tipsy. 

“Your essay was good.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I mentioned you.”

“No. It was fine.”

“Do you mind that I mentioned Ingrid.”

She laughs, “We didn’t work as girlfriends. Friends is okay.”

“Does… she,” Conor points at the scorekeeper, “mind?”

“No. She knows we’re exclusive, it’s not like you said I was in love with Ingrid and would never get over her. And I know what she said to you was important to whatever you were going through.”

Conor laughs, “I didn’t even mention half of it.”

“You can’t fit an entire year into one essay.”

Conor pauses, they don’t have anything to talk about while he takes a drink of his lager. 

“So. Do I have to ask her what her intentions are, or are you the one breaking hearts?” Conor teases. 

“It’s like I have five older brothers,” she laughs. 

“That wasn’t an answer.”

“I like her a lot. She’s… sweet,” Liv nods to herself. 

Victor runs over and puts his arm around Olivia. 

“Dude your girlfriend is cool as fuck.”

Liv smiles, “I know.”

“Conor, you’ve got to meet this kid, she’s like a sports trivia encyclopedia.”

So Victor introduces them, and he’s right. She can name any Irish rugby player from the last thirty years, and she has a particular affinity for the women’s national soccer teams of Ireland and America. And Liv’s right too, she’s sweet. She wears glasses and has braces and freckles across her nose. She wears her hair in two braids down her shoulders and conor wonders why she would try to look so young before remembering that she actually is so young.  And sometimes Conor forgets that they’re all just kids, but 15 is pretty young and Ana, whose name Conor has finally been told, looks youngest of all. There’s a glint behind her eyes and a look of accomplishment when Liv throws her arms around her and pulls her into the pond. There are a few people already splashing around, Keith and Tom have been in there the longest, throwing around a rugby ball. 

They’re so happy and so carefree and Conor hopes that they’ll stay that way, that they’ll stay friends, remain the two morons who ran through a mud puddle to bring him and Ned flowers. Those friends who found each other in a little town in the countryside and earned their way to Woodhill, played their way onto a rugby team where they became even more interchangeable, before they became almost one in the same, before they brought so much laughter to the rest of the boys. 

Conor lets himself feel something about it all. In three days, they’ll be starting their exams. In three weeks, Victor and Wally are going to walk out of Woodhill for the last time. Three months, Rugby training camp will start, and it won’t be Victor’s team. Conor and Ned won’t share a room again, that he can be sure of. Then he looks at Dom, and he thinks about how young that boy is. And all the pressure that’s going to be on his shoulders one day because he’ll be the only one left. The new star out-half. The pressure that comes with being good. And Conor hopes deep in his heart, that Dom has learned enough this year that he won’t buckle under the pressure. And then Olivia walks towards him and they talk while Ana’s somewhere filling cups with vodka and Fanta, and Conor thinks that Dom will be just fine. He remembers the fights, how his fists packed a bigger punch than Conor ever gave him credit for. Remembers trying to fight back but not quite having it in his heart. Not just because he thought he deserved it, but because he knew that Dom didn’t. Conor can see the tension in his shoulders, and the pressure he carries in his chest. The pressure to be the best, always the best. A loss on the rugby pitch kills him the same way it kills Conor. But Dom has Liv, and Liv won’t let him keep any secrets from her, won’t let him carry that tension with him, not on his own, at least.

 Victor and Wally, who have more to worry about than anyone, are laughing, standing on top of the pile of rocks beside the pond, Wally’s arm around Christine, who’s stuck around much longer than Conor or anyone else expected to. Victor and Wally love each other more than maybe anyone else Conor’s ever met. They’re like soulmates, if soulmates were just really really good friends. They bicker and fight but at they end of the day they go to bed as best mates. Conor’s mum once bought one of those women’s magazines from a shop and one of the articles was called Never Going to Bed Angry and other Ways to Save Your Marriage, Conor thinks Wally and Victor must have mastered that skill because their arguments neer last more than a couple of hours. He’s seen Wally pester Victor past the edge, seen Wally call Victor out on his bullshit, but it’s never been malicious. When they fight, it’s because one of them genuinely believes there’s something the other needs to hear. There’s something about them, neither one of them is really following the other, it’s like their both moving forward, with the same vision, the same idea. At the same time, Wally and Victor grab one another by the arm intending to shove the other into the pond, but since they’ve both had the same idea at the same time, it looks more like they decided to jump in, arm in arm. Conor loves all of his friends, and sometimes he can’t believe they’ve come to him in this way. After the year he had, the things he’s done, it’s hard for him to believe he deserves the friendship they have to give him, the love they have to give him. And maybe that’s why Conor understands Weasel so well. The first time they met, Conor broke Weasel’s nose. And he did it because he knew what Weasel had done to Ned, he could see how Ned squirmed in his own skin when Weasel tore the poster from his wall. And because Weasel had finished a tackle after Conor had passed the ball, that was a good excuse at the time. But it was about Ned in the end. Those few weeks, where it felt like Weasel was his only friend in the world made him understand something about Weasel, for him, it was also, always about Ned. Conor doesn’t think Weasel’s secretly in love with his boyfriend or anything, but even if he was, he trusts Ned. Conor was scared of Ned from the moment he met him, from the moment he saw that god damned poster hanging on the wall. He was scared because he had no choice but to be gay, because everyone already knew and if there was one gay person at Woodhill, then everyone was going to be looking for the second. So he understood why Weasel tormented Ned, no one would suspect it was him if he was the one punching the gay kid, if he was the one taking every opportunity to verbally assault him. Conor would be lying if he says he’s never done the same thing.

Weasel’s sitting in a lawn chair, holding a can of cider, he’s by himself, but he’s laughing. Conor follows his eyeline and sees Liv dancing on top of one of the coolers with an ice pop in her mouth. She’s sticking her tongue out at Weasel. Orla, from the essay contest is there too, and she’s talking to Ana, and the girl with the warm laugh and the dark skin who Conor has since heard Ned call, Marie, is hanging out by the edge of the water, shrieking good-naturedly when Keith swims up to her and splashes her shorts.

 He looks around for Claire, he never actually congratulated her on winning, and that feels like something he should do, in the interest of sportsmanship. At the end of a rugby game, no matter how brutal or bitter it was, both teams congratulate one anothe, but especially the winners. A team could lose by 100 tries, but the winner still congratulates them like it was a hard fought battle. Conor doesn’t know if that rule applies to essay contests since it seemed more about one person winning than one person losing. 

He turns around and she’s sitting behind him, away from most of the noisiness, just smiling to herself, sipping on something from a red solo cup. 

“You’re essay was really good,” Conor says, a simple hello seems unnecessary, after the essays they’ve just read to each other.

“Thanks,” Claire says, “I was kind of nervous, if I’m honest. Most of my other essays have been about like world war 2 and stuff.”

Conor nods. 

“Seems like a rugby school, not really big on the whole feelings thing.”

“I think they’re getting better,” Conor smiles to himself. 

“You might be right.”

“Do you go to school around here?”

“Public. In town. It’s at least the fourth circle of hell.”

“Yikes. You should come hang out here, with us sometimes, you’re pretty cool.”

“Hang out with a bunch of rugby boys?”

“Liv usually hangs with us, and her girlfriend. Wally’s got a lady now too, Christine,” Conor points.

“I’ll think about it. Have to bring Erik with me too though.”

“Is he here?”

“He read his essay this afternoon.”

“Oh. Sorry. I was distracted when they were doing names.”

“It’s fine, he’s over there. Black nailpolish, trench coat, emo as fuck, hitting on your friend,” she points at Erik, he’s sitting next to Weasel and Conor recognizes the look in his eyes, recognizes the way he’s paying attention. 

“Should we tell him he hasn’t got a chance with the rugby boy.”

“Nah. He does.”

“Wow, two on one team.”

“We’re not all what you think we are. Not that I blame you.”

She laughs, “You should really be hanging out with your boyfriend.”

And Conor gets a couple butterflies in his chest hearing that. Everyone knows now. That’s not a secret he has, and he feels a little bit empty without it but then he looks at Ned. He’s standing by the pond with Victor, and Victor’s explaining to him how to open a beer and shotgun it. While Ned watches Victor’s hands, Wally, still soaking wet, tackles him into the water. Ned shrieks and Conor can’t help but laugh. 

“Go defend your man,” Claire jokes. 

Conor smiles. He strips off his shirt and his school slacks and dives headfirst into the pond. He opens his eyes and the world feels quiet. Everything is muffled and he can see everybody treading water. And Ned’s there, Conor can see his thin legs and he can hear him laughing. He grabs hold of Ned’s torso and pulls him towards himself as he takes in a gulp of air. 

Ned’s only momentarily surprised as Conor plants a kiss on his lips. Ned tastes like cider and vodka and he giggles into Conor’s mouth. 

“You’re drunk, aren’t you?” Conor smiles. 

Ned shrugs, “It’s hard to keep up with Olivia.”

“She’s 15.”

“15 and unsinkable,” Ned answers before slipping his hand into Conor’s. 

The fumble a little in the water as they try to stay afloat. 

They’re surrounded by people, splashing and laughing, and drinking. There’s mud and dirt stuck between Conor’s toes. All Conor can see is Ned, Ned’s head tucked into his shoulder, legs kicking, keeping them above the water. 

“Thank you,” Ned finally says. 

“For what?” Conor asks.

“I’d still be alone if you hadn’t come here.”

“Man, I fucking love you,” Conor kisses Ned.

Ned will insist, for as long as their together, that it was Conor who saved him, from loneliness, from an empty room with an empty bed beside him. Conor will insist, for the same amount of time, and maybe even a little bit longer, that Ned is the one who saved him. Their friends will roll their eyes, because as much as they seem like they’ve been hand crafted to love each other, they’re really really fucking dramatic sometimes and why can’t they just say they love each other and move on. Conor will say that they don’t understand and he hopes that one day they will. 

The party fizzles out, slowly. Claire and the other essay writers have to catch the last train into town, eventually they run out of booze, and finally, it’s just the friends he started with. Ana and Liv disappeared, somewhere into the trees. The rugby team and Ned, they’ve wrapped themselves in the towels that they remembered to bring, Ned wears one of Conor’s hoodies, balling up his fists in the sleeves. He hasn’t put his slacks back on, everything’s still wet and cold. 

They walk, forward in the same direction. No one says it but they all know where they’re heading. 

The rugby field is well taken care of. The cows just over the hill don’t dare graze here, somehow knowing the wrath of the groundskeeper would find them. It’s flat underneath of their backs, a little bit damp, but soft. Every single one of them loves the mud. Even Ned has learned to love it. When Conor tried to explain once, why he loved the feeling of diving headfirst past the try line into a puddle of mud, why he loves seeing the dirt rinsed from his knees down the drain, the blood on his knuckles. This sport strips him of his skin, forces him to sweat, and bleed. He comes to bed with more bruises than clear skin and his mother is never not worried about head trauma. And yet, he comes back again and again. And so does Victor, and Wally, and Weasel, and Dom, and Tom, and Keith and especially Olivia, Conor wonders if she understands it better than anyone else. This sport takes a lot and it gives back so little, even less to Olivia than it will give to Conor or any of the other boys. 

It’s a dark night, the moon is obscured by wispy grey clouds but every now and then they part, and the boys catch a glimpse of the stars. And then Conor turns over onto his side, because Ned is beside him, and stars are nice and all, but Ned is right there, freckles and pale skin, he’s all arms and legs and Conor would’t ask for any different. 

Weasel is laying, arms splayed out, looking more starfish than boy. Keith and Tom are joined at the hip, literally this time. Lying right next to each other. Conor doesn’t even know if they’d register the fact that their legs are touching as anything worth noting. Dom is half sitting up, propped up on his elbows, more concerned with what’s happening on the ground than in the air. 

“Fuck, lads,” Victor says, he’s sitting, legs pulled up to his chest, right beside Wally who’s lying on his back. 

“That was quite the fucking year,” And then they all laugh, because what else is there to do now. 

“Thanks for putting up with me,” Dom says and everyone laughs again, “I fucking love playing with everyone of you.”

Victor nods, “We’re brothers now, right?” 

“I think we’ve been brothers for a lot longer than that,” Wally says.

“I’ve only known you all for a year,” Conor snorts. 

“I think we were always meant to be brothers,” then he looks at Ned, “Maybe it just took us too long to figure out.”

Victor nods agreeing, Weasel takes in a deep breath. 

“I think I’m bisexual,” he exhales, the words run together and everyone’s quiet. 

There’s nothing to say, just taking it in as Weasel blurts it out. No one makes a joke, there’s no one to say “we figured,” because no one really figured except Conor and Ned and that’s because Weasel’s tongue was in Ned’s mouth a couple months ago. 

Victor just nods, “Yeah. Okay, not gonna treat you any different.”

So there’s a sigh of relief as the boys look up at the sky. 

“I’m fucking terrified of what I’m gonna do after I graduate.”

No one says anything, no one offers up a solution, because it’s not what Victor needs, he really just needs to admit it, to be heard. 

“I’m worried that I can’t be any good without Tom,” Keth says. 

“Bro,” Tom answers, “Me too, mate.”

Wally just looks up, “S’pose I’m worried that I’m not worried enough. There’s a lot of shit I should be stressing over but I just can’t.”

Dom’s voice is small, meek, “Dunno what I’ll do without everyone. That day’s gonna come. What if my team isn’t as good as this one?”

It’s not a real question so no one answers. 

And Ned curls up into Conor’s chest and looks up. 

“I know I can survive if everything goes back to the way it was before, but having friends makes life just a little more worth living. Fuckin’ love all of you.”

And Conor worries about so many things, but right now, all he’s worried about is whether or not he can kiss Ned right now without anyone making fun of them. 

In the end, he does. Ned doesn’t have to tell him that that’s what he wants because he knows. Because Conor sees him looking at his lips, sees him smiling, sees the glint in his eyes. Conor kisses the top of his forehead, and then his lips. Wraps Ned in his arms. 

Conor wants this moment to last forever, he knows that it won’t but at least he knows that’s what he wants.

Ned’s hand is in his, and their friends don’t care. 

He thinks that one day he ought to marry Ned on a rugby field, seeing as that’s where all the best moments of his life seem to happen.

 

FIN