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A State of Ebullition

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Ralph arrives in the morning. The day is golden, that last day of summer with the foretaste of September. It is neither too cold, nor too warm, just on the good side of coolness. The school is not yet busy, as he’s seen it being just before the summer. There are some students like him, who came early and all are busy with finding their dorms, carrying their things. Right now the morning is quiet.

He sees him through the window - his hair caught the sun and so Ralph’s eyes are drawn to that fiery smudge in his vision. Two thoughts cross his mind at the same time - that the boy looks older than him, must be an upperclassmen, and that he probably is beautiful. Both thoughts spread out to the next ones, naturally, like circles on water they enlarge because it was innate in them - the continuation was destined from their inception. Ralph thinks that he must be a Head of the School, because unlike all the other of Ralph’s schoolmates, he isn’t busy with moving in business - he is either reading or writing something, sitting calmly without hurry or anything else to do, so he must’ve come days before. In this, as will be accustomed in anything regarding his Head of the School, Ralph will show true powers of foresight. The next thought is spreading rather inward, Ralph tries to understand which impulse has given him an idea of beauty of the boy. He observes him, but the boy is looking downward, and it is too far to see his face - his hair closes everything, even the shade of his skin. Ralph can see the span of his shoulders and chest.

Probably it has something to do with the way he sits - free from tension and anxiety.

As Ralph crosses the square, he thinks about that. The idea of the beauty in his Head of the House fills him with dual anxiety, in which one part he understands well - he doesn’t want his Head of the House to be someone soft, as in his experience beautiful boys can be. Ralph wonders if maybe it is for this beauty that the boy won the title, and if so, worries if it is going to be someone not worthy of respect. He’d like someone who’d be able to discipline both him and his classmates, knowing already that only in great discipline, studying brings forth greatest results, and less amount of troubles. Another part of that anxiety is strange, Ralph finds that he also fears that the boy won’t turn out to be beautiful, after all, he hadn’t seen his face. If the boy is, indeed, beautiful, with strange nostalgia Ralph thinks, that it would be a distantly familiar sight - almost like a picture he's seen at one point of early childhood in a book. It would tie this moment to the dreamy magical moment somehow remembered far back, somehow coming to memory now. Ralph remembers just that - how, at some point when he was little, he was looking at a picture book in which a boy sat just so at the window, with his hair catching sun, and it was so beautiful, and the boy, in that picture, was so beautiful, too.

But it is hard to imagine a face that’d be beautiful under all that red. He comes closer to the boy, about to enter the building, but also moving away - the entrance door is far from the window, so Ralph loses the straight point of view. He knows, of course, that he will see him later, but right now, without solving the riddle of his appearance, it seems like a defeat to enter the building and lose the sight of him - as though the boy is a ghost, and later he will cease to exist. And so Ralph must receive the glance at him, which will help him recognize him and spell him real from the mirage. But he guesses that he will have to enter through the doors without that glance, and Ralph is filled with deep longing, which he doesn’t even think to oblige, and climbs up the stairs to the door without even slowing the speed. And in that moment in which longing is still inside Ralph and tugs at him, meshes with him already giving up on his gaze, focusing instead it before himself, serendipitous happens, a moment which more sentimental people than Ralph would’ve thought to be miraculous, when his inner turmoil receives an answer from outside.

Boy shouts: “Andrew!”, happy, waving to someone walking the road Ralph just crossed. His head is raised and Ralph receives a good look on his face, without even being caught doing it.

Oh, thinks Ralph.

He is beautiful, is the thought that appears after a substantial pause inside him.

A very fine face. His features have the quality of looking as though cut from the stone, strong and delicate both, nose, mouth, eyes - classical, this much Ralph has the time to see before he passes through the doors and loses the sight of his Head of the House.

The spell releases him just about immediately after losing sight - he sees the dark, after sunlit walk, hallway, and busies with his responsibilities - find his room, unpack his clothes, phone mother, etc, and he already has trouble to recall what he was thinking, not that he tries to in his busyness. The tension inside his body, the just a notch sped up rhythm of his heart takes only a little bit longer to release him, but Ralph isn’t inside his body, he is a bit ahead of himself in time - inside another thing he has to do.

 

---

 

Through the day, Ralph meets his classmates who are settling in. And it is by the evening that Ralph understands what he has waited the whole day for, without being aware of it. In the evening, they are invited to the common room, and there they meet the Head of the House.

It is that red-haired boy Ralph has seen before, he recognizes him easily.

They are to call him Odell, he explains the usual sort of business, and Ralph is free to watch him - he seems relaxed. He smiles at them easily, and Ralph thinks that he surely must know what effect it has. He is the sort of boy everyone dreams of being friends with.

The only thing that worries Ralph is that Odell seems far too friendly and good-humoured. Yes, everyone flocks around him as soon as he is finished with formality, and he is giving out his presence to the younger boys like a reward. And Ralph only wonders how in the world will Odell manage to keep up with the discipline, how will he punish them, because he seems to be so soft.

Ralph, unlike nearly everyone, doesn’t come to shake hands or get introduced and be friendly with Odell. It is a bit later that he will understand that his reserve had come not only out of desire to withhold making the opinion of Odell, as he thinks it comes now, but also out of worry for Odell, he is like a general, observing the field, ready to defend.

Odell’s gaze passes by him, when Ralph thinks he is observing unobtrusively, and he feels like the gaze is all-knowing, like his thoughts are all open. He jerks out of his reverie, and goes away from the common room, feeling like his legs are wooden, thinking too much on how to move if Odell is still looking.

Much, much later, Odell will mention in passing, “Oh, I remember how you looked at me that first time. Admit it, you didn't like me much from the first?”, all a joke to him, but inside Ralph this same boy will churn back into being, and Ralph will feel then exactly what this boy would’ve felt had he known what Odell thinks of him - that he, Ralph, doesn't like him?

Odell will never quite believe what Ralph would tell him about that night, sure that Ralph was making it up, disremembering the past, trying to see it through the prism of their future. But right now Ralph runs away, sure that to the Head of the Prefects, it comes all so obvious what Ralph experiences, and even though Ralph doesn’t even himself have words to explain what he feels, he already knows that it is shameful to show. Especially to Odell.

Much, much later, Ralph will tell to Laurie that his life-long devotion has begun growing right during the observations before this first eye contact.

 

---

 

It is obvious to Ralph, but probably not to his classmates as to what is it that they are really doing. They all are preparing for bed, Ralph, too, after a walk outside. His classmates are cheerful in a near drunk kind of way, which surely comes out of many reasons - first night away from home in a long while, tomorrow the classes will start, so many new faces and stories from old friends from the summer. But they also are in the state of heady infatuation with Odell, it is Odell who has put them into such a frenzy. Every second story somehow turns back to him, half the stories are the dreams of what they want him to be, or what they want themselves to be and find the realization in Odell - I heard he opted out of O.T.C., I heard his friends call him Spud, Do you think he’s Irish? He certainly got the colour; I heard he has a girl in the town, and so on.

But there is more to that growing excitement. Ralph only understands that as what it is because he babysat his little cousins. They are behaving too loudly, edging one another into being overly enthusiastic for two equal reasons that have everything to do with Odell. Ralph knows it so well because he feels it growing even inside himself. One, they want to test Odell - he has proved to be kind Head of the House, but like a tribe they need to test the strength of their leader before they accept that they can trust him, something Ralph has felt growing since the morning. Ralph feels worry because Odell is kind and so Ralph thinks he will fail that test. And, two, because, by making them all love him already, Odell gave them desire to be near him, and they want to see if they can somehow get Odell to come to them, already missing him.

Prefects weren’t chosen yet, so as they get to their beds, there is no one in the room who has the power to make others quiet, and in the growing talks, Ralph hears the desperation to misbehave to force Odell to deal with them.

Odell comes, shushes them, which they all happily do, eager to show him how devoted they are to him, but he disappears quickly after that. And the conversation raises again.

Ralph doesn’t speak. He thinks that this is what he worried about - that Odell won’t be able to handle the responsibility. The love he made them feel, and his beauty, just as Ralph thought they might, are feeble forces in making them respect him.

“He must punish all those who talk,” - decides Ralph. And then - "Maybe even all of us." Inside himself Ralph is determined that he wouldn't feel that to be unjust. It would be cruel, but that is the only way for Odell to establish control.

When Odell comes the second time, Ralph isn’t surprised. The awed quietness settles once again. They all crane their necks, trying to see what Odell will do.

Odell settles on the chair by the door, having a book with him. He settles in, comfortably, pretending not to notice everyone’s attention on him. So then he turns so that the light from the door would fall on the pages of his book, and simply gets to reading.

They all understand the meaning well enough - if they only are quiet when Odell is here, then he will stay here for quietness.

Ralph despairs inside - the moment Odell will leave, be it in an hour or two, someone will speak yet again, Odell is giving them the power to bring his own self before their eyes. And they will never be able to let go of it.

So Odell sits, and the boys watch him, waiting how long it will take him before he will leave. It certainly turns into a competition - boys feel like they must not fall asleep while he is here, because the meaning in his presence is clear, Odell is trying to say, so you can’t fall asleep without someone watching over you, so I will do just that. He tries to shame them for being babies by taking them for babies. And the only way that boys can fight against that is by not falling asleep like children before the adults. One hour passes slowly, and, true, some boys, the most tired ones, most uninterested in the power play, and so will be on the lower steps of social ladder, fall asleep. But the others are keeping the watch.

No one talks. One time Odell hears a vague shushing and sends such a glare into that direction that no one even dares to move out of fear of making noise. Only the sleeping boys are making noise - one snores, another mumbles something and swings around. Ralph has never wanted to sleep less. His mind is working, if Odell sits long enough, and there will be some more boys asleep, Ralph might be able to force them to keep quiet.

But all those who could fall asleep, have already done that. The rest are too interested in Odell, in the game, in winning it, to surrender to sleep. Ralph despairs noting that the majority is still not sleeping when the clock strikes midnight.

He looks at Odell. He doesn’t seem too worried about losing the game, turning the pages of the book slowly, completely lost in it, and it doesn’t seem to be a charade. Ralph is too far from him to see the name of it, he sees the vague illustration on the cover.

It is by the end of the third hour, that Ralph begins to have a suspicion. In the next one he will know that he has underestimated Odell.

Because after four hours of sitting on his chair - his elbow on the arm of it, resting his head on his hand, reading same passage again, that Ralph understands that Odell has no intention to raise from his place. At two o’clock, those of the boys, who are awake, are making calculations and are realizing how little sleep is left. At three, majority is already asleep. Ralph sends waves of thought to Odell - you did it, you won, now go back, sleep. Odell stays.

Ralph stays awake as well, even though now it comes hard - the first excitement has subsided, but Ralph has decided he won’t sleep til Odell is sleeping, he will share that weird torture with him.

At four, Ralph is sure that it is only him and maybe some other boys who are, too, completely devoted to Odell by now, Ralph won’t ever have to tell them anything, they will never speak at night, and Odell, who aren't asleep.

Ralph feels something like a complete terror that they, the boys, have forced Odell not to sleep so much of the night. He also feels angry at his classmates who were behaving badly, because Ralph feels it so acutely, that Odell is feeling, even if mild, torture, and all because of them.

At five, when the sun reluctantly rises, in the gray-blue room of dawn, Odell stretches on his chair and yawns, and notices Ralph who is still watching him. This time Ralph is too tired to feel anything and to even shift his eyes out of politeness, so he remains watching.

Odell seems surprised, even if that is slowed by his tiredness, he raises one eyebrow. And then smiles at Ralph.

Ralph will deconstruct that smile many many times after, thinking it over and trying to understand it perfectly. But right now, he thinks, Odell seems to tell him, well, I won, and Ralph will smile back, because it seems like this, too - like Odell is sharing his victory with him, and so Ralph feels like he won, too.

At six, when everyone rises, even though no one notices that Ralph hasn’t slept, everyone notices that Odell hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep in the night. Whatever stirring of guilt begin worming their way into Ralph’s classmates’ hearts, it will be only more cemented when later at the dinner, they will hear that Jippers has chewed Odell long and proper for being absent-minded during the ceremonies.

Strange, Ralph thinks about his own freedom from that guilt - was it because he stayed right with Odell through the night, or because Odell smiled at him? And yet he is, and it is pleasant, he sees how heavy that knowledge that they have caused trouble for Odell affects others. No one will ever speak at the night. And even if they do, no one will dare to breathe too harshly after the first brisk warning.

At first, Ralph is only amazed at how gracefully Odell managed to gain respect without losing the love - he gave them the power over him, and then he let them know what happens when they abuse it, leaving that power inside their hands to do with it what they wish, but giving them a sense of responsibility over their actions.

Later, Ralph will think that for many, and maybe for him, too, this will be first lesson of growing up and assuming their rightful power with all it’s consequences.

 

---

 

The first day comes all in haze to Ralph, and it all culminates in the end, when in the last lesson, for the very first time in his life, he falls asleep in a class.

He wakes when the other students are already leaving, and teacher calls him forward.

The acute sense of shame pierces him, but he refuses to feel like it isn't fair. The alternative is blaming such a beautiful plan of Odell. So Ralph is forced to endure the lecture, and says nothing in his defense, refusing to accept he has anything to say.

Professor informs him that the Head will give out the punishment, and Ralph is so at loss then what to think that he thinks nothing of it.

And then first day comes and goes and Odell hadn't called him to his room to give out the punishment even though the entire day, despite his terrible fatigue, Ralph remains aware of it.

Ralph wonders if Odell, in tiredness worse than Ralph's, had forgotten, so the next day, when he isn't invited again after lessons, he goes by himself.

He knocks at the door, but no one answers, and just as Ralph thinks to go back and try later, he hears voices behind him and recognizes one.

They are cheerful, joking around and don't notice Ralph until the very last moment, and even then they don't exactly stop, like there is nothing in their conversation they would mind others to hear of.

"Go on then," Odell urges the other boy his age, after seeing that Ralph came to see him. "It must be on the table." The other boy leaves.

Ralph keeps quiet, not knowing what the formal rules are.

"Lanyon?" - Ralph struggles with all in him not to show his great surprise at Odell knowing his name. He doesn't think he succeeds, but the hallway is dark to cover his flush. Odell extends his hand and says, "I don't believe we've formally met."

Before, seeing that Ralph had no other way of relieving Odell and his friend of himself during their private conversation, Ralph tried his best to hide in shadows and not look in their direction, but now he is forced to step forward, and looks straight at Odell. The door that Odell's friend hadn't closed properly is slowly re-opening and Odell's face lights in it.

It is hard to understand what one feels in the presence of someone beautiful. In terms of beauty of inanimate objects, or simply nonhuman ones, one is prone to giving oneself fully to the pleasure, feeling that to be blessed with such a sight is a miracle, and one usually tries to elongate the encounter by remaining before something beautiful. It is not the same with meeting beautiful humans. One feels as though one is being forced to give out the devotion, and yet remains aware that the object they are viewing has similar awareness and might see that pleasure for them. If one gives out to the desire of seeing beauty, one fears that the beautiful person will then think that such devotion is all for them, when it will be so entirely without promise - it was only for their beauty, which anyone, except the person inhibiting the beautiful body that is being admired, would know to be separate from the person. And so, very often, in the fear that one has given too much, one turns cold and harsh against that uncontrolled wave of pleasure of seeing someone beautiful. It almost seems like people are keen on punishing the beautiful people for making them feel something without their choice.

Something of a kind has happened with Ralph. He's known Odell to be beautiful, but it turned out to be different matters entirely to be placed right before him, and to watch him while he was watching Ralph.

"I came to receive punishment," - he answers, feeling like he should say 'sir' or something equally formal, brisk. He shakes Odell's hand in the same manner, forcing himself to feel nothing and feeling, accordingly, nothing.

"Ah yes, professor Westwood mentioned. You can't be serious about punishment," - Odell says with absolute incredulity. - "All on me, as I explained to professor. Hated to think I spoiled the first impression."

Ralph frowns. "No, I fell asleep in the class, how?-"

He stops.

Odell says, "I've seen your marks, and your teachers' notes. Keep up your good work and there'll be nothing wrong with what I said to Wes- Professor Westwood."

The other boy comes out of Odell's room. Ralph sees the birthday package and understands that he must leave, even though he is too conflicted to - he feels like he should explain something to Odell.

(But you don't understand, I came here to receive my punishment.)

"You shouldn't have, Laurie," - the boy says, not seeing Ralph.

It is this strange phrase that grates on Ralph's ears that forces him to raise his eyes too quickly on the speaker. The boy feels the movement and both their eyes meet - the boy is already colouring because he'd been caught in such an easy way with Odell.

He is... Here Ralph struggles, because he is certainly pleasant to the eye, but it somehow puts an opposite reaction inside him - he feels himself being unfair, noting boy's softness and fair colouring, and also noting the less chiseled out of stone features of his face. It could be that only with a contrast to Odell with his classical beauty, others have a diminished effect. Ralph knows that not to be true, in fact, it comes easy to admit to himself that he doesn't like this boy's beauty because he knows that Odell had singled him out precisely for it. That Odell takes pleasure from this soft and rounded face makes Ralph unfair.

He turns around and goes before his face betrays his thoughts. He doesn't want Odell's friend to take notice of him and talk about him to Odell. Ralph goes away and doesn't listen to the words behind him, but notes the music of the conversation - it came to that same cheery tune they produced right before Ralph interrupted.

But the one constant thought that beats inside Ralph remains thumping. He thinks: "I thought his friends call him Spud."

 

---

 

It's such a stupid thing, thinks Ralph in despair.

Rationally he understands what has happened, they are all jittery about being away from home, they're rubbing against each other, all unfit like pieces of puzzles that are taken out of different patches, yet they are expected to click.

Still, some guys start this. It wasn't him. Two guys, Eddie and Charles are trying to establish themselves as the coolest, biggest ones, trying to instill fear in others, climbing up that social ladder ruthlessly. They were picking up on another guy, Alan. Some things they've said rubbed Ralph the wrong way when he heard them.

Momma's boy. Little sissy.

Ralph suddenly felt himself tensing with the emotion, so many of them coming together and informing the mix to the volatile degree. Like a fire coursing through Ralph's blood, even though he was ready to simply pass by, he wasn't too bothered by those idiots, and Alan better learn to stand up for himself, he turned around, and squared up,

"What was that? Eddie? Charles?"

They are outside, in the park, some are doing exercises, some are playing, and people preferred not to pay attention to the usual taunts of two big bullies. Not now. Now everyone turns round, interested.

They are like sharks, thinks Ralph. His classmates only smell blood, they don't want to get in a way of the building fight. They only smell that something interesting is about to happen.

It doesn't go long from there to Charles punching him square on the mouth. With the audience this intense, it isn't surprising. Eddie is the brains of this operation, but he cannot keep up with Ralph or find where to needle him. ("Get down from your high horse, Lanyon, and be bothered with something else." - "Suppose I have nothing else to be bothered with but you two." - "What're you protecting him for, Lanyon, he gives you his sweets, or something?" - "Basic human decency, but I wouldn't expect you two to hear of it.")

Ralph anticipates that punch, and even though it explodes in his skull with the sparks, he doesn't lose his stance, and immediately punches back.

The crowd roars. Ralph quickly dodges two other punches while ducking and punching both Charles and Eddie where he can reach them. Alan does what he can, but he is asthmatic and it isn't much, more goes to Ralph to take. Then some other guys jump in to help, maybe to separate them, but they get into the thick quickly, and in no time at all, it becomes this orgy of a fight, people everywhere. Ralph understands that this guy, Alec, who was telling Charles and Eddie to lay off when Ralph first stepped up, is fighting on his side, but apart from that, it just becomes too hard to tell anything, and so he punches and kicks, somebody grabs at his shirt and rips it, but he can't see who it is.

The voice roars, "What the hell is going on here?!"

Even in the midst of it all, with his blood pumping so hard, he doesn't feel the bruises forming, or hear the breaths punched out from his classmates around him, Ralph knows that voice. And it is like a magic that instantly binds him, the cold water that in one moment replaces all fire inside his veins and the heart. With the sudden limp body, as the fight slowly dies when they all realize that Odell is here, that he is livid, Ralph understands what he feels - he feels chastened. Like a little boy who got caught by his parents for eating sweets.

He steps back, and puts his head down, trying to contain down the breaths that heave his chest up and down, the stone beneath him grey and uncracked.

Even now when a part of his mind is all fired up that he has done nothing wrong is being silenced with the strange voice that simply begs him to be good for Odell. Ralph thinks it won't be hard at all to be diminished to beg Odell's forgiveness, say, "I'm sorry, Odell." A part of him that surely must be insane and born out of a good punch to his head, is even insisting that he really could, he would really like to be put on his knees before Odell, his presence so heady around Ralph, it would be a relief. He wants to drop by and writhe before Odell, somehow be humiliated more by him, all for his forgiveness for bringing him to such rage, kiss his shoes. Lick them.

Ralph remains standing because never let it be said that he has no will power, he is locked on himself. Holding his body tight, Ralph understands with the sudden terror that the picture he suddenly imagined wasn't one born of admiration. No it was sensual. A sex fantasy.

Ralph is afraid now, hoping he didn't betray himself in any kind of way. He doesn't risk glancing at Odell as he paces before them as they all line up. He asks one of the boys, someone who was on the fringes of the fight to explain what has happened. The boy, to his credit, explains everything just as it has happened.

The explanation doesn't pacify Odell.

"In my room," icy voice lashes. He names the boys who should come, Ralph only hears "Lanyon" and nothing else.

The pounding in his ears is mimicking the beat of his heart, he doesn't understand what he feels, until he realizes that more than fear, a part of him... Almost feels pride or pleasure at the thought of going to Odell to receive punishment. But that is a new part of Ralph and he is ashamed of that base part of his, so he shies away from it.

Ralph runs quickly to change his shirt and then comes to Odell's.

Before the door they stand, as Odell calls them one by one. They all look in interest at those who leave the room, it is evident that the pain stings them when they walk. Ralph, as the others, just hopes he won't cry, that he will face this with dignity. Make Odell proud...

When Ralph comes into the room, the golden hour has begun, tinting Odell's hair bright. He stands by his table, looking almost bored by now, in his hand a slipper. Right one, notes Ralph.

Odell raises his eyes on him and Ralph forgets how to breathe, before him most beautiful picture he's ever seen.

"Nothing?" inquires Odell. Even if Ralph could speak, could just force his nose to inhale, he still wouldn't know what to say.

"Alright, let's get this over with," Odell leans away and Ralph bends over the table.

The last frantic thought that comes to him through the lashes is - "Don't get hard!"

He imagines the disgust Odell would feel for him and knows that that would be the worst thing to ever happen to him. He focuses on pain, containing his noises, Odell doesn't pity him and gives the punishment without pleasure but without holding back.

Worst thing is that listening to Odell behind him, focusing too intently on the voices Odell makes, Ralph feels his dick twitch. He hurriedly seeks something to lay his eyes on, not wanting to be not present, eyes glazed, when Odell is done, but also unable to be too present inside this moment with Odell.

His eyes lay on the book on Odell's table. He recognizes the colours on it, it is the same book Odell was reading that first night. It is laying upside down, so Ralph takes his time to trace the name of it.

"Phaedrus" by Plato, is enough to get him through the lashings. He fixes his clothing, says, "Thank you, Odell. Won't happen again, Odell," and leaves, afraid Odell would see through him - how much he wants to extend the time alone with Odell all for himself.

He spends few hours here and there, doing homework or the like, pretending inside himself he isn't planning on going to the library and finding the book, like all his mind isn't focused on repeating inside himself the name of it, like he is afraid he'll forget it when it has already been made part of him.

At last he lets himself go into the library, after finishing his homework. He was especially careful today with everything, feeling like he needed to deserve the prize. He finds the book by himself, not wanting others to know, see what he is doing, keeping it all to himself.

And then, after tracing the same pattern of the cover, he thinks that it would be way too much for him to read it. The emotion so strong he wants to bask in it for as long as it will be in him, spread it all out, and so he checks the book out, and keeps it with himself, in his inner pocket, but doesn't read it.

It almost feels like there is a bit of a touch of Odell in his pocket. And Ralph is feeling too strange, is it normal of him or perverse?, and so he doesn't read the book. But it warms him nonetheless, like he has received a letter from Odell and now something of Odell is staying close to his heart.

 

---

 

At first, when during the night, Odell is absent-minded, Ralph doesn't mind it and doesn't think much of it. Perhaps Odell is still reeling after their fight, tired after giving lashings to them.

And then, the next day, while Odell still looks kind of tired, Ralph sees how he smiles and pokes fun on some of his classmates. Ralph knows that he would like to literally die to have Odell this casual with him, wanting to bask in the warmth of his attention like a puppy in the sun, belly out, begging rubs, so he restrains himself completely and even in his mind doesn't let himself linger too much on his desires.

It doesn't take much time for Ralph to understand that Odell stays cold with all the boys who were there in the fight. With the rest, he is the same dear fellow. He sees the realization slowly come even into the slowest of them, Charles puts himself onto display ("Did I do good, Odell?"), and only gets a nod in his direction.

Ralph feels like the oxygen that he inhales doesn't stay, doesn't transmute in his lungs into the carbon monoxide, no change, simply a toy that gulps the air and leaves in same. If he thought that would help he would follow Odell on his knees, kiss his feet for a chance to get back into his good grace.

Ralph sees that even the rest of the boys notice, the ones who have not lost Odell's good attitude. Ralph thinks he even sees their pitying gazes on them.

Ralph can't even spare a thought that he is one out of many, ten boys who now receive cold treatment from Odell, he feels like it is directed at him. The pain that he feels is one of a cold spear right through his insides.

"Get this over!" he wants to scream at Odell. "I'll do anything, just let this be over!"

He goes through the school catatonic, during his classes, late at night before sleep, slowly he loses all his capability to think, and only one thing remains, he just thinks, whimpering like a puppy left in the rain, "Odell, Odell, Odell."

In response to this weakness inside himself, Ralph becomes even more stoic than ever before. Now the book taunts him to read it, at least a touch of Odell. And he resolves clearer than ever before not to read it. He thinks even that he should return it back to the library. He doesn't.

 

---

 

Odell's slowly returning warmth is all the more obvious due to the contrast to the weather that turns colder day by day.

And even if he seems warmer now, Ralph still sees that there is a type of distrust towards them, the boys who fought. It is no longer a punishment, Ralph understands with the quiet dignified despair, but rather Odell's inability to forgive them completely. Ralph doesn't know why it seems to him like this new distance is more painful. Perhaps because before there was a chance of redeeming himself in Odell's eyes, while now it moved to the territory of feelings and those are harder to change.

When he is called to the library regarding the over-due book, he tells the librarian, Mr. Spiekerman, that he has lost it, the lie comes so sudden, Ralph understands that in truth he has contained it within him for some time, unable to part with the book which he still hasn't read. He is made to pay the fine, so he writes to his parents informing them about it and receives the due scolding ("A disgrace upon our good name!" "Shaming the family!").

For some reason, most likely because Odell's distance makes all the worst words about him seem true, his parents' quite usual blabbering forces Ralph enter a type of a blue mood. If he wasn't bad, he thinks with the pointed hysteria one night, he wouldn't have been distanced from Odell. Later in the morning he is embarrassed for his night outburst, yet even back inside the rational mind, he thinks that he wasn't quite wrong in his feelings. The night's sudden embarrassing emotion only made him able to articulate the feeling in which he lives.

 

---

 

A day comes in the late October when the sudden warmth comes, the last burst of the summer before the season will turn for sure towards the winter, and the decision is made suddenly by the communal brain to go outside and capture the last bits of the sun before it turns cold.

Ralph walks with everyone, happy like a thief who, through means immoral, has received what he longed to have - a day with Odell. In true, it even seems close to the dreams Ralph has been shamefully unraveling in his free time - that, perhaps, he would walk sometime with Odell in the nature. Doubly impossible now the dreams turned both sweeter and painful.

It seems like Ralph simply feels approximately where Odell is, but he also allows himself to look every once in a while for the red spot of Odell's hair catching the sun. Each sight pierces him because of it's beauty to the point when he even forgets about the constant presence of the other pain - the distance that Odell placed between him and Ralph.

Ralph sees, even if he doesn't want to notice that, wishing all his feelings for Odell would be elevated and good, and instead they're sour and bitter, that Odell walks near that Andrew boy.

But on the other side of Odell, the boys change rapidly, everyone, it seems, have something to talk about with him. Odell listens to them carefully, he is in one of his contemplative moods, and occasionally answers with the advises. Ralph wishes he could tell them to leave Odell alone. It is clear that he wants some time to think.

Ralph thinks that had he been in place of Andrew, the trusted right hand, he could've done something about it.

But on his part, Ralph doesn't come close to Odell. He knows he would be rejected, if not outright, then in feelings - Odell doesn't want him near, and Ralph would rather eat rat's poison than drop so low before Odell.

They settle on the grass. Alec invites him to settle with him and few other boys. After the fight, for some reason, Alec has got into his head that Ralph is his friend. And well, for his part, Ralph likes him well enough to accept that new role with gratitude.

Odell is on the other side, far out, with his own classmates.

Jealously, Ralph scrutinizes Odell's circle. Ralph wonders what do they think of him. It seems like everyone, much to Ralph's chagrin, yet pride, adore him. It is expected, thinks Ralph to himself.

At a moment of making such an observation, Ralph feels a surge of melancholy - it is good that Odell is as great as he seems to be to Ralph through the distance, and yet because of that Ralph understands that he is never to have anything he dreams to have with Odell, and it has nothing to do with the recent drift.

He wallows in those feelings when, along with the boys his age, he is invited to go see the river.

Before the river, muffled by the roar of it, Ralph sees that some boys from the other year have gotten into a fight. His stomach sinks.

Before he even has the time to think anything through, he is jumping in it, needing, needing it to be over before Odell would notice. He takes a hold of one of the instigators and holds him apart while Alec and some other boys help put distance between the two.

Ralph only hopes that they can finish the whole business and calm the cursing with the foam in his mouth boy in his hands before Odell would come to check how are they here.

Ralph gets punched into his stomach and doubles, releasing his hold for a moment, but already the atmosphere has changed. It doesn't take long for Ralph to understand the reason - Odell is here.

Ralph doesn't dare to even look where Odell is standing, hears the lash of his voice, and with a sinking stomach just hopes he won't break down. Heavens, Ralph thinks, it was hard before. Now he is not sure he won't shatter when Odell will deliver his punishment, too unstable after that slow time of his coldness. It'd be so unfair, he thinks, to be near Odell after such a long time and only to be punished in it.

But he stands tall, trying to regain his breath and not show his pain after the punch.

Odell comes near him. His hand is raised. For a second, Ralph resolves that even if he is about to be slapped before everyone he will not flinch away from the touch, needing that bit of the pride saved.

Odell places his hand on Ralph's shoulder. "Good job, Lanyon."

He leaves to distribute his grace among other boys, all while leaving Ralph to stand there.

The tension of such a long time, the dull knife inside that has been a source of constant pain, simply dissipate, and it is like all the lines that have been holding Ralph upright yet constrained, have all been cut out, and he doesn't know how to stand now without them. The brand of Odell's touch on his shoulder burns but also enters deep inside his blood like a healing balm. Ralph fights himself to not touch it there. He wants to touch it simply to prove to himself that, even if it feels so, there is no actual physical manifestation upon him of Odell's brand.

 

---

 

Strangely, while before the fight and the subsequent drift, Ralph had been able to put the distance between him and Odell, no matter how big it's pull, after their, as Ralph calls it mockingly in his head, reconciliation, he cannot resist it's pull anymore. Or maybe the case isn't that he cannot resist it, but that he doesn't know why should he. Time with Odell, near Odell is limited as it is, Ralph would be stupid not to take as much as he can while he is allowed.

So he knows that Odell often remains long into the evening in the common room, often doing his own homework or else some Head Boy papers, but mostly he lets the boys who need him to come towards him and talk their problems out with him. Odell listens like the magnanimous ruler of everything that he is, and gives out advises.

Ralph does his homework and reading on one of the tables, a bit far to Odell's royal place by the fire, but the place allows Ralph to observe Odell without being caught in doing it.

And today, for some reason, there aren't that many people in here. Ralph's friends, most of whom he inherited through Alec, and who usually circle him, are absent, it is the Friday before the long week-end, so many of them have gone home.

It is near intimate, Ralph feels, as though he is alone with Odell. Though they are not alone, there are others, few boys his age and a couple older. Andrew is here as well. He is busy with some work that makes him absent-minded to Odell's quick inquiries.

Ralph knows that his anger at such behaviour is one of the beggar who is forced to see the monarch throw out food for the over-indulgence from it. It seems to him almost that Andrew is doing that on purpose - to show to Ralph what great power he has over Odell, crudely boasting all to torture Ralph.

Screw it, Ralph thinks. Odell wants to talk, that much's clear. And Ralph has never before abused his privilege to call all Odell's attention upon him. He even has a reason this time - winter holidays are coming up and Ralph would rather not go back home if he could, and he needs to talk out the mechanics of it.

When Ralph comes close to Odell he makes sure to tell him that Ralph isn't infringing on his time for nothing, but rather jumps right in.

Ralph thinks that he's chosen a good time. Odell is languid, soft, warm.

"Ah, Lanyon," is how he meets him like he feels happy about Ralph coming towards him, voicing something Ralph would never dare to show. Ralph's vulnerability regarding Odell receives this balm upon it, but it only makes the wound of the crush bigger instead of closing it.

While he talks, Ralph sees how Odell's attention sways towards Andrew, it is futile for him not to be all the more wounded by that, so he talks briskly, not showing his emotions, all too vulnerable, too inside the palm of Odell not feel disparagingly weak for the liking of Ralph's pride.

Just when Odell busies with giving him the necessary papers to sign, Andrew starts whistling the tune.

Ralph sees how Odell's hands falter as he listens more carefully.

"What is it? Beethoven?" Odell asks.

"Oh, I was not aware of what I was whistling about."

Odell repeats the tune.

"Yeah, I think it sounds like Beethoven, Laurie. I quite like that tune."

"Me, too," Odell smiles softly. And suddenly Ralph understands that it is not that Odell is today inside a mellow mood, but rather that the time with Andrew has made him soft.

Of course, all that happiness and warmth weren't for him. Ralph is only the stray beggar who has received something from the overflowing table on which everything was placed to feed the king.

He gets the necessary papers and on wooden legs goes back. Some other boy takes his place, needing the audience with Odell.

Before the night settles, when Ralph passes by the fireplace, he hears Odell's sotto voice: "Perhaps we could listen to it on my gramophone?"

"I'd like that, Laurie."

 

---

 

Alec says that it is common for the boys to get sick after coming back from home. Their mommas overindulge them on sweets and so they come back weakened. After the long weekend, some kind of flu runs through their sleeping room.

Alec himself catches it, and so their room is left without the prefect.

One night Alan wakes up shivering and comes up to Ralph - what should he do? Typically the prefects have the release forms necessary to walk out the building during the night, and looking at Alan it is clear that he needs to go to the medical building.

Ralph says that he'll go to Odell for it.

Passing by the clock, Ralph sees that it is the second hour.

He gathers himself before Odell's room and is relieved to see the light shining from beneath the door - at least he won't wake him. He places his hand on the door, and falters.

He hears from beyond it, by the vibrations in his hand, the music. Impulsively, Ralph puts his ear to the wooden door. He hears voices.

Odell and Andrew, no doubt about it. And Beethoven's music as their background.

Ralph turns around. He tells Alan that he will walk him to the medical building. Ralph explains to the guard on the front what a situation they've come to - that their prefect is sick, and that the Head Boy is not in his room. They're let out easily.

 

---

 

Ralph takes fondness to walking the school grounds alone. He feels himself entering a type of trance and knows that something must be happening to him, but he cannot tell what that is.

The book, "Phaedrus", doesn't taunt him anymore, but rather he comes to the decision that he must read it. So one day, he takes the book with him, wanting to read it somewhere quiet, away from everyone. While he walks, seeking a quiet place, his legs carry him towards the creek to settle in, he hears the voices.

He decides on changing his route until he recognizes them.

Andrew and Odell.

Quietly, he follows the voices. They come to the place where Ralph wanted to settle in. There they sit down, partially hidden by the tree. None of them noticed Ralph.

Ralph watches with fascination as Odell puts Andrew’s head under his hand in a hug.

The absence of such a touch bestowed upon him is something that is real, a gaping absence begging to be filled in.

Ralph thinks that such a touch would warm so surely in such a cold weather.

But it is when Ralph watches and watches, hoping for something else to happen, that Ralph understands what he is waiting for, why he is so enraptured. He needs to see if they will kiss.

And somehow, through all the distance, Ralph for the first time understands perhaps why he has been so caught up in Odell, because it is not like he himself could ever feel such an emotion but rather that he somehow gained the ability to feel what Odell feels now, and Ralph thinks - Odell would want to kiss Andrew here in the creek. Odell wants to kiss Andrew now.

And perhaps that in itself is devastating, yet Ralph on the contrary feels a surge of hope. Because Odell doesn't kiss Andrew.

 

---

 

Ralph has held a key to himself for a long time. You don't get to have such a strict unwavering mind as Ralph's and not look out to the very edges of your own self without flinching. He held out this thing he's had long ago, looked at it clearly in the light, named it correctly, knew with complete sureness that his parents have despised this in him.

Hell, he heard the rumours about such people like him, has seen people with this inside them hanging low on the edges of life, and he has despised this.

Ralph has told himself - I'll control it, I'll subdue it, it won't be anything perverse. He told himself that he would marry when the time will come. He will even father children. He won't let this destroy him the way he understands it can destroy him.

And so, he reads the "Phaedrus" and at first he doesn't even understand that what this book talks about is of him. Because he isn't used to hearing this kind of words regarding his type of people. So he reads it again. And again.

That winter he paces the grounds like some ghost, in a trance, nothing touches him, he can't say what he talks about to people or what he eats in those days. He doesn't notice even Odell, even though, of course, it is Odell who is near him while he reads.

Ralph thinks that he was thrilled to recognize this thing in Odell, but he did meet people like that before. Once even during a train ride, an older man came up to him. Ralph punched him. Inside he was offended that he was so easily seen through, but he knew how it was done. He himself at times could see it in others. In the bus, just by simply looking at somebody, catching someone's gaze, and you knew right away.

He was drawn to Odell out of his good feelings, none of perversion, he wanted to be a friend to him. He'd be happy to be a friend to Odell.

But it didn't surprise Ralph when he observed Odell interacting with Andrew that Odell has had this, too. There was a thrill there, but also a type of a mourn - how to connect that elevated desire to be friends, such noble wish which made Ralph feel better about himself with this thing, Ralph didn't know.

And now that wrenched book. That glorious book. A gift, Ralph thinks, knowing he is unreasonable, from Odell to him.

He thought he was sick and dirty, and for the first time he hears that it isn't so. And deep inside Ralph thinks - I thought so! I always secretly thought so! The thing is too deep and good to be smashed quite like this.

He thinks that all those tramps he's seen, which were destroyed for who they were, were destroyed because they didn't know that this, who they are, can be something good.

It is as though, after a long terrible nightmare, Ralph wakes up. Like after a torturous sickness, he breathes for the first time as a healthy man.

And a luck to him! It'd be good to find a single person who'd read "Phaedrus" like him and would understand. But he has already found that person. Not just anyone, that person is Odell!

 

---

 

Ralph exits his trance feeling like everything has changed, but nothing ultimately changed.

His eyes watch Odell. In his mind he tries to find a reason to talk to him.

In the center of everything remains Odell, in fact he now has his position cemented there, but what that means to Odell? Nothing at all.

One day at the library, Ralph is thrilled momentarily when he notices during his book-browsing that Odell is here as well.

Andrew is, too.

Having the new ability, Ralph guesses that Odell is here because he was trying to bump into Andrew.

Ralph wonders for a minute if Odell will yet again put Andrew's head into his chest for a hug. Perhaps Ralph will feel that touch as though on himself as he did then, in the creek.

With all in him, Ralph stretches his whole being into being attentive to Odell's touches, hoping to feel them upon his own skin.

When Odell bends and kisses Andrew's cheek, Ralph imagines that upon himself. The touch so innocent and pure, even childish in a way. Insecure, Odell leaned down and stole it.

Odell opens his eyes and looks straight at Ralph. Ralph's face heats up.

Ralph goes outside.

In the coldness it doesn't take him long to shake off the startled sensation. No, it is even kind of good, Ralph thinks. Odell might understand that I would never tell anyone.

Inside the boyish dream, Ralph suddenly feels a surge of energy. He doesn't know if it is born out of his delusion, or if he simply understands something crucial about Odell even through the distance.

Odell doesn't have the physical kind of relationship with Andrew.

Heavens, Ralph was so jealous of Andrew, but now... There is a chance, Ralph tells himself. If Odell has the need in physical, and Odell has it, why else the hug or the kiss just now, then Ralph can give him that. Why not? It would almost be like in Ancient Greece, he'd be eromenos to Odell, he could be that to Odell.

 

---

 

When Ralph has a decided course of action, he burns with singular intensity for following it.

He knows he mustn't show to others, Odell might get embarrassed if he is to show those kind of secret feelings, if other would guess at them, but still, he makes sure to use every opportunity to show Odell that he is his for the taking.

Nothing low, but still Ralph abuses the hours which before he didn't dare to steal, now he haunts Odell, using every opportunity to talk to him.

When Odell is called to his home, Ralph is one of the first to hear of the news, Odell tells it to him himself. Ralph even understands that Odell loves his mother, her only child, father absent. To Odell's replacement, they show even greater discipline, all under Ralph's bullying. When Odell comes back he is glowing hearing how well they behaved.

At times, it seems like Odell learns to rely even more on him than he does on Andrew, talks to him, but he doesn't close the distance of the years between them, never invites Ralph to his room, or lets them talk when they're alone.

 

---

 

And then, while Ralph is burning on the fire, all stretched towards Odell, when he uses all opportunities to himself to steal Odell's attention for himself, a competition comes, some nonsense, running a hundred meters for which Ralph trains with the singular determination.

He wins! And while his classmates all hug him and congratulate him, he just thrashes around in their hands, seeking, seeking what he needed, straining to hear the voice...

Ralph sees Odell beyond the crowd that surrounds him, and he sees him nod in congratulations, but then Andrew is right by him, causing Ralph a dull pain, and he didn't wish for that, he didn't train for that, and he looks at Odell, needing him to read in his eyes that this win was for him, barring it all out.

There is something in the narrowed eyes of Odell that suggests to Ralph that this time he's done it. Now Odell understands.

The whole day he awaits like an incandescent candle when Odell will call him forward. It won't be good, Ralph understands in sudden pain, or else Odell would've just strode forward right there, when he won.

When he goes to sleep, he lays there for few hours, sure for some reason that Odell would call him in the night, whether for a good thing or bad, unknown, but unseen by others. And Odell doesn't come.

The next day, just when Ralph comes done with his walk, he sees Odell in the window, sitting and scribbling something, reminiscent of the first time Ralph has seen him. This time he gives out to the pleasure of watching Odell fully.

The hysteria of the past day has released him, the content of seeing the beauty of the beloved fills him inside. Ralph tells himself he will not demand anything from Odell, basking in content. It becomes too much to risk all that he has now and possibly ruin it. He has a little of Odell, let that be so, Ralph thinks, about to let go of his terrible hungry longing.

Odell notices him and calls him forward.

Ralph has seen Odell calling other boys like this before. He was always jealous, dreaming to be called in the same way. But now his legs turns icy and head ringing like a metal.

He will be scolded, Ralph thinks. Because what he does is inappropriate, and anyway, even if Odell himself wants a man's touch, why did Ralph even presume he'd want Ralph's?

He comes forward, only trying his best not to show his feelings.

"A letter for you" Odell says.

"Oh."

Odell looks at him in question and so Ralph hastily takes the letter.

He reads it. Ralph can feel a headache forming behind his eyeballs.

"What is it, Lanyon?" Odell's voice comes as though through a distance.

"Nothing, nothing," at least Ralph has enough of a clarity in his mind not to break down right there.

It is so like his parents - to needle him at his most vulnerable with the perfect timing, he thinks. Right now, more than ever before Ralph cannot rely on Odell, no matter how much he wishes to.

"Explain," Odell's voice turns commanding. Ralph looks at him in despair. He wants to, doesn't Odell get that?

Odell looks at him with such a genuine worry that Ralph explains the situation.

Ralph watches as Odell flares red with indignation and then with worry for Ralph.

"Dear God, Lanyon, I will write to them and explain. There is much that can be done, hope you know it."

Is there? near escapes Ralph, like a child he feels relieved as though someone else is there to take care of him.

Next he realizes that there is nothing worse he can do for himself than to show such a weakness to Odell.

So he turns straight, and says coldly. "Perhaps I ought to take my time to think it all out."

Odell swallows, and says even colder in reply. "Or, perhaps you might find it better suited to speak about it with Mr. Jeepers."

Ralph looks at Odell and suddenly understands that Odell is hurt by him putting the distance, like reminding him of their positions when Ralph was only afraid he'd have a break down because of all the kindness bestowed on him. But he never wished to hurt Odell.

"I only think that I must deal with all that myself," Ralph tries to explain, and Odell, thankfully, gets him. His eyes turn warmer.

"I don’t think that there is anyone who knows you, Lanyon, and would possibly not respect you. Do what you must, but know that it could be better for you to take care of yourself. If you don’t want my help, you should find a way to sort this out. But don’t think that you must go through something uncomfortable because you must hold yourself without indulging yourself. There is no possibility at all that in anything you will be something less than your usual upstanding self."

Ralph looks at him with near terror. Why doesn't he touch me, thinks Ralph, can’t he see that I’m all his? Ralph waits and waits. Yet Odell says nothing, only nods, dismissing him.

No, Ralph wants to scream. Come back, look at me! How can he just say all that, all while knowing that I am his, his for the taking, and not take?

Not even for anything like what Ralph wishes it to be, but anything at all, take. Can't Odell see that what he doesn't get from Andrew, no matter how much he craves it, he can so easily take from Ralph? And if he doesn't mind Ralph, and he doesn't mind Ralph, does he? why then not even touch him. Just a touch is what Ralph needs.

But his legs carry him away, the need for the propriety the one that moves his catatonic body.

The love that has been lurking just beneath, comes forth and blooms. With love’s complete force, he understands something that he will put together later in the night - that Odell has near same need in the physical love to Ralph's and if it is so great why then doesn't he use the easy on the plate opportunity that Ralph gives him, he wonders whyever doesn’t Odell touch him.

 

---

 

“Odell,” - Ralph thinks. - “Odell, Odell, Odell.” Repeating and repeating, the name the only thing that is left inside him. Desire so potent it becomes a desperation, it feels like a need is pulsing in him. Ralph thinks he would’ve gladly stumbled on his knees towards Odell, if only it guaranteed that Odell would agree to see him. That it would only be pity, Ralph knows, and is only restrained with that. But he wishes… For something. A simple sight of him would be enough, says Ralph to himself, but already feels that not to be entirely true.

He stumbles like a drunkard until it is night, and it is time to sleep. An idea that Odell might come to wish them night forces him to go back even though he loathes to appear like that in front of his classmates. He doesn’t go through his night procedures, not wanting anyone to talk to him and lays in his bed. His heart is still beating, and Ralph thinks he will not be able to fall asleep with it.

His mouth salivates, and suddenly he knows what exactly he is waiting for, because it comes apparent that Odell won’t come. It’d be too much for Ralph. When boys’ voices turn quieter as some of them drop into sleep, he doesn’t even wait for everyone to fall, but already is stretching his hand inside his pants. He burns hot with shame, but it becomes too unbearable not to.

At the first touch he near whimpers, but pushes his head into the pillow, hard, breathes into the cotton.

As complete darkness comes over his eyes, Ralph feels like he is alone, and gives in to the wish he’s had. He imagines Odell’s hand, and then realizes it is too much. Flinches away, and starts anew.

He just thinks of Odell - creates his entire self before his eyes. Ralph imagines Odell smiling at him, even though he recognizes Ralph’s want. “I love him,” - suddenly Ralph whispers without voice, needing so badly to say it. He can’t, even in his mind imagine it being said directly to Odell, thinks that would be too insolent, but he imagines that there would be somebody who could know of that, and then Ralph would confess - I love him, I love him. It’s not just a want.

Another flush of images still steals him away - he imagines Odell’s room, light with sun as it always been when Ralph was there. Maybe Odell would invite him there, as always, to give punishment. A tingle comes over Ralph. His hand grasps stronger. Maybe Odell will see everything that would be so obvious in Ralph’s face, his posture, his deference for him. Maybe, Ralph feels excitement over thought, Odell has even already seen it before in Ralph, before Ralph himself had the time to understand what has been coming over him, something golden, not anything filthy.

Ralph can just imagine how much would be pouring out of him, he would never say a word, if Odell didn’t wish for it, but it would still be obvious for Odell. Ralph wants it to be obvious for Odell - Ralph needs Odell to know that Ralph would do anything, anything at all for him, it is crucial that Odell must know.

Maybe that day, when Odell would call him for punishment he would even need something like that - that complete devotion Ralph feels for him. Ralph would never do anything to bring him offense or displeasure.

As Ralph’s hand picks up the pace, he then thinks desperately of something. Not anything that would be unpleasant for Odell, or which he would consider beneath him, of course. Ralph suddenly imagines how he would just sink then to the floor before Odell, hungry as he feels himself being just know. He could beg Odell for that, maybe Odell would show him that much kindness.

Odell would undo his belt, and the buttons, and Ralph would come forward on his knees, he imagines how Odell would look, and knows that it doesn’t matter if it’s big or small, still Odell’s, and just swallow him in.

Ralph’s mouth opens on its own, panting and wanting. He desperately worries the pillow, wanting to fill his mouth, imagining, pace hurrying, as he would be sitting before Odell in Odell’s room sucking him off, bobbing his head, Odell’s hand on his head, his hips pushing into Ralph, Odell, Odell, Odell. “Thank you, Odell,” - he thinks pathetically, dreaming he’d be able to tell Odell at least this, not the other thing, but this he could tell him - "Thank you, Odell", repeating over and over, are the words that set the rhythm, imagining how with every bob he would say them inside, overwhelmingly grateful. Ralph comes with a noiseless sob.

Already feeling wetness and stickiness, and thinking about how to rid of it, and starting to worry if he was too loud, Ralph suddenly receives a bolt of humour and thinks, “Yes that would be quite a punishment,” smiles tiredly and contentedly and releases his hold. He cleans up and goes to sleep, feeling lighter, like something dissipated in him what was poison.

 

---

 

After this, when Ralph observes Odell, he sees how aware Odell is of him. There is a thrill in thinking that Odell knows what he goes through, perhaps even knows better than what Ralph knows. He wishes Odell would teach him, would uncover the feelings in him and explain them to him.

At times Odell would even come talk to him on his own volition and Ralph would be all but a dedicated priest in the presence of his God with his devotion, and Ralph thinks Odell sees it and he likes it. He likes that Ralph makes him laugh and makes him feel good, and saves him from those boys who are boring to Odell. But Odell never makes any kind of remark regarding Ralph's feelings, doesn't even allude to them. As though Ralph is that hard to read.

But Ralph knows, knows with the love's instinct that Odell does like him, does like spending time with him. And he feels this gaping hole inside Odell that craves the physical touch. Ralph himself has one like that.

There is this about this hole - given a chance, even if not up to all standards, one would accept a touch from just about anyone who could give it freely, and who would mean in the way that they crave it to mean - out of same desire.

No, Ralph doesn't think he is on the top of the list of Odell's favourites, that is Andrew's place. But Odell has a need, an itch to scratch so to speak, and why doesn't he use Ralph for it, Ralph doesn't understand. That's what Ralph wants, too, to be nothing but a tool for Odell to satisfy his desires against.

They'd meet in secret, and Ralph would never tell a soul.

 

---

 

When Ralph is cleaning the dorm room with the boys who are not in his friends' group, he mostly tunes them out until he hears that they speak about Odell.

Suddenly, the half-dreamy state which is his usual these days is shaken off and he moves closer to hear what they've got to say.

"Kind of pretty, isn't he?"

"Maybe he is... All I'm sayin' is there are talks, you know?"

Ralph feels as though he was drenched in cold water. He tells them, striving for the casual. "I've seen him last week-end when I was out. Saw him dancing with that red-haired girl that serves the drinks in "Bernie"."

Yeah, the girl distracts them all well enough. There is a speculation among the boys that she is either a model or an actress.

"That might be true," thankfully another adds. "I heard she was telling to the other birds that our school has this beautiful prefect..."

And on they ride on that train. Ralph breathes out.

Perhaps this is why, he thinks next. Maybe Odell is just careful...

 

---

 

The end of school year comes, and Ralph wonders if he is to receive an audience with Odell, Odell might say something to him. He has to.

No matter how Ralph thinks about it, the whole problem is the school - all those tiny quarters, living in each other's pockets basically. But once Odell is out, he could rent something out, and Ralph could use his week-ends or, hell, even his winter holidays... But he is getting ahead of himself.

But why wouldn't Odell want that? Ralph would be so easy for him, it is a hard world out there, and nothing is guaranteed. Except Ralph. Odell must surely see that.

No, Odell will call for him, give him something, something must happen at the end of it all.

The day passes, many of the boys have already gone to the station and home, and Ralph could’ve already been gone, when he realizes that Odell wasn’t going to call him out, he hadn’t planned a resolution.

He goes to Odell.

The door is open.

Odell is disheveled - hair up, vest halfway open, blouse not quite tucked, without his jacket. Sun's last rays enter slanting, room’s all gold. The room is quite messy, Ralph sees that he is packing. The beauty of Odell this time is near mundane or it is Ralph who doesn't let it distract himself.

Odell notices him. "Ah, Lanyon," he starts and Ralph to his horror understands that Odell thinks he came here to say goodbye and be done with it, that he is like all rest of the boys.

Ralph stops him, "May I write to you?"

He couldn't have been not transparent. Hell, he all but declared everything in big bold letters to Odell, and the only reason why he didn't do that outright was because, out of some fantasy that they are to be like Greeks, he was awaiting and respecting that Odell, as the elder would take everything into his own hands.

In Odell's face he sees that the answer is no.

But if he does understand... Ralph despairs. Is it because of him? Is he that unlikeable as not to be worth even as this bodily tool?

Does he seem too young to Odell?

He says, I’ll only write once a year. Then, succumbing, "I’ll write only once, after three years. After I’ll graduate."

A chance, at least a chance is something that Ralph is surely worth. Hell, he'll take pity even. He wants to beg, say please, Odell, be kind. He restrains from that.

Not in the least because he sees that it is something else for Odell, there is something in his eyes, like regret or pain, and Ralph needs to understand.

But he has a right to understand. He was suffering. He wanted to fight for Odell, come into him in the night yet he's never done it, even when he felt Odell's desire to be so potent, because he has decided to trust Odell, because he has left everything in Odell's hands, trusted that Odell knew more than him and would do everything the better way, even when he wanted to fight and snarl around it. Because the lack of anything between them was torture.

So, no Odell has to give him at least a chance. A chance to play on the fairer ground, Ralph is ready to argue now.

Odell says, "Don’t think me unfeeling. Don’t think you’re alone in it."

Ralph turns to him in complete devotion and despair. Then take me. But Ralph already sees that Odell has admitted as much as he felt he could admit, face already full of regret and closing off. All while he stands there, beautiful as a picture, ripping Ralph apart.

"Why then?" this much he is entitled to.

"I'm not going to mess with the process of your becoming, dearest."

So it was the age, Ralph thinks. He understands he is to be a hero now - do the hardest thing he's ever had to do - accept defeat. And the reason why he can do it is because of that word. Oh, let him be dearest to Odell.

And then Odell closes the distance, extends his hand and says, "Goodbye, Lanyon."

Ralph takes it in his... Is this their first touch? It feels so. And it is the last one. Of course, this is how it goes. Ralph looks at Odell, and with the sudden impulsivity tells him to close his eyes. Odell does it. And Ralph steals his kiss and leaves the room.

 

---

 

The first moment when he comes to Alec's birthday party, and everyone start teasing about some present to him, and he sees a man with the beard raising to get up, Ralph's mind turns awed - Oh Heavens, it is him!

The last Ralph remembers of Dunkirk is this gorgeous face of the soldier who pulled him out of the water - red beard, those dark eyebrows. Thinking he is about to die, Ralph was full of an impulse to die giving out his best chance to the last breath, he has managed to say, "Dear Lord, Aren't you a picture?"

Famous last words, after that - darkness. And til now he hasn't had a chance to thank that poor soldier who saved his life. So now, full of good humour, he comes closer to his saviour, and as he comes closer, he realizes it slowly. And then all at once.

Yes, that is the man who's saved his life, Ralph remembers that moment when he thought he was about to die clearly. But what he did not realize then is that the person who saved him was Odell.

Odell who stands now, smiling at him.

Odell.

At first a shudder runs through him, and again the old awe steals over him. Then looking upon the face of his beloved as of a god, Ralph feels like he is a moment away from praying. The shudder passes into an unusual heat and perspiration. And the pain Ralph contained within himself so many long years releases him and he can breathe.