The Gentleman Game

by Torino Koji
illustrated by chaosraven

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/92152.html)

illustrated by chaosraven

July 4
London felt clean and old and free compared to Heidelberg and the base Patrick Carter had been living on for the past two years. He stepped out of the gate, past security, rucksack over his shoulder, and felt almost adult-like—seventeen and given nearly free reign to a city he’d never seen before, as long as he was back to his mother’s cousin’s by evening.

He spotted his second-cousin, Christoph Griffiths, before the taller, older boy saw him, and managed to get quite a start out of him by simply wandering over and saying, as loud as he could over the noise of Heathrow, “Well hey there, Chrissy!”

Christoph jumped and several people turned and shot them tired looks of annoyance. Patrick grinned at his second-cousin, adjusted the rucksack, and laughed when Christoph swore for a good half minute at him before saying, “Don’t do that, you fucking moron. Damn it all. Gimme a heart attack, why don’cha? Christ.”

“Love you too, Chrissy,” Patrick leered. Christoph rolled his eyes, shook his head, and thwacked Patrick once against the ear; it left Patrick reeling just a little and frowning more than that, but it made Christoph smile and pull him into a brief, brotherly embrace.

They talked about Patrick’s trip from Germany—not enough time on the plane to take a proper nap, but too long to be comfortable—on their way through baggage claim, out of the terminal, and to Christoph’s little family car. They threw Patrick’s rucksack into the trunk and crammed themselves into the front, leaving the parking lot for the busy streets beyond.

“We’re not goin’ straight to Viv’s, are we?” Patrick asked. “I love your mom, really, but I kinda want to see the city before I put up with her too much, you know?”

“Not seein’ the city today, don’t think,” Christoph said, shrugging as he veered into the next lane without a signal to surrounding cars. There was a brief blare of horns from behind them. “We’re gonna drop by a friend’s though. Friend o’ mine, anyway. Got a brother ’bout your age, maybe a might younger. Should get on with him fine, I suppose. He’s on hols until September, so he can show you ’bout when I’ve got job or mum’s bein’ hard about it.”

“Cool,” Patrick muttered, and looked around at the city as they drove.

They ended up in a little neighborhood away from anything Patrick could put names to—but that wasn’t very much in London—and at a thin little three story affair with a tiny red car in front of it, and another, shiny black car sitting in the tiny drive. Christoph parked up behind the red one, smiled a little, and left Patrick in the car without a word; Patrick followed.

Inside the house, there were people talking. It was a deep house to make up for being narrow. A few feet from the door was a staircase, and Patrick could hear a boy’s voice drifting down from above as he headed back toward the kitchen, where he could hear Christoph talking.

Christoph was raiding a ‘fridge while another young man looked on from the table. They both looked over at Patrick just as he felt a presence behind him and turned to see a tall, long necked girl standing in the hall.

“Hey there, sprog. You lost?”

“Ah, Patty, c’mon, come in,” Christoph commanded, laughing softly. “Jonah, Missy, this’s my cousin, Patrick. Patty, these’re Jonah and Missy Jenkins. Jonah’s from my year; Missy’s his kid sister.”

“Hardly kid sister,” the long-necked girl said, stepping up to Christoph and pecking a kiss on his cheek. She grabbed the cola out of his hand and stepped over to the kitchen table, where she leaned and showed off how long her legs were as she smiled, closed-lip, at Patrick. “‘s good to finally mee’cha, Patrick. Heard loads ’bout you, but didn’t think you were going to come ’round our neck of the woods.”

“Here on holiday. My dad finally got it in his head that I wouldn’t be up to wandering around Heidelberg for three months.” He smiled, sighed like he was much put upon, and said, “Guess I’ll just have to go around wherever and whenever Chrissy sees fit; haven’t got a car and I’ve no clue how to get around this city.”

“Oh, shouldn’t have to rely on Chris, you’ll never get nowhere!” Missy said. Christoph flipped her the bird, but laughed. Patrick smiled politely.

It was Jonah who offered, “Got a brother. He’s ’bout your age, yeah? Seventeen now. Well, almost.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Patrick admitted, though he hated when people guessed his age right. Everybody was always saying how mature he was, how much older he looked than he really was—but in the good sort of way, as if there was a bad sort of way.

“Well, let’s get him down here.” Missy chuckled, then raised her voice louder than seemed right and proper for such a narrow, feminine frame: “Ashley! We’ve got someone we’d like you to meet!”

Above them—muffled enough that it must have been from the third floor—there was a thump, the sound of tromping footsteps, another thump that was closer, and Patrick leaned around the corner of the open door of the kitchen in time to see this “Ashley” person come down the steps.

He’d been expecting something bookish, something small and delicate and smiling, something like what everybody expected him to fall in with because most of his good friends were like that. But this Ashley, boy. He made Patrick look like the small and delicate one. He was tall, for one thing, and broad in the shoulders. His hair was shaggy and sort of long, hanging into his eyes, which were downcast as he stepped sullenly toward the kitchen. Patrick moved out of his way because he didn’t really expect the boy to notice him.

And then Ashley looked up.

—–

July 11
Patrick wasn’t entirely sure why Christoph had told him to go shopping with Missy Jenkins and her friends and little brothers. Presumably, it was to get to know the lay out of London. Otherwise, it was to try and get him to socialize which wasn’t why he’d come to London in the first place; London was meant to be an escape, not a play date.

It didn’t help that, every few minutes, Ashley Jenkins would turn his head a little and stare at Patrick, then go back to staring at the gaggle of girls they were morosely trailing after.

Patrick chewed on his lip, pulled his phone out of his pocket, flipped it open then shut, then put it away in his pocket again. Ashley gave him another one of those baffled little looks, took a second to look like he was about to say something, then went back to staring at the store fronts.

Missy Jenkins detoured her group into a women’s clothing store, and Patrick went for the smart choice and loitered outside it with Ashley and his little brother, Kynan. None of them talked. Really, that was the worst part about this whole thing.

Sighing, Patrick summoned up his courage, and asked Ashley, “So … you’re going to be seventeen soon, your brother said.”

Ashley nodded, staring at his shoes.

“Uh…so, what grade are you going into?”

“Seventh form,” Ashley offered quietly. Patrick nodded a little, looking up at the sky above them, then down either side of the sidewalk. After a moment, Ashley said, “You will be too, won’t you?”

“Nah. We call it Senior year. On base. It’d be third year at the local senior high.”

“Ah.”

They were both quiet for a very long time after that, until Missy and her friends came back out of the shop, and they all started walking again. While Kynan berated his older sister for spending pocket money on things she really didn’t need, Patrick asked, “So … what d’you do for fun around here?”

“Read,” Ashley answered promptly. Patrick gave him a long look; he looked like the jocks back home in America, and Patrick wondered if Ashley read or if he skimmed through magazines and periodicals and tabloids, laughing and pausing on the ads for perfume or jeans, where the models were half naked.

“Nothin’ else?” he pressed after a moment.

“I play cricket.” Which explained the jock-look, but didn’t really seem to answer Patrick’s question.

Patrick was just getting ready to prove that he really could keep a conversation going solely on small talk alone, but was interrupted as a flock of young women headed the other direction passed by. He turned his head first to watch them, but then ended up walking backwards a few steps to properly appreciate the sight of them. After a moment, he chuckled, scratched his head, and turned back.

Ashley was giving him the weirdest look.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Ashley replied, and went back to staring at his feet. Patrick pulled his cellphone out of his pocket, flipped it open then closed, then put it back in his pocket.

“No, seriously. Do you not do that? They were good looking.”

“No, I don’t,” Ashley said, then tacked on simply, “It’s impolite to stare.”

Patrick made a point to watch Ashley for a while after that, saw him staring at people on random occasion, and shook his head. Clearly, everybody in England was insane.

—–

July 14
The movie was complete drivel, but it was nice to be included in the group. Around Heidelberg, most of the kids from off-base didn’t want much to do with him, after they’d both expended their respective swearing vocabularies; and most of the on-base kids were younger than him, so he didn’t want to spend time with them. Admittedly, Ashley wasn’t exactly a choice movie-going partner. But he leaned over when the jokes were purely British, explaining things in a hot puff of breath against Patrick’s ear, and it wasn’t all that bad.

In the end, the guy bagged the girl, and Patrick, sitting at the end of the row, was hurried quickly out of the theater with Ashley, Christoph and Jonah and their respective girlfriends at his back.

Outside the cinema, Patrick watched Jonah offer his girlfriend—he couldn’t remember her name just then—his blazer. She grinned at him. Patrick rolled his eyes, and Ashley made a vague gagging noise that made them both chuckle a little.

“How ’bout?” Christoph said suddenly, clapping his hands together and smiling slightly. “We’ve enough between us for a fair bite. Patty, you up for something?”

“I could eat.” In truth, he was nearly starving, but he’d been trying to keep that under wraps. From the way Ashley snorted next to him, he didn’t think he was managing too well.

They walked from the cinema to some pub that, Patrick realized, was relatively close to the Griffiths’ home; he was glad they wouldn’t have to walk far to get back to the house. As they settled into a booth in a far, smoky corner, Patrick went around with the girls again, collecting their names—Molly, Jonah’s girlfriend of two years, with tight red curls and a smattering of freckles; and Liza, Christoph’s girlfriend of four years and fiancé of three months, with her pencil-straight brown hair and smart blue eyes.

“Will you be coming back for the wedding, Patrick?” Liza asked when the conversation somehow came around to it. Ashley snorted into his drink when Patrick looked baffled for a moment; Patrick shrugged after a second.

“My dad only let me off base on my promise that I’d pass all my tests next year. I don’t think he’s gonna let me out of his sight until I have to ship back to America after my eighteenth birthday.”

“Oh, what a pity.” Liza pouted. Christoph kissed her cheek gently.

“I hear there are people who do video feeds of their weddings now,” Molly offered helpfully, giggling softly. “So, if you’ve got family as can’t attend, they can still watch live and all.”

“Oh, that would be ace,” Christoph said, smiling, and Patrick went back to tuning them out.

Ashley seemed to be doing much the same thing, instead watching as Patrick folded up a napkin to make a little paper football. When Patrick noticed Ashley watching him, he smiled, and told him, “Hold up your hands. Put your thumbs out and touch ’em together. That’s the goal posts. You ever watch football?”

“I watch football, yes, not American Football.”

“Anyway,” Patrick groused, shaking his head and shifting in his spot. “The point is to get it through the other guy’s ‘goal posts’.” He pinned the paper football lightly with his left forefinger, and flicked it expertly between Ashley’s hands. It hit Ashley in the chest. “See? Gooooooal.”

“That’s completely ridiculous.”

“You know you want to play with me,” Patrick murmured, and then sort of thought about that when he saw Ashley’s jaw go a little slack. He laughed it off, waving his hand and setting up his fingers. “C’mon. Betcha can’t make it.”

Sure enough, Ashley missed. The little football hit Christoph in the side of the head. Patrick laughed as Ashley apologized quickly; he glared slightly when Christoph flicked the football back and hit him in the head.

It went on like that for a while, until Patrick realized that somebody was watching him. He turned as Ashley was adjusting his aim on his hands, and found Molly watching them, smiling slightly.

“You’re being quite friendly, Patrick. I’m glad Ash’s warmed up to you.”

“Uh, yeah.” Really, it was the most interaction they’d had without glaring at each other or just not talking.

Molly giggled slightly, looking across the table at Ashley—Patrick looked too: Ashley had his tongue poking out between his lips, right in the corner, and such an intense look of concentration that Patrick almost laughed.

“Thinkin’ of keeping him, Ash?”

The football hit Patrick in the face. Ashley looked up, triumphant and seemingly oblivious to Molly’s inquiry, then paused as he caught Patrick’s dumbfounded look at the young woman.

“What?” Last Patrick had checked, his voice wasn’t that high and strained. Across from him, Ashley swore heavily. Liza and the other two had fallen quiet, staring at them.

Molly looked over at Patrick and gaped for a second, and while Ashley hastily said, “She didn’t mean nothin’ by it,” she was saying, much louder, “You mean you’re not his boyfriend?”

“His what?”

“Ah, Molly—,” Jonah began, then floundered when she turned and looked at him. Patrick gaped across the table at Ashley.

Ashley, unfortunately, had slunk down on the bench and was staring at the floor. His cheeks were pink. Suddenly, it clicked.

I’m not gay!”

There was a bubble of silence around them, and a few people even turned and looked at them. Molly was staring at the table, and kept staring as noise returned around them. Everybody at the table kept quiet, until Christoph carefully tried to defuse, “She wasn’t saying—”

“Oh, yes she was.” He grabbed her arm, and despite her look of surprise and protest, carefully enunciated, “I am not gay.”

“That’s enough, Carter,” Ashley grumbled from across the table. “She didn’t mean nothin’ by it.”

“I just thought,” Molly mumbled helplessly, looking up at Patrick with big eyes. “I mean, the way you were smiling, how happy he looked—I’d hoped that maybe—I mean, and you were cozy in the theater.”

She squealed when he dumped his coke on her head. He pretended he couldn’t hear Christoph and Ashley calling after him from the booth.

—–

July 20
Patrick stared at Ashley, but Ashley wasn’t looking back at him. He hadn’t been, over the last six days. Neither of them had looked at each other directly, and they certainly hadn’t said anything about what Molly had said. Unfortunately, some part of Patrick really wanted Ashley to at least seem as upset about it as he was.

But Ashley wasn’t upset. He wasn’t—much of anything.

“All right, fine,” Ashley finally snapped, bringing the book away from his face. Patrick narrowed his eyes at the tone Ashley had adopted; figured he’d be an asshole the first time the subject finally came up. “You want to get all upset about it, go ahead. Don’t understand why you’re bein’ such an ass about it; she’s got every right to assume things, way you were staring like that—”

“I wasn’t staring like. Like anything,” Patrick hissed. Ashley rolled his eyes. “We were playing a game. And, fuck. Why aren’t you all up in arms about this?”

“Because Molly thinks everyone I bring around is fucking me.” The bastard was grinning when he looked over at Patrick, and Patrick thought his cheeks felt a little warmer than they had a second before. “Nothin’ special about you, sprog. You’re just another in a long line.”

That doesn’t make it any better!” Patrick insisted. Ashley sighed, rolling his eyes again, and stood up.

As he reached the door, Patrick grumbled, “Pansy.”

Ashley turned back, seemed to cross the room in a flash, and looked Patrick dead in the eyes from over the coffee table as he hissed right back, “Me think the lady doth protest too much.”

Patrick puffed up his chest and huffed a couple times in distaste and then deflated to a straight glare. He flung up his hands, sneering, as he said, “You know what, maybe in London you’re in to this sort of thing, but where I’m from, being called a homo isn’t the classy thing to do.”

“Oh, I‘m sorry,” Ashley hissed back acidly, glaring at Patrick now. “Next time I’ll make sure to run everything my brother’s girlfriend is going to say by you, all right there chap? Fuck me sideways Carter, I’ve never seen anyone so entirely self-absorbed and worried over something like this!”

“Yeah, well—well. Fuck you!”

Ashley stared at Patrick for a second, blinking slowly and gaping a little, before he gently asked, “Are you a little soft in the head?”

—–

August 4
It was raining, which was not an all together novel concept, being in London and all. But the way Ashley was staring at him made him really regret coming through the rain just to see the jerk.

“Who told you it’s my birthday?”

“Chrissy.”

“Ah.” Ashley chewed on his lip, and Patrick didn’t want to think about why he was watching him do it. “Do you want to step in for a moment? You’re drenched.”

“That’d be nice, yeah.”

The house was mostly quiet. There was a television on somewhere—probably in the sitting room, Patrick figured, if there was a sitting room. Ashley shut the door over Patrick’s shoulder and then wandered back toward the kitchen, seeming not to notice or care that Patrick was following him, squelching the whole way from the water in his shoes.

“Where’s everybody at?”

“Out,” Ashley said with a shrug. He leaned over to look in the ‘fridge. Patrick looked around the kitchen. “‘s Summer Holiday in Scotland, an’ Uncle Jacob invited us up.”

“You didn’t go?”

Ashley shrugged again but didn’t say anything. He handed Patrick a coke with a slight smile. Patrick took it and twisted the lid off in his palm; it cut a little, but didn’t bleed, so he didn’t say anything. Ashley used his teeth to screw his top off, and spat it into the garbage can beside the ‘fridge.

“Again,” Ashley said, moving toward the table, “I’m wondering why you’re here.”

“I thought we could do something for your birthday,” Patrick muttered, then quieted himself from saying something completely idiotic by taking a drink of the coke.

Ashley was quiet for a moment, and when Patrick could bring himself to look over, he found him with his head buried in his arms, shoulders shaking. Patrick had just begun to take a couple of steps closer when Ashley straightened up with a booming, rapturous laugh. There were tears sparkling in the corners of his blue eyes. Patrick flushed hotly and looked toward the wall.

When Ashley kept laughing, Patrick sighed in annoyance and grumbled, “I was just trying to be nice, geez.”

“After all that guff over Molly,” Ashley began, still laughing a little. “After all that guff over my not throwin’ a tantrum like you. You were trying to be nice to me.”

Patrick stared at his bottle of coke and grumbled under his breath, “Don’t know why, now.” Ashley was staring at him with sparkling, speculative eyes, still occasionally hiccoughing a laugh or too. When the intensity of that stare got a little too much, Patrick finally snapped. “What?”

“Did you bring me a gift?”

“What?” Ashley was looking over him now, slow and predatory, and Patrick felt out of place in his own skin. He picked at the label on his bottle.

“You know why Molly asked about you, right?”

“I—. What?”

“It’s because I’m a poofter,” Ashley said, and when Patrick looked up, his confusion at the word must have shown, because Ashley groaned a little, and reiterated, “A flaming homosexual.”

“I—. Oh.”

“So,” Ashley murmured, voice so soft and gentle in the gaping quiet of the kitchen. He was smiling deviously when Patrick looked at him again. “Did you bring me a gift?”

Patrick was quiet a second, before he cautiously asked, “Are we having another one of those not-quite-language barrier moments? Is gift slang for something that I should be getting, given the context? Does it have anything to do with you being a fag?”

Ashley rolled his eyes, sighing, and then looked down at his bottle. “Why’re you here?”

“I’ve got a bit of cash. I know it’s raining, but I was gonna see if you wanted to go to a pub or something.”

Ashley picked at the label on his bottle, and cautiously asked, “As friends?”

“Yeah.”

Ashley was quiet a second, then said, “Let me grab a slicker.”

—–

August 10
The grass was cool under his heels, and the sun was warm overhead, and there were about twelve guys standing around in a vague oval shape, half a dozen in shirts and the other shirtless. Patrick watched as Ashley—shirtless, and why was that such a big deal, really—stood in front of the sticks they’d had set up and tapped the paddle-looking bat against the ground a few times. A couple dozen yards away, one of the shirts sized him up, then took a few steps back, and began to run, arm pinwheeling. Patrick leaned over his knees as the ball left the shirts’ hand and bounced, flying toward Ashley.

There was a quiet crack, and Ashley took off toward the end with the shirt pitcher while another shirtless teammate raced to where Ashley had been. They raced back and forth, touching little rope lines, a few times, until they stopped as the ball returned to the shirt that was pitching.

A few of the people who had collected around the little game clapped politely at what had just happened. Patrick had no idea what was going on.

There were a few more pitches, and then the teams switched, shirts taking up the paddle-looking bat and Ashley taking the ball. He stood further back than the shirts’ pitcher, didn’t watch the guys with the bat as long before he took a running start and lobbed the ball toward them. His balls were pretty accurate—occasionally hitting the batter, but mostly bouncing behind and hitting the sticks, which Patrick assumed to be a good thing, since people clapped and hooted when he hit them.

Patrick didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there before the game started to wind down and Ashley looked over as he grabbed the paddle-looking bat back from one of the other batters on the shirtless team. He waved his free hand at Patrick. When Patrick stood up, the back of his legs were tense and sore from sitting so long.

Ashley grabbed his shirt and threw it over his shoulder. “How long’ve you been over there?”

“Uh, a few hours? Not the whole, uh. Game?”

Ashley leaned the bat against his leg and pulled the shirt on. Patrick picked up the bat and felt the weight of it in his hands; it was heavier than a baseball bat, certainly weirder looking. There were little marks on it. It was well-loved, his mother would have said.

Ashley took it back and balanced it against his shoulder. “Ever seen a few innings?”

“I’m not entirely sure what that means, given what I just watched.”

“‘s what you just watched, Carter,” Ashley said with a sigh and a chuckle. “Uh, like a practice, I guess? That’s all we were running, just a few innings; didn’t have time for a single-match Test or nothing.”

“Uh?”

Ashley looked over at Patrick, brow cocked, and chuckled a little again. “Never seen any cricket?”

That‘s cricket?”

“Yes. That was about four innings.”

“…That was retarded.”

Ashley swung the bat aimlessly, not really at Patrick’s head, but Patrick still flinched and walked a few feet away, glaring slightly until Ashley’s good natured smile made Patrick chuckle and shake his head.

Ashley was quiet a moment, the bat going back to his shoulder, and Patrick drifted closer to him as they wandered the path. After a while, Ashley said, “You know what’s weak? American Football.”

“Football is an awesome sport.”

“Explain to me,” Ashley demanded lightly, waving his free hand about for a moment, “how running about with a bit of pigskin and tackling people is a good sport.”

“You’ve got Rugby around here, don’t you? It’s like Rugby.”

“American Football is nothing like rugby, and at any rate, rugby is a hooligan’s sport.”

Patrick laughed, rolling his eyes. “Well, excuse me, Worthington Weatherby. But isn’t any contact sport like that, then?”

“Aces, mate,” Ashley said, nudging Patrick with his elbow and smiling. “There are hooligan sports, and there are gentlemen sports. Cricket is a gentlemen sport.”

“Really. Because it looks like a retarded sport to me.”

“Golf,” Ashley continued, nonplussed by the interruption, “is also a gentlemen sport.”

“It’s also about as interesting as bowling.”

“And so is polo. And hunting.” Patrick stopped in the path, staring as Ashley continued on. When Ashley stopped and turned to look at him, Patrick was stifling laughter. “What?”

Hunting is a sport?”

“Isn’t it?”

“Hunting is going out into the forest for three days, sitting on your ass, and hoping you can get a good shot at a deer’s ass. That’s not a sport. That’s torture.”

Ashley stared for a moment, then threw his head back and laughed. Patrick walked up to him, pushing him in the shoulder as Ashley said, “Well, I’ve never rightly thought of it that way.”

—–

August 14
“You know you’re a bloody moron, yes?”

“I think I’m a little bloody, yes. Oh, fuck,” Patrick groaned, but he was chuckling softly, nasally. He was pretty sure he could hear Ashley roll his eyes as they hobbled up the stairs to Ashley’s bedroom.

When they got there, Ashley abandoned Patrick at the door with only a perfunctory, “Sit on the bed. I’ll be back in a moment.”

“Take your time,” Patrick murmured, holding his ribs as he stumbled to the bed. “I don’t think my ribs have punctured anything yet. Should be good for a little bit longer at least.” Ashley watched him sit heavily on the bed, then disappeared down the hall to the bathroom. Patrick looked around the room.

It probably hadn’t been his best plan to get into it with a couple of guys that were, collectively, three times bigger than him. But he hadn’t been doing that badly until the one had popped him in the nose. Once he’d hit the ground, there was no helping getting his ass kicked, really. It was just the function of a fight at that point.

He’d thought he was seeing things when Ashley had grabbed his arm and hauled him to his feet, when he’d spotted the one guy helping his friend up. Ashley had made them run, swearing most of the way, and had only stopped when he’d seen how hard Patrick was breathing.

Ashley came back into the room, not really looking at him, a little flushed, and crossed to the bed. Patrick sniffled; his nose had mostly stopped bleeding. Ashley knelt at his feet, grabbed his chin, and turned him to face him.

“You’re a nuisance,” Ashley grumbled. Patrick, still holding his ribs, chuckled softly.

“That’s what my sister says,” he mumbled. Ashley lifted the washcloth to Patrick’s face, wiping the blood off from around his nose and mouth. Patrick stared at him through pain-blurred eyes. “You know,” he grumbled between swipes of the cloth, “you’re no walk in the park, either.”

“At least I don’t get into brawls with rugby blokes on the street corner,” Ashley quipped lightly. It made Patrick actually laugh, then hiss and clutch at his ribs harder, which made him cringe even more. Ashley stopped wiping off Patrick’s face and gently asked, “Do they hurt all that badly?”

“I dunno. You ever get kicked in the ribs by a donkey? Figure it feels about like that.”

“Take off your shirt.” Patrick looked down at Ashley for a second, and Ashley seemed to realize the rather awkward situation those word embodied; he blushed even darker, then looked away, clearing his throat. “I mean—”

“No,” Patrick whispered, grabbing the back of his shirt and pulling it up. “‘s cool.”

Ashley brushed the cloth gently over the bruise. It felt large, oblong, but when Ashley pressed, there was no gross feeling like anything was where it shouldn’t be. Ashley looked up at him and smiled a little.

“Probably just the bruise. Doubt you’ve busted anything up.”

“Yeah,” Patrick mumbled. He’d returned to staring at Ashley’s walls when he realized that, along with the cloth, he could feel Ashley’s fingers. Ashley went back to cleaning the blood off Patrick’s face; his lip had begun to bleed again.

“You’ll have a shiner in the morning. ’cause of the nose.”

“Never broken anything before,” Patrick admitted. Ashley let the cloth slow, then dropped his hands entirely. Patrick peered at him out of the corner of his eye. “You?”

“A couple of fingers, back when I was wicket keeper. It makes me an unreliable batsman, but I’m still better than some of the boys. They like me up for non-striking, mostly.”

“I still don’t know what any of that means.”

Ashley chuckled, shaking his head a little. “Means that swing I took probably didn’t do as much damage as it could’ve.”

“Pretty impressive swing, though,” Patrick mumbled, turning his face back fully. Ashley shrugged, wetting the washcloth nonsensically under Patrick’s stare. Abstractly, Patrick said, “You should smile more. Makes you look less like a hard ass little bitch.”

“You should shut your mouth more,” Ashley grumbled mockingly, but a smile was breaking. “Makes you less likely to get your face broke.” Patrick laughed.

Somewhere in the middle of his laughter, Ashley got a funny look on his face and then rose up to kiss Patrick. Patrick made a sharp, surprised little noise as Ashley pushed in to him, hands next to his hips on the bed, lips moving surely over his. After a moment of it, Patrick’s hands came up to Ashley’s shoulders.

“What are you doing?” Patrick demanded quietly as Ashley jerked back from him. Ashley frowned.

“Kissing you,” he grumbled, and leaned in for another. Patrick scootched back on the bed hastily, pulling a little face when Ashley followed hm, until he hit the wall.

“I—. Ashley—?”

“Call me Ash,” Ashley muttered, staring idiotically at Patrick’s lips, which made Patrick feel surprisingly vulnerable. Ashley lifted a hand, damp from the washcloth, and touched the break on Patrick’s lip tenderly. “Do you not want to?”

“No. I mean—. Ashley—Ash.” Patrick huffed, and then whined quietly, “I don’t know.”

“Relax,” Ashley whispered, leaning in toward Patrick’s lips again. “Let me…”

The kiss wasn’t tender or anything like that, but Patrick could feel Ashley holding back; it was half gentlemanly and half just plain annoying. When Ashley crawled closer to him as they kissed, Patrick made a strange, disconcerted noise. Everything felt very rushed and heady and too much.

It took a moment before Patrick started to kiss back, and the most ridiculous thing as well: Ashley slipping his hands slowly up Patrick’s sides toward his arms made Patrick shiver and moan softly, hands lifting from the bed to touch Ashley’s hair, mouth opening against Ashley’s. The whole thing made Ashley hum softly into the kiss, squeezing Patrick’s ribs and scraping his lower lip with sharp teeth.

Patrick slanted sideways with a sigh, and Ashley followed him, flattening his body against Patrick’s and rubbing against him. Patrick moaned softly, short, clawing at Ashley’s shirt as Ashley nibbled at his ear.

Ashley was just dumping his shirt off the bed with Patrick’s help, smiling down at the other boy, when there was a soft, embarrassed, “Ahem!” at the door. Patrick’s eyes widened a little; he flinched and flattened away from Ashley as Ashley turned and scowled at his little brother.

Kynan was very carefully looking at the posters on Ashley’s walls.

“Mum’s home. She wants to know if Patrick’s staying for dinner.”

“You little—!”

“No,” Patrick mumbled, and Ashley pulled back then, sulking at the foot of his bed. Patrick cleared his throat and shook his head. He grabbed his shirt, and stared at the stitches on the shoulder as he muttered, “I need to go.”

—–

August 20
He couldn’t bring himself to look over his shoulder when he heard the window open on the other side of the house, figuring Christoph was just around to try and change his mind about going over to the Jenkins’ for a little ‘livelihood’, whatever that was supposed to mean.

He startled a little when Ashley suddenly sat down beside him, sliding a little on the tile-roofing. He gaped, even when Ashley looked at him sternly and said, “It isn’t safe to be sitting up here like a lump, you know.”

“Had to get—. How’d you know I was up here?”

“Missus Griffiths told me. Said you’d been up here near an hour.” He reached into his coat then, and offered Patrick one of two tall cans of something called old speckled hen which Patrick was almost positive they shouldn’t be drinking. But Ashley popped the tab on his and looked away from Patrick, so Patrick tapped the mouth a few times and then did the same.

He sputtered a little at the first taste. “Beer.”

“Well, yeah, sprog. What’re you expecting?”

“Weird British cola,” Patrick admitted with a sheepish smile. Ashley rolled his eyes, and rotated the can in his hand to display the emblazoned: Morland “Old Speckled Hen” Strong Fine Ale. He shoved Patrick in the shoulder gently as Patrick chuckled at himself and took another tentative drink. “It’s stronger than I was expecting.”

“Hence strong. Honestly, Carter, haven’t you got eyes?”

“Pat,” Patrick corrected self-consciously. Ashley stopped mid-sip, then continued, still staring at Patrick out of the corner of his eye. Patrick watched Ashley’s throat work. “If I’m gonna call you Ash, you’re gonna call me Pat.”

Ashley lowered the can and stared at the mouth for a moment before he said, “Figured you’re put off calling me that. ’cause of Kynan.”

“I want to call you Ash,” Patrick bemoaned softly. “Not grind with you.”

Ashley cut Patrick a serious look through his eyelashes, pupils blown a little wide. He made a big show of lifting the can to his mouth and tipping back his head to show off his throat as he swallowed. Patrick just stared. When Ashley lowered the can, he was smiling.

Patrick huffed and rolled his eyes, saying into his can, “Okay, maybe I want to grind a little. Out of curiosity.”

“Good show, good show.” Patrick rolled his eyes and drank more of the beer. It wasn’t that bad, really—bitter, and stronger than an American beer, more flavorful too. He smacked his lips a little as he lowered the can, wetting them to get a bit of the flavor off his lips.

Ashley was staring at his mouth when he turned to look at him. Patrick gaped for a second, trying to think of something to say.

He balked—quite considerably—when Ashley leaned over and kissed him. In a start, he slid down the roof a little, until Ashley caught him under the arms and hauled him back up with a long suffering sigh.

“Is that—is that why you came up here?” Patrick looked worriedly toward the houses on either side of them, expecting somebody to be looking out, glaring, maybe grabbing a phone to call the cops or something. Ashley leaned into his line of sight, frowning a little.

“Actually, came by to see why you’ve been scrubbing ’round seeing me.” He said it in a way that was purely matter-of-fact, nothing wounded or accusing about it. Just curious. It was even worse than if he’d been upset about it, Patrick decided. He ducked his head, took another swallow of beer—bigger this time—then went back to staring at the can. “You’ve just said you wouldn’t mind a shag with me.”

“No,” Patrick protested. “I said I wouldn’t mind grinding with you. There is such a vastly huge difference between grinding and—and other stuff.”

“And how would you know that?” Something about the way Ashley said that made Patrick stop and think about who he was talking to and about what. Ashley’s mouth split in an easy, knowing smile. “Get it?”

“Aw, fuck,” Patrick grumbled. “You could’ve told me that’s what it meant around here.”

“More fun this way.” Patrick looked up to glare and got another kiss for his trouble. This time he didn’t slide, just closed his eyes and let Ashley have his moment. When Ashley pulled back, slow and hesitant, Patrick delivered a quick, parting kiss.

When Ashley cocked a brow at that, Patrick laughed toward the mouth of his can. “Okay, so maybe I wouldn’t mind grinding, either.”

“Good sport.”

“I’m seventeen,” Patrick pointed out needlessly.

“I know.”

“Of course I want to get off.”

“Don’t need to tell me.” They stared at each other for a moment, before Ashley smiled and cupped his cheek in his hand, supporting his arm on his leg. “Want to hit a football game with me on the weekend?”

“Sure.”

—–

September 1
He was being completely ridiculous.

The night before, Ashley had been over, and they had played music too loudly and Ashley had stripped to his skivvies and then put on his school uniform, jacket, tie, shoes and all, strutting about in the spare bedroom.

“Had to get a new one after this hol,” Ashley had explained, smoothing the plane of his chest and smiling at his cuffs. “Grew a few centimeters, gained almost six kilo. Six kilo, Pat. Dunno where I put it.”

“Thighs,” Patrick had stated blandly, staring at Ashley’s shoulders in the jacket. He looked very angular in the uniform, very much what it was always said men should look like—wide shoulders and broad chest tapering to narrow hips, long legs set a little wide at the feet. He looked taller, too. His hair looked soft—that was a ridiculous thought.

Ashley had caught him staring and made a big show of stripping back down to his skivvies and then putting his jeans and shirt back on. They’d sat on the bed, listening to music, shoulders brushing, until Jonah had come up-stairs and said it was about time for them to be heading back, since Ashley had school in the morning.

That morning, Patrick had begged out of being sociable. He’d listened to Viv leave the house, her husband after her; Christoph had come up to check on him, and then left as well.

Patrick lied on the bed, staring at the ceiling, then glanced over at the clock on the bedside table. He figured it was about lunch, which meant Ashley would be wandering out around campus, picking up lunch at a pub before going back to classes. He was probably laughing. He probably had his jacket off, slung over one shoulder, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, tie loosened from his throat.

Patrick felt himself getting hard. It was completely ridiculous. He palmed himself through his boxers, groaned, and forewent any pretenses. His hand slid under the elastic of the waistband, curled into a fist around himself. He shut his eyes and let his mind drift.

Before this—before Ashley, before London, before Germany even—Patrick had never really touched himself. When he had, it had been fast and simple, stolen moments in the shower with vague recollections of the heat of a dream. There had been one or two girls to get him turned on, but never anybody seriously. This was ridiculous, that two months with a guy who was kind of full of himself and a lot ornery made him this easy, practically begging for a little one-on-one.

He thought of Ashley shrugging out of his jacket, jokingly sensual, and wondered if Ashley knew what he was doing, if he was consciously playing it up because he knew Patrick wanted to push him down and climb on top of him and—Patrick didn’t even know what.

He thought of Ashley undoing his belt with one hand and unbuttoning his shirt with the other, revealing skin that was tight over lean muscles and that was light brown from the sun, spattered with freckles.

He thought of Ashley toeing off his shoes, stepping out of the puddle of his slacks, advancing toward the bed on those long legs with those strong thighs. He thought of Ashley kneeling on the bed, trapping Patrick between his arms and leaning down to kiss him—Patrick was surprised how much he liked kissing, how much he especially liked kissing Ashley.

He thought of Ashley’s hands, warm and a little calloused, untucking his shirt and undoing his jeans, fingers dancing up his belly and along his ribs, tickling and tingling a little, then pushing on his jeans and his boxers. Ashley’s mouth touching his throat, then skipping his chest and touching his stomach, just below his navel.

He thought of the warmth and humidity of Ashley’s mouth, the look in his eyes whenever he got his way and how that would change a little if his pupils were full-blown, eating up the blue of his eyes, and his cheeks were flushed, his lips glossy with spit and parted.

He came with a grunt, eyes shut tight as he savored the thought and the image that glimmered behind his eyes for a second. As his breath came rushing back and his heart settled back between his ribs, he stared at the ceiling.

“Well, shit.”

—–

September 9
“You know, I’ve work I ought to be doing, not trouncing around Hyde with you.”

“Oh, shut up. It’s too nice to stay inside, anyway.”

Patrick settled in the grass with great exaggeration, grinning up at Ashley for a moment. Ashley stared at him, then rolled his eyes, and flopped himself down onto the grass beside Patrick, already sullenly picking at the grass.

Patrick rolls his eyes. “You didn’t have to come with me. I think I’m perfectly capable of hanging around Hyde Park by myself.”

Ashley snorted quietly. “Unlikely. Last time we left you alone you ended with your nose busted—”

“And you making sure I was okay,” Patrick interjected.

Ashley’s fingers tangled in the grass and he slowly pulled them out. After a moment, he just shook his head and tossed the grass back down onto the lawn. Patrick leaned back in the grass, tilting back his face to pick up what sun there was peaking through the mild cloud cover. Somewhere in the park, children were playing, screaming and laughing to each other; somewhere else, a musician warbling with an instrument Patrick couldn’t place; elsewhere, the babble of tourists who didn’t speak English.

“When do you go back?” Ashley asked abstractly. Patrick lowered his head a little. He picked at the grass under his fingers, digging down to the dirt until he could feel it under his nails.

“Friday after next,” he reported after a moment. He turned and smiled cheekily. “Guess we’ll have to exchange myspace names or something.”

Ashley wouldn’t look at him.

After a moment, Patrick sighed, and sat forward far enough to be leaning over his knees. He stared at the dirt under his nails. “Sorry I took you away from your bookwork. You didn’t have to—”

“Can we—go?”

Patrick looked over at Ashley, looked at the shadows in his eyes and the firm, grim line of his mouth. After a second, he hauled himself to his feet, nodded, and wiped his hands on his jeans.

They wandered through Hyde a while, not really aimed anywhere. Patrick picked at his nails, hated the nervous habit, and stuck his thumbs in his pockets instead. At a vendor, Ashley bought them colas. They sat on a bench, watching a young mother and her two children, and drank from the bottles.

“Have you got anyone you’re going back to? Your family, obviously. But—”

“No,” Patrick said between sips, then amended, “I mean, not really. When I go back to America, I’ll have my friend. Chelsea. Here—wait.” He dug in his pockets for a moment, before he came out with his wallet. The first picture was of a girl with bushy black hair, dressed in white, painting her toe-nails red. She had freckles. She was smiling but also sort of rolling her eyes. “At her sister’s wedding.”

Ashley took the wallet, stared at the picture, then softly said, “She’s very pretty.”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Patrick mumbled, and took the wallet back. “Not really my type, I guess. Or maybe it’s that she’s always been there. She’s more like a sister—”

“What’s your type, Pat?” Ashley asked, looking at Patrick out of the corner of his eyes.

Patrick shrugged. “Haven’t really figured that out yet. She’s not it, though. I know that. We—uh, we tried, a couple times, before Dad got stationed in Heidelberg.”

Ashley turned then, looking Patrick head on, then finished his cola, and stood up. He put the bottle in a trash can, then stretched. He seemed to know Patrick was watching him, and was smiling slightly when he turned back.

“C’mon. I’ve got literature work I ought to be doing.”

“Yeah. Sure.”

—–

September 13
Everything was moving very quickly, white hot and blinding, focused on the feeling of Ashley’s mouth against Patrick and Ashley’s hands sliding up under Patrick’s shirt. Patrick wasn’t quite sure how long they’d been making out, how long they’d been pawing at each other and panting into each other’s mouths on Ashley’s bed, thankful that the rest of his family had gone out. Every time he thought he was getting used to the feeling of Ashley’s lips or hands, he’d do something else with them—tilting his head here, changing his pressure there. Patrick’s cheeks felt hot; his head felt like it was about to lift off his shoulders.

He felt like he was about to come, just from being kissed.

Ashley pawed at his crotch, rolling them around on the bed until he was underneath Patrick and pulling his own shirt off in a frenzy. Patrick stared at the freckles on his shoulders, the wide expanse of his chest, the trail of dark hair that went from just above his navel down into his pants as Ashley thumbed the button of his jeans and wiggled his hips. Patrick, chewing his lip, helped shimmy Ashley’s jeans down his legs.

Ashley lied there in his boxer shorts for a moment before chuckling, pulling at Patrick’s clothes. Patrick fumbled with his shirt as Ashley played with the waist of his jeans, smiling, eyes half-lidded and smoky behind long, dark lashes.

And then that was it again: hot mouths moving against each other, and Ashley’s hands and skin being everywhere at once, touching and burning hot—or maybe that was Patrick’s skin, tingling and tight everywhere Ashley touched and some places he wasn’t touching.

When he did touch, when his fingers got daring and knowing, Patrick breathed in the smell of Ashley’s neck and his floppy hair, panting against the skin between his neck and his shoulder, gripping Ashley’s hips as he dragged him close and ground against him. Ashley chuckled, his hand trapped between their bellies, and cleared his throat when Patrick kept gripping him.

“Sorry.”

“‘s okay,” Ashley murmured, extracting his hand. He gripped Patrick by the hip, pulling him close. His cheeks were pink, when Patrick bothered to look, and his eyelids were fluttering each time their hips rolled against each other. “This’s nice too.”

“Yeah,” Patrick breathed, watching Ashley’s face. He gripped the pillow on either side of Ashley’s face, and smiled uncertainly when Ashley opened his eyes. Ashley stared for a second, then smiled back, then leaned up and started kissing Patrick again, aggressive and possessive and gloriously wet.

Patrick, later, could not have placed when his boxers ended up on the floor, but he remembered when Ashley’s did. Ashley rolled them again, stared at Patrick for a moment, then got off the bed. Patrick was half up, ready to get Ashley back on the bed and back to kissing, when Ashley hooked his thumbs under the waist of his boxer shorts, and shoved them down off his narrow hips. He stepped back to the bed, climbed on, pushed Patrick back as he kept staring in a dumb stupor at all that skin.

Ashley kissed him, softly, and said, “Just let me…” His breath stuttered against Patrick’s lips as he reached over Patrick’s shoulder. Patrick heard the drawer on the side table opening, the rustle of papers and pencils and—he’d been nosy, one time, asking what Ashley kept in that drawer. Ashley hadn’t said a thing, but the crinkle of foil was obvious.

“Ash,” Patrick breathed, and felt sort of like an idiot, reaching up and gripping Ashley’s neck. Ashley dropped his items on Patrick’s chest, and the coolness of the little packet of lube sank into his skin for a second. Ashley stared at him from up close, penning Patrick’s head in between his arms.

And then Ashley just smiled, and kissed him, then slid away from the kiss with that smile still in place. He sat straddling Patrick’s thighs, knees wide over Patrick’s hip, and grabbed the packet of lube off Patrick’s chest. His eyes were soft, pupils blown, and his smile was a little mischievous. His tore the tip off the packet with his teeth, poured some of it onto his fingers, and his fingers went down and—

Patrick hadn’t really thought about it before. A muscle on Ashley’s face spasmed for a second, and his mouth opened with a luscious little sound that shot straight from Patrick’s brain to his groin. He stared at the strong line of Ashley’s arm, from shoulder to where his arm disappeared behind his back, the flex in the muscles of his arms and the his legs, the heave of his chest as he did something back there that made him gasp and groan and squeeze his eyes shut. Patrick’s heart throbbed in his throat and his groan.

Slowly, it dawned on him that this was happening. That there was a condom sitting on his chest, and Ashley had his fingers inside himself. That they were going to have sex. His face felt hot at the whole thought, and his fingers moved of their own accord, grabbing the condom and ripping into it.

Ashley was looking at Patrick from beneath his eyelashes, that secret smile he got some times back and lurking in the shadows of his eyes, made sexual by the flush on his cheeks and the way his legs trembled. He licked his lips, and Patrick watched that as he rolled the condom on, stroking a few times when it was settled.

With his free hand, Ashley reached out and squeezed around Patrick’s fingers. Patrick’s eyes shut, and he bit his lip as he groaned, arched his back as Ashley moved their hands together up and down. His skin felt tight and too hot, everything burning in his gut and chest and brain.

“Okay?”

“Yeah,” Patrick heard himself breath. His voice was broken and blissed, caught somewhere in his throat. He felt the cool drizzle of lube on the head of his cock, the glide of it under his fingers guided by Ashley’s hand. He could feel Ashley’s legs trembling, feel the back of Ashley’s hand rubbing the skin above his knee on a slightly awkward, now erratic rhythm.

Ashley leaning down, kissing him, almost distracted him from hands moving, almost distracted him from Ashley crawling off of his thighs and pulling him up to sitting, did nothing to distract him from Ashley pulling back just far enough to say, “Want you to fuck me.”

“Yeah,” Patrick whispered against Ashley’s lips, gripping his hair, feeling pulled apart and at his wits end as Ashley pulled away, turned his back on Patrick and reached back to grab his hand. Patrick fit in impossibly close to Ashley’s back, could feel all the tensed muscles there and the back of his thighs and everywhere warm and begging.

Ashley made a startled noise as Patrick started rutting against him, braced against the bed as Patrick managed one cautious thrust just inside, gasped and panted quietly as Patrick groaned against the middle of his back and shuffled in even closer.

“Wait,” Ashley whispered, then reached back and gripped Patrick’s thigh. “Wait.”

“Can’t,” Patrick gasped, gripping Ashley’s hips and resting his forehead against Ashley’s back and rocking his hips minutely.

Ashley dug his fingers into Patrick’s thigh, groaned, and whispered tightly toward the comforter, “Bloody hell, Pat, wait.”

Everything was white hot and blinding, focused on the points where their skin touched, Patrick’s heart throbbing in his temples and throat and hands and where Ashley was spread so tight and close around him, squeezing,a slightly off pulse to his own body. Everything felt too slow, dragging, terrible pressure and diligence in staying perfectly still as he gripped Ashley’s hips.

“Now?”

“Just a moment more.”

He could the humidity of his own breath, amplified by the sweat and heat of Ashley’s skin, and bent his mouth just that last little bit to kiss in the divot of Ashley’s spine. He felt the sigh, heard it and echoed it as he pulled back a little. Ashley’s fingers loosened on his thigh, and Patrick tucked in closer, going as slowly as he could, until his thighs were touching the back of Ashley’s and he felt like he’d never want to be this close to another person his entire life.

Ashley groaned. “You feel good.”

“Uh,” Patrick nervously chuckled, squeezing Ashley’s hips self-consciously. “Thanks.”

Ashley shifted beneath him, lowered himself to his elbows and crossed his arms under his chin, groaning softly, whispering, “Move?”

“Yeah,” Patrick murmured toward the broad expanse of Ashley’s back, the muscles and soft skin and freckles everywhere. His hips canted, easier than he would have thought, and Ashley was groaning, loud and wonderful, as Patrick began an unsteady rhythm with his hips.

Everything felt blinding and white hot and too fast, too tight and loud and wonderful, Ashley murmuring nonsense and gripping the sheets under his chin, stretched out beneath him, his whole body trembling. Everything was close and clouded and wonderful, and Patrick wondered how he’d never done this before, how he’d never really thought about it before Ashley, before London or Germany or anything like that. Everything felt right.

His body was too tight, too hot, trembling, and his rhythm was never steady for more than a stroke or two before it slipped. Ashley didn’t seem to mind, if the noises he made were any sign. His stomach was tight, his hands and feet tingling, and he felt everything rushing at him—time, the world, the atmosphere crashing down for a second and trapping the air in his lungs as he gasped in the space between his mouth and Ashley’s back.

Ashley was chuckling at him. Patrick pulled back with a grimace, sat at the head of the bed and crossed his legs. He pulled the condom off after a second.

“Sorry.”

Ashley leaned over, took the condom, and kissed him. “‘s okay.”

“Did you want me too—?”

Ashley kissed him again. “I’ll be a moment in the loo.”

Patrick’s ears were hot. “Yeah.” As the door shut behind Ashley’s naked ass, Patrick curled his knees up to his chest and whispered, “Thanks.”

—–

September 19
“I love you, you know?”

People milled around them, but Ashley just stared at Patrick when he said it. Patrick stared right back for a moment, and then looked down at his hands and the rucksack he was somehow still hanging on to, angry with himself.

“Don’t say stupid shite, Pat,” Ashley told him, and Patrick, without looking, knew that Ashley was finally looking away, that he was crossing his arms over his chest and shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“I’m not just shootin’ the shit, Ash,” Patrick muttered, and the noise of Heathrow drowned it out for the most part. He shifted his hold on the bag. “It’s just—. Dude. I’m not gonna be back this way, like, ever, and I just want you to know—. Yeah. I love you, and I just wanted you to know that, because I do, I really do—”

“Just stop it,” Ashley grumbled, and Patrick looked up. Ashley wore that face he got, the one where Patrick knew they were going to hate what Ashley was about to say, but he was going to say it anyway. “You don’t, you’re just all queered up by spending the hols with me, and you’ll go back to base in Heidelberg, and you’ll finally get back to the States and see your girl, and you’ll look back and laugh. So don’t key yourself up.”

Patrick stared for a minute, and then looked back down at the rucksack, laughing humorlessly. “You just have to try and get the last word, don’t you? You just like being a jackass.” He shook his head, sniffling stupidly. “I don’t care what you say. I love you.”

“Whatever,” Ashley said, and that drifted barely over the noise of the lobby. Patrick adjusted his backpack on his shoulder. “I know you do,” Ashley said after a minute, and then, “I love you too. And that’s ri-bleeding-diculous.”

“Maybe,” Patrick said back. They both looked at each other at the same time. Patrick’s cheeks felt hot, but Ashley looked calm and cool and collected. He uncrossed his arms, and Patrick went to him, tucking against him even though he’d grown and now they were almost the same height. An elderly couple stopped, the woman smiling and murmuring to the man. A gaggle of Asian tourists paused and stared. Patrick shut his eyes and hated people.

“I’ll miss you,” Ashley mumbled right against the skin of Patrick’s ear.

“I’ll miss you too. But it’s only an eight hour difference, once I’m back in the States.”

They both chuckled. After a moment, Ashley loosened his hold, stepped back, touched Patrick’s cheeks. Patrick couldn’t bring himself to smile now. Ashley wouldn’t kiss him, and Patrick told himself he wasn’t expecting him to. With a little smile, Ashley smacked Patrick’s cheek, and told him, “You need to go through. Sit in the gate. Complain about everything like a good Yank.”

“Jerk.” Ashley just rolled his eyes.

Through baggage check, Patrick kept looking over his shoulder constantly. Ashley stood there, watching him, arms crossed over his chest again, expressionless. He remained as Patrick got his ticket checked against his ID, as Patrick started through security with his shoes off and half his belongings dumped into a little tub, as Patrick got wanded for no real reason.

And when Patrick looked back after putting on his shoes—Ashley’s, actually, but who was counting now—Ashley was gone.

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