by TK Hoshikuzu (TK 星屑)
Breakfast is an outdated meal, but it’s the hill that this damned school is determined to die on. Connor stares grumpily at the floor with his eyes half-closed, acknowledging no one as he trudges to the shower. It wakes him up, but a hot shower does not a morning person make. His mood is worsened when he runs into Vince and Dove brushing their teeth together, as if they were a real couple. Connor stomps out because they don’t seem to notice him.
He barges into Vince’s room a little later to demand help adjusting his collar and tie. Vince’s frown deepens but tends to Connor’s appearance. He flips Connor’s collar up and tugs the length of his tie so that it is tight. He places the knot right in the center of Connor’s collarbones and smoothes the collar back down. Connor enjoys watching the concentration all over his face. Even close up, he can see that Vince’s skin is flawless, save for the uncharacteristic dark circles under his narrow eyes. Ignoring — or accustomed to — his best friend’s stares, Vince says nothing but steps back to give an approving nod. He pushes Connor out of his room before Connor can comment on his eyes.
They always wait for each other in front entrance of their dorm, House Cherry. The three of them — Connor, Vince, and Ben — walk to the cafeteria. Dove is nowhere to be seen, which both irritates and delights Connor. Ben smiles down on him as Connor complains about how tired he is. Vince does not comment, looking too drowsy to say much.
Their sleepy classmates filter out of dorms similarly named after trees: oak, redwood, spruce, elm, teak, ebony. Connor becomes more reserved and interested in the gravel path below. The masses of adolescent boys file into the kitchen, which has breakfast spread out on two separate tables. Connor huddles between Vince and Ben, grabbing his tray without a sound. He focuses his gaze on their choices: pastries and all of the jams for Ben, a stacked mountain of meats and bread for Vince, hot banana oatmeal for himself.
The three of them sit and eat together per custom. Connor spots Dove across the dining hall, who is chatting with someone else. He glares at Dove, but averts his eyes when Dove turns his head toward him. Connor glances at Vince, who eats with a steady, automatic rhythm and does not look up for Dove. This satisfies Connor.
Per custom Vince and Ben escort Connor to his classroom before going their separate ways. Vince is not in his class this year and Ben is in the year above them. By the time he enters the classroom, Connor stops talking entirely. For the rest of the school day — and as far as he is concerned, the rest of his days — he never meets anyone’s eyes. He doesn’t dare, fearing that he accidentally meet a classmate’s judgemental gaze. Connor is certain that everyone looks at him that way.
He pulls out his geometry homework and places it in the wire basket on Mr. Chiou’s desk. He walks a beeline to his desk and situates himself quietly to minimize attention. His classmates complain among themselves about their last quiz, on which Connor performed wonderfully, but he doesn’t dare give the impression that he is listening. He makes a silent note to gloat to his dormmates later though.
Connor welcomes the start of class, not only because of the quiet it brings, but also because he looks forward to it. Mathematics leave little room for interpretation and Connor relishes when he reaches a neat and tidy answer to a difficult problem. Paying attention is easy for him; Mr. Chiou gives strict orders and Connor follows. It’s all so easy.
Science, specifically Chemistry, comes second in the day and in Connor’s affections. It’s the labs that ruin the hard science for Connor, but he is a team player. Today is the beginning of a colorful lab on acidity and basicity. He intends to be cooperative, though without a word or meeting anyone’s eyes.
He lets his group decide whether the mystery chemical in the test tube is an acid or neutral. They agree that purple is more reddish acid than bluish base, so Connor records the consensus. He is willing to admit that most of his classmates leave him alone. The thought that he might catch their disdainful looks causes anxiety, but he knows it could be much worse.
Then, as if on cue, the awful student on his right tapes a muted rainbow of litmus strips to Connor’s shoulder with a hard prod. Connor expects this from horrible Philip though. The easiest response is to crumple up the paper and ignore him.
“Maybe you prefer this one,” Philip says, fashioning another litmus paper badge. He sticks Connor with a pinkish triangle.
Connor wants to slap his hand away, but doesn’t want to call attention to himself. Again he silently reaches for the paper and crushes it in his hand. The others in the lab group ignore them and Connor’s gaze slowly moves downward, chin nearly touching his neck and shoulders drooping forward. He concentrates on taping his strips to the lab worksheet.
As he chews on his bottom lip, he guesses Philip is disappointed in his response, so Connor braces himself. He can feel Philip watch him and he absolutely loathes that it makes him sweat and his adrenaline rise, but the lab continues without more painful pokes. Connor knows better than to believe that Philip will leave him alone.
The end of Chemistry is the cue to be on alert. Connor stacks his lab papers neatly, punches holes in them and stow them into his binder for the next class. He packs it all into his backpack and collects his pencils. Slinging his bag onto his shoulder, Connor looks up for the first time to gaze through the window. The sun seems to promise summer’s rapid arrival, but for now it’s a cold light.
Connor can hear that the classroom and hallways are finally empty. His movements turn quick and he darts to the nearest bathroom before fleeing for lunch. He glances around to make sure that stalls and urinals are empty. He waits a beat, hesitates, and waits another beat before unzipping his pants.
He takes care of his business with a wary eye on the door. Connor is flushing when the treacherous door swings open with a wooden squeak. His heart jumps to his throat and his stomach sinks when he sees Philip. His body’s automatic response is to sling his bag onto his shoulder and scurry out, but Philip narrows his eyes.
“Aren’t you going to wash your hands? Gross,” he says as he stands akimbo in front of a urinal.
Connor swallows hard and clenches his jaw, but he passive aggressively drops his bag and obeys. Nothing can stop Philip from spreading nasty lies about him, but at least Connor can take comfort in his own truth. He scrubs his hands and can’t stop wishing that Philip and the rest of Connor’s former friends disappear mysteriously.
Fantasizing about the tragic circumstances of their disappearance, through his daydreaming he catches his own gaze in the mirror above the sink. Blonde hair swept over an eye cannot hide his anxious face, the cause of his troubles. As he straightens and dries his hands, his face stares back with an irritated expression. He bites his bottom lip again, a horrid habit that makes his lips perpetually red and pouty. Connor’s mood worsens because it’s so unmanly.
He wants nothing more to run away from Philip and the merciless mirror, so he grabs his bag and starts into a sprint, but Philip steps into his way.
“Excuse you,” Philip sneers, as if Connor had run into him, and Connor looks into his face on instinct.
Face hot, Connor is sure his cheeks are scarlet. He should be furious, but instead he is embarrassed at his own helplessness. Worse, the sight of his face revives what Connor wanted to be old memories. He remembers the rumors and the lies and he remembers being abandoned. His chest tightens like a vice when he begins to remember more, and he can’t–
Wet-eyed, Connor ducks and tries to sidestep Philip, who is taller and broader than him, but Philip blocks him by bumping against his chest. More unpleasant memories spring forth and Connor begins to panic. He remembers being cornered in the bathroom like this not too long ago.
Because Connor loses his balance, he instinctively grabs Philip’s elbows, but releases as though they are burning metal. He does not fall backwards because Philip reaches out to catch him by the forearms. Regrettably Connor gets another good look at Philip’s face, which wears an expression that makes Connor forget his distress.
He is still a unpleasant, nasty troll, but his expression is both familiar and strange, like a new combination of old feelings. Disdain and arrogance are covers for a mix of distress, shame, and unmistakable desire.
Despite his fear, Connor senses that he has the upper hand at this moment. He lowers his gaze and says, “Your tie is crooked.”
Hope gives him the composure to plan an escape. No time to be hesitant, Connor flips Philip’s shirt collar up. He recalls the warm thrill he felt when Vince did the same for him, and it seems Philip is similarly mesmerized. He runs a finger under the hot space between collar and tie to re-center the knot, which he pinches as he tugs at the tail to tighten the noose.
Philip gapes awkwardly at him, but Connor ignores the stares. He can feel the disgusting, moist heat of Philip’s palms through his sleeves, but it’s a little satisfying to tease him. Connor lets the length slip through his hand and smooths the collar back down. His hands move out, running over Philip’s shoulders and downward until they settle on Philip’s chest. Philip leans forward in anticipation.
“You need to zip up,” Connor blurts out — whether or not this is true — then shoves Philip backward with all of the might of his skinny arms. He scrambles to the door and yanks it open, stumbling and nearly falling on his face in the hallway. Not brave enough to look behind him, he skips to the cafeteria and hopes to catch sight of a friendly face.
He brightens to see Ben loitering at the entrance, nose in a book, but likely waiting for him. Connor loops an arm around Ben’s elbow, which makes the elder boy look up, or rather, look down.
“Let’s eat!” he says breathlessly, pulling Ben to the cafeteria. Connor is very fond of Ben because he is gentle, patient, and does not ask unnecessary questions about Connor’s red face. Feeling calmer in the presence of his second-favorite person, he scans the room for his first.
Ben tucks his book away as he lets Connor lead them around the tables. “I guess Vince is finished with lunch already,” he remarks.
This notion displeases Connor, particularly because Ben is right. He wishes that the three of them ate together like they used to. Another quick sweep of the bustling cafeteria suggests that Dove is also absent. Connor grimaces, pulling all sorts of unhappy faces.
In the Rough
Vince is hungry. He takes a few bites of a salad and dumps the rest. He walks briskly back to House Cherry, feeling a little self-conscious, as if others could sense what he was craving. So he shoves hands in his pockets to attempt a casual demeanor, but maintains his pace. There is only thirty minutes of lunch and free time before the afternoon session.
The House is smaller and shabbier than the rest of the dorms, which stand grandly in front of it, but nonetheless home base for them. Vince goes in through the back entrance where the kitchenette is. The common room is empty, but it is expected. After all, only four of them live here.
Slipping his shoes off, Vince pads up the stairs, which creak under him. He wrinkles his nose as he thinks of the years of filth buried in the carpet. Vince is certain that the cleaning staff half-asses their dorm and he’d be damned if he let it get worse. This is why he enforces a ‘no shoes in the house’ policy. He would like to bring back slippers from home, but he won’t go back if he can help it.
In his room he lays his bag on the floor. He undoes his tie and sheds his blazer, laying both down on his bed. To save time, he unbuttons his shirt as he enters Dovenbarger’s room down the hall. Doors are not allowed in the dorms, so he walks in unannounced, though he does not need to speak. Their ritual is perfectly timed now.
Vince is picky, but lately he makes little allowances. He lets Dove kiss him now, since Dove now knows to be quick, or at least efficient. A minty kiss on the lips and their shirts are off, a wet kiss to his throat and they can step out of their trousers, and a sucking kiss buried in Vince’s neck as they tumble onto Dove’s unmade bed.
Communication is not as much of an issue anymore. They’re already rocking and bucking against each other, Dove’s slicked grip wrapped around their cocks. The heat from their wet rhythm and the chilly mouth and breath on his neck are enough to make Vince’s hips curl inward. They make Vince focus on his hunger and he grows impatient.
Between his silky, stilted breaths, the only audible noise he makes is a slight whimper. He hooks a leg around Dove’s hips to stop his grinding and digs his heel in hard, right next to his spine. Dove lifts his head from the crook of Vince’s neck, eyes glazed over. Vince is not going to repeat himself, so he glares angrily at him as the tips of their noses touch. Dove recognizes the look, but makes an effort not to react. The punishment for smirking or smiling is too steep to risk it.
But lately Vince makes little allowances. Dean is never allowed to tease or approach him, but Vince does let him grip his sides and flip him onto his stomach. He expects it now. Vince reaches for a pillow and hugs it tightly, while he angles his hips up to present himself. The brazen way he exposes himself, the pleasure of being so vulgar are never familiar, always intoxicating. The knot in his groin tightens when he feels Dove’s fingers settle on his thighs.
His knees shift and braces him for impact. The heat behind Dove’s fingertips lingers and spreads and Vince shift again, the balls of his feet pressing into the bed. When he realizes that Dove is pausing, he turns enough for a one-eyed glare, furious that Dove is teasing him. The rage nearly boils over when he’s met with a cheeky look, though the rest of his face is stony.
Vince thinks about throwing a week or two of no contact in Dove’s face, but then he moans and arches and trembles when he feels the wet tip of his dick push in with one long, slow stroke. It pushes out his fury, dissipating in his fevered breaths.
A few shallow, tentative thrusts after, he scarcely has the spare mind power to think. It’s the moment when Vince isn’t seething at something or another, when he’s focusing on the deep, deep fucks that slap against him in rapid rhythm, that open him up and stuff him.
Vince pictures Dove’s hands over the same handprint-shaped bruises, which sit on his hips and refuse to fade away, the ones he has to hide when he showers in the locker rooms. He feels his fingers clench and grip harder. The thrusting is more desperate and he can feel his own cock bobbing from the force.
The rhythm hitches when Dove lets Vince’s hips go, instead grabbing the headboard and hoisting a thigh up. Vince gasps and gasps and gasps because because it’s what he’s been craving. He drops the aloof act and openly savors all of the thrill and indecency and adult indulgence. Finally he’s in a panting, moaning trance, forgetting his straight laces.
Dove fucks with increasing intensity, which is around the time when Vince gets his fill. Feeling the fingernails dig into his thigh, Vince slides a hand over his length, dripping with precome. It barely needs a stroke before he comes. Face buried in pillow, he shudders and exhales sharp breaths, soaking in the pleasure as long as he can.
By the time Dove follows suit, pulsing and coming into him, Vince is satisfied. He rolls over on his side and, eyes closed, allows himself a few seconds to bask in the afterglow. He waits a beat, stretches, and waits another beat before sliding off the bed.
He stretches again — his arms are over his head and toes are clenched — and gives a cool, backward glance at Dove. Stepping back into his underwear, Vince shrugs his shirt back on and leaves the room as quietly as he entered.
In the hallway he meets eyes with Connor, who stops in mid-step at the top of the stairs. He looks upset and embarrassed, but can’t seem to find the words to speak. Vince’s first instinct is bristle and be prepared to lash out, but his reason calms him down. This is Connor, after all, not a nobody from the other dorms.
“I found a YouTube video on that boss fight,” Vince says, as if he is not in his underwear, sweaty and flushed.
Connor breaks into a small smile, which reminds Vince of a squirrel or another small woodland creature. “Let’s watch it before break is over,” he replies, making a beeline for Vince’s room.
Buttoning his shirt back up and running a hand through his disheveled hair, Vince takes a seat at his desk. Connor wedges himself next to him on the chair, which makes Vince sigh, but says nothing when Connor presses his shoulder against his. He imagines that this is what having a kid brother is like.
With Connor on the mouse and Vince on the keyboard, they pull up the video together. Vince skips through the cutscene, the beginning fight sequences, and Connor stops him when he recognizes that part where they always die.
“So we actually have to stick together on this part, right?” he says, pointing at the screen. Their gazes meet again and Vince can tell that Connor is still anxious, but it’s hard to take seriously since it’s kind of adorable. He considers patting Connor’s head, because sometimes it calms him down.
Vince nods in agreement and Connor continues, “See how the fireballs are scattered, but it’s harder when we’re avoiding them at different times, ‘cause we get in each other’s way. So we have to move together. Okay?”
Again, Vince nods as Connor stares at him, searching, but Vince doesn’t know for what. Connor turns back to the screen and they watch the rest of the boss fight. Because Connor would have been upset if Vince watched the video without him, Vince is watching the sequence closely, but with an eye on the clock. It is about ten minutes until the afternoon session.
“He’s such an asshole, you know,” Connor blurts out. His ears are pink, but he doesn’t look at Vince.
The outburst is not surprising. Vince replies, “I know.”
Connor sneaks an incredulous glance at Vince, then looks down. “He’s not good for you. He doesn’t really care about you, I think.” It grows warmer where their legs are touching.
He purses his lips in amusement, but is also confused by Connor’s observation. Surely it was the other way around. “I don’t either,” he says. His voice is lined with arrogance, proud of his careless words.
Facing him now, Connor is visibly struggling with his words, but manages to say, “I think he’s going to hurt you. I don’t think he knows you. I know–”
Vince stands up abruptly. “Don’t worry about me. Just mind your business,” he says, biting back meaner words. He begins to put the rest of his clothes on and seethes, his anger turning inward. He can’t stand being lectured, especially by a puny twig-boy who can’t defend himself. Connor doesn’t know the agreement between him and Dove. He doesn’t know anything.
“Don’t get mad, V,” Connor says, voice quieter and more timid. “I” –he pauses– “I care about you.”
Feeling petty, Vince does not answer and keeps his back turned to him, pulling his pants on, tucking his shirt in, and tightening his tie too roughly, too abruptly. He feels a tug on his belt loop, but ignores that too.
“Because you’re my best friend.” Vince feels Connor tug harder and hears his voice quaver. “You should be happier.”
Moments when Connor is blubbering reminds Vince why he is fond of him. In his teeny-tiny way, Connor is trying to protect him, which makes Vince want to protect him more. He lays a hand on Connor’s wheat-blonde head. “What are you talking about?” he says, but with a slight, playful lilt.
Vince braces himself for the inevitable hug so that he isn’t thrown on the bed. Connor’s arms are tightly wrapped around his sides, his face buried in his stomach. He gives him a few seconds before forcing him off.
“It’s getting late,” he says, grabbing his bag. He walks out with Connor on his heels. “You can’t do this all the time,” he scolds, using his grandfather’s words. “You have to grow up some time.”
Vince doesn’t bother to look back to see where Dove is, whether he’s left for class or not. The two of them trot down the stairs and round them to leave by the back entrance. As Vince is slipping his shoes back on, he sees that Dove’s shoes are next to his smaller ones. The difference in size is quite visible and it reminds Vince that he is closer to Connor’s physique than Dove’s. This should annoy him, but instead, Vince feels hungry.
Ben counts the minutes until World History is over. He finds the subject stifling, mostly because he is discouraged from asking questions that he likes to ask. Who cares when the Reformation happened? What about the struggle? What about average bystanders? What is their part in all of this history?
He finds it a little insulting when Mrs. Harrigan gives him a non-answer or ignores him. He knows there are many answers in this complicated world, a wisdom he is well-familiar with, but it seems Asper Academy insists on the least divisive. Everything else is glossed over, whitewashed. Mere acknowledgement are scraps thrown to the downtrodden, Ben thinks rather dramatically as he watches the clock.
Mrs. Harrigan does the best she can, Ben admits, but when class is dismissed, he is the first to rise. Unfortunately, even her best can’t compare to the average literature class, which happens to be next. Taking long strides to his favorite subject, he spots his reflection in a display case window, which happens to show his nationally award-winning report on Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Ben proudly indulges in the view, but his good mood withers as he catches sight of, then dismisses, his gawky appearance. Ben can’t help but glance again in another window, but it confirms that he’s not a very good-looking mixed kid, contrary to popular belief. He considers growing out his hair, but fears that it will be too unruly. Ben instantly feels guilt, which comes from the memory of his mother’s insistence that chaos is natural and natural is beautiful.
It’s easy for her to say that, as a beautiful person, but what suits her is a failure on him. Lost in his moping, his stomach lurches when he runs across Mr. Sloane, who is about to turn into the classroom. If chaos is natural, then order is ethereal, which Mr. Sloane emanates with grace. Ben is willing to argue there is beauty in both.
“Hello, Ben,” Mr. Sloane greets mid-step and with a natural smoulder. A modern day Heathcliff, brooding and effortlessly confident, he likely does not dwell on frivolous thoughts like appearance. He’s above all of the teenage woe, but not so much that he forgets what it’s like.
Ben’s face cannot decide between a smile and a grin and his mouth juggles a reply like a large jawbreaker. “H-hi,” he says with a surprising mouthful of saliva, but Mr. Sloane does not wait to hear his response.
The other students are not far behind him as Ben takes his seat. He uses this precious time to watch Mr. Sloane, who is writing notes on the board. His long, auburn hair is tied in a low ponytail, which points to the elegant lines of his shoulder blades, which Ben can just make out under his sweater.
“Hope you’re prepared to discuss your character maps in depth. I’m looking for good discussion today. Bonus points on my favorite topic, as always.” He cocks his head at the board, which has “agency of disenfranchised” written on the top.
Ben sits on the edge of his seat, ready to discuss circles around his privileged classmates, who could care less. The only reason Mr. Sloane gains favor among the students is because he assigns light coursework and is lenient. Even so, Ben is his best student and the prize isn’t a good grade.
Pointing at the board, which also has the characters’ names written out, Mr. Sloane drills his class for basic information on each. When no one volunteers, he calls out individual students. Ben does not speak up for easy answers. He thinks it makes him look like an underachiever snatching at low-hanging fruit or a teacher’s pet rather than top student.
Impatient for the meatier discussions, where he can put forward his articulate, well-thought questions, Ben grows bored and gradually drifts into one of his daydreams.
“Do you have plans after class on Friday, Ben?” Mr. Sloane asks, looking over his glasses. “I enjoyed your take on The Crucible and would love to discuss more. I’ll take to you to my favorite coffee shop.”
The cafe is cozy, warm, and its decor is tasteful, just like Mr. Sloane. They talk for hours about literature and morality. Mr. Sloane understands and takes Ben seriously, lightly touching Ben’s fingers, arm, shoulder when they agree or have the same opinion. They lean in toward each other because the conversation is so engaging.
When the barista gently reminds them of closing time, Mr. Sloane invites Ben to walk with him. They speak less as they leave the cafe and wander in the quiet streets. Mr. Sloane pulls his scarf off of himself and wraps it around Ben, because he notices that he is cold. It smells just like Mr. Sloane.
They happen to stop near a dark corner, just past a dim street light. They linger close together.
Ben blinks and sits up straight. He and Mr. Sloane stare at each other. The annoyed look from Mr. Sloane stings. After a crabby pause, he repeats the question. Ben answers without a hitch, but he is embarrassed.
Eager to atone, he pays rapt attention, but Mr. Sloane does not call him again. When the class is prompted to discuss open-ended questions, Ben volunteers to answer first. He likes to lead discussion in a way that encourages the other students to participate. He is careful to be genial and nuanced, not only here but in all interactions with his classmates. Because of this, despite the fact that he’s from House Cherry, Ben is well-liked. Mr. Sloane scarcely interrupts except to change topics.
He leads without doing the most talking. Ben smiles and nods at his classmates and their opinions, whether or not he agrees with them, but he always follows with a counterpoint. Ben likes to make sure that the conversation is captivating and challenging enough. Meanwhile, he keeps an eye on Mr. Sloane, who seems interested.
When class is regretfully over, Ben lingers until most of the room is empty. He “wanders” by Mr. Sloane’s desk with a slow, shy smile.
“Thank you,” he says to Mr. Sloane’s back, loitering for a few seconds. He shifts his bag on his back, waiting for an answer, for praise.
Mr. Sloane turns from erasing the board and responds with a wry smile. “No, thank you, Ben. You’re practically doing my job. Well done, as usual.”
Mustering courage, Ben says something that sounds cleverer in his mind. “Isn’t it funny that folktales are seen as feminine and frivolous?”
“Well…” he begins. The sweeps of the eraser are slowing down. “In general or in the context of the book?”
The fact that Mr. Sloane isn’t facing him makes Ben nervous. “Both,” he follows up, but regrets the simple answer, so he continues, “Stories like that are actually important, especially since it makes it easier for people to understand.”
The next period is electives, so they have time. Mr. Sloane focuses his attention on him, which makes Ben fluster more. The thoughts zipping in his brain are about culture, feminism, colonization, imperialism, and religion so he says, “It helps with history.”
He wilts when Mr. Sloane shoots him a less than desirable response. “Are you already thinking about the literary criticism essays? Maybe you should come back when you’ve given it more thought?”
Embarrassed to be shut down, Ben shuts up. “Okay,” he says and escapes with dignity in delicate, fluttering shreds.
Ben swallows back the lump in his throat, feeling childish. He replays the exchange in his mind and grits his teeth and walks faster. He feels stupid and thinks about hiding in the first dark crevice he can find. He is tall but he figures a tight fetal position can fit him into most places.
He is near the library. Maybe Ben will skip track practice and take refuge among his beloved books. He turns the corner, looking forward to hiding in the darkest, quietest corner when he spots Dove also walking toward the library.
Before Ben can turn heel without being spotted, their gazes meet. He doesn’t bother hiding his grimace, just as Dove doesn’t with his smug smile.
“Where’re you going?” Dove asks as Ben walks briskly away. He catches up to him and now walks in step with him, shoulder to shoulder.
Ben picks up the pace and so does Dove.
“Are you going somewhere you’re not supposed to?” Dove asks.
“Ugh, don’t stalk me, you stalker!” Ben hisses with a scowl.
Dove chuckles. “Takes one to know one, I guess? I think I saw Mr. Sloane walk toward the –”
He stops in his tracks to glare at Dove. “Aren’t you done with me now? You got what you wanted. Leave me alone.”
“But did you get what you want?” he responds, tilting his chin up to look down on him with a smirk.
Ben is certain he is teasing him. He doesn’t bother to answer him immediately, instead standing straight for dramatic effect. He waits a beat, looks at Dove with scorn, and waits another beat before he speaks.
“I’m not like you,” he declares, but suddenly breaks into a run toward the track field, not wanting to spend another second alone with him.
What a petty bully, Ben thinks. No wonder he has no friends, or at least no good ones, when he blackmails people to get what he wants. The thought leaves a bad taste in his mouth. No, he and Dove are nothing alike, but he hates that he has allowed himself to be at Dove’s mercy. All because of his deep love and admiration for…literature.
After extracurriculars Dove crosses the lawn toward the dorm when he sees the staff move suitcases into House Cherry. Someone is moving in, the newest resident after himself, and Dove is dying to know why.
Ever cautious, he walks off the main path and sneaks against the walls. Dove prefers to watch before making an entrance. Ben’s accusation comes to mind and it tickles him. Ben isn’t wrong that Dove likes to sneak around — though Dove doesn’t think there is anything wrong with being careful and observant — but the bookworm has far too high of an opinion of himself. Not as good as everyone believes, Dove thinks smugly.
Dove peeks in through the windows as he pretends he is strolling casually around the house. In the window by the kitchenette, he notices Connor and Vince sitting on the couch together. The old TV is on, flashing in pixelated colors, so he knows they are trying to sneak in some gaming before dinner.
He wards off prickles of envy by convincing himself that Vince likely pities Connor, whose clinginess is beyond innocent. But Dove can begrudge Connor that small connection with Vince, because as far as he is concerned, it’s a matter of time before —
“Yes!” Connor cheers and throws himself on Vince, who is knocked down from the weight. Dove catches himself craning his neck because he cannot see them behind the couch. His hand is on the back door handle before he hears an unfamiliar voice.
“– filthy, but what can you expect?”
A short boy stands at the entrance to the common room, hands on hips and legs apart. Perhaps he means to look authoritative, but seems rather like a brat. It seems the sight of Vince and Connor disgusts him, evident in the way he scowls. Curiosity gets the better of Dove, so he circles to another window to get a better look at everyone, but he frowns at the sight of Connor on top of Vince, straddling him. He clenches his jaw, not forgetting what the little shit said about him earlier.
“Look at such debauchery,” the boy says, cutting through Dove’s thoughts. He is pointing a displeased finger at the two on the couch.
“Excuse you,” Connor says, sitting up and jutting his chin out. He must be feeling brave, Dove thinks, because he’s against someone smaller than him, a rare occasion. “You being here means you’ve done something to belong here. So you’re not better than us.”
“I’m here out of charity,” the boy — a kid, really — boasts. He swings out a hand so that the back of it slaps the stomach of a taller figure behind him.
Dove is impressed that such a tall man could go unnoticed for so long, since he nearly takes up the space of the entire doorway. They, aside from the boy, all tilt their heads up to look at him, a broad-chested, wide-shouldered, narrow-hipped man who, for some reason, is wearing the academy’s uniform. The man gazes, or rather smolders, at Connor and Vince, who look like underdeveloped rodents compared to him.
Meanwhile the boy chatters on, regardless of who is listening. “– can’t hold his temper when regarding me, but I can’t blame a servant for being loyal, so faithful. I can’t leave him in this,” he waves his hand, “trash heap.”
Connor’s nose wrinkles and says, “Um, you mean babysitter, right?” Dove can hear the vexation in his voice, though he doesn’t understand Connor’s defensiveness. “Because then it makes sense. Obviously a baby can’t be without his babysitter.” Rolling his eyes, he grabs the game controller and hands the other to Vince, indicating he is done dealing with the child.
“Sounds like a baby,” Vince adds, accepting the controller and sitting up. It’s a redundant observation, but Dove suspects it was intentional, since the boy’s face turns dark red, nearly purple. Of course, small people know what sets other small people off. Dove glances at the taller man, whose glare at the teasing pair intensifies.
The small boy is left gawking at the two of them, who ignore him to resume playing their game. Dove notices that Connor is chewing on his bottom lip, which is expected. He is better at complaining than being confrontational.
Remarkably, the small boy also looks upset — not angry at being insulted, but disappointed. The tall one puts his hands on his little shoulders, which seems to muster some courage in the little boy. He exclaims shrilly, “Better to be a baby than perverts like you!”
Connor’s eyebrows furrow, though he doesn’t look up from the TV. “I’d rather be a pervert than a baby,” he retorts with a quick comeback. “At least I can take care of myself.”
Dove looks at the pair by the door. The little one begins to fluster and squirm, while his companion squares himself and clenches his fists, looking ready to smack someone. Dove doesn’t know yet why the tall man is moving into House Cherry, but he is willing to take bets.
He glances at Vince, whose ears are taking on a curious shade of pink, despite his look of concentration. Dove’s mouth splits into a slow, toothy grin, something he allows himself to do since Vince can’t see him. He knows Vince took the ‘pervert’ comment to heart, well, because he is one. Eyeing his nape, Dove wonders if he can get away with a hickey next time.
The small boy, staring the ground, grumbles so quietly that Dove has to strain, “Laska, I can move into my room by myself.” His face scrunches and his shoulders hunch as he speaks, as if he knows he can, but he doesn’t want to. Dove stifles a laugh at his overt childishness. This child puts the ‘fresh’ in ‘freshman.’
“I want to help,” Laska says in a low voice, bending over at the waist just to meet his companion’s eyes, “more than you need help.”
The small boy says with relief, “Nothing I can do then, if you need something to do.” Then he adds, “Maybe it’s you who can’t do anything without me.”
The entire exchange is disingenuous, apparently enough to make Vince snort loudly. It’s enough to cross the line with the tall man named Laska, who crosses the room in two long steps and stands in front of the television and the rude pair.
“Move,” Vince orders, looking up at him from his seat on the floor. Dove tenses, knowing that Vince, short, silent and fierce, does not mince words or back down. Laska doesn’t know though. Per usual, Connor is looking down uselessly at the game controller. Dove tsks; Vince can’t be expected to fight all of the conflicts the two of them run into, fearless as he is.
Laska betrays a slight sneer and Vince is on his feet, narrow eyes wide. Short of being on his tiptoes, he glares right into the face of the lamppost of a boy and barks, “I said move!”
By the time Dove bolts into the house and pulls him away, Vince is yanking Laska’s shirt and has his fist pulled back, ready to sock Laska’s smirking mouth. In Dove’s arms Vince thrashes, angry that he loses the chance to prove his mettle.
“Let go!” Vince yells, but Dove holds him harder, arms wrapped all over him. He cannot afford to let go. In the corner of his eye, he can see Laska leering at them, which makes it much worse. Vince is deceptively strong, nearly all muscle, and the humiliation of being restrained in front of Laska only incites the rage.
He uses all of his strength to pull them toward the couch, so he doesn’t have to focus his strength on supporting his and Vince’s weights, but fuck if Vince’s writhing body doesn’t turn him on.
“Stop it,” Dove hisses, using so much energy that he struggles to speak. “You can’t!”
“It’ll be quick,” Vince spits out, glaring at Laska, then pauses ever so briefly. Vince evidently feels his half-hard cock press against his ass, so he rams his elbow in Dove’s chest. It knocks the wind out of him and makes him stagger backwards onto the couch.
Even as he winces at the sharp pain, for a fleeting second, Dove wishes with all his heart that everyone else vacate the room immediately. The thought of them going at it in the living room makes Dove stealthily pull a pillow over his pants and watch the situation unfold.
Connor musters enough pluck to stand by Vince, but it’s Ben’s sudden appearance that makes Vince forget his hot temper for a second.
“What’s going on?” Ben raises his voice, alarmed by the commotion.
Then the small boy yells, Connor pulls at Vince’s arm, and Ben puts himself between Laska and Vince, who looks like he’s searching for an opening to strike.
Hands on Vince’s chest, Ben struggles to push him back. “Calm down, you guys,” he says in a self-righteous, good boy tone, as if his arrival makes a huge difference. Dove rolls his eyes and scoffs loudly. No one seems to be listening to Ben, instead shouting over each other.
“You’re lucky this one’s here to stop you,” the small boy says, referring to Ben as he hides behind his tall companion, whose arms are crossed and dark eyes goading Vince to hit him.
“No, your slave is lucky,” Connor retorts, as he clings to Vince’s arm. “And you’re so brave, hiding behind him.”
Meanwhile Vince keeps glaring at Laska and tries to wrench himself from Connor’s and Blake’s hands, but Dove knows that they know better than to let go. With the way he huffs and puffs, Vince is ready to murder him or seriously maim him. Or fuck him, Dove thinks, noting that Vince looks not unlike when he’s alone with him.
“Seriously, Vince, calm down!” Ben says, surprised at how persistent he is. He ducks and hooks his arms under Vince’s armpits, holding him full nelson. In turn, Dove is surprised that Vince doesn’t try to headbutt or elbow him, instead sulking stubbornly.
“That one started it,” Connor pipes up, pointing at the small one, who makes noises of protest. “He’s not even supposed to be here.”
“Then whose stuff is in the hallway?” Ben asks, cocking his head toward the front entrance.
“It’s that guy,” Connor replies loudly. “He’s the one who’s actually moving in.” He shoots a snooty, upturned-nose look at the small boy. “This brat doesn’t belong here.”
Then the small boy nearly explodes, “I told you I’m also –”
“Look,” Ben says, interrupting him. He takes a moment to look up at Laska, then at the small one at his hip. “Look,” he repeats, now giving warning looks to Vince and Connor, “seems like whether or not he actually lives here, he’s not going anywhere.” He takes a deep breath and sighs. “That means we have to try to get along.”
“But he called us trash,” Connor protests.
“Yeah, it goes both ways,” Ben replies, laying his eyes on the small boy, who is nervous but has a defiant look stuck on his face. “You won’t have a good time with that attitude,” he remarks, studying him with a hard look.
“Someone like you shouldn’t be talking to me like that,” the small boy says disdainfully. The intention of the emphasis is clear, enough to make Laska place his palm on his head, weighing it down.
“Sasha,” he admonishes before the small boy can say more.
But the damage is done and the energy from the room vanishes. Vince relaxes in Ben’s arms and pats his forearm to release him. No longer fuming, Vince straightens his clothing and resumes his cool demeanor, perhaps icier than before. Connor takes Ben by the hand. Only Ben looks unfazed, as if he expected nothing better from a spoiled brat.
“We should get to dinner,” Ben says pleasantly.
The three of them leave together. Connor sticks close to Ben for once and Vince is on the other side, shoving his shoulder against Sasha’s on the way out.
Finally acknowledging Dove on the couch, Laska glances at him before leading Sasha out of the room. Dove gets a glimpse of the small boy’s distraught expression before they leave.
The house now silent, Dove lets himself sink further into the couch. He waits a beat, lets his perpetual smirk fade, and waits another beat before going to dinner alone.
Yours, Mine, and Ours
Morgan sits at the dining table in the common room, papers already scattered around him. The boys are similarly scattered around the room for quiet hours. Connor and Vince are doing homework together on the floor, while Dove and Ben are sitting on opposite sides of the couch. Dove looks like he’s dozing off while Ben pretends to focus on reading. Morgan ignores the frequent glances from Ben. The newest residents, boyish Alex and burly Laszlo, are at the table with him. They’re also focusing on school work, but occasionally Alex looks up toward the main group.
Morgan guesses that their first meeting went poorly, but it’s not as though anyone tells him, nor does he feel the need to intrude. He prefers to finish his grading as soon as possible so he can spend the rest of the night reading his latest book. Troublemaking happens when teachers aren’t around anyway.
Connor calls to him a half an hour later. “Mr. Sloane! Wanna play ‘Asshole’? It’s a four-person game and we need one more.”
Morgan looks over his glasses. Ben is now on the floor with them, a deck of cards in the middle. He then glances at the other three. He is pretty sure they are not invited. He makes a face at how mean these kids are.
“Thanks, but no,” he says. “I’m still grading, but why not ask one of these guys?” He gestures to the three outcasts.
Connor makes a face back at him. “Aren’t you here to create better teacher-student relationships? I don’t feel like you and I have a good rapport.”
Morgan sighs and take his glasses off. He rubs his face with his palms, and through them he replies, “The way you’re speaking to me suggests a good rapport.” Despite his reaction, he isn’t wrong. Morgan is liked by the students, but few get to see how grouchy he usually is.
Because he knows reprimanding Connor does little good, Morgan looks at Ben. “Those two, I get,” he says, tossing his head toward Connor and Vince, “but I thought you would be a little better, Ben.”
It is manipulative — Ben looks like he’s been punched in the gut — but Morgan does not want to get in the middle of these social squabbles.
“Don’t say that,” Connor snaps at him. “He’s had a rough day. You –”
A loud thud comes from the ceiling and from the corner of his eye, Morgan sees Alex jump in his seat. Everyone else stares upward, then for some reason, they all turn toward Dove, who is now awake.
“What the hell, you guys?” he says, no hint of lingering sleep in his voice. “Why’re you looking at me?”
“I bet he wasn’t even sleeping,” Connor grumbles, getting up from his seat. He grabs a poker from the stand by closed-up fireplace, which sits behind the TV. He hands the shovel to Vince and the tongs to Ben.
They really should take that away from them, Morgan thinks as he says, “I don’t think you guys need those. Someone’s gonna get hurt, likely you. Also, I’m sure it was just a textbook or something that fell.”
“You’ll finally get to see what we have to deal with out here, Mr. Sloane,” Connor says. “You have to believe us now.”
Morgan frowns. It isn’t that he does not believe them. He knows living in House Cherry makes them easy targets, but the academy isn’t likely to do anything about it, much less himself. Putting them here is a bandaid in the first place. Making him the main advisor for House Cherry is mostly lip service too, since he’s the newest teacher. “This doesn’t happen when other teachers come for your quiet hours?“
“They usually don’t stay as long as you do,” Ben replies quietly. He looks up at the ceiling and says, “They probably think you’re already gone.”
This surprises Morgan. All teachers supervising quiet hours are supposed to stay until nine o’clock. He checks his watch, which tells him it’s eight-thirty.
Connor points at the two boys at the table and orders, “You, stand by the back door in case they come through here. Brat, you sit on the couch and make sure –” Connor looks at him with what Morgan supposes is a meaningful look. The sudden, tense atmosphere makes the pair obedient. No doubt they are bewildered, not knowing what the other boys are talking about.
“Hurry,” Connor urges Morgan, who reluctantly joins the battle-ready group. With Connor insisting silence, they gather at the foot of the stairs, Vince and Dove in the front. Dove is notably not armed, probably because he could handle one or two mischievous students alone, but it doesn’t explain why Ben has a weapon. Though a bookworm, Ben is a little taller than Dove and does track. Surely his sturdy and long legs are effective against intruders. Catching himself overthinking their shenanigans, Morgan crosses his arms and looks upstairs, dimly lit by old lightbulbs.
Connor nudges Ben, who raises his voice to announce, like a pubescent police officer, “We know you guys are up there. We have a teacher with us this time, so there’s no use hiding.”
If there is anyone up there and the boys manage to catch him, writing the offending student up is unlikely to do anything. A note sent home is often ignored, since rich parents often wash their hands of their students’ care anyway. Why send them to a boarding school if not for that reason? As long as a student gets decent grades and doesn’t mess up too badly, he is guaranteed a spot at a top college, a future even these misfits will see. Unfamiliar with this upbringing, Morgan can only envy their privilege.
“I’m pretty sure no one is up there,” Morgan says to the group.
“Then it’s okay if we go up and check, right?” Connor says, pushing Dove and Vince up the stairs.
“Don’t touch me, you little shit,” Dove protests, twisting around and pushing back on Connor’s face with his hand.
“Shut up! If you cared about this place, I wouldn’t have to push you,” Connor hisses. Ben stands behind him and lets Connor prop himself on him as he swats at Dove.
“Connor, give me that before you poke his eye out.” He yanks the poker from his hand and throws it aside, hitting the floor with a metallic thump.
“I –” Dove begins to retort, when Vince shouts, “Hey!”
Morgan hears a blow and a thud and cranes his neck over the squabbling boys. He forces his way to the front, dread weighing in his chest. Vincent can’t be caught assaulting another student and face expulsion. Why the hell did Connor give him a shovel?
Relief washes over him when he sees Dove, Vince, and Ben piled on top of a student as he struggles in their arms. Their makeshift weapons are scattered around them and there’s no visible wound anywhere on his body, or at least what Morgan can see.
“Oh my God, why are you naked?” Dove groans. “Fucking gross.”
“Get off!” the student wails, “You’re gonna crushing my dick!”
“We can do much worse,” Vince says, eyeing the fireplace tongs.
“Goddamnit, Vince, don’t threaten him,” Morgan raises his voice. “One of you hand those over to me.”
Ben manages to hand over the tongs and shovel to Morgan, but as soon as he does, he is nearly kneed in the head by another shadowy figure, who leaps over them and toward Connor.
“You–!” Connor shouts in recognition, but no one else gets a good look at him. Rather than barrel through them to the front door, the mystery student hoists himself over the banister in another dramatic leap toward the back door.
“Hey!” Connor yells at the pair in the common room. “Incoming!”
Morgan hears a commotion and scuffle but is torn between the naked student upstairs and the other downstairs. He makes a gamble and decides that the upstairs situation is under control. He orders the boys off him and addresses him by name. “Let Mr. Jacobson get dressed before we deal with him,” he says with his best stern teacher voice.
Then he rushes downstairs to assess the damage, where he sees Connor standing disappointed with fists on his hips, Laszlo shocked with a discarded set of the school uniform in his arms, and Alex looking horrified, nearly fit to burst with tears. He looks around and understands that the intruder must have literally slipped away, running naked back to his dorm.
“What happened?” he asks the trio. Alex looks up at him with wide eyes, but seems frozen to the couch.
“It’s all right, Sasha,” Connor sighs, placing a hand on Alex’s downturned head. “It’s okay.”
“I’m sorry,” he blubbers, “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay! Because we’ll get him back for this, right?” Connor kneels in front of Alex and Morgan is impressed that he is capable of acting like a proper upperclassman for his junior.
Alex nods, furiously scrubbing his tears away. When he shifts in his seat, Morgan hears the sound of plastic scraping and tossing against each other.
“What are you sitting on?” Morgan asks with suspicion. He waves Alex off of the couch and sinks his palm into the cushion, which makes a dull clatter. Giving Connor a look, he pulls off the cushion and unzips it to find a broken video game console inside.
“You’re not supposed to have this,” he says, which makes Alex blink back tears. Now Morgan understands. In the scuffle, the intruder must have stomped on the cushion, the one Sasha should have been guarding.
“We’re not supposed to have working video games,” Connor says to him without blinking. “All we have is a broken console, Mr. Sloane. Besides, that’s not what’s important here.”
He hates that Connor is right and he gives him an eye roll. Morgan rises to get back to the boys upstairs, but he finds them already in the doorway to the common room, the captured student — thankfully clothed, Morgan sees — tightly in their grips.
“Oh my God!” Connor screams at the sight of them, erupting into laughter and falling onto the couch.
Morgan stares in horror at their handiwork. “What –!”
Ben interrupts him, mirth making his eyes spark. “We all agreed,” he glances at the miserable prisoner, “that we’ll pretend this didn’t happen.”
“You know I can’t do that, Ben,” Morgan grumbles. “I mean, look at him. No one’s going to believe he did that to himself.”
“I did this to myself, Mr. Sloane,” Jacobson mutters, red-faced.
Morgan crosses his arms and scowls at him. “You drew penises and cherries all over yourself? You did that? Just now?”
The boys are all snickering through their toothy grins and even wet-eyed Alex is enjoying a few chuckles. All over his exposed skin are hasty scribbles, alternating patterns of cocks and cherries in black permanent marker.
“Yes, sir, I did,” he says. “Can I go now?”
“Of course not,” Morgan snaps. “What about the student you were with?”
“I wasn’t with anybody,” he says, jaw squared.
Annoyed with his stubbornness, Morgan raises his voice, “Then why for God’s sake were you naked?” This makes the boys laugh out loud. No doubt they are looking forward to Jacobson’s response.
“I’m sorry, okay?” he bursts out, eyes closed tightly. “Can I go? I won’t do it again.”
Morgan gives him a stern look. Jacobson is not a bad kid, though not the smartest. Morgan knows this isn’t his idea, but rules are rules. “I have to report this,” he begins slowly, “but I suppose the students responsible ran off before I could get a good look.” The graffitied student blinks back at him with confusion when Morgan adds, “Though I will note that it seems that one of students had black marks all over his face.”
Ben and Dove release him and Jacobson runs out like a bat out of hell when it finally dawns on him.
“How long do you think it will take for him to scrub that off?” Ben asks with a bemused smile.
“We’ll know depending on how red he is in the morning,” Connor replies, exchanging a sly grin with Vince.
“That’s enough mischief for me tonight,” Morgan grumbles, cutting through their verbal back-patting. “I’m going back before I have to write another report.”
But they barely acknowledge him as they chatter among themselves. As Morgan leaves them for the night, Connor pulls out a dusty board game from the old bookcase.
“Who wants in?” he asks while blowing the dust off of the cover. “It’s four players, but you two” he jerks his head at Alex and Lazslo,” can be a team, and me and Vince can be one.”
“Then it’s only fair that me and Ben team up too,” Dove says with a teasing smirk at Ben’s rolling eyes.
They all set up the pieces and the gameboard and Morgan feels some hope that they might be able to get along. He slips out and hears from a window:
“Then we’ll tell you new guys about the trickiest, slipperiest bastard in Asper and figure out how we’re going to get that asshole back.”
Morgan breaks into a run before he can hear more.