Peter’s moved schools before but this is different. It’s not just that they’ve moved to a different country. When he was younger he’d been able to dust himself off and start anew but now, at fifteen, he resents being taken away from his friends in London; away from the sweetshop on the corner and the place that did the best fish and chips in Chelsea. Away from everything he knew.
After a month he finds himself starting to think that Penang might not be so bad. He’s sitting on the roof of the school with Ricki Tarr, sharing a bottle of nasty rice wine. Ricki’s a scoundrel, everyone knows that. By all accounts his dad’s an ass and no-one believes that the bruises he comes to school with sometimes are because he walked into a door.
Sometimes Ricki can be charming and sometimes he can be vicious, snapping between the different sides of himself without warning. Despite that, Peter likes him. When it’s dark and he’s alone in his room Peter will let himself admit that it has more do to with his soft, sun-bleached hair and his full red lips than it does his personality. Ricki unlocks parts of Peter that he had started to suspect back in London and Peter can’t decide whether he hates Ricki for that or is thankful to him.
He can’t tell anyone, he knows that. Newspapers and books have told him the story of what happens to boys like him. He has to lock it away, deep inside, so that no-one will ever know. Sometimes he thinks that he’ll grow out of it. Most of the time he knows he won’t.
Either way, being up here with hope in his heart is stupid. Ricki doesn’t like boys – quite the opposite, he’ll kiss any girl who lets him. Sometimes he’s arrogant but every so often he’ll speak quietly about a book he’s read or he’ll tell a story about the paths his life has lead him on and Peter will glimpse another side to him, one that’s soft and smart and sensitive. When he realises what he’s doing he’ll swap back to being brash, pretend that he was joking.
Peter wonders, though. Which is real and which is pretend.
Ricki passes the bottle back to him and Peter takes a mouthful with a grimace. It’s getting dark and he should head home soon – sneak to his room before his parents notice that he’s less than steady on his feet.
He says so and Ricki mmm’s his agreement. He’s staring out at the bruised sky, and Peter knows him well enough after a month that this means he wants to talk about something.
“What’s wrong?” He asks, taking another swig and setting the bottle between them.
“You ever think that there might be something different about you?” Ricki says, voice hushed and off-kilter.
Peter tries to ignore the jolt in his chest and tries to shrug it off. “Like what?”
“Like-“ Ricki stops then turns his gaze to Peter, eyes intense and mouth in a hard, thin, line. “Like you don’t fit their expectations. That-“ He shakes his head, glaring at his inability to find the words. “They expect you to be this good boy, right? Like you go to uni and get a good job, get married to some bird and have some brats. But what if – what if you don’t want to?”
“Then don’t. Never thought you were the type to do what’s expected of you.”
Ricki gives him a wolfish grin that makes Peter’s throat flutter. “Yeah, well. I hate to be predictable.”
Peter makes a rude noise that makes Ricki laugh and then Ricki slings his arm over Peter’s shoulders. The sudden closeness makes the fluttering in Peter’s throat worse, like there’s a whole battalion of butterflies trying to escape from his stomach.
“I like you, Peter,” Ricki says and there’s an undercurrent to it that makes Peter look at him. Ricki’s smile is uncertain, nervous almost, and that looks out of place.
“I like you too, Ricki,” Peter says quietly and puts his arm around Ricki’s waist, hope flickering in his chest.
They stare at each other and there’s only a few inches between them. Peter can feel Ricki’s breath against his lips, warm and scented with the rice wine – he’ll taste of it too, Peter thinks. Sweet and bitter at the same time.
When Ricki leans forward it feels inevitable. His lips graze Peter’s, lightly – maybe so that he can pull away and laugh it off. But warmth and excitement explode through Peter’s body and he returns Ricki’s kiss with confidence. Ricki does taste of the wine – he tastes like everything is finally right in Peter’s world.
They kiss and kiss, and when they pull away the sky has darkened to navy and the crickets are in full chorus. Peter feels almost dizzy with relief – for the first time in his life he’s met someone who feels the same way he does and better yet, feels that way about him.
After climbing down from the roof they hold hands as they walk across the deserted school grounds, only letting go when they enter the crowded streets beyond.
Ricki walks him home and they stand on the doorstep together, smiling at one another.
“See you tomorrow,” Ricki says, and reaches forward to squeeze Peter’s hand.
“See you,” Peter says and when Ricki’s gone, he runs to his room and throws himself to the bed, smiling at the ceiling.
He can’t believe he was so afraid of these feelings – he’s warm and giddy and he laughs; pure, joyous.
Who knew that Ricki Tarr would be the one to make him feel like this?
Peter’s parents leave Penang halfway into the first term. He’s vaguely aware that the reason they were here in the first place is something to do with subterfuge and guesses that their retreat back to England means that either they completed their mission or were caught. From the swiftness with which they leave, he guesses the latter.
Saturday morning, his mother wakes him and tells him that they’re leaving for England the next day. Still half asleep, he stares at her until his dazed mind catches up with her words. He scrambles into some clothes and runs over to Ricki’s place.
They head out to the thick copse of trees that line the beach near Ricki’s house where they’re shaded from the sun and prying eyes. It’s a favourite place of theirs to go and hide from the world for a while.
As they walk, Peter thinks how this will be his last time here and he pushes down the snarling monster of his resentment so that he can enjoy the moment. They made a den of sorts out of palm leaves last time they were here and they settle on it.
“You okay?” Ricki asks, observant as ever, and Peter kisses him to shut him up.
He rests his head on Ricki’s shoulder and sighs as Ricki combs his fingers through Peter’s hair. It’s soothing, comforting, and for a while Peter lets himself forget everything and just enjoy being with Ricki.
They’re silent for a while – Ricki probably senses that Peter doesn’t want to talk, he’s good at that; but the tension rises slowly between them until it’s almost unbearable.
“Tell me,” Ricki says eventually and Peter lifts his head. He kisses Ricki once more then speaks.
Tomorrow, he says, his family is moving back to England. He doesn’t know why and he doesn’t want to. He wants to stay with Ricki – god, he wants that more than anything – but he can’t. Please understand, he says, I’m sorry, he says, but it doesn’t stop Ricki from looking at him like he’s punched him.
The anguish is clear in his eyes and he stands, stepping out of Peter’s reach.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this to me,” he whispers.
Peter shakes his head. “I don’t want to – of course I don’t – but there’s nothing I can do. Please, Ricki-“
Ricki shakes his head sharply and bats Peter’s hands away when he tries to hold him. “I should’ve expected it,” he says. “Can’t trust anyone.”
“I’m sorry,” Peter says again, feeling tears well up in his eyes.
Ricki continues like Peter hasn’t spoken. “Why should you be any different? I thought you were-” he says, voice heavy and eyes shining. “I thought we-“ He stops, his lower lip trembling, and he turns.
“Ricki, please,” Peter tries again, starts to follow him but Ricki pushes him to the ground, glares at him with such ferocity that Peter is afraid.
He watches Ricki go and knows that it’s useless to follow him. That he’s lost him.
Pulling his knees to his chest he starts to cry.
Decades later, Peter sees Ricki at the Circus and he can’t help but stare. Like a parody he rubs his eyes, as if when he opens them again this phantom of his childhood won’t be there. He is, of course, and he’s just as attractive as he ever was. His hair has darkened over the years and his shoulders are broader but those lips are as full as ever, the eyes as pretty.
Ricki must feel Peter’s gaze on him because he glances around for a moment before his eyes light on Peter. They widen and his mouth drops open, but only for a second before his surprise is replaced by a smirk and he struts over.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he says, and his voice is deep and rich and hearing it makes Peter shudder with pleasure.
“Indeed,” Peter says, keeping his voice cool.
“Not surprised you’re in the trade,” he says, then proceeds to tell Peter about the job he’s just been on in Krakow, about some woman he slept with to get the secrets out of her. Peter recognises the swaggering for what it is, but it doesn’t pass him by that Ricki has consciously chosen these words to be his first to Peter. Whether it’s because he still feels that betrayed or because the cockiness that was a façade when he was a teenager has taken him over, Peter isn’t sure. Either way, the words have their intended effect and Peter’s heart twists in his chest. He doesn’t show it, of course, but he’s fairly sure Ricki sees anyway because his smile turns nasty.
“What about you?” Ricki asks, mean smile still twisting his lips. “Any ladies in your life?”
Fuck you, Peter thinks, anger roaring through him. You know there isn’t.
“Two or three,” he says, forcing a smile. “You know how it is.”
“Definitely,” Ricki says with another smirk, then Peter sees his mask slip, sees uncertainty flash in his eyes. Ricki licks his lips and the confidence drops from his smile. He pats Peter on the shoulder. “Have to run. But we’ll have a drink sometime, yeah? Come over to Brixton and treat me to lunch.”
“Definitely,” Peter repeats, and watches Ricki head over to the lift.
Who is Ricki Tarr? From this brief encounter he seems like a bastard but maybe it’s as much of a mask as it ever was.
Ricki was Peter’s first love and his first broken heart. If Peter gives him another chance, what will happen?
Peter’s not keen on giving Ricki another chance to hurt him but he can’t help but wonder what sex with Ricki would be like, what Ricki would sound like with Peter’s dick deep inside him. The thought is too compelling to ignore.
They could just fuck, Peter thinks, and ignores all the warnings that spring up in his mind at that. Just sex - no relationship, no emotion - no chance of being hurt.
He hasn’t thought about Ricki in years but now that the memories have been stirred they rise up, filtered through rose-tinted glass. Memories of running down the beach with Ricki; of laughing with him in class; of kissing beneath a palm tree. Wistfulness rises up in Peter – he wants that again, wants it so much that it’s like an ache.
Tomorrow, he decides. He’s free tomorrow lunch. He’ll go over to Brixton and see Ricki.
Just lunch. And if anything more happens, Peter will make sure to set clear boundaries, for himself as much as Ricki.
When it comes to work, Peter’s cautious when he’s in dangerous territory, but when it comes to more personal matters he’s never been able to help himself.
He hopes that Ricki’s worth the risk.