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The sun was in their eyes

Chapter Text

Thwack!

The shock that travelled up his arm was deeply satisfying, as was watching the ball shoot past the net while Emily ran across the court to reach the corner, ponytail streaming behind her. She got there just in time and swung her racket in a perfect arc, smacking the ball back at him.

Johnny was moving immediately, eyes on the ball. His arms and legs ached, the sun stung his face and sweat had soaked through his t-shirt, but it was fucking worth it because they were neck and neck, and Emily was clearly frustrated that she couldn’t pull ahead of him. He'd bet she was regretting it now; the arched eyebrow she had given him when he challenged her to a game.

Thwack!

When he beat her, it would make it as if his Beyblade match against Takao yesterday hadn't even happened. He'd had a bad day, that was all, but he would win next time, and he'd win this.

“Go, Emily! You can do it!”

Thwack!

Mao was cheering Emily on from the sidelines. Ever since the PPB and the Byakko clan had become "friendship teams" and begun visiting each other yearly, the girls had become inseparable, not to mention insufferable.

Ha. Maybe Emily needed the support.

Johnny threw himself after the ball.

Thwack!

He hit the ground hard, but was immediately back on his feet and moving to intercept the next one. He didn’t need anyone to cheer for him.

Thwack!

“Kick his ass!”

He didn’t want anyone to cheer for him. He could win all on his own.

A group of three was coming towards them across the lawn.

“Rei-nii! Guys! Are you going down to the beach?”

Thwack!

“Yeah, we just had to wait for Takao to wake up. How long have those two been at it?” Kyouju.

“How are they still standing? It's too hot for tennis.” That was Takao.

Emily smiled in grim acknowledgement. She definitely looked like she was slowing down.

Thwack!

But her swing was as powerful as ever.

Thwack!

Johnny refused to be distracted. He was going to win.

Emily backed up to the line, let the ball bounce once, put both hands on the racket, angled herself.

This one would hurt, but he could take it.

THWACK!

“Everyone else is down there. Even Ralf.”

Johnny’s head turned automatically.

The ball flew past him, bounced on the rubber mats and hit the boundary net before rolling to a standstill.

Johnny met the BBAs surprised eyes and felt loss settle deep and familiar in his gut. Drew breath again and felt how heavy it was in his chest, before clenching his teeth against a wave of rage.

Not again!

Not even Mao cheered.

Emily waited for him at the net post where they had put their stuff, wiping her face with her towel and taking a long drink. She was breathing hard.

He walked over with fury simmering in his stomach, bent down and snatched up his own towel.

"I almost had you," he muttered.

"YOU ALMOST HAD SQUAT!"

He startled back at her shout.

She was glaring at him. “What even happened?”

"What are you complaining about? You won!"

She practically threw her bottle into her bag. “You were doing well! I was enjoying myself; it was good exercise! And then suddenly you just gave up!”

“I DIDN'T GIVE UP!”

She raised the eyebrow again, her eyes sharp like Trygator’s teeth behind her large, thin glasses. “Then what distracted you?”

The sun stung his eyes.

“Congratulations on your victory,” he said stiffly, and turned his back on her.

Takao and Kyouju were already running down towards the beach, but Rei had stayed with Mao. Johnny meant to simply go past them, but Rei hailed him.

“Are you coming down to the beach, Johnny? I think Olivier is planning to serve lunch there.”

Johnny thought of the sand and the water. Knew that Ralf’s swimming trunks went all the way down to his knees, and that he preferred to bring something to work on and sit in the shade, but that when he went swimming, his long lean body cut the waves easily, because he was much stronger than he looked.

“I’m not hungry.” He kept walking.

The Boulanger family’s summer home was even larger than their house in Paris. It sprawled on a clifftop overlooking the sea, and the grounds stretched so far in all other directions you couldn’t see the nearest neighbour. Johnny ignored the gravel path towards the front door, choosing instead to swing around the house to enter through the balcony doors, which were wide open, the white curtains waving in the sea breeze.

“Hey! Hey, Johnny!”

Johnny turned on the steps. Giancarlo was on the gravel path with Michael, Steve and Eddie of the PPB. Bouncing around their legs was Olivier’s Rough Collie, Camille. The boys were in swimwear and carried towels and other beach necessities.

Giancarlo waved. “Can you take Camille inside with you? It’s too hot for her at the beach.”

Johnny sighed, put two fingers in his mouth and whistled long and high. It worked on his own dogs, but it required some extra urging from Giancarlo before Camille came sprinting across the grass. She wagged her tail and danced in place, panting like a steam train.

“Just go inside.” Johnny shooed her in front of him.

“Johnny?” Giancarlo shouted.

“What?” he shouted back, irritated.

Camille barked.

“You’re coming down, right? We’ll see you there?”

Johnny went inside without answering.

Camille ran ahead of him through the bright, spacious rooms and up the elegant staircase to the upper floor. He got to his own door, and as soon as he opened it, she had slipped through and was padding over to his bed to make herself comfortable. With the windows open and the wind coming in from the sea, it was cool here, which she had to appreciate with all that fur. Which was now going to get all over his bed.

“Just stay away from my pillows,” he warned her, putting his racket aside and dragging his sticky polo shirt over his head. His arms ached from the workout.

Camille panted happily at him before laying her head down on her paws to watch him as he undressed. He pulled his bathrobe out of a closet and hung it on a chair before heading to the bathroom.

“Since you were dumb enough to follow me in here, you’ll have to wait for me.” He looked back at the dog, but she seemed perfectly content to wait. He shrugged "Suit yourself."

Olivier had two little sisters, twins Maelle and Aurelie, and their two rooms were linked by a bathroom. Johnny was staying in Aurelie's room, Ralf in Maelle's, but since Ralf was at the beach, Johnny didn't need to be careful.

The bathroom was disgustingly girly, all white and flowery, but at least the bathtub and the shower were large and luxurious. Johnny put himself right under the showerhead and let the hot water pound down on his head and shoulders. He closed his eyes and let his thoughts drift.

So he had lost again. He could still make up for it. This was day three, and they would stay for two more; there would be more beybattles for sure, and his recent streak of losses couldn't last. He just needed to get a hold of himself, stop being so fucking distracted.

By Ralf.

Had Camille not been right outside the door, and had her hearing not been quite so keen, Johnny might have done more than just rinse off the sweat there in the shower. He was half-hard already, blood pounding dully in his chest and cock, pleasure zinging in his nipples when he ran soapy hands over them. It was the heat, the luxurious sheets at night, the wine and laughter. Old memories of Ralf with his hair slicked back and saltwater running down his long torso. The new memory of his eyes gleaming in the candlelight last night. The unexpected sound of his laughter when Yuriy told a joke.

Even a mansion of this size felt full with seventeen teenagers in it, and it was impossible to do anything in his own bed when the walls were so thin-

Johnny sighed in renewed irritation. There in the shower, his body aching for other reasons than exercise, Johnny finally admitted to himself that he was holding back to punish himself. For over two years he had tried to stomp out his feelings. For over two years they had been growing worse. Now the mere sound of Ralf's name could cost him his concentration. It was humiliating. It was infuriating.

It was painful.

He turned the dial until the spray was icy cold.

A few minutes later he was back in his room and drying his hair, when there came a knock. Camille barked excitedly and ran up to paw at the door.

Johnny rolled his eyes and went to open. “I said I’m not going to the stupid-Ralf.”

Ralf’s shoulders and the bridge of his nose were sunburned. He wore flip flops and his long shorts and had his towel in hand. “What did you call me?”

Camille ran back and forth across the threshold, wagging her butt.

“Your room is one over,” Johnny said dumbly, pulling the bathrobe closer around his naked body.

“I am aware." He managed to look very imperious despite the shorts. "I'm here to get you. Leaving behind my book, which is no doubt covered in sand by now, and my seat, which has probably been taken.”

The cold shower had not helped at all. The sea breeze slipped through the open window, past the two boys and into the house, dragging its fingers past Johnny’s cheek and over Ralf’s chest and leaving goose bumps in its wake. Johnny had to turn away as Ralf’s flat, light-pink nipples pebbled under the caress.

Ralf cleared his throat impatiently. “Get your trunks. I want to get back to my book.”

"Maybe I don't want to go to the beach. We've been there every day."

"Or maybe you're sore because Emily beat you at tennis." Ralf took a step backwards to escape from Camille's exuberance. He wasn't good with dogs, but they tended to adore him. He frowned down at her before returning his attention to Johnny. "She's a professional, Jonathan, you were hardly going to win."

Johnny pressed his lips together as the hurt and anger reared up again. "Wow. Thanks."

Ralf looked away. "She was impressed with you, though. I told her you could have gone pro if you hadn't chosen blading. She said you could have done both if you weren't so easily distracted, which I'm not sure what she meant by, but it was a compliment, I think."

He wasn't sure what flattered him most; that Emily had said those things or that Ralf wanted to repeat them to him.

"I'll get my trunks."

"Good boy."

Camille barked happily, thinking the praise was for her.

The beach was a white crescent, cradled between a strip of black volcanic rock and the glittering, blue sea. A cluster of yellow parasols had been set up to provide shelter from the beating July sun, and on the North end of the beach, the Boulangers had had a bungalow built in the shade of some large pines.

As Ralf and Johnny descended the path down to the beach together, the peace of the scene below was being thoroughly broken by fifteen boisterous beybladers. Takao, Max, Giancarlo and Olivier were taking turns jumping from the floating dock, Eddie, Steve, Mao, Emily and Sergei were playing ball in the sand, two dots in the distance suggested that Kai and Yuriy had gone for a longer swim, and Rai and Rei were sprawled on their towels in the sun, soaking up the warmth, with Michael sitting beside them and looking out to sea. Ralf's lounge chair was still very much available, along with three more; only Kyouju had occupied another chair under the parasols, with his precious laptop open and booted up.

He looked up when they arrived. "Oh good, Ralf, you found him. Now you can concentrate on your book again." He reached down into his bag and pulled out a slim, blue book, handing it up to Ralf. "I kept it out of the sand."

"Such joy," Ralf said, sounding a lot less enthusiastic about the book now that he was here. He sat down with a sigh and found his place in the text using the ribbon bookmark.

Johnny tipped his face back to catch the sun and thought to himself that the shower had been pretty pointless, but at least it had given him a moment to himself.

Then the volleyball landed at his feet with a thump. He picked it up.

"THERE IT IS!"

Before he knew, Johnny was running for his life with Eddie, Steve, Mao, Emily and Sergei on his heels.

The beach turned out to be a good idea after all. Johnny soon forgot his anger as he played ball, swam, and explored the surrounding area. It was easier to pretend he was just eighteen and horny for anything and everyone when he was wrestling with Steve in the sand or seated on Sergei's massive shoulders trying to shove Mao into the water. There was something to all of them, a glimmer of heat in their eyes, an excitement to their smiles, a languid energy in their bodies that told him he wasn't the only one feeling the hormones.

They weren't children anymore.

But Ralf remained under his parasol, endlessly reading his little blue book, only looking up to tell them off when Steve and Johnny kicked up too much sand.

After a bout of running around, it was nice to just float in the waves for a while. Michael joined him, having twisted his ankle a week back and so not being up for any of the rough-housing. Max and Takao splashed around them, as childishly excited by the sun, surf and sand as they would have been when Johnny first met them. Johnny tracked the passage of a few woolly clouds sailing across the wide, blue sky, let his mind go empty and just floated.

"What are they doing over there?"

"Is Rai hurt?"

Johnny and Michael both righted themselves in the water to see what it was Max and Takao were reacting to, and Michael was swimming for shore immediately. The other boys followed.

Everybody else had congregated by the parasols and were bent over Rai on his towel. The only ones missing were Mao, Rei and Emily, who must have swum off for some girly time or something.

"Hey, is Rai alright?" Takao shouted as they dragged their legs through the shallows.

Yuriy and Steve both shushed him.

As they neared, they realised no one seemed to be very alarmed.

"What are we doing?" Takao whispered.

Rai was breathing heavily in sleep, unaware that he had become the centre of attention. He had gotten darker, broader and more muscular since last Johnny had seen him, which was a while ago now, and his black hair was slowly getting longer, though for the moment it couldn't compare to Rei's long braided tail.

"We think he's purring," Eddie explained.

Even Kai was in the circle watching Rai, though he had his arms crossed over his chest and hadn't deigned to bend over to hear better.

"He's not purring. That's not possible," Kyouju said mercilessly. He hadn't even looked up from his laptop.

"Absurd notion," Ralf echoed.

Olivier was lying on his stomach on the chair next to Ralf's and idly kicking his legs. "I don't know. They're a mysterious bunch, that Byakko clan."

"I think it sounds like purring," Yuriy said.

Johnny listened, and there was a kind of rumbling sound somewhere in that chest, but purring? “He’s probably just snoring.”

Michael dragged wet hair out of his face and cocked his head to the side. "He ... purrs?" He sounded more dreamy than questioning.

Steve and Eddie shared a grin.

"I've heard the sound of a cat's purr can actually help your body heal," said Steve.

"Michael's ankle could use some of that," Eddie agreed.

They pounced on Michael suddenly, scattering everybody else, and wrestled him down on his knees, bending him forward over Rai's chest.

With his hands held behind his back, Michael could only wiggle uselessly and hiss at his teammates. "Guys, guys, what-stop it-fuck-guys!"

And then Eddie's grip slipped and Michael flopped down on Rai in all his cold, wet, dripping glory.

Rai woke with a scream. "Aaaargh!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

"Get off!"

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

Rai shoved Michael off, shot up from the towel and sent most of the other teenagers scrambling away with a growl.

Michael laughed nervously. "Hey ... Rai ... We were just playing."

Rai gave him an unimpressed look with a hint of teeth, yanked his towel from underneath Michael and stalked off towards the bungalow.

Michael sat up, leaned his chin on his hand dejectedly and watched Rai walk away. "He was purring," he said to no one in particular.

"No," Kyouju maintained. "No, he wasn't."

Johnny rolled his eyes and went to the ice box to get a soda.

Eddie and Steve slunk back and sat down on either side of their captain.

"Sorry, man. Didn't meant to harm your chances."

Michael sighed. “It’s okay. I don’t think I have any chances. He’s mature, stoic, wise. I’m just a doofus in a baseball cap.”

“You’re not a doofus.”

“You’re the coolest dude we know. Rai’s gotta see that.”

“I don’t know. He’s so mysterious, always looks like he has something really important on his mind. He’s like … he’s like …” Michael grasped for the right words. “He’s like a lion.”

Johnny choked on his soda. He had to sit down in the sand, he couldn’t stop laughing.

“Hey, what’s your deal?” Michael had turned around and was frowning at him.

Johnny managed to compose himself at last, flopped down on his back and waved his soda dismissively at the three Americans. “You're a genius, baseball-boy. Like a lion. Oh god.” He wiped tears from the corner of his eye with the heel of his hand. "Next you'll tell me Rei is sort of like a tiger."

“If Rai is like a lion,” Kyouju observed dispassionately, “then he definitely wasn’t purring, because lions can’t purr. They roar.”

“You two are dumb,” Michael said petulantly, turning his back on them. “He was so purring.” He might have sat there until lunch contemplating his crush if Eddie and Steve hadn't dragged him off to watch them play more ball.

Rei, Emily and Mao returned. The ladies occupied the last two chairs, while Rei spread his towel out and lay down in the sand and sunlight in front of them.

Max and Takao came running to the cold box for drinks about a minute later. Johnny deposited his empty can in the trash bag and went down to the water to wash sand from his hair. When he returned, Max and Takao were talking excitedly amongst themselves.

"Hey, Johnny,” Takao called as he approached them. “Wanna swim around the cliff with us? Kai said there's a cave there."

Johnny glanced over at Ralf, and was surprised to catch his eyes; he had looked up from his book at last.

"Wanna go?" Johnny asked. "You're not gonna sit there like a nerd all day, are you?"

Ralf looked away. "I'll just end up with a headache. You go. I'll sit here like a nerd."

"That book had better be amazing," Johnny said, resenting how petulant his own voice sounded. "If you prefer that to hanging out with-everyone." The catch was barely noticeable.

“I am here, everyone else is here. I am hanging out with everyone.”

“Come on, Johnny,” Max put a hand on his shoulder. “Leave him to it.” He and Takao headed down the beach.

"Fine. Screw you." Johnny followed them, but had barely gotten five steps in before turning around with a frustrated grumble. "Or screw me. Hey, tall, pale and boring! At least put on some sunscreen."

"I'm sitting in the shade, Mother," Ralf replied.

Johnny stalked back. "It hasn't helped; you're already burned." He grabbed the nearest bag and began rifling through it for sunscreen.

"Try the big tote," Olivier said helpfully from his chair.

Johnny found a number of different bottles in that bag, and grabbed the one with the highest protection.

"Garlic in the dinner yesterday, feet in the sun today," Michael said as he came limping after the ball. "You're really coming out of your shell, Ralf." He grabbed the ball and turned to limp back to the other players. "Proud of you, buddy."

"First I blend in, then I eat you all," Ralf said.

Johnny grinned despite himself. "I'd almost forgotten," he said as he sat down on the side of Ralf's chair. "You used to be allergic to humour."

"Only bad humour."

Johnny rolled his eyes. "Come on: sunscreen time."

Ralf sighed like he was greatly put upon, but closed his book and accepted the bottle. Their hands brushed, and Johnny suppressed a shiver; they touched so rarely.

"Johnny, come on!"

Takao was yelling at him from down by the water, jogging impatiently in place. Max was already swimming.

Johnny stood up. "Yeah, yeah, stop nagging."

"Takao likes you," Ralf said quietly, rubbing the white cream into his right shoulder. "You have a similar adventurous spirit."

"Oh," Johnny said stupidly. "Okay." The sun blazed a lot hotter all of a sudden. "Uh, just remember to get that stuff on your back too. Olivier, help him out."

Olivier had been watching them all this time, but there was something less than sweet in his smile as he rolled over on his back and said, "I do so like how you two take care of each other. Not everyone would be willing to put up with you, Ralf, being as stubborn as you are. It requires a special someone."

Ralf gave Olivier what Johnny could only describe as a warning glance. It was strange.

"Johnny!"

"Keep your shirt on!" Johnny rose from the chair. "Guess I'm going then."

Kai caught them on the way out, found out where they were going and ended up conscripting half the beach to go with them, touting their inability to take care of themselves, but clearly just being a worried captain. Johnny remembered being surprised at the start of their second tournament season, when the BBA had announced that Kai would be the team’s captain from then on. It had seemed like a ridiculous idea, to put the most antisocial member in charge of everyone else, but as it turned out, now that Kai was free of his past and able to be his best self, he made a surprisingly conscientious and effective captain. He seemed to know when to step in and when to let his charges make their own mistakes, taught and protected them, and still somehow managed to be a grumpy, monosyllabic loner most of the time.

Then again, all the captains had grown into their tasks over these past few years. Yuriy had somehow managed to keep team Borg, now calling themselves the Blitzkrieg Boys, from falling apart even as therapy, foster homes, reintegration into society and the new geographical distance between them threatened to pull them apart. The Byakko clan seemed to become stronger every time Johnny met them, Rai lifting them up and forward, though he was currently struggling with Mao, who was looking for her own road to walk and furiously rebelling against every authority standing in her way. Michael had learned to look more to his team and less at himself, and was growing into a responsible leader. Johnny suspected Michael's time with Rai had taught him a thing or two. Of course, the American team still relied heavily on Judy Mizuhara and the rest of the PPB to support them.

Once Johnny, Giancarlo, Olivier and Ralf had decided that they were going to try being an actual team, Ralf had set out to read every book on team leadership ever written. It had been an … interesting start. Ralf had gone through periods of being overly controlling, uncharacteristically and incompetently caring, and full of weird ideas for team-building activities. Johnny had put his foot down at trust-exercises and hair-braiding. In the end, Olivier had invited Ralf to Paris for a weekend, and between them they had hashed out some guidelines for their newly minted captain. These days, Ralf led them with natural authority. He didn’t often tell them what to do (god help him if he tried), but he was their chief, their spearhead, and they deferred to him with pride and respect. They were perhaps a little more … into the whole hierarchy-thing than the other teams, but they were also more independent as bladers.

The cave was a cave. Johnny sat at the mouth of it with Sergei, kicking his feet in the water and waiting for the intrepid explorers to be ready to go back.

“This is riveting,” Johnny commented, as Max and Takao, Eddie and Steve exclaimed their excitement in the darkness behind him.

“It’s actually a pretty fascinating natural cave,” Emily said importantly. She was over by the cave wall with Mao, running her hands over the rocks like some sort of rock-whisperer. “Imagine the way this place has formed, from the first little dip in the rock, to a slowly widening maw in the cliffside, the water grinding away at the rock bit by bit.”

“Don’t care.”

“Someone’s still sore about this morning,” Mao sing-sung. Johnny stuck his tongue out at her. She stuck hers right back.

It was cold in here, and wet, and boring. Johnny wanted to get back to the beach, play more ball, have an ice cream, jump from the floating dock, and pester Ralf some more.

“Come on.” Sergei lifted himself back into the water. “We can swim back.”

“Yes! Thank you.” Johnny followed.

The hour before lunch passed quickly. They held a cannonball contest from the floating dock (Steve won), and then Johnny lounged in the sun with Rai for a while, ruining his appetite with ice cream.

Ralf read his book. The thing didn't even have a title on the cover, obviously missing its dust jacket. It was probably old. And boring.

Mao had coaxed Rei away from his towel again to go look for shells and sea-creatures in the rocky shallows on the north end of the beach. When Rei returned, invigorated, it was his turn to try to make Kyouju put his computer away.

"Are you really going to spend this amazing vacation doing the same thing you do every other day of the year? Come look at the ... the ... Emily, what did you call them again?"

"Asteroidea!" she shouted back. The PPB kids were busy burying Steve in the sand.

"Right, asteroidea. You should check out the asteroidea. There's two of them, and they're really cool."

"Thank you for the offer, but I'm very busy with work," Kyouju said.

Rei cocked his head to the side and frowned at him. "What are you even working on?”

Kyouju ducked his head a little, at once annoyed and embarrassed. “I'm writing a paper for the PPB Junior Journal.”

"Didn't you finish that weeks ago?"

"...This is a different one."

“Kyouju.” Rei sighed in exasperation. “The application deadline was ages ago; I don't think you can influence their decision anymore.”

“I should get the answer in a couple of weeks,” Kyouju said, stress creeping into his voice, the typing getting faster and a little more frantic. "There's still time."

“Have you applied to their internship program?” Ralf wondered.

Kyouju shook his head. “I spent a month as an intern there last year. I’m applying to Douglas College.”

"That's impressive! I've heard it's difficult to get in."

"Kyouju even took extra classes to finish school early." Takao appeared, hands cupped around a small crab. "Look what I found!"

Kyouju peered at it through his glasses. "That looks like a Mediterranean shore crab. They probably gathered in the seaweed beneath the cliffs to-Hey, don't distract me from my work!"

"But Kyouju," Takao said. "You've already sent in your application. They've probably already decided."

"That's what I told him," Rei said, once again spreading his towel out in the sand, next to Johnny. Rai had turned over on his stomach to watch the proceedings, but Johnny remained on his back, one hand behind his head, sucking on his ice cream and looking at everyone upside down.

"Besides, you'll get accepted no problem!"

"You don't know that, Takao."

Takao frowned, put the crab down (it scuttled off behind the cooler), and waved at the PPB. "Hey, Emily!" he shouted, ignoring how Kyouju frantically tried to shush him. "Isn't it true that Kyouju's totally gonna be accepted into the PPB school!"

Emily looked up from where she had been heaping sand over Steve's feet, stood, brushed herself off and came jogging over to them.

"Kyouju, you've applied to the college? You didn't tell me!"

Kyouju turned beat red. "I-I-I ..." Then he deflated. "I have, but Takao is being overly optimistic on my behalf."

Emily adjusted her glasses and pressed her lips together in displeasure. "It's time you accepted just how smart you are, Saien Manabu, and how hard-working."

"See?" Rei said. "We keep trying to tell him."

"When's the answer due?" Emily wondered.

"In a couple of weeks," Rei continued before Kyouju could get a word in. "But he's still writing essays for the PPB Junior Journal."

Emily raised an eyebrow.

"I want to show them that I'm not gonna slack off," Kyouju explained.

Emily tutted. "First of all, you are too good for that journal, and secondly, they already know your merits. How many people do you think get personally invited to the intern program? Kyouju, they want you. I have no doubts you'll get in. So take a day off. Have some fun." She turned to go back to her team. "Cause once you're in, they'll work you to the bone." She winked at him over her shoulder before she returned to help the boys bury Steve's massive chest.

Rei shielded his eyes with his hand. “Why are they packing his chest so high-oooh.” He cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Hey, Steve! I like your breasts!”

“Thank you!” came the reply.

"See, Kyouju?" Takao said, smiling, but Johnny thought there was something sad in it.

Kyouju stared at his laptop for a long moment. Then he shut it, and smiled. "Alright. I'll go look at the asteroidea."

"There are asteroids here?" Takao asked in confusion.

"No, asteroidea. Starfish. Come, I'll show you. Rei, did you wanna go?"

Rei waved them lazily away. "Already seen them. You two go. I'll nap for a bit." He stretched, yawned like a big cat, and leaned his head on his hands. Then he glanced up mischievously. "You're the only one left not having fun, Ralf. What are you reading that’s so fascinating?”

Ralf’s smile had a bitter edge. “A treatise on man’s folly.”

“Sounds … interesting?”

“I can’t put it down.”

“Maybe a break would do you good,” Rai suggested. “You haven’t turned the page in the last ten minutes.”

Ralf's eyes widened. Then he exhaled cautiously. "Hmph. You're right." He put the ribbon bookmark between the pages before shutting the book and rising. “A swim, was it, Johnny?”

Johnny grinned. “Finally! Now we’re talking.” He got up from the towel and chowed down the rest of his third ice cream.

Rai rose too, rolling his shoulders. "I'll join you, if you don't mind."

They swam out to the floating dock, where they interrupted Yuriy and Sergei's combat training. Ralf and Rai taught the three others how to dive, and then Yuriy introduced Johnny to some new boxing moves.

"Do you fight regularly?" Johnny wondered as they repeated the same move-set side by side.

"Not anymore," Yuriy replied, and there was a wealth of information in that. "But I train at a gym. Forging the past into something useful, that sort of stuff." It sounded like a motto from therapy. "What about you?"

"Not so much. My university is strict on that kind of thing. Not that I care, but it's such a pain to sit through the parent-teacher meetings. I used to brawl with rivals from other schools all the time, but ..."

"You grew up," Ralf said from below them, heaving himself back onto the dock in a cascade of water. "There's no shame in that." He dragged his hair back and squeezed water from the ends. It was dark purple now.

"Pah." Johnny brushed him off. "Ralf is all about the old-timey fighting. Swords, Beyblades. No fisticuffs unless someone's honour demands it. I say there's honour in fighting for your reputation and your pride, and I'll happily bonk you on your big nose to prove it."

"There is honour in combat," Rai agreed. "But not fighting for fighting's sake."

"See, there's a voice of reason," Ralf said, crossing his arms over his chest to keep from self-consciously covering his nose.

"I don't know," Yuriy said, finishing with a series of swift jabs before taking a step back and shaking himself loose. "There's something about the throbbing of a split lip that reminds you you're alive. Don't you think, Sergei?"

Sergei had launched his beyblade on the opposite end of the platform, and was watching Wolborg diving in the waves. The massive beast didn't create so much as a ripple in the water. "Hmm? Yes, yes, fighting. Go, Yuriy."

Yuriy snorted. "Sergei's a lover, not a fighter. Of course, if he did fight, he'd crush anyone."

Not long after, Olivier began hollering and waving at them from shore, which had to mean lunch. They swam back. Olivier and Giancarlo were busy gathering up stray sandals and sunhats, bottles of sunscreen and empty soda cans, giving them back to their owners or putting them away in the tote bags, depending.

Those who were wet dried themselves off, those who were eating ice cream hurried to finish before Olivier caught them, and there was general congregating as they got ready to go wherever lunch would happen.

"Sergei, Sergei, have you seen the asteroidea?"

"You mean starfish?"

Johnny dried his hair vigorously; he didn't feel like dripping through lunch.

Olivier picked up Ralf's book from his chair. He opened it briefly, a little smile appearing at the corner of his lips before he shut it, and then Ralf was there with his hand outstretched.

"I'll take that."

Olivier handed it over. "I had a feeling you'd stop there."

"You knew?"

"Would you have turned me down if I had told you?"

"No. Nor will it make a difference."

"Then why did you stop?"

"I didn't; I've already read it. All I have to do is turn the page."

"You haven't though."

Ralf's expression was becoming several degrees colder. Johnny lowered the towel, wondering what was going on.

"You still seem to think this is somehow going to change my mind."

Olivier exhaled, rubbing a hand briefly over his brow and temple. "I'm sorry. I'm just glad to see it's affecting you at all; I was beginning to think you didn't feel anyth-"

The slap rang loudly above the waves, and in its wake, the cries of the gulls above took on a mocking note.

No one moved. Olivier’s head was still turned to the side, eyes wide, red blooming in his cheek.

Then Ralf pushed the book hard into Olivier’s chest, barely giving him time to fumble his hands over it before he let go and stalked away towards the house.

"Ralf!"

Johnny started after him, but Olivier stopped him; "Johnny, wait! Let him go."

"Let him go? What the hell even was that?"

"Are you guys okay?" Mao asked.

Takao too was full of concern. "Are you fighting? You shouldn't be fighting."

Olivier sighed. "You’re sweet, all of you, but you'd best leave us to it for now." He touched his cheek gingerly, and looked to Giancarlo. “Mon coeur, would you…?”

Giancarlo nodded. “I’m on it. But Olivier, caro, that was not kind of you.”

Olivier looked down at the book in his hands. “Sometimes we must be cruel to be kind.”

Giancarlo grabbed his sandals to hurry after Ralf, but stopped when Johnny tried to go with him. Giancarlo put a hand on his shoulder and lowered his voice. "Eh, could you maybe keep an eye on Olivier for me? I don't think he's as okay as he pretends."

“What is going on?” Johnny hissed.

Giancarlo shrugged. “They clash sometimes, you know that; they're too used to getting their way. I’ll go after Ralf. Don’t worry.”

He jogged up towards the path where Ralf was rapidly disappearing, leaving Johnny with a distinct feeling that there was something they were keeping from him.

Rei had Olivier by the chin and was examining the handprint on his cheek. “You’ll be fine, but what happened? Ralf just exploded.”

Olivier took Rei’s hand and lowered it. “Don’t worry about it, mon ami. It will pass.” He looked around, sniffed, turned businesslike. “And it is time for lunch anyway. I hope you’re hungry.”

He stuffed the book into the bottom of one of the smaller bags, slung it over his shoulder, and marched off down the beach towards the bungalow. The other bladers followed more slowly, exchanging curious and concerned looks behind his back.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Rai asked Johnny.

Johnny felt ashamed that he had to shake his head.

Any meal in the Boulanger household was an event. Even when Monsieur Boulanger was not present and Olivier himself was not cooking, they wouldn’t stand for anything less than excellence, in everything from the raw ingredients to the final presentation.

Though they had already eaten a number of meals ala Olivier since they came here, there was still quite a lot of ooh-ing and aah-ing among the teens as Marcel and Gracie uncovered the trays they had brought down to the bungalow, revealing a pyramid of avocado slices and caramelized figs wrapped in paper-thin slices of salty ham, rows of skewers with grilled salmon, chicken, veal and every sort of vegetable one could imagine, and a huge bowl of Italian pasta salad with feta cheese, olives, Bocconcini, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil.

Wasting no time, the teenagers around the table set about devouring the offerings before them, but though his stomach was growling, Johnny couldn’t make himself do more than nibble on a chicken skewer. He watched the door.

Finally, a shadow fell across the entrance, but it was just Giancarlo, and he was alone. He was still in his bathing shorts and sandals, and didn’t look happy, which made Johnny all the more worried. Room was made on the bench between Steve and Olivier, and Giancarlo climbed in, all long arms and legs and bony elbows.

“Pass me everything; I’m starving,” he said, dissatisfaction thick in his voice.

“Where’s Ralf?” Johnny demanded when it became obvious that Giancarlo would not be forthcoming without some prompting.

“Up at the house.” Giancarlo didn’t look at him.

Johnny felt his irritation rising. “And? What did he say?”

"Doesn't he want lunch?" Takao asked. "Maybe we should bring him some?"

Rai swallowed a bit of veal and put the skewer down to wipe his hands on a napkin. “Can you at least tell us how serious this is? Not half an hour ago he was championing honourable combat, and then he suddenly commits unprovoked violence on a friend.”

Giancarlo sent Olivier a sideways glance. “Oh, I don’t think it was unprovoked.”

"You cannot take his side in this, surely?" Olivier demanded of his boyfriend, but he couldn’t be half as angry as Johnny was becoming.

“You know what’s going on,” he accused the two boys across the table, who were not looking at him.

The sounds of mealtime faded, a hush falling on the crowd.

“Tell me what is going on,” Johnny said slowly.

Giancarlo looked around like he would have liked an escape hatch or rope ladder to magically appear.

Johnny sneered. “Fine.” He rose and stepped over the bench. "I'll ask Ralf." He headed resolutely for the door.

“No, Johnny, leave him alone.”

"No chance."

"Aaagh." Giancarlo got up and came after him, getting between him and the door. "Look," he said. “You know Ralf.” His tone was gentle and coaxing. “He’s used to being alone; this constant company drains him. He sent me packing and he'll do the same to you. He just needs some time to himself.”

Johnny felt cold and humiliated, keenly aware that the eating had stopped as everyone watched the spectacle, and that they were all thinking the same thing; the Majestics were keeping something from Johnny.

Then Takao, always the soul of etiquette, spoke up with his mouth full. “It’s not right, though; if Ralf gets to shut himself away now, he’s just gonna bury his feelings again. Olivier, maybe if you go apologize, he’ll open up to you?”

There was a sting behind Johnny’s breast bone. Takao always knew what people were feeling, always said the right thing. Takao always reached Ralf, made him mellow, made him change, made him understand.

Olivier had opened his mouth to explain, but Johnny beat him to it, fists clenched, bile and rage and inadequacy pouring into his tone.

“Seriously, Kinomiya, you think because you’re the reigning champion, you get to insert yourself into any conversation like you belong there? You think you’re such a fount of fucking wisdom, but you don’t know anything about us. Keep to your place for once and shut up.”

Both Mao and Kyouju shot to their feet.

“What gives you the right to be such a jerk?” she demanded.

“Takao is just trying to help.” Kyouju’s voice was shrill with indignation.

“Leave them be.” Yuriy spoke softly. He was still eating, at a slow, steady pace, having paused only to grin at them. “Forgive me if I don't feel sorry for you, little rich kids with your problems. Crying into your oysters.” His eyes were blue like ice when he looked at Johnny. “Is this how you fight for your pride?” He turned to Olivier. "Do you make this much of a fuss over every little squabble? Ever heard that suffering hones the soul?"

“That's not fair,” Olivier whispered harshly.

Johnny thought of the long shadows in his father's office. Father's back bending as he reached for the bamboo stick. "I am just glad we caught you in time. You will not see Holger again. I will only teach you this lesson once, boy, so remember it well; what the two of you tried to do is sinful, disgusting, and wrong. Repeat it back to me."

Johnny had learned a different lesson that day. That his father's love was conditional, and that he would someday have to live without it.

But Yuriy didn't know. No one knew. Because suffering honed, if not your soul, then at least your ability to lie.

"Hey," Giancarlo held up his hands. "That's enough. There's no need for all this."

"Okay, but you're beginning to worry us now," Rei spoke up. "At least tell us Ralf is okay."

"He's okay," Giancarlo said just as Olivier said "He's not okay."

"Great. Is he sick? Is he dying?"

"How about we all go see him?" Takao asked, rising, and then half the table was getting up and Giancarlo was frantically waving his arms at them.

"No, no, sit down, he's not dying. I SAID SIT DOWN, HE'S JUST GETTING-" It had gone quiet. "-married." Giancarlo cleared his throat, lowering his voice again. "He's getting married."

The ground disappeared beneath Johnny's feet and then he was in freefall.

He meant to say "What?", but no sound came out of his mouth, and Giancarlo had his back to him now, so he didn't see it.

"Married?" Michael echoed incredulously. "He's nineteen."

"He turned twenty in March," Giancarlo said lamely.

Olivier was massaging his temples. "We were not supposed to tell anyone, Giancarlo."

"I know," even more lamely. "I panicked."

"Who's he marrying?" Max wondered. "I didn't know he had friends outside us." He looked at Mao and Emily, as if it was more likely to be one of them than an outsider.

Emily rolled her eyes, rising from where she sat at the closest end of the bench. It was Johnny she was focused on. "Hey. You alright? You don't look so good."

He didn't feel so good; nauseous and trembling hard, pressure mounting in his ears.

Married. It repeated over and over inside him. Ralf had someone. Ralf was in love with someone. Ralf was going to be with someone, be someone's husband.

No, no, no!

"I'm sure he meant to tell you too," Emily said, leaning in. Startled, he met her eyes, quick and alert and kind.

What? Oh.

Giancarlo came back and patted him awkwardly on the shoulder. "Actually, he wasn't going to tell anyone yet; Olivier and I found out by accident, and we were kind of sworn to secrecy. I'm sorry."

"Come sit down," Olivier ordered. "Eat something. You've had too much sun and not enough sustenance."

Humiliation pounded high in Johnny's throat. Ralf was in love with someone else. What else had Johnny expected? What kind of ridiculous dreams had he secretly been nourishing?

"Come on. Take my seat." Emily reached for him, and it was too much; everyone was watching, he was cornered, the sun burning his back, their eyes burning his face. He needed air.

He showed Emily his teeth, backing away. “I don’t need sympathy from someone who lets computers dictate how she blades. You and your team are glorified launchers!”

“Johnny!” Olivier stood. "That's enough!"

"Come on, Johnny," Eddie said. "Why are you even mad? So Ralf's found someone to love. Sounds like a cause to celebrate to me."

There was a howl clawing its way up his throat, and in a moment of pure self-preservation he turned tail and fled, out the door and down the beach, only managing to keep his pace to an angry walk because he couldn't make his trembling legs run.

He heard his name called, but didn’t turn or stop.

Tears pressed hard behind his eyes. The heat of the sun was like a weight pressing him down.

He stumbled up the beach, past the parasols, and up the path towards the house, only slowing as he reached the top and saw the house resting there under the blue sky. Ralf was inside.

Ralf was getting married.

Ralf would soon be someone’s partner, companion, husband.

… And that someone would be his wife. Someone would move into the castle, and fill it with light and life and laughter and ... children.

Johnny gasped around the ache in his throat, curled his fingers as needles of sorrow stabbed through them. Forced the tears back.

Ralf would be happy and complete.

And where would Johnny be?

A sound from the beach made him startle and turn, but it was only a couple of seagulls wheeling down to peck at their bags, looking for food. It woke him up, though; he couldn’t just stand here. He made himself walk towards the house. He needed clothes, needed his things; couldn’t leave like this.

He chose the balcony door again, peeked inside and saw empty rooms, snuck through the house and met no one. He was half-way up the stairs when he heard the scramble of claws on hardwood flooring, and Camille came bounding around the corner, skidding several metres before barking excitedly and leaping up the stairs to nearly bowl him over.

Marcel, grey-haired before his time, came after a moment later, breathing hard. “Chien stupide! Oh! Monsieur Johnny. Pardon. I’ll take her.”

“Actually …” An idea had struck. He couldn’t leave; it would make everyone wonder. If they found out his secret, he'd die of shame. But he needed to be alone now, where no well-meaning friend could come knocking. “I can take her for a walk.”

“There’s no need, monsieur; Genvie took her out less than an hour ago. You are our guest, and here to relax …” He must have seen Johnny’s disappointment, because he quickly amended, “But you know Camille; she would spend all day exploring the grounds if she could. She would love to go for a walk with you.”

“Excellent. If anyone asks, we don’t know when we’ll be back.”

“Very well.”

“I’ll be right down.”

He managed to get to his room without meeting anyone else, heart pounding hard all the way, like he was a trespasser. He closed the door as silently as he could, in case Ralf was in his own room, and eased the drawers open to get his khaki shorts and a green tank top.

There was sand in his hair and on his feet, but he didn’t care, didn’t even stop to dry off his damp skin, just shucked his trunks and pulled on the shorts and top. He grabbed his sneakers out of the closet and shoved his feet into them, and lastly, before he left, he got his blade from behind his pillow and slipped it into his pocket.

A minute later he was running with Camille along the cliff's edge, away from the beach, the house, his friends, Ralf, and the shattered world.

They hit the tree line and plunged into the woods. Once they were well away, he let her off the leash. She was off like a greyhound after a stuffed bunny, barking so Johnny half expected the trees to come down around them, but within moments she was back, circling his legs, bouncing and wagging her tail, and when she went off again, he followed, first walking and then running.

The woods were made up of sparse exotic pines, not as dense as the overgrown trees of his own highland summer home, but the sun still did not feel as intense in here. Soon Camille was gone, and Johnny slowed to a walk. The woods split off into a belt that curved around the Boulanger grounds. Johnny walked south for a while before allowing the natural paths to take him east and northeast. Every now and then he mustered his voice and called for Camille, keeping her close.

He listened to the wind in the trees and the rustle of dry pine needles under his feet, breathed deeply of the faint salt and sharp sap in the air, and felt the sun and the shade warm and cool him in turns. But every moment he was haunted by the spectre of a woman he knew nothing about, who had risen like a veil between him and his best friend.

He walked until he found himself in the clearing where Olivier had built his outdoor beydish.

The dish was grey, and rested in a black stone foundation, with four steps up to the lip on each side. The dish itself had a matte finish, but the stone was smooth and polished, and the light made its pink and white veins shine. It looked alien in this landscape.

Johnny sat down on the dais and pulled his blade from his pocket. The weight and shape of it should have been reassuring. The cicadas sang here, intensifying the heat and the dizziness in his head. Salamalyon was silent.

They had come here on the first day and bladed until the sun had gone down. Seventeen of the world’s best bladers, cheering and yelling encouragement and challenges, their sacred beasts roaring at the sky.

Johnny had lost to Takao. He’d been doing fine, Sala was fast and ferocious, spitting fire, clashing head on with Seiryuu and holding his own. Takao had been laughing.

It had been fun. He had been proud.

Then Olivier had said something aside to Ralf, and Ralf had brushed him off brusquely, and when Olivier tried again, Ralf had gotten angry, and Johnny had lost track of the battle in his concern.

“I agreed to your terms, now heed mine; do not bring this up with me again until the time is out!”

What Ralf had meant, Johnny didn’t know. He had thought only of how hurt Ralf sounded, how this was different from the usual way he and Olivier sometimes argued, and so Johnny had turned to see what was wrong, and Salamalyon, so closely bonded with him, had turned too, and then cried out in alarm as Seiryuu and Dragoon had hit them hard from behind, sending Johnny’s blade shooting out of the dish and into the bushes.

The cicadas screamed around him.

He felt small as he sat there, curled around his own pain. Like an animal in the underbrush, hiding from a world too large for it. Out there, bigger, more wonderful, fearless animals were living in the sun, sharing their own desire and finding themselves desired in turn. Johnny was curled up under the leaves, waiting for a spring that seemed like it would never reach him. For some reason he had thought his winged, beaked best friend would stay down there with him forever.

Stupid dream.

How could he have imagined that anyone would want him, let alone that Ralf might? Ralf could have anyone. Johnny had thought himself free of such delusions, but now he knew that some small part of him had hoped … thought that maybe …

God, he was so stupid.

In the end, anyone who gave him a chance would quickly discover how petty and ordinary he was. Always second best.

Camille came running, and after sniffing around for a while, she climbed the steps on her short legs and fell down close by his side, panting hard.

“Hey, Camille.”

Her tail thumped happily against the stone, her paws hanging daintily over the edge of the first step.

"Do you wanna know,” he began, “how I first figured out that I was in love with him?" He smiled. "It's pretty dumb."

Camille blinked up at him with her dark, kind eyes.

"It was after he gave me the rematch. Of course, you don't know what that means. I'd wanted one for ages, you see, but he had this rule, and until Takao ..." He had to swallow around the lump in his throat. "Ralf wouldn't make an exception for me, so I waited, and I tried other games, anything that I could challenge him to. He always won, but I thought, if I just keep trying, eventually he'll blade with me again, and then I can prove that I'm ..." He looked up, blinked. "We played everything ... except Beyblade. Then our lord and saviour Kinomiya Takao came along … and Ralf made an exception. I couldn't understand why. Why was Takao worthy when I wasn’t?” He shook his head. “I still don’t know … But afterwards, once the spell was broken ... I asked again. And Ralf said yes. And we battled. And he won."

Camille whined and snuffled at his thigh. Johnny stroked her head.

"I felt so strange afterwards; I didn't know if I was angry, or okay, or something else. I'd failed, but I felt ..."

He shook his head.

"I was staying over. Ralf doesn’t sleep well, so he tends to wander the castle at night, and that night I couldn't sleep either, so I went to find him." He closed his eyes and saw before him the long hallway, the lounge, and the open glass doors with the white curtains. "He was standing on a balcony looking out into the dark. He's dramatic like that. He was leaning on the balustrade, all alone in his pyjamas in the cold and I realised ..." He had to bite his lower lip hard for a moment before he could continue. "I realised I didn't want to win, because then ... why would he let me stay? So I felt happy because he let me stay."

The stone dais glittered in the sun so Johnny couldn't see.

"I knew then that what I had felt after the match was happiness. Not because I lost, but because he was right there, across the dish from me. I hate losing, but ... I love being with him."

The sea began to well up in his eyes, but he shook his head, held it back.

"... He doesn't love me. He'll never love me."

Why would anyone?

Needles of sorrow stung in his fingertips.

"That's okay. It's okay. I got five years with him. I'll remember them."

 

Chapter Text

By the time he returned, he had managed to breathe himself down to a place he could control.

Giancarlo was getting his ass thoroughly trounced on the tennis court. Emily was hanging over the net laughing while the Italian ran after the ball. Camille saw the ball too and bounded forward with an excited bark, beating Giancarlo to the prize and bouncing off with it.

"Damnit, Camille, give it back!"

Emily sank down beside the net, hiccupping with laughter.

Even Johnny found himself smiling. He whistled, and Camille banked so hard she kicked up turf, racing back to him and past him. She came back and ran to Giancarlo, baiting him to chase her, but Giancarlo let her run, leaning on his hip and waiting for Johnny with a companionable smile.

Johnny stopped in front of him. "Hey."

"Hey to you too. How do you feel?"

"I’m fine. Lost my temper. I’m sorry." He spoke lightly, hoped Giancarlo would let him blow it off as one of his occasional episodes.

Giancarlo winked. "It’s not me you should be apologising to, my friend." He glanced back at where Emily had gone to pack up her tennis equipment.

Better to do it now, Johnny thought.

He shared a last look with Giancarlo and headed across the tennis court to Emily, whose back was resolutely turned.

He stood awkwardly and waited for her to face him. She didn’t. He cleared his throat. She ignored him, retying her shoelaces.

"Emily."

She sighed harshly.

"Emily, I am sorry. I didn’t mean it."

She turned around, crossing her arms over her chest. "I think you meant it, Johnny McGregor. But I don’t think you meant to say it out loud." She looked him up and down critically. "I forgive you. You’re wrong about us, and I’ll prove that to you, but not today. There’s been enough excitement."

He nodded. Smiled. It felt like it looked natural. "I look forward to it."

The corner of her mouth quirked up, an evil little glint in her eyes. "You’d better get inside. You have some more people to apologise to."

He nodded. Stepped around her and headed for the house. Called for Camille and heard Giancarlo shouting after her.

"At least leave the ball, you dumb mutt!"

She pranced across the gravel path next to Johnny, ball in her mouth and tail held high.

“Camille!” Olivier appeared on the veranda. He wore a light whispy-thin robe over a simple summer dress. "Camille, where have you been?"

Camille wagged her butt so hard she almost fell over.

"Give me that." Olivier held his hand out, and the pooch handed the ball over reluctantly. Olivier gave it to Johnny, drool and all. "Here. You throw better than I do."

"Thanks." Johnny hefted the ball, channelled his brief school cricket career, and threw the ball across the lawn towards Giancarlo. Camille ran after it immediately, beating Giancarlo to it, and then they were back where they started.

Olivier slapped his forehead. "Camille!"

Giancarlo was now chasing the delighted dog around the tennis court.

"Your pooch, your problem," Johnny said, wiping his hand on his shorts and moving past Olivier into the house. Then he paused. "Hey ... Where's ...?"

Olivier looked over his shoulder. "I think he's in the billiard room," he said breezily. "That's where he hid. But Yuriy and Steve were talking about playing before dinner, so he's probably no longer alone."

"That's fine. Thanks."

"Johnny ... I'm sorry we didn't tell you."

"It's fine." It was not fine, but at least it made a nice excuse for why he had acted upset. "I'll skin him alive, but it's fine."

Oliver actually turned after him. "Eh ... Skin him gently, okay? He's having a bad day."

"I'm about to make it worse."

But as he scaled the stairs, Johnny wondered. What had Olivier said to Ralf to make him so angry? He still didn't know. Was it just that Olivier had discovered the secret before Ralf was ready to share? Had he pushed for Ralf to reveal it? It didn't feel quite right, but Johnny suspected none of his three team mates would tell him if he asked. Not yet.

The upstairs floor had two wings, the north and the south. Most of the floor was occupied with bedrooms and bathrooms, but in the tip of the north wing there was also a study where Olivier's parents could withdraw to work, a playroom that the twins had claimed as their own, and the billiard room. It could have been called the games room, because it also had darts, a card table, a small bowling alley and a miniature curling board, but the centrepiece was a big billiard table.

As he drew near, nervous moths filling his stomach, Johnny recognised the sound of billiard balls smacking into each other. Not alone, then.

The white doors were open just a little. Johnny paused for a moment, and was rewarded with conversation floating out between the sounds of the game in progress.

“I am not looking for your well-wishes.” Ralf sounded like he would rather be talking about something else already. “I was told that I acted in a manner that upset some of you, and I thought I would explain myself.”

"We get that," Rei said. "But you sound like you're going to the dentist, not getting married."

A stick slammed into a billiard ball. "Did she sit on you until you surrendered?" Yuriy drawled.

"No, no, she did not." Now Ralf sounded like he was rubbing his forehead in frustration. "I approached her."

Johnny clenched his fists until they ached.

“Then tell us something about her.” That was Michael. “Who is she? What's she like?”

"Does she blade?" Kai's voice was so low it took Johnny a moment to figure out what he had said.

Ralf sighed, sounding put upon. “Laura does not blade. She is …”

Wait, no, I'm not ready!

Johnny fumbled with her name, trying to process it, to let it sink in. Laura. Petrarch had written three-hundred sonnets in worship of Laura.

... with her shy sacred look, sitting apart, and singing sweetly.

“We have known each other since we were children," Ralf was saying. "Our parents have long hoped that we would eventually marry. I am twenty years old, master of my estate, and alone. I will be glad to have someone to share my cares with.”

“Wow, curb your enthusiasm,” Michael said flatly.

Ralf's voice was suddenly clearer, like he had turned towards the door. He was angry now. “Laura is one of the few people I enjoy having long conversations with," he began pointedly. "She is well-read, has travelled extensively and is currently studying social economy and leadership, making her one of the most intelligent people I know. She is a very kind person, and quite beautiful."

Oh. I can't compete with that.

Like there was even a competition to begin with.

"See, that wasn't so hard," Rei said.

“What the hell does she see in you?” Yuriy asked.

I wonder if she loves the same things about him that I do. Did she like that he was uncompromising and merciless? That he worked until he was hyper-competent at everything he set his mind to? That in informal social settings he had no idea what to do with himself and usually ended up standing like an awkward stork in a corner?

That once you got past his shell, he was kind despite himself?

Johnny breathed in deep and reached for the door-handle. He had to go inside. Olivier knew he was up here; he couldn't walk away without having to explain why down the line. He just had to move.

Come on. Fake it! You've done it before. If he finds out about your feelings, he'll never want to see you again.

Then Johnny would know he was undesired.

But he couldn't make himself move.

You can't leave. Come on, just go inside and pretend nothing's wrong.

And then his hand was forced.

“Hey, McGregor. Are you asleep out there?” Kai, whose eyes were the same cruel red as Ralf’s.

Johnny kicked the door open so hard it crashed into the wall, startling the entire room.

“You’re getting married, you forgetful bastard! Were you gonna tell me before or after you said I do? Are we even invited to this thing or are you gonna keep it causal before you spirit her away to your dungeon?”

Rei clutched his heart. "What the hell, Johnny!"

Yuriy and Steve were at the billiard table. Rei was kneeling in front of Michael, helping him do his daily stretches to mend his ankle. Rai was seated in an armchair, and Kai was leaning against the back of it in his usual brooding posture. The look he sent Johnny was unimpressed.

Ralf stood in front of the window, framed by the daylight, breathtakingly handsome in a simple dust-blue shirt and black slacks, hair unstyled, just brushed back from his face. His eyes were wide and surprised. Then they narrowed.

"Jonathan, there you are. Maybe you can explain why nobody wants to tell me what happened during lunch."

Johnny continued, undeterred. "The two clowns downstairs already knew. Did you ask them to be the flower girls?"

"They found out without my help, let me assure you."

Rai leaned his chin on his hand. "I still don't understand why you wouldn't share the joyous news with your friends."

Johnny rolled his eyes. "Really?" He gestured to Ralf with both hands. "Have you ever met someone less inclined to share his inner life? He lives in a stone castle with his butler, he doesn't even have a goldfish to keep him company; he's barely got any practice talking to other people, much less sharing important personal information. I have seen him pay restaurant patrons to leave so he could eat alone."

Ralf sniffed, playing it cool while his cheeks grew pink. "Only once," he mumbled.

"Point taken," Rai said. "But then why are you mad at him?"

"Because!" Johnny began loudly, silently thanking Rai for the perfect cover story. "Once Olivier and Giancarlo found out," he turned back to Ralf, "why the hell didn't you tell me too? I'm your best friend, dammit!"

This was going wonderfully. Now Ralf would apologise , say it had all happened too fast, that he'd made the wrong choice. Then everything would appear to be alright, and Johnny could bury his feelings until morning, come up with some excuse for why he had to leave immediately, and go home.

But Ralf didn't reply. For the space of five too-rapid heartbeats, Ralf just looked at him.

Steve shook his head and lined the cue up for a new shot. "There's more drama in you four than in my Grandma's soaps."

"I should have told you," Ralf said. "I'm sorry." But it was too late. The words rang untrue. God, they all had to hear it; the awkwardness of their silence spoke loudly of their understanding.

"Good. That's settled then," Johnny said, hoping he sounded as naive as he felt. He turned back to the door. "I'll see you for dinner."

"I'm going to need a best man."

Ralf was trying to make amends, throwing himself open in a way he never did to mitigate some of the humiliation he had just caused Johnny in front of their friends, but it didn't matter. The initial silence, the reasons behind it, the secrecy; none of that mattered. Before his inner eye, Johnny saw himself standing behind the happy couple as they exchanged their vows, with the weight of their rings in his breast pocket, and felt sick all the way to his bones.

"I'll check my schedule."

He left without looking back.

He should go look for Takao to make his final apology, but he couldn't stand seeing more people right now; if he was going to survive this evening, he needed some time for himself.

He was ten steps from his own door when another door opened right in front of his nose, narrowly avoiding slamming him in the face. Max peeked around it. "Oh, Johnny! Hi! I didn't see you there." And then he just kept on talking. "I was just going to get my extra launcher, you see Sergei and Takao were gonna test who had the most powerful launch, and then Sergei broke his launcher with his bare hands, I mean, he didn't do it on purpose, he's just so amazingly strong, but anyway, I have a spare one with me so I volunteered to go get mine and-"

Before he knew it, Johnny had been herded downstairs by the sheer force of Max not shutting up, and at the bottom of the stairs they met Takao, and Max sort of winked at him and then Takao slung an arm around Johnny's neck, pulling him along, and now Takao was talking non-stop, and Johnny didn't even get a chance to protest because between them, they never needed to stop for breath, so by the time he looked around again, he was back in the clearing in the woods and up against Eddie in a Beybattle, and Max and Takao were grinning conspiratorially at each other on the sidelines.

It wasn't until Mao started cheering for him that Johnny realised they were all trying to be nice to him because he had been upset. They were comforting him. He was being cheered up by commoners.

Eddie wasn't quite as onboard with forgiving the guy who had called him a "glorified launcher", but that was fine. Johnny was surviving moment to moment anyway, and Salamalyon expressed their shared pain in a ferocity that Eddie needed his anger to match.

But clear heads tended to win the day, and Johnny's was not. They tied.

Eddie shook his hand afterwards though. "Hey. We can try again tomorrow. I don't think that was our best battle."

My best battle, you mean.

"You're on," he said. He wouldn't be here tomorrow anyway.

They had brought him outside with them to make him happy again. If he went to his room now, they'd know they had failed. So Johnny stayed. Thankfully, he wasn't asked to battle again, but could just watch. Mao battled Max next, while Kyouju tried to fix the broken mess that was Sergei's launcher, and Takao hung over his shoulder and provided him with unhelpful suggestions.

"No," Kyouju eventually exclaimed. "That's not where that bit goes and you can't use glue to fix it!"

"Okay, okay ... Are you sure, though?"

"YES!"

Time passed the way it did, uncaring if the hours were happy or not. Eventually, the gong rang for dinnertime. Johnny felt hollow, but there was a calmness in it, and a numb sensation that helped him speak and smile and move his body. Dinner was a much less dramatic affair than lunch, though the food was no less excellent. The mood around the table was one of deliberate politeness, avoiding certain topics and pretending like Ralf was not brooding over his plate.

“Have you heard about the new type of weight disk being developed in Australia?” Kyouju asked at one point, sounding desperate for anything to break the tension, and it worked, first as the conversation became an impenetrable debate between ultra-nerds Emily and Kyouju over what relative impact this new research would have on the professional Beyblade scene, and what kind of metal alloy was most ideal overall, and then when Rei managed to steer it over into more accessible territory, until they were all neck-deep in strategic analysis and general arguing over what kind of blade build was superior.

Johnny managed to chime in with a vote for offensive builds. Every now and then, he stole glances at Ralf, who had only picked at his food, and was ignoring the conversation altogether. This was not unusual; Ralf had a small appetite at the best of times, and might even forget whole meals if nobody put a plate in front of him. Any other day, Johnny would have nagged at him to eat his vegetables. Today, he said nothing. If he hadn't been starving after his meagre lunch, he didn't think he would have been able to eat his own vegetables, sautéed to perfection though they might be.

Once, Ralf looked up, and Johnny couldn’t look away in time. Their eyes held. Johnny managed a weird, crooked smile. Ralf’s expression became just a little milder. Johnny loved him.

She will make him happy. That's more important than you.

At the head of the table, Olivier was preoccupied with his thoughts, and using the wrong fork for his fish. Most of them were using the wrong fork for the fish, honestly, but for Olivier to do so was somewhat of a bigger deal. Eventually, Giancarlo put a hand on his wrist. "Caro, are you alright? You're using your salad fork."

Olivier startled, looked at the fork like it had offended him, sighed and put it down. "I'm alright." He rose from his chair. "A moment of your attention, everyone. I have some work to do, so I'll leave you to finish your meal. You are free to do as you wish afterwards, but I hope you will join me in the little lounge later this evening. I have ..." he seemed to hesitate over what to say. "I have devised a bit of entertainment for us. I think ... hope ... you will like it."

They spent the rest of the meal speculating over what Olivier was planning.

"Do you think it involves Beyblade?"

"Not everything in life involves Beyblade."

"Only the best things."

"Maybe he's hired a circus?"

"You're being a little optimistic there, Max."

"You think so? Remember when Giancarlo had a small Colosseum built in St Peter's Square overnight just so he could blade against Takao?"

"Oh yeah. Hey, Giancarlo, did Olivier hire a circus?"

"Not this time."

"This time?"

"Wait, so you know what he's planning?"

"Oh look, I'm all done. I'd better go ... somewhere else."

"Hey!"

"Is there any dessert?"

Takao got his dessert, prolonging the torture. Ralf excused himself and left early, but Johnny feared doing the same.

Eventually, though, dinner did end, and there was a great clinking of cutlery and scraping of chairs as they all got up to leave. Now at last, Johnny was determined to escape to his room. Most everybody else was going back outside; Yuriy had challenged Kai to a match, and everyone wanted to watch. Rarely did any hour go by in this company without someone challenging someone to a Beyblade match, and in this case it served Johnny well, as it meant he could slip away and up the stairs without anyone noticing.

Almost. He made the mistake of looking back once, and caught Rai watching him.

It was with profound relief that Johnny closed the door to his room behind him. And immediately sank to the floor under an onslaught of aching grief.

No, no. Breathe. Don't fucking cry. Stupid, selfish, lazy, pathetic! Man up!

He sat on the floor with his head between his knees and just breathed until the worst of it passed. He should sleep. That would make the evening go faster. A shower first would help too; let him wash away the day and move forward.

He checked the bathroom carefully, knowing that this time, Ralf was just beyond the other door. Then he took his second shower of the day, rinsing off sunscreen, sand, sweat and dirt, running his hands over a body that now ached as if with fever. At least the constant low hum of arousal was buried under the pain. When he crawled into bed a little later, he felt clean, but his stomach was knotted with sorrow.

He let himself drift, trying to steer his mind along paths that were not about Ralf, and though he failed, he was at least eventually asleep.

For one blissful moment, right after regaining consciousness, Johnny didn’t remember any of it. Then someone knocked on the door, and everything came back in a rush.

Oh.

"Johnny, are you in there?"

It was Max.

"Olivier wants us downstairs."

"Coming," he managed to croak, voice rough with sleep and pain.

"... Can I come in?"

Oh shit. Time to act for the masses again.

"Hang on."

He dragged himself out of bed and hopped into a pair of boxers and a random t-shirt. A quick look in the mirror told him he looked … tired. He could pass it off as tired.

Then he opened the door.

There stood Max with his grey shorts, pale blue t-shirt and sunny smile. "Hi! I just wanna look at your room. This house is amazing."

Johnny just stared at him for a moment before remembering that Max was poor. "Sure. Come in. It's Aurelie's room, so it's a bit ... girly."

"Aaah, it's so pretty!"

Then Max caught sight of the open closet where Johnny had hung some of his clothes.

"Wow, is that a kilt?"

Before Johnny could stop him, the blonde had made a beeline for the closet and pulled down the hanger where Johnny had carefully hung up his kilt.

"It's so cool!"

Johnny opened his mouth to tell Max to stop being so damn enthusiastic about life, before deciding it was a lost battle and trying for something else. "It's an old one, used to belong to my brother. I use it for ... semi-formal occasions? You never know when Olivier will have hired a circus."

The Ramsay Blue tartan was a little faded, and the seams had needed mending more than once, but it was his favourite kilt anyway. Kenneth had gifted it to him years ago, saying it looked better on Johnny. Johnny still warmed himself on that compliment on rainy days.

Max turned to Johnny, eyes huge and shiny with excitement, lower lip caught in his teeth. "You have to wear this."

"What, now?"

"Yes. Now."

"I'm not gonna put on a kilt now."

Fifteen minutes later, he came downstairs in the kilt.

Max was all but bouncing next to him. "I had no idea wearing a kilt involved wearing so many other things."

"Actually," Johnny said, defeated, "this is pretty casual."

He had put on cream hose, shined his black Brogues, and chosen a simple white shirt to tuck into the kilt. Had it been a proper occasion, he would have laced up his shoes, added tassels, and worn a jacket and tie.

"Also, I thought ..." Max cleared his throat. "Aren't you supposed to not wear any ... you know?"

Save me.

"It's optional."

They were among the last to arrive in the little lounge.

The room was small, intimate and candlelit. Johnny seemed to recall it having a sitting group of some kind originally, but the floor had been cleared to fit in a massive, circular couch, piled high with pillows. A single bar stool took up half the entry-gap in the couch, and a tall little table had been placed behind it. On the table, a big, glass bowl full of bits of paper stood next to a clipboard.

Here, like in the ballroom, one wall was made up of windows plus a glass door leading out to a veranda, though not as big a one as the one outside the ballroom. Roses peeked inside from all around the doorframe, hanging off a trellis that covered most of the wall on this side of the house.

A number of black bookshelves were lined up along a second wall, while a pastoral painting with some bathing youths dominated the third, hung over an elegant whitewashed fireplace, currently shut up for the summer. A glass-fronted cabinet in a corner looked to contain just about every sort of alcohol known to man, and there was a tray of tall glasses on one of its shelves.

Yuriy stepped up next to Johnny and looked him up and down curiously.

"Why are you wearing a kilt?"

"Max."

"Anything underneath?"

"Yes."

Mao leapt across the back of the couch and landed in it with a whoop, making her white, flowery dress flutter airily around her. “Ooh, it’s so soft.” A moment later she was up and dancing over to the cabinet. “Look, drinks!”

“Mao, I don't think we can drink Mr and Mrs Boulanger's alcohol.” Rai, concerned older brother, hurried over to stop her as she reached for the door handles.

“What’s this, Olivier? Group therapy hour?” Kai had his arms crossed over his chest and was looking around suspiciously.

Takao was leaning over the back of the couch. He looked over his shoulder with an excited grin. “I think I know what’s happening.”

Everyone else drew closer to see what it was he was seeing. In the middle of the circle was a silver needle, mounted on a metal foot.

It took Johnny a moment before he realised the implication.

“Are we …” Max’s grin began to match Takao’s.

Eddie and Steve were waggling their eyebrows at each other.

“Do we get to stab each other?” Yuriy asked.

“No, Yuriy, it’s Spin the bottle!” Takao explained enthusiastically.

Yuriy raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what that means.”

The tension in the room became thick and hot, as seventeen hormonal, summer-warm late teenagers thought about the same thing. Eyes strayed around with curiosity and hunger, or darted away with sudden bashfulness as they met someone else’s.

This was a disaster. Johnny stared at the needle, the moths awake again and tumbling uncomfortably around in his stomach.

Don’t look at Ralf.

He had only played a game like this once before, with his classmates. It was years ago now. It had led him to Holger.

Olivier exhaled like he was making a decision, and walked in between them, dragging his hand along the top of the sofa as he circled it. “Takao is almost right. This will not be your average Truth or Dare or Spin the bottle. Come play with me and I’ll show you.”

“Uh … what is Truth or Dare and Spin the bottle?” Rai asked from over by the cabinet, while everyone else were drawn to the couch as if it was on fire and they were moths. Only Johnny's moths were pulling in a different direction.

But he had to keep up the act.

Olivier stood by and let them all pass him into the circle. Giancarlo stopped to give him a quick kiss as he passed him. “Let me know, okay? I won't do anything you don't like.”

Olivier nodded.

"Can I kiss you too?" Yuriy asked.

Olivier put a finger on the taller boy's chin and leaned in close. "You'll get to kiss someone."

“Do we get to drink?” Mao added, eagerly jumping over the back of the couch again. She placed herself next to Eddie and then waved Giancarlo over in an obvious move to stop Rai from sitting next to her.

Olivier grinned, pushing Yuriy to take a seat. “I’ll explain the rules.” He pulled the bar stool into the entry-gap and climbed up.

Johnny could feel his own heartbeat in his throat, blood rushing as his restless body awoke after it’s pain-induced slumber. He ended up between Rai and Max, dared to look around at last and realised that Ralf and Kai were the only ones who had yet to move.

Takao got up on his knees on the couch. “Come on, Kai, this time you have to play.”

“This time? You guys play together?” Michael looked around at the BBA.

Rei was making himself comfortable on one end of the couch, next to Sergei. “We’ve played lots of times. Gotta fill those long hotel evenings with something.”

“But Kai never joins in,” Max explained.

“Kaaaaaaai,” Takao whined. “Play with us, Kai. I want to kiss you.” He made kissy-faces at his captain.

Kai shot him a deadly glare, but so did Kyouju, interestingly.

“Come on, guys.” Eddie smiled invitingly at them. “We don’t bite.”

“I bite,” Mao said unhelpfully, smiling so her fangs showed.

Olivier crossed one elegant leg over the other, bare foot swinging in the air. “Nobody plays unless they want to, but I’d like you to hear me out, at least.”

Ralf looked tired. “I know why you’re doing this.”

“No, you don’t,” Olivier answered. “Because you weren’t there for lunch.”

Johnny startled.

"What an event that lunch must have been," Ralf said sourly. So no one had filled him in yet.

“Come sit,” Olivier said, holding out his hand. “I promise you can walk away after if you like.”

They looked at each other. Kai looked between them, and then he shrugged. He came around the circle and was immediately pulled down next to Takao, forcing Emily to scoot further out on her end. Ralf followed, and ended up between Giancarlo and Michael.

“Thank you.” Olivier looked around at them all. “I imagine lunch was an interesting experience for all of us. A few of us said things we regret, and I think it shows that we don’t know each other as well as we thought we did. I realised then that even after several years, there’s a lot I don’t know about my friends. This is a chance to change that. I’m going to explain the rules, but first I’d like to know how many of you haven’t played anything like this game before.”

Mao and Rai, Yuriy and Sergei, Kai and Ralf raised their hands.

Olivier nodded. “Alright. For everybody else, let’s just say that this will not be your average game of Spin the bottle.” He went on to explain. “I have fashioned three rounds. The first is a variant of Never have I ever. I have a number of statements on this sheet of paper-” He rapped his knuckle on the clipboard on the table. “I will read them one by one, and you will take a drink if the statement applies to you, and refrain if it doesn’t. So for instants, if the statement is “I enjoy mountain climbing”, you drink if you do enjoy that, and don’t drink if you don’t. Understood?”

There were nods.

“The second round is a round of dares. There are a number of dares written on the pieces of paper in this bowl-” Indicating the bowl on the table. “Each of you will get to draw one, and will have to complete the dare.”

“What happens if we can’t?” Rai asked.

“What happens if we don’t want to?” Yuriy asked.

Oliver nodded. “Those are good questions. There is a penalty. If you are caught lying in the first round, or if you fail to complete the dare or refuse to try, you will be punished. Everyone has to agree to the punishment before we start to play.”

“Can it be spanking?” Takao asked.

“It’s a little early in the evening to be sharing your fetishes, Takao,” Giancarlo teased him.

Olivier leaned against the back of the stool, and the candles shone in his eyes like wickedness. “I was thinking of something simpler; the idea is for us to bare our souls to each other, and if you refuse, you'll instead have to bare your body. For each penalty, you lose your clothes. The fourth penalty leaves you naked for the rest of the evening.”

An unsteady sigh of excitement swept through the circle.

“Anybody opposed?” Olivier asked.

No one spoke.

Johnny was certain this was a terrible idea. His chest felt tight with a mixture of desire and anxiety. He glanced sideways to where Ralf sat angry and red-cheeked next to Giancarlo. Would he play? He didn’t look unaffected by the mood gripping everyone else. If he decided to stay, should Johnny say no? What if the statements … What if Olivier asked something Johnny couldn’t answer? He really shouldn’t play.

“What’s round three?” Rei asked.

“That’s where the needle comes in,” Olivier said. “You each get to spin the needle, and kiss the one it lands on.”

“Now we’re talking.” Steve ran a hand through his hair. He was sprawled amidst the pillows with his arms along the back of the couch, dark pants stretched tight over his thighs and crotch, broad shoulders relaxed and easy.

Rai looked sceptical. “I thought you said this was about getting to know each other better.”

Olivier nodded more solemnly. “It is, but it’s also about playing and having fun. Anyone can quit at any time, so there’s no need to go beyond what you’re comfortable with.”

Rai looked to Rei, who was licking his fangs in anticipation. “This is … dangerous.”

Mao chirped happily.

“What about you, Kai?” Rai asked. “Or Ralf? We could go train, leave the others to their fun.”

“Or you could stay!” Michael said suddenly. He was trying to appear casual and failing miserably. “I mean, it’s like Olivier says, right, you can quit at any time. So you could stay and … try it?”

Rai cocked his head to the side, studied him curiously. Then, for some reason, he nodded. “Alright, I’ll stay.”

“You’ll stay too, right Kai?” Takao was almost bouncing in his seat, childishly excited.

Kai looked to Yuriy and Sergei. “What are your thoughts about this?”

Yuriy looked around. “I get to learn all your secrets, kiss someone, and drink alcohol? I’m in.”

Sergei nodded. “It sounds like fun.”

Kai looked at Takao. “I’ll play. If you stop looking so excited.”

Takao turned his mouth down in an exaggerated display of unhappiness. It made Kai smile, just a little.

“That leaves you, Ralf,” Giancarlo said.

I should speak up, Johnny thought. Say I can’t play.

He didn’t speak.

“I’m engaged,” Ralph said.

“Not yet.”

Johnny looked up at Olivier, unable to stop the way his eyes widened.

Oliver was no longer spiteful or angry towards Ralf, just mild and solemn. “You may have made up your mind, but she doesn't know that. Giancarlo jumped the gun a little when he told everyone.”

"It's as good as done," Ralf said stubbornly.

“Then this might just be your last hurrah as a free man,” Giancarlo said carefully.

“Stay, Ralf,” Takao said, grin back in place. “I want to kiss you too.”

Kyouju sank a little deeper into the pillows and dragged his bangs down over his eyes like old times.

“If nothing else,” Emily spoke up unexpectedly. “You might learn some of your opponents’ secrets. It could be useful down the line.” She was fiddling distractedly with the end of her ponytail, however, suggesting there were more things on her mind than research.

“Um … Emily, that’s not … very nice,” Max pointed out. "You're not supposed to use this stuff against us later."

"Please?" Olivier said at last.

And it worked.

“I’ll stay. For now.” Ralf crossed his arms over his chest. “... I suppose we begin by getting our drinks?”

A minute later they were all milling around the cabinet, examining bottles and pulling down glasses from the tray.

Takao, while loitering, kept looking back at the couch. It was big enough to seat all sixteen of them comfortably, and had Olivier not had his own chair he too could easily have slipped between someone without inconveniencing them.

“Olivier …" he finally asked. "Where did you get this couch?”

It hadn't been there the last time Johnny was here, that was for sure.

“Oh, I have a contact at this wonderful little shop that makes furniture after specifications-why are you all staring at me?”

“You had this made … today?”

“Yes, after lunch ... Why are you staring at me?”

"You guys are not normal," Yuriy said.

Johnny chose a red wine, mostly because he wasn’t a big fan, so he wouldn’t be tempted to drink too much; he could not afford to get drunk tonight, no matter how much he wanted to. It was a southern French wine, full-bodied and fruity, made with dark Grenache. The alcohol stung in his throat and warmed his stomach as he took the first sip.

The Americans mostly chose beers, though they naturally didn’t find their corner-store favourites in the Boulanger collection. Kyouju asked Olivier for a gentle introduction, and ended up with a sweet rosé wine. Rai, Yuriy and Emily chose stronger fare. It took several minutes for everyone to find their preference, get the right kind of glass and find their places with their new delectables, but with Olivier and Giancarlo helping the less experienced, everyone was eventually settled.

Sergei and Kai chose non-alcoholic beverages, going for tall glasses of green ice tea.

Michael tasted his Tradewinds Tripel with a satisfied smack and a sigh. “This is so good.” He looked sideways at Ralf, who had chosen a dark red wine. “What’s in the glass, Ralfie-boy?” He put on an exaggerated Transylvanian accent. “I did not think you drank … wine.”

Olivier was back in his chair, a flute of bubbly champagne in hand. “Alright, settle down, and don’t get too greedy. Remember the night is young and you don’t know how much you’ll have to drink before the round is over. Take small sips.” He demonstrated, before setting the glass aside and picking up the clipboard. “Now. If you drink to a statement, please keep your glass raised afterwards, so everyone has a chance to look around and see the answers. Is everyone ready?”

There was a chorus of yeses and raised glasses from the more enthusiastic crowd. Johnny felt like he was sitting at the highest point of a roller coaster just before the plunge.

“Then here is the first statement.”

The crowd held their collective breaths.

“I have a pet.”

There was some nervous laughter as the first tension was dispelled.

Johnny took a sip, thinking of Ernie and Boodle, his two bulldogs, and, more reluctantly, Maggie, Sasha’s cat from Hell. Looking around, he found a pretty even spread of yes-es and no-s, with only Kai drinking of the BBA, along with Giancarlo, Michael, Steve, Emily, Yuriy and Mao.

“What pets do you have?” Olivier asked.

There were dogs and cats. Steve had a budgie. Yuriy’s foster family had a big aquarium, which he was deeply fascinated by. Michael’s family had a golden retriever, which Johnny thought he could have guessed. Mao had a cat.

“Your sacred beast doesn’t count,” Olivier reminded her sceptically.

“Nor does Rai,” Rei added, grinning innocently when Rai glared at him.

“I have a cat cat,” Mao assured them.

“You are a cat cat,” Ralf said.

Olivier cleared his throat and brought them to silence again. “Next statement. I have siblings.”

Too damn many, Johnny thought, drinking. Kenneth the heir, Eleanor the wise, Sasha the famous, and Wilfred the brat. His best support and his worst competition. Next to them, Johnny's accomplishments always paled.

This time, the entire American team drank, along with Takao and Kyouju, Rai, Mao, Rei and Sergei.

“You don’t have siblings,” Rai said to Rei.

“I have you and Mao and Gaou,” he replied. “And I know we all think of Kiki as the little brother we never wanted.”

Yuriy was giving Sergei a similarly confused stare.

Sergei sipped his juice contentedly. “They’re not my blood-siblings, but I count them anyway.”

“Your foster family?” Olivier asked.

Sergei nodded. “I have a little brother and a little sister.”

Yuriy looked away, but gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Happy for you, Sergei."

Olivier was smiling as he returned to his clipboard. "Statement number three. I love my family."

For any other group of kids the question would just have been an excuse to drink. And most of them did drink, Johnny included. But not Kai, and not Yuriy, though Sergei frowned at him. Nor did Emily, which was more unexpected. Ralf hesitated a moment, then raised his glass in a toast to his dead mother and father, and drank.

Giancarlo sat with his drink halfway to his mouth and stared into the void, like someone had pushed the pause-button on him.

"Giancarlo?" Olivier spoke his name gently. "Mon coeur, are you alright?"

"I was going to drink, but ..." Giancarlo said slowly, eyes returning to the present and focusing on the drink in his hand. "Then I wondered if they would drink, if given the question."

"Who?" Rei asked.

Giancarlo blinked slowly. "My parents."

"I love you," Olivier said.

Giancarlo looked up.

Olivier raised his champagne glass. "You are family to me, and I love you." He drank.

Giancarlo breathed in deeply. He looked at Ralf and Johnny. Johnny nodded.

Emily raised her glass. "To the family you choose," she said quietly.

Everyone followed her lead. "To family."

Giancarlo drank with them.

Sergei was still frowning at Yuriy. "Why didn't you drink? You have a wonderful family."

Yuriy shrugged him off. "Yeah, for now. We're old enough to move out, how much longer do you think they'll put up with us? And how long after we're out of their hair do you think they'll still care?"

"Forever," Sergei said emphatically. "Of course they will still care. They love you, and my family loves me, and you're just afraid to get hurt again. Have you told Irina about this?"

"I have. Now shut up. Olivier, keep going." Yuriy liked to pretend he was on top of everything, but it's not like they didn't all know that he, like all the kids freed from the abbey, had plenty of deep-rooted insecurities making his life difficult, even after all this time.

Olivier gave Sergei a moment to protest, which Sergei chose not to do, so Olivier continued briskly. "However, while we love our families, by blood or choice, Sometimes I wish they'd go to hell."

There was some familiar laughter. No doubt some, like Kyouju, Michael and Eddie, drank for small annoyances; nagging parents, quarrelling siblings, drunk uncles, crazy grandmothers. Johnny thought of the bamboo rod and drank.

Yuriy did not drink this time either, which was interesting considering he must have had a biological family too. Maybe he had never known them? Johnny didn't know how Yuriy had ended up in the abbey, if he had been sent there, or found by Borg, taken from his parents, abandoned, or already been alone in the world.

Takao, Max and Rei didn't drink either, probably for happier reasons. Mao and Rai toasted each other good-naturedly before they drank. Giancarlo sipped. Johnny was surprised to see Ralf, after a moment's hesitation, take a quick drink. Ralf had never been at odds with his parents, from what Johnny knew of them. His mother had died long ago, mourned and adored, her painting enshrined in the castle library, and he always spoke of his father, who had passed only a few years ago, with respect and admiration. Then again, they had left him; it wouldn't be so strange if Ralf felt some resentment towards the parents who had left him behind to manage a fortune and an estate at such a young age.

"These next two statements should be interesting." Olivier looked around like he was already looking forward to their answers. "I have cried because I lost a beybattle."

Johnny's hand tightened around the stem of his glass. He too looked around.

Max drank easily, honest and unashamed. Mao drank with a small self-deprecating smile. Rai and Rei both drank, and then looked at each other in surprise.

Takao appeared similarly surprised to see Kyouju, beside him, take a hard swallow of his rosé wine.

"Manabu ..."

Kyouju looked away.

Takao tried to laugh. "Hey, why didn't you tell me, Kyouju?"

"Yeah, Manabu, you know we'd be there for you, don't you?" Max added.

Kyouju shrugged, clearly uncomfortable. "It was a long time ago."

Takao put a hand on his back. "What happened?"

Kyouju shook his head. "Believe it or not, I used to think I could be like you ... a champion." He grinned, a forced, awkward thing. "But I'm not that good, so ... When I realised, I ..."

Takao pulled him in and put his forehead against his clever friend's. "I wouldn't be where I am today without you, Manabu. You're as much a champion as me, as anyone in this room. Don't forget that."

There were murmurs of agreement all around.

"Your knowledge and technical abilities are incredible," Ralf said. "Be proud of what you are, don't cry for what you could have been."

Kyouju sniffed a little. Takao gave him a brief hug, and it made the boy blush.

"Hey, Rai, when did you ...?" Rei asked.

Rai crossed his arms over his chest, wine glass tipping precariously in his hand, threatening to spill onto Johnny. "Our first competition. It was a tumultuous year, and a significant tournament. I suspect you'll find most of us drink to that year more often than not."

Rei looked at him. "Was it me?"

Rai shrugged. "I'd rather not talk about it." Then his narrowed eyes met Rei's again. "What about you? You don't usually resort to tears, even in frustration."

Rei smiled sarcastically. "Like you said, it was a significant tournament." He turned to Eddie. "And there was one battle in particular that ... stung me."

"I'm sorry." Eddie sat forward with his elbows on his knees. "I got really lucky with that dish."

"You still won by a mile. But don't worry about it; it's in the past."

"Hey, Emily?" Steve had been restless in his seat for a while. "You tell us when things upset you, right? It's not just the BBA that can lean on each other, you know?"

She glanced at him sharply. "What are you getting at?"

He hesitated for a moment, glancing at Olivier. "... You didn't drink ... but you should have."

Olivier looked down at her. "Oh? Do we have our first penalty, mademoiselle?"

Her mouth fell open. "What-No! Just because Steve says-"

"I'm sorry, Emily, but we've seen you," Michael said. "It's okay to get overwhelmed sometimes." He sighed hard, swirling his beer around in the bottle. "The PPB board expects us to win everything all the time. Director Judy has to explain every single loss to the investors. If we don't perform, they'll just replace us. We live on schedules, write down every calorie we consume, and if we break a sweat winning a battle then we're told to do better. Sometimes it's just too much."

Johnny swallowed some of his prejudices; he hadn't considered that their enormous support system could be as much a curse as a blessing.

Emily's mouth was tight with anger, but she obediently toed out of her flats and slipped off her ankle socks, tucking them in underneath the couch.

"Here's to the evening's first penalty." Olivier emptied his glass.

"It won't stand alone for long," Giancarlo said, turning to Johnny. "You're usually a pretty good liar, but this time ..."

Johnny's stomach knotted tight, tight. "I didn't lie," he said automatically.

"Rai is right," Giancarlo said. "It was a special year. Our first international competition, after the finale, before the award ceremony ... You thought you were alone in the locker room, but I was in the bathroom. I heard you."

It had hurt so much. Once the immediate anger had dissipated, it had been all he could do to get to the locker before the hot, shamed tears spilled over. His one skill. The one thing he did better than anyone, the one thing none of his siblings could compete with him in, the one thing that made his father beam with pride. Ruined. Once again he was second best, and as Father was fond of pointing out to him, second best wasn't really best at all.

Ralf was looking at him with surprise and concern. "Johnny. I didn't know that."

Their pity was unbearable.

"Yeah, yeah, fuck, whatever." He unlaced his brogues, rolled his hose together and placed it neatly together under the couch, copying Emily. "Just move on already."

"This one might be easier," Olivier quickly continued, showing some mercy. "I have cried because I won a beybattle."

Almost no one drank. The exceptions were Max and Sergei.

"Wow," Max said, laughing. "I didn't think there would be so few."

Yuriy's hand returned to Sergei's shoulder, wordlessly.

“Let's try something different then. This is a question that needs a proper answer, and you’ll go one by one. I want you to turn to your left …” Johnny looked at Max, conscious at the same time of Rai looking at him. “And decide what you most admire about the person sitting there. Emily, you get to start.”

“I like how you assume we all admire each other,” she said to Olivier before turning around and adjusting her glasses to study Kai, like he was a particularly interesting type of beetle.

Kai smirked. “I know you like me.”

Emily adjusted her glasses. “I suppose your confidence is admirable, and your self-control, your moral compass and your high intelligence, but in the end, your extreme Beyblading skills are what impress me the most. You have speed, power, agility, and a clever tactical mind.” Her own smile was bloodthirsty. “And one of these days I will have all the data I need to take you apart.”

He snorted. “We’ll see.”

Johnny thought she could have cut at least half of that and it would still have been more than Kai needed to hear. As if he didn't have a high enough opinion of himself already.

“As much as your flirting is entertaining, I need you to turn around, Kai.” Olivier drummed his fingers on the clipboard. “Tell us something you admire about Takao.”

“Nothing,” Kai said without even turning.

“Aww, Kai.” Takao pouted. “You’re hurting my feelings.”

Kai rolled his eyes and shifted smoothly over to stare at his team’s star member.

Takao put his index fingers to his cheeks and tilted his head, grinning ridiculously. “Do you admire my face?”

“I admire your lack of subtlety,” Kai said, vein in his forehead popping.

“Breathe, Kai,” Rei said. “Just tell him he’s cute or something.”

Takao nodded. “Tell me I’m cute.”

Kai sighed, looking away. “You’re not cute at all, but you have a determination and a positivity in you that leads people to better themselves. The example you set wakes us up to the constructs we trap ourselves in, and in following your lead, we free ourselves. I suppose I admire that about you.”

“I'm not sure what that meant, but I take it as a compliment,” Takao laughed. “Thanks, Kai.” He immediately swivelled around to Kyouju. “You’re an easy one, Manabu.”

Of course, he was going to say he admired his intelligence. It was the kid’s most prominent feature.

“I admire your heart!”

Or not.

Even Manabu seemed surprised.

Takao ran his fingers through Kyouju’s bangs, pushing them away from his eyes. The kid ducked his head, glancing shyly up at Takao.

Ah, Johnny thought. There it is again. There was something going on here for sure.

“You’re always ready to help anyone who needs you, you’ve given me and the BBA so much of your time and strength to get us to where we are. When I do something stupid, you always forgive me. You’re the most selfless and kind person I know.”

Kyouju’s face was as red as his tie at this point. “T-thanks, Takao.”

Then it was Kyouju’s turn to tell Michael how much he admired his hair, and his incredible launch. He was about to go into the details of the technical and physical prowess necessary to facilitate the powerful throw, when Olivier managed to interrupt him and pass the ball on.

Michael told Ralf he admired his dignity. "You'd keep cool if the house was falling down around you. I wish I was mature like that."

"I don't know," Giancarlo muttered. "Is it dignity or constipation?"

Johnny snickered quietly while Ralf told Giancarlo that he admired his obvious death wish. Giancarlo apologised, and even managed to stop grinning eventually, at which point Ralf was ready to tell him that he admired Giancarlo's ability to change.

“Most of us never will. It is a great strength.”

It probably seemed like a vague compliment to most, but Johnny knew it referred to something very specific. Olivier and Giancarlo had struggled for a long time to make their relationship work because of Giancarlo's fear of commitment and initial inability to stop flirting around. Giancarlo's parents had been pushed to marry after their fling made her pregnant, and their relationship had always been cold and loveless. Giancarlo had grown up watching his father parading his affairs around town, buying his wife's compliance and his son's silence with expensive gifts, and it had taught Giancarlo that love was a commodity to be bought, and made him terrified to settle down. He had needed Olivier's forgiveness many, many times before he learned to open up and give himself to their relationship, but he had learned, and it was an admirable victory indeed.

Giancarlo told Mao he was in awe of her fierce, playful nature.

Mao told Eddie that she admired his knowledge of and passion for his country. She explained to the others that on the Byakko clan's last trip to the States, Eddie had acted as their impromptu tour guide, and he had made each new place come to life for Mao in a way she had not expected.

Then Eddie clapped Steve on the shoulder. “It’s hard to pick just one thing to say when it’s your best friend and you admire everything about him.”

“Aww.” Steve placed a hand on his heart. “You’re so romantic, Ed.”

“So I’m gonna tell you all something I’ll bet you don’t know. Steve plays the trumpet.”

“Eddie really admires my trumpet.”

Eddie gave him an affectionate shove. “Steve plays jazz, and sings, and he's really good.”

Steve chuckled awkwardly, pleased with the flattery.

Steve then told Rai that he admired how much he cared about his team.

“You guys are more like a family than a team, and I'm guessing that can make it hard to be a captain sometimes." Nobody looked at Mao. "But you're so invested in everyone's well being, and you're always helping them grow. I think you're a great leader.”

“He’s a pain in the butt,” Mao muttered.

"Thank you," Rai said. To Steve, not Mao.

As the conga line of back-patting went on, Johnny had slipped further and further down on the sofa. Now he looked lazily up at Rai. "Need some time to think? If you need help, may I direct your attention to my very nice kilt? It's the traditional attire of my country."

Rai looked down at him with those unnerving cat eyes and an amused little smile. "I know what a kilt is, Johnny."

"The pattern is Ramsay Blue. It's not of my clan, but can be worn by anyone, and I like the colour. Do you like the colour?"

Rai laughed silently. "It's a very nice colour, and you can stop dissembling." He exhaled. "What did you fear would happen? That I wouldn't come up with anything? Or that I'd lay you bare?"

"Uh ..." Johnny just looked at him, suddenly feeling, as if the words had actually unclothed him, naked under those hot-orange eyes.

Rai cocked his head to the side. "Your emotions run deep in you, don't they? They spring to life with a readiness and strength that must be as much curse as blessing. Life's little pleasures, other people's sorrows, spring wind through trees; everything pierces you."

Johnny's stomach hurt. He sat up with a dismissive grunt, awkward under everyone's scrutiny again.

Ralf was looking at him too, expression unreadable.

Rai continued. "You use your sharp tongue to keep the world at a distance so it won't overwhelm you, and you dissemble and make jokes, so no one will know how much you care. But I admire your sensitivity. It's a gift."

Johnny crossed his arms over a chest that wouldn't take air. "Wow. What a fucking compliment that was. I like how you feel feelings. Everybody feels feelings, dumbass."

"Relax, Johnny," Giancarlo butted in. "Rai's got you down and you know it. Just take the compliment."

"Shut up, Giancarlo."

"I'm sorry," Rai said quickly, to forestall a new argument. "We can move on if you like."

Johnny snorted, turning to Max, who was trying to look receptive and innocent for Johnny's sake. “I admire Max because he’s made of fucking sunshine. Pure as a fucking daisy.”

Max took it with a smile. “I’m a fucking daisy.”

"Oh Max, don't swear," Rei said, cringing. "It sounds so wrong."

Max told Yuriy he admired his unique fashion style. Though it was probably true, he could have said many other, more powerful things, about trauma and survival and living day to day with your demons, but Yuriy had already been told those things, and was in greater need of distraction, and Max realised that and was kind.

Yuriy told Sergei he admired his biceps. “They’re huge.”

Sergei was pleased. He told Rei he admired the conviction with which he battled. And also his hair.

Rei was almost purring as he told Olivier he admired how utterly himself he was, how he never compromised for the sake of the world.

And Olivier finished the round by telling Emily that he admired her incredible brains, which she already knew, but clearly enjoyed hearing one more time.

“Whew. That was quite a round. Take a drink everybody. To compliments, which we could all stand to give and receive more often.”

Johnny drained his glass.

He wasn’t the only one who needed a refill, and so there was a brief pause.

“Are you having fun?” Olivier asked when everyone was seated again.

There was a small chorus of agreement and cheers, and more drinking.

“Good. We’ve had six statements and one question. They’ve been innocent until now, but it’s time we raised the stakes.” He re-tucked his curl behind his ear, paused a moment so they could prepare, and read the next statement.

“I have laughed so hard, milk (or other) spurted out of my nose.”

Johnny had never experienced that, so he took the opportunity to look around instead. Takao, Max and Rei drank, but not Kai. Mao drank, as did Steve. Michael and Giancarlo drank.

Ralf didn’t drink. Ralf sat very placidly and looked around.

Johnny felt an evil smile spread across his face. He waited.

Olivier didn’t add any additional questions this time, except to mutter, “Don’t worry, it’ll happen to all of you sooner or later.” And as he was about to move on, Johnny spoke up.

“Ralf, shouldn't you have drunk?”

The “oh shit” look on Ralf’s face was priceless. “That never happened!”

“It happened, you liar! And you remember it! You spit lemonade all over … what was he, a duke? And he declared an eternal feud between your families or something. Tried to draw swords.”

Ralf looked like a sock-puppet being made to frown. “He still sends me requests for duels in the mail.”

“That’s a penalty, Ralf. Off with something,” Olivier said sweetly.

“It didn’t go up my nose,” Ralf mumbled as he unlaced his shoes. No one believed him.

“Statement number nine. I have been drunk.

The Majestics drank as one.

Johnny had been drunk plenty of times, mostly with classmates. It had, for a while, been the best way to feel like he was one of them, hanging out in the abandoned parking lot after dark, sipping their beers and pretending they liked the taste, swaggering with pride at their own rebellion, fake IDs like badges of honour in their pockets. He had gotten horribly sick the first time, but had always returned to do it again. Looking back, he saw it for the desperate farce it was. He had never been one of them.

He had stopped after he met Ralf. So many things had changed once he met Ralf.

He had stayed over in March, early in their acquaintance, only the second time he had come to pound on the front door and demand Ralf give him a rematch. Ralf had refused him, but at least this time Johnny had been allowed to come inside.

There had been footsteps outside his bedroom door that night, dragging and slow. He had gone to investigate. Ralf had had an open bottle of wine in one hand and a glass in the other. He had swayed and stumbled his way to the library, mumbling to himself all the way. Once there, he had collapsed gracelessly in front of the painting of his mother, and stared up at her, occasionally setting the bottle to his lips and taking a long drink. Johnny had watched him for a while.

When Johnny had finally dared to enter, Ralf had turned like a startled deer, eyes huge and watery, nose red and sniffy. It was the most vulnerable Johnny had ever seen him. Johnny had sat down beside him, taken the glass and filled it from the bottle, raised it in a toast to the delicate, dark-haired woman in the portrait, and drunk. At the time, he had only tasted wine once before, on New Year’s Eve when he was thirteen and wouldn’t stop nagging his mother for it. She’d let him have a sip, and the burning, bitter taste had shut him up quick. But that night in the library, Johnny had drunk until he was tipsy and floating, and when Ralf had begun to sway where he sat, Johnny had let him lean his head on his shoulder. It had been a quieter, more melancholy high than the empty raucousness he experienced with his classmates.

He didn’t quite remember when or how they had gotten themselves to bed, but he suspected Johan had found them at some point. Either way, in the morning, he had been informed by the same that Master Ralf was not feeling well, and that perhaps Johnny could return at another time. As he had walked to the car, he had turned back and seen a tall, white-robed figure in a window. It was, perhaps, their first step towards a greater understanding.

They hadn’t spoken of that night again, just like they never spoke of Ralf’s mother, her portrait enshrined in the library, but the next time Johnny visited, Ralf had offered him wine with dinner, and taught him the ins and outs of drinking it.

Giancarlo was fond of being drunk, and he and Olivier brought much-needed levity to their parties.

Of the BBA, only Rei took a sip of his champagne, but then so did Mao and Rai, Rai of his wine and Mao of her cider, so maybe it was down to the culture of their village.

All the Americans drank, as did Yuriy, though Sergei did not.

“Here’s to being drunk,” Steve said. “I will be soon.” He took another long drink of his second beer.

“I just realised the kisses are all going to taste like alcohol,” Max said with disgust.

“You’ll have a little while to recover in the round that comes before,” Olivier said. “But yes. Probably. It’ll do us good to drink a bit of water in between either way, or we won’t be up for anything tomorrow."

Takao had kicked off his shoes and tucked his feet in next to him. He rubbed his hands together. "Bring on statement number ten! I want to get to the dares." He shadowboxed the coming challenge, throwing a random punch in Kai's direction that Kai caught without effort.

"In that case, Takao," Olivier said, "you're going to have to tell me if it's true that you have ... gone skinny dipping."

Takao shook his head. "Not unless you count hot springs."

"What is skinny dipping?" Rai's otherwise excellent grasp of English apparently didn't extend to this particular concept.

"Bathing naked in a lake or a river or the sea."

"Ah." Rai drank. "I don't see what is so unusual about that."

And yet only about half of the group actually drunk. Mao and Rei drank along with Rai, and Yuriy and Sergei (there must be a very cold story there). Giancarlo, Ralf and Johnny drank, but the remaining members of the BBA did not, and of the PPB, only Michael had experienced it.

"What's so special about bathing naked anyway?" Takao asked. "Isn't it just like being in the tub?"

"Oh, mon ami," Olivier said, biting his lower lip on a smile. "Giancarlo and I will take you swimming in the moonlight. You have not lived until you have felt your body be cradled by the sea, with nothing between you and the ancient vastness of the water."

"It feels freeing," Giancarlo added.

"And primal," Yuriy agreed. "Especially in winter."

The room shivered in collective scepticism.

"Maybe we should all go," Giancarlo said thoughtfully. "When we're done with the game."

It had a strange, silencing effect, and like a ripple in water the same thought seemed to pass through the circle, everyone looking at each other and realising all over again that they were here, they were young, and they had bodies that longed for new and secret things. They were far from home, in a summer paradise by the sea, and they could do ... anything.

Johnny glanced involuntarily in Ralf's direction and was startled for the second time that day to find his friend looking back at him.

Ralf looked away first.

"A fine idea, mon coeur," Olivier said. "But we are not finished with our little game just yet, though this round is about to end. The final statement of round one is ... I have had a sexual fantasy about someone in this room."

Johnny's heart thudded hard against his ribcage. For a moment the room was suspended in unbreathing silence.

Giancarlo drank. Then, surprisingly, Kyouju did as well. Takao looked at him, and slowly, guardedly, tipped his own apple cider, creating a moment between them based on a timorous, mutual understanding, and yet they did not hold gazes, but looked away from each other with some pain. Mao drank. She glanced up at Rei, but he was looking elsewhere as he drank. Max drank with one hand tucked between his knees, self-conscious for the first time this evening. Then Michael closed his eyes and poured back the rest of his beer like he was yanking off a band aid.

Ralf did not drink. Why would he.

Johnny tried to breathe evenly, telling himself this was one lie they would never catch him at.

Kai crooked a half-smile and drank. Yuriy shrugged and followed suit, and finally, Rai, staring at his glass like he feared to betray himself if he let his eyes wander, took a sip. Michael had no such control, giving away everything he felt in the covetous way he watched the glass touch Rai's lips.

Olivier exhaled slowly. "My brave champions ... I know we have some liars here, but it's a hard thing to prove, non? So we move on. I would ask you who you've dreamed of, but ... you would not tell me. Not yet."

Liars? The ones who hadn't drunk ... Eddie, Steve and Emily ... Sergei ... Ralf and Johnny ... Who did Olivier suspect?

It was impossible to tell, as the French boy raised his second champagne glass in one last toast. "To a round well played, and to daring hearts who will, I hope, want to play some more."

"Is it dares now?" Max asked after they had drunk the toast.

Olivier nodded, leaning back and getting the bowl from the table. "But ..." He stopped himself, pursing his lips in consideration. "Maybe you would like to stretch your legs a little first?" He looked around. "On the veranda perhaps?"

They threw the doors wide, and everyone went outside, stretching their bodies and groaning. The air was full of the mingled scents of flowers and salt, clearing Johnny's head of the wine-induced fog. He felt a little dizzy, but if he held off on drinking any more for a while, it would quickly fade.

Some of the boys and girls flopped down in the grass to watch the rapidly darkening sky, while others wandered towards the cliff-side to see the darkened ocean melt into the horizon.

Johnny stepped down into the cool grass just to feel it tickle his bare feet. The wind from the sea stroked his knees and thighs. It felt good. His body was awakening again after its slumber, getting eager to play. He looked around and wondered who he might end up kissing later.

"I suppose, so far, it's not a complete disaster."

Ralf. Johnny looked up at him, mustering a smile, stamping down on his body's immediate response of kiss him!

"So you'll keep playing?"

Ralf nodded slowly. "Olivier is clever. I believe we will all feel closer to each other now that we've shared secrets."

"He he ... yeah." He desperately wanted to be closer. Wanted to know what Ralf's waist would feel like in his arms. Wanted to press his lips against the patch of skin behind his ear. To those thin, pale pink lips.

He looked down. Breathed through pain and arousal.

"So, Kai," Max stepped up next to his captain with a show of casualness. "Who have you been fantasising about?" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Kai, as helpless before Max' charms as everyone else, smiled a little. "Wouldn't you like to know."

"It's me, isn't it?" Johnny said with a sudden burst of inspiration. He grinned. "You can admit it, Hiwatari. I won't be mad." He'd forgotten to keep up his usual behaviour; he had to keep them from looking at him too closely, which they would if he acted out of character.

Kai crossed his arms over his chest. "The only fantasy I've had of you, McGregor, is blading you into the ground."

"Fantasise all you like, cause you won't see it happen again." He made a rude grimace.

"I can make it happen any time. In fact, you can meet me in the clearing after the game; I'll make it very real for you," Kai offered.

Johnny scoffed. "Meet me in the bushes after dark? That's your play? You're not even gonna offer me a bed?"

But rather than spark Kai's temper, the question made a dangerous light appear in his eyes, and the smile turn into a sharp little grin. "Be careful what you wish for, McGregor. Remember we're playing a game where anything can happen."

Johnny couldn't stop the shiver that went down his spine at the naked insinuation.

"Hiwatari." Ralf's voice was deep and cold. "Watch your tone."

Kai's eyes shifted to Ralf's, and there was a sudden surge of electricity in the air, making it hard to breathe. Johnny stood breathless and confused before the two predators as they tested each other's strength.

"Guys." Max stepped in between them. "Don't start butting heads now; we're having a good time."

Takao and Steve, down in the grass, had sat up and were watching, waiting to see what would happen.

For another endless second, the two red-eyed boys stared each other down. Then the challenge faded from the air. They exhaled.

Kai righted the collar of his dark red shirt and turned away. "This misery is all yours, Jürgens. Enjoy it."

Ralf's lips pulled back from his teeth in a silent little snarl.

"Seriously? Are you drunk already?" Johnny looked at Ralf uncertainly. "What even was that?"

Ralf looked at him, and the hardness left his expression. "Nothing, I ... I suppose I am a little tipsy." He dragged a hand through his hair, thumbed open another button on his own shirt.

Johnny's mouth went try at the glimpse of a white collar bone. He licked his lips. Turned away.

Luckily, Olivier chose that moment to call them back inside. "Are you ready to play some more?"

There was a chorus of yes-es, but Johnny wasn't so sure.

Chapter Text

"So this round is all about dares. They are all contained in this bowl-" Olivier shook the bowl a little, making the papers rustle inside. "-and you'll take turns drawing and completing them. If you fail, or if you refuse, you lose your clothes, same as before."

He looked around. "You've all been remarkably honest so far ... either that or you just haven't been caught. How many penalties have been passed out?"

"Three," Kyouju said immediately. "Emily, Johnny and Ralf."

Johnny wiggled his bare toes.

"Only three ..." Olivier licked his teeth. "Shall we increase the stakes, perhaps? You will only do one dare each, so there are not many possible penalties, and there will be no penalties in the next round, so ... shall we make it two pieces of clothing?"

No one protested.

"Excellent! Then we begin. Emily first." He held out the bowl, and Emily reached inside and pulled out a folded piece of paper.

"Read it out loud," Olivier instructed her.

Emily unfolded the paper and studied it for a moment. "Oh." She said.

The dares quickly devolved into a round dedicated to pure insanity. Emily performed a Danish translation of “To be or not to be” from Hamlet with a potato in her mouth, which made her already incomprehensible Danish complete nonsense, and her obviously wounded dignity made the whole mess funnier.

Kai downed half a beer, spun in place for twenty seconds and then failed hilariously to reach the door that was his goal, taking a big leap over the couch only to hook his foot and land on his face, try to get up and falling right back down, trying to crawl and ending up pitching sideways first one way and then the other. Olivier lost track of the thirty second he was supposed to count down because he was laughing so hard.

Kai supported himself slowly back to his seat on shaking legs, looking murderously around at the terrified, giggling teens, but too pale around the gills to end them all like he clearly wanted to. Since he failed his dare, he had to take the double penalty and ended up shirtless and barefoot.

After reading his note, Takao stood up and cleared his throat. "Somebody give me an animal."

"Uh ... giraffe?" Michael suggested.

"An animal that makes sounds," Takao tried again.

"Cow!" Max supplied.

Takao took a deep breath and then loudly mooed his way through the beginning of an upbeat chorus Johnny felt like he should recognise, all the while waving for them to give him another animal.

"Cat!"

A couple of lines were meowed.

"Dolphin!"

Takao's dolphin sounded like it had a bad cold, and he looked around a little desperately for something else.

"Is that ... Living on a prayer?"

"Horse!"

“Monkey!”

"Sheep!"

Takao baaa'd himself to a loud and proud finish, and then took a bow while they applauded.

"Living on a prayer by Bon Jovi. I always kill it on karaoke night."

“We believe you.”

Olivier looked like his musical sensibilities had been offended like they had never been offended before. “I regret everything about that dare. Let’s move on.”

Kyouju was unlucky enough to pull a dare demanding he do forty pushups in less than a minute. It would have been a simple thing for most of the group, but for Kyouju it was impossible. He got to an impressive fifteen and was given a round of applause while Takao helped him unbutton his shirt. He chugged the rest of his second rosé wine like water, and sat down with his arms over his scrawny chest, face and neck splotched red from exertion.

Michael spun the needle and got Steve’s help to simulate a three-minute sex act. Michael got down on all four and batted his eyelashes over his shoulder at Steve, who beat his chest and grunted like a gorilla before grabbing Michael’s hips in an exaggerated display, pausing only a moment before beginning to jackhammer his hips against Michael’s ass while Michael clutched the carpet and laughed helplessly.

Every five or six thrusts, Steve roared like a rutting bull, making the spectators alternately die of laughter and embarrassment. By the time they were done, Michael moaning like a porn star and Steve yelling like Tarzan, practically everyone was hiding under the couch.

"Time, time!" Olivier called, voice hoarse with laughter. "It's done, Steve, please stop."

Steve fell backwards theatrically and pretended to take a drag of a cigarette. “Was it good for you too, babe?”

Michael was too breathless from giggles to answer.

Ralf retrieved the bowl, reached in and pulled out a piece of paper. He unfolded it.

He stared at it.

"Well?" Rai prompted.

Ralf cleared his throat, clearly out of pure reluctance. “It says Be someone’s pet for ten minutes. Spin to find your owner.” He cleared his throat again. “It could have been worse.” He sounded like he was trying to convince himself, and continued to frown absentmindedly at the paper while the needle spun.

It stopped on Yuriy.

Yuriy’s slow grin came straight out of a horror film.

“I take it back,” Ralf said. “It could not have been worse.”

“Remember to play along now, Captain,” Olivier admonished him, voice strained with suppressed laughter. “Or you’ll fail the dare.”

Ralf grimaced.

Yuriy rose from his seat. “You know what, pup? We’re gonna play fetch.” He began to climb over the back of the couch.

Ralf opened his mouth in furious protests, remembered himself at the last minute and managed to turn it into a sort of indignant yelp, which set the circle off in renewed giggles. He glared around at them. Johnny kept his lips pressed firmly together and shook his head innocently when Ralf's furious eyes got to him.

“Come on, Ralfy,” Yuriy called as he headed outside, looking for the tennis ball probably. “Let’s play!”

Ralf began to rise, caught Olivier’s expectant look and slowly sank back down on his knees. Then he crawled out of the circle on all fours, head held high.

“Come here, boy,” Yuriy called, voice sweet and high-pitched. He stood in the doorway, tossing the ball up and down and smiling demonically at Ralf. “Come here! That’s a good boy.” He reached down and stroked Ralf’s hair, messing it up. “Such a good boy. Now fetch!”

He tossed the ball out into the falling night.

Ralf groaned. Olivier cleared his throat warningly. Ralf barked unhappily and crawled off after the ball. His ears were bright red.

Even Kai’s shoulder were shaking with silent laughter by now.

Yuriy put his hands on his hips and watched his new dog go with deep satisfaction. “You guys had better move on with the game,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ll keep Ralfy busy.”

“He probably shouldn’t take the ball in his mouth,” Giancarlo pointed out as he picked up the bowl. “Camille has been chewing on it.”

“WHAT?” they heard from outside.

Yuriy shushed them as they laughed, though he was laughing himself. “No, no, hush, shush with you, he said waff, it was a bark. Come on, guys, shush. Don’t ruin this.”

"Okay, okay, we'll move on." Olivier conceded, clearly too delighted to issue the penalty. "Giancarlo's turn."

Giancarlo fumbled into the very bottom of the bowl and pulled out a piece of paper. "Woah. caro, was this really supposed to be in the final cut?"

"Hmm? What is it?" Olivier leaned forward. "What does it say?"

Giancarlo read it out loud. "Spin the needle, and place kisses from your partner's ankle all the way to the inside of their thigh."

Olivier cocked his head to the side. "I might have meant to take that out."

"... Did you take out a lot of dares like that?" Mao asked. She sounded curious and a little disappointed.

Olivier smiled like a man who had seen much toil. "Maybe. I couldn't decide at first how far to go." He gestured to Giancarlo. "You can go ahead with that one if you want to. It's not too far for everyone, is it?"

People shook their heads. They seemed a little awestruck by the implication that there had been, and might still be, more dares as naughty as this one.

Giancarlo pursed his lips. "I don't know, caro. I think I'll take the penalty. It wouldn't feel right, even if these are our friends."

Olivier seemed to light up from within, like Giancarlo had said just the right thing. "Then strip for me, paramour. Show them what they cannot have."

"You two are kind of intense," Eddie observed with amusement as Giancarlo rose and began to seductively inch his t-shirt up his lean torso.

"Europeans, Ed," Steve said sagely. "They're more passionate than us."

"Are we?" Giancarlo emerged from his bunched up t-shirt and grinned toothily at the two Americans over his shoulder. "Then I've done you wrong denying you this chance to unlock your passions. Here." He turned and handed Mao the slip of paper before toeing off his shoes. "I pass the dare to you."

"Can you do that?" Mao asked slowly, biting her lower lip. Her bright eyes suggested she was as excited as she was nervous.

"I can," Giancarlo said, stretching in a blatant display for Olivier's appreciative gaze. "I know the guy who made the rules; he'll make an exception for me." He sat back down.

"You don't have to take it, Mao," Olivier said kindly. "It was meant to be discarded after all. You can draw a new dare if you like."

But Mao was no shrinking violet. "I'll take it!"

Rai looked like he wanted to protest and could barely keep himself from doing so.

Mao bounced up from her seat and went to spin the needle, giving it a good whap with her fingers. It spun fast, fast, glinting silver. Mao stood back and watched it. It spun and spun and spun.

“… You might have gotten a less effective needle,” Johnny commented to Olivier. He turned himself around on the couch so he was hanging upside down with his feet crossed over the back of it, hands folded on his stomach. “Next player spins it more gently.” He could feel blood rushing to his head.

“It’s lightweight,” Kyouju explained. “There’s no friction, so it doesn’t slow down. It’s probably meant for scientific use, not spin the bottle."

"Nobody asked, nerd."

Rai frowned down at him. "Are you still sore about earlier?"

"I wasn't sore; it was a stupid compliment." He was ... acting? Mostly. It was getting hard to tell with the numbing mess of feelings writhing inside him. "I can see up your nose from here, lion boy."

Finally, the needle slowed, and within moments, the long end was pointing squarely at Emily.

Michael chuckled. "What were the odds of that?"

"6,25 %," Emily and Kyouju said simultaneously.

"Oooh. Cat on other nerd action," Johnny said.

But when Mao knelt down before Emily, no one wanted to crack jokes anymore. Kai moved aside to give them more room.

"You'll have to pull up your skirt," Mao said, voice a low purr. "And spread your legs."

Even Emily, who had been pretty confident about this whole game so far, turned red at that, standing up briefly to hike up her skirt before sitting back down, spreading her knees to accommodate Mao. Mao lifted Emily's right leg and rested the heel on her own shoulder, turning her head against it so she could kiss the instep. "You have beautiful legs, Emily."

"Thank you," Emily said unsteadily. She was beginning to breathe harder.

As Mao moved her mouth upwards in slow increments, Emily's hands tightened in the pillows.

Nobody said a word.

From outside, Ralf barked.

It took a while before anyone was composed enough for the game to continue.

Mao pressed a long, smiling kiss to Emily's knee, stopping to nibble and make Emily gasp as it tickled.

The temperature in the room rose as Mao made an unexpected show of her strength, pulling Emily further out on the sofa and putting one hand on her abdomen while she bit delicately into her inner thigh. Emily made a sound of suppressed pain and urgency, but didn't, or couldn't, pull away.

Finally, Mao kissed the very edge of Emily's white panties. "Emily," she said, her voice dreamy and dangerous. "You smell excited."

Emily opened her tightly shut eyes and looked at Mao like she was seeing her for the first time.

"Don't worry, though," Mao continued. She looked over her shoulder at the rest of the group, and her pupils were mere slits in a sea of gold. "You're not the only one."

There was a lot of shuffling and awkward clearing of throats as all the boys made sure they weren't too obviously hard. Johnny sat up properly. He was affected too, but not as much as some. Women had never been his thing.

Mao rose and leaned in, capturing Emily's lips in a surprise kiss.

"Hey, we haven't reached that round yet," Olivier said, shooing Mao back to her seat.

Emily was left to shimmy her skirt back down and make herself presentable, though it took a while before the flush left her cheeks.

The bowl was passed to Eddie, and while he put his hand inside, Rei nudged Olivier and nodded to the veranda. "Isn't it time ...?"

"Oh!" Olivier laughed nervously. "I lost track of time." He put his hands to his mouth and called. "Yuriy, Ralf, you can come back inside! It's been more than ten minutes."

"I know," Yuriy called back. "But we were having so much fun, I didn't want to say anyth-what are you-aahh, argh, I'm being mauled! Aaah!"

Moments later, Ralf came walking back inside, running his hands through his messed-up hair to make it lie flat. There were grass stains on his knees, and a set to his teeth that made everyone sit very still until he had sat down.

Yuriy came behind him, limping theatrically. "I almost died. Bad dog, Ralfy."

Ralf didn't acknowledge him.

"Move on," Olivier whispered, gesturing to Eddie to read his dare.

Eddie's dare would give everyone a chance to stretch their legs. Especially Kyouju.

"WHAT?"

Gangly, awkward, about as athletic as a duck, Kyouju stared at the needlepoint like it was a spear about to take a stab at him. "I can't race against you!"

"It's what it says in the dare. Sorry, dude."

Johnny laughed; Eddie didn't sound sorry at all.

"I might as well just take my clothes off and spare myself the trouble," Kyouju grumbled.

"As much as we're looking forward to that," Olivier interjected, "You'll have to go through with the dare first, unless you consider a double penalty preferable to a jog around the house and a single penalty."

The dare was simple enough; spin the needle and race the chosen player around the house. Except the loser had to take off a piece of clothing.

"Hey, you never know, maybe you can-" Eddie began before taking in Kyouju's glare of doom and rethinking his statement. "Nah, you're right. I'll probably win. Sorry again."

The rest of the players cheered them on as they set off down the lawn, Eddie pulling ahead pretty much immediately. Then they waited. A minute passed.

"Your house is really big," Takao commented to Olivier.

Then, around the corner came Kyouju, running like the devil himself was on his heels. Moments later, Eddie followed, limping and swearing, without hope of catching up.

"So the turtle beats the hare," Ralf observed with amusement. "This should be quite the tale."

Kyouju came to a stop in front of Takao, bent over with his hands on his knees and drawing breath in great gulps.

Takao patted him on the back with a laugh. "You won, Kyouju! ... Eh, how did you win?"

"I fucking fell!" Eddie had just caught up. He had something clutched in his hand. "I stepped on this stupid thing and fell on my ass."

It was the tennis ball.

From the back of the crowd came a mumbled "Oops".

Eddie put his arm around Kyouju's neck and squeezed. "And did you stop to see if I was okay, Mr Saien Manabu? No, you did not."

Kyouju laughed nervously. "All's fair, though, right?"

"In love and war, truth or dare," Olivier said solemnly. "The penalty is yours Eddie. And you should not complain, as you have twice as much clothing to spare as Kyouju."

Yuriy clapped Kyouju on the shoulder as they headed back inside. "Well done, Manabu. Leaving your enemies behind to perish while you claim victory. You make me proud."

"Oh yeah, now I feel awful."

Eddie lost his shoes and socks, and passed the bowl to Steve.

By one of life's strange coincidences, Steve got dared to sing a song, and was so able to show off the very skill that Eddie had boasted of earlier. He chose a jazzy number for the occasion, accompanied by Eddie's mellow beat-boxing and everybody else snapping their fingers. Johnny had no special feelings for jazz, but admired skill when he heard it.

Steve got a hearty round of applause, and Rai got the bowl.

He scoffed as he read his dare. "Jump rope 200 times in three minutes. Where is the challenge in that?"

Kyouju grumbled something unintelligible.

Rai shed his top before accepting the rope from Olivier, and before long it became abundantly clear that the dare was not supposed to be a challenge at all, but an excuse to get one of them hot and sweaty. Michael especially grew increasingly flushed along with Rai himself, but nobody except Mao was entirely immune to those tight pectorals glistening in the lamplight, and the mane of black hair bobbing in time with the lithe, quick jumps.

"There." By the time Rai could put the rope back into Olivier's chest of props, most of the other players were swallowing around dry mouths. Rai had a deep timber to his voice and a confidence and maturity that could have turned on a broken light bulb.

"That was cool," Michael said, trying for a compliment and falling somewhere short of actually making sense.

Rai, on his way to his seat, raised a confused eyebrow at him. "Really?"

"Yeah." Michael smiled. He looked like he'd hit his head. Boy had it bad.

It's almost comforting, Johnny thought. I'm not the only moron here.

"Thank you," Rai said. He seemed thoughtful when he sat down.

"Johnny's turn," Max said.

Once again he was weighed down by the room's gathered attention. He chose a piece of paper, passed the bowl to Max and unfolded the thing.

Wrestle another player, chosen by the needle. The winner is the one who can pin their opponent’s shoulders to the count of four. Loser takes a penalty.” Johnny rolled his shoulders. “No problem.”

“Unless you get Sergei,” Yuriy said blithely. “In which case you are fucked.”

“I’ve sent bigger guys packing with their tails between their legs,” Johnny said, stepping up to the needle. “I'm not worried.”

Yuriy scoffed, but he could disbelieve it all he liked; Johnny couldn’t remember a time in his life when he hadn’t been fighting. As the new Scottish kid in an English school, he had fought to make them respect him, and when he couldn't make friends, he had fought to make them fear him. Father's disappointment in his black eyes and torn clothes had been hard to bear, but children have so much to defend, and before he got his first blade, Johnny did it best with his fists.

For years he had fought despite his father, and then he turned fifteen and got caught kissing Holger, and from then on he had fought to spite his father.

But now he was studying at St Edwards, where the collars were starched until they bent for no man, and if you showed up to the first day with a black eye, your classmates whispered behind your back and pretended they didn’t see you.

If he hadn’t had Ralf, Olivier and Giancarlo, he would have gone mad, and even with his friends to escape to on the long weekends, he still felt like he walked away from half of himself whenever he stepped through the massive doors into the old school building.

Beyblades had largely replaced fists as a way for the youth of the United Kingdom to assert dominance, and among them, none dominated like Johnny McGregor, but he still relished a good old-fashioned scrap, and hadn’t gotten one in ages.

The needle was pointing at Kai.

Johnny met Kai's bloodthirsty eyes and felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He grinned, excited. “I've been waiting for a chance to pay you back for our last battle. Didn't think I'd get to do it to your face.”

“You won't,” Olivier said seriously. “You're wrestling, not boxing.” But his voice seemed far away.

Kai rose smoothly from his seat. “No more fantasies now, McGregor.”

Johnny cracked his knuckles. “Let's make it real.” No way was he going to be intimidated by those ... massive forearms.

Kai snorted softly, turned and climbed over the couch, heading for the door and the darkness outside. His back was smooth and white, and his spine was almost a dip. He walked in perfect silence, and Johnny was pulled along like in the wake of a shark.

“I think I've made a mistake,” Olivier mumbled behind them.

“What's so bad about a little wrestling?” Steve wondered.

Johnny and Kai left them behind, stepping down into the grass. Johnny rolled up the sleeves of his white shirt. It would probably get grass stains, but fuck it, he had more. The others remained within the light coming from the house, only Takao and Giancarlo going further, into the shark-infested waters. Johnny and Kai circled each other. There were faint stars above, and the sea was a yawning black roar beyond the garden.

Olivier reminded them of the rules. “No punching or kicking, no going for the face, clothes, or fingers. No biting, Johnny, I'm looking at you. Your goal is to pin your opponent’s shoulders to the ground until the count of four. Giancarlo, Takao, I'll count on you as referees. Mon Dieu, I already regret this.”

“How is this a contest, though?” Yuriy demanded, responding to something Michael had said that Johnny hadn’t heard. “Johnny-boy is feisty, and he might have the weight-advantage, but Kai is ... Kai.”

“Don’t count your chickens,” Giancarlo said over his shoulder. “Johnny is as stubborn as they come; he won’t go down easily.”

Johnny’s heart beat in his wrists, and he relished that for the first time today it was pure anger that made his blood rush. They could doubt him all they wanted. He would show them.

Yuriy shrugged. "Okay. Hey, Johnny! Show me how you defend your pride!"

Johnny remembered the intense satisfaction that came from seeing his opponents fleeing before him. Kai might be a different calibre to the schoolboy punks he had fought so far, but so was Johnny. And he'd had enough of losing.

Giving in to weakness one last time, Johnny looked around for Ralf. He stood a little apart from the others, hand on the marble rail. Watching.

“Hey.” Kai set his feet apart and planted his weight. “Your opponent is here.”

Johnny took a deep breath.

Ralf was watching.

Olivier raised his arm. “Ready, set-”

Johnny launched himself forward, caught Kai around the waist and brought them both down, felt Kai's knee against his stomach and then he was upside down, sailing over Kai and hitting the ground with a thump that knocked the wind out of him. He had barely snatched a breath before Kai was bearing down on him, and for a moment his strength was terrifying, but Johnny twisted like an eel onto his stomach and shoved upwards, making Kai topple off with a grunt. Johnny sprang back up and turned just in time to set his weight against Kai's incoming attack, but it was like holding back a bull, and he was swept off his feet, ending on his back again, rolling just in time to keep from starting the count, and then they were grappling and fighting for purchase, toes digging into the soft earth, surrounded by the scent of crushed grass and each other. Johnny’s pulse beat in his temples, blood rushed in his ears, and already the swift exhaustion of close quarter fighting was setting in. Kai’s bare body was hard and frighteningly strong, but his eyes were calm, and that was worse.

Kai was always one step ahead, always moments away from a hold Johnny couldn’t break, but experience and desperation made Johnny creative, kept him fierce, because he could. not. lose. this.

Suddenly they were locked in a stalemate, Kai on top of Johnny, trying to force his shoulders down to the ground, while Johnny struggled to tip them both sideways. He gritted his teeth, pushed upwards with all his might, staying off the ground through sheer willpower.

The others were cheering, a cacophony of sound behind the combatants' heavy breathing.

Johnny was gaining, inch by inch, would be free once he could bring his weight to bear, and Kai's furious expression kept him going. He would. not. lose.

Because Ralf was …

The spot by the railing was empty.

Ralf was gone.

Johnny’s back hit the grass, and just like that, the fight was over. Kai was still on top of him, holding him down, but there was no need; Johnny lay limp and breathed shame against the arm barring his chest. Takao counted one, two and three, but then Kai held up a hand to stop him.

He sat back, grabbed the front of Johnny’s shirt and hauled him up. “What is this?” He looked furious.

Johnny wondered when Ralf had left. How quickly had he decided there was no point in watching? When had he given up on Johnny’s behalf?

“Oi, idiot!” Kai shook him. “What kind of victory do I get when you just give up half way through?”

Johnny clenched his teeth against sour tears. “A victory you can choke on. Get off me!”

Kai shoved him back down. “No. Count again, Takao.” He leaned into Johnny’s face. “I want you to feel every second.”

Johnny felt only numb. He smiled as Takao counted.

“… three … four. Kai wins.”

Kai rose with a sound if disgust and marched back to the house.

Takao bent over and held out a hand to Johnny. “Hey, you’re a pretty amazing fighter. Kai’s just disappointed cause he was enjoying himself.”

That would make him the second person today that Johnny had quit on.

Johnny got up and brushed grass from his kilt, checking it for stains. “Don’t patronize me, Kinomiya.”

Takao watched him for a moment. The others were filing back inside.

“Hey, Johnny, what made you stop?”

Johnny walked past him towards the house. He passed Giancarlo, who had waited. He looked confused.

Olivier was back in his chair. There seemed to be a general break going on; the door to the rest of the house was open, and several people were missing, presumably gone to the bathroom or something.

Kai was back in his spot on the sofa, arms crossed over his chest and eyes closed. Ralf was there too, in similar posture.

Johnny circled to his own place. Sat down.

“I take back what I said,” Yuriy said flippantly as he came back from the cabinet with a new beer. “You are only feisty until you suddenly flop over like a soft-bellied seal pup. Well done.”

“Fuck you.”

“You gave up?” Ralf’s voice was a shot of electricity low in Johnny’s spine.

Not as fast as you did.

He plastered on a smile. “Like I was ever going to beat the Terminator over there.”

Ralf frowned at him. “It’s not like you.”

Johnny could only shrug awkwardly. How could Ralf expect him to give it his all when he himself wasn’t willing to support him?

A few minutes later, everyone had returned, and Olivier resumed the game.

“Before we give Max his turn, we have to wrap up the penalty from last time. Johnny. One piece of clothing.”

“Ha.” Johnny stood up. “Jokes on you.” He had already decided the most convenient thing to take off. He reached up under the kilt and got hold of the hem of his boxers, sliding them down.

Mao and Michael whistled.

“Wooh, you naughty boy!”

Johnny got red despite himself. “It's not gonna make any difference!” He quickly shoved his boxers under the couch with the rest of his things.

“Not at the moment,” Olivier said with a suggestive little smile. “But just wait until I make you all do handstands later.”

Johnny got wide-eyed for a moment before realising it was just a joke. He gave Olivier the middle finger as he sat down.

While Max drew his dare from the bowl, Johnny tried to get used to the feeling of the heavy cotton fabric against his naked skin. It felt both strange and kind of nice, which was a problem. Luckily, the weight of the kilt would also keep the occasionally stiffening of his cock from showing, unlike what his boxers would have done. He suspected he wasn’t the only one who had already been hard several times tonight, from Mao’s words earlier, but that didn’t mean Johnny wanted to advertise it.

Max on the other hand got little choice in the matter; he laughed nervously as he read his dare. “Wear a pair of garters for the rest of the evening. Spin to find someone willing to help you put them on. I’ve never worn garters before.”

“No, really?” Yuriy said.

Olivier produced a pretty pair of lacy, white garters, and Max spun the needle. It landed on Giancarlo.

“I’ll accept this one if my lover doesn’t protest,” Giancarlo said, making a little bow in Olivier’s direction.

Max's shorts grew noticeably tighter as Giancarlo slid the first garter up his leg, fingers caressing his thigh as he adjusted it to present the best part of the pattern in the front. As Giancarlo slipped the second one over his knee, Max shivered, gasping.

In the end, the garters were just peeking out under the hem of Max’ shorts. It was sexy. Max finished by doing a little twirl, showing off to the appreciative audience. Johnny wished he could be effortlessly happy as Max; he didn’t seem to have any trouble reconciling his own purity and desire, or to have any doubts about his own looks. Not that he should have, he was cute as a button, and the transition into manhood had only made him better-looking.

Only three dares left to go before … Best not to think about it. Johnny’s stomach was tight with either excitement or nausea; the two were hard to distinguish at this point.

Yuriy laughed uproariously as he read his own dare. The paper had been tightly folded and was larger than any so far. The redhead looked around. “It’s going to get chilly in here.”

Olivier sighed. “Did I forget to remove the ice cube dare as well?”

Everybody looked at him.

“Ice cube dare?”

Yuriy shook his head. “Nooo, but I get to make everyone take their clothes off.”

“Oh, that one!” Olivier lit up. He gave the rest of the group a disarming, innocent smile. “Forget I said anything.”

“Read the dare, Yuriy,” Kai demanded.

Yuriy cleared his throat importantly. “You can make all the other players take off one piece of clothing, but you have to strip down too. If you let them choose what to take off, you can keep your underwear, but if you are willing to take off everything, you get to choose what everyone else loses.

Everybody became busy looking themselves over and considering what they had left to lose and how horribly Yuriy could mess with them if he was willing to go all the way.

Yuriy let them stew for a few moments, his sharp blue eyes travelling around the circle and making similar assessments himself. He winked at Johnny, who sensed danger, and clutched his kilt protectively.

“Aah, don’t worry; I’m not ready to go all out just yet.”

Several people exhaled in relief.

“But I will take the dare,” Yuriy said, standing up. “And I demand you each strip in turn.”

There was some tittering as the less fortunate got down to their last little bits of protection. Emily chose to slip off her skirt, leaving her in her sleeveless blouse and underwear. Kai took his pants off and sat back in exactly the same uncaring posture in just his dark boxers. Takao took his socks off, having already divested himself of his shoes. Poor Kyouju too was suddenly left in only his underwear, tucking his long limbs awkwardly around himself, but when he shivered, Takao scooted up close beside him and put an arm around his shoulders, which was how they all learned that when Kyouju blushed, his chest somehow got paler, which no one had thought possible. Michael shrugged and took off his shoes.

Ralf sighed long-sufferingly when it was his turn, and stood up.

There was a remarkable difference between seeing someone in only their swimwear, and seeing someone getting similarly naked when they were wearing regular clothes. As Ralf began to work open his dust-blue shirt, nimble fingers slipping the buttons free with practiced ease, Johnny experienced an alarming increase in temperature. By the time Ralf was shrugging out of his shirtsleeves, with his hard stomach and narrow chest fully revealed, Johnny was very glad he had chosen to keep the kilt on.

“You’re sunburned!” Olivier said accusingly. "Are you completely incapable of taking care of yourself?"

It was true, Ralf’s shoulders were more red and sore-looking than before, despite Johnny having made him put on sunscreen earlier.

“Don’t worry, Olivier," Rei said. "I think we’ll have plenty of volunteers to cover him in sunscreen tomorrow.” He was looking at Ralf appreciatively.

Ralf raised a curious eyebrow at him. He looked down at himself. “Hmph.”

Johnny wanted to say something, like Don’t doubt him; you’re gorgeous. You look like a tree spirit, or a fae. You look dangerous. But his voice was on vacation and his tongue was swollen too big in his mouth and that was probably for the best.

Giancarlo wiggled out of his shorts, Mao took off her shoes, and then Eddie and Steve put on a bit of a show, humming their own porny soundtrack, except while Eddie was at least taking his tank top off, Steve was just removing his shoes and socks one by one as sexily as possible.

Rai took off his shoes, and then it was Johnny’s turn. He began to unbutton his shirt. The drag of fine cotton across his skin made his nipples tighten, there was a glistening of sweat down the centre of his chest, and he was struck again by the difference that context made to nudity, and suddenly he couldn’t stand having everyone’s eyes on him anymore. He stood up and turned his back.

“Since when were you shy?” Michael asked, arms crossed over his chest and eyebrow raised.

“Since mind your own business,” Johnny muttered. It was easy for Michael to be confident; he had a six-pack and a healthy glow in his cheeks, and his hair was always styled like he was getting ready for a photo shoot.

Michael sighed in exasperation. “I don’t know why I expected a real answer.”

“Me neither,” Johnny agreed, tugging his shirt off, balling it up and shoving it carelessly under the couch before sitting down. He felt puffed up and prickly and sensitive.

Rai was looking at him with some concern. “I hope you learn to trust us eventually.”

“Will you stop it with that crap?” Johnny hissed, but Rai’s hot-orange eyes were difficult to hold.

Rai shook his head. He looked to Max. “Go on. Your turn.”

While Max took off his shoes, Johnny sat in painful awareness of Olivier, Ralf and Giancarlo, who whether they were looking at him or not, were all focusing on him, their consternation thick in the air. His attitude was reflecting badly on them, but they feared making it worse by trying to talk to him. He didn’t blame them, as last time they had tried, Johnny had exploded in everyone’s faces.

God, he wished he could stop disappointing everyone.

Yuriy let Sergei and Rei take off their shoes and socks before stepping lithely into the middle of the ring, setting aside the needle, and beginning a strip show that blew everyone's minds.

Sergei’s dare was a ten-minute cuddle session. The needle landed on Takao, who launched himself into Sergei’s arms and remained happily snuggled on the bigger boy’s lap while Rei completed his own dare, which was to let another player drink a shot off his stomach.

The needle landed on Kai.

“Thirsty, Captain?” Rei winked.

Olivier fetched a bottle of liquorice liquor from the cabinet, while Rei wiggled himself comfortable on the floor like a big tiger, opened his jacket to reveal his toned chest and stomach, and gave Kai bedroom eyes that were felt all around the sofa.

Kai straddled Rei without hesitation, the electricity between the palpable. Olivier gave the bottle to Kai and backed away. “I’ll just ... leave you to it.”

Kai poured himself a small shot in Rei’s bellybutton, dipped down and pressed his open mouth over it, teeth and all. Rei gasped, head falling back. Kai devoured the drink with surprising passion, uncaring when it got messy, the liquid spreading all over Rei’s stomach and Kai’s chin. By the time he lifted his head, Rei was happy and horny. He sat up along with Kai.

“You got a little something there.” He leaned in and lapped at the mess from Kai's chin to the corner of his mouth.

The seventeen teenagers had spent over two hours getting steadily hotter and more naked, literally and figuratively, and though the evening was getting chilly, the temperature in here was anything but.

“We’ve completed another round,” Olivier said, voice low in respect for the evening and the thrumming mood. “And honestly even though I put the game together I didn't expect half the things that have happened so far. Before we go into the next round, I want to remind you all that you can leave at any time, for any reason and without shame.”

Johnny was tempted, but he couldn't, both to keep up the pretence, and because ... if he left now ... he wouldn't know who Ralf would kiss, and ... he needed to know. He'd go crazy wondering if he didn't stay. Just a kiss or two, and the game would end, and he would go home in the morning, and time and distance would numb him, until, maybe, he could even learn to properly fake carelessness.

"The next round is simple. Each of you in turn will spin the needle, and kiss the one it lands on. Each kiss must last between six and twenty-five seconds, I'll keep track. The upper limit is just to curb the more enthusiastic among us, like Takao."

Takao was half asleep on Sergei's lap, but opened his eyes a sliver when Olivier said his name. "Hmm?" Sergei was stroking his back under his shirt over and over and seemed to have lulled him into a state of zonked out bliss. Johnny noticed that Kyouju was looking increasingly miserable on the other side of the circle.

Oh look, he thought, It's moron number three.

"Nothing, nothing." Olivier waved it away. Then he turned serious. "There are no penalties this time, but I warn you; I will not hear any complaints about who that needle lands on, or whose spin ends on you. Take a look around; if there's anyone here you simply cannot bear to kiss, for any reason, consider pulling out of the game now."

Emily raised an eyebrow at him. "It's only a 6,25 % chance for each of us, but regardless, who here wouldn't be willing to kiss anyone else here?"

Mao and Rai were looking at each other awkwardly. "There are reasons," Mao said slowly.

"I think we can make an exception for blood siblings," Olivier reassured them.

Giancarlo's brow was furrowed in thought. "Is it okay if I just kiss you?" he asked Olivier.

"If no one else protests, mon coeur, of course I would rather keep your kisses to myself. You might be kissed by someone else though, but I'll allow that."

It was generally agreed upon that this was fine.

"Let's have another little break first, refill our glasses and settle down," Olivier suggested. "I think there's some snacks waiting for us in the kitchen." He hopped off the bar stool. "Steve, Rei, will you help me carry everything?"

So there were a few minutes of general mingling, and when the boys returned with platters of fruit, cheese and crackers, there was general face-stuffing. Johnny managed to eat a little; it was easier when things were tart and sweet and bite-sized, and once Steve and Rei had left a second time and returned with mugs of freshly squeezed juice, he had a big glass of that and felt a little steadier.

It was awkward, though, moving around the room while feeling so exposed. When the game was ongoing it created a different atmosphere, but now he just felt vulgar.

Everyone seemed to be leaving him alone, and he couldn't help but think back on Rai's words.

"I hope you learn to trust us eventually."

Would it have been possible to confess his pain to someone? Maybe even to Rai? He seemed ... to understand.

No, no, it was impossible. The mere thought of exposing his pathetic feelings to any of his friends ... He would never regain their respect. Once they saw him as a loser, that would be what he would always be. Better they thought he was rude and temperamental. It wasn't untrue, after all.

Giancarlo got Eddie and Max to help him create a comfortable seating space in the circle inside the couch, placing the pillows around the edge so they had backrests, and getting blankets and more pillows to heap onto the floor.

“This way we won’t have to get up for the kisses.”

The inner circle was just big enough to accommodate them all, though it was a pretty snug fit. Johnny kept his arms crossed over his chest after sitting down made his bare shoulder brush against Max’ clothed one. Then Max leaned into him a little and made their shoulders touch again, deliberately, and Johnny felt a little better.

Olivier was still sitting high above them on his bar stool. “I’ll just repeat that each kiss should last between six and twenty-five seconds, and that I won’t hear any grumbling. If anyone wants to stop playing, say so before you spin, not after.”

“So …” Takao asked slowly, twirling his fingers around one another. “Do we use tongue or …?”

Olivier smiled. “If you want. The one who spins initiates the kiss and can decide its nature, but try to consider your partner’s feelings too.”

Takao should definitely be considering his partner’s feelings; Kyouju was still looking decidedly unhappy.

Emily would go first again. She made a quick little inhale and exhale before leaning forward and giving the needle a gentle tap.

As it glinted and spun, everyone seemed to be holding their breaths. It would be the first kiss of the evening. When the needle slowed it felt like every turn screwed the tension in the room tighter, and then it stopped, and Johnny hadn’t thought it would hurt quite this much, but it did.

Then Ralf cleared his throat awkwardly and made it worse; “I should probably warn you that I haven’t actually … kissed anyone before.”

Emily smiled as she slipped off her glasses. “Don’t worry; I’ve done some research.” She crawled out into the middle, setting aside the needle, and beckoned for Ralf to come to her. He came forward on his knees.

She tossed her ponytail over her shoulder. “According to my findings, all you have to do is close your eyes …” She took his chin in hand and tilted his head a little to the side. “And this should keep our noses from bumping. Now part your lips.”

There was a silent roar in the back of Johnny’s throat. He watched helplessly as Emily leaned up and placed her mouth gently on Ralf’s. Ralf’s brows were furrowed in concentration. For a long moment they remained there, quietly kissing, and then she moved her lips a little, taking his mouth again, and then again, gently. He relaxed, the lines on his forehead smoothing out.

Johnny’s stomach was a knot of pain, but he didn’t look away. This is all you get.

Then Emily leaned back, opening her eyes. She grinned, biting her lip. “How was that?”

Ralf opened his eyes too, looking down at her. “It was surprisingly pleasant. I didn’t expect it to be so …”

“I know, right? I think we did well for our first time.” She looked away, her big brain probably already cataloguing and processing the new knowledge. As if kissing Ralf was no more than an experiment. As if she hadn’t been handed a gift beyond measuring.

They shuffled back to their seats.

Johnny was empty and shaking, feeling like a cardboard box trying to contain a storm. He thought of Laura, who would be the one Ralf learned these things with from now on. It was unbearable.

Kai was the next to spin.

“Have you ever kissed anyone?” Mao asked him tartly as they waited.

Kai shook his head, looking a little embarrassed for once.

The needle stopped on Max, dangerously close to Johnny, who had to resist the urge to shuffle to the side. Max was happy though, crawling across the circle and onto Kai’s lap. “Hello, Captain.”

“Max.” Kai might not know what he was doing, but the hands he placed on Max’s back were certain, holding him comfortably.

“Kiss me,” Max demanded.

Kai leaned up, eyes open just a sliver, and the first moment between them was a mere brush of lips. Max waited patiently until Kai got a little bolder, a little firmer, and then he pressed back. Kai’s fingers dug into Max’ back in a way that suggested Max had slipped him his tongue. The seconds ticket down, and it must have been fifteen at least before Max pulled back.

“I think Olivier has some great ideas,” he mumbled.

Kai smiled.

Takao was dancing a little in his seat, restless to take his turn, so Max was barely back in the circle before the needle was spinning again.

It landed on Michael. He chuckled as he came forward. "So I get to kiss the champion. Not a bad deal."

Takao met him in the middle and simply dragged Michael over with his weight, tumbling them down among the pillows and knocking aside the needle. They kissed lying down. Michael stroked Takao's back, even pulling the elastic from his ponytail, making his midnight blue hair fall across their shoulders. Nobody had to ask if they knew what they were doing, and Olivier had to gently clear his throat to make them realise their time had run out.

Kyouju looked away the entire time, gritting his teeth. If he realised how obviously jealous he was being, he didn't care.

"You're good at this," Takao said, still on top of Michael, twining a finger in his own hair and biting his kiss-swollen lips.

"I've had some practice," Michael replied, winking.

At first it looked like Kyouju was going to protest his turn, but then he appeared to change his mind, walking resolutely into the circle on his knees, putting the needle firmly back in its place, and spinning it with a hard motion.

After spinning for a long and uncomfortable while in which everyone tried to pretend they couldn't tell Kyouju was upset, the needle ended up pointing at Steve. Kyouju did a poor job pretending to care.

But then Steve stepped up. He moved forward a little, sat on his knees and held out both hands to Kyouju.

"Hey, Professor. Come here." Once close enough, he took gentle hold of Kyouju's glasses and lifted them off him, handing them to Eddie. Then he pulled Kyouju into his arms and onto his lap. Kyouju shrank a little, probably feeling extra skinny and naked in Steve's big embrace, especially since Steve was only barefoot, while Kyouju was in his boxers, but Steve just nuzzled his throat, placing a few gentle kisses up to his ear.

"Let's show them how it's done, huh?"

Kyouju went crimson at the breathy mumble in his ear, and looked at Steve with wide eyes. Steve smiled reassuringly. "Wanna kiss me?"

Kyouju drew a quick breath and pushed his little mouth against Steve's big one. Steve let him have a moment to adjust, and then he slid one hand into Kyouju's hair and slipped his tongue into the kiss. Kyouju made a sound of surprise, and when Steve licked into his mouth he made some more sounds that were less surprise and more "oh my god", and when Steve dragged his nails down his naked back, Kyouju whined, visible goose bumps racing down his spine.

And it worked like a charm; if Kyouju had seen the look on Takao's face in that moment, he would have felt plenty vindicated, because Takao looked increasingly like someone was twisting his balls.

After around twenty seconds, Steve pulled back. "That wasn't so bad?"

"Nuh ..." Kyouju said, sounding like his brain had short-circuited.

Kyouju got his glasses back and flopped back down in his spot, red in the face and looking like he felt a little better.

Takao had his arms crossed over his chest and was now pouting.

Steve got a subtle clap on the shoulder from Rai, and little nods from the rest of the group.

Michael then proceeded to spin himself on his turn and immediately began fawning all over himself, loudly demanding someone get him a mirror and kissing his own biceps adoringly. Eventually he let them "convince" him to spin again. He got Eddie, which they obviously both found a little weird; they were almost too embarrassed to make it to six seconds and ended up giving each other little pecks between awkward chuckles.

Johnny was too restless to find it as funny as the others did, because next it would be Ralf's turn, and with every breath, Johnny wanted to announce that he had to go to the bathroom or something, anything to escape from having to watch Ralf kiss someone else again.

But he didn't speak. He didn't leave.

Ralf leaned forward on his hands and knees, stretched out a hand and gave the needle its sideways tap. Johnny watched the way his pants rode low against the soft part of his stomach and felt like he was spinning too.

The needle spun forever. Johnny felt sick and wanted it to end, but then it started slowing down and he didn't want it to end, and then it stopped on Max and for a moment Johnny couldn't see.

So close.

Don't dream.

"Woo!" Max was all smiles. "I'm having all the luck today."

"Don't say that yet," Ralf warned him in a rare moment of self-deprecation.

Max came to meet him. "I'm not worried."

Max was lingering sunshine in the night, with his golden hair and sun-warm skin, freckles like laughter across his nose. He was effortlessly sweet as he cupped Ralf's face in his hands and pulled him down to him.

Johnny breathed grief, but he would not be like Kyouju or Michael; he would not let anyone see. He lounged back against the edge of the sofa and tilted his head to the side so he'd look disinterested, and he watched as Ralf closed his eyes and kissed Max softly.

Max didn't try to take it any further, but Ralf rested his hands on Max' waist, and by the time they parted, Johnny had counted to fifteen.

Max licked his lips. "You taste good," he said. "Like ... I don't know. You."

"You too," Ralf said, and his eyes were kind and calm.

Johnny rolled his own eyes because they were tearing up and he needed an excuse to blink against the pressure behind them.

He would never know that taste.

Giancarlo waited until the other two were back in place before rising and sauntering across the circle, pulled Olivier's legs around his waist and lifting him down from the barstool to kiss him deeply and passionately. Olivier moaned happily and wrapped his arms around Giancarlo's neck. They sank down onto the floor, only missing impaling themselves on the needle because Yuriy dove forward and yanked it out of the way. Olivier forgot to keep the time, and so in the end it was Emily who eventually pricked Giancarlo on the shoulder and pointed out that they were not just past the time limit, but also past first base, and that if they couldn't wait they could take it elsewhere.

"Finally!" Mao exclaimed when Giancarlo, his hair a wild disarray, sat back down. Yuriy put the needle back for her to spin, and she pounced on it eagerly.

Johnny was so deep in misery that it took him a moment to realise, a few seconds later, that the thing was now pointing at him.

Mao crawled around the space in the middle like a prowling cat. "Mrowr. I suppose your face is pretty cute. Have you kissed anyone before?"

"Don't compare me to these virgins." He had played Truth or Dare and Spin the bottle a number of times, but more importantly, for a few months he had had Holger.

He inhaled, struggling to lift his heavy spirit and move.

Mao sat back on her heels and cocked her head to the side as he came to her. "A little enthusiasm would have been nice."

He cracked a quick smile. Felt like he would crack in two. "Sorry. I'm just tired. You're beautiful."

She raised an unimpressed eyebrow. "I hope you kiss better than you compliment."

He divorced himself from himself. When he chuckled it sounded genuine. "I didn't think You're a savage blader was right for the situation."

Her pupils thinned over a smile. "Oh, but it is." She rose to her knees and pulled him close, pressing her clothed body against his nearly naked one. He could feel her soft breasts through her thin summer dress. She had a nice shape, and she smelled sharp and sweet, but it didn't stir him.

The thought occurred to him that there might be someone who watched them with a similar jealousy to Takao and Kyouju ... to himself. Without meaning to, he glanced at Rei, meeting his steady, yellow gaze before finding himself blinded by Mao's hand covering his eyes.

"What are you looking at him for?" she asked. "Would you rather be kissing Rei?"

"Would you?" he asked.

She hissed at him, pulling him back to her and kissing him sudden and hard. It was all he could do to keep up with her, still blinded by her hand, and a little overwhelmed by her ferocity. She bit his lower lip and he moaned in surprise.

Mao pulled back. Johnny blinked as he regained his eyesight, looked at her and found her glaring.

"Is this the Majestics' infamous Knight of Fire? I'll bet Salamalyon kisses better than you do."

Far away he felt embarrassment and anger, was aware of his teammates watching, though he didn't look at them. He became, suddenly, their representative, and couldn't fail them again.

"Forgive me, my lady," he said, taking her hand and bringing it to his lips. "Give me a second chance and I'll prove myself worthy of your admiration."

She looked to Olivier, who nodded.

Johnny pulled her in again, one hand firmly on the small of her back, the other tucking her hair behind her ear. Holger had enjoyed that, and his blonde curls were always falling over his ears. Johnny continued to gently rub her earlobe as he leaned in and kissed her. Her lips were silky and pink. Holger's mouth had been bigger, his lips broader and stronger, like all of him, but it was so long ago, it was more something Johnny knew than something he could still remember. It was years since he had touched another human being this intimately. Johnny felt Mao shiver a little and took it as encouragement, tilting his head more and opening his mouth over hers, encouraging her to do the same. He slid his hand into her hair to hold her more securely, and ran the tip of his tongue along her bottom lip before sliding it into her mouth and flicking it against her own. She moaned, closed her lips around his tongue and sucked.

The pleasure too was far away and mechanic.

"Time's up," Olivier said, voice low.

Johnny gave Mao a brief, chaste kiss, lips to lips, before pulling back completely. He felt confident enough in his performance, could see it in the flushed faces around him, that he dared to smile.

"What's the verdict, my lady?"

But Mao, though pink-cheeked and glassy-eyed, looked up at him with worry. "Where did you go just now?"

He reconnected with his own body in a rush. Felt like he'd been body-slammed and had no idea how to respond to her.

She sat back down on her heels. Sighed. Nodded to herself. "It was nice." She stood up, and he was too bewildered to catch her as she walked back to her spot and plopped down between Giancarlo and Eddie. Johnny had no choice but to scramble up and slink back to his own seat or risk being caught in the middle of the circle alone.

He sat in his own dazed world while Eddie kissed Sergei, and Steve gave Kai his second kiss ever.

Then it was Rai's turn. He spun the needle with solemn concentration, kneeling in front of it and waiting quietly for it to stop.

"Have you-?" Michael begun without finishing.

Rai didn't appear to have heard him at first, but then he shook his head, almost imperceptibly.

The needle stopped on Rei.

Rai shoulders drew back a little. Rei rose and tossed his braid over his shoulder.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'll take the lead." He reached down and moved the needle out of the way, before kneeling smoothly in front of Rai. He leaned in.

"No, you won't," Rai said, grabbed Rei by the throat and slammed him down on his back, making the crowd gasp. He leaned down into Rei's face. "It's my turn."

"What-?"

Rai took Rei's mouth with a growl.

Takao started forward, but Kai threw his arm out and barred the way, and his decision seemed to hold the entire circle in check.

Rei's eyes were wide open in surprise, his hands clenched in Rai's tank top. Suddenly, he moaned, and his eyes fluttered closed. Johnny couldn't see clearly because Rai's body was in the way, but judging by the angle of his arm, he had placed his hand right between Rei's legs.

Mao watched them without blinking, half-way up from the floor and quivering from head to toe, but what she was feeling was hard to say.

Rei arched up, straining against Rai, who shoved him back down. A drop of blood ran from the corner of Rei's mouth.

Finally, perhaps conscious of time running out, Rai broke the kiss, licking Rei's blood from his own lips.

Rei grabbed the arm holding him down, legs kicking a little. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Taking the lead."

"Are you..." Rei's lips drew back from his teeth in a sudden surge of rage. "Are you challenging me?"

Rai's expression calmed, lids half closing over his hot-orange eyes. "You're afraid to come home because you fear to come home to a cage. You don't want to lead us, and worse, you're not qualified to."

Rei's fist shot out, Rai startled back, letting go of him but dodging the blow. Rei was up in a crouch immediately, and they faced each other, teeth bared.

"How dare you," Rei snarled. "The elders made a choice, and you agreed! Are you going back on your word?"

"The elders made a mistake," Rai said, barely more composed than Rei. "For centuries, the man or woman chosen by Byakko has been made the leader of our clan, but there's no logic to that! Byakko looks for hearts full of conviction, but what about patience, wisdom, selflessness, or all the other qualities needed to lead?"

"What, so I don't have any of those?"

"That's not what I mean! I'm saying the elders chose based on tradition rather than sense. You may be the best person to wield Byakko, but you're a free spirit; you'll never be ready to leave the world for a life in a little village. You don't want to lead us."

"Wait ... What are you saying?" Rei let his knees touch the floor, sat on his heels and looked at Rai curiously. "You're not after Byakko?"

Rai exhaled hard, lowering his shoulders. "...No. He chose you. I have Galeon. I want you to be honest with yourself about what you really want, and I want what's best for our village."

Rei's eyes narrowed. "You'd take my place? You'd bind yourself to the clan for the rest of your life? Even though you've seen the world and everything it contains?"

Rai shrugged a little helplessly. "I love the clan. I ... I'll try to make changes, small ones. It's already happening. We have a TV now." He huffed a bit of a laugh. "Small steps."

Sergei coughed, not to make a point, just to clear a dry throat, but it made the two Chinese boys conscious of their audience.

"We'll talk about this," Rei said, putting a hand on Rai's shoulder. "Later."

Rai nodded, breathing in deeply. They rose to return to their seats.

"But Rai?" Rei turned one last time.

Rai faced him across the circle. "Hm?"

Rei deliberated for a moment. "Don't overlook you own desires either. Remember ... Your eventual spouse would have to be willing to spend their life in that village too."

He didn't look at Michael, but he didn't have to. Rai didn't look at him either, but he didn't have to; Michael shrunk in on himself like he had been mentioned explicitly by name, and for once in his life he didn't look like he enjoyed being the centre of attention.

Rai sat down without replying.

And then it was Johnny's turn.

"Damn it, Rai, you bit me," Rei grumbled as Johnny found the needle and replaced it in the circle.

He didn't really want this. He spun anyway. He drew a deep breath and blew it out with puffed cheeks. "Please, God, don't let me get the cat people; they're crazy."

There were a few chuckles, even from Rei and Rai.

Maybe he'd get someone nice, like Michael. Someone who wouldn't make it so damn personal. Or Yuriy, who hadn't been kissed yet and was looking increasingly impatient.

The needle slowed.

This was probably the last kiss he had to endure this round, and then the game would be done with and he could escape this hellish roller coaster ride.

The needle stopped.

Johnny's heart stopped.

The world stopped for a moment, and he was deaf and blind, and then his heart thudded painfully to life and he was turned irresistibly in the needle's direction.

It was pointing at Ralf.

 

Chapter Text

Johnny's heart was beating so hard his pulse had to be visible in his throat.

He looked at Ralf, and Ralf looked back at him, and both of them waited for Johnny to move.

But Johnny was trembling so hard inside he could barely hold himself up.

Say something! Laugh it away!

... I didn't think I'd be given this gift.

Ralf cleared his throat, got his feet under him sat up on the couch. "Come on, then." He sounded businesslike. "It's not so awkward, I hope, that we can't get through this."

Johnny's world came crashing down around him.

Of course. You're disgusted.

He stood up on numb legs, feeling naked and chubby and stupid, dizzy with sorrow and shame. Was barely conscious of Michael and Giancarlo moving out of the way as he took the three steps that would put him right in front of Ralf.

Ralf watched him, his eyes lovely, almost wine-coloured in the dark.

Johnny felt hot and cold in turns. "Uh ... Close your ...?"

"Ah, yes." He blinked, cleared his throat again. Closed his eyes in a deliberate motion. He seemed so uncomfortable.

Johnny licked his lips, then wiped them again, afraid too much spit would make it gross. He raised his hands, but didn't know where to put them; couldn't hold on to Ralf lest he felt the way Johnny shook. Didn't want to impose himself any more than he had to. He leaned forward a little, felt Ralf's breath against his lips. Wanted to take those breaths inside himself and be filled by them.

Ralf frowned.

This would be the only kiss they would ever share. Johnny needed to remember it.

"Bear with me, okay?" he whispered, unable to raise his voice. "It's just six seconds."

He closed his eyes and the last space between them, their noses brushed and then his lips landed awkwardly against the left side of Ralf's mouth. Ralf made a small sound, moved a little, and then they were core to core, and the sensation of Ralf's soft lips against his own shivered through Johnny. He could smell Ralf's cologne and sweat, familiar and delicious in the back of his throat.

Johnny didn't dare move, but lived in that kiss for six aching moments, desperately trying to memorize how it felt to be here, kissing the boy he loved.

Then Ralf made another sound of discontent, and Johnny reared back in terror.

"Wow, those were some long seconds!" he said too loudly. "Glad that's over!" He walked stiff-legged back to his seat and practically fell down, half on top of Rai and Max, forcing most of the circle to shuffle in chain reaction.

He grabbed his glass from under the couch, twirled it between his fingers and jerked his foot rhythmically to hide how he was trembling. "Come on, blondie, it's your turn."

Max gave him a look, but crawled into the middle to spin the needle.

Ralf was still sitting on the couch, but now he moved, slowly and deliberately, back down into the circle.

Only once Max was kissing Emily did Johnny grow still, sinking into himself. His stomach hurt again. He had received a gift, unwillingly given. Could still feel the brush of it against his lips. He would not forget.

He will never love me.

Max' kiss with Emily was completely devoid of passion.

"Thank you for contributing to my research," she said, a little sarcastically.

He laughed awkwardly. "Sorry. It's just ..."

"Too much like kissing your sister?" She shrugged, a little smile playing on her lips. "It's alright. I was thinking the same thing."

He laughed and hugged her.

Yuriy spun next, and, being pissy that he hadn't gotten any yet, ended up dragging Rai into an aggressive kiss that lasted long past the limit, holding up a hand to silence Olivier when he tried to call the time before diving right back into the kiss. In the end it was Sergei who reached out and dragged Yuriy back to his seat by the scruff of his neck.

Rai, whose hair now rivalled Giancarlo's in messiness, had some trouble coordinating his arms and legs as he returned to his seat.

Sergei spun Rei.

"You're not gonna bite me, are you?" Rei purred as Sergei lifted him into his arms.

"Not unless you want me to," Sergei replied in a rare moment of humour.

And finally, Rei spun Giancarlo, and kissed him on the nose.

And then they were sitting there awkwardly in a circle, looking at each other, having done things that none of them had imagined they'd be doing this evening.

Johnny still shook intermittently, the muscles in his arms and legs seizing as if with cramps. He needed to escape this place. Didn't know how much longer he could hold on.

"Well," Olivier said eventually. "Here we are."

"Is it over?" Takao asked, sounding disappointed.

Please, please, please.

But around the circle, while there was some yawning, the players seemed reluctant to get up and break the moment.

Olivier looked around. "It depends on how you're feeling." He reached for his clipboard, ran his fingertip down it. "I actually cut a handful of questions for time, so if you'd like..."

No, no, no.

"A couple more questions couldn't hurt," Emily said.

"There might be more penalties, though," Olivier cautioned them, grinning. "And some of you have little left to lose."

"Ech," Yuriy waved it away. "What's a little nudity between friends?"

"True, but if anyone does want to call it a night, that's okay," Olivier said.

"But then you'll miss out on the moonlight swimming afterwards," Giancarlo reminded them.

Johnny looked around, but no one seemed to be seriously thinking about it, everyone looking around at each other instead. Not even Ralf, though he was frowning at the floor and hardly seemed to be paying attention to the conversation.

Johnny couldn't be the only one who left, it would look suspicious as hell. He summoned strength he didn't know he had, laughed and said, "Come on, sissies. Who's gonna back out now?"

Keep up the pretence. Just a little longer.

"One more round of questions," Rai said. "Alright."

There were nods around the circle.

"Very well." Olivier hefted the clipboard. "Then we go back to single penalties, and you'll need something to drink again, but if you want to come swimming after, don't choose anything alcoholic; I won't risk any of you."

They rose, stretched, jogged in place to get their blood circulating. Johnny forced himself to rise and fill his glass with water.

By unspoken agreement, they sat up on the couch again when they returned to their seats, leaning back and making themselves comfortable in the mellow midnight. Johnny grabbed a pillow to wrap his arms around and felt marginally better.

Olivier considered his list. "These questions aren't all kind."

"We'll be fine," Takao said, sitting forward eagerly. "Why would we need to keep secrets from each other?"

It was a laughable question, but Johnny was too on edge to laugh.

Olivier cleared his throat and looked around to make sure that they were ready. "Alright ... first of the final statements. I have resented a teammate for losing us a match."

Kai was drinking before the statement was finished.

"A little eager on the draw there, Kai," Takao said with some amusement. "I'm glad you tell us how you really feel."

"Are you surprised?" Rei laughed. "Kai is Kai, Beyblade is a competitive sport, and not everyone is as carefree about victory as you and Max."

"What counts is that you give it your all," Max argued. "And that's what we do."

"You're not wrong, Max," Emily said. "But Rei is right too; it's a competition, and we're in it to win. I know you've been deeply disappointed by loss too."

"But being angry at yourself doesn't count in this case," Olivier cautioned them.

"... I'd drink either way," Kai muttered.

Yuriy drank, but Sergei didn't. Mao drank reluctantly, as did Rai, with clear shame. Emily shared a look with her captain and took a hard drink. Steve, as the only other member of the PPB to do so, drank a little more easily.

"You know me," he said in an apologetic aside to Eddie. "I lose my head. It doesn't last."

"I know."

Johnny was looking at his own glass. He had just realised that drinking would mean wiping away the memory, the ghostly touch ... but there was no way he would get away with a lie; they knew him too well.

Let go. He was never meant for you.

Conscious of Olivier looking at him with mild curiosity, he forced himself to take a drink, and then held his glass up so everyone could see.

And finally, Kyouju, eyes hidden under his hair, drank. "... It's not my right, but-"

"You put down as much work as the rest of the team," Kai said bluntly. "You have a right to be frustrated when we waste your efforts."

Kyouju looked at him. "Thank you. But I'm still not proud of it."

"Sometimes we fight," Olivier said. He looked at Ralf. "But we forgive each other and move past it. In the end, we are a team, and we fight together."

But Ralf just looked at him. In the end, Olivier returned to his clipboard.

"Okay. Statement number two. I have broken the law."

Yuriy and Sergei raised their glasses in synchronised salute before they drank.

Giancarlo frowned thoughtfully. "Is there an actual law against aiding a mad scientist in trying to take over the world?"

"There probably is now," Kyouju said.

Giancarlo nodded slowly. Then he lifted his glass towards Johnny. "Hey, Johnny, we may not have gone that far, but here's to running from the polizia."

Olivier gave them both a flat, disapproving look, but Johnny returned the toast, grinning as best he could. "Twice as fun when it's with a friend ... and five newly freed lobsters, two chickens and a pig." The glass was heavy as led in his hand. He felt like they were miles apart tonight. Wished he could confide in his partner in crime, but it would only make things worse. Giancarlo couldn't help him.

Kai drank, as did Steve, Mao and Emily, and Max.

"Mao!" Rai said, shocked. "What have you done?"

"Wouldn't you like to know," she said, blowing him a kiss.

Everybody else were looking at Max.

"What ... even ...?" Eddie said helplessly.

"Well," Max cleared his throat and looked very serious. "I ... I have several times ... stolen apples from our neighbour's tree, and-"

There was a chorus of groans.

"That doesn't count, you cupcake!" Michael said. "Don't scare us like that!"

"Must preserve the innocence," Giancarlo said, fanning himself like he'd been shocked half to death.

"But I feel bad!" Max insisted.

"Then don't do it anymore!"

Olivier was about to move on, but Rei leaned around him and asked, "Hey, Emily, what did you do?"

"Probably hacked into the Pentagon or something," Steve joked.

Emily looked at her glass long enough that the mood changed, and they became concerned. Then she said, "... When I was thirteen, I got drunk, stole a car and hit a pedestrian."

"... Emily," Michael said at last, faintly. "What..."

Emily, sitting there with her strong, bare legs crossed at the ankles, looked at no one. "I was ... upset. Wanted to get back at my family ... my dad."

Who knew what had prompted the confession, but no one so much as breathed now in case it would stop her.

"He ... It was late, there was no one on the road. I stole a car while the owner was in the store. Drove away. I don't remember much before a man suddenly hit the windshield." She swallowed, kept staring into her glass. "I stopped, got out to help him, terrified that he was ... But he'd just broken his arm. I waited with him until the ambulance ... and the cops ... Then I waited at the police station." She shrank where she sat. "Waited for Dad." Johnny recognised the shuttered look on her face; he had seen it on his own face in the hallway mirror while he had waited for Father to call him into his office.

Emily breathed in, and exhaled in a short burst, as if ridding herself of the past. "But the person who came to pay my bail was Director Judy. She said she'd been watching me for some time. Knew I had, in fact, Steve, hacked into the PPB servers. Knew that I was the best tennis player and Beyblader in Louisiana. She said she'd found out about ... my home life. Said she wanted to take me away, to give me a chance to develop my talents. Give me an education." There was a trembling in her smile. She adjusted her glasses over eyes that shone wetly. "I'd broken a dozen laws. And was rewarded with a new life. It's my worst and my most precious memory."

Mao was out of her seat in a moment and across the circle, throwing her arms around Emily and hugging her tight. "I'm so glad, Emily! I'm so glad you joined the PPB so I could meet you!"

Emily hugged her back. Moments later, the boys of the PPB were there to hug her too, and then Max and Takao, Kyouju and Rei.

"And I'm glad you told us," Michael said, voice low. "I had no idea."

Emily shrugged tightly. "It's in the past now."

Johnny seemed to recall that she had not drunk on the early statement about loving her family, but had wished them a merry trip to hell.

This game of confession was turning dangerous, the mood contagious. How many questions did Olivier have left?

"Alright," Olivier said gently, helping them forward. "This next one is a bit naughtier. I want you to tell me whether it's true that you would like to try tying up or being tied up by your partner during sex."

Johnny kept his glass in his lap. It was a safe lie.

Who would want you?

Emily drank, as did Giancarlo, Sergei, Rai (Michael looked surprised, half raised his glass, lowered it again, and then raised it and drank, looking flustered), Mao, Rei, and in the midst of them, subtly, Ralf.

Johnny breathed. Sorrow ached in his throat.

"Anyone want to say whether they'd like to tie or be tied?" Olivier challenged them.

"I imagine both could be fun," Mao speculated, tapping her chin with one dainty finger.

"Oh, they are," Olivier said innocently.

Giancarlo was busy sipping ice tea and pretending his sex life wasn't amazing.

"How did you find out?" Ralf asked unexpectedly. He looked strangely pale and wild. "Did you get tired of Giancarlo straying?"

The circle gasped.

"Christ, Jürgens," Steve muttered. "What the hell?"

Olivier's eyes were wide as saucers, his mouth open, and Johnny felt as shocked as Olivier looked. Only hours earlier, Ralf had praised Giancarlo for overcoming those struggles, acknowledging the strength that had taken both from him and Olivier, and now ... What was going on?

"Why would you ...?" Olivier whispered, sounding close to tears.

Giancarlo, sitting next to Ralf, was equally pale and shocked. "Ralf ..."

But Ralf was looking stubbornly at Olivier. Once again something was passing between the three of them that Johnny was completely excluded from.

"Olivier." Without raising his voice, Kai commanded the room's attention. "How many questions do you have left?"

"Uh-I-Just one."

"Then bring it. I'd like to get to the swimming after all this sitting down."

Though his words were selfish, their intent was not; Olivier, bolstered by Kai's dismissal of Ralf, nodded, regaining some of his equilibrium.

Giancarlo leaned back on the couch with his arms crossed over his chest and turned his face away from his captain.

Johnny on the other hand couldn't stop staring at Ralf, wondering again why he was angry. Was he in pain? Why was he and Olivier fighting? Why was nobody telling Johnny anything?

Ralf looked at nothing.

"Actually ..." Olivier tapped his clipboard with renewed purpose. "I have two statements left. The first is ... It's ..." He swallowed. "I am in love."

Johnny startled.

The players seemed tense and alert, neither tittering nor immediately responding the way they would have if things had not taken such a dark turn moments before. But Giancarlo sat up, raised his glass to his lover and drank, and Olivier got his from the table and drank in turn.

Then Michael, looking resigned and miserable, knowing probably that everyone else already knew, took a drink from his own glass. Johnny wished he could see Rai's face, but Rai was turned away, towards Michael.

Then Takao cleared his throat and, glancing aside at Kyouju, took a short sip.

Kyouju sat there, looking at Takao, eyes heavy behind his thick glasses, body bare and vulnerable, and then, slowly, he raised his glass and took a long swallow.

Takao stared at him. "You ... But you didn't want me!"

"Of course I wanted you! But if I leave ... I'm not going to ask you to stay true to me half a world away!"

"Why the heck not?" Takao yelled.

They looked at each other, breaths shallow in their chests.

Kyouju ducked his head, shook it. "I want to work for the PPB; it's my dream, my life's goal. If I'm lucky enough to get into their school, if I'm lucky enough to get hired some day, I'll have to stay in America. I won't ask you to move there with me, you belong in Japan, and while I'm far away you'll find someone better-"

Takao grabbed his face and kissed him hard, square on the mouth. It was not the night's most elegant kiss, for sure, but it was full of passion.

Then he pulled back. "Saien Manabu, you idiot!" He squeezed Kyouju's cheeks in his hands. "Of course you're going to get into their school, and of course they're going to hire you!"

"Bud wad aboud-" Kyouju said, struggling to speak through his squashed face.

"Of course that will happen, but I don't care about that! I want you now."

Takao loosened his hold at last, smiled joyfully and stroked his thumbs over the other boy's cheeks. "I want to be with you tomorrow, and the rest of the days of this week, and this month and more, but mostly I want to be with you right here and now, and if I love you and you love me, what's stopping us?"

Kyouju placed his own hand over Takao's. "I see. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, right?"

Takao shook his head. "I've realised that love isn't easy or fair, but I also know that it's strong. My feelings for you are strong. I don't know what the future's gonna look like, with you in America and me in Japan, but whatever happens, we'll deal with it as it comes. The only thing that matters is today, and I'm not gonna let you run away from me again because of what may or may not happen down the line."

Kyouju smiled a little, huffing a short laugh. "That's just like you, Takao. You're indomitable; you never fret."

"And you fret too much. Just let me love you today, that's all I ask."

He leaned in and kissed Kyouju again, more gently this time, before leaning their foreheads together. "And I'll ask again tomorrow, and the day after that, and then we'll see where it leads."

For a moment, it looked like Kyouju was going to protest, but when he broke the silence, it was with a sob, and then they were hugging, and Kyouju was clutching at Takao and crying, and Johnny felt furious jealousy ripping at his insides.

"That was a trip," Michael said slowly. He was seated next to them.

"Michael." Rai's quiet voice grabbed the American's attention immediately. Johnny shuffled to the side a little, giving the Chinese boy room.

Michael's face turned red. "Hey ... Rai ... I, uh ..."

"Michael," Rai said again, like he was tasting the name, and then he raised his glass in a deliberate motion, and drank.

Michael looked like he'd been hit in the head with a hammer.

I am the only moron left, Johnny thought.

"This is wonderful," Olivier said. He was looking at Ralf again. "Just one left."

What? Johnny sat up on the couch.

Ralf's hand was trembling around the stem of his wineglass, and his face was stormy, but there was steel, vengeance and expectation in Olivier's eyes, and he didn't back down. For a long moment they looked at each other in silence, and Johnny thought he had never seen either of them looking so dangerous.

Then Ralf drank.

Olivier blinked, his eyes heavy. The victory appeared to have gained him little.

"Does that mean ... Are you in love, Ralf?" Takao asked.

"I drank, didn't I?" Ralf said dully.

"That's great!" Max chimed in. "We were kind of worried."

Johnny couldn't breathe, his throat blocked by tears, sharp and tight to swallow around. Why did it hurt so much? Of course Ralf loved her!

It's okay. It's okay.

"Really?" Rai asked hesitantly. "The way you spoke of her earlier, I almost thought it was a marriage of convenience."

"Ralf is ..."

Why am I opening my mouth?

"Ralf isn't the type to advertise his feelings," Johnny said, floating somewhere outside of himself and watching as everyone turned to him. "I already told you. His inner life is no one's business but his own, but he doesn't do anything by half; he wouldn't choose Laura if he didn't truly ..."

There were nods, and Ralf was looking at him again for the first time since the kiss, and there was gratitude in his eyes.

"Congratulations, buddy," Michael said, clapping Ralf on the shoulder and breaking his and Johnny's eye-contact. "It's a load off our minds."

Olivier's expression had gone soft and emotional. "I-"

"Read the last statement," Ralf interrupted him, voice unreadable. "End this."

Olivier drew a shaky breath, exchanged a look with Giancarlo that seemed to give him strength, and then he turned to his clipboard one last time. "The final statement of the game is I don't intend to ever quit blading."

"Kanpai!" Takao cried, lifting his glass.

"Gānbēi!" Rei and Mao echoed.

"Cheers!" Eddie added.

Everyone drank. Johnny emptied his glass mechanically.

And then it was over.

No one protested as Ralf rose and left the room without a word. No one expected him to return. A few others, Mao and Rai, Max and Kyouju, padded out after him, going to the bathroom. Mao seemed upset and was ranting about it in whispers to her brother.

Once again, Olivier got some of the less naked boys to help him gather necessary supplies, and once everyone but Ralf, Rai and Mao were back, the teens set off in procession out the door, around the house and down the path to the beach, with Sergei in front holding a lantern aloft, and Yuriy in the back holding another, and Takao, Steve and Olivier carrying stacks of towels for after.

Johnny walked at the very back of the crowd in a daze, watching his feet even though the path was broad and the moon was high and bright. He was too tired for thoughts, knew only that he could not excuse himself from this after he had goaded the others into joining. Besides, he couldn't summon the energy to make his excuses, could barely imagine raising his voice, his eyes from the ground, the corners of his mouth for a smile. He could perhaps have simply slipped away, but he wasn't alone at the back of the group; Michael was also loitering restlessly behind everyone else, both being extra careful of his ankle, and waiting for Rai.

Mao and Rai came out of the house not long after, fearlessly jogging down the steep path to catch up. Mao danced ahead to go hand in hand with Emily, while Rai, prompted by a ridiculous little wave from Michael, joined him and Johnny at the back.

"Look what I found upstairs," he said to Johnny, holding out Ralf's book.

It seemed darker and slimmer in this light, like a sliver of black sorcery. Johnny took it out of Rai's hand.

"Why?" he managed. What was the point of giving it to him?

"Because you know Ralf best," Rai said. "Maybe that's why he didn't tell you about the marriage." The others had moved a little ways ahead of them, but Rai kept his voice lowered nonetheless. "I don't know what's going on between him and Olivier, but I think Ralf fears your ability to read him. I think that, should you try, perhaps with the help of this book, you could reach Ralf, and help them mend the thing that's broken."

"Thank you," Johnny said, and turned away and kept walking, knowing he was being curt and rude and unable to do anything about it.

Once down at the beach, they gathered around the parasols, Yuriy and Sergei sticking the lanterns in the sand on either side of the chairs, where Olivier, Steve and Takao put the towels down. The teens who had taken the fewest penalties were already slipping out of their excess clothes, while the others lingered, nervous and excited, unwilling to be the first to get naked.

Johnny stood a little apart, opening the book on the title page with a mixture of curiosity and indifference, but he could barely make out the words in the dark. He stepped into the lantern-light and looked again.

It was poetry. He turned over a few pages. Love poetry. He turned some more pages, ending on the bookmarked one, the one Ralf had gotten stuck on earlier today.

It was a Robert Burns poem. It was the Robert Burns poem.

O, my luve is like a red, red rose, that's newly sprung in June. O, my luve is like the melodie that's sweetly play'd in tune.

Johnny was so surprised to see Scotland's national poet in Ralf's book that for the longest time he just stared.

“Oh. Where did you get that?”

Olivier was standing in front of him, all mild voice and curious expression.

Johnny looked back down at the poem. “Was he reading these for her?”

“You know what?” Olivier plucked the book from his numb fingers, shutting it decisively. “I’d like to think about something other than Ralf Jürgens right now.” He tossed the book onto a different chair, nodded to himself and smiled at Johnny. “Come on. Time to wash away the day.”

“Maybe I should stay dressed? Maybe you should shut up and mind your own business!” Mao was poking Rai angrily in the chest. “You think you’ve got some kind of say in what I do, huh?”

“No, no, of course not.” Rai was on the defensive already. “I’m just saying there’s a great deal more of us boys, and if you’d rather-”

“Why? Are my naughty bits somehow more shocking than yours?”

Rai had long since realised he’d put his foot in his mouth, and kept his hands up in a reconciliatory gesture. “No! Forget I said anything! I’m sorry.”

Mao rolled her eyes at him, hands on her hips. “Considering half of you aren’t even interested in girls, I don’t think I’m the one who should be worried here.”

“Wha-I wasn’t implying-!”

“Rai.”

The Michael who stood there in only his boxers, skin bronze in the lantern-light, was a different person than the awkward boy of this afternoon, or even of an hour past. There was bravery in him, his feet planted in the sand, though his fingertips played nervously at the hem of his underwear.

“Mao can take care of herself.” He licked his lips, inhaling deep. “I want you to look at me.”

In one swift motion, he pushed his boxers down, turned and walked down towards the water, careful of his ankle. As he stepped into the waves, he looked back over his shoulder. “You coming?” He smiled teasingly.

Rai’s eyes were big as saucers. “Um …” He turned to Mao and gestured a little helplessly towards the water. “I’m just going … I’ll go and … Yes, so …”

Mao just watched him, smug little smile on her lips. Then Rai was hurrying after Michael, pulling his clothes off as he went, forgetting his shoes and having to hop around with his pants around his ankles to get them off. His dark briefs followed, and then he was wading in too.

“Huh.” Yuriy sniffed. “I half expected a tail.”

Rai yelped as the water washed over his thighs. “It's cold!”

“I know, right!” Michael shouted from further out.

“Is your ankle alright?”

“Come find out.”

Eddie and Steve had covered their eyes when their captain had decided to take up public indecency, and could now lower them again.

Takao ran past them, laughing and whooping, Max right behind him.

“Wait for me, guys!” Kyouju jogged after them with a nervous glance at the audience, his hands held in front of him protectively.

“Aaagh, it’s cold!”

And then there were clothes flying everywhere, boys and girls sprinting down to the water, girlish screams as sensitive bits were submerged in the cold sea, nervous and delighted laughter.

Kai walked down. He was extremely pale, the shadows cast by the lanterns defining the muscles in his back, buttocks and legs.

Even Steve and Eddie got their kits off. “Hey Steve,” Steve said to himself, “what did you do on your holiday in Europe? Oh, nothing much. Bladed a bunch, ate good food, got naked with my friends. Normal stuff.”

“Afraid you won’t stack up?” Eddie teased him before he ran.

“It’s not the size that matters,” Steve yelled back before following. “It’s how you use it!”

Giancarlo beckoned playfully to Oliver as he disappeared into the dark with the others. Olivier and Johnny remained behind.

“You coming?” Olivier let his light robe fall onto the chair and began to work his dress over his head.

“Yeah.”

Olivier and Giancarlo had always been causal about nudity. Johnny was too, just not around … everyone. But that wasn’t the issue now; he was struggling to make his body move at all.

The buckles on his kilt afforded him some time, meaning Olivier was on his way down, lithe and graceful, before Johnny was naked. He took another moment to fold the kilt carefully and place it on top of a towel to protect it from the elements. Now the chill sea breeze was on him, reminding him of how Ralf had come to get him from his room this morning, in another age where he had naively thought himself miserable. Now, when the wind dragged across his back and shoulders, he felt like an open wound.

He could hear the others calling and cavorting out there, and the waves washing against the beach. With one last look up the hill behind which the house lay, Johnny turned and walked down to the abyss.

So fair art thou, my bonnie lad, so deep in luve am I, and I will luve thee still, my dear, till a’ the seas gang dry.

It was cold. Johnny swam, shivering. This far from the house, despite the moonlight and the lanterns, there were plenty of stars in the sky. Johnny half feared he might fall into space to swim among them. He imagined he'd be about as breathless there as he was down here, iron bands of cold and sorrow clamped around his chest.

The others were out by the floating dock by now; Yuriy was climbing up, the others laughing as he gave them an eyeful.

“I claim this country in the name of the Blitzkrieg Boys! None of you can stand against me.”

“I’d happily stand against you, but not in public!”

“Nobody’s gonna stand in this temperature.”

“Are we feeling free yet? At one with nature?”

"I'd rather be one with a blanket and a cup of tea."

Giancarlo and Olivier were floating in each other's arms. Michael and Rai were a little distance away and talking low and intimately. Mao and Rei were up on the platform, challenging Yuriy for the throne, their long, wet hair swathed around their bodies like they were sirens risen from the deep. Kyouju was shivering, but smiling as Takao swam little circles around him.

Johnny was closing in on the group, aware that he had long since run out of strength, that he could barely even smile to hide his true feelings anymore. He couldn't engage with them. So he dived. For a moment he was down in the blackness all alone, and the cold was in his ears and in his nose. He reached down and touched the sand, but there was nothing there to hold on to, and then fear of the unknown gripped him, and he surfaced with panic thrumming in his breast.

Yuriy screamed as he was thrown bodily from the platform. Steve and Eddie, Mao and Rei high-fived each other over a coup well staged, not noticing how Sergei was coming up behind them.

“Anything fun down there?” Emily asked archly as Johnny came close, possibly thinking he had dived to get a better look.

“No,” Johnny said.

But Emily was already distracted, looking up towards the hills and the house, squinting as she struggled to see without her glasses. “Is that Ralf? I thought he went to bed.”

Johnny's scalp tingled with goosebumps. He turned.

It could be no one else. Ralf was coming down towards the water, Camille running ahead of him.

Not everyone had noticed yet, busy trying to get the current king, Sergei, off the platform and failing miserably; Sergei just grabbed them one by one and threw them, squealing and laughing, back into the water.

Kai was not engaged, however, and came swimming up to Johnny and Emily. "What's he doing here?" He seemed to be asking Johnny, but he could only shake his head helplessly.

Ralf reached the parasols, and on the chairs he found his book, and Johnny’s kilt. Johnny saw him put a hand on it briefly before leaving the chairs to come stand at the water's edge, looking out towards them.

What is he doing here?

Camille ran around Ralf's legs and up and down the beach excitedly, got her paws wet by an incoming wave and jumped away, barking loudly, and that's when everyone noticed the late arrivals.

Olivier's expression darkened. Giancarlo sighed and leaned his forehead on Olivier's shoulder.

"What is he thinking?"

"I guess we should go up? It's too cold for a long swim anyway." Kyouju tried to be encouraging, but he sounded uncomfortable, and who wouldn't be, the way the mood had sunk.

"We've already pushed our bedtime," Emily said, taking the first stroke towards land. "Director Judy won't be happy when she reads the log."

"Oh fie," Olivier said testily. "I'll write a thing or two in that log about how she lets her bladers be used."

Emily looked back at him angrily. "I won't hear a word against her, Olivier. No matter how you feel right now."

Olivier shook his head as if throwing off the whole thing. They all knew why he was angry. "Very well. To bed we go."

Johnny was torn between his fear of staying in the abyss all alone, and the impossibility of going up there to Ralf without a stitch to hide him. Indecisiveness chose for him, as in moments, the others were already leaving him. Sergei was the last to dive off the platform, and as he surfaced and swam past, Johnny said "I'll stay a little longer. Don't wait for me."

Sergei gave him a sceptical look, but nodded. "Not too long. You shouldn't be alone out here. We'll leave a towel and a lantern."

"Sure."

He swam to the floating dock and held on to the ladder to rest his body. Watched as the others left the water, fifteen naked teenagers, like a pack of selkies without their pelts. For whatever reason, they gave Ralf space, not like they were angry at him but like something in his expression made them stay away. He stood straight and still like a pillar of stone, and neither looked at anyone nor spoke to them.

Olivier breezed past him like he wasn't even there.

The teens dried themselves off and pulled their clothes back on while Camille danced joyfully between them, barks loud in the night. They talked amongst themselves a little, Sergei looked to be relaying Johnny's message, and then, to Johnny's horror, the group left, all except Ralf.

Johnny swam around the platform once, unsure of what else to do. When he came back around, Ralf was still standing in the same place at the water's edge. He put his hands to his mouth like he meant to shout something, but thought better of it. Instead he began to take his clothes off.

Oh god no.

It was too late for Johnny to swim back; he could only watch helplessly as Ralf, pale and unafraid, swum out towards him, long strokes pulling him through the water. The stars were higher than heaven, the moon ruled them, and the sea was deeper than thought; it was a vast and lonely space that they occupied, Johnny clinging to the floating dock as if it was the only solid thing in a world of air and water, Ralf cutting through the waves to close the distance between them.

As Ralf drew close, Johnny resisted the urge to reach out and pull him in, fearful that the dark waves would take him, but there was no need; in a moment, Ralf was there beside him, holding on to the floating dock, hand close to Johnny’s hand.

The look on his face was strange, intense and hard to interpret. Their bodies were white, distorted spectres that quickly disappeared into the blackness. Johnny feared the nightly deep, but he feared Ralf’s odd expression just as much.

"Look at you," Johnny said because the silence was unbearably awkward. "Swimming after all."

“I swam earlier,” Ralf said. “And I would have done more, but I had to-”

“Finish your book,” Johnny interrupted, completing the sentence for him. “I saw it.” He kicked his feet. “Are you … Will you read them to her?”

Ralf cocked his head to the side. Why couldn't he look at something other than Johnny for a bit? Water glittered on his cheek in the moonlight, and ran from his hair down his throat and back into the shifting body that had had to let it go. Johnny didn't know where to rest his eyes, and ended up looking down.

“It would be quite romantic, wouldn’t it?" Ralf said finally. "Very unlike me, but poetry is a powerful thing; I have spent the day reading verse after verse of the most delicate, desperate, beautiful declarations of love your language ever produced, and I have trembled and suffered through each one.”

“Because you’re in love too,” Johnny mumbled, the words thick in his throat.

“Very much,” Ralf confessed.

Johnny flinched, feeling like he’d been stabbed. “That’s great.” He looked up with a quick, fake smile, but Ralf was still staring at him. Johnny let go of the dock and took a couple of strokes through the water just to have something to do.

“I’ve never recited poetry to anyone before," Ralf said behind him. "I should probably practice. Or do you think the raw expression of a first try is better?”

Johnny shrugged, treading water. He felt exhausted, didn't want to take part in this conversation. The water was growing even colder around him, reminding him starkly of their shared nudity.

“There’s also the choice of verse," Ralf said, pushing away from the dock and floating after Johnny. "I’m not sure which one best expresses my feelings, though the one I keep coming back to is Browning. You know, How do I love thee, let me count the ways? She really captures at once the simplicity and the sublimity of love.”

Oh god, stop talking.

"Ralf, maybe we should-"

"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways," Ralf recited, swimming closer even as Johnny kicked backwards. "I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach, when feeling out of sight for the ends of being and ideal grace." He frowned, stopping. "I must admit, I'm not always certain what she means."

Johnny wasn't sure where Ralf was going, or what his friend had been drinking for him to act this way, but he had studied the poem in school, and explained anyway, his voice hoarse. "Her love for her husband is as large as her soul, and her soul inhabits a plane larger than she can quantify."

Ralf nodded slowly. "Then it fits. Sometimes the feeling grows so large inside me it feels as if my soul wants to burst from my body." He swam up next to Johnny and continued reciting as they slowly made their way to shore, his voice slow and whispery. "I love thee to the level of every day’s most quiet need, by sun and candle-light." Maybe there was a trembling in his tone, but it probably came from the chill. "I love thee freely, as men strive for right. I love thee purely, as they turn from praise. I love thee with the passion put to use in my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints." He sighed. "I never had faith, but I find it in my love, and it is with me every day, in moments profound and mundane. I am a man obsessed."

At last, Johnny got his feet under him and could wade towards the beach. "You're weird is what you are. I'm too tired to deal with you right now." But then he had to stop, because another couple of steps would leave him naked.

And then Ralf continued, unexpectedly, reciting the last of the poem. "I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death."

“Please stop.”

Johnny imagined the weight of their rings in his pocket. A woman smiling as Ralf held her hands in his, as he leaned in to kiss his bride with all the eagerness that had been missing from his kiss with Johnny. His chest ached so he could barely breathe.

"Why?" Ralf asked. "Don't you like that poem? Should I choose another?"

Johnny had lied all day, and hurt all day; he couldn't lie anymore. "I don't care! I don't want to know what you feel for her! I don't want to hear it!"

“... You’ve not been listening to me, Jonathan.”

Somehow the words fell in a quiet void, into a moment where the waves did not beat eternally upon the sand. Johnny turned and was met with an expression of nervous joy on Ralf’s face he had never seen before.

Ralf came a little closer, until even the gentle waves threatened to push them into contact, skin to skin. He breathed steadily, but shallowly.

“I love you," he said tremulously, "To the depth, and breadth, and height my soul can reach.” He reached out and brushed the back of his fingers against Johnny's cheek. “I love you to the level of each day’s most quiet need.”

Johnny was frozen helplessly as Ralf leaned in, cupped Johnny's face in both his hands, and whispered against his lips, “I love you with the breath, smiles and tears of all my life. You, Jonathan. And while death does not interest me, I mean to love you better every day for as long as I live.”

The kiss had barely begun before Johnny stumbled back. "What-What do you-? I don't understand."

Ralf stood naked in the Mediterranean sea, under a well of stars and a piercing moon, as fey and fierce as a creature of the deep ... and he had kissed Johnny.

"I love you," Ralf said. "I think you love me too. I'm sorry I didn't realise it sooner, but I needed to see through someone else's eyes, as mine were blind."

"You love me?" Johnny said, his voice thin, the words like a foreign language to his exhausted brain.

Ralf took a step towards him. "I do." He held out a hand.

Johnny backed away another step, turning around to hide himself in his nudity. "But ... Laura ... and you drank when Olivier ... You love her. You're marrying her."

"I'll explain how it all happened, but Jonathan, please, don't run from me. Let me-"

Johnny began walking blindly out of the water and up the beach.

"Did I misunderstand?" The tone was so different, so small, that Johnny stopped.

He felt more than heard Ralf follow behind him, stop behind him, wait for him to speak. But Johnny couldn't speak or he'd break.

"Did I get it wrong?" Ralf whispered, voice full of fear.

"I ..." He couldn't handle it anymore. Tears rushed in, and this time they would not be denied. Johnny sobbed on the next breath, the first tears spilled over in his eyes, and it was exactly as awkward and unattractive and humiliating as he had feared it would be.

"What ... Johnny."

Johnny felt Ralf hover indecisively behind him for a moment, but then strong arms slipped under his own and over his shoulders, and Ralf pulled him back against his chest, leaning his forehead against Johnny's wet hair, just keeping their lower bodies apart for modesty.

"Please, Jonathan," Ralf said gently. "If you cannot return my feelings, let me know. Tell me what saddens you so I can make it disappear."

Johnny leaned back into Ralf's embrace, too shocked to compose himself or speak. They were both trembling hard from cold and agitation.

Ralf loved him.

"I-." He sniffed, wiped at the tears on his cheeks, breathed deeply to calm down. "I love you."

Ralf drew a sharp breath and clutched Johnny to him, exhaled hotly against Johnny's shoulder.

"But ..." Johnny closed his eyes, pressing new tears from under his lids. "You can't mean it."

"Strange words," Ralf said. One arm slipped down around Johnny's waist, the other remained where it was, fingers stroking along Johnny's collar bone. Slowly, heat was growing between their bodies, and Johnny's head swam with pleasure; being touched intimately, skin against skin, was an overwhelming luxury. "You who know me best," Ralf continued, "who has defended me to our friends on several occasions today; how can you now say I do not know my own mind?"

But Johnny couldn't put words to his own inadequacy. He shook his head, breathed, gave himself over to Ralf's embrace and Ralf's touch, and shivered hard when Ralf dragged a hand over his stomach.

But Ralf misunderstood. "You're cold. Forgive me. We should go up." He let go, and walked past Johnny to the chairs, where he picked up the towel.

Johnny kept his hands folded in front of himself as Ralf returned, and accepted the towel without looking. "What about you?"

"I'll use my shirt. It's a short walk."

Johnny turned away, gave himself a quick rub-down with the big, soft towel and then wrapped it around his waist. When he glanced over his shoulder, Ralf was pulling his trousers up over lean hips and smooth, white buttocks. Johnny felt foolish in his own body; he had gotten chubbier over the past few years, his stomach was round and his thighs were too big. He wasn't muscular like Kai, or elegant like Olivier. Even Takao, with his tanned skin, long blue hair and oblivious grace, made being chubby look good. Johnny was just sort of pasty and British.

Ralf picked up Johnny's kilt from the chairs, smoothing a hand over it and smiling to himself. "You look so good in this."

Johnny went to him, leaned into his side and kissed his bare shoulder in pure adoration, overwhelmed with the reality of their mutual confessions. Whatever happened after this, Ralf had said he loved him. Nothing could change that.

Ralf put the kilt back down, turned to Johnny and cupped his face in his hands, stroking a thumb over his eyebrow. "Can I kiss you? Oh, say that I can. I have wanted to taste your lips for a thousand days and our six seconds did not satisfy me."

Johnny didn't bother to reply, just surged up and took Ralf's lips with his own. Their mouths clung together, the hottest part of two bodies chilled by the sea. Then Ralf slipped his tongue into Johnny's mouth, and Johnny greeted it, clumsy despite old and new experience. Max had been right; Ralf tasted like himself, good, addictive, wonderful.

They didn't care that they were cold, or that they were small, insignificant creatures under a well of ancient stars. They wrapped their arms around each other and kissed and kissed, as happy in that moment as human beings are allowed to be.

The sea beat eternally upon the shore. Eventually, the two lovers ventured up towards the house, leaving the abyss behind to its slow pondering thoughts.

Chapter Text

Maelle’s bedroom showed, in Johnny’s opinion, a bit more taste than her sister’s. The wallpaper was faded purple, the bedcovers and pillows complementing it with darker purples and light browns. The baseboards and crown mouldings were cream-colored, as was the vanity table and dresser, while the door to the walk-in closet was white. A corner had been dedicated to a dark reading chair, accompanied by a squat bookcase, a small round table and a standing lamp.

At the moment, however, all lamps were out, and everything appeared in shades of grey and blue. Johnny lay in the dark on the left-hand side of the big bed and waited.

A few toys lay scattered around, but for the most part things were put away in decorative boxes or drawers. More prominent at the moment was the large, black suitcase standing in a corner, and the distinctly male clothes folded over the chair. A bottle of water, a wristwatch and a spare launcher had been placed on the nightstand.

Johnny lay on his side, facing the empty place in bed. Ralf had been gone a few minutes only, gone to talk to Olivier and Giancarlo, to beg their forgiveness so no one had to go to bed angry. He had been nervous, pained by his own horrid words of earlier in the evening, but he had insisted he go alone.

Perhaps it was just wilful imagination, but Johnny thought he could still feel the ghostly imprint of Ralf’s hand on his shoulder, pressing him back down on the pillow.

“Stay. I’ll take strength from knowing you are waiting for me.”

Most likely, Ralf figured it would be difficult enough to ask Olivier and Giancarlo for forgiveness he hardly felt he deserved, without additional audience there, but Johnny liked to imagine that he had meant what he said anyway, and it was a good thought.

He inched closer to Ralf’s side of the bed, reached out and placed his hand where that long body had rested for the past two nights. He stroked his fingertips along the edge of the white pillow. When he turned his face against the bedding, he could breathe in Ralf’s familiar scent. It was sweet and musky, not sharp like after a battle in full armour, or heated from an afternoon on the beach, but gentle, here in the kingdom of rest. Johnny inhaled it greedily, pushed his body into the mattress and let desire shiver down his spine.

He was tired still, but now that he had landed, the ordeal of the past day was over and there was nothing more standing in between him and sleep, he was content to stay awake a little longer and indulge in other emotions.

Ralf had seemed pretty ready to sleep too, but Johnny hoped that they both felt a certain hunger; their first true intimacy down at the beach had been wonderful, and ended with a promise of more hanging in the air. At least Johnny thought it had.

They had walked up the path together, Ralf with the book tucked into his back pocket, his wet shirt in one hand and the lantern in the other, while Johnny carried his kilt. They hadn't met anyone.

"Explain something to me," Johnny had said as they walked, picking his way carefully across the rocky ground with his bare feet. "You've said you proposed to Laura, but Olivier said you had yet to tell her your decision. How does that work?"

Ralf hadn't replied right away, and when Johnny had looked over at him, there had been faint colour in his cheeks.

"I approached her with my arguments carefully prepared. How our parents had always wanted a potential union between us. How my wealth would allow her to forge any destiny she had in mind for herself. How I would be a friend and companion to her always, and that there would be no great loss to either of us, since we weren't romantically inclined." He had coughed. "She said she might not be romantically inclined, but I appeared to be pining for someone, and maybe I would like to think about it a little more before I committed myself."

"Oh."

He was pining for me.

Johnny had been sure he would wake up any moment then and find that it was actually morning, or thought that maybe he had drowned back there and this was the afterlife.

"And the book? What's that all about? Why did you slap Olivier?"

They had reached the top of the hill, and the grass had been cold and sweet against Johnny's sore soles.

"Olivier found out about my proposal attempt through my gossipy gardener. He was furious with me, and we argued. He told Giancarlo, but we couldn't tell you, because then you'd know about me, and then, I thought, I'd lose you for sure. The book was Olivier's attempt to dissuade me from my decision. He presented it as a challenge between knights; said that if I could finish the book before our holiday was over and still want to marry Laura, then he would support me. I laughed at the idea; as if I was going to change my mind over a bit of poetry, when I had loved you hopelessly for years. Olivier wanted me to wait for a new love, but considering my nature, I didn't think I'd ever find one, nor did I want to."

Ralf had sighed. "I began to read, and at first it was easy, but every now and then I would look up and see you running with our friends in the sun, smiling, laughing, and slowly the poems began to burrow under my skin. I came to a grinding halt when I reached Robert Burns' My love is like a red red rose. I couldn't make myself turn the page. I just ... couldn't. It was torture. When Olivier suggested I felt nothing ..."

"Slap."

The balcony doors had been left open for them, but the house had been dark and quiet.

Once upstairs, Ralf had stopped at his own bedroom door, and Johnny had taken a few awkward steps towards his own, when Ralf had thankfully blurted out “Would you like to sleep in my bed tonight?”

Which was how they had ended up here. Johnny had gone quickly to his own room, grabbed his sleep clothes, spent ten minutes washing his hair for something like the third time today while Ralf was at the sink rinsing salt from his body, and then they had taken the right-hand door to Maelle's room together, Johnny with a mixture of excitement and vague anxiety gnawing at his stomach.

Ralf had put his button-up pyjama jacket on, because he was a dork and also tended to be cold a lot. There was something adorably domestic in the image, as he fastened the buttons with concentration creasing his forehead, and his long, long legs sticking out under the cream-coloured jacket.

But he had not come to bed. Instead, he had taken a deep fortifying breath, and explained that he needed to go see Olivier and Giancarlo.

And so Johnny was waiting.

Not for much longer, however, as from down the hall came the pat-pat-pat of hurried barefoot steps, then the sound of the neighbouring door being opened, swearing in French as someone stumbled in the dark, another door opening, and more swearing. Johnny got out of bed just in time for the door to the bathroom to swing open and emit Olivier, with messy hair and wild eyes and an obviously stubbed toe.

“You were in love with him this whole time?” Olivier limped over and grabbed Johnny by the front of his tank top, shaking him with surprising strength for someone so skinny. “This entire time we were miserable trying to figure out how to keep Ralf from ruining his life, you could have waltzed up and just fixed everything? Are you kidding me?”

The bedroom door opened, and Giancarlo came inside, followed by Ralf, who lingered in the doorway.

Olivier seemed to realise then that they were standing next to Ralf’s bed.

“Were you in there a moment ago? You were! Unbelievable!” He shook Johnny harder. “We were all miserable for no fucking reason!”

"Don't swear, Cara. This is good news," Giancarlo said, stepping forward gingerly, wary of his lover's rare, but sudden temper. "Now no one is miserable anymore."

"Don't try to placate me when I'm angry!" Olivier thumped his forehead against Johnny's left shoulder. "Imbécile! Imbécile!"

Johnny was getting pretty annoyed himself. "I'm stupid? You're stupid! You could at least have told me what was-Olivier, are you crying?"

Olivier had begun to shake against Johnny's shoulder. He sniffed loudly, and when he looked up, his face was a mess of tears and snot. "I was so worried! I thought we were going to lose each other! You're my best friends and I couldn't bear if our team broke apart!" He threw himself around Johnny's neck and wailed. "Je suis vraiment désolé!"

Johnny patted Olivier's back as he hiccupped and sniffed. "It's okay. I think we've all been imbéciles today. Maybe except Giancarlo."

Giancarlo shrugged. "Eh. I've had my moments."

Ralf let go of the doorway and took a tentative step forward, coughing subtly. "Giancarlo? I ... Like I said, I ..." He was growing red across the cheekbones, probably riding high on the shame and humiliation of making this, for him, rare apology. "I don't expect you to forgive me ... What I said was cruel and thoughtless. I didn't even mean it, I just wanted to hurt Olivier; I blamed him for my pain. I said the thing calculated to hurt him the most, I didn't even care that you were caught in the blast. It was unmanly, inhuman, it was-"

"Yes, it was," Giancarlo interrupted him.

Most of the blood in Ralf's body was currently located in his face, and he was blinking fast, fast in agitation.

Giancarlo drew a swift and decisive breath, crossed the floor to Ralf in three quick strides and pulled him into a hug. "We'll figure out a way for you to make it up to us later. Right now I'm just glad we've all found our happy ending."

"More like a happy beginning." Olivier smiled proudly, cupping Johnny's face in his hands and giving him a wet kiss on the cheek. "I'm so happy for you, mon ami. For both of you. I couldn't be happier."

"Thanks." Johnny shuffled his feet, nodded awkwardly and wondered why he still felt so heavy inside.

"Come, cara," Giancarlo held out his arms to Olivier, who ran to him. "Let's leave the lovers to their bed and go find our own."

Olivier grabbed Ralf's hand briefly as they passed him. "Later, my captain. We'll discuss your punishment. It might involve the next tournament and a clown suit, but I make no promises."

It took Ralf a moment to realise what had just been said, but by then the two boys were almost out the door. "Excuse me-what-Olivier-wait!" He was left standing with a hand outstretched towards the empty doorway.

"You'll deserve it," Johnny said bluntly. He had just realised there were tears and snot on his top. "I'm just going to change."

He went through the bathroom, threw the snotty tank top on the laundry pile and pulled a new one from a drawer. When he returned, the bedroom was quiet, the door closed, the curtains drawn, and Ralf was waiting in bed. Johnny's heart skipped a beat.

Ralf held the covers open. "Come here to me."

Johnny crossed the space with all the grace of a newborn foal and climbed into bed, sliding under the covers and making himself comfortable. Luckily, there were two pillows and the duvet was huge, so they, probably, wouldn't have any trouble sharing.

They lay there in the dark, looking at each other. Sleep was close, but kept at bay by a restless excitement. Johnny wanted-

"I suppose we should sleep," Ralf said, wiggling a little further into the bedding. "We've had quite the day."

"Yes," Johnny said automatically. "I think I've been sleepwalking for the past hour at least."

"Then I'll see you in the morning," Ralf said, the shadow of a smile just visible across the space between them.

I'll see you in my dreams, Johnny thought. "Yeah."

And since he really was desperately tired, Johnny fell asleep almost immediately, even with the heaviness putting pressure on his chest and throat.


At first, he didn't know what had woken him. Then he felt the touch against his shoulder, and realised. Turning his head, he found that Ralf was still fast asleep; the hand bumping into him had been accidental. Ralf had his nose pressed into the pillow and seemed completely oblivious to the world.

Johnny smiled to himself, but it faded as his body caught up with him and he realised his chest still ached, like it had before they fell asleep. He turned his head to look for a clock. There was one on the nightstand, but it was turned away from him, so he couldn't read it. No matter; his internal clock said it was four, maybe five. The room was not as dark as it had been when they went to bed.

To think, they had gone to bed together. To think, Ralf loved him.

He turned back over, lying down on his side so he could look at Ralf. Sleeping people tended to look unguarded and a little silly, and Ralf was no exception. Johnny's heart beat in his wrists. He leaned in and let his lips brush against the back of Ralf's fingers. Lying opposite his friend like this felt oddly similar to facing him across a beydish, somehow momentous and intense. Ralf had chosen him, had found him worthy.

Here it was again, that strange blend of emotions that he couldn't quite name, the one he had told Camille about earlier today. The one he had eventually decided was happiness. Now he was suddenly not so sure. Johnny struggled to smile, but it was getting harder and harder. Something was catching up with him. Had he dreamt something?

He let me stay. Me. No one else. He chose me.

... Why did he choose me?

And suddenly he was drawing a blank. He closed his eyes touched his lips to Ralf's fingers again, just to feel Ralf's skin against his own. Why do you love me?

It was dangerous to make assumptions. Johnny had learned that the hard way.

Burning with anger and humiliation and still stinging from the beating, he had grabbed his jacket and left the house, intent on defying his father. You will never see Holger again, he had said. That would be the first way the old man would be proven wrong.

Sasha was home that weekend, so Johnny took her car, driving faster than the limit, stupid and furious, determined not to give a fuck about anybody's rules but his own. His bruises were throbbing, even the soft car seat hurt to sit on, and it just made him more pissed off.

On a Saturday afternoon, Holger would probably be down in the parking lot where the local teens went to play footie, blade and smoke. It was out of the way, as it used to belong to a mall that had long since been torn down. The mall had had a beydish in the play area outside, and the teens kept it clear of rubble and dirt so they could compete there.

He caught sight of some of his schoolmates as he rolled smoothly down the lonely road to the lot, easily picking out Holger because he stood a head taller than everyone else, broad shoulders hunched against the cold, his hands tucked into the pockets of his Jack Wills jacket. There was Chester Jones, freckled Ryan McMahon, Julian Yllinger smoking as always, and a couple of boys Johnny recognised but didn't know the names of. They all turned when they heard the car. Johnny turned into the lot, but stopped a little ways away, not wanting to talk to anyone but Holger. His backside and thighs ached as he got out and blood flowed back to the welts. It was cold here under the grey sky, with nothing but the looming shell of the mall to stop the howling autumn wind. He pulled his jacket closer around himself.

Holger said a few words to the others, Chester answered, and laughed with his big teeth in his red face, neighing at the sky. Julian grinned, blew smoke and flicked the ashes off the end of his cig. Johnny didn't care about any of them. He tapped his foot restlessly until Holger finally detached himself and came over, hands still in his pockets.

"Hey, McGregor," he said, cautious and disinterested. "What's going on?"

Johnny should have realised it already then, of course, but he was so focused on getting back at his father. "Are you alright? Your parents give you trouble?" he asked.

Holger shrugged, dragging his blonde curls away from his face only for the wind to immediately usher them back into his eyes. "Not really. Bit of a shock to them, but I explained everything."

Johnny laughed weakly. "Can we switch? My dad lost it. Said I could never see you again. Fuck him, I say. I do what I want."

Holger nodded, sniffed. His nose was red from the chill. "That's cool, yeah."

"So ..." Johnny leaned back against the car. "Wanna go somewhere? We could catch a movie or something?"

Holger sniffed again, looked at the ground. "I don't know. We're sort of busy."

Here too, of course, the answer was staring Johnny in the face and he should have seen it. But he didn't. He did think it was strange that there was no invitation for him to stay, though. At least, by this time, they'd usually be flocking around the car.

"Okay, well ... I will see you at school, then? I'm battling Nika at lunch, you can watch me kick her ass."

Holger just shrugged. "Maybe."

Johnny stood up. "... Okay." He turned to get back into the car, but didn't feel like he'd gotten what he came here for; his revenge, his rebellion. He turned back, stepped close to Holger and leaned up-

A hard shove against his chest sent him stumbling back into the car.

"Are you out of your bloody mind?" Holger hissed. "Not in front of my mates!"

Johnny was too shocked to even get up. "You didn't complain when we played-"

"What, Spin the bottle? That was different."

Behind Holger, the other boys were shoving each other and snickering. It helped; made Johnny angry enough to stand up, hands clenching into fists.

Holger groaned. "Look, McGregor-"

"Why are you calling me that?"

"That's your name, isn't it? You're usually happy enough to throw it around." Holger's expression was not so friendly anymore. "What, did you think we were sweethearts or something? It was a kiss and a cuddle, Johnny. I never said anything else, did I?"

The shock drizzled through his body like cold rain, chilling him worse than the wind. Sure, they hadn't exactly been head over heels in love, but ...

"I thought you liked me," Johnny said stupidly. His bruises throbbed spitefully.

"I do. You're a bit of a pompous ass, but you're alright. It's done, though. I explained to my parents we were just fooling around. That I wouldn't see you anymore. It's no biggie, yeah? With your name and your money and your sister's car, you can probably find any number of boys willing to pucker up."

Johnny couldn't stop the way his eyes widened.

Chester was grinning, all teeth. Julian put out his cigarette on the tarmac. "Hey, Holger. Come on."

"Yeah, yeah." Holger turned away.

Salamalyon pulsed with heat in Johnny's pocket.

"Fine," Johnny said, making his tone biting. "You're not wrong, after all; what the hell am I missing you for when I can have anyone I want?"

Holger sent him a sour look over his shoulder, then scoffed. "Good luck on your match tomorrow."

"I don't need it."

He'd gotten in the car and driven away as if he could somehow outrace his feelings. Drove nowhere, away from home and school and everything. He had wanted to see his friends. Kept reminding himself that they liked him, at least. But he hadn't actually told them about Holger. It had only been a couple of months. He hadn't even told them he was gay; it just hadn't come up. He couldn't tell them now; to confess his mistake and his inadequacy would be the height of humiliation. At home they could laugh at him or envy him all they wanted, but his friends must not know.

He would bury this, like he buried everything else. He would endure. Eventually, the hurt would fade, and he would move on.

For maybe half an hour, Johnny lay in bed and tried to create a future in his mind where Ralf never realised his mistake, never saw Johnny for the uninteresting loser he was, never regretted confessing to him.

He couldn't. Ralf needed someone to fill his home with life, not ... Johnny.

Dawn was creeping in along the edges of the blinds. Soon, the house would begin to stir. Ralf was an early riser; he was always at the table when Johnny came down for breakfast, sipping his coffee and reading, or talking quietly with Kai.

I have to go now, Johnny thought. Or he wouldn't make it out unseen.

He took a deep breath.

It's okay.

As quietly as he could, he slipped out of bed and inched the door to the bathroom open, looked back at Ralf's long, lean silhouette under the covers one more time, and then slipped through, tiptoeing across the tiles to the door leading to his own room. He opened this just as carefully, and then he was safe and could turn on the lights and begin pulling things out of closets and drawers. His suitcase was under the bed, quickly extracted and thrown open, and Salamalyon was under his pillow, ready to go.

Johnny breathed carefully around his broken heart while shoving shoes and t-shirts and socks and dirty laundry into the suitcase. He'd sort it all when he got home; right now he needed to be quick. His toiletries he could leave in the bathroom; he didn't dare go back. He would buy new things.

The next thing he grabbed was his swimming trunks, and for a moment he was overwhelmed with longing to go back to Ralf's bed and climb back under the covers. Couldn't it be alright? Just an hour more? He had been so happy. He was so tired.

Ralf had said he loved him, and Ralf didn't do anything by half; he meant it.

Johnny inhaled and exhaled slowly. Ralf didn't know what he was getting himself into. He'd realise that eventually, and then he'd probably be grateful that Johnny had saved them. Better to let it go now. He'd get them back to how they had been, he just needed time.

"What are you doing?"

Johnny startled so badly he nearly fell into the suitcase. "Fucking hell!"

Ralf was standing in the doorway to the bathroom, squinty-eyed and with furrowed brows, his pyjama top buttoned up the wrong way. He looked around at the mess of stuff on the floor that was slowly being made into a mess of stuff in the suitcase.

Johnny rose, ready to argue his case.

Slowly, Ralf's eyes became more alert. "Jonathan ... What's going on?"

Johnny opened his mouth, realised he was moments away from breaking again, and bit his lip savagely to prevent it. Man up!

"I ..." He inhaled hard, cleared his throat, made himself look at Ralf and speak evenly. "I'm going home. I want to give you some time to consider what you really want. I think you'll discover that you're not ..."

Ralf had gone very still and looked ghostly pale, but his eyes were piercing. His hands were clenched at his sides. "... what? I'm not what?"

Johnny hadn't expected to have to carry the conversation all alone. "That you're not ... well served by choosing me." He had to look down. "You'll see eventually."

"Jonathan."

Johnny ignored him, turning back to the suitcase, the weight inside him tightening and tightening, choking the breath from his throat. "Don't worry; we'll still be friends. I just don't think you've thought this through and-"

"Jonathan."

"Just go back to bed. It's okay."

He bent down to grab a sweater, realised he was actually very dizzy, and then Ralf took a step forward and Johnny startled away and fell to his knees, a hard sob catching him by surprise. He held his hands up to keep Ralf away, gasping through tears, shaking all over.

"Please just-"

Ralf came forward. "Johnny-"

"I'm not good enough for you!"

Johnny curled around himself, bent almost to the carpet and sobbed so he thought he would tear his throat. "I'm not good enough-!"

In a moment, Ralf was there, pulling him roughly out of his huddle and into his arms.

"Olivier was right, du bist ja doof," Ralf said against Johnny's hair, rocking him while he wept.

It was Johnny's turn to get tears and snot all over Ralf's pyjamas, and it was awful; humiliating and pathetic and messy, but finally, finally, the weight was lifting from inside him. Ralf's arms felt so good around him, holding him securely and patiently.

"Who taught you to think this way about yourself?" Ralf mumbled. "Tell me so I can send them a request for a duel in the mail. I’ll destroy them."

Johnny shook his head. It didn't matter.

Ralf sighed, long and sweet. He stroked Johnny's hair away from his forehead, found his chin and lifted his face. Johnny could barely see through swollen, wet eyes, but Ralf's voice was low, kind, and close. "Did you really think I was going to wake up tomorrow morning having changed my mind? Did I not tell you I've been in love with you for years? Discovering yesterday that you return my feelings was the happiest moment of my life."

Johnny inhaled, shakily, and exhaled, finding his voice. "How did you realise? I thought I was careful."

Ralf smiled. "I needed someone else's eyes. Mine had long been blind, always looking at you, but never seeing. I spoke to Mao earlier as I went to retire, or she spoke to me rather, being very upset with me on Olivier and Giancarlo’s behalf, but in the midst of her tirade, she said something curious; she said I should be thrilled with the evening, having received three such passionate kisses from my friends. She said she wished you had kissed her the way you kissed me. I couldn't understand what she meant; why would she want a kiss so unwillingly given? Why would she want to feel so undesired?"

"You weren't undesired-!" Ralf's fingers on his lips, cool against the heat of his own breath, silenced Johnny.

"I know that now." Ralf's eyes glimmered. "Mao made me see. Once she let me go, I turned her words over in my head, endlessly. I began to look back and examine the evening, and then the past few days, and then the past few years. I thought about what Rai said about you, how truly he had understood you, how well he had articulated what I had always known, but never consciously considered. How you hide your true feelings because you fear ridicule and rejections. How you lie so well except when you don't have time to prepare. So I thought back to our kiss again, and let myself believe, just for a moment, that Mao was right. And that's when I knew I would not be marrying Laura."

Johnny bowed his head. "You'll-" His voice broke on a hitching breath. "You'll regret it! You're blinded by love now, but eventually you'll realise how boring and ordinary I am, and how unattractive, and-" He was surprised to hear Ralf chuckle, and found it in himself to be offended enough to look up, sniffing. "Are you laughing at me?"

Ralf bent down and kissed him gently on the mouth. "Johnny." He nuzzled their noses together. "You are my closest companion; for better and for worse, I already know all there is to know about you, and I love all of you. I've seen you at your pettiest and your most generous, at your most foolish and most creative, and I want all of it, all of you, beside me every day. I've seen you lounging in front of the TV in threadbare briefs and a week-old t-shirt, and I've seen you rocking Scotland's finest fashions at the fanciest parties." He wiped tears from Johnny's cheek and kissed him there, mumbling against his skin, "I have seen you running around in the sun in only a pair of swimming trunks, and Johnny ... I want you."

Johnny shivered. "But when we went to sleep, you didn't even ... You just turned away."

Ralf cocked his head to the side, eyebrows sloping over his wine-colour eyes. "You looked like you were barely conscious. I didn't think you'd appreciate me keeping you awake with my desires."

Johnny frowned, wiping at his nose with the back of his hand. "We could have kissed some more, at least. I have desires too."

"Do you now?" Ralf's voice got a little throatier. "Tell me about them."

Johnny breathed, and found that he could breathe now. He felt sore and tired, but lighter, free of pain. He wanted to be brave and bold. "Take me back to bed," he whispered, dragging his hands down Ralf's back and leaning in to steal a kiss of his own. "And I'll do better than that."

They rose.

Johnny washed his face in the sink, Ralf took off his pyjama top, Johnny pulled off his tank, and then, in only their boxers, they got back under the duvet.

This time Ralf didn't hesitate more than a moment, asking with a look if this was alright, and then his hands were on Johnny's body and pulling him close, sliding greedily over his back. Johnny got one hand into Ralf's hair to hold him still for kisses, and with the other hand he covered Ralf's chest, almost gasping as he felt Ralf's heart beat fast against his fingertips.

They kissed deep and messy, mouths open, tongues pushing. When he had to breathe, Johnny pulled Ralf's head back by his hair and got his mouth on Ralf's neck instead, his panting breaths fanning the quivering throat, and Ralf moaned with unexpected ardour, nails digging into Johnny's back suddenly.

"Ticklish or sensitive?" Johnny mumbled curiously, biting gently at the warm skin before him.

"Both, I think," Ralf gasped. "Try ... a little harder maybe?" Johnny bit hard, and Ralf bucked against him. "Oh!"

Johnny kissed the red, offended spot. Ralf's pale skin was easy to mark. "I want to give the German gossip rags something to wonder about. Want to send you home with marks everywhere." He let Ralf bring his chin back down, and stroked his fingers through Ralf's hair to soothe his scalp, but that made Ralf shiver too, eyes heavy-lidded in the half-dark.

They looked at each other with wonder.

"I'm discovering all sorts of things about you today," Johnny whispered, pulling a little against just to see Ralf's eyes darken. "I remember you drank when Olivier asked if we wanted to try bondage."

Ralf growled a little in the back of his throat, leaning over Johnny and pressing him into the mattress with his weight. "I did, but let there be no mistake about who will be tied up."

It was Johnny's turn to moan as he was trapped deliciously under Ralf's body. Ralf had one leg between Johnny's, and they were too close to leave any doubt about how excited they both were. Johnny pushed his hips up, grinding his cock against Ralf's thigh. "Oh?" He laced his fingers behind Ralf's neck as Ralf brushed lingering kisses over his lips. "What makes you think I'm gonna agree to that? I didn't drink."

Ralf looked down at him, and Johnny forgot how to breathe, because those red eyes were wicked and full of promise.

"Because, my love, you lied."

"Did not," Johnny said automatically.

Ralf grinned. "I said I know you, and I meant it, little masochist. Someday I will have you tied helplessly to my bed, open and ready, and I will pleasure you until you beg me for mercy."

Johnny realised his mouth was hanging open, and quickly closed it. His face felt flushed and hot. "Uh ..." He floundered for a reply. "Well, maybe."

Ralf's expression softened, and his smile was fond, completely different from before. "I said someday, not tonight." He rolled his hips, making both of them moan. "Tonight I want ..." he trailed off to breathe for a moment, thrusting a little against Johnny like he couldn't help it. "I want you to teach me what you know."

Johnny stroked Ralf's hair, his face, his shoulders, pulling him down, kissing him again.

Ralf gasped against his mouth. "I've never done this with another person before." He dragged his mouth down to Johnny's ear.

"I've only had one other-" Johnny began, stopping both because he didn't want to talk about Holger now, and because Ralf was suckling on his earlobe in a way that made him tingle all over. "We only ... I don't really know ... Oh god, that feels good!"

Ralf's breath fanning across his ear made him feel even hotter.

"I had no idea the difference would be so great," Ralf mumbled. "Touching myself never felt like this, and we're not even naked yet."

"Let's fix that," Johnny suggested, suddenly desperate to feel Ralf against him with nothing more between them, but even as he reached down to push at their boxers, he was blushing furiously. They might have been naked together on the beach, but now ... now they were having sex. God, he was having sex with Ralf.

Johnny endured a moment of something like panic, remnants of tears pressing against the back of his eyes, but then Ralf reached down to help him, and in a quick drag of fingers they were both naked, and then Ralf climbed in between Johnny's legs and lowered himself back down and Johnny threw his arms around him and shouted into his shoulder as their cocks rubbed together for the first time.

Ralf gasped into the pillow next to Johnny's head. He was holding himself up on his elbows, but most of his weight was on Johnny. "Oh, oh, oh," he said, voice a little squeaky. "Oh."

Johnny pushed through his own overwhelmed emotions and overstimulated nerves to stroke Ralf's back and calm him. "Ralf. Ralf, are you okay?"

Ralf turned his face and kissed Johnny's cheek clumsily. "Please understand ... I barely dared to fantasise about you, and this feels so much better than I could imagine. I'm so happy."

Johnny hugged him, turning his face blindly, seeking kisses. Ralf managed to push himself up enough that their mouths could meet.

"Move," Johnny said, biting Ralf's lower lip. "I want more." He felt horribly embarrassed, but lifted his knees and wrapped his legs around Ralf's back anyway. "Come on, Captain."

Ralf's eyes got very wide for a moment, but then he leaned in with a moan and kissed Johnny hard, slipping his tongue deep into his mouth even as he began to rock their bodies together.

Johnny sucked adoringly on Ralf's tongue while pleasure fizzed and sparked in his body.

It was simple, primal, probably not very graceful. They thrust and shoved and rolled their hips against each other, cocks stiff and hot and getting increasingly slick with their sweat and precum. They held each other tight, kissing and kissing like they never intended to stop.

It felt good, it felt so, so good, but eventually Johnny couldn't wait anymore. It took him a while to speak because Ralf was sucking hard on his nipple and he was arched back, unable to move let alone remember how words happened.

"R-Ralf! Stop ... Uhn! Stop!"

Ralf let go with some reluctance, giving the much-abused nipple a last flick with his tongue before coming up to stroke Johnny's hair away from his sweaty forehead.

"Not good?" he asked, voice breathless.

"So good," Johnny assured him. "Too good. I wanna-" It struck him that he had been about to casually tell his best friend that he would like to orgasm now, please, and suddenly the reality, the impossibility, of what they were doing returned to him. He smiled, mostly to reassure, and let his aching legs come down from around Ralf, where they had been locked for the last twenty minutes.

Ralf was immediately alert though. "Jonathan?"

Johnny nodded to answer the unspoken question. "I'm fine."

Ralf rolled off him, lay back down on his side, but didn't give Johnny any time to worry before he pulled him in close. "Come here, my love, come lie here with me." He kissed Johnny's cheekbone. "It alright. I feel overwhelmed too."

Like he had done when they got back into bed a while ago, Johnny got his hand between their bodies, placing it on Ralf's chest to feel his heart. It was indescribably comforting to feel how hard it was beating. He had told Ralf he had desires too, and Ralf had asked to know them. So it was time Johnny made good on his promise.

"Can I touch you?" he asked, sliding his hand down to emphasise his meaning.

Ralf's eyes widened again. He looked a little stupefied, but nodded, arching up a little to meet Johnny's questing hand. "Can-can I touch you?"

Johnny nodded too. "I want to come like this." He looked Ralf in the eyes as he pushed his hand down across Ralf's tight stomach, through the light trail of hair from his navel to his crotch, down until he found Ralf's cock, thick and hard with slick, silky skin that moved when he gave it the first, tight stroke.

Ralf's eyes fluttered shut on a small moan.

"You're so big," Johnny said with annoyance. "Where the hell were you hiding this?"

Ralf chuckled, still with his eyes closed. "Am I bigger than you?" He looked at Johnny, playful and excited, cheekbones flushed with heat.

"Size doesn't matter," Johnny said even as Ralf, grinning wider, ran teasing fingertips over his thigh and up between his legs.

The sudden, firm and full grip on his cock made Johnny bury a clipped cry in the pillows. "Fuck!"

Ralf stroked him, dragged his fist up to the head of Johnny's cock and rubbed the slit with his thumb, forcing another cry from Johnny's throat.

"I didn't expect to feel so powerful," Ralf said amusedly. "I might just quit blading for my new favourite game."

Johnny lifted his head so he could glare at his infuriating lover. "Don't expect you'll be best in Europe at this too." He tightened his own slackened grip on Ralf's member and resumed his strokes. "I bet I can make you come before I do."

Ralf laughter, clear and delighted in the air of morning, lifted Johnny's spirits and thrilled through him like physical pleasure.

Ralf leaned in and kissed him on the nose. "Try it, my love. I accept your challenge."

It was a little awkward to manage their tasks at the same time, but they weren't gonna last long enough to cramp up, at least. Already, Johnny's thighs were beginning to seize with the first waves of orgasm. Ralf's hand was strong, slender and relentless, moving first fast, then slow, quick light strokes around the head of his cock and then long tight drags down to the base, stretching his foreskin tight. Johnny closed his eyes, snuggled into the crook of Ralf's neck and surrendered to the pleasure, felt Ralf's pulse beat in his throat and in the thick cock in Johnny's hand, listened to Ralf breathing hard against him, and inhaled the sharp, hot scent of sex that filled the room.

He held on for as long as he could, felt triumphant when Ralf began to tremble and hiss through his teeth, his cock twitching hard in Johnny hand. "Oh yeah," Johnny moaned, looking up and meeting Ralf's astonished, dark eyes. "Come, my Captain. Want to watch you orgasm."

"Fu-ck!" Ralf exclaimed, hips bucking and eyes falling shut as he came. Johnny slowed his strokes as Ralf ejaculated, cum spurting over Johnny's wrist and Ralf's stomach. Johnny kept up the gentle caresses until Ralf's grabbed his arm to stop him.

Ralf opened his eyes at last, slack-jawed and adorably mussed-looking. He took a moment to catch his breath, before reaching for Johnny's hand and bringing it up between them. He studied the white drops on Johnny's wrist before, to Johnny's surprise, licking them off with bold tongue.

"Hey!"

Ralf shrugged. "It doesn't taste anything. Let me just ..." He began to shuffle down Johnny's body, stopping only to kiss Johnny's trembling stomach.

Johnny was still strung tight as a fiddle-string, but tried to pull Ralf back up anyway. "Hey, you don't have to-. Ralf, you-AH!"

Ralf had dragged his tongue up the underside of his cock, and even against Johnny's burning skin it felt like a trail of fire.

"I can't let you outdo me, my love," Ralf said, hands gripping Johnny's buttocks to hold him still, and then he closed his mouth around the head of Johnny's cock and within a minute Johnny was coming so hard it kinda hurt, head thrown back and eyes shut tight.


When he first opened his eyes, Johnny was confused by the colour of the duvet. He blinked blearily at it. Had it been peach last night? Then he remembered that they’d moved from Ralf’s room to his to sleep because Ralf’s bed had been damp with their sweat. They should probably buy Maelle a new bed.

Johnny could feel Ralf’s leg against his back, and glanced back to see what his status was. He was sitting up in bed, placidly reading his book.

“Good morning,” Ralf said, turning a page. “Sleep well?”

Johnny rolled over on his stomach and wrapped his arms around his pillow. “Well? Yes. Long enough? No.”

“Then sleep a little more. There’s time enough.”

Johnny mumbled a neutral answer. All the drama of yesterday was coming back to him, including the way he had cried, twice, all over Ralf, and the things he had said to the others during lunch, and how he had lost to Kai at wrestling, and how Mao had seen right through him when he kissed her, and the things Rai had said, and all in all Johnny figured he should just stay in bed today and no one would mind very much.

Ralf’s hand found the back of his neck and squeezed, fingers digging into the top of his spine. “I can hear you fretting.”

Johnny leaned his head forward and put his shoulders down to give Ralf room, greedily accepting the touch. “I just … think I’ll stay up here … until tomorrow.”

Ralf exhaled. Johnny heard him put away the book. “On the one hand, downstairs is where breakfast is.” He shuffled down to lie next to Johnny, pulling him in so they were back-to-front. “On the other hand …” He reached around and stroked Johnny’s naked chest, rubbing a nipple briefly before venturing lower, fingertip light and teasing. “Staying here has its advantages too.”

Johnny pushed his butt back against Ralf’s crotch and found him bed-warm and half-hard. He leaned back a little more so he could turn his head up and receive a quick kiss. Then Ralf’s hand slipped into his boxers, and neither of them said anything terribly intelligent for a while.

“They’ll understand,” Ralf said later, as they lay side by side, catching their breath. “They always do.”

Johnny rubbed his eyes sleepily. “I just don’t want to have to explain everything.” He rolled over onto his stomach again, grabbed his pillow and made himself comfortable.

“We’ll figure it out,” Ralf said. He was smiling, a rare, peaceful smile that made Johnny feel like things might just work out after all. “I’ll go down to breakfast; I nearly starved waiting for you to wake up, but you look like you could use a bit more sleep.”

Johnny looked at him curiously as Ralf got up and headed for the bathroom. “Hang on. You’re hungry?”

Ralf stopped, considering it. “Yes. I suppose I am.” He nodded to himself. “What an extraordinary morning.”

Johnny snuggled deeper into his pillow as Ralf disappeared into the bathroom. What an extraordinary morning indeed.

He woke from his doze a few minutes later because Ralf was kissing his back. The pure, silky sensation made him tingle from his scalp to his buttocks.

“I’m going,” Ralf mumbled against his skin. “Sleep some more.”

Johnny grumbled something that was meant to communicate that he’d follow in two minutes tops, letting his eyes fall shut again. He heard the little puff of breath that meant Ralf was amused. Another lingering kiss was pressed to his shoulder, and then Ralf rose. By the time the door clicked softly shut, Johnny was asleep again.

Some forty minutes later, he came downstairs to find the dining room mysteriously empty, with no trace of breakfast having taken place at all, but then Genvie appeared out in the hallway and could explain.

“Master Olivier asked that breakfast be served outside today. You’ll find them in the Garden.”

The weather was a little cooler this morning. The sun played hide and seek behind picturesque masses of white clouds, and the sea breeze leapt happily across the lawn whenever the sun wasn’t looking. Johnny left the house and headed towards the big, green walls of the Garden.

It was a huge square of grass set aside for flowers, walled in by tall hedges of beech to create a sort of secret sanctuary and give the fragile plants shelter from the wind. Inside there were benches, swings and artfully styled birdfeeders, all arranged around a large, central fountain, and everywhere flowers bloomed abundantly in neat beds. Through the wrought iron gate and the trellises on either side, Johnny could see a well of summer flowers in dark pinks and purples, with whites, yellows and oranges in between, but he only knew the names of a few of them, like the clustered hydrangea and the tall bearded iris.

Even from outside, he could hear the others laughing and talking. The gate was unlatched, and Johnny stepped inside to a sort of chaotic paradise, and the biggest breakfast picnic he had ever seen. It required a lot of food to feed seventeen teenagers, but Genvie, Marcel and Gracie continued to rise to the task beautifully. Two large blankets had been spread out in the sun, and artfully arranged on them were dishes stacked with ready-made sandwiches and boiled eggs, but also toast, waffles, croissants and even brownies, accompanied by bowls of jam, butter and berries of all sorts. There were ice buckets with bottles of juice, ice tea and milk, and another bucket of oranges.

Actually, make that twenty-one teenagers now; Ivan, Boris, Kiki and Gaou were sitting in the grass with the others beside the merrily bubbling fountain, munching on sandwiches and listening to Yuriy, whose animated gesturing suggested he was recounting the events of last night. Olivier was laughing and shaking his head, and Sergei was rolling his eyes; apparently, Yuriy was distorting some of the details. Yuriy said something more and pointed his thumb in the direction of Mao and Emily, who were sitting on the broad marble lip of the fountain with their feet in the water and their fingers gently twined between them. Kiki’s eyes grew wide and his mouth fell open. Steve elbowed him teasingly in the side, and he and Eddie leaned in from either side of Kiki with grins and wiggling eyebrows. Kiki shoved at them, growing red.

They seemed to be having fun.

Johnny lingered in the archway, unnoticed for the moment. Even a simple glance told him that much had changed since yesterday.

Kyouju was lying in the grass with his head in Takao’s lap, and Takao was feeding him messy slices of orange. As Johnny watched, Kyouju caught Takao’s hand and brought it to his mouth to suck the juice from Takao’s fingers. They were both pretty red in the face.

Rai, Rei, Max, Giancarlo and Kai had formed their own little circle and appeared to be deep in discussion, but Michael was resting against Rai’s thigh, and Rai was running his hand absentmindedly through Michael’s hair.

Ralf sat on the lip of the fountain, drinking coffee and eating a waffle. He was dressed in a white dress shirt and pressed pants, which seemed excessively formal for early morning, and would soon be much too warm. The distance between him and Mao and Emily was small enough that the girls were including him in their conversation, but also large enough to set him apart from them.

Johnny took a hesitant step towards them all.

Had Ralf said anything? What would everyone thing about … them? Would they think Ralf shallow to change his mind when he was practically engaged? Would they think Johnny horrible for taking Ralf from Laura? God, he hadn’t even considered that.

... What if they didn't care at all? Why should they, the way Johnny and Ralf had acted yesterday?

“Hey, Johnny’s here!” Takao waved, dripping orange juice on Kyouju. “You’re late for breakfast.”

"I hope you're in shape for our rematch," Eddie said. "I'm not accepting any excuses."

Johnny nodded. "Yeah, no, I ... I'm ready." He'd forgotten all about it. He remained standing among the geraniums a little foolishly, struggling to push past yesterday's mistakes, embarrassments and failings. They were being nice to him, but ... did they really want him there?

Then Ralf set aside his coffee cup and waffle, brushed himself off and rose, clearing his throat. “May I have your attention everyone?”

Oh god, what are you doing?

It was usually hard to tell when Ralf was nervous, but today there was a hesitance in his body, a weight that seemed to drag his eyes down even as he made deliberate effort to look around at the curious faces turned his way.

He’s doing this so I don’t have to, Johnny thought and felt stupid with affection.

Olivier and Giancarlo were smiling.

Johnny breathed in carefully.

Ralf cleared his throat again. “I … I want to start by apologising for yesterday … again.” He was blushing faintly. “I was about to make a desperate and terrible decision, and when you, my friends, tried to save me from myself, I met you with cruelty and coldness.”

"Does that mean … you’re not getting married after all?” Max ventured.

“That’s what it means.”

“Won’t Laura be sad?” Max asked.

Ralf smiled, which made quite a few eyes widen. “No. I think she will be just fine.”

“What changed your mind?” Rai wondered.

“It was a collaborative effort. I have Mao to thank, for one.”

“Me?” She swung her legs up onto the broad lip of the fountain and lay back across Emily’s lap. “It wasn’t because I called you a blockhead, was it, because I feel a little bad about that.”

Ralf blinked. “… No. No, it wasn’t that part.”

“Or the high horse bit? Or the bit about your nose-”

“NO. It was not any of those parts. It was the ... the other-you know what part it was!”

“I’m just glad you listened,” Mao said, taking Emily’s hand and placing it on her own head for pettings. Emily stroked her hair.

Ralf exhaled heavily. “I’d also like to thank whoever brought my book down to the beach last night. It was instrumental too.”

“That was me.” Rai raised his hand briefly. “I thought it might help Johnny communicate with you. I hope it didn’t make things worse.”

Ralf looked across at Johnny then. “I suppose it did, but in a good way. Things that haven’t broken can’t be repaired.” He held out a hand. “Jonathan?”

Johnny shifted uncomfortably. Under his fresh clothes he still felt scrubbed raw by yesterday's ordreal. He was painfully aware of Yuriy’s raised eyebrow, Kai’s expressionless attention, Kiki kicking his feet impatiently, everyone’s curiosity; having had no time to rebuild his defences, he was like a house without walls, and everything sank into him, the weight of emotion unbearable.

But when he hesitated, he saw anxiety rise in Ralf's eyes, and realised that he was not the only one who felt fragile.

“Bitte, komm zu mir, Jonathan," Ralf said, voice low. "Lass mich nicht alleine stehen.”

Johnny crossed the space between them with a surge of determination, and within a few, embarrassed heartbeats, Johnny was in Ralf's arms.

Ralf put their foreheads together. “They understand,” he reminded them both.

Johnny breathed in, and the clean scent of his lover filled him with strength and joy. He tilted his head up, and Ralf leaned down, and when they kissed the Garden erupted in cheers.

“I knew it!” Mao yelled, shaking Emily so her glasses almost fell off. “I knew it!”

“Oh,” Rai said.

“Explains some things,” Michael said sleepily from Rai’s lap.

“I love you,” Ralf whispered when they parted.

“I love you too,” Johnny replied, dizzy as the words tumbled into a reality he was still working to accept. “To the heights my soul can reach.”

"Everyone is getting fucked except me," Yuriy complained down in the grass.

“Boris will fuck you,” Ivan said graciously, giving Boris a shove in Yuriy’s direction.

Yuriy pouted. “Will you, Borya?”

“Eat your breakfast,” Sergei intervened, handing Yuriy a strawberry while Boris tried to shove his croissant up Ivan’s nose.

“Come on, guys; romance isn’t everything,” Steve said.

Kiki snorted. “You’re just saying that because you’re not getting any.”

“I’m sorry, what was that, did you say you wanted to swim in the fountain?”

“What? No, I-No! Get off me! No! Aaagh!”

There was a splash and then Kiki was swimming in the fountain.

Ralf shook his head and folded his lanky body down into the grass. “Sit with me?” He looked expectantly up at Johnny. “Someone has to remind me to finish the waffle I'm eating.”

Johnny sat down next to him. “You’ve had something else too, right?” He looked around, found a plate and grabbed a couple of pieces of toast for himself. “You can’t subsist on coffee and illustrious ancestry alone.”

“I’ve had a strawberry.”

“Let’s see if we can’t have you one more.”

"Hey, Michael," Eddie called across the picnic blanket. "Captain, friend, roommate. Where did you go last night? We woke up this morning and found Max in your bed, and then you came slinking in at nine with scratch marks on your shoulders."

"Don't forget that he was limping," Steve added helpfully.

Michael blushed hard. "I was limping from before! How about you both take this gesture and-"

Rai grabbed Michael's hand and pulled it back down.

"What's more confusing," Giancarlo said, "Is that if Michael went to Rai's, and Rai shared with Rei, why was it Max who came to yours?"

“I had to leave because Kyouju came to mine and Takao's room,” Max said, making Kyouju sit up real fast from Takao's lap and frantically wave at him to shut up. Max didn't seem to notice. “And I was not going to stand in the way of my good friends if they wanted to consummate their relationship, so I left.”

“Kyouju came to yours from …?”

“Kai’s room,” Max said, before Kai and Rei, with the swift decisiveness of trained warriors, pulled him down in the grass and sat on him to shut him up.

Giancarlo looked at them suspiciously. “So ... Michael went to Rai's room ... Rei went to Kai's room ... Kyouju went to Takao's room. I know for a fact that Johnny stayed in Ralf's. And how many of you limped back this morning?"

Everyone got very busy drinking their tea and admiring the flowers.

"... YOU HEINOUS SLUTS!" Yuriy howled. "That's not fair!"

"Boris will fuck you," Ivan said, because he apparently had no survival instinct. Moments later he had joined Kiki in the fountain, and Boris was aggressively chewing through another croissant and glaring at anyone who dared look his way. He did look rather red, though.

Giancarlo made a little toast to Olivier with his juice glass. "Well, you wanted the game to bring us closer. I'd say it was a success."

Mao lifted her cup out of the grass and held it up. "To heinous sluts!"

Emily tweaked her nose with amused admonishment, grabbing her own cup of tea from beside her. "To being closer. And to Olivier, for helping us on our way."

Everyone raised their cups and glasses. Takao didn't have one, so he raised a slice of orange.

Johnny and Ralf held their cups up to each other.

The sun came out from behind a bank of clouds then and made the water in the fountain sparkle. The world was growing bright and warm, and Johnny was surrounded by laughter and conversation. Ralf drank his coffee with simple contentment, lids heavy over his dark eyes.

After a minute, Johnny leaned in, gently pulling the cup aside to steal a kiss from his lover. The taste of coffee and sugar lingered in Ralf's mouth, so Johnny kissed him deeper until he found the taste that until last night he had never known, and received a moan for his ardour.

"I have a feeling all this new romance will quickly become incredibly obnoxious for the rest of us," Olivier said meaningfully, chasing down the last piece of his toast with the last of his coffee, and rising.

Max nodded sagely. "We should be getting back to the important things."

"Like Beyblade?" Steve suggested.

"Like Beyblade," Max confirmed.

Olivier put his hands on his hips and looked at them all. "I'm giving you ten minutes to finish your breakfast and get to the clearing, and then ... how many challenges do we have pending?"

"Me and Johnny are up first," Eddie said.

Kiki climbed out of the fountain and began to wring out his hair. "I've challenged Rei."

"Then you'll be second. Just dry off first."

"Last one to the clearing is a rotten egg!" Max said, bouncing up and running towards the gate.

"Waht foh meh!" Takao said with his mouth full, grabbing another piece of toast with one hand, and Kyouju with the other, and hurrying after Max with Kyouju in tow.

"Ready to go?" Rai asked Michael, down in the grass. "It'll take you a little longer to limp over there ... because of your ankle."

While everyone were beginning to get ready and get up, Ralf put his hand subtly over Johnny's in the grass and asked in a low voice, "How are you feeling about your upcoming match? You had some trouble yesterday."

"You know what?" Johnny said, feeling better than he could remember doing for the longest time. "I don't even mind how I do today. I just want to play."

Ralf smiled. "Then I think you'll do great."