“My friend, Conor.”
“No,” Conor said from the other side of the room.
“No?” Ned glanced up from his desk. Conor was still retrieving the clothes from his duffel bag and hanging them in his wardrobe, his back to Ned.
“Well, not ‘no,’ exactly. You might just want to work on it more.”
“I should’ve known you’d complain from literally the first line.” Ned grinned at Conor’s back.
“You’re the writer,” Conor said, shrugging. He bent down to pick up his raincoat. “But you said you wanted me to shout whatever I thought about the first draft. That you wanted us to write it together. You did say that.”
“Alright,” Ned said, raising his hands in surrender. Conor turned and, upon seeing the gesture, offered a tight smile.
Is this tension? Ned wrote. We’re still only at the title. He paused and tapped his pen in the margin violently. If he still hasn’t completely forgiven me, I can’t blame him. I haven’t forgiven me.
“Jotting down more amazing titles?” Conor called.
“Er, no,” Ned replied, drawing a line under what he’d written. “Just doodling.”
“Already? You really excel at being lazy, Ned.”
“One of us has to.” Ned hovered his pen at the left margin.
We all have one thing we’re ashamed of.
That memory One moment so embarrassing, we don’t think we’ll ever get over it. Suddenly, the words were flowing.
“Done,” Conor said, after Ned had been writing for a while. Ned looked up to see him kicking his duffel bag under the bed, then returned his attention to his notebook. “Ned? I’m done, I said.”
He offered a half-hearted grunt in response.
“Oh, come on. You’re not still sore about that title, are you? Use it if you like.”
“I’m not sore, I’m concentrating.” Ned heard Conor crossing the room, then felt his hands on his shoulders.
“Excuse me, then. I guess I’ll just go eat by myself.”
“No chance,” Ned said, finishing the sentence he was on and replacing the cap of his pen. “Not after you made me wait all that time for you to finish unpacking.”
Conor squeezed Ned’s shoulders. “Looks like you got some writing down in that time, though.”
Ned tilted his head back to look up at him. “I hope you didn’t read it. Did you?”
“Maybe a little?”
“Most of it’s rubbish,” Ned said, closing the notebook and tucking it under his arm. “Can I get up?”
Conor stepped back and dropped his hands to his side. “So, what do you think will be on the menu tonight?”
“Not sure,” Ned said, springing up and walking to the door. “But it’ll probably be something grey.”
Conor laughed and followed Ned to the threshold. “I’ve really missed this.”
“What?” Ned flicked the light switch; he looked back into the shadows cast by the hallway light, found Conor’s eyes, stared into them until a passing pupil jostled him out of the way.
“You,” Conor said. “Me and you. Just being normal again.”
Ned nodded and closed the door behind Conor. They began walking towards the stairwell, the other boys parting reverently as Conor passed.
“And I know we both acted like complete eejits,” Conor sputtered. “I’ll be the first to admit that I let you down first. So, if you ever want to talk about it—or not, I mean, that’s fine too—”
He was interrupted by the din of the boys on the stairs cheering for him. Probably for the best, Ned thought. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to say, and how he wanted to say it, if he and Conor were to sit down and talk about everything. That was the point of writing the essay. Well, that and getting Mr Sherry off his back.
“I don’t like this,” Conor was telling him, through gritted teeth.
Ned patted his back. “You’ll get used to it.”
“I really hope I don’t,” Conor retorted. “That’d mean it’ll be going on longer than just the first day back from break.”
Knowing how obsessed this place is with rugby, you’ll be lucky if it only goes on until the end of the year, Ned thought.
“Why’d you bring that notebook, anyway?” Conor asked, as they crossed the burgundy and cream tiles of the main hall.
“What do you mean, why’d I bring it? What sort of writer wouldn’t have something around to record his thoughts when inspiration strikes?”
Conor rolled his eyes and held open the door of the refectory for Ned. “I really don’t know.”
“Would James Joyce leave his house without anything to write with? I don’t think so.” Ned was still standing in the doorway, smirking, blocking the flow of traffic, relishing the limelight. It felt like the entire school was standing in abeyance around the two of them.
“You have a title and two lines and you’re comparing yourself to James Joyce,” Conor said. He patted Ned’s cheek with his free hand. “I think Mr Sherry’s done a number on you.”
“Whoa, what’s this?”
Ned hung his head and braced himself as Weasel sauntered to the doorway and held up a languid finger to each of them.
“Weasel,” Conor said, nodding to him.
“So, are you two official now? Is that what all this PDA is about?”
Conor rolled his eyes. “What PDA? We don’t need to hear about your fantasies, Weasel.”
“They’re not my fantasies.” He crossed his arms and directed his scornful gaze at Ned. “More like what the ginger pole smoker you call your mate’s been dreaming about since you moved in.”
His breath smells like potatoes. I guess that’s what’s on the menu, Ned thought.
“And I suppose what you’re dreaming about is me rearranging your face again,” Conor threatened.
“I really don’t understand how you can still hate me,” Ned said, straightening up. “You won the cup! And you’re leaving in a couple months. How am I still on your mind?”
Weasel motioned to the door and shrugged. “You’re not on my mind, little vole. You were just in my way.”
Conor grabbed Weasel’s necktie and pulled him close. The door to the refectory slammed shut. “Don’t you ever—ever—talk to either of us again. Or I’ll put you in hospital. You know I will.”
“Get off,” Weasel yelled, grabbing Conor’s wrists.
“Did you hear me?” Ned winced as Conor shook Weasel by the neck.
“I’m just winding you up,” Weasel said, letting out a nervous laugh. His hands were still gripping Conor’s forearms. “I couldn’t care less what the two of you get up to. Can’t you take a joke?”
“You’re the joke,” Conor spat. He released Weasel, who stumbled back several feet and almost collided with Ned. “Let’s go, Ned.”
Without responding, Ned leaned into the door and walked through to the refectory. Weasel’s contemptuous laughter echoed in the corridor behind him, but it was soon drowned out by the din of hundreds of other boys. He hurried to one of the quiet, poorly lit tables in the back corner of the cavernous room, his notebook dangling loosely from his hand. Conor was jogging after him but, mercifully, wasn’t calling his name.
“You alright?” Conor said, once he’d sat down across from him.
“’Course I am,” Ned said quietly. He’d already opened the notebook and was hunched over it, making motions with his pen more than writing.
Ned glanced up. “What?”
“You know better than to listen to anything Weasel says.”
“Oh, him? I don’t listen to him. He’s just a muppet.”
Conor tapped his fingertips together and shrugged. “What’s the problem, then?”
“You.” Ned fixed his gaze on him. “Getting violent. Letting your fists do the talking.”
“What fists? I hardly touched him.”
“And what if Walter had seen? You think he’d see it the same way?” Ned narrowed his eyes; Conor averted his. “It took us an hour to convince him to let me move back in with you. Not to speak of the punishment I’m in for that he hasn’t even revealed to me yet.”
“Fair points,” he mumbled.
“And what’d he tell us when he finally said we could return to our room?” Ned said, going in for the kill.
Conor threw his head back and looked up at the ceiling. “That if either of us put one foot wrong then we’ll be separated for the rest of our time here.”
“Good to know all those blows to the head haven’t dulled your memory,” Ned said. Conor gave him a dark look and they both burst out laughing.
“Okay, okay.” Conor locked his hands behind his neck. “Nice to know you care so much.”
Ned looked down at his notebook and scribbled. “Of course I care.”
“Yeah?” Conor said, a note of hope suspended in his voice.
“Yeah. I mean, who else would let me use all of their wall space?”
Conor blew a raspberry. “Happy to be of use, you bastard. You can quote that in your essay, by the way.”
“Is that what I am?” Ned raised an eyebrow.
“Little bit. At least you’re a handsome one, though.”
“And you’re terrible at flattery,” Ned replied, looking down at the table. His cheeks, his ears, his entire face was on fire. He felt Conor watching him. He’s doing this on purpose, the arsehole.
“Anyway, you want to get some food?” Conor finally said.
“I’ll catch you up,” Ned said, as genially as he could without raising his eyes. He managed to write a single word: Title, followed by a colon.
Conor chuckled and walked off. Ned watched him surreptitiously as he made his way past the rest of the tables, high-fiving and fist-bumping some of the team and a few idolizing younger kids. He’s always so easy with people, Ned thought. Cool. Chill. Well, as chill as one can be five minutes after threatening to put someone in hospital, that is.
And handsome, another part of Ned’s brain whispered. Fit. Sexy. Possibly into you?
“And a shameless flirt,” Ned said out loud, in protest. A boy at the next table shot him a bemused look.
“Just this character. Writing a book report,” Ned lied, waving his pen. The kid only looked more apprehensive.
Also, your roommate and only friend. So, naturally, you’ll fuck it up.
Ned sighed and started doodling a guitar. He was just feeling hormones, honestly. Completely natural, but he’d rather sublimate that frustration into ominous art and frantic music like every rock band in history.
First of all, there’s no chance someone like him would be interested in someone like you. Put that thought out of your head before proceeding further.
Yes, art and music. They would be much more productive uses of his time than pining for the unobtainable star rugby player, who, now that Ned thought on it, hadn’t seemed overly bothered about him for a while.
“Although, he is handsome,” Ned murmured, then immediately felt foolish. What a ridiculous thought, given how gleefully he’d thrown Conor under the bus just a few days before.
He swivelled in his seat and watched Conor until the latter had reached the head of the queue. Conor picked up a tray and turned around, searching the sea of faces for Ned. Once he’d found him, he lifted the tray over his head and winked, beckoning him over as he held the line.
Forget everything else. How much of a ‘fuck you’ is it to this place that their hero is a gay guy?
Ned turned back to his notebook and raised his pen, shaking his head at the force of nature that was Conor Masters. As he clambered off the bench to walk to the supper queue he wrote down next to Title: the description of his friend he’d settled on in the interest of time, though it sounded better and better the closer he got to him.
“I’ll walk with you,” Victor was saying. They were two of the last people left in the refectory; Ned had long since returned to their room to be away from the crowd, and the rest of the team had trickled out one by one.
“As long as we wait until they kick us out.” Conor dragged his spoon around his plate. “Can’t stand those cheers a second time.”
“Deal,” Victor chuckled. “But you’re sure you’re not keeping Ned waiting?”
Conor looked up from the patterns in his mash. “Keeping him waiting how?”
“Don’t know,” Victor said slowly. “Sometimes the two of you seem like an old married couple.”
“Do we, now?” Conor tapped his spoon.
“Which is great after everything that’s happened—”
“If we are, Ned’s definitely the wife.” He smiled down at the table, then looked up at Victor.
“Um, wouldn’t you both be husbands? Or—partners?” Victor scratched his head. “Sorry, I think I’ve said something awkward. Was that offensive somehow?”
Conor shrugged. “I don’t feel awkward.”
“Good,” Victor said, letting out a deep breath. “I really don’t want you to feel any different. You’re just as much a part of the team as always. And an honest-to-goodness legend, as far as I’m concerned.”
Victor rolled his eyes. “Leave him to me. He’ll come around. After being a tosser for a while.”
“Yeah, I know. But you did win us the cup. That should count for more than anything to him, once he’s had his easy laughs.” Victor pursed his lips, not looking entirely convinced.
They sat in silence for a minute. The lights dimmed; they were the last pupils remaining.
“We’d better head,” Victor said, standing up. Conor followed him towards the doors of the refectory.
“Can I ask you something?” Conor said, once they’d reached the corridor.
“Sure, anything. What’s on your mind?” Victor was always like this, Conor thought. Patient, noble, generous. The ideal leader.
“Did you—know about me? Before Ned said?”
“I did, yeah.” Victor stopped at the doorway of the main hall, which was nearly devoid of pupils by now. “Weasel told me when he found out.”
“You never let on,” Conor said. How many people did he tell? So much for rumours staying rumours if I did what he wanted.
“Why would I?” Victor started walking again; their steps echoed against the marble columns. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Conor nodded as they ascended the stairs. “Thanks for standing up for me. You know, at the final.”
“I really didn’t do anything,” Victor said. They were at his and Ned’s door. “Not compared to you and Ned.”
“Still.” Conor placed his hand on the doorknob. “You coming in?”
“Nah,” Victor said, pointing backward over his shoulder. “I’m shattered. Should get an early night. Tell Ned I said hi.”
Conor leaned in for a quick hug. “Night, Captain.”
“Oi. If you’re going to call me that, I’m going to remind you to not be late tomorrow. For once.” He turned and walked down the hall, Conor’s laugh trailing behind him.
“Almost got all of my posters back up,” Ned said, when Conor opened the door. He was already in his maroon pyjamas. “Was that Victor I heard?”
“Yeah. He came to eat after you’d left; his family’s flight got in late. Oh, he said to tell you hi.”
“Wonders never cease,” Ned said, but there was a lilt in his voice. He stood on his tiptoes to reach one of the posters on the wall.
Conor shrugged off his jacket and returned it to the wardrobe. “Need a hand?”
“I think I’ve got it,” Ned replied. He jumped up to reach a sketch of a ship at sea, nearly losing his balance in the process.
“Careful.” Conor walked over and pushed his hands down on the chair. “It’s wobbling.”
“Thanks.” Ned took a deep breath. “Oh, could you hand me that other one?”
“Which other one?”
“Well, whichever one you feel like having above your desk.”
Conor handed him the picture at the top of the pile but held onto it as Ned pulled. “And what if I prefer it blank?”
“Are you serious?” Ned scratched his chin. “I mean, I’m getting tired of some of these, I guess. I put this nautical one up here because I thought you’d like it, since, you know. We could take a few down and—”
“I—I wasn’t serious,” Conor said. “Your stuff’s fine, I swear.”
“It is!” He gave Ned an exaggerated smile. Ned was a complicated guy, Conor thought. He loved joshing and messing about, but when Conor teased him over certain things, his walls could come back up faster than the wind could change on the open sea. Then he’d have to spend some time leading Ned back to him. That was fair enough. He hadn’t exactly been the most loyal repository for Ned’s trust, after all.
Ned was smirking down at him. “Anyone there?”
“Yeah, just thinking. Did you say something?”
“I was just saying that it’s nice being taller than you. For once.”
“Oh yeah?” Conor shook the chair gently. “Enjoying the view from all the way up there?”
Ned giggled and steadied himself on the chair back. His hand rubbed against Conor’s.
“You could say that,” he said, looking down at their hands before returning his gaze to Conor. Conor swallowed and looked down at the pile of posters again.
“Need me to hand you anything else?”
“Nah, I think we’re good for now.” Ned stepped down and collected the pictures, then returned them to his desk drawer. Conor watched him as he sorted out some of the odds and ends on his desk into their respective places.
“The team’s cool,” Conor said. He wasn’t sure if Ned cared, but he was used to telling him about everything he’d done each day. “No one said anything about what happened at the cheer practice. Or in the changing room.”
“Just about the trophy you won for them, right?” Ned said, with a touch of acid.
“There ain’t no ‘I’ in team, Ned,” Conor quipped. He let his own laugh go on longer when Ned didn’t join in.
“That’s good, then.” Ned turned around and leaned against his desk, crossing his arms. “Can’t expect a lot more from that lot. Like, I doubt any of them will be going to a gay bar with you just to hang out.”
“You never know,” Conor said. He worked his fingers together in his lap. “Once we’re out of here—someone I talked to told me it gets better when you’re older.”
Ned looked at him sceptically. “And what’d Weasel say? You had just threatened to beat him up in front of the entire school.”
Conor let out a puff of air, laid his wristwatch on his bedside table, looked back at Ned. He was feeling enough regret over that without Ned needling him on it.
“’Pah?’” Ned repeated. “Mind translating that?”
“I didn’t see him again after that. Victor said to leave Weasel to him.” Conor pulled off his jumper and began loosening his tie. “I think he’s learned his lesson for a while, anyway.”
Ned was watching him as he shed his clothes. When Conor looked up to return his gaze, he blinked, turned on his heel and opened his notebook.
“Did you get much more written down while I wasn’t bothering you?” Conor unlaced one shoe, then started on the other. “I don’t see how I’m helping.”
“Don’t be stupid,” Ned murmured, indistinct. He turned a leaf and started writing on a new page. “You are helping. And you don’t bother me.”
“Even when you’re digging for compliments,” Ned added wryly, shooting a glance over his shoulder.
“I’d never.” Conor pulled off his trousers, then carried his uniform in his arms to his chest of drawers.
“I did come up with a title,” Ned said.
“Oh yeah? You going to tell me, then?”
“I’d prefer not to, honestly.”
Conor pulled on his T-shirt and turned around. “Come on. Why even bring it up, then?”
“You asked what I wrote.” Ned shrugged.
“If this is you trying to get me to beg,” Conor said, picking through his toiletries, “it’s not going to work.”
“I did write some other stuff—just about myself, though. Things you already know, like how I ended up here. My family life. How I feel about this place.” Ned’s face brightened. “Shall I read it to you?”
“Go ahead.” He lifted his toothbrush to his lips. “My mouth will be occupied, so I won’t be able to interrupt you with my opinions.”
“Perfection.” Ned cleared his throat. “First, the introduction. We all have one thing we’re ashamed of. The memory of one moment so embarrassing, we don’t think we’ll ever get over it.”
Conor looked down. The talent show. The movement of his toothbrush slowed as he ruminated over how he’d let Ned down. He’d been blackmailed, but even that wasn’t an excuse.
“…wakes you at four a.m. Sweating.”
Then I didn’t talk to him for weeks. And shoved him to the ground when he came to me.
“I felt like I’d lost the only true friend I’d ever known,” Ned was saying. He paused, blinking rapidly.
“Sorry,” Conor said, through a mouthful of toothpaste. He stood up and pointed at the door.
“Need to spit already?” Ned waved him off.
Conor walked to the bathroom and finished brushing his teeth, watching his eyes staring back at him in the mirror. He spat, walked to the urinal, washed his hands, examined himself in the mirror again.
When he finally got back to their room, Ned had turned off the ceiling light and was lying in bed, writing by the light of his bedside lamp. He looked up at Conor, his eyes asking a question.
“Sorry for taking so long.” Conor walked to his bed and fell in prone, the springs protesting at the sudden weight. He turned to look at Ned. “Did you want to keep going?”
“Not just now, I’m writing down some other stuff.”
“I liked it,” Conor said, gathering his pillow under his chin. “The introduction. It’ll grab people’s interest.”
“Okay, Mr Sherry.”
“What’s it about, anyway?” He reached up to turn on his own lamp.
“What, the entire thing?”
“Yeah. You and Sherry must have talked about what you’d write about.”
“Friendship,” Ned said, without looking up from his writing.
“Oh.” Conor played with the zip of his hoodie and moved around under the sheet. “Am I really the best person to help with it, then?”
Ned frowned at him. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I haven’t exactly been a good friend to you over the past month. No, I’ve been a shit friend, actually.”
“Not that I’ve been any better,” Ned said quietly, picking at his nails.
“You have,” Conor insisted. He flipped onto his side to face Ned. “You’ve been amazing.”
Ned raised his eyebrows.
“Okay, there was one notable exception.”
“Extremely notable,” Ned said. “In fact, possibly the worst thing one friend could do to another. I did that. I’m that guy.”
“It turned out okay,” Conor said. He propped himself up on his elbow. “I can’t really be mad at you about it after all that’s happened: I don’t have to hide anymore, we won the cup, and I have my friend back.”
“I’m mad at me,” Ned said. “Lowest moment of my life, I’d say. So far. But at this rate—”
“Hey, hey,” Conor snapped. Ned looked up at him, his eyes wet and wide. “None of that.”
“Stop beating yourself up. I told you I’m not angry.”
“Thanks.” Ned brushed the back of his arm across his face. “But it’ll just take me some time to work through it all. Not just—not just outing you, but the talent show, fighting with you and Weasel, all the ups and downs. And writing this essay should help.”
Conor smiled. “Did Sherry tell you that? He’s really made a joiner out of you.”
Ned shook his head. “And yet, you’ve joined with me at every turn.”
“I’ve only half-joined this time. Figured we’d pool our resources. Such as they are.”
“Such as they are,” Ned repeated. He reclined back onto his pillow and moved his notebook into the lamplight.
“What are you writing about now?”
“When we met,” Ned said.
Conor laughed. “Oh yeah?”
Ned turned to him. “What are you giggling at?”
“Write about how you tried to get me kicked out of your room.”
“I just liked having my own space. You’ve no idea what it was like rooming with people before you. Absolute hell. It wasn’t anything personal.”
“No, I’m fucking not.”
“You’re embarrassed.” Conor waited for a reply, but Ned was pretending to not have heard him. “It’s fine, I was just some guy doing press-ups in your room.”
“Shirtless,” Ned added, and gave him an arch smile.
“I was hot.”
“Uh-huh.” Ned tapped his pen to his lips.
Conor pushed himself up and sat with his legs crossed underneath him. “Here’s something for your essay. Don’t know if I ever told you this.”
“Oh?” Ned’s ears perked up and he leaned forward, almost into the lampshade. Was ‘cute’ how Conor would describe the way Ned looked when he was eager? He supposed it was.
“I actually tried to move rooms, too,” Conor said, pressing his palms together over his ankles. “I went and talked to Walter.”
Ned snorted. “And how’d that go?”
“Terribly. I barely got two words out.”
“Well, that’s some nice parallelism,” Ned said, setting pen to paper. “Good for foreshadowing things in an early paragraph.”
“Some nice what?”
“Two things that mirror each other. Complement each other. Together they become bigger than the sum of their parts. Like you and me.”
“You and me,” Conor echoed.
“Yeah,” Ned said, after a moment. He lowered his eyes to the paper. “In this essay, I mean. How we both went to Curly’s office that day.”
He was gripping his pen more tightly; it was frozen in place above the page. Conor thought that he must be deep in thought.
“I’m glad we failed,” Conor said. He lay back down again and pulled the covers up to his shoulders. Sometimes March nights felt the coldest.
“Definitely,” Ned replied. He took some time to write a few words before looking up, his lip curling above his teeth just enough to tell Conor he really meant it.
Conor grinned back long after Ned had returned his gaze to the page. Part of a poem that Mr Sherry had read aloud a few weeks before had stuck in his head at the time; it whispered to him as he watched Ned.
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
He’d been lost in his own thoughts for most of that week, with the upcoming semi-final, the talent show, and Weasel’s threats all swimming around in his head, threatening to capsize him. For some reason, those lines were the only thing he’d been able to grab onto that day, even though he still hadn’t the faintest idea of what they meant.
He was fine with being young and ignorant, he thought, still watching Ned curled up on his mattress, scribbling away the night. Not everything had to make sense yet. After all, Ned had told him that he was helping him find his voice; that they would do this together. And in the half-light of his bedside lamp, setting his lines to paper with intense concentration, Ned really did look beautiful.