Miles is livid. There’s no other word for what he’s feeling right now.
He’s sat watching Alex silently in the middle of their English class, eyeing the purple bruise that Alex is sporting just below his left eye. It appears that Terrence’s handling of him has proved to be even rougher than Miles can recall; Alex’s cheek is marked so badly, not even some make-up has managed to cover up the discoloured skin. Alex catches Miles looking him over with a passive-aggressive expression on his face, enabling him to comprehend Miles’s disapproval, but for some odd reason, Alex keeps quiet and pretends that nothing has happened.
“Are you sure you’re alright? Does it hurt?” Miles mouths as quietly as he can, trying not to interrupt the film that Ms. Hayward has put on about 19th century novelists. Miles and Alex are sat in the back of the classroom, and with everybody else focusing on the film projector, he’s hoping that no one will notice him staring at nothing else but Alex.
“What?” Alex whispers distantly, acting like he hasn’t heard him. He keeps his eyes on the film dutifully, though it’s obvious to anyone that he isn’t paying attention. Not really.
“Your cheek,” Miles mutters persistently, “does it hurt? It looks quite bad.”
Alex lowers his gaze and feels at his bruised skin instinctively, hiding it away behind nervous fingertips.
“No – no, honestly, it’s not as bad as it looks,” Alex replies quietly. He’s beginning to look sort of self-conscious and uncomfortable, and almost ashamed, which has Miles feeling puzzled and confused. Alex doesn’t feel like he’s the one who’s at fault – does he? It certainly ought to be the other way around. But the sad truth is that Alex, as it appears, has chosen to blame himself rather than those bastards, his own flesh and blood, who did this to him.
Miles isn’t able to make sense of any of it.
“Alex,” he whispers tensely, searching for the other’s hand under the table, “I won’t let them get away with it. Don’t worry – we are going to report it. You have both me and Matt as witnesses.”
“Report it?” Alex grimaces, removing his hand from Miles’s. “Are you out of your mind? They are my family.”
Miles raises an eyebrow. Surely, Alex can’t be defending them?
“Yeah, well, they don’t treat you like family,” Miles hisses, feeling enraged, “your own cousin who’s ten times bigger than you, Alex, hit you and threw you to the ground. He attacked Matt, too, in case you don’t remember it. And your aunt did nothing. I saw her – she couldn’t have cared less.”
“Miles, please,” Alex begs slightly anxiously, “just stop overreacting, will you? There’s nothing we can do about it. Not now.”
“Yes there is – we can go to the head teacher’s office and let him know. Right now. He’ll know how to remove those people from your house.”
“Those people?” Alex glares at him. “Bloody hell, they are the only family members I have left, and you want me to just write them off like that?”
“Alex, they are not treating you right-“
“You don’t know that! You have no idea what they are like normally, do you, Miles? You’ve never even given them a chance.”
“I know that your cousin is a violent thug,” Miles snorts, “do I really need to know anything else?”
“Look,” Alex murmurs resignedly, “he wouldn’t have reacted that way if I hadn’t behaved like a brat.”
“Oh, so now you were asking to be slapped, were you?” Miles shakes his head, moping. “Don’t defend them, Alex, you know better than that.”
“I broke the rules,” Alex insists, “I came home in the middle of the night, smelling like alcohol and weed. I was being disrespectful and selfish-“
“For crying out loud,” Miles interrupts him, raising his voice dangerously, “you were only out partying like every normal person our age would do! What’s the fucking harm in that? That’s certainly not something you deserve to be given a black eye for!”
Miles falls silent and looks around him when the classroom suddenly seems awfully quiet. Only then does he realise that Ms. Hayward has paused the film and is now looking down towards the back of the room, trying to identify where all the noise is coming from.
“Turner and Kane,” she speaks sharply, using her disciplinary tone, “since you’ve forced me to pause the film and managed to draw all the attention to yourselves, perhaps there is something you two would like to share with the rest of us?”
Miles opens his mouth and is more than tempted to actually stand up and tell her that yes, there is indeed something that he would like to get off his chest, after which he is going to point to Alex and demand that Ms. Hayward is going to get those monsters evicted from his home who’ve wronged him so unmistakably. However, when Alex’s body tenses and he looks over at Miles pleadingly, like his life depends on the other’s silence, naturally, he fails to do the sensible thing.
“We were – we were just talking about the film,” Miles utters idiotically, making a few people laugh in the front rows, “sorry for interrupting, Miss.”
Ms. Hayward narrows her eyes sceptically. Then, as though she’s been able to read Miles’s mind, her stare fixes on Alex and lingers by his purple bruises. Reluctantly, she clears her throat and stalls, uncertain of what to say next.
“Alright,” she finally responds, somewhat apprehensively, “just be quiet from now on, will you?”
Everybody returns to the film, but for Miles, the tension in the room doesn’t go away. Alex has resorted to looking away from him, pretending to keep himself busy by taking notes on a piece of paper, but it becomes apparent that his mind is elsewhere when only a moment later, his notes turn into random doodles, instead. Anything to refrain from having another debate with Miles. At the end of the class, while everybody packs up and storms out as though they are participating in a race, Ms. Hayward stays behind to watch Miles and Alex silently. It is only when everybody else has left the room that she stops the two boys by the door, on their way out.
“Turner,” she utters in a strange voice, gesturing for Alex to come back inside, “I couldn’t help but notice the… mark you have on your face.” She bites her lip uncomfortably. Miles knows for a fact that Ms. Hayward has always taken a shine to Alex and liked him for his good work. However, as Alex’s life has changed drastically over the past six months and he’s become withdrawn and uncooperative, she seems confused and perhaps a little disappointed with him. “Has anything happened to you that the school ought to know about?”
Alex folds his arm and places a hand to his shoulder awkwardly, looking down at his own feet. How Ms. Hayward fails to read the shame on the young lad’s face, and his sudden fear, Miles will never understand.
“I – I was at a party,” Alex starts uncertainly, trying hard to sound casual about it, “I must have fallen over or walked into summat – I don’t really remember how it happened.”
Their English teacher hesitates and looks her pupil over closely. Judging from her uncomfortable behaviour, she’s probably more than happy to believe any cover-up story in order to make things less awkward.
“I see,” she mutters tentatively. “For a moment, I thought you had been in a fight. And I know that isn’t like you, Alex.”
Alex forces a timid smile, shaking his head.
“No, of course I haven’t been in a fight,” he tells her. “It was just an accident.”
Miles scowls at that, crossing his arms irritably. What incenses him further is the fact that she is so ready to believe his lies, just because Alex used to be a favourite pupil of hers, and just because it means less paperwork for herself.
“Alright, then,” Ms. Hayward looks sort of relieved, “well, perhaps you should get the school nurse to look you over. Perhaps there’s something that she can give you for the pain. I’ll ring her right now and tell her that you are on your way.”
“Thanks, Ms. Hayward,” Alex mouths quietly, though she’s done absolutely nothing to help him.
On his way to see the school nurse, Miles has starting following after Alex, determined to have another word with him.
“Just tell the nurse what really happened,” Miles begs him, tugging at Alex’s arm in order to make him turn around, “come on, Alex, you know I’m right. If they think they can get away with abusing you once, they are definitely going to do it again.”
“Abusing me?” Alex says, stopping dead to look him in the eyes. “Miles, quit it, will you? They are not abusing me!”
“Oh right, how silly of me,” Miles huffs, “they are only smacking you around, giving you curfews, forbidding you to go outside and see people. What do you want to call it instead, Alex? Are they merely teasing you? Or are they perhaps taking advantage of you?”
“Miles!” Alex hisses, looking around the hallway. “Lower your voice, will you?”
“I’m telling you, those people are condemning you to live like a prisoner,” Miles goes on, ignoring his friend’s pleas, “the only difference is that, unlike most prisoners, you haven’t committed a crime! And the sooner you realise that, Alex, the sooner we can make things right again.”
But it appears that Alex has had enough of their arguing. Pulling away from Miles, he yanks his arm free and turns his back on him.
“Just stop trying to rescue me, Miles,” he grunts dejectedly, and perhaps with a hint of embarrassment, too, “I don’t need rescuing. Especially not from my own family. I’m not some helpless damsel in distress, and you’re not the brave hero that I’ve been waiting for all my life.”
“Excuse me?” Miles objects, stepping in to stand in front of Alex, searching for his eyes desperately.
“I can take care of myself!” Alex exclaims, hiding behind his fringe. “I’m sick of people patronising me.”
“Alex, I’m just trying to help you – that’s all,” Miles breathes gently, wishing the other wouldn’t live his life in denial like that, “I’m only saying this because – because I care about you.”
Hoping that he’s now convinced Alex to listen to him, Miles jumps with surprise when a voice calls their names out somewhere behind his back. Taking a step away from Alex, Miles looks up and sees that Matt, Jamie and Nick are approaching them.
“Alex,” Jamie calls as he walks up to him with a serious look on his face, “Matt told us what happened. Let me see your face.”
Alex looks up; not to obey Jamie, but because there isn’t really anywhere else for him to look. Jamie releases a small gasp, but goes silent, almost like he hadn’t expected Matt’s story to be true. It’s Nick who – at the sight of Alex’s battered cheek and his crushed, heartrending expression – can’t hold himself back:
“That son of a bitch!” He exclaims with great fury, startling Miles. “Who the fuck does he think he is? I’m gonna find him – I’m gonna teach him to pick on someone his own fucking size!”
“You’re not his size, Nick,” Matt intervenes, observing Alex’s sorrowful face with great despair, “Terry’s massive. He’ll have you floored in a minute.”
“Not if there are four of us, he won’t,” Jamie snaps, “we will all fucking do it. We will all take him down!”
“And you don’t reckon his brothers would come to his assistance?” Matt points out moodily. “I’m telling you, when he had me by the collar, I couldn’t even shake him off me. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Then we’ll call for backup,” Nick insists, “we’ll get Andy Nicholson and Glyn Jones, and their friends, to join us. I’m sure they would love to throw a punch at those thugs.”
“You will do no such thing,” Alex protests, looking appalled at the idea of declaring war on his own cousins, “you’re talking about Terry like he’s a… hazard or summat. Just leave him alone – please?”
“But Alex, he is a hazard,” Matt quarrels, “he’s a hazard to you, to anyone who gets in his way. He’s like – always looking for trouble, or for someone to pick on. Aren’t you sick of it?”
“Yes, I’m sick of it,” Alex admits, “but ambushing him isn’t going to make things better. You’re only going to make him angrier.”
“And then what?” Miles butts in, giving Alex a hard stare. “Is he going to take it out on you? Or what are you saying?”
“No – no, that’s not what I said at all!” Alex snaps at him, frowning. “Stop twisting my words.”
“Has he ever threatened you, Alex?” Miles presses on, pushing the other to the edge. “Is that why you’re so afraid of standing up to him?”
“Miles, for fuck’s sake,” Alex bursts out frantically, “will you stop being so overly dramatic? You make it sound like I live my life in fear!”
“Not for much longer, you won’t,” Jamie cuts in, wrapping an arm protectively around Alex’s shoulder, “when we’re through with your cousins, they will never lay a hand on you again, Al, I promise.”
“Just – just stop it! All of you!” Alex cries, tearing himself away from Jamie. “Nobody is starting a fight with my cousins, do you hear me? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go see the school nurse.”
As Alex storms off, Miles catches Jamie, Matt and Nick looking after him with great worry painted all over their faces, and it’s making him realise that out of the group, Alex is the one that everyone is especially protective of, the one who’s treated with particular delicacy, as though he’s precious, or exceptionally breakable. Whereas Nick and Matt – and Jamie, too, in a sense –like to act butch and all sure of themselves, Alex is the one that people feel inclined to ruffle the hair of, or to carry around on their shoulders at drunken parties, pretending that he’s a cute bird they’ve picked up. But it’s not just that his physique is smaller or more fragile than theirs; it’s all rooted in their relationship to one another.
Though an only child, Alex is like everybody’s younger brother. Though the lads may make fun of him, or get him into trouble at times, people from outside their own circle of friends have better watch out. If anyone was to lay a finger on him, or do him wrong in any way, as already proven in the case of Luke Pritchard, they best keep their eyes open. Jamie, Matt and Nick will be on their arses until they’ve evened the score.
And Miles will back them up any way he can.
“What do you say, lads?” Nick ponders out loud. “Do we plot our revenge or do we respect Alex’s wish to do nothing?”
“I dunno,” Matt sighs, scratching at his neck, “perhaps we should wait and see what happens next. Give it all some time.”
Jamie huffs, rubbing at his forehead tiredly, or discontentedly. “To be continued,” is all he grunts.
Because this isn’t over.
A week’s time passes and though Alex’s bruises are fading slowly, Miles is feeling anything but reassured. The more he learns about the conducts and behaviours of Ruth Sharpe and her terrible sons, the more he learns about their surveillance and constant watching over Alex, from tracking the time that it takes for him to walk home after school, to following him to the hospital every time Alex wishes to make a visit to his comatose mother, making sure that he doesn’t make any detours or runs off to some place where they can’t find him – the more Miles is convinced that they are dealing with a case of gross injustice.
After finding out about Alex’s forbidden intake of alcohol and other ‘substances’ at the party, Alex has been prohibited from not only drinking and going out with his friends, but from even smoking a cigarette or spending his money anyway he likes. Watching over his finances and savings, Ruth insists that Alex needs to save up all the money he can if he wants to be able to go to university and lead an independent life without her help. And about the smoking – well, Miles quickly learned about that new rule of hers one day, as he was stood with the lads and Alex outside the school building during a break.
Perhaps Alex hadn’t mentioned his smoking ban out of embarrassment, or perhaps he hadn’t mentioned it because he knew how the lads would react. Nevertheless, there was another thing that he had failed to bring to everyone’s attention.
Miles was reaching for his lighter when he looked up, almost randomly, and spotted the ugly, spying face of Alex’s youngest cousin, Percival, staring straight at them from across the street. Miles jerked and gasped with surprise as the two of them made eye contact, after which the overweight, freckled, thin-haired bloke with the overbite began to walk straight towards him.
“Alex!” Miles panted. “What the fuck is your cousin doing here?”
The others looked up instantly, horrified to watch Perry marching towards them dangerously, like a fucking tank.
“What the fuck!” Matt uttered disbelievingly. “Al, has he been sent to spy on you in between classes or summat?”
“N-no,” Alex stammered nervously, taking a small step backwards, “no, I guess I forgot to tell you. Perry is kind of – well, he’s studying for his driver’s license these days.”
“And?” Jamie spat, already giving the youngest member of the Sharpe family a hard stare.
“And – well, it’s just that the main office is sort of connected with – you know – the school building.”
“You’ve got to be joking!” Nick exclaimed, cringing his face as Perry continued to approach them. “Does that mean he’s going to show up here every week until someone is dumb enough to let him pass?”
Alex ignored Nick’s remark. Instead, he found himself tensing uncomfortably as Perry started to shout at him:
“Turner! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Luckily, there weren’t any familiar faces around to witness what happened next.
“Leave him alone!” Matt fumed instantly, seemingly ready to push the bigger bloke away as soon as he caught up with the small group. “We’re stood here minding our own business, and we’re not breaking any fucking rules.”
“Oh yes, he is,” Perry snorted nastily, taking another step towards Alex with a menacing look on his hideous mug, “what the fuck is this?!” He spat as he snatched the cigarette from Alex’s fingers, after which he threw it on the ground and stomped on it several times. “What the hell do you think you’re doing, Turner?”
“It – it was just a cigarette,” Alex uttered softly, attempting to soothe the other.
“Exactly,” Perry thundered, “I thought you’d understood my mother’s orders perfectly clear, you little twat. No smoking – no ciggies, no roll-ups, no fags – no nothing!”
“That’s funny,” Miles butted in with an angry laughter, “seeing as your mother smokes like a fucking chimney!”
“Oi – you stay out of this, you little faggot, or I’ll break your nose!” Perry swung his fist in the air, forcing Miles to step backwards involuntarily, feeling like a bloody coward. “Now, give me your packet,” Perry told Alex punitively, “when I hand it over to my mum, she’ll see that you broke the rule about not spending any money as well!”
“I never bought a packet,” Alex muttered with frustration, “my friends offered me a cigarette, that’s all. I don’t have anything else on me.”
“I don’t fucking believe you,” Perry growled, clenching his teeth. Then, at once, he reached for Alex with his chubby hands and began to shake him furiously in order to try and rip the jacket off him and search through his pockets.
However, Jamie was having none of that.
“Let go of him, you ugly son of a bitch!” He screamed, throwing himself at Perry by wrapping his arms around the other’s neck, fighting hard to drag him away from Alex. Unfortunately, though Perry is only a year older than they are, he is five times bigger and stronger, and even though Jamie fought until his face turned all red, he would never have been able to tow him off the ground. He did manage to make him let go of Alex, though. But only for the sole purpose of seizing Jamie’s arms and hurling him off as violently as he possibly could. Jamie fell off the other’s back immediately, colliding with Nick who was perhaps trying to catch him. Perry, however, wasn’t finished with him.
“Who the fuck do you think you are?” He spluttered in Jamie’s face, approaching him aggressively. “Did you try to take me down, you maggot? Do you want a piece of me – do you?”
“Oh, bring it on!” Jamie shouted back, jumping back to his feet. Throwing a punch aimed at Perry, however, he missed and was soon pushed to the ground by the other, who barely seemed to be making an effort.
“Not so cocky now, are you?” Perry gloated, pressing his foot down against Jamie’s chest, pinning him to the ground and causing him to wheeze miserably. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“Alex!” Miles hissed, shaking Alex by the arm. “Do something – make him stop!”
But Alex was just standing there, watching with a troubled expression on his face, completely frozen.
“Get the – hell – away from me!” Jamie fumed, coughing, using his fingernails to scratch at Perry’s chunky leg in a pathetic attempt to defend himself. “Or else-“
“Or else what?” Perry laughed at him, sounding exactly like Terry and pressing down his foot even harder. “I don’t think there’s anything you can do to stop me, you prick!”
“Alex!” Miles exclaimed again, watching the way that Jamie’s face was turning dark red.
Nick had started to throw punches at Perry from behind his back, but Perry shook him off easily without letting go of Jamie, laughing at them the whole time. It was then Matt who came up with a solution out of desperation.
“Fuck off, Perry! Right now!” He cried, pressing down his lit cigarette against the bared skin of the bully’s neck, keeping it there to burn away at him cruelly. Perry began to holler frantically, and as he cried out in pain, he stepped off Jamie in order to turn himself around and push Matt away him. Matt saw his reaction coming, and though he got pushed backwards once, he quickly dodged the second blow and ran further away from the bigger bloke, trusting him to not be a good runner himself, and to give up.
“Come back here, you filthy, scummy son of a whore!” Perry bellowed, clutching at his neck to dull the throbbing pain. “I’m going to make you pay for that, you – you fucking pestilence!”
“Perry, no,” Alex finally begged, running up to him cautiously as he was trying to get his attention, “please just – just let it go. I’m really sorry, okay? I’m sorry for smoking!”
Perry looked over at Alex with mad eyes, his overbite protruding grimly as he frowned.
“Damn right you are,” he wheezed, flexing his biceps in order to make himself look even more superior to the scrawny lad in front of him, “and I’m going to make you regret it, Alex – just wait and see. You know how my mother feels about you disrespecting us.”
“I know, I know,” Alex spoke anxiously, “just please – go before someone sees you. Please?”
To Miles’s surprise, Perry actually seemed persuaded. For some reason, whether it was wounded pride over having received a battle wound that he hadn’t expected, or the idea of being able to take it out on Alex later, he actually kept his mouth shut and turned away from them all, leaving the school property before any of the teachers got involved.
As soon as he was gone, Alex had run to Jamie’s side, offering him a hand in order to get him off the ground. Jamie, on the other hand, had simply given him a look of accusation before turning him down.
“No thanks,” he grunted dolefully, grimacing as he sat himself upright, “I’ll help myself.”
The word has already gotten out that Taylor has broken up with Luke Pritchard due to her unyielding love for Alex, who still doesn’t pay attention to her, but Miles is able to truly verify those rumours a few days later, when he and Alex walk past Luke in the hallway. Though they don’t say anything to one another, Luke scowls at the very sight of Alex and as he gets ready to walk past him, he pokes him in the ribs with his elbow and nudges him with his shoulder, pushing forcefully and causing Alex to lose his balance. Luke then disappears quickly, while Miles catches and steadies Alex before he falls over.
“What a prick!” Miles huffs loudly, hoping that Luke isn’t too far gone to hear him. “Are you okay?”
Alex groans and doubles over slightly, clearly in pain. However, it isn’t Alex’s semi-fall, which has Miles suddenly worried. It’s the way that Alex has fallen silent as he holds a protective hand over his ribs, shielding himself. Something about his reaction doesn’t sit quite right with Miles.
“Alex,” Miles speaks with sudden anger, “follow me!”
He drags Alex with him into the nearest toilet he can find, locking the door and leaving the other utterly puzzled.
“Miles, what the hell are you doing?” Alex pants, sensing that some sort of confrontation is brewing over his head. “What are we doing in here?”
“Lift up your shirt,” Miles commands crossly, giving Alex a look of anticipation.
“What?” Alex frowns. “Are you serious?”
“Lift up your shirt, Alex,” Miles tells him again, already losing his patience with him. “I want to have a look at you.”
“Is this your way of flirting with me?” Alex complains, though he knows that something is up. Backing away from the other slightly, he finds himself pressed up against the wall, helpless. Miles closes in on him and has him cornered easily. When Alex fails to comply, Miles reaches for Alex’s shirt and pulls it up roughly, all the way up to his nipples. “What are you doing?” Alex whines with mortification, struggling half-heartedly. “Miles!”
Miles stops dead when he zeroes in on Alex’s flank, concentrating on the lower ribs. Alex’s skin is covered in bruises and welts, leaving his skin purple and yellow, with even a few blackish marks from angry fingerprints here and there. Letting his mouth fall open in shock, Miles widens his eyes and goes pale.
“Oh my God…” he chokes, believing he is going to be sick. “Oh my God – Alex! What the fuck is this?!”
“Let go of me,” Alex groans sullenly, tearing Miles’s hand off his shirt, after which he is quick to cover himself up again. “It’s none of your business!”
“None of my – none of my business?” Miles shrieks, clutching Alex’s shoulder, shaking him. “Alex, for fuck’s sake – they’ve beaten you up! What the hell is wrong with you?!”
“What’s wrong with me?” Alex snaps. “Is this my fault all of a sudden?”
Miles lets go of him and covers his eyes with both his hands, taking in a shaky breath.
“Fuck!” He hears himself shouting. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! How could you let this happen? How could I let this happen?!”
Pulling at his own hair in distress, Miles looks over at Alex who’s now awfully quiet and who’s managing to look back at him calmly.
“It just – it just happened,” Alex whispers in a matter-of-fact tone, “no one could have stopped it. It’s okay, Miles.”
“Okay? How the fuck can you say that this is okay?” Miles spits furiously. “This is anything but – this is… This is assault, Alex! Were you ever planning on telling anyone about this?”
Alex shrugs, averting his eyes self-consciously.
“I don’t see what difference it would make,” Alex mutters almost timidly, “telling anyone, I mean.”
“So what? You were just going to keep this to yourself?” Miles laughs manically, feeling himself become absolutely hysterical. “Alex, this is sick! This is absolutely fucked up! They’ve tricked you into believing that this is your own fault, haven’t they? And why? Because you smoked a fucking cigarette on school property?”
“Stop condescending me for one moment, will you?” Alex hisses. “I know that their rules aren’t exactly fair, but guess what, Miles? This would not have happened if the rest of you had just stayed out of it! What the hell was Jamie thinking, anyway – attacking Perry! I already told them to just leave it alone!”
“Oh yeah, ‘cos you were doing just fine on your own, weren’t you, Alex?” Miles mocks him. “They only beat you up because your friends stood up for you, didn’t they?”
“What the hell are you saying?” Alex thunders, sick with Miles’s accusations.
“I’m saying that this would have happened anyway, because guess what, Alex – they have got full control over you! Have you ever stood up to them, even once?” Miles provokes him. “How many beatings are you going to take from them laying down, before you decide to do something about it?”
“You know what, Miles, I’m really tired of having this discussion over and over again,” Alex pouts, going for the door, “you don’t have to treat me like I’m five years old.”
“Then what am I supposed to do instead?” Miles shouts, blocking the door and keeping Alex from walking out on him, “what the fuck can I do to make you understand?”
“Understand what?” Alex sighs, rolling his eyes.
“That you are in danger!” Miles exclaims emotionally, trying to reason with his friend one final time. “That you need to get out of that house before it’s too late!”
Alex falls silent and so does Miles. They look each other in the eyes wearily, uncertain as to where to go from here.
“I’m sorry, Alex,” Miles exhales, lowering his voice gently, “but those people aren’t normal. I don’t – I don’t want them to hurt you. Not any more than they already have.”
Alex looks down at his own hands, nodding. Even though he wants to stop fighting with Miles, he can’t stop himself from mumbling:
“If you really want to protect me, Miles, stop pissing them off.”
Miles cocks an eyebrow, taken aback by this. Is Alex admitting the fact that he knows he’s in danger?
“There’s nothing I wouldn’t do to protect you, Alex,” he replies sombrely, “but just do me a favour, will you? Don’t wait ‘til it’s too late to ask for my help.”
Over the next few days, Alex struggles to make peace with not only Miles, but the rest of the gang, too. Even though Miles hasn’t told anyone about his most recent bruises, everyone seems to have decided that an intervention needs to happen, and that Alex must be given an ultimatum.
Either Alex agrees to let someone do something about his lunatic aunt and her even crazier offspring, or the lads will officially stop feeling sympathy for him.
And if Alex was to lose his best mates, he wouldn’t know how to keep himself going these days.
“Miles is really mad at me,” Alex confides in Matt when it’s just the two of them picking up their lunches together, believing that he and Matt are alright to talk like they used to do. However, Matt is left to frown at him, sick and tired of Alex’s acting like he doesn’t know what the problem is. “I can hardly get him to look me in the eyes anymore.”
“Honestly, Al,” Matt grunts with a judgemental shake of his head, “he’s not the only one. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Jamie, too, is struggling to act normal around you.”
“What? Jamie?” Alex is eyeing Matt like a wounded animal, making it so much harder for Matt to ignore his big, brown eyes, so full of hurt. “Is Jamie mad at me?”
“He says he can’t believe the way you sometimes act like nothing’s going on,” Matt tells him candidly, continuing to look away from him, “he says you keep running away instead of facing up to reality, and that it pisses him off.”
Alex lets his mouth hang open in astonishment, shocked that Matt is being so outspoken with him without even apologising for it. This is not the kind of attitude he’s used to getting from his friends at all.
“It – it sounds like you get where he’s coming from,” Alex mutters gingerly, with a stab of uncertainty. “Matt? Matthew, look at me – please. Are you blaming me for what happened the other day?”
Matt bites his lip, struggling to force himself to stay so harsh. When it comes to Alex, he carries a big, soft spot inside him, which makes it nearly impossible for him to be mad at the other; except for the times when he knows that, unbelievably, it’s for Alex’s own good.
“We’re not blaming you for your cousin’s actions,” Matt sighs, moving over to queue by the till, and he’s immediately followed by Alex, “we just think that-“
“Jamie, Nick, and I just think that, maybe, you shouldn’t be so passive about the whole thing,” Matt sighs, staring down at his food, feeling like he’s slowly losing his appetite, “I mean, he had Jamie down on the ground and you just stood there. Watching.”
“Matt,” Alex objects, “I was just as angry as you were. I just – didn’t know what to do.”
“No, Alex, you weren’t angry,” Matt corrects him ruthlessly, “you were scared. More scared than anyone I’ve ever seen before. And it makes me wonder why.”
Alex swallows a lump in his throat, feeling his cheeks go red with humiliation. Is Matt right? Is he really a bigger coward than he thought he was?
“I wanted to defend Jamie,” Alex exhales, feeling defeated and beaten, “but Matt, please, you have to understand… I live with these people. I can’t just start a fight without there being consequences.”
“See, Alex, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Matt exclaims suddenly, fed up with the other’s precaution, “I mean… Honestly, Al, I love you like my own brother, but I swear… I will never understand how you could choose to live with those villains over my family.”
Matt moves ahead as it is his turn to be served, and Alex is left behind in the queue, feeling ridiculously small and belittled. Unable to tell if Matt is truly pissed off with him or not, he’s both hesitant and nervous when he gets his food and moves over to the table where the gang has already started eating in silence. Alex senses Jamie and Miles looking away from him as he joins them reluctantly, and though they make space for him, there is an obvious tension surrounding the table, resulting in no one knowing what to say to one another.
Alex feels as though someone’s punched him right in the gut, or slapped him in the face. It seems obvious that he is the reason for everyone’s uneasiness and the idea of falling out with the only people who’ve been keeping him going so far, is causing the breath to hitch in his throat and the tears to sting in his eyes.
Alex realises that something has to be done before it’s too late, and above all, that he needs to set his priorities straight.
Miles is stood in the school library, browsing for relevant material for his paper in Biology, when he gets the feeling of being watched. Looking up from the bookshelves to find Alex standing quietly behind him, Miles jolts and drops the book on Cell Division and Reproduction that he’s been holding in his hands. Torn between asking Alex what the heck he’s doing scaring the shit out of him and simply picking up his book, Miles pauses as Alex moves forward and stoops down to get the book for him.
“Here,” Alex whispers awkwardly, offering the book back to Miles in an almost surreal manner.
“Alex,” Miles pants, “you nearly gave me a heart attack!”
“I’m sorry,” Alex apologises, staring down in the ground, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He falls silent and Miles can tell that something is up with him.
“Hey,” Miles breathes soothingly, believing that Alex is upset, but as he reaches out to stroke the other’s cheek, Alex surprises him by seizing his collar and pushing him backwards into the bookshelf with a determination that is beyond impressive. Miles avoids banging his head against the stack of books behind him, but only just, and before he’s able to collect himself, Alex plays with the hem of his shirt gingerly as he leans in to press himself up against him.
“Miles,” he whispers softly, and perhaps slightly pleadingly, too. Then he leans in to brush his lips against him sweetly, asking Miles to open up to him. Miles is so shocked by this development, he fails to respond to the kiss, even if his own body is urging him to. He is simply stood there, letting Alex pin him against the bookshelf and kiss him because he doesn’t know what else to do with himself.
“Alex,” he mouths after a short while, holding a hand up between them, causing Alex to stop, “what is this? What is happening right now?”
“I love you, Miles,” Alex utters sincerely, “that’s what’s happening.”
“What?!” Miles cries, pushing against Alex, believing it’s a joke. “Al, you’ve never done anything like this before!”
“I know – and I’m really sorry,” Alex declares in his most beseeching voice, “I should have let you in a long time ago, but I’ve been so confused.”
Pressing his lips against Miles’s one more time, Alex has him panicking at the idea of snogging in a public space.
“Alex!” Miles hisses, pulling away from him again. “People could be watching us!”
“But they’re not,” Alex argues desperately, “I already made sure that I was on my own when I came up here to find you.”
“But why now?” Miles questions bewilderedly, hoping that this is actually happening and not just another daydream of his. “Why here?”
“Because this is the only place where we can be together,” Alex replies earnestly, sending chills down Miles’s spine, “as soon as I leave the school property, they will be waiting for me to come home. And they wouldn’t let me go see you on my own – not in a million years.”
“But why? Why, Alex? What are they so scared of?” Miles grimaces, feeling himself getting worked up. “Why are they trying so hard to isolate you from the rest of the world?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Alex shushes him, wrapping his arms around Miles’s neck, “not now. The important thing is that I’ve finally realised how I feel.”
“Oh yeah?” Miles angles his head. “And what is it that you are feeling?”
Alex exhales a couple of times, letting out a shaky breath. With his heart pounding eagerly, he looks into Miles’s eyes significantly.
“I want you,” Alex tells him with such emotion, Miles is able to spot the tears in his eyes, “I want you and I need you, Miles. I’m ready for you. I’m ready for – hell, everything!”
Shocked at Alex’s emotional state, Miles moves his hand to the other’s jawline, caressing and comforting him.
“Everything?” Miles repeats, raising both eyebrows. “And what does ‘everything’ entail, love?”
Miles has not yet realised how naturally this term of endearment has left his lips, like it’s a word he’s used to throwing around him all the time.
“I – I’m ready to be with you, Miles.” The tears are now rolling down his cheeks silently, but Alex doesn’t break their eye-contact. “More than anything, I’m ready to end this nightmare. You’re right, Miles. Something is wrong. I’ve been feeling it for the past couple of days. Auntie Ruth has been acting really strange around me, even stranger than normal. I – I don’t know what, but I feel like she’s planning something.”
“Planning something?” Miles pulls a concerned face. “Alex, has she said something to you? Has she threatened you?”
“She doesn’t have to,” Alex says, shaking his head, “I’m scared all the time. But not just because of them.”
“What else are you scared of?” Miles asks him, pulling him close by holding on to his waist. “Tell me, Alex.”
“I’m scared of losing you,” Alex admits with a small sob, pressing his face against Miles’s shoulder, “not just you, but the lads, too. Jamie has almost stopped speaking to me.”
“He’s just – he’s just upset about everything that’s going on, too,” Miles sighs, though he knows it’s true. He’s seen the way the lads clam up around Alex, like they hardly know who he is anymore. “But Alex, it doesn’t matter. We’re here for you. We’ll help you out of this!”
“Do you really think there is a way?” Alex chokes, trembling slightly in Miles’s arms. “What if it’s too late? I should have listened to you from the beginning!”
“It’s not too late,” Miles promises, holding him close, “we will find a way to get you out of there. You will never have to see those freaks again, I’m telling you.”
“I love you, Miles,” Alex then surprises him again, clinging on to him with all might, “I’m so sorry for having pushed you away all those times. I’ve – I’ve longed for you so much. I never stopped thinking about you. About us.”
Swallowing a lump in his throat, Miles supresses his own urge to burst out crying and to let out all the emotions that he’s been bottling up inside, simply because everything else has kept getting in his and Alex’s way. Life has been getting in their way, time and again.
“Come here,” Miles whispers, urging Alex’s head back, “show me just how much you want me.”
Alex laughs through his tears and palms Miles’s cheek keenly, bringing their lips together in a sensual, captivating moment. As soon as he’s feeling convinced, Miles lets his hands travel down Alex’s body, ready to take charge and explore the other wondrously. Kissing each other deeply and wetly, Miles wishes to god that they could have been alone somewhere, in a different place and time, where no one could ever threaten to come between them again. He wants Alex so bad; the idea of not being able to spend every hour of every day with him is killing him and sending him to despair.
“I should have known that this is what I wanted a long time ago,” Alex moans, nibbling at Miles’s jaw hungrily and longingly. “I could have saved us so much time.”
“Hey, you don’t have to worry about that now,” Miles soothes him, resting his forehead against Alex’s, “there’s no point in looking back in regret. Because we have each other now. All we need to do is get you out of that house and earn you back your freedom. I promise you, Alex, everything’s coming our way. Soon.”
Alex smiles and it’s making his eyes shine and sparkle like a pair of diamonds. Miles can’t remember the last time Alex looked so happy and so at ease and it’s making him look more beautiful than ever. Miles grins back at him flirtatiously and begins to walk him backwards, until Alex is the one pushed up against the nearest bookshelf. Miles begins to feel him up one more time, playfully, however, he’s forced to pull back when he brushes over Alex’s bruised ribs by accident. Alex doesn’t say anything, but as he cringes in sudden pain, Miles’s touches turn extra gentle and he presses an apologetic kiss to Alex’s hair.
“The only thing I’ll ever regret is letting you stay in that house long enough for them to hurt you,” Miles utters in a slight change of voice, looking into Alex’s eyes seriously.
“It doesn’t matter now,” Alex says, tightening his lips into a sad smile. “As long as I get out of there, I know I’ll be able to put it all behind me. Now that I have you – I think I have all the strength I need.”
Their next kiss is the most desperate one so far. Pressing himself against Alex as though he’s shielding him from the rest of the world, surrounding him protectively, Miles breathes the other in, inhaling Alex’s scent like a strong wine that’s making his knees go weak and his belly feel warm with glee. He can’t get enough, and each time he goes in between Alex’s parted lips and kisses him as deeply as he possibly can, Miles touches him some place new. Everything from Alex’s hair, to his chest, to his waist and finally, the curves of his alluring, loveable, little arse. They only break apart when they hear footsteps on the stairs in the distance, and though they feel pretty confident in the fact that they are finding themselves in one of the most secluded sections of the library, they agree to play things safe.
“Damn it,” Miles grins, exhaling heavily, “I thought the library would be as good as empty after four o’clock.”
Then something changes in Alex’s expression.
“Shit, is it really past four?” He frowns with concern. “If I’m not home by half four, Ruth will send Terry out looking for me.”
“You better get home, then,” Miles tells him, even though the last thing he wants to do right now is let go of him, “I mean, best not do anything to make them suspicious. Not yet.”
“You’re right,” Alex nods, looking disappointed, “I should probably play it safe until we’ve come up with a plan. But Miles, we have to come up with something – fast.”
“I know,” Miles agrees, stroking Alex’s cheek, “the sooner we can get you away from those people, the better. I’ll – I’ll start planning tonight, even. I’ll phone Matt and the gang, get them to help me come up with a plan. Are you free to use your phone?”
“Only for emergencies,” Alex says with a shake of his head, “most days, Ruth keeps track of who I’ve been talking to, so we probably shouldn’t risk it. Do you really think the lads will help you come up with something?”
“Alex,” Miles breathes, giving him an earnest look, “they want you to be fine just as much as I do. They haven’t stopped caring about you just because things have changed. They would do anything to get you out of there, I know it.”
Alex smiles, closing his eyes for a moment. This is all beginning to feel awfully surreal to him – the idea of having to plan his own escape somehow, like it’s a matter of life and death, even if it means planning Ruth’s downfall, too. However, he is now convinced that something needs to be done.
“Let’s meet up in the library again tomorrow,” Alex suggests, “in this very section – first thing in the morning. I don’t care if I have to miss my first classes for it. This is probably the only place where we can talk privately.”
“I’ll let the others know,” Miles confirms, “you want me to bring them along, right?”
“Yes,” Alex says, “There are – there are things that I should probably apologise to them for.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself, love,” Miles sighs, reaching out for his hand cautiously, “they are more than ready to forget everything that’s happened.”
“Thanks, Miles.” Alex lingers for a moment, though he will now be forced to run all the way home in order to make it back in time. Squeezing Miles’s hand gently, he adds: “For everything.”
“You need to go,” Miles reminds him, though it pains him. “We’ll talk again first thing in the morning. We’ll meet up right here. Repeat it after me.”
“First thing in the morning,” Alex grins, “right here. Got it.”
“Good – oh, and Alex? Look after yourself, okay? Be careful.”
Alex nods, adapting an almost anxious expression. For some reason, leaving Miles right now feels wrong, even if he knows that there is no other way.
“I will,” he mutters, letting go of Miles’s hand, “I’ll see you soon.”
Watching Alex disappear quickly through the library, Miles can’t help but to feel like he’s somehow wrong to let go of him – that he ought to stop him before he escapes to some unknown place, in which Miles won’t be able to reach him again. However, though the idea of sending him back to that hellhole that is now 13 Park Lane, even if it’s just for one more night, is now causing him stabs of guilt that he can’t even explain, Miles reminds himself that tomorrow morning, Alex will be with him again and soon after that, he will be safe.
Miles will find a way to save him, at all cost.
Little does he know, however, that his plans to have Alex rescued will soon prove inadequate and useless. Without knowing it, he has been too late all along. Because, much against Miles’s expectation, Alex doesn’t show up the following day. In fact, Alex seems to have vanished into thin air overnight, and the people who are now left to wonder what on earth has happened to him, will soon be forced to question another thing: Why they didn’t see his disappearance coming whatsoever.
What Miles doesn’t realise is that while he and Alex thought themselves to be alone in the library, they were joined by a third party who ended up being unable to keep their silence.
And, unfortunately for Alex, this person who caught them together now holds more power over his future than Miles ever could.