Later, when they were walking home, Ralph suddenly remembered he had left his book on his chair.
"Shit!" he blurted, and then caught himself. Colin looked at him. He'd have to go back and get it, all alone. In the dark. He drew his coat tighter around himself and turned to Colin, who had stopped walking too. "I've got to go get my textbook back. I left it inside."
Colin nodded and thrust his hands in his pockets. He had been unusually silent since Maurice left.
"I'll be right back. Don't wait up, okay?"
Colin nodded again and turned away. The school grounds were black as pitch and it was cold, cold enough for Ralph to see his own breath as he jogged back to the library facilities. The door was still unlocked, to his surprise and relief, and he slipped softly up the stairs to the reading room. It was completely dark inside, except for glaring squares of moonlight from the windows in the back. Bookcases and tables loomed blackly in the close air of the deserted library. Without even realizing it, Ralph held his breath as he tip-toed from table to table, running his hands over the tops, feeling for his lost book. They had been near the back, he remembered. Near the stacks. He brushed against something with his fingertips and recoiled. His book? Ralph reached out again and was met with the familiar scratched cover of his Second-Form textbook. He picked it up and was just tucking it under his arm when he heard something move ahead in the stacks. The hairs on his neck rose and prickled beneath his collar.
"Hello?" he whispered, heart throbbing painfully. Was there someone there, besides him? Is that why the door had been left unlocked? "Is anyone there?"
There was no response. He stood, feeling incredibly alone, in the centre of the library, book pressed tightly against his rapidly rising chest. He could feel there was someone there, someone else, watching him. The sound had come from the back nook, where the bay windows were located. There was a slight alcove there, formed by the outward bulge of the windows. He took a deep breath and stepped forwards. There was a second noise, louder than the first. It was definitely not an ordinary night-time noise, and ended abruptly. Ralph's heart thundered in his chest, all of his hair standing on end. Childish images of ghouls and ghosts were suddenly remembered, and frightening tales he had discounted long ago as silly suddenly seemed plausible. He gripped the book tightly.
"Hello?" he whispered again, in such a low voice he could scarcely hear himself. He stepped forwards again, closer to the bookcases. There were four or five rows between himself and the alcove. He imagined each one with a monster crouched inside, waiting, and the memory of the beastie returned. However, instead of frightening him, he was suddenly calm. There were no beasties. Only things that looked like them, and only littluns were afraid. Ralph straightened and stuck out his jaw. He would not cower and cringe like Percival or Johnny or Henry. He would get to the bottom of this, straight away. Ralph thrust the book beneath his arm and crept silently towards the last row, and peeked around the end.
Jack Merridew stood illuminated in a square of moonlight. Jack, his ancient arch-nemesis, his would-be killer. His friend. A fellow castaway and deadly enemy. Just the sight of him made Ralph's stomach twist.
"Shit." said Jack loudly. He wore the slate coloured jacket and matching trousers of a last-form boy, one of the students graduating later that year. In his hand was a book on ancient Persian architecture, which he perused with obvious disinterest. "Cock, arse, tits, wank...shit."
Ralph was impressed by this recital. He settled on his haunches, watching curiously as Jack flipped pages and chewed his lips. It was obvious he wasn't there for pleasure. He slouched like a man waiting at a train station.
"Stupid little shit. Midnight already, and probably having a wank over an anatomy book..." Jack muttered after glancing at his watch. Behind him, something moved in the darkness. A shadow separated from the vague gloom of the rear library and moved silently forwards. Ralph's stomach clenched again. A warning rested on his lips, but before he even thought to speak it, a boy leaped from the comparative blackness and crashed into Jack, sending the book flying. Jack screamed shrilly as the boy caught hold of his arms and slammed him into the bookcase. Jack's hair shone in a gap between their locked limbs.
"Stop it," he hissed, "Fuck off, Roger."
Roger ignored him. He grabbed a fistful of his hair and jerked his head back against the bookcase, exposing Jack's throat. The moonlight lit up his face. Ralph recognized the familiar calculating features, no longer ugly or scrunched. His china-blue eyes glinted furiously, surrounded by white eyelashes like starfish.
"Let the fuck go right now, Roger. I mean it." It was not the same voice that had cried at the failed mutiny on the beach. It was not the voice that had commanded torture. This was new. Flat.
"But...I thought...?" Roger asked, suddenly sounding uncertain. He stepped back a little and ducked his head. Jack jerked his wrists away and rubbed them.
"Jesus Christ, you're really stupid, aren't you? Can't you do anything right? I told you to meet me here, not attack me." Roger looked up at him through his bangs, his expression unreadable. He licked his lips.
"But I forgive you. You had my best interests in mind, I guess. Come here." Jack continued, his expression shifting. Roger approached, and Jack grabbed the front of his collar, jerking him forwards off his feet. The darker boy struggled to maintain his balance.
"Fucking imbecile.!" Jack Merridew growled, twisting it in his bony fist and crushing their faces together. For a single horrified second, Ralph thought Jack was biting him, until he heard the sound of lips moving against each other, and realized it was a kiss. Jack stood on tip-toes, a fistful of Roger's shirt, kissing him angrily. His hair sparkled in the light from the windows. He hadn't grown much since Ralph had last seen him. Compared to Roger, who was taller and built more solidly, Jack looked a bit reedy.
"Sorry, I'm sorry..." Roger mumbled when Jack drew away. The smaller boy cocked his head, surveying him critically. "I thought that's what you'd planned, that I'd come out like that...and..."
"Be quiet. I said I forgave you."
Jack brought their mouths together again. Ralph watched in horrified fascination as Jack steered his companion against the bay window, who leaned heavily against the stained glass as Jack gripped his shoulders and moved aggressively against him, kissing his neck.
"Jack..." Roger said, slightly muffled.
"Shut the fuck up." Jack snapped. He reached up and took a handful of his thick black hair. Roger did not protest. Jack pulled downwards until Roger bent over, unable to resist the painful grip, and then kicked his feet out from beneath him. Roger landed on his knees in front of him. Jack's hands fell to his front, his back to where Ralph was hidden. Ralph couldn't see what he was doing, but he had a faint idea and a lump rose in his throat. He turned away and rose shakily to his feet. His head felt light. He stumbled back through the dark library, clattered down the stairs, burst out the door. He ran all the way back to the dormitories. Colin was waiting for him in their room, half asleep.
"Where did you go? What took so long?"
"Library," Ralph responded dazedly, sitting heavily on his bed. He dropped the book onto the floor. "Bumped into some...old friends."
"You look ill."
"I guess I am." Ralph said, drawing up the sheets and not bothering to get undressed. "I am."