Freddie was the first to wake in the household. He winced at the light coming through a crack in the curtains before groaning as he shifted the sheets off him. He slid out of bed and went to the window.
He looked out at the vast expanse of garden beyond, from the gnarled trees to the algae covered pond. It looked like just the kind of garden where he'd have wanted to run around as a child. It was every fantasy loving kids dream and he realised instantly why Arnold loved living here.
His eyes moved from the small wooded patch in the distance to the lawns closer to the house. His gaze slid around rows of boxed hedges until they landed on something that made Freddie's mouth fall open and a surprised breath socked feet padded down the carpeted stairs and then out the front door. The dew soaked through to his feet but it wasn't cold. The summer's day had in fact already begun to heat up.
He made his way through the maze of hedges before he spotted his target just in front of him.
Will was the second person to awake that day. As the door to their room shut behind the disappearing form of Freddie, the soft thud jerked him from sleep.
He noticed one of the dressing gowns on the back of the door as well as a pair of slippers that Arnold had provided for all his guests, had gone.
He rose slowly and dressed before also instinctively like Freddie, moving towards the light creeping through the curtains.
He saw a figure with a white dressing gown billowing behind them as they walked briskly down some white stone steps into the maze of hedges.
His eyes followed the figures direction of movement and as they landed on it's target he couldn't help smiling.
"Oh God," Connor murmured stiffly as suddenly every nerve ending in his body felt completely smothered. As the last effects of sleep wore off, he found himself unable to move without a piercing sensation shooting through his head.
"Good morning." A voice from the other side of the room said. It echoed across the space and left a ringing imprint.
"Shhhh Kevin," He moaned, "Leave me alone."
"I got you breakfast."
Connor relaxed as the smell of bacon wafted through the air towards him. His eyes still closed he allowed a pair of unseen hands to help him sit up.
"I also made coffee."
"You know I don't drink coffee," Connor slurred slightly, the groggy sound coming from the back of his throat, "I'm Mormon."
He didn't object as the hands helped him take a sip of the strong coffee. He breathed out deeply as the liquid settled in his stomach instantly making him feel more grounded.
"How often does this happen? How often do you do this to yourself Connor?"
"You tell me."
Connor yawned, squinting as a stiff pain went through his jaw.
"Kevin?" Connor said with his eyes still closed, sleep threatening to overtake once more.
"Yeah?" Steve answered.
"Did I do something stupid last night?"
"No you left that job to me," Steve said ruefully lifting the coffee cup to Connor's lips again.
"Yeah, you were acting weird last night."
"Yeah, I remember bits of it. You almost didn't tell me you loved me."
"I think you were embarrassed. You always are around Arnold."
"Huh..." If you looked closely, you would be able to glimpse the tiniest of smiles on Steve's face.
Kevin rolled over and hit the ground with a thud. He tried to stretch but found himself tangled up in a blanket.
"Morning buddy!" A cheery voice came from somewhere above him.
"What time is it?"
"Just gone eight."
Kevin groaned and wrestled with his blanket until he managed to unknot himself. It was then he realised that he was lying on the carpeted floor next to a sofa.
"Why are you up so early?" He said to Arnold who he could just see through blurred sleep filled eyes.
"I came to bring you a coffee."
"Arnold why are you so nice?"
Arnold shrugged and laughed softly handing him the steaming drink.
"I dunno, I guess it's just me."
"I can see why you'd be nice to Naba or Connor or any of the others. But, why me? Why are you so nice to me?"
"You're my best friend," Arnold replied simply.
Kevin stood up, so that he was once again looking down at Arnold, their positions reversed.
"I think I'm in a bit of a mess with Connor."
"You're in a mess with everyone here I think." Arnold spoke truthfully moving to his bookshelf to take out a red coloured volume, "But I wouldn't worry about it."
"Thanks but I'm still worrying."
"You're like Cedric Diggory." Arnold said flicking between the pages of the book he just picked out.
"Do I know him?"
"Harry Potter Kevin." Arnold shook his head trying to hide the dismay in his voice, "Anyway, you're like Cedric Diggory. You're smart, handsome, everybody loves you, a bit full of yourself but most importantly you've been chosen out of the goblet and now you have to go out and prove yourself."
"I don't get it."
"Well I'm like Harry Potter-"
"I bet you are."
"I'm not actually meant to be the chosen one, but I have to sort it all out and win the tournament anyway."
"Ok so what's your point?"
"I dunno, you just reminded me of Cedric Diggory."
"So what happens to this guy?"
"Oh he um...he dies."
Kevin closed his eyes and massaged his temples, frowning in an effort to maintain his patience. After counting to ten in his head he continued.
"It was a pretty bad fight this time."
"Every fight with Naba feels like the worst fight we've ever had at the time. But then a few hours later it's just not important anymore."
"You guys fight?"
"Sometimes. All couples fight it's natural."
"Then how does anyone ever stay together?"
"Because they're in love. You love Connor and Connor still loves you."
"Do you think Jacob loved his wife?"
"I think he must have done at one point."
Will leant against the windowsill, watching the events beneath him unfold with a stupid grin on his face. He mentally reprimanded himself for still watching. It wasn't his business but he couldn't take his eyes off Freddie, still in his dressing gown and the scene that was unfolding.
The sound of a car engine brought him back to focus and he turned to look at the driveway where a sleek black car was just turning in. It pulled up outside the front door and a professionally dressed woman with a briefcase in one hand began to walk towards the door.
Will darted down the stairs to be by the door as the bell rang. He figured he didn't need to keep up the act if no one was around did he?
He opened the door with a smile on his face.
"Good morning! I'm Will."
"Oh yes, he said he'd have guests round." The woman replied, "I'm Anthea, Arnold's editor. Do you know where I can find him?"
"He's probably still asleep." Will waved over his shoulder in the general direction of the stairs, "But you should come in and sit down and...yeah."
Anthea smiled briefly at him setting her briefcase down on the hall table and taking out a padded brown envelope.
"What's that?" Will inquired tilting his head to one side to read the front.
"The latest edit of his new book, I'm just dropping it round to show him the changes I've made."
"Can I see?"
"It will be available on amazon pre order."
"Ah a woman with humour, I like that."
"Ok I'm just going to find Arnold and then I'm leaving so..."
"So...leave me alone to do that please?"
Will watched her search for her briefcase again and pick it up before walking out the room. He didn't notice Jacob, who had been standing at the top of the stairs until a floorboard creaked.
"Oh hey," Will jumped in surprise, "I didn't see you there."
"Yeah, good morning."
"Ok. So, how long have you and Freddie been seeing each other?"
"What me and Freddie? Oh yeah me and Freddie...um...a long time, a very very long time."
"And you work for him?"
"Yep, it's got a great dental plan." Will chuckled in an attempt to ease the tension. Jacob didn't budge.
"You're happy together right? I mean, Freddie's happy isn't he?"
"Maybe you should ask him yourself."
"Is he up?"
"Oh boy is he." Will grinned to himself before catching his laughter and looking up at Jacob, "I mean he's outside talking to...well why don't you just wait for him to come back."
Jacob nodded slowly, eyeing Will suspiciously and then headed back upstairs.
Will began to play with some of the fake flowers on the side table, arranging the vase so it sat on top of the brown paper envelope, humming to himself. He heard more footsteps approaching, this time from the kitchen and so decided to move from his spot.
He chastised himself for almost letting Jacob know where Freddie was. He might be playing his boyfriend while he was here but he wasn't going to let either of them miss out on the fun.
It was lucky Jacob wasn't out looking for Freddie. If he had he would have found him slammed up against the wall of the house, another man's tongue in his mouth.
Connor winced at the soft knocks on the door.
"Connor?" The voice was louder that time. Connor moaned, the pain still throbbing in his head. The sound of the door sliding open was magnified tenfold.
"Connor it's me."
"Kevin." He said more than a little hurt but maintaining a soft tone.
"But you just left."
"No I'm right here."
"You just left to bring me some tea."
"How did you guess?" Kevin looked down unsurely at the steaming cup of camomile in his palm.
"You just told me."
"I've been downstairs this whole time."
"There was this guy that Ryan found on the train last night, he took you upstairs. It must have been him. His name was Steve."
"Yeah, Steve Blade I think."
Steve tip toed down the stairs in socks and out into the hall. He walked fast so as not to stand on the cold tiled floor too long and made his way into the kitchen.
After making a cup of tea he passed a brightly arranged vase of lupins sitting on top of an envelope. If Steve hadn't dodged out the way of Will as he walked past he might have missed this. However, the envelope, so ordinary yet out of place caught his eye. He pulled it out from under the vase. 'Working Title: The Most Deserving Elder by Arnold Cunningham. First Draft.'
Steve put the envelope under his arm, glanced to the left and right and sped back upstairs. He found himself an empty room, locked the door and began to read.
"Naba can I have a word?"
Eric stood nervously in the doorway of Arnold's library where he had found Naba. She was sitting in an armchair, reading in the light of the morning sun streaming through the floor length windows.
Arnold's library was fairly sizeable. There were several books with sci fi related titles, many shelves filled with comic books and also novels including some of Arnold's own.
"Of course Eric," She smiled encouragingly as he took a seat in one of the deep arm chairs next to her.
"Um...I was just wondering, how long have you and Arnold been together for?"
"Nine years," She beamed, "Next year's a special one and I think he's already making plans."
"Wow, congratulations," Eric said lamely, "Would you mind if I asked...how?"
"How you've stayed together so long? I mean I've never been able to hold down a girlfriend for more than half a year."
"Maybe you shouldn't hold them down then."
"Sorry, bad choice of words. That's not even the problem, I think it's me. What am I doing wrong?"
Naba shut her book and sighed at the man opposite her, twiddling his thumbs, his feet tucked underneath him.
"I don't really know what to say. Arnold and I are just sort of...made for each other."
Eric nodded and turned his head to look at the hundreds of books. He would like something like this in his own home, that is, if his home wasn't a tiny flat with hardly any wall space.
He wondered if things would be different if he'd lived his life differently. If he hadn't retreated into himself, disappeared into a small town, opened up a penniless comic book shop. Would things be different if he'd taken up Noah's offer? His brain ran in circles as he tried to imagine a scenario where what Noah had proposed would work.
"Do you think anyone's made for me?"
"Yes, yes I do. I think there's someone for everyone, maybe, you've already met them."
'Dear Arnold, Here is my edited copy. Despite your request I have suggested you change names otherwise we'll have to enter the non fiction market. Yours Anthea.'
Steve flipped from this top note to the typefaced pages beyond. He'd read a few of Arnold Cunningham's books. Most people had but, now he was finally putting two and two together.
All these years Connor had been hiding from him yet here he was hidden in the pages of Arnold's books.
He thought twice about continuing before deciding that he had to know. He was determined to find everything out about Connor McKinley and the time he'd been gone. This was as good a place as any to start.
"Uh huh?" James rolled over onto his side so he was facing Chris.
"We should probably get up now."
James moaned and gathered more sheets around him, planting his face in the pillow.
"James come on! Everyone's probably wondering why we slept so late."
"Then we'll tell them."
Chris blushed and rolled over onto his back. "We can't do that and you know it."
"Sorry everyone," James said reaching for Chris's waist and rolling him back over so they were facing again, "But we just had a wild night of ferocious sex and we didn't really feel like getting up early."
"Ferocious?" Chris cocked his head smiling at James.
"Ferocious, ravenous, unmerciful, untamed, whatever, they probably all heard it anyway."
While I was still drinking juice boxes and eating lunch from a Hulk decorated container, I was told I was going on a mission. I'd watched and idolised two brothers before me and soon I would have to follow in their footsteps.
I wanted to go. I truly did, I wanted to go and change the world. But I had a few provisos of my own. No one else on this mission was allowed to be better than me. A selfish wish but I knew that I wouldn't even begin to make a footprint in my district unless I stood out and not in the way I usually did.
I needed to stand out as a hero.
At nineteen I was ready to be sent off to Kampala, Uganda, this however, was no happy accident. This is the story of how I managed to land in the middle of the least desirable mission the training centre had to offer. This is the story of how I became a member of district 9.'
As Ryan emerged from his room only to be confronted with a silent corridor he wondered what he should do. He seemed to be the only one there who wasn't in a big mess.
Resolving to make sure Connor was ok even though he was sure it wasn't his business, he knocked on their door.
Kevin opened it, his expression fierce then relaxing as he saw who it was.
"Can I come in?"
Kevin shrugged and moved out the way. Ryan perched on the end of Connor's bed.
"I think a lot of this is my fault."
"Oh really?" Kevin snorted, his arms folded leaning against the wall.
"I shouldn't have brought him."
"Do you know what you've done?" Kevin persisted. Ryan looked slightly taken aback.
"I didn't think it was that bad."
"Steve Blade, well Steve," Connor sighed, "Well he was my first and, it wasn't anything but, that's just some old territory I really don't want to tread."
"I'm so sorry Connor."
"It's ok, I just know he's going to be hurt. Again."
Freddie felt his stomach giveway in an intense mix of excitement and fear. The touch of a body pressed to him, pressing him further into the wall behind made him feel both alive and disgusted.
What was he thinking? Who was this man who had taken over his body and decided to subject it to this?
He tried to pull away, his head just reaching the wall behind him and the man in front of him leant closer. He suddenly felt like he couldn't breathe, there was a weight in his chest and it wasn't from the physical pressure.
He pushed with both arms the man away, panting, leaning forward with both hands on his knees.
"Sorry." He managed to gasp, not looking at the man. How could he have been so stupid? Everyone he'd ever wanted had slipped from his grasp, but even this didn't feel right.
He'd tried to picture James but it hadn't worked, he'd tried to imagine Connor but the image failed to show. He kicked himself for thinking that the obviously gay gardner he'd seen walking around naked from the waist up, the one who helped Naba with the housework and made bags disappear, could be a substitute. He'd tried. He'd failed.
"Sorry." He repeated again. Oliver stepped back his hands in the air.
"Did I hurt you?"
"No." Freddie looked up to meet the eyes of the man who he'd willingly let assault him.
He was young, much younger than him. Tall, tanned, muscular, everything he thought he should find attractive but he just couldn't make himself. This wasn't right, this wasn't the man for him.
"This didn't happen ok?" He said breathlessly before jogging off in the opposite direction further away from the house.
"I make no promises." Oliver muttered under his breath as he watched Freddie go.
Eric made his way back up to the room he was sharing with Noah to find him still asleep. He remembered always having to literally heave him out of bed while on their mission.
Noah had face planted into the pillow late last night and was still in exactly the same position. Light snores were emanating from his face, hidden by his floppy black hair, shifting with every out breath.
Eric gave him an experimental shove causing Noah to groan and roll onto his side. He flung the curtains open so Noah's eyes were exposed to the light. He groaned louder trying to shield them while still sleep induced.
"Get up loser."
Noah rose clutching a sheet to him looking unimpressed at the grin on Eric's face. The grin turned as Noah tackled him to the bed and began hitting him with a pillow.
"Get off!" Eric struggled trying to grab a pillow of his own to retaliate. He managed to shove Noah off the bed where he landed with a soft thud. He was about to stand up and fight back when Eric held his hands out.
"Truce." Noah agreed before whacking a pillow over Eric's head one last time.
"I need to talk to you."
"What is it?" Noah's face changed to a look of concern.
"I was having a talk with Naba just now."
"She said that there is someone for me and that I might have already met them," Eric continued, "I think she's right. I think I know them really well. I think it's you."
Eric caught sight of the alarmed expression on Noah's face and added quickly. "No no not like that," He laughed bashfully, "Remember at the end of our mission how you said we should live together, and I said no. So you went and got yourself a girlfriend and I didn't. Well...now I'd like to take you up on that offer."
"That's a relief, because I thought you meant...never mind. I was just about to remind you I have a girlfriend."
"Oh well, that brings me to point two," He fiddled with edges of his shirt, "Your girlfriend."
"What about her?" Noah said defensively.
"Tell me about her."
"What is it?"
James silently gestured towards the front room windows which overlooked the gravel drive.
"Oh...what do we do?"
Chris shrugged and turned back to his cereal. James took the spoon out his hand as he was about to take another mouthful.
"We have to do something, come on."
"It's none of our business."
"We're his friends."
Chris closed his eyes and slid off his stool. They went to the front door, shared a glance and opened it. They shut it quickly behind them so they both now stood on the front step blocking the house.
"There is nothing I need to say to this woman," Chris muttered to James.
"I have a vague idea what she's come back for, we have to do something."
"How can you even look her in the eye after what happened? You were at the christening, you saw it all!"
James swallowed and steeled himself for the inevitable confrontation between them and Rachel, Jacob's soon to be ex wife.
Ryan, Kevin and Connor sat in silence on the corners of the bed. Ryan had come back after ten minutes searching to announce that Steve was no where to be found.
"But his stuff's still here so he can't have gone far."
"What if he's done something drastic?" Connor said trying to catch Kevin's eye who was avoiding looking at him.
"He didn't seem like that kind of guy to me." Ryan sighed and began playing with the corner of the sheet.
"At school he was always doing something crazy, he liked to take risks."
"Oh yes please do tell us more delightful stories about your past together," Kevin sneered, "I just love the nostalgia."
"Your jealous is showing again darling and trust me it's not attractive."
"What kind of risks?" Ryan ignored Kevin.
"Nothing really dangerous, he liked his freedom most of all. He stole his dads car a couple of times before he got a license, played truant quite a bit. He was a science experiment without the goggles kind of guy."
"I never put you down as going for the bad boy Connor." Ryan smiled and Kevin looked away in disgust.
"He was an artist, a really good one, how could I resist?" Connor goaded raising an eyebrow at Kevin, "And he was very sensitive."
"Excuse me." Kevin got up rolling his eyes, "But I'm going to get a coffee. Let me know when you girls are done with your gossiping."
Connor just shook his head as he watched Kevin disappear, the door swinging shut a little too hard from the force he'd given to shut it.
"Ignore him, he's just jealous. God knows what about though."
"Isn't it obvious? He's worried you'll leave him."
"Why would I do that?" Connor said incredulously with a layer of amusement.
"He's worried you'll leave him and take Steve back."
"Take Steve back?" Connor choked, "I never had him in the first place! We were so young, I didn't even know what being gay really meant and I don't think he did either. I thought about him every now and then, even after Kevin turned up I still thought about Steve. I wondered what it would be like if he suddenly turned up at the mission centre to whisk me back home and live happily ever after."
"So what went wrong?"
"You mean what went right. Kevin came along. Kevin was everything I was looking for even if I didn't know it and it was perfect timing. I was looking for something, he was lost. We make the perfect couple."
Connor slowly laid down again his head nestled in the soft downy pillow. He sighed as the last remnants of pain in his head were soothed away by comfort.
"You can see his point of view though right? Your ex turns up right after you've had a fight. I bet he feels like he's on pretty thin ice."
"I love Kevin if that's what you're asking."
Ryan nodded silently looking around and taking in the room. He wondered how often Arnold had guests over. All these rooms seemed perfectly made up waiting to be filled, but by who?
"I've worked hard at this marriage for nearly ten years." Connor continued, "I'm not ready to let it go just yet."
Jacob had been utterly confused by the past two days events. It felt good to just walk in the garden and clear his head of everything that was troubling him.
Ten years ago they'd all lived in harmony. They'd clashed over a few things, a stolen poptart here a misplaced cultural reference there, but mostly they had all been happy.
What had changed in such a relatively short time? Maybe if they hadn't been sent to Uganda they'd all have perfect mid west families with children in double figures, a dog and a white picket fence.
Jacob realised that he was the closest of them all to reach this dream that their society wanted for them. Yet he'd still failed miserably at it.
He wandered aimlessly looking around for Freddie, Will having told him that he was here. Will was a very strange man, not Freddie's type, not really anyone's type. They didn't make an ideal couple. Then there was the issue of him witnessing what he saw as blatantly flirting with a woman and that also made no sense.
He paused to lean against a tree, the sun now fully risen in the sky. He scanned the open countryside visible from his spot. It was like being in the middle of nowhere and he wasn't sure he enjoyed it. His eyes brushed past the white brick and along the wall until they came to something that made him start.
Surely...surely that couldn't be Freddie...could it? It was difficult to tell from this angle, but sure enough, the two men broke apart and there was Freddie. Jacob didn't know what to do or say so when Freddie started running away from the other man in his direction, he couldn't bring himself to move in time.
For a moment it seemed as if Freddie would just run straight past him, but as he reached the tree he paused for breath and once he's seen Jacob he couldn't pretend he hadn't.
"Hi." Jacob tried tentatively.
"Hi." Freddie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand before spitting into the dirt.
Freddie joined Jacob in leaning against the tree and slumped down until he was sitting on a large route.
"Are you going to tell Will?" Jacob said softly trying to make his voice not sound like he was probing.
"Why would I tell Will?"
"But why would I...? Oh."
"Not going so well then, I see. It's tough being in a relationship."
"Tougher than being single?"
"Then screw that."
"I don't want to be in a relationship if it's worse than this."
"So let me get this straight. You told us all you had a girlfriend, but really you lived with a girl for six months while you found a place."
"I just..." Noah struggled to find something to say his hands suspended in mid air.
"You lied to all of us about your fictional girlfriend."
"Lie is a very strong word."
"You didn't want to get married, not because you didn't believe in it like you told me, but because you had no one to marry."
Noah continued to stare at his feet gesticulating futiley.
"And the reason we could never come to your house wasn't because you were constantly renovating, it was because you were afraid we'd notice the absence of your girlfriend."
"I got so caught up in the lie I didn't know when to stop."
Noah looked so helpless, his hands falling limp beside him that Eric couldn't help but laugh a little.
"What about all the dating advice you gave me? That's probably why I can never keep a girlfriend, because you're giving me your second hand strategies!"
"I'm not even angry. I just wished you'd told me sooner and I'd have moved in earlier."
"So you're moving in with me?"
"As long as you don't have any Mrs Neeley's hiding in the attic."
"I think we're safe."
Noah allowed himself to smile the reality of the situation fully realising itself to him.
"Is that why you have such a big car?"
"All this time, compensating for some-"
At the knock on the door, Arnold slid his book back in the shelf and called that it was open.
"Oh hey, Steve! I wasn't expecting-"
"Do you have a moment?"
Arnold was thrown off by Steve's cold demeanor. His eyes wandered to the brown wedge of paper he was holding.
Steve flipped it onto a table and went to sit down while Arnold read the cover.
"That's my...did you read it?"
Steve nodded slowly and Arnold closed his eyes trying to think of something to say.
After a painful silence Arnold said with sincerity, "What did you think?"
"I think we need to talk."