CARING ABOUT BUNNY

 

By

 

Nikki Harrington

 

Set during their school days.

Raffles and the rest of the eleven are absent from the school as they are playing a cricket match. Raffles gets a strange feeling that all is not well, but what he finds when he and the eleven return to the school is beyond anything he could have thought of.

A first time story.

Written: February 2013. Word count: 26,160.

 

 

There is one story from our school days which Bunny cannot tell, because he was unconscious for much of it. It is a time when I was so angry, I wished to hurt someone very much indeed; a time when I truly believe that were it not for Charlie I may well have been expelled or even possibly faced criminal charges for my actions. It is the one time I failed to protect my rabbit and even though I know it was not my fault, even though I know there was nothing I could have done to prevent it, I still blamed myself for what happened to the most innocent, most adorable, most caring boy I had ever known.

 

I was sitting with Charlie not taking part in the general jubilant talk that was going on around us following our easy win in the quarter finals of the public schools cricket cup. Maybe I'd been playing cricket for too long, but I found I got little satisfaction out of beating a team that were so far beneath us in ability it was almost embarrassing to beat them. I think only Charlie understood why in the end I stopped bowling - it was the perfect wicket for a slow bowler, but I knew even without me bowling we were going to win easily and I didn't want to completely humiliate them.

 

As the train travelled along my thoughts turned away from the recent cricket match and our win, as I shut out the talk around me, and focussed on Bunny and how much I'd missed not only him but him watching me play cricket. I was so used to him watching me play, both matches and practise sessions, that it had seemed more than a little odd to know he wasn't there watching me.

 

I don't know what my face must have been betraying but suddenly Charlie leant towards me and said softly, "You'll see him soon, A. J."

 

I turned my head and looked at Charlie; my best friend, the boy I'd known for over ten years; the boy who had been the most important person (after my parents and younger sister) to me until Bunny had come along. The boy who was amazingly patient and indulgent of my affection for Bunny, the boy who never once showed even a degree of displeasure or annoyance at finding Bunny in my study or sitting with me watching cricket or attending the eleven's practise sessions. And not only that, he was also very fond of Bunny; he liked him. I sometimes thought I didn't deserve Charlie's continued affection, love, devotion and friendship - but I had it, just as I had Bunny's.

 

I smiled at him and then glanced away as I saw him frown slightly and heard him say, his tone tinged with concern, "Is everything all right, A. J.?"

 

I nodded, looked back at him and forced another smile. "Of course it is, Charlie," I said, touching his arm. Charlie may indulge me over Bunny, may still be my best friend, may at times be my confidante, but I couldn't tell even he that ever since the evening before last (the first evening we had been away from the school) I had had a feeling that something awful had happened to Bunny and the closer we got to the school the deeper the feeling went. I'd told myself it was foolish and that nothing had happened, that Bunny was perfectly fine and capable of taking care of himself, but I knew I would only be content when we got back to school and I saw him.

 

Charlie didn't look convinced by my answer and he opened his mouth to say something. However, at that moment Henderson came and sat down near to us and began to talk about the match. I don't think he noticed, but I know Charlie did given the number of times he glanced at me, that I barely contributed anything to the conversation.

 

When we reached the station and retrieved our bags, I set off for the school at a pace which soon meant only Charlie was with me. The other boys and even Anderson seemed happy to delay as long as possible getting back to the school, but I wanted to get back as soon as possible. Once again I was grateful to Charlie for keeping me company and for not talking to me.

 

We arrived in the quad which was full of boys from all years and immediately I started to look around me. The feeling of dread became even more intense as after looking around twice I failed to see the boy for whom I was looking.

 

"Maybe his class is in detention," Charlie said making it quite clear I hadn't been the only one to have been expecting Bunny to appear.

 

I shook my head. "No. There are boys from all his classes around." Charlie glanced at me and raised an eyebrow; I just shrugged. I sometimes thought I knew Bunny's fellow third year better than I knew mine when I was a third former. And then something else hit me, something that made my mouth become dry and made the feeling of dread increase even more. "Urquhart's not here either," I said looking at Charlie. My fear also wasn't helped by the fact that all of the other boys were avoiding looking at us.

 

"Maybe -" Charlie fell silent as Fletcher, Charlie's third cousin, hurried up to us, avoided looking at me and dragged Charlie off with him and began to talk to him. I stood and watched them; they were too far away for me to hear what they were saying, but the look of shock that appeared on Charlie's face did nothing to make me feel any better.

 

Seconds later he squeezed Fletcher's arm and strode over to me, grabbed my cricket bag and my ordinary bag from my hands, dropped them onto the ground, took my hand in his and began to run across the quad. "Harry's in the San," he said as we ran; his tone was flat.

 

The use of Bunny's Christian name made me tremble and I felt him grip my hand even tighter as I fought a sudden wave of nausea. "What happened?" I demanded.

 

"He was out the night before last all night in the storm; he's unconscious."

 

There was something he wasn't telling me. As desperate as I was to get to Bunny's side; I stopped running, grabbed Charlie hard and turned him around. Now Charlie is actually a little taller and quite a bit stronger than I am - on the occasions we had wrestled he has always got the better of me. But this time even though he tried to pull away from me, I just held him. "And?" I demanded.

 

He stared at me and gripped my hand even tighter. "And he's been . . . abused, A. J.," he said in a tone far grimmer than I had ever heard him use and the look on his face told me quite clearly that I wasn't the only boy who wanted to hurt someone very badly indeed. "Come on," he said, taking advantage of my reaction to his words and once again beginning to run, my hand still in his towards the San.

 

We covered the rest of the distance in silence and arrived neither of us out of breath - one of the advantages of spending so much time practising and playing cricket. It was Charlie who opened the door and led me inside; he seemed to know exactly where he was going and I could only presume Fletcher had told him. I expected Matron to appear, as she tended to do when a boy arrived at the San, but she did not.

 

Charlie led me into one of the side rooms and I came to an abrupt stop as I saw Bunny lying in one of the two beds; he was still, silent, his eyes were closed, his face was even paler than it normally was, his far too long fringe covered his forehead and even hung partly over his closed eyes. By his side, holding his hand, sat Urquhart, Bunny's best friend; he wasn't talking to Bunny, he just sat, almost as still as Bunny was, staring at Bunny as if by sheer force of will he could make Bunny open his eyes.

 

Suddenly he looked around. "Oh, hello, Raffles," he said, he sounded exhausted and looked as tired as he sounded; his eyes were more than a little red and the skin around them was dark and slightly swollen. "Hello, Charleston," he added, looking from me to Charlie. He didn't seem surprised to see us, nor did he seem surprised or perturbed by the fact that Charlie was, I realised, still holding my hand. "Harry will be glad you're back. He knew you weren't here. I've been here as much as I could be and I hold his hand and even talk to him, but it's not me he wants. He lets me hold his hand for a while then he pulls away and moves it across the bed. He's been waiting for you Raffles."

 

I don't think I'd even been as grateful for Charlie's presence as I was then. I knew Urquhart didn't mean anything by his words; he was as straight-forward and honest a boy as Bunny was, in many ways he was more straight-forward, but then he wasn't in love with a sixth former. And I know he didn't mean to hurt me by his words, but he did - I couldn't remember a time I'd been hurt as badly by words.

 

For a second or two, no more, I wanted to break one of my own rules and raise my voice to Urquhart and tell him it hadn't been my fault I'd been absent from the school, in fact for a second I even wanted to break another rule and physically shake him and ask him how he dared speak to me as he had done. After all I was a sixth former and captain of the eleven and he was only a third former.

 

I fear had it not been for the fact that Charlie was not only by my side giving me his silent support but also that he was still holding my hand and had in fact tightened the grip he had on it, as well as moving a little closer to me, that I just might have at the very least spoken harshly to Urquhart and said more than one thing I would later regret.

 

However, with Charlie holding my hand so tightly I began to lose sensation in it as well as standing so closely to me I said nothing; I just stood there and tried not to tremble too obviously. And then as Urquhart had said I watched Bunny pull his hand from Urquhart's and began to move it over the bed.

 

"Go to him, A. J.," Charlie said softly, pushing me forward a little and finally letting go of my hand.

 

I half stumbled, but regained my balance and sat down in the seat Urquhart had vacated once Charlie had spoken. I took Bunny's hand between both of mine, stared down at his unnaturally pale face and fought the rush of tears that suddenly threatened me. "I'm here, Bunny," I said softly ignoring the fact I couldn't keep the quiver from my voice. "I'm here, my rabbit."

 

"He knows you're here." I started slightly and looked up to see Urquhart and Charlie now standing on the opposite of Bunny's bed, quite when they'd moved, I didn't know. Charlie was standing very slightly in front of Urquhart and in a way that made it quite clear that if I were about to do anything foolish, I'd have to go through him to get to Urquhart. "See, he looks more peaceful."

 

I let my gaze flicker back to where Bunny lay and I stared at him. Maybe it was because it was what I wanted to believe, wanted to see, but as I looked down at the far too still and silent boy, I felt sure Urquhart's words were true. Bunny did seem a little more peaceful, his breathing seemed steadier and there was some small movement of his eyes beneath his lashes.

 

I took one hand from his and brushed his hair back from his forehead and I truly believed I heard a soft noise of pleasure - the faint sound Bunny made on most occasions when I brushed his hair back or indeed touched him in any way. I do not believe he was ever aware he made a noise, but most of the time he did. As I took my hand away part of his fringe fell forward again, so once more I brushed it back, pushing it further back this time and letting my fingers linger in his hair, the tips touching his scalp. This time the noise he made wasn't as soft and I knew I had heard it.

 

"Urquhart's right," Charlie said quietly, "Manders does know you're here, A. J." I looked up at him to see him staring at me in the fond way he nearly always looked at me, but there was a hint of something else in his look; something I didn't understand and couldn't figure out.

 

"Now you're here, Raffles, I had better go back to the house." There was something in Urquhart's tone that made me move my gaze from Charlie to look at him. He had his fingers twisted together in front of him and he looked a little uneasy.

 

"Are you all right, Urquhart?" I asked softly.

 

He nodded. Then to my surprise and concern his eyes filled with tears. "I'm sorry, Raffles," he said, his voice shaky. "I'm so very sorry."

 

I glanced at Charlie and raised an eyebrow, but Charlie shrugged and shook his head - so he didn't know either. "What are you sorry about, Ollie?" I asked softly, I found Bunny's name for his best friend came very easily.

 

Urquhart swallowed hard and looked down at the floor. "For not realising Harry wasn't in bed. I should have known, Raffles. My bed is next to his, he's my best friend and I didn't . . . I didn't. . . It's my fault." And a sob escaped him.

 

I couldn't just sit where I was holding Bunny's hand with one hand whilst my other rested on his head my fingers tangled in his hair. I gently put Bunny's hand down onto the bed, stood up and made my way around the bed. To my horror Urquhart took a step backwards as I got near to him, stumbling as he did and falling against Charlie, who steadied him and held him in place with a hand on his shoulder.

 

I sat down on the edge of Bunny's bed and put my hand on Urquhart's arm and tried to ignore how badly he was trembling. "Look at me, Ollie," I said softly, but using the tone I used from time to time on Bunny - the tone he never disobeyed; instinctively I trusted the Urquhart wouldn't disobey me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Charlie's hand press down a little more on Urquhart's shoulder, holding him even more firmly in place. "Please," I added.

 

Slowly Urquhart lifted his head and stared at me; he was trembling and was biting his lip. "Listen to me, Ollie," I said, "what happened to Bunny was not your fault."

 

"But I -"

"It wasn't your fault, Ollie. No one blames you; Bunny won't blame you, I'm sure neither Matron nor Dobson blames you, Charlie doesn't blame you, and nor do I blame you."

 

He stared at me and slowly the trembling began to stop. "Don't you?" he whispered softly.

 

I took his hand for a moment and squeezed it. "No. The only boy or boys who are to blame are the ones who did this to Bunny. I promise you, Ollie, no one blames you."

 

"You'll get them, won't you?" Urquhart asked a degree of anger now in his tone. "You'll make them . . . You know."

 

I squeezed his hand again and sighed softly. "They won't get away with it, Ollie," I said quietly, my gaze moving from him to Charlie who just stared at me. "And that is another promise."

 

"Good," he said. I was still looking at Charlie as Urquhart had spoken and I saw the same look of surprise and hint of a shiver pass across his face as I had felt when Urquhart had said the single word - there had been so much venom behind it.

 

"Are you all right now?" He nodded. "Good boy," I said, squeezing his hand one more time before standing up and returning to sit by Bunny's side where I again took his hand.

 

Charlie still had his hand on Urquhart's shoulder and he squeezed it. "Why don't you go back to the house now, Urquhart?" he said; he spoke quietly and gently but his voice contained the faintest hint of an order.

 

Urquhart nodded. "All right." However, he made no attempt to move.

 

"Is there something else on your mind, Urquhart?" Charlie asked after a moment or two. Urquhart shook his head and then nodded. "Which is it?" Again Charlie spoke gently. After a moment Urquhart muttered something, but his voice was so low I didn't hear him and a quick glance at Charlie confirmed he hadn't either. "Oliver?" Charlie said, again using his gentle and quiet with a hint of an order voice.

 

Urquhart sighed and looked down at the floor. "I'm going to get into trouble. I was told not to come and sit with Harry."

 

I glanced swiftly at Charlie who stared at me. "Did you disobey a master, Urquhart?" I asked after Charlie and I had a swift silent conversation.

 

Urquhart's head shot up. "No!" he cried. "I would never disobey a master; I wouldn't dare, not even for Harry."

 

"Then who told you that you couldn't come down here?" Charlie asked.

 

"Gillingham," Urquhart said and then before Charlie or I could respond hurried on, "but I couldn't let Harry be on his own. I know it wasn't me he wanted here, but I couldn't let him be on his own. He wouldnít have let me be on my own. You'd have let him come and sit with me, wouldn't you, Raffles?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, Urquhart, of course I would have."

 

"No matter what duties you had for him?"

 

Again I glanced at Charlie who looked at puzzled as I felt. "Yes, of course. You're Bunny's best friend; if you were unwell or hurt, he'd want to be with you and I'd want him to be."

 

"Did Gillingham have a specific duty he needed you to do?" Charlie asked.

 

Urquhart shook his head. "No, not really; he just didn't want me coming here. He said if I disobeyed him that he'd . . . That he'd beat me. Or -"

 

Charlie and I once more looked at one another. "Or?" Charlie asked after a moment or two of silence had gone by. "Oliver, what else did Gillingham say he would do to you if you disobeyed him?" Once again he spoke in his quite, gentle with a hint of an order voice.

 

Urquhart's cheeks flushed and he glanced at Charlie and then at me. "You know," he said softly. "That. I don't mind him beating me, well I do, but I'd rather he beat me than - It hurts. You don't hurt Harry like that, do you, Raffles?" The look of pleading on his face was so intense my urge to hurt someone had now increased considerably and from the look on Charlie's face so had his. "You don't do you, Raffles?" Now Urquhart sounded distressed.

 

I shook myself, dragged my gaze from Charlie and looked across the bed. "No, Ollie," I said softly. "No, of course I do not."

 

Urquhart breathed a sigh of relief. "I didn't think you could, because Harry loves you, loves being with you and I couldn't believe he'd want to be with you if you . . . If you hurt him."

 

Charlie glanced at me and then carefully sat down on the edge of Bunny's bed and put his hand on Urquhart's arm. "Oliver, how many times has Gillingham," he paused a moment and then said softly, "hurt you in that way?"

 

"Twice." Urquhart's voice was little more than a whisper.

 

"And how often has he hit you?"

 

Urquhart shrugged. "A lot."

 

Charlie turned to look at me; his face was grim and I could see he was fighting to control his temper - and Charlie is the mildest tempered boy in the school, not a great deal upsets him. However, one thing in particular does: older boys hurting, bullying or abusing younger boys; like me Charlie has never and would never raise his voice or hand to a boy younger than he, no matter what the boy might have done.

 

"Haven't you ever told anyone, Oliver?" Urquhart shook his head. "Not even Harry?" For a moment I held my breath; I just hoped Urquhart gave the same answer; I was sure he would, I could not for a second believe that if my Bunny had known what was happening to Urquhart that he wouldn't have told me. As Urquhart shook his head for a second time I felt relief wash over me. "Why not?"

 

Urquhart shrugged. "Gillingham told me I couldn't tell anyone because it was his right to do whatever he wanted to me as I was his fag. He said all the sixth form boys did things to their fags."

 

Once more Charlie and I exchanged swift looks. "Oliver?"

 

"Yes, Charleston?"

 

"You trust Raffles, don't you?"

 

"Of course I do."

 

"So you believed him when he said he never did such things to Harry?" Urquhart nodded. "And do you trust me, Oliver?"

 

This time Urquhart hesitated for a second or two, then slowly after looking quickly at me, then down at Bunny, he nodded again. "Yes, Charleston, of course I trust you."

 

"That's a good boy. In which case, Oliver, trust me when I say that not all sixth formers do such things to their fags."

 

Urquhart stared. "They don't?"

 

Charlie shook his head. "No."

 

Urquhart looked at me. "Charlie's speaking the truth, Ollie," I said softly. "I promise you that I do not do anything to Bunny and Charlie doesn't do anything to Newton and we are not the only two."

 

"Oh," Urquhart's cheeks flushed, he bit his lip and once more looked down at the floor. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

 

Charlie sighed softly. "You, Oliver, have nothing for which you have to apologise. Now come along, I'll come back to the house with you. You have my word that Gillingham will not lay a hand on you tonight - nor any other night." Charlie stood up and put his hand on Urquhart's shoulder.

 

Urquhart's eyes widened as he stared up at Charleston. "Do you mean it?" his voice was so quiet, I could hardly hear him from where I sat.

 

Charlie nodded. "Yes, Oliver, I really mean it. I promise you, Lawrence Gillingham has laid a hand on you for the last time."

 

Urquhart stared up at Charlie as if he couldn't quite believe what he'd heard. Then he stammered, "Thank you, Charleston. Thank you, I -" He stopped speaking abruptly and I saw him swallow and a look I'd seen a couple of times on Bunny's face appeared.

 

Instantly I stood up. "Charlie!" I cried as I reached across the bed for the metal bowl that sat on the locker next to Bunny's bed.

 

But Charlie had clearly seen the same look as the second before my hand touched the bowl, Charlie had it and was holding it in front of Urquhart as Urquhart vomited. He next second I had pulled out one of the two handkerchiefs I always carried (I only started to carry two after I'd met Bunny) and had handed it over to Charlie who, once Urquhart had stopped vomiting wiped his hand and the cuff of his blazer.

 

Hand shaking Urquhart pulled out his own handkerchief and wiped his mouth. "I'm sorry, Charleston," he said distress clear in his tone. "I'm so very sorry." He swallowed hard again and I swiftly handed a second bowl to Charlie. But although he swallowed hard twice more and once again turned very pale, Urquhart didn't vomit again.

 

"It doesn't matter, Oliver," Charlie said. "You couldn't help it. It doesn't matter," he repeated.

 

Urquhart stared at him, eyes wide and I was reminded so much of the way Bunny looked at me the first time he'd been sick in my presence and I'd taken care of him. "I . . . I . . ." He trailed off and just stared.

 

At that moment the door opened and Matron bustled in. "I thought I heard - what has happened?" she said taking in the scene in one glance. "Are unwell, Oliver?"

 

"I'm sorry, Matron," he said. "I'm sorry, Charleston," he repeated again.

 

"Urquhart's a little upset," I said. I remained on my feet but bent to take Bunny's hand that had started to move over the covers and I held it.

 

"I'm not surprised; the poor boy has been so worried. Come along with me, Oliver, and we'll get you into some pyjamas and into bed. I shall tell Mr. Dobson you are staying here tonight."

 

Urquhart looked at me and then at Charlie. We both smiled and nodded at him. "Go with Matron," Charlie said.

 

"But what about Gill-"

 

"You don't have to worry about him. Now be a good boy and go along with Matron."

 

"Yes, Charleston. And I really am so very sorry."

 

"I told you it doesn't matter."

 

"Of course it doesn't, Oliver. Edward knows it wasn't your fault. Now give me your blazer, Edward and I'll sponge it for you."

 

"It's quite all right, Matron," Charlie started to say, "I can - Yes, Matron," he said swiftly, as he pulled off is blazer and handed it to Matron.

 

"That's a good boy," Matron said, putting the blazer over her arm as she picked up the bowl Urquhart had been sick into and put her other arm around Urquhart and led him out of the room as Charlie stared after her.

 

Once the door closed behind Matron and Urquhart I sat back down and seeing Bunny's hair was once more on his forehead, I brushed it back and let my hand again rest in his hair. Charlie was silent and after a minute or two I looked up to see him looking at me. For a second I saw a hint of a wistful look in his eyes as his gaze also took in the hand I had in Bunny's hair and the way I was holding his other hand. "Charlie -"

 

He shook his head swiftly and then moved around to the side of the bed I sat on and put his hand on my shoulder. "Don't, A. J.," he said. "It doesn't matter." His tone made it quite clear he didn't want me to say anything and actually there was nothing I could say.

 

It did matter; it mattered a great deal but there was nothing I could do. All I could do was to stare at him in silence hoping he could read me was well as he always had been able to; over the years we've been friends we had learnt to communicate silently - it's very useful, especially on the cricket field. "I know," he said softly after a short time had gone by. "I know, A. J.," and he squeezed my shoulder before putting his hand in his pocket and turning around.

 

"Where are you going?" I stood up, keeping my grip on Bunny's hand but letting my other hand fall from his hair.

 

"Firstly to wash my hands; then back to the house to see Gillingham; then I'll come back and you can explain to me exactly what looking after a third former involves, other than letting him be sick on you," he added with a hint of humour in his voice.

 

"Charlie?"

 

"You don't think I'm going to let Gillingham keep Urquhart as his fag, do you? Not after what Urquhart told us?"

 

"Well, no . . . But what are you going to do? You're not going to tell Dobson, are you?"

 

Charlie looked at me and sighed. "I'm tempted; I should; but no, I won't. I'll just tell him we're swapping fags."

 

"And if he asks you why?"

 

Charlie shrugged. "I'll think of something - but he probably won't ask."

 

And he probably wouldn't. Charlie was the best student in the school; yes, I was the best cricket player; I already had a place at Cambridge and was academically good - but Charlie was better; his place at Oxford had already been confirmed and he intended in due course to become a doctor. Plus, he never (well hardly ever) broke any rules or pushed boundaries as I did from time to time. If Dobson had a favourite it was Charlie. Thus, whatever Charlie did or said tended to be all right with Dobson.

 

"But what about Newton?"

 

Charlie looked at me and raised an eyebrow. "Would you dare to lay a hand on Newton?" he asked softly. "Do you know any boy in the school who would dare to lay a hand on Newton?"

 

I shook my head. "No." Newton's father was also the father of Patterson (even though Newton's mother had taken the name of the man who had supposedly fathered Newton before he had died) a boy in the same year as Charlie and me. Patterson is the only boy who has ever on every single occasion they have wrestled beaten Charlie. He's also the tallest boy in our year, well in the school, a boxing champion as well as wrestling champion and not a boy to be crossed, even though he is actually one of the kindest, most gentle boys in the school. Put it this way I wouldn't rate mine and Charlie's chances together against him. And he was very fond of and protective of his half-brother - and he had made it quite clear that everyone knew that he was. Newton would be quite safe fagging for Gillingham.

 

Charlie could take care of himself, I knew that. However, he is my best friend and Gillingham is an out and out bully and a nasty boy, thus I was a little concerned about Charlie going off on his own. "Do you want me to come with you to see Gillingham?" I asked.

 

Charlie looked at me and shook his head. "I can take care of Lawrence Gillingham," he said grimly.

 

I caught his arm. "I know you can, but . . ."

 

He looked at me and the look that had appeared on his face, the look that was as grim as he tone had been, faded. He sighed softly and put his hand on my cheek. "It's all right, A. J.," he said softly, letting the tips of his fingers touch my cheekbone, his eyes widened slightly as against my conscious will I pressed my cheek a little into his hand. "You stay with Manders; he needs you." He let his fingertips stroke my cheek for a moment or two longer, before stilling them. He left his hand on my cheek and for a long moment we just stared at one another in silence.

 

It was Charlie who broke the silence. He took his hand from my cheek, squeezed my shoulder, looked down at Bunny and back at me, gave me a half smile, then turned around again. This time I didn't stop him; I just stood and watched until the door closed quietly behind him. I then sighed and sank back down into the chair and once more took Bunny's hand between mine. "Oh, Bunny," I whispered, lifting his hand to my mouth and kissing it.

 

"Oh, my beloved rabbit," for a moment I let the tears that had been threatening me ever since I'd arrived in the San slip from my eyes as I stared down at the boy I loved so desperately it hurt. As the rage at what had been done to him began to creep though me again I wished, not for the first time, that I didn't love Bunny so much. It was so complicated loving him as I did; it would have been so much easier if I loved Charlie the way he loved me, so very much easier. It would also be much easier if I didn't love Charlie quite so much, because if I didn't I could have given him what he wanted. But I loved him too much to do that.

 

I sighed, wiped my eyes, brought Bunny's hand to my lips to kiss again, before leaning back in my chair and just sat and stared down at the young boy who had turned my world more than a little upside down. I would avenge him; I made him a silent promise that whoever had done this to him would pay for it.

 

I was once more pushing Bunny's hair back from his forehead and letting my fingers tangle in his hair when the door opened again and Matron came back in. "Don't get up, Arthur," she said swiftly, putting her hand on my shoulder and gently pushing me back down onto the chair. "Well," she said looking down at me. "How are you?"

 

I looked up at her. "I'm perfectly all right, thank you, Matron. Why wouldn't I be?" The words came automatically; I answered her as I would have answered anyone (other than Charlie) who asked the question. At the look in her eyes as she stared down at me, I felt something I didn't remember feeling for many a year: my cheeks begin to flush slightly and I found myself doing just what Bunny did and looking away from her, glancing down at the bed and focussing my attention on my still far too still for my liking rabbit.

 

The next second I felt a hand on my knee and I glanced up, Matron was now sitting on the bed and was looking at me. "I'll ask you again, Arthur," she said, "how are you?" I sat staring at her, unable to find the words. "Or shall I tell you?" she didn't wait for me to answer. "Let me see you are angry, upset and you feel guilty. Does that sum it up, Arthur? Well?" she demanded when I didn't instantly answer.

 

I sighed softly. "Yes, Matron," I sighed again. "I want to -" I stopped speaking abruptly as I was aware of what I'd been about to say.

 

"Arthur, I am not your house master, your form master, nor am I one of your parents. My first concern in my job is and always will be the boys in my care. You of all people should know what a boy tells me here in the San, stays here with me. You do know that, do you not, Arthur?" she spoke a little more softly and again put her hand on my knee.

 

I swallowed, blinked hard several times as memories of one particular thing I had told Matron, something that the only other person at the school knew was Charlie, something I hadnít even told Bunny, came back to me. I nodded, "Yes, Matron," I said softly.

 

"Good boy," she said - just occasionally Matron talks to us boys as if we were about ten years old, no matter how old we are. I smiled a little. "So?"

 

I sighed. "I want to hurt someone, Matron; I want to hurt someone very badly. I want -" I swallowed hard again. "Revenge," I added softly.

 

She nodded. "And that would help young Harry exactly how?"

 

I stared at her and shrugged. "It wouldn't. I know that, but it doesn't stop me wanting it."

 

"Good." I stared at her. "You should be angry, Arthur. Keeping emotions bottled up as far too many boys in this school do, is not good."

 

"Why didn't someone miss him?" I asked. "How can Dobson have -" I stopped speaking abruptly and glanced away from her. I knew exactly how Dobson could have assumed that Bunny was in his bed; after all he assumed that on the nights Bunny helped me get out of school.

 

"I believe Mr. Dobson has asked himself that question more than once," Matron said quietly. "And I know poor Oliver has."

 

"It wasn't Urquhart's fault," I said swiftly. "I told him that."

 

"Yes, Arthur dear, I know it wasn't Oliver's fault; just as it wasn't your fault."

 

I shook my head. "I wasn't here," I said.

 

She sighed softly. "No, Arthur, you weren't. But that wasn't your fault either."

 

"I chose to play cricket," I said. "If I didn't play, I would have been here and -"

 

"Arthur. You have a very good standing in this school; boys like you and respect you and you command authority. However, whether you like it or not, some of that respect and commanding of authority comes because you are the captain of the eleven. I know you go out of your way to protect Harry as much as you can and I also know that fewer pranks are played on him than otherwise might be, simply because he is your fag and you are who you are. Do you understand what I am saying?"

 

I stared at her for a moment and then nodded. "Yes, Matron," I said, "I believe I do. But I still feel as if I was partly to blame. It wouldn't have happened to him if I'd been here."

 

"You cannot be completely certain of that, Arthur. Do you walk Harry back to the dorm every evening?"

 

I shook my head. "No, but . . . I'm still sure it wouldn't have happened if I'd been here. Whoever did what they did him wouldn't have dared. They couldn't have known I wouldn't go looking for him for some reason. But I wasn't here I was -"

 

"Carrying out your role as captain of the eleven. My dear Arthur, I know how important Harry is to you, but you do have a wider duty - you know that, do you not?"

 

I sighed and nodded. "Yes, Matron."

 

"So do try not to blame yourself. I know Harry won't blame you, will he?"

 

I turned my gaze from Matron and let it come to rest on Bunny; as I did I felt the tears begin to threaten again. "I promised I'd keep you safe," I whispered once more letting my hand slip into his hair. "And the time you really needed me, I wasn't here. I'm so sorry, Bunny."

 

"Arthur Jedediah Raffles, stop this immediately!" Matron raised her voice and I started and turned my head to look at her. "It helps no one. Yes, I can understand, believe me, Arthur," she said somewhat more softly, "I understand only too well how you feel, but it helps no one - not Harry and not you. Please try not to feel guilty, because just as you say it wasn't Oliver's fault, I am saying it wasn't yours." She held out her hand.

 

I hesitated for a second and then removed my hand from Bunny's hair and took it and let her squeeze my hand for a moment. "Yes, Matron," I said softly. "I'll try."

 

She smiled at me and let go of my hand. "Good boy," she said.

 

We sat in silence for a moment or two before she got up and moved around the bed, put her hand on Bunny's cheek and looked down at him. Then gently she lifted one of his eyelids and smiled. "He's no longer unconscious," she said looking back at me. "He's now just sleeping, which is good. I'm sure he knows you're here."

 

"That's what Urquhart said." I paused for a moment and returned to brushing Bunny's hair back from his forehead. "Matron?"

 

"Yes, Arthur?"

 

"Was he . . . Was Bunny . . . I mean . . ." Silently I chastised myself; this was not like me at all. I didn't get tongue-tied. I forced myself to speak again. "Was he badly hurt?" And then before Matron could say anything I hurried on, "I know I'm not his house master or his form master or his parents, I'm just -"

 

"The boy who loves him," she said softly. I felt my cheeks flush again. "Don't blush, Arthur. Caring about another boy, another person shouldn't make you embarrassed."

 

"I'm not," I said.

 

"Good," she said and carried on looking at me. "To answer you question, no, he is not too badly hurt," I breathed a sigh of relief. "I have seen worse, far worse. The fact he is here in the San and not in hospital should tell you he is not as badly hurt as he could have been."

 

"Charlie said that Fletcher said he'd been," I paused for a second, "interfered," I said softly, deliberately choosing to use the term rather than 'abused'.

 

She nodded. "Yes, he was. But it seems his body had a natural defence, shall we call it."

 

I stared at her. "Do you mean . . . ?"

 

She nodded. "Yes. I am quite certain even the most determined boy would stop when . . ."

 

I brushed Bunny's hair back again. "That's my rabbit," I said softly. "Has Dobson got any idea who attacked him?"

 

Matron shook her head. "No, it seems not. We do believe it was more than one boy, though."

 

"You do?"

 

"Yes. I know Harry is small for his age and not very strong, but I cannot believe if a boy was trying to do what was done to him that he wouldn't struggle and fight as best as he could, can you?"

 

I shook my head. "No."

 

"Add that to the bruises on his wrists that look as if he'd been held down and I firmly believe there were at least two and probably three boys involved."

 

"And no doubt they will all cover up for one another." I spoke bitterly. "If I could get my hands on them I'd -"

 

"No, please, don't hurt me. Please. Please. Don't. I won't tell. I won't even tell Raffles. Just don't. Please. Raffles! Raffles. Oh, Raffles, please help me. Help me, Raffles. Raffles. Raffles. Raffles!" Matron and I both turned to the bed; tears were streaming from beneath Bunny's closed eyes and he was thrashing about on the bed.

 

I moved swiftly from the chair and sat on the bed by him; I tightened the grip I had on his hand and smoothed his hair back over and over again with my other hand. "It's all right, Bunny," I murmured, blinking around the tears I could no longer hold back. "I'm here now, Bunny, I'm here, my rabbit. You're safe now."

 

Matron took his other hand and tried to hold it but to the surprise of both of us, he pulled his hand away from her. "No!" he cried. "Raffles, please. Please, Raffles, please!"

 

I couldn't stand it. "May I move him?" I asked already on my feet.

 

"Well, yes, but -"

 

I threw back the bedcovers, scooped Bunny up in my arms and sat back down on the chair with him on my lap, arranging him in the way he always sat, pushing his head onto my shoulder, wrapping my arms around him and gently rocking him as I held him as close as I could. "I'm here, Bunny," I said, kissing his head, not quite forgetting that Matron was still in the room, but rather unconcerned by her presence. "I'm here, my rabbit. I'm here and you're safe." I went on rocking him, kissing his head, holding him closely and stroking his back for several minutes as he continued to cry.

 

Gradually his sobs subsided and then to my relief he turned his head slightly, opened his eyes and gazed up at me. My relief was short lived as he raised a shaky hand to touch my cheek and he spoke. "Raffles! You saved me. I knew you would." And with a sigh of contentment he closed his eyes and snuggled closely against me.

 

I swallowed hard several times and fought desperately against the bile and worse that was threatening me. "Arthur?" Matron was by my side, a bowl in her hand, her other hand on my forehead. "Are you going to be sick?" I clamped my lips together and shook my head. "Breathe, Arthur," she ordered, still holding the bowl and still keeping her wonderfully cool hand on my forehead. "That's a good boy, breathe, slowly now. Come on, Arthur."

 

I closed my eyes and concentrated hard; one thing about being in involved in any kind of sport is that it's inevitable that at some point you'll get hit or trip over or punched or catch a cricket ball badly and you'll end up seconds away from being sick. Unless you want to end up humiliating yourself in front of those watching you, you learn how to fight the, what in any other boy would be, inevitable. I dug deeply and remembered the times I had fought sickness whilst on the field and slowly, very slowly, I won the battle.

 

My forehead, upper lip, neck and back were all drenched with perspiration as I finally dared to breathe through my mouth, sucking in desperately needed air, rather than just through my nose. I was trembling, I had no doubt I was as pale as, if not paler than, Bunny was; my head was pounding; I had a sudden rather pressing need to go to the lavatory and if all that wasn't enough I still wasn't completely certain I had won the battle not to vomit.

 

As I opened my eyes I saw Matron still standing by me, the metal bowl still in her hand, her other hand still on my forehead, watching me with deep concern in her eyes. On my lap, curled up and pressed against me as closely as he could get, totally and utterly trusting, apparently asleep and breathing normally was Bunny. I was completely drained and exhausted and my head was pounding. As my brain began to replay the words Bunny had said to me, I forced them away - knowing I could not fight a second round of nausea and win.

 

"Are you all right, Arthur dear?" Matron asked her voice seemed to come from a long way away.

 

I nodded and winced as the pain in my head increased. I gritted my teeth and managed, "Yes, thank you, Matron."

 

"Are you quite sure?"

 

I started to nod; stopped and said. "Yes." The look she gave me told me quite clearly she didn't believe me. However, she put the bowl back down on the locker, patted me on the shoulder before going around the other side of the bed and began to remake it, smoothing sheets down, tucking them back in in her exact way and shaking pillows. All the time she worked on the bed she kept looking at me, well at Bunny and me, as I sat still holding him on my lap.

 

"I'm sure Mr. Dobson would say it was 'inappropriate," I said, "but it's always calmed him down. And with me being so much taller than he is, it's more comfortable than just hugging him," I added.

 

She paused in her bed remaking and shook her head in her fond way. "You don't need to justify yourself to me, Arthur. My main concern is the well being of my patients and I firmly believe that what helps them is right. And quite taking Harry onto your lap has calmed him down." She came back around the bed and lightly touched Bunny's head, brushing his hair back as her fingers felt his forehead. "He's sleeping quite peacefully now," she said. "Why don't you put him back to bed?"

 

I stared at her; I didn't want to. I wanted to let him go on sleeping on my lap. I wanted the comfort it gave me - as having Bunny on my lap didn't just comfort him, it comforted me too. However, I knew she was correct and so after holding him for another minute or two, I nodded, gathered him up into my arms, stood up and gently put him back down onto the bed.

 

"Matron?" I said.

 

"Yes, Arthur?"

 

I hesitated for a moment and then asked her what I had wished to ask someone for quite some time but could never find a way of doing so. "Do you think I encourage Bunny to remain too young?"

 

She looked at me and put her head on one side slightly. "Do you believe you do?"

 

I sighed a little, glanced at Bunny and then back at her. "I don't know," I said honestly. "Sometimes I . . . Sometimes I wonder if rather than looking after him, rather than being kind to him I'm actually doing more harm."

 

"And why would you think that?"

 

"I see the other boys and they all seem so worldly, so knowledgeable in ways Bunny isn't - in ways I sometimes think he'll never be."

 

"And is that necessarily a bad thing, Arthur?"

 

I just stared at her. "I don't know, Matron. And I remember what I was like when I was Bunny's age and . . ."

 

"Look, Arthur dear, everyone is different. Everyone matures at different times. I am quite certain that if Harry grows tired of your 'looking after him' that he will let you know."  I wasn't quite so sure given how much Bunny cared for me; how deep his hero worship went; how important I was to him. She seemed to read my mind because she squeezed my arm. "He will, Arthur. Trust me; I do know boys, I know them very well - better even than you do. Don't worry about it; just go on as you always have. Don't spoil things between you and Harry over something that I am certain Harry is not concerned about."

 

I smiled at her; I may not completely believe her, but I felt a lot better about it. "Thank you, Matron," I said.

 

"Good boy. Now let's get Harry covered back up. Matron and I were just pulling the covers back up when the door opened and Charlie came in. He'd changed from his cricketing whites into his usual suit, but to my faint surprise his tie hung undone beneath his open collar. Then I saw he was cradling his right wrist with his left hand.

 

Before I could say anything Matron looked up and frowned. She left the bed and went to Charlie, took his hand in hers and looked at him. "What have you done, Edward?" she asked firmly as she began to examine his wrist.

 

Charlie gasped and I saw him turn pale and bite his lip. "I . . ." He trailed off and glanced at me.

 

"Edward?" Matron said, "what have you done to you wrist?"

 

I saw a hint of colour touch his cheeks and for a moment the nearly eighteen year old boy fled and a much younger boy stood there. "I don't suppose you'll believe me if I said I tripped over, would you, Matron?"

 

"No, Edward. I would not. And I hope you would know better than to lie to me."

 

He sighed softly. "Very well, I hit Gillingham," he said, once more glancing at me as I watched more colour touch his cheeks.

 

"Good," Matron said then added quickly, "I mean I am quite certain that you had a good reason."

 

"Oh, I did, Matron," Charlie said.

 

"I'll fetch a bandage for your wrist. Nothing is broken, but I think some support will help and make it less painful."

 

"Thank you, Matron." She patted his shoulder and left the room. As soon as the door closed he came over to me and put his left hand on my arm. "Are you all right, A. J.?" he asked.

 

It was Charlie; I didn't lie to Charlie; I sank back down onto the chair and found myself gripping his hand. "Not really, Charlie," I said, once more fighting a wave of sickness that raced through me as my mind again heard Bunny saying what he'd said.

 

Charlie dropped down onto his heels and looked at me. "What's wrong? Has something happened to Manders?" he glanced swiftly at Bunny and then back at me. "A. J.?"

 

I shook my head. "No, in fact he opened his eyes and said . . . Oh, Charlie," I whispered, closing my eyes.

 

Even though I'm certain it must have hurt him a great deal, I felt his arm around my shoulders and felt my head pushed down onto his shoulder. "It will be all right, A. J.," he said softly.

 

I sat there, my head on his shoulder, holding his hand tightly, letting a tear or two slip from my eyes and again I fought a wave of nausea and made myself stop thinking about what Bunny had said.

 

After what seemed like hours, but in reality was probably less than a minute, I raised my head, wiped the back of my hand over my eyes, squeezed Charlie's shoulder and stood up. "I must go to the lavatory," I said turning around. I stopped and turned back. "You'll -"

 

"Stay with Harry? Of course, I will." His hand touched mine for a second or two before I turned and hurried from the room.

 

 

I delayed going back to the room where Bunny was so still and so silent for as long as possible. A coward is the last thing anyone who knew me would call me, but as I unnecessarily washed my hands for the third time and retied my tie, it was the word that came to my mind. Again I wished I didn't love Bunny so much; that I'd never let myself get so close to him and that I'd never let him get so close to me; that I'd treated him like most other sixth formers treated their fags. If I didn't care about him so much it wouldn't be so painful now.

 

I sighed and washed my hands for the fourth time, this time splashing water on my face and as I did I realised that loving Bunny had been inevitable; the only way I could have stopped myself from loving him would have been not to have taken him as my fag. However, once I had done so, once he showed me complete and unwavering trust and devotion, once I had vowed no one would hurt him, once I had let him talk to me, once I had talked to him, once I had given him cocoa and comforted him after he'd been ragged for the third time in three days I had been lost; utterly and totally.

 

Charlie had tried to warn me - but I hadn't listened to him. I hadn't listened because one of my worst faults is that I do think I know best. I'd believed I could care for my rabbit, look after him, treat him well and not get too close to him. Charlie knew differently - sometimes I'm sure Charlie knows me better than I know myself.

 

I was about to wash my hands for the fifth time, when I forced myself to stop and told myself how foolish I was being and instead unlocked the door to the lavatory and made my way back to Bunny's side.

 

As I got closer I heard voices and presumed Matron was bandaging Charlie's wrist, but as I reached the door I realised one of the two voices was not the voice of an adult female, but a young boy.

 

I opened the door and there now sitting up resting against two pillows still looking far too pale and trembling slightly was Bunny. Charlie sat on the edge of the bed and as I opened the door I saw him brush the hair back from Bunny's forehead as Bunny gazed at him. For a fleeting moment I felt a wave of deep jealousy race through me and I was angry with Charlie for daring to do what I suddenly found I believed only I had the right to do.

 

Then as one they turned to look at me. "Raffles!" Bunny cried, sitting forward and holding out both arms to me as tears began to slip from his eyes. But even as the tears fell the look on his face was quite, quite different from the way he had been looking at Charlie. As I hurried across the room sat down on the other side of the bed and gathered him into my arms I added guilt at my fleeting anger with and jealousy of Charlie to all the other negative emotions I was feeling.

 

"I told you he'd be back soon, Harry," Charlie said, touching Bunny's shoulder as he stood up, pushed his left hand into his pocket, I noticed his right wrist was heavily bandaged and strapped, and he moved away from the bed to lean against the wall as he looked at Bunny and me.

 

"You're awake," I said, as I ran my hand over Bunny's soft hair. Even as I said the words I silently cursed myself for being so foolishly obvious.

 

However, it was clearly the right thing to say as Bunny took his head from my shoulder and actually smiled; it wasn't a brilliant smile, it wasn't the way he usually smiled at me, but it was a smile and as he smiled he wiped his hand over his eyes. "And you're here," he said with a sigh of clear pleasure as he settled back into my arms for a moment before gently moving back and sinking back onto the pillows. As he moved, he caught my hand and held it far more tightly than he'd ever held it before. "You'll stay with me, won't you, Raffles?" he whispered, "you won't leave me?"

 

I glanced swiftly at Charlie for the first time ever I didn't know what to say to my rabbit. An affirmative answer wasn't one I could give, well I could, but I'd never lie to Bunny and I doubted Dobson would allow me to remain in the San with Bunny - even if Matron would permit it.

 

"Raffles?" he whispered, beginning to tremble again as I didn't answer. "You will stay with me, won't you?"

 

"If I possibly can, my rabbit," I answered after another swift glance at Charlie who gave a helpless shrug. I wasn't sure it would be enough of a promise, but it was, as again Bunny smiled at me.

 

For a minute or two, the three of us just sat, or in Charlie's case stood, in silence; Bunny was holding my hand, clinging to it although the fierce grip had become a little less and gazing at me with even more open love and adoration than he normally showed; I was just letting him hold my hand and brushing his hair back from time to time, letting my fingers linger and tangle in his hair; Charlie was just watching us both.

 

Finally Charlie said, "I think I'll go and see how Urquhart is. I'll be -"

 

Bunny pulled his hand from mine, sat up and began to tremble even more. "No!" he cried, "No! They said they wouldn't. Have they hurt, Ollie? No, please. I didn't tell. I didn't." I stood up and tried to grab him as what was quite clearly panic, seemed to be overtaking him, but he pulled away from me.

 

A second later Charlie was not only by the bed he was once more sitting on it and holding Bunny's wrists firmly as Bunny struggled and fought to get away - I couldnít have held Bunny as Charlie was holding him for fear of hurting him. "Harry, look at me; listen to me. Harry, come on, breathe, breathe, Harry. That's it, that's a good boy, breathe slowly. In and out. In and out. Come on, Harry, that's it. That's my good boy. That's it, Harry, calm down. It'll all right. Good boy."

 

If I had ever I had doubted, which I hadn't, that Charlie would make an excellent doctor, that doubt would have fled as it was he who went on holding Bunny to stop him from struggling and probably hurting himself and calming him, making him breathe slowly. As I just stood by the bed I felt, not for the first time since arriving back at the school to learn Bunny was in the San, helpless.

 

Finally, Bunny stopped fighting Charlie and sank back onto the pillows breathing as he should. His face was no longer pale, but an unhealthy red colour, perspiration covered his forehead and his hair stuck to it; his eyes were wide and full of fear and he now clung to Charlie's hands as Charlie slipped them from Bunny's wrists to take his hands. "Ollie?" he whispered. "What's happened to him, Charleston?"

 

"Nothing has happened to Oliver, Harry. He hasn't been hurt; he was sick, that's all and you know what Matron is like; she's just keeping him here tonight. He'll be fine, Harry, I promise you." Bunny stared at Charlie who gently took one hand from Bunny's and swept his damp hair back from his forehead; again and against my will I felt a flash of jealousy race through me. I think my love for Charlie grew even deeper when he glanced up at me and said, "Is your handkerchief clean, A. J.?"

 

Charlie always has a clean handkerchief; it's part of him being Charlie, but he clearly, despite his apparent full attention being on Bunny, saw something in me or it could just have been that he knows me so very well. I pulled out my clean handkerchief, sat down on the other side of the bed and handed it to Bunny, closing my hand around his trembling one and helping him to wipe his streaming eyes and blow his nose.

 

Bunny turned from Charlie to me. "Is Ollie really all right?" he asked.

 

I nodded. "Yes, Bunny, of course he is. You don't think Charlie would lie to you, do you?"

 

"Of course not!" Bunny exclaimed, his cheeks now flushing, but a normal flush, as he looked from me to Charleston. "It's just . . ."

 

"Just . . . ?" I asked gently.

 

However, Bunny again glanced at Charlie and shook his head. "Nothing," he murmured, lowering his gaze and staring at the bed. I glanced at Charlie and raised an eyebrow as we had one of our silent conversations.

 

Gently Charlie took Bunny's hand from his, stood up and ruffled Bunny's hair, before moving to the bottom of the bed. "I'll be back soon. I'll go and tell Oliver that you are awake, Harry - he'll be pleased. And I'm sure Matron will let you see him soon. "He really is all right," he said firmly as Bunny opened his mouth. "A. J.," he murmured, his hand coming to rest on my shoulder for a moment or two as he passed me on his way to the door.

 

Once the door closed behind Charlie I moved a little further onto the bed and once more gathered Bunny into my arms. He went quite happily, snuggling against me and sighing happily as his head rested against my shoulder. I stroked his head and his back and allowed myself finally to relax just a little and to take the comfort I was getting from holding my rabbit so closely.

 

I let him just cuddle against me for several minutes before I asked what I knew both Charlie and I wanted to know. "Bunny?"

 

"Yes, Raffles?" He sounded slightly sleepy and just for a moment I was tempted not to question him, but at some point someone was going to and knowing my rabbit as I did, I thought he might be happier if that someone was me or at least he'd told me things first.

 

"Why were you worried that Ollie might be hurt?" He became very still in my arms and fell completely silent, so silent that for a moment I feared he'd stopped breathing. Gently I pushed him away from me a little and gazed down at his troubled face. "Bunny?" I said softly, brushing his hair from his forehead and tangling my fingers in his hair.

 

However, he still didn't answer me; he just sat there gazing up at me, a deeply troubled look that contained a hint of fear on his face. I sighed softly, smiled at him and asked a different question. "Who did this to you, Bunny? Who hurt you?"

 

Before I'd finished speaking I regretted my question as he became completely tense in my arms, he turned a deathly pale again and the fear in his eyes increased. "Please," he whispered.

 

I frowned. "Please what, my rabbit?"

 

"Don't ask me."

 

"But, Bunny, you have to -"

 

He shook his head so hard his hair flew around his face. "I can't tell you," he said firmly, as I smoothed his hair down.

 

"Bunny, I'm sure you -"

 

"No!" he shouted, trying to pull away from me. "I can't tell you, Raffles. I can't. I can't." As he struggled I made myself hold him firmly as Charlie had done, far more firmly than I wanted to hold him, I was sure I must have been hurting him, but I feared if I didn't hold him still he'd hurt himself more. For a moment I considered going to see Urquhart and letting Charlie talk to Bunny, but I couldn't do that.

 

"All right, Bunny," I said soothingly. "All right, my rabbit. You don't have to tell me if you don't want to."

 

"You don't understand, Raffles!" he cried.

 

"What don't I understand, my rabbit?"

 

He sighed and slumped into my arms, all the fight had gone from him. "I want to tell you," he said his head once more resting against my shoulder. "But I can't."

 

I was confused. "Do you mean you didn't see the boys? Or that you didn't recognise them?" It seemed highly unlikely, unless they'd grabbed him from behind and blindfolded him, but other than that I honestly did not understand what he meant by 'I can't'.

 

"No. I know who they were, Raffles. I just can't tell you."

 

I was feeling seriously out of my depth and began to realise probably for the first time in quite some time just how much of a boy I still was. "Why can't you tell me, Bunny? Can you tell me that?"

 

He sat up and looked at me a frown marring his forehead. I waited in silence as he was clearly thinking about what I had asked him. Slowly he nodded. "Yes." Again I waited. "I promised," he said.

 

"Promised what, my rabbit?"

 

He sighed. "I promised them I wouldn't tell you or Matron or Dobson or any other master or my parents who they were," he paused and again I forced myself to wait. "I promised, Raffles, because they said they'd hurt Ollie, really hurt him, if I told you who they were. So you see, I can't tell you. I want to, Raffles, I really want to, but I can't. Do you understand?"

 

I briefly closed my eyes and the desire to hurt someone very, very badly flared through me again. "Yes, Bunny," I said, gathering him close to me again, "I understand. And that's why you were frightened when Charlie said Ollie was in the San."

 

Even though it wasn't a question, Bunny answered it. "Yes. I thought they thought I'd told and so they'd . . . I won't let them hurt Ollie, Raffles. I won't."

 

"No one will hurt Ollie, Bunny. No one. Charlie and I will make sure of that."

 

He sat up and looked at me with a sad look on his face. "I still can't tell you," he said softly. "I promised, Raffles. I've never broken a promise in my life. And I can't now." Tears filled his eyes and I once more pulled him close to me.

 

"You are the bravest boy I have ever known, Bunny," I said as I kissed the top of his head, "as well as the best." I wanted to tell him that some promises could be broken; that the promise he had made had been forced from him, thus it didn't matter if he told - but as much as I love my rabbit, I wasn't certain he'd understand. To Bunny a promise is a promise, no matter under what circumstances it was made.

 

We sat in silence for quite some time, he was warm and comfortably heavy against me and I began to think he'd fallen asleep again. However, suddenly he lifted his head and said, "I need to go the lavatory," and he moved out of my arms.

 

I stood up and glanced at the locker by the side of Bunny's bed looking for what Matron would provide for boys who couldn't get out of bed. But he shook his head and pushed the covers back. "I want to go to the lavatory, Raffles, not use that. I'm sure I can walk there." And as if to prove his words he slid to the edge of the bed, sat there for a moment and stood up.

 

"Bunny, I do understand," and I did, I'd been confined to bed for a couple of days once, unable to get up so knew what it was like, "but I really do think it would be better if you -" I stopped speaking as he gazed up at me with an imploring look. I sighed silently, grabbed his dressing gown from the bottom of the bed and helped him on with it. I couldn't deny him such a simple thing. "I'm coming with you," I said firmly in a tone that he never argued with. I felt an almost physical pain pass through my breast at the look of relief that passed across his face.

 

Then he stared at me. "Only as far as the door," he said firmly.

 

I sighed and nodded. I knew my rabbit well, what most boys didn't bother about at all, he did. I'd seen him more than once trying to get dressed whilst keeping his dressing gown on and he always went to the facilities in the house which were the furthest away from the dorm, the ones to which hardly anyone else went. "Very well," I said, "but you are not to lock the door and if you feel faint or anything you must promise to call me?"

 

He smiled and nodded. I was partly mollified, but would have been much happier to have stayed by his side; I'd have been much happier for him not to have left the room at all. "Come along then," I said, putting my arm gently around his shoulders. "But if we meet Matron on the way and she says you have to go back to bed and use that," I nodded over my shoulder, "you must do as she says."

 

"Yes, Raffles," he said with a smile.

 

We didn't meet Matron on the way and it was with more than a degree of reluctance when we reached the lavatory that I took my arm around his shoulders and opened the door. "Are you quite certain you don't want me to come with you, Bunny?" I asked.

 

He nodded. "Yes, Raffles. I promise I won't lock the door and I promise I'll call you." He went inside and then paused and said, his voice much softer, "you will wait for me, won't you? You won't go away and leave me?"

 

He sounded so very young and frightened that again I had to fight the need for a physical outlet of my anger. I put my hands behind my back and dug my nails into the palms welcoming the sudden pain as I forced myself to smile and say in the tone I nearly always used with him, "Of course I'll wait for you, my rabbit. I promise you I won't go away."

 

He hesitated for another second or two before nodding, turning around and closing the door.

 

I sighed heavily turned around, lent against the wall and closed my eyes. I knew I was trembling and knew if I didn't find a way soon to get rid of the some of the pent up energy that was racing through my body, I would - "

 

I felt a hand on my shoulder and started as I opened my eyes and stared at Charlie who was looking at me with more than a degree of concern on his face. "A. J.?" he made my name a question and then he glanced at my hands which were still coiled inwards and frowned.

 

I forced myself to uncurl my hands and noticing his tie was still undone automatically brought them up and began to swiftly knot his tie for him. My fingers brushed against his chin a couple of times and I didn't miss the hastily bitten off soft gasp.

 

"Is Manders all right?" he asked once I'd adjusted the knot and smoothed his collar down.

 

I gave a shrug and a nod. "As he can be," I said.

 

"Did he tell you who hurt him?"

 

I sighed and closed my eyes. "No," I said. "He can't."

 

"Can't?" Charlie sounded surprised, a surprise I understood only too well. "You mean he didn't see who they were?"

 

I shook my head and quickly told him about the promise Bunny had made. "So he can't tell me because he's afraid they will do as they threatened and hurt Ollie."

 

Charlie was frowning. "Tell me again what he said about not being able to tell."

 

I frowned. "He said he couldn't tell anyone bec-"

 

"No, that's not what you said. Who exactly did he say he couldn't tell, A. J.?"

 

I wasn't sure why it mattered, but I answered him. "Me, Matron, Dobson, any other master and his parents. Why?"

 

"Say that again."

 

"Charlie!" I was getting a little annoyed with him.

 

He put his hand on my arm. "Please, A. J."

 

I sighed and repeated, "Me, Matron, Dobson, any other master and his parents."

 

To my amazement Charlie began to smile. "They weren't quite so clever as they thought they were."

 

"What? I was distracted by the fact I thought Bunny had been gone for too long.

 

"They named people. A. J., they named anyone they thought Manders might tell - anyone who would care. Well they forgot one person, didn't they? Well they forgot a lot of people, but one person in particular who cares." I just stared at him for a moment. "Me," he said softly as he held my gaze and suddenly it made sense. "Oh," I said. "Oh."

 

He smiled. "Exactly, A. J.; I'm not you, Matron, Dobson, a master or his parents. He can tell me without breaking his promise."

 

I stared at him. "Do you think he'll be able to understand the subtlety?"

 

"You're the one who has told me more than once he's brighter than he sometimes seems or indeed his grades show."

 

"He is." And I wasn't just saying that because of my feelings for him. I spent enough time with him, talking to him, listening to him and he'd written enough verses for me for me to know he was actually a very bright boy. I suspected he tried to hide this to an extent (apart from in English) to avoid drawing any more attention to himself. He was disliked by a lot of boys not because of who he was but because they were jealousy because I had taken him, a non-cricket playing boy, as my fag and had made it clear how fond I was of him. I was quite certain he was aware of this and thus thatís one reason why he hid his intelligence. Sometimes I think I really did do him a huge disservice taking him as my fag and caring for him.

 

"Well then, he'll understand when I explain it to him. And no, A. J., you can't stay. He has to tell me alone." I glared at him. "And don't glare at me, you know I'm right." I did; of course I did, but the idea of letting Bunny out of my sight even for a few minutes didn't appeal, not even when I knew he'd be with Charlie and thus perfectly safe.

 

Charlie by now was also leaning against the wall next to me. Suddenly he said, "A. J.?"

 

"Yes, Charlie?"

 

"Why are we standing outside the lavatory?"

 

"We're waiting for Bunny."

 

He pushed himself away from the wall and stared at me. "You let him go in there alone?" I was more than a little amused at the tone in his voice and the look on his face.

 

"I wouldn't use the word 'let'. He -" But at that moment the door opened and Bunny came out. He smiled at me and didn't seem surprised to see Charlie. I put my arm around his shoulders again and regretted agreeing to let him get out of bed when he leant against me, letting me take a lot of his weight. "Come on," I said, adjusting my grip slightly to support him even more, "Let's get you back to bed."

 

Once he was back into bed and I'd rearranged the covers and he was settled back on the pillows he looked at Charlie. "How's Ollie?" he asked.

 

"He's all right, Harry. He's asleep at the moment. But once he wakes up, assuming you're awake you can see him - Matron said so."

 

Bunny stared at Charlie. "He really is all right, isn't he, Charleston?"

 

Charlie ruffled Bunny's hair. "Yes, Harry, I give you my word he is all right. Matron only kept him here because he'd been sick."

 

"I'm glad he is here," Bunny said softly. "He's safe here." Charlie and I looked at one another over Bunny's head and Charlie pointedly raised an eyebrow.

 

I sighed, sat down on the edge of Bunny's bed and took his hand. "Bunny."

 

He smiled at me. "Yes, Raffles?"

 

"Charlie wants to ask you something," I said.

 

Obediently Bunny turned to Charlie and looked up at him.

 

"Bunny?"

 

He turned back to me, "Yes, Raffles?"

 

"He wants, he needs, to ask you without me being here. Is that okay, Bunny? Do you mind if I go outside and leave you with Charlie?" I spoke softly, determined that no matter how much I wanted to know who the boys were who had hurt my rabbit, if Bunny wasn't comfortable being alone with Charlie then I wouldn't leave him.

 

However, Bunny smiled at me. "I don't mind," he said slipping his hand from mine and once more turning his attention to Charlie.

 

I hesitated for a second or two, no more, then after letting my hand come to rest in Bunny's hair for a second or two, I stood up and left the room.

 

I nearly bumped into Matron. "Oh, Arthur, I'm sorry to just leave you like that. But once I'd got young Oliver into bed, Jackson arrived; he'd fallen over and cut his hands and knees quite badly, so I had to clean and dress them. How is Harry?"

 

"Awake."

 

"That is good. And has he told you who did those things to him."

 

I sighed, I seemed to be doing that a lot, shook my head and quickly told her.

 

"I have no doubt that Edward will help Harry understand that it's perfectly all right to tell him, that he won't be breaking a promise. Not that some promises shouldn't be broken," she added.

 

I nodded. "That's what I thought and that's what I nearly told Bunny, but you know what a good and honest boy he is."

 

She nodded and put her hand on my arm. "Yes, Arthur, I do." Then she stared at me for a moment or two, before taking my hand. "Come along, I'll make you a cup of tea."

 

"Thank you, Matron, but I -"

 

"I'll make you a cup of tea," she repeated firmly before turning around and beginning to walk away. Unless I forcibly extracted my hand from hers, which I could have done, I had not choice but to go with her. And had I pulled my hand from hers, I would have hurt her - although given how firm her grip was on my hand I wondered if in fact it would be me whom I would hurt.

 

 

It was about ten minutes later and I'd not only drunk a mug of sweet tea but had before she had hurried off to answer the phone, at Matron's insistence, eaten two biscuits when Charlie appeared. He looked grim and instantly I stood up. "Charlie? Is Bunny all right?"

 

"What?" he said slightly distractedly as he flexed his left hand and stared at me almost without seeing me. "Oh, yes, he's fine, A. J."

 

I stared at him and put my hand on his arm. "And you?" I asked softly. He met my gaze and held it; his look told me that not only had Bunny told him who had hurt him, but he'd also told him what they'd done to him.

 

After a minute or two he swallowed. "I'm - I'm going to see Dobson," he said, turning on his heel.

 

"Charlie?"

 

"No, A. J.," he said turning back to look at me. "No," he repeated. "I will not tell you who the boys were."

 

"But Charlie -" For the second time in half an hour I was somewhat angry with my best friend.

 

"No. Look, A. J., Manders needs you at the school, not expelled. And also," he paused and came back to me and took my hand. "A. J., this is abuse. It's not the same as someone pouring water onto Harry's bed or tripping him up or stealing his pen or making suggestions to him or even trying to touch him. This is far more serious and it needs an adult to deal with it, A. J., not a boy. It's beyond what a boy can and should deal with and you know that. So, no, I am not going to tell you who the boys are." His hand was warm as it held mine. I knew he was right; of course I did, but it didnít help the fact that I desperately needed someone onto whom I could take my anger out.

 

"But - Look, I'll only hit them once." I tried to bargain with him.

 

But he just gazed at me and shook his head. "No," he said in the tone I knew well. Charlie is pretty accommodating, especially with me, but when he makes his mind up over something no one, not even I, will change it.

 

"Very well," I said, conceding defeat even as I glared at him.

 

He gave me a half smile, squeezed my hand and then let go of it. "Go back and see Harry, A. J., that's the best thing you can do."

 

I nodded. "Thank you, Charlie," I said softly before I turned and left him to go and see Dobson.

 

I strode back to Bunny's room and went in. He looked up as the door opened and smiled at me. I was pleased to see he actually looked not only a little less pale but the dreadful haunted look he'd had on his face from even before he'd woken up had faded a little.

 

He held out his hand to me and I crossed to the bed, sat down and took it as my other hand automatically moved to brush his hair back from his forehead and then I tangled my fingers in his hair and he smiled. "Are you all right?" I asked. He nodded. "Did you understand what Charlie told you?"

 

He nodded again. "Yes. Yes, I did, Raffles."

 

"And you told him who hurt you?"

 

He nodded again. "Yes, Raffles."

 

"That's my good boy," I said, sliding my hand around his head and tugging him forward a little into my arms.

 

"Am I yours?" he asked softly.

 

I blinked; I'd called him 'my good boy' on many occasions and he'd never asked me such a question. "Of course you are, Bunny," I said, pushing him away from me a little and gazing down at him.

 

He gave me a half smile and then fell silent for a minute or two as he let his gaze flicker from my face to the bedcovers. After a moment or two he raised his head and looked at me; I know Bunny so very well and I always thought I knew his looks and could read what was on his mind, but this time I couldn't. "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Will you do something for me?"

 

"Anything," I said and then smiled as he smiled at me; that was the answer he always gave me whenever I'd asked him the same question. "What do you want me to do, my rabbit?"

 

He went on looking at me; the only thing I could say about his look was that suddenly he looked both several years older than his thirteen years as well as several years younger. Finally rather than tell me he asked a surprising question. "Do you like me, Raffles?"

 

I started. "Do I like you?" He nodded as he bit his bottom lip. "Bunny, my dearest, beloved, little rabbit, of course I like you. In fact I adore you; you are so very, very important to me. I love you, Bunny," I said softly.

 

He stared at me. "In the same way as you love Charleston?" he asked softly.

 

I blinked as I looked at him watching me with his old-young so very solemn look on his face. No, I didn't love him in the same way as I loved Charlie; well I did and I didn't. But that was all far too complicated to try to explain and I doubted he'd understand - I'm not completely certain that even I understand. So in the end I settled for just answering the simple question. "Yes, Bunny," I said quietly, "like I love Charlie."

 

His face lit up and he put his hand on my cheek. "Good," he said. I waited. "The thing is, what I want you to do for me is . . . Raffles, will you kiss me?" The final words were said in a rush and it took me a second or two to make them out.

 

I stared at him. "Bunny? I . . . You want me to kiss you?" He nodded. I wanted nothing more than to do that thing, to gather him back into my arms and put my mouth on his, but the timing was so wrong. Surely he couldn't really want me to kiss him after some boys had - "I really don't think . . ." I trailed off as tears filled his eyes. "Donít cry, my rabbit," I implored him, pulling him into my arms.

 

After a brief struggle he let me pull him close to me. "So you don't love me in the same way as you love Charleston," he said.

 

Once more I was more than a little lost. "Bunny?"

 

"If you did, you'd kiss me, like you kiss Charleston."

 

I was actually glad his head was on my shoulder as I stared down at him in shock. Finally I mentally shook myself and said softly, "You think I kiss Charlie?"

 

He sat up and stared at me, the look on his face was indignant. "Of course you do. You like him. You love him - you said so. Of course you kiss him. He's your best friend. Who else would you kiss other than Charleston?" I had heard the phrase 'lost for words' but I honestly never thought I'd experience it, but as I sat on the bed in the San with Bunny in a loose embrace I truly did not know what to say.

 

Just as I was desperately trying to force some words to come, even though I had no idea what they might be he spoke again. "You see, I don't mind you kissing Charleston."

 

"Don't you?" I managed when the look on his face told me he expected me to answer.

 

He shook his head. "No, because you like him a lot and he likes you. And I like him; so I don't mind you kissing him. You love him." And suddenly his meaning became perfectly clear: he didn't mind me kissing Charlie, but he did mind if I kissed anyone else; he didn't want me to kiss anyone else. "And that's why I asked if you loved me in the same way as you loved him; that's why I thought if you did, that you would kiss me. Because you like Charleston and you kiss him and you like me so . . . But you don't love me in the same way as you love Charleston."

 

He sighed softly and once more put his head on my shoulder. "It's all right," he said after a moment or two. "I understand." I'm glad he did, because I certainly didn't - well in fact I knew he didn't understand; not really. How could he? "They said you'd never kiss me," he said, his voice a little muffled.

 

"Who said that, Bunny?" I asked the question before I really thought about it and instantly regretted it.

 

He sat up and glared at me. "Don't try to trick me, Raffles!"

 

"I wasn't, Bunny. Really I wasn't. I'm sorry. I know you can't tell me." Then I mentally crossed my fingers and asked, "Can you tell me how many there were?"

 

He stared at me and frowned as I once more saw him thinking about the question. Then he nodded. "Three, but only one of them did anything. The other two held me whilst he -" He swallowed hard and gazed at me. "It hurt, Raffles." His voice was little more than a whisper.

 

I brushed his hair back from his forehead. "I know, my rabbit," I murmured. "I know."

 

"And they didn't even like me, Raffles, they told me so. Why would anyone do such things to people they don't like? That's why I don't mind about you and Charleston because you like one another. Why did they want to hurt me, Raffles?"

 

Again I was more than a little out of my depth. "I don't know, Bunny," was all I could think of to say and I was aware it was a dreadfully inadequate reply.

 

"And why did they want to do it if they didn't like me?" He now sounded a little indignant as well as confused. He was so terribly young in so many ways and no matter what Matron had said, I knew that part of that was my fault. I was aware I not only indulged his naivety at times I also encouraged it. I didn't want him to grow up too soon; I rather liked my rabbit as he was. "Why would anyone do it with someone they didn't like?" he said again.

 

I swallowed hard as it was another question I simply couldn't answer. My mind flashed through the boys I'd done things with; boys I didn't particular like, simply because in many ways another boy's hand is better than your own. And as I thought about the boys I'd touched and been touched by whom I didn't care for, whom I didn't really like and I knew I had to stop, least Bunny find out, because Bunny knew which boys I liked and which I didn't and I couldn't do that to my rabbit. I couldn't destroy his faith in me and I couldn't hurt or confuse him any more than he was.

 

"Why, Raffles?" he asked again.

 

I stared down at him and sought for inspiration. Finally I found that once again all I could say was, "I don't know, Bunny. I don't know."

 

His eyes widened at my words and he seemed quite shocked by me admitting to not knowing something, not just once but twice. Then he just sighed and said again quietly, "It hurt, Raffles."

 

And all I could do was to repeat, "I know, my rabbit."

 

Again he was silent; again I really wanted to do something physical to someone - at that moment it honestly didn't matter who that someone was; I just needed an outlet for my anger. I was so wrapped up in imagining the things I could do that I nearly missed his next words, part of me almost wished I had. "He made me put it in my mouth," he whispered. I tightened my grip on him and forced myself to breathe properly as the rage surged through me. "It was horrible, Raffles. How could anyone - you don't do that with Charleston, do you?"

 

I shook my head and answered him completely honestly. "No, my rabbit, I don't do that with Charlie."

 

I felt him nod against me. "I was nearly sick," he said. "He tried to make me . . . but I couldn't, it was too . . . I really thought I was going to be sick, Raffles. And he said . . . he said . . . he said he'd kill me if I was."

 

I gathered up the courage I'd always thought I'd had a great deal of and made myself ask another question, even though I really didnít want to. "What happened then, Bunny?"

 

He was silent for a moment and pushed himself closer to me, shifting around on the bed until I realised what he wanted - what made him trust me after what someone had done to him, I really didn't know.

 

However, gently I pushed the covers back and pulled him onto my lap. His smile and the way he sighed told me I had understood him correctly. "He put it in me," he said softly. "I tried to scream but one of the other boys had his hand over my mouth. I tried to get away, Raffles, I promise I tried, but I couldn't. I struggled, but the more I did the more it hurt, then I was sick and then . . . And then . . . And then . . ."

 

"And then what, my rabbit?"

 

"I don't remember," he said quietly. "It seems like one minute he was . . . And the next I was on your lap and . . . Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Why don't you want to kiss me?" I stared at him. How could he want me to kiss him after what he'd just told me? How could he cuddle up on my lap? How could I tell him I did want to kiss him, I wanted to kiss him very much? But how could I kiss him knowing what had been done to him? He sighed softly. "They said you'd never kiss me," he said again.

 

I curbed my instinctive 'who' and instead said quietly, "Why did they say that, Bunny?"

 

"After I was sick and the boy took his hand off of my mouth, I started crying your name and begging them not to hurt me and they laughed and said it was no use me calling for you because you . . ."

 

"Because I what, Bunny?"

 

I felt him shake his head. "I don't know. It's all confused. I donít remember. I don't want to remember. I - Oh, Raffles, please kiss me. Please. Please. You said you'd do anything for me." He was trembling and was clearly becoming distressed again.

 

I wanted to stop the anguish, but I feared kissing him just might make things worse. Gently I pushed him away from me a little and asked softly. "Bunny, are you certain, really certain you want me to kiss you?"

 

Tears shining in his eyes he nodded. "Yes," he whispered. Still I just stared at him. "Can I tell you something, Raffles?"

 

I forewent my usual correction and said softly, "Of course, my rabbit."

 

"I've wanted you to kiss me from the moment I met you."

 

I felt my eyes widen. "Have you now, Bunny?"

 

He nodded. "Yes," he said firmly.

 

I brushed his hair back, mentally crossed my fingers and took what was probably the biggest risk I had ever taken, and that included getting out of school of an evening. "Well, my dear little rabbit, in that case -" And I lowered my head, put my mouth on his and for a moment or two gently kissed him.

 

His lips were warm beneath mine and terribly soft, far softer than any other boy's lips I'd kissed. He trembled slightly in my arms, but I could tell it wasn't a tremble of fear, or of pleasure. I held him carefully, protectively, possessively, I held him as if I never wanted to let him go - and I didn't. I wanted to go on holding him, go on kissing him forever.

 

He began to kiss me back in a totally naÔve, innocent, unknowing way - again I had never kissed anyone who kissed in such an innocent way - and he clung to me. It was everything I disliked about kissing or holding someone, but as it was Bunny, the boy I loved, it was the most moving kiss I had ever had.

 

Finally I took my mouth from his and smiled at the look of complete pleasure that was on his face. "Thank you, Raffles," he murmured softly.

 

"Did you like that, Bunny?"

 

He nodded. "Yes."

 

"Would you like me to kiss you again?"

 

His eyes widened and he smiled the first true Bunny smile I had seen since he'd opened his eyes. "Would you?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, Bunny, I would."

 

"Do you want to?"

 

"Actually, my beloved rabbit, I want to very much indeed - but only if you want me to."

 

"Oh, yes, please, Raffles. Yes, please."

 

I was about to put my mouth back on his when I heard voices coming closer. Swiftly but without too much haste I urged him off my lap and back into bed where I pulled the covers up around him, before I moved back to the chair by the side of his bed.

 

The door opened and Dobson, Matron and Charlie, who was again holding his right wrist in his left hand, came in. At the sight of Dobson I hastily stood up and let go of Bunny's hand. To my surprise Dobson said, "Sit back down Raffles." He looked grim, almost as grim as Charlie still looked. After a fleeting second I did as he bid me do and I sat back down, turning the chair as I did in order that I might look at him.

 

Charlie had circled the bed and was standing by the locker as close to the bed as he could get. Matron stayed by me whilst Dobson went to stand at the bottom of the bed where he silently stared at Bunny who after pushing himself up in the bed a little more so that he was sitting more upright and glancing swiftly at me met Dobson's gaze. The grim look on Dobson's face had faded and I saw what very few boys ever saw, what very few boys realised Dobson was capable of feeling - genuine compassion.

 

It was all too easy to dismiss Dobson as nothing more than the fierce, stern, often irritated, rule-driven man who seemed to find the boys in his care exasperating and a waste of his time. He was those things, but he was so much more. You don't become a school master and certainly not a house master if you don't have compassion. I happened to know Dobson cared very much about the boys he was in effect a parent to for so many weeks of the year. And as I watched him look at Bunny I saw just how much he cared about the youngest, smallest boy in his care. I confess even though I had always known about Dobson's compassion for the boys in his care, I was a little surprised by clearly how fond he was of Bunny. I had hitherto got the impression that my rabbit wasn't a boy whom Dobson particularly liked.

 

"How do you feel, Manders?" he asked after a moment or two, even his voice was different from the usual brusque, harsh tones he used on a day-to-day basis.

 

I wasn't surprised when Bunny glanced at me quickly before looking back at Dobson. "Better, thank you, Mr. Dobson sir," he said his voice very low.

 

Dobson smiled. "Good," he said and then added, "That's a good boy." Again silence fell. Finally, Dobson cleared his throat, glanced at Matron and then looked back at Bunny. "Manders?"

 

"Yes, sir?"

 

"I need to ask you something. Is that all right?"

 

Again Bunny looked at me and I gave him a smile. He turned back to Dobson. "Yes, sir."

 

Dobson glanced now at Charlie who took a step closer to the bed. "You told Charleston the names of the boys who," he paused for a moment and I saw the grim look return to his face, "hurt you," he said finally, his tone when he said the final two words was as grim as the look on his face.

 

Now Bunny glanced up at Charlie who smiled and put his hand on Bunny's shoulder. "It's all right, Harry," he said softly.

 

Bunny looked back at Dobson and nodded. "Yes, Mr. Dobson, sir."

 

"Good boy. Now, Manders, I need you to tell me -"

 

"I can't! Don't make me, Mr. Dobson, I can't tell you. I promised. Tell him, Charleston! Tell him!" Bunny's distress was palpable and I saw Matron move slightly towards him as I was about to stand up.

 

However, Charlie moved more swiftly, sitting down on the bed and putting his arm around Bunny and speaking soothingly to him. "It's all right, Harry," he said. "Mr. Dobson knows you can't tell him and he won't ask you. He understands, don't you, sir?" he asked, glancing quickly at Dobson.

 

Dobson nodded. "Yes, I do. I'm sorry, Manders, I should have explained more clearly." He quite calmly ignored the fact that Bunny hadn't given him a chance to explain, interrupting him as abruptly as he had done.

 

Bunny, pressed against Charlie, was staring at Dobson. "So you're not going to ask me to tell you their names?"

 

Dobson shook his head. "No, Manders. All I need you to do is to confirm that the names you which you told Charleston were the boys who hurt you."

 

Bunny glanced at Charlie who smiled reassuringly at him and then looked back at Dobson and nodded. "Yes, Mr. Dobson, sir, they were."

 

"Are you quite certain, Manders? It is a very serious matter; you do understand that, do you not?"

 

This time Bunny answered immediately without looking at Charlie or at me. "Yes, sir," he said firmly.

 

"Good boy. So you understand why I have to be completely certain, do you not?" Again Bunny nodded, but this time he didn't speak. "So if you aren't completely sure, Manders, if you realise you told Charleston the wrong names, then don't be afraid to say so now. No one will be angry with you."

 

This time Bunny looked at Matron. "Just tell Mr. Dobson the truth, Harry," she said. "If you are certain the names you gave to Edward are the right ones, just say so."

 

Bunny nodded and sat up straighter as he stared at Dobson. "I'm quite certain, sir," he said his voice low and firm. "The names I told Charleston were the names of the boys who . . ." he trailed off, swallowed hard and began to tremble as he once more leant against Charlie, who tightened his grip on Bunny, whilst at the same time holding out his hand to me.

 

I glanced swiftly at Dobson, who was looking at Bunny with even more compassion than I had ever seen him show, before I took Bunny's hand and held it between both of mine. As I turned my attention from Dobson back to Bunny I caught sight of Dobson's hands shaking for a fraction of a second before he put them beneath his gown and now that Bunny wasn't looking at him, but down at the bed Dobson's look had once more become grim and I can see he was very angry.

 

Again silence filled the room for a minute or two until Bunny stopped trembling and once more sat more upright; he was however still holding my hand tightly and still partly pressed against Charlie. Once he had looked up Dobson spoke again. "Thank you, Manders," he said softly. "You are a very brave boy indeed and I promise you the boys will not go unpunished."

 

Bunny swallowed and a hint of colour touched his cheeks as Dobson praised him. "Thank you, Mr. Dobson, sir," he said. Dobson nodded and started to turn, but Bunny called quickly, "Mr. Dobson?"

 

Dobson turned back. "Yes, Manders?"

 

"You really won't let anything happen to Ollie, will you, sir?"

 

For a second I saw a hint of confusion on Dobson's face which vanished quickly. "No, Manders," he said, "I promise you nothing will happen to Urquhart." He then turned his attention to me. "Matron told me you were feeling somewhat unwell earlier, Raffles, and also that Charleston may need some help due to," he paused for a second and looked at Charlie who met the stare, "injuring his wrist."

 

"Yes, Mr. Dobson," Matron said swiftly before either Charlie or I could reply.

 

"Hmm. Well, I suggest that you both remain in the San for tonight, if Matron thinks that would be fore the best."

 

He looked at Matron who nodded. "I think that would be advisable, Mr. Dobson."

 

"Very well." Dobson again looked at me for a moment or two before letting his gaze drift to Charlie.

 

"Yes, sir," I said swiftly. "Thank you, sir."

 

"Thank you, sir," Charlie echoed.

 

"Yes, well, I really do not wish to be disturbed in the middle of the night." That was the Dobson we knew so well. I hid a smile and didn't dare look at Charlie who was in fact looking at Bunny. Dobson looked at Bunny again. "It will be all right, Manders," he said his voice again low and gentle.

 

Bunny swallowed. "Yes, sir, Mr. Dobson, sir," he murmured. "Thank you, sir," he said solemnly as he stared at Dobson. Dobson held the stare for a moment, then nodded and again turned. However, once more Bunny spoke. "Mr. Dobson? I'm sorry, sir," he added swiftly, "may I ask you one more thing, please, sir?"

 

Dobson turned back and if he was feeling any irritation at being stopped for a second time it didn't show on his face nor in his voice was he said, "Of course you may, Manders."

 

To my surprise Bunny glanced at Charlie and said, "I'm sorry, Charleston, please forgive me." Charlie looked surprised as he glanced at me, but I shrugged and quickly shook my head; I had no idea for what Bunny was apologising. Bunny looked back at Dobson. "Was Charleston correct, sir, to tell me that as I told him the names of the boys and not Raffles or you or Matron or any other master or my parents and that he was the one to tell you that I didn't break my promise?" He bit his lower lip and I glanced swiftly over his head at Charlie and saw, not that it surprised me, that he was completely unperturbed by Bunny questioning something he had told him.

 

Dobson nodded. "Yes, Manders," he said his tone gentle but also solemn. "Charleston was indeed correct. You did not break your promise. You told Charleston and wasn't one of the people you promised not to tell. Charleston told me, which is quite different from you telling me. You did not break your promise," he repeated softly. "Do you understand?"

 

Bunny smiled and nodded. "Yes, sir, Mr. Dobson, sir. Thank you, sir."

 

Dobson smiled back. "You're a very good boy, Manders," he said. Then he nodded to Matron, glanced at Charlie and me, turned and left the room.

 

Matron stood for a moment and looked at Bunny, Charlie and me. "You are indeed a very good boy, Harry. Now I'll go and see if Oliver is awake, I know he'd like to see you, Harry, if he is."

 

"I'd like to see him too," Bunny said.

 

Matron smiled and left the room.

 

As soon as she'd gone Bunny turned to Charlie. "I really am sorry, Charleston," he said, the words tumbling out. "It wasn't that I didn't believe you. It was just that . . ." He trailed off and I could hear a hint of tears in his voice, even though I couldnít see his face.

 

"You wanted to be quite certain because I'm still a boy and Mr. Dobson is an adult," Charlie said softly.

 

Bunny nodded. "Yes. But I really am -"

 

"Hush, Harry. It's all right. I'm not upset or angry with you."

 

"You're not?"

 

"No, Harry, I'm not. I understand completely. I'm glad you asked."

 

"Are you?" I still couldn't see Bunny as he was still looking at Charlie, even though his hand was still in mine.

 

Charlie was smiling. "Yes, Harry, I am, because it's made you happier about telling me and that's what matters."

 

"You really don't mind that I asked, Mr. Dobson?"

 

"No, Harry, I really don't mind."

 

Now Bunny did turn from Charlie to me. "Raffles?"

 

"Charlie doesn't mind, Bunny," I said softly, my fingers automatically brushing his hair back from his forehead.

 

Bunny gave me a genuine smile before he turned back to Charlie. "Thank you, Charleston," he said and I could hear the relief in his voice.

 

By the way Charlie swallowed very hard and quickly glanced away from Bunny to look at me I had an idea of the look on Bunny's face as he gazed at Charlie. It was a look I'd seen several times and it never ceased to move me; I doubt Charlie would ever have been looked at in the way I was certain Bunny was looking at him.

 

At that moment the door opened and Matron came in with Urquhart. "Are you all right, Ollie?" Bunny asked, turning from Charlie and letting go of my hand.

 

Urquhart smiled at him. "Yes, thank you, Harry," he said. "Matron said I just got a little over-tired. But I'll be fine. How are you?"

 

Bunny was silent for a moment before he looked at Charlie, looked at me and looked back at Urquhart. "Better now, thank you, Ollie."

 

Charlie and I left Bunny and Urquhart talking whilst we went back to the house to get our pyjamas, tooth-brushes and anything else we needed for a night in the San. As I walked by Charlie's side I considered asking him again to tell me who had hurt Bunny, but decided not to. I know Charlie; he wasn't going to tell me, no matter what I said or did.

 

Someone, I guessed Fletcher, had taken the bags we had abandoned in the quad what seemed like hours ago but was little more than just over an hour and a half to our studies. Boys still milled around the quad and once more they seemed to be going out of their way to avoid looking at us, well at me, and those who did happen to glance in my direction, hastily glanced away again and as we walked boys scattered before us. I wasn't sure if I was irritated or amused by the way they were all doing anything to avoid contact with me. In the end I decided both emotions were too exhausting and so I just ignored them and carried on putting one foot in front of the other as I walked along by Charlie's side.

 

The truth was my over-whelming emotion was still anger, a deep, dark, powerful anger that needed an outlet, but clearly wasn't going to get one - not unless I did try asking Charlie again who had hurt Bunny. "Charlie?"

 

"No, A. J." And that was that. In all the years we've been friends I have only heard Charlie use the tone he did half a dozen times - but I knew what it meant.

 

THE NEXT DAY

 

Charlie and I said goodbye to Bunny and Urquhart and headed back to the house to bathe and have breakfast before a day of lessons and cricket practise. Matron had decided to keep Urquhart in the San until the afternoon and Bunny would be there for several more days. I'd promised Bunny I would visit him as soon as lessons had finished for the day.

 

The anger I felt hadn't faded, partly because I'd spent a sleepless night watching over Bunny as he'd slept. I had told myself it was unnecessary as the San was locked and given Dobson knew the names of the boys who had hurt Bunny, they would be under some kind of supervision, quite possibly shut in the sick room that is located off of Dobson's own rooms.

 

However, despite telling myself Bunny didnít need me to stay awake and watch over him, I did. I tried to sleep, but every time I closed my eyes I saw my frightened rabbit being assaulted. So I'd sat in a chair by the side of Bunny's bed in the night-lit San devising ways of avenging my rabbit - ways I couldn't possibly achieve.

 

It was only after changing into cricket whites when I came out of my study and found Charlie leaning against the wall obviously waiting for me that I realised he hadn't left my side from the moment we had left the San - I even recalled that he'd accompanied me to the lavatories at break, even though he had not availed himself of the facilities. And now it seemed that even though he wasn't going to practise due to his still bandaged wrist, he was going to come along. I realised I was more grateful for his company than I could say.

 

Twenty minutes later I had even more reason to be grateful, even if initially I was angry with him, when he forcibly took the cricket ball from my hand and dragged me off the pitch before I could bowl a second ball in anger. I had bowled the first ball with so much anger and intense spin that it had hit the pitch, swerved upwards and missed smashing Kaylock, the boy to whom I was bowling, in the face by less than an inch.

 

Somehow Charlie got both of my arms behind my back and held my hands in his left hand whilst he gripped my arm tightly with his damaged right hand and by force made me leave the pitch whilst the other boys just stood and watched. Once we were a reasonable distance away from them he stopped walking. "Are you going to stop struggling, A. J.?" he demanded.

 

I nodded. "Yes, Charlie."

 

"Do I have your word?"

 

"Yes, Charlie." I was trembling slightly as he let go of me as I realised quite how badly I could have hurt Kaylock. "I'm sorry," I said softly.

 

He turned me around and stared at me. "This won't help Manders," he said.

 

I sighed. "I know. I know that, Charlie, but I'm just . . . Charlie, I need to . . . I need to do something to . . . I need some kind of physical outlet, but clearly I can't even be trusted with a cricket ball."

 

He looked at me for a moment. "Oh, A. J.," he said softly. "Come along, get changed and we'll go for a brisk walk around the grounds." And with that he put his arm through mine and led me towards the house.

 

We went into my study and Charlie closed the door. The next second I found myself spun around, pressed up against the door, with one of Charlie's hands in my hair, the other was pressed against my shoulder and his mouth was on mine. "Don't fight me, A. J.," he murmured taking his mouth from mine for a moment, "you know you won't win."

 

But as his mouth plundered mine again, his teeth grazing my bottom lip, fighting him was the furthest thing from my mind. Because as he kissed me and went on kissing me I remembered how good it had always been with Charlie - it hadn't just been good; it had been the best ever. Charlie was the first boy I had kissed, the first boy I had touched, the first boy who had touched me, the first and only boy I'd ever allowed to bugger me. We had been so good together and from the way I was responding to his kiss, even though it had been over a year since I'd been in his arms, since his mouth had been on mine, we still were good together.

 

For four years after we'd first kissed in a very tentative manner, we had been virtually inseparable. We learnt about sex, about what felt good, about what worked, what we liked and didn't like with one another - no other boys had featured; we hadn't needed or wanted any other boys, we had one another.

 

And during those years it hadn't bothered me when I became aware that unlike most public school boys who experiment, who kiss, who touch other boys during their years at school and then go on to marry and settle down quite happily, that Charlie would never take a young lady to bed; that for him this wasn't just a case of boys being the only people available. And my lack of concern wasn't just that I knew even then I would be quite happy to take men or ladies to my bed. Even had I known I would only be interested in ladies once I left school, Charlie was my best friend, I loved him - thus of course it did not concern me that he would only have an interest in men. And illegal or not, some men did continue to have sex with other men and only with other men

 

I would have quite happy to continue to take Charlie to my bed or go to his for our entire time at the school until the day I saw in his eyes that the love he had for me wasn't just the love I had for me. He was in love with me and I knew I loved him too much to continue to share his bed. It wouldn't have been fair to him, because whilst I knew I could bed men once I'd left school, that wasn't what Charlie would have wanted. To go on sharing a bed with him, to go on kissing him, to go on touching him, no matter how good it was, would have been wrong. So I had stopped; he had tried to persuade me not to, he had told me he knew I would never change my life plans for him and that he was quite capable of rationalising what we shared.

 

However, one of my failings is that when I care about someone I decide that I know what is right, what is the best thing for them - in short I know best. And to my mind, me not sharing Charlie's bed was the best thing for him. So I had stopped and instead had started doing things with boys whom I didn't really like, because I didn't want to risk another boy falling in love with me.

 

But now as he deepened the kiss even more, as he pushed his rapidly hardening body against mine with more force than I had ever experienced, as I tasted him again, as I felt his hand in my hair, as I breathed in his scent, I knew I had been a fool to have turned my back on him and what we had done together; turned my back on something that had been so very good.

 

Finally he dragged his mouth from mine, took in several large gulps of air and stared at me. "Yes?" he asked softly.

 

I nodded. "Yes."

 

He smiled, reached around me to lock my study door and dragged me into my bedroom. We striped at a high speed and fell onto my bed naked, hard, our arms wrapped around one another, our mouths once more on one another's. Charlie moved back just far enough to slide his hand down my body and take me into his hand and stroke me in the way only he had ever stroked me. Mere seconds passed before I was crying his name into his mouth and shuddering as my body reacted and achieved its desire; his hand was still wet and sticky as he moved it back up my body and pulled me close to him.

 

My heart was racing, I was wet with perspiration, my lip was bleeding, my body was hardening again at a rate that surprised me and I knew exactly what I wanted; what I needed; what I hadn't had since that Sunday afternoon in Charlie's bed. "Please, Charlie," I ground out, pulling my mouth from him and trying to turn over in his arms.

 

But he held me firmly, pushing me back down on the bed and leaning over me. "I'll hurt you," he growled.

 

"I don't care."

 

"No, A. J., I'll hurt you. Use your hand on me this time. I promise I'll give you what you want soon." And with that he put his mouth back on mine and once more kissed me with an intensity, passion and strength I'd never experienced, not even with him, as I put my hand tightly around him and swiftly stroked him in the way I remembered he liked until my hand was wet and sticky and he was murmuring my name over and over.

 

For some time after that we just lay in one another's arms, hands moving over naked flesh, until finally he once more had my body responding in the ultimate way in his hand. The anger and tension I had felt from the moment he had told me about Bunny was fading, and rather than feel taut my body was relaxing as it got the physical release it needed and my head had stopped pounding.

 

Our kisses had gentled somewhat from the almost brutality of the early ones as mouths and bodies became reacquainted and again I remembered just how good it had been with Charlie; how different it was to touch and be touched by someone about whom you cared - someone you loved.

 

A few minutes later Charlie pushed himself up on one elbow and looked down at me. The look in his eyes told me quite clearly that I was going to get what I wanted and a second or two later he was helping me to turn over and not long after that his fingers slipped inside me briefly before they were replaced.

 

Yes it did hurt; it hurt more than I remembered it hurting, but it was the kind of hurt I relished; the kind of pain I needed at that moment and as I forced my body to relax around Charlie I knew why I had never let another boy do this: there was no other boy in the school I trusted enough - at least not one I'd had sex with.

 

Charlie moved back a little and with me helping him he dragged me to my knees before he put his hand around my body and once more enclosed me in his hand, a gesture I knew so very well, and he began to move his hand over me quickly, his grip was hard and seconds after I'd made his hand wet for the third time I felt his own release inside me. I slumped back down onto the bed and welcomed his heaviness as he fell on top of me.

 

I lost track of how long we just lay there before he carefully removed himself and settled down onto the bed next to me and I turned onto my side. He put his hand on my cheek and smiled at me, "Better?" he said softly, moving his mouth and kissing me in the gentlest kiss we'd shared since he'd first thrown me against my own study door.

 

I smiled and nodded. "Yes, much. Thank you, Charlie." I mirrored his touch and cupped his cheek and we gazed into one another's eyes, having one of our silent conversations. "I do love you, Charlie," I found myself saying. "You know that, don't you?"

 

He nodded and kissed me again. "Of course I know, A. J., I've always known. Now," he said once more gazing into my eyes and saying other things silently, "I believe we both would benefit from a bath," and after brushing his lips over mine one more time he started to move.

 

I caught his hand. "Charlie -" His finger on my lips silenced me.

 

TWO DAYS LATER

 

The two days went by fairly quickly, when I wasn't in lessons or eating I was in the San with Bunny. Although I was still angry and that anger tended to increase when I saw how pale my rabbit still was and how he occasionally jumped at a loud noise and how he tended to take my hand from the moment I arrived at his side, only letting go when I had to leave and how tears did creep into his eyes from time to time, it was a controllable anger. I didn't worry that I might lose control of my temper and hit out at some boy who was not responsible for my anger.

 

Despite the pallor and the occasional tears and trembling for the most part Bunny was in good spirits and made no comment about what had been done to him. I didn't push him, if he wanted to talk about it then of course I'd let him, but to my mind not dwelling on it any more than he had to was far better. He seemed more concerned about Urquhart's safety than his own, asking me several times during each visit if I was certain he was all right. He was very pleased when I told him Urquhart now fagged for Charlie and at least I was able to assure him that Charlie was looking out for him and even walking him back to the dorm at night.

 

I still didn't know what had happened to the boys who had attacked Bunny; no boys seemed to be missing from lessons and whilst it was true the masters were keeping a much closer eye on the boys in their classes, I didn't notice any boy being singled out in particular. Dobson's bed checks were significantly more thorough and a number of my fellow sixth formers grumbled more than once that Dobson even now checked that they were in bed every night.

 

To be fair the grumbles were fairly mild and more a matter of form than anything else - after all boys will be boys and we tended to complain to an extent over any curtailing of what we perceived to be our freedom.

 

From what I heard and saw and more from what Charlie told me, the entire school was in shock over what had happened to Bunny. Rags were one thing, even the way some older boys deliberately scared the younger boys - something of which I did not approve - wasn't that bad. However, for a boy, especially a third former to be attacked and sexually abused in the way Bunny had been was something that simply didn't happen. Yes, some sixth formers did things to their fags that boys like Charlie and I would never consider doing, but even that wasn't the same as what had happened to Bunny as he had been deliberately and quite calculatedly attacked and by more than one boy. And in some ways it seemed worse given the boy had been the youngest and smallest boy in the school.

 

Boys, especially the third and fourth formers, went around in small groups; I do not believe I saw a boy alone during the two days. Even older boys seemed to want to be with other boys; maybe they feared being accused of hurting a younger boy. And despite my anger being far more under control apart from when I was with Bunny and even sometimes not even then, Charlie never left my side. Maybe a lot of boys would have found his constant (and I mean constant) presence annoying, but I found it reassuring, restful and comforting.

 

Books in our hands we left our Latin lesson and I turned to head towards the sixth form common room as we had a free period before lunch. To my surprise, however, Charlie slipped his arm through mine and led me off in the opposite direction towards Dobson's study. As we reached the corner he stopped and I saw him frown and glance back in the direction we'd come; I could see from the look on his face he was considering something and was in two minds about what to do. As he glanced back again in the direction we'd come I thought he would lead me back that way.

 

However, he looked at me, put a hand on my shoulder and said softly but in the tone he uses when he won't be argued with, "I need you to promise me, promise me, A. J." He didn't wait for me to say anything, he went straight on, "I need to you promise me that no matter what you hear that you will be quiet and you will stay with me."

 

I stared at him; I didn't know what was going on. The serious look on his face though told me it was something he wasn't entirely comfortable about. I nodded. "I promise, Charlie," I said my tone equally soft.

 

He stared at me for a moment, looking directly into my eyes, seemingly intent on reading my mind as well as my look. Finally he nodded once, then took my arm and led me closer to Dobson's office where he kept a fairly tight grip on my arm. "You promised, remember, A. J.," he said quietly. I just nodded. Now we were much closer I could hear voices and as I concentrated I could make out what they were saying.

 

"What on earth were you thinking, Nicholas?"

 

"I . . . Father, I . . ."

 

"I am disgusted with you; quite disgusted. That a son of mine - even you - could abuse a younger boy in the way you did. Of what were you thinking?"

 

"I didn't mean to hurt him, Father. I only meant to scare him. We only meant to scare him." Charlie's hand tightened on my arm as Nicholas Wakefield's voice could be heard quite clearly.

 

"Scare him?"

 

"Yes, sir. Really, sir, I didn't mean to . . ." Wakefield's father must have said something we couldn't hear or done something because suddenly Wakefield said, "Mr. Dobson."

 

"I'm sorry, Mr. Wakefield, but I have no alternative other than to expel your son and the other two boys involved. We all know a certain amount of pranks and even a degree of bullying goes on at public schools. But abuse of this kind cannot and will not be tolerated."

 

"I quite understand. Well, Nicholas, you have always made it clear you never wished to come to this school; it seems now you have your wish. However, I suggest you are not too relieved as I will be sending you to -" And he named a school that was in the far north of England; a school known for its discipline and punishment; a school that took boys other schools would not consider taking. Cold baths, hours spent running around the pitches wearing nothing but underwear, daily beatings and a near starvation diet were the least of a boy's worry.

 

"Father, no. Please no. Please, Father. You can't send me there. You can't. I'm your son."

 

"Get up from the floor. And you will cease to call me 'Father' as far as I am concerned I no longer have a son." I tucked my books and his under the arm Charlie was still holding and gripped his hand tightly and swallowed hard as sobs came from Dobson's study. I glanced at Charlie and he was pale and trembling just a little.

 

"Please," we heard Wakefield whisper. "Please, Fa- sir. Please, don't send me there." Then he said quickly. "Mother will not permit it. You know she won't."

 

There was silence for several seconds then Mr. Wakefield spoke again; his tone was quite different. "Your mother will not be able to object," he said. "Mr. Dobson, it is rather ironic that when I received your telephone call I had been about to contact you to ask if Nicholas might be granted . . . Might be granted a week or two away from the school."

 

"Father?"

 

"You see my wife is seriously ill. She has no more than a fortnight left to live and she loves her son very much and despite everything he has done and despite what I feel towards him, I know he loves his mother very much."

 

"I am sorry to hear that, Mr. Wakefield." Dobson's voice was low and even though the door and wall I could hear the sincerity in his voice. I swallowed hard again and gripped Charlie's hand even tighter as I once more looked at him and silently asked a question.

 

He shook his head and said softly. "No, A. J., I didn't know. But even had I done so it would not have made a difference." Just for a fleeting second the coldness of Charlie's tone chilled me.

 

"Thank you, Mr. Dobson. In many ways it will be a relief, especially for her, she is suffering so very much." He was silent again; when he began to speak again he once more spoke to his son. "You will come home with me, you will spend time with your mother, you will read to her, fetch her whatever she wants; you will do whatever she wants. And you will say nothing of what you have done. I will simply tell her that the school granted you some time to spend with her before . . ."

 

"She knows?"

 

"Of course she does. And then once we have . . . Once we have buried her, the day after we have buried her, you will leave my home and take up your position at your new school. I shall make arrangements for you to spend holidays at the school as some of the other boys do. You will be allowed to return home for one week each year. For myself I would not even allow that, but in memory of your mother I will permit it. Do you understand?"

 

"Yes, sir." As he said the two words it was quite clear that Nicholas Wakefield's spirit had been broken. He was destroyed and from what I knew about the school to which he would soon be going he would suffer as he had made Bunny suffer.

 

As I stood holding Charlie's hand, his arm still holding my arm, I felt . . . For a fleeting moment I felt a glimmer of something that felt like sympathy for him. I hated him; like his father I despised him for what he had done to Bunny, and if I could get my hands on him I would - But his punishment was severe and no one, no matter what they did, deserved to lose a beloved parent. Again I glanced at Charlie and I saw for a moment or two the same flickering of sympathy on his face.

 

"The boy who was . . . Hurt; how is he? Will he be all right? Is there anything I can . . ."

 

"He will make a full recovery, at least physically. Quite what effect it will have on him, it is still too early to say. However, he is fortunate to have three boys who care about him a great deal; one of his own age and two who are older. They I am quite certain will help him and do whatever they can to help him."

 

"I am glad to hear that. And if I may ask, what has happened to the other two boys who were involved in the attack?"

 

"They left the school this morning - all three were expelled."

 

For a moment there was silence. Then Mr. Wakefield spoke again. "Well, that is that, is it not, Mr. Dobson? I do thank you for what you have done, for what you tried to do for," he paused for a moment and then to my surprise said, "my son. I do not in any way blame the school for what he and the other boys did. Please believe that."

 

"Thank you, Mr. Wakefield, and once again you have my sympathy and condolences in respect of your wife."

 

"Thank you, Mr. Dobson. If that is all?"

 

"Yes, it is. Good day to you, Mr. Wakefield." I imagined Dobson was holding out his hand to Mr. Wakefield.

 

"Good day to you too, Mr. Dobson."

 

"Wakefield." I heard Dobson say; although his voice was harsh, there was a touch of sympathy in it, sympathy in respect of Wakefield's mother."

 

"Sir." It was nothing more than a whisper.

 

"Come along then, Nicholas. And if your mother -"

 

"She won't, sir. You have my word."

 

There was another brief silence. Then Mr. Wakefield said, his tone more weary than harsh, "Was it anything else I would not accept your word. But as we are talking about your mother . . . Thank you," he said as I guessed Dobson had moved to the door.

 

As one Charlie and I turned quickly both of us intent on quietly hurried away. I had no desire to stay and thus come face to the face with the boy who had hurt my rabbit and I was fairly certain Charlie didn't either. Except somehow as he reached to take them from me, Charlie dropped his books and knocked mine from my hand and by the time we had picked them up, Dobson, Mr. Wakefield and Wakefield were standing outside Dobson's study door.

 

Dobson's gaze came to rest on us. "Charleston," he said, "Raffles," he added turning to look at me.

 

However, my gaze had fallen onto Wakefield and I was more than a little surprised to see he had a black eye and a swollen nose. I glanced swiftly at Charlie who met my gaze and held it; I did notice a faint flush touched his cheeks and now I knew why he had been supporting his wrist again when he had returned from the house after he'd told Dobson who had hurt Bunny.

 

"Ra. . . Ra. . . Raffles," Wakefield whispered and I watched him turn an almost deathly shade and begin to tremble; I even thought for a moment he was going to have an accident - he was clearly that afeared. I said nothing; I just stared at him, aware that Charlie had once more taken my arm.

 

Mr. Wakefield glanced at me and then at Charlie before looking back at his son. "If these boys are particular friends of yours, Nicholas, you had better say goodbye to them. You see," he said looking back at Charlie and me, "I'm afraid Nicholas will not be remaining at the school. His mother is very sick and Mr. Dobson has kindly given permission for Nicholas to spend her last few days at home with her. After that he will be going to another school, a little nearer to our home."

 

I watched as surprise, shock even, crossed over Wakefield's face at his father's words and given what Charlie and I had overheard his father say to him I could quite understand his surprise. However, I caught sight of Dobson's face and he didn't seem in the least bit surprised by Mr. Wakefield's decision not to tell the truth about his son, even though he must have known that the entire school would know the truth before the week was out.

 

"We're not particular friends of your son, sir," Charlie said. "However, we are sorry to hear about your wife, about Nicholas's mother, are we not, A. J.?" His tone although flat told me quite clearly he meant what he said.

 

I nodded and said quietly, also meaning my words, "Yes, sir. We are." I let my gaze move from Mr. Wakefield to Wakefield who was still trembling a little and still seemed to be fighting to control a particular bodily function.

 

"Thank you," Mr. Wakefield said, nodding first at Charlie than at me. "Well, Nicholas, say goodbye."

 

He took a step towards us and I really hoped he wasn't going to hold out his hand for us to shake as that I knew I could not do. I had pushed the hand of the arm Charlie wasn't holding hand into my pocket, holding my books between my arm and body, and I could see Charlie had done same. Wakefield glanced swiftly at us both and then swallowed hard as he looked down at the ground. "Goodbye, Charleston. Goodbye, Raffles and thank you." We both nodded and after nodding to Mr. Wakefield and looking at Mr. Dobson we turned to go.

 

"Raffles." I stopped but didn't turn around. "I . . . I . . . I'm sorry, Raffles," Wakefield stammered out. I froze and felt the tension begin to build in my body and felt the hand in my pocket begin, of its own accord to curl into a fist. Charlie, however, kept walking and as he still had his arm through mine I had no choice but to go with him.

 

He kept walking at a fairly quick speed until we reached my study. He opened the door, pushed him inside, shut the door firmly behind us, took my books from me and dropped them and his on the sofa and then pulled me into his arms and held me as I trembled and finally gave way to the flood of tears I had been fighting from the moment he'd told me about Bunny. The few tears I had allowed myself to shed, hadn't been able to stop myself from shedding, hadn't appeased my need to cry.

 

Thus I let the tears fall for about a minute before I lifted my head from Charlie's shoulder and looked at him as I pulled out my handkerchief, dried my eyes and blew my nose. I really wasn't used to being the one being comforted but given it was Charlie who had comforted me it didn't seem that strange. Once my eyes were dry I pushed my handkerchief back into my pocket suddenly aware I was still holding Charlie's hand and that he was just gazing at me.

 

"Are you all right, A. J.?" he asked softly.

 

I nodded and smiled at him. "Yes, Charlie, I am." And I was; finally I was - mainly thanks to the boy who stood opposite me.

 

"Good."

 

"Charlie -"

 

"Beechworth and Forge," he said, continuing to stare at me.

 

The names didn't surprise me; I knew they were, they had been, particular friends of Wakefield. "And did you hit them too?"

 

He gave me a rueful smile. "Unfortunately not. They fled from Wakefield's study once I hit him - fine friends they were."

 

"Charlie!"

 

"What?"

 

"There were three of them and you . . . What if they'd all turned on you?"

 

Charlie shrugged and finally let go of my hand. "I wasn't worried, well," he said giving me another rueful smile, "not that worried. Beechworth and Forge are basically cowards. I really couldn't see them taking me on - not even three to one."

 

"They weren't that cowardly when they -" I stopped abruptly.

 

Charlie shrugged and moved to sit on the edge of my desk. "Actually, they were, A. J. All they did was to hold Manders down - they didn't try to touch him. And we should all be grateful for that; he could have, he would have, been hurt a lot more if they'd all . . ."

 

I felt a shudder pass through my body and I swallowed hard; Charlie was correct, just as he so often was. I rested against the back of the chair and looked at him. "So you got to hit Wakefield yet you told me I couldn't."

 

Charlie stared at me. "I knew when to stop," he said softly.

 

"You could have stopped me; you're stronger than me, we both know that."

 

He held my gaze and then suddenly stood up. "The thing is, A. J., I'm not all together certain I would have stopped you. And that certainly wouldn't have helped Manders or Urquhart. Now come on, let's go to one of the boat house and have a cigarette." And with that he turned and headed towards the door, opened it and went out into the hall.

 

I just stood for a moment frozen in place; Charlie was suggesting we went and smoked? Charlie, the boy who simply didn't break rules? What was the world coming to? A second later he reappeared and frowned. "Well come along, A. J., don't just stand there." And without waiting for me to move, he once more took my arm and all but dragged me out into the hall.

 

LATER THAT DAY - AFTER SUPPER

 

Carrying two of my own books from home, Bunny had complained he had nothing new to read and had read all the books he'd brought to the school, I left Charlie outside the dining hall and headed for the San. I trusted in the fact that as English was the subject at which Bunny excelled, my books would not be too old for him. As I strode along I realised I felt relaxed and at peace for the first time in four days. With Wakefield, Beechworth and Forge having all been expelled and the school still recovering from what had happened, I had no need to fear for Bunny. Indeed, I strongly suspected my role as his protector would now be an easier one as I seriously doubted any boy would dare to even make a crude suggestion to him ever again.

 

"Hello, Matron," I said, smiling at her as I arrived at the San.

 

"Hello, Arthur. You're looking well; quite your usual self."

 

I smiled a little more. "The boys who hurt Bunny were expelled today," I said, in explanation.

 

"Good." Her face became a little harder than it usually was and her tone was harsh. As with the masters it's quite easy to just see Matron for what she is: the person who runs the San and cares for boys when they are sick. But again, she was more than that; she had chosen this life; she had chosen to care for boys who weren't her own; to devote herself to boys some of whom saw her as nothing more than the person who cleaned up after them if they were sick. I'd never asked her, I wouldn't even though I was aware I was her favourite boy, but I was fairly certain there was a story behind her decision to devote herself to the school and not marry and have children of her own.

 

"How's Bunny?" I asked.

 

"Doing very well and looking forward to seeing you. Oh, he keeps asking when he can return to school. I think he's getting more than a little bored as well as . . . As well as just wanting to get back to normal."

 

"I can understand that."

 

"So can I and believe me I think it is for the best, I really do. However, it will be another few days, maybe even a week before I will be happy to release him. I know he wasn't hurt as badly as he could have been; I know there wasn't a lot of damage, but there was some and I want him to be completely healed before I let him go. Maybe you can talk to him, given how much influence you have over him - how he always listens to you."

 

I smiled. "I'll try."

 

"That's a good boy," she said. "Now I'll bring you both some cocoa in about an hour."

 

I smiled. "Thank you, Matron; that would be very nice."

 

"Raffles!" Bunny held out one hand to me as he put a bookmark in the book he was reading and let it fall onto the bed.

 

"Hello, Bunny. How's my rabbit?" I sat down on the bed, put the books I'd brought for him on the chair and put the one he'd dropped onto the bed back onto his locker. I took his hand and with my other hand brushed his hair back from his forehead, stroked his scalp for a few seconds before tangling his hair around my fingers.

 

He smiled at me and moved a little nearer to me, pressing against me until I let my hand fall from his hair and put my arm around him instead. "I'm all right, Raffles," he said. "I'm bored and I want to get back to school, but Matron said it'll be another few days," he sighed. He lifted his head from my shoulder and looked at me in his wide-eyed pleading way. "Can't you -"

 

"No, Bunny," I said firmly, "I cannot. Matron knows best, you know that. She doesn't want you returning to lessons and games and things until she's certain you are," I paused and swallowed hard as I pulled him a little nearer to me. "Completely," again I paused then said softly, "healed."

 

He was quiet for a moment as he rested his head against my shoulder and moved a little nearer to him. "It does still hurt a bit," he said finally.

 

I tightened the grip I had on him. "I'm sure it does, my brave rabbit." I kissed the top of his head and his sigh of pleasure was clear.

 

"Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Will it always hurt?" his voice was low and suddenly he sounded very young. I didn't quite know what to say as I wasn't completely certain what he was asking and I really didn't wish to answer the wrong question. Just as I was about to say something, although I wasn't altogether certain what he said quietly, "Does it always hurt?"

 

I hesitated for no more than a second; I wasn't about to lie to him. "Yes, Bunny," I said quietly, "but you won't have to worry about that."

 

He moved his head and looked up at me. "Raff-"

 

I put my finger on his lips for a second before I cupped his face. "I have something to tell you, Bunny, something that should make you feel even better." He looked expectantly at me. "The boys," I paused for a moment then said, "Wakefield, Beechworth and Forge have all been expelled. They left the school today and will not be back."

 

For a moment he just looked at me. Then a gentle smile touched his lips. "So Ollie will be safe," he said.

 

I swallowed hard at his words. "Yes, Bunny, Ollie will be quite safe and so, my dearest rabbit, will you."

 

He nodded and once more rested against me. "Raffles?" he said suddenly.

 

"Yes, my rabbit?"

 

"Have you always known their names?"

 

I caught a hint of something in his voice I couldn't quite understand; it was almost disappointment. I pushed him upright and looked down into his now very solemn face. "No, Bunny," I said firmly. "I only learnt their names today; Charlie told me once he knew they'd been expelled." So it wasn't the complete truth, but I had no intention of telling Bunny about the scene Charlie and I had overheard in Dobson's office. I wasn't even going to tell him of Wakefield's apology.

 

Relief raced over his face and he smiled. "Oh, good," he said. "I didn't want to believe that Charleston would lie to me."

 

"Bunny?"

 

"When I told him the names of the boys, I asked him not to tell you who they were."

 

"Did you, Bunny?"

 

He nodded. "Yes, even though I knew it would be all right for him to tell you, because it wasn't me telling you, I still asked him not to tell you. And he said he wouldn't."

 

"Why did you ask him not to tell me, Bunny?" I didn't tell him that even if he hadn't asked, Charlie wouldn't have told me.

 

He glanced away from me, looking down at the bed and letting his hair fall around his face. I let him sit for a moment before I put my fingers under his chin and gently pushed his head up so that he was looking at me. "Because I didn't want you to get expelled. I didn't want you to know who they were because you would have hit them and you might not have," he swallowed, "you might not have been able to stop and you might have really hurt them. And then Mr. Dobson would have had to expel you and . . . and . . . and I didn't want that. I needed you, Raffles. I need you," he whispered the final words as he once again put his head against my shoulder.

 

I tightened the grip I had on him. "You really are a very brave boy, Bunny," I said, "and a very caring one. And I promise you I'm not going anywhere. I won't leave you, Bunny," I said, trusting in him to understand I meant until I had to leave the school to go to university, but that was more than a year away and I wasn't going to think about that.

 

He lifted his head and smiled at me. "Thank you, Raffles," he said.

 

I kissed the top of his head again. "Bunny?" I said my tone serious.

 

"Yes, Raffles?"

 

"Charlie wouldn't have lied to you - surely you know that? He told you he wouldn't tell me the names of the boys, he'd never have gone back on his word, no matter what I might have said or done When Charlie gives his word he keeps it."

 

He bit his lip and glanced away from me for a moment. "I knew that really," he said. "It's just with him being your best friend and you . . . And you caring about me, I thought . . . Well, I didn't think that, not really. I'm sorry, Raffles, I shouldn't have said anything. I'm sorry," he said again.

 

I once more tangled my fingers in his hair. "You don't have to apologise, Bunny. I know you knew it really."

 

He smiled at me and just sat staring at me for a moment or two before he moistened his lips and said softly, "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, my rabbit."

 

"Do you remember what you said the other day, just before Charleston came back with Mr. Dobson and Matron, about wanting to kiss me again?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, Bunny, I remember."

 

"Well," he said, "I'd really like it if you kissed me again now - if you want to, of course."

 

I smiled and rearranged him slightly, pulling him into my arms and gazing down at him. "Oh, yes, Bunny," I said softly, "yes, my rabbit, I do indeed want to kiss you." And I lowered my head and did just that.

 


 

Feedback is always appreciated

 

Go to Raffles Fiction Page

 

Go to Raffles Index Page

Go to Home Page