HARD HABIT TO BREAK
Set during their school days.
It's the beginning of Bunny's second year at school. He returns after the summer holidays, looking forward to another year by Raffles's side only to find things have changed.
A first time story.
Written: April 2012. Word count: 10,795.
Unlike most of my friends from home, I was eagerly anticipating the beginning of the new autumn term. It had been a long eight weeks, and whilst it had been pleasant to catch up with the boys I'd known for several years, things had changed between us. It was inevitable that they would really, given I had been sent to a different school from all of them. But I was a little surprised by quite how much things had changed.
Hitherto close friendships had become strained and when Peter told me towards the end of the holidays they were all tired of me constantly babbling on about Raffles, I realised quite how strained the friendships had become. Thus, although we parted with promises to meet up during the October holidays and if not, then the Christmas ones, I had my doubts that would happen. But it didn't really matter to me, at least not that much; I would be back at school soon and there I had Ollie and more importantly Raffles.
I smiled to myself as I sat in the corner of the compartment of the train which was taking me back to Raffles's side. I had missed him greatly, far more than I had imagined I would and I had become quite morose at one point, enough for Mother to notice and ask me what was wrong. Of course I did not tell her. She and Father knew that I fagged for Raffles and I had told them he was kind to me, but I had never spoken of how close we were, I had never told them how important he was to me, nor had I mentioned quite how much I loved him. I'm sure they wouldn't have understood and quite possibly they wouldn't have approved, thus I kept quiet. I believe it was the first real secret I had from Mother. I didn't imagine for one moment that he'd missed me, certainly not to any great extent; he would have been far too busy playing cricket, spending time with his local chums and doing other things to miss me. However, I did believe he'd be pleased to see me again - he always had been after half-terms and the Christmas and Easter holidays.
My train was delayed, thus by the time I'd found the new dorm, unpacked and spent some time catching up with Ollie, it was already tea time and too late to go along to Raffles's study. I was sitting at the fourth form house table with Ollie and listening to him tell me about the trip to Italy his parents had taken him on, but I was also watching the door waiting to see Raffles arrive. I'd checked the sixth form house table as Ollie and I had entered the hall, but apart from two boys sitting together at one end it had been empty.
Suddenly I saw him and I knew my face had lit up, I sat up a little straighter, knowing full well I was smiling as Ollie's words ceased to make any sense. I just stared across the room, certain he'd look in my direction and smile or wave or maybe even come and say hello. But he didn't. He was walking with Charleston and they appeared to be engaged in a deep conversation because he never lifted his head, never took his hands out of his pockets, never looked in my direction. He just went to the sixth form house table and sat down still talking to Charleston. I felt more than a little deflated and dejected and had to force myself to turn my attention back to Ollie and feign interest in his holiday exploits.
After tea we were given our timetables for the term and were then sent off to the common room until supper. Ollie was still telling me about the beauties of Italy and I didn't want to just walk off and leave him alone; I was pretty much Ollie's only friend, as he was mine - well not counting Raffles. So I stayed with Ollie and told him a bit about my holidays, we discussed the timetable, how the house might fair in the cricket and rugby matches that year and generally passed the time until supper. Once again Raffles didn't glance in my direction when he came into the dining hall; once again he was deep in conversation with Charleston. Once more I had to swallow my disappointment and concentrate on eating supper and talking to Ollie.
It was about twenty minutes after supper and I was in the fourth form dorm remaking my bed and wondering why I had imagined the new term might be different as far as me being ragged went, when I heard the boys in the dorm fall silent. I looked up and there was Raffles standing at the bottom of my bed, his hands were in his pockets and his suit was immaculate as it always was; he was looking at me or rather in my direction, his gaze actually appeared to fall slightly over my left shoulder. I felt the annoyance of my bed being pulled to pieces fade away as I saw him and I smiled brightly at him, feeling my heart begin to race just a little as it always did when I saw him.
To my surprise he didn't instantly smile back he just went on staring in my direction for several seconds before he seemed to shake himself and he did manage a half-smile. "Come with me, please, Manders," he said, before turning on his heel and heading out of the dorm.
I was so thrown by the use of 'Manders' that I didn't instantly follow him, but stood staring after him. From the day we met, he has never called me anything other than 'Bunny'; even when he was referring to me, unless of course he was speaking to a master, he still used his pet name for me. Suddenly he was back in the doorway of the dorm staring in my direction; I could see he looked somewhat irritated. "Manders!" he said, his tone crisp. I ignored the only partly hidden laughter that I could hear around me and hastened off in his direction.
As I hurried past the final bed, my foot made contact with an ankle that had been deliberately put in my path; I was unable to regain my balance and fell forward with a gasp. As he'd done more than once during the previous year, Raffles caught me before I could hit the floor and held me steady as he looked over my shoulder and frowned at the now openly laughing boys.
He didn't speak to me, not a word, but just for a moment his other hand touched my shoulder and then my hair, before he let it fall to his side. He kept hold of my arm for another second or two and when it became obvious I wasn't about to fall over, he let go of me and pushed his hands back into his pockets and still without speaking, turned and strode off down the corridor - I followed him. He didn't slow his stride at all and so even though I trotted along as fast as I could behind him, he still reached his study before me and was inside waiting for me before I slipped inside and shut the door.
He was standing in the middle of the room, his back to the door and I waited for him to turn around or speak- or better still both. Something was wrong, of that I was certain. What had I done? What could I have done? We'd parted at the end of the last term with an embrace and his affection had been clear, but now I felt chilled as I waited for him to say something. What had I done?
Finally he turned around; his hands were still in his pockets. He looked at me directly for a moment, before lowering his gaze and staring at the floor. Eventually he sighed softly, looked back up, took his hands out of his pockets and took a couple of steps towards me. To my surprise he took both of my hands in his and held them as he gazed down at me. "Bunny," he said his tone far softer than it had been in the dorm; it was like his usual tone, but something about him did not reassure me and I still felt chilled.
"Yes, Raffles?" I replied, daring to smile up at him.
He let go of one of my hands and put his hand on my head, letting his fingers tangle in my hair, stroking my scalp for a moment. It was all perfectly normal and yet an instinct I did not know I possessed told me that it was as far from normal as it could be. He seemed uneasy, uncomfortable, uncertain even - three things I had never experienced with him before. "Come and sit down," he said breaking the silence, and still holding my hand he led me to the sofa, sat down and pulled me down next to him, capturing my other hand again and holding them both between his.
"Bunny," he said after another period of silence, once again he was not looking at me. "I've been thinking over the summer and I believe it would be better for you, for both of us, if you spent less time with me."
My mouth fell open. "Raffles?" I managed; his name came out as little more than a whisper.
"Look it's my final year and I'll have a lot more work and your work will be getting harder now you're in the fourth form."
"Don't you want me to be your fag any longer?" I asked.
"No, it's not that. You can still come and clean my shoes and oil my bats and dust and the other things you do. But I think you should spend more time with the boys in your dorm - get to know them. Bunny, you'll have another three years after I've gone; you need more friends of your own age than just Ollie."
I shook my head. "No one else likes me, Raffles, except for Ollie, you know that."
"That's probably because you've never given them a chance, Bunny. You're always with me. I'm sure they're fine boys really. But it's not easy to be friends with someone you hardly ever see. You should spend more time with them, get to know them - even join in some of the rags." I stared in horror at him. "Come on, Bunny, they aren't all dangerous or vindictive, you are allowed to have some fun, you know."
"You don't want me around?" I asked my voice low as I fought tears.
"That's not what I said." To my mind that was exactly what he'd said, but I didn't argue. I just gave a half shrug and looked down at our still joined hands. "It's not that I don't want you around, Bunny, I'll miss you being around. I just think it's for the best. And rather than spend all your time watching me practise or play cricket, you should spend it with Ollie and some of the other boys - after all, it's not as if you are a cricketer, is it?"
I gasped in shook and looked up at him, staring into his eyes, blinking furiously around the tears I could no longer hide. That'd he'd say such a cruel thing, was - Well it wasn't the Raffles I knew and loved. He must have seen my shock, seen how upset I was, because he captured both of my hands in one of his and put his arm around my shoulders, pulling me towards him a little as he murmured a half-apology. "That was uncalled for, Bunny; I didn't mean it as it sounded. Please believe me. Bunny, I don't want to hurt you."
"Then don't send me away from you," I cried, the tears now falling down my cheeks.
He stared at me and I saw anguish, pain even in his gaze, before he pulled me even nearer to him and gathered me onto his lap, putting his arms around me and holding me, rocking me very slightly. "Don't cry, Bunny, please my beloved rabbit, don't cry." But I did, I put my head on his shoulder and sobbed as if my heart was breaking - which I was sure it was.
I felt him sit back further on the sofa, taking me with him and holding me even more tightly as he rubbed my back and the back of my head and murmured gentle words I couldn't hear. I don't know how long we sat there, me on his lap sobbing, him comforting me as he'd done on more than once occasion during my first year at the school. But eventually my tears began to cease and finally stopped all together.
He gently pushed me upright, pulled out his handkerchief and wiped my eyes for me, before handing it to me and encouraging me to blow my nose. The shoulder of his coat was quite wet from where I'd cried on him, but he said nothing. He just stared at me; the same look of anguish and pain I'd seen before he'd pulled me onto his lap was still clear in his gaze.
"I have to, Bunny," he said softly. "I don't want to hurt you, believe me, Bunny, you are the last person I want to hurt. But it has to be like this. I know you can't understand; I know you're upset and hurting, I know you think I don't care about you any longer, but you are wrong. I do care, Bunny, I care -" He stopped abruptly, closed his eyes for a moment before opening them and looking at me. I bit off a gasp as I saw his eyes; the pain and anguish had gone, but so had the light, the warmth, the way they always twinkled when he looked at me. In an instant they seemed to have died; they'd become empty and cold; so cold I even shivered a little as I looked into them.
Then he cupped my face between his hands, pulled my head towards him and lightly kissed my forehead. "You have to trust me, Bunny," he said, his voice flat and empty. "Now come on, blow your nose again, dry your eyes and go back to your dorm." Gently he guided me off his lap, stood up, put his arms around my shoulders and held me in a loose embrace. "And don't worry, Bunny," he said. "I'll still keep you safe - you have my word, no one will hurt you." And he bent his head and kissed my forehead again, before squeezing my shoulder and leading me to the door.
I didn't tell him it didn't matter if he didn't keep me safe, if he didn't go on protecting me because no one could hurt me not now, not after what he'd said. He'd hurt me far more than anyone else ever could - so he'd already broken his word. I didn't say anything because I knew if I did, I would start to cry again. I just gave a brief nod and put my hand on the door knob to open it, but he stopped me, covering my hand with his.
I turned around and for a second I saw the emptiness and coldness vanish from his eyes to be replaced by the pain and sorrow I'd seen earlier. "Oh, Bunny," he whispered, putting his other hand on my cheek. "I wish . . ." And to my surprise I saw a hint of moisture in his eyes, or at least I thought I did, but he glanced away from me, looking down at the ground and when he looked back, it had gone and the emptiness was back.
I'd lost him. I don't know what I'd done wrong. I didn't understand what he'd said apart from the fact he didn't want me around any longer. He had done the one thing I would have bet my life on him not doing; he'd hurt me. As I stared up at him I felt the tears inside me dry up totally, I wondered if I'd ever cry again. I wondered if I'd ever be able to feel anything ever again - and I didn't care if I didn't. Why should I want to feel anything?
And then because something inside of me wanted to lash out and hurt him in some small way, just as he'd hurt me, I stared at him and said, my voice steady, "I love you, Raffles." And with that, before he could speak, I turned back to the door, pulled it open and went out into the corridor. I heard him say my name, but I didn't stop; I just carried on walking back towards the fourth form dorm.
I reached the door, swallowed hard, wiped my eyes one more time, squared my shoulders and planted a smile on my face before pushing open the door and going in. Ollie looked up from his book, "Harry, you're back early," he said, smiling at me and putting his book down. He looked genuinely pleased to see me and I found myself genuinely smiling back at him - at least someone wanted me around.
I lay in bed waiting until all the whispered voices around me fell silent and breathing became steadier before I carefully and quietly got out of bed, fumbled to find my dressing gown, pushed my feet into my slippers and crept out of the dorm. Somehow I'd managed to keep the smile on my face and had kept talking to Ollie and even one or two of the other boys who asked if I'd had a good hols. But once I'd got into bed, once the laugher and whispers had faded, the overwhelming pain and sense of loss had crept back through me.
I headed towards the facilities the furthest away from the dorms, not that I had any need for them, but should I be caught by Dobson or the duty prefect, I would have a reason for being out of bed. Before I reached them I sank down onto the floor, pulled my knees up to my chest and rested my head on them. I waited for the tears that had been threatening me ever since all the lamps had been turned down to appear, but they didn't. Maybe I wasn't ever going to be able to cry again.
It was cold in the hall. Even though the day had been warm and sunny, the night was quite cold - or maybe it was just me - and dressed only in thin cotton pyjamas and a not very warm dressing gown I shivered slightly and pulled my knees even closer to my chest and tried to cry. The tears that were welling up inside me were making me feel sick and also making it difficult to breathe. But no matter how hard I tried, so matter how much I replayed the conversation in Raffles's study, no matter how many times I reminded myself he didn't want me around him any longer, I couldn't cry.
I don't quite know how long I'd have gone on just sitting there, quite possibly until morning, but I was suddenly aware someone was standing over me. "Manders?"
I raised my head a little and looked up at Charleston; I hadn't realised he was on duty that evening. "Hello, Charleston," I said. I know some of my year had a grudging respect for me, envy even, because of the ease with which I spoke to some of the sixth form boys. I did spend more time with them, at least those on the eleven, than anyone else of my year did, and with Charleston being Raffles's best friend, I had even more to do with him than anyone else, and like Raffles Charleston was kind to the younger boys, even if he didn't normally have quite Raffles's way of connecting with us. He'd never seemed irritated by my presence in Raffles's study or at the practises; he occasionally seemed bemused by it, but he always spoke to me courteously and as Raffles trusted him as well as liked him, I'd always felt safe with him.
But now he frowned at me. "What are you doing out of bed?"
I shrugged. "I needed to use the facilities," I said.
His frown deepened. "Then why are you sitting here?" I didn't answer. To my surprise he crouched down in front of me and in a gesture that was so reminiscent of Raffles, it made me gasp softly, he put the back of his hand on my forehead. "Are you ill, Manders? Are you in pain?"
I shook my head. "No." Well, I was in pain, but it wasn't the kind of pain a draft from Matron could help me with.
He took his hand from my forehead and again just as Raffles had done on more than one occasion during the previous year, put his hand beneath my chin and lifted it, so that I was forced to meet his gaze. "What's the matter then?" he asked; his tone was softer than I'd ever heard it before. "Has someone said something to you? Has someone hurt you?"
I shrugged; unable to lie blatantly to him whilst he was looking into my eyes. He frowned again, then sighed and stood up, tugging me up with him. "Come on, Manders. I shouldn't do this, but I'll take you to see Raffles." And he turned and started to lead me away.
"No!" I cried, trying to snatch my arm from his.
He stopped and turned back to look at me, his eyebrows raised in surprise. "Manders?" he asked. "Don't you want to see Raffles?"
I opened my mouth and shut it again, now the tears were beginning to fill my eyes. I looked down at the floor. "Raffles doesn't want to see me," I said and began to sob.
Again I heard him sigh and then I felt a handkerchief pushed into my hand - what had Charleston been doing, taking lessons from Raffles? I could hardly bear it, but the only other option was my sleeve, so I took the cloth and dried my eyes, just in time for a fresh set of tears to fall.
Charleston's hand was on my shoulder and it felt so warm, so familiar that it hurt. "Who said Raffles doesn't want to see you?" he asked his tone gentle. "Have one of the sixth form boys been speaking out of turn?"
I shook my head and again wiped my eyes and blew my nose. "No," I said, now looking up at him. "Raffles said he didn't want to see me." I didn't think it was possible for eyebrows to go as high as Charleston's did nor for a person to look so stunned.
"Manders, you must have misunderstood," Charleston finally said, stuttering slightly as he looked down at me.
My tears had dried now and I felt suddenly calm and empty. "No," I said my voice flat. "I'm sorry to contradict you Charleston, I mean no disrespect, but I didn't misunderstand. I think I'll go back to bed now. Thank you for the handkerchief, I'll make sure it's laundered and returned to you." And I gently shook myself free from his hand that still rested on my shoulder and headed back to the dorm.
Two weeks had gone by since that night in Raffles's study and I had seen him in the dinning hall and even on occasions in the corridors and had, of course, been in his study a few times to dust, polish his shoes and tidy up. However, apart from one evening, I hadn't spent more than a few minutes alone in his company. On the few occasions he had asked me to go to his study he would spend a minute or two with me and then suddenly have an urgent need to go and visit Charleston on some pretext or other.
One night after he said he was just going to see Charleston about Latin prep, I calmly pointed out that actually I'd passed Charleston on my way to Raffles's study and he'd been taking one of the third years to the San. I paused mid-way through dusting the pictures he had on his wall and wondered what other excuse he'd come up with not to spend any more time alone with me, which other sixth former would he suddenly have an over-whelming need or desire to go and see? However, to my faint surprise he just sat back down at his desk and opened his book; my surprise increased when, after I'd ran out of pictures to dust and was about to say 'good night' to him, he asked me to make him a mug of cocoa and told me to make one for myself as well.
When I handed him his cocoa, he put down his book and moved to the sofa, I hovered for a moment, about to sit on the floor, until he gave me a slight frown and indicated I should sit down on the sofa. He settled back and sipped his cocoa, all the time watching me, but I could not relax; I found I was all but perching on the edge of the sofa trying to drink the hot liquid as quickly as possible.
He asked how I was and what I'd been doing in class and other such things; I replied as briefly as I possibly could. Despite the fact I'd longed to spend some time alone with him ever since the evening he in effect banished me from his company, I couldn't finish my cocoa fast enough. I had never felt as awkward or uneasy, not even on the first evening in his study or when I had broken one of his precious mugs or after I'd made a complete fool of myself during a third form cricket match. All I wanted to do was to leave. Finally, although I'd scalded my mouth, I emptied my mug, thanked him for the cocoa, muttered something about prep and hurried off.
During those two weeks, whilst I didn't see that much of Raffles, I did see quite a lot of Charleston; I bumped into him on more than one occasion in the corridors during the day and whilst he was on prefect duty. He always paused and spoke to me, even if was, as it usually was, just to say 'hello' and he always had a sympathetic look on his face and more than once he squeezed my shoulder. I presumed he'd had confirmation from Raffles about my banishment and I also wondered if he knew more about Raffles's reasons than I did. If Raffles had confided in anyone it would have been Charleston; and given how sympathetic Charleston seemed to be, I got the feeling Raffles had told him everything.
There was a lot of talk during that fortnight and I knew most it had to be about me, as whenever I went into the dorm or the common room or the dining hall or a classroom or the lavatories people would stop talking and pretend not to look at me. Ollie told me some of the things they'd said, but I knew he kept most of it to himself, as he knew it would hurt me too much. I knew that because I did hear some of the 'I wondered when Raffles would come to his senses' and other such comments. One evening when I was on my way to Raffles's study to polish his shoes, I heard raised voices coming from Charleston's study; I couldn't recognise the other voice and I didn't stay to listen, but from the snatches I did hear as I went by the boy with Charleston was saying something about Raffles and me and Charleston wasn't happy with what he'd said.
I didn't think things would change; I was resigned to spending the remainder of the school year as I'd spent the last two weeks. I was still hurting, more than I cared to admit, I was still unhappy, even though I tried not to let it show and I still wanted to know what the real reason had been for Raffles sending me away from him - because I didn't believe he'd told me the full story. I still believed I had done something wrong; that it was my fault he'd sent me away - even if I had no idea what the something was.
However, then came the evening before the final cricket match of the season; normally the only cricket that was played in September were inter-house matches or the eleven practising or even, along with the reserves and some 'almost eleven' players, playing matches. However, an old friend of the Head, apparently they'd been up at Oxford together, who was due to retire somewhat early had approached the Head and suggested a final, special cricket match between the schools - to be played on our pitch as it was far superior. Our Head had agreed and so the eleven would take to the field as one team for the final time that year.
Raffles had told me briefly at supper time he'd need me that evening to oil his cricket bat and so once I'd finished supper I hurried off to his study, I dutifully knocked and waited for Raffles to call 'come in'.
"Hello, Bunny," he said, standing up and smiling at me.
"Raffles," I smiled back and then noticed Charleston. "Hello, Charleston."
"Good evening, Manders. I wonder if you'd mind oiling my bat for me as well as Raffles's, please? Thompson's taken his younger brother to the San."
"Of course I don't mind, Charleston," I said. Yes, Charleston asked me, he didn't tell me - but that was the kind of boy Raffles's best friend was.
"Thank you, Manders," he said.
And I settled down on the floor in the corner of the room to work on their bats. I deliberately tried not to listen to what they were talking about, but they were talking at a normal level and so no matter how hard I tried not to listen, I caught odd snatches of conversation. For the most part it was about their Latin prep and the following day's match.
However, at one point I heard Charleston say, "Have you thought any more about what I said, A. J.?"
Raffles was silent for some time before he said, his voice a little lower, "I have, Charlie, but my answer's still the same. It's for the best."
I happened to glance up at that moment as I was reaching for the bat oil and I saw Charleston shake his head and sigh as he stared at Raffles.
Finally I finished the bats and wiped my hands on one of the cloths, before putting them and the oil away carefully. Then I made my way to where they sat on the sofa. "I've finished," I said.
"There's a good boy," Raffles said, standing up and to my surprise briefly squeezing my shoulder. "Thank you, Bunny," he added.
"Yes, thank you, Manders," Charleston said, also standing up and glancing at me and then at Raffles.
"I'll say goodnight then," I said, and headed for the door.
"Goodnight, Bunny," Raffles called. "Sleep well."
I turned. "Goodnight, Raffles. Goodnight, Charleston." I reached for the door knob.
"Hold on, Manders, I'll walk back with you; I'm on duty tonight," Charleston said, joining me at the door. "I'll see you in the morning, A. J.," he added, turning back to Raffles and smiling at him.
Raffles nodded. "Goodnight, Charlie," he said, his voice sounded as if was questioning Charleston's declaration that he was on duty.
As Charleston opened the door and indicated I should go out first, I glanced back and saw Raffles standing with his hands in his pockets just staring at Charleston and me, an unreadable look on his face.
We walked in silence until we rounded the corner that led away from the sixth form studies. To my surprise Charleston stopped and put a hand on my shoulder. "How are you, Manders?" he asked, his voice gentle.
I shrugged, looked down at the floor and managed, "I'm all right, thank you, Charleston."
He sighed and tightened the grip he had on my shoulder. "Look at me, Manders," he said softly. After a moment or two I obeyed him. "Raffles really does think it was, that it is, for the best," he said.
I swallowed hard and blinked several times; I was determined I wouldn't cry. "He was wrong. He still is," I said flatly, wondering as I did quite how I dared to speak to a sixth former about another sixth former in the way I was speaking.
Charleston sighed again and put his other hand on my other shoulder. Then to my amazement he said quietly, "I know he was. I doubt it will be of any comfort to you, Manders, but you're not the only one who's unhappy." I stared at him, my eyes wide. "Raffles is too," he added even more quietly.
I continued to stare up at him in complete amazement, I almost doubted what I had heard; in fact for a moment I thought I was asleep and dreaming. However, I knew I wasn’t. I opened my mouth to tell Charleston that I didn't care if Raffles was unhappy and that if he were it was his own fault. But I closed it again because I did care, even though it was his own fault. The look Charleston gave me told me he'd understood fully what I'd been about to say.
"You'll be at the match tomorrow, won't you? Well of course you will be, the whole school will be there," he said, after we'd just stood in silence for a couple of minutes.
Even though he'd already answered his own question, I nodded. "Yes," I said.
"Good," he said and squeezed my shoulders, before taking his hands off me and putting them into his pockets. Without another word he turned from me and began to walk in the direction of the dorms, I followed him. When we reached the fourth form dorm, he stopped and looked down at me, "Goodnight, Manders," he said and smiled.
I didn't sleep well that night; all I did was constantly reply Charleston telling me that Raffles was as unhappy as I was. Well, unhappy; I doubted it was possible for him to be as unhappy as I was.
As the two teams, led by their respective captains, took to the field for the coin toss, I found myself really looking at Raffles for the first time in a fortnight. Even when I'd seen him in the halls or had been in his study, I hadn't really spent any time looking at him - it was too painful. I bit off a gasp of surprise when I saw how pale he was, saw dark circles under his eyes and saw how he seemed to have lost weight, certainly his whites didn't fit as snugly as they had done in July. He also seemed to be more than a little subdued and from what I observed almost uninterested in the match he was about to play.
I wondered if he looked tired because he was still getting out of school at night and had found someone else to help him. However, I doubted that, surely he wouldn't have found someone else he could trust with such a secret. Charleston was the only other person I knew he fully trusted and I knew Charleston had never known about Raffles's nights out.
Raffles called and won the toss and after a swift glance in Charleston's direction elected to bat and led our eleven back off the field to the pavilion. We lost two wickets in quick succession, before Charleston took his place at the crease and finally we started to notch up some runs. However, an over ambitious attempt at a run which even I could see wasn't on, led to the third wicket falling and Raffles joined Charleston at the crease and together they managed fifty (the majority being scored by Charleston) before a badly bowled ball, whipped up and hit Charleston on his left wrist, causing him to cry out and drop his bat.
Dropping his bat on the ground a second before the umpire called 'no ball' Raffles hurried to Charleston and took his wrist in his hand. A hush descended over the whole ground as I saw, but obviously couldn't hear, Raffles and Charleston talking. Finally Charleston gave what looked like a slightly irritated nod and picked his bat back up and Raffles returned to the other end of the crease. Charleston like Raffles is a good all-rounder and I was glad that it had been his left wrist and not his bowling wrist that had been hit, but even from where I sat I could see it was causing him some discomfort.
Nonetheless, it seemed he was determined to play on and a good thing it was too, because at the beginning of the next over a ball that I had seen Raffles take on and best dozens of time, indeed I believe he could have hit it in his sleep got past him and cleanly took off all three stumps. Almost as one our school groaned as our captain left the field having only scored thirteen runs. Raffles kept his head down as he strode of the pitch, barely raising it to acknowledge the incoming batsman.
Things went from bad to worse as another two wickets fell in quick succession, but Charleston dug in and bit by bit by bit the score crept up into triple figures until finally Charleston ran out of batting partners and we ended the innings on a very mediocre score of 149 all out. Given we were on our home ground and we had the best public school cricketer playing for us, you can imagine how despondent our school was when we went in for lunch.
The mood in the dining hall was, as far as our school went, very subdued. The eleven sat together at one table and I found myself watching Raffles the entire time. He sat next to Charleston, his head bowed over his plate and as far as I could tell he didn't eat anything and the only person to whom he spoke was Charleston. The captain of the eleven is the most important person on the team, he doesn't have to be the best player (Raffles is) he just has to be the player who can keep the team focussed and inspired, no matter what has happened on the field. From the way the other players kept glancing at Raffles and the way they barely spoke, he certainly wasn't doing his job.
Things improved somewhat when Raffles led our side out to field as between them Charleston and he took five swift wickets. The only problem was that whilst Charleston's wickets for runs was pretty good, when Raffles wasn't taking off stumps or bowling balls that lured the batsman to hit and be caught, he was being hit all over the field. Groan after groan emanated from our school every time a batsman knocked Raffles's usually difficult to read ball for a four or even a six, and he was not happy; that was clear for anyone to see. Raffles has always taken the role as captain seriously and although he's always been happy to consult with others, especially the boy bowling, the interaction tends to be brief and it is clear Raffles knows what he wants - and he gets it. But that day he consulted Charleston far more than he usually does in half a dozen matches.
Eventually, it was the final over with the visitors needing twelve runs to win; they had no wickets left to lose and batting was their star batsman who'd been there from the very first ball and their star bowler who was not known as any kind of batsman. For the past three overs the star batsman had been calling all the runs and had somehow managed to keep the bat, even though the final run of the penultimate over had been a scramble and a very close call as the ball took off the stumps in what was judged by the umpires to be a fraction of a second after the batsman lunged and had his bat across the line.
Once again Raffles called Charleston to his side and I saw him toss Charleston the ball, but Charleston tossed it back and after head shaking and shrugs, Raffles took the ball and headed to bowl. Silence fell over the spectators as he bowled the first of what I prayed would be six balls - or fewer if he took the batsman's stumps. Things didn't start well for us; the first ball, which even I could see was bowled poorly by Raffles's standards, was hit for a six. The next two balls kept the batsman firmly ensconced behind his line, the fourth notched up a two.
And then it seemed as if Raffles was at his best as he deliberately lured the star batsman into being forced to take a single. It was almost as if Raffles and Charleston had orchestrated it; Raffles bowled and it was one of his really swerving balls, the batsman got his bat on it and cracked it along the ground seemingly straight back at Raffles who rather than stop it, took a half step to one side and the ball raced off across the field. The star bat called the runs, but as he reached the opposite end and turned, out of nowhere Charleston had snatched up the ball and thrown it straight to Raffles who stood daring the batsman to risk the second run.
Thus, the final ball had to be faced by the bowler who as yet hadn't faced a single ball in his short innings and now he needed to hit the ball for three. In reality, he had only one chance: he had to hit a four or a six as running three is never easy. Once again a deathly hush fell around the grounds; had it been any other match I would have been confident that Raffles would either hit the stumps or bowl the perfect ball that would be hit for no runs or a mere single or even hit to be caught.
After a fairly short but intense discussion with Charleston, Raffles set his field. With the exception of the wicket keeper, Charleston (who had been rubbing his wrist for several overs now and looked pale), Hesterton and Raffles himself, Raffles pushed everyone back towards the boundary - I had been correct in my assessment that the only real chance the visitors had was for the ball to be hit for a four or a six. He also pushed the wicket-keeper some way back behind the wicket, whilst Charleston and Hesterton took up positions either side of the crease. Once everyone was arranged to his satisfaction, Raffles bowled the final ball and calmly clean bowled the hapless batsman who I swear didn't even see the ball pass him and take out the middle stump, causing all three bails to hit the ground.
A cheer erupted from our school and we all leapt to our feet shouting and clapping as the eleven crowded around Raffles shaking his hand and clapping him on the back. We'd won; in the end, at the eleventh hour from somewhere Raffles had found the skill that made him the best public school cricketer. But although Raffles dredged up a smile and responded to the what the rest of the eleven were saying, I knew him well enough to know he wasn't in the least bit happy and was relieved not only that the match was over, but also that they had somehow against the odds - and without any great help from him - won.
He has his arm around Charleston and once the team were off the field he led a protesting Charleston off in the direction of, what I guessed was, the San. I could understand why Raffles was insistent on taking Charleston to Matron as by now Charleston was cradling his wrist with his other hand and not only looked pale, but he was also perspiring - which wasn't just from the hours spent on the field.
Later that evening, still fairly high from the win we all gathered in the fourth form common room where Frankson was planning a rag: a bowl of water on top of the partly open door. I don't know what made me volunteer to be the one to climb on a chair and position it, but I did. The second the words 'I'll do it' were out of my mouth I regretted them, and the horrified look Ollie gave me didn't make me feel any better.
However, I had volunteered and whilst I may be many things I do not go back on my word; thus I scrambled up on a chair which Ollie held, took the bowl Frankson passed me and after three attempts managed to balance it on top of the door. Seconds after I had climbed back down and was being clapped on the back by Frankson the door was pushed fully open. As one we all turned towards it and I gasped aloud in horror at who stood in the doorway.
Now whether it was his skills as a sportsman that allowed him to move quickly or some inbuilt instinct that meant he was always careful when going into common rooms or simply poor positioning on my behalf I knew not, but rather than be completely drenched by the water, it was merely one sleeve of Raffles's coat that got covered with water, along with some splashes to his trousers as the water hit the floor and bounced back up.
My mouth was open, I felt sure I was going to be sick, I was both hot and cold and I knew I was trembling as I just stared in silence at him. One look at me would have been enough to tell him who had placed the bowl on the door as not only was I red faced (I could feel my cheeks burning) but it's not possible, at least it wasn't for me, to put a fairly full bowl of water on top of a door and not slash some water on yourself, thus my blazer bore evidence of what I had done.
His gaze travelled around the room before finally coming to settle on me and as he took in the evidence of my guilt, I saw his blue eyes widen in obvious surprise but I also thought I saw the faint hint of a smile twitch his lips. But it had gone in seconds as he continued to stare at me. "Manders, please be so good as to come with me - now," he added, putting his hands into his pockets and staring unblinkingly at me.
The rest of the boys were silent and still; no one laughed or pushed me or tried to trip me up as I forced myself to begin walking towards him. No one moved except for Ollie, who ran ahead of me and put himself between Raffles and me. "You won't beat Harry, will you, Raffles?" he demanded. "Because it wasn't him, it was me. I put the bowl on top of the door, so if you're going to beat anyone, it should be me, not Harry." Quite from where Ollie got the nerve to speak to a sixth former, even a sixth former he knew reasonably well and a sixth former who was known to be kind to the younger boys, I will never know. And I believe Ollie didn't know either.
Raffles's gaze had moved from me and had come to rest on Ollie as he made his impassioned speech. I had a lump in my throat from the effort Ollie made on my behalf; we were best friends, but I hadn't realised quite how much he cared about me. Raffles glanced from Ollie back to me and then back to Ollie again and briefly put his hand on his shoulder. "No, Urquhart," he said quietly. "I am not going to beat Manders; I merely wish to speak to him. If that is all right with you," he added, his eyes twinkling with mirth.
Ollie swallowed hard several times, blushed furiously and looked down at the ground. "Yes, sir," he stammered. "Of course it is, sir."
"And don't call me 'sir'," Raffles said gently. "I'm not a master."
"No, sir," Ollie managed.
Raffles just smiled as his gaze again travelled around the room, looking at each boy in turn. They were still all frozen to the spot, were still shocked by whom the rag had caught and were still uneasy. "You know," he said, his tone pleasant, "I was a fourth former myself at one time." He put a hand on my shoulder and guided me towards the door. "And," he said, stopping and looking back, "if you really want it to be effective, you should try positioning it further in that direction." And he pointed upwards.
As the door closed behind us, I heard the boys all begin to talk at once, but I wasn't interested in what they might be saying, my focus was solely on the boy by my side. He had taken his hand from my shoulder and put it back into his pocket and was heading towards the sixth form studies, but unlike the last time we had taken the walk, he wasn't striding out ahead of me. As I walked along by his side, I kept glancing at him. He still looked far too pale, the dark circles under his eyes were even more obvious now I was close to him and whilst his suit was as immaculate as it usually was (apart from the soaked sleeve of his coat and the water splashed trousers), it didn't seem to sit quite right on him. He didn't speak and neither did I.
We rounded the corner into the corridor of the sixth form studies and nearly ran into Charleston. "A. J.," he said, and then as he noticed me added, "Manders." I didn't think it was just my ears playing tricks with me that made me think he sounded pleased.
Raffles put his hand on Charleston's arm. "What did Matron say?" he asked. "I'm sorry I had to leave you there, but as captain of the home side I had -"
"I know." Charleston pulled back his jacket to show a heavily bandaged wrist. "She said that I should have stopped as soon as it happened," he said.
"Which is what I told you." Charleston just shrugged. "Come and have a cup of cocoa with Bunny and me," Raffle said.
Charleston shook his head. "Not tonight, thanks, A. J. I want to rest this wrist." Then I saw his gaze fall on Raffles's sleeve and travel down to the bottom of his trousers. "A. J.?" he asked.
Raffles gave him a rueful smile. "Ask Bunny," he said cryptically. Charleston turned his attention to me and raised his eyebrows. I lowered my head and studied the floor. After a moment Raffles said, "I'll see you in the morning, Charlie. If you need any help with anything, just let me know."
"I will, thanks, A. J. Goodnight. Goodnight, Manders."
I looked up at him from under my fringe. "Goodnight, Charleston," I said and then added, "I thought you played really well today."
"He did," Raffles said softly. "I'm glad he was on our side."
I saw Charleston's cheeks flush a little and he shook his head as he stared at Raffles, before turning and heading off to his own study. Raffles stared after him for a moment, before turning in the opposite direction and with his hand once again on my shoulder led me into his study and closed the door, which he leant against as he simply gazed at me.
I stared back at him; I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to say anything to him about the match - not even how well he'd bowled the last two balls, because I knew he didn't want to hear it. And I didn't know why I was there; I didn't know what he wanted.
And then suddenly because I had to say something I blurted out. "I'm sorry about your coat, Raffles, do you want me to dry it for you?"
He looked momentarily confused and then shook his head. "It'll be fine, Bunny. It's only water," then he looked at me sharply, "it was only water, wasn't it?"
I stared. "Yes!" I declared fervently. "Of course it was. What else could it have been?"
Raffles gave a wry grin. "Oh, you'd be surprised. So, my rabbit, you decided to do as I said, I see? And did you enjoy it? Did you have fun?"
I glanced away from him and shrugged. "Not really," I said. "And when I saw it was you who came in . . ." I trailed off.
He laughed. "Ah, Bunny, as I said to you all, I was a forth former myself a few years ago. Well, maybe we should try to find you something to do which you would enjoy and have fun with." And with that he fell silent and returned to just staring at me. I too fell silent as I stared back at him; now I really had no idea what to say.
Suddenly he pushed himself away from the door, took two steps towards me and took my hands in his. "Oh, Bunny," he said softly. "Oh, Bunny," he repeated. "My dear Bunny." Then he let go of my hands and instead took my face between his hands, stared at me for another moment or two before he lowered his head, put his mouth on mine and gently kissed me.
I was too stunned to do anything other than stand there and let him kiss me. The kiss didn't last for long and the pressure of his lips on mine was light and he kept his lips together, but even so I knew without any shadow of a doubt that I wasn't the first person, the first boy, he'd ever kissed. It was, however, my first kiss and as he lifted his head and just gazed down at me, I regretted not kissing him back. "Bunny?" he said, making my name a question.
It wasn't a question I really understood, or at least I didn't think I did, but as he gazed down into my eyes, he clearly had it answered, as the next second he took his hands from my cheeks and gently gathered me into his arms and put his mouth back on mine. This time the kiss lasted for longer and this time I began to kiss him back. The kiss was everything Raffles was and I was swept away by the beauty of it, but to my annoyance at the same time I was aware how much my neck was hurting by having to tilt my head back so far.
Again he broke the kiss, again he gazed down at me, and this time his eyes asked the question; once again I wasn't truly sure I understood it, but once again he seemed happy with whatever answer he saw in my eyes or on my face as he began to lower his head again. I tilted my head back and prepared to meet the kiss, when he stopped; he seemed to read my mind, as he has always seemed to be able to do, and the next moment he was sitting in the chair and I was on his lap and his mouth was again on mine.
As he kissed me I knew, even at the age of fourteen, a month and a bit, any other kiss I would experience would fall woefully short of his. Maybe it was just that I believed myself to be in love with him, certainly I knew I loved him, but I felt somehow he'd spoilt me for anyone else. I tried not to think of all the other people, other boys, he must have kissed, and would no doubt go on to kiss, and concentrated simply on losing myself in the moment.
Finally he took his mouth from mine, shifted me slightly on his lap, moving me away from him just a little before he again took my face between his hands and gazed at me. "And that, my dear Bunny, is why I tried to send you away; why I believed it would be better for you if you spent less time with me this year." I frowned slightly and he managed a half-smile and said, "You see I knew if things went on as they had done, that I wouldn't get through the year without kissing you."
I blinked at him. "And didn't you want to kiss me?" I asked; the second the words were out of my mouth I realised how foolish they were and felt my cheeks flush.
It was to his credit that he didn't laugh at me, he merely smiled a little. "Ah, Bunny," he said softly, stroking my cheek, "don't ever change, will you?" I didn't have an answer for that as everyone changed, no matter how much they might like not to.
"I still don't understand, Raffles," I said.
He sighed and again shifted me again, this time pulling me back towards him. "I didn't think it would be fair of me, Bunny, to kiss you."
"Because, my rabbit, I'll be nineteen soon and you haven't long turned fourteen; I will be leaving the school at the end of this academic year whereas you have another three years here. It's inevitable that you would kiss someone whilst you're here, and I thought it would be better if that someone wasn't going to vanish from your life so soon, and also that the someone was someone who was your age - Ollie, maybe?"
I frowned and shook my head. "I like Ollie," I said. "I like him a lot, but I don't want to kiss him."
"Don't you?" I shook my head. "Well, someone else then?"
Again I shook my head. "I only want to kiss you," I said.
He sighed softly, shook his head a little and stared at me. "Oh, Bunny," he said, his tone gentle. "My dear, sweet rabbit." He looked troubled.
I put my hand on his cheek. "What's wrong, Raffles?" I asked.
He gave me a half-smile. "You have rather confirmed what I feared," he said.
I bit my lip and looked away from his steady gaze. "You're not going to send me away again, are you?" I asked my voice very small. He was silent for so long, I forced myself to raise my head and look at him. "Raffles?"
He slid his hand into my hair and stoked my scalp. "No, Bunny," he said his tone unreadable. "I'm not going to send you away - I couldn't." He sighed. "A fortnight was quite long enough."
"Did you miss me?"
He laughed softly. "Yes, Bunny, I missed you; I missed you very much."
"Charleston said you were also unhappy." I blurted the words out without thinking and then instantly regretted them. I felt my cheeks begin to grow warm and again glanced away from him.
To my surprise I heard him laugh softly. "Did he now?" I nodded. "Well, he was right."
"Why did you change your mind?"
He gave a half shrug. "There were several reasons, but your new best friend had a lot to do with it."
I frowned; I was confused. I only had one best friend and he wasn't new to me. "Ollie?"
He laughed. "No, Charlie."
"Charleston?" I said in surprise.
"Yes. He 'spoke' to me several times and more than once made a point of telling me how unfair I was being to you." I stared at him, my eyes wide. "And the match today really put things in perspective. I need you, Bunny, I believe you are my lucky charm."
I blushed and shook my head. "You played cricket very well long before I came along," I said.
"True. But since you came along, I've played even better and . . ." He shrugged.
"I was at the match."
"Oh, I know you were. But it wasn't the same. You were there, but you weren't mine."
"Am I yours again now?" I whispered.
He smiled and a look passed through his eyes that I couldn't read. "Yes, Bunny my very own rabbit, you are mine. You always will be," he whispered. And he kissed me again.
Although my world was once again back on its axis and centred firmly around Raffles, I did try to spend a little more time with Ollie and some of my other fourth formers, even if some of that time was spent with them watching Raffles and the rest of the eleven practise. And by the time Raffles left the school, I did have a handful of friends other than just Ollie and I know that pleased and even reassured him.
Raffles was perfectly happy for me to drag Ollie and a couple of boys with whom I'd become tentative friends along to the practices; Charleston seemed amused by it; some of the others were less accepting and even seemed irritated by the presence of several fourth formers rather than just one. But Raffles was the captain and Raffles was back to the form the school knew and loved; the Public Schools cup was ours to lose, and unless both Raffles and Charleston injured themselves, our house would almost certainly win the inter-house cup. Thus despite some piercing looks and the odd comment, made outside of the hearing of Raffles and Charleston, no one said anything.
The first night Raffles kissed me wasn't the last; but that is all he did. He never once attempted to touch me beyond how he'd always touched me. I believe he wanted to and I would have been happy for him to have done so, but I know for him it would have been a step too far. Kisses he could allow himself, could accept, but anything beyond that with me at least, he could not, he would not, do.
I never kissed anyone else; Raffles was the only boy I wanted to kiss. However, although he never spoke of it, I am quite certain, even though I tried not to think about it too much, I wasn't the only boy Raffles kissed during that year; and I'm sure more than just kissing was involved - we were after all at a public school. However, I was content with what I had and I had far more of Raffles than anyone else did, and with the exception of Charleston I spent more time with him than anyone else did.
The day Raffles left the school was the worst day of my life and I try not to dwell on just how much I cried in his arms in his study. But then from somewhere I managed to dredge up the pluck he always said I had, and it was with dry eyes that I waved him off as his train took him away from me.
I dared to hope that one day we would meet again. But he was going off into the world; he was off to University and would be playing cricket for England, whereas I would still be a schoolboy for another three years. I knew I would never forget him; I knew the impact he had on me and my life would last a lifetime; I knew I would, in some way, always love him. However, I wasn't sure the reverse would be true. But fate has a way of intervening, so I did allow myself to believe we would one day meet again - even if it wasn't on this earth.
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