STORIES FROM SCHOOL

 

By

 

Nikki Harrington

 

Bunny relates some stories from his time with Raffles at their school.

Slash for the prologue, epilogue and the second half of the final story and a few mentions of school boy touching. Otherwise gen.

Written: March - June 2012. Word count: 66,545.

 

 

PROLOGUE

 

Raffles has gone off to a ball and I am alone in our rooms at the Albany; yes, our rooms. A month ago a larger set of rooms, rooms, which had been shared by two men who had emigrated to America, became available and Raffles suggested that as I spent so much time at the Albany, it made sense for us to share rooms together. Plus, the vacant rooms had two bedrooms, thus my presence overnight could not lead to speculation. The second bedroom is really a wasted room, used for to keep superfluous clothes and Raffles's cricket bags and kit in than anything else, but it serves the purpose of preventing talk of the kind we do not wish to encounter. I am not certain quite what our cleaning lady may think when she comes to clean, but she is very well paid and needs the employment, being a widow with six children, so even if she has any suspicions she has certainly never said anything.

 

I had also been invited to the ball and it had been my intention to accompany Raffles. However, I suffered a rather bad headache some hours before we were due to dress and leave and despite a powder and Raffles's care, which included a somewhat lengthy shoulder and back massage, I did not feel up to dressing and spending an evening where we had to appear to be nothing more than close friends whilst watching Raffles dance with and pay attention to all the young women who would undoubtedly take him away from my side. It tires me at the best of times, but as I was already feeling somewhat drained from the headache, even though it had lifted, I decided I would remain at home. Raffles had offered to stay with me, but I reminded him that the Dowager Duchess Palfrey, in whose necklace, tiara, rings and bracelets he had a particular interest, would be in attendance and thus he would be afforded a closer look at the jewels before he planned how we would relieve her of them.

 

Thus, with less grace than he usually shows, Raffles bathed, shaved, dressed and after a protected kiss and a promise he would do nothing more than dance with the young ladies, he left me alone. He once laughed when I told him of my dislike of watching him pay attention to, shower compliments on and dance expertly with the women with whom he came into contact, and he accused me of being jealous. I believe my honesty when I replied both touched and surprised him as he took me into his arms, pulled me down onto his lap and spent quite some time reassuring me of just where his affections laid and where his love rested - and it wasn't with the pretty, sweet smelling, satin-dressed, painted ladies we knew.

 

Thus, as I have the evening to myself, I thought it was time I chronicled some stories from our school days as they had a very large impact on our relationship today. I shall not detail all of them, as there are so many, but I shall share with you some of the more important ones. Although even then I shall have to decide which of the significant tales, of which there were many, I shall write about. I have spoken often of my love for Raffles and waxed lyrical about his looks, his intelligence, his way of bending me to his will, of how protective and caring he is of me, even if at times it is in an almost dismissive way, well all those aspects began fourteen years ago at school.

 

If you have no interest in tales of a very young, very innocent, very naÔve, small for his age boy with a tendency to cry easily and his several years older handsome protector, then I suggest you do not read these stories.

 

If you are looking for school boy fumbles (or more) between Raffles and me, again I suggest these stories are not for you, as apart from one occasion, on Raffles's final day at school when he kissed me, all the interaction between us is purely platonic.

 

I will be honest with my stories, even if they do not always show me in the best of lights. I was, as I said, very young, even for my young age, and had been more than a little coddled by Mother - indeed I heard Father tell her on more than one occasion she was keeping me far too young. At the time it didn't concern me; I rather liked being cuddled and treated a year or two younger than I actually was. However, upon arriving at the place I would spend fiver years, I realised Father had been correct. Nonetheless, it was not possible for me to change overnight and become a different boy. I was the boy I was and that was the boy Raffles met, took under his wing, protected, possessed, cared for and I believe loved. Also, whilst I was not fully aware of it at the time, with the hindsight of quite a few years, I think there were times when Raffles deliberately encouraged me, even kept me, younger than I was - maybe it was the only way he could prevent himself from doing things to me most of the school believed he did.

 

And yet whilst these stories do show me as young and innocent and as Raffles's pet - because that is something else that will come out, Raffles for whatever reason made a pet of me at school - I know I was important to Raffles and played a large part in helping him recover from an element of personal grief. Raffles needed someone, something, and it was I who fulfilled that need.

 

You see Raffles had a younger brother as well as a sister; he (I will not speak his name it is too precious a thing) was about the same age as I, but he was a sickly boy and not just physically; he was also mentally sick. The fact that Raffles's parents kept him at home and did their best, with the assistance of nurses, to care for him rather than have him locked away somewhere, I believe shows what the entire family were like. The boy was difficult and spent hours crying or even screaming and there was only one person who could calm him: Raffles. Raffles would take him onto his lap and hold him, stroking his back, comforting him, murmuring words to him and the boy would cease to cry and cease to struggle.

 

He died during the summer before Raffles and I met at school in the autumn. I believe it was a relief for the entire family, but relief or not it does not stop the hurt. Had he been normal, he would have joined Raffles at the school that very autumn and Raffles would have been able to carry out his role as the brotherly protector.

 

I knew none of this at the time, indeed I knew none of this until a week or two before Raffles left the school. However, I believe when Raffles first came across me he saw me, even though I looked nothing like his brother, as in some ways a replacement for the boy he had loved deeply. He saw a younger boy in need of his care, his protection, his kindness, and that is one of the reasons he choose me to be his fag and why he was so protective of me.

 

He took me onto his lap, as these stories will show, on quite a few occasions and he barely kept his hands off me whenever we were together. And yet although I knew nothing about his brother never once was I afraid of him, never once did he pulling me down onto his lap trouble me and make me think he wanted something more from me; never once did his touch make me afeared.

 

I believe in some way I remained his younger brother until the day he left the school. The day he kissed me - or at least from the moment he kissed me for the second time.

 

There are two other boys who feature on a fairly regular basis in these stories, boys who had an impact on my life at school and, given we are formed by anything that happens throughout our lives, to an extent since. Oliver 'Ollie' Urquhart, who joined the school at the same time as I did, and who was in the same house as I was and became my best friend and Edward Charleston, whom Raffles called 'Charlie' who was Raffles's best friend and the only other boy to know about Raffles's younger brother.

 

With the exception of the final story, all the tales I shall relate occurred during my first year at school. By the time I became a fourth year and Raffles an upper-sixth, I was teased far less and I no longer seemed to be of interest to boys who had taunted me, tried to touch me, made crude suggestions to me and looked for times when Raffles wasn't around in an attempt to do things to me he would not approve of. Or maybe it was just that they had grown tired of Raffles foiling all their attempts and letting them know in no uncertain terms what would happen to them if they dared to touch me. Maybe they found another boy on whom they could turn their attention; whatever it was the fourth year was an easier year for me than the third year had been. I spent far less time looking over my shoulder and worrying about walking across the grounds on my own.

 

If you are still interested in the stories of 'the rabbit and his protector' then please do read on. If all that interests you is the kissing then I suggest you only read the final story 'The Last Day'. But I hope you will read them all, as they are, as I said above, so important, show so much, set the ground for the relationship we now have.

 

CHAPTER ONE

THE FIRST DAY

 

I had never wanted to go to the school, but Father had insisted. It had been his old school and as I was his only son (only child in fact) and heir, he was determined that I should go. However, I did not wish to; I wished to go to another school along with the friends I had made at my prep school. I would be the only one going to a school on my own and I did not want that; indeed the thought terrified me. But Father had made his decision and it was not for me, certainly not at my tender age, to question it.

 

Nonetheless, I did go as far to approach Mother and ask her to speak up on my behalf and to try to persuade Father to allow me to go elsewhere. But Mother, who for the day was quite forward looking and did not automatically do everything Father told her to do, said that this was one matter in which she could not interfere - even my tears did not move her.

 

And so it was with a heavy heart that I parted from my friends all of us promising, as only boys of our age could promise, to write and to meet up again during the first set of hols. They shook my hand and assured me they'd miss me and even suggested I did something to get myself expelled so that Father would be forced to send me elsewhere. As unhappy as I was at the thought of going off into the world alone, I refused to even consider that suggestion. I would not bring that kind of humiliation and disgrace down on my parents.

 

Thus, on the first day of the autumn term I arrived at the place I was to spend the next five years - it was every bit as terrifying and upsetting as I had feared. Immediately I entered the dormitory to which I had been assigned, I knew my life was going to be very difficult. I knew I was going to be ragged quite possibly every single day.

 

I was not only young and small for my age; I was also very young; I was barely thirteen. Indeed had I been born just two days later I would not be standing there in the doorway looking at boys who were my age, but who looked so much older; I learnt later that quite a lot of the boys in my dorm were nearer to fourteen than thirteen. I was the youngest boy in the school as well as the smallest; I had pale skin and blond hair which also made me the most innocent looking - and from what I soon heard and discovered I wasn't just the most innocent looking, I was the most innocent. One of the kindest things I heard said about me was 'at least he's pretty to look at'.

 

I was useless at sport, I couldn't catch or run or pass a ball. I enjoyed watching rugby and in particular cricket, probably more than most of the other boys, and I could keep score but other than that, I was hopeless. I didn't know about practical jokes; although I soon learnt about them as they were piled onto me. I preferred to read a book than put bowls of water on top of door frames or fix pens so the ink leaked or all the other things the boys did - or at least talked of doing.

 

Within half an hour of entering the dorm, I had already been ragged twice and had become the laughing stock of the entire room - well apart from one another boy who said nothing, just stayed close to his bed and kept flashing me what appeared to be sympathetic looks, but what I know were also a 'thank God it's not me' looks.

 

I had fallen for the trick of sitting down on a wet chair which had the boys laughing and saying all the expected things. I did my best to dry my trousers with my handkerchief, but it only resulted in a wet handkerchief and it still looked as I had done what my tormentors said I had. And then they found the small bear I had brought with me. It wasn't as if I slept with it; it had been given to me by my now dead uncle, a mascot he'd called it. It had always sat on my desk at home and it had seemed natural to bring it with me. A mascot I told them; they just laughed at me and threw it around the room from boy to boy all the time taunting me about my wet trousers.

 

Finally, I could stand no more and I fled from the room; even after I'd slammed the door behind me and raced down the stairs I could still hear their taunts. As I hurried across the quad, head down, tears blurring my eyes, having no idea where I was going, I could feel my cheeks burning from the incidents. I wanted to run away. But I knew there was nowhere to where I could run.

 

No one tried to stop me as I hurried across the quad, no one spoke to me, everyone seemed far to wrapped up in where they were going, in calling out to friends about the hols to notice a small blond haired boy with wet trousers.

 

Finally I saw a door that wasn't in an imposing looking building and I tried the handle. It opened; I went inside and found myself staring up a flight of stone steps; tired now from running I sank down onto the fifth step from the bottom, drew my knees up, put my head on them and cried softly. As well as having to face my tormentors when I returned to the house, as I would have to do, I had two other problems. One I had need of the facilities and had no idea where they were; and two I had no idea where I was.

 

I was just wondering if I should go up the stairs or out into the quad and ask someone to point me towards the lavatories and risk the look I'd get when they saw my already wet trousers or try to find my way back to the house, when I heard the door I had come through open. The sound of three voices that clearly belonged to boys much older than I drifted to where I huddled, and I pushed myself closer to the wall, hoping they'd pass me by without seeing me.

 

As they went past me, hands in pockets, I noticed the suits that determined they were sixth form boys. I held my breath and pushed myself even nearer to the wall as they strode past talking. My eyes noticed in particular one boy a little taller than one of the others, but a little shorter than the third boy, who had dark hair and the kind of profile I'd only ever seen in my Classical Studies books and I heard one of the others address him as 'A. J.'. As they rounded the corner away from me, I was unable to prevent a small cough from escaping.

 

"What was that?" Their footsteps stopped.

 

"Oh, just one of the third formers crying for his mamma; you know I swear they get younger and smaller each year. So tell us, A. J. - A. J. where are you going? A. J.?"

 

"Oh, leave him. You know what he's like."

 

This I heard as I dared to move up a several more stairs, hoping the dim light would hide me from the boy whom I was certain was about to come back. I now feared I had broken a rule and was somewhere I shouldn't be, and as such was about to be given a detention or even a beating on my very first day. I kept as still and quiet as I could, my knees drawn up to my breast, my head bent over curled into as tight a ball as I could manage; to my distress my tears had started again.

 

I was so desperate not be seen that I failed to hear footsteps on the steps below me (or maybe he didn't make a sound) and I jumped as a hand came to rest on my shoulder and a kindly voice said, "Hello, there."

 

I forced myself to look up and came face to face, he had squatted down two steps below me, with a pair of deep blue eyes and a tanned handsome face - it was the boy who had reminded me of a Classical god. I swallowed hard and dragged my sleeve across my eyes, I'd left my wet handkerchief on my bed and in my haste to escape from the boys who were laughing at me, I had failed to put another one in my pocket.

 

The next second he dipped his hand into his pocket and held out a pristine folded square of white linen. "Here," he said. "It's far better than a sleeve."

 

I hesitated for a moment and then took it, wiped my eyes and trying to be as quiet as possible blew my running nose; it was the first of many handkerchiefs Raffles would give me during our school days. "Thank you," I managed, not certain if I should offer the cloth back, one feel had told me it was far more expensive than the cotton my own handkerchiefs were made of, or put it into my pocket.

 

My hesitation must have been clear because he waved a casual hand and said, "Keep it," before he turned and sat on the step next to me; as he did he asked, his tone gentle, "First day?" I saw him noticing my still damp trousers, but he said nothing and didn't move away from me. In that instant I think I fell a little in love with him.

 

I realised a little belatedly that he'd asked me a question when. I nodded. "Yes."

 

"I thought so." He put his hand back on my shoulder and patted it. "I know you won't believe me, but it does get better." He smiled at the look I gave him. "I probably wouldn't have believed it either," he said. I managed a faint smile and sniffed again. "First time away from home?" to my horror I felt tears not only well up in my eyes, but fall over my lower lashes. "Here, come on," he said, sliding his arm around my shoulders. "Don't cry."

 

"I hate it here. I don't know anyone. All my friends went to other schools but my father insisted I came here as he had done. Everyone hates me and no one wants to know me."

 

"Ah," said he. "That's hard." I nodded. He glanced down at my lap. "Been ragged already, I see," he said. If I hadn't fallen a little in love with him a little while before, I certainly did then. I nodded and sniffed again.

 

He kept on arm around my shoulders and with his other hand he turned my face towards his and looked at me. I just sat as he seemed to study me. "How old are you?" He frowned and shook his head slightly as if surprised he'd asked such a foolish question. "I mean when did you turn thirteen?"

 

"Last month."

 

He winced and took his hand from my chin to push my hair back from my forehead. "You poor rabbit," he said and then asked, "what house are you in?" I told him. "That's the same as me. Look, have you been assigned to anyone yet? No, of course you won't have. Old Dobson won't do that until later." I just watched him answer his own question. I wasn't sure what he meant. However, I was sure about something; very sure about it. I opened my mouth, I knew I had to face my humiliation or face an even worse one. He'd been about to say something, but immediately waved his hand. "After you."

 

Blushing furiously in a few stammered words I told him.

 

With a swift and effortless move he stood up, offered me his hand and tugged me to my feet. I was far from elegant and my legs had stiffened from sitting hunched up for so long and I staggered slightly falling against him. He caught me easily and held me, steadying me for a moment, then keeping hold of my hand he led me down the rest of the stairs and out into the quad. "Come on," he said, tugging me along with him as his long strides ate up the ground. "Here," he came to a stop outside a brick building.

 

I glanced at it and took a step back shaking my head. "That's for the sixth form." I objected, but I feared what would happen if he took me at my word.

 

He didn't. Instead still holding my hand he ushered me inside - thankfully there was no one else there. He then remained in the doorway until after some time I rejoined him.

 

"Better?" he asked, guiding me out into the quad again. I was amazed no one was paying us any attention.

 

I nodded. "Yes, thank you. But I shouldn't - I mean you shouldn't . . ."

 

He looked down at me and smiled a smile I would grow to know well over the next two years. "Would you rather have been ragged and teased even more?" he asked. I shook my head in horror and he just patted my shoulder before once more putting his arm around my shoulders, and matching his stride more to mine began to walk across the quad - he clearly did know his way around.

 

I wasn't sure what I should say now or do. His arm felt warm on my shoulders and I felt what I hadn't felt since I'd kissed Mother goodbye and shaken Father's hand: I felt safe and protected - something else I would get to know so well over the next two years.

 

"So," he said, as we strolled along. Me trotting a little to keep up with him, trying to look where I was going and look up at him at the same time, he appearing to be completely at ease, as he paused now and again to say hello to someone who called out to him. From the comments I gathered he played cricket, had spent part the summer in Somerset (which wasn't where he lived) and I knew his name was apparently A. J. - but A. J. what I didn't know. Indeed, knowing the public school system as I did, A. J. might not be his name at all; just something he was known as.

 

None of his friends seemed bothered or surprised that he was walking along with his arm around my shoulders; although looking back with the benefit of many years hindsight I suspect it was more the case, as it is now, that no one really saw me. Even now I am more often than not known as 'Mr. Raffles's insignificant little friend'. Then I suspect they didn't not see me at all; they just saw the boy they knew and loved - because he was loved by many.

 

"So," he repeated, guiding me away from the quad and down a leaf covered path. "As I was saying before we had to attend to your," he paused and I blushed. "Predicament," he went on; I blushed even more. "How would you like to be my fag?" Now he'd stopped, turned me under his arm and put a hand on each shoulder.

 

I stared up at him, eyes wide and mouth slightly open. The wind was ruffling his dark curls, his eyes shone as the sun caught them and his lips were turned up in a lazy smile; he was more handsome than any being had a right to be. And as I stood there with his hands on my shoulders, gazing down with a fond look (another thing I would grow used to) I had a feeling pass through me I couldn't explain, a feeling I had never felt before and did not even begin to understand.

 

As I stared up at him I recalled Father ordering me not to allow myself to become a fag, telling me it was nothing less than the life of a servant, at the beck and call of boys who thought too much of themselves and who had no compunction about making the boys who fagged for them lives a misery. I had, of course, assured Father I would endeavour not to allow myself - but even then I'd known it wasn't something I could control.

 

However, even if I could have done, I wouldn't, I couldn't have said 'no'. How could I say no to the person who had rescued me, been nice to me, given me his handkerchief, assumed I'd been ragged rather than anything worse, prevented what would have been my total humiliation and who looked at me so kindly, so patiently, so protectively (and so possessively, but that I didn't learn until some time later).

 

So instead I just nodded. "Yes, please," I said eagerly, and he laughed a gentle laugh as the skin around his eyes crinkled.

 

"Let's hope you're still as eager in a week's time." He took his hands from my shoulders and once again put his arm around them. "I'll have a word with Dobson after tea," he said. "Talking of which - now that will make you feel better. Tea on the first day of term is always special. Come on, I bet you don't know where to go, do you?" I shook my head. "It's a good job I do then, isn't it? It's not far. Oh," he said, coming to a halt just outside the dining hall door. "What's your name by the way?"

 

"Manders," I said. "Harry Manders."

 

He looked down at me, once again he seemed to be studying me; his head was slightly on one side, a contemplative look on his face. "Bunny," he said as if in answer to a question. Before I could say anything he added. "I'm Raffles, Arthur Raffles, but as you'll have heard I tend to be known as A. J. Only my family and Matron call me Arthur." And still with his arm around my shoulders, he led me inside. It was a good thing he did still have his arm around my shoulders, because I couldn't have moved on my own. Even I had heard of A. J. Raffles, the cricket player who had been on the first eleven at the age of thirteen and was now captain of the eleven, even though he was a lower sixth rather than upper sixth boy.

 

"And," he said, bending his head slightly as we walked into the hall and the whole place seemed to fall silent as people stared at us. "I think you might find your dorm mates will want to get to know you now and won't rag you quite so much."

 

And with a pat on the back, a ruffle of my hair, he left me, striding away to join a table of older boys, boys of his own age, who were the first to break the silence and call out, "There you are, A. J."

 

For my part I stood for a second longer just staring after him before moving more slowly than he had I headed towards the table where several of my tormentors sat. To my amazement, however, rather than ignore me or laugh at me or ask about my still damp trousers, I was pulled down onto a bench, a plate piled with food was put in front of me and half a dozen voices all speaking at once and loudly asked me how I knew the great A. J. Raffles.

 

 

I wish I could say that my moment of fame lasted, but it did not. It wasn't long, the very same day in fact, before I was again a non-entity or just someone to be teased and ragged. The only difference was that my tormentors were more careful, and I do know Raffles prevented, simply by virtue of everyone knowing I was his fag and I was important to him, many of the planned mishaps that should have befallen me.

 

I did however make one good friend. The boy whose bed was next to mine, who had not taken part in any of the teasing or ragging or laughing at me, who had given me sympathetic looks, introduced himself to me after tea. His name was Oliver Urquhart and within minutes of us beginning to talk to one another we both knew we had a great deal in common and by the time we went to bed that night, we were already on the way to becoming friends.

 

Ollie was very important to me during my time at the school, both during Raffles's time there and after Raffles had left. He was quiet, studious, not a great deal better at sports than I and like myself preferred to read or play chess or talk quietly rather than join in rags. We were firm friends at school, he was the second most important person to me during those years and I liked him a great deal.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

FAGGING FOR RAFFLES

 

Despite what Father had told me about being a fag, I really had no idea quite what I had let myself in for by agreeing to be Raffles's fag. Indeed, I wasn't even sure he had meant it; perhaps he had just been being kind to me when he'd suggested it; after all why would he want someone so young, so inept, a boy who couldn't even find the facilities without help, to look after him? He, the captain of the eleven, the most popular boy in the school, the hero of many, the boy who apparently never had a sharp word for anyone younger than he. Why would such a boy want me to fag for him? I could not think of a single reason.

 

Thus, it was with more than a modicum of surprise when Mr. Dobson, who was assigning my year to Raffles's, glanced at his list and said with surprise evident in his voice, "Manders?"

 

Everyone turned to look at me. I raised my hand. "Yes, sir?"

 

He blinked as he looked at me, staring hard as he looked me from head to foot (something that didn't take him long). "You're Manders?" he asked.

 

I nodded as I felt my cheeks begin to flush. "Yes, sir," I stammered.

 

"Harry Manders?" he asked, whilst looking at another list, no doubt to see if there was a second Manders in his house.

 

I swallowed hard around my now very dry throat. "Yes, sir," I whispered.

 

He looked at me again and then back at his list and shook his head. "There must be some -" He cut himself off as he realised he was speaking aloud. Once more he affixed me with his gaze. "It appears," he said after a moment, "that you have been especially asked for by one of the older boys. Do you know any of the older boys, Manders?"

 

I thought for a moment. Did I? Could I claim to know Raffles after spending twenty minutes or so in his company, some of which were spent with me crying? "Well, sir," I began carefully, not entirely certain what I would say next.

 

I had no need to worry about trying to decide what to say as he cut me off. "I thought as much. Wait here, all of you." And with that, he turned on his heel and with his robes flying behind him strode out of the room. We all stood shuffling out feet, not sure if 'wait here' meant literally to stay as we were or if we could move around the room.

 

I felt as if everyone was staring at me; as if somehow they all thought it was my fault there was now a delay. I kept my head bowed, not wanting anyone to see my bright red cheeks; for the first time I was quite happy that Mother had refused to let me have a short haircut before venturing to the school as with my head down, my hair covered my cheeks. I stared at the floor, concentrating hard on the pattern of wood until I heard a voice I already knew well. "Of course not, sir. We wouldn't want to get it wrong, would we, sir?"

 

Now I did look up, at least partially, and my eyes found their way to the handsome face which I watched from beneath my lashes. Raffles stood with his hands behind his back by the side of Mr. Dobson.

 

"If you would be good enough to point the boy out, Raffles."

 

"Of course, sir. There: Manders." And he pointed directly at me. I gulped and forced myself to meet his gaze as he smiled at me. "Is there some problem, sir?" he asked, politely.

 

"No, of course not, Raffles. It's just - Are you quite certain that is the boy?"

 

The sound of boys trying to hide their laughter by turning it into coughs began to echo around the room. Once more I felt my cheeks burn and once more I wanted to lower my head and go back to staring at the floor, but I couldnít tear my gaze away from Raffles. He was now staring directly at me, the corners of his mouth turned up in a lazy half smile, his eyes twinkling as he slowly let his gaze wander from my head to my feet and back again.

 

Then he turned to Dobson and said, his tone grave, "Yes, sir. I am quite certain."

 

Dobson looked hard at Raffles and then back at me again, frowned, shook his head, crossed something off on his list and spoke to me. "You can go with Raffles now, Manders." He did not sound pleased.

 

"Yes, sir," I stammered. "Thank you, sir." As I began to move forward towards Raffles, I felt a hand in the small of my back and the next second I was on my hands and knees gasping and determined not to cry no matter how much my hands hurt. There was no longer any attempt at hiding laughter behind coughs.

 

I was trying to struggle to my feet when a strong hand took my arm and pulled me up. As I looked up, already I knew his touch, I saw something flash through the steady blue gaze that was different from any look I had hitherto seen as Raffles stared over my shoulder, his hand still holding my arm. It was another look I was going to get used to seeing many times over our time at school; a look that I am pleased to say was never once directed at me. It was the look that said he clearly was displeased with what had happened and a look that contained a veiled, or not so veiled when directed at older boys, warning of what might happen should events be repeated. Not that Raffles would ever hit or even get angry with a boy younger than he, but he was already making it known to whom I belonged and what he would not tolerate.

 

Eventually, he dragged his gaze away from over my shoulder, belatedly let go of my arm (he didn't seem aware he was still holding it) and patted me on the shoulder. As he stared down at me, the look I'd seen moments before vanished and all I saw was the fond look he'd given me from the moment we had met. He smiled and with one hand still on my shoulder he led me away. "Sir," he said, as we went past Dobson. I noticed a difference in his tone; it was faint, but already I felt I knew his voice; he was displeased.

 

I glanced at Dobson myself and saw him shake his head as he looked from me to Raffles. It was clear he had no idea why the school hero, the house hero, the hero of the cricket field could possibly want me - a boy who couldn't even stay on his feet - to be his fag. And I could quite understand his feelings.

 

Rather than put his arm around my shoulders as he'd done earlier in the afternoon, he kept his hand on my shoulder all the way to his study. Just before we reached it, another boy whom I guessed was the same age as Raffles came out of what I presumed to be his study and called to Raffles. "A. J."

 

Raffles paused and turned around. "Hello, Charlie. Did you want something?" The boy glanced at me and raised a questioning eyebrow as he looked back at Raffles. "Oh, this is Harry Manders, Charlie; he's going to fag for me. Bunny, this is my friend Edward Charleston, he's on the eleven with me."

 

I'd lowered my head once Charleston had looked at me, peering up at him from under my fringe. I knew enough about public school protocol to know that third formers did not speak to sixth formers or even fifth formers and sometimes fourth formers unless they were spoken to first; nor did they even make eye contact. I was also suddenly aware that I would have to take care around other sixth formers because it was quite obvious that Raffles viewed these so-called rules far more leniently than most, if not all, of his fellow sixth formers would.

 

I didn't expect Charleston to even acknowledge me, let alone speak to me. So I was more than a little surprised when he said, "Hello, Manders."

 

"Hello, Charleston," I murmured, and as I spoke I suddenly wondered if I should have called him 'sir' which is what I knew a lot of sixth formers expected the much younger boys to call them.

 

I was still looking down at the floor and was beginning to wonder if I should offer to leave Raffles and Charleston alone, but that would mean addressing Raffles directly, when I felt Raffles squeeze my shoulder. "Look up, Bunny," he said softly, but with a faint hint of an order rather than a request. I instantly obeyed and looked up, turning my head to look at him. "My study's four doors down there, go in and wait for me, there's a good boy."

 

"Yes, Raffles," I said quickly, relieved to escape the two older boys. I hurried off carefully, I was determined I wasn't going to trip over my own feet or shoe laces. As I went down the corridor I heard Charleston say something about 'Dobson' and then 'Bunny', but I didn't hear Raffles's reply.

 

I reached the door Raffles had pointed out to me and hesitated; he'd told me to go in and wait for him, but this was his study; it didn't feel right to just go in when he wasn't there. I glanced back to where Raffles and Charleston still stood, but neither of them was looking in my direction. After a second or two of just standing outside the door, I decided I should obey Raffles's order and so opened the door and crept inside; I stopped just inside the door and stood there. I took a quick look around the room I would get to know as well as any room in my own home over the next two years. It was very neat and tidy and seemingly well organised; as I waited for Raffles I wondered quite what my duties would entail. Father may have spoken disparagingly about fags and how the older boys abused the whole system, but something told me Raffles would not be a harsh master - although I had a feeling he might be a hard boy to please and certainly not one to cross.

 

"Bunny!" I staggered and lost my balance as he bumped into me; the next instant he had grabbed me and managed to keep both of us on our feet. "I believe I told you to wait for me inside," he said, staring down at me.

 

"I am inside," I objected, and quickly bit my lip as I realised I was contradicting him. "Sorry, sir," I stammered.

 

He put his hands on my shoulders and gripped them tightly. "Look at me," he ordered. I obeyed. "Rule one: never, ever, ever call me 'sir', not unless you want me to replace you. I'm not a master. It's Raffles, okay?"

 

I swallowed and nodded. "Yes, Raffles," I said quickly and added, "I'm sorry."

 

He sighed softly, turned me around and pushed me gently towards the sofa. "Sit down, Bunny," he said.

 

I stared at him in surprise and continued to stand by the sofa until I found myself gently pushed down. He stood over me for a moment or two, just gazing at me before he took his hand from my shoulders and sat down next to me. He was silent as he looked at me, he appeared to be studying me carefully and I had to force myself not to fidget.

 

"Bunny," he said, and then frowned slightly. "You don't mind if I call you Bunny, do you?" I stared back at him. How did I answer that question? Surely he could call me whatever he wanted to call me and I had no say in it. "It's just that when I first saw you sitting on the stairs I was reminded of a toy rabbit my -" He stopped speaking abruptly and for the first time since he'd come into his study, his gaze drifted away from me. I sat in silence and waited until he spoke again. "It just seemed to fit you," he looked back at me and smiled. "But if you don't like the name, then just tell me and I won't use it." He smiled at me again.

 

I swallowed and glanced away from his steady gaze. I almost wished he was like sixth form boys were purported to be like, but then I knew that wasn't what I wanted, not at all. "I don't mind," I said quietly, as the silence stretched between us and I looked up at him from beneath my fringe.

 

"Good," he said, leaning forward and sweeping my fringe back from my forehead. "That's covered names, so what next?" Again he looked at me; again I just stared back and waited. And waited.

 

Finally I dared to speak. "What exactly do you want me to do for you?" I asked.

 

He frowned. "Oh, right. Duties." He glanced around his room and I waited. "Can you polish shoes? Properly I mean?" I nodded. "Good. Well you can do that for me. And I do like my pictures and things kept free from dust." I nodded again and looked at him expectantly; he seemed to have run out of ideas. Then his face brightened. "Do you know anything about cricket?"

 

I shrugged. "I like watching it; I'm pretty good at keeping score, but I can't play for anything," I said honestly, suddenly realising that probably wasn't the best thing to say to the captain of the eleven.

 

He smiled and ruffled my hair. "Maybe you just haven't been taught properly." I gave a half shrug; I had; I just wasn't a cricketer or any kind of sportsman. "How about I teach you how to oil my bats and generally keep my kit in order? Do you think you could do that?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, I believe I can."

 

"Good. Well that'll do for now. We can figure anything else out as we go along. Now would you like some cocoa?"

 

"Yes, please," I said, making a firm attempt not to make it a question.

 

 

And that is how my life as Raffles's fag began. It took me a few weeks to master and perfect oiling his bats, but far less time to learn how tidy he liked to keep his things and how he objected to even a slightly crooked picture.

 

I also leant that anything I'd thought I knew about sixth formers and the way they treated their fags in particular and younger boys in general wasn't true as far as Raffles was concerned. He seemed to genuinely like me, care for me even; he was very gentle with me, tolerant of me and kind to me.

 

He told me I was welcome to go to his study whenever I wanted to and that he didn't want to constantly fetch me; he even told me not to bother waiting after I'd knocked for him to tell me to come in and got quite frustrated with me when I did. It was the only thing that did make him even the slightest bit irritated with me. And he also made it very clear I belonged to him and he was there to protect me from other boys.

 

CHAPTER THREE

NOT A CRICKETER

 

I stood by my bed refolding clothes that didn't need refolding, keeping my head down and trying to ignore the laughter and comments that were still going around the dorm. Even though more than an hour had passed, my cheeks still felt warm and from time to time as I overheard a particularly vicious comment I felt them flush.

 

Ollie was sitting on my bed and he squeezed my arm from time to time and gave me sympathetic looks and had even muttered 'Raffles won't be bothered' and 'it not mattering' more than once. I was grateful, more than I could have said for his support and friendship. But I knew only too well it did matter; it was very embarrassing.

 

I wasn't even embarrassed for myself, well not really. I have always known I was not a cricketer; I am no good at any games at all, so I wasn't surprised when I failed so miserably during the third year house match. Had I still been at my previous school, I would have laughed along with the other boys; I would have shrugged it off. But I wasn't at my previous school; I was here, at a boarding school, in a dorm full of boys, none, with the exception of Ollie, who seemed to like me, who took great pleasure in teasing and ragging me and laughing at me and making me feel even more naÔve than I did any way.

 

However, even that wouldn't have mattered, I could have found a way to laugh at myself, no matter what they said, I'm sure I could have done. No, what mattered was the fact that I was the fag of A. J. Raffles, captain of the eleven - and I had just been humiliated on the cricket field and thus had caused him embarrassment.

 

I'd only been Raffles's fag for a fortnight, but already his opinion of me and his attitude, the way he was always smart and tidy was beginning to have an effect on me. Now I do not believe I am any more untidy than the average thirteen year old, indeed I am far tidier than several boys in the dorm; I keep myself clean and bathed, I change my underclothing regularly and keep my shoes polished, I make sure I have a clean handkerchief and try to look neat and tidy.

 

However, compared to Raffles I am far from being neat and tidy - and it doesn't help that I have to refold my clothing pretty much every day and reput everything away in my locker and drawers, when I returned to the dorm to find my belongs strewn across it and on the floor. Plus, I sincerely believe it is more difficult for a thirteen year old boy to keep his hands clean and to keep tidy and neat than it is for a seventeen year old - I think it's some kind of inbuilt part of nature.

 

In spite of the difficulties since Raffles took me, by choice, as his fag, I have tried hard to ensure my shoes are a little better polished, by hands a little cleaner, my clothes a little less crumpled and I do pay more attention to the knot of my tie and to ensuring my shirt is always tucked into my trousers. Things like that matter to Raffles and as such they matter to me, because Raffles matters to me.

 

A fortnight in his service and in his care, because he has already shown me how much he cares and he has ran interference on more than one occasion, and he already matters to me maybe more than he should. I already love him and yes, I know I have a pash on him - I dearly hope he is not aware of that, I try hard not to let him see how I feel.

 

Although it isn't easy, given he appears to like my company and has spent quite a few hours teaching me how to oil his cricket bats and keep his kit in general in good condition. He expects me to go to his study every evening and after he had to fetch me twice made it quite clear that he expected his 'you are welcome any time you wish to come to my study, Bunny' to be followed to the letter - and to be taken as 'every evening'. And it isn't as if I have duties in his study all the time, his demands on me in that respect are few. There are evenings I spend more time reading a book if he is studying or talking to him if he is not, than dusting or polishing his shoes.

 

At first I wondered if his attention and his desire of my company was a prelude to something else; I am innocent, but not quite that innocent. I do know the sort of things that go on at public schools and I had heard tales of how some boys treat their fags and exactly the sort of thing they expect them to do - and it isn't polishing shoes. Given he seems unable to keep his hands off me, albeit none of his touches have ever made me afeared nor have they, to my mind been inappropriate, I did start to wonder seriously if he was leading up to something that would involve me . . . I did not want to think that of him, I didn't think that of him, I felt completely safe with him at all times. And yet, I had to ask myself why else would a mature seventeen year old boy who was beloved by most of the school in general and his year in particular, the boy in whose hands the house and public schools cups rested, want to spend time with an immature thirteen year old?

 

He gave me cocoa every evening; he was interested in how I spent my day; he asked about my home life; he let me babble on about anything and everything; he didn't seem to mind the questioning and disapproving looks a lot his fellow sixth formers and the eleven gave him when they stopped by his study and found me there with him. He didn't seem to mind the odd pointed comment - he just met it with a reply far sharper and made it clear to everyone I was always welcome in his study whenever I wished to be there, as well as making to clear to anyone and everyone that I was his and that he would protect me from harm.

 

Thus, how could I not love him? How could anyone not love, not be in love with, someone who paid them as much attention and showed as much interest in them as he showed in me? I wanted to believe that he liked me for me, but even I had some problems with believing it. I wanted to believe that he wasn't just treating me so well, so kindly, because he wanted me to - But the more I tried not to think about it, the more I did. The thing is, given how much I loved him; I knew that were he to ask me to let him . . . or to touch me in an inappropriate way, I would of course do exactly what he wanted me to do.

 

So you see the fact that I had made a complete idiot of myself on the cricket field and we are talking a complete fool, did matter - not for me, but for him. A lot of the comments I heard were about how embarrassing it must be for Raffles as captain of the eleven seeing his fag, the boy he had made it clear he was fond of, the boy he had chosen to be his fag, make such a fool of himself on the cricket field. It wouldn't have mattered had it been the rugby field, although I suspect Raffles is good at all sport, the thing is he is captain of the eleven; I am his fag by his choosing and I had shown him up.

 

People were laughing at him; yes they were laughing at me, but that was quite usual. However, I doubted Raffles had ever been laughed at or talked about in such a way - and it was all my fault that he was now the object of laughter and gossip. It was my fault; all my fault and I didn't know what I could do about it. Nor did I know what I was going to say to him; how I was going to face him. One thing I was determined not to do, however, was cry when he dismissed me as his fag; when he told me he no longer wanted me around. I wouldn't cry in front of him - not again. I didn't want his last sight of me to be the same as his first sight of me: me crying.

 

I was so caught up in thinking what I would say to him, how I would apologise to him, how I would even dare to face him, that I hadn't noticed that the laughter and chatter in the dorm had died down.

 

"Harry," Ollie hissed, nudging my arm. I looked at him and saw he was gesturing with his head for me to look behind me.

 

And even without turning around I knew. I knew who was standing behind me. I felt a chill run through me, my throat became tight, my mouth dry and I had to push my hands quickly into my pockets to hide the fact they were trembling. Shaking my head slightly to get my hair to fall forward around my face, I turned around slowly, my gaze firmly affixed on the end of my bed.

 

"Manders," he said, after a few seconds of silence during which I just stood there, not looking at him. The use of my surname did nothing to make me feel better; he never called me 'Manders' he always called me 'Bunny'. And his tone was strange; it wasn't the usual tone he used when he spoke to me, but nor was it the harsh edged tone I'd heard him use on more than one occasions with some of his fellow sixth formers when they had displeased him. It was somewhere between the two and yet it wasn't. I raised my head and met his gaze; that like his tone was one I hadn't seen before. Again it wasn't the fond way in which he normally looked at me, but nor was it the displeased gaze I had seen directed at other boys. Like his tone the best way I can describe it as was 'strange'.

 

I swallowed. "Yes, si- Raffles," I stammered. I desperately wanted to run from the dorm; run from him; run from the rest of the boys, all of whom were watching and listening.

 

"Come with me to my study now, please," he said. I expected him to turn and walk away, but instead he stood and watched and waited until I had begun to move and then he followed me out of the dorm, closing the door behind him - but not before I heard the loud bursts of laughter.

 

Cheeks once again aflame, I walked along at his side. He, as he tended to do, measured his stride to mine, but rather than put his hand on my shoulder or his arm around my shoulders, which is what he normally did, he kept his hands firmly in his pockets; he didn't look at me and he didn't speak to me. I felt sick, my head was throbbing, my eyes burnt and I began to realise my hope of not crying when he sent me way was a futile one.

 

On the way from my dorm to his study, we passed several boys from various years - all of whom stopped talking or walking to stare at us. I had to concentrate extremely hard on actually putting one foot in front of the other correctly so that I didn't do something foolish like trip over my own feet. I swear that walk to the sixth form studies had never been such a long one - but then I'd always made it when I was happy and looking forward to going there. Unlike now, when I was as far from happy as I could be and I was dreading the moment we'd reach Raffles's study and he'd close the door behind us - assuming he bothered to close it.

 

As we passed Harrison-Smyth, one of the eleven, he called out to Raffles. "A. J., can I have a word about -"

 

"Later," Raffles replied, without even pausing or altering his stride.

 

Finally, we reached his study and he opened the door, strode in and I followed him. "Close the door," he ordered, his back to me.

 

I obeyed, closing it carefully and quietly and then I just stood with my back an inch or two from the door wondering if I should launch into an apology or wait for him to speak. He still had his back to me and his hands were still in his pockets. I decided to wait for him to speak; I just wished he'd hurry up and say something - that he'd hurry up and get it over with.

 

Suddenly he turned around on his heel, took his hands out of his pockets and to my surprise held out his arms to me. "Come here, Bunny," he said; his tone was low and gentle, it was the tone he always used when speaking to me and he was looking at me in his fond, caring way - the way he always looked at me.

 

I hesitated; suddenly I wondered if it was all a dream, well whether this part was a dream. How could he, the captain of the eleven, be smiling at me and holding his arms out to me after I had humiliated him?

 

He waited for another second, before he closed the gap between us; he took me into his arms, pulled me close against him, wrapped his arms around me and held me tightly, securely, protectively. "Oh, Bunny," he murmured, I felt his breath on my hair. "Oh, my dear, little Bunny. I am sorry."

 

My arms were around his waist and my head was resting on his breast, but at his words I blinked and lifted my head, tilting it back in an attempt to look at him. "Raffles?" I managed my tone heavy with puzzlement. What was he apologising for? Then I blurted out, "I'm the one who's sorry, Raffles. And I'll understand when you tell me you want another fag." I swallowed hard, but I was proud that I'd said the words without my voice quivering.

 

Suddenly he pushed me away from him, at least far enough to be able to look down at me. "What?" he said. "Bunny, why on earth to you think I would want another fag? And why are you sorry?"

 

I suddenly began to wonder if by some miracle he hadn't been at the match and no one had told him what had happened. But he had been there; I'd seen him; he'd been with Charleston and a couple of others of his year. "For showing you up," I said. "For making a fool of myself at cricket and letting you down; for embarrassing you."

 

He gazed down at me and shook his head. "Oh, Bunny, my dearest rabbit, what am I to do with you?" He brushed my hair back from my forehead and face, tucking it behind my ears as he gazed at me with more fondness that I had ever seen on his face before. "Oh, Bunny," he repeated, taking my hand and leading me to the sofa. He sat down, pulled me down next to him, put his arm around me and gathered me close to him. "Now listen to me, Bunny. You did not show me up nor did you let me down nor did you embarrass me. As for making a fool of yourself - I have seen far worse, Bunny. No, I'm not just saying that; I have. So you're not a cricketer, so what? What does that matter?"

 

"You're the captain of the eleven," I whispered.

 

"Yes, I am. Now if I wasn't a cricketer . . . Well then that would make life difficult and be more than a little embarrassing. But I am a cricketer; indeed I think it's fair to say that I'm a fairly good one."

 

"You're the best." I turned my head to gaze adoring up at him. He laughed and ruffled my hair. "You are!"

 

He smiled and to my surprise a faint flush touched his cheeks. "I think some might say you are a tad biased, Bunny."

 

I bit my lip to prevent myself from disagreeing with him; he was the best. For a moment I relaxed, but then the laughter and comments replayed themselves in my mind. "People were laughing at you, Raffles," I said, my tone sombre.

 

"Well, Bunny," he said, once more gathering me close to him. "You have to admit, it is rather amusing. Even Charlie laughed."

 

I pulled myself away from him and stared aghast at him. "Charleston? But he's your friend; he's your best friend, isn't he? How could he?"

 

Raffles smiled and once more pulled me back into his arms. "Yes, Charlie is indeed my best friend and it's to his credit that he tried very hard not to laugh; very hard indeed - I believe he would have succeeded had I not been the one to laugh first."

 

I felt cold. "You laughed at me?" I whispered, swallowing very hard and blinking furiously, as I tried to pull away from him.

 

"What? Oh, Bunny, you silly rabbit, no, of course I didn't laugh at you." Now he not only pulled me back into his embrace, he manoeuvred me until he'd pulled me onto his lap and pushed my head down onto his shoulder. "I laughed at me."

 

I lifted my head, taking care not to hit his chin. "You laughed at you?"

 

He smiled. "Yes. Come on, Bunny, as I said, you have to admit it is rather amusing."

 

I looked dubiously at him. "It is?"

 

"Yes. Here I am the captain of the eleven, the best cricketer, at least in your opinion, and whom do I choose, note choose, Bunny, to be my fag? A boy who can't play cricket, who -"

 

"Drops his bat and knocks his own bails off?"

 

"At least you didn't run in the wrong direction or throw the ball to the other side. Yes, I have seen that and plenty of other far more humiliating things - really humiliating things, I felt very sorry for the boys concerned."

 

I stared at him. "So you don't mind that I can't play cricket?"

 

"No."

 

"And you don't mind that people are laughing at you?"

 

"No."

 

"And you donít want me to stop being your fag?"

 

"No, of course I don't."

 

"You're not going to send me away from you," I clarified, aware that my phrasing of the previous question hadn't been particularly good English.

 

"No, my beloved Bunny, I am not."

 

"Oh, Raffles!" I cried and I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him. I didn't kiss him; not as in a kiss as such. Yes, my lips touched his, but it wasn't intended to be a kiss, it was just a kiss, a way of showing how relieved, how happy I was.

 

"Bunny," he said quietly, holding my shoulders and looking at me with a curious look in his eyes, one I couldnít quite work out.

 

"I'm sorry," I blurted out. "I didnít mean to . . . It's just that I was sure you were going to send me away and I was so happy when you said you werenít that I . . . I thought you were angry with me because I'd embarrassed you and that you didn't like it because people were laughing at you. So I just had to . . . .  I'm sorry." I repeated.

 

He didn't say anything for a moment, he just looked at me. Then he ruffled my hair and said lightly, "It's all right, Bunny. I understand." And with that, he pulled me close to him again and I put my head back on his shoulder. I suddenly felt exhausted, drained from the emotion and worry. I closed my eyes for a moment or two. But then his behaviour in the dorm came to mind.

 

"Raffles?" I said, turning my head, but not lifting it from his shoulder.

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"If you weren't angry or upset with m, why were you so - so different from how you usually are  when you came into the dorm?"

 

"Ah. Well you see, my dear rabbit, I had been standing outside for several minutes and had been listening to what your fellow dorm mates had to say, and let us say that I came closer to breaking my own rule about not hitting or talking sharply to a younger boy than I ever have done before. I knew if I looked at you or spoke to you as I wanted to, and believe me my instinct was to take you into my arms there and then, that I might well say some things I would regret - that or I would make things worse for you. I am sorry if I caused you distress, but it was for necessary."

 

"Oh," I said quietly as I began to understand quite what I meant to him.

 

As we sat there, my mind returned to the thoughts I'd been having as to quite what he meant by 'enjoying my company' and whether I'd misunderstood what he meant. The fact I was sitting on his lap and he had his arms around me didn't make me feel uncomfortable, nor did I think it inappropriate - but I thought many would - nor was I afraid of him. However, surely it wasn't usual for an older boy to take a younger boy onto his lap just to comfort him? I know Raffles seemed to have different ways of looking at things from many of his fellow sixth formers, or at least that is what I'd gathered from over-hearing some of the comments made by boys in my dorm who fagged for other boys in Raffles's year. But even so, being on his lap didn't seem a usual thing - unless it was a prelude to something else he wanted me to do.

 

"Raffles," I said, dredging up the courage no one (apart from Raffles), including me at times, seemed to think I had.

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

I opened my mouth to reply, but at that moment there was a knock on his door. "A. J., it's me."

 

I recognised Charleston's voice even before Raffles called, "Come in, Charlie." Hastily I scrambled off his lap and dropped to the floor, where I sat. He glanced at me, his face registering surprise, as the door opened and Charleston came in.

 

"A. J., can I have a word about - Oh, hello, Manders," he said, his gaze coming to rest on me as I sat at Raffles's feet.

 

"Hello, Charleston," I replied, looking up at him from beneath my fringe. Then I said quickly, "Do you want me to go?"

 

"No, Manders, there's not need. It's just something concerning the match the day after tomorrow."

 

"Sit down, Charlie. And, Bunny, do get up from the floor." Charleston sat down at the opposite end of the sofa to Raffles whilst Raffles pulled me up and dragged me onto the sofa next to him, moving far enough along to allow me to squeeze between him and the arm of the sofa and he rested his arm on the back of the sofa. I perched on the edge, trying to make myself invisible and resisting the urge to fidget as the two older boys talked about the match which would involve our house.

 

"Anson's injured himself," Charleston said.

 

"Doing what?" Raffles asked, moving a little more towards Charleston and pulling me further onto the sofa so that I was no longer perched on the edge. He still had his arm along the back of the sofa and now he'd dragged me so far back, it was in effect around me, even though he wasn't quite touching me; I didn't have a great deal of room, but at least I was no longer sitting on his lap. I resigned myself to the position and lowered my head so they didn't think I was actively listening to them.

 

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Charleston glance at me, then back at Raffles. "Er, something foolish," he said carefully, once again looking at me, "showing off, shall we say."

 

Raffles followed Charleston's gaze. "Oh," he said his tone hard.

 

Now I did fidget. "Raffles, I need to -"

 

"No, you don't, Bunny," Raffles said firmly. "Sit still."

 

"Yes, Raffles." I sighed silently.

 

"How bad?"

 

Charleston shrugged. "Not terribly, he won't be able to play for the next few days, probably a week, but not any longer. I was wondering who you wanted to play in his place."

 

"That's the one thing we do lack, a decent back-up wicket keeper," Raffles said.

 

"I know. Beckett was really happy."

 

"Oh, I bet he was. I want to beat him, Charlie."

 

"I know, A. J.," again Charleston glanced at me.

 

Again I had to fight the urge to fidget. Why couldn't Raffles just let me go? How did he know I really didn't need to - "Warwick," I said without really meaning to.

 

Now both Charleston and Raffles looked at me. "Who?" Raffles asked.

 

"Philip Warwick," I muttered. They still both looked at me. "Um, he was wicket-keeper at his prep school."

 

Raffles looked at Charleston, who shrugged. "How do you know, Bunny?"

 

Why had I said anything? "I overheard him telling one of the other boys."

 

"He wasn't the wicket-keeper today, was he?"

 

I shook my head. "No."

 

"Is he any good?"

 

Again I fidgeted as I now really regretted speaking. "He said he was and he sounded . . ."

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"I believed him. I'm sure he wasn't boasting."

 

Raffles looked at Charleston. "Can you fit in an extra practise session tomorrow, Charlie?"

 

"I should be able to."

 

"Good. Now cocoa?"

 

"Thank you, A. J."

 

"I'll make it!" I said, again trying to stand up.

 

But Raffles pulled me back. "I can carry three mugs and get them back here full and in one piece, Bunny," he said his tone gentle, as he ruffled my hair, stood up in his elegant way and left his study.

 

Now Raffles wasn't there I felt even more ill at ease and shuffled back as far as I could into the corner of the sofa. I tried not to look at Charleston, but I was aware he was looking at me.

 

"You know, Manders, A. J. really isn't bothered," he said. "You shouldn't worry."

 

I looked at him through my fringe. "People are laughing at him."

 

Charleston shrugged. "Yes, they are. And A. J. doesn't care. Another boy might, but not him."

 

I looked down at my lap. "But I embarrassed him."

 

"Is that what you think?" I nodded. "Well Raffles doesn't - surely he's told you that?"

 

I glanced up at him. "Yes," I said quietly.

 

"Then believe him, Manders. Trust him. I thought you trusted him completely."

 

My head shot up. "I do!" I said indignantly. I felt my cheeks flush but Charleston just smiled at me. "I do," I repeated, more quietly.

 

"Good. Because you should trust him and believe him - he wouldn't lie to you, Manders. I know him. I've known him for many years. So stop worrying, okay?"

 

I nodded. "I'll try."

 

"Good boy," he said and smiled.

 

 

After he'd drunk his cocoa Charleston left saying goodnight to both of us.

 

Raffles glanced at his watch. "Come along, Bunny, I'll walk you back to your dorm - it'll serve two purposes."

 

"Two?"

 

Raffles nodded. "Yes. One, I can have a word with Warwick and two, it'll make it clear to your dorm mates and anyone we might meet on the way that they were all incorrect when they thought I would dismiss you as my fag." He smiled at me.

 

"Ollie said you wouldn't mind," I said quickly.

 

He frowned. "Ollie?"

 

"Oliver Urquhart," I said quickly. "My friend." I know it was far more normal for public school boys to address one another by their surnames, but Ollie and I both felt happier using 'Ollie' and 'Harry'. Of course, the name thing got very confusing at times with nick names and the way the sixth formers tended at least at times to use either Christian names or a version of their names - like Raffles calling Charleston 'Charlie' when his Christian name is Edward. I occasionally wondered how anyone knew about whom they were talking.

 

"Oh, yes, Urquhart. Of course, he's a nice boy. Quiet. He'll make a good friend for you."

 

I nodded. "I like him." And then because I knew I wouldn't sleep that night unless I cleared up the matter that had been on my mind for most of the evening, the matter I had been about to raise with him before Charleston had arrive I said swiftly, "Raffles, before we go, can I ask you something?"

 

He looked at me and smiled. "I'm sure you can, Bunny."

 

I frowned for a moment then sighed. "May I ask you something?"

 

He smiled and ruffled my hair and sat down in the chair. "Ask away, my dear Bunny."

 

But now I had his permission I wasn't sure what to say, how to phrase it. "Raffles?" I said again, moving away from him, purposely getting out of his reach.

 

He frowned slightly as I moved away. "Bunny?"

 

"When you said you liked my company, did you mean you wanted me to - that you expected me to . . ." I swallowed hard, looked anywhere but into his face and forced myself to go on. "You see I've never . . . So I wouldn't know what to . . . And I know I'm your fag and all and I do what you tell me, but I didn't know that it meant . . . Not that I wouldn't if you wanted me to. Because I would; I'd do anything for you, Raffles. I want you to know that. It's just that," I paused again then said in a rush, "I don't think I'd be . . . Well you know." By the time I had finished I knew my cheeks were bright red, I could feel the heat, and I felt exhausted.

 

Now I made myself meet his eyes and I was taken aback to see he was staring at me in shock. "Oh, Bunny, my dear Bunny," he said. "I - Oh, Bunny." He held out his hands to me. "Come here." Of course I did; the next second I yelped, even though less than half an hour earlier I hadn't minded, as I found myself pulled down into his lap. He jumped. "Oh, that was the last thing I should have done." And I was pushed to my feet, before he too stood up, pushed me back into the chair and crouched down in front of me. He took my hand and for the first time ever and to my surprise I had to force myself not to pull it away.

 

"Bunny," he said. "Oh, Bunny. You really donít think that I would . . . Bunny, what kind of monster do you think I am?" Hs tone was pained and his look was one of distress. "I would never do anything like that to you, nor would I expect you to do anything to me. Oh, Bunny, to whom have you been listening?"

 

Now that I knew he didn't want me like that I felt absurdly let down, as if somehow he'd disowned me.

 

He put his hand on my cheek. "Bunny? Did you really think I wanted that?"

 

I shrugged and looked down at my lap. "I . . . Well, no . . . Well, that is . . . Raffles, why else would you like my company? I'm barely thirteen, you'll be eighteen in November; I don't know anything about anything and you know everything and everything; I can't play cricket and you're the captain of the eleven; I . . . " I ran out of comparisons. "And I've heard some of the other boys say . . . things," I managed falling silent. I fidgeted in the chair and as the silence dragged on; I fidgeted even more until I heard him sigh softly and he took his hand from my cheek. I looked up at him through my fringe and cried out softly at the look on his face. "Raffles?" I said, clutching his hand as I felt him let go off mine. Still he said nothing. "Are you . . . angry with me?" I whispered. He shook his head. "Disappointed in me?"

 

Again he shook his head. "No, Bunny," he said quietly. "I'm not angry with you nor am I disappointed in you."

 

"Then what's the matter?" I asked.

 

He stood up and I clung to his hand. I was under no illusions that he let me hold on to it; he could easily have pulled away. He sat down on the arm of the chair and looked down at me; he looked troubled, upset even as well as something I couldn't figure out. I gazed up at him through my fringe and he brushed it back from my forehead. "Bunny, do you think that little of yourself?" he asked his voice soft.

 

"I don't know what you mean."

 

He sighed. "You don't think I could like or want your company just because you are you, but because I want to - do things to you? Or," he asked his tone now flat, "do you think that little of me?"

 

"No!" I exclaimed, scrambling around in the chair until I was kneeling up. I grabbed his arm. "No, Raffles. No. I - You mean everything to me. I think you are . . . You're the best person I've ever known. The kindest, the most wonderful, the . . ." I fell silent under his steady, soft gaze. "You mean the world to me, Raffles," I whispered. "I adore you." To my surprise, I saw his cheeks begin to redden and I leant against him, which very nearly caused him to fall off the arm of the chair. No longer in the least bit concerned and wondering why I had yelped when he'd pulled me into his lap, I moved across the chair and tugged on his arm until he moved and sat down with me half on his lap, half on the chair next to him. "I'm sorry," I whispered. "I just -"

 

"Think so little of yourself?" he said quietly, gathering me closer to him. I shrugged. "Bunny, I like your company, that's all. You're a pleasure to have around. Don't ask me to put it into words, because I can't. I just enjoy you being here. You are good company, whether you think you are or not - and you can certainly polish a pair of shoes." I laughed as I leant my head against him. "That's better," he said, ruffling my hair. "That's my beloved rabbit." I sighed softly and leant into his touch.

 

"You know, Bunny," he said, still stroking my head, "I'm not as wonderful as you seem to think I am, but you are quite safe with me - I'm not going to ever hurt you in any way. And I won't let anyone else hurt you. You have my word. You need never be afraid of me."

 

"I know. I wasn't afraid, Raffles, I just wanted to make sure I hadn't misunderstood what you wanted or what you expected. I didn't want to make you angry with me."

 

"I could never be angry with you, my dear Bunny. Never. Now, are you ready to go back to your dorm?"

 

I wasn't, not really. I'd far rather stay exactly where I was, but I knew that wasn't possible. So instead I nodded. "Yes, Raffles."

 

"Come on then." He detangled himself from me, stood up, pulled me to my feet and put his arm in what had become its customary place around my shoulders, so his hand rested on my right shoulder.

 

As we walked from the sixth form studies back to the third form dorm, we passed a number of boys of varying ages in the hallways. Without exception they all fell silent and stared, surprise showing on many of their faces. As we went round the final corner before the dorm Raffles bent his head and put his lips to my ear, "I think that made things clear," he said. I smiled.

 

He kept his arm around my shoulders as we went into the dorm; for a moment he stood inside the doorway as first one boy, then another, then another noticed him and the room fell silent as they all stared. He met their gazes and slowly held them one by one as he looked around the room. I stood by his side, his arm comfortably warm and secure and I watched boys who had laughed and taunted me begin to shuffle their feet and look away.

 

After what was really a very short time, but from the looks of the boys it seemed like forever to them, he led me to my bed, took his arm from my shoulders and raised an eyebrow.

 

I turned around and pointed to the boy whose bed was four along from Ollie's and on the opposite side of the room. He patted my shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow, Bunny," he said. "Sleep well." I smiled up at him. And then he put his hands in his pockets and headed in the direction I'd pointed. "Warwick?" he called, as he got nearer. "Do you have a moment?"

 

I smiled to myself as Warwick jumped and stared open-mouthed at the sixth former who had just asked him if he had a moment rather than just expecting him to drop everything he might be doing, simply because he was a sixth former and Warwick a mere third year.

 

Ollie got off his bed and came to sit on mine as Raffles leant against the wall and talked with ease to a now red faced Warwick, who kept glancing between the floor and Raffles. "I told you Raffles wouldn't be bothered," he said.

 

I turned my attention away from the boy I adored for a moment and smiled at Ollie, before squeezing his arm. "He's wonderful," I said, without really thinking about it and with my hand still on Ollie's arm, I turned back to watch Raffles.

 

 

I'm sure there was the odd boy or two who never forgave Raffles for not dismissing me from his services after my less than stellar performance on the cricket field, but I am quite certain that never bothered Raffles.

 

It took me some weeks, if not months, though before I really understood that Raffles truly didn't care that I wasn't a cricketer, that he honestly hadn't minded being laughed at because he, the captain of the eleven, had a fag who couldn't hold a cricket bat without dropping it. It wasn't that I didnít believe him (or Charleston) of course I did, but I still had trouble understanding that he was perfectly all right about it.

 

I'd like to be able to say that was my one and only failed cricket match whilst I was at the school, but of course it wasn't. Cricket was played and the master in charge of games tried to be very fair to all boys no matter what their level of competence or lack of it was. I wonder if he realised his fairness caused more than one of us, especially I, a great deal of anguish? With the benefit

of hindsight, I do not believe he did; I think he was trying not only to be fair but also to be kind, because he was one of the kindest masters at the school - but for me being made to play in cricket matches where I would inevitably do something foolish, wasn't kind, it was painful.

 

There was one match in particular that still haunts me to this day and I still remember how Raffles dealt with that - but as I have already relayed one cricketing story here, I shall leave that story and maybe revisit it on a subsequent occasion.

 

Once Raffles and I became reacquainted I know a number of his friends and acquaintances whether they were cricketers or not were more than a little surprised by the fact that the constant and intimate companion of the great A. J. Raffles, the best all rounder the decade and longer had ever known, was a young man who could not play cricket. Although that didn't stop quite a lot of our hosts from using my services as score keeper for their country house matches - as that was something I did extremely well.
 

CHAPTER FOUR

A STRANGE DUTY

 

It was a Saturday afternoon in late-October; it had been raining heavily and non-stop for four days and the pitches had become so water-logged that even the master in charge of rugby had declared them unplayable. The head master had announced at lunch that we would in effect have a free afternoon - adding that he expected all boys to stay inside.

 

Raffles had stopped by our house's third form table on the way out of the dining hall and had invited me to go to his study that afternoon. I had of course accepted eagerly and now I was sitting cross-legged on the floor holding a plate whilst he toasted bread on the fire he'd lit before I'd arrived, passing it to me to butter.

 

When I'd arrived it had been to find him in his shirt sleeves without his tie on, his collar unbuttoned and his cuffs turned back sitting on the sofa with a book by his side. It was warm in his study and when he'd suggested I take my blazer and tie off I'd hesitated for barely a second before doing that thing. I'd then joined him on the sofa where to my surprise he picked the book up and declared he was going to read to me.

 

I forwent reminding him that I was thirteen and not five and as such was more than capable of reading books myself and instead settled down with my head on his lap to listen to him. I didn't just settle down happily to listen to him because he was extremely kind to me, never shouted at me or became annoyed with me and treated me quite differently from the way I had heard the majority of sixth formers treated their fags. Nor was it just that I was still more than a little in awe of him and still took care what I said and did in case I over-stepped the line of what was permissible and what was not that stopped me from saying anything. It was also because I loved his voice and as such was quite happy to lie on the sofa and listen to him read to me, especially as from time to time he played with my hair.

 

Once he'd decided we had enough toast we sat on the sofa eating it and drinking the tea he'd made before starting to toast the bread. I noticed he kept looking at me, which wasn't in itself an unusual thing, his gaze would often find its way to me. But there was something in his look that I couldn't quite figure out; it didn't trouble me, I wasn't discomforted by it, but there was definitely something on his mind.

 

Once we'd eaten all the toast and finished the tea, he put the plates and mugs on his desk and threw the paper napkins we'd used into the rubbish bin. Then to my faint surprise rather than come and sit back on the sofa he went to his study door opened it and looked out into the hall, before closing it again. He turned around and leant against it as he once again looked at me in the same way as he'd looked at me whilst we'd had tea.

 

"Bunny," he finally said, moving away from the door and coming back to sit on the sofa. He sat back in the corner, one leg tucked up under him, his arm along the back of the sofa as he continued to look at me.

 

"Yes, Raffles?"

 

"A few weeks ago you told me, did you not, that you would do anything I asked of you?"

 

I recalled the conversation quite clearly and nodded. "Yes, Raffles." I didn't point out that as his fag it was my duty to do whatever he asked of me and had no right to question it or say 'no'. As I've already said Raffles treated me quite differently from how many of the sixth form treated their fags. Yes, he told me to do things for him, but in such a way as it often came over as almost a 'do you mind'.

 

"And did you mean it, Bunny? Or was it just that you felt you had to say it, you being my fag and all?"

 

I frowned a little and shifted on the sofa so that I was sitting cross-legged and able to look directly at him. "I meant it," I said. "I'd do anything for you, Raffles. Anything." And then suddenly I wondered if he had changed his mind and he did want me to - If he did want to do things to me, even though just over a month ago he'd declared that he wouldn't do such things. "Raffles," I started to say, even though I had no idea what I would say next.

 

He must have read my tone, my eyes or the look on my face because instantly he shook his head. "No, my dear Bunny," he said, taking his arm from along the back of the sofa and catching my hand with his. "It's not that. I told you, I wouldn't do anything like that to you. You must believe me; you are quite safe with me."

 

"Oh," I said, absurdly yet again I felt almost let down. It wasn't that I wanted him to do anything to me that he shouldn't; at least I didn't think I wanted him to. It was that - Well I didn't know what it was. I didn't truly understand my complex feelings and emotions when it came to Raffles; in fact I didn't even begin to understand them. All I knew was I had never experienced such feelings or emotions before and at times it exhausted me trying to figure them out. I just knew he was the most important person in the world to me - yes even more so than my parents, because well they were my parents - and I idolised him beyond comprehension. "Then what do you want me to do?"

 

He stared at me again in silence for some time and then he tugged on my hand. "Come here," he said, learning forward to manoeuvre me across the small distance that separated us so that he could put his arm around me and pull me close to him. I settled against him more than happily and waited for him to speak again. But he didn't immediately, instead he began to play with my hair again as he often did, I just sat there and let him stroke my head as he might stroke a kitten or a puppy.

 

When he did speak his words surprised me. "You're such a good boy, Bunny." I didn't have an answer to that, so I stayed silent. "I do wonder if you've ever broken a rule in your life." He pushed me away a little and looked at me, clearly this time he was waiting for an answer. I fidgeted as I looked away from his steady gaze; what did I say? Did I tell him the truth or did I risk him thinking me even more of a rabbit than he already did? I glanced back up at him and wondered if I could lie directly to him. Just as I was about to speak, even though I still hadn't decided what to tell him, he smiled, ruffled my hair and pulled me back against him. "I didn't think so," he said softly. And he fell silent again.

 

"Why do you want to know, Raffles?"

 

"Hmm? Oh, it doesn't matter, Bunny. Forget about it."

 

I sat forward and looked at him. "I could break a rule," I said, mentally crossing my fingers. "I've just never had to. At least I think I could," I added softly, as my inherent honesty crept in.

 

He smiled at me. "I'm sure you could, my dear Bunny. I've told you more than once you have more pluck than you think you do. You're quite the brave little rabbit really."

 

I felt my cheeks begin to flush. "What rule do you want me to break?" I asked.

 

He stared at me, his gaze steady and searching. He was silent for quite some time and then I watched him come to a decision. "The thing is, Bunny, I thought it might be jolly to get out of school one night, to go into town."

 

I stared at him my eyes wide. "But why?"

 

He shrugged and glanced away from me. "Oh, there's no real reason; I just thought I'd like to do it."

 

I stared at him, uncertain what to say. A few minutes ago I've vowed I'd do anything for him, I'd even have let him take me to his bed, so why wasn't I just saying 'Yes, Raffles'? What was so bad about what he was asking? "Wouldn't it be dangerous?" I said finally.

 

He looked back at me and smiled. "Well, maybe a little risky, but that's part of the fun." His eyes twinkled and shone as he gazed at me.

 

"What would I have to do?" I asked softly.

 

He pulled me back nearer to him and put both arms around me. "All you'd have to do, Bunny, would be to pull up the rope after I'd gone down it and then stay awake to drop it back down for me when I come back."

 

I swallowed hard. "That's all?"

 

"Well, and keep an eye out for Dobson, the prefects or any one else who might be wandering around."

 

"But what would I say if they catch me out of bed?"

 

"Oh, come now, Bunny, there's always a good reason, a fail-safe reason, for a boy being out of bed during the night: you need to use the facilities. Or if you didn't want to say that, you could always say you felt unwell. But I'd have thought wanting to use the facilities would be better all round - one can fake that, faking illness isn't that easy."

 

The idea of lying to a master or a prefect really didn't appeal to me; nor did the prospect of getting caught. But I loved Raffles; I adored him; if he wanted to do this, then I would help him, or course I would.

 

Before I could speak, however, he pushed me away from him a little and stared at me. "Look, Bunny, I know you're worried about getting caught and getting into trouble, but if you were caught I'd tell Dobson that I made you help me. You are my fag after all; you have to do what I say.

 

I shook my head. "No, Raffles. If I help you it's because I want to, not because you make me."


"And will you help me?" he asked quietly.

 

I swallowed hard once more and then gazed into his eyes and nodded. "Yes," I said. "Yes, Raffles, of course I'll help you."

 

He smiled and ruffled my hair. "You really are a very plucky rabbit," he said. "I knew you were the right boy for me."

 

I felt a warm glow run through me and I smiled back at him. "When do you want to go?" I asked.

 

He smiled again. "Tonight."

 

"Tonight?" I squeaked.

 

He nodded. "Yes. I don't want to give you too much time to start to worry about it. It's like playing cricket; it's always a good idea to put the nervous batsman in first."

 

"Is it?"

 

He nodded. "Yes. So what you do is you get ready for bed as you usually do, wait until Dobson has done his rounds; then you come back here. You pull the rope back up, go back to bed and an hour later you come back and let the rope down again and I'll climb back up. How does that sound?"

 

Scary, very scary, I thought. But at the same time I realised it sounded a little bit exciting too. So I smiled at him and nodded. "It sounds fine," I said, and sighed happily when he pulled me back into a close embrace so that I could rest my head on his breast.

 

"That's my Bunny," he said softly, resting his cheek for a moment on my head.

 

 

I lay very still in my bed as I heard and also saw through the slits of my eyes Dobson walk slowly around the dorm his candle flickering. He looked at each bed and each boy, before finally leaving the dorm and closing the door behind him.

 

I continued to lay there breathing softly for another ten minutes before I carefully pushed back the covers, felt for my dressing gown, pulled it on, put my slippers on and crept out of the dorm. The dimly lit hallway outside was empty, but I stood in the doorway for a moment or two looking each way and listening, before heading off in the direction of the sixth form studies and bedrooms.

 

Thankfully I encountered no one on my journey, although by the time I reached Raffles's study, I felt exhausted and my heart-rate was far faster than it should have been. As I put my hand out to open the door I noticed it was shaking slightly. I opened the door and slipped inside and cried out in shock when I saw a tall figure dressed in a bright, garish blazer with ginger whiskers on his chin.

 

"Hush, Bunny, it's only me," Raffles said, hurrying across his study and taking my arm. The next second he'd pulled the whiskers off and was smiling down at me.

 

I really wasn't certain my heart could stand any more shocks and I leant against Raffles who put his arms around me and held me. After a moment I pulled back and looked up at him; suddenly I felt even younger than I was and he seemed to be even older than he was. Dressed in pyjamas and my dressing gown whilst he was fully dressed in clothes I hadn't seen before made me feel somewhat strange and just a little bit uncomfortable.

 

He'd kept his hand on my shoulder when I'd moved back and was gazing down at me and from the look in his eyes and on his face I got the feeling he was seeing me somewhat differently from how he normally saw me. He brushed my hair back from my forehead and to my surprise murmured, "So young, you're so very young, Bunny." Then he shook himself and ruffled my hair, letting his fingers linger for a moment and then he pulled me back into his arms and held me in a way that again differed from the way he normally held me.

 

I didn't answer him; I didn't have an answer. I just put my arms around his waist as I normally did when he embraced me in this way and stood still. As I stood there I was fairly certain that as with him pulling me onto his lap, him embracing me whilst I was in nothing more than my pyjamas and dressing gown would not be considered appropriate by many. After a moment or two I fidgeted a little and he broke the embrace and held me away from him; again he just stared down at me; again I could not read his expression.

 

Finally he gave me a real Raffles smile, brushed my hair back again and taking my arm led me into his bedroom where I saw a rope lying neatly coiled on his bed. So it really was going to happen; Raffles really was going to get out of school and I really was going to help him. As I stood and watched him retie his shoes, I knew full well I could change my mind and say 'no, Raffles, I'm sorry but I can't help you', and he wouldn't think any less of me. But I'd said I'd do it and I do not go back on my word.

 

He seemed to read my mind, because he looked up and said quietly, "If you want to change your mind, Bunny, you only have to say. I won't mind."

 

I shook my head. "No," I said. "I don't."

 

He moved nearer to me and again his hand found its way into my hair. "That's my good boy," he said softly. "You know, Bunny, I was thinking. It might be better if you stayed here until I got back. That way there'd be less chance of you bumping into someone in the halls."

 

"Here?" I said my voice suddenly high. I wasn't sure if the thought of being alone in his bedroom whilst dressed as I was was less or more potentially incriminating than being with him in his bedroom whilst dressed as I was.

 

He smiled. "You could stay in my study if you'd rather not be in my bedroom. Although if you want to get comfortable, I can assure you the bed is more comfortable than the sofa."

 

I glanced at his bed and then up at him as I tried to think of something to say. "If you think it would be safer," I said.

 

"Only if you're happy to be here, Bunny. If you want to go back to your bed and come back here in an hour, just say so."

 

I thought about my walk from my dorm to his study and how afeared of being caught I'd felt, how my heart rate had increased and how my hand had been shaking and decided I really didn't want to go through that another twice - well three times as once he was back, I would have to go back to my own bed. "I'll stay here," I said firmly.

 

He smiled, slid his hand into my hair once more and stroked my scalp before he put his whiskers back on.

 

I frowned. "You don't look like you," I said.

 

He laughed softly. "That, my dear rabbit, is the object. Now are you ready?" I nodded and he went to the window opened it and spent some time looking carefully around outside. He then tied the rope around one of the legs of the bed, looked around outside once more before dropping the rope over the sill and sitting on the sill, before he swung one leg over. "If you get hungry," he said softly, as he swung his other leg over and gripped the rope tightly, "there's some chocolate in the top right-hand drawer of my desk. Now, once I'm on the ground, pull the rope up and shut the window. All right?" I nodded, desperate for him now to be gone in case anyone saw the rope dangling down. "I'll be back in exactly an hour. All you have to do then is drop the rope down to me."

 

I nodded. "I'll be here. Now hurry up, Raffles." He smiled and started his descent down the rope, I watched him from the window, marvelling at how easy he seemed to make it. I know I couldn't have done it. Once he reached the bottom, he gave the rope a quick pull and watched as I pulled it back up. Then he turned and in seconds was out of sight.

 

I closed the window, let the rope coil on the floor beneath it and looked around his room as I tried to decide where to wait for him. After a moment or two's thought I decided I felt safer with two doors between me and the rest of the house; I would stay in his bedroom. I sat down on his bed cross-legged and looked at the clock that stood on his bedside table.

 

After about five minutes I realised how cold I was starting to feel; I considered pulling one of the blankets from his bed and wrapping it around me, but I wondered if he might be somewhat annoyed to return to find he had to remake his bed. So after sitting for another minute or two and getting even colder, I kicked my slippers off and with a slightly shaking hand, pulled back the covers and climbed into Raffles's bed.

 

I pulled one of the pillows up and settled back against it, tugging the covers up my body as far as I could get them and settled down to wait. I wished I'd thought to bring a book with me, but I hadn't. I was sure Raffles wouldn't object to me borrowing one of his books, but as he hadn't left one on his bedside table, it would mean me getting back out of his bed and finding one. I decided just to watch the clock instead.

 

At five minutes to the hour since he'd left me, I slipped out of his bed, put my slippers back on, turned the lamp by his bed down and went to the window. Taking care I pushed it up and leant out, letting my eyes adjust as I looked from side to side and then down to the ground. A minute or two later a tall figure appeared from between the trees and I breathed a sigh of relief. I grabbed the rope, dropped it down and continued to lean on the sill as I watched him climb back up. As with his descent he made it all look so easy and it was only seconds before I had moved back to let him swing his legs over the sill and pull the rope back up before he quietly closed the window and looked at me and smiled.

 

"Are you all right?" he asked, putting his hand on my shoulder. I nodded and tried not to wrinkle my nose at the strong smell of tobacco that emanated from him. He crouched down and untied the rope from around the foot of the bed, curled it up and put it into his cricket bag. "Well," he said, his back still to me, "that was fun." He turned around. "Did you have any chocolate?" I shook my head and he gave me a look that told me he thought I'd been silly rabbit. "Do you want some now?"

 

I hesitated for a moment; I'd already brushed my teeth, so I really should say 'no, thank you'. But I wasn't used to being awake or out of bed at this time of night and given I'd already broken school rules, I might as well break one of Mother's. "Yes, please," I said.

 

He smiled and left me standing by his bed whilst he went into hit study; he returned very quickly with a bar of chocolate, broke a piece off and passed it to me. He leant against the wall and watched me and as I watched him watching me I knew what he was going to say. His venture into town was not going to be a one-off; he wanted to do it again and he wanted me to help him. And of course I would. "Well, my rabbit," he said, eating a piece of chocolate himself. "Did you hate every moment of our little adventure?"

 

I stared at him, knowing an outright lie was impossible. "I didn't hate it, no. I got a little bored waiting for you to return, but next time, I'll bring a book with me." There, I'd said it, even before he asked.

 

He looked at me for a moment and then smiled. "I see my rabbit already knows me so well. So you're up for it again, are you, Bunny?"

 

I nodded. "Yes," I said; my tone was firm.

 

"Good." He smiled. "You know, you could have borrowed one of my books, Bunny, I wouldn't have minded."

 

I didn't reply; I just smiled at him. "I better get back to bed," I said after just gazing at him in silence.

 

"If you wait for a moment whilst I change into my pyjamas, I'll walk back with you, I need to visit the facilities," he said, already pulling off his blazer.

 

I was quite happy to wait for him to change and nodded. In what seemed like mere seconds he was completely naked and I found myself staring at him. I'd seen boys naked before, I saw them every day; you don't share a dorm without seeing naked bodies. But they were boys of thirteen, even those who were nearly fourteen were still young boys compared to Raffles who was very nearly eighteen. The differences were quite considerable and as I stared at him I felt my mouth become dry and my cheeks start to flush. Suddenly I realised I was just standing staring at him and I hastily lowered my gaze and studied the floor.

 

I heard rather than saw a faint rustle of clothing and then his hand was on my shoulder and I looked up to see him standing in front of me now dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown. He didn't say anything even though he must have seen me staring at him and again his kindness touched me deeply. "Come along then," he said, sliding his arm around my shoulders and leading me from his bathroom to his study. He paused for a moment to open his door and glance out into the corridor, then held out his hand towards me. As he shut the door behind us and began to guide me, his arm now around my shoulders, along the sixth form study corridors it hit me quite how bad it might look if anyone was to see us now.

 

But no one did. We reached the third form dorm without any scares and he was the one to open it - he did so silently - and glanced around inside before he turned back to me, bent down and whispered, "Sleep well, Bunny, and thank you." He squeezed my shoulder and I smiled up at him, not trusting myself to speak quietly enough. I then tiptoed into the dorm and found my way with the help of the lamp that was always left burning and the faint light from the door he still held open, to my bed, where I pulled off my dressing gown and climbed into it. It definitely wasn't as comfortable as Raffles's bed had been. Nonetheless I think I must have fallen asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 

 

I continued to help Raffles get out of school throughout the rest of the autumn and early winter, until with the arrival of the snow he decided it was too risky and too cold. To my surprise I found I missed the evenings I spent in his bedroom waiting for him to return.

 

When I was actually in his bedroom, in his bed, eating chocolate he thoughtfully left for me and reading, I was never completely relaxed; I was anxious about so many things: that he may be caught; that Dobson may find my bed empty; that Charleston or one of Raffles's other friends might just come into his study and bedroom and find me in his bed; about the fire alarm going off and his name being called and no one answering, as well as half a dozen other, far less probable things - as Raffles himself once told me I did have a very vivid imagination. As such you'd have thought I'd have been happy for the evenings to cease, at least until the weather improved, but strangely enough I felt I had been deprived of a part of Raffles no one else, not even Charleston, knew about and shared.

 

Thus when in early February, after the snow had finally cleared and despite the still colder than usual weather the spring flowers had started to appear, he put his arm around me one evening and asked if I was feeling particularly tired, I was more than happy to know that meant he was once again going to venture out into the town.

 

Had I have known what was going to happen, I swear I would have pleaded tiredness, knowing that he wouldn't pressure or force me and I'd have a night when I'd sleep well. However, I had merely gazed up at him, my adoration of and love for him had grown even greater, and told him I wasn't at all tired.

 

I left a pillow, as I had done since the first night I'd helped him get out of school, pushed down my bed so that if anyone happened to glance at my bed they would think I was sleeping and crept out of the dorm, checked the corridor was clear and headed for Raffles's study to find him already dressed in the hideously bright blazer, with the awful ginger whiskers in his hand waiting for me. "Hello, Bunny," he said, ruffling my hair. "Ready?"

 

I nodded and let him put his arm around my shoulders and lead me into his bedroom. I saw that as well as the chocolate he always left for me and a couple of books he'd bought for me and kept in his rooms, there was also a mug of cocoa. I gave him a smile of thanks and watched as he went to the window, opened it, looked carefully around before dropping the rope over the sill. "I'll be back in a couple of hours," he said, as he climbed over the sill, took the rope in his hands and began his elegant and quick descent. I watched him reach the ground, felt the tug on the rope and carefully pulled it up, curling it on the floor and closing the window. Then I climbed into his bed, it no longer felt strange, tucked the covers around me, got comfortable and began to drink the cocoa, read the book (it was a new one) and eat the chocolate he'd left for me.

 

I'd done it so often that I no longer felt the need to constantly watch the clock; I found I had a good sense of time and when I looked at the clock it was as I thought about ten minutes before Raffles was due back. I finished the chapter I was reading, put the book back on his bedside table and got back out of bed, put my slippers on, turned down the lamp and went to the window.

 

With five minutes before he was due to return I quietly opened the window and looked around carefully. I gasped and clamped my hand over my mouth to prevent myself from crying out as I saw the faint light of the outside door being opened and a figure go out into the grounds. I leant over the sill as far as I could and stared down at the figure, trying to work out who it was. I wasn't completely certain, but from the build and the way the man was standing, I believed it to be Dobson - and to my mind there was only one reason for him being out there: he was clearly waiting for Raffles.

 

I had five minutes in which to act; five minutes in which to save Raffles. I stood undecided for a few seconds, before I bent down, untied the rope from around the foot of the bed, pushed it into my dressing gown pocket, grabbed his dressing gown and pyjama trousers, tucked them under my arm and hurried out into his study. I opened his door, looked around, saw no one and hurried off, half jogging, half walking back to the third floor dorm.

 

Once there I picked up the lamp that always stood inside the door and  headed for my bed, which was just in front of a window, dropped Raffles's dressing gown and pyjama trousers onto my bed, bent and tied the rope around the foot of my bed, using the knot Raffles had spent time teaching me how to perfect. I knew that in order to get back to the side of the house where his bedroom was, Raffles would pass beneath the window I was about to open.

 

I glanced around the dorm, listening to the steady breathing and faint snores, mentally crossed my fingers, dug deeply into my supply of courage and slowly and quietly pushed the window up. The chill air hit me and again I glanced around the dorm, hoping the chill wouldn't penetrate further into the dorm and wake any of the boys up. I glanced quickly at the clock on my bedside table; by the faint light of the lamp I could see there was a just over a minute before Raffles would appear and I still hadn't thought of a way to attract his attention. I could hardly call down to him; that almost certainly would wake someone up. So what could I do?

 

Then I had an idea. I felt under my pillow and pulled out one of his handkerchiefs, I always slept with one beneath my pillow. I was sure he'd recognise his own handkerchief, but I needed something to weigh it down with so that I could throw it. My clothes were on the chair by my bed and I dug into my trouser pocket and found a couple of coins - they would have to do. I glanced out the window and could make out a tall, slim form moving carefully across the grounds, heading my way. Quickly I tied the handkerchief around the coins, leant out the window as far as I could, hanging onto the sill and prayed that I could do what I had never achieved on the cricket field: throw decently.

 

With all the strength I had, I threw the handkerchief out of the window and watched it tumble to the ground. The gods were clearly on our side, as it hit the ground just as he reached the window. I saw him stop and glance down, then he bent down picked up the handkerchief and looked up, peering through the darkness. Again I leant out of the window as far as I could, waving frantically and hoping my blond hair would be visible. He was still staring up as I grabbed the rope and let it fall down to him.

 

I saw him start slightly as the rope touched his shoulder, then glance around him, before gripping the rope and beginning to climb up. I helped him, even though he didn't need it, over the sill, before grabbing his hand and standing up on my toes to put my lips to his eyes. "Dobson's outside under your bedroom window," I whispered.

 

By the light of the lamp I saw his eyes widen and he squeezed my hand tightly before letting go of it, quietly closing the window and bending to untie the rope from around the foot of my bed. Once he'd curled it up, I grabbed his dressing gown and pyjama trousers from my bed, again caught his hand, led him out of the dorm and along to the nearest facilities, where I handed the clothes to him. "Quick," I said, pulling one of the sleeves of his blazer and helping him off with it. It took him a few seconds to change into his pyjama bottoms and pull his dressing gown on over his shirt. I sank down onto the floor, suddenly exhausted and let out the breath I didn't remember starting to hold.

 

He crouched down in front of me, put one hand on my shoulder and took my hand with his other. "Are you all right, Bunny?" he asked, his tone heavy with concern.

 

I nodded. "I am now."

 

"What happened?" I told him quickly and a warm feeling began to spread through my body at the look on his face. He left his discarded clothing on the floor, stood up, pulled me to my feet and gathered me into his arms, pulling me closely against him and wrapping his arms around me. "You, my beloved Bunny," he said quietly, his lips against my ear, "are the bravest rabbit ever. What would I do without you? You are a very brave boy indeed." I glowed at his words and allowed myself to settle into his embrace for a moment or two before with a lot of regret I pulled away and gazed up him. The look on his face sent another wave of warmth through me, in fact I felt my cheeks begin to flush and I had to look away.

 

"We'd better get to bed," I said softly as I glanced at the discarded clothing on the floor and back at him. To my eyes there was too much for him to safely carry, given that he might easily bump into someone; Dobson came instantly to mind. He seemed to read my mind as he pulled his dressing gown back off, handed it to me and put the gaudy blazer back on and pushed his whiskers into one of the pockets, before putting his dressing gown on over it. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow and I took a couple of steps back from him and looked at him carefully and nodded. "It'll be all right." Now there were just his trousers and the outside boots he'd worn. The trousers I felt sure he could bundle up and hold in his arms, but the boots were the problem. There was no way he would convince anyone he'd put them on rather than slippers just to use the facilities during the night.

 

Given how close to the third form dorm we were I considered suggesting he left the in my locker until the following day. However, given how often I had to put all my belongings away again as I returned to the dorm to find them strewn across my bed and the floor, I didn't think that would be the safest idea. Then I had an idea. "The other facilities," I said quickly. He looked down at me and raised an eyebrow. "No one goes there except me, at least not during the night. You could leave your boots there and get them tomorrow. If you're dressed no one will notice you have outside boots on."

 

One of his hands tangled in my hair, lightly stroking my scalp, the other went to my shoulder. "Not only brave, but also clever," he said softly; again I felt my cheeks flush with pleasure. "Right, I'll make sure you get back to bed first, then I'll -"

 

"No," I hissed. "Raffles, if anyone see you with me, it'll look far more suspicious than if anyone sees me alone, coming back from visiting the facilities."

 

He frowned; it was clear he blamed himself for getting me into this situation and wanted to ensure my safety over his. For a moment I thought he'd argue, but he just gave me a rueful smile, squeezed my shoulder, stroked my head again and then let his hands fall to his side. "Sleep well, Bunny," he said softly, as I went to the door and peeped out.

 

I gave him a quick smile, slipped out in the hallway and hurried back to the dorm. I didn't tell him I doubted I'd sleep at all that night, let alone sleep well.

 

 

The next morning I was sitting in the dining hall eating a piece of toast and trying to work out how I was going to stay awake for the rest of the day when I saw Raffles come into the hall with Charleston. Immediately I was fully awake and toast halfway to my mouth I stared at him, willing him to catch my eye, desperate to know if all was well.

 

I only had to wait a second or two before he looked away from Charleston and met my gaze. He smiled and gave me a nod, before he turned back to Charleston and together they went off to the sixth form house table. Suddenly the tiredness left me and after I'd finished the piece of toast I'd been eating for the past five minutes, I grabbed a second piece and ate that as well.

 

 

That evening when I went to his study, I found him waiting for me with chocolate, cocoa, biscuits, a very long, close embrace and his sincere thanks.

 

 

If I had been expecting a promise that he'd never again get out of school, never again put himself and me at risk, I would have been disappointed. However, by then I knew my Raffles so very well, the idea that he'd stop his night time excursions never really crossed my mind.

 

Although I did try to convince him that we really shouldn't risk it again, I knew he'd never agree. And he didn't; he just smiled, ruffled my hair, pulled him down onto his lap and as he'd done on the day he'd first asked me to help him get out of school, insisted on reading to me.

 

The fact that I had saved him from quite possible expulsion and certainly detention and a beating, not to mention being stripped of certain privileges made me feel a little better about all the times he'd helped and looked after me.
 

CHAPTER FIVE

ACCUSATIONS

 

There was about twenty minutes left until break when the door opened and Graves, a fifth form boy I knew by sight, but had never even nodded to let alone spoken to, came in and spoke quietly to the master.

 

"Manders?" Mr. Bates said, surprise more than a little obvious in his tone. Graves nodded.

 

Bates looked at me. "Manders, it appears the house master would like to see you in his study. Go straight along. Leave your things here; you can collect them later."

 

"Yes, sir." I stood up quickly, narrowly avoided knocking my papers, books and pen onto the floor and hurried towards the door. I knew every eye in the room was on me.

 

I wondered why I had been summoned, what could have happened? My first thought was that something had happened to my parents. I didn't believe I could be in any trouble; I wasn't the best student in school; apart from literature my grades were mostly little more than average, even though I had no trouble with the work. However, I played no pranks, I was quiet in class, deferential to the masters and the sixth formers, as such I never got into any trouble. Thus to be summoned to the house master's study was of some serious concern to me.

 

As I left the classroom and hurried along to Dobson's study, I knew the boys I had left behind would be wondering the same thing as I had been wondering; they would might even be passing notes to one another as to why I had been summoned.

 

I was about to knock on Dobson's study door when I saw my hands were black with ink. My pen had been leaking for some time and although I had believed I had fixed it, clearly my attempts had been more inept than I had believed them to be. Hastily I pulled out my handkerchief and tried to wipe my hands, going so far as to spit into the palms and wipe them - I only made things worse as I spread the ink further over my hands.

 

Knowing I couldn't delay any longer, I pushed my handkerchief back into my pocket and I knocked on the door and was instructed to 'enter'. As I went in I was surprised to see that not only was Dobson in place behind his desk, but to one side of him sat my form master (Mr. Collins) and Raffles's form master (Mr. Edwards) and on the other side of him sat Matron. My surprise increased when I saw, out of the corner of my eye Raffles, on the far side of the room, standing upright and still, his hands were behind his back, his suit sat on his lithe frame in the perfect way it always did, the knot of his tie was immaculate and his hair was pushed back and tidy. As I glanced at him, he met my eye, but I couldn't read his gaze.

 

"Ah, Manders," Dobson said, staring at me. I quickly hid my hands behind my back. "Do sit down." He nodded towards the chair in front of his desk; now I was even more surprised and worry began to make my stomach churn. I glanced quickly at Raffles, but he just continued to look at me with the unfathomable look. I obeyed, sat down and looked at Dobson, waiting for him to speak

 

The silence stretched out and suddenly I got the feeling that none of the adults seated behind Dobson's desk were entirely comfortable. "Manders."

 

"Yes, sir?"

 

"There is something I, something we," he indicated the other adults behind his desk, "wish to ask you. We have already spoken with Raffles and we need you to confirm or refute what he has told us. Do you understand, Manders?"

 

To be honest I didn't. Nonetheless I nodded. And then it hit me as to why I had been summoned; it was to do with me helping Raffles get out of school. I risked another glance to my side, but still Raffles just stood there; his gaze was firmly affixed on me, that much I could tell, but I still couldn't read it. I glanced away from him and looked at Dobson again, waiting for him to speak. Had Raffles and I taken too many risks? I had warned him, especially after the extremely close call we'd had, but he had just laughed and refused to listen to me. I knew for certain that Raffles would never give me away, that he would never even confirm or deny I had been the one to help him get out of school. But when I was asked, what could I say? What would Raffles say? What would Raffles do?

 

To my mind it was the only thing that made sense given the presence of our respective form masters that this was the matter they wished to question me about. There was no other reason for both of them and for Raffles to be present. I felt a wave of relief that it couldn't be about my parents after all pass through me, but it was instantly followed by a wave of fear as to what they would do to me.  Would I be expelled? What would Father say? And what about Raffles? He was all set to go up to Cambridge the following year and then it was presumed by many he would play cricket for England - what would happen to him? Just as I was wondering those things, I realised that Matron's presence was still unexplained. Surely Dobson wouldn't have asked for her to be present if the matter he wished to question me about was to do with me helping Raffles get out of school? Realising that again made me wonder if it was about my parents, but then Raffles and Edwards's presence was unexplained.

 

Finally Dobson spoke again. "Now, Manders, I do not want you to be afraid of what you say. You are not in any trouble at all, do you understand?" Again I nodded - I understood the words at least. "You just need to tell us the truth and nothing will happen to you. If you would rather Raffles waited outside, you only have to say."

 

Why would I want that? Again I looked at him; this time he gave me a very faint smile and his gaze softened for a moment. I turned back to the masters. "No, sir," I said. Then I added, "Thank you, sir."

 

Dobson frowned and glanced in Raffles's direction before looking back at me. "Very well, if that is your choice. Well, Manders, what I, what we, need to know is," Dobson paused, cleared his throat, glanced at the two form masters, fiddled with his papers, looked down at the desk and finally said, "Has Raffles ever taken advantage of you? Has he ever asked you to do, or even made you to do, something you did not wish to do?"

 

"What? No, sir, of course not! I know I spend a lot of time in his study, looking after him and his things. But, sir, it's important. He needs to concentrate on his studies and on cricket," I added, knowing that not only the house cup but also the public schools cricket cup lay in Raffles's hands. "And my work doesn't suffer, I make sure of that. So, no, sir, he hasn't taken advantage of me and he's never asked me to do anything I'm not happy to do, sir. And he's never made me do anything, sir; Raffles isn't like that; he . . . "  I stopped speaking as I became aware the masters were all looking even more uneasy and that Matron had a very faint smile teasing her lips. Now what I had I said?

 

"Er, Bunny." It was actually Raffles who broke the silence.

 

I turned to him. "Yes, Raffles?"

 

He glanced at the masters for a moment before looking back at me, moistened his lower lip and said, his tone gentle, "I don't think me asking you to dust my pictures and oil my bats is what Mr. Dobson means, Bunny."

 

"Isn't it?" I asked. Raffles shook his head. "Then what does he mean?" Raffles just held my gaze and suddenly I knew. I jumped up from my chair and turned to Dobson. "No!" I cried, raising my voice to a master for the first time ever "How can you ask that? Raffles would never do anything like that. Never. Tell them, Raffles." Again I looked at him, now I could see amusement on his face.

 

"Oh, I have, Bunny," he said in his silky tone. "But I'm not altogether certain they believe me."

 

I turned back to the masters, furious with them for daring to insinuate that Raffles would - "Someone is lying, sir," I said suddenly. "Someone wants to get Raffles into trouble. Maybe someone from another house, someone who knows they can only win the house cricket if Raffles isn't playing, if he's disgraced. Raffles would never do anything like that; he's too good a person."

 

I heard Edwards say under his voice, "Which is just what I suggested, Dobson."

 

Dobson ignored him. "Sit back down, Manders." I did. "Now do you deny that Raffles has ever touched you?"

 

I shook my head. "No, sir. But he's never touched me in an inappropriate way."

 

"Are you quite certain, Manders?"

 

"Yes, sir," said I, adding very cheekily and very unlike me, "unless you call ruffling my hair inappropriate." I heard Matron give a small cough and put her hand to her mouth.

 

I saw Dobson glance at Edwards and then at Collins, both of who just shrugged. He then looked at Matron who spoke. "It's as I told you, Mr. Dobson. There is nothing inappropriate or incorrect in the relationship between Arthur and young Harry. Indeed, if the rest of the sixth form treated the younger boys with such consideration, things in the school would be much better."

 

"Hmph. Very well, Manders, I have no choice but to accept your word. However, I do think it might be better if Raffles takes another fag for the remainder of -"

 

Once more I leapt to my feet. "No, sir! Look, I know how to look after Raffles, I know how to be quiet when he's working, I know how he likes things done. It took him weeks to show me exactly how to keep his bats oiled and in good condition. Someone else couldn't learn that, couldn't be quiet. No one knows him like I do."

 

Now it seemed as if Edwards was having problems with not smiling. "Not to mention that if you do give Raffles a new fag, everyone will think there is some truth in the accusation," he said, turning to look at Dobson. "And before you suggest no one else except those of us in this room will know, we all know that isn't true. It'll be all around the school before the end of break, if not sooner."

 

Dobson looked back at Edwards; he didn't seem particularly happy. But finally he sighed, put his pen down and looked at me. "Very well, Manders, Raffles, we will not make any changes at least for now. But I shall be keeping an eye on you." That part he addressed to Raffles. "Now you'd better go, both of you." He glanced at his watch. "And don't bother going back to class; there's only two minutes until break; I donít want you disturbing the final minutes of the lessons.

 

"Yes, sir," I said.

 

"Yes, sir," Raffles echoed.

 

Dobson nodded. "Oh and, Manders."

 

"Yes, sir?"

 

"Wash your hands."

 

I glanced at them and hastily put them back behind my back. "Yes, sir," I said. "Sorry, sir."

 

I hurried to the door and pulled it open and hurried out into the corridor, Raffles followed at a much more leisurely pace.

 

Once outside the door I sagged against the wall, my heart was thumping in my breast and I felt as if I was struggling to get my breath. Raffles closed the door, turned to me, put his hand on my shoulder and looked at me. As in the study earlier, I couldn't read his look. Before I could speak, he tightened the grip on my shoulder and moved me away from the wall. "Come on," he said, beginning to walk, "let's get your hands washed," and he led me out of the house and into the nearest facilities.

 

Whilst I stood at the sink scrubbing my hands with a sliver of harsh carbolic soap that kept slipping from my grasp and falling into the sink, Raffles availed himself of the other facilities. "You know, Bunny," he said, glancing at me over his shoulder, "you really are a very brave rabbit."

 

I looked up from my hands. "Brave? Me?"

 

He nodded and turned away from me. "Yes. I don't know of another third former or even a sixth former come to that who would have been so," he paused and was silent for a moment, before coming to join me at the sinks. "Forceful," he said finally, turning on a tap, "to a master."

 

I felt my cheeks begin to burn as I replayed the conversation in my head and recalled exactly what I had said to Mr. Dobson. Quite from where I'd got the nerve, I didn't know; all I knew was that I couldn't have sat there and let him say such things about Raffles - I couldn't let him believe, let him think, that Raffles would do those kind of things to me.

 

I didn't know how to put it into words as I stood next to Raffles who had now turned around and was leaning against the sink, brushing his hands together to dry them. A single glance at the towel which hung by the sinks told me quite clearly why he'd decided not to use it.

 

Still scrubbing at my hands, I looked at him. "I couldn't let him say those things about you, Raffles. I couldnít let him . . ." I trailed off and shrugged. "You haven't; you wouldn't. It's not fair."

 

"Hmmm," Raffles said, now pulling out his handkerchief and using that to dry his hands. "The thing is, Bunny, I wasn't altogether surprised."

 

I stared at him, eyes wide. "Raffles?"

 

He shrugged. "There have been whispers for some time now."

 

"Have there?" I whispered, glancing around me.

 

He nodded. "Yes. I wondered if you'd heard anything. It seems not."

 

I shook my head. "No. But why would people think . . ."

 

He put his handkerchief back into his pocket, put his hands in his pockets, tilted his head to one side slightly and stared at me. "Are you that innocent?" he asked softly.

 

I felt my face flush. Of course I wasn't. I mean, I was. But I knew what went on at public schools. I'd heard things and I'd seen a couple of boys in my dorm fumble one another. "Of course not!" I blurted out. Raffles's eyebrows shot up and he stared at me. I blushed harder. "Raffles! That's not what I meant and you know it."

 

"Do I?" he asked, his voice still low.

 

I nodded. "Yes." I spoke forcefully and stared up at him before I again turned my attention to my hands. "I still don't see why people would think you'd . . ." Again I trailed off. "What do they base it on?"

 

He laughed lightly. "Several things, but mostly it's because apparently I can't keep my hands to myself."

 

I looked at him and laughed as well - it was true; he couldn't. Whenever we were together, he seemed incapable of keeping a hand off me in some way. But it was, as I told Dobson, all perfectly innocent. Never once had I feared Raffles's touch, never once, apart from the very early days of my time as his fag when I'd wondered if he expected, wanted, more from me than keeping his shoes polished, his bats oiled and his room dusted, had I thought he had some motive other than friendship behind them. Not even when he took me onto his lap (which I know full well the masters would have considered 'inappropriate behaviour') had I feared he wanted more than just to comfort me.

 

We stared at one another for a moment and again a look I couldn't read crossed his face. Then he looked away from me and down at my hands. "It's not helping, is it?"

 

I sighed. Despite scrubbing away at the ink for at least a minute, he was right; my hands were still almost as stained as ever. "No," I said.

 

He shrugged. "It can't be helped. It'll come off when you have a bath. Come on, dry your hands and let's go. Bunny!" he exclaimed seconds later as I wiped my hands on the sides of my trousers.

 

"What?" he just rolled his eyes. Suddenly I sneezed and pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket.

 

But before I could blow my nose he'd taken it from me and was holding it between the tip of his finger and his thumb, just staring at it. "Bunny?"

 

"Oh, I tried to get the ink off my hands before I went into Dobson's study. It didn't work," I said, gazing at the stained cloth.

 

"I can see that," he said, balling it up and tossing it into the bin as he dug into his left-hand trouser pocket and pulled out a neatly and pristinely folded handkerchief and handed it to me.

 

"Thank you," I said, taking it and blowing my nose. Then it hit me; the one he'd dried his hands on had come from his right-hand pocket and he hadn't folded that back up neatly. "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny."

 

"Do you always carry two handkerchiefs?"

 

He laughed and ruffled my hair as he gazed at me in his fond way. "Only since meeting you, my dear Bunny."

 

"Oh," again I felt my cheeks warm, but then something else hit me. "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"We're okay, aren't we? I mean what I said to Mr. Dobson about you not wanting someone else to fag for you. That was okay, wasn't it? You don't want . . ."

 

"Anyone else? No, Bunny, I don't. So yes, we are quite okay. Now come along; the bell's gone I think we should leave."

 

I sighed. "So we're not okay."

 

He shook his head. "Bunny, we are perfectly okay. It is just that given less than twenty minutes ago I was accused of," he paused for a moment then went on, "doing things to you I should not do, I really don't think being seen together in the lavatories is the best idea. Do you?"

 

"Oh," I said. Then, "Oh?"

 

He rolled his eyes. "Yes, Bunny 'oh'. Now come along," and with his arm and hand in their customary place, he guided me out of the lavatories and back into the house.

 

"Harry!" Ollie came hurrying towards me. "Oh, hello, Raffles," he added, glancing at Raffles.

 

"Urquhart," Raffles acknowledged; he took his hand from my shoulder and leant against the wall, with both hands now in his pockets.

 

"Are you okay, Harry? What happened? What did Dobs- Mr. Dobson," he hastily corrected, glancing swiftly at Raffles, "want? Is it your parents? We were all worried about you. Well, I was worried about you," he clarified.

 

Before I could answer another voice called out. "Raffles!"

 

I glanced at Raffles who rolled his eyes. "Wilson," he said, as an upper sixth boy in our house, one of the eleven strode up.

 

"Is everything all right, Raffles? I heard you got summoned to old Dobson's study. Is something wrong? Is it going to affect the cricket?" Quite how Wilson could have heard, I had no idea. Being a year older than Raffles he wouldn't have been in the same lesson as Raffles when Raffles had been summoned to Dobson. But, as Edwards had said, news did seem to travel very quickly around the school.

 

"Yes. Yes, I was. No and no." Raffles said, still lounging against the wall. His tone bordered on insolence, as did his posture, given that Wilson was a year above him. But I knew Raffles had little time for the older boy whose sole aim of being at the school seemed to be being on the winning cricket team. He badgered Raffles daily, when Raffles didn't manage to avoid him, about extra practise sessions and kept asking things like had Raffles considered setting the field differently and did he want any suggestions. Wilson wasn't a bad player, he'd hardly be on the eleven were he thus, but nor was he one of the stars of the eleven.

 

"Oh," Wilson said after Raffles just stared at him. "That's good to hear. We donít want anything to interfere with us winning the cup, do we?" Raffles gave a half-shrug that could have been affirmation or contradiction. Wilson frowned; then suddenly he seemed to realise that he and Raffles weren't alone and not only that, but the boys who were with Raffles were actually third formers. "Right," he said crisply. "I'll see you later, Raffles, at practise." And with a nod at Raffles and another glance and frown at Ollie and me, he strode off.

 

"I'm sure you shall," Raffles murmured. Then he sighed, "Cricket? Is that all anyone ever thinks about? Urquhart, do you spend every waking minute thinking about cricket?"

 

Ollie looked at me and opened his mouth a couple of times. "Um," he managed.

 

But Raffles went on. "Is it the most important thing in your life? Do you wake up thinking about it? Do you go to sleep thinking about it?"

 

Again Ollie looked at me, I gave him what I hoped was an encouraging smile. "Er, no, sir?" he said, somehow making it a question. Raffles threw his hands up in the air. "I mean, of course I want us, er, you, sir, to win the house and school cups, but . . ." He came to a stuttering stop and just stared up at Raffles.

 

Raffles beamed and patted him on the shoulder. "Exactly," he said.

 

We stood for a moment, me looking at Raffles, Ollie looking from Raffles to me and back again, whilst Raffles was seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Then Ollie spoke again. "I brought your things, Harry. Your books, your paper and your pen; Billings gave me a piece of paper to wrap your pen in," he added.

 

"Thank you, Ollie," I said reaching for the items.

 

I took the books and paper but it was Raffles who snatched the pen, unfolded the paper carefully and looked at it. "So this is the offending pen, is it, Bunny?" He wrapped it back up in the paper and with obvious reluctance handed it back to me.

 

I nodded. "Yes. I tried to repair it. I thought I had, but . . . I'll write home for a new one."

 

Raffles frowned at me and asked, "Where's your spare one?"

 

I hastened to reply, glancing away from him, looking over his shoulder at the wall he was leaning against. "It was st- I lost it," I said quickly. I could feel his gaze on me and I knew he didn't believe me.

 

"Bunn-" he started to say, but he was interrupted.

 

"A. J. There you are! Is everything all right?" Charleston strode up, carrying several books in each hand. "Manders," he nodded to me. "Urquhart," he nodded to Ollie. We both nodded back. "Here, I brought your books for you, A. J. Is everything all right?" he repeated.

 

"Thanks, Charlie," Raffles took his books. "Yes, everything is fine. It was just something and nothing."

 

"Not your family?"

 

Raffles shook his head. "No."

 

"Good."

 

"Any prep?"

 

"Yes. Your favourite," Charleston said and smiled.

 

Raffles groaned. "My study straight after supper, Bunny," he said turning to me. I smiled back; I might not be the best student in the school, but English, verses in particular was something I was very good at. Raffles always got me to write his for him. Then he patted me fondly on the shoulder, smiled at Ollie and walked off with Charleston. Ollie and I began to walk in the opposite direction.

 

Suddenly I was halted by his voice. "Bunny!" I turned and he, after pushing his books back into Charleston's hands and giving his arm a quick squeeze, was heading back towards me. I left Ollie and met him in the middle of the hall. He dipped his hand into his breast pocket and pulled out his pen. "Here," he said, holding it out.

 

I stared down. "But, Raffles," I said softly, my tone almost reverential. "That's your favourite."

 

"Well, I'll have to get used to using my second favourite, won't I?" he pushed the pen into my hand and ruffled my hair. "I can't have you walking around looking as if you'd just finished sweeping chimneys, it offends me." And with another hair ruffle, he turned around and, hands in his pockets, strode back to Charleston and took his books back, before putting his arm through Charleston's and together they walked off.

 

I stared after him for a moment, before carefully putting the pen in my own breast pocket and going back to where Ollie stood, mouth open. "Did Raffles really just give you his pen?" he asked his voice high.

 

All around us, boys stood staring at me. I forced myself not to fidget, instead I just nodded. "Yes," I said firmly.

 

"But that's . . . His pen?"

 

"Come on, Ollie," I said, suddenly desperate to be anywhere but where we were. "Let's go."

 

 

Later that evening I was lying on the floor in Raffles's study writing his verses, when something he'd said to me earlier came back. "Raffles?" I said, looking over my shoulder to where he was stretched out along the length of his sofa.

 

He looked up from his book. "Yes, Bunny."

 

"Did Dobson really accuse you of - you know?"

 

Raffles's eyes hardened for a second and he looked grim. Then he reached down, ruffled my hair and said his tone flat, "Yes, Bunny. Let's just say I cannot remember a more unpleasant fifteen minutes. He was kind to you, but -" A knock at the door cut him off.

 

In the elegant way I can only admire, he swung his legs off the sofa, stepped over me and opened the door. "Oh, Wilson," I heard him say.

 

"Raffles, I wondered if you had five minutes to talk about the match tomorrow?"

 

I didn't hear Raffles's reply as such, I just heard him say, "You'd better come in."

 

"Now I have an idea. Hear me out before you - Oh!" Wilson stopped dead and stared open mouthed at me. "Raffles!" he said forcefully, his tone angry.

 

Raffles threw himself into the chair, pulling his feet up to avoid putting them on me. "Yes, Wilson?" his tone was nonchalant.

 

Wilson looked at me again. I shifted slightly so that I was still at Raffles's feet, but at least he could put his feet down if he wanted to.

 

"Don't you think . . . ?"

 

"Don't I think what?" Raffles's tone was now clipped and he not only put his feet down, he moved to the arm of the chair. "Get up off the floor, Bunny," he said, bending over and urging me to my feet by my elbow. I obeyed him, sitting cross-legged in the chair he'd just vacated and bending my head again over his verses.

 

"You're being a bloody fool"

 

Raffles stood up. "Kindly keep such language out of my study, Wilson. Now say what you came to say and get out." He sat back on the arm of the chair.

 

"It doesn't matter, you won't listen. Apparently you never do. But by, God, Raffles if you f- mess up our chance of winning the cup, over some blasted little -"

 

Again Raffles stood up. "Yes?" His tone was like ice.

 

Wilson was silent for some time. I dared to look up at him from beneath my fringe which had fallen into my eyes. "I just hope you know what you're doing, that's all." He turned sharply on his heel and strode to the door. There he stopped and turned back, looking at me with a disdainful, even disgusted look. "You really are a bloody fool," he repeated, before flinging open the door so hard it hit the wall and bounced back, very nearly hitting him, and leaving Raffles's study.

 

Raffles stood in silence just staring after Wilson, before moving and shutting the door. "Maybe I am," I heard him say quietly, so quietly I knew I wasn't meant to hear. He then turned, smiled at me in the way he always does and asked, "So how go the verses, Bunny? Have you finished them?"

 

 

If Dobson or anyone expected Raffles to behave any differently with me, to treat me any differently, to stop putting his hands on me at every opportunity, they were mistaken and disappointed. Because nothing changed; I had wondered if Raffles would heed Dobson's 'I'll be keeping an eye on you' and stop putting his arm around me quite so much, stop letting me sit in his study for hours on end even when I had no duties to perform, but he did not. I also wondered if he would think twice about what Wilson had said, especially as the implication was it could affect the chances of wining the house and public schools cup; but again he didn't.

 

I know he and Wilson had further words following the evening in his study as I happened to overhear them; I also happened to overhear Raffles suggesting to Charleston what he might like to do to Wilson. Things did not improve between Raffles and Wilson during the final few months of Wilson's time at the school, if anything they got steadily worse - I believe the only time they actually spoke to one another was on the cricket field. However, at least Wilson got his heart's desire as both the house and public school cups were won by Raffles's team.

 

I happened to be in Raffles's study when Wilson came by to say goodbye on his final day. He offered Raffles his hand to shake and thanked him for being such a fine captain; Raffles may not have particularly wanted to shake Wilson's hand, but his manners are impeccable, as is his sense of 'what should be'. And so without even pausing he took the proffered hand, smiled, even clapped Wilson on the shoulder and wished him good luck for the future. It was only when Wilson's gaze came to rest on me, sitting on the sofa, trying to make myself invisible, and he shook his head and curled his lip did Raffles let go of his hand and his eyes became like flint as he turned his back on Wilson and started to talk to me about Keats, saying he'd found the book of poetry he'd promised to give to me.

 

As the two years of my time as Raffles's fag went on, it became quite clear to me why people whispered about us, why Dobson had made accusations directly to Raffles about what he was doing to me and why more than one of my dorm mates plunked up the courage to ask me 'what it was like' and why more than one of Raffles's fellow sixth formers warned him to be careful.

 

I believe had I been the one observing Raffles and me, then I too might have suspected that my duties involved more than just polishing shoes, dusting pictures, writing his verses, keeping his cricket bats oiled and making cocoa (when he didn't make it himself). But I wasn't observing, I was involved and nothing Raffles ever did to me or said to me, none of his touches not even the way he pulled me onto his lap ever made me afeared or concerned for even a second. Raffles did not take me to his bed, did not touch me in an inappropriate way, and did not expect me to do things that if one listened to rumours, some of the other sixth form boys did to their fags.

 

In the end Charleston dealt with the subject in the way only he could; yes again I overheard him. I did overhear quite a lot of things, it wasn't that I listened at doors or anything, but rather that a lot of Raffles's year seemed to forget I was around, they were so used to me being wherever Raffles was, that I think I blended into the furniture.

 

However, this time I happened to be on my way to Raffles's study when, even though I was some way from it, I heard raised voices coming from Charleston's study. I didn't hear what the other boy said, I just heard the tone, but I did hear Charleston quite clearly. He laughed and said, "Do you really think that if A. J. was bedding Manders he'd have his hands all over him in public? No, he wouldn't. The fact he can't keep his hands off him proves he isn't doing things he shouldn't be doing."

 

CHAPTER SIX

EYES OPENED

 

"Raffles!" I called, knocking on his study door and pushing it open at the same time. "Perkins -" I came to an abrupt halt and stared in shock at the sight in front of me.

 

Raffles and Asherton (a boy from another house) were on Raffles's sofa kissing, Raffles's coat and tie were on the floor, his hand was tangled in Asherton's hair and Asherton had his hand inside Raffles's trousers. "Raffles," I whispered.

 

As one the two boys sat up. "Bunny!" Raffles cried, pushing Asherton off, jumping to his feet and staring at me in horror. My eyes fell below his waist and I cried out in shocked surprise. A second later Raffles's was adjusting his clothing. His eyes never once left my face.

 

"What the hell are you doing here, Manders?" Asherton growled, straightening his tie and flattening his hair.

 

"I . . . I . . . I . . . Raffles?" Was all I could manage.

 

"Why the hell didn't you knock?" Asherton snapped.

 

"I diiid," I managed, knowing what was coming next. "Raffles has always told me not to wait for him to tell me to come in. Right, Raffles?"

 

But Raffles seemed incapable of speech. He still just stood there, his hands still below his waist although he had long since buttoned his trousers up, still staring in horror at me.

 

"You fool!" Asherton snapped, but I didn't know he meant me or Raffles.

 

For a moment the three of us just continued to stand in silence. Both Raffles and Asherton were staring at me; I kept looking from Raffles to Asherton and back again. Then Asherton pushed his hands into his pockets, shrugged and said, "I guess even rabbits have to begin their sex education somewhere."

 

I blushed furiously and looking appealing at Raffles, expecting him to intervene; to say something. But he was still just staring in silence at me.

 

Asherton looked from me to Raffles and then back again. A sneer appeared on his face. "Oh, I get it," he said. "You're jealous! A. J., your pet rabbit's jealous. Want him for yourself do you, Manders?"

 

"No!" I cried, instantly knowing answering was the worst thing I could have done, especially when my tone did not, to my ears, confirm my word.

 

Asherton just laughed; it was not a pleasant sound. Then he looked at Raffles again and back to me. "You know, Raffles," he said, his tone as unpleasant as his laugh had been. "You should just bugger him and then let the rest of us have him."

 

The words finally snapped Raffles out of his frozen state and he whirled around and punched Asherton, who only partly deflected it, but still managed to hit out at Raffles in return; they both fell to the floor. I ran for the door.

 

"Bunny, stay where you are!" I heard Raffles cry.

 

I disobeyed him and fled down the corridor, glancing back over my shoulder all the time. Suddenly I ran into someone. "Manders!" I looked up to see Charleston standing in front of me; his suit was covered in what I guessed was cocoa and the mug lay shattered on the floor. "What on earth are you doing, you -" Charleston stopped abruptly.

 

"Raffles," I stammered.

 

"What about him?"

 

"He's fighting."

 

"What? With whom?"

 

"Asherton," I managed to reply.

 

"Stay there!" Charleston cried, already sprinting off towards Raffles's study.

 

I disobeyed him just as I had disobeyed Raffles, and ran off.

 

As I ran through the house my one thought was to get to somewhere Raffles couldn't find me. I didn't want to be alone, but I also didn't want to be with anyone else. If I went to the third form common room all he had to do was appear and order me to go with him. If I went to the dorm, the same thing could happen. I considered the lavatories or bathrooms, but they were all too obvious. I even ran to the front door and tried the handle, it was unlocked and I seriously considered going outside and finding somewhere to hide. But if I was caught and I had no doubt I would be, I'd be in trouble - I might even get expelled.

 

Suddenly I had an idea; the house had a tower room where old costumes and sporting equipment and other odds and ends, things that were too good to be thrown out, but of no use on a day to day basis, were kept. I hated it; I'd been there once with Raffles who had considered it as a different way of getting out of school and even with him by my side I'd been uneasy and had been happy when Raffles had dismissed the place and had decided to stick to getting out of his bedroom window. He'd never think of looking for me there, because he knew how much I hated it.

 

I reached the ladder which was the only way up and climbed as quickly as I could. As I reached the top and pulled myself over, my foot caught the ladder and it crashed to the floor. I was both pleased and worried. Pleased, because now I was alone and worried because it was the only way down and I was alone.

 

It was dark, Raffles had brought a lamp when we'd gone up together, but I hadn't thought of that. Moonlight came in through the narrow window and I carefully groped my way to a wall, sat down, pulled my knees up to my breast and waited for my racing heart to begin to slow down.

 

I didn't want to think about what I'd seen, but the image kept appearing in front of my eyes and all I could hear was Asherton's words before Raffles had hit him. I knew Raffles wouldn't, couldn't, do such a thing to me; and yet he had been with Asherton and he had been -

 

I whimpered softly as I heard a creak and then another and pushed myself further against the wall, pressing back as hard as I could, drawing my knees up even more, curling over, making myself as small as I possibly could and I trembled. I was quite certain I wasn't alone up here after all, something was with me. And even though I had ran from Raffles, even though I hadn't wanted him to find me, now all I prayed for was that he would come and rescue me. As I heard yet another creak, I began to silently cry and I put my hands over my ears to block out any noise.

 

I don't know how long I sat there in the dark, sobbing now softly, with my hands over my ears before I heard the voice I knew so well. "I thought I'd find you up here, Bunny."

 

I jumped and stared up; above me stood Raffles, he had his coat on, but he was still without his tie and the fact I could see part of one of his shirt cuffs told me it had been ripped. He was holding a lamp and looking down at me; his hair was messed in a way I've never seen it, not even after hours spent on the cricket field, and he had dried blood on his cheek and ear.

 

"Don't touch me!" I yelled, trying to move further back and failing.

 

He held his hands up and out slightly and even took a step backwards. "I won't, Bunny, not if you don't want me to. Look, I'm going to put the lamp on the floor and sit down so I can talk to you. Is that okay? Or do you want me to go?"

 

I thought about it for a moment, but I knew I'd rather be here with him, even though I didn't want to be, than to be alone. I shook my head. "Stay," I murmured.

 

He bent down, put the lamp on the ground and then in his ever elegant way sat down, cross-legged on the floor in front of me; the lamp was between us and he just looked at me. I stared back at him, blinking tears away and wiping my eyes and nose on the back of my hand.

 

He sighed softly and I watched him put his hand into his pocket and in a gesture so familiar it sent a shot of pain through me he pulled out a clean handkerchief. He looked at me for a second and then tossed it across to me, it landed perfectly on my knees and I picked it up. I blew my nose and dried my eyes and held onto the handkerchief as it was suddenly a life-belt.

 

I frowned at him, suddenly remembering what he'd said when he'd appeared. "Why did you think you'd find me here?"

 

He gave me a half-smile, "Because, my dear Bunny, I know how much you hate it up here. Thus, you would think that I would think this would be the last place I'd consider looking for you. But as it was it was the first place."

 

"Oh," I said, and I had thought I'd been so clever.

 

"Bunny," he said quietly after a moment or two had gone by, "I am sorry. I am so very sorry." I didn't know what to say or do, so I just continued to stare at him. "You were never meant to see that. You were never meant to see anything like that," he finished.  "I swear to you, Bunny, I would never have - Never, Bunny. I never wanted you to be exposed to that. You do believe me, don't you?"

 

Again I didn't know what to say or what to do. I did believe him, but at the same time I was still shocked by what I had witnessed. Finally I looked away from him and nodded. "Yes," I said quietly.

 

But apparently that wasn't going to be enough. "Look at me, Bunny," he said gently. I did. "Do you believe me?"

 

This time I held his gaze as I nodded and said, "Yes."

 

Once again Raffles fell silent; I could see him formulating what to say next. "Bunny, you told me your class all had detention tonight and Perkins never lets anyone go early. What happened?"

 

"We did. But then suddenly Simpson confessed it was he who had put the blotting paper in the ink on Perkins's desk. We wouldn't have ratted on him, Raffles. It was only a couple of hours of detention. I don't know why he confessed. I'm sure he didn't want to, he didn't look happy, but he did."

 

Raffles frowned for a moment. "I know you wouldn't, Bunny," he said a little distractedly. He frowned and then said softly, his tone grim, "I think I know why."

 

"You do?"
 

He nodded. "Gregson's in your class, isn't he?" I nodded. "And Gregson is Howard's fag."

 

I nodded again. "What does that matter?"

 

He stared at me for a moment and then told me, his tone flat, his eyes never once leaving my face.

 

I gasped. "Raffles! Can't you stop it?"

 

Raffles sighed. "Bunny, I can't protect every third former. My reach only goes so far."

 

"But - Raffles. Can't you tell Dobson or someone?"

 

He shook his head. "No, Bunny, I can't. Oh, Bunny, I can't expect you to understand totally, but can you at least tru-" He stopped abruptly and closed his eyes. I knew what he was thinking and suddenly I knew I had to say something.

 

"I do trust you," I said softly.

 

He opened his eyes and looked at me and for the first time since I'd gone into his study that evening I saw what I only at that moment realised was fear, fade from his eyes. "Thank you," he said softly.

 

And then I sighed as I realised something else. "You can't tell because it goes on all over the school, doesn't it?"

 

He nodded. "And yes, the masters know, but they don't want to know. Unless someone actually makes a point of telling them, they can tell themselves it doesn't happen - even though they know it does. Do you understand?"

 

Again I nodded and the memory of sitting in Dobson's study as he asked me if Raffles had ever done anything to me I didn't want came back. Someone had deliberately gone out of his way to tell Dobson Raffles had been doing things to me he shouldn't, thus Dobson had to investigate it. "Yes."

 

"And although it's no defence, Gregson isn't like you. He's big for his age." He was, he was almost as tall as some of the sixth formers and he was well-built. "And from I've seen of him he doesn't seem afraid of Howard."

 

"He isn't." And he wasn't, indeed he seemed just as keen, just as happy to go off to see Howard as I was to go and see Raffles. And then because I was still very young and still upset and still worried I had to ask him, "If he was, would you do something? Would you tell?" I held my breath and waited.

 

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

 

"No matter what it meant for you? No matter how much the other boys would hate you?"

 

He nodded. "Yes."

 

I was comforted by the single word.

 

Again we slipped into silence. Again it was I who broke it. "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Why Asherton? I mean you don't like him that much, do you?"

 

He gave me a rueful grin and shook his head. "No, Bunny. And I like him even less now."

 

I swallowed. "So why him? Charleston I could understand." And I could, I could understand that very easily given that Charleston was Raffles's best friend. In fact had I ever thought about Raffles kissing another boy, I would have presumed it was Charleston he was kissing.

 

Raffles sighed. "It's complicated, Bunny," he said. I was about to object when he hurried on, "Which is a terribly condescending thing to say, I'm sorry. Let me just say that I like Charlie too much to kiss him." I frowned, his words really didn't make sense to me. He sighed again. "One day, Bunny, you'll understand. But for now just accept my word. I can't kiss Charlie; I won't kiss Charlie. It's easier with Asherton."

 

I still didn't understand; it made no sense to me at all. Why would kissing someone you didn't like be easier than kissing someone you did like? And then I said, before I really thought about it, "You could kiss me. You like me. And I'm not Charleston." And suddenly I found myself asking, my voice very low and with just the hint of a quiver in it, "You do like me, don't you, Raffles?"
 

He blinked as he looked at me and I saw a touch of sorrow flash across his face. He sighed softly, "I really did upset you tonight, did I not, Bunny?" I didn't answer; I couldn't. "Oh, Bunny, my dearest, beloved Bunny, how can you ask me that?" I swallowed hard and bit the inside of my mouth; I wish I hadn't spoken. "Of course I like you, Bunny; in fact like doesn't come close to what I feel about you. Bunny, I adore you; you're the most important person in the world to me. So, yes, yes, Bunny, I do like you."

 

"Oh," I said quietly.

 

We sat in silence for a moment; he watching me, me trying not to look away from him. I couldn't understand the look on his face as he stared at me. After what seemed like forever, he broke the silence. "Bunny?" he said quietly, his tone somewhat strange, "do you want me to kiss you?"

 

I opened my mouth and shut it again and looked down at my knees. I didn't know if I wanted him to kiss me or not. Or rather whilst I was fairly certain I did want him to kiss me, I was also fairly certain, after seeing what I'd seen in his study, that I didn't want anything else which apparently went with kissing. However, I also knew I didn't want to see him kissing anyone else. I didn't want to even think about him kissing anyone else.

 

Finally, I shrugged and said in a mumbling, low voice. "I donít know." I looked up at him and saw a look I didn't understand race across his face. Then he smiled a little and I saw him reach forward, no doubt to ruffle my hair or touch my arm or knee or something, but he suddenly stopped and pulled back. I sighed silently; of course now I'd told him not to touch me, I wanted him to touch me. I missed his touch.

 

And then I saw him flex his right hand and rub it. "Did you hurt your hand?" I asked concern clear in my tone.

 

He gave me a grin. "Let's just say, it's a good job I won't need to bowl for the next few days."

 

"Oh." And I felt absurdly guilty.

 

"It wasn't your fault, Bunny," he said quietly.

 

I shrugged. "You really promise, don't you? I won't ever have to see you kissing anyone again or see -" I felt my cheeks flush and again I looked away from him.

 

"I promise, Bunny," he said quietly.

 

To my horror I felt tears creeping up again. I blinked hard. "I don't want to see you kissing anyone," I said.

 

"I know," he said softly. I thought he was about to add something, but he just sighed.

 

Then something else hit me. "Is Charleston angry with me?" I asked.

 

Raffles smiled and shook his head. "No, Bunny, he's not."

 

"But his suit -"

 

"Will sponge. In fact I offered your services, you don't mind, do you?"

 

I shook my head. "No, of course not. But he won't . . . You won't let him . . ."

 

"Charlie would never hit a younger boy," Raffles said softly. "Now, it's getting late, are you ready to go down?"

 

I nodded. With one sure, swift move he was on his feet and was brushing his trousers down. He automatically held out his hand to me. "Want a hand up? Or do you still not want me to touch you?"

 

I put my hand up and took his and the next second I was on my feet. But I'm not as lithe as Raffles and my legs had gone to sleep from being drawn up to my breast for so long and the next second I found myself falling forward into Raffles's arms. He caught me easily and steadied me, but I felt him instantly tense and try to keep away from me as he held me. Again I knew it was up to me, so I just rested my head on his breast and put my arms around his waist. After a moment he relaxed and held me in a loose embrace. "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Would you have left me if I'd told you to?"

 

Raffles gently pushed me away from him. "No, Bunny," he said his tone serious. "I wouldn't have. Do you really have to ask?"

 

I looked up into his face and shook my head. "No," I whispered. "But it's nice to hear."

 

He ruffled my hair. "Come on, let's go and see to Charlie's suit."

 

He led me to the top of the ladder and I stared down. I really didn't want to go down, getting up had been easy enough, especially as I hadn't been thinking of anything other than hiding. But getting down was another matter. I pressed as close as I could to him and stared down.

 

"It'll be fine, Bunny," he said, his arm now around my shoulders. "I won't let you fall."

 

I looked up at him; that was a promise I wasn't sure he could keep. "Can't I just stay here?"

 

He laughed. "No, my rabbit, you can't. Come on. I'll go down first and then you come. I won't let you fall," he repeated. He handed me the lamp and I watched as he put his leg onto the top rung and seconds later was at the bottom. Why did he make everything look so easy?

 

I stood and made a tentative move for the top, but realised I had the lamp. "Raffles," I called, holding it up for him to see.

 

"Just drop it down," he said. I hesitated. If I dropped it down to him, I'd be up here in the dark. "I'll shine it up, Bunny. Come on, just drop it." Seconds later I let it go and it landed in the safest pair of hands in the school. True to his word, he instantly held it up as high as he could, thus allowing me to see the ladder quite clearly.

 

Telling myself I had to trust him, I made another tentative move and somehow managed to get one leg onto the top rung. "That's a good boy," he called. "Now just hold on with your hands and swing your other leg over." It took me three attempts, but finally I managed it and dared to put one foot onto the second rung.

 

I don't know how long it took before I felt his hands on my waist (I don't know when he'd put the lamp on the floor but as he held me with both hands, I knew he must have done) and I was guided safely down the final few rungs, secure in the knowledge that he hadn't let me fall; that he would never let me fall.

 

We headed back the way I'd come and in minutes were outside Charleston's study. Raffles knocked and also called out, "Charlie, it's me." The door was opened seconds later and Raffles pushed me forward, keeping one hand on my shoulder. "I bring the penitent," he said.

 

"I'm sorry, Charleston," I said, looking up at him from beneath my fringe.

 

He sighed and put his hand on the shoulder Raffles wasn't holding. "It's all right, Manders," he said, his tone kind.

 

"Raffles said he told you I'd sponge your suit."

 

Charleston shrugged and glanced at Raffles over my head. "Thank you," he said. We all went into his study and he handed me the soiled coat and trousers.

 

"Bunny will make a good job of it, Charlie," Raffles said, throwing himself down onto Charleston's sofa. I sat on the floor and worked on the suit as Raffles and Charleston talked together softly.

 

I'd just about finished when Charleston said, "Here you are, Manders. Just try not to spill this one on my suit."

 

I looked up to see him holding out a mug of cocoa. I glanced at Raffles who also held one, before looking back at Charleston. I was used to having cocoa with Raffles, but had never expected to get one elsewhere. "Thank you," I said, taking it carefully. "I've finished your suit," I added.

 

Charleston picked it up and looked at it. He nodded. "Thanks, Manders. You're right, A. J., he has made a very good job of it."

 

Raffles smiled.

 

Charleston sat back down on the sofa and picked up his own mug. Then he looked at me, I was still on the floor, and said, "There is a chair, Manders. Sit in it."

 

Again I glanced at Raffles, again I was surprised. Again he just smiled. Moving slowly, taking great care to make sure I didn't spill my cocoa, I stood up and perched on the edge of the chair and listened without paying attention to the words, to Raffles and Charleston talking to one another.

 


It was half an hour later and my eyes were starting to struggle to stay open, when Charleston said, "Manders! You should have been in bed three quarters of an hour ago."

 

Raffles glanced at his watch and stood up quickly. "Come on, Bunny," he said, holding out his hand. "I'll walk you back to your dorm. Thanks for the cocoa, Charlie." And he hurried me to the door.

 

"Thank you, Charleston," I murmured, and allowed myself to be all but manhandled along the corridor.

 

We reached the door of the third form dorm and Raffles put his finger to his lips and listened at the door. Then he bent his head and whispered, "I think it's okay. Get inside, get into bed and be quiet about -" The next second he'd grabbed my hand, ushered me into the dorm, pushed me towards my bed, manhandled me into it, pulled up the covers and dropped to the floor, rolling under my bed. It all seemed to happen in one seamless move.

 

I closed my eyes and tried not to breathe as the faint glow of a candle moved slowly up and down the dorm. It seemed to take forever before Dobson, completed his bed check and went back out.

 

I waited for another minute, before I leant out of bed and whispered. "He's gone."

 

Raffles rolled out from under my bed and stood up, only the light from the moon, as well as the low glow from the lamp that stood on the table just inside the dorm, lit the room up, but I could see he was rubbing his hands together. "I don't think the cleaners actually clean under the beds," he said, bending his head and putting his mouth to my ear. Then he said, "If I were you I'd forget about brushing my teeth and just get undressed and into bed. If you need to get up later and use the facilities it'll be safer."

 

I nodded. "Okay," I whispered. For a second his hand came to rest on my hair and he ruffled it. "Sleep well, Bunny," he said, and then he was gone. I didnít hear him cross the floor; I didn't hear him open the door. I just knew he'd gone.

 

 

I wasn't so young or so naÔve to believe that Raffles didn't kiss or do other things will other sixth formers during the remainder of his time at the school; I'm positive he did. However, I never saw him; he kept his word to me about that; just as he kept his word to me about everything. Not once did I see him kiss or touch, other than the hand on arm, pat on the back, arm around shoulder type of touch, anyone.

 

Whether he went to other boys' studies or whatever happened happened in his study after I'd gone to bed, I don't know - and I didn't want to know. Yes, I knew he was kissing other sixth formers, but I didn't want to think about it - so I didn't.
 

CHAPTER SEVEN

A. J.'s PET RABBIT

 

I hurried along to Raffles's study; he and the rest of the eleven were due to go away before breakfast the following day to play the semi-finals of the public schools cricket cup. The other school was in the far north of England and the team would be away for three days; so of course I wanted to see Raffles before he went.

 

I reached his study and was about to knock and go in, when I heard voices coming from inside. I sighed to myself and hesitated, my hand poised to knock and wait for Raffles to answer the door.

 

"You know it does make a nice change," I heard a boy say; I couldnít indentify the voice through the closed door.

 

"What does?" That voice I did recognise; it was Charleston.

 

"A. J.'s pet rabbit not being around."

 

"Don't call Manders that, you know A. J. doesn't like it." Charleston tone was light, but there was a clear edge to it.

 

"Come on, he can't hear me, Charleston, he's in his bedroom packing. And how come he's packing, why isn't his pet rabbit doing it?"

 

"I thought you didnít want Manders here, now you're wondering why he isn't here. That's a bit of a contradiction, Yates."

 

"That's me."

 

I heard Charleston laugh. "What have you got against Manders anyway, he's a nice kid?"

 

"I never said he wasn't, he seems nice enough; quiet, clean, well mannered, deferential, but he is a kid. Why does A. J. want him around all the time?"

 

Even after all the months I'd been Raffles's fag, that was a question I still asked myself from time to time. I didn't want to hear Charleston attempt to answer the question, thus I decided it was time for me to leave. I'd come back later when hopefully Charleston and Yates and anyone else who might be in Raffles's study would have gone - or at least Raffles would be in his study and not in his bedroom. But as I turned to go my arm was caught and a voice I recognised said, "So, the rabbit listens at doors, does he? I wonder what old A. J. will think of that!"

 

I tried to pull my arm out of the tight grip and to pull myself away from the boy who held me; it was Kirkton who held me so firmly. He was the only boy I really feared; the only one who didn't seem awed or even bothered by Raffles's promises of what he'd do to them if anyone hurt me - or even touched me in a way Raffles didn't approve of.

 

More than once Kirkton had made very crude suggestions to me and had even touched me in a way Raffles would be furious about if he had known (I had never told him) as well as once gripping my arm so tightly, I'd ended up with a large bruise and I'd had to lie to Raffles about how I'd got it. I knew he hadn't believed me when I said I'd tripped over and hit the wall, but he hadn't argued; he'd stared at me in silence for some time, but he had dropped the matter. However for several days after he'd seen the bruise, he had appeared in the halls at every break time and before lunch and supper, as well as insisting on walking me to and from the third form dorm every night.

 

I struggled as best as I could to get away, however, Kirkton was far too strong and the more I struggled the tighter he grip became; he had my arm twisted up behind my back, holding me with one hand and his other hand was tangled tightly in my hair. "Please," I said. "Let me go, Kirkton."

 

"Oh, I don't think so; I think Raffles should know the truth about his pet rabbit, don't you?" Kirkton paused for a moment, then put his mouth near to my ear and said in a tone that left me no doubt as to exactly what he had in mind, "Or, I could just take you to my study and -"

 

"No!" I cried. I didn't care if he did tell Raffles that I'd been caught outside his study. I didn't even care if Raffles was angry with me; all I cared about was not being alone with Kirkton.

 

He laughed and pushed me forward, reaching over me to open Raffles's study door and pushed me into the room. "Hey, A. J.," he called, "I've just caught your pet rabbit - Where's Raffles?"

 

Charleston had got to his feet as Kirkton had pushed me into the room. "He's - Let go of Manders, Kirkton!"

 

"He was listening at the door," Kirkton said, tightening his grip on me as Charleston took a step towards him.

 

"So what? Just let him go before -"

 

"What on earth is - Kirkton get your hands off Bunny, now."

 

I looked up to see Raffles standing in the doorway between his bedroom and study. "Raffles," I whispered.

 

He dropped a shirt he'd been holding and took a step then another towards Kirkton. "I said let Bunny go. Now, Kirkton, before I -"

 

"Before you what, A. J.? Don't forget we have an important match the day after tomorrow. Are you really going to risk your best batsman for this thing?" he pulled my head up by my hair and I cried out.

 

I saw Raffles curl both hands into fists and take another step towards Kirkton, but it was Charleston who moved ever faster. "Let go of Manders now, Kirkton, or I promise you it isn't A. J.  you'll need to worry about." I shivered slightly at the tone in Charleston's voice and due to the fact he'd got me pulled right back against him, I was able to feel Kirkton as swallowed hard.

 

Then he gave a half-laugh and pushed me hard in Raffles's direction. "Have him," he said dismissively. I fell forward landing on my hands and knees and cried out in pain. "Oh, look, he's on his knees; just where you like him, is it, A. J.?"

 

My head was down, so I heard rather than saw what happened next. I felt Raffle step over me; heard Charleston call, "A. J.!" and then I heard the sound of bone making contact with flesh and heard Kirkton swear violently.

 

"Get him out of my study. Now. And, Kirkton, just so you know, you will never be welcome here again."

 

"I wouldn't want to be." I heard Kirkton's muffled voice and then heard the door open and slam shut.

 

Then a hand I knew so well, pulled me to my feet and steadied me as I staggered; I was crying with the pain from my hands and knees as well as the shock and I kept my head down. "Come with me, Bunny," his tone was grim but gentle and he led me into his bedroom and to his bed, he pushed me down onto it and put his hand on my head, whilst pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and handing it to me. "Stay there, I'll be back in a minute." He turned to go and then stopped and looked at me. "Do you feel sick?" he asked. I shrugged; I wasn't sure. He stared at me for a moment then grabbed the waste-paper bin and put it on the bed next to me. "I'll be back very shortly," he said, and went back into his study and closed the door behind him. I heard muffled voices, so I assumed Charleston at least was still there; I had no idea if Yates had gone with Kirkton.

 

I closed my eyes, bent my head forward and tried not to cry any more. My hands throbbed and my knees burnt and I was still shaking from the encounter.

 

As he promised it was mere seconds before he was back. "Oh, Bunny," he said, sitting down next to me and putting his arm around me.

 

"I wasn't listening," I said, looking up at him.

 

"It doesn't bother me if you were, Bunny. But why didn't you just come in?"

 

"I heard Charleston and Yates and knew you were in your bedroom and I didn't . . ."

 

"Want to presume? Oh, Bunny, I'd told you many times you are welcome in my study and not only welcome, but encouraged. Charlie wouldn't have minded; you know that; has he ever made you think he finds your presence annoying?"

 

I shook my head. "No, Charleston hasn't."

 

He pulled away from me a little and gazed at me, studying me carefully. "Well, Bunny," he said, his tone firm, "this may come as a surprise to you, but Charlie's opinion is the only one that matters to me - not counting yours of course. I really don't care what the rest of my fellow sixth formers think I should or should not do when it concerns you. Now do you feel sick?"

 

I shook my head. "No."

 

"Good. Have this then, sugar is good for shock." And he pulled out a bar of chocolate from his coat pocket, broke a piece off and gave it to me. I smiled my thanks and ate it; it was, as his chocolate always was, very good. "Now let me have a look at your hands," he said, taking first one and then the other. Gently he ran his fingertips over my palms and pressed down a little. "Do they hurt?"

 

"No, not really they sting a bit, but they don't hurt that much. It's my knees."

 

"Let's have a look then," he said. I bent down and started to pull the legs of my trousers up. He stopped me. "Bunny, it'll be easier if you took your trousers down," he said gently. I felt my cheeks begin to flush slightly as I began to fumble with the buttons on my trousers; I wriggled on the bed rather than stand up and finally managed to push my trousers down.

 

Raffles crouched down in front of me and looked at my knees and winced. "They need some ointment on them, Bunny, the skin is broken on each one. I think I better take you to Matron."

 

"No!" I said forcefully, grabbing his hand. If he took me to Matron, she'd ask questions and the whole story would come out and Raffles might end up in trouble for hitting Kirkton. "You must have something you can put on them. I know you've got stuff in your kit. Raffles, are you all right?" I asked as I saw his eyes widen and he paled a little. "What have I done?" I gripped his hand even tighter.

 

"Just let of my hand, please, Bunny, there's a good boy," he said, his voice slightly higher than usual. "Thank you," he said when I let go. He flexed it a few times and then rubbed his knuckles with his other hands.

 

I stared in horror. "Raffles?" I said my tone distressed. "You've hurt your hand."

 

He flashed me a smile, ruffled my hair, stood up and went over to his cricket bag and began to delve into it. "At least it's my left hand," he said. "It might cause me some pain whilst batting, but I won't have any problems bowling - thanks to Charlie."

 

"What did Charleston do?"

 

"He called out my name just as I was about to hit Kirkton with my right fist," Raffles said. "Ah, this should help." He brought the pot back to the bed and this time he knelt down in front of me. "I fear it will sting a little, Bunny," he said, unscrewing the top and gathering some of the ointment on to his fingers. "Ready?" I gripped the blanket on his bed and nodded.

 

He was correct; it did sting. I hissed slightly as he rubbed the cold ointment, so cold it was almost hot onto first my right knee, then my left. After a short time the stinging faded and I could just feel the pleasant sensation of his fingers rubbing my knees. I believe I must have made a faint noise of pleasure, as he glanced up at me and gave me one of his unreadable looks. I let my head fall forward far enough so my face was hidden by my hair. For a moment I wanted to tell him to stop, and tell him that I would rub the rest of the ointment in. I felt warm all over my body and I felt a sensation I didn't really understand. I didn't know why his touch was making me feel so strange, given he touches me all the time, but it did. I shifted on his bed and he stilled his fingers.

 

"Are you all right, Bunny? Do you need anything?"

 

I nodded then shook my head, he looked bemused. "I'm okay," I said, and forced myself to sit still as he smoothed the last bit of the ointment over my knees.

 

"There," he said, taking the handkerchief he'd given me back and wiping his fingers on it. Give it a minute or two to dry somewhat, before you pull your trousers back up. His fingers drifted to my head and stroked through my fringe. I shifted again on his bed and he frowned. "Are you sure you're all right, Bunny?" he put his hand on my forehead. "Did Kirkton hurt you in any other way?"

 

I shook my head. "I'm all right," I said. "I just need to -" I stopped abruptly; I couldn't tell him a direct lie, especially not when he was looking straight into my eyes. He raised an eyebrow and invited me to finish, but I just shook my head. After a moment or two he let his hand fall from my forehead, patted my thigh and stood up, going back to his bag and taking about another pot of ointment which he dug into and rubbed onto the back of his left hand. I took advantage of his turned back to quickly pull my trousers back up.

 

He wrapped the handkerchief he still held around his hand and put the pot back into his bag before he turned back to me. "Come on," he said, holding out his hand, "let's go and sit down and have some cocoa and I'll find you some more chocolate." I smiled and hurried over to him; despite everything, I was going to get my wish of spending at least a little time with him alone before he left me for three days.

 

I wasn't at all surprised when he insisted on walking me back to the dorm, even though it was slightly before I was meant to be in bed, nor was I surprised when he made me promise I'd make sure I'd go with Ollie when I went to brush my teeth.

 

 

The next morning I was just drying my face when Davidson called out. "Manders, Raffles is in the hall outside."

 

That did surprise me, I pulled on my dressing gown, ignored the looks the other boys were giving me and hurried out of the bathroom to see him leaning against the wall a few yards away. His hands were in his pockets and he was ignoring the questioning looks some of the boys were flashing in his direction.

 

I smoothed my hair down as best I could and hurried to his side. "Hello, Raffles."

 

"Hello, Bunny," he put his hand onto my shoulder. "I just wanted to make sure you're okay before I go. Your knees aren't too sore, are they?"

 

"No, thank you. They're sore, but not too bad."

 

"Good. Has anyone asked you what happened?"

 

I nodded and glanced around me before moving a little closer to him and lowering my voice. "I said I tripped over; I doubt anyone disbelieved me." He smiled and squeezed my shoulder. "How's your hand?"

 

"Sore, but it'll be okay. It won't affect me." He showed me his hand and I saw it was somewhat swollen.

 

"Have you been asked about it?"

 

He nodded. "Yes. I made up some story about somehow managing to hit myself with my own cricket bat. I think Anderson believed me as much as he believed Kirkton's story about walking into a door - he's got a black eye and a bruised nose - but he won't push matters. He wants us to win tomorrow as much as we want to win. The only other people who know the truth are Charlie and Yates, and neither of them are about to admit to being in my study whilst Kirkton all but abused a third former in front of us." His tone had become grim and his hand tightened on my shoulder until it became almost painful.

 

I gazed up at him and smiled; after a moment he smiled back, sighed and pushed my hair back from my forehead. "You know, Bunny, you really are going to have to get a haircut very soon," he said. I just shrugged. I liked it the length it was and not just because I could hide behind it when necessary, but also because of the way Raffles ruffled it and pushed it back for me. But he was right; I was going to have to have it trimmed a little at least very soon. "But maybe not too short," he said, once again letting his fingers linger in it. I smiled again.

 

"Good luck, Raffles," I said. "Not that you'll need it. You never do."

 

He laughed softly. "You really are biased at times, Bunny," he said.

 

"No, I'm not. You're -"

 

He was interrupted by the arrival of Charleston. "A. J., there you are. Come on, Anderson's pacing up and down and looking at his watch every five seconds and muttering your name. Hello, Manders," he added, giving me a quick smile.

 

"Good luck for the match, Charleston."

 

"Thank you, Manders. Now do come along, A. J., before Anderson decides we can do without our captain.

 

"He wouldn't do that," I cried indignantly before I thought about it. "He couldn't," I added.

 

Charleston flashed Raffles a look and they both laughed softly. I didn't mind that they were laughing at me, because they weren't, not really. I even smiled myself. Raffles ruffled my hair again. "Now you be a good boy, Bunny," he said using the tone he sometimes adopted; the one that made me feel about eight years old. But I didn't mind that - well not too much.

 

"Yes, Raffles."

 

"And if your knees hurt any more than they do at the moment, make sure you go and see Matron."

 

"Yes, Raffles."

 

"And if you -"

"A. J.! You're only going to be away for three days; I do think Manders can manage on his own for that length of time, don't you agree, Manders?"

 

I smiled and nodded. "Yes, Charleston."

 

"Of course he can, I just -"

 

"A. J.!" And with that, Charleston took Raffles's arm and dragged him away as I stood and watched. Charleston is actually a little taller and stronger than Raffles, so although Raffles did try to object, Charleston won.

 

"Goodbye, Raffles," I called. "Good luck," I added as he managed to squeeze my arm before Charleston completely pulled him off down the hall. "Goodbye, Charleston," I added, and got a distracted wave from Charleston for my trouble.

 

I turned around to go back and finish washing only to see several of my dorm mates standing staring open-mouthed at me. I felt the flush creep up my face and glanced down at the floor, letting my hair fall around my face.

 

"Raffles really likes you, doesnít he?" Underwood said slowly.

 

I looked up at him, trying to see if there was anything behind his words, but his face said he didn't mean anything other than what he'd said. I gave a half-shrug and then said quietly, "I don't really know why, but yes, he does."

 

To my surprise Underwood laughed, dug into his dressing gown pocket and pulled out a bag of somewhat fluff covered boiled sweets and offered me one. I didn't really want one; I like sweets - what boy doesn't? - but it was before breakfast. However, I took one and smiled my thanks. "You're all right, Manders," he said and walked off whistling.

 

 

The news of the easy and substantial win reached the school before the eleven got back and everyone was eating supper excitedly in the dining hall, waiting for them and chattering away. Suddenly the doors opened and Raffles, flanked by Charleston, led the team in; they were all still dressed in their whites and cricket blazers. Almost as one everyone stood up and began to clap and cheer.

 

As it always did my gaze found its way to Raffles and I saw he had a bandage around his left hand. However to my relief he didn't seem concerned; in fact he was smiling and suddenly laughed at something Charleston said to him.

 

"All right, boys," the head master called, standing up and clapping his hands. "That will do. Settle down and finish your supper." He smiled warmly at the team and nodded his head.

 

Given they were all from different houses, after pats on the back for Raffles, the team dispersed and headed for their own house and year tables. Raffles said something to Charleston who just smiled fondly, shook his head and headed off to our house's sixth form table. To my surprise, Raffles made his way over to me.

 

"Hello, Bunny, how are you?" he said, smiling at me.

 

"I'm fine, thank you, Raffles." I smiled up at him.

 

"Good. I brought you something back." He put his hand in his blazer pocket and pulled out a cricket ball and handed it to me.

 

I took it and stared up at him. "Thank you," I said, somewhat belatedly, "but how -"

 

"I persuaded them that as it had spent most of its time on my bat or in my hands, I ought to be allowed to keep it as a souvenir - well to give to you, but I didn't think they needed to know that."

 

"Thank you," I said again, turning the ball over in my hands. "It's -" I broke off well aware that the hall had fallen silent and everyone was looking in our direction. I pushed the ball into my blazer pocket and looked at his hand. "Are you all right?" I asked, fighting my instinct to take his hand.

 

"Oh, that?" he said dismissively. "Yes, I'm perfectly fine, Bunny. It's just that their Matron must be related to ours. She saw my hand after I came off the field, it was a little swollen and slightly discoloured and thus she insisted on putting this bandage on it. It took me a good five minutes to assure her I didn't need a sling. But it's fine, really, don't worry," he said softly, as his hand came to rest on my shoulder. I think the silence of the hall must have finally reached him, because he looked away from me and glanced around. "Come along to my study after supper, Bunny, and I'll tell you all about the match."

 

I smiled. "Yes, Raffles."

 

Unselfconsciously he ruffled my hair, turned around and with his hands in his pockets, headed across the hall to the sixth form table where he sat down next to Charleston.

 

 

Given that Raffles was still eating his supper, I'd noticed he kept getting interrupted, when Ollie and I left the dining hall, I decided to go to our common room for a while before I went to his study.

 

The other boys all gathered around me and asked if they could see and hold the cricket ball Raffles had brought me back and once again Underwood pressed a fluff covered boiled sweet on me. It may have taken some months, but I really did feel as if boys other than Ollie were beginning to warm up to me - and not just because of my connection with Raffles.

 

After the ball had been passed from hand to hand, Beverbrook tossed it back to me and I put it back in my blazer pocket. I knew I couldn't keep it there as it would push it out of shape, but a couple more hours wouldn't hurt. I glanced at my watch and decided to wait another ten minutes before I went to Raffles's study.

 

However, at that moment the door opened and Raffles came in; he smiled at me. "There you are, Bunny. I -" Several boys talking at once interrupted him and he turned his attention from me to the boys gathered around him; he held up his hands and they fell silent. "Urquhart?" he said, glancing at Ollie.

 

Ollie flushed slightly and looked around at the other boys, before looking back at Raffles. "Um, we wondered if you'd tell us all about the match, Raffles, rather than just telling Harry. Please," he added, the tone of his voice was hopeful.

 

"Yes, please, Raffles," Underwood said, before several other boys added their pleas.

 

Raffles glanced at his watch. "Well, there is something I have to do shortly, but yes, I can spare ten minutes or so, seeing as you are all so interested."

 

I stood and watched as he was encircled by boys and led across the room and all but pushed down into the 'best' chair we had. As he sat down I saw a look of surprise pass over his face and watched as he shifted, moving to one side of the chair - and then I remembered, it was the chair Paxton had dropped half a bowl of water over, clearly it still hadn't dried. I wondered how many sixth boys would have remained seated once they'd felt the wetness. I also wondered how many sixth form boys would have agreed to talk to a gaggle of third formers.

 

"Have a sweet," I heard Underwood say, and I watched in partial horror as the bag of fluffy sweets was pushed at Raffles. I waited, wondering just what he'd do or say. Given how fastidious Raffles is, the idea that he would take a fluff covered sweet from a boy whose hands really did need to be washed, from a bag that had clearly been in his pocket for some time, seemed preposterous. But it was Raffles, and after only a second's hesitation he took one, thanked Underwood and even put it in his mouth. I smiled; that was my Raffles.

 

I made my way across the room to where he sat surrounded by the boys from my year. Some of them were standing; others were sitting on the floor around his chair; all of them were looking at him with adoration and expectation. I found I didn't even mind that they were near him and I wasn't, however, he suddenly looked up and called me to his side, asking for the ball he'd given me. Once I'd handed it over to him, he pulled me down to sit on the arm of the chair; the movement was seamless and subconscious.

 

For a moment he tossed the ball from one hand to the other before wincing slightly and flexing the fingers of his left hand; the movement told me it hurt a lot more than he was saying. After that he just held the ball in his right hand, tossing up in the air from time to time as he told us about the match. He told us in some details how Charleston and the others had done.

 

"But what about you, Raffles," Underwood said, kneeling up and leaning on the chair. "What did you do?"

 

"Scored seventy-three and took seven wickets for thirty-eight." Charleston's voice came from the doorway. Quite when he'd come into the common room I didn't know. He was leaning against the door, his hands in his pockets, his steady gaze on Raffles.

 

Heads swivelled in his direction and all the boys, including me, stumbled to their feet in the presence of another sixth former - not that I stood up every time Charleston, or even the other sixth formers came into Raffles's study. Raffles had told me not to bother and had assured me it wasn't a sign of disrespect; I wasn't so sure, but given he had told me, not merely suggested it, I obeyed him even when it earnt me a displeased look from some of the sixth formers - not Charleston. However, given I was with the rest of my year in our common room and not in Raffles's study, I felt it only proper and right to stand up.

 

"Oh, hello, Charlie," Raffles said, also taking the opportunity to stand up and as he did, I saw him glance at the chair and also at the side of his trousers, which I could see by peering around him, was damp. He glanced at me and I gave him what I hoped was a reassuring smile; I don't think it worked though as he didn't look particularly reassured. Instead he turned to Charleston. "How long have you been there, Charlie?"

 

Charleston shrugged. "A minute or two, just long enough," he said and smiled. "I thought I'd better come and find you, A. J., to see if you'd remembered that thing you had to do."

 

Raffles glanced at his watch. "I hadn't forgotten, Charlie. I'll come now." He turned from Charleston back to the boys. "I'm sorry," he said smiling, "but I have to go and I have to take Bunny with me." He put his hand on my shoulder.

 

"Thank you for telling us about the match," Underwood said.

 

"It was my pleasure," Raffles said and smiled again.

 

The adoring, loving, worshipping looks the boys gave him told me they believed him totally - and to be fair, so did I. He needn't have stayed; he could quite easily have told the boys he was too busy, that he had things to do, but he hadn't. He had stayed and talked to them - he'd even stayed sitting in a wet chair and eaten a fluffy sweet - he really was so wonderful. I glanced at Charleston who was watching the boys stare at Raffles, smiling and shaking his head slightly.

 

"Come along, Bunny," Raffles said, turning me towards the door.

 

We were followed by all the boys and as Raffles reached for the door knob, Underwood pushed his way through them and once more pulled out the bag of sweets. "Have another sweet," he said, beaming up at Raffles.

 

I was watching Charleston not Raffles and saw his eyes widen in what seemed to be a mixture of dismay and surprise. "Thank you, Underwood," Raffles said solemnly, took another sweet and carefully put it in his mouth.

 

"Would you like one, Charleston?"

 

"Oh, yes, Charlie, do have a sweet," Raffles said swiftly, his eyes twinkling with mirth as he looked at Charleston.

 

Charleston's manners are as impeccable as Raffles's and even though he swallowed hard and slowly reached out his hand, he too took a sweet. "Thank you, Underwood."

 

Underwood beamed with obvious pleasure as Charleston like Raffles put the sweet in his mouth. "Manders?" he pushed the bag towards me and I dutifully took yet another sweet, trying to ignore the sound of Mother's voice telling me not to eat boiled sweets.

 

"Now we really do have to go," Raffles said firmly, opening the door and all but pushing Charleston and me out into the hall and closing the door behind him. Once outside Raffles and Charleston locked gazes as Raffles dug into his pocket, pulled out his handkerchief and carefully took the sweet from his mouth and put it into the handkerchief before politely holding it out to Charleston who, after glancing over Raffles's shoulder at the closed door, did the same. "Bunny?" Now Raffles held his handkerchief out to me.

 

I paused. The thing was, the sweets might be fluff covered and a lurid colour, but once I put them in my mouth I found I rather liked them. So I shook my head. "No, thanks," I said. "I rather like them."

 

The look of horror on Raffles's face had first Charleston and then me fighting laughter. Raffles looked from Charleston to me and back again as he shook his head, folded his handkerchief around the sweets and pushed it into his blazer pocket rather than his trousers. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. "Bunny, please tell me it was just water that had made the chair wet." Charleston looked puzzled and Raffles waved in the direction of the side of his trousers.

 

I nodded. "Of course it was, Raffles; Paxton spilt half a bowl of water on it when he was - um. It was just water," I added. Then I looked up at him and said, "We are third formers, Raffles, not five year olds, what else did you think it could be?"

 

Raffles patted my shoulder and glanced at Charleston who still seemed to be trying hard not to laugh. "Yes, Bunny, I know you are third formers," he said, "that's why I asked." I was about to say something, when he put his arm around my shoulders and said his tone changing, "Right, we had better get back to my study."

 

We reached his study and I saw Kirkton standing outside. Without meaning to, I pressed closer to Raffles and tried to slip behind him and Charleston.

 

But Raffles patted my shoulder and said quietly, "It's all right, Bunny, Kirkton won't hurt you." I wasn't totally convinced, but as I was walking between Raffles and Charleston I decided that I was probably safe.

 

To my surprise Raffles opened his door, waved Charleston inside, led me inside and then turned to Kirkton. "Come in, Kirkton." His tone was clipped and cool. After a second or two during which he glanced at me and then at Charleston, Kirkton did as Raffles bid him.

 

Once inside Raffles took his hand from my shoulder, gently pushed me further into the room, closed the door and leant on it; he put his hands in his pockets and stared at Kirkton. I took a step closer to Charleston, who stood his hands now in his pockets also staring at Kirkton.

 

"Well," Raffles said, after a moment or two. "Isn't there something you wish to say to Bunny, Kirkton?"

 

Kirkton looked at Raffles, then at Charleston, then back at Raffles before finally looking at me. I forced myself not to move even nearer to Charleston and looked at Kirkton from underneath my fringe. I watched him swallow hard and shift his feet as his gaze darted around Raffles's study. Finally he looked back at me again. "I owe you an apology and -" Raffles cleared his throat. Kirkton's eyes blazed for a moment before he said, "I own you more than one apology, Manders, and a thank you. I was completely out of order the other night."

 

"Yes," Charleston said quietly. "You were."

 

Kirkton glared at him, before looking back at me. "You had every right to report me for what I did. But you didn't. Thank you." He tone was stiff and I could see every word was costing him dearly. I wondered quite what Raffles and Charleston had said to him to make him apologise, because it was quite clear that it had been the both of them and not just Raffles. And then to my surprise Kirkton held out his hand. I glanced swiftly at Raffles, but his hard, cold stare gave nothing away. So I slowly put out my own hand and let Kirkton shake it briefly.

 

"Right," Raffles said, moving away from the door and towards me where his hand once again came to rest on my shoulder. "You may go now, Kirkton, but if you ever lay a finger on Bunny again or make any of your disgusting suggestions to him, I promise you a black eye will be the least of your worries."

 

I opened my mouth to say something, but I felt Charleston's hand come to rest on my other shoulder and squeeze it quickly. Swiftly I closed my mouth again.

 

Kirkton was still staring at Raffles and just nodded, before he turned on his heel, pulled open the door and strode out. It was Charleston who moved and shut it behind Kirkton. "Well," he said, after a moment or two during which he and Raffles appeared to have a silent conversation. "I must get back to my books."

 

"And I," Raffles said, taking his hand off my shoulder. "Must go and change my trousers. Bunny, be a good boy and make some cocoa, please," he smiled at me before heading into his bedroom.

 

"Yes, Raffles," I called, and followed Charleston out into the hall.

 

To my surprise rather than leave me when we reached his study, Charleston walked by my side to the tiny kitchen where the sixth form boys made cocoa. I got the tin of cocoa out and three mugs whilst Charleston leant against the door and watched me. "Manders," he said his tone low.

 

I looked up. "Yes, Charleston."

 

"Not telling, even if it's only Raffles, on your fellow third formers when they tease you or plan a rag or other things, is admirable and you should continue to do that. However, if an older boy, especially a fifth or sixth former says anything that is out of line to you or touches you in an inappropriate way or hurts you, then you really should tell Raffles." I glanced away from him, letting my head fall forward so my burning face was covered by my hair. However, I felt his hand on my shoulder. "Look at me, Manders," he said gently. I obeyed him; just as I would obey Raffles. "It troubles A. J. when you don't tell him," he said, looking down at me. "It hurts him," he added softly. "He made you a promise to keep you from harm, how can he do that if you don't tell him things?"

 

I glanced away again and shuffled my feet. "I didn't want him to think I was a tell-tale," I said finally, looking up at Charleston.

 

He smiled at me and squeezed my shoulder. "He'd never think that, Manders, he's too fond of you. Now, do I have your word that you will tell him from now on if you're hurt or upset by an older boy?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, Charleston," I said quietly. "But it's still okay not to tell him about -"

 

"Your own year? Yes, Manders, that's fine. Now, let's get the cocoa made and I can get back to my books." He patted my shoulder again and took his hand away.

 

"Yes, Charleston," I said, hurrying to make the cocoa. "Thank you," I added. "Here you are," I handed him a mug.

 

"Thank you."

 

I smiled and picked up one of the mugs, gripping it carefully as I eyed the other mug and wondered if for once I could manage two mugs without slopping cocoa all over my hands and the floor. But just as I was about to try, Charleston picked the other mug up. "I'll carry it," he said in a tone that brooked no argument.

 

I smiled again. "Thank you," I said.

 

I was rather pleased that I managed to get back to Raffles's study without spilling any of the cocoa even though I had resorted to carrying the mug with both hands and despite the fact he carried two mugs, Charleston reached Raffles's study before I did. The door was standing open and I could see the pair of trousers Raffles's had changed out of draped over the arm of the sofa - I guessed it would be my job to sponge them down, even though it had been just water he'd sat in.

 

"Are you going to say and have your cocoa with us, Charlie?" Raffles asked, taking a mug from Charleston's hand.

 

"Not tonight, thanks, A. J., I really must do some studying. I just thought I'd save Manders here having to go and wash his hands or wipe cocoa from the floor." He smiled at me and I smiled back; I wasn't at all bothered by his words and not only because they were the truth, but because he was Charleston. Raffles gave him a half-frown but he was also smiling; I think it made him happy and reassured him that his best friend apparently didn't dislike me, nor did he given any indication that he resented the amount of time I spent in Raffles's study. "Goodnight, A. J., goodnight, Manders," Charleston said, and left taking his cocoa with him, Raffles closed the door behind him.

 

I put my mug down and waited until he turned back around. "Raffles," I said.

 

"Yes, Bunny?" he sat down on the sofa and sipped his cocoa.

 

I hesitated for a moment before picking my cocoa back up and sitting down next to him. "I'm sorry I don't tell you certain things," I said. "I didn't mean to upset you."

 

He looked at me from over the rim of his mug. "I know you didn't, Bunny. But the thing is I promised you I'd keep you safe and how can I do that if you donít tell me things I need to know? No, listen to me. Bunny, most of the sixth form, upper and lower and most of the fifth form boys are nice boys. But there are some who aren't so nice - and those are the ones you need to be careful around. Bunny, you probably don't want to hear this but I'm going to say it anyway, you are a pretty boy, no, don't look at me like that. I'm afraid you are. You are a rather young, very innocent, naÔve, pretty boy - just the kind certain older boys would be, shall we say interested in. And not in the way I'm interesting in you. Do you understand?"

 

I nodded. "Yes," I said and looked down into my cocoa; I was desperate to hide the fact my cheeks were red.

 

But he put his fingers under my chin and gently made me look up. "Don't hide, Bunny." His tone was gentle. "I don't want to upset you or offend you, I just want you to be safe and I can only be assured of that if you tell me when idiots like Kirkton say or do things to you." He looked at me in silence for a moment and then he put his hand into my hair and lightly tangled his fingers in it. "You didn't really think I believed you'd fallen against a wall, did you?"

 

I shook my head, enjoying the sensation of his fingertips moving across my scalp. "No. I'm sorry I lied to you." Again I tried to look away, but this time he simply tightened the grip he had on my hair just enough to prevent me from lowering my head. And then something hit me, "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"How did you know it was Kirkton?"

 

Raffles smiled, "The same way as I knew about the disgusting suggestions he made to you and the inappropriate way he put his hands on you - and I'm not talking about in my study the other evening. He told us."

 

I stared wide-eyed. "He told you?" I whispered.

 

Raffles laughed softly and ruffled my hair before taking his hand away from my head. "Yes."

 

"But why?"

 

"Well, let us just say that Charlie can be very persuasive."

 

"Charleston?"

 

"Yes, why do you know another Charlie?"

 

I shook my head. I was still puzzled though. "But why did Charleston  . . ."

 

"I believe he took almost as much, in fact probably more, exception to Kirkton's behaviour in here the other night than I did. I think it shocked Charlie deeply that Kirkton would have the nerve to do what he did in front of his fellow sixth formers, whilst apparently expecting them not to say or do anything. So he had a 'talk' with him, well we both did - but Charlie did most of the talking; I think we can safely say, that's one boy who will not be bothering you again."

 

"Oh," was all I could manage to say.

 

He smiled at me took my mug from me and pulled me nearer to him so that he could put his arm around me, before handing me my mug back. "So do I have your solemn word, Bunny, that you will tell me from now on if a boy makes an inappropriate comment or touches you or frightens you?" He pushed me away from him a little so he could look at me.

 

I stared up at him and saw quite how serious he was. "Yes, Raffles," I said. "I promise."

 

He ruffled my hair before pulling me back to rest against him. "Good boy."

 

 

And I kept my word to him. I did tell him of the times one of his fellow sixth formers said something that he would consider out of line or even dared to put their hands on me. It didn't happen often; as with seemingly everything that happened in the school, I believe news of Raffles and Charleston's 'talk' with Kirkton became common knowledge and I think most boys who may have dared to maybe risk the wrath of A. J. Raffles, decided that risking annoying two boys was a little too much.

 

To the day he left the school Raffles looked after me, protected me, cared for me and made my first two years far happier and safer than they would have done had I not met him on my first day.

 

Truly, is it any wonder I loved and was in love with him and remained thus long after he'd left the school? I sometimes wonder if I remained in love with him during the ten years in which we didn't see one another - I think at least a small part of me did. I know I never stopped loving him - how could I?

 
 

CHAPTER EIGHT

WORRYING TIMES

 

"Raffles!" I awoke with his name on my lips and I sat up trembling. I was hot and very thirsty. Taking care not to knock it off of my bedside locker, I reached for my glass of water and drank it all without pausing. I was still thirsty though and knew there was no chance of going back to sleep until I had another drink.

 

I pushed back the covers, got out of bed, felt for my dressing gown, pulled it on and tied the cord, found my slippers, picked up my glass and taking great care not to bump into any of the beds, crept out of the dorm into the dimly lit hallway where I headed for the facilities which where the furthest away from the dorm. Even though I had no need of them other than to refill my glass it was an automatic action.

 

I pushed open the door and cried out as I saw a tall figure standing inside the room leaning against the wall. The glass slipped from my hand and would have smashed on the floor, but for the fact the person who had made me jump was none other than Raffles, who had the safest pair of hands in the school. Even though I knew how skilled he was, I was very impressed by his speed and dexterity as he bent and caught the glass just before it hit the floor.

 

"Raffles," I managed, my breath coming fast as I felt myself tremble and my heart rate increase.

 

"Hello, Bunny," he said and smiled. "And what might you be doing out of bed at this time of night?"

 

"I was thirsty," I said. "I came to get myself another glass of water." I took the glass from him and turned towards the sinks, stumbling slightly as I turned. "And I'm hot," I said, reaching for the tap; I blinked several times in an attempt to see it through the mist that suddenly seemed to cover my eyes. I heard the glass slip and smash in the sink as my numb fingers could no longer hold it.

 

The next second his hand was on my forehead and I couldn't prevent a moan of pleasure at the coolness of the touch and I pushed my head into it. "Bunny, you're not merely hot," he said, concern clear in his voice. "You're burning up. Come on, let's get you -"

 

"Raffles, I'm going to -" I felt my legs give way, but I was caught and held firmly, one of his arms was around my body, the other held my hair back as I was violently and protracted sick. I leant against him, because there was no other way of remaining on my feet and clutched the sink, feeling even as I did it begin to slip in my damp grasp.

 

Finally, my stomach stopped rejecting everything it had had in it that day and I sagged even more heavily against him, letting him take all my weight as my fingers slipped from the sink, instead I clutched onto him and took shallow breaths - wondering how long it would be before I would be sick again, I had no doubt I would be.

 

Even as he supported me, holding me tightly against him with the wall behind me and turned the taps on, I found myself wondering where the cigarette I realised he'd been holding when I'd gone into the room had gone. It was the worst thing I could have thought of as with a bitten off half-choke I managed to turn my head and with him once again keeping my hair from my face and still holding me tightly and securely I vomited and went on vomiting until I was crying, my throat burnt and my stomach felt as if it no longer belonged to me.

 

Raffles is strong, but even he has his limitations, he was now holding my full body weight, which whilst not substantial was enough when you are supporting it entirely, and after the second bout of protracted vomiting he lowered me down and sat me on the floor, my back against the wall. But even with me sitting on the floor he still had to support me because the moment he let go of me, I started to slide sideways. My concern now was the fact that I doubted even he could get me to my feet in time should my stomach have anything left in it. But from the look on his face when I stammered fairly incoherently my concerns that was not what he was worried about.

 

As Raffles had said I wasn't just hot, my body felt as if it was on fire; I could barely see through the mist that had covered my eyes, I was trembling and I felt as if I was going to pass out; it was clear even in my feverish state I was very sick and we were stuck. The chances of any other boy needing the facilities venturing to this one were remote (it's why I chose them and why I assume Raffles had come to smoke here) and because of their distance from the dorms and Dobson's rooms, there was no way Raffles could call from help; he couldn't leave me for fear of me vomiting again and choking, but whatever was wrong with me could be fixed by an embrace, a hair ruffle, or any of the other things he did to make me feel better.

 

"Okay, Bunny," he said, still stroking my forehead with his hand, "there's only one thing for it. I'm going to have to carry you. I have to get you to Dobson so he can get Matron."

 

"But, Raffles, what if I'm sick again?"

 

"If you are, you are, my dear Bunny. Clothes wash. Come on, try and get your arm around my neck. That's a good boy." It took my last reserves of strength, but somehow I managed it and clung onto him as he lifted me in a clean move from the floor, steadied himself for a moment or two, before managing to open the door and he carried me back the way I'd come. He was gentle, but the swaying movement was not doing anything to help my stomach; however, my bigger concern wasn't that I might be sick again, but something else.

 

"Raffles," I murmured, but he just hushed me. I closed my eyes and turned my head into his shoulder and tried to make my body obey me.

 

"Mr. Dobson, sir!" I heard him call loudly, as he banged the door with his elbow, jolting me even more. "Sir! Sir!"

 

The next moment I heard a door being opened and heard Dobson exclaim, "Raffles, what on earth is the matter?"

 

"It's Manders, sir. He's sick; he's very sick, sir."

 

"Raffles," I managed the warning, but if Dobson had any doubt at all as to the validity of Raffles's words, he couldn't have after what happened next.

 

"Bring him through here, Raffles." Off of Dobson's rooms is a sick-room kept for boys who are either contagious and thus can't be in the San or not sick enough to warrant Matron's constant care, but not well enough to remain in the dorm. I felt Raffles lower me down onto one of the beds, turning me onto my side and pulling off my dressing gown; I reached for his hand and tried to grab it.

 

"Raffles," I moaned when I couldn't find it.

 

"It's all right, Bunny," he said. "Just give me a second." Through the mist I managed to see him strip off his dressing gown and drop it on the floor next to mine, before he crouched down by the side of the bed and took my hand. "I'm here, Bunny." The room was well set up as a sick-room and the next second I felt a metal bowl come to rest against my cheek. I leant against it, taking pleasure in the coldness as he held my hand with one hand and stroked my hair back with the other. "You'll be all right, Bunny," he murmured. "Mr. Dobson has gone to call Matron and a doctor."

 

"I'm sorry I was sick again, Raffles," I managed, clinging to his hand.

 

"Donít worry, Bunny. It's all right."

 

"Tired." I felt my eyes closing.

 

"Don't go to sleep, Bunny. Come on, look at me." I forced my eyes open again and blinked, making out his figure though the mist.

 

I heard Dobson come back into the room. "Matron is on her way and I've called for Dr. Timpson. You can go back to bed now, Raffles."

 

I made a noise, but I'm not sure Dobson would have heard it over Raffles's firm, "No, sir. I'm staying. Manders here is my responsibility."

 

"Raffles, I am his house master."

 

"Yes, sir. I know that, sir. But I am staying, sir."

 

I heard Dobson sigh and then leave the room. He was back a moment or two later and I saw him hand something to Raffles. "You'd better put this on then, Raffles. We can't have you standing around in just your pyjamas." From what I could see Dobson had handed Raffles a jumper.

 

"Thank you, sir." Somehow Raffles managed to pull the jumper on without letting go of my hand.

 

"What happened exactly, Raffles?"

 

"I'd got up to use the facilities, sir, and Manders came to get another glass of water. He said he was hot; I felt his forehead and he wasn't just hot, sir, he clearly had a high fever and then he started to vomit. He couldn't stand or even sit up without me supporting him, so I had to carry him here, sir."

 

"You've been smoking, Raffles."

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"You didnít by any chance share your cigarette with Manders, did you?"

 

"No, sir! I would never do that, sir."

 

"Of course you wouldn't, Arthur. Good evening, Mr. Dobson. Now what's the matter with young Harry?" The next moment Raffles stood up, moved to one side and the hand he had on my forehead was replaced by Matron's; I was, however, still clinging to his other hand. "You poor boy," she said, her tone soft as she felt my neck and head.

 

As she turned my head I knew. "Raffles," I managed. But it was Matron who acted even more quickly than Raffles and held my head over the bowl. And then something else I had feared more than vomiting happened. "Raffles," I whispered and began to cry.

 

"It's all right, Bunny," he said, once more crouching down by the bed and stroking my head. "It's all right. It doesn't matter."

 

"Of course it doesn't matter," Matron said softly. "Mr. Dobson, is Dr. Timpson on his way?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I don't think we should wait for him. Harry's very sick indeed. Please call an ambulance."

 

"Are you quite certain that is necessary, Matron. I know Raffles here said he didn't  - Very well, Matron."

 

But then the door opened and Timpson arrived. I heard him, Matron, Dobson and Raffles talking, but I couldnít work out what they were saying. I could, however, hear their tones - they were all very serious. "We need to get him to hospital as soon as possible," Timpson said.

 

Dobson went out and after a few minutes came back. "The ambulance is on its way. Now, Raffles, it is time you went back to bed. We can manage things from here."

 

"No," I moaned, frantically clutching Raffles's hand.

 

"Don't be so childish, Manders. Raffles -"

 

"Mr. Dobson."

 

"Yes, Matron."

 

"Arthur's presence is clearly helping Harry; he is calming him. And at the moment we need him to remain calm. His temperature is already at a dangerous level, I do not want it going up any more. Do you not agree, Dr. Timpson?"

 

"Sorry, Dobson, but I do. Clearly there's a connection between these two boys; I'd let Raffles stay if I were you."

 

"I'm going to the hospital with him as well." Raffles said firmly.

 

"I agree," Matron said; her tone was the one that no one, not even a house master or the Head master would dare to argue with.

 

Nonetheless, I heard Dobson sigh and when he replied his tone was more than a little clipped. Clearly he did not approve of Raffles and Matron's insistence that Raffles accompany me to the hospital. "Very well. It is against my wishes, but I won't argue with you. However,, Raffles, you cannot go to the hospital dressed in pyjamas."

 

Raffles sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on my forehead again. "Bunny, Bunny, can you hear me?"

 

"Yes."

 

"I'm going - no, no, no, hush, my rabbit, listen to me. I'm going to go and get dressed. I'll be but a minute or two. Matron will stay with you, won't you, Matron? She'll hold your hand."

 

"Raffles . . ."

 

"Hush, Bunny, there's my good boy. Come on, take Matron's hand." And gently but firmly he took his hand from mine and I felt Matron take his place.

 

"There you are, Harry," she said, stroking my head. "Arthur won't be long and then we'll get you to hospital and they'll make you well again."

 

"Raffles."

 

"Yes, Harry. Arthur is coming back. There's a good boy."

 

I could barely keep my eyes open and my head was spinning as I felt myself slip closer and closer to unconsciousness, but I fought it; I was determined to stay conscious until Raffles came back. My hand was slipping from Matron's and I was crying again when I heard him return.

 

"There you are, Harry," Matron said, "Arthur's back." She stood up and Raffles once again took my hand.

 

"I'm here, Bunny," he said, sitting on the bed and brushing my hair back. "I'm here."

 

"Raffles."

 

I heard Timpson say something to Dobson that sounded like 'brothers' but I didn't hear what Dobson replied.

 

The next moment I heard Timpson say, "I can see lights, Dobson. It looks as if the ambulance is pulling into the grounds.

 

"Let's save time," Raffles said, standing up. "I'll carry Manders down."

 

"Let me get his pyjamas off and we'll wrap him in some blankets," I heard Matron say. I felt the wonderful cold air hit my body as covers were pulled back, and hands that had spent a lifetime undressing patients stripped my pyjamas from me and then I was wrapped in a clean sheet and a blanket and I felt Raffles scoop me up in his arms again and then I knew nothing.

 

 

I opened my eyes and swallowed around a dreadfully dry throat. The room was dimly lit, I was half sitting and half lying, the pillow made a noise when I moved my head, my head throbbed and my body ached in a way I didn't think was possible for a body to hurt. The only part of me that didn't seem to hurt was my hand which was being held in a sure grip. I turned my head not towards whoever it was who was holding my hand, but the other way. "Mamma?" I croaked, as I saw a lady sitting by my bedside.

 

"No, Bunny, it's not your mother, it's Matron." A voice I knew and loved said the words gently and a steady, cool hand went to my head. Ashamed at my mistake as well as having used my childhood term for Mother, I looked away from Matron and stared into blue eyes I knew so well.

 

"Raffles," I murmured. "Where am I?" And I wondered why he looked so tired and pale why he had dark circles under his eyes, why his hair was untidy, why he was dressed in a shirt and jumper with the sleeves pushed up and why his chin was dark. And why he seemed to sound and look so deeply worried.

 

"You're in hospital, Bunny," he said, stroking my hair. "Don't you remember?"

 

I frowned and thought and as the memories came back, I wished I hadn't been able to remember. I looked away from his steady, loving gaze, staring down at a white sheet that covered my body and bit my lip. "Oh, Raffles," I murmured. "I'm so sorry."

 

To my amazement, he laughed softly. "Oh, my dearest Bunny, you have nothing for which you have to apologise. Nothing, Bunny, do you hear me?"

 

"But I -"

 

"Nothing, Bunny. Bunny you were ill, you were very ill, very ill indeed. You need not be sorry."

 

And then my other hand was taken and a second hand went to my forehead. "Arthur's right, Harry, there's nothing you need to apologise for. Nothing. You were a very sick little boy, but you are going to be all right. You're through the worst and you'll be better soon. I promise you. Now don't worry about what you remember. No one else is worried."

 

"But -"

 

"No, Bunny, No buts. Okay." He leant very close to me and took his hand from my forehead to gently hold my chin. "Okay?"

 

I swallowed, "Yes, Raffles," I managed as I felt tears slip from my eyes and begin to slide down the side of my face. He sighed softly and reached into his pocket and took out a crumbled handkerchief.

 

"It's clean," he murmured, as he began to wipe the tears away.

 

"Tired," I murmured, turning my head into his hand and closing my eyes.

 

 

I was kept in the hospital for another ten days before being released into Matron's care and I spent another ten days in the San. I never found out exactly what had been wrong with me, I am not altogether sure the doctors were ever certain. My parents had been away on a cruise when I had been taken ill and it hadn't been possible to contact them until I was well on the way to recovery - I think Mother blamed herself for not being at home; Matron told me Mothers had a habit of doing that.

 

The days spent in the hospital passed very slowly, because of course Raffles and Matron had to leave once it became clear I was recovering, even though I spent a great deal of time sleeping. Matron said that was a good thing and that sleep was the body's natural healer. Raffles did get permission to visit me on the two weekends, on the first Saturday he even brought Ollie with him, and Matron came a few times during the week. But I was glad to get back to school, because even though I was confined to the San, I did get more visitors and I got to see Raffles at least once and usually far more often every day.

 

From the way he looked - paler, more tired and less elegant than he usually was - I got the impression that Raffles had been extremely concerned about me and wasn't prepared to relax completely until I was finally out of the care of the doctors and Matron and back in the house. I certainly knew he missed cricket practise on more than one occasion in order to visit me and quizzed Matron endlessly as to how I was doing and whether there would be any lasting effects of my illness.

 

He used to hold my hand for the entire duration of his visits, even when other people were around, and I don't believe it was a conscious action. It was as habitual as him ruffling my hair, putting his arm around my shoulder or calling me 'my dear Bunny'. Indeed once, when I asked him to pass me a glass of water and he turned to get it and realised he didn't have a hand free (he sometime brought his prep with him) he looked at our joined hands as if wondering how they had become thus. Not that he let go of it, he put his book down instead and twisted round to get the glass; I do believe holding my hand gave him as much comfort as it gave me.

 

It was also, once I did return to the house, quite some time before he stopped putting his hand on my forehead when we met in the halls or the dining hall or in his study. Again, I'm not certain it was a conscious action, but the moment he saw me, his hand founds its way onto my forehead for a second or two whilst he reassured himself I didn't have a fever.

 

 

The first day I returned to school and lessons was very tiring and by the time supper time came around, I could barely put one foot in front of the other as I trudged along by Ollie's side into the dining hall. My eyes kept closing of their own accord and my head felt too heavy to keep upright. I didn't even raise my head to see if Raffles was already in the hall when Ollie and I made our way into the hall and I stumbled twice on my way to the table.

 

To my surprise none of my fellow dorm mates laughed; instead more than one of them touched my arm and even muttered about being glad to see me back, and as I settled down wearily onto the bench opposite Ollie, my plate and mug were both filled for me by boys I had hitherto thought disliked me. I managed to thank them and even went as far as lifting my mug to my lips, but it was too heavy. All I wanted to do was to close my eyes and go to sleep.

 

I don't actually remember pushing my plate to one side and putting my head down on my arms, but when I felt an arm around me and a voice I loved saying, "Come on, Bunny, let's get you to bed," and I opened my eyes to see Raffles crouching down next to me, I realised I must have done so. I donít know how he got there, how he knew I'd fallen asleep, but given Ollie was on his feet I suspected that when I had put my head down Ollie had gone to fetch him.

 

"Hello, Raffles," I said. "I'm so tired." And I closed my eyes again.

 

"I know, Bunny, but you can't sleep here. Come on, up you get." I sighed as he pulled me to my feet and supported me whilst I swayed. "Do you want me to carry you?" he murmured softly for my ears only.

 

"No!" I managed, opening my eyes wide and by virtue of clutching his arm I managed to stop swaying.

 

He smiled down at me and wrapped his arm firmly around my shoulders. "Put your arm around me, Bunny," he murmured, "it'll be easier to keep you on your feet." I obeyed, and fighting my heavy eyelids that insisted on closing every few steps, I let him lead me slowly across the hall. Again, none of the boys from my dorm laughed or said anything nasty, in fact I heard more than one 'poor old Manders' comment.

 

Just before we reached the door I felt Raffles stop walking; that suited me very well and I leant against him even more and closed my eyes. "Raffles?" I recognised Dobson's voice, but even that wasn't enough to make me lift my head.

 

"Yes, sir?"

 

"What are you doing?"

 

"Manders fell asleep at the table, sir. It's his first day back and he's exhausted. I thought it was better if he slept somewhere more suitable, sir."

 

"Manders?" I forced myself to lift my head and blinked several times to clear my eyes as I looked up at Dobson who was frowning slightly. I was expecting him to order Raffles back to his table and either make me go to bed on my own which I seriously doubted, given how much Raffles was holding me up, I could manage, or fetch one of the masters to take me. However, after looking at me in silence for what seemed like forever as I fought hard to stop my eyes from closing, Dobson sighed and looked back at Raffles. "Very well, Raffles," he said. "You'd better take Manders to bed."

 

"Yes, sir. Thank you, Mr. Dobson, sir," Raffles said, adjusting his grip slightly. "Come on, Bunny," he said softly and began to slowly walk again. As exhausted as I was I knew Dobson was watching us as we left the dining hall and for a moment I wondered why he had let Raffles escort me out of the hall rather than insist he go back to his table and eat his supper; but it was far too much effort to try to figure it out. So instead I just leant into Raffles's embrace and let him lead me, knowing that I was completely safe in his care.

 

I remember getting to the door of the dining hall and out into the night air and I remember stumbling, despite how tightly Raffles was holding me and then I remember him stopping, turning me, bending down and then swinging me up into his arms.

 

After that I remembered nothing until I woke up in his study, on his sofa, comfortably warm under a blanket from his bed, with my head on his pillow. I wasn't wearing shoes, my blazer or my tie and I could only presume he'd removed them. I blinked a few times and looked across the room to see him sitting at his desk, his head bowed over a book and I remembered him telling me earlier in the day that he had a Latin test on the morrow for which he had to study.

 

As I was about to speak, he looked up and smiled at me. "Hello, Bunny," he said, standing up and coming across the room to sit down on the sofa next to me, he put his hand on my forehead. "Feeling better?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, thank you. I'm sorry, Raffles," I added.

 

"You silly rabbit," he said, smiling and ruffling my hair. "You've got nothing to apologise for."

 

"I interrupted your revision."

 

He shrugged. "Hardly. That's why I brought you here rather than take you to your dorm. I knew I could study here whilst you slept." I stared up at him. "You didn't think I'd leave you alone, did you, Bunny?" he said, moving his hand from my hair to put it back on my forehead for a second or two. "Hungry?" he asked.

 

I thought for a moment and nodded. "Yes."

 

He stood up and went to his desk and came back with a packet of biscuits and a large bar of chocolate. "I'll go and make some cocoa," he brushed my hair back from my forehead.

 

"Don't you need to revise some more?"

 

He shook his head. "I've done enough. You stay there; I'll be but a minute or two."

 

I settled back on the pillow, which I noticed smelt very faintly of him, and waited for him to come back with two mugs of cocoa.

 

"Raffles," I said, sitting up properly.

 

"Yes, Bunny?" he took his coat off and put it over the back of the chair by his desk, before coming to sit by me on the sofa.

 

"No one laughed at me."

 

He broke off a piece of chocolate and handed it to me. "So I noticed. In fact Urquhart told me your dorm mates had been genuinely concerned about you - apparently they missed you."

 

I stared at him. "They missed me?" I put my own hand on my forehead, suddenly wondering if I was feverish again.

 

He laughed. "No, you're quite cool," he said. "It turns out that they all think you are a good sport and very plucky - which you may remember I've told you more than once."

 

I nodded slowly, as I ate the chocolate and took another piece he offered me. "But why?"

 

"Because you never snitch, you never tell - not even me - when a rag's been played on you." I felt my cheeks begin to grow warm and glanced down at my cocoa. "They may have a somewhat strange way of showing it, Bunny, but I think most of them at least rather like you. Maybe you should start inviting some of them along to cricket practises or something."

 

I stared at him. "You wouldn't mind?" He shook his head. "What about the others?"

 

He laughed. "I'm the captain," he said and put his arm around me and pulled me against him. "Are you all right, Bunny?" he said, his tone now serious. "Are you just tired? You don't feel unwell or anything, do you? I confess I very nearly took you to Matron, but I decided I'd wait and see how you were once you woke up."

 

I snuggled against him and sighed with pleasure. "No," I said, "I'm okay, Raffles. I'm just tired. It's been a long day."

 

"You're sure?"

 

"Yes, Raffles. I'm quite sure."

 

"Good," he said, but his tone told me he wasn't quite convinced.

 

We finished the chocolate, biscuits and cocoa, and then Raffles insisted on walking me back to the dorm. I was starting to feel sleepy again as we walked along and I was leaning against him quite a lot by the time he guided me into the dorm and led me to my bed.

 

To my surprise several of the boys, including Ollie, hurried over to me and assured Raffles they'd keep an eye on, help me into bed and generally look after me, if he needed to get back to his revision. The look on his face told me he really didn't want to entrust me to any care other than his own, but at the same time I saw how pleased he looked that finally the boys were treating me with courtesy rather than tripping me up or laughing at me. So with one final ruffle of my hair and after extracting a promise from Ollie that someone was to fetch him immediately if I showed any signs of being ill and not tired, and some gentle and quietly veiled threats if they didnít, he finally left me.

 

Just before he reached the door of the dorm I realised whilst I'd put my shoes back on, I'd left my blazer and tie in his study. "Raffles," I called.

 

He spun around instantly and hurried back to me. "What is it, Bunny?" he said, his tone heavy with concern.

 

I felt my cheeks flush slightly as he took my hand. "It's just I left my blazer and tie in your study," I muttered. "Sorry," I added as I saw relief flash across his face.

 

"I'll come back with you and get them for Harry, if that's all right," Ollie said, looking up at Raffles.

 

Raffles looked at Ollie and then glanced at the other boys who surrounded my bed. I saw him pause for a moment, then he looked at me and back at Ollie and nodded. "That you, Urquhart," he said. And with yet another hair ruffle he said, "Sleep well, Bunny," and turned to go, Ollie trotted along at his side.

 

 

Although I managed to get through the next day and the next without falling asleep at supper, I still found the days very tiring and thus rather than go to Raffles's study to dust or polish his shoes or even oil his bats, I spent many evening for the next week or two just lying on his sofa, resting or even sleeping, sometimes with my head in his lap, sometimes on a pillow he kindly gave me from his bed whilst he sat at his desk and studied.

 

 

If anything good came from my brush with death, it was that I was no longer laughed at, ragged, made fun of and derided all of the time. In fact I gained several more friends, and even boys with whom I knew I'd never be friends seemed to have a degree at least of respect for me.

 

Raffles's standing at the school also increased as somehow the boys found out that not only had he looked after me but that I'd actually been sick on him and he hadn't been bothered by it. How they learnt about it I had no idea as I hadn't told anyone, not even Ollie, and whilst I guessed that Raffles would have told Charleston, I couldn't envisage Charleston repeating what Raffles had told him, and the only other people to know had been Dobson, Matron and Dr. Timpson - all of whom I couldn't see sharing the story.

 

But like everything that happened in the school, somehow people found out. The boys in my dorm in particular seemed even more in awe of Raffles and more than one asked me if it was true I'd been sick over him. It had made me blush to remember, but I decided there was no point in lying, so I'd told them the truth. They seemed to think that Raffles was unique amongst the sixth form and that no other boy would look after their fag in the way he had and that they'd have left them vomiting in the lavatories and gone to fetch Dobson.

 

I ventured to ask Raffles about it one evening, telling him how impressed my dorm mates had been and was a little surprised when he'd told me that as much as he hated to admit it, he couldn't see many of his fellow sixth formers being prepared to go the lengths he'd gone to. Raffles had always been admired, loved, looked at in awe, worshipped even by most of the school, but after this those things all increased considerably - so much so I got the impression that he was more than a little embarrassed by how the younger boys viewed him.

 

He was, I know, very happy that I seemed to be gaining more friends and was no longer made to suffer at the hands of my dorm mates every day and sometimes several times a day. I took him at his world and invited those I got close to along to some of the eleven's practise sessions. For the most part the other boys on the eleven seemed resigned to our presence, a couple made a joking remark or two to Raffles about his 'worshipers' but it was said in good humour.

 

Only Wilson objected and made his objections known, telling Raffles he didn't want a gaggle of third formers watching him and Raffles had no right allowing us to be around, telling him it was bad enough that the eleven had to put up with 'your rabbit' but permitting me to bring other boys along was unacceptable.

 

Raffles's reply had been succinct; he told Wilson if he didn't like it he knew exactly what he could do, pointing out to him that whilst he was a good player, he wasn't the best and the eleven could actually manage without him. After that Wilson had stopped complaining - at least verbally; he never stopped casting annoyed glances at us or shaking his head or muttering under his breath. But he never challenged Raffles about it again - I think he knew only too well Raffles would quite happily dismiss him from the eleven.

 

Raffles told me fairly recently that he was sure I hadn't been truly aware of how ill I had been, how close to death I had been, how worried many people had been about me, and how difficult it had been for him to have to stand by and know there was nothing outside of praying or hoping that he could do to ensure I recovered.

 

He even, one night after he'd had slightly more whisky than he normally drank, told me he didn't know what he would have done had I died; how he would have gone on. It was a confession that sobered me; I had always know the ties that bound me to him were stronger than any I would ever know, I hadn't realised it was true for him too.

 

CHAPTER NINE

THE HERO OF THE HOUR

 

Most of these stories show Raffles as the protector, the rescuer, the comforter, the one who gives a great deal and takes very little. There was, however, one occasion when the roles were to an extent at least reversed. Even though it shows me in a somewhat better light than many of these tales do, I do not believe I cried once, at least not for myself.; it was a time in many ways I was more afeared than ever before - and it wasn't just I who waited and worried, the entire school did. For myself I would not have included this story, but when I mentioned to Raffles I intended to put pen to paper and tell of our time as school boys, it was he who insisted this tale be included. And now, just as then, when Raffles instructs me to do something, I obey him. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever cease to be the thirteen year old boy in awe of his beloved hero and protector.

 

Ollie and I were on our way to the dining hall for supper when Fletcher, a fifth form boy who was Charleston's second or third cousin, came running up to me. "Manders, Raffles has been taken to the San," he said. "Charleston sent me," he added, bending over to catch his breath; from his damp face and his laboured breathing I gathered he had run the entire distance from the San to the dining hall.

 

I clutched Ollie's arm and stared at Fletcher; shock froze me in place for a moment or two and all I could do was to stand and stare. Raffles along with Charleston and another couple of the eleven had had an exeat that afternoon and had gone into the local village - Raffles had promised to bring me some sweets back. I wondered what could have happened; in those few fleeting seconds as I clutched Ollie's arm my vivid imagination went wild and I thought up all kinds of scenarios.

 

Seconds were all it took for my stomach to churn and for me to realise I was still just standing and just staring. I let go of Ollie's arm and took off across the quad. I do not have good wind; I cannot run for any length of time, I've certainly never run the distance from the dinning hall to the San without having to pause at least twice. But that day, I did. I arrived barely able to see clearly, my heart thumping so hard I feared it might burst and my breath so laboured I could barely suck air in.

 

I could see several sixth form boys hanging around outside the San and managed to identify through my blurred vision one of them as Charleston. Still running I headed towards them. "Manders!" It was Charleston; he caught my arm and steadied me, before pushing my head down and holding it. "Come on, Manders, breathe more slowly. That's it; you're not going to be any help to Raffles is you faint. That's it; that's a good boy."

 

"Charleston, what's he doing here?" I didn't recognise the voice as my ears were still pounding after my frantic run. "If Raffles doesn't want any of us what makes you think he'll want him?"

 

"Be quiet, Dickson. You don't know what you're talking about. Are you all right now, Manders?"

 

I raised my head and blinked the perspiration from my eyes. "Yes, thank you, Charleston," I managed; sniffing hard as I realised my nose was running.

 

"Have you got a handkerchief?" I saw Charleston's hand move to his trouser pocket.

 

I nodded, pulled it out, wiped my forehead and eyes and blew my nose. I know Raffles always seemed to be giving me handkerchiefs, but apart from that very first day when we met on the stairs, I always have one. It's just that Raffles seems to like giving me his, as if it's all part of his taking care of me. But I do always carry one.

 

I pushed the handkerchief back into my pocket and stood upright; as I did I realised Charleston was still holding my arm, which given I staggered just a little as I stood upright was probably a good thing. I glanced around to see several of the eleven and another couple of lower sixth boys standing looking at me. I was grateful for the fact that my cheeks would be red from my run and hoped the extra flush I felt as I saw them just staring at me, wouldn't be seen.

 

I forced myself to ignore the staring boys and instead looked at Charleston. "What's happened to Raffles?" I asked.

 

"He was doing what he always does, playing the blessed hero." Dickson said a sneer in his voice. "He loves a lost cause, does dear old A. J."

 

"Dickson, if you haven't got anything sensible to say, why don't you go back to the house? There's no point in us all waiting; Raffles made it perfectly clear he doesn't want to see any of us." Charleston's tone was clipped; I continued to stare at him, he still hadn't told me what Raffles was doing in the San. The only thing that made me slightly less concerned than I had been was that between them Charleston and Dickson had now said twice that Raffles had said he didn't want to see any of the boys who were outside the San.

 

"But apparently he'll want to see his rabbit." Now I did glance at Dickson who was shaking his head as he stared down at me; the sneer I'd heard in his voice was present on his lips and the look he gave me discomforted me enough that I had to glance away. "I suppose you know Raffles better than any of us, Charleston, but I'm not sure you're right this time. But one thing you are right about is that I'm not going to waste my time hanging around here any longer waiting to find out if our captain will be our captain for much longer." And with that, he turned on his heel, pushed his hands into his pockets and strode off.

 

"Charleston!" I exclaimed, grabbing his arm. "What did he mean? What's happened to Raffles?" For a second Charleston's eyes widened slightly and I bit the inside of my mouth as I realised how disrespectful I'd been; but at that moment I didn't really care. Nonetheless as he stared down at me, I felt my mouth become dry. Raffles had told me Charleston would never hit a younger boy and I'd never felt afraid in Charleston's company, but as I stared back I wondered if I had overstepped the mark this time.

 

But then his lips twitched a little. "I begin to understand what A. J. means," he said somewhat cryptically. "As to what happened; Raffles rescued a young child who was being savaged by a dog and his right hand has been badly bitten." All humour had gone from Charleston's face and he looked pale. I swallowed hard as I just stared up at him.

 

"How bad is it?" I whispered, suddenly I realised I was still clutching his arm; I hastened to let go, but he caught my hand and held it briefly, before patting it.

 

"They won't know for about ten days, I believe the doctor said. It looks very bad at the moment, but Matron said these things often do. You go in and see him, Manders; I know he'll want to see you."

 

"Will he?" I asked my voice low as Dickson's words came back to me.

 

"Yes, Manders, he will. I know he will. Go on." And before I could say anything else, Charleston turned me around and gently pushed me towards the door.

 

I stood for a moment letting my eyes adjust from the bright sunshine to the dull interior of the San. Slowly I went in and saw Raffles in one of the side-rooms sitting on a bed; his back was to me and his head was slightly bent. I just stood and stared at him; for the first time ever I didn't know what to say.

 

Whether I made a slight noise or whether he just sensed someone was there, I don't know. But suddenly he said in a sharp tone, "I told you I don't want to see any of you."

 

"Raffles," I said his name in little more than a whisper; I wasn't even certain he would hear me.

 

But his head came up and he looked around. "Bunny," he said, his tone no longer sharp and he held out his left hand to me.

 

That was good enough for me and I hurried towards him. He sat with his right hand cradled on his lap, his face was pale and damp with perspirationy, his tie was askew, his coat was around his shoulders. On the bed next to him was a bowl - Matron always left one with any patient when she left them - and several bandages. Then my gaze fell on his bloody and torn hand.

 

I gasped softly and fell to my knees in front of him and gently took his hand in both of mine and let my fingertips touch the parts of his skin that weren't torn and bloody. "Raffles," I whispered again, forcing the tears that wanted to escape from my eyes, back. I would not cry; this wasn't about me. I bent my head and lightly kissed his fingers.

 

His left hand was resting on my shoulder and I felt it shake slightly. Then he took my arm and pulled it gently. "Come on, Bunny," he said his voice flat and more than a little shaky. "Get up off the floor. Come and sit next to me."

 

I carefully put his right hand back on his lap and scrambled up to sit on the bed next to him. Whenever I was upset or in need of comfort, he'd put his arm around my shoulders, but that wasn't possible for me given how much taller he was than I am. So instead I slipped my arm around his waist; to my surprise, I felt his head come to rest on my shoulder and he reached for my hand with his left hand and held it tightly.

 

It was only when Matron bustled in that he raised his head from my shoulder. "There you are, Harry, Edward did send for you. I'm very glad." She patted my head. "Now, Arthur, I'm going to clean your hand and dress it. It's going to hurt a little, my dear, I'm afraid." And she patted his shoulder.

 

From the way Raffles's grip on my hand tightened, it was clear 'a little' was an understatement. His face paled even more and more than once he bit his lip. Matron talked, as she always did, as she cleaned the wounds, but it wasn't anything that required a reply from either of us.

 

As she finished cleaning his hand and picked up a bandage, the door opened and I glanced around to see Dobson arrive. I automatically jumped to my feet; but Matron's hand on Raffles's shoulder prevented him from standing up. I wish I hadn't stood up as it drew his attention to me and also to the fact that Raffles was still holding my hand.

 

But apart from a quick glance at our joined hands, he ignored it. "You should be at supper, Manders," he said, but his tone was distracted.

 

"Yes, sir," I agreed, daring to sit back down, as his full attention fell on Raffles.

 

"Well, Raffles," he said, staring down at Raffles's hand. "I see you've done yourself some damage."

 

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir, but I couldn't just stand by and watch the child be savaged. Someone had to do something."

 

"Yes, yes, of course, Raffles. You did the right thing."

 

"He was very brave," Matron said, starting to bandage Raffles's hand.

 

"Yes, he was. Charleston has told me all about it." For a moment there was silence before Dobson finally said to Matron, "Do we know the full extent of the damage yet, Matron?"

 

"No, Mr. Dobson. Dr. Timpson has examined Arthur's hand, but until the swelling goes down and the healing process begins there's no way to know how serious or how lasting the damage is." She spoke like the professional she was, but I could hear a tinge of concern in her voice as she spoke. Matron does have her favourites - you can tell, she calls the boys she favours most by their Christian names - and Raffles is definitely her firm favourite.

 

Dobson didn't reply; not directly. Instead he put his hand on Raffles's shoulder and repeated, "You did the right thing, Raffles."

 

Raffles looked up at him. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

 

Dobson left his hand on Raffles's shoulder for a moment longer, before he took it off and put both hands under his robes. "Come and see me in the morning after breakfast, Raffles," he said.

 

"Yes, sir."

 

Dobson turned to leave; then glanced at me, his eyes once again coming to rest for a second on my hand, which Raffles still held. I held my breath, waiting for him to order me back to the house. Instead he just said, "Make sure you have something to eat, Manders."

 

"Yes, sir," I said quietly.

 

He stood for another moment, before walking off.

 

Matron finished bandaging Raffles's hand and then put a sling on him, fiddling with it until she was happy. She then held his coat whilst he put his left arm through it and then she arranged it over his right shoulder. "Now, Arthur," she said, her tone firm. "You are not to use your hand at all for ten days. At all, Arthur. Not for unbuttoning your trousers or shirt or brushing your teeth or anything. Do you understand me?"

 

"Yes, Matron."

 

"Harry, you are to make sure he doesn't use his hand." I swallowed hard, but nodded. "I know you can't be around all the time, but when you are unable to be with him, Edward can be. You'll be fine, Harry," she patted my shoulder. "I trust you."

 

"Yes, Matron," I murmured. "Thank you, Matron."

 

"And, Arthur, if you use your hand even once, I shall confine you here in the San for the duration of the ten days, and I am sure you won't like that, will you?"

 

"No, Matron," Raffles said firmly.

 

"I thought not. So you be a good boy and do listen to Harry and Edward - and do not use your hand. Do I have your word?"

 

Raffles nodded. "Yes, Matron."

 

"Good. Now off you go, boys. Remember you have to come back every day, Arthur, for me to redress your hand."

 

Raffles nodded. "Yes, Matron."

 

"Thank you, Matron," I said quietly. "I'll look after him," I added.

 

"I know you will, Harry."

 

Raffles nodded to Matron and we began to move to the door. For a moment there was some confusion because I always walk on Raffles's right side and he puts his right arm around my shoulders or rests his right hand on my shoulder, but obviously he couldn't do that. So I moved to his left side and after a brief second his left hand came to rest on my shoulder and the slid around my shoulders and gripped my right one. And then, moving far slower than his usual pace, we left the San.

 

As we walked back towards the school, I didn't know what to say, everything I thought of sounded wrong. But the silence felt even more wrong. "Raffles?" I said softly.

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"What happened? I mean Charleston told me you'd rescued a child from a dog, but . . ."

 

Raffles sighed and his hand gripped my shoulder more tightly and I felt him pull me even nearer to him, which made walking somewhat difficult. "She couldn't have been older than three, if that. What she was doing outside alone, I don't know. But she was there, sitting on the pavement and suddenly the dog was there and it attacked her. She screamed and I just couldn't stand there, Bunny, unlike everyone else. I couldnít. The dog had his jaws around her arm - I . . ."

 

I stopped and he came to a stop as well and I turned to look up at him. "No one helped you?" I said, anger rising inside of me. "No one?" Raffles gave a half-shrug and a half-head shake. "Not even Charleston?" I whispered.

 

"Bunny. Don't be angry with Charlie. Don't. He - he got the girl to safety, once I'd got the dog off her. I'll explain later, Bunny, but you must give me your word you will not be angry with Charlie." He was staring down at me intently and again his face was pale. "Please, Bunny," he added.

 

I sighed softly. "Very well," I said. "I won't be angry with Charleston. But the others? They just stood there and watched?"

 

Raffles sighed, turned me under his arm and began to walk again; I had no option but to move with him. "Yes, Bunny."

 

"Why? How could they?"

 

"Because, my dear Bunny, what does the life of a poor, worthless child matter when compared to the future of a gentleman? And you don't need to answer that."

 

"But what about other people in the town, didn't they help?" But I didn't need an answer; his hand, the way he was gripped my shoulder, the weight of his arm, the way he held me so tightly against him told me what I needed to know. "You did the right thing," was all I could find to say.

 

He moved his hand and ruffled my hair. "Thank you, Bunny," he said his tone oddly formal; he put his arm back around my shoulders and we went back to walking in silence.

 

As we drew level with the dining hall I asked him, "Do you want any supper?"

 

"No, Bunny, I'm not hungry, besides I think eating anything would be likely to make me sick. But you should have something to eat." He stopped and looked down at me.

 

"I'm not hungry," I said swiftly and then cursed my stomach as it betrayed me. A faint smile touched his lips as I blushed.

 

"Go and get something," he said, taking his arm from around my shoulders, but putting his hand back on my shoulder. "I'll wait for you."

 

I looked up at him. "You won't -"

 

"No, Bunny, I won't try to use my hand, I promise. And I'll wait for you."

 

I wasn't convinced, but I was hungry. So I turned and ran into the hall. I grabbed a piece of bread and a sausage and was about to leave when Charleston stopped me. "You know that's not allowed, Manders," he said; his tone was, however, gentle.

 

"I know, Charleston," I said, looking up at him. "But Raffles is outside; he doesn't want to come in and Matron said - she said she doesn't want him to be alone in case he uses his hand and he's not to use his hand. Not for anything."

 

Charleston looked down at me and a strange expression crossed his face. "Very well, Manders. Run along; I'll tell the master you have my permission."

 

"Thank you, Charleston." I turned.

 

"Manders."

 

"Yes?"

 

"When you leave Raffles to go to bed tonight, knock on my door and I'll take over from you." He smiled. "Between us we'll make sure he doesn't use his hand."

 

"Thank you, Charleston," I said. And then even though I'd promised Raffles, I looked up at him and said quietly, "No one helped him." And leaving Charleston just staring at me, I fled from the hall.

 

As I left, I heard him say to one of the masters, "It's all right, sir, I gave Manders permission to take his supper with him. Matron asked him to keep on eye on Raffles."

 

 

Once we were inside Raffles's study, he pulled his coat off and tossed it on the sofa and then managed to loosen and finally untie and pull off his tie. I wanted to offer to help, especially with the tie as it took him some time, but I didn't. I would wait until he asked, unless of course he started to try to use his right hand.

 

He threw himself down into the arm chair and I sat on the floor and ate my supper, which I no longer wanted and I half feared I would bring straight back up. I would have just thrown it away, but his steady blue gaze that never once left me, made it clear that was not an option. Finally I swallowed the last piece of bread and really hoped I wasn't going to be sick and got up to throw the paper napkin I'd wrapped them in into the rubbish bin.

 

"Come here, Bunny," he said quietly, holding out his hand towards me. It took a little bit of manoeuvring, given his sling and the fact that normally when I sat on his lap I sat so I could put my head on his right shoulder, but finally between us we managed it. As I put my head down on his shoulder and he put his arm around my back, I heard him sigh and felt him tremble slightly, as he pulled me much nearer than he normally did.

 

We sat in silence, he just holding onto me so tightly it was difficult to breathe, I determined not to move, speak or cry, for several minutes. It was only when I felt him take his arm from around my back and put this hand into his pocket and fumble for something that I lifted my head and looked at him. "Raffles," I whispered, and for the first and last time I took his handkerchief from him and wiped his eyes. "It'll be all right, Raffles," I said, wishing and praying silently that I spoke the truth.

 

He just looked at me and put his hand on my cheek. "Thank you for being here, Bunny," he said softly. "I couldn't have borne anyone else, not even Charlie."

 

I felt my cheeks flush under the intensity of his gaze and the emotion behind his words and I shifted slightly on his lap, desperately searching for something to say. "You said you'd tell me why I wasn't to be angry with Charleston."

 

He sighed. "So I did. Bunny, I really have no right to tell you this; I promised Charlie I wouldn't tell anyone. But I don't want the two people who are so very dear to me to be at odds with one another because of me. But, my dearest Bunny, you must promise me faithfully that you will never tell anyone what I'm going to tell you. I'm serious, Bunny, you must promise me."

 

I stared at him, eyes wide. "Of course I won't tell anyone, Raffles. I'd never tell anyone anything you tell me. I promise I won't tell anyone."

 

He touched my cheek again. "That's my good boy," he said. He was silent for a moment and I could tell from the look on his face that he was still struggling with the fact that he was about to break a promise he'd given to his best friend. Just as I thought he'd changed his mind, he sighed softly and began to speak. "Charlie had a younger sister; when she was two or three and he was five or six she was attacked and savaged by a dog. Charlie couldn't do anything, he was only a child. He watched her die, Bunny. And ever since then he's been deeply afraid of dogs, as I'm sure you can understand. The fact he was able to carry the young girl today to safety was beyond anything I could have thought he could do. I don't know who was shaking more, the little girl, he or I. But he did it. He did it, Bunny, and that, my dear rabbit, is why you cannot, you must not, be angry with him. He did what he could; he did more than I believe he thought he'd ever be able to do."

 

I glanced away from him, feeling my cheeks begin to burn as I remembered what I'd said to him in the dining hall. "Raffles," I stared to say.

 

But he pulled me nearer to him and guided my head back down onto his shoulder and just held me. "It's all right, Bunny," he murmured. "Don't worry about it."

 

Once more we sat in silence for some time, before he shifted on the chair and I looked at him. "Raffles?"

 

"I need to go to the lavatory," he said.

 

I got off his lap and watched as he stood up. "Do you need . . . I mean do you . . ." Again I felt my cheeks begin to burn.

 

He smiled. "I'll be fine, Bunny, I promise I won't use my right hand." He ruffled my hair with his left hand, picked up his coat and put it half on, half around his shoulders and went out.

 

 

It was at least twenty minutes before he returned and I was seriously considering going and knocking on Charleston's door and asking him to go and see if Raffles was all right. But just as I was about to do that, the door opened and Raffles came back in.

 

"Raffles!" I exclaimed as the scent of tobacco hit my nostrils. At the time I hated the smell of smoke and had vowed I would never smoke. I stared at him.

 

He had the good grace to look a little abashed. "Sorry, Bunny," he murmured, shrugging his coat off and letting it fall onto the sofa before he sat back down in the chair.

 

"What if one of the masters had caught you?"

 

He gave me a wry smile. "My dear Bunny, I believe I could get away with doing just about anything tonight - even getting out of school - and no one would say anything."

 

I stared aghast. "Raffles, you're not really thinking about -"

 

He laughed. "No, my dear Bunny, I am not. Now are you going to come and sit back down on my lap or do you object to the smell so much?" He held out his hand.

 

I didn't hesitate and once again I sat on his lap and put my head on his shoulder as he put his arm around me and pulled me closer to him. Beneath the scent of tobacco, I could smell his natural scent and I tried to concentrate on breathing that in, but the tobacco made my eyes burn so I closed them.

 

 

I must have fallen asleep sitting on Raffles's lap, my head on his shoulder, his arm around me and it seemed Raffles had too, as I was suddenly aware of Charleston's voice. "A. J., what - Manders, you should have been in bed over an hour ago."

 

I sat up and rubbed my eyes, as Raffles let his arm fall from around my back. I noticed Charleston was staring over my head directly at Raffles, but I couldn't figure out what the look was saying. "Sorry," I murmured, scrambling off Raffles's lap and standing up.

 

Charleston sighed; he was still looking at Raffles rather than at me. "Come on, I'll walk you back to your dorm. You stay there, A. J., I'll be back as soon as I can."

 

"Yes, Charlie," Raffles said quietly. "Goodnight, Bunny." He caught my hand and squeezed it.

 

I turned around and forced a smile. "Goodnight, Raffles. I . . ."

 

"Go with Charlie, there's a good boy." He squeezed my hand again and then let go of it.

 

"Yes, Raffles," I said and obediently went to the door and trotted along at Charleston's side as we made our way through the semi-dark hallways to the third form dorm.

 

"Ah, there you are, Manders. What on earth do you think you've been doing?" Dobson was standing outside the dorm.

 

"It was my fault, sir," Charleston said swiftly, before I could even begin to answer.

 

Dobson turned his attention from me to Charleston. "Your fault, Charleston?" he sounded surprised and more than a little disbelieving.

 

"Yes, sir. You see, sir, Matron doesn't want Raffles to be left alone, he's not to use his hand at all, sir, and you know what Raffles is like. Well, I told Manders I'd relieve of his duty when it was his bedtime, but I'm afraid I got involved in my Latin prep and lost track of the time, sir. I am sorry, sir."

 

"And why didn't you go and knock on Charleston's door, Manders? You can tell the time, can you not?"

 

"Yes, sir," I said, feeling my cheeks begin to burn.

 

"Well, sir, Raffles had fallen asleep, I believe Matron may have given him one of her potions and Manders didn't want to risk waking him up. That's right, isn't it, Manders?"

 

I was certain Dobson wasn't going to believe it. Nonetheless, I nodded, "Yes, sir. I'm sorry, sir. It won't happen again, sir."

 

Dobson stared at me for what seemed like forever and I forced myself to meet his gaze, before he looked back at Charleston. "And who is with Raffles now?"

 

"Thompson." Charleston said swiftly. I was more than a little in awe of Charleston. He was a boy for whom rules were very important, who was far more deferential than Raffles and he was lying to a master. He must love Raffles very much indeed.

 

Again Dobson stared in silence, this time at Charleston. Finally he sighed. "Very well, Charleston. I shall accept your word." Even at my tender age I clearly heard the unspoken 'this time' and given the way Charleston straightened even more, I knew he had heard it too. "Wait here a moment, both of you." He turned, silently opened the door to the dorm and went inside.

 

He was back within a short time with my pyjamas, dressing gown and toothbrush in his hands. He handed them to me, but looked at Charleston. "Make sure Manders gets undressed, brushes his teeth, uses the facilities and gets to bed, Charleston. And make sure that all happens as quickly as possible."

 

"Yes, sir," Charleston said, putting a hand on my shoulder and leading me away to the bathroom nearest to the dorm. Once inside he leant back against the wall and just stared at me. "Well come along, Manders, get undressed." I hesitated for a moment; I really didn't like getting undressed in front of anyone. Then he added, "The sooner I get you into bed, the sooner I can get back to Raffles."

 

That was enough for me and trying not to fall over my own clothing I stripped, pulled my pyjamas on, brushed my teeth, splashed water on my face and took advantage of the facilities. By the time I'd done everything, I turned to find Charleston holding my discarded clothing, which he'd folded quite neatly.

 

Still carrying the pile of my clothing he led me back to the dorm, quietly opened the door and by the light of a lamp that stood just inside the door, he guided me to my bed, put my clothes on the chair next to the bed, pulled back the covers and waited for me to take my dressing-gown off and get into bed. Then to my surprise, he pulled the covers back over me, brushed my hair back and said quietly, "Raffles will be all right, Manders." Then he gave my shoulder a brief squeeze, turned and went back the way we had come.

 

I lay in the almost dark and finally allowed the tears I'd been fighting to fall. I wasn't crying for me; I was crying for the boy I loved; the boy who was the most important person in the world to me; the boy whose whole future could be over, just because he was such a good, such an honourable, such a caring person.

 

The tears slipped from my eyes and soaked into the pillows and I did nothing to try to stop them. Suddenly I felt the covers pulled back and the next moment a body was next to mine and someone was holding my hand. "Raffles will be okay, Harry," Ollie said, squeezing my hand and putting his head on my pillow. A few seconds later I heard his steady breathing indicating he had fallen asleep; I wondered if he'd even been fully awake when he's moved from his bed to mine. I'd never shared a bed with anyone before, even though I knew lots of boys in my dorm had, but rather than feel strange, it felt oddly comforting.

 

Ollie may have slept, but I didn't, at least not more than for a few minutes here and there and so by the time Ollie crept back to his own bed as daylight began to filter in through the windows, my head was aching and my eyes felt gritty. The only real sleep I'd got the night before had been for however long I'd spent sleeping on Raffles's lap.

 

 

I was forcing myself to eat a piece of toast and marmalade when Raffles and Charleston came into the dining hall. Even from where I sat I could see both of them looked tired; Charleston was walking very close to Raffles who as well as looking tired still looked very pale. His usual elegance in dress and movement was somewhat lacking and it wasn't just because his coat was half on and half around his shoulders and his tie was untied and hanging under his shirt collar.

 

He stopped and said something to Charleston, before squeezing Charleston's hand and heading across the room to where I sat. For once I didn't watch Raffles; I watched Charleston watching Raffles and saw clearly what I'd half suspected on one or two occasions: Charleston didn't just love Raffles; he was in love with him.

 

"Hello, Bunny," Raffle said, ruffling my hair and pulling my attention away from Charleston. "I don't suppose you can tie another chap's tie for him, can you?"

 

I nodded. "Yes." For some reason better known to himself, Father had insisted on teaching me to tie his tie both from behind him and in front of him.

 

"That's good, because Charlie can't," Raffles said, glancing in Charleston's direction. "We gave up after the sixth attempt. He smiled fondly at Charleston, who was still staring in our direction. "So where do you want me?"

 

Given how much taller his was than me, there was no way I could tie his tie whilst he was standing. I stood up and climbed over the bench. "Sit down there," I said.

 

He glanced over his shoulder, gave Ollie who always sat opposite me an apologetic smile and sat down with his back to Ollie facing me and smiled at me. For a moment I was frozen as I gazed down into his handsome face, then my hands, which to my annoyance began to shake very slightly, moved, took the ends of his tie and automatically began to make the knot. As I settled it under his shirt and turned the collar down, my fingers brushed his chin and for a fleeting second I let them linger as he stared up at me, his look unfathomable. Then he cleared his throat slightly and I dropped my hands and put them behind my back and moved back a little to allow him to stand up.

 

He did and put his hand on my shoulder. "Thank you, Bunny," he said, smiling down at me. "I'll ask Charlie if he wants lessons." I didn't say so, but I hoped Charleston didnít; I rather liked the idea of being the person who'd tie Raffles's tie for him whilst he was incapacitated. "You have games after break, don't you?" I nodded. "Do you want to come down to the San with me? I'll clear it with Dobson when I see him after breakfast." And before I could reply, he again ruffled my hair and strode off across the dining hall, back to where Charleston still stood staring in our direction - staring at Raffles.

 

 

"Are you all right, Bunny?" Raffles asked, as we walked down to the San. "You look tired."

 

I shrugged. "I didn't get much sleep."

 

He stopped walking and as he had his arm around my shoulders, I stopped too. Gently he turned me to face him and tipped my chin up so I was looking up at him. "You're not worrying about me, are you?"

 

I stared at him, not certain what to say. Finally I said, "You'd be worried about me if I'd been attacked by a dog, wouldn't you?"

 

To my surprise he laughed a little. "Yes, I would, my dear Bunny, and I don't think 'worry' would cover it. I'm going to be okay, Bunny. Even if -" He stopped abruptly and looked away from me, gazing over my shoulder. "I'll be all right. You must try not to worry; you need to sleep."

 

"So do you." Again he smiled. And suddenly to my amazement I found myself blurting out, "Ollie shared my bed last night."

 

I watched his eyebrows rise and saw shock, surprise and something I couldn't identify cross his face. "Did he now?" he said softly, as he gazed down at me. "Well, Bunny, that is something of a surprise. I never -"

 

"No!" I said, suddenly realising what he must be thinking. "It wasn't like that. I wouldn't. I couldn't. I -" I felt my cheeks burning and looked away from him, staring down at the ground, looking at my shoes and realising they were badly in need of polishing. "He just got into bed with me, told me you'd be all right, held my hand and went straight to sleep. That's all, Raffles. We didn't - well you know. We didn't. Not at all. Really," I added.

 

He gathered me towards him, the movement somewhat clumsy and held me for a moment. "I'm sorry, Bunny," he said softly, "I didn't meant to upset you."

 

"I'm not upset." I countered. "I just want to make certain you know nothing happened."

 

He was silent for a moment and I rested my head against his breast and bit my lip. "You know, Bunny," he said softly, pushing me away again and once more tilting my chin up so I was forced to look at him. "It wouldn't matter if something had; it goes on all over the school. And you and Urquhart are good friends."

 

I shrugged, stopped myself from asking him why it wouldn't matter and said instead, "Let's not talk about it. I shouldn't have mentioned it. I didn't mean to. Let's go and see Matron."

 

But he stopped me from moving away. "I'd rather you told me than not, Bunny," he said after a moment and the strange look I'd seen earlier crossed his face again. "Just promise me one thing, Bunny."

 

"Anything."

 

He smiled and put his hand into my hair and stroked my head. "Don't let anyone other than Urquhart into your bed. He may be quite content to just hold your hand and go to sleep, but others wouldn't be. Do you promise me?"

 

"Of course," I said. "It wasn't my choice. He got into bed with me." And then I added softly, "But it was comforting."

 

He smiled again and once more the strange expression appeared. "I imagine it was, Bunny. Comforting is very nice. Now come on, as you said, let's go and see Matron." But this time I was the one to stand still. "What is it, Bunny? Come on, clearly there's something you want to ask me."

 

I shook my head. "It doesn't matter."

 

"Oh, but it does, doesnít it, Bunny." He stared down at me, studying me as I fidgeted under his gaze. "Ah," he said. "No, Charlie didn't share my bed, if that's what you are wondering." I felt my cheeks flame again. "He did, however, sit up all night with me, which was comforting. But not, my dearest rabbit, as comforting as you sitting on my lap. Now, come along, we really must go and see Matron." And with that he put his arm firmly around my shoulders and led me away.

 

 

The next nine days seemed to both go by as slowly as the last few days of term and as fast as the holidays. The entire school, especially our house, seemed subdued and as if we were all just waiting for something; not a single rag, as far as I knew, was carried out, people seemed to talk much more quietly than they normally did, the eleven with the exception of Raffles and Charleston seemed to always be huddled together in deep conversation, even the masters seemed affected.

 

I spent every waking moment when I wasn't in lessons or eating with Raffles and if I wasn't with him then Charleston was and occasionally we both were. The strain was beginning to show on all of us, in particular Raffles who on the fifth evening ordered both Charleston and myself out of his study, telling us he was sick and tired of not having a moment to himself and that he didn't want either of us around him. Adding that he was quite capable of taking care of himself and already had a mother thus he didn't need two more. When neither of us moved it was he who stormed out of his own study, only to return some twenty minutes later, the scent of tobacco surrounding him, to offer an apology to us both.

 

The nearer it got to the day the doctor would take another look at Raffles's hand, the more withdrawn Raffles got and the more demanding of my company. Not that he spoke to me much; I spent most evenings in silence just sitting on his lap where he would pull me the moment I arrived in is study, whilst he seemed lost in his own world.

 

 

I was trying to pull my drawers on without taking my dressing gown of when the dormitory fell silent. I looked up to see Raffles standing at the end of my bed. "Hello, Bunny," he said, moving from the end of my bed and sitting down on it. "Can you tie my tie for me, please? And come and polish my shoes?" He looked even paler and more tired than he had done when I'd left him the previous evening and it was clear he'd already been smoking.

 

"Of course, Raffles," I said, swiftly glancing around me to see every boy staring at him. "I'll come now."

 

"Er, Bunny." He caught my arm. "You'd better get dressed first." I paused and waited for the boys to laugh; not that they laughed at me all the time any longer, they didn't and when they did it was only in fun - just as we all laughed at one another when we'd done something foolish. And forgetting I wasn't dressed was very foolish, so I would have expected them to laugh at me - I'd have laughed too, had the whole situation been different. And then I realised why they hadn't laughed; it was because they liked, cared for, respected, idolised, loved even Raffles, and they all knew what today was and how worried he must be. Thus, even the boys with whom I wasn't friends, boys whom merely tolerated me didn't laugh at me, because they cared for Raffles.

 

"Oh, of course." I gave up trying to get dressed whilst keeping my dressing gown on and dropped it on the floor, which earnt me a faint sigh and seconds later Raffles bent to pick it up. I dressed as quickly as I could as, although I didn't know of any rule, something told me Raffles really shouldn't be in the third form dorm whilst the boys were getting dressed - not that most of them seemed to be doing that, they all seemed to frozen half dressed, half undressed, just staring at him.

 

Finally, I grabbed my blazer, pushed my tie into the pocket, dragged a brush once through my hair, paused to tie my shoes and said brightly, "I'm ready."

 

He looked me up and down and shook his head, as I carried on trying to tuck my shirt into my trousers. However, he didn't press the point, instead he stood up and put his hand on my shoulder and his gaze travelled slowly around the dorm, looking at each boy in turn. "Come along, then," he said and began to lead me out of the dorm.

 

"Raffles." It was Ollie.

 

He stopped and turned. "Yes, Urquhart?"

 

"Um . . . I hope . . . That is, we all . . . Um . . . Well . . . Good luck," he finally stammered and hastily lowered his gaze to stare at the floor, but not before I saw how red his cheeks had become.

 

Raffles's grip on my shoulder became tighter, so tight it was almost painful. I bit my lip and tried not to fidget beneath it. I really thought he wasn't going to say anything, as he just stared at Ollie in silence. But then he said, his tone soft, "Thank you, Urquhart." And with that he started walking again.

 

He didn't speak until we were in his study and then his first words surprised me, "Do redress yourself, Bunny," he said. "You look as if you've been pulled through a hedge."

 

"Oh, right," I said and obeyed. I used the brush he handed me to brush all of my hair, rather than the one part I'd dragged my own brush through.

 

"That's better," he said, after I'd undone my trousers in order to smooth down and rearrange my shirt, tied my tie and put my blazer back on.

 

"Do you want me to polish your shoes now?"

 

He looked at me. "What? Oh, no. They're fine. I just wanted your company, Bunny."

 

"Oh," I said.

 

"Here," he went to his desk drawer and took out a bar of chocolate. I looked at him. "Call it breakfast," he said. And I understood.

 

"Thank you," I said taking it and putting it down on the table next to the sofa. "I'll have it later." He wasn't the only one who didn't feel like eating. "Sit down and let me tie your tie." He sat on the arm of the chair. Even though for the first time in ten days we hadn't got an audience, it took me two attempts to get it right.

 

"Thank you," he said and sank down into the chair.

 

Rather than sit on his lap, I dropped to my knees in front of him and put my hand on his knee. "Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Can I do anything else for you? Anything at all? Can I do anything to . . . I'll do anything for you, Raffles."

 

He looked at me and put his hand on my head and let his fingers tangle in my hair. "Anything, eh, Bunny?" he said quietly, his look unreadable.

 

I nodded. "Yes, Raffles. Anything." And then I dredged up more courage than I thought I possessed and my hand shaking only slightly, I touched him. His eyes widened and he drew in a soft gasp of breath, but he didn't stop me; so I touched him again and then a third time before I started to close my fingers around him.

 

However, he caught my hand and held it still. "No, Bunny," he said quietly, "don't do that." His voice was soft and gentle and he linked his fingers with mine as he pulled my hand away from his body. "Dear Bunny," he said, his tone low. "My dear Bunny."

 

"Don't you want me to?" I said softly.

 

He pulled on my hand until I scrambled up and let him pull me down onto his lap. "This is enough," he said quietly.

 

"I just wanted to . . ."

 

"I know, Bunny. It's all right. I know." I sighed and put my head on his shoulder and to my surprise I felt him lightly kiss the top of my head. "Bunny?"

 

"Yes, Raffles?"

 

"You mustn't make a habit of offering to do anything for older boys, you know. And you certainly mustn't make a habit of touching them like that, of touching them at all in fact."

 

I sat up and looked at him. "I don't! I wouldn't! I . . .  I wouldn't. You know that. You must know that."

 

He brushed my fringe off my forehead and gave me a half smile. "Yes, I do, Bunny. I just wanted to be certain though."

 

"Raffles?"

 

"Yes, Bunny?"

 

"You do know, don't you? You believe me? You know it's only you."

 

He sighed softly and pulled my head back onto his shoulder. "Yes, Bunny, I know." And I felt another light kiss on my head.

 

 

"Hello, Arthur. Hello, Harry." Matron beamed at both of us.

 

"Matron."

 

"Hello, Matron," I said.

 

She frowned and looked at us both, before turning to her desk and pulling out a bar of chocolate. She broke off two pieces and handed one to each of us. "Eat it."

 

"I'm really not -"

 

"Arthur. Eat it. You too, Harry."

 

Raffles sighed softly, but obeyed. "Yes, Matron," he said, putting the chocolate into his mouth and immediately putting his hand back on my shoulder as I too obeyed and swallowed the very good chocolate.

 

"Dr. Timpson will be here in about ten minutes. Go and wait for him in the side-room."

 

We sat and waited in silence. The room was the same room Raffles had been in ten days ago, the bed the same bed. And as then he took my hand.

 

"Good morning, boys." Dr. Timpson accompanied by Matron swept into the room. I murmured a reply; Raffles just gave a brief nod. "Well, then, Raffles. How does your hand feel? Have you done as Matron told you to?"

 

Raffles nodded. "Yes, sir," he said. "It doesn't feel too bad, sir. Just a bit numb."

 

"Well let us have a look at it." Matron moved and began to take the bandage and dressings off of Raffles's hand. I was watching her and I as she took the last dressing off I saw her smile and I dared to hope. Timpson took Raffles's hand from Matron and examined it. "It looks very good, Raffles, considerably better than when I last saw it. Can you move your fingers?" One by one Raffles moved them. "Good boy," Timpson tended to treat us all as if we were about eight years old. "That is good. Now which is your bowling finger? Ah, yes," and he began to manipulate it. Apart from gripping my hand a little tighter and turning somewhat paler Raffles didn't react. "Well, I believe you have been a very lucky young man," Timpson said, finally letting go of Raffles's hand. "I do not believe there is any lasting damage at all. Now, I still want you to be careful with it for another week - and that means no going straight from here to the cricket field, do you understand?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"I'd like it to be kept dressed, Matron, at least for another few days. But we can dispense of the sling and make the dressing lighter. Two more days and then you can start to use it, Raffles. But use it carefully and sparingly to begin with. Do your shirt buttons up, tie your tie, that kind of thing - but no cricket." He glanced at me. "It's Manders, isn't it?"

 

"Yes, sir." I said.

 

"No cricket for him for at least a week. Can you make sure of that?"

 

"Yes, sir," I said firmly. "I can."

 

Raffles rolled his eyes. "Oh, good, another week of you and Charlie mothering me." But his tone was light for the first time in ten days and the sparkle was back in his eyes. "I never get a moment to myself, Matron," he said.

 

"Never?" Her eyes twinkled as she looked at him.

 

"Well, almost never."

 

"Good," she said and Raffles just stared at her.

 

"After a week you can dispense with the dressing completely and you can pick up a cricket ball, but no spending hours bowling or whatever. Take it easy, Raffles, take it slowly. If you try to push your recovery too quickly, you're more likely to end up causing more damage. Do you understand?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

"Good. Well, that's that. Are there any other patients for me today, Matron?"

 

"Not today, Doctor."

 

"In that case, I shall be off." And with a wave Timpson left the room.

 

"There you are, Arthur," Matron said, putting her hand on Raffles's arm. "Everything is going to be all right. Here," she said and pushed another piece of chocolate into Raffles's hands and another into mine.

 

As she put a light dressing on Raffles's hand, I let the chocolate melt in my mouth as my throat was too constricted by a feeling of relief to swallow.

 

The Raffles who left the San, his right arm around my shoulders, just as it should be, was a completely different Raffles from the Raffles who had less than an hour ago walked into the building. His voice was different, his walk was different, he smiled, his eyes shone and he laughed, he even looked different.

 

I wasn't that surprised to find Charleston hovering around the boat houses, his hands in his pockets, a worried look on his face; a look that faded to be replaced by a broad smile as he saw Raffles. "A. J.," he was all he said as he gripped Raffles's arm.

 

 

The whole atmosphere of the school in general and our house in particular changed as the news that Raffles was going to be all right and didn't have any lasting damage to his hand and would soon be back practising and captaining the eleven.

 

I think the event sobered Raffles more than a little and made him realise just how lucky he was to have the talent he had. Like anyone who is talented, it is very easy to take it for granted and as much as I love Raffles, I do believe that he was at least partly guilty of that; he was a brilliant cricket player, the best all-rounder any public school had ever known, he was adored for his talent as well as for his nature.

 

A lot of the respect he commanded came from the fact he was the captain of the eleven and such a good player. To have come close, as he did, to losing all of that, especially when the loss would have come from him doing something altruistic, I know was frightening; and I know whatever he said to me or to Charleston, he did fear what might happen if he could no longer play cricket. Playing cricket, commanding respect, was so much of who A. J. Raffles was, to potentially lose that must have jolted him. Indeed I know it did; after all I was the one who continued to spend hours in his study alone with him or sitting by his side as he watched matches he wasn't involved in.

 

Raffles did change in some small way after the incident; I'm not sure anyone, except maybe Charleston, other than I noticed it, but he did. I believe it made him an even better boy and in time a better man. I know he's often said my eyes are blinded by my love for him, but Raffles was not and is not perfect - but who is? But after he came close to losing so much, he became just a little bit less imperfect.


 

CHAPTER TEN

THE LAST DAY

 

On Raffles's last day at school, I was awake long before I normally was and finally with well over an hour to go until breakfast, I crept from the dorm, went to the bathroom where I washed and dressed and headed off to Raffles's study. I had no idea if he would already be up, but if he wasn't I could sit in the hall outside his door and wait until I heard him.

 

However, as I carefully and as quietly as possible, opened the door to his study and put my head around it I saw him standing by his desk. He was still in his shirt sleeves and hadn't put his tie on, but he was otherwise fully dressed. "Hello, Bunny," he said looking at me; he didn't seem in the least bit surprised to see me and I wondered for how long he'd been up.

 

I just stood in the half-open doorway and stared at him; it would be the last time I would go into his study and see him standing and I wanted to imprint him on my memory as he stood there. I knew I would never forget him, how could I after what we'd been through during the two years we'd been together? I would remember the way he looked at me, always so fondly and lovingly, how he touched me, how he protected me, how he possessed me - because by now I knew quite how much I was 'his' and quite how much he had taken possession of me. I would remember how he spoke to me, how he ruffled my hair, how he'd pull me down onto his lap if he thought I needed more comforting than he could give from just a hug.

 

I would never forget how he looked after me when I was sick or how he tended to minor injuries that befell me; how basically he had treated me as a mixture between a friend and his beloved brother. I would remember how I'd helped him in some small way at times. And as I just stood staring at him, wondering how I was going to get through the next three years without him to keep an eye on me, I felt the tears begin to fill my eyes; I tried, I tried really hard to blink them back. But I couldn't and as they began to fall down my cheeks, a sob escaped me.

 

"Oh, Bunny," I heard him murmur. "Oh, my dear, sweet Bunny." And then he was there by my side; the door had been firmly shut and I was in his arms, clinging to him and sobbing as if my heart would shatter - I actually believed it might. He pulled me close to him, closer than he'd ever pulled me whilst we were standing and just held me as he murmured soothing words to me. I tried, I really tried to stop crying, I didn't want to spend the last hours of our time together crying, but I couldn't. Every time I thought I had stopped, the shattering realisation that this was the last time he'd hold me, the last time he'd brush my hair back, the last time he'd say comforting things to me, came racing back and I just started to cry again.

 

After a few minutes, he pushed me away from him a little and with one arm around my shoulders and the other holding my hand he led me to the arm chair, sat down and pulled me down onto his lap. I hadn't grown that much in two years; even though I'd return in September as a fifth former, most of the current third formers were taller than I. And the inch or so I had grown was more than matched by the several inches he had grown, so I still fitted very well on his lap. But even as he held me, pulling me so very close to him, even as I enjoyed being so close to him, the thought that this was the last time, well the last day, I'd sit on his lap kept coming into my mind almost spoiling the moment for me.

 

"Don't think about it, Bunny," he whispered his lips close to my ear and as he'd done on a previous occasion, he lightly kissed my head. "Just enjoy it for now." And he pulled me impossibly closer to him and tightened his embrace.

 

Finally I did manage to stop crying and lifted my head from his shoulder; his shirt was more than a little damp from my tears, but he seemed completely unconcerned. He simply pulled out a handkerchief, wiped my eyes for me, which almost made me start crying again as I realised it was the last time he'd do that, before handing me the handkerchief so I could blow my nose.

 

"I'm going to miss you, Raffles," I said, pushing the fairly damp handkerchief into my pocket.

 

"I know, Bunny. And I am going to miss you too. I'm going to miss you very much."

 

I stared at him. "Are you?"

 

He gave me a rueful smile and pushed my fringe back. "Yes, you silly rabbit," he said, once again kissing the top of my head. "Of course I am."

 

I wanted to beg him not to go or to take me with him, but I didn't - I might still be very young in many ways even for my age, but I knew it was impossible. He would go off to Cambridge and do wonderful things there and I would stay at the school and . . . Hopefully survive another three years.

 

I sat staring at him, wishing I could find the words to tell him how I felt about him, wishing I could tell myself how I felt about him, what he meant to me, how much I had appreciated all he'd done for me over the last two years, to tell him the depth of my love for him, how devastating knowing this was the last day we'd have together was, wishing I could find a way to kiss him. But words wouldn't come; I was still too young to formulate such words. And as I stared at him I felt tears beginning to well up again. He took my face between his hands and for a wondrous moment I thought he was going to kiss me, but he didn't. Instead he said softly, "Please don't cry, Bunny. I cannot bear to see you cry. I never have been able to," he added so softly, I wasn't certain I'd heard him correctly.

 

I bit my lip hard, tasting blood and focussing on the pain and the taste of iron and forced the tears not to fall. "That's my brave rabbit," he said and for the third time he kissed my head, which was all well and good and I liked it, but I wanted a different kind of kiss. I believe I might even have found the courage from somewhere to ask him to kiss me, but he smiled and said, "Let's go and have some breakfast."

 

"I'm not hungry," I declared as my stomach began to churn at the thought of food.

 

Gently he guided me off his lap and stood up. "Well a cup of tea then. I should go to the dining hall, Bunny. You can stay here if you wish, but I should at least show my face." He picked up his coat and tie, pulled the former on and tied the latter swiftly, making a perfect knot as he kept his gaze firmly on me. He knew full well I wouldn't stay in his study on my own. I nodded, let him smooth my hair down for me and then with his arm around my shoulders I let him lead me to the dining hall.

 

I would have stopped walking were it not for his arm around me at the sight that greeted me. More than one boy had red eyes, more than one was openly crying, many sat with their arms around one another, the split houses had been abandoned as boys from one house sat with boys from other houses and boys from one year sat with boys from other years. I noticed it was mainly the upper sixth and fourth and fifth formers and some lower sixth who were intermingled. Most third years, who were seated at their house and year tables, seemed to be trying to eat their breakfast as quickly as they could and keep their eyes averted from the rest of the room. I noticed some lower sixth form boy were holding hands with upper sixth formers whilst some others had a look of distain on their faces. Not all of the fourth, fifth and upper sixth boys had formed connections with other years and thus there were groups that weren't sitting far closer than they normally did or trying not to cry or holding hands.

 

As I stared around the dining hall, I wondered why I hadn't remembered the scene from this time last year and then recalled that Raffles had kept me in his study for virtually the whole day, including during breakfast. I remember thinking fleetingly at the time how strange it was, but I hadn't objected in the slightest, given I got to spend the whole day with him with only a few interruptions as upper sixth boys had dropped by to say goodbye to him. Now I knew why he'd kept me away from the rest of the school.

 

As Raffles led me across the hall I waved to Ollie and some of my other friends from our house who were sitting together. I didn't feel guilty about not being with them, we'd all be seeing one another in September. Today for me was about being with Raffles and as they waved back and looked at me, I knew they understood.

 

Raffles no longer had his arm around my shoulders; instead he'd taken my hand and was holding it tightly in his. "Do you mind sitting with Charlie?" he asked.

 

Touched that he would actually ask me and knowing that had I said I did he would, no matter what his own wishes were, take me at my word, I shook my head. "No," I said, trying not to openly cling to his hand too much.

 

He ruffled my hair and still holding my hand led me to where Charleston sat at the house sixth form table. "Hello, Charlie," he said, sitting down and pulling me down next to him, now he did put his arm back around me.

 

Charleston looked up and flashed a forced smile at both of us. "A. J.," he said, letting his gaze rest on Raffles; I looked away, I didn't want to see the clear emotion Charleston was showing. I almost wished I had stayed in Raffles's study, if only for Charleston's sake. Then Charleston said quietly, "Manders."

 

I felt Raffles squeeze my shoulder and I looked up and met Charleston's steady gaze. "Hello, Charleston," I said softly. As I looked at him, I wondered which of us was the more upset, which of us believed he loved Raffles more. As I stared at Charleston, I actually felt glad I was so young, because I could cry, I could show how upset I was, I could cling to Raffles, Charleston couldn't - or he wouldn't allow himself to.

 

"Tea?" he picked the pot up and Raffles nodded and pushed two cups towards Charleston.

 

"Thanks, Charlie," he said, as Charleston poured the tea. "Here you are, Bunny," Raffles put one cup in front of me. "Drink it," he said softly, but firmly. Taking care and ignoring the fact my hand was shaking I picked the cup up and obeyed him. But even as I did I realised it was the last time he would tell me to do anything and I had to fight hard to stop the tears from spilling down my cheeks again. Somehow he seemed to know, as he pulled me a little closer to him, yet even as I rested my head against him I noticed his gaze was firmly affixed on Charleston. Again, I wished I'd stayed in his study, wished I had allowed Charleston to have some time with Raffles alone.

 

Despite being the one to suggest breakfast, Raffles didn't do anything more than take a slice of toast and put it on the plate in front of him. Charleston had abandoned what he was eating as soon as we'd sat down and I didn't even pretend to be hungry. I sipped my tea from time to time, but that was all. Raffles took a deep swallow of his tea, put his cup down and then reached across the table and put his hand over Charleston's and left it there. We sat in silence, Raffles with one arm around me and in effect holding Charleston's hand with his other, me with my head against this shoulder and Charleston gazing at Raffles. I vaguely wondered what the boys who walked past might have thought of the tableau.

 

Finally Charleston gently pulled his hand from beneath Raffles's and stood up. "I haven't finished packing," he said, pushing his hands into his pockets. "I must go and finish. You'll be in your study later won't you, A. J.?"

 

Raffles nodded. "Yes, Charlie. I will be."

 

Charleston gave a brief nod and let his gaze flicker from Raffles to me. "I'll come and say goodbye to you both later then," he said, as he turned and walked away.

 

Raffles and I stayed in the dining hall for a little longer and a few boys from other years came to say goodbye to Raffles and wished him luck. Then Raffles stood up, again took my hand in his and pausing a few times to speak to some of the younger boys, he led me back out of the dining hall, across the quad, back into the house and back to his study. Once we were inside, he took his coat off again and gently pulled my blazer off for me, putting both on the back of the chair that stood in front of his desk. Then he once again took me into his arms and then onto his lap and held me as another bout of sobbing and crying overtook me.

 

I lost track of time as I tried to do what he'd said earlier and enjoy the last few hours with him rather than think about all the hours, days, weeks, months and years I'd be without him, but it was so difficult to do.  

 

I had no idea how long we'd been back in Raffles's study when there was a knock on the door; I jumped and clutched Raffles's arm. "Just a moment," he called out, taking another handkerchief from his pocket and handing it to me. "Dry your eyes, Bunny," he said. "There's a good boy and go and sit on the sofa." I dried my eyes, blew my nose, got off his lap and sat down in the corner of the sofa, pulling my knees up and trying to make myself invisible. It had begun: the visits from his fellow upper sixth to say goodbye to him. He looked down at me, brushed my hair from my forehead, squeezed my shoulder and called, "Come in."

 

To my surprise the first visitor was Kirkton. Although he opened Raffles's door, he didn't come in, he hesitated in the doorway until Raffles waved him in. I watched them come face to face with one another and wondered what would be said. It was actually Raffles who made the first move, he held out his hand which Kirkton took and he also briefly squeezed Kirkton's shoulder. "Good luck to you, Kirkton," he said.

 

"And to you, A. J., I'll look forward to coming and watching you play sometime."

 

Raffles smiled. "Thank you." He let go of Kirkton's hand.

 

Kirkton didn't immediately go, instead he glanced at me and I pulled my knees up a little further and pushed myself back as far as possible into the corner of the sofa. "I'd like to speak to Manders," he said, looking back at Raffles. "Would you mind?"

 

Raffles glanced at me swiftly, before looking back at Kirkton. "Be my guest Kirkton," he said, moving to sit on the arm of the sofa by me.

 

I looked up at Kirkton and then to my surprise he held his hand out to me. I scrambled to my feet, felt Raffles also stand up and put his hand on my shoulder, and I took Kirkton's hand. "Goodbye, Manders," he said. "And good luck to you for the next three years."

 

"Thank you, Kirkton," I said. "Good luck to you too."

 

He let my hand go, but still he didn't leave. He looked at Raffles, back at me, at the floor and finally looked up again. "Manders."

 

"Yes, Kirkton?"

 

"I wonder if you would do me a favour?" I gave what I hoped was a non-dismissive shrug and waited. "My younger brother, Gregory, will be coming to the school in September. He'll be in this house and I wondered if you'd . . . Well, keep an eye on him, maybe show him around, where the facilities are; that kind of thing. You see, he's not like me. He's . . ." He trailed off and now he looked at Raffles again, then he shrugged and repeated, "Well, he's not like me. It would be reassuring to know someone here would at least . . ."

 

I was taken aback, but I also remembered clearly my first day here and how awful and frightening it had been and whilst I wasn't a sixth former I knew I wouldn't mind. "Not at all, Kirkton, I said. I'll look out for him."

 

Kirkton took my hand again and squeezed it. I felt Raffles's grip on my shoulder tighten fractionally. "Thank you, Manders," he said, his tone one of genuine relief. "I'll tell him to look out for you." He actually smiled at me, before looking once again at Raffles. "A. J.," he said and nodded, before turning and hurrying out of Raffles's study.

 

After Kirkton had departed there was a steady stream of boys coming into Raffles's study, most were his fellow upper sixth boys, but those of the eleven who weren't upper sixths also stopped by to shake his hand, wish him luck and tell him they were looking forward to watching him play for England. Some he just offered a hand to and slapped them on the back or shoulder others he hugged. Without exception every one of them at the very least acknowledged me. Some merely by name; others with a nod; most of them however took the time to say goodbye and to wish me luck; a couple even shook my hand.

 

Whenever he wasn't on his feet saying his goodbyes, Raffles sat on the arm of the sofa next to me and either put his arm around me or his hand on my shoulder; he kept brushing my hair back from my forehead and face, but given its length it just kept falling forward again. I was already certain that when I returned in September it would be much shorter, more the length Father wanted it to be.

 

Raffles's door was standing half open and as a knock came I looked up and saw the boy I'd been waiting for. I knew I couldn't stay for that goodbye. As Charleston came in and Raffles stood up, I scrambled to my feet. "I need to go to the lavatory," I said and hurried towards the door.

 

But as I passed him, Charleston put his hand on my shoulder. "Manders," he said quietly. I stopped and turned around. He held out his other hand and I took it and solemnly shook it, his hand still rested on my shoulder. "Goodbye, Manders," he said. "And good luck to you - try to enjoy the next three years."

 

I swallowed hard around the lump that formed in my throat and tried to fight the tears; suddenly I realised it wasn't just Raffles I'd miss, I'd miss Charleston too. "Thank you, Charleston," I managed, even though my voice was shaky. "And good luck to you too. I know you'll make a brilliant doctor." I sniffed and felt a hand push a handkerchief into the one Charleston wasn't still holding. To my surprise I felt Charleston pull me towards him and give me a quick embrace, before letting me go and turning to Raffles. Holding the handkerchief Raffles had given me I turned and fled from his study, pausing only long enough to pull the door firmly shut behind me.

 

I did go to the lavatory and spent far more time than I usually did washing my hands and even splashed water on my face and then smoothed my hair down and decided unnecessarily to retie my tie and retuck my shirt into my trousers. I killed as much time as I possibly could before I headed slowly back to the sixth form studies. Raffles's study door was as I'd left it, firmly closed. I hovered for no more than a second, before continuing on my way to a small store-room where I sat down on the floor and waited for Raffles to find me.

 

Some ten minutes later I heard a door open, I guessed it was Raffles's, but I stayed where I was. Another couple of minutes went by before he appeared. I looked up at him and noticed his eyes looked slightly red. He didn't say anything, he just held out his hand and I let him pull me to my feet and briefly into his arms, before he took my hand and took me back to his study.

 

Once inside he closed the door and the next moment I was again on his lap and his arms were tightly around me. Tired from forcing myself not to cry whilst boy after boy had come to say goodbye to him, I stopped fighting any longer and let silent tears fall down my cheeks. He wiped them away to begin with, but then gently pushed my head onto his shoulder and rested his on mine. From the way he held me I could feel he was shaking slightly and when I finally lifted my head from his once again wet shirt clad shoulder, I saw his eyes were redder than they had been when he'd fetched me from the store-room.

 

He moved me slightly on his lap, pushing me away from him a little and brushing my hair back from my face yet again. He took one of my hands in his. "Bunny," he said softly, "my train goes in an hour and a half; you know that, don't you?" I nodded and bit my lip. "Smile for me," he said, as he wiped a tear that slipped down my cheek with his fingertip. "Please," he added softly, wiping another tear away. I swallowed hard, called up every bit of pluck I had, silently ordered my tears to stop and I smiled. "Thank you," he murmured and began to lightly stroke my cheek with the finger that had wiped my tears away. I just stared at him, gazing deeply into his eyes, aware that something had changed, that something was going to happen, but I had no idea what.

 

Then still holding my hand he guided me off his knee, stood up, let go of my hand and instead put his arms around me and gathered me towards him, holding me closely against his body. I could feel the pulse in my temple begin to beat faster, my mouth felt dry and my palms damp. He'd embraced me in this way many, many times over the two years, far more times than I could count. And he held me now as he'd always held me, close to him, my body against his, far closer than I thought most boys would hold another boy, too close, I knew many would say. But even though he held me as he always had, even though his embrace was the same, there was something different. And again I knew something was going to happen.

 

He held me for a minute or two longer and then gently pulled back a little and as he'd done earlier he took my face between his hands and tilted it up. His gaze locked with mine and even before his lips met mine I knew what was going to happen. Despite knowing that he was going to kiss me, I still gasped slightly as his mouth covered mine and he began to kiss me and it took me several seconds before I started to kiss him back.

 

It was my first kiss and I couldn't have wanted, couldn't have asked for, a better person to share it with. Raffles was the only boy I'd ever wanted to kiss and although I'd allowed myself to dream about him kissing me and imagine what it would be like, I never thought he would kiss me. Even now as he took his hands from my cheeks and put his arms around me, pulling me nearer to him I wasn't sure quite why he was kissing me. Was it just to cheer me up? Was it an attempt to keep me smiling? Or was it for some other reason? But even as my mind flashed through thoughts, I knew it didn't matter; all that mattered was that he was kissing me.

 

To my annoyance I began to find it hard to stop from pulling away as I desperately needed some air, but I wasn't going to stop, because I didn't know if it would be my only kiss from him. I clung onto him, pushing myself nearer to him, until he finally lifted his head and I was able to breathe. Again he put his hands on my face and gazed down at me. "Bunny," he murmured, moving one hand to brush my hair back. "Oh, Bunny." And then he said, his tone suddenly oddly formal, "May I kiss you again?"

 

I blinked and nodded frantically; of course he may, he could kiss me as many times as he liked and do whatever else he wanted to do to me. He smiled, then gathered me back into an embrace and once more put his mouth on mine, pulling me right against him and I felt something I had never felt in all the times he'd held me tightly. Even though he was still kissing me I felt him start a little and try to pull away from me and hold me away from him, but I went on kissing him and pressing myself nearer to him and finally he gave up and just let things be. Once again it was he who broke the kiss, and as he gazed down at me I saw the blue of his eyes had all but vanished beneath the blackness of his pupils.

 

"Please," I whispered, putting my hand on his cheek. Even as I said the word I wasn't entire sure for what I was asking; was it just another kiss or something more?

 

He took my hand and started to lead me towards the sofa, but I froze as an unwanted image of him and Asherton, an image I'd forced myself to forget, flashed into my mind. I heard myself gasp quietly, so quietly I didn't think he'd have heard me. But he stopped, looked down and me and instead led to the arm chair where he sat down, pulled me onto his lap, wrapped me in his arms and once again his mouth found mine.

 

This time I broke the kiss and I touched his face again. "Raffles," I murmured, asking so much with the word, but still not entirely certain exactly for what I was asking, other than I knew I wanted his mouth back on mine and his arms around me. But I also knew part of me wanted more; I wanted to touch him; I wanted him to touch me. Or did I? What did I want? I really didn't know.

 

He seemed able to not only read my mind, but also to figure out what I couldn't. He shook his head gently, took my hand from his cheek, turned it over and kissed my palm. "No, Bunny," he said softly; his tone held, I'm sure, a hint of regret. "No," he said firmly. "No." And then he kissed me again.


I lost track of how many times we kissed and for how long but suddenly the sound of a knock on the door made us both jump. I pulled away from him and just stared at him eyes wide as he looked at me. Then I tried to scramble off his lap, but he held me firmly in place. "Who is it?" he called.

 

"Eton."

 

"Just a moment," Raffles called. Without any real haste he moved sideways let me slip from his lap onto the chair where I immediately drew my legs up and he moved and sat on the arm of the chair, tucking one leg under him. He put one arm along the back of the chair and rested the other on his lap. "Come in, Eton," he called.

 

Eton came in. He glanced at me in the chair and Raffles sitting on the arm and I saw his eyes widen slightly and he smiled. I lowered my head, I knew my cheeks were flushed, my hair was almost certainly messed up given Raffles's hands had found their way into it on many occasions and I could feel that my tie wasn't straight. "I'm sorry to disturb you, A. J.," Eton said. "I just wanted to come by and say goodbye and thanks for being such a terrific captain and to wish you good luck for the future. I'll look forward to seeing you play for England."

 

I was watching him from beneath my fringe and he was continuing to glance from Raffles to me and back to Raffles. I wondered if Raffles was actually going to stand up and say goodbye, surely he must, it would look awfully odd if he didn't, but maybe he thought it wasn't a good idea. The next second he gave me my answer as he glided to his feet, pushed both hands into his trouser pockets and moved towards Eton; as he reached him he took his right hand from his pocket and held it out for Eton to take. "Thank you, Eton. It was a pleasure having you on the eleven. Good luck to you too." I knew he was smiling as I could hear it in his voice. He held Eton's hand for a moment or two longer, then let go and returned his hand to his pocket.

 

Now Eton looked at me. "Manders," he said and I looked up. "You take care," he said and smiled.

 

"Thank you. You too, Eton," I smiled brightly back at him.

 

He paused for another second, looked at Raffles, smiled again and shook his head in the way that made it clear to me he knew exactly what had been going on before he'd come into Raffles's study. I put my head back down, but I knew Raffles was holding Eton's stare.

 

Raffles walked him to the door opened it for him and closed it again behind him, leaning against it for a moment as he gazed at me. "Well," he said, coming back to the chair and staring down at me.

 

I wondered if that was it; if the interruption had put an end to things and from the look on his face I thought he was about to say something to that effect. But then he shrugged and with an enviable manoeuvre, managed to sit back down and pull me back onto his lap, without me having to stand up. "I don't imagine one more will hurt, will it?" he said, and once more his mouth met mine.

 

One more stretched into half a dozen before he pulled back, took my face between his hands and this time lightly kissed my lips, before sighing and gently pushing my head down onto his shoulder. "Bunny, I have to leave for the station in ten minutes," he said. I swallowed hard. "Are you going to come down with me or do you want to say goodbye here?"

 

I lifted my head from his shoulder and sat forward so I could look into his eyes. 'Neither' was what I wanted to say; I wanted to tell him I didn't want to say goodbye at all. Once again he seemed capable of reading my mind because he sighed, ruffled my hair, kissed me lightly and said softly, "Oh, Bunny, I wish . . ." He trailed off and just gazed at me.

 

"I'll come to the station with you," I said, even though it would mean me sitting around for a good hour waiting for my train after his had gone.

 

He looked at me. "Are you sure, Bunny?" I nodded; I wasn't, but I suddenly knew I couldnít stand in his study and watch him walk away. "Bunny, if you come with me you can't cry."

 

I swallowed. "I won't."

 

He smiled and again brushed my hair back from my face. "Are you certain? Because I cannot leave you on the platform if you're crying."

 

Had I been a little older or of a devious nature, I may have found a way to use his comment to my advantage. But I wasn't older and I was a straight-forward boy, especially where Raffles was concerned. "I'm certain," I said, and this time it was I who put my arms around his neck and kissed him.

 

As inexperienced as I was, I felt something change again in the way Raffles kissed me; it was more like the first kiss he'd bestowed on me and this time when he broke the kiss and ran his finger down my cheek I could see from the look in his eyes that was it. He tugged me even nearer to him, wrapping his arms around me and holding me tightly as he murmured words I couldn't hear and knew he wouldn't want me to ask him to repeat.

 

Then he pushed me back a little, kissed my forehead twice and guided me from his lap whilst still holding my hand. He stood up, brushed my hair back from my forehead again then let go of my hand in order to hand me my blazer and put his coat back on. I took the opportunity to smooth my hair down, straighten my tie and tuck my shirt more neatly into my trousers as I watched him gather his cases and cricket bag together.

 

Watching him gather his things together made me want to cry so I hastened to think of something to say. "Raffles?"

 

He stopped gathering his things together, looked up and smiled. "Yes, Bunny?"

 

"Did you kiss Charleston?"

 

He raised an eyebrow and I began to stammer an apology, but he shook his head to silence my apology and smiled. "Well, strictly speaking Charlie kissed me first, but yes, Bunny, I did." He spoke quietly.

 

"Good." I said, and I meant it.

 

Both eyebrows went up this time. "Bunny?"

 

I glanced down at the floor. "I'm glad you did, that's all. It was right." And then because I had to say it, I asked, "He's in love with you, isn't he?"

 

He was silent for a moment as he stared at me and one of his unfathomable looks crossed his face. Finally he said quietly, "Yes, Bunny, he is. He has been for several years."

 

"And you love him, but not as he loves you and that's why you told me that time in the tower room that time that you wouldn't kiss him, isn't it, because you thought it wouldn't have been fair to him?"

 

He stared at me for a long time in silence, the same unreadable look on his face. Then he nodded. "You are a very perceptive rabbit," he said quietly. "You are quite correct."

 

I nodded and fell silent. He watched me for another moment or two, as if wondering if I was going to say something else, before he gave me a half-smile and returned to gathering his things together.

 

Again I stood and watched him. By now my throat was hurting so much from my attempts not to cry, I seriously thought about telling him I'd changed my mind and I'd say goodbye to him here as I didn't want to break my promise to him not to cry at the station. But I knew if I let him walk away from me in his study I would regret it; thus I called up every inch of courage I knew I had and a lot more I didn't know I had, swallowed hard, blinked furiously several times and even managed to smile as he manoeuvred his belongings so he could carry them in one hand. Quite how he managed it, I don't know; I just knew I was grateful he had as I couldn't have borne walking by his side without his arm around me.

 

He took one final look around the room that had been his for two years that now showed nothing of him as he pictures and other personal belongings were in his case and I saw him swallow hard - this room had been important to him. It had been his home for two years, saying goodbye to it must have been hard. With one last glance at the arm chair where we had spent a lot of time during the two years he'd owned me, he walked to the door, opened it, put his arm where it belonged around my shoulders and together we headed off to the fourth form dorm to collect my case and bag.

 

There were still a couple of fourth formers in the dorm when we went in and they jumped to their feet at the sight of Raffles who just smiled at them and told them to sit back down. I picked up my case and bag, wished the boys a happy holidays and said I'd see them in September, they returned the greeting, managed to say a stuttering goodbye and good luck to Raffles whose reply to them was far more eloquent and then with Raffles's arm once more around my shoulders we left the dorm, the house and walked across the quad and down to the gates.

 

When we reached the gates Raffles paused and turned around to stare back at the buildings he would be seeing for the last time as a school boy. "I'll miss it," he said quietly.

 

"Will you?"

 

"Yes, but not as much as I'll miss you, my dearest Bunny. I've had some good times here, some very good times, but the best ones have been since I met you."

 

I swallowed hard and wished he wouldn't say such things because those were the kinds of things that would make me cry. After a moment of just standing staring at the school, Raffles turned me around and we began to walk towards the station. Halfway there he stopped and put his cases and cricket bag down and shook his arm; it must have been very difficult for him carrying them with one hand. I was about to suggest he used both hands, but he smiled at me and picked them back up again as he'd had them before and put his arm around my shoulders again.

 

His train was already in when we reached the station and again I had a fierce battle with the tears that wanted to fall from my eyes; again I won. I left my case and bag tucked by the wall; I was certain they'd be safe and followed him onto the train and into an empty first class compartment. He stowed his bags away, glanced at his watch, turned to me and gathered me into his arms, pulling me so tightly against him that I struggled to breathe as I gulped back tears.

 

After holding me in silence for a minute he pushed me away just a little, took my face between his hands and kissed me for what I knew instantly would be the final time. It didn't last long, it wasn't much more than his lips pressed lightly against mine, but of all the kisses we'd shared that day it was in many ways the most beautiful as well as the most devastating. Again I had to fight so hard not to cry and when he took his mouth from mine and I looked up at him I watched him swallow hard several time and blink quickly. I willed him not to show any hint of tears because that I knew would be my undoing.

 

He sat down on one of the seats and pulled me towards him and onto his lap. "Bunny," he said softly, "to repeat what Charlie said, do try to enjoy the next three years. Do you promise me you'll try?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, Raffles. I'll try. But I am going to miss you."

 

"I know you are, Bunny. I know you are," he pulled me nearer to him and brushed my hair away from my face. For a moment we just sat in silence; I had no idea what to say and it appeared he didn't either. We heard doors being pushed shut and I knew we'd almost run out of time, but he didn't seem to be in any hurry - I suppose he knew well the timings of the train he'd caught for five years. He took my hand and to my surprise tugged it to his mouth and kissed it. Then he said his tone serious, "I do love you, Bunny." And with that he guided me off his lap for what would be the last time, stood up and pulled me into a loose embrace.

 

I just stared up at him my mouth slightly open. "Raffles," I found myself stammering. I couldn't believe I'd heard what I had heard. "I -" And to my horror I found I couldn't say the words I wanted to say; the words I'd wanted to say since the moment I met him. I knew if I spoke them I would break down and cry.

 

He smiled in his fond way, bent his head to give my forehead a final kiss and said softly, "I know, Bunny. I've always known. Now you have to get off the train."

 

But I threw myself back into his arms for one last fierce embrace before I broke away, squeezed his hand and climbed down onto the platform. He pulled down the window and leant out. "Take good care of yourself, my dearest rabbit," he said in what was a somewhat choked tone.

 

I just nodded. I knew I couldn't speak. I willed the guard to wave his flag and the train to go because as much as I didn't want it to I knew that if it didn't I would break my vow and cry because I knew I couldn't fight the tears for much longer.

 

And then I got both my wish and the thing I dreaded most of all. The train started to move and I began to wave frantically, blinking hard so that I could see him through the mist of tears that were welling up.

 

I stopped them from falling, I have no idea how but I did, until the train was out of the station and I could no longer see him. Then I broke down and began to sob and sob, shaking as tears fell. I didn't care what people might be thinking, I just cried, now certain my heart had broken.

 

I was vaguely aware of starting to walk or stumble towards where I had left my belongings when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped and would have fallen but for an arm taking mine. "Come on, Manders," said a voice I knew nearly as well as I knew Raffles's, "let's go and sit down. I'll get you a cup of tea."

 

I blinked through the tears and looked up "Charleston?" I said my voice shaky and surprised. "What are you doing here?"

 

He put his arm around my shoulders just as Raffles used to do and made me walk along by his side. "Fulfilling my final promise to A. J.," he said quietly.

 

"I don't understand." I sniffed and before I could pull my own handkerchief out he pushed one into my hands - it was one of Raffles's.

 

"Raffles asked me to make sure you got your train safely," he said, as I dried my eyes and blew my nose.

 

I stared at him. "Why?"

 

He stopped walking, turned me around and stared down at me an expression on his face I couldn't recognise. And then rather than answer my question, he put his arm back around my shoulders and began to walk again. "Let's get that cup of tea," he said firmly.

 

We sat at a table where to my surprise I found my case and bag and Charleston fetched two cups of tea. "Thank you," I said, taking the cup and sipping some of the hot, sweet liquid. He sat opposite me and just stared at me intently; I tried not to fidget and tried to relax. I liked Charleston a great deal, I respected and admired him and I was used to talking to him - but I'd rarely been alone with him and I still didn't understand why he was here. "I thought your train went some time ago," I said.

 

Charleston nodded. "It did. But there's also a later one, it goes about half an hour after yours; I'll catch that one. It won't make any difference. It was important to Raffles that you caught your train safely and I'm happy to make sure you do."

 

"How did you know I'd be here?"

 

He smiled. "We sorted it out in his study after you," he paused and glanced away from me. "Thank you for that, Manders," he said quietly. Now I did fidget and I had no idea what to say. Thankfully, Charleston spoke again. "We agreed that if you decided to stay behind when he went, he'd knock on my study door. But if you went with him he wouldn't. I knew the time of A. J.'s train, so it was simple to work out what time he had to leave the school, thus when he didn't knock, I knew to come down here."

 

"Oh," I said - it all sounded very complicated to me. "But why?" I asked. "What did he think I might do?"

 

Again he looked at me in silence; again I couldn't read his look. Then he said quietly, "He saw it as his final act of looking after you, Manders," Charleston said, sipping his own tea. "Do you mind? I can go if you -"

 

"No!" And I caught his arm. "Sorry," I said swiftly, letting go. "It's just -" I swallowed hard again and tried to blink away the tears, but they pushed their way over my lids and slipped down my face. "I'm going to miss him so much," I managed, desperately wiping my eyes.

 

He put his hand over mine and squeezed it. "I know you are, Manders. I know you are."

 

"I won't hear from him, will I?" I asked the question I knew I could never have asked Raffles.

 

He sighed and glanced away from me for a moment. Then he looked back at me. "No, Harry," he said, using my Christian name for the first time ever. "I don't think you will. You see, you've rather upset A. J.'s ordered world."

 

I stared at him. "I upset him?" I whispered. "How?"

 

He squeezed my hand again and hastened to reply. "No, I don't mean you upset him. It's just that Raffles had his life set out in front of him. He knew what he was and what he was going to do and then - and then you came along and somehow managed to . . . You don't know, do you?" he said quietly, surprise evident in his tone.

 

"I don't know what?"

 

"Oh, Manders, I thought - But you didn't. Harry, A. J.'s in love with you; he has been for some time."

 

"What?" I exclaimed then lowered my voice as several heads turned in our direction. "No, he's not. Charleston, I'm fourteen -"

 

"And a young fourteen at that, yes, I do know that. But I know A. J. too; I know him better even than you do. That's what I meant by you upsetting his world. So, no, you won't hear from him; I think it would hurt him too much as well as the fact he wouldn't want to upset you." He looked at me and then said softly, "I'm not sure you really understand, do you?"

 

I shook my head. "No," I said simply. "But thank you."

 

He smiled his rather distracted smile and then pulled something from his pocket. "Raffles asked me to give you this," he held out a simply wrapped rectangular parcel.

 

I took it carefully. "Thank you." I hesitated for a moment and then pulled the paper off. It was a book of Keats poetry. I swallowed hard around the lump in my throat. The lump got even larger as I opened the book and saw what he'd written inside. The tears filled my eyes and once more began to fall down my cheeks.

 

Charleston sighed softly and put his hand on my arm. "Don't cry, Harry. Raffles wouldn't want you to cry over him."

 

I sniffed and again blew my nose and wiped my eyes. "I know," I said simply. "It's just . . ."

 

"I know." Charleston said, and I know he did; he knew only too well. "Look. I'm not Raffles, but if you ever want to write to me, here's my address at Oxford." He handed over a piece of paper.

 

I took it. "Thank you," I said, putting it carefully into my pocket.

 

"And I don't think you'll have any problems in the next year, but if you do, if anyone does try to hurt you or anything, go and see Fletcher, he'll make sure no one tries more than once."

 

I stared at him; for a moment I didn't know what to say. Then I fell back on the one thing I knew well, my manners. "Thank you, Charleston," I said. And then I blurted out, "I'm going to miss you as well as Raffles." I felt my cheeks begin to grow warm and looked down at my empty cup.

 

Again I felt Charleston's hand on my arm. "Look at me, Harry," he said quietly. I obeyed him. "As strange as it may sound, I'm going to miss you too. And I meant it, do write to me - if you want to, don't feel you have to."

 

"I will. I'd like to."

 

Charleston fetched two more cups of tea and we sat in silence until I heard my train pulling in. To my surprise Charleston picked up my bag and case in one hand, put the other on my shoulder and walked with me towards the train. "Have you got your ticket?" he asked. I nodded and showed him. "Good boy," he said, climbing onto to train with me.

 

We found a compartment and Charleston put my bags in the luggage rack before turning to look at me. He held out his hand and I took it. "Well, goodbye again, Manders," he said. "You take care of yourself and don't forget what I told you about trying to enjoy the next three years. I won't say forget Raffles because I know you won't. But try not to spend your entire time thinking about him."

 

I swallowed hard as I felt tears prickle my eyes. "I'll try," I managed, looking away from him as I didn't want him to see me crying again. But he must have seen something, because he put his arm around me and pulled me into a half-embrace. "Don't cry, Harry," he said his tone soft. "Come on, dry your eyes." I forced myself to stop crying, pulled out the handkerchief Raffles had given to him to give to me and wiped my eyes. Then I looked up at him and gave a half-smile. To my surprise he did what Raffles had done so often throughout the two years and brushed my fringe back from my forehead; then he pulled a bar of chocolate from his pocket and gave it to me. "And this," he said, taking his arm from around me and pushing me towards a seat, "is from me. Enjoy it."

 

"Thank you, Charleston," I said.

 

He nodded, pushed his hands into his pockets and headed towards the door of the compartment. Once there he turned and smiled at me before he left. I hurried to the window just as the train started and saw him standing on the platform; he lifted his hand and waved and I waved back and went on waving until I couldn't see him any longer.

 

 

I cried every day for the first fortnight after I returned home and merely picked at my food. To my surprise neither Mother nor Father said anything and it was their silence that made me force myself to make a conscious effort not to cry and to eat properly. Or at least I didn't let them see me crying. I went on crying in the privacy of my bedroom at nights for at least another fortnight. I slept with the book he'd given me under my pillow and one of his handkerchiefs in my hand, holding onto it as if it was my lifeline to survival.

 

About a week before term was due to start again I announced I wanted a haircut and to Mother's disappointment and Father's clear approval I let it be cut far shorter than I had ever had it before and I kept it that length for the remainder of my time at school.

 

I won't say I hated my final three years, because I didn't. I won't say I was unhappy because I wasn't. They were good years and I did what I promised both Raffles and Charleston I would do - I enjoyed them. That doesn't mean a day went by when I didn't miss Raffles or wish I could turn back time and be thirteen again. I thought of him as soon as I woke up in the mornings and just before I fell asleep at night and it hurt, but the pain did get less over the years.

 

Ollie and I grew closer and like most school boys engaged in some kissing and touching - always through clothing - and we shared a bed on more than one occasions. However, as much as I enjoyed kissing Ollie, and I did, it was nothing like the kisses I'd shared with Raffles - but then I'd known from the moment he'd kissed me that he'd spoilt me for anyone else.

 

I kept my promise to Kirkton and kept an eye out for his younger brother; I showed him around, told him what was important and let him know he could always come to me if he had any problems. Thankfully he was assigned to an older boy who was kind and who looked after him. I didn't need to bother Fletcher, because no one bothered me. No one made crude suggestions or touched me in a way I didn't want them to. The work got harder but somewhat surprisingly my grades got better. I never lost my love of literature and before I left the school I was the editor of the school mag.

 

With Raffles's departure it seemed that a pall had fallen over the entire school. He had been the jewel of the entire school; loved, worshipped, respected, looked up to, idolised by more than just me; his leaving had left an emptiness that was never filled - at least not in my time. Cricket was of course still played; the school had an eleven and we followed their matches and cheered them on, but it wasn't the same. Even the few boys who had been on the eleven with Raffles or on our house team didnít show as much interest as they'd done when A. J. Raffles had been in charge. Beloved of so many, he had touched more boys than I think he could have realised and without him the school just wasn't the same.

 

Charleston and I exchanged letters from time to time; he was doing very well in his studies and I knew he'd make a first class doctor. He mentioned Raffles now and again, letting me know he was doing well at Cambridge and was, of course, on the eleven there. I never heard from Raffles not directly nor indirectly and I wondered more than once if he'd forgotten about me. I imagined he would have, despite him telling me he loved me and despite Charleston telling me he was in love with me. After all, why would he remember a small, innocent, naÔve boy who was in many ways younger than his age, who cried a fair bit, who needed looking after and comforting - especially when that said boy couldn't play cricket?

 

On my final day I stood with Ollie in the place I'd stood with Raffles three years earlier looking back at the place that had the greatest impact on my life. I'd miss it, I knew that, I'd miss Ollie and my other friends, but not as much as I still to that very day missed Raffles.


 

EPILOGUE

 

The scent of cigarette smoke drifted into my nostrils and I opened my eyes and sat upright. I blinked several times and then rubbed my eyes and stared across the room to see Raffles, dressed in pyjamas and his dressing gown, sitting on the sofa, a glass of whisky on the table next to him, a cigarette in one hand and my manuscript in the other.

 

Before I could speak he looked up and smiled his lazy, loving smile. "Hello, Bunny."

 

"Hello, Raffles. How long have you been home?"

 

"Long enough," he said, putting down the manuscript, standing up and holding out his hands to me.

 

I didn't hesitate and the next moment I was in his arms and his mouth was on mine. I never tired of being kissed by him, or of his mouth meeting mine, or of his hands moving over my body, caressing me, stroking me, loving me. His mouth parted beneath mine and I felt his tongue on my bottom lip, gently licking it, asking for entrance to my mouth, as his hands pulled me nearer to him.

 

Through the relatively thin covering of his dressing gown and pyjamas, I felt his body begin to harden and I expected him to either push me down onto the sofa or take me into our bedroom. However, after deepening the kiss, he gentled it and finally took his mouth from mine and held me away from his body, gazing at me with great affection.

 

He then sat back down on the sofa and pulled me down beside him, grabbing the manuscript before I could sit on it. "This, my dearest Bunny," he said, handing me his glass of whisky and lighting a Sullivan for me, "is very good."

 

I took a deep swallow of the fine whisky and handed the glass back, exchanging it for the Sullivan he passed to me. I felt my cheeks begin to warm and I glanced away from his steady gaze. However, he caught my chin and gently turned my face back and forced me to look at him. His gaze was steady and told me quite clearly he spoke the truth. "Thank you, Raffles," I murmured.

 

He slipped a hand into my hair and let his fingers caress my scalp. "Although I believe you do yourself an injustice, my dear Bunny." I shrugged and my cheeks warmed even more as I again tried to look away from his steady, loving stare, but again he didn't let me. "No," he said softly, "you weren't the rabbit you make yourself out to be."

 

"I was, Raffles," I said and meant it. "Yes, I helped you out a time or two, but it was you who protected and took care of me."

 

He shook his head and smiled in his fond way. "I believe 'a time or two' is a great understatement. Indeed, I know it is. There was more than one occasion, Bunny, when I don't know what I would have done without you."

 

Again I tried to glance away; again he didn't let me. Instead I found myself manoeuvred and the next moment not to my great surprise, I found myself on his lap, my head on his shoulder as he put his arms around me. "Yes," he said, his lips on my ear, "it is very good indeed and very honest. I confess I had often wondered if you and Urquhart would become closer than you were, shall we say."

 

I stared at him. "Did you?"

 

He nodded. "Yes. I had no doubts you would you and at least one other boy would share kisses and I suspected you would, like all public school boys do, take things somewhat further than merely kissing. And I did hope it would be Urquhart with whom you would experiment as he was a nice boy."

 

I nodded. "He was," I said. "I liked him a lot. But -"

 

"I spoilt you for anyone else? Did you mean that, Bunny?"

 

I nodded. "Yes, Raffles. It was only ever you. It could only ever be you." I was certain he didn't mean to show quite how pleased my confession made him. "And it will only ever be you," I added softly.

 

He smiled and kissed me again. "As good as your tales are, Bunny, I must tell you that there are one or two errors in them."

 

I sat up, taking care not to bang his chin, frowned slightly and looked at him. "How so?"

 

He was silent for a long moment before taking my face between his hands and pulling my head towards him so he could kiss me. "Firstly, I didn't forget you - how could I forget you? Bunny, I meant it when I told you I loved you. You don't just forget someone whom you love. And Charlie was quite correct in what he told you; somehow I had fallen in love with you. Although I confess I was somewhat surprised to discover he had told you. I did think about writing to you, but again Charlie was correct in what he said. But rest assured, my rabbit, I never forget you. And I confess to a feeling of pride when I saw you were the editor of the school mag."

 

I swallowed hard and gazed at him. "Raffles?" I whispered softly and I felt my cheeks flush a little. I couldn't find the words I wanted to find to reply to what he'd said, so instead I just put my lips on his and kissed him lightly. "Oh, Raffles," I said when I took my mouth from his and I put my hand on his cheek.

 

He smiled at me. "And secondly, my dear Bunny, I didn't stop seeing you as my brother when I kissed you."

 

"You didn't?" I was very surprised by his confession.

 

He shook his head and I saw a flash of pain pass through the brilliant blue eyes, but then it had gone and he looked quite content. "No. I stopped seeing you as -" He paused and I wondered for a moment if he was going to speak the name we never linked with ours. I wasn't surprised when he didn't. "My brother quite some time before that."

 

I stared at him, eyes wide. "You did?"

 

"Mmm, I believe it was after the first Easter hols."

 

"Raffles?" I whispered his name.

 

His smile increased. "Yes, Bunny, as early as that."

 

"But then why didn't you," I paused and swallowed; he continued to gaze at me. "Why didn't you kiss me before the last day?"

 

He sighed softly and put his arms around me again and said softly his tone quite serious, "Because, Bunny, I was not altogether certain I would be able to stop at a mere kiss and I would not allow myself to do anything else to you - no matter how much you thought you wanted me to, and no matter how many people thought I was."

 

I stared at him as only now after all those years I realised what his unfathomable and strange looks must have meant. I didn't know what to say; what did someone say to something like that? And then something hit me. "But that was before Dobson accused you of doing things to me and also before I caught you and Asherton kissing."

 

He nodded. "Yes, my dearest Bunny, it was indeed."

 

"But . . . But . . . But . . . Raffles, what would you have done if I'd said 'yes' rather than 'I don't know' after you asked me if I wanted you to kiss me?"

 

He gave a rueful smile. "That, my rabbit, is a question I have never been able to answer. And I have considered it more than once over the years. All I know is I have rarely been more grateful than when you said you didn't know. Had you said 'yes' . . ." He trailed off, pulled my head towards him and kissed me.

 

We kissed for several moments before breaking apart; I put my head back down his shoulder. "Did you ever come close to kissing me? You know before you did?"

 

He gave a gentle chuckle. "Oh, yes, Bunny, many times. And once I came extremely close to breaking my own promise and taking you to my bed. In fact I'm still not entirely certain how I managed not to."

 

"When was that?"

 

"Can you not guess?"

 

I thought for a moment and then sat up again. "After you got attacked by the dog? The day in your study when I . . ."

 

He nodded. "Yes," he spoke softly. "Oh, Bunny, I believe the only thing that stopped me was just how much I loved you. Had I not loved you quite as much I truly believe I would have -" He stopped abruptly. "But I did love you enough." I just stared in silence at him. As he rendered me speechless, I suddenly felt as if the years had fallen away and I was back to the early days of my time at the school, if not my very first day. He seemed, just as he'd done so many times at school and since, to read my mind as he kissed me lightly. "And as we are being honest," he said, when he took his mouth from mine, "I did kiss you before that final day."

 

I blinked and raised an eyebrow. "You did?"

 

"Mmm, more than once - but you were always asleep. It was after you," he paused, took my hand and squeezed it tightly. "After you nearly died. I kissed you more than once whilst you were in the hospital, when Matron left the room, and also when you were in the San and on your first day back at school when you fell asleep at the table and I took you to my study and a few times after that when you were still recovering and you used to come to my study and fall asleep. But," he said, cupping my cheek, "I was never entirely certain quite what kind of kisses they were." I stared at him in silence, reading quite clearly what he meant and I swallowed hard.

 

We sat in silence for a moment or two both lost in thought and memories of our school days. It was he who broke the silence and when he spoke again, his voice was quite different. "However," he said, reaching for my manuscript and dropping it onto the table before manoeuvring me off his lap back onto the sofa where he pushed me back until I was lying gazing up at him. "I am quite certain what kind of kiss this is." And he lowered himself down next to me, pulled me into a fierce embrace and put his mouth onto mine as his hands began to wander at will over my body, and I arched my back and pressed my lower body against his as I felt his hardness echo my own.

 


 

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