Conor was bored out of his mind.
It wasn't new. Being bored out of his mind seemed to be more or less a constant thing these days, as his leaving exams got closer and closer and the studying seemed to take over more of his life. Class. Practice exams. Home. Study. If he was lucky he could fit dinner in there somewhere, but half the time it was just his mother shoving a plate across his textbook so he'd remember about food.
He rested his face on the page, using his free hand to fold the other page up so he could read it, shoved half a sandwich in his mouth and tried not to fall asleep. He'd used his textbooks as pillows more than his actual pillow in the last few weeks.
It was still light out, but it was getting late, the late-spring sun hanging around for longer every night. His parents were downstairs eating dinner. A mug of hot chocolate had gone cold on his desk over an hour ago, and he was trying to figure out if he could somehow absorb facts just by highlighting them.
He heard a slow, puttering roar go past outside. It was loud, for this time of night, and he allowed it to distract him for a moment. His knees ached when he stood up, and he stretched stiffly as he wandered across to the window to look.
It was a motorcycle. A low silver and black Kawasaki, compact and sleek. The rider was dressed entirely in black leather, the head bowed over the handlebars hidden by a black helmet with a mirrored visor over the face. He watched it swing into the driveway of the cottage opposite theirs and park near a tree.
The cottage had been unoccupied for a while. It was quite small, for the area, with much less land than the other properties on the street. It was technically on their property, had been for over ninety years, since his great-grandfather had owned all the fields in the area, and had been a lodging for farmhands, but over time the area around them had closed in a bit, pieces been sold off, and now it was just the house, the field behind them, and the cottage across the street that remained of the Flynn property, which they let out sometimes to lodgers when someone took it upon themselves to move to a tiny village in the sticks, usually because they'd been aiming at Easky, gotten lost, and ended up in Bailesidhe by mistake. Nobody ever stayed long.
The cottage had not much land of its own but a small backyard fenced in with uneven pickets, more a large shed than anything. It was graffitied and had windows smashed on a regular basis, and the plumbing had been getting steadily worse over the last few years. His dad was talking about selling it, but his mam was stubborn, kept saying if they got rid of that too there'd be barely anything left.
They'd talked about bulldozing it, using the lot for something else, but they'd gotten out of the proper farming life when his dad had been a kid, so there wasn't much to use it for. His mam had a vegetable patch and a chicken coop, but he didn't see her going mad and putting in an orchard. She popped over to dust the place occasionally, or sent him over, but there was no-one there to dirty it and they'd mostly lost interest in doing that too.
He thought maybe the rider had made a wrong turn, was just stopping to check a map or something, but then the roar of the bike died down, choked to a stop, and the occupant climbed off, unclipped his helmet, and went to peer in the front window.
It was a boy not much older than himself. It was hard to see from a distance, but he was short, slim, with sandy hair that was shaggy and curling in his neck, a little silver in the late-afternoon sun. He looked around himself, then wandered around the side to peer in the window there too. He backed away, wandered around the rear of the cottage, and disappeared.
“You alright, lad?”
He looked up. His dad was in the doorway; he'd been too absorbed to notice him come in. There was a mug of hot chocolate in his hand, probably sent up by his mother. Conor shrugged, and looked back out the window again.
“Someone's at the cottage.”
His dad put the mug down on the desk and leaned on the windowsill too. As they watched, the boy reappeared on the other side of the cottage, eyes shielded against the setting sun.
“Doesn't look like he's there to smash the windows,” his dad joked. “Doing a terrible job of being sneaky if he is.” His hand clapped onto Conor's shoulder. “I'll go see what he's up to. That's from your mother.” He gestured at the steaming mug on the desk, then left, his footsteps trotting back downstairs.
Conor went back to his desk now that the intrigue had exhausted itself. He let the textbook drag him back in, feeling less like he was being absorbed and more like he was being weighted down.
He needed this, though. Needed good grades so he could get himself out of his small town and go to a city. Somewhere no one knew him. Somewhere he could be himself. It wasn't that he was ashamed, far from it, but this wasn't exactly the place to be out and proud. His parents knew, were supportive enough and concerned for his well-being. His mother kept buying him embarrassing books with way too many pictures, but he appreciated the thought. He'd never minded being gay, it just wasn't something he took out in public.
He thought maybe he'd say something soon, but without having someone to come out with it seemed a bit pointless. It was just a thing he felt, not a thing that he was doing, and without purpose why bring that sort of drama upon himself?
So he kept his head down, tried to study, and counted down the days until he could get himself into college, meet a nice boy, meet a few bad ones, probably, which sounded like a lot of fun as well, in a way that was far more tangible than wanking off over football magazines or trying to erase the search history after he crept down to the computer in the study, late at night when he was feeling reckless.
There were footsteps on his stairs. His mother's voice.
He stood, glad for the distraction, and ran fingers through hair that never seemed to do what it was told. He was an okay looking lad, he supposed. Short dark hair, dark eyes, the child of two painfully normal looking people, though everyone who remembered said he looked a bit like his great grand-da. Tallish, but not so much that he didn't blend in, though his mam always said he needed to stop slouching. His legs were a bit cramped when he stumbled towards the stairs, pins and needles that rushed in after unfolding from so long behind a desk.
“This is our eldest, Conor.”
“Hey.” He was still wearing the leather jacket and a pair of pale blue jeans. Conor almost couldn't figure out what to say. The guy was cute. Blue eyes, which Conor hadn't been able to see from a distance, sparkling slightly over that welcoming smirk he'd detected. A hand reached out for his. “Harry Monaghan.”
A warm palm pressed into his; fingers a firm squeeze in his grip.
Conor's tongue felt dry. His hand was let go, and he felt the caress tingle on his palm. He swallowed.
“Harry's looking at renting out the cottage.”
“Oh... cool.” He didn't know what to say to that. Got a smile, though.
“Hey. Sorry to intrude on dinner.” Harry's voice was sweet, slightly hoarse. “It's just I'm still looking for a proper place in the area and someone in town said you might have something temporary.”
“It's alright. Come in...” His father motioned to him, leading him through into the kitchen. Conor followed, not able to help himself. It was a good view. “How long you looking at staying?”
“Not long. I'm not looking for anything fancy, honestly, maybe for a few months until I can find a flat closer to town.”
His father nodded, began to talk about the price. Conor was just trying to figure out if he looked dreadful or not. Still wearing his school trousers with a cleanish t-shirt. He was probably okay. He could feel a pimple coming up beside his nose and was hoping it wasn't visible, that Harry wouldn't see it.
Harry had gorgeous eyes.
“It's a fixer-upper,” his dad was saying. “Suppose I could shave a bit off the rent if you didn't mind pitching in a bit. I'm looking at doing some repainting and a bit of work here and there.” Conor hadn't heard anything of the sort, but he could see his dad's mind ticking. Rent and an extra set of hands to get the place fixed up. It was a win-win, certainly. His dad was always doing little projects and things, but the house was too big a job to sort out without hiring a crew, and it wasn't really worth the money.
“Don't know that I'm much good at that.” Harry smiled. He had a nice smile, a bit awkward but very cute. Conor's own tended to be all teeth, most of the time. He hated looking at himself in photos. The other boy ran his fingers through his hair, laughing a little bashfully. “I can probably swing a hammer without hitting my thumb nine times out of ten, but...” Conor's mother put down a mug in front of him. “Thank you.”
“No bother, love.” His mam liked him already. Connor could tell. She was looking meaningfully at Conor's dad over the table, glancing down at Harry, then back up again, nodding.
“Ah, we'll get you up to scratch,” his dad chuckled. “First and last week's the deposit, power and water included. If we give it a tidy up this week I can put you in there on... Friday? How's that sound?”
“It sounds brilliant.” Harry glanced at Conor. He realised he hadn't spoken since they'd been introduced. “I'm in a motel in town, so."
“Ah, well give us your number and we'll call if we can get ye in early. Save you some money,” his mother offered. Conor knew she'd be over there scrubbing first thing the next morning, that Conor would probably conveniently be helping once he got home from school. “You're awfully young to be doing all this by yourself.” Conor's mother had that fussy look on her face she got when someone had a scrape on their knee.
“That's what they tell me. I'll be twenty in November.”
“Nineteen? You're barely older than our Conor. He's to turn eighteen in a few months.” His father's hand fell on his shoulder, squeezing. “What you doing out here all by yourself, then?”
“Dunno, to be honest.” Harry scratched his hair, then smoothed it back out with his palm. “Needed a change from Dublin, so I just got on my bike and started riding, then it broke down so I ended up stopping in the motel here for a few days. By the time I got it fixed I figured this place seemed as good as any. My grandfather left quite a bit of money, so I can manage until I find a job.” He let out a soft chuckle. Conor's mother's eyes lit up. “It's quiet. I could use a bit of quiet.”
“Couldn't we all.” Conor got a meaningful look from his mother, rolled his eyes in response. Harry smirked.
“I'll get out of your hair. I'm sure you want to finish dinner...” He reached out, shaking hands again. “Cheers, Jack. Anne.” He nodded. “Conor. Nice meeting you. And thanks.”
He was gone a moment later.
Conor went back to his room to study, grabbing another hot chocolate on the way to replace the cold one on his desk. He stared at his books, trying to focus. Trying to think about something other than...
Harry, was it?
Well, his football magazines had gotten a lot less interesting.
“Where you been?” Conor yawned. He was leant against a tree out on the grass, textbooks stacked up around his feet. He'd been waiting for more than half an hour, getting less and less interested in wasting his time when he was supposed to be studying.
“Sorry, detention.” Ryan dumped his bag onto the ground. It sounded almost as heavy as Conor's felt. “Fucking Bennett busted me talking in class again. Bastard.”
“You could stop talking in class?”
“Amanda Garry was telling me her parents won't be home this weekend.” Ryan winked. “I was all ears, to be honest.”
“Priorities,” Conor laughed. Ryan smirked, digging in his bag. “Right. Maths.”
“I hate maths.” Ryan flopped backwards onto the grass. “It's shit.”
“It's boring.” Ryan opened the text, holding it above his head. “What are we doing?”
“Quadratic functions.” Conor didn't know why he bothered trying to study with Ryan. They'd been friends for ages, yeah, but that was half the problem. They'd end up getting distracted, having a laugh, and suddenly two hours had passed and all they'd managed to learn was how many times Ryan could bounce a plastic bottle on his knee. He flopped down beside his friend, sure it was a bad idea to be getting caught in his web, and peered up at the open pages. “Page seventy-five.”
“Right...” Ryan began to flick through. “There we go. Cram some knowledge in my head.”
“Okay...” Conor sat up to grab a notebook and pen. “If a does not equal zero, then...”
“Are you hungry? I'm hungry,” Ryan interrupted. “You wanna go get food?”
“We're supposed to be studying.”
“I can't concentrate. I haven't eaten,” Ryan argued. “Let's go to Fries or something. Sean's back in town for the weekend, said he'd be there this afternoon.”
Conor sighed. It'd be good to see Sean, he supposed. They'd hardly seen him since he'd gone down to Galway for university, he was always in classes or studying. They still kept in touch but it was harder to make time to see him when he was always away and they'd been so used to hanging out during lunch or mucking around near the creek behind Conor's parents' property on weekends. He was only here every other weekend now, and half the time he was helping out in his parents' chipper.
“We have to study once we get there.” Conor glared, as though it would make any difference. Ryan was already standing up, shoving all his stuff back in his bag. Conor stood too.
He wasn't sure when he'd developed this inconvenient crush on Ryan. It wasn't that he was madly in love with him or anything, or pining, or doing anything stupid and girly like that. It was just that Ryan was reasonably attractive, a good laugh, and Conor sort of wanted to snog him. He'd seen him naked, too, which really hadn't helped things, though the point that helped the least was the fact that Ryan was painfully, untouchably straight. It was idiotic, but Conor let himself do stupid things for Ryan. For Ryan's friendship, as well, but he did wonder whether he'd be home studying properly instead of wasting time like this if he didn't sort of want to stare at Ryan's arse for a bit longer.
It was a good arse. He wasn't sure if he had a type, really. It was hard to tell, considering the limited options available. Still, as far as experience went apparently he quite liked a cute smile and gorgeous blue eyes.
He had considered mentioning something to Ryan in the past about his sexuality. He supposed they were best friends to a certain degree, as far as neither of them had any better friends, but he couldn't say he trusted Ryan quite that far. He was a good mate, yeah, but his parents went to church every Sunday, same as everyone else.
By the time they got to the chipper and organised food there wasn't much point even trying to study, though from the smirk he got Conor suspected that had probably been the idea. They drank milkshakes, had some chips that Sean grudgingly snuck their way, and by the time they had a bit of a chat it was time to go home. Ryan gave him a lift, the ancient Ford puttering along towards his house.
“Ooh, there's someone moved into Chernobyl.” Ryan pointed. Harry was stood out the front, carrying a hammer. Conor's dad was nowhere to be seen, but he could see a toolbox spread out across the driveway and a couple of sawhorses. Obviously the project was under way already. His dad had probably leapt at it the moment Harry had called.
“Yeah. New guy, a few days ago.” Conor nodded, not wanting to say too much when he was trying not to focus on the fact that Harry had stripped down to a white vest and baggy denim shorts, his hair slicked back with sweat. Ryan didn't seem that interested anyway, and Conor was let out of the car a moment later.
“Hey.” Harry was leaned against the side of the house when Conor very casually wandered over. “What's up?”
“Just having a look.” Half the peeling paint had been sandblasted off. Conor and his mother had spent three days cleaning it, though it hadn't helped much. The place really was falling apart. “On my way home, thought I'd say hi to dad.”
“Fine. It's school.” Hair was starting to flop into Harry's eyes and he raked it back, blue eyes smiling.
“Your dad said you were doing Leaving Cert. You sick of it yet?”
“God, yes.” He wondered what else his dad had said. Harry chuckled. “I just want it to be done so I can get the hell out of here.”
“You don't like Bailesidhe?” Harry asked. “Have I made a mistake?”
“No, I love Bailesidhe, it's just...” Conor sighed. “I don't know. I've been here my whole life, you know? I've never even been to Dublin.”
“It's not that great.” Harry grimaced. “Not a huge loss.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Conor looked up at the house. It was probably easier for Harry, he'd actually been places to be blasé about. All Conor knew was sheep and cows and feeding his mother's chickens, kids who seemed to think a good time was a joyride on an unattended tractor. “How's it all going?”
“Not bad.” There was that smile again. Jesus. “Your dad's really good at this stuff. I've got no idea. I just nod and hold the other end.”
“I think he's a bit excited, to be honest,” Conor laughed. “He's been wanting to get stuck into Chernobyl for years. He's always complaining about how shit it looks.”
“Oh... erm.” He felt himself go pink. “Yeah. Because nobody wants to go there? The last person there left really fast, so... I dunno. We used to dare each other to go inside when we were kids. It's either cursed or it's radioactive.”
“Does that mean I'll get to be a superhero?”
“Maybe,” he snorted. “What kind of superhero?”
“Not sure. Maybe I already am one, and this is my secret identity.”
“I always wanted to fly.”
“Too obvious.” Harry winked. “Invisibility. Or that thing, you know. Where you turn into an animal or whatever.”
“I don't think werewolves count as superheroes.”
“Maybe not. Still, I could use some claws.” He picked up a hammer. “This'll do, though. I should get back to it.”
Conor knew he should probably be headed back to his own house as well. He'd achieved next to nothing that day, and really needed to get a start on studying, had chores to do before he did his homework. His dad was rounding the corner now, would probably want to know what he was doing here, but it was hard to leave when there was a really gorgeous guy standing in front of him in an almost see-through white vest. Conor grabbed a screwdriver off the ground, trying to look useful. It didn't work.
“Conor, why are you mucking about?”
“My fault, Jack,” Harry explained. “Started chatting.”
“Well, if Conor's staying he can go get us coffee.” Conor groaned, crossing his arms. “Black and two. Thanks. Harry, you want one?”
“Sounds grand, thanks.” Harry gave him an apologetic wink. “Tea please. White with one.”
“I have studying to do...”
“Then why are standing around here?” His dad raised an eyebrow. “We've got the water turned off while I do the pipes in the kitchen, so we've not had a cuppa in hours. Off you go.”
He ran back to the house, got the kettle on, then dashed back over with the drinks and a packet of biscuits his mam had sent. He fed the chickens, got his school uniforms in the wash, then slumped up to his bedroom to study. He could hear banging and hammering through the window, and once or twice heard a loud, hoarse laugh that shivered up his spine. His dad came home just after dark, they had dinner, and Conor went back upstairs to work on an assignment.
When he looked out the window there was just a light upstairs, a silhouette against the curtain. As Conor watched, Harry crossed his arms, tugging his top off over his head, hands fumbling at his belt. Conor couldn't see much of anything specific, but he still watched Harry stretch, gripping his elbows above his head, torso pulled taut. Then he moved out of view, the light clicking off again a minute later.
Saturday dawned overcast and drizzling with pathetic rain. Conor tried to get up, really he did, but it was gloomy and cold and his bed was just too warm. He climbed out just before lunch, feet unsteady as he made his way down the stairs.
“Ehm... hi.” Conor swallowed, realising with a blush that there was a cute boy in his living room while he stood at the bottom of the stairs in his boxer shorts and a baggy t-shirt with holes in it. His knees felt very exposed all of a sudden. “Sorry. Didn't realise...”
“It's cool. Your dad asked if I wanted morning tea before we got started.” Harry was reading the sports page, was wearing the same pair of denim shorts, though they were splattered with dry paint now. He looked carefree and sweet, his hair clean and curling a bit at the end. “He's grabbing some tools and stuff. You want to come? We're going to buy paint.”
“That sounds fascinating,” Conor joked, trying to figure out how best to hide himself without making it too obvious. “I'll um... go shower.”
Harry was funny. Conor hadn't expected that at all. He was cute, yeah, and friendly, but before long Conor found himself laughing hard, sat in the backseat while Harry kept pointing out things they were passing, telling stupid jokes and making the kinds of terrible puns that shouldn't have been allowed by anyone under fifty. He was unapologetic about it, too, was talking a mile a minute about everything, asking questions. And he was inclusive, kept involving Conor in the conversation even though he felt a bit like a little kid, sat in the backseat while the grown-ups talked.
His dad wandered off at the hardware store to talk to some of the lads from his work, and Conor and Harry ended up in the paint aisle, looking at colour samples.
“So... what's Dublin like?” Conor asked. Harry looked away from the two yellow swatches he was holding up, smiling.
“I don't know. It's okay.” He looked back at the samples. “Do I want butter yellow or corn yellow for the kitchen?”
“I don't know. What's the difference?”
“Not a clue,” Harry admitted, putting them both back. “Dublin is... it's crowded. Noisy. You're always walking distance to somewhere, you know? Like there's lots of shops and clothes and stuff, and there's always a gig on if you know where to look.”
“It is.” Harry nodded. “I had a job at a fancy menswear place for a little while, just selling shirts and that. You'd meet loads of people, and there was always somewhere to go for a drink with your mates.”
“Not much in the way of fancy clothes here,” Conor laughed. “Half my gear showed up in a garbage bag when my cousin Killian moved away.” His mam had gone mad with the sewing machine trying to make the best of it.
“Ah, you look fine.” Harry nudged him. “Jeans. T-shirt. Simple.” He glanced at Conor. “I just have to figure out what to do for fun around here. Don't suppose you know the best place for a pint.”
“A lot of people go to the community centre. They have under-eighteens things there sometimes.” He pursed his lips. “You could go to the pub, I guess, but it's mostly old men moaning about their wives.”
“Can't join in that one,” Harry joked. “I'll have to make one up.”
“No.” Harry shook his head, picking up two almost identical blue swatches. “Not for a long time.” He glanced at Conor. “My fake wife would probably just get jealous.”
“Doesn't want her fella having a good time.”
“I know. Slavedriver.” Harry rolled his eyes. “How about you? You got a girlfriend?”
“No. Can't say I do.” Conor picked up another blue one. “This is nice. Is this for the kitchen?”
“Bedroom.” Harry took it, holding it up to the other two. “Pretty sure no-one's decorated since the seventies. It's more salmon and green than I've needed to see in a lifetime.” He glanced at Conor. “Can I ask a really personal question?”
“Erm...” Conor was taken a bit aback. He felt himself flush a little bit and wasn't sure why. “Can I choose not to answer it?”
“Definitely.” Conor shrugged, nodding. Harry leaned in a little bit closer, lowered his voice. “You're gay, aren't you?”
He blinked in surprise. Harry pulled away, continuing down the aisle like nothing had happened. Conor followed blankly, not sure what to say.
“Why... do you ask?”
“Just had a feeling.” Harry winked. “Don't take it personally, okay? I've always had a bit of a touch for it. Not always a hundred percent correct, but close enough.” He glanced back over at Conor. “Even if you are, you can say no. I'm not judging. Just interested.”
“Oh.” Conor bit his lip, moving a little closer. Harry was so nonchalant about it, almost as if it wasn't even a big deal. He was just running his finger along the line of paint samples as though they were having an ordinary, boring conversation. “Ehm... only my parents know.” He felt his face heat as he let the words out. It was weird, saying it out loud. He'd only had to say it once to his parents, and then it hadn't really been mentioned again. They'd just changed up a few pronouns and settled back into normal. He hadn't had any girlfriends, anyway, so it wasn't much of a change to not having any boyfriends.
“Got a fella, then?” Harry asked. Conor looked around, checking there was no-one in earshot, but Harry was talking quietly, casually, and the place was basically deserted.
“No,” Conor admitted. “There's a lad I like at school, but he's not...”
“Oh, that's the worst,” Harry chuckled. “Been there.”
“Oh, depends on the day.” Harry smirked, nudging him lightly. Conor felt warmth bleed into the spot where he'd been touched. Harry was gay. Well, bi, apparently. Oh. That was...
Well, no, because Harry was still insanely out of his league.
“Are you with, like... anyone?”
“Just my fake wife.” Harry crouched down to peer at a row of spraypaint cans. “Getting the feeling there's not much of a scene here.”
“Not really.” Conor once again wondered why Harry had even come to Bailesidhe. He seemed so outside it all, roaring in from Dublin on his slick motorcycle with his cool leather jacket and jeans that were ripped on purpose, not from getting snagged climbing over a fence. He didn't seem like he belonged here at all. “I don't even think there's any gay people here, apart from me.”
“I think you'd be surprised.” Harry stood up to look around. The place was starting to get a little bit busier now, all the weekend DIY people showing up. “Her.” He pointed at a young woman in a pink sundress who was looking at paintbrushes. “Bet you a fiver she's a lesbian.”
“That's Miss Hanover,” Conor whispered. “She works in the school office.”
“And she eats muff like you wouldn't believe.” Harry snickered, elbowing him slightly. Conor covered his mouth to hide a snort. “Oh, and that guy.” He gestured at an elderly man shopping for powertools. “Definitely gay.”
“That's Eric Wilson.” Conor was shocked. “He's friends with my grandfather. His wife died last year. He was devastated.”
“That's awful.” Harry nodded sympathetically. “I bet she was really nice, too, but that doesn't mean he's not secretly interested in something else.”
“He's got grandkids!”
“And?” Harry rolled his eyes. “It's sex. Sometimes you try a few things until you find something you fancy.”
“I don't fancy girls.”
“Then you've got the hard part taken care of.” A hand slapped him on the back, friendly. “Seriously, it takes a lot of people way too long to figure that out. You've saved yourself a lot of time. That generation...” He nodded toward Eric, who was looking at an electric drill. “It's awful, but I reckon for some of them it's too late. You get too used to accepting things a certain way, you almost convince yourself that it's right. He'll never say anything, not now.”
“You're sure? That he's...”
“Never sure. Just a feeling.” Harry paused suddenly, then began to move back the other way, putting his hand on Conor's shoulder to get past him in the cramped aisle. A tingle started in his toes when a wiry body pressed to his. “You'll be fine. You're cute.”
Conor laughed, felt himself turn red. “Erm... I've seen a mirror.”
“So you agree, then?” Harry picked up the blue swatches again. “I reckon this one's a winner, don't you? Lagoon mist. Crap name, but I like the colour.”
“It's nice.” Conor nodded. “I'm cute?”
“You're very cute.” Harry headed back towards the yellows. “Tall, dark and handsome.”
“Funny.” He snorted awkwardly, looking around for something to distract the conversation. Staring at masking tape was not a good plan, but he went with it anyway, not sure what else to do.
“Believe what you like.” Harry shrugged. “If I saw you in a nightclub, though, I'd definitely try it on.”
“That's why I'm not trying it on.” A fist nudged his shoulder playfully. “I'm not an idiot. I'm not chatting you up, either, if you're wondering, I'm just saying don't worry. You'll be fine.” He winked. “You're gonna have a lot of fun.”
Conor lay on his bed, staring at the textbook leaned against his bent-up knees.
The hammering and sawing from across the road had become the soundtrack of his life for the past two weeks. From the moment he came home from school, there it was in the background. All weekend, too. He'd though about shutting the window, but then he might have missed the chance to hear one of Harry's laughs.
He laughed well, loud and long, as though he wanted to share whatever had tickled him with the whole world, his voice ringing from across the street. It was the kind of laugh that made you want to laugh along.
Conor forced himself to focus back on the textbook, the words dancing in front of his eyes to the tune of Harry's laughter. It was no use, though, so he stood up and looked out the window, trying to spot familiar sandy hair.
There he was, wearing too-tight jeans and a black t-shirt turned half grey by plaster dust, stood chatting to his dad, each of them with a bottle of water in his hand. Conor stared for a minute, admiring him. He was cute, obviously, but he had a way of moving, a confidence, that was distractingly sexy. He hadn't even really been bothered to ogle Ryan in the last two weeks, not while he knew he was heading home to surreptitiously check out Harry Monaghan.
He'd tried not to be too obvious, but it was difficult when Harry was the constant topic of conversation, and Conor hung on boring news of ripping up pipes and re-shingling the roof, hoping for a story of something Harry had said or done.
And maybe, once or twice, he'd laid back on his bed and thought about what it would be like. To kiss Harry, touch him. What he would be like naked. Lain under Conor and kissing him hard, feeling fingernails clawing at his back, sweaty and desperate, moaning in his ear.
And Conor had wiped the mess up with a tissue and gone to sleep with nothing but good dreams.
As he watched Harry paused, looked up, and waved. Conor waved back, laughing when he was given a cheeky grin.
“What you doing?”
Conor shrugged. Harry crossed his arms.
“You gonna help, or you gonna watch us work?”
“I'm studying!” Conor called back. “I'm very busy.”
“I can see that,” Harry laughed, ambling across the road. Before Conor knew it he was stood beneath his window, looking up. “What are you studying?”
“Ehm...” Not Harry's arse. Not Harry's arse. “...maths.”
“How is it?”
“Boring.” Conor leaned over so he could see Harry better, got a sexy smirk. “What are you doing?”
“Looking busy while your dad does important grown up things. If you come over I'll let you pretend to hold a spirit level.”
“What will you pretend to do?”
“I was going to pretend to hold the other end. We're about to break for lunch, anyway. If you pretend to work you might get free food.”
“What kind of free food?”
“I dunno. I was going to go to the chipper. You want to come for a ride?”
Conor was nodding before he'd even thought about it.
“Give me two minutes to put on pants.”
“You're not wearing pants? Pervert.” Harry laughed, turning away. Conor looked down at his pyjama bottoms.
“I'm wearing pyjamas,” he called out, feeling like a moron. Harry waved over his shoulder and headed back across the street.
“This is a great album.” Harry held up a CD. They'd stopped at Bailesidhe's one record store on the way to the chipper. The street had been too crowded to get a park close by, and Harry had seen the sign and wanted to go in to check out some music. “You heard it?”
“Yeah, it's good.” Conor nodded. “I sort of got sick of it last year. My friend Sean played it about a thousand times.”
“We have that in common.” Harry put it back in the rack. “What have you been listening to?”
“Um... I've been listening to a lot of older stuff. .Like, rock and alternative stuff. My dad has a lot of really cool old vinyl.”
“He was saying. I'll have to check that out.” Harry nodded. “You like music?”
“Yeah,” Conor nodded. “I was in some of the school musicals, you know? We did Grease a couple of times.”
“Yeah? Who'd you play?”
“I was just in the chorus the first time, it was years ago. But I was Teen Angel last year.”
“No way!” Harry looked surprised. “What, like Beauty School Dropout?”
“Yeah.” Conor nodded. “The girl who played Frenchie was a good laugh. She kept pulling faces at me while I was trying to sing it.” Harry snorted a laugh. “It was fun.”
“That's a big song. You must be good.”
“I'm okay.” Conor shrugged. He knew he was, but always felt a bit weird admitting it, like he was bragging. “It was a lot of fun. We sort of talked about doing it proper, you know? Like trying to be a band or something? My friend Ryan plays guitar. But then our mate Sean went off to college, and he was our drums, and I can't play an instrument, so that fell through.”
“You'd be good in a band. The girls could fall all over you.”
“Gross,” Conor joked. Harry laughed, elbowing him. “No. I'd be dreadful at it. I'd get famous and then turn into a recluse. You know, hiding in a bunker and keeping my fingernail clippings, throwing vases at servants.”
“Well, I'd stand in line for your autograph.”
Conor rolled his eyes and began to rummage through the clearance table. There wasn't much of interest. “You'll meet Kenickie in a minute, if we ever make it to Fries. Sean's usually waiting tables, when he's not in classes. He wants to be an accountant.”
“Kenickie wouldn't approve of that at all.” Harry started at the other end, beginning to flick through older CDs.
“Probably not,” Conor agreed. “If that's what being an adult's like, I can't say I'm all that interested.”
“You mean being allowed to drink, smoke, go to the best concerts, get into clubs...”
“Have sex,” Conor pointed out. “I'm legal for that.”
“Are you having any, though?”
“Nope.” Conor sighed. “Which I wouldn't mind, but bloody Ryan's getting handies in his car every other weekend.”
“He sounds classy.” Harry rolled his eyes. “God, I can't remember the last time I had a handy in car.”
“How many have you had?”
“Erm...” Harry looked up at the ceiling for a long minute. “Three. No, four!” He shook his head, laughing. “Forgot about that one.”
“What, all with lads?”
“Erm... three of them, yeah.” They gave up on the table and began to head for the door, falling wordlessly into step. The street outside was warm and crowded. Conor glanced around, feeling a little self-conscious at having this conversation in public. “I was a bit of an early bloomer.”
“I think I was fourteen when I first got off with another lad. Just some camping trip at school. You're all squashed up in a tent, you know, close quarters. Neither of us mentioned it after. With a lass... fifteen? I think? I don't mind girls, but I'd pick a boy if I had the choice.”
Conor shook his head, not sure what to say. He couldn't even imagine trying it at that age, wouldn't have had the guts. He didn't really have the guts now, though, so it was a bit of a moot point.
“You look shocked.”
“No, just...” Harry was looking at him, blue eyes studying him carefully. “I don't know. I feel a bit of a virgin now. I mean, I am one, but...” He felt himself blush. “I've never even kissed a boy.”
“I'm not surprised.” Harry shrugged. “I really wouldn't worry. It's not all it's cracked up to be, once you've had a bit of it, not when it's with someone you don't feel anything for. It's a hell of a lot of fun, of course, but it's better when you're in love.”
“You've been in love?”
“I've thought I was.” Harry's lips narrowed, and his eyes went suddenly hard. Conor wanted to file away that information to consider later, but he was distracted by pushing open the door to the chipper and Harry making a joke. Then they were ordering, he was introducing Harry to Sean, and by the time they made it back out again he'd forgotten entirely.
Conor sat at his bedroom window, watching Harry's silhouette move across the upstairs window. He'd been doing it for a while now, just watching him move back and forth. He'd given up on studying a long time ago, was sitting propped against the windowsill with his bedroom light off so he wouldn't be spotted. His parents thought he was asleep, and he had tried, but he couldn't manage it, so had gotten up to go to the bathroom, come back, and seen Harry moving.
He wasn't doing anything interesting. Was just passing the window every now and then, moving idly through the house. Conor had seen him talking on the phone at one point, scratching his hair a bit later. The room he was in had curtains, so all he could see was a dark shadow. As he watched, Harry settled up on the windowsill, legs kicked up against the frame opposite, nestled in the square space. The curtains were nudged aside, and he was sat there a minute later in full view, toes dangling out of the upstairs window, a cigarette in one hand.
Conor hadn't known Harry smoked, but it seemed to fit him somehow. He looked a little sad, not at all filled with the carefree certainty he usually exuded. Sort of smaller, huddled in the lonely light cutting through the dark street. He lifted the cigarette to his lips again, taking a long drag. Conor glanced at his watch. Almost one in the morning. He should really be in bed.
Harry finished a minute later, stubbed out the smoke, then slid back inside. The lights went off, the house swallowed up by the night. Conor went back to bed and tried to sleep.
He was coming home from school on Wednesday when he heard music. The interior of the house was basically done. Furniture had been getting delivered the last few days. He'd seen a sofa, a coffee table and a few chairs come through, as well as a new fridge. He wondered what Harry had been doing before then, especially when he saw a bed-frame come up the drive.
He paused, glancing at his watch. He was running a bit early, wasn't supposed to be home for another hour, but Ryan had ended up with detention again and he'd decided not to bother hanging around waiting for him when he could get more done at home.
It was a Michael Jackson CD, belting out of the open window. He could hear singing, and realised his feet were carrying him closer without thinking. Before he knew it he was stood at the front door, peering through the crack where it wasn't quite closed.
Harry was stood in the front room, wearing not much more than a pair of shorts, singing along to Blame It On The Boogie and struggling with a set of bookshelves. They were half put together, pieces littered across the floor while he held the instructions in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. He looked thoroughly perplexed, and Conor found himself laughing without meaning to.
Harry looked up tensely.
“Sorry, just me.” Conor pushed the door open a little more, his cheeks heating at the idea he'd been caught having a look. Harry relaxed, rolling his eyes. “Heard music.”
“Oh, yeah...” Harry looked back down at the instructions. “What the fuck is a cam-lock?”
“It's um...” Conor had done enough of this crap with his dad over the years to have at least a basic idea. It wasn't his favourite thing, but he could definitely swing a hammer if he had to, knew the difference between about twenty kinds of wrenches. It was practically osmosis. He stepped in, bent to pick up a round metallic piece. “This guy.”
“That guy.” Harry took it. “Right, so I need to join Piece A to Piece G with Screw M. Screw M...” He crouched down to rummage through the litter of parts on the floor. Conor glanced at the instructions and bent down to grab the right bit. “Thanks.” Harry looked up. “You want to stay and help?”
“You look like you're on top of it,” Conor teased. “That's a really impressive birdhouse.”
“It's supposed to be a set of shelves.” Harry looked defeated, then realised Conor was joking. “Ah, feck off.”
“You don't want help then?” Conor joked. Harry raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, I don't mind. I'm not supposed to be home for another hour anyway.”
“Cool.” Another song was starting up. Conor sank down onto the floor, picking up the instructions then looking at Harry's efforts, mostly so he didn't have to look at Harry's bare chest, at smooth skin and pink nipples. He was slim, but in a wiry way that looked strong. Conor glanced around the room instead. There wasn't much in here, though the smell of fresh paint was thick in the air.
“Starting to look better in here.”
“Getting there.” Harry nodded. “Still got to put together a bed, a chest of drawers, and a TV cabinet.” He sighed. “Can't wait to have a TV again.”
“You don't have a TV?”
“No. Don't have much of anything, to be honest. Sort of just came with the clothes on my back.” He indicated the pieces of bookshelf. “I should have hired a man to help me with this, but by the time I paid for everything I was running out of money. I need a job. Know anyone hiring?”
“Not off the top of my head.” Conor pursed his lips, trying to think. “I mean, there's always one of the fast food places in town, but I did that and believe me, you don't want to get involved. It's all scrubbing toilets.”
“I'm not above that.” Harry put down the wooden dowel he was looking at. “You have a job at the moment?”
“I was doing a bit of pizza delivery, but I've had to lay off with exams coming up. And I don't have my own car, so it got a bit awkward always borrowing Dad's.” He found the pieces he was looking for and began to slot them together, scooping up the screwdriver as he went. “I'm broke at the moment.”
“I can pay you to help me out?” Harry offered. “Give you a fiver an hour or something? Gave the rest of my cash to the furniture place, but you seem to know what you're doing there, so...”
“It's just following the instructions.” Conor smacked the shelf with the heel of his palm, watched it pop into place. “There we go. Pass me one of those little screws. No, the other one.” It dropped into his hand a second later, and he began to twist it in.
“Never been good at instructions. Probably why everything I build falls apart.”
“Can't help with that.” It was starting to come together now, like putting together a big, heavy jigsaw puzzle. “I'm happy to help for free. It's a bit of a distraction from everything else, at least. Studying's driving me mad, and... well, you know what parents are like. They mean well and that, but it's always the expectations and telling me not to swear and asking where I'll be and who I'm with.” He glanced shyly at Harry. “You don't make me feel like I'm five.”
“You'd be a big five year old.” That teasing smirk flitted across Harry's lips. “I don't know, I think I'm just terrible at being responsible. I always forget not to swear.”
“You're so fucking immature.”
Harry chuckled. “Piss off. Anyway, you're seventeen. We're practically the same age. I'd feel stupid treating you like a kid.”
“I'd feel stupid treating you like an adult.” Harry stuck his tongue out at that, thumbed his nose. “Definitely not an adult.”
“Definitely not.” An elbow nudged him. “Can I get you something to eat while you do that? I have a few ice-creams in the freezer if you want one?”
“Cool.” It was almost together now. He just had to do the wall-bracket and fit the last couple of shelves. Harry stood up, came back a minute later with a few wrapped chocolate ice-creams. Conor took one, unwrapping the top half but leaving the packet on around the bottom so it wouldn't drip. He took a bite, slotting dowels in with the other hand, watched Harry lick his and tried not to feel like a pervert. Tried not to imagine what it would be like running melted chocolate down the middle of that smooth chest and licking it back off.
Before long it was done. He licked sticky ice-cream off his fingers and handed Harry the last shelf.
“Do the honours?”
“Sure.” Harry held the shelf out. “I dub thee Shelf of Books.”
“Shelf of Books,” Conor agreed. Harry pushed the shelf into place with a grin and gave it a slight smack for good measure. “Well done.”
“Did it all by myself.” Harry's ice-cream was almost gone as well. He licked the last off the stick and held out a hand for Conor's wrapper. “You might have helped.”
“I won't tell.” The CD had stopped a long time ago. He glanced at his watch. “I better get going, though. My parents will expect me.”
“Definitely. Sorry, I didn't mean to keep you...”
“No, it was fun.” He didn't know if it was his imagination, but Harry looked a little sad that he was leaving. “Want me to pop around tomorrow afternoon? We can get started on the bed. Not like that...” He rolled his eyes when Harry gave him a cheeky smirk. “Pervert.”
“Child.” Harry stood up. Conor stood too. “Thanks, I'd appreciate it. But don't let your schoolwork suffer, okay? It's important.”
“When am I ever going to need to use differential equations, though? Really?” Conor pouted, but Harry tilted his head seriously.
“I know, but you'll regret it if you don't finish properly. Take it from someone who knows, yeah? Do your best, and if you don't need to use it... well, at least you have it if you ever do. Every opportunity helps.” He put a hand on Conor's shoulder. “Don't be a fuck-up like me.”
“How are you a fuck-up?” Conor asked. “What, being out on your own, the cool motorbike? I mean, you can't do furniture, but...”
“Just trust me, okay?” Harry's smile looked a little frayed at the edges, all of a sudden. “Life's never going to be what you think it is, so the best you can do is be prepared.” He glanced at his watch. “Now hurry up. Your mother will think you've gotten kidnapped.”
“I have. And I've been fed sweets before dinner.” Conor wiped his mouth to make sure there was no leftover chocolate on his face. Harry laughed. “Bad influence.”
“I probably am, yeah,” Harry said quietly. He opened the door, nudging Conor through. “Now get out. I have to put books on my new shelf.”
It was hard, trying to explain why he couldn't study with Ryan. He couldn't say he had a job, or Ryan would ask where. He was trying to take his time, do one piece of furniture a day, but he was running out of jobs to do and it couldn't last much longer. There were only a few small cabinets left now. They hadn't even been productive the day before. Conor had been in a bad mood over a poor mark he'd gotten on a practice test, so they'd just ended up watching afternoon cartoons on Harry's new television, eating popcorn and poking fun at the commercials.
He hadn't told his parents where he was going after school, and wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because he didn't want the thousand questions, though he knew there wouldn't be anything meant by them. He just wanted something for himself, something that he could do without having to explain, having to justify. He was at Harry's because he wanted to be, because Harry seemed to want him there. They had a good laugh together, chilling out and putting together a chest of drawers that seemed too big for the clothes spilling out of the suitcase Harry was living from.
He didn't have much, hadn't been at all exaggerating when he'd said he'd arrived with the clothes on his back. Before they'd gotten the frame together his bed had been a mattress on the floor. There were only a few books on the shelves, and they all looked brand new, barely creased or yellowed. It was like Harry hadn't existed before he'd arrived, like he'd just been dropped on the planet by a spaceship.
He seemed sort of sad, though, behind all the smiles. They'd be having a perfectly fine conversation and then all of a sudden Harry would just shut down, change the topic completely, or make an excuse to go to the bathroom or make a cup of tea, and Conor would sit there feeling confused and not sure what he'd said.
But otherwise it was easy to talk to Harry. Easier than anyone. Harry knew about him, didn't judge him at all. Conor could ask him questions, stuff he couldn't ask anyone without letting his secret out, and which he couldn't ask his parents without feeling totally immature and embarrassed. Not sex questions, though he thought he could probably ask those of Harry with no problem, just life questions. Harry would nod patiently, and then reply as though it was a totally sensible thing to ask.
So he'd leave school and go straight to Harry's, get home at the usual time. He didn't know if Harry realised his parents didn't know where he was, and didn't much care. He was right across the street if there was an emergency, and he didn't want to ruin this thing, felt like maybe they wouldn't understand.
“You want a cold drink or something?” Harry had his feet kicked up on the arm of the couch, his head on the other arm, watching Conor put together a small table. “I made ice.”
“What, all by yourself?” Conor teased. Harry reached out a leg, kicked him lightly, then left it on his shoulder, toes wriggling next to his ear. Conor turned his head to bite at them until Harry jerked his foot back with a laugh.
“Watch it, you're probably rabid.”
“Someone'd have to bite me first.” Conor squinted at the hole he was supposed to push the leg into. It was a bit warped, so he began to pick at it with the end of the screwdriver. “Can I ask you a really stupid question?”
“Definitely.” Harry stretched slightly. “I love stupid questions.”
“Is it good getting... you know.” Conor felt himself go red. He'd wanted to ask, though, had been trying to get the courage up. “It seems like it'd hurt.”
“Getting what?” Harry laughed. “Come on. You're old enough to think it, you're old enough to say it.”
“Sex. Ehm... anal sex?” Conor said it quietly, felt his cheeks redden. “Is it okay?”
“It's fucking fantastic,” Harry chuckled, stretching slightly. Conor turned to look at him, watched muscles pull taut in slender legs. He was just wearing a shirt and a pair of baggy shorts today, looked a bit nice. For the first time, Conor had realised that there was no hair on his legs. Not a single bit. He wondered what that was all about. It was sexy, in an odd way. Maybe it was to do with riding his motorcycle – he knew sometimes cyclists waxed – but regardless of the reason he had an urge to reach out and touch, run his fingers up smooth skin and into those shorts, wrap his fingers around the soft bulge that almost always seemed to be there.
“So it doesn't hurt?”
“Does a bit, I guess,” Harry replied. “First time at least. But I've always found if you think it's going to hurt then it probably will. If you think it's going to be good... well, it usually is.”
“Oh.” Conor nodded. “It sounds messy.”
“It can be. I mean, you don't want to go eating a big meal right before, and it's probably worth having a scrub up so you don't get shit on someone's cock.” Conor felt himself go redder. Harry was so fucking blunt. He appreciated it, though. He didn't have a computer in his room, couldn't afford a smart-phone, and was too paranoid to look it up in the study or the school library. “You ever stuck a finger up your arse?”
“Erm... no,” Conor admitted.
“I recommend it.” Harry rolled onto his side, looking at him. Conor realised he hadn't touched the table since they'd started this conversation. He put down the screwdriver, giving up for the moment. “Jerk off, and just touch it. It's fucking great. Honestly. And if you can get yourself a vibrator, even better.”
“Yeah, I'll just ask someone for a borrow, shall I?” His cheeks felt burning red now, but Harry was looking at him idly.
“You can borrow mine, if you like.” Oh and that... that was a nice idea. His face was starting to go back to its normal colour now that all the blood was starting to move downwards. Harry, laid on his back, fucking himself, other hand tugging slowly. Jesus. “Don't look like that,” Harry teased. “It's clean and everything. Just run it under a hot tap a few times and stick a condom over it.”
“Thanks?” he said weakly. Harry snorted, swinging his legs off the couch.
“You're welcome. Finish that off and I'll grab it for you.” His feet were pounding up the stairs a minute later. Conor turned back to the table, trying to focus around the thought of Harry doing that to himself. He'd just finished screwing in the last leg when footsteps came back down. He looked up with a feeble smile when a small ziplock bag was pressed into his hand. “There you are,” Harry announced, like he was just lending a CD or something. “That little guy'll be a great help. You need a condom as well?”
“Er... yes please?” Harry nodded, wandering away again. Conor looked at the little purple device. It was about the size and width of a finger, with a silver base. Harry came back and pressed a couple of foil packets into his hand.
“Knock yourself out.” He collapsing back onto the couch with a grin. “Wash it before you give it back. That one's my favourite.”
“How many do you have?”
“A few,” Harry laughed, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “If you don't want to stick it in, just kind of run it around the outside. It's brilliant, I promise.”
“Okay. Yeah.” He shoved it in his pocket, feeling better with it out of his view. “I finished your table.”
“Excellent.” Harry picked it up, carried it over to the corner and set it down. “There we go.” He stood back and crossed his arms. “Very civilised.” He glanced back at Conor. “Only one left. You'll be out of my service soon, released back into the wild. Won't have to come hang out with me any more.”
“Thank god.” Though the idea made his stomach knot. Harry was giving him a curious look, his face averted but eyes still looking up. “I can ehm... I can still come visit.”
“I'd like that.” Harry nodded. “It's good having you around. Company, I guess, but...” He put a hand on Conor's shoulder. “Are we friends?”
“I think so.” He nodded, trying to seem casual despite the sudden happy rush. “I hope so.”
“Me too.” He got a crooked smile. “It's been a long time since I've had proper friends. You know, people I can just talk to.”
“I like talking to you,” Conor said quietly. “I don't feel like an idiot.”
“You're not an idiot. You put my stuff together.”
“Give it a few weeks until it starts collapsing.” Conor scratched his hair. “It all looks fine now, but I did a shoddy job so I can fix it and you have to pay me again.”
“Speaking of...” Harry reached into his pocket, groped out a tenner and handed it to him. “There you go. Job well done.”
“Great, thanks...” Conor hesitated. “How's the job hunt going?”
“Not great,” Harry sighed. “No interviews yet, though I think just about everyone in town has my application by now.” He smiled, but it looked frustrated. Conor pressed the money back into his hand.
“Keep it,” he said. Harry looked like he was about to protest, but Conor patted his pocket. “I can just borrow this as payment, yeah?”
“Conor...” Harry sighed, then nodded gratefully. “Okay. Thanks.” He squeezed Conor's shoulder. “But once I get a job I'll take you out for dinner or something, yeah? Get us square?”
“Sure,” Conor promised, but he didn't mind either way. The thought of going out to dinner was nice, but he felt a bit bad taking Harry's money when it didn't even feel like a job. It just felt like hanging out with a friend, being a bit helpful while they chattered away.
He needed to leave soon after, but when he did he patted the lump in his pocket, making sure it was still there. Harry hugged him on the way out. Conor felt hands still tingling on his back as he made his way across the street.