"Learning Nakedness"
by Jeff Creighton
Fandom: Coronation Street
Pairing: Ashley/Nick
Rating: PG-13
Status: New
Archive:  Yes to Britslash archive; others ask first please.
Feedback: jeff.creighton@utoronto.ca 

Disclaimers: These characters are the property of Granada Studios and were not created by me.  This story in no way reflects upon Adam Rickitt or Steven Arnold.

Notes: This story begins with an actual situation from Coronation Street, December 1998, then moves into an alternative future.  Thanks to Emma N. for reading and encouragement.

 


Learning Nakedness

by Jeff Creighton

"Don't fret, Ashley. I know it's hard. No one knows better, I say no one knows better. But happen it's for the best. She were a strange lass, that Zoe. And you'll get over it."

"I said I don't want to talk about it, Uncle Fred."

The two were sitting in a booth together in the Rovers. Fred waved his cigarette and began to hold forth again.

"But I was only trying to tell you a few home truths, which'll be a comfort to you when you've had a chance to think about them. You never could have been happy with that girl, I say you never could have...  where's the lad gone now?"

Ashley had stormed out of the pub, leaving his pint untasted.

"Some people just won't be helped," Fred sighed, to no one in particular.

Ashley ran around the corner of the pub and leaned up against the wall to catch his breath. He could feel the tears stinging behind his eyes, and self-pity, his old familiar friend of the last few weeks welling up inside him. If it hadn't been for that loony cult, he thought, Zoe would still be here. They got inside her head, they twisted her all around inside, and now she was off making a baby with that creep Ben.

It hurt too much to love someone as much as he had loved Zoe. But lurking behind that thought was another he hardly dared think: that he had never loved Zoe enough. If he had, she wouldn't have gone off. And he winced when he remembered a time before that: when Zoe's baby had died, when her behaviour had become so erratic she had had to be put in hospital. Then Ashley had decided that he couldn't take any more, that he was going to break it off once and for all. And the only reason he hadn't was because she needed him so much, depended on him for so much. Was that what it was to love somebody: just being needed and wanting to be needed? Sometimes he wondered whether what he had for Zoe was really love at all, or just wanting to have someone there.

But it came to the same thing in the end. Either way, she was gone for good. And either way, he felt empty and totally alone.

He headed back to the house he had shared with Zoe. Not too long ago, there had been four of them sharing the place: he and Zoe, Nick and Leanne. But Nick and Leanne had had a blazing row;something about Nick's part-time job at the college;and now she had gone off across the street to live at her parents and wouldn't even speak to Nick. Ashley felt sorry for Nick, but he thought that, sooner or later, they would patch things up and Leanne would come back. Not like Zoe. She was never coming back, and he knew it.

 

When Ashley came in, Nick was sitting on the sofa watching a football match.

"Not working tonight?" said Ashley.

"No," said Nick gloomily. "I should be revising for exams, but I can't seem to concentrate. God, I'm bored! Do you want to go out and do something?"

"I'm not bothered," said Ashley, sitting down on the sofa beside Nick. "I'd just as soon stay here and watch this."

They sat and watched for a bit.

After a while, Nick said: "Quite a life we've got ourselves here, isn't it? You've lost your girlfriend, I've lost my wife, and here we sit of an evening, like some old married couple, watching telly."

"Being an old married couple isn't so bad," said Ashley.

"Perhaps not," said Nick. "But I don't think I'd marry you. No offense, mate."

Ashley smiled. "I just meant, that I wished I could find a girl who'd stay around long enough that maybe we could be an old married couple."

"Yeah," said Nick. "And I thought I had that all sorted. Now I've got a wife who lives somewhere else and won't even speak to me. Pretty pathetic pair, aren't we?"

They stared at the television for a while longer.

"I'll go put kettle on," said Ashley.

 

That week, Ashley was back working at the butchers shop. Fred's assistant was down with flu, and he needed Ashley for a couple of hours in the afternoon. "I'm sure Maud can cope on her own in the corner shop for a couple of hours," Fred pointed out. "She does when you're at the wholesalers. Now you just get yourself over here, Ashley, you're needed."

Ashley didn't much like being back under the eye of his Uncle Fred. He knew Fred was worried about him and keeping a wary eye on him. He tried to adopt a cheery demeanour, but it didn't convince either of them. "With the face on you," said Fred, "you're putting the customers off. No one wants to come in for a nice bit of beef and find themselves staring into the face of a man who looks like he's about to be taken out and hanged at the end o't afternoon. Just smile, like this." Fred drew back the corners of his mouth and gave a passable imitation of a snarling dog. "Just do as I do."

On the third afternoon, someone came in who made Fred sit up and take notice. She was a striking middle-aged woman, beautifully dressed, with an air about her of both authority and sexuality.

"I was wondering if you could help me," she said.

"We do our best to oblige," said Fred.

"Do you do sliced cooked meats at all?"

"Indeed we do! Some lovely roast beef, ham, whatever you like. Ashley, show the lady."

"The thing is," she said, "I'm looking for someone who'll do up a platter for a little reception I'm giving. About twenty people."

"Ah well, that's not our usual sort of thing. We're not a caterers, you know. But," said Fred with a leer and a wink, "in your case, I'm sure something can be arranged."

"Ah," said the lady, smiling slightly, "but of course I would need it delivered."

"Delivery?" said Fred. "Well, that'd be extra."

"Understood," she said. "I'm prepared to pay the going rate."

"In that case, dear lady," said Fred in his courtliest manner, "consider it done. I shall attend to the delivery personally."

"Actually," said the lady, staring straight at Ashley, "I rather think that young man might be more suitable for my purposes."

Ashley blushed.

"Suitable?" said Fred. "Well, I..."

"Here's the address." She handed Fred the card, staring at Ashley all the while. "Tell the young man he can bring it round there at nine tomorrow evening. My class ends then. Oh, yes," she said, "and how much do I owe you?"

Fred stammered out a figure. The lady paid and left.

"Ashley," said Fred when she had gone, "I think you ought to be a little careful of that woman. I'm not sure she's the sort who can be trusted, where young men are concerned."

Ashley grinned, for the first time that week. "You didn't think so poorly of her a few minutes ago, Uncle Fred."

"And I'll have no more of your back-chat either. Just you watch yourself, when you go over there tomorrow. Now get back to work."

"Yes, Uncle Fred," said Ashley, trying to look very serious.

 

The next evening, Ashley set out in the van with the platter. The directions were for a classroom at the polytechnic. He located the room with some difficulty, and tapped at the door.

The lady answered. "Ah," she said, "there you are. Just in time. My class is almost done. It's the last of the term, and I like to make it a little special. Now," she said, laying her hand gently on Ashley's shoulder, "be a darling, and set it down on the table there - beside those bottles of wine - and unwrap it for me, will you?"

Ashley did as he was told.

"What sort of class is this?" he asked.

"Life drawing," said Miranda.

"Ah," Ashley nodded wisely.

Miranda smiled. "You have absolutely no idea what that is, do you? Here, you can come next door and take a look. But you mustn't disturb the students. Or the model."

She led him into the next room. A flock of students were bent earnestly over easels. In the midst, on a couch, was a young man, completely nude, lying languidly on one elbow.

"Nick!" said Ashley.

Nick jumped, slipped half off the couch, and grabbed for a towel.

"Honestly," Miranda rolled her eyes. "Just keep going, everyone. Nick, will you please try to remember your position and get back to it? And as for you!"

She turned, but Ashley had disappeared.

"Where's the boy gone?" she said.

 

When Nick got home that night, he was determined to pass the whole thing off as a joke. But Ashley wouldn't even look him in the eye.

"You have to admit, Ashley, it is funny."

"I didn't think it was very funny," said Ashley quietly. "Now I know what Leanne was on about."

Nick blazed up. "Ashley, that's not fair! Leanne and me - well, it's a lot more complicated than that. I don't want to talk about that. Anyway, it's just a job. I'm giving art students a chance to practice, I'm earning some money. Why can't everyone just accept that? What harm am I doing?"

"It's not right," said Ashley. "People staring at you like that. It puts thoughts in people's heads."

"Thoughts in people's heads'? What are you talking about? It's a job. Don't be such an old woman."

Ashley remembered that Zoe had said something like that to him before she left. "Well. Maybe I am. But I'd still rather be that than - oh, I don't know."

"I don't know why you think it's any of your business anyway. What are you, my wife? I'm going to bed." Nick stomped up the stairs.

 

Ashley was at a party, looking for Zoe. Once, he thought he had seen her standing on the other side of the room. He struggled to get through the crowd, elbowing people out of the way. But when he got there, she had disappeared. The room was hot and noisy; he could hardly hear himself think. He threw himself down on a sofa.

"What's wrong, Ashley?" It was Nick, sprawled out on the sofa beside him.

"I can't find her," he said.

"Maybe you're looking in the wrong direction," said Nick.

Ashley looked down, and caught a glimpse of a naked thigh. He crammed his eyes shut tight.

"Nick!" he said. "What are you doing? You're naked again."

Nick laughed. "I'm not naked actually. It's you."

Slowly Ashley opened his eyes and looked down. It was true. Nick was fully clothed and Ashley was naked.

"Nick, help me! Before anybody sees me like this!"

"How am I going to help you?"

"I don't know. Cover me up."

"Okay." Nick stripped off his shirt, and gently laid it across Ashley's lap. "There. Feel better now?"

"Do you think anybody noticed?" he said, looking around at the crowded room.

Nick leaned in and murmured into his ear: "Nobody except me."

Ashley cried out, and found himself in bed, in his darkened room, staring at the ceiling. He sat up on the edge of the bed and put his head in his hands. Ashley wasn't the sort who usually remembered his dreams, but he had a feeling he was going to find this one hard to forget.

After a while, he decided to go get a glass of water. Nick's bedroom door was open. With his eyes adapted to the dark, Ashley could just make out Nick's form lying in the bed. It was a warm night and in his sleep Nick had thrown the covers half off; his right arm and thigh were exposed. For a long time, Ashley stood there looking; not thinking anything in particular, just feeling what he had felt in the dream, when Nick had whispered in his ear. It terrified him, but he wanted to go on feeling it. He stood and stared for a long time, then finally turned and went back to his bed.

Nick had not been able to sleep that night. He had been lying with his eyes almost closed when he saw Ashley appear, framed in the doorway by the light from the hallway. Nick lay perfectly still, watching and thinking.

 

The next morning at breakfast Nick said: "Did you sleep well last night?"

"Not really."

"Yeah, I thought I heard you up and around in the night."

Ashley put his head down and stared into his bowl of cereal. "You did?" he said, his voice a little strained.

"Yeah, well... I just thought I heard some noise, that's all."

"Oh," said Ashley. He relaxed a bit. "Just a dream. It woke me up."

"What did you dream about?" said Nick. He appeared to be attending to his breakfast, but he was looking closely, out of the corner of his eye, at Ashley's expression.

Ashley tensed again. He paused, then said: "It was about Zoe."

"Zoe?" said Nick quietly. "Just Zoe?"

"Yeah, just Zoe," said Ashley. "Since when is it any of your flaming business anyway?"

"You're right, it isn't," said Nick. "Sorry. I've got to get off to college anyway. I'll be back around two, I can do the washing up then."

Ashley stared at the ground.

"Ash, I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to upset you. Just making conversation."

"It's okay," Ashley said slowly. "You get off to college."

 

The next few days were strange and uncomfortable for Nick. Ashley barely spoke. When Nick was home, Ashley spent most of his time in his room. Only once did they have a conversation that went beyond "Hello".

Miranda had asked him to come up with something new for the modelling sessions, and he was hunting for the book of male nude poses he had been studying. He was sure he had left it in the living room, but he couldn't find it. He ransacked his own bedroom; no luck there either. Finally, in desperation he began pulling open every drawer and cupboard he could think of, rooting through stacks of papers, turning everything inside out and upside down. He eventually found it: buried in a stack of newspapers by the bin under the sink.

Nick banged on Ashley's bedroom door. "Ashley! What the hell do you think you're playing at?"

"What?" said Ashley from the other side of the door.

"My modelling book. It was mixed in with some newspapers under the sink. If I hadn't found it, it would have gone out with the trash."

"Sorry. I was just having a clear-out."

"Well, would you mind not clearing out my things?"

Ashley opened the door. "You left it lying around the flaming living room for three days. Do you think I want to see a thing like that every time I walk into my own living room? I just couldn't stand the sight of it any more." And he slammed the door in Nick's face. Nick went off, shaking his head. He flipped through the book, and was puzzled to find the corner of one of the pages turned down. It was a drawing of a man lying on one elbow, the same pose Nick had been using the week before.

 

The next day, as he was heading off to college, he met his mother, coming out of the Kabin. "How are you, Nick?"

"Oh, fine, I suppose."

"You look tired."

"I haven't been sleeping well. Life's a little confusing these days."

"I know, you're upset about Leanne. And you know I've never been one of her biggest fans. But she does love you. She'll come back, I know she will."

"I don't know if she'll ever come back, this time. She's got it into her head I was cheating on her, and there's no talking to her."

"Well," said Gail, "if it means that much to you, you could at least try. She's only across the street."

"I've told her till I'm blue in the face," said Nick bitterly. "She's the one who doesn't trust me. What am I supposed to do about that?"

"Well, at least come around for your tea tonight. I'll make you something nice."

"Actually, I have plans for tonight."

"Oh?" said Gail, raising her eyebrows.

"Yeah," said Nick. "It's just Ashley, I'm worried about him. He's... " He looked off down the street, a little embarrassed. "I just want to have a talk with him tonight, try to get some things sorted."

"Well, he's bound to be a little upset, with all he's been through. You can't solve everyone's problems for them, though. You've got enough on your plate."

"You don't know the half of it. But I think there's one problem I can solve. And I'd better do it, before I lose my nerve."

Gail gave a quizzical half-smile. "You're being awfully mysterious today, Nick."

"Look, I've got to go or I'll miss my bus." He gave her a quick peck on the cheek. "Love you, bye."


When he got home from college that night, Nick walked up and down the street five times before he worked up the courage to go into his own house. He found the lower floor dark and deserted. As usual, Ashley was up in his room with the door closed. In the back of one of the kitchen cupboards, Nick found a bottle of vodka—an old bottle of Zoe’s, probably, one she’d forgotten to pour down the drain when the cult made her swear off drinking—and he took a couple of swigs from it. Then he called out: "Ashley!"

"What?"

"Can you come down here for a minute? I need to talk to you."

Ashley came slowly down the stairs. "I haven’t touched any of your things," he said defensively.

"I know, I’m not bothered about that. I think we need to talk about the two of us living here on our own like this. I think there are some things we need to sort out." That was the part he had rehearsed. From here on, he didn’t know where he was going.

Ashley stared at Nick in silence.

"Ashley, I don’t quite know how to say this. I can’t believe I’m even having this conversation. It’s just…okay, it seems to me since Zoe left, and since Leanne’s been gone, you’ve been a little…uncomfortable around me. I think we need to have a talk about it."

"There’s nothing to talk about," Ashley said weakly.

"I think you’re wrong," said Nick. "I think we both know we have a lot to talk about."

"It’s nothing," he said. "I’m sorry. I’ve been lonely since Zoe left, I haven’t been myself." Suddenly he felt a catch in his throat and the sobs began to come. Nick was at his side in a moment, and put his arm around him. Ashley wept, his head against Nick’s chest. Then suddenly he jerked away, stood up and walked to the other side of the room.

"Why do you do that?" said Nick. "That’s exactly what I mean. Why are you acting like you’re afraid of me?"

"I’m not," Ashley sobbed.

"Ashley, you know you and I have to talk about this."

Ashley looked at Nick pleadingly. "Don’t. Just let it drop. Please. Please."

"You know I’m right. Just come here and talk to me."

Slowly Ashley walked back to the sofa. Nick took a tissue and gently wiped Ashley’s eyes. "There. Not so bad, is it?"

"I can’t talk about it. You don’t want to know. Believe me."

Nick looked at Ashley for a long time, shaking his head. "How do you know? Are you sure I don’t want to know?"

"I’m sure. Just leave it, please."

"And what if I know already?"

Ashley looked at Nick in fear. Nick was staring straight at him with a strange half-smile on his face. "Oh no," Ashley murmured.

"And what if I do want to know?" said Nick. Then he took a deep breath and quickly, before he had a chance to lose his nerve, he kissed Ashley on the cheek.

Ashley stared at him in blank amazement. In spite of himself, Nick began to laugh. "Sorry, Ash, I can’t help it. You should see your expression!"

Ashley was hurt. "You’re winding me up, aren’t you? You knew, and now you’re winding me up."

Nick was suddenly deadly serious. "No. Believe me, no. I did know…I mean, I guessed. But I am not winding you up. I swear."

"Well, what are you doing then?"

Nick shook his head is disbelief. "What do you think I’m doing? You’re the only one in the world who’s ever had feelings for another bloke? Now, I think it’s time you and I got a few things sorted out, don’t you?"

"Get what sorted out? That we both need our heads examining?"

Nick laughed. "Yeah, okay. Maybe that too. But I think I know what we both really need right now." He slid his arm around Ashley’s shoulders and drew him gently towards him.

"Nick, we shouldn’t…It’s not right," Ashley murmured weakly.

"Yes, we should. And I think we’re about to."

"Nick…"

Nick put his finger on Ashley’s lips. "Shhh. I thought you were the one who didn’t want to talk. Now let’s see if you can use those lips for something else."

 

Nick came awake slowly. He glanced over and saw he was alone. He could hear the clink of dishes down in the kitchen. Oh God, he thought, how am I going to face him? And which of us is going to be more embarrassed? Nothing to do but face it and find out.

He crept down the stairs; Ashley was frying bacon.

"Good morning," Nick said quietly.

Ashley looked up at him and grinned. "Morning. Want some breakfast?"

Nick stared at him. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, brilliant," said Ashley. "Starving. I made enough for two. I was going to bring it up on a tray. But we can have it down here."

Nick sank into a chair at the table, feeling dazed. Ashley put a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. "There, get that down you. You must need it, after last night." He grinned.

When Ashley had sat down with his plate, Nick said: "Ashley Peacock, you are a very surprising fellow."

"How do you mean?" said Ashley, his mouth full of egg.

"Oh, I don’t know. I thought you might feel…I thought you might not feel quite right about…" Nick was getting tongue-tied and feeling foolish.

"You mean, when I said it weren’t right? Yeah, I know. I thought it would feel wrong. Weird and strange. But it didn’t. It wasn’t like that at all. Didn’t you think so?"

"Well," said Nick slowly, "yes. But then for me it wasn’t…" He took a deep breath—was he really about to tell him this? "It wasn’t exactly the first time. I mean, when I was living in Canada, there was this bloke. Nobody ever knew, not even Uncle Stephen. But when I came back here and met Leanne, I tried to put it all out of my mind. And I did. But only for a while."

"Then what happened?" said Ashley.

"You know what happened. When I knew—when I guessed I mean—about you, and what you were thinking, then I saw you a whole different way. I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I haven’t been able to for the past week. The night I…well, the night I saw you in the hall outside my room."

Ashley blushed. "You saw that?"

"Yeah, I wasn’t going to tell you. But I don’t suppose it matters much now."

Ashley looked at him seriously. "But all that time, when you put it out of your mind…"

"Yeah?"

"Happen you’ll want to put it all out of your mind again, now?"

Nick thought for a while. "No. Not this time."

Ashley smiled and began shovelling in more egg. "I knew it weren’t your first time," he said proudly between mouthfuls.

"How?"

"Well, you did seem like you knew a bit. You taught me some things."

Nick blushed. "Well, I am training to be a teacher."

"Yeah," said Ashley. "Physical education teacher. You ever need a reference, I’ll write one."

Nick threw back his head and laughed. "I don’t believe it," he said. "Ashley makes a joke! That’s two ‘first times’ in twenty-four hours!"

 

When Nick got home from college that day, there was a box of red roses propped up against the door. Inside was a card, addressed to him, which read: "I know we can make things work. See you tonight?" He didn’t recognize the handwriting—probably it had been written by the florist who took the order—but he had no doubt who had sent it. He hummed as he arranged the flowers in a vase, and then sat quietly on the sofa waiting for Ashley to come home.

Ashley arrived with armloads of groceries. "I’m going to make our tea tonight," he said.

Nick sprang off the sofa. "Put those down." He threw his arms around Ashley and gave him a long kiss. "Tea later. Bed now."

"But it’s only half-five! And these things are going to go off if I don’t put them away.

Nick laughed. "And he wonders why I called him an old woman! Okay, you think I’m such a good teacher, then it’s time for the next lesson. Now stop arguing and get up those stairs, before I become seriously annoyed with you."

It took a long time to get up the stairs. They started undressing each other on the bottom step, and were both naked by the time they reached the top, their clothes strewn in a cascade down the stairs. They tumbled into Nick’s bed, exchanging long slow kisses.

"You know," said Nick laughingly, when he had caught his breath, "you’re the first boy who’s ever given me flowers."

"What flowers?" said Ashley.

"The roses that you sent…" Nick stopped a moment, puzzled. "Didn’t you?"

Just then, he heard the front door of the house open and close.

"Who’s that?" said Ashley.

Nick jumped out of bed and threw a bathrobe around him. "Jesus, I don’t know. Maybe a burglar." He looked desperately around the room for something heavy, then grabbed the Eskimo carving he had brought back from Canada. "Stay here, I’ll find out."

He crept quietly to the top of the stairs. He could hear someone moving around in the living room. Slowly he crept down to the landing, and peered through the banisters. Then a voice called out. "Nick? Nick?"

Nick dropped the carving. "Leanne?" he said weakly. "Jesus, Leanne, what are you doing here?"

"What’s going on?" said Leanne. "What was all that noise?"

Nick had come down to the bottom of the stairs. "I didn’t know it was you, I thought maybe it was a burglar. So I picked this up, to hit him with," waving the Eskimo carving foolishly, "but I dropped it." At this point, even the truth sounded unconvincing. Nick felt like he was going to pass out.

Leanne furrowed her brow. "I thought you’d be expecting me." She motioned towards the roses. "I see you got my flowers."

"Oh, yeah," said Nick. "The flowers!" It occurred to him that this was a time for thinking quickly; instead, he didn’t seem to be able to think at all.

"What are you dressed like that for?"

"Oh. I…I didn’t feel very well today. I stayed home from college."

"Oh, is that why I saw you coming home an hour ago?"

"We were…out of milk. I had to go get some."

"Why do you keep staring at me like that?"

"Like what?"

"Like you’re afraid what I’m going to say next." All this time, Leanne had been moving towards Nick. "I knew it!" she cried.

"What?"

She pointed to the stairs. Shirts, trousers, underpants, socks scattered all over. "You’ve got her up there, haven’t you? That cow, Miranda. In our bed!"

"No, Lee, honestly. I swear. Miranda’s not up there."

"Well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we?" In a flash, she had pushed past Nick and flown up the stairs. There was nothing Nick could do now but wait and listen. There was an eerie silence. A moment later, Leanne came flying down the stairs, straight past Nick, and ran out of the house without a word.

Ashley appeared at the top of the stairs. "I’m sorry, Nick. I’m sorry!"

Nick sank down on the lowest step and put his head in his hands. "Oh, God. Oh, God, oh God, oh God."

 

When Janice Battersby came home that evening, she found Leanne sitting in a chair in the front room, staring into space. She had cried herself out, but her eyes were still red and swollen.

"What’s the matter, love?" said Janice.

"It’s over," said Leanne flatly. "Nick and me, it’s finished."

"Oh, don’t say that, love. You don’t know that."

"I do know it. I went round there today to tell him I was sorry. For being so suspicious, for thinking he was sleeping with that Miranda. I even bought him flowers."

"And?"

"And…we’re finished."

Janice stormed up. "So he was sleeping with her? The lying toe-rag, wait’ll I see him, I’ll…"

"No, he wasn’t," said Leanne.

Janice was puzzled. "Well, that’s good then, isn’t it, love?"

"I found him with Ashley."

"Well, who did you think you were going to find him with? You could have told him you and Nick needed to talk on your own."

"No, I mean I found him with Ashley. With him." Janice stared at her. "I found him in our bed. Naked."

"Ashley?" said Janice. "With Nick? I don’t believe it."

"Oh, so you think I’d make something like this up?" snapped Leanne.

"No, love. I mean…I believe you, I mean…I just can’t take it in." She sank onto the sofa. "What did they think they were playing at?"

"I think that’s obvious," said Leanne.

"But had they ever…done it before?"

"How should I know?" said Leanne. "I’d almost rather it had been Miranda. At least I could compete with her. But this…" and she began to sob.

"Oh, love," Janice put her arms around her. "Happen it were nothing, a misunderstanding. He wouldn’t have married you, if he were…that way."

"Why not? That kind do it all the time. Marry stupid women and play them for fools. And he got a prize stupid woman in me. I never even suspected until I caught them at it."

"Leanne, love, you’re not thinking straight. Whatever the truth of it is, he loved you. He wouldn’t have run off to Scotland to marry you if he hadn’t. There’s got to be an explanation."

"Yeah," said Leanne. "I’m a sad little fool. That’s the explanation."

"Well, just don’t do anything until you’ve had a chance to talk to him about it. And we won’t tell anybody until we know what’s what. Not even Toyah. And especially not Les, he’d go spare. He’d go around there, shouting the odds before he knew anything, and thump the pair of them."

"Yes," said Leanne thoughtfully. "He would, wouldn’t he?"

 

Nick sat on the sofa, cradled in Ashley’s arms.

"Oh God, what a mess! I’ve messed up everything. I care about Leanne, the last thing I ever wanted to do was hurt her. And now, I’ve hurt her worse than ever. She hates me. What am I going to do?"

"Well," said Ashley slowly, "you could talk to her."

"Yeah, and have the door slammed in my face."

"You could tell her it were a mistake, a one-off, and that it’ll never happen again. You could tell her that you really love her, and you want her back. I know she loves you. She might forgive you."

Nick looked at Ashley. "Is that what you want me to do?"

"Maybe it’d be for the best," Ashley said. "She is your wife after all."

"That’s not an answer. I said: is that what you want me to do?"

Ashley was quiet for a few moments. "No."

Nick put his head on Ashley’s shoulder. "Thank God for that." He was silent for a while. "We’re quite a pair, aren’t we? Last night you were all scared and confused, and I thought I was the big man who was going to sort it all out for you. Now I’ve just made a mess of everything, and you’re standing around picking up the pieces."

"We’ll find a way to make Leanne understand."

"No, that’s my problem," said Nick.

Ashley brushed back a lock of Nick’s hair and kissed him on the forehead. "It’s our problem now," he said.

 

 

The next day at dinner time, Fred was talking with Audrey at the bar of the Rovers. Les Battersby came storming up.

"I can’t believe you have the nerve to show your face in here," Les snarled. "If I were you I’d be hanging my head in shame."

"What’s the man talking about?" said Fred.

"Oh, take no notice, Fred," said Audrey. "He’s not worth the trouble." She went off to get them a booth.

"What am I talking about? Only that pervie little nephew of yours, who’s gone and ruined our Leanne’s marriage."

Fred drew himself up. "You want to be careful about spreading rumours like that. I say, you want to be careful. Our Ashley’s a good lad. Leanne’s a married woman. He wouldn’t do anything with her that he oughtn’t."

"Too right, he wouldn’t! I should have known that he was on t’other bus, with the voice on him. Singing soprano his whole life—and now we know why, don’t we? He hasn’t done anything with our Leanne, you daft pillock; he’s only been and gone and done it with that Platt of a husband of hers. And if I get my hands on them, I’ll throttle the filthy pair of them."

 

Fred banged on the door of the house. "Ashley! Ashley Peacock, open this door! I know you’re in there. If you don’t open this door by the time I’ve counted to ten, I’m coming in with my key. One! Two!"

Ashley opened the door. "Come in, Uncle Fred," he said.

Fred settled himself in a chair and began to hold forth. "Now, Ashley lad, I don’t want to alarm you. But a word to the wise." He tapped the side of his nose. "That Les Battersby’s been going around saying some awfully funny things this dinner."

"About me and Nick?" said Ashley.

"So you’ve heard, then?" said Fred, staring at his nephew in amazement. "Well, no matter. Everyone knows that Les Battersby’s a liar. Still, mud sticks. So you’ve got to put yourself about a bit more, lad. Go into the Rovers and hold your head high."

Ashley nodded firmly. "You’re right, Uncle Fred. I will."

"Let them know you have nothing to be ashamed of. Then folk will see it’s all lies."

"But it isn’t all lies, Uncle Fred."

"Wha-at?"

"About Nick and me, I mean. It’s the truth."

Fred stared at Ashley for a long time. His mouth opened but no sound came out. Then it shut. Then it opened. "Say that again," he rumbled.

"Nick and I love each other, Uncle Fred."

"You don’t mean…you’re not saying… That I should ever live to hear my own flesh and blood say such a thing."

"But it’s the truth, Uncle Fred. And you’re right. I don’t have anything to be ashamed of."

"But I didn’t say…I didn’t mean…" He pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. "See here, our Ashley, you don’t know what you’re saying."

"I do, Uncle Fred."

"You’re not well. I say, you’re not well. Something’s gone wrong with you. I don’t know what it is, but we’ll find out, never you fear. We’ll get you the best doctor money can buy. We’ll go private. I’m not a poor man, and I’ll see you right. We’ll get you out of this."

"No you won’t, Uncle Fred. I won’t let you."

"Ashley," Fred said pleadingly, "you always were the most pig-headed lad I ever met. Once you get an idea in your head that something’s right, there’s no shifting you. I know that, lad, and I respect you for it. I really do. But you must see—this time you must see—you’re confused. It’s Zoe going, it’s everything that’s happened. You must let me help you. Please."

"If you want to help me stop loving Nick, then the answer is no."

"Ashley!"

"And if you don’t have anything more to say, I think you’d best leave."

Just then, the front door opened and Nick came in. Fred surged out of his chair like an ocean wave.

"You…" he growled. "You…what have you done? Until you got your hands on my nephew, he was as normal…he was as normal as me! I say, he was as normal as me!" He swept out of the house.

"Ash?" said Nick.

"He knows," said Ashley. "Les Battersby’s been spreading it around."

"Oh God," said Nick, "now everyone will know."

"Yeah," said Ashley, putting his arms around Nick. "And is that such a bad thing?"

"I don’t know, I don’t know," said Nick, stroking Ashley’s hair. "I haven’t thought that far ahead."

 

"What’s wrong, Fred? You look like you’ve seen a ghost," said Audrey.

Fred sank into the booth opposite her. "As good as," he said, looking dazed. "I’ve seen something the like of which I thought I’d never see. Tell me, Audrey: have you ever noticed anything odd about our Ashley?"

"Only all the time," said Audrey, with a titter. "Do you want me to write you a list?"

But Fred wasn’t listening. "We Elliots have always been good healthy stock. Red-blooded meat-eaters. There’s never been a one of us who was…"

"Was what, Fred?"

"Happen it’s the Peacock blood in him!" said Fred, starting up in excitement. "I don’t mind telling you, there were some odd folk among those Peacocks. There was a maiden aunt who ate only chicken and fish—no red meat at all—and there was a cousin who was a painter."

"Houses?" said Audrey.

"No. Pictures. Landscapes. The artistic temperament. It’s a very funny thing, the artistic temperament. Happen Ashley inherited some of that, and that’s where he started to go wrong."

"But what’s wrong with him, Fred?" said Audrey. "Honestly, it’s like pulling teeth trying to get this out of you."

"He’s been led astray," said Fred portentously. "I say he’s been led astray, and by them as ought to have known better."

"Fred, what are you on about?"

Fred looked around the Rovers, to make sure no one else was within earshot. He leaned forward and burbled a few sentences into Audrey’s ear.

"Nick!" Audrey cried. "My Nicky!"

"Your Nick!" said Fred huffily. "What about our Ashley?"

"Oh, honestly," said Audrey, dismissing Fred’s remark with a wave of her hand. "You only just said he were an odd lad, and this just proves it. But our Nick’s happily married. And he’s not that sort at all. If anybody’s been led astray…"

"Are you presuming to imply," said Fred, in his most precise and formal tone, "that my nephew is, as you put it, that sort?"

"Oh, open your eyes, you silly man," said Audrey. "You said yourself he had all that artistic whatsit coursing through his veins."

"Well!" said Fred, his eyes narrowing. "As for your grandson being happily married, perhaps it is sufficient to remark that his wife is currently living across t’ street with her parents. Perhaps she could tell us if there’s anything wrong with your Nick. I do not notice, for example," he said, fixing Audrey with a murderous glare, "I say I do not notice that there has been any announcement of a child on the way, despite several months of marriage."

"Oooh!" said Audrey. "I’m not going to sit here and be spoken to like this, Fred Elliot. I never realized before what a nasty man you are! I’m going to see Gail, and get to the bottom of this."

Maud came by in her electric wheelchair, just in time to hear the end of this shouting match, and see Audrey fling herself out of the Rovers. She looked at Fred inquiringly.

"What do you want, woman?" said Fred.

"Just observing human nature," said Maud.

"Well, go and observe somewhere else. You’re not wanted here."

"I see," said Maud, with a smug half-smile, "that you’re once again pushing the boundaries of how much bother one man can cause."

 

When Ashley came down the next morning, he found Nick dressed and peering out the front window from behind the curtains.

"Aren’t you going to college then?" he said.

"Yeah. In a minute."

"What are you looking at?"

"I thought I’d just…you know, wait till there was no one about, then make a quick dash for the bus stop."

"Oh, right," said Ashley. Nick could feel a stern, disapproving glare boring into the back of his neck. "So you’re ashamed of me, then?"

"Of course not," said Nick.

"Ashamed of yourself?"

"I don’t know. Maybe. Yeah, a little."

"Look," said Ashley, "my Uncle Fred was right about one thing. You’ve got to go out there and hold your head high. Show folk you’ve nothing to be ashamed of."

"And is that what you’re going to do?"

"Yes," said Ashley firmly.

Nick took a deep breath. "You’re right," he said. "I know you’re right. OK, I’ll do it." He kissed Ashley quickly, swung his satchel onto his shoulder, and headed out into the street.

He had not got more than a few steps from the front door, when the door of the Battersbys’ house opposite flew open and Les came roaring out.

"You!" screamed Les. "You filthy swine! You pervie scum! I want a word with you!"

"Oh God," said Nick. "Les, I’m not going to discuss this with you."

"You flaming will!" said Les. "You can discuss this!" He took a swing at Nick. Nick dropped his satchel and ducked out of the way. Les lost his balance, staggered a bit, then took another swing. Nick managed to avoid that one, too. By this time, Leanne was at the door of the Battersbys’, yelling: "Dad! Wait!"

Suddenly Ashley appeared. He flung himself on Les, screaming: "Get off him! Get off him!"

"You!" said Les. "I’ll do for you, too," and he reared back to take a swing at Ashley.

"No!" cried Nick and, without stopping to think, slammed his fist into Les’s stomach, just under the ribcage. Les made an "Oof!" noise, and sat down heavily on the cobblestones.

"Get inside and lock the door!" Nick yelled at Ashley.

"But Nick—"

"No arguing. Get inside and lock the door!" And Ashley obeyed.

Janice and Leanne came running across. "What’s happened?" said Janice.

When Les got his breath back, he gasped: "Get me to casualty, Janice. I think I’ve got what-ye-call-it…internal bleeding or summat."

"I think you’ve got the wind knocked out of you is what you’ve got," said Janice. "Stop moaning." Janice and Leanne managed to drag him to his feet.

"You!" said Les, pointing a finger at Nick. "I’ll sue you for every penny you’ve got."

"He’s a student, you daft beggar, he hasn’t got anything," said Janice.

"Have you called the ambulance yet?"

"Oh, come back home. I’ll make you a brew. You’ll feel better," said Janice soothingly, as she helped him back to the house.

"I’ll get you for this, Platt!" Les yelled over his shoulder as he disappeared into the house.

Nick and Leanne were left alone in the street, eyeing each other. Finally, Nick said: "Well, what did you expect me to do? You saw what he was going to do to Ashley. What was I supposed to do? And I don’t need to ask who told him, either. Thanks a lot, Lee!" He grabbed his satchel and stormed off down the street.

"Nick!" she called out after him. "Wait!" But he was gone.

When Leanne got back to the house, she found Les sprawled out on the sofa and Janice in the kitchen making tea.

"Well!" said Janice. "You were the one who wanted to tell him. I hope you’re happy, lady. Did you get what you wanted?"

Suddenly, without knowing why, Leanne burst into tears.

"Oh, charming!" said Les. "What a family I have got. Here’s her father dying, and as usual all she can think about is herself. Janice! Where’s me flaming tea?"

 

When Ashley saw that all was quiet, he unlocked the door and went across the street to open the corner shop. Maud was waiting for him.

"So," said Maud, "are you going to tell me what all this is about?"

"It’s nothing, Maud," said Ashley.

"Don’t tell me it’s nothing. I may be old, but I’m not blind and I’m not stupid. I saw that carry-on this morning, and I listen to what people say."

Ashley shifted nervously from one foot to the other. "I don’t expect you to understand," he said.

Maud looked offended. "Well, that’s as may be. What you expect and what you get may not be the same thing. I’ve lived a lot of years, and I’ve seen a sight more than you. We didn’t talk about this sort of thing in my day, but we knew it was there all the same. What do you think, you just invented it? So if you’re expecting me to carry on like that pillock of an uncle of yours—acting like you just grew a third arm out of the middle of your forehead—you’re going to be disappointed. There’s nothing much surprises me."

Ashley smiled with relief. "You’re the first person yet who hasn’t had a go at me."

Maud nodded with satisfaction. "All I’m saying is, think about what you’re doing. Don’t jump into something that you’ll regret. Make sure you’re going in with your eyes open."

"Thanks, Maud."

"Oh, yes, and while you’re at it," she added, "make sure that Nick is going in with his eyes open too. I’m not sure that lad always knows his own mind."

Ashley looked thoughtful for a moment.

 

"Ash? Are you home yet?" Nick dumped his satchel by the door.

"Right here," said Ashley, coming down the stairs. "Your mother was here earlier."

Nick turned pale. "Oh," he said. "What did she have to say?"

"Not much. She just said I should tell you to go straight over as soon as you got home, because she wants to talk to you. She didn’t say why. But she didn’t look best pleased with me."

"She must know, too." Nick crumpled on the sofa. "That’s all I need. What a day. I don’t think I can take much more of this. Did you ever feel like you wanted to go to bed, pull the covers over your head, and never come out again?"

"Sometimes," said Ashley. "It doesn’t do a lot of good, though."

"Have you seen Les again today?"

"No, he stayed well away from the shop."

"Well, make sure you keep that door locked. All the time."

"It’s okay, Nick. I can take care of myself."

"Yeah, but you shouldn’t have to. I’m the one who’s married to his daughter. He has no right going after you."

"Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. You just get along to your mother’s."

 

When Nick got back he flung himself down on the sofa and just sat for a long while without saying anything. Ashley waited for him to say the first word, but eventually he couldn’t stand it any more.

"How did it go?"

"Oh," Nick started out of his thought. "It could have been worse, I suppose. She said she was having trouble understanding this whole situation. I told her she wasn’t the only one."

"Is that all?"

"Well," said Nick, "she said she loved me, no matter what. But I think she’s finding it hard to take in. She had a lot to say about jumping into things without thinking them through, about making a mistake, I don’t know. Look, Ash, I don’t really want to talk about it any more. I’m just going to go to bed."

"All right," said Ashley. "I’ll be up in a bit."

Nick looked uncomfortable. "It’s been an awful day. I’m shattered. Maybe you could just sleep in your own bed tonight?"

"Right," said Ashley, embarrassed. "Of course. That’s what I meant."

Nick stumbled up the stairs without a word.

 

When Ashley came down in the morning, Nick was already sitting at the table and writing a note. Ashley came up behind him, put his arms around him and kissed his neck.

"Feeling better?"

"Yeah, I suppose. I’m just trying to finish this, okay?"

"What is it?"

Nick sighed. "Do I have to tell you everything now? It’s just a note to Leanne."

"Oh," said Ashley.

"I want her to talk to me. We can’t leave things the way they are. But I can’t go around there to talk to her. Not with Les there. So, I thought I’d just write a note asking her to meet me over here later. Then I can just nip over and drop it in the mail slot."

"What are you going to say to her?" said Ashley.

"How should I know?" snapped Nick. "And what business is it of yours, anyway? She’s my wife." He realized what he had said when he saw the look on Ashley’s face. "Sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded. I’m just having a little trouble coping with all this, okay? Just let me talk to Leanne, try to get sorted out where I stand with her. Then everything will be fine. Right?"

"Right," said Ashley uncertainly.

 

Nick didn’t go to college that day. When he had delivered the note, he sat in the house and waited to see if Leanne would come. It was late afternoon before the doorbell rang. Nick ran and opened it.

"Lee! Thank God you came."

She brushed past him, went into the living room and sat down. Nick sat down opposite her on the sofa.

"Well?" she said.

"Lee, I can’t tell you how sorry I am. I’ve done a horrible thing to you, the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life. You must hate me. I wouldn’t blame you if you did."

"No," said Leanne. "I thought I hated you. I said some rotten things about you. I even wanted Les to thump you. Until I saw him try it, and then I realized that wasn’t what I wanted at all. But it is going to take me a long time to forgive you."

"Well, a long time is better than never," said Nick hopefully.

"But what I really want to know is: why weren’t you honest with me from the start?"

"I don’t know," said Nick. "I had had feelings for men before. But when I met you, they all went away. I was only interested in you. I guess," said Nick, smiling ruefully, "I guess I thought you’d straightened me out for good. That was how much I loved you. And I thought those feelings were never coming back. So it didn’t seem important."

"Looks like you were wrong," said Leanne.

"Looks like I was," said Nick. "But wrong about them not coming back. Not wrong about loving you. I really did. I still do."

"Except now you love Ashley too?"

"Yes," said Nick.

"So," said Leanne, "where do we go from here?"

"That’s what I want to talk to you about," said Nick.

 

Ashley was preparing to close up the shop. He was bringing in the bouquets of cut flowers from the pavement when he thought of taking a bunch home for Nick. Nick had said Ashley was the first boy who had ever given him flowers; those flowers, of course, had turned out to be Leanne’s, but it still wasn’t too late for him to achieve this distinction. He slipped some money into the till and began wrapping them in brown paper.

Maud looked at him shrewdly. "I don’t need to ask who those are for."

"Happen you don’t," said Ashley, smiling. "I figure he needs some cheering up."

"I hope that lad appreciates you."

"Oh, he does. No fear."

He held the bouquet out and took a good look at it. No match for Leanne’s red roses, he thought to himself; but pretty enough.

 

"Lee," said Nick. "I’m so glad we had this talk. I knew, if we just had a chance to sit down and talk, away from everybody else, we could sort things out."

"Yeah," said Leanne. "Well, you just remember what you promised."

"I know, I know. I meant what I said. It will never happen again. I promise you."

"It better not," said Leanne. "If it does, I’ll scratch your eyes out. And I mean it."

"I know you mean it. I mean it, too." He smiled. "Thanks, Lee. You’re brilliant." He leaned in and kissed her softly on the cheek.

Just then they heard the front door slam shut.

"Ash? Is that you?" said Nick nervously. There was no answer.

"I’ll go look," said Leanne. She came back a moment later with a bouquet of flowers in her hand.

"Where’d they come from?" said Nick.

"I don’t know. Looked like they were flung at the doorstep. There was nobody there anyway." She looked at the flowers pityingly. "They’re ruined now, the stems are all broken."

"Must be somebody’s idea of a joke," said Nick.

"Never mind, I’ll just stick them in the bin," said Leanne briskly.

 

At ten o’clock that evening, Ken Barlow was coming out of the Rovers, when Nick came up to him, looking worried.

"Ken, is Ashley in there?"

Ken thought a bit. "No, I haven’t seen Ashley all evening. Sorry."

"I was expecting him back hours ago," Nick said. "I don’t know what’s happened to him."

"Well, if I see him, I shall let him know you’re looking for him."

"Yeah, cheers," said Nick, and headed off down the street.

Once Nick was out of sight, a shape stepped out of the darkness beside the Rovers, ran across to the house and slipped inside.

Nick searched everywhere between Coronation Street and the Red Rec. He could not imagine where Ashley might have got to. And he was anxious to find him; there were things he had to say, and he knew that their talk could not be delayed much longer. Finally, after some time spent fruitlessly tramping up and down, he went back to the house and let himself in with his key. He found Ashley coming down the stairs carrying a case.

"Ash, where’ve you been? I was looking all over for you."

"I just came to pick up a few things," said Ashley uncomfortably. "I figured I’d be gone before you got back. I’m going away for a bit."

"Going away? Where?"

"I’m going to stay at me Uncle Fred’s for a few days. I think it’s best."

"At your Uncle Fred’s? Why would you want to stay there? Listen, sit down for a minute. I’ve got something to tell you."

"I know you do," said Ashley. "Happen I don’t want to hear it. Just let me go."

"Ashley, why are you being so weird all of a sudden? Just hold on a second, and hear me out."

"Damn you, Nick!" Ashley flung his case down. It flew open, scattering clothes all over the floor. "Why can’t you ever just leave a thing alone, when I ask you to?"

Nick stared at him in silence.

"It’s just like when you started all this," said Ashley. "I asked you then just to leave it alone. I begged you, didn’t I? But you wouldn’t listen to me."

"Ash, what are you talking about?"

"It’s all right for you. You can be whatever you want to be. You can go back to Leanne, play happy families. Like you said: you can put it all out of your mind. You’ve done it before, and now you’re going to do it again. But me, I’m not like that. You showed me that, and now there’s no going back. Not for me. So if you weren’t serious, why didn’t you just leave me alone that night? In my whole life, nobody’s ever done anything to me as cruel as that."

"Wait," said Nick. "Hold on. Go back to Leanne?"

"I know what you came to tell me," said Ashley. "so there’s no need. But you two are going to have to find a new place. Leanne isn’t going to want to live here with me. And the two of you living together here—I don’t think I could stand it."

"I don’t believe this," said Nick. "I don’t believe this is happening. Look, just listen to me for a second! Will you?"

Ashley stared at him stubbornly and in silence.

"Please," said Nick. "Just sit down and listen to me. Please."

Slowly Ashley walked to the sofa and sat down, keeping his eyes on Nick all the while.

Nick took a deep breath. "I don’t know what’s going on in that head of yours. I know that you and I are as different as chalk and cheese. And I know we’re always going to have trouble figuring each other out. Probably if either of us had any sense, we would never have started this in the first place. But honestly, Ash, if we’re going to make this thing work, we’re both going to have to do a little better at understanding each other than this!"

"What are you talking about?" said Ashley slowly.

"You heard me. All that about how I showed you, and now there’s no going back. And what do you think you did to me?"

"I don’t know," said Ashley.

"Well, then shut up, you berk, and let me tell you!" said Nick. "Okay, I admit that first night, when I took you to bed, I didn’t really know where this was going. I wanted you, I knew you wanted me, and I took full advantage. Maybe that wasn’t so clever, if I really cared about you. Maybe I should have thought about it more. But do you remember the next night?"

Ashley nodded.

"When Leanne found us, and I didn’t know what to do, and I totally fell apart. And you held me and told me we were going to get through this together. What do you think you did to me?"

Ashley stared at him in bewilderment.

"You’re stronger than me, Ash. You wouldn’t think it at first, but you are. When it counts the most. And you’re the biggest-hearted bloke I ever met in my life." Nick swallowed hard. "Exactly how easy do you think it’s going to be for me to walk away from you?"

"I don’t know," said Ashley. "Not very easy, then?"

"Probably not. But we’re never going to know for sure, because I’m not even going to try."

"But…I don’t understand. What about Leanne?"

"I had to try to make my peace with her. I couldn’t live with myself, if I didn’t at least try. She came around this afternoon, and we talked it out."

"Oh?" said Ashley quietly.

Nick sighed. "It was the hardest talk I’ve ever had in my life. She said she understood. She isn’t going to find it easy to forgive me, but she said she understood. And maybe some day she will forgive me. I still love her, you know. And I think she still loves me. But we both knew that I was going to have to choose. And I think we both knew what choice I was going to make."

"She must hate me," said Ashley.

"Actually, she likes you a lot better than she likes me, at the moment. She said I’d got myself the sweetest bloke in the world, and that you were miles too good for me. She’s right, of course. And she made me promise…" Nick trailed off.

"Promise what?"

"It’s kind of embarrassing, really…Okay, she made me promise that from now on I’d be honest with myself, and honest with you. And that I’d never, ever do to you what I did to her. And she said that if I ever did, she’d come around personally and—"

"And scratch your eyes out," said Ashley softly.

"Yeah. How did you know that?"

"I don’t know," said Ashley. "Lucky guess?"

Suddenly, Nick remembered the slamming of the door, and it all made sense. He went out to the kitchen, and returned a moment later, carrying a bunch of broken-stemmed flowers. Ashley looked at the ground in embarrassment.

"Here," said Nick. "Take these."

"Why?"

"Because I said so. Just take them." Ashley took the flowers.

"There," said Nick. "Now I’m the first boy who’s ever given you flowers. At least," he hesitated, "I hope I am."

"You are. You are," said Ashley.

"You realize what this means," said Nick. "You really are stuck with me now. If I want to avoid physical injury from Leanne, I’m going to have to be completely faithful to you from now on. I hope that isn’t going to be a problem for you."

"No. Not really," said Ashley. He was starting to laugh and cry at the same time. "It was just…I didn’t understand…and then, when you kissed her…"

Nick rolled his eyes, and slid down next to Ashley on the sofa. "Honestly, Ash! Do I have to teach you everything? Okay, let’s do kisses. The kiss I gave Leanne was like this," he brushed his lips gently against Ashley’s cheek, "a friendly kiss. This, on the other hand, is not." He drew Ashley towards him and kissed him slowly and passionately on the lips. "See the difference?"

"Maybe," said Ashley with a sly grin. "I’m not sure. Better try again."

Nick made repeated attempts to illustrate the difference, but Ashley seemed unusually slow to understand. He kept claiming he needed another try at it, just to make sure. While Nick was demonstrating, Ashley gently eased him out of every stitch of clothing he had on.

"Oy!" laughed Nick. "No fair, you’re still dressed. Who’s taking advantage of who now?"

"But I like looking at you," said Ashley. "Besides, you are a nude model, you should be used to it."

"Yeah," said Nick. "And I always said it was just a job, and nothing would come of it. Now look, it’s got me sleeping with the butcher’s boy. But even so, it’s still no fair."

So Nick stripped Ashley.

"There," said Nick. "Better. Much better." And they fell into each other’s arms on the sofa.

"Nick," said Ashley, "wait. Stop."

"Don’t tell me," said Nick, sighing in exasperation. "It’s time to go put kettle on."

"No. Actually, I was just going to ask you if you remembered to lock the door when you came in."

"Oh, shit!" said Nick. "That’s all we need. Your Uncle Fred walking in and getting an eyeful." Nick staggered out of the room to lock the door, and a moment later was back in Ashley’s arms.

"Afraid I wasn’t coming back?" he teased.

"Nope," said Ashley, "not any more. I trust you. Besides," he grinned, "where could you go? I’ve got all your clothes. And you’re not getting them back until I say so."

 


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