Even before Alasdair had finished dumping his bags in their lounge, wheezing as he hauled his bulky frame around, Chris noticed something odd about him. Difficult as it was for a person like Alasdair to project jauntiness, somehow he did.
'Good summer?' inquired Chris.
'Oh yeah. Y'know I went to that gaming conference at Leicester?'
'Yeah. But you didn't e-mail me about it, so I assumed it was crap. Was it good?'
'Modesty forbids ... but look at this! Gold! Nice, eh?'
'Deity level on Civ.'
Alasdair failed to look modest. 'Under 300 moves.'
'You're shitting me!'
'S true. Gotta screen capture, look!'
'You really did it yourself?'
'Amazing! How did you get round the money problem?'
'Colonies. Hive off your cities into well-placed colonies and take out your main rival. You can't lose even with random events.'
'I knew that.'
'Nice that you're glad for me, Chris. Appreciate it.'
'Yeah, yeah. Er ... well done. You're gonna run for GameSoc?
'I think the boys will all look up to me now, don't you?'
'If they see you do it in front of their faces, maybe. Can you repeat it?'
'Course. They'll be round later, won't they? Let's set up, yeah? You can help.'
Alasdair found the CD and fed it into his desktop. Chris thought perhaps they should go across to Sainsbury's and stock the fridge now they were back, but it seemed there were more pressing things in life. Besides, Alasdair always had crisps and biscuits close at hand.
He was in fact already chomping. Spraying out a few loose crumbs along with his words, he commented, 'Freshers' Fair Tuesday. I promised to help out on the LGBT table.'
'I thought it folded last year. It was a dead loss. That third-year who ran it had about as much clue as the pope does about anal sex. She went into hiding during the riots, even though nothing happened in Stevie. What was her name ...? Useless cow anyway. So who's taking it on?'
'Do I!' Chris put down the collection of CDs he was sorting. 'He had that thing with Miles. I used to drool imagining them doing it. Then he disappeared. Story was he'd dropped out 'cos he was in depression after the split up. Well, that's what Miles said. Myself, I think everyone had to go undercover with all that shit last winter. He's back?'
'Repeating his third year. Maybe it's because Miles has gone and it's safe to come out.'
'Chance for me then?'
Alasdair's small eyes looked sharply out through folds of flesh at his friend's pale and horsey face, his spots and greasy red hair. Both young men had come out at Stevenage, but as Alasdair put it, they found there was no place much to go after they had. But in his way, Alasdair was a loyal friend. 'Yer never know, Chris mate. There's only so much choice in Stevie. But you gotta know another thing.'
'In my back pack ... side pocket.'
'What, this issue of Attitude?'
'See the cover model?'
'SHEE-ITE!! It's ...'
'Yeah, Jammy Max. He may have standards now, Chrissie boy.'
* * *
'And they call you Jammy?'
Maxim Josep Wladislaw Jamroziak grinned at Gavin. 'Considering my obvious good luck, it's not that dull a nickname. Look, I ended up with you, Gavness! I'm the luckiest Jamroziak in twenty-one generations!'
Gavin Michael Price's lips quirked up in his quiet little smile, the one that sent shivers up and down Max's spine. He took his place on Max's lap and snuggled. Gavin loved being there as much as Max did having him. 'I've just so missed cuddling,' he sighed. 'Can't get enough of it.'
The two young men stayed quiet for a while. Eventually Max asked, 'Gav? Are you alright with all this?'
'With this what?'
'Well, Stevenage to begin with. We didn't have to come here. We might have gone back to Cranwell, where you started.'
Gavin shook his shaggy head. 'No,' he declared firmly, 'I couldn't go back there. I have to move on, Max, if I'm to grow. And it doesn't really matter to me where I take up again. I didn't even achieve a full year's credits at Cranwell before ... y'know. I gotta start again, and Stevenage at least has a sociology department.'
'It's more a programme within Life Science and Social Studies, but yeah, s'pose.'
'London's close too, and we've got friends there. We can go see Davey, or Andy and Matt. Another thing is that Phil's here in Stevie and you want to study with him, don't you?'
Max nodded solemnly. 'Course it's up in the air if he'll stay in this dump. He's a bit of an academic star is our Phil, y'know. Somewhere big might buy him up and then where would I be?'
Gavin shook his head. He nestled further into Max's welcoming embrace and sighed. Despite the big changes in his life - or 'post-afterlife' as Max called it - Gavin was happy, perhaps happier than he had ever been in either of his existences.
They had settled into their new flat in a sixties property off the Hitchin Road in Stevenage and were doing their best to make it home. The furniture was shabby but there was a double bed and utilities were included in the rent. The landlord seemed decent, and had been very obliging about only charging them half-rent as a retainer in July and August, after they had been kicked out of Max's former single flat above a shop in the town centre at the end of the previous semester.
It had been a good summer, apart from the unexpected eviction in June. The big break was that Davey Skipper had found occasional modelling work for Max, who had attracted notice as an Attitude cover-boy. That in turn led to quite a few advertising shots. Max had been particularly delighted to observe his slim body and handsome face featuring in condom advertisements plastered all over buses. 'I'm the face of genital health,' he had gleefully proclaimed to Gavin. The money he earned had allowed them to spend a few weeks in Scotland and the North of England, and then get down for a week's stay with Gavin's old friend Eddie Peacher in Cranwell. The deposit on the new flat had taken care of what little remained.
Now it was mid-September and the rest of the students were returning. Fresher's week began on Monday next.
After a long pause, Max hugged his small lover close. 'This weekend, Gav ...'
'Maybe it's time. Your parents need to know you're back. You've been putting it off, but they have rights. It's been nearly eight years and they've heard nothing from you.'
Max felt Gavin go tense, and it was a while before he relaxed again. Eventually he sighed in resignation. 'You're right, Jamminess, it's got to be done. It's not as if they had any issues with my being gay. I'm quite sure they'll love you. But ...'
'What's the problem?'
'I'm just not certain how I can carry off the explanation the intelligence guys in Strelzen dreamed up, even with the documents and fake passport. Then there're my vile brothers. I've told you about them.'
'Often. They were pigs, but that was years ago when they were teenagers. The oldest ... he must be older than I am now. Guys change when the hormones stop poisoning them.'
Gavin shook his head. 'I have my doubts. But, if you hold my hand, I'll make the call.'
'That's my hero. I love you.'
Gavin reached up his head and kissed Max on the mouth. It might have gone further, but with a smile Max set his small lover on his feet and pointed imperiously to the phone.
Just before he took up the receiver he looked back at Max. 'And I need to get a job too. Are there gay pubs in Stevie?'
* * *
The University of Stevenage was a newcomer to the world of higher education. In something under twenty years it had gone from being a county-council teacher-training college to a brief reincarnation as a polytechnic, which in turn had been its launch pad for its unexpected leap to university status. The staff was still reeling with the shocks of the constant reinventions and expansion of their institution, not to mention three different logos in four years. Some older staff still called it 'the college'.
Students like Max noticed most the miscellany and inconvenience of the campus layout as their inheritance from their university's past. The teacher-training college had been lodged in comfortable but unambitious pre-war buildings out towards Hitchin. The polytechnic expansion had populated its former playing fields with dubious postmodern eighties blocks, which were already showing their age. The university generation of buildings had brought quite a classy Student Union complex to the old campus and funded a brand new steel-and-glass campus in the town centre to house a nest of experimental programmes.
There were at least one or two educational advantages to the expansion. The Stevenage staff were on average a lot younger than in most universities, and several of the degree courses had as a result developed both rapidly and in innovative directions. The English department in particular had done well in the government-research assessments. It had got international rating, sponsored conferences, raised research grants and made good appointments. Several of its junior lecturers were developing into research stars. The problem for the university was to keep those staff, and the problem for the department was to attract students of ability. Stevenage was not the destination of choice for the brighter eighteen-year-old.
Max Jamroziak was a fairly typical Stevie student. He had underperformed in his A levels at his Hertfordshire comprehensive school. He had dithered about whether university was really for him, and finally found himself at Stevenage at the last moment through clearing, largely because no one else had wanted him. Besides, it was just up the road from home, although far enough away for him to live independently.
Nonetheless, Max was bright, if not necessarily articulate. Responding to the patient tuition of the young English staff, he had begun to blossom academically. He had found enthusiasm and interests and learned to believe in himself and his opinions. Now he was poised to secure a good degree and had ambitions to enrol in Stevenage's new master's programme in contemporary literature. Max knew that the year to come was critical for his future. He was pondering all these things as he got off the bus from the town centre and trudged through the campus entrance.
It was the Friday before term began. Although there were not many students around as yet, Max knew the English department would be full of lecturers, who were there for the departmental meeting. A popular student, he was smilingly greeted by several staff in the corridor as he made his way to the office of Dr Phil Maddox, his mentor. Phil and he had struck up a genuine friendship in his second year, and indeed Phil had been the first person he had come out to.
He found Phil feverishly tapping away at his keyboard. 'I've bloody lost the flash drive with my lecture notes on! Shit! Shit! Shit! I should have copied it on to my laptop. Now I've got to reconstruct my lecture for Tuesday. You okay, Max? How's Gavin? Don't mind me, sit down.'
'Is it alright?'
Phil relaxed and beamed at him. 'Just pre-term anxieties. It's okay, I'm not trying to get rid of you. How's Gavin?'
Max settled in a chair. 'He's lovely. It can't be easy for him. There're times he sorta disappears into himself, know what I mean?'
'Looks preoccupied? Eyes go out of focus? Puts salt in his tea?'
'Yeah. That sorta thing. But what can you expect? He comes back from the dead. He's twenty-six but looks seventeen. He's talked to angels and demons, had the power of life in his hands, and his best friend died in front of his eyes. Can't expect him to adjust overnight, can ya?'
'No. But if anyone can help him, it'll be you. You'll bring him back into this world. You're where he wants to be. And how are you, sweetheart?'
'Me? Um ... okay, I think.'
'Come on, Max. You didn't escape the weirdness either. You were there when Lije died, you defied the forces of evil, you were tortured and healed, fought the Antichrist and flew through the sky! And now you're back in a flat in Stevie, the capital of the Kingdom of Humdrum. I'm not sure what should be the bigger shock: the excitement in Rothenia or the return to normality.'
'Er ... put it that way, and maybe I should be traumatised, but I don't think I am. Mostly I worry about my Gav. Haven't got time to worry about me.'
'Yes, well, don't let the reaction creep up on you.'
'We had a quiet summer, walking in the mountains. Gav liked that. We had tremendous sex, we both liked that, too. He's amazing, even now he's mortal again ...' Max's eyes lost focus and he gave a lopsided smile. 'He wanted to go and revisit Cranwell. Eddie Peacher showed us a good time. He really loves my Gav.'
'I understand he owes Gavin a lot, and they were good friends back in their first year.'
'Eddie's a great guy. We had long talks about twentieth-century fiction. He gave me lots of ideas and a bookful of references for my dissertation.'
'He's a very solid scholar. Wasn't in any hurry to finish his doctorate, but then he's a Peacher and money obviously is not a consideration for him. He's just getting his monograph on Le Fanu ready for Yale. I wonder, though, whether he'll ever settle into a job. He says he'll get round to it eventually, but his annual income is somewhat more than that of my university, so I can't see the incentive.'
'How's you, Phil?'
Phil Maddox looked surprised to be asked. 'Me? Aren't I supposed to be the one who asks pastoral questions? Hang on. I get it. The rumour mill's been busy, hasn't it? No, I'm not entertaining job offers from Harvard and Cambridge. I'm not leaving Stevie yet. The Dressner bubble has swelled and burst. My fifteen minutes of academic fame are up, and I'm working on the next book. No one'll bid for me until I've published a minimum of two more titles. So don't worry, I'll be here at least till you've finished your master's. That's still your plan, isn't it?'
'Oh yeah ... and of course I have to stay on till Gav graduates.'
'No change there then.'
'You saw Davey over the summer?'
'Oh yeah. He wanted some time with Gav, just like Eddie did. He's still limping a bit and pissed off about it. He can't dance till the physio's finished and he just aches to be on the floor. Terry had to sit on his head when we went clubbing back in June. Then he got mean and moody when me and Terry danced instead. He's totally amazing.'
'Terry? Oh yes. I've been on the floor with him. It's another world he takes you to. Did Gavin dance?'
Max laughed and shook his curly head. 'No. Gav would rather face a horde of Hellhounds armed only with a toothpick than make a spectacle of himself in public. But it'll change. I'll get him out there one day. Henry said he once dragged him on to the floor when they were first-years.
'Gav's doing the hard thing today. He's gone down to Gloucester to reunite with the parents. I would have gone, but ... y'know, one shock at a time.'
'I would have thought they'd be delighted to know their Gavin's got a man like you.'
'We'll see. It'll be emotional enough for him as it is, and then there's the odd thing about his appearance.'
'Hmm. He skipped seven years, didn't he. He'll look exactly the way he did when they last saw him.'
'No ... not exactly. Eddie showed me his old pictures. Gav's hair's changed. It's sorta thick and shaggy now instead of floppy, and his face isn't quite the same either. Definitely prettier when you look close. 'Nother thing - his spell of immortality gave him a tighter, more muscular physique. He was a weed in the old days. He's a lot fitter now. He may not have his powers anymore, but he's sorta ripped.'
'A gift from the Great Council, you think?'
'That's what Henry said when I asked him. Sorta like a pension enhancement, he said. Not sure what he meant by that.'
'I think I follow him. Gavin is ... well, what can I say? There's nothing to compare him with. He's been returned from death and is apparently human again. Any sign of continuing powers?'
Max shook his head. 'Nothing. He even got blisters from his boots when we were walking in Galloway, just like a real person. No mind powers and no supernatural strength, though ... it's just that ...'
'Oh, nothing. I'm still trying to work it out. But there's no doubt that, even if he's human again, he's been given a special gift as a reward for all his sufferings, just as Henry was given a kid ...'
'I'm not sure Henry would look at it that way.'
'I mean that Gav's body's been polished, sorta like you valet a car after a service ... know what I mean?'
'You're saying Gavin's been given a wax and a wheel balance?'
Max laughed out loud. 'Brilliant! I gotta tell him that one.'
The two men smiled at each other. Max took his leave, promising to fix up a date in London sometime soon for an evening with Ben and Phil.
As he left, Phil commented, 'Your fans expect you to stand as president of LGBT Soc, by the way.'
'They do? You mean Chrissie and Alasdair from last year's second-year? No chance. Not my style at all. Sides, Gay Stevie is a total no-no. We were just a few lonely homos in my year, including that bastard Miles. He had no gay mates I knew of. Were there more of them in the first year?'
'About a dozen all told, though they didn't get themselves organised much.'
'I'll think about it ... but I need to focus, Phil, you know that. Work, work, work!'
* * *
Max left the Humanities block by the rear exit and navigated his practised way across campus via several side doors, corridors and courtyards. Through-routes were not easy to find on the university's Hitchin Road campus, which had grown up without benefit of any planning. Abruptly his meanderings led him to the Union, one of the campus's few buildings of merit. It was like encountering a cliff of blue glass, inside of which could be glimpsed cafeterias, halls and a bar arranged round a glazed atrium.
Max grinned to himself as he remembered how he had met Gavin, apparently by accident - but, as they later learned, by some greater plan laid in lost ages. The Union that day had been crowded, and when he had dodged into the bar to escape Miles's mates, there had been Gavin: shy, cute and mysterious. It had truly been love at first sight. And how did he feel now that love was consummated and all had been unveiled? Max's mercurial mind dodged away from that one.
He ordered an Americano from a bored lady at the coffee kiosk, topped it up with semi-skimmed milk, found a seat and dumped his bag. The place was very quiet, though the first Events posters had gone up, and tables for the Freshers' Fair in the Union hall were being carried in by porters.
Max pondered the idea of organising LGBT Soc, but couldn't find the enthusiasm. Still ... if there had been an active society when he had arrived three years before, he might have sorted out his confused sexuality a lot earlier. He rather resented the time he had wasted on continuing the affair with his school-vintage girlfriend, from whom he had got nothing but grief and bad sex. No wonder that third-year guy in marketing - whatever his name was - had hit on him. He must have seen Max's confusion. And then Max had at last had his first good sex, and it had been a revelation of what was out there to be experienced.
His cock twitched as he remembered the first time a man's lips had wrapped themselves round it. If only he'd dared to go further that night and taken the offered arse. But maybe he'd been better off waiting for Miles. For all Miles was a shit, the sex had been hot, at least when he had been in a good mood.
Did Max have a duty to the gay freshers? Perhaps that was what Phil had been trying to tell him.
As he sipped his coffee, he flipped his mobile and smiled tenderly when he noticed the number of messages from his lover. Gavin had texted him at Stevenage station, at Kings Cross, while waiting at Paddington, then twice on the Swansea train, once at Bristol Parkway and finally Gloucester when he got off at the station. Max rather guessed his boyfriend was high on anxiety. He texted back his love and encouragement, though he knew Gavin was now with his parents and would probably not get the message until later. But it would be there waiting for him when next he turned on his phone.
Suddenly a wave of motion caught Max's eye. He looked up to see a bulky figure in a Metallica tee shirt and long black leather coat waddling ponderously towards him. Oh crap! Alasdair.