The school halls were chaos, with students and parents clamouring to empty rooms, pack last minute items, and move luggage. To Ace it seemed that many of the younger children were simply running around for the sake of it. Yet more were chatting ten-to-the-dozen as they excitedly towed parents and relatives around. He didn't blame them. The school was pretty special. There was a time when Ace would have given anything to tow his parents around and show them all the wonderful things - the library, computer suite, science lab - but they just weren't that kind of people.
Arthur Charles Edward Richmond, otherwise known to just about everyone as Ace, knew he was an embarrassment to his parents, and although he tried hard not to let it affect him, there were some things that got through his armour despite his best efforts. School was one of those things. Mr and Mrs Richmond avoided the place like the plague, and if they had no other choice but attend, they made the visit as short as possible. It was a quick in and out, presumably pretending they were collecting their perfectly normal son from a perfectly normal boarding school. Any reminders that the pretence was an illusion, were ignored or met with tight–lipped disapproval.
Now, as he negotiated the corridors, drawing ever nearer the front door and outer courtyard where his parents were waiting with his brothers, Ace’s heart fluttered nervously in his chest. While most students looked forward to going home for the holidays, he dreaded it. The only time he really lived was when he was at school. They were dedicated to increasing his independence, while at home they seemed dedicated to taking it away.
As he pondered his lot, an arm snaked out, caught him around the waist and swung him out of the stream. He slammed into a lean, hard body.
“Hey gorgeous,” a voice growled. “You weren’t planning to leave without saying goodbye were you?”
“As if I’d have been able to find you. Why are you still here anyway? You’re usually first out the door.”
“And you’re usually the last.”
“Yeah well…I guess I’m not as eager to get home as some others might be. Some people have all the luck – cool parents, angelic siblings and a home that’s a home, not a bloody show house, made of marble and ice.”
The body chuckled. “I bet your house isn’t made of ice – at least the part you live in. You’re way too hot to be put on ice.”
“Right. James… I have to go. They’ll be waiting.”
“Let them wait. They won’t be any less horrible if you go now, or in two hours.”
“You obviously don’t know my mother. If I wasn’t there in two hours she’d either have had a heart attack or sent Logan to find me.”
“God help you. Not Logan.”
“You can laugh. He’s not funny.”
“I know.” James’ voice changed entirely, losing its humorous tone. “I hate the way he treats you; the way they all treat you.”
“I’m okay. Once I get home I can go to my room and shut the door.”
“It’s not fair you have to do that – hide in your room. Is your mother still letting Logan and Nick get away with murder?”
It’s not that so much. I think she feels guilty.”
“Guilty? What the hell for?”
“Well…Nick feels she pushed him aside when I was born, and I took up all their attention. Logan fees that I take up all their energy and time, and there’s none left for him.”
“But that’s stupid. You don’t get any attention.”
“Yeah I do. Well I used to. It’s not that I wanted it, but before I moved up to the attic Mother was clucking around me like a hen, and Father was just as bad, when he was home.”
“But that still doesn’t give Logan and Nick excuses to treat you like they do.”
“They’re okay. I can handle them. It’s only for the holidays.”
“Christ, Ace. You should be looking forward to holidays not enduring them until you can come back to school.”
“It won’t be for long. Another three years, and I’ll be off to university. Then they’ll all be out of my hair.”
“Do you really think they’ll let you?”
“I’d like to see them try not to.”
“Hm. Oh God, I wish I could come home with you.”
“What could you do?”
“Kick their asses.”
Ace laughed. “As if.”
“I could kick yours.”
“You couldn’t kick your own.”
“Well, d’uh. No one can kick their own ass.”
“Arthur Charles Edward Richmond, where on earth have you been? We’ve been waiting outside for twenty minutes. How long can it take to pick up a note from the headmaster?”
“The headmaster?” James asked, as Ace quickly pushed away from him.
“What was in it?” Mrs Richmond asked. “Oh, hello James. Haven’t you left yet?”
“Not yet, Mrs Richmond. My parents were held up by an accident on the motorway. They’ll be here soon. Can’t wait to blow the joint. Can Ace come stay with us for a couple of weeks? I want to teach him how to ride.”
“Ride?” Mrs Richmond’s voice sounded as if she was about to pass out with shock. “You can’t ride.”
“Why not? I’ve been riding since I was old enough to hold on to the saddle. Fallen off my fair share, too.”
“But how…? You can’t…. That’s ridiculous.”
“More ridiculous than spending the whole summer hiding in an attic?”
There was an edge to James’ voice and Ace panicked, afraid the conversation was about to get out of control. James had a hard time with boundaries.
“I won an award,” Ace blurted.
“What?” his mother snapped.
“That’s what the headmaster wanted.”
“What kind of award?” Mrs Richmond asked.
Ace squirmed uncomfortably, wishing the ground would open up and swallow him. He knew what was coming.
“I was in a martial arts competition last month, I won a gold medal. I didn’t know they were putting me forward for an award but they did and I won it. The headmaster wants me to attend the next event to formally accept it. He also wants to know if I’d be interested in tutoring at a summer school.”
James whistles. “Way to go, ninja. When are you going?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mrs Richmond snapped. “Blind boys can’t do martial arts.”