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Together We Can Fly - 9. Chapter 9

A few days later, another sunny morning found Toto lying on the grass of the formal gardens outside the town’s small Municipio on the hill behind the cathedral. Hands behind his head, he was watching a lone, fluffy cloud scudding gently across the sky between the canopies of two enormous pines. He was surrounded by beds of colourful geraniums. The two girls who were with him were also sprawled on the ground nearby, talking cheerfully.

“Are you serious, Bella?” Claudia was saying. “Do you really want to captain a ferry boat?”

“Why not?” Isabella replied. “They say it’s a man’s profession, but why should I care about that? I want to do something that feels real.”

“I guess it beats running a shop, or working in a hotel, or any of the other things you’re expected to do for a living if you stay here.”

“Exactly… unless you’re an artist, and I’m not, you know… not like you.”

Claudia sighed. “Does photography really count as art?”

“There’s more to you than that, Claudia, and you know it.”

“All right,” Claudia conceded. “Still, I like photography the best. Strike a pose, Bella!”

Toto tore his eyes away from the sky and glanced over at the two girls. He laughed as he saw Claudia framing a shot with her expensive camera while Isabella stretched out on the grass in an attempt at a seductive pose. To Toto, it looked like a scene from a Greek tragedy.

“Woof, woof,” he said.

“Oh, sorry,” Isabella said. “I forgot the village idiot was here.”

“Come on in, Toto,” Claudia said.

“What?” Toto replied.

“Let’s have some fun with this. Pretend you’re a couple on a romantic afternoon.”

Isabella fell back laughing. “No way!”

“You’ve got to be joking, Claudia…” Toto said. He paused. “But, wait a minute… are you saying I’m not attractive, Isabella?”

“Oh, no,” Isabella gasped affectedly. “You’d be a real catch.”

“In that case…” Toto scrambled over to her and knelt over her, attempting a smouldering look. “Girl, you are mine… I hope you’re getting this, Claudia.”

“I’m trying!” Claudia panted between laughs, “but my hands are shaking too much.” Toto heard the shutter click a few times. “There.”

“Oh,” Isabella said, “this is in no way awkward.”

“How about a kissing shot?” Claudia suggested. “I could print a few copies and pin them up around town. That would really confuse the haters.”

Toto gave her a challenging look. “It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been kissed by a girl.”

Isabella switched her gaze to Claudia at once. “Oh, this is a new story,” she said delightedly.

“Toto!” Claudia cried, now going a little pink. “I’m going to kick your ass for that.”

Toto grinned at her mercilessly.

“I think we’ll skip the snogging scene, if it’s all the same to you,” Isabella said, rolling out from under Toto. “I don’t think my virtue could take it.”

“Can you imagine the gossip, though?” Claudia said. “One thing’s for sure. If we did it, it’d blow Michele’s mind! Maybe it would finally get him to move on Toto.”

“Don’t torture the poor boy,” Isabella said, rolling onto her back to look at the sky. “Anyway, Toto has a plan, don’t you, Toto?”

“Not exactly,” Toto said. “I just think he needs to talk to his people. He’s totally hung up on the ‘gay’ thing.”

“How are you going to make him do that?” Claudia asked.

“I don’t know,” Toto admitted. “He has to want to, I guess. He’s pretty frightened.”

“Maybe he just needs to grow a pair?” Isabella sighed.

“No, it’s not that simple,” Toto replied. “I remember how much it used to scare me. When Papà saw me try to kiss Michele, I thought my life was over.”

“I guess so,” Isabella said.

“And then there’s the whole church issue…”

“Is that such a big deal?” Claudia asked. “Father Stefano is pretty chilled out…” She glanced across at the nearby street, where a stooped figure dressed in black was hobbling down towards town. “And if even Marina can come to terms with having a gay grandson, surely there’s hope for Chiara and Davide.”

Toto sprang to his feet and ambled over to greet Gianni’s grandmother.

“Buongiorno, Marina,” he said.

Marina looked up in surprise and smiled at the new arrival. “Hello again, Toto,” she said. “What brings you to the Toro?”

Toto gestured over his shoulder at the two girls; Claudia raised a wave. “Just here with friends,” he replied. “Are you going shopping?”

Marina nodded. “Actually, I’m just on my way to pay your father a visit.”

“You should try the salami,” Toto said automatically. “It’s good today.”

Marina chuckled. “A salesman already. Salvatore should take you on as his assistant.”

“I’d be happy to do that,” Toto said, “but Papà has other ideas.”

“You should listen to him, Toto. He wants what’s best for you.”

Toto nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

“Well, these old legs won’t support me for too long,” Marina said. “Have a good day, Toto.”

“And you, Marina.”

He watched as she continued on her way, rounding the corner onto the avenue of oleanders that led down into town, and then he returned to the others.

“Who was that?” Isabella asked.

“Gianni and Anna’s grandmother,” Claudia replied.

“Oh, right! She’s the one who…”

“Who almost sent Gianni back to England when he came out, yeah.”

Isabella frowned. “That seems cruel.”

Claudia shrugged. “I don’t think she meant to hurt anyone. She just… didn’t know what to do for a while there.”

Isabella sighed. “Gayness happens. People need to get over it.”

Claudia nodded. “That’s just what I’ve been saying for years!”

“‘Gayness’?” Toto repeated incredulously. “Marta was right, it does sound awful.”

“Well, I’ve got to go,” Isabella said, sitting up. “Sailing lessons!”

“That’s awesome, Bella,” Claudia replied. “See you later!”

Toto and Claudia waved Isabella off as she headed back down into town.

“So…” Claudia said. “There’s really been no movement with Michele, then?”

Toto shook his head. “No. I think he’s psyching himself up to it.”

“I hope so,” Claudia replied, “and I get what you’re saying about how he needs to talk to his people. But do you think it might help if the two of you had somewhere quiet you could go? You know, somewhere a bit closer than the top of Monte Brusara!”

Toto shrugged. “We have our olive grove.”

“Okay, sure,” Claudia said, “but what about somewhere that’s a bit easier to go at night? Somewhere you could chat undisturbed.”

“All right,” Toto replied. “You’ve got my attention. Where should we go?”

“Let’s go for a walk.”

They hopped up, and Claudia led Toto down the avenue of oleanders. Sprays of pink blooms weighed in from either side, while the distant hillside of Scala shimmered in the hazy morning air.

They turned left past the cathedral and crossed the square, where the bar owners were already unfurling their giant parasols and laying clean tablecloths on the outside tables, shooing away the pigeons that were scavenging for crumbs from the last night. They took the little street past the Villa Rufolo, with its displays of colourful ceramics, and climbed the winding stairs that led up the hill towards the Villa Cimbrone.

“Where are we going, Claudia?” Toto asked as they passed under the arches of the convent.

“Somewhere I watched Angelo and Gianni one night, years ago,” she replied. “It was during Marina’s birthday party at the Villa Maria. They snuck out together. I followed them, of course…”

“…being desperately in love with Gianni at the time,” Toto supplied.

“Hey, I was nine years old,” Claudia replied, punching him on the arm. “Anyway, I found them having a proper heart-to-heart in the dark. That was well before… you know… but I was too young to see it for what it was, and Angelo chased me away.”

They continued up the path until they reached the vegetable garden. Toto made as if to go straight on, but Claudia pulled him up the narrow side turning Michele had appeared from the night he had given Toto his swift pendant.

“I know this street,” Toto said. “It leads down towards Michele’s house, eventually. But, Claudia… it’s just an ordinary footpath.”

“Not exactly,” Claudia replied.

They were walking along a narrow footway little more than a metre wide. High stone walls rose to either side, adorned with lush vegetation. Claudia led them round a corner and then they descended a narrow flight of steps past a small salmon-pink villa. Above the trees at the foot of the staircase, Toto could just see a view down over the coast. The rugged, tree-crowned mountain beyond Maiori dominated the scene, enfolding the resort in its protective grasp.

Claudia took them round a corner at the foot of the steps, where the path turned abruptly right to follow the contours of the slope next to a tall stone retaining wall. Decorative lanterns hung from chains at intervals along the path.

“You used to be able to see more from here, before the trees grew so big,” she said. “It was kind of a viewpoint.”

Toto could still glimpse the sea view between the green fronds. He nodded.

“Why’s it so important?” he asked.

“I think Angelo and Gianni came here more than once,” Claudia said. “They used to disappear off together for hours at a time. I think this is one of the places they used to come to sit and talk.”

“And it’s quiet?”

“Hardly anyone ever uses it.”

“All right, maybe it’ll be some good to us as well. Thanks, Claudia.”

“Good luck with Michele, Toto. You guys deserve a break.”

Toto gave her a hug. She smirked as he pulled away. “Don’t tempt me, Toto.”

* * *

Later that morning, Toto pulled up outside Daniele’s house on his Vespa scooter. Michele pulled in behind Toto as he dismounted and turned his scooter around in the street.

Daniele must have been looking out for them, because he appeared at the gate without anybody having to ring the doorbell. He was back in his original pink tie-dye t-shirt from when they had first met him, and he seemed cheerful, although he must have suspected what was coming.

Toto had searched for something original for the three of them to do together, and his mind had flirted with alluring prospects like a visit to the larger beach at Maiori, but he put such bold notions aside. In truth, the trip was just a pretext to get both Daniele and Michele in front of Enzo and, hopefully, Filippo; so, in the end Toto had settled for suggesting a pizza for lunch and another kickabout at the Villa Cimbrone gardens.

As had become the custom, Daniele hopped straight onto the back of Toto’s scooter after accepting his spare helmet.

“I could do with getting some fuel, Dani,” Toto said.

“You’re taking me to see Enzo, aren’t you?” Daniele replied.

Toto nodded. “I guess I am.”

The younger boy sighed. “Okay.”

“Let’s go,” Michele said, and they set off back up the road towards town.

The hairpin bends didn’t seem to thrill Daniele as they usually would. Toto felt a little ashamed of himself, wondering if he was pushing his luck by asking a second friend to face their fears, but he persevered, feeling that it was the right thing to do.

At the end of the road, they turned sharply right onto the main Naples road and rode along the hillside outside the town until they reached the Palmeri garage. They pulled into the pumps together and killed their engines.

Toto’s luck, it seemed, was in: Enzo was manning the garage, and Filippo was with him. They were sitting on plastic chairs outside the little kiosk like a pair of elderly locals, although Toto suspected that their conversation had probably been nowhere near as wholesome.

The two young men looked askance at their new arrivals as Toto and Michele helped themselves to fuel. Enzo was scowling his usual scowl; but, once again, it was Filippo who spoke up.

“Look, Enzo, it’s a deputation of queer boys,” he jeered. “We’re honoured.”

“Whatever, Filippo,” Enzo muttered.

“Say, Michele,” Filippo went on, “Don’t your family go to church? I thought you’d know better than to keep hanging around with these blatant gay boys.” He sniggered. “You don’t want their perversion to… rub off on you.”

Michele’s face clouded. He glanced to Toto for help, but Toto just shrugged slightly and gestured towards Enzo and Filippo with his head.

This one’s on you, Michele… you’ve got to start standing up for yourself some time.

Michele stared back at him for a moment, looking stung by his lack of support.

“Cat got your tongue, Michele?” Enzo said sardonically.

Apparently realising he had no choice, Michele turned back to them. Toto sensed him steeling himself, working out what he was going to say.

“You talk a lot, Filippo,” Michele said after a while, “but I’ve never once heard you come out with anything worth saying.”

Filippo rose from his chair, incensed. “And what would you know, cazzo…?”

“And you just love to call people names,” Michele went on – he seemed to be getting into his stride now – “but Toto and Daniele are both worth ten of you. You’re just a halfwit coward who slinks around in the shadow of a bigger man.”

Filippo looked thunderstruck; his jaw sagged. “Enzo –” he spluttered, “I don’t have to listen to this. Help me out here.”

Enzo remained seated. “Not my fight, Filippo,” he growled quietly.

“Daniele’s twelve, by the way,” Michele said. “The poor kid probably doesn’t even know who or what he likes yet. What right have you got to judge him for the way he looks?”

Daniele slid down from the back of Toto’s scooter. He stepped forward and stood beside Michele, taking his hand, his face set.

“Oh, sure,” Filippo said sarcastically. “But’s let’s not forget your best friend Toto the fairy queen.”

“Yeah, so what, Toto loves me!” Michele exclaimed. “Who loves you so much, Filippo? For all you know, I could love Toto too. And, if I did, what the hell business would it be of yours?

Filippo seemed to be lost for words. He advanced on them, fists raised. “You little – I’m gonna…”

Daniele quailed a little, but Michele stood his ground. “You’re going to what? Take on all three of us? Toto’s right, you’re pathetic. I’m not afraid of you any more, Filippo, so why don’t you just get lost?”

Toto stepped forward and put a reassuring hand on Daniele’s shoulder, and at last the younger boy found his voice. “Yeah,” he piped up. “Get lost, Filippo!”

Shaking, his face pale with fury, Filippo stared for a moment at the three of them lined up together, but then he cursed loudly, turned, and stormed off down the street.

“Hey, Filippo!” Enzo called after him, but then he shrugged. He turned his customary glare upon Toto and Michele. “Don’t forget to pay before you leave,” he growled.

They paid for the fuel, and then turned and wheeled the scooters by hand for a while. Michele exhaled slowly. “You planned this, didn’t you, Toto?” he said. “I thought we were going there for Dani’s sake.”

“We were,” Toto replied, “but he wasn’t the only one.”

“You were epic, Michele,” Daniele said.

Michele seemed pleased. “Thanks, Dani, you did pretty well yourself” he said, but then he shot Toto a look. “But you’re a bastard, Toto.”

Toto nodded. “Yeah, I know.”

Michele raised his fist and they boxed knuckles gently. “Thanks.”

* * *

They opted for lunch at the pizzeria where Toto had dined with Gianni, Angelo and Claudia on the first night of the holidays. Sitting at an outside table in its colourful garden, they ploughed their way through three deliciously thin, freshly made pizzas while they watched a small group of feral cats roam and scavenge. Toto chose a pizza laden with ham, olives and artichokes, while Michele chose a traditional recipe with salty anchovies and Daniele waded through a Four Seasons.

“You really told Filippo,” Toto said after a while.

Michele shrugged. “I guess. He had it coming.”

“Enzo didn’t even seem to care.”

“Yeah,” Michele replied. “I noticed that too.”

Toto smiled. “You almost told them about us. Did you notice?”

Daniele’s interest perked up at once. He looked keenly at each of them in turn, following the conversation as if he were watching a tennis match.

“Well,” Michele hesitated, “I didn’t really tell them anything.”

“You raised the possibility, though. If you can tell Enzo and Filippo, you can tell anyone.”

Michele was starting to look uncomfortable. “I don’t know, Toto…”

Toto raised his hands submissively. “Hey, look, I know you need to wait until you’re ready,” he said.

“Thanks.”

“But… if you were to tell someone, who would you talk to first?”

Michele took a thoughtful sip of his mineral water.

“Maybe Father Stefano,” he said. “He might help me work out how to tell my family.”

“You trust him not to freak out?”

Michele nodded. “I talked to him after you, you know… a couple of years ago. He was… cooler than you’d think he’d be about it.”

“That’s really great,” Toto said.

Michele took another sip of water. “What do you think I should do, Dani?”

Daniele blinked. “Me?” he asked, taken aback.

“Yeah. Talk to me.”

“I don’t know…” Daniele frowned thoughtfully. “What would make you the happiest?”

Michele’s eyes turned towards Toto, who felt his heartbeat quicken. He fidgeted anxiously.

“I guess there’s really only one answer to that,” Michele said quietly.

Toto glanced over at Daniele, who glanced back, mouth slightly open.

Did that mean what I thought it meant?

From the wide-eyed look on Daniele’s face, Toto thought it probably did.

* * *

They paid for their meal and strolled out onto the avenue of oleanders. Toto was quiet, lost in thought about what he had just heard, and was only dimly aware of the scrape of cicadas and the quiet bustle of visitors around them as they stepped into the square. He was so preoccupied that he almost walked straight into Michele, who had come to an abrupt halt not far from the cathedral steps.

Toto looked up and realised that Father Stefano was standing in the open cathedral doors, looking out over the sunny afternoon scene. He tipped them all a wave.

“Ah… could you give me a few minutes, guys?” Michele said.

Toto stared as Michele set off up the cathedral steps, heading towards the priest. They greeted each other and stepped into the shady gloom of the interior. Next to him, Toto felt Daniele take his hand.

“Wow,” Toto said. “This is… really happening.”

Daniele tugged at his hand and pulled him over towards the umbrella pines. They sat on a bench in the shade of the trees, the raucous song of the cicadas washing over them amid the chatter of voices and the chink of cups and cutlery. Up in the cathedral bell tower, Toto saw one of the pigeons that sheltered there dancing amorously for another.

“This feels weird,” Daniele said.

“You’re telling me…”

“I want it to work out, though. I want you guys to be happy.”

Toto gave him a squeeze about the shoulders. “Thanks, kiddo.”

They were probably there for about fifteen minutes although, to Toto, it seemed much longer. Michele reappeared at the cathedral doors, rucksack over one shoulder, and descended the steps alone. Toto and Daniele waited at the bench as he crossed the square.

Toto looked intently at his friend’s brown eyes as he approached, but they gave nothing away.

“Shall we go and play some ball?” Michele said.

* * *

They climbed the steps together, wending their way up the hill between the old villas, high stone walls and pine trees. Toto kept stealing glances at Michele, but his friend still wasn’t talking. By the time they had reached the café at the top of the hill, Toto could no longer contain his curiosity.

“How did it go with the priest?” he asked desperately.

“Please, Toto,” Michele replied. “I just want one more afternoon as a normal kid.”

“Sure… okay.”

They spent a couple of hours at the gardens, and it was a good enough time, but Toto was still glad when it was over. He wanted to know what Michele was planning to do, and what it would mean for them both. Michele’s cryptic words surely meant that something important was in store.

They walked back down the hill, companionably but quietly; even Daniele abstained from his usual chatter. Reaching the square, they walked out through the tunnel to where the scooters were parked, and Toto prepared to say goodbye to his friends. Michele, however, reached out and placed a hand on his arm.

“Could you come with me, Toto?” he said.

Wordlessly, Toto nodded and walked to his scooter.

“Come on, Dani,” he said. The younger boy donned Toto’s spare helmet and hopped on behind him.

The short ride back down the hill was over in a flash. As they pulled up outside his house, a subdued Daniele disembarked, giving his helmet back to Toto.

“Good luck, Michele,” he said, pulling out a spare key and letting himself in through the gates.

They wheeled their scooters back up the road to Michele’s house. They parked them in a yard just off the sun terrace, and then Michele let them both in through the lower floor.

As luck would have it, both Michele’s parents were home. Davide was reading a newspaper at the dining table, while Chiara was pottering about cleaning the kitchen. They looked up as the two boys appeared at the top of the stairs.

“Oh, Ciao, Toto,” Chiara said cheerfully.

Toto smiled awkwardly and nodded. He wasn’t sure he’d be so welcome by the time Michele had finished his story.

Michele took a deep breath. “Mamma, Papà, can I talk to you for a minute?” he said; Toto could tell he was trying to keep his voice light, but his parents weren’t fooled. Chiara put down her cleaning cloth and joined her husband at the table at once; Davide folded up his newspaper and placed it down upon on the table.

“Of course, Michele,” Davide said.

Michele approached the table and indicated that Toto should follow. They sat down opposite Michele’s parents. Knowing what Michele must be going through, Toto’s insides were squirming in sympathy, but he tried not to let it show.

“I need to tell you something,” Michele said; his face was flushed, and his eyes were bright. “Something that’s been building for a while, but I haven’t known how to say it…” he floundered.

“Go on,” Davide urged.

Michele took a steadying breath. “Toto and I, we’re… I mean, I…” his voice cracked, and he covered his eyes. “We’re together, Papà.”

Chiara sighed deeply. “Oh, Michele,” she said, “are you sure?”

Michele nodded. “I’m sure, Mamma. This isn’t who I wanted to be, but… I can’t help it.”

All of a sudden, Davide looked like he had aged several years. “It’s all right, Michele,” he said dully, his shoulders slumped. “Thank you for telling us.”

Michele screwed up his face, and Toto realised he was fighting back tears. He reached out and placed a supportive hand on his friend’s shoulder.

“But it’s not all right,” Michele choked. “All that stuff you said about having grandchildren one day, now… you won’t get to. I’ve taken it all away from you.”

There was silence for a second, but then Chiara shoved her chair back harshly and stood, clutching the table for support.

“Please, Michele,” she gasped. “You can’t think that’s the most important thing to us. It’s your happiness that really matters.”

Shakily, she pushed her way around the table and pulled her son into a hug. He came out of his chair and clutched her, weeping onto her shoulder.

Chiara gave a meaningful look to her husband, who had remained seated. Pain was etched into his eyes, but he rose from his seat and joined the family embrace, leaving Toto alone at the table, feeling like an intruder.

As Toto watched, he realised it was even worse than that: he felt like the author of everything he was seeing, and he cast his eyes back down to the battered wooden tabletop, wishing he were anywhere but here.

“Toto,” Davide said raggedly, and Toto looked up, startled. “Are you deadly serious when you say you love my son?”

Toto nodded. “Yes, signore,” he replied.

“Then make sure that all of this was worth it,” Davide said, and he gestured to indicate that Toto should stand. Uncertainly, Toto did so, and he watched uncomprehendingly as Davide gently detached Michele from his mother’s clutches and turned him round to face Toto.

For a moment, Toto and Michele stood facing each other, Michele’s brown eyes vulnerable and his cheeks streaked with drying tears, and then Toto understood what was expected of him. He stepped forward and took Michele in his arms. His friend held him tightly back, and Toto looked over Michele’s shoulder at his parents standing side by side, trying to thank them without words. Chiara dried her eyes with a tissue, while Davide stood exhausted, that same aged look upon his face.

* * *

In the aftermath of their conversation with Michele’s parents, it was difficult to know what to say. After a while, Toto suggested that he and Michele should give Chiara and Davide some space to process it all, and nobody objected to his idea.

Toto and Michele set out into the early evening sun, which was dipping a bit lower in the sky, and set off down a steep stairway below Michele’s house that led straight down towards the sea.

Toto felt that the mood between them had changed. Michele’s skittish ambivalence, so close to the surface for the last few weeks, had faded away. He seemed subdued, but no longer so anxious.

They descended step after step between stone walls and olive groves, alone apart from the ever-present burr of the cicadas. Leading the way, Michele ran a hand down the warm stones of the wall, occasionally flicking it through tufts of valerian or sticky mouse-ear that grew out between the stones. From time to time, lizards skittered away into the cracks. They passed lemon plantations; here and there, branches laden with ripening yellow fruit reached out over the path, breaking up the blue sky.

“How are you doing, Michele?” Toto asked after a while.

Michele glanced over his shoulder. “I’m okay,” he said. “I feel better. I’m not sure about my parents, though.”

“They love you,” Toto assured him. “I think it’ll be all right.”

They reached a junction, where the path joined a second route that followed the contours of the steep hillside. They paused there, surrounded by lemons and olives, staring out to sea.

Michele rubbed his eyes and Toto hovered uncertainly by his side, wanting to comfort him but also wanting to give him space.

“Hey…” Toto said.

“It’s all right, Toto,” Michele said with a shadow of a smile. “I’m done crying about this.”

Toto slipped his hand into Michele’s, and they stood there for a while, kicking at the dirt with their shoes. Michele sniffed a couple of times, but he kept himself under control.

“How did Papà look, to you?” Michele said after a while.

“Kinda shell-shocked, I guess,” Toto said.

Michele nodded. “Yeah. I didn’t want to hurt him, but you’ve got to be…”

“You’ve got to be yourself,” Toto supplied.

They were still holding hands. “Can you imagine Claudia’s face if she could see us now?” Toto said.

“She will soon enough, I guess,” Michele replied.

“And Daniele… he’ll probably hit the roof.”

“Isabella will probably just slap me about and ask me why I didn’t do it sooner.”

They set off again, following the curve of the path around the hillside.

Michele glanced at Toto. “What about your father?” he asked.

Toto shrugged. “I’ll tell him soon. It won’t make much difference to him either way.”

They released each other’s hands and passed through the landscape together, walking companionably side by side along the earthen path. It many ways, it was just as it always had been between them, but Toto still felt that sense that the ground beneath his feet had shifted and would never be quite the same as it was before.

The deserted path led them around a valley of sorts in the hillside until it eventually delivered them to the hamlet of Torello. Toto remembered his walk down to Minori with Daniele, and how anxious he had felt back then about Michele’s mystery girlfriend. He had never been happier to be wrong.

They started to climb back up the hill, beginning to think about dinner. Having decided that Toto could safely leave his scooter at Michele’s, they sought a slow route back up to town, meandering between the villas that dotted the hillside with increasing density as they got closer to civilisation.

Eventually they reached the square with the fountain, where they paused to freshen up in the cool water. There, they caught sight of Gianni, who was serving drinks to visitors at the outside tables in front of the hotel. He tipped them a wave and, in a moment of boldness that thrilled Toto, they held hands again as they waved back. Seeming to forget himself for a moment, Gianni gaped, note pad dangling uselessly from one hand, before coming to his senses and hurrying back inside.

Toto laughed. “Come on,” he said, “you have to admit that was fun.”

Michele smiled slightly. “Do you think he’ll tell anyone?”

“Angelo, without a doubt.”

Their pizza lunch was starting to seem like a long time ago, so they agreed to stretch their finances even further by getting dinner out as well. After some discussion, they decided to go for a takeaway from Da Rossi followed by drinks in the square.

After a chat with Pietro and Anna in the restaurant, they sat down on a bench in the square with their takeaway dinners steaming before them; Toto had chosen a pasta dish with tomatoes, king prawns and fresh chilli, while Michele worked his way through a freshly made Carbonara. As they ate their meal and the shadows lengthened, they watched the world go by. The square was alive with the usual mix of tourists and local people enjoying the cooler air of the evening, while the cicadas sang the last of their daily chorus in the umbrella pines. A group of children had got hold of a tennis ball somehow and were kicking it cheerfully about the square. Miraculously, they managed to avoid slamming the ball into any of the guests at the bars.

The street lights sputtered into life as Toto and Michele finished their meal. They disposed of their food boxes, and then sat at a small two-person table on the outside corner of one of the bars. They each ordered a Sprite, which the waiter brought with a small bowl of peanuts and nibbles, and they sipped at them gently, taking their time. They talked on and off, but otherwise Toto just watched his friend, marvelling at the idea that the partnership he had dreamt about for so long might finally be in reach.

By the time their glasses were dry and the snack bowl was empty, it was fully dark. Toto paid the bill and they prepared to leave. As Toto stood, he stretched and yawned; he was beginning to feel very tired after the day’s excitement.

“I’m not ready to go home just yet,” Michele said quietly. “Is there… somewhere we could go?”

Despite his weariness, Toto’s heart skipped a beat. “Yeah,” he replied, “I think there is. Come with me.”

They climbed the winding path up the hill once again, leaving the buzz of the square behind them, until they were alone save for the chirrup of nocturnal crickets. When they reached the turning next to the vegetable garden, Toto turned off and led Michele down the narrow side street towards the quiet corner that Claudia had shown him earlier.

When they reached the viewpoint, they found a spot where they could still glimpse the view of the coast between the trees, and they hitched themselves up onto the top of the stone boundary wall, dangling their legs over the far side. In the gaps between the leafy fronds, the lights of the coast road twinkled and the seafronts at Minori and Maiori glowed in the darkness, reflected in sparkling eddies at the water’s edge.

Now that they were here, alone, Toto was suddenly struck by the strangeness of their situation. Here he was, alone with his best friend of so many years, and something had finally changed between them… but he didn’t know what to do next.

“I, ah…” he began. “Wow, this feels strange.”

Michele nodded. “I hear you.”

“Things… they’ve been the same for so long. I’ve got used to it, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And now I finally have you, I don’t know what to do.”

Michele put an arm around Toto’s shoulders, and pulled him in so their heads were touching. A tingly warmth started in Toto’s chest and spread slowly out to his extremities, making him shiver.

“Just be here with me,” Michele said.

“So, ah…” Toto said tentatively. “Are you my friend, now, or are you my boyfriend?”

Michele smiled slightly. “Can I be both?”

“Yeah, okay. That’s good.” Toto sighed, tracing his fingers over the warm stones of the wall, feeling their texture. “You know, I’ve wanted this for so long… I still can’t believe it’s really happening.”

“It’s real,” Michele replied. He seemed slightly broken, as if talking was an effort.

“But what happens now? What happens tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? I’m all yours.”

“What about tonight?”

“Tonight?” Michele stared out to sea, fiddling with his swift pendant with his free hand. “There’s so much I should probably say about how I feel, about how much you’ve meant to me, but in the end…”

He reached out, fished Toto’s own pendant out from under the collar of his shirt and held it up, making it sparkle in the light of the lantern that hung above them. Toto shivered again as he felt his friend’s fingers brush gently against his skin.

“…it’s just words.”

Toto caught sight of his friend’s eyes, and saw that they had become very bright. For a moment he got lost in those pools of brown, but then, imperceptibly at first, they came closer. Toto responded without even realising he was doing it, and they kissed.

It was a warm, dry kiss, over in a couple of seconds; but its impact on Toto was immediate. It was as if lights were buzzing on in his brain, opening him up to whole new worlds so far undiscovered, and at once he wanted more.

“Wow…” he murmured. “You can do that again… any time.”

Michele took his hand.

“Show me how to fly,” he said, and they closed their eyes.

* * *

Two years ago

Toto Friuli, aged fourteen, wanders around the bottom of the cliff at San Cosma with his friend Michele. They walk slowly, with their arms around each other’s shoulders.

Toto is overjoyed that his friend has come back to him, and his heart is bursting with the feeling. But part of him also wants to cry, because he understands now that Michele doesn’t feel the way he does.

Next to him, Michele shuffles along in a shapeless red hoodie, the graze on his cheekbone still fresh from whatever has happened to him this afternoon. Toto wonders when Michele will feel able to tell him his story.

“I’m glad you found me,” Toto says.

“Me too,” Michele mumbles. A single tear rolls down his cheek, and Toto wishes he could just reach out and brush it away.

Despite Michele’s injury, Toto still finds him beautiful. A few months ago, Toto would have scoffed at the word, but he was just a kid then. Now, he’s something more.

In fact, Michele’s fragility even gives him an extra glow. Toto yearns to know the truth, but he will have to bide his time and wait until his friend is ready.

This is my life, now, he thinks: waiting, always waiting.

Maybe, one day, Michele will wake up to him and they can be together. Maybe he just wasn’t ready to be kissed like that. Maybe he doesn’t even know what he wants just yet.

Yes, maybe one day things might change… but, more likely, one day Toto will end up having to face a harder truth, and he will be left behind.

Until then, Toto will do what he does best: he will be Michele’s best friend, come what may.

But he will never completely give up hoping.

Copyright © 2021 James Carnarvon; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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We know how Enzo thinks; he respects those who stand up for themselves. I doubt any of the boys will have problems with him again.

Michele finally took the two leaps, talking to Father Stefano and then his parents. His parents were stunned and disappointed, but they truly love Michele and realize his happiness is what matters.

Now they are a real couple, the boys will have to learn how to ease comfortably into their closer relationship. It wasn't technically their first kiss or a long one, but it was the first they shared and both wanted.

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He also stood up to Enzo & Filippo, so it was a really big day for Michele.

Will it all be plain sailing from now on, or may they again need Isabella's help to steer them to a safe port?

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“I could do with getting some fuel, Dani,” Toto said.  “You’re taking me to see Enzo, aren’t you?” Daniele replied. Dani is sharp! He sees the true relationship between Toto and Michele, and he sees through Toto's "fuel" ploy instantly. 

I love that both Michele and Daniele benefit from their "Filippo therapy." (And pizza is an excellent reward [especially with anchovies!].)

"What do you think I should do, Dani?" "...I don’t know…" Daniele frowned thoughtfully. "What would make you the happiest?"  "...I guess there’s really only one answer to that," Michele said quietly. In this exchange, Dani is wise beyond his years, hitting the nail on the head, and Michele shows that he's already aware of what he has to do.

It can be harder to stand up for yourself in front of your parents than in front of a bully, and I'm certain that it's no coincidence that Michele does both in the course of this chapter.  Kudos to Michele for talking to his family immediately after making his decision. Kudos to Chiara for putting her son's happiness first. And honorable mention to Davide for accepting the relationship, no matter how it makes him feel.

I love how Toto and Michele announce their relationship to Gianni (so cute): They are officially a couple.

Michele took his hand. “Show me how to fly,” he said, and they closed their eyes. I teared up at this passage:  The imagery of wings and swifts and soaring spirits come back to mind, as Michele acknowledges that he is finally ready to soar with Toto by his side. 

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It's a great relief to know that Toto and Michele have finally been able to communicate their true feelings for each other and for Michele to come out to his parents - all developments most skilfully written. But there are three chapters to go, so I'm sure our intrepid author has a few more plot twists with which to surprise his readers. I liked the comment above that Enzo respects people who stand up for themselves. I'm hoping that Enzo might be so impressed by Toto and Michele's courage in publicly acknowledging their relationship that this might help him to confront his own demons and realise that there are other better ways to gain people's respect than bullying and harassment. T&M, with their generosity of spirit, might just be the catalysts for Enzo's redemption. 

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