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SERIES: Part four of Here be Dragons.
If there ever was somebody who made me believe in me (It was you)
"Let me see it." Johnny tries to get in front of Moses to see the swelling around his eye, but Moses keeps walking and shoves him away.
"Gerroff!" Moses glances at him. "Mum's gonna kill you when she sees the mess of your shirt."
Johnny looks down at himself and winces. He looks like he's murdered someone. He rubs at his nose, getting rid of the last bits of encrusted blood around his nostrils. He bumps his shoulder against Moses'. "Thanks for…doing that."
Moses grunts and kicks a pebble. They watch it bounce up the uneven road. "As if I was gonna let him get away with saying that shit to you."
Some lads had started in on Johnny as soon as they'd got on the bus home from school, calling him names and generally being horrible. He'd ignored it for as long as he could, but when one of them grabbed his bag and went to rummage through it, he'd snapped. Ma always did say that he was a quiet little thing until somebody got him proper riled, then he had a temper on him like his mother.
"Give it back."
The ringleader, a boy called Jamie Sneddon who he'd never liked, had sneered. "Or what, nancy boy? You'll get your big brother to beat me up?"
Immediately, there'd been a presence right behind his shoulder. "Yeah he will. Now give it him back."
"Oh, I'm proper scared now. Here. Take it." He'd tossed the bag, then, but instead of throwing it to Johnny, he threw it to one of his mates, who'd thrown it to another boy and then another until Moses barged past Johnny, grabbed Jamie by the front of his jumper and hauled him to his feet.
"Give him his bag back. Now."
"Alright, alright, big man. Calm down." Jamie smirked. "I just wanted to see if he'd been putting Mick's name in little hearts on his maths jotter, that's all. Since he's been perving on him in the chang-" Moses' fist had connected with Jamie's jaw with one of them great cracks you hear on TV.
Things after that had been a bit of a blur until the bus stopped and the driver marched Moses and Johnny off, leaving them by the side of the road to walk the rest of the way.
Johnny smiles and bumps Moses' shoulder again. "Well, thanks anyway."
They walk on for a bit. Johnny gets lost in his thoughts until Moses breaks the silence.
"They're not allowed to say that stuff, you know. You could tell someone. Get them expelled."
Johnny scoffs. "Telling tales? That's not a very Dingle thing to do, is it?"
"We just did the Dingle thing and it got us chucked off the bus and it'll probably get us grounded an'all. And I'm supposed to be seeing that really fit bird from geography this weekend." Moses shrugs. "Just sayin' J. They're not allowed to say stuff about your sexual whatsit."
"Orientation," Johnny mumbles.
"Yeah. They're not allowed to bully you because of it. And I'm not always around to punch them in the gob for you am I? So maybe telling someone will get them to stop it."
Moses nudges him. "Do you fancy Mick, by the way?"
Reeling back, Johnny's nose wrinkles and he shakes his head. "God, no. He wishes!"
"Good." Moses nods. "Because he sits behind me in registration and he's a right bellend."
Johnny laughs. "Yeah, he is an'all." He sighs. "Look, I don't know who I...if I...I'm still not sure about any of this. And I don't know how to talk about it yet."
"That's a first. Our Johnny stuck for words?" Moses grins when Johnny scowls at him. "No, I get it. I won't say nothing to no-one."
A sudden rush of love for his brother washes over him and he grins and punches Moses on the arm.
They chat for the rest of the walk home. Maybe if they hadn't been in the middle of a heated debate about the features of new console Noah had gone and bought himself, they might've realised that entering through the front of the pub wasn't the best idea. But it's only when he hears Mum screeching that Johnny remembers what they look like.
"Oh my God!" She's up from the table she was sitting at with Uncle Ross and Auntie Tracy and marching across to them. "What's happened?" She cups Moses' cheek, her thumb brushing over the swelling under his eye. She looks at Johnny, eyes flicking over him. "Whose is that blood? Is it yours?"
Moses twists his neck away from her hand. "We're fine. Stop fussing!"
"The two of you better not have been fighting each other again." Ma's made it out from behind the bar and has joined them, Ross and Tracy too.
"We weren-." Johnny flinches when Mum touches his nose. "Ow! That hurts!"
"I'm trying to see if it's broken!" Mum shakes her head, looking between the two of them. "Well, if it wasn't each other you were scrapping with, who was it? And don't say nobody."
"Nobody." Moses shrugs.
"This nobody's got a mean right hook." Tracy asks, shoving Moses' too long hair out of his face to get a better look at his eye.
"I hope the other lads came off worse." Uncle Ross shrugs when Mum gives him one of her looks. "What?"
Mum shakes her head. "Well, if you're not going to tell us what's happened, then you're both grounded till Monday for fighting."
Moses huffs. "But I've got a date this weekend!"
"No, Mum, that's not fair." Johnny grabs her arm, imploring her. "Ground me if you like, but don't ground him."
"Shut up, Johnny." Moses glares at him. "It's fine."
Johnny turns to his Ma with his best puppy-dog eyes. "Ma! Tell her!"
Ma's right eyebrow goes up. "Make a habit of disagreeing with your mother about stuff like this, do I?"
He looks between them. They disagree on pretty much everything on a superficial level, but when it comes to the big stuff, they're almost always a united front. He sighs. "Well, no, but...but it's not his fault. It's mine. He was just standing up for me to some lads who were...saying stuff."
Ma frowns, taking a step closer. "What were they saying?"
He can see Moses is itching to tell them, but Johnny shakes his head at him. "Just...stuff." He shrugs. "It doesn't matter. But don't punish Moses because of it, please?"
His parents look at each other for a moment, doing that thing where they telepathically decide people's fate. Mum sighs and turns to Moses, reaching up to run her thumb just under the swollen part of his eye. "Fine. You're ungrounded since you were just being a good brother." She scrunches her nose up when Moses plants a big kiss on her cheek. He might look like a hard man, but he's soppy as hell at heart. "But try and not use your fists to do it in future, eh?"
"Oi." Uncle Ross cuffs Moses' ear. "Why haven't I heard anything about this hot date, then?"
"'Cause I wasn't going to tell any of you." Moses rolls his eyes. "You always make a big deal over nothing. It's just a date."
"Go and put something from the freezer on that eye." Mum shakes her head. "It's gonna be purple by tomorrow, you know that, don't you? How's that going to look for your date?"
"Don't listen to her, mate." Ross grabs Tracy's hips, making her squeal. "Girls love a bit of rough, don't they, eh?"
"Girls like to be treated with respect," Ma puts in, narrowing her eyes at Ross before turning to Moses. "But if you can work into conversation that you were defending your little brother, she'll swoon."
"I'm not his little brother," Johnny huffs. "We're the same age."
"Got those three months on you, little bro. I'm sixteen. You're not." Moses winks and then winces when he remembers that's his sore eye.
"Right. Kitchen." Mum grabs Moses' collar and gets him moving. "And wrap whatever you choose in a towel this time. I don't want a repeat of the frozen parsnip incident."
"How was I to know it'd stick?" Moses grumbles, but heads in the direction he's instructed.
"I think it's lucky your nose bled," Mum says, touching his chin and turning his face from side to side. "There's not much swelling and it doesn't look like it's going to bruise."
"That's fine." He sighs. "Not like 'I got punched in the nose and landed on my backside' is much of a story to impress people with anyway."
"Awww, d'you wanna be somebody's bit of rough too?" Auntie Tracy asks.
Ma catches him by the chin, turning him to look at her. "You, my boy, will never be anybody's bit of rough. Not with that angelic face of yours."
He can feel it building in his chest, that defensiveness that comes so quick with the boys at school, but he has no need of at home. Not here, where he's loved and kept safe. But it's just something about what Ma said that has him reacting. He pushes her hand away from his face. "So Moses can impress girls, but I can't?"
Ma frowns, shaking her head. "Johnny, I didn't mean-"
"He's the big, strong macho one and I'm just the nerdy little brother who needs protecting?"
"Your Ma never said anything of the sort, Johnny." Mum's frowning at him now too. They're all staring at him and glancing at each other like he's some problem to be dealt with. "Is that what those boys were-"
"You know what? Just forget it. It doesn't matter. You've all got me pegged, yeah? Weird little Johnny who's crap at everything lads are supposed to be good at."
"Johnny, babes, that's not-" Ma moves to touch him again but he shrugs out of her way, dumping his bag on the floor and storming back to the door. He's aware he's being dramatic, but that'll just feed into their view of him. He yanks the door open and ignores Ma when she calls his name. He sees her out of the side of his eye, moving to follow him but Mum catches her arm.
He hears someone approaching and hopes it's not one of his parents come to nip his ear again. He glances up and is glad to see it's his Uncle Ross heading over. He gives him a half smile as he sits down in the swing next to Johnny's.
"Right, squire, we both know that your Ma's told me to find out what's bothering you and report back." He lifts his eyebrows. "And we also both know that I'm not gonna tell her anything you don't want me to tell her." He shoves his swing to the side and lifts his feet, so his swing bumps against Johnny's. "So, I've got a shovel in my boot, you just tell me where the body is and we can get going."
Johnny laughs, and it feels really good. He's been so used to moping around these last few weeks that a laugh feels foreign to his body, like it's stretching muscles it hasn't for a while. He shoves at Ross when he swings back to him. "Give over. I haven't killed anyone."
"Well, whatever it is can't be all that bad then, can it?" Ross stops swinging and sighs. "Look, I know it feels like they're getting on at you, but they're just worried about you. Your Ma said you've been dead quiet lately and that's not like you. Talk the hind legs off a donkey most days, you could."
Johnny sighs. "It's just...stuff." He shakes his head. Usually he's quite good with words, but lately they just haven't been coming to him. Not in a way he can say out loud, at least.
"Is it, like, bloke-y stuff?" Ross scrunches up his face. "Stuff you don't want to talk to your mums about? 'Cause you can talk to me about it, you know? I did alright with the birds and bees talk, didn't I?"
Johnny looks over at him and grins. "Much better than mum. All them diagrams she had..."
"So, if it's stuff like that, then you can talk to me and I'll do my best." There's a pause while Johnny considers this offer. Only Ross doesn't wait long enough for him to come to a conclusion. "Is it-" Ross nods towards Johnny's lap. "Something up with your tackle? Weird itch or-"
"Eh? No!" He resists the urge to cross his legs. "It's...that's fine."
"Right." Ross nods "So, if it's not that, then it's got to be a girl thing."
Johnny sighs. "Well, you're half right."
"Oh. A boy thing, then?"
"Still half right."
"Help me out here, squi- oh." Ross tilts his head. "You like 'em both?"
"I...I think so?" He squints at the sun, sitting low in the sky. "I...I don't know how you're supposed to know."
"Oh. Well." Uncle Ross scrunches up his brow. "I...suppose I've never thought about that much, myself. I...never thought about lads in the same way I did girls." He lifts his eyebrows. "Do you? Think about blokes, like? When you're having a little ham shank?"
"Oh my God, Uncle Ross!" Johnny quickly checks around the playpark to make sure there are no little ones close by. "You know mum'd faint if she heard you talking like that to us?"
"Good job she's not in earshot then, innit?" Uncle Ross winks. "Listen, Johnny. I'm no expert, but if you think you fancy blokes and women...then what's the big deal?" He shrugs. "World's your oyster, mate."
"It's not, though, is it?" Johnny scuffs the sole of his shoe along the ground. "If you fancy a girl, she's probably gonna fancy you back. If I fancy a bloke, he's almost definitely not gonna fancy me back. If I fancy a girl she's probably not gonna fancy me back either."
Ross looks at him for a long moment, brows lowered. "What are you on about?"
"'Cause I'm not like you, am I? I'm not like Moses. I don't...I'm not what lads are supposed to be." He blows out a shaky breath. "I'm just a pale, skinny idiot who can't play footie to save his life and writes stupid little stories ab-."
Uncle Ross is on his feet, yanking Johnny up by the front of his shirt so they're standing looking at each other.
"Right, you listen to me now." Ross shakes his head. "Who have I told you you remind me of?"
"F-Finn." Johnny stammers, unsure what's going on because it almost looks like Uncle Ross is going to cry.
"Right. Finn. My little brother, who I loved more than anybody in this world before Moses came along." Ross swallows. "Finn was never anything like me. Finn did his own thing and he was never afraid to be himself or put himself out there. And you haven't been either. Not until now." He shakes his head. "Are you really gonna let some little tossers on the school bus stop you from being you?"
Johnny shrugs, looking at the ground. "I'm different enough, already. I don't want to give them more stuff to pick on."
"You wanna talk differences?" A hand under his chin makes him look up and Uncle Ross points to his own face. "What about this, eh? D'you think this is every woman's dream?"
Frowning, Johnny shakes his head. "I...I never notice it."
"Yeah, but I did. When it first happened, I couldn't even look in a mirror, mate." He blinks a couple of times. "I hated everything about myself and I thought nobody would ever want me again."
"I-I'm sorry, I didn't-"
"No, I'm not getting on at you or throwing a pity party for myself." Ross takes him by the shoulders, looking him in the eye again. "It's only when you learn to let yourself be who you are, that you start to feel at home in your own skin." He winks. "Even when it's all scarred and horrible. Be yourself, and be proud of yourself."
Johnny stands up straighter, his shoulders back and his chest sticking out. Uncle Ross has always been good at this stuff, at making him feel better. "I will. I'll try."
"And don't worry about finding people who fancy you back. You'll find people who fancy you back. With them big baby blues and your golden locks?" He ruffles Johnny's hair, making him smile. "No problem. You don't need to be bulging with muscles or know Man City's starting eleven off by heart to be a bloke, you know? You're you. And you're brilliant, squire. Never forget that." Johnny grins and Uncle Ross pulls him into a headlock, rubbing a knuckle into his skull as he protests, releasing him after a little while. "Now get off home and talk to your mums, eh? And make sure and tell 'em how much help I was."
"I will." Johnny nods. "Thanks, Uncle Ross."
"Any time, squire. You know that."
He slinks back into the pub. Auntie Chas is behind the bar now and she smiles at him when he enters. "Hiya love."
"Hi." He leans his elbows on the bar. "Is...are they through the back?"
"Yep." She mirrors his stance directly across from him. "Your Ma's worried she upset you with something she said." She rolls her eyes. "Wouldn't be the first time, eh?"
He sighs. "She didn't upset me."
Chas nods. "Then you might want to go and tell her that, then?"
"Yeah. I'm going." He drags himself upright and Auntie Chas laughs.
"Good luck, JD."
He finds them in the back room, sat on the couch, talking in low tones. They look up when he enters.
"Johnny-" Ma starts, but he interrupts her.
"I'm sorry about earlier. For throwing a strop. It wasn't anything you said, it was just...how I was feeling."
"Okay." Mum nods, her hand dropping to rub Ma's back. "Well, it was good of you to come and say that to us."
He nods, swallowing hard at the lump in his throat when he thinks over his conversation with Ross. He needs to start being himself, and that means telling people who he is.
Ma looks at him for a long time. "What is it, babes?" She tilts her head. "You know you can talk to us. About anything."
"I know." He clears his throat, picking at some dried blood on the cuff of his shirt. "I…I think I'm bisexual." He looks up quickly to see their reaction.
They turn to each other and then back to him. "And…?" Ma lifts her eyebrows.
He frowns. "And…nothing. That's it. I think I like girls and lads."
Ma claps her hands together. "Right, Ness, get the bunting out. We've finally raised an interesting kid!"
"Charity!" Mum shakes her head, but she's trying not to smile. "They're all interesting in their own way."
"Come off it, babe. I'm ashamed of my gene pool churning out all these boring straights." She grins at Mum. "Might've known your rainbow DNA would come up trumps, though."
Mum rolls her eyes at Johnny. "What is she like, eh?" She gets up and comes to hug him, going up on her tiptoes to wrap her arms around his shoulders. "Is that what it was? What you've been so quiet and withdrawn about?" He hugs her back, nodding into her shoulder and, for some stupid reason, he starts crying. Proper crying with sobs and everything.
"Hey." Mum tries to lift her head and see his face. "What's all this?"
A hand lands on his back as Ma comes to join the pair of them. "Johnny? What's wrong?"
He pulls away, wiping his nose on his sleeve. He glances between their worried faces and shrugs.
"I dunno…I just…I didn't know how to tell you."
Ma tilts her head, a smile tugging at one side of her lips. "You didn't think we were gonna disown you or anything, did you?" She points between herself and Mum. "I don't know if this has escaped your notice, babes, but me and your mum-" She leans in, widening her eyes, lowering her voice to a stage whisper. "-are both women."
He laughs and it catches on a sob. "I know that." He rubs at his nose. "I just…I'm not even sure how you know what you are. I think I like both, but what if I don't? And I've never said that word out loud before about myself and I…" He shakes his head, frustrated at himself. "I mean, how do I know?"
"Hey, it's alright, love, you don't have to know this minute," Mum says, wiping at his tears with her thumb and smiling. "You'll figure it out. And it won't matter whatever way it turns out. Bisexual, gay, straight. It doesn't matter as long as you're happy."
"And you don't have to pick one of them words by the way." Ma rubs his back. "I've never really been one for labels myself. Unless they say 'Gucci' on them and your mum's paying."
"Some people find that picking a word helps them figure out their identity," Mum says with a smile. "And for some people-" She leans her head towards Ma with a roll of her eyes. "- they're just happy to feel what they feel without putting a name to it."
Ma slides her hands around Mum's waist until they're resting on her bum, giving it a squeeze. "And I'm very happy to feel what I feel, yeah?"
"Charity!" Mum slaps her hands away, and Johnny smiles at their antics. It's weird, he knows they've both had previous relationships; he's living proof of that, along with the others. But he genuinely cannot imagine them with anyone else. Sometimes he gets Noah to tell him stories about when they were first together, because he can't really remember much except being excited whenever Ma came over, especially if she had Moses with her.
"You've both...ummm-" He can feel his ears start to grow hot with a blush. "-been with blokes, yeah?"
Ma laughs. "Yeah, well done kid. That talk Ross gave you must've sunk in at least a little, eh?"
"Yes, love, we've both had relationships with men in the past." Mum nods and smiles. "And for a bit, I thought I was probably bisexual. But, when I looked back, I realised that I hadn't been honest with myself about a lot of things over the years." She shrugs. "I'm gay."
It's so odd, hearing her say that. It's never been an issue in their house or in their family. He's never heard her say that out loud. He's never heard either of them say what they are out loud. They've always just been his parents who bicker constantly, and make each other smile, and are still stupidly in love after more than a decade.
"She's definitely gay," Ma puts in, pointing at Mum. She points at herself. "I'm not gay." She scrunches up her nose. "Like I said, I've never felt much need to put a word to it, but I'm probably more in line with you."
"So, you fancy blokes? Still?" For some reason, this makes Johnny's heart speed up and he frowns. He doesn't like to think of her being attracted to anyone else. "But, how can you fancy blokes when you're married to Mum?"
"Calm down, Johnnybobs." Ma shake her head, draping an arm around Mum's neck and smiling when their eyes meet. "It's been a long time since I had eyes for anyone except this one here."
Mum smiles and stretches up to kiss Ma's cheek. "Good job for you, an'all." She turns back to Johnny. "Being bisexual doesn't mean you throw yourself at everyone you meet, love. Just like me being gay doesn't mean I fall in love with every woman I come across. It's just a way to describe the people we find attractive, that's all."
"And you don't have to decide by next week, you know?" Ma winks at him. "Your mum was ancient when she finally worked out that she fancied girls."
"Uh, I wasn't ancient, thank you very much." Mum shakes her head and turns her attention back to him. "But she's right. I was over forty before I finally let myself explore how I felt about all of this stuff. I was always worried about what people would think of me or how my mum would take it."
"And you, clearly, don't have that problem, babes." Charity kisses his cheek. "Hey, you're Johnny Dingle. Only you get to decide what that means."
He closes his eyes and leans against her, smiling when Mum wraps her arms around him, joining the hug.
Right. He's Johnny Dingle. Now he just needs to figure out who that is.
A few months later, he's sitting at the bar, scribbling an idea for a story in a notebook while Noah potters around behind the bar, wiping surfaces and tidying up. Ma is sat beside him, working on a crossword. Mum comes in from work, wearing a tired smile. She pats Johnny's back as she passes, moving to lean heavily against Ma's side, sighing. "I'm shattered."
"And you stink." Ma nudges at her half-heartedly, not actually trying to move her. "And you're going to get it on me."
Mum rolls her eyes and lays her head on Ma's shoulder, shifting her gaze to Johnny. "What you writing, love?"
Ma leans over, trying to get a look at his scribblings. "It's not more soppy poems about the new girl at David's is it?"
Johnny's head snaps up. "Ma!"
She widens her eyes at him in that way she has where she's trying to look innocent. "Or are we back to the drayman's son this week?"
He slides off the stool, grasping his notebook to his chest. "I'm never showing you anything again. And they weren't soppy."
"Oh, they were, babes." Ma grabs him as he storms past, hooking her arm through his and yanking him close. "And, like I told you, they weren't you. And you are the best bit of what you write. So don't lose yourself in fancy, flowery words just because some strapping lad or pretty lass flutters their eyelashes at you, eh?"
She kisses his cheek and he blushes under the frown he's struggling to keep on his face. "Whatever."
Noah comes over and leans on the bar, smirking at his mother. "You're so mean to the kid. Just let him write his daft poems if that's what he wants to do."
"They're not daft!" Johnny protests, shrugging out of his Ma's grip, and leaning on the bar, scowling at his big brother.
Ma scoffs. "Look, if he wants to hear that everything he writes is brilliant, he's got this one." She flicks a thumb over her shoulder in Mum's direction. "If he wants to hear what someone actually thinks about his stuff, he's got me."
Mum pouts. "I think everything he writes is brilliant."
Ma lifts her eyebrows at Noah. "See? What use is that to him?" Mum pokes her in the side and she yelps, rubbing at the spot. She turns around on her stool and grabs Mum by the hips, pulling her in between her legs. "If I compose a romantic poem about you, will that get rid of the mardy face?"
"Hmmm." Mum narrows her eyes. "I'd need to hear it first. Then I'll decide."
Ma thinks for a moment, then nods. "There was a young woman called Ness-"
"Young? That's a stretch," Noah puts in, ducking out of the way of the beer mat Vanessa frisbees at him. Johnny laughs at them both.
"Who's..." A slow grin appears on Ma's lips. "-always caked in cow mess."
Mum presses her lips together to hide her smile. She shakes her head. "This is not a good start at all. How does rhyming my name with 'cow mess' qualify as romantic?"
"Just wait, will you?" Ma rolls her eyes. "I'll get to the romantic bit." Her forehead furrows and then smooths out. She winks at Johnny. "Her wife is a catch, they make a great match, especially when they're undressed!"
Mum purses her lips, but her eyes are brimming with laughter. "That's highly inappropriate in front of our children."
"Our kids have heard and seen much worse." Ma turns to him and lifts her eyebrows. "Did you like it? My poem?"
He grins. "It was definitely all you."
She laughs, tugging mum further into her arms. "I'll take that as a compliment. If you want any hints and tips, just ask."
"I will." He picks up his stuff again and smiles at them. "I better go and get ready anyway."
"Where you off to, love?" Mum asks, as he rounds the bar.
He pauses in the door to the back and grins. "Got a date with the drayman's lad tonight, don't I?"
"You little-" Ma shakes her head. "And you didn't say a word!"
"Turns out he liked my soppy poems," Johnny tells her, unable to hide his smug grin.
"Oh, no. A romantic type is he?" Ma wrinkles her nose. "You don't want one of them. Far too much work. Always insisting you buy them at auctions and chase them down the street and declare your undying love and all that." She rolls her eyes and Mum glares at her.
"Oi." Mum pokes her shoulder. "You didn't buy me at that auction and you chased me down the street and told me in no uncertain terms that we would not be getting married."
Johnny raises an eyebrow. "That...sounds like quite a story."
Ma shrugs. "You could say that. Maybe we'll tell you one day. Anyway, you already know how it ends." She kisses Mum's cheek.
"Yeah," Johnny says, watching them with a soft smile. "Happily ever after."
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