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Jason MH

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  1. "Come on, Darren, you have to admit that was a pretty awesome catch." "Yeah, it was okay." "Okay? That was way more than okay. That was some fancy footwork you did out there." Darren blushed, ducked his head, shrugged. He couldn't stop his eyes from glancing across the apartment at Brody when he said, "It's just football, Jeff." "Just football?" James mocked. "This is Texas. There's no such thing as just football." Jeff, another wide receiver, gave Darren a friendly smack on the shoulder. "Even if it's just football, D, you won us the game." "He's right," Brody announced as he rose from the couch, eliciting a playful groan from the twins at the sudden lack of contact, though neither turned away from the video game they were playing. "Stop being so humble for once, Darren. Soak up some praise and be proud." A slow smile spread across Darren's face as his cheeks flushed. "I guess you're right, Brody," he admitted. Lynette elbowed him and grinned, then whispered, "You're showing." Darren's blush flamed darker as it spread up to his ears and down across his neck. When he glanced at Jace sitting on the couch near his brothers, he felt the blood drain from his face. The smartest kid in school was staring at him with what could only be described as an irritated, troubled expression. James followed Darren's stare. As soon as he saw the look on Jace's face, he stood and walked over to their friend, leaned down, and began a hushed conversation with him. The Squad, along with Lara, Jenny, Zack and Zane, and a handful of friends, had packed into Brody's garage apartment for a simple Friday night of hanging out, snacks, fellowship, and video games. Though football season had ended months before, it was impossible to avoid discussing the game considering half of those in attendance were on the school's team. "It was a total Hail Mary pass that you caught," Lynette offered. "You won the game in the last few seconds." "Hey!" Mike interjected. "He wasn't the only one involved in that play." "There might have been a quarterback involved," Zack said without looking away from the television. "Though I doubt anyone remembers his name," Zane added, also not looking away from the video game. A hush fell over the room as everyone turned stunned gazes on the twins. They rarely insinuated themselves successfully into existing conversations, and even when they did, their input hardly ever qualified as relevant or appropriate. And jokes? They told them, sure, but the humor in them too often escaped everyone except the twins themselves. No one would ever accuse them of having rapier wit. After a heartbeat of surprised quiet, raucous laughter broke out around the large open space. Not understanding the cause of the levity, the twins shrugged and continued with their game. "You know Mike's the quarterback, right?" Jace asked his brothers. They glanced at him with dumbfounded expressions. Then as one they turned back to the game. "I do not believe we understood his position on the team," Zane remarked. Zack shook his head. "No, I do not think we were made aware of that." * * * * * "I'm shocked the twins are here," Jenny admitted to Lara as they rummaged through the ice chest looking for something to drink. Jace's sister smiled at her friend. "Dad." "Huh?" "Dad's not happy with Mom's overprotective attitude when it comes to Zack and Zane. He thinks she's smothering them and interfering with their development." "I meant Brody—" "I know. And Dad's not happy with that either. He thinks their relationship with your brother is good for the twins. The therapist and the doctor agree. He finally put his foot down about it." "But Helene—" "Can be a bitch," Lara whispered through a snicker, feeling like a bad girl for admitting how she felt. Jenny nodded as she glanced at her brother, the twins tucked into each side of him as they chatted and laughed. Yeah, she could see it was good for them. That much had been obvious the moment the twins started gravitating toward Brody. Nevertheless, she wondered how long Darryl would be able to keep Helene in check. That woman seemed to have a burr under her saddle when it came to Brody. Jenny suspected that, despite Darryl's efforts, the situation was going to blow up at some point. She just hoped Brody didn't get hurt when that happened. * * * * * Brody stood behind the couch watching the twins school James and Jace in the art of losing a video game battle. Nobody seemed capable of winning against them regardless of the game chosen. Of course, for several years video games had been their obsession, their mutually shared fixation. "Hey, Bro." The jock turned to find Lynette standing beside him. He slipped his arm around her shoulders and hugged her to him, half a grin alighting on his face. "You having fun?" Returning the hug, she leaned her head against his chest. "Always." James glanced over his shoulder, saw the embrace, and tried to give Brody a scowl. It looked more like a mischievous grin, though, and both Lynette and Brody stuck out their tongues at him in response. He smiled and turned back to losing another round of first-person shooter action. "Come here for a minute," the cheerleader whispered to the jock as she pulled Brody away from the digital carnage. She stopped them near the bathroom door and pulled him close enough that she could speak quietly without being overheard. "Prom weekend—" Brody stiffened and pulled back enough to frown at her. "Lynette, we've talked—" "Hush for a minute and let me finish," she interjected with a playful yet stern scowl. He shrugged and leaned in again. "I'm not pushing for you to go to the dance, though I wish you'd reconsider. What I want to say is, even if you're not going, I think you and Jace should make it a memorable weekend." "Every weekend with Jace is memorable," he said, a delirious kind of sugary happiness in his tone. The cheerleader smiled and shook her head. Yeah, she could believe that, and she was thrilled about it. If only everybody could be lucky enough to find the kind of love the two boys shared. "Don't be saccharine. What I'm getting at," she continued, "is that Trish and I were brainstorming the other day, trying to come up with ideas that would give you and Jace a weekend to remember, something to punctuate your senior year of high school the way prom does for most kids." "Okay..." "Didn't you mention one of your aunts has a cabin out in East Texas?" "Linda. Yeah." "Well... What if you and Jace skedaddled out there and spent the weekend together? The Squad could cover. Maybe say we're all spending the weekend camping or something. It'd be a weekend away for the two of you, out in nature and away from prying eyes." Brody leaned back again, his expression thoughtful and his eyes distant. Then his focus snapped back to Lynette. Through a casual smile he asked, "You and Trish came up with this idea?" "Well, not really. We just threw around ideas trying to come up with a good suggestion." "And this is what you came up with?" "No, not really. We never settled on an idea because the whole conversation petered out when Mrs. Kandeler started in on term paper updates." "Oh." "But that's not the point." She gave a little shake of her head to get herself back on track. "I thought about it afterward and realized there's no reason you two couldn't have a romantic weekend like everyone else, even if you don't go to prom. Then I remembered your aunt's cabin—or thought I remembered it anyway—and realized maybe that was the answer." Cocking his head to one side and scrutinizing her, Brody nodded slowly, thoughtfully. "And Trish helped come up with the idea?" "Sort of. We came up with several ideas but couldn't pin down a suggestion. I kind of ran with the ball after that and remembered Linda's cabin from last year, which brought us to this moment." Pulling her into a hug, Brody squeezed her tight as he whispered into her ear, "I think that's an awesome idea. A really awesome idea indeed. Thank you..." "Quit molesting my girlfriend," James barked with a playful smile. Mike smacked the back of his head. "Don't be jealous, silly." Leaning in a bit, he added in a whisper, "You should know better." "I do," his friend replied with a sidelong glance. James didn't feel a bit of jealousy. Not when it came to Brody and Lynette, that is. He knew his girlfriend loved him dearly. More importantly, he knew Brody's entire being was focused on Jace, blinded by love and chained by happiness. * * * * * Brody grabbed a bottle of water from the ice chest. When he stood, Mike, the team's quarterback, clapped him on the back. "I'm always thrilled to know we're hanging out at your place, man." With an envious glance around the garage apartment he added, "I wish my folks would give me something like this." "Get leukemia and see what your parents do for you," Trish remarked in a derisive tone. She wasn't terribly fond of Mike for reasons only she could explain. "Boo!" "Hiss!" "Do you have to be so nasty?" "What a bitch!" A round of vilifying responses circled the apartment, many of the guests looking at Trish as though they'd just realized an ogre hid in their midst. After scowling at her with disdain and shaking his head, the quarterback returned his attention to Brody, leaned in and quietly asked, "Is that really the reason they let you have this place?" Brody gave Mike a considering look. Then he shrugged. "Maybe. Honestly, it probably had something to do with it. They said it was to help me learn responsibility and to prepare me for adulthood." "Which sounds reasonable to me," James offered as he grabbed a root beer from the cooler. Mike nodded. "Sure. I can see that." "But," Jace began, "I wouldn't bet against Brody's childhood illness playing a major role in the decision." * * * * * Brody and Jace wandered about the garage apartment as they cleaned up what little mess remained from the party. Their friends weren't prone to leaving behind a disaster for others to handle. Only a few napkins and drink containers had been left behind, and only by mistake. "Bless her intrusive heart," Jace growled snidely. "Why do you hate her?" The nerd's eyes snapped to the jock's, searching for any hint of sarcasm. What he found was a sincere openness and curiosity. "It's not hate, Brody. I don't trust her." "Trish is a friend—" "And your ex—" "That was over long ago, and it hardly counts considering—" "I've heard it all before. You don't have to explain. I get it. It was new and different and you weren't as interested as she was." "Right. So stop calling regret jealousy and stop making her out to be a bad person—" "You trust too easily," Jace explained as he wrapped his arms around his boyfriend, the man he loved, the man he intended to marry and with whom he intended to spend the rest of his life. "You always see the good in people and ignore the bad." "Hardly," Brody responded as he dropped a chaste kiss on Jace's lips. "I saw the look you gave Darren. Actually, several looks." With wide eyes Jace asked, "What does that mean?" "If I ignored the bad, I wouldn't recognize how your reaction to him as being less than friendly." After huffing out an exasperated sigh Jace explained, "I'm sorry, but sometimes the puppy dog looks and longing glances and enamored stares get to me." "It's a crush, Jace, nothing more, and it won't amount to anything. You're it for me." "We're talking about Darren." "What about him?" "He's a corn-fed hunk with his blond hair and blue eyes and muscular build without an ounce of fat. I'm just this tall, skinny, plain guy—" "Your place in my heart is a guaranteed place. It's a haven where my feelings for you will never change." "But—" "Besides, stop insulting your looks. You're the hottest guy I know. I love the way you look. You're sexy and enticing and hot as hell and so totally handsome." "But—" "It's just you, Jace. You're all I want, all I need. You're the love of my life." With that, Brody claimed Jace's lips with his own, delivering a far more passionate kiss. The jock finally broke the kiss because he'd run out of oxygen. Both men stood panting. Brody gave a little half grin. "What?" Jace inquired. "You. Your eyes are glazed and unfocused, your mouth is hanging open... You look stoned." "It's your kisses, Brody! Jesus, you leave me breathless and blathering like the addlepated nincompoop. I lose my mind with you." "I'm okay with that." "I'm not." Brody looked slightly hurt. "No," Jace whispered, nuzzling his cheek against his boyfriend's, "that's not what I mean. It's just we were talking about prom weekend and what Lynette and Trish came up with, but I can't think clearly when you kiss me. I like it, trust me, but not when I need to think about something. Because I can't. Think, that is." "Okay." Brody took a relaxingly deep breath before adding, "So they suggested going to Linda's cabin for the weekend. Just you and me. The Squad can cover for us, say we're camping at the lake or something. Then we get the weekend to ourselves." "Mmmm..." Jace moaned. "I like the sound of that." "See! You were all suspicious when it's actually a good idea." "I'm only mistrustful because Trish is involved. She's more than a tad shady, don't you think?" "No." Jace shook his head. One thing about Brody that worried him was the jock's inability to see the true nature of people, always choosing instead to focus on the good traits and acting as though the bad traits didn't exist. He leaned back to meet his boyfriend's gaze. "Do you really think we can pull off a weekend like that?" "For you I could conquer the world. A weekend getaway ought to be a piece of cake in comparison." "Then let's do it." * * * * * Four Years Prior Ben couldn't stop tossing and turning. Ever since he'd realized the nature of his son's relationship with Jace, his mind wouldn't stop pondering Brody's happiness and, most importantly, his safety. Jace's as well, but it all started with Brody. Concluding he had to talk to Jayne Anne about it, he glanced at the alarm clock on his nightstand. Damn. Only a few minutes after one in the morning and he felt like he'd lost the whole night. "A penny for your thoughts." Ben startled, his head whipping around to look at the dark form cuddled up beside him. He could see his wife's eyes reflecting the meager light entering through the window. Sheepish and apologetic, he said quietly, "I'm sorry, baby doll. I hope I didn't wake you." "Waking me would require falling asleep. You made that endeavor an exercise in futility with all your exasperated sighs and mumbling and fidgeting and—" "Alright already," he laughed. "I get the point." Jayne Anne rolled over just enough to reach the bedside lamp. After clicking it on, she turned back to her husband, scooting up enough to rest her shoulder against the headboard. He shifted up in the bed enough to lean back into a slouched seated position, eyes staring ahead at the dark television and wall of family photos. She reached over and gently stroked his cheek. "Share your burden, honey." After a deep breath, he shrugged, shook his head, turned slightly to face her. "When you were Brody's age, do you remember what came along with liking a boy?" Jayne Anne's eyes widened as a humored grin spread across her face. "That's certainly not what I was expecting." "Please, baby doll, humor me. Tell me what you remember about the physical side of dating at that age." With a slight nod she answered, "Okay. Well... I guess I remember holding hands, hugging, kissing, little touches, looks, exploring, trying to figure out how things worked—" "Right. Trying to figure it out. Like sex?" "Oh, honey, that came later, but yeah, like everyone else that age I started making my way around the bases. It was a slow process. I wasn't interested in losing my virginity for the sake of losing it. But over time the kisses became passionate, the touches went from furtive to serious, the embraces grew longer and more intimate..." "And?" His face showed a profound interest, though not with a sexual hunger but rather with a worried consideration. "Honey, tell me where this is going. Why would my experience at that age suddenly vex you?" Ben's shoulders slumped and his face fell. His mouth opened and closed a few times, yet he remained silent. "It's not about me, is it?" she asked gently. "No." He shook his head for emphasis. "It's about Brody. And Jace." "Oh... In what way?" "Did you ever fear being caught with a boy? I mean fear that something really bad would happen if you were caught." "Of course not." "Did you ever worry someone would see you and hurt you because of who you were with?" "Oh..." "Did you ever think one or both of you could be physically attacked because of what you were doing? Because of who you were with?" Jayne Anne's mouth worked soundlessly as her eyes widened. Ben continued, "I'm worried, baby doll. I mean I'm really worried about them. Society's come a long way, but we live in Texas and bigotry and hate are very much alive and well." He turned more fully to look at his wife, his expression becoming pained and stressed. "They're at the age where kids explore their sexuality with someone else. They kiss and touch and embrace. Like you said, they start walking from first base to second to third. But straight people don't worry about getting caught. Nobody's going to bully them for it, nobody's going to beat them up for it, nobody's going to threaten them for it." He inhaled a stuttering breath, eyes glistening with fearful tears. "Nobody's going to hurt them for it, baby doll. And nobody would try to kill them for it." Her hand came up and covered her mouth as concern widened her eyes and knitted her brows. "Oh honey... Do you think... Would somebody... Surely not..." "I'm worried, Jayne Anne. I'd hope in this day and age it wouldn't happen, but we can't guarantee that, can we? We can't guarantee everyone who might see them would be progressive and understanding. We can't guarantee... Oh, baby doll, how do we protect our son when so many will see him as different, maybe as evil? How do we protect him from the hate as he tries to find himself? How do—" His wife waited, watching realization dawn in his eyes, watching her husband work through a fear she'd not considered but now shared. "What is it, Ben?" she asked sotto voce. He cupped her cheek and rubbed his thumb soothingly across her cheek. "What if we give them a safe place?" "They already have a safe place, honey. We never question what they do in his room—" "But in his room? Do you really think they feel safe enough there to explore with each other? With the threat of being caught, the threat of being heard, do you really think that room across the hall is a safe enough place for them?" Her face showed nothing but disappointment. Grasping his hand and holding it against her cheek, she asked, "What else can we provide, Ben? I don't know a place we can give them where they'd be protected from prying eyes, safe from discovery." "I do." His voice came out strong, confident, energized. "Where?" "The storage space above the garage." "It's a ratty, dusty, unfinished space." "It could be more." "What do you mean?" "What if we turned it into a garage apartment?" "Well... Oh my..." "What if we cleared it out, added a bathroom, maybe a kitchenette, painted and furnished it, made it a haven for the boys?" Nodding, a grain of interest growing into a thrilling pearl of satisfaction, she smiled, eyes crinkling. "It could be a safe place for them." "Right. It's above the rest of the house, thus no shared walls. The floor is the garage ceiling, so nobody below." "An inside and an outside entrance." "There'd have to be rules." "And an explanation." "What do you mean?" Jayne Anne gave her husband a patronizing look. "Honey, we can't tell them why we're doing it." "Why not?" "Talking about it needs to be their idea, when they're comfortable and sure and ready." "Oh... You're right." "I always am." He wrapped his arms around her and drew her in for a kiss, then she settled her face against his shoulder as he said, "I want our son to be safe." "Me, too, honey. I want him and Jace to figure out who they are individually and together." "Do you really think this is a good way to help with that?" "I think it's an excellent way to help with that." She kissed her husband then, an intimate and passionate kiss that left them both wide awake and gasping. Settling her forehead against his chin she added, "I'm so glad this was bothering you, honey." "I'm just glad you agree. And I'm glad we have a place we can provide." "And I'm glad you're such a good father." She met his gaze then, her eyes full of desire. "Now how'd you like to be a good husband by helping me burn a little energy." Ben waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "I like the way you think." * * * * * "We think it'll help you learn responsibility and prepare you for adulthood." "Okay..." Brody said, his voice unsure and his eyes wide. "There will be rules," his mother added, squeezing her husband's hand as she saw her son's face light up as he realized the enormity of what they'd offered him. "Oh. Yeah. Of course." "You'll be responsible for most of the work," Ben explained. "You'll need to help move the junk stored up there. We'll go through it to identify what to get rid of and what to move elsewhere." Brody nodded yet remained silent. "We'll have contractors do the major stuff, but you'll have to paint, assemble or move furniture, move all your stuff up there." "Okay." A wordless moment passed before he asked, "Anything else?" "Rules," Jayne Anne reminded him. "Right. And they are...?" Ben squared his shoulders before saying, "No guests without permission and nobody's to be there unless you're there. Jace is the only exception to those rules. Otherwise... No parties without permission. You do your own laundry here in the house. You do all the cleaning. You do all the minor repairs. You tell us of any major issues. You keep your grades up. You do your chores. You treat it like you treat your room down here—don't tear it up or damage anything, though we understand accidents can happen. You keep the doors locked at all times." "Both of them?" "Yes," his mother answered, "because this is your private space. We'll respect that as much as possible, but there might be times when we have to go up there unannounced, though the house rule will be that we have to knock before coming inside." "Oh. Well, okay. Any other rules?" "No drinking or drugs." "Dad..." "I'm just saying, Brody. We trust you, otherwise we wouldn't be doing this, but you need to understand the rules. Because if you break them, we might ground you or take away privileges or, in the worst of cases, move you back downstairs." "Okay. No problem." When he realized they had nothing else to say on the matter, a beaming grin swept across his face as he asked, "When can we get started?" Jayne Anne bumped her husband's shoulder with her own, feeling her son's giddy energy and thrilled happiness as it filled the dining room. "Is today too early?" she asked with a smile. * * * * * Two Months Later "Here are the keys. There are locks on the inside and outside doors. Your mother and I have the other set." Brody accepted the keys graciously and respectfully. He was beside himself. He was going to have the garage apartment. All their work had turned it into a refuge, a safe place with no prying eyes and no chance of anyone barging in or overhearing. It meant he had to be responsible, dealing with chores and laundry like any adult, but it also meant he and Jace had a private haven where they could spend time together, be together, explore their growing relationship together. His mother said, "Remember the doors are to remain locked at all times." "No parties or guests without us knowing," his father added. "I remember the rules, Dad." He rolled his eyes for effect. Then: "But you said Jace—" "Is the exception," Jayne Anne clarified. Ben smirked playfully. "He's practically our adopted son already. Besides, you two are rarely apart." "And we trust him." "Okay." Brody took a deep breath. "So I can starting moving my stuff?" "It's all yours." Both parents laughed as he jumped up from the chair and ran to his room, pulling out his cell phone as he went. * * * * * "I can't believe how lucky you are," Jace remarked as he dropped onto the bed and sighed. "This is so awesome. I wish my parents would do something like this for me." "Well, my parents did it for both of us. Remember you're the exception to all the rules, so this is as much your place as it is mine." Brody slowly pushed Jace back on the bed and knelt over him. The jock leaned down and kissed his boyfriend with a passion that lit fires in both boys. Left breathless and gasping when they separated, Jace asked, "What's gotten into you tonight, jock boy?" Griding his crotch against his boyfriend's, making clear the kiss had affected both of them, Brody whispered against Jace's lips, "I want to christen our new space, nerd." Despite being called a nerd, Jace couldn't help but smile. Brody had called it their space, not just his. And it felt like that, too. Jace had helped as much as possible during the construction and painting and moving. He'd poured plenty of hours and sweat into the garage apartment. Of course, he'd been selfish in that endeavor, realizing early on what kind of opportunity it would provide them, what kind of secure space it would be once finished. Just what they needed to explore and grow their relationship. "What did you have in mind?" he murmured against Brody's lips. Sitting upright and stripping off his shirt in one fluid movement, Brody replied, "I want you to make love to me." Jace gasped, bit his lip, smiled. They'd been slow in their sexual exploits, making clear early on that they wanted their relationship to be based on more than sex. They wanted sex, sure, but they didn't want that to be the foundation of what they shared. Starting with kisses and light touches and cuddles, they'd escalated over time to discovering each other's body with hands and lips and tongues, then to hand jobs, then to blow jobs, then to rimming and fingering. But they hadn't taken the last step yet. They'd enjoyed their year of slowly expanding erotic pleasured as their feelings grew and solidified. Now, however, Brody sounded ready to take the next step. And Jace thought that was a really good idea. Running his hands up Brody's bare torso, enjoying the feel of the muscles moving beneath goosebump-pebbled skin, enjoying the sounds of his boyfriend's contented sighs as they gave way to needy and ragged breaths, enjoying the sight of the hot jock who wanted the nerd inside him, Jace leaned up and captured one of Brody's nipples with his teeth, sucking it into his mouth and working it with his tongue. Brody's moans and writhing fueled his desire. Releasing the nipple for a brief moment, Jace smiled up at Brody's wanting expression and said, "I think I'm ready, too." Brody captured Jace's lips in a fiery kiss as he unbuttoned his boyfriend's shirt. He couldn't wait for Jace to make him his own, to be inside him, to make love to him. And now they had a place where they felt safe to let the sexual side of their relationship grow to its full potential.
  2. Sitting in their English AP class, Trish leaned toward Lynette and whispered, "You know, if Brody and Jace really don't want to go to prom, they should still do something fun." "I totally agree." "Maybe we should make some suggestions." "Such as?" "Clubbing!" Lynette frowned. "But we do that all the time. And it's not very romantic when you're being crushed in a crowd." "You're right. Bad idea." "What about the lake?" "Which lake?" "Does it matter? Oh, forget that. It's romantic, sure, but not private. Especially on a weekend." "You're right," Trish admitted in a defeated tone. Then: "Oh! How about a camping trip?" "Jace and camping?" Both girls giggled quietly. Trish shook her head. "Not a pretty picture." Their expressions epitomized deep thought as Trish chewed on her pen and Lynette stared at the ceiling, each pondering ideas for the boys. "A road trip?" Lynette finally asked, her voice doubtful. "Could be. But road trips depend on the weather, you know? Besides, there has to be a destination, otherwise they're in the car all weekend and that's—Wait! I got it." Looking pleased as punch Trish offered, "Say they go rent a cabin somewhere, be out in the country like, have a relaxing weekend, just the two of them. It would be just as romantic as the prom if they went away for the weekend. You know, secluded, private, alone." Though Lynette's face beamed with excitement, Trish's features fell. Her shoulders sagged and she shook her head, negating her own suggestion. "No, I don't think so. That'd be too complicated. It'd look suspicious with them going by themselves. Plus the cost, making sure they didn't get caught... No, that would be a big mess, too hard to pull off. But there must be something..." Trish glanced at Lynette and realized the seed had been planted. Her friend's eyes were distant and thoughtful. Though she'd dismissed her own suggestion, she felt confident Lynette would give it due consideration and come up with a way to make it work. And that was precisely what Trish wanted. * * * * * "I still think you guys should go stag. Nobody'd think twice about it." "James, we've discussed this before," Jace said dryly before tossing a chicken nugget into his mouth. Lynette put her hand over her boyfriend's mouth when he started to protest. "Don't mind him." She passed a meaningful look from Brody to Darren before staring at James with a shut-the-hell-up-already stare. "You know how jocks can be." "Hey!" Darren complained. Brody eyed Lynette with offense belied by the grin he wore. Then he said, "We're not going to prom. We've talked about it and we've decided." "Sorry, guys," Jace added. Darren glanced at Brody, perhaps for a moment too long, then shrugged. "We'd really like you guys to go. We could all go as a group." Again he glanced at Brody. A chicken nugget sailed across the table and smacked him in the side of the head. Darren jerked around and met stern expressions from James and Lynette. "What?" Brody inquired. "Nothing," James replied too quickly before promptly redirecting the conversation. "Jace, do you have a few minutes after school to go over our physics assignment with me? I'm not sure I completely understood what Mr. Nielsen wanted." Jace nodded. "Sure." "Whiskey tango foxtrot, Darren?" Trish hissed across the table. His gaze snapped to hers. "What?" She used her eyes to gesture to Brody before giving a brief little shake of her head and scowling at the football jock. "You're being obvious." "Oh." * * * * * "Your mom is the reason I don't go over there much anymore." "I know," Jace replied through a frustrated grimace. "It just sucks. Lara likes you. The twins love you to death. Even Dad likes you." "It's no big deal." "Yes it is, Brody!" Jace said hotly. "It's a very big deal. She's so unfair. I don't get what her problem is." Brody spit mouthwash into the sink and rinsed it as he glanced through the bathroom door at Jace splayed out on the bed, gloriously naked, hands behind his head and staring at the ceiling. He never tired of the visual. Despite Jace's opinion to the contrary, Brody thought his nerdy boyfriend was the hottest thing on two legs, lean and lithe with slight definition, little pink nipples, that delicious treasure trail that started at his belly button. Yeah, he didn't think there was anything about Jace that wasn't hot as hell. He shut off the bathroom light and wandered into the large open space that defined the garage apartment. His bed was tucked into one corner with windows on two sides. The outside door separated the bed from the small kitchenette. The inside door leading into the house stood beside the bathroom door, and beside that was a large closet with sliding doors. A small dining table and chairs rested next to the kitchenette. In the far corner was a living space with couch; coffee table; bookshelves stacked with works of fiction and knickknacks; and a short credenza with four lateral drawers, two on each side, each full of movies or linens or music or odds and ends. A large flat-screen television hung on the wall above the credenza with a stereo below it, Bose speakers hidden around the room for the full theater effect. Making his way to the bed, Brody shrugged as he settled beside Jace, one foot on the floor and the other leg curled against his boyfriend's hip. He rested a hand on the other boy's thigh, squeezed lightly, gave a sympathetic nod. "I don't know, Jace. I'd like to fix it, whatever it is, but I can't because I don't understand it. That's not the point—" "Yes it is!" "Hey," Brody said softly, rubbing his hand up and down Jace's leg, gentle squeezes punctuating the calming caress, "don't get worked up about it." With a stern scowl Jace asked, "Why don't you complain about it? You have every right to complain! Damn it, Brody, you need to learn how to complain like the rest of humanity." "What does it accomplish? Does complaining fix anything? Does it solve problems? Does it change minds or salve wounds or balm hurt emotions?" Jace rested a hand on Brody's leg, his fingers tracing patterns of goosebumps on the skin. "That's not the point," he growled. "I'm just not a complainer, Jace. Besides, would it really help? Your mom doesn't like me, that's a fact, and she won't change her mind based on whether or not I bitch and moan about it." "I know. It's just sometimes I wish you'd complain about something, especially this, so I'd know it bothered you as much as it does me." Brody leaned forward, pushing his legs out, slipping his body over Jace's and settling beside him, pulling his boyfriend against him and wrapping his arms around him. "Do you think she's figured us out and that's why she doesn't like me?" he pondered. Jace stiffened, a quiet gasp stealing his response. Then: "Oh hell, do you think?" "I asked first." Jace's breath whooshed out in a contemplative sigh tinged with worry. He gave the question some thought before saying, "I simply don't know, Brody. It's possible. Our friends figured it out, our brothers and sisters figured it out, so why not our parents?" "You think my parents know?" Jace nodded, realized Brody couldn't see it, added words to the gesture. "If I had to venture a guess, I'd say they have. But you know them better than I do..." The jock shrugged before rolling Jace over against him, wrapping his arms around the man he loved more than life itself. He kissed the top of his boyfriend's head. "If they know, they don't care." "I guess..." The boys fell silent then, each pondering questions for which they had no answers. Some vexed them, like the issue with Helene; some interested them, like the question of Brody's parents knowing about their relationship; and some hung with all the finality of a cliffhanger, like what to do about prom weekend, if anything. "So," Jace finally said as he rested his head on Brody's chest, running a hand to and fro with light caresses, not looking to provoke and entice so much as communicate and enjoy. "So," Brody responded. He was rubbing Jace's bare back, his fingers tracing the valley of his spine down to the top of his ass, tracing the cleft that started there, then tracing back up to the nape of his neck, tickling the fine hairs growing there, then palming great swaths of skin from shoulder to shoulder and down across his ribs until finally he settled back into that valley and started all over again. He loved the little shivers he elicited, how Jace's skin blossomed in goosebumps as his fingers passed by, how Jace's breath punctuated the caresses with little ragged outbursts and stuttering inhales. Yeah, he pretty much liked everything about Jace and he pretty much liked how Jace reacted to everything about Brody. "Darren." Jace said it like the name contained a persuasive debate, from premise to arguments to conclusion. Brody couldn't hide his knowing smirk, though Jace couldn't see it. "What about him?" "He has a crush on you." "So?" "So... Doesn't it bother you?" "No. It makes no difference. I still treat him the same and he treats me the same." "Those puppy dog eyes he gave you at lunch—" "He can bat his eyelashes at me all he wants, Jace, but it doesn't change how I feel about him or you. Everybody develops crushes. You can't control them." "But—" "You can't control them, Jace," he interrupted, giving his boyfriend a tight squeeze. "You can either let them be and work around them or you can let them interfere with life and possibly ruin important relationships. I go with the first option." Jace chuckled on an exhale, his breath tickling the trimmed hair on Brody's chest. "You never cease to amaze me, Mr. Windham." "I never cease to amaze myself, Mr. Langstrom." Jace smacked Brody's chest with his palm. "Asshole," he muttered playfully. After a snicker Brody said, "Don't worry about Darren, Jace. And don't worry about Trish either. You see threats where there are none. You spend too much time thinking and not enough time feeling. You're the man I love, the man I want to spend the rest of my life with. I only have eyes for you." Before Jace could respond, Brody rolled him onto his back and settled atop him, knees straddling his narrow hips, elbows beside his head, nose to nose. "What are you doing, jock boy?" "I'm going to enjoy some intimacy with my boyfriend, nerd." He dropped a passionate kiss on the other boy's lips. "Got a problem with that?" Jace shivered, eyes closed. He murmured, "No... No problem." Brody shimmied down a bit before sucking one of Jace's nipples while tweaking the other one with his fingers. Jace arched his back and moaned. "Oh hell no. I don't have a problem with that at all." "Always remember what I told you that first morning we woke up wrapped in each other's arms." He began dropping kisses all over Jace's chest before slowly working his way down the smooth bare torso toward the hardening prize that awaited his exploring mouth. "I love you, Brody Windham," Jace declared breathlessly as his boyfriend's lips suckled on that sweet spot near his hip. "I love you, Jace Langstrom, more than life itself." Brody didn't say anything else for quite a while after that because there just wasn't room enough in his mouth for words. * * * * * Five Years Prior Jace woke slowly, the first hints of dawn illuminating the room. The moment he reached consciousness his intellect came alive, as it always did, though on that particular morning it focused on a single thread of thought. A warm muscular body had him wrapped in strong arms, legs tangled together, warm humid breath tickling the nape of his neck, his body pressed back against another body that defined skin-to-skin contact from head to back to buttocks to ankles. Jace had never been that close to another human being. He allowed his body to report to his mind all the sensations he felt. He allowed his heart to report to his mind all the emotions he felt. Everything weaved together with that one thread of thought: Brody was holding him, had made it clear the night before that they shared something more than friendship, and Jace had never slept more peacefully in his life. "You're awake," a deep, resonant voice murmured into his hair, the words rumbling from Brody's chest into Jace's back, sending waves of giddy, nervous pleasure through his body. "Yeah. How'd you know?" He pulled tightly on Brody's arms, hugging himself with them. "I just do. It's like I'm in tune with you, I guess, or something like that." Brody's grip slackened, causing Jace to feel momentary panic. But those strong jock arms slowly rolled the nerd over so they rested facing each other. Before Jace could speak, Brody's hand slid over his shoulder, up his neck, across a cheek, the touch so gentle that it drew chills in its wake. Jace couldn't quite define the look on Brody's face. But he was pretty sure he liked it. He was pretty sure it answered a lot of questions. Nevertheless, in words barely whispered, he asked, "What's happening, Brody?" "I'm incapable of perspective when it comes to you." "What?" "You're so beautiful." Jace squirmed and blushed. He was just a skinny kid, tall and skinny and not very attractive. "You need to get your eyes checked." "No I don't, Jace. You're the most stunning creature on the planet. I've thought so for a long time." "But—" "But I didn't know how you felt. I didn't know... Shit, maybe this will clarify things." With that, Brody leaned forward and captured Jace's mouth, the kiss gentle yet full of promise, passionate yet not erotic. Jace moaned, his eyes wide with shock before fluttering shut. Then he yanked his head back in surprise. "Was that your tongue?" Brody ducked his head a little, looking sheepish. "Yeah." "Why would you do that?" The light of realization dawned in Brody's head. "That was your first kiss, wasn't it?" Jace's fair cheeks flamed crimson as he cringed in embarrassment. "Hey..." Brody cupped Jace's cheeks, holding him firmly enough to keep him from moving but gently enough to communicate his affection. "Look at me, Jace." The scrawny kid slowly opened his eyes. He knew he'd see pity in Brody's expression, if not disgust, so he looked elsewhere. Here they were, thirteen going on fourteen, and Jace had never been kissed. Never been touched, for that matter, except by family members or in platonic ways by friends. Nobody had ever touched him or kissed him or even looked at him the way Brody was doing. It scared him, left him reeling with inexperience and an abashed sense of self-deprecation. "Look at me, Jace." Such warmth in the words, such tenderness. He locked his eyes on Brody, unsure, afraid. "Don't think about it, Jace. Just feel. Feel with me. Feel my hands on your skin, feel my body next to yours." Jace's breathing slowed, his blush fading. "Good." Brody leaned forward again, slowly. "I'm going to kiss you again. Don't think about it, don't think about what I'm doing, don't think about how to respond. Just feel it, feel your way through." Jace gave a shaky nod, reluctant to speak, uncertain of appropriate words given his pounding heart and how hard it was to breathe and the overwhelming desire to touch Brody everywhere, to let the young jock have his way, consequences be damned. As their lips met the second time, Brody caressed Jace's cheek and angled his head for better access. He deepened the kiss the best he knew how, then he touched Jace's lips with his tongue. He exhaled into the other boy's gasp while sliding his tongue forward, tentative yet unrepentant. A fire came alive in both boys as Jace nervously touched his tongue to Brody's. The fire grew into a blaze when Brody began exploring Jace's mouth as Jace grew surer, letting his tongue dance a bit with the intruder. The blaze exploded into an inferno when Jace reached around Brody and drew him close, mashing their lips together as his tongue slid into Brody's mouth, drawn there by the sudden urge to penetrate, to touch, to taste, to expand the dance to its greatest extent. Only a minute or two passed before they broke apart, gasping, flushed, hearts pounding. Neither could release their grip on the other, hands holding firmly and eyes glazed. "That was..." "Beautiful," Brody said. "Wonderful." They stared at each other, a comfortable silence cloaking them, tiny movements of their fingers tracing lazy patterns on each other's skin. Without preamble Jace declared, "I'm too tall, too thin, too plain. You're... you're absolutely stunning." "You're beautiful, Jace. Don't ever think otherwise." "Why?" "Why what?" "Why would you say that?" "Because it's true. Don't think, Jace. Just stop it. Feel... Feel what I'm saying, how I'm touching you, how I'm looking at you. Don't think about the words, just feel the meaning, feel the moment." Brody kissed him again. It lacked the urgency of the second kiss but held a more powerful promise than the first. "I don't understand..." Jace mumbled when they separated. "Understand what?" "This. Whatever this is." Brody took a deep breath. He'd have to admit it at some point. So he did it when it seemed most appropriate. "I love you, Jace." Kiss. "I think I've loved you since I figured out love is a thing." Kiss. "I loved you before I understood what the feeling was." Kiss. "I love you." Kiss. "I'm in love with you and I love you and you're so beautiful to me and I love you." Kiss. When Brody pulled back, he saw the tears on Jace's cheeks, the shocked expression bordering on panic. "What's wrong?" Jace shuddered when Brody's knuckles stroked his cheek. "I've never... I've never understood my feelings for you. I've never understood why it's so hard to breathe and why my chest hurts and why it's hard to think." He shook his head, shrugged. "Stop trying to analyze everything, Jace," Brody chided. "Stop thinking so much and start feeling." "I do feel! God, I feel so much it's tearing me apart. I just..." "Just what?" "I just don't know." Brody tried to hide the hurt he felt. "It's okay if you don't feel the same way—" "No! No, Brody, that's not it at all. I... I..." Jace realized it would be easier to demonstrate rather than ruminate, so he grabbed Brody's face and pulled him forward, their noses mashing together as their lips met. Brody felt his soul burning and his toes curling and his heart hammering until fit to burst. He groaned, wrapped his arms around Jace, deepened the kiss in whatever way a thirteen-year-old boy could. Their bodies intertwined in a writhing mass of arms and legs and torsos and tongues and lips and desperate emotional overload. "I love you," Jace finally said, breathing the words against Brody's lips. "Believe me when I say I do. I've never been with anybody because I've always loved you. I'm just scared. I mean, you've been with—Wait a minute! I thought you liked girls." "I do. I like boys, too. I like boys more, in fact." Hugging Jace against him and kissing his forehead, he added, "I like you most. Love you, all of you, with all my heart." Jace murmured against Brody's neck, "Oh. But I... I guess I don't know about me." "It doesn't matter, Jace. I don't care who you like as long as you love me. That's all I care about." Jace hugged him close, tight. "I have no idea what I'm doing." "Neither do I. Not really." "Then what do we do?" "We figure it out together. Always together, Jace, you and me. Always..."
  3. Like all children with Asperger syndrome, Zack and Zane Langstrom didn't relate to people very well, if at all, but not for lack of trying. As a general rule, the fifteen-year-old identical twins liked people and were in fact gregarious; they just had no ability to react properly to social interactions, often overwhelming people with their rapid, erudite, pedantic speech and narrowly fixated interests, all without comprehending the verbal and non-verbal cues coming from other parties. Which of course made interactions awkward and often left people feeling uncomfortable and seeking retreat from the boys. Well, not awkward for the twins, who wanted to engage rather than retreat. But for other people? Yeah, pretty much awkward. For reasons people could only theorize, there was one person the twins were drawn to more than others, a person who somehow understood them, related to them, felt comfortable with them and unflinchingly spent time with them that seemed meaningful to everyone involved. That person was Brody Windham. "I'm always shocked when they cuddle up to you like that," Lara said to Brody. "Honestly, a little part of me is jealous—they're my brothers, for goodness sake—but the much larger part of me is thrilled they have someone they feel comfortable with." Brody sat in the middle of the Langstroms' couch with Zack and Zane stretched out on either side of him, their heads in his lap, both boys absorbed in their reading. Jace and his sister Lara sat on the loveseat. "They cuddle with him more than I do," Jace mumbled, not wanting his father to hear the remark. "Only when we're here," Brody assured him in a low voice. Though the twins didn't like physical contact with others, including their own parents and siblings, Brody was the exception. Zack and Zane were demonstrative with the jock in ways that ran counter to their usual self-enforced no-touching rule. Lara turned to her brother and gave him a mock scowl. "Everybody needs physical affection, Jace. Be happy for them." "I am, little sister," he groaned, rolling his eyes. "I'm just being facetiously jealous." "Look who I found waiting out—Brody Windham!" The name echoed around the room like a clap of thunder, sharp and edged and accusatory. Helene stood in the open front door, purse over her shoulder, one hand on the door knob and the other on the hip she'd thrown out for emphasis. Trish stood on the porch behind her staring wide-eyed into the room. Jace's mother glanced around before her fierce glare settled on Brody's stricken face. "I've told you repeatedly I don't want you around the twins when I'm not here. They have special needs. You're wholly unqualified—" "Helene!" That bark snapped seven pairs of eyes toward the hallway where Darryl stood, all six-and-a-half feet of him. Helene's husband was a trim man with a subdued approach to life, quiet and gentle. So when he raised his voice, it took everyone by surprise. "I'm here," he continued, not quite as loud yet a lot more perturbed. "Brody's doing nothing wrong." "Mrs. Langstrom—" Her eyes snapped back to Brody's. "This is my home—" "It's my home, too," Darryl interrupted, "and I said he could hang out with the kids until he and Jace head over to the Windhams' place." "You're working, sweetheart," Helene began, her eyes hardly spending a moment looking at her husband with affection before a tempestuously untrusting sneer returned to Brody, "so you can't be expected to—" "Helene!" he barked again. "I said it was okay." Again she glanced at Darryl. Then, as though he hadn't spoken, her voice cut through the silence. "Zane, Zack, go to your rooms." When they looked ready to protest she added, "Now!" The twins rolled off the couch as one, shoulders slumped and eyes downcast. "We hope to see you soon," Zane said to Brody, then Zack added, "We look forward to it." With those browbeaten declarations clearly said for all to hear, the boys walked around opposite ends of the couch and made their way down the hall to their rooms. Brody stood, looking meek and chastised. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Langstrom, Mr. Langstrom. I should go." "Mom, what's wrong with you?" Jace asked defensively, a not inconsiderable amount of venom in his tone. "Don't you start with me, young man." "Helene!" Darryl said, this time standing beside her. "What the hell's wrong with you? I was here, I said it was okay, end of discussion." "We're leaving," Jace announced. "You boys have a good evening," Darryl said over his shoulder, wincing at the hollowness of his words under the circumstances. When he gave his daughter a look, Lara got the hint and mumbled something about getting ready for a movie and dinner with her friends as she ambled down the hall. She didn't hide the confused anger in her expression when she glared at her mother. Darryl pulled Helene into the house and told Trish, "This isn't a good time." "I'm here to pick up Lara," she responded. "Fine." He waited for her to enter before pushing the door shut. "Make yourself comfortable." Then casting an unpleasant glare at Helene he continued, "I need to talk to my wife." She stiffly yanked her arm from his grasp and stormed across the living room into the kitchen. He stayed right on her heels. "Mind telling me what the hell that was about?" he inquired with a stern rebuke in his tone. "I've told him before—" "I was here, Helene. He wasn't breaking your rule." She dropped her purse and keys on the counter. "The twins have needs—" "Special needs. Yes, I'm their father, so I'm well aware of their needs. That doesn't explain your growing hostility toward Brody." "It's not hostility, Darryl, it's common sense. They need stability, someone they can rely on who won't hurt them." "Brody would never hurt those boys." He couldn't keep the disbelief out of his voice even if he'd wanted to. The thought of Brody hurting Zack and Zane was too preposterous to contemplate. "He'll leave them," she argued, defiant. "What?" "When he graduates, he'll leave them behind. It'll hurt them." "He's going to UT Austin, not UCLA. He'll be in town regularly to visit his folks and his sister and his friends." "That's not the point." "Jace is going to the same school. Why not be mad at him? Why not deny him access to the twins unless you're there to chaperon?" "That's different." "No it's not! You treat that poor boy like a criminal for no reason, Helene. It's horrifying—" "He's going to hurt them, Darryl! You mark my words, he'll hurt our boys—" "What in blazes are you on about?" She ducked her face and shook her head, a slight tremor quaking her body. When she looked back at her husband, an ardent malice furrowed her brows and pursed her lips and squinted her eyes. "He was sick, Darryl! He almost died. What if he gets sick again? Jace is one thing, but Zack and Zane—" "Has Jayne Anne said something about Brody's health?" "What? No..." "Ben and I had drinks just last week. He says Brody's doing fine, fit as a fiddle, checkups every six months, still taking his meds, no sign of trouble." "That's not the point." "When was the last time you talked to Jayne Anne about this?" "I... Well..." He leaned in close to her, anger in his voice. "You've chased away your best friend because you resent her son—" "That's outrageous!" "Ben told me, said you and Jayne Anne haven't talked in months, explained that she's pretty upset about how you treat Brody." "I never—" "Care to tell me the truth? Why you resent him?" "He's going to hurt our boys. I already told you that." Darryl stood to his full height, his eyes never leaving his wife's face. Silence settled between them as they stared at one another. Finally he said, "You're alienating your own children because you have some unknown issue with Brody. You've alienated your best friend because you have some unknown problem with her son." Poking a finger in her face he told her, "You need to figure your shit out, Helene." He turned and took one step before swinging around. "And the next time I say something's okay, it's okay, end of discussion. Brody's good for the boys. Their doctor and their therapist said as much, said we should encourage and support that bond because it's essential for them. If you care one iota about your kids, you'll figure your shit out and stop being such a bitch to that boy. And you better do it before you make all your children hate you." As she watched her husband turn and walk away, Helene shook her head again, scowling. Couldn't he see it? Was he that blind? Brody was taking their boys away from them. First Jace, now the twins. If she didn't do something about it, he'd take Lara away as well. Somehow the Windham boy had developed a relationship with her boys that was stronger and more potent and deeper than anything she'd ever had with them. She didn't see it coming with Jace, so that took her by surprise. She tried to stop it with the twins, yet there it was anyway. Darryl had once hypothesized offhandedly that something about Brody's leukemia episode early in life had imparted to the young man an intangible quality that allowed him to relate to Zack and Zane as an equal whilst simultaneously allowing the twins to feel both understood and appreciated, something they rarely if ever felt with others. Regrettably, a relationship that should've been celebrated and promoted was instead a point of contention with their mother. It all boiled down to jealousy. She resented Brody's relationship with her sons—not just the twins but Jace as well—and she couldn't quite bring herself to be mature about it. All the while, Trish stood in the living room as close to the kitchen as she could be without Darryl and Helene seeing her. She'd overheard the entire argument. It made her feel deliciously giddy. * * * * * "Care to tell me why you're both so quiet?" Ben asked, letting his eyes sweep back and forth between Brody and Jace. Jayne Anne sat quietly and watched them, letting her husband lead the conversation. Neither boy was known for reticence, so when they arrived that afternoon looking forlorn and disconcerted when normally they'd be boisterous and roguish and engaging, both she and her husband knew right away what had happened. Or they suspected anyway. "It's nothing," Jace offered weakly. "I think we're both tired." "Yeah, just tired," Brody muttered, not taking his eyes off his plate. He hadn't eaten much, mostly just pushed his food around. Everyone at the table noticed because everyone at the table paid special attention to Brody's diet, not to mention everything else about him. "Might this have something to do with Helene?" Ben prompted. Brody and Jace glanced at each other, then like a scripted scene they both shrugged at the same time. "Brody," Jayne Anne started. "I don't know why she doesn't like him," Jace said abruptly, surprised by his own words. Brody shrugged again. "It's okay." "Not it's not," Jace argued through gritted teeth, shaking his head. "It's not okay at all." After giving her husband a look, Jayne Anne asked, "Are you not hungry, Brody?" "No." He wore his heart on his sleeve, his parents knew that, and he hated not knowing how to fix the problem with Helene. He was close to everyone in the Langstrom family except her. And that lack of closeness translated to strain and upset that he disliked, that constantly abraded him until he felt raw and wounded. He also felt threatened by it, fearful that it might someday cause his relationship with the twins to break or, worse, cause him to lose Jace. And that was the worst fear of all. "Why don't you boys go on up and I'll bake some cookies. That'll make movie night better, won't it?" For the first time that evening, Brody smiled, a weak attempt, but still a smile. "That would be nice," Jace responded for both of them. Ben and Jayne Anne watched the boys head up the inside staircase to the garage apartment. Then they looked at each other. "I'm going to kill that woman," she said under her breath. * * * * * Brody and Jace had watched three movies, consumed two dozen cookies fresh from the oven, and finally agreed around two in the morning that they needed sleep. After ensuring the garage apartment was secure for the night, Brody slipped out of his clothes and slid into bed beside the man of his dreams, wrapping Jace in his arms and pulling him snuggly against him. "Oh..." Jace moaned. "What?" Brody inquired, worried. "Just a memory." "What memory?" "Like this." "Pardon?" "We were like this, you the big spoon and me the little spoon with the moon shining in the window just like tonight." Brody inhaled sharply. "Oh..." "You scared me half to death that night." "I did?" "Yes, you did." "Why?" "I... I thought I'd hidden how I felt about you." Jace wriggled further against Brody, pulling his arms tighter around him. In a whisper he added, "And I didn't know you felt that way about me." "I almost kissed you before Mom knocked on my bedroom door." "I know. But I was working hard to convince myself that that was something else." * * * * * Five Years Prior They'd eaten dinner in a quiet very much unlike their usual selves. Ben and Jayne Anne and Jenny had cast curious glances at Jace and Brody throughout the meal, the three of them dumbfounded by the unusual dearth of interaction between the boys. No one said anything, though, because no one had a clue why the atmosphere felt so charged with tension. Brody and Jace had been inseparable since kindergarten with nary a day passing without them seeing each other, laughing and joking and talking and whispering and essentially lavishing each other with all the attention they had to give. An extended period of quiet with strained glances and wary words felt alien to everyone. But invariably every relationship hit a rough patch or two, thus the Windhams felt disinclined to interfere unless it all went sideways. Once they'd helped clear the table and clean the dishes, Brody and Jace excused themselves and headed back to Brody's room. "At least that hasn't changed," Ben remarked to Jayne Anne, who was busy herding Jenny toward her nightly bath. "Whatever it is," his wife said as she fussed at her ten-year-old daughter to get her behind in the bathroom, "I'm sure they'll work it out." "I hope so." * * * * * Brody and Jace watched television in self-effacing silence. Both had ensured a small measure of space between them as they sat on the bed, backs against the headboard. That few inches felt like a chasm, but the night's unwavering tension and unflinching quiet made it a schism of profound proportions. Jace felt certain he'd misunderstood that moment before dinner when he'd thought Brody intended to kiss him. He just knew he'd misread the signs. But what filled him with fear was the harsh truth of the event: Jace had let his mask slip, had erred when he let Brody see his feelings for that brief instant, had made a major mistake by opening himself to his friend after assuming his feelings were reciprocated. But everything since then had proved his impression wrong. They'd gingerly danced around each other, avoiding touches that usually came naturally and unconsciously, hardly speaking a word to each other when they'd normally be voluble, and casting their eyes far and wide in attempts to avoid the other's gaze when so much of their time was typically spent watching each other for the silent dispatches and inside jokes and bonding glances. How could he have been so stupid? It was Brody's look that threw him off. Jace could've sworn he saw affection and desire in Brody's expression, especially his eyes. Obviously he'd been wrong. And that left him pondering how to fix what he'd clearly broken. Because he'd obviously made Brody uncomfortable given the night's increasing tension. Brody had other worries on his mind. He knew Jace felt the same way. He'd seen it in his face, his eyes. As he'd leaned toward him, he'd watched Jace's eyes flutter shut, his lips part slightly, his cheeks flush. Then when Jace's eyes snapped open, as though he'd suddenly realized what was happening, his pupils had been dilated and there'd been so much emotion roiling in those emerald depths. Yet Brody had no clue how to take the next step. All he knew was that he had to be courageous. He had to take a chance. He had to make the choice to take the next step and let Jace make the final decision. But how? After several hours of subdued conversation and mindless television, Brody muttered something about being tired and Jace mumbled in a vaguely affirmative way that he too wanted to go to sleep. The boys tended to their nightly ablutions before undressing to their underwear—they'd long since become accustomed to sleeping together that way—and slipped into bed. A vast canyon of empty space separated them. Not even a wedge of light entered the room beneath the door. Brody rolled onto his side facing Jace and castigated himself for his lack of action. He just couldn't think of a way to address his newfound knowledge. Would leaning over and kissing Jace be too much? Would wrapping his best friends in his arms and snuggling up to him cause further tension? Would just admitting his feelings deepen the rift that seemed to grow between them? As he stared at Jace's prone form, watching just the barest hint of shadow upon shadow, a full moon slowly rose above the horizon. Its spotlight shone through the window to Brody's back and illuminated the room in subtle blue light. He couldn't be sure how long he stared at Jace, how long he vacillated between action and inaction, but Brody began doubting his own conclusions. He'd misunderstood Jace's reaction in that heated moment before dinner. He'd projected his own feelings onto his best friend, thereby misrepresenting Jace's actions in his memory as harboring meaning they lacked. He'd let hope blind him to truth that— He murmured, shifted a bit, then Jace rolled onto his side so he faced Brody. His eyes remained closed. Brody continued to breathe evenly and deeply, eyes wide. The moonlight from his back cast a shadow over part of Jace but left most of him clearly visible. Jace wondered if he'd ever have another chance to watch Brody sleep. He'd been doing it for years, waiting for his best friend to fall asleep and then letting his eyes consume every detail, every contour of his body, ever idiosyncrasy of his breathing, every twitch of his muscles, every movement of his eyes beneath shut lids. Well, if he'd ruined everything between them with that terrible mistake earlier, Jace figured he might as well get his fill before it ended. The wearying, physical ache he felt inside would no doubt burgeon into real heartache, a debilitating anguish that would take years to subside, but before that happened he intended to enjoy this one last night of watching the most beautiful man in the world as he slept. Brody watched as Jace's eyes opened. With the window behind him, he knew Jace couldn't see that his eyes were also open. Thus Brody stared in wonder as Jace's eyelids slowly parted, the barest reflection the only indication they'd done so. And then they opened fully, Jace's emerald eyes taking on the hue of verdant moonlight as he stared directly at Brody's silhouette. Jace couldn't make out any details save a few hints here and there, yet his breathing hitched and became ragged as he looked at the shadow shaped like his best friend. Hair lightly tousled. Strong jaw and proportional ear, moonlight sliding across his cheekbone. The strong neck and shoulders. The defined arm. The bare torso tapering to a slim waist. And the rest hidden beneath the sheet. He didn't know how long he allowed his eyes to wander up and down Brody's body, but mostly Jace's gaze meandered back to the darkness where Brody's eyes hid. He stared at that shadowy realm. And stared. And stared. As if of its own volition, Jace's hand began to move, slipping silently across the bed, moving toward his best friend. He didn't stop it. In fact, he willed it forward, quietly, secretly, wanting just this once to touch the man he loved so dearly. Touch him with affection and intimacy instead of friendliness. Brody watched Jace's hand approach, watch it move like a serpent as it slithered forward. When it rose from the bed and hovered in the air, Brody almost stopped breathing. Almost. He watched the hand begin moving again, toward his face, the fingers gently splayed, the moonlight illuminating the sparse hair on Jace's arm. And still those eyes watched him. So full of life. So full of affection that Brody could see. So full of love. Just before Jace's hand reached his cheek, it retreated. Brody watched it go with a pang of disappointment. Jace rolled onto his back, heaved a great yet quiet sigh, stared at the ceiling. He threw an arm over his eyes and let the other fall to the bed beside him. He'd chickened out. He'd lost his nerve. He'd crumbled beneath the weight of his own want, too afraid to act, too nervous to be strong, too lacking to make the choice. He'd been thwarted by his own shortcomings, once again letting his intellect rule his heart. Brody could feel the self-deprecation rolling off Jace in waves, the disgust, the dashed hopes. But his best friend's failure had reinvigorated Brody's resolve, had shown him he'd been right, had read the signs correctly. So it was time to act. Without hesitation Brody lifted his hand and moved it across the bed and let it come to rest on Jace's bare chest. His best friend's entire body jolted, he gasped, and he automatically lifted his hand and grabbed Brody's. Once he had it, though, he didn't know what to do with it. Brody was asleep. He'd moved his hand in his sleep. He didn't know he was touching Jace, lighting fires in Jace's body, sending Jace's emotions into overdrive, causing Jace's heart to race until it felt like it would leap from his chest and run away. He'd enjoy it, that's what he'd do. So Jace flattened Brody's hand on his chest and left his on top of it, holding it in place, fantasizing for a brief moment that it meant more than it did, wondering what it would be like to enjoy this amorous torment every night of his life. Brody closed his eyes and breathed deeply, feeling a peace spread through him the likes of which he'd never experienced before. Jace wanted him as much as he wanted Jace. This proved it. The jock slid forward so quickly Jace never knew what happened until it was over. Brody's muscular arm slid beneath his neck as the other slid over his torso. As Brody moved against Jace, he turned his best friend's body on his side and pulled him against Brody, strong arms wrapping around him and holding him tight. Jace gasped, the inhale sharp and loud. "Brody..." "Shhh..." Brody kissed his neck, sending a shocked wave of tremors through Jace's body, goosebumps spreading from the point of contact. "Just relax. We'll talk in the morning." "Brody..." The voice of fear, uncertainty, doubt. Brody knew Jace all too well, knew Jace spent too much time thinking and not enough time feeling. Perhaps that explained why the signals had remained so mixed, so unclear. Each time Brody thought he saw something, he dismissed it because he could never tell if what he saw came from Jace's head or heart, the source making a world of difference in what it meant. "Shhh... For once in your life stop thinking so much, Jace." "But—" "Shhh..." Another kiss, another chilled shiver, then Brody nuzzled his face against Jace's head until his lips rested just behind the other boy's ear. "Stop thinking. Relax and let it happen. Don't think about it." Jace opened his mouth to say something, to question, to protest. Then Brody's hand began gently caressing his chest as his other hand grabbed Jace's and held it tight. Warm, moist breath tickled his ear, his neck. Brody's face rubbed into his hair, his noise dropping light touches here and there. And the kisses. Ye gods the kisses! Brody's lips continued to touch first this place, then that place, and finally another place. "Relax, Jace." The words breathed into his ear and stoked a flame that threatened to burn Jace to cinders right there. "Stop thinking so much and start feeling. Feel me right here holding you. Feel me kissing you. Feel us together right here and right now. Just us, Jace. It's just us and we're gonna be okay." "Going to..." Brody snickered. "Asshole." Then he dropped a more passionate kiss on Jace's neck. Jace's mind went blank and fireworks went off in his head and his heart hammered and hammered and hammered and chills raced up and down his spine. It was wonderful. He pushed back against Brody and pulled his arms tighter, squeezed his hand harder. Then he whispered, "Is this a dream?" Brody kissed his neck again before answering, "If it is, I don't ever want to wake."
  4. "Boys, dinner!" Jayne Anne yelled up the stairs to the garage apartment where Brody and Jace spent so much of their time when they were at the house. As she turned back to the kitchen, she caught a glimpse of the knowing smirk on her fifteen-year-old daughter's face before the expression vanished. Jayne Anne didn't know if Jenny knew about the boys, but Brody and his sister had always been close. If her mother's intuition was worth its name, she'd guess Jenny knew more than her parents did. Which didn't strike Jayne Anne as a bad thing. If Brody still didn't feel comfortable telling Ben and Jayne Anne about his relationship with Jace, they'd have to work harder to make sure he understood they loved him unconditionally. She hoped he'd eventually feel safe enough to talk to them. Until then, at least he has his sister, she thought. With the sound of a herd of stampeding elephants, Brody and Jace stormed through the upstairs door and pounded down the stairs, light pushes and ample laughter punctuating the journey from the garage apartment to the house proper. They swept into the kitchen with the grace of a tsunami. "Boys," Ben mumbled, trying to make it a reprimand but failing as he choked back a snicker. Jayne Anne could only roll her eyes and turn away lest they see the grin on her face. Maybe they needed to learn better manners, be a touch more behaved, but she couldn't really fault them for their loud, boisterous ways. Just being boys... "Hey, Dad." "Hey, Ben." He gave them a stern look that crumbled into a smile. "Next time at least try to act civilized in the house." Both boys ducked their heads and nodded, though mostly they tried to hide their smiles. Brody leaned over and bumped Jenny with his elbow. She rolled her eyes at him before smacking him playfully on the shoulder. "You don't act older than me," she facetiously jibed. "Thank goodness," Jace mumbled. Then he stuck his tongue out at Jenny, a childish gesture she readily returned. Jayne Anne shook her head at the antics. At least they all got along. She settled into her chair as Ben started filling his plate with roast beef. Jenny hoarded the green beans while Brody hogged the mashed potatoes. "Salad?" Jayne Anne offered, holding the dish toward Jace. "It might be the only thing left once they get done." He took the proffered bowl and smiled. "Thanks. At least you know guests come first." "You haven't been a guest here for thirteen years, Mr. Langstrom," Ben mentioned, his tone playful. "True, but I'm the best you have under the circumstances. It's wise to keep up the practice, right?" Again Jayne Anne rolled her eyes and smiled. Dinner passed with light chatter, friendly discussion, jokes, laughter, comfort. Occasionally Ben and Jayne Anne would give each other a knowing look when the boys weren't watching. It had to do with Brody and Jace and their attempts to act platonic when it was obvious they were so much more. The light touches, the looks, the eagerness to help, the willingness to ensure happiness even in the small things, like fetching another drink for each other or dishing up a second portion instead of just passing the bowl. Ben wished both of them, Brody especially, would realize they had nothing to hide, no reason for a furtive relationship, at least in the Windham home. He couldn't guarantee no problems out in the big bad world, but he knew he loved his son and he loved Jace like another son and he had no problem with their relationship. At first he did, sure, and he sulked and skulked and stormed about angrily with all manner of upset in his head and heart. That lasted about three days before he stopped and chastised himself. He hadn't been angry about his son being in love with another boy; he'd been angry because he wanted grandchildren and he felt disappointed in Brody for not thinking of that first. How selfish he'd been. Which Jayne Anne pointed out when, after those three days, he went to her and brought up the subject, trying to sneak up on it in case she didn't know yet. But she knew. Of course she knew. She'd seen it years before in the way they acted, they way they looked at each other, they way they talked and touched, the affection and intimacy that went just a little bit beyond platonic yet worked hard not to go further. "I saw the look," she'd told her husband when he approached her about it. "The look?" he'd asked. "Probably six, seven years ago." "Really?" "Yes. They were sitting on the porch talking, they'd just arrived home from school, and I was standing in the kitchen. I heard voices and glanced out the window. When Jace turned away for a moment, Brody's face transformed. It's like he relaxed and the fire beneath came blazing to the surface." "What kind of look?" "One a mother recognizes in her children." "Meaning what, baby doll?" "It was love. Unadulterated, unflinching love, the kind of wildly tornadic love only teenagers have. It was beautiful to see." "Didn't it bother you?" "At first I suppose it did. I worried about his future, about hate and bigotry and intolerance. I worried about hardships he might face simply because of who he loved. Then I got over it." "How?" "By realizing it wasn't about me." "But didn't you ever wonder about grandkids?" "Is that why you've been pouting for the past few days?" "I wasn't pouting." "Oh, honey, you most certainly were. Walking around with your bottom lip jutting out is the only thing that could've made it more obvious." "Hell, I'm sorry. I just... I just suppose, after considering the flurry of concerns like you mentioned, I got hung up on having little Windhams running around and how this might put a dent in that dream." "Ever hear of adoption?" "Of course I have. It's just... I don't know... I was hoping—" "But it's not about us, Ben." He'd paused then, staring at her. A slow grin spread across his face. "No, it's not about us, is it?" "No. It's about our son finding happiness and loving someone who'll love him in return." "Yeah, you're right. I was being silly, I guess." "It comes with old age." "Hey, you're not much younger." "But I'm still not as old as you. That counts." "You have to wonder," Ben had said, turning serious again. "About what?" "How it got started? How they crossed that line?" "You mean how one of them figured out it might be worth the risk to say something about how they felt? How someone scrounged up enough courage to take a leap of faith?" "Precisely." "I wonder, too." * * * * * Five Years Prior Thirty minutes after her parents had bid the pair goodnight and left on their weekly date night, Trish closed her door ostensibly to protect her younger sister from the quiet music and school-related conversation coming from her room. She and Brody had spent the evening working to finish a project for their French class. Another hour or so and they'd be done. Brody lay with his feet stretched out, ankles crossed, his back against the headboard, a textbook open beside him and his laptop on his thighs. He typed in fits and starts, fingers flying over the keys until he paused to reference to the textbook or his notes, then back to typing. Trish stood with her back to the closed door watching her boyfriend. Well, semi-boyfriend she supposed, or perhaps pseudo-boyfriend. They'd been dating for two years yet hadn't done more than a little touchy-feely, some toe-curling kissing, a smattering of hugs, and lots of hand holding. Sure, they were only in the eighth grade, but she seriously thought two years was plenty of time to kick the relationship up several notches. Looking at Brody stretched out on the bed, she figured the time was right to force the issue. She had a feeling sex might just win him over to her way of thinking, might just help him put that silly infatuation with Jace behind him. If she only knew it was far more than an infatuation. Without making a sound, she unbuttoned her shirt and let it slide from her shoulders, revealing her young, pert breasts held in check by a lacy white bra. She approached the bed as she slipped out of her sandals and let her shorts fall to the floor, stepping out of them without missing a beat, leaving her in a pair of white panties that left very little to the imagination. Trish reached the bed and picked up Brody's laptop, setting it on the nightstand as he looked at her in shock. "Hey—" he began before his voice died on a quiet gasp. She swung one leg over him and used it to push the textbook and notes aside, then she climbed onto his lap and straddled him, lacing her fingers together behind his neck, doing her best to look sultry and irresistible. "What are... What are you doing?" Trish leaned down and kissed him, a slow, sensuous kiss, thought not passionate or erotic. A promise of things to come. "I've been thinking a lot about you, Brody. A lot about us." He stared wide-eyed, hands at his sides. She began grinding her pelvis into his crotch, subtle movements meant to cause a wee bit of friction, a little something to whet his appetite. "Trish..." "Shh..." She placed a finger over his lips. "You can't tell me you haven't thought about it, Brody, about me like this, about us. I think it's time, don't you?" "Time for what?" he asked, her finger causing his words to sound distorted. "For us to take our relationship to the next level," she purred as she ran her hands down his chest, unbuttoning his shirt along the way. She pushed it open and slid her hands over his bare torso, enjoying the feel of peaks and valleys built with young muscle. Up they moved until they reached his chest. She immediately stroked his nipples, eliciting a shiver and small moan from him. Oh yeah, she could work with that. Trish reached down and took his hands, placing them on her bare hips as she gyrated more forcefully, putting more pressure on his groin. "Trish, stop." Right back to those sensitive pebbles on his chest. He groaned and his head fell back against the headboard, goosebumps breaking out across his chest, his nipples erect and responsive. She leaned forward and kissed him again, this time with tongue and passion and intent. Brody didn't reciprocate. Instead he moaned into her mouth, but it sounded less wanton and more guttural, like a grumble. Her body jerked when he grabbed her wrists, wrenching her hands away from his body. Brody also bucked his hips slightly, causing her to shift down his legs, leaving her seated nearer his knees. "What the fuck, Trish?" he asked, sounding perturbed and dismayed. "Come on, baby—" "Don't! You know I hate pet names." "I know, Brody. I'm sorry. I just want to be with you." He shook his head, scowled, then unceremoniously dumped her off his lap onto the bed as he surged to his feet. "You're just going to throw it around like that, just offer it to anybody?" She huffed as she moved to a kneeling position and faced him. "You're not just anybody, Brody." "Losing your virginity's supposed to be special, Trish, not just an upgrade when you get tired of the status quo." "I know, baby—" "Stop that! I hate that shit!" "I'm sorry." "I want to wait and have sex when it's the right time with the right person—" "Are you saying I'm not—" "Not that you're the wrong person, Trish, but this is sure as fuck the wrong time and wrong reason." "But—" "I don't think I'm ready to take that step. I also don't think we're that close." "Of course we are," she whined. "No we're not, Trish. We've always been friends. This dating thing was new and different, but it's not what I want." "Brody—" "And I most certainly don't want to lose my virginity just for the sake of losing my virginity. I want it to mean something—" "It would mean something." She sounded petulant but couldn't stop, couldn't change. "Not like this. Not with you. I want it to be borne of love and a desire to take a relationship to the next level with a person I can spend the rest of my life with, which isn't you. I'm sorry, Trish, but this was never that kind of relationship. We should've never gotten involved like this." Brody was buttoning his shirt hastily yet successfully. He began gathering his things, pushing everything into his backpack haphazardly. "I'm sorry, Trish," he offered to her stunned silence, an endless gasp expressed in her features. "I'm not ready for that. I don't think I'll ever be ready for that with you. There's just no... no spark like that between us." Brody reached the door and turned back to face her. She still knelt on the bed, mouth agape, eyes wide, aghast and appalled and... well, what looked like anger flowing just below the surface. "I think we should go back to being friends and leave it at that." Trish couldn't believe what was happening. She was so stunned she couldn't respond, couldn't think of anything to say. Mostly she wanted to scream and wail and pound her fists and stomp her feet. She watched Brody slip out the door and disappear. And still she couldn't speak. But she could feel, and what she felt was a kind of rage she'd never felt before. Nobody had ever denied her what she wanted. Nobody. And she wanted Brody. * * * * * "Then you just walked out and left her there like that?" Brody shrugged, his face dropping until his chin rested on his chest. "Am I an asshole?" Jace shook his head, though he realized as he did it his best friend couldn't see it. "No, I'm not saying that at all. It's just..." He stared at Brody's profile, seeing the uncertainty in his expression despite the odd angle. "It's just that I didn't..." Brody's head came up and he met Jace's gaze. "Didn't what?" he inquired, his voice soft and quiet. "I didn't think anything could make you walk away from her." "Why not?" "You two seemed... close, I guess." "Everybody in The Squad is close." "Everybody in The Squad doesn't swap spit with everybody else in The Squad." "Oh. That's true." Again Brody's head dropped as his voice weakened to a meek shadow of its normal self. "She likes you." "Yeah. So?" "I thought you liked her." "I thought I did, too." Jace's head cocked slightly as he stared at Brody. "Meaning what?" "Meaning I don't know," he replied with a shrug before turning back to his best friend. "Meaning... meaning I thought I did, but I realized I didn't but by then I was stuck, or felt stuck, or thought I should continue dating her because everybody expected it, or whatever." He shrugged again, though by that point he didn't know why or what to say or... or really why he couldn't just tell Jace the truth. The boys gazed at each other, neither speaking and neither moving, both sitting on Brody's bed, backs against the headboard. They'd been watching television, waiting for dinner, and Brody regaled his best friend with the tale of terror from the previous night. Okay, tale of terror sounded harsher than it was, but it was close. He felt like Trish might've raped him if he hadn't left when he did. He'd thought about having sex with her. The thought neither terrified him nor titillated him. It just was, a thought that lacked compelling merit while having more than a few demerits, an idea that might someday become reality if he ever got his mind and heart off his best friend. Because in the end, it was always Jace Brody thought of when it came to sexual fantasies. Not that he only thought of Jace sexually. Far from it, in fact. Ever since he'd realized he had feelings for Jace that went beyond platonic, Brody had investigated and examined those feelings so he'd better understand them. What he realized was that he'd fallen in love with his best friend a few years ago, maybe in the fifth or sixth grade, though he hadn't realized what it was he felt or what it meant or why he felt it. But it came down to having these constant thoughts of growing old with Jace, sharing a home and a life with Jace, always going to Jace to share the good news and get support through the bad news, talking to Jace about the weather and sports and current headlines and what to plant in the garden this year and where to go on vacation next year and... Well, his thoughts about Jace tended toward the mundane, the pedestrian, the quotidian ups and downs of life with a partner. Then, when Trish first asked him out on a date in the library that day two years ago, Brody finally had his first sexual thought about Jace. He'd stared at him and considered what it would be like to sit in a dark movie theater holding his hand while they watched a movie, then maybe kissing him afterward when he said goodnight. He'd kissed Trish that night, a simple little peck, but when he arrived home he thought of kissing Jace and it was no simple little peck his mind conjured, which resulted in an even more passionate kiss for Trish several months later which made Brody think of even more passionate things to do with Jace. It ended up being a feedback loop, with each iteration leading to thoughts of Jace that had gone completely pornographic. Brody's feelings for Jace had intensified by orders of magnitude, thoughts of suburban bliss rapidly becoming thoughts of sexual escapades punctuated by suburban bliss. Or vice versa. Or whatever. "What are you thinking?" Jace's whisper hit Brody like an electric shock. He'd become so lost in his friend's emerald gaze, those eyes filling him with thoughts of what he felt and what he wanted and why he was too damned chicken to say anything—he feared losing his friend—that he'd nearly forgotten where he was and that he wasn't alone. But coming back to reality merely brought him back to those eyes, that gaze, the nearness of Jace's body settled right against his, the gentle caress of his breath against Brody's face, the faint taste of the air coming from Jace that made Brody want more. Before he knew what he was doing, he leaned toward Jace, a very slow movement, his eyes leaping up and down from eyes to lips and back again. He felt drawn forward, drawn toward fate, drawn toward destiny. When his gaze locked on Jace's, he saw his friend's eyes widen a bit, his pupils dilate, and he became aware of Jace's breathing, which had shallowed and accelerated and sounded somewhat ragged and rushed. A brief knock at the door had both young men whipping their heads in that direction. Just in time for Jayne Anne to push it open a bit. "Dinner's ready," she told them. "Be right there," Brody said. Or thought he said. It sounded less like words and more like letters written with smoke, light and airy and insubstantial. "Are you boys okay?" she asked, eyes narrowing. Jayne Anne was very much aware of the slight flush in their cheeks, the stunned expressions that reminded her of shock rather than surprise. "Yeah," Jace replied, his voice only a little more substantive than Brody's had been. "Okay." She sounded unsure, or maybe confused, or perhaps it was just curious. "Well, dinner's ready. Come on before it gets cold." They watched her turn and head down the hall. Then they looked at each other. Then they stood and followed her to the dining room. Though neither said a word before sitting down to eat, both of them separately pondered that moment, that profound interaction that held no sounds save breathing yet held as much emotion as the works of Shakespeare. They'd both felt it, they'd both felt that... that something... that spark. Unfortunately, Jace didn't understand it well enough to know how to respond to it. Brody, on the other hand, knew precisely what'd happened. Maybe it was his experience with Trish or maybe it was those formative years he'd gone through leukemia treatment and learned so much from educated adults when he should have been playing in sandboxes instead, but not matter where the understanding came from, he knew what that moment was and what it meant. That was a spark to ignite a fire to set ablaze the smoldering feelings that he now knew were reciprocated. He just had to figure out what to do with that knowledge. No matter what he decided, he wouldn't let the night slip by without taking action. He'd waited long enough. It was time to start living the dream.
  5. Jason MH

    The Ex

    Trish watched Brody and Jace enter the cafeteria together and shook her head. She just couldn't understand how other people didn't see what was so obvious to her. Well, most other people didn't see it. Brody's sister Jenny knew, but they were so close that they had no secrets from each other. And Trish thought Jace's sister Lara knew, or suspected, or something. As for the twins, Zane and Zack, Jace's brothers, it was hard to tell what they might or might not know because they were slightly autistic, making them awfully private except when around Brody and Jace. Which, now that she thought about it, meant they probably knew, or suspected, or something. "Why the long face?" Darren asked. Trish shot him a dismissive scowl but remained silent. The meathead followed her gaze, catching sight of Jace heading to the lunch line as Brody made his way to the table, dropping his backpack on the floor beside his chair before taking a seat. "Yo, what's up?" Brody tossed out as a greeting to everyone. "Yo," Darren grunted. "Hey, Bro," Lynette smiled. The nickname made Brody grin. Trish gave a demure smile before it turned coquettish. "Hi, Brody." He gave her a quick nod as he pulled his lunch out of his backpack and began spreading it out on the tabletop. A spinach salad with grilled chicken along with fruit, cheese and crackers, a protein bar, yogurt, and a bottle of water. The boy sure was serious about healthy eating. Darren threw a knowing smirk at Trish, which she tried to ignore but inwardly cringed away from. She might call Darren a meathead all the time, but the boy wasn't a dumb jock at all; in fact, he was too smart for his own good sometimes. Leaning forward a bit and dropping his voice to something just above a whisper, he growled, "Whiskey tango foxtrot?" Her face scrunched up with distaste and she gave a derisive huff. What the fuck indeed. He knew what the fuck. She'd had Brody for two years, though they'd been in the seventh and eighth grades and never did more than kiss, hold hands, cuddle, and a little heavy petting. She'd never been able to get him to take it to the next level. And she'd known all the while why he wouldn't. Because of Jace. "You need to be honest with yourself," Darren told her sotto voce before returning to his lunch. She wanted to be honest alright, to tell the truth, to let everyone know that Brody and Jace were boyfriends, that they were shacking up most nights in Brody's garage apartment mere feet from his parents without anyone being the wiser, that they were hiding their relationship from pretty much everybody, that all the stolen looks and touches and who knows what else were right there for all the world to see if they'd only pay attention. Trish was pretty sure that revelation wouldn't go over so well with some people, and it just might be enough to cause a break up, after which she could sweep in and help Brody pick up the pieces of his broken heart. "Don't," Lynette said to Trish, her voice stern. "Don't what?" Lynette didn't answer, but her expression was pure venom. She and Trish had been friends since kindergarten—well, they'd all been friends since kindergarten because they'd all grown up in the same neighborhood going to the same schools—but Lynette and Trish were the only two girls in the group of friends. They had a special camaraderie since they spent so much time around four guys. Her expression made it clear she knew what Trish was thinking and found it detestable. The six friends called themselves The Squad, though at one point in elementary school Darren's parents had called them The Sextuplets. That didn't last long because the kids soon learned about the word sex, thereby putting a whole new spin on the moniker. With the increasing addition of Brody's sister and Jace's siblings, The Squad fluctuated from six to ten members at any given time. The original friends would soon graduate, so the others would have to form their own group. James dropped into the chair beside Lynette, placing his tray in front of him, then leaned over and kissed his girlfriend. It was almost a chaste kiss. After making smooching noises and enamored faces at one another, he turned to Brody and asked jokingly, "Where's you're boyfriend?" "Getting lunch" was the response spoken around a mouthful of salad. Everybody in the The Squad knew about Jace and Brody and their secret relationship. They'd all spent so much time together that they'd seen it coming before the two boys realized how they felt about each other. That didn't mean calling them boyfriends was acceptable, but they often said it as a joke when others might hear. It added a facetious cloak to the truth, making it harder for others to see. Or so the thought went. The Squad was a strange bunch by high school standards. They had Darren, a varsity football player. Lynette was a cheerleader. James played baseball and dated Lynette. Trish was terribly popular because she had money and looks and wit without being a snob. Brody was a jock, though he played no team sports, and he was one of the best looking guys in the school. All of that bumped them up in the school's social strata, not quite landing them at the top—but it was close. And then there was Jace. He was a tall drink of water, but he was thin, almost lanky without being sinewy. He was a total nerd, destined to be valedictorian of their class. Despite that, he was quite popular because his friendship with three jocks made him friends with the various sports teams who turned to him for tutoring and help with class projects and the like. In a normal world bullies would target him, but nobody in the school would touch him because they'd find themselves beaten to a pulp by whichever sports team got to them first. Strangely enough, they had to credit Jace with pushing them into the school's popular ranking. With the support and respect of every sports team, not to mention his smarts and down-to-earth approach to people, he made intelligence approachable and friendly while bridging the gap between the geeks and the jocks. And all without trying since he never set out to be popular; that's just the way it worked. When Jace fell into the seat beside Brody, he bumped him with his elbow just enough to get his attention. They shared a look—that look which made Trish's teeth grind and her nerves fire all at once. "So how are you fine folks today?" he tossed out to the whole table, no specific target in mind. "Good," James mumbled around a mouthful of pizza. "Forgive my Neanderthal boyfriend for his bad manners," Lynette joked, giving James a stern yet affectionate look. "I'm used to it." Darren smirked before responding, "Yeah, maybe you are, Jace, but the rest of us don't want to see the masticated mess in his mouth." "Ooh, nice alliteration." Brody grinned appreciatively. "I'm more than a pretty face." Darren squared his shoulders and held his head high. That earned him a few mocking sneers and humored chuckles. "Who's going to prom?" Trish asked. She'd just had a brilliant idea. Cruel and vicious, sure, but brilliant nonetheless. "It's months away," James moaned. Lynette smacked his arm, then she leaned her head on his shoulder and purred, "I got my date." "Same here," James cooed as he rested his head on hers. Again they made smooching noises, pursing their lips and ogling each other with an adoration so sweet it dripped from their pores. Darren shrugged. "Don't know who with, but I'm going." "You should ask that girl in chemistry," Jace said. Brody agreed. "Oh, good idea. She's always giving you those shy flirtatious looks." "Is that what those looks are? Here I thought she had gas," Darren quipped. Laughter percolated around the table. "Do you not like her?" Jace inquired. "Not my type." "Huh." Jace shot a knowing look at Brody. "What about my friend Laina?" Trish asked. "She's nice, pretty—" "And a walking petri dish," James interjected. Jace frowned, shaking his head. "You know her reputation." "She's friendly," Trish said, her voice rising in defense, though she knew Laina was known for being easy. Very easy. Glancing at Brody, Darren asked, "How soon would I have to start antibiotics before touching her?" "Without kissing, today. With kissing, last month. Anything beyond kissing, there's no medicine strong enough." Quiet oohs and howls erupted around the table. "What about you guys?" Trish asked, aiming the question at Jace and Brody. Both boys looked at each other before shrugging. "Not really interested." "That's a lie, Brody, and you know it." "Look, Lynette, I might like to dance and I might like to hang out with my friends, but I'm not interested in causing a scene." "It's the twenty-first century, guys," James scolded, "and we're at a high school in Dallas, not exactly a hotbed of intolerance." Darren turned toward the two and quietly explained, "Besides, there are other gay couples going. It's not a problem. You two should go." "They're out," Jace clarified, as though that ended the discussion. "Then come out." Trish gave them a shrug and a look that made it seem like that decision was so obvious and so simple that they should have thought of it already. Brody and Jace glanced around the table, meeting the other four sets of eyes individually. Then they looked at each other. Finally, after a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, they turned back to their meals. Before packing his pie hole with more yogurt, Brody declared in a hushed tone that sounded a bit peeved and a bit upset and a lot dismissive, "We're not going to the prom." "Wait!" James waved his hand for silence. Then setting his gaze on Brody and Jace he said, "Why not find some dates, some girls who'll go as friends? You can still go and still avoid questions or whatever it is that's got you running scared." "Great idea!" Trish agreed. "I volunteer to go with one of you." Brody gave her a considering look while Lynette, Jace and Darren looked at her like she was an opportunistic predator. Which she was, but they needn't know that. Or at least she needn't confirm their suspicion. Then Brody shrugged again and mumbled, "We're not going." "Go as friends!" Darren said in a forceful whisper that seemed louder than a shout. Immediate agreements and support spread through the group. "Yeah, lots of guys go stag just to have fun and hang out." "You shouldn't miss your senior prom. You only get one chance." "We'll all be there. You need to be there with us." "Come on!' "You have to go!" Jace raised his voice just enough to cut through the cacophony. "We're not going. That's final." Trish looked like she wished they'd change their minds. "You guys have been inseparable best friends since... well, since forever. Nobody'd think twice if you went stag with each other." "Nobody'd think twice if they came out and admitted they're boyfriends madly in love with each other," Lynette moaned, shaking her head. "Yeah, nobody'd think twice," Trish agreed. She just wasn't sure she believed that. Not at all. And she intended to find a way to test that theory since it would probably mean she'd have another shot with Brody. * * * * * Seven Years Prior Brody sat in the library working on his summer reading. Well, that's what he told his mother he'd be doing anyway. And he'd intended to work on it. Except he couldn't stop watching Jace sitting right across the table, his nose in a book, his green semi-rimless rectangular glasses making his eyes pop like sparkling emeralds, his alabaster skin aglow from the indirect sunlight pouring in through the wall of windows, his brown hair mussed into a stylish mess. They'd been best friends for ten years, so Brody had a huge place in his heart occupied only by Jace. But he knew there was something else there, something nagging at the back of his mind, some little tease of a thing that kept flitting by his consciousness, grabbing his attention just long enough to say it was there without staying around long enough to be identified. Still, he was pretty sure he knew what that feeling was. Jace had caught him staring more than once. All he'd ever do is offer a shy little smile and duck his head, never maintaining eye contact. But that was enough to make Brody's stomach flutter and make his chest constrict until it was hard to breathe and make his whole body feel drugged and wobbly. None of which he understood, not one bit, except when he threw the L-word into the mix. "You're supposed to be reading," Jace whispered without looking up from his book. "I am," Brody responded mechanically, automatically. "No you're not." Brody sighed, a facile sound that carried with it so many unspoken things. Jace's head snapped up and their eyes met. This time it was Brody who looked away without understanding why. He'd suddenly felt exposed, as though Jace might see something he wasn't supposed to see. That's when Trish dropped into the seat beside him. "Howdy, y'all," she offered in her best Texas drawl. She didn't really have an accent—none of them did—but she sometimes tried to sound sexier by adding a little twang. "Hi, Trish," Jace greeted before looking at Brody for a moment more. He finally shook his head and returned to his reading. Trish turned her pretty face toward Brody, her flaxen hair elegantly falling around her pale skin and down to her shoulders, her deep brown eyes full of mirth and wonder, her lips rosy and full and moist. "Hey," Brody mumbled. Trish glanced at Jace then back to Brody. Something in her eyes seemed new, different. It made Brody a little uncomfortable and a little excited. A nervous energy filled his body. Speaking a little louder than necessary, Trish leaned forward and asked, "Brody, you think you might like to go see a movie with me tonight?" Jace's head snapped in her direction as Brody's eyes widened. She offered a sheepish little shrug and willed a blush into her cheeks, though that attempt at mind over matter failed as her face remained rouged only with makeup. Lowering her voice as she lowered her eyes, staring at the sexy jock boy through her eyelashes, she added just above a whisper, "I thought maybe afterward we could hang out at my house for a little bit, go for a walk or something." "Are you flirting with me?" Brody deadpanned, still trying to comprehend what the hell was happening. He'd known Trish as long as he'd known Jace, and though he thought her pretty, he'd never thought of her as anything other than a friend. "Yeah," she admitted, "though I'm doing a pretty bad job of it, I guess." Jace snorted and immediately tried to cover it by clearing his throat. Trish ignored it. Brody heard it but couldn't look away from Trish, still pondering the imponderable idea that she was flirting with him. Finally he shrugged, nodded, answered, "Yeah, okay, I'd like that." She moved so quickly he couldn't have avoided the kiss even if he'd tried. It was a chaste, sweet, strawberry-flavored peck on the lips, and it sent a tingle through Brody despite the confusion it engendered. "Be at my house by six," she whispered against his lips before tossing a sly smile in Jace's direction, something akin to a victorious bearing of teeth that Brody didn't see and Jace ignored. After that she left, a little swagger in her step and a little extra swing in her hips. Jace finally looked at Brody and caught the wistful expression on his best friend's face. Their gazes locked and Brody's expression saddened further, becoming kith and kin to defeated acceptance. "What's wrong?" Jace asked. "Nothing." Dismissive, resolute, quiet. "Trish just asked you out." "It's just a movie." "And to her house. Maybe for 'a walk or something.'" "It's nothing we haven't done a hundred times before." "Not like this you haven't." "I know." "I'd think you'd be happier about that." "Yeah, me too." Without taking his eyes off Jace, Brody gathered his things, sliding them into his backpack. Once he was ready to leave, he stood, pushed his chair in slowly and silently, then stood there meeting Jace's stare with his own. Brody wished Jace was different, was a little less asexual bookworm and a little more emotionally available. There were times when he thought there was something there, but then the moment would pass and Brody would realize it was just the comfortable closeness they shared after a decade of being best friends. Well, that or wishful thinking. Yet still he hoped, wished, dreamed. In a hushed voice toned with more emotion than he'd intended, Jace asked, "What, Brody?" A few moments of silence passed as they continued staring. In the end Brody just shrugged, shook his head, mumbled, "I'll see you later, Jace." He turned and was gone, leaving his best friend bewildered. For the briefest moment Jace had thought something was happening between them, something important, something that maybe indicated Brody felt something like what Jace felt. But clearly he'd been wrong. * * * * * "You two have been dating for a year. Is it serious?" Brody's expression made Jace think his best friend just smelled something bad. "I don't think so," Brody mumbled. "After a year I'd think you'd have a pretty good idea." "Maybe I'm not ready for a serious relationship yet." "Maybe you're not with the right person." Brody spun around, nearly falling off the bed as he looked at Jace. "Why do you say that?" Jace blinked repeatedly, reminding Brody of a deer caught in headlights. Jace had no idea what to say, how to respond. The remark had fallen out of his mouth without thought, his own wishes made manifest in words. But now Brody wanted him to explain it and he couldn't. How could he tell his best friend that he wanted to be the right person for him, wanted to see if they could have something special, something serious? How could he tell Brody that he was madly in love with him but was scared to death of destroying their friendship if he admitted it? Jace felt hollow when Brody was gone. He felt like he was drugged to uncontrollable happiness when Brody was around. If he went a day without hearing Brody's voice, it felt like a knife to his heart. And when he heard his voice, it lifted him to the heavens and made even the darkest of days bright and cheery. Every little touch, every little look, and Jace's spirit soared. When they spent the night together, something they'd been doing since that first week of kindergarten, Jace often spent hours lying beside Brody watching him sleep, letting his eyes caress every inch of exposed skin, wishing he could let his hands do the same, if not his lips. Brody often worried that Jace couldn't sleep well enough on his bed because he never seemed rested the next day; Jace could never admit he got very little sleep because of the time he spent admiring his best friend, dreaming of a life together, wishing for more than what they had, wondering if Brody had any feelings for him beyond the platonic. How could Jace admit any of that? Their bond was special and their friendship of the utmost importance. The very idea of admitting how he felt made him shudder with dread for the damage it might do to them. He didn't think Brody had a bigoted bone in his body, but that didn't mean he'd be comfortable with his best friend's unrequited love for him. "Hey," Brody said in a soft voice as he touched Jace's shoulder. He felt the powerful tremble that rocked his best friend's body. With eyes wide, Jace looked at Brody, mouth agape, something like panic taking over his features. "What?" His voice came out harsh and brusque. Brody immediately removed his hand. He guessed that answered the question of whether or not Jace felt something. If a mere touch caused him to flinch and get upset, Brody knew there was no hope for something more than what they had. But he'd settle for that. He'd take it and live with it and never question it. Because he needed Jace like he needed food and water and air. He loved Jace, he knew that, loved him so much it hurt. Even if he couldn't have those feelings returned, he couldn't live without Jace, just couldn't. Shrugging, looking apologetic, Brody said, "Never mind." And he turned back to the television, settling just an inch or so toward the edge of the bed to give Jace a little more room. * * * * * Brody walked Trish to her door. They'd had a nice evening, a tasty dinner followed by a quiet walk at White Rock Lake, feeding the ducks and geese in Sunset Bay. He'd spent the last week thinking about that exchange with Jace. Since then he'd given Jace more room, hoping not to spook him, hoping he was doing a good enough job hiding his feelings. He realized his dreams of a life with Jace were empty. That had left him pondering his relationship with Trish. Thus far they'd done little more than hold hands, hug, share an occasional kiss that was nothing more than a peck. He'd decided it was time to let thoughts of Jace fade so he could focus on what he already had in his hands. As Trish turned to say goodnight, Brody bracketed her face with both hands before he leaned down and kissed her. He put more passion in the kiss than he ever had before, letting his tongue slip out and gently lick across her lips. When she gasped, he let his tongue slip in inside her mouth. * * * * * He'd always thought his first kiss would be electric, mind-blowing, powerful and memorable. Though he felt terrible for it, Brody walked away from Trish's house that night a disappointed young man. He'd felt something, sure, a little jolt of energy and a little erotic interest. But it hadn't been anything like he imagined. Not even close.
  6. Jace lay with his head propped up on one arm as he lightly caressed his boyfriend's bare chest. He couldn't take his eyes off the beautiful body resting peacefully beside him. Brody's olive skin glowed with verve and vitality. He had a handsomely sculpted chest covered with well-trimmed black hair. His dark erect nipples were the size of quarters. Though broad of chest and shoulders, he didn't look too big or too square, just perfectly proportioned. His abs were hairless and defined without looking like a laundry tool, taught and sexy rather than ripped and artificial. A trimmed happy trail started at his navel and slowly widened until it met his equally trimmed pubes. With slim waist and hips, the hair and the V created by his obliques merely added to the impression that his entire body was built to draw eyes downward. Brody's forearms and legs sported a healthy but not excessive amount of black hair, as did his face, which he never shaved entirely but instead always left with the right amount of scruff. His head was covered with wavy, thick, lustrous black hair that he kept short and wore in a messy, just-out-of-bed style. He'd inherited most of his features from his father's Italian heritage, though his crystal blue eyes came out of nowhere considering his mother's were hazel and his father's were brown; Jace couldn't complain, though, since those eyes added a certain exotic mystique to Brody's overall appearance. He loved watching his boyfriend sleep. It often overwhelmed him with the sensuous impression of peaceful strength and sublime beauty. Not to mention he couldn't seem to get his fill of Brody, the visual, the touch, the ardor, all of it. Seeing him this way, eyes closed, lips slightly parted, breath deep and regular, made Jace shake his head time and again, pondering just what he'd done to deserve a man of such inner and outer perfection. Finally accepting he needed to wake Brody, somebody who slept like a rock—they joked constantly about his ability to sleep through the end of the world with nary a problem—Jace leaned down and gently kissed his boyfriend's chest, dropping light pecks atop the two hickeys with which he'd marked Brody the night before. I have to stop doing that, he admonished himself, because he can never take his shirt off with all the love bites I leave on him. But Jace knew he wouldn't stop, couldn't stop. He liked marking his territory. More than that, he liked putting his lips to Brody's skin and watching him writhe and listening to him moan, especially when he drew blood to the surface in those places that drove Brody nuts with erotic energy. His kisses continued up his boyfriend's chest to his neck, then his jaw, then his cheek, and finally his lips. His hand, meanwhile, kneaded and caressed Brody's chest, working closer to his nipple—Brody's nipples were one of his most sensitive spots. With their lips against each other, Jace finally pinched Brody's nipple and twisted it, not hard enough to hurt but definitely hard enough to send a jolt of electricity through his body. When Brody gasped, Jace slid his tongue into his mouth and deepened the kiss. "Mmmm..." Brody moaned as his arms came up to encircle Jace, pulling him down atop the larger boy and holding him close. Unfortunately, though he wished otherwise, Jace drew back before he'd had his fill. It was already later than they'd intended and Brody'd told him the night before that he absolutely couldn't be late for work. Not again anyway. Or at least not so soon after the last time he'd been late. "Hey..." Brody whined. "Work." "Don't wanna." "Want to." "Alright, Helene, thank you for the English lesson." "I can't help it if my mother's a staunch supporter of proper language use." Brody chuckled, shaking his head. Helene was a warm and generous and caring woman, but calling her a stickler for proper language use seemed a massive understatement. Thought not a grammar Nazi, the woman certainly didn't mind correcting lazy or improper English. "What time is it?" Brody asked as he stretched, a satisfied groan rumbling in his chest, making Jace smile. He loved the sound of his boyfriend's voice, deep and resonant, but he liked it even better when he heard and felt it through Brody's chest. The rumble was comforting, familiar, wanted. "Almost seven." "Too early." "You have to be there at eight." "Don't wanna." "Want to." "How about you do something more satisfying with that mouth?" "What did you have in mind?" "Another kiss. I can't get enough of those." Jace smirked and shook his head. "Why not?" "Morning breath." "You just had your tongue in my mouth trying to suck my soul out of me, and now you're complaining about morning breath?" "Not yours, silly. Mine. By some strange quirk of the universe, you never have morning breath. I, on the other hand, am not so lucky." "I wasn't complaining." "You never do." Jace dropped a chaste kiss on Brody's lips before slipping from beneath the covers. As he headed toward the bathroom, Brody never let his eyes wander away from the breathtaking naked man who'd just left his bed. A little taller than Brody's five ten, Jace stood maybe six feet and weighed ten pounds less. He was slim but not skinny, his muscles defined but not pronounced. Brody often thought of his boyfriend as having something a little smoother than a runner's build. Not sinewy at all, Jace was just... perfect. He had alabaster skin, so light and free of blemish that it appeared almost translucent. He was virtually hairless except for his head, his face, his pubes, his armpits, and his lower legs. Every bit of that hair was light brown with natural highlights, straight as a ruler, and felt like satin. But his eyes captivated Brody more than anything else: forest green flecked with gold, soulful, expressive, deep and mirthful and telling. Brody could get lost in those eyes. Hell, he often did. Even with his back to the open bathroom door and without a glance, Jace chuckled before calling over his shoulder, "It's not polite to stare." "Can't help it. I have the hottest boyfriend on the planet." "Please," Jace groaned as he flushed the toilet. As he grabbed his toothbrush and the toothpaste, preparing to dispatch the morning breath that he always thought was worse than it really was, he sneaked a peek through the doorway and found Brody with his arms behind his head, his eyes locked on Jace's every movement. "The truth is," he said, "I have the hottest boyfriend on the planet." And that was precisely how he felt. Brody was so unbelievably sexy. Jace couldn't understand how the hot exotic jock could ever find a lean bookish nerd attractive, but he didn't question it because he knew it was true. Brody proved it every day with both words and deeds. After rinsing, Jace returned to the bed and slipped under the covers, wrapping his arms around his boyfriend as he pulled him in for a passionate kiss. "Mmmm..." Brody moaned into his mouth. Jace accepted the offering with glee. When they parted, lips swollen and wet, pupils dilated, Jace smacked Brody on the chest and told him, "Time for you to get ready for work." "Don't wanna." Before Jace could correct him he added, "Don't want to." After a quick kiss, one less erotic than the last, Jace admitted, "I don't want you to go. So on that we're in agreement. But you said—" "I have to go. I know. That's what I said. Doesn't mean I want to go, only that I have to go." "Is Trish working today?" Brody frowned but still answered, "Yeah." "Then at least you'll have some fun." "Not as much fun as I could have with you," Brody announced before grabbing Jace and rolling over on top of him, settling his full weight on his boyfriend, claiming his mouth with a searing kiss. Then he leaped off the bed and walked to the bathroom. "It's not polite to stare," he called over his shoulder with as much mischief in his voice as he could muster. Which was quite a bit. Jace shrugged. He'd stare if he wanted to. Besides, who wouldn't want to stare at a hot naked jock ambling across the room, his ass bouncing just so, his broad shoulders tapering to a slim waist resting atop thick legs. Every muscle danced under taught skin, causing Jace's blood to flow south. He leaned back, closed his eyes, and began thinking about other things, like his plans for the day and Brody working with Trish and... Well, Brody working with Trish. That always killed his sexual excitement. "Stop thinking about it," Brody called from the shower. Jace could only chuckle. They knew each other so well. And Brody understood that Jace felt some measure of jealousy when it came to Trish. She'd been Brody's first girlfriend and his first kiss. Sure the big oaf of a jock liked boys and girls, but he liked boys better, which pleased Jace. But that didn't make it any less bothersome that Brody had been Trish's boyfriend for two years before Brody finally admitted how he felt about Jace. If I'd said something sooner, Jace thought. Maybe if I'd said something before he did, Trish wouldn't be an issue. He listened to Brody in the shower, humming amidst the spray of hot water, realizing he needn't worry so much about Trish because Brody loved him, he loved Brody, and by golly they were planning a future together. No matter what came before, he had Brody now, in this moment and, assuming everything went according to plan, he'd have him forevermore. And that suited Jace just fine. "It's silly to be jealous," Brody said as he stepped out of the shower and began toweling himself dry, his eyes never leaving Jace's intense gaze. "I'm not jealous." "It's something you're prone to." "Did you end that declarative with a preposition?" "Stop being Helene long enough to hear what I say rather than how I say it." Jace dropped his gaze for just a moment, long enough to shake his head at his own silliness. "You're right, you know. And I'm being daft for feeling threatened." "You don't feel threatened," Brody declared as he marched across the garage apartment, towel over his shoulder. "Then what do I feel?" Leaning over the love of his life, Brody let his lips rest against Jace's as he whispered, "You feel regret that you weren't my first kiss, regret that you weren't my first date, regret that you weren't the one I held and touched." "And?" "But you were, Jace." "No I wasn't," he responded with a bit too much venom. "Yes you were." Brody sat on the edge of the bed, his face still millimeters from Jace's. "I loved you before I settled for Trish. She was the next best option, Jace. I didn't think there was hope for me and you, so I settled. Now that I have what I wanted all along, you need to stop worrying about it. You're all I need and all I want and all I'll ever hope for." He dropped a passionate kiss on his boyfriend's lips before admitting, "And that was another prepositional ending, by the way." "Asshole." Jace couldn't keep the smile off his face or out of his voice. He felt more than silly for doubting Brody. Nothing could feel this perfect and destined without being real and meant. "By the way, you need to stop with the linguistic crap. That's your mom's thing, not yours." Brody stood and walked to the dresser. "She made it my thing. I can't help it." "You're such a nerd." He didn't turn to look at Jace as he put on a pair of boxer briefs. "I'm not a nerd." "Yes you are. You're a hot bookish nerd who turns me on all the time, the sexiest little bookish nerd in the world." Jace watched Brody as he opened the closet door and began browsing for something to wear. "If I'm a nerd then you're a jock." "I'm okay with being called a jock. But I'm not a dumb jock." "No, definitely not a dumb jock." Pulling on a pair of jeans without looking back Brody said, "Besides, I'm not just any jock. I'm your jock." "And if I were a nerd, I'd be your nerd." "You are a nerd. You're my nerd. And I love you without reservation." "I love you, too." Brody slipped a tee shirt over his head before turning around. The moment his eyes settled on Jace he smiled, ducked his head, shrugged, asked, "Whoda thunk it?" "Who would've thought it, you mean," Jace corrected without thought. "Right." Watching Brody approach the bed, Jace couldn't help but think he was the luckiest man alive to have such a fantastic man in love with him. "Who would have thought what?" Leaning down, Brody placed an affectionate kiss on Jace's lips before standing, his eyes locked on his boyfriend's. "Who would've thought it would be you and me?" "Forever." "Forever and ever." Jace shrugged, looking sheepish, then said, "You looked like you needed a friend." After placing another kiss on his boyfriend's lips, Brody walked to the door, pulled it open, paused, looked at Jace, admitted, "I did need a friend. I just didn't think he'd be the man of my dreams. But he's that and a whole lot more." Before Jace could respond, Brody said, "Gotta go to work. I'll see you later. I love you." And with that, he pulled the door closed, leaving Jace to his own thoughts, thoughts of meeting, thoughts of destiny, thoughts of loving a man so much it hurt. "You looked like you needed a friend," he muttered. "Who knew you'd be so much more than that?" * * * * * Thirteen Years Prior "Mom..." Jace whined. "Do I hafta?" "Have to," Helene Langstrom corrected her son. "It's 'do I have to,' and the answer is yes, young man." "But Mom..." "Do you want some cheese with your whine this morning?" she asked with half a grin and raised eyebrows. "Huh?" "Nothing, sweetheart. Just a silly joke." "I don't get it." "Of course you don't. Understanding comes with age." "What?" "I'm sorry, Jace, but what were we talking about?" "Uh..." "That's what I thought," she mumbled, biting back a chuckle. Helene made a sport of using confusion to redirect her son's sometimes prosaic grizzling. He wasn't a complainer by any stretch of the imagination, but like every other five-year-old on the planet, he sure knew the right tone of voice to use so everyone inside of five blocks could hear his displeasure. "Why don't you go on in and find a seat, honey?" "What if they don't like me, Mom? What if nobody likes me?" Jace whimpered, unshed tears welling in his beautiful green eyes. And there was the other problem with her son. Helene couldn't understand why he never felt sure of himself, why he always assumed no one would like him. For such a gregarious child, his lack of self-confidence sometimes worried her. Sometimes. "Don't be silly, Jace." Turning him toward the classroom and waving a hand around the half-full room, she continued, "See all those kids? They're in the same boat you're in right now. It's their first day, too. They've never been to school before. They probably don't know very many of their classmates." "Really?" he asked, his voice carrying a hint of awe and a hint of comfort. "Pardon me," a woman apologetically said as she sidled through the door while attempting not to bump the kneeling mother and her adorable son. "Of course," Helene responded automatically, gently pulling Jace out of the way as the other woman slipped by, her own son pulling her along in his wake. Oh that poor boy, she pondered as she watched them weave through the tables and chairs toward the spot by the windows the boy motioned toward, he looks positively frail. I wonder what's wrong with him. * * * * * Jayne Anne Windham allowed her son to pull her into the classroom. "Pardon me," she offered shyly as she and Brody attempted to get through the door without knocking over the woman kneeling there cajoling her son, clearly trying to get the cute youngster to boldly face his first day of kindergarten. Thankfully I don't have to face that, she thought. With all he's been through, Brody's so well socialized and so uncaring of his appearance. To him, the first day of school is just one more thing he has to face. Compared to everything that came before, he doesn't seem to think this will be a problem at all. But, as mother's are wont to do, Jayne Anne had to temper the approval she felt for her son's seeming lack of fear in the face of even the most daunting circumstances. Three years, most of which he spent in the hospital undergoing all manner of tests and treatments, years of overwhelming pain and anguish and suffering both from the leukemia and its cure, had left Brody a quiet, introspective, strong-willed boy with confidence to endure most anything, which was all well and good in his mother's mind. But the other side of the coin was that he seemed to shrink in on himself most of the time, spending more than a healthy share of his days inside his own head. In addition to and despite his lack of nervousness around people he didn't know—he'd spent most of his life dealing with an unending parade of people he didn't know in environments unfamiliar and frightening—he appeared for all intents and purposes to be a rather shy boy. Ben was right. He needs kindergarten so he's around other kids, has a chance to learn social interactions with his peers, realizes he's not alone regardless of what he's been through. Brody drew his mother forward, his stride sure and his path clear, expertly guiding her amongst the other children and through the maze of chairs and tables. He'd never been in a classroom before, but by golly he knew where he wanted to sit if he absolutely had to be there. As soon as he arrived at the seats adjacent to the wall of windows facing the beautiful courtyard with its trees and fountain and benches and flowers and ample sunshine, he spun on his heels and leaned toward his mother. "Do you think it's alright if I sit here, Mom?" he asked, his voice hushed and respectful. Yet more evidence of his ordeal, she knew, the quiet surety, the graciousness, the veneration for the feelings of others, the innate deference to proper social deportment. She hoped the genteel, well-behaved child leukemia had created indicated the young man he would someday become. "I'm sure it's fine, Brody," Jayne Anne replied. "And if the teacher has assigned seating in mind, he'll let you know when class gets started." "I hope he lets me sit here," he remarked in the staid manner she'd come to expect. No five-year-old should be so well-mannered, she thought, but he was basically raised by a bunch of doctors and nurses. He never had time to learn about being a child. All the children he grew up with were in the same position he was in—sick, fighting for life, living day in and day out with a bunch of medical personnel who, irrespective of their intentions, never stopped being learned adults no matter what the children needed. "Would you like me to ask him if you can stay in this seat?" After he settled into the chair, quietly pulling it forward so he settled comfortably against the table, he turned to her and whispered, "Would you please?" "Of course, honey. I'll do that on my way out, if that's alright." "Yes." "Did you bring all your supplies?" Brody hefted his backpack onto the tabletop and pulled it to him with an arm slung over its bulky form. "Yes. Right here." "Are you feeling okay?" Brody didn't quite understand what he'd been through, but he very much understood he'd been sick for a long time, for as long as he could remember in fact. He also knew he wasn't completely recovered yet, but his parents said every single day that he was getting better, growing into a strong boy. So when one of them asked if he was feeling okay, he gave it serious consideration, basically performing a full inventory of his body and mind, checking to see if anything felt worse than the day before. Finding nothing amiss save uncertainty about the whole kindergarten thing, he told her, "Yes, Mom. I'm fine." "Good." Jayne Anne squatted beside the tiny chair her son sat in, resting one arm atop the table, and quietly explained, "The school knows you've only been out of treatment for a few months. They've promised to be mindful of how you look and feel. But don't you dare hesitate to let them know if you don't feel good, you hear me, Mr. Man?" "Yes, Mom," he giggled. That nickname made him feel silly, always did, and he loved her for it. She hated that nickname. It popped into her head one day when she realized her child was more an adult than anyone his age, due entirely to his health and the time spent around adults who tried to be childlike yet failed miserably in the attempt, turning her little boy into a little person too formal and too intelligent and too out of touch with his age. But she used the moniker anyway; it always brought a smile to Brody's face. For whatever reason, it brightened his mood. She just couldn't find fault with anything that did that. "The nurse is supposed to meet you before lunch to help you take your medicine." "Oh Mom..." he whined. Or tried to. It always sounded forced to her ears, like an adult playing at being a child. She appreciated the effort, though, as if her son were gifting her with a taste of what they'd both missed during his first five years of life. With a silly scowl she scolded through a chuckle, "Don't you give me sass, Mr. Man." Again he snickered, blushing. God he looks so much better when he blushes. I'll be happy when his olive skin darkens back to its original tone. Jayne Anne leaned forward and dropped a kiss on his forehead before giving him a quick hug. "You be good, you hear me?" "Yes, Mom." "I'll be right outside the class when school is out. Don't wander." "I'll be okay." "I know you will. But I worry about you anyway." Brody ducked his head and turned away, suddenly feeling quite shy, maybe even embarrassed. He might not understand everything that'd happened to him in the past, but he fully understood it'd been pretty bad. He suspected he'd understand even more as he got older. He watched his mom stand. Just before she turned and walked away, she ruffled his black wavy hair. With a grin she realized she was terribly happy his hair had grown in before school started. She'd been so worried he'd go to school bald on top of still looking sickly and being thin enough to appear unhealthy. "Bye, kiddo." "Bye, Mom." * * * * * Helene had watched the other woman with her son, still wondering what might be wrong with him. He seemed normal, if not a bit subdued, and she knew the administrators wouldn't let a kid into class who had something contagious. "I guess I'll go," Jace lamented with melodramatic flair as he shuffled noisily into the classroom, eyes downcast, hands jammed into his pockets as his backpack wiggled from his jerky movements. She stood and stepped aside as other parents came and went. For reasons she couldn't quite fathom, she paused rather than leaving. Her unprovoked delay became all too comprehensible when, after a brief chat with the teacher, the mother of that poor sickly child scooted sideways into the hall as another set of parents wandered in with their precious daughter between them. "Excuse me," Helene said, placing a gentle hand on the woman's arm. Jayne Anne turned, setting an inquisitive gaze on the woman who'd stopped her. "Can I help you?" she asked, more out of curiosity than anything else. "I was... I was just wondering if your son is alright," Helene remarked, not so much asking a question as hesitantly fishing for answers. "Yes he is, thank you," Jayne Anne declared, straining to keep her face from scrunching up in a sour expression of disapproval. She'd tolerated far too much nosiness and furtive looks of worry and innuendos implying Brody might be dangerous to other children. At least in the hospital he'd been surrounded by others dealing with the same or similar health problems, but away from that safe environment she was discovering that too many adults who should know better spent far too much time digging into her family's personal business, as though hoping for a tasty tidbit of gossip. She started to turn away, fighting to keep from lashing out at yet one more idiot who used her son's illness as cause for stupidity. Thus she was pleasantly surprised when the woman asked quite gently and with a not inconsiderable amount of genuine concern in her voice, "And are you? Are you alright?" Looking back to the woman, Jayne Anne wondered only for a moment if a lie would be better than the truth. Then she told her, "As well as can be. When your son's been fighting leukemia for three years and he's still struggling to be a normal kid with a normal life, I suppose being alright is a subjective thing." She had no clue where that level of candor came from. Talk about too much information. Yet the woman again surprised her. "I can't imagine what you've been through and I can't imagine what your son has endured. I only asked because you look so stressed and tired—" "He looks worse." "Oh," Helene gasped, then giggled when Jayne Anne chuckled behind her hand. "Well, now that you've said it, I can agree, but I'm guessing he looks better than he did." "You have no idea." Finding an interesting level of courage and concern bubbling up inside her, Helene held her hand out and offered, "My name's Helene. Helene Langstrom." "Jayne Anne." She took the hand and shook it with friendly warmth. "Jayne Anne Windham." "That's Jace, my son," Helene admitted as she gestured into the classroom, "with the end-of-the-world posture." Both women snickered as they watched Jace walk right over to Brody. Well, maybe not walk so much as scoot and meander and shuffle. Brody's gaze had already been locked on Jace as he approached, and the women observed the two boys chat quietly before Jace dropped into the chair at the same table, never turning away from Brody as the boys talked and nodded and smiled. "My son's Brody. It looks like our boys are getting to know each other," Jayne Anne remarked. "Seems like a good idea. You look like you could use a break, maybe even a friend. Would you let me buy you a cup of coffee?" "That sounds wonderful, Helene. Thank you." The look of relief on Jayne Anne's face told Helene she'd been right all along. Though not as much as her son, obviously, this woman had still been through her own level of torment for years. "I'm parked right out front. Let me drive. I can bring you back to your car later." "That would be nice." * * * * * "Hi," Brody greeted as the other boy stopped and stared. After a moment of silence he added, "I'm Brody." "I'm Jace." The boys continued looking at each other as more silence spread between them. "Are you sick?" Jace suddenly blurted out, his cheeks immediately flushing. Brody let his head drop in disappointment. He'd been worried he might attract attention because of how he looked. He'd really been hoping to find a new friend or two. Well, to find a friend period since he didn't have any. He'd made lots of friends in the hospital, but Dallas was just too big for any them to live near enough to go to the same school. When this pale-skinned, brown-haired, green-eyed boy reached the table, Brody thought for a moment that maybe he was going to make a new friend after all. But then he'd asked about being sick. Of course he'd ask that. Most everybody did. Meeting the boy's gaze again Brody admitted, "I was. For a long time. I'm not now, but I'm not completely better." "Takes time, huh?" the kid asked. "A long time." He hadn't meant to let so much sadness leak into his voice, but there it was anyway. Oh well. "Can I sit here?" A momentary flash of hope exploded across Brody's features before he slipped back to his stoic demeanor. "Sure." Jace pulled the chair out and dropped into it like a sack of potatoes, not even removing his backpack first. When it hit the back of the chair, though, he remembered it, slid it from his shoulders, and pushed it onto the tabletop without too much care. "So what'd you have?" "When?" "When you were sick, silly. What'd do you have?" "Leukemia." "Luke who?" "Not Luke anybody. I had leukemia." "Leukemia..." Jace repeated, letting the word slowly move through his mouth as he tried out its flavor. "It's a kind of cancer," Brody offered, hoping that would clarify matters. At least as much as a child of five could clarify and another child of five could understand such matters. "What's cancer?" Brody shrugged. "Something bad." He didn't fully understand what it was, but he knew enough to know that much. "Huh..." Jace glanced over his shoulder, having thought he needed to wave to his mom to let her know he might actually survive his first day of kindergarten, but he turned his attention back to Brody the moment he realized his mother was yammering with some other lady out in the hall. "Is that your mom?" Brody asked. "Who?" "In the hall. Wearing the pretty flower dress." After another quick glance over his shoulder, Jace nodded. "Yeah." "She's talking to my mother." "Oh. That's neat." Jace turned in his seat and began rummaging in his backpack. Like he'd suddenly thought of something important, he swung back toward Brody and asked, "Maybe they'll be friends. So you and me can be friends. If you wanna be my friend. Do you? Wanna be my friend?" Brody almost giggled at the boy's nervous behavior. But he didn't. Because he wanted a friend. Needed one. Even if only one. "Yes, Jace, I'd like to be you friend and I'd like you to be my friend." "Okay." With that, Jace turned back to rummage in his backpack. * * * * * At two years old, Jenny, was a healthy, vivacious, rambunctious child. And a messy eater. Jayne Anne wiped a bit of dribble and a lot of food of her daughter's face before coaxing her to take another small spoonful, most of which would squeeze out of puckered lips. As a mother, rearing a child came naturally to her, yet Jayne Anne constantly felt pangs of guilt for wishing Brody had been a healthy child. She'd missed so much. And sometimes, though she'd never admit it, she wondered if having their daughter while Brody suffered was a selfish move by her and Ben. It had been an accident, sure, getting pregnant the furthest thing from both their minds. Yet it had happened, which left her sometimes wondering if they'd inadvertently been planning for the worst by having another child. She shook her head to dislodge and discard the errant thoughts. Then Jayne Anne glanced at Brody as he slowly devoured a bowl of sugary cereal. She preferred he eat healthy meals, but the doctors had made it clear he should be allowed to eat whatever he could and would eat, at least for several more months. It would help him add weight and it would help his stomach acclimate to a steady supply of solid foods. His diet during treatment had been horrific. Everything cooked, nothing raw like fruits or vegetables, plenty of starch, no citrus or spice, as little dairy as possible, and on the restrictions went. Mind you, that diet lasted a short while before he started having difficulty keeping anything down. Then came intravenous feeding coupled with whatever foods he consumed that didn't come back up. Bananas. Strangely enough, Dr. O'Neill had told them bananas would be Brody's best friend despite being uncooked. When asked why, he informed them in an embarrassed tone that bananas were the only food that tasted the same coming back up as they did when they went down. Now, of course, Brody hated bananas. Nobody could blame him. Aware of his mother's gaze but not meeting it, he asked, "Can Jace spend the night tonight?" Ben winked at his wife before turning to his son and asking, "Who's Jace?" He'd heard all week about Jace, so he damn well knew who the kid was. "I told you. He's my friend." "From where?" "I told you. He's my friend from school." "And you want him to spend the night?" "Yes." "After only one week?" "Yes." "Isn't that too soon?" "Is it?" "That's what I was asking." "I don't know. Is it?" "Maybe not. Is it safe?" "Is what safe?" "Jace spending the night." "Why wouldn't it be?" "Maybe he's dangerous." "Jace?" "Isn't that who we're talking about?" "But he's not dangerous." "How do you?" Finally looking up from his cereal and glaring at his father as though the man had suddenly turned senile, Brody sighed in a dramatically exasperated fashion before explaining, "He's just a kid, Dad, like me. He's not dangerous." "Are you sure?" That's when he caught the mischief in his father's eyes. "Come on, Dad..." he moaned. It sounded alien from his lips since Brody never complained. When he caught his wife's gaze, Ben realized she was smiling with a knowing twinkle in her eyes. "And what do you know about this?" he inquired, a smile blossoming on his face. "Remember the woman I told you about, Helene, the one I met the first day of kindergarten?" "Of course. It's only been five days, baby doll. I might not be a youngster anymore, but I'm not senile." "Yet," she jibed through a giggle. "We're the same age, woman!" he laughed. "Technically you're older." "By a few months. That hardly counts." "Excuse me." Both parents turned immediately toward Brody. He'd watched them engage in their silly antics time and again. And though he loved the levity and joy his parents often displayed with each other, their lighthearted banter and childish joking often bringing a smile to his face, he really wanted an answer to his question. "What is it, honey?" Jayne Anne asked. "Can Jace spend the night tonight?" Ben and Jayne Anne shared a look before both fell into fits of laughter. "You're so serious sometimes, kiddo," Ben told his son once he'd caught his breath. "I'm sorry. I thought you'd forgotten my question. I'll wait." "Of course we hadn't forgotten, sweetie," Jayne Anne assured him, ruffling his hair. She'd have to get out of that habit soon, but she was still enjoying the fact that it was growing back, so thick and black and lustrous. Getting her fingers into it was a personal joy she couldn't quite deny herself. At least not yet. "Are you sure?" "Sure of what, Brody?" Not sure what happened to the conversation, his son's unflinching seriousness had Ben worried. Just a little. Which came easily and naturally, all things considered. "That you hadn't forgotten." "Of course we're sure." "Sure of what?" "What?" "That's what I was asking." "I think your mother and I might have missed something." "What did you miss, Dad?" "Well... "I thought so." Dumbfounded, both parents stared at their son, attempting to figure out what just happened. Brody stared back, his expression blank. Until that mischievous sparkle showed up in his eyes. Just before the corners of his mouth started to twitch up into a grin. * * * * * Ben gave his wife a sidelong look, curiosity defining the thoughtful scowl on his face. "What?" she asked. He jerked his head over his shoulder, indicating the hall and the rooms beyond. Mostly indicating their son's room. "Have you ever heard him laugh like that?" Jayne Anne cocked her head, eyes slowly meandering about the room but seeing nothing. She had all her attention focused on the giddy chuckles and snickers and occasional uproarious laughter sneaking out beneath the closed bedroom door. Even as her eyes widened and she turned back to her husband, Ben nodded and admitted, "Me, either." Then he smiled. Sure, they'd heard Brody laugh, sometimes loudly and sometimes softly, but neither of them had ever heard the kind of wholesome, heartfelt, carefree laughter they heard that night as Brody and Jace hid away playing all manner of games and whispering and wrestling and... well, being kids. She snuggled against Ben, resting her cheek on his shoulder. "It's beautiful," she whispered. "Yeah," he breathed, "it sure as hell is."
  7. "Good morning, Mrs. Windham." "Good morning, Dr. Lareaux." "What brings you and Brody in this fine morning?" "Well... I know he's not quite two yet, but he seems to sleep more than he should." "Your mileage may vary on how much a child his age sleeps. There's no definitive rule about these things." "Oh, I'm sure you're right. It's just..." "Yes?" "Even when he's awake, he seems... well... I suppose he seems lethargic." "I see. Let me take a look at the little tyke. Anything else you've noticed?" "Actually... yes. For the last week or so he can't seem to get comfortable, and I'd swear he acts like it hurts to be touched." "Mmhmm... Interesting... Anything else?" "Well..." "Even the most minor thing can be important, Mrs. Windham. Don't be afraid to point out anything that concerns you, no matter how insignificant. If it's not important, we move on, but it just might be important. By the way, he looks somewhat pallid. Is that just from the stress of the morning—" "No, actually it's not. I've thought for a week or so that he seems pale. I thought maybe he was fighting something, what with the fevers and achy behavior and such." "Fevers?" "That's what I was going to mention. He's had a temperature off and on for a week or so." "I see... Anything else?" "There is something—" "Oh my." "Yes, that's what I was going to tell you." "Mrs. Windham, do you know where these bruises came from?" "That's what I wanted to tell you, Dr. Lareaux. I'm not certain. Some of them seem to be where I hold him and some—See those on his arms?" "Yes." "Those seem to be where he leans on the crib railing." "I see." "I know what you're thinking. Trust me, my husband and I spent about five minutes being livid with each other thinking the bruises were signs of... well... I'm sure you can guess what we thought." "Mmhmm..." "But that's not the case, I assure you. He just seems to bruise so easily—" "Mrs. Windham, I'd like to run a full blood test. Individually, these symptoms aren't troubling, but together they paint a picture worth some investigation." "Do you think it's serious?" "I won't lie to you, Mrs. Windham. They could indicate a significant problem. On the other hand, coincidence is the bane of medicine and these symptoms might just be a little of this and a little of that and none of the bad stuff. Let's run some tests to see what we can see." "Of course. You're right." * * * * * "Any news, Dr. Lareaux?" "Mrs. Windham, I think it would be wise to admit Brody to the hospital so we can run further tests while we begin treating some of these symptoms." "Admit him? To the hospital?" "Yes." "What... what did you find?" "His blood work is troubling, to tell the truth. He's anemic for one, which probably explains the bruising and fatigue. He's febrile—feverish—as you mentioned. His white cells appear... far too abundant. He's also cranky, as you mentioned, but that appears to be a symptom of rheumatism." "Rheumatism?" "Soreness of the muscles, bones or joints. Brody seems to hurt all over." "What... what aren't you telling me? I can see it in your face and hear it in your voice. There's something you're not telling me." "I don't want to cause undue concern, Mrs. Windham, so let's set aside conjecture for now until we know more." "Well... well..." "We should get him admitted, Mrs. Windham. I think it's important to run more tests in addition to treating the symptoms we can see at this time." "Yes, of course you're right." "Very good then. I'll have one of my nurses come in to finish up the paperwork and provide the hospital referral. Take him right next door to Baylor, to the outpatient admissions desk. I'll call ahead so they're ready for you. Dr. O'Neill will be taking over Brody's case." "Okay..." * * * * * Three Days Later "Mr. and Mrs. Windham, thank you so much for coming in so quickly." "We're worried about our son, Dr. O'Neill. You call, we come." "I understand, Mr. Windham. And I wish I could say your concern was misplaced." "Oh God, what is it?" "Mrs. Windham... Mr. Windham... Brody is showing all the signs and symptoms of leukemia." "Oh God!" "No!" "Please calm down. I know this is upsetting, but it appears we've caught it early thanks to your diligence." "What can we do?" "Can you treat him?" "First I need you to understand that we have more tests to run. It's important for us to identify the precise kind of leukemia and its various traits." "But can't you—" "Mrs. Windham, I promise we're moving as quickly as we can—" "No, that's not what I meant. I know you're doing everything..." "It's alright, honey. Calm down now and let's hear what the doctor has to say." "The truth is, Brody's symptoms and test results thus far indicate acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or A-L-L. He has persistent weakness and fatigue, malaise, chronic fever, and rheumatism. More importantly, he has leukocytosis, meaning too many white blood cells; normocytic anemia, meaning too few red blood cells; and thrombocytopenia, meaning a low platelet count." "What can we do?" "Please tell me this is treatable." "The immediate treatment is blood and platelet transfusions, as well as steroids and antibiotics. Concurrently we'll run further tests to determine the exact characteristics of the leukemia so we can implement an induction therapy regime that's—" "Induction therapy? What's that?" "I'm sorry. Sometimes I forget myself. Induction therapy is when we induce remission." "You mean chemo and the like?" "If appropriate, yes, along with other treatment options as applicable and needed." "My God..." * * * * * Two Days Later "Brody has precursor B-cell Ph1-negative acute lymphoblastic leukemia with L2 morphology." "What does that mean?" "Mr. and Mrs. Windham, I'm not going to gloss over the truth. Brody has a highly aggressive form of leukemia that requires an aggressive and prolonged treatment regimen." "How long?" "It could take two or three years to achieve complete remission." "Years? Did you say two or three years?" "Some patients make it in less time, but Brody's young and small and the leukemic cell population is quite high." "What stage?" "I beg your pardon?" "Well, doesn't cancer come in stages to tell the severity?" "Normally that's true. With ALL, though, there are no stages." "Why?" "Because it's highly aggressive. If you have it, it's already as bad as it can get." "Oh God..." "What does he need? What kind of treatment?" "He needs aggressive high-dose systemic chemotherapy, what we call multiagent remission induction therapy. You need to understand the treatment will be very hard on Brody. But induction therapy is only the beginning." "What?" "Tell us, please. Just tell us." "We'll start with remission induction therapy, which, as I said, is an aggressive treatment. He'll probably be in the hospital for a month or more. Assuming that treatment's successful, we'll immediately begin consolidation therapy." "Which is what?" "It's an even more aggressive form of chemotherapy. It's sometimes called the intensification phase of ALL treatment. Given Brody's age and weakening condition, he'll likely be hospitalized for most or all of that phase of his treatment." "Oh God... Is that all?" "I'm afraid not." "Afraid not? What else does he have to go through?" "Assuming consolidation therapy is successful, which will last probably six to nine months—" "Jesus..." "—he'll face up to thirty months of maintenance therapy. It's a less aggressive form of chemotherapy." "My God..." "But? You have something else to say." "It doesn't end there, does it?" "No, Mrs. Windham, it doesn't. Somewhere along the way, Brody will need intrathecal chemotherapy, either as prophylaxis or as treatment." "What's... what's intrathecal chemotherapy?" "That's where we introduce chemotherapy directly into the spine so the cerebrospinal fluid carries it up to the brain. This can help prevent leukemic spread into the central nervous system or help treat it if it already has." "Oh God..." "How long does that take?" "If we can perform the intrathecal therapy concurrently with his other treatments, it will add no time to the overall schedule. If we have to do it separately, it'll require another two to four months, assuming all goes well." "Jesus Christ..." "I can't emphasize enough the need to start treatment as soon as possible. ALL is highly aggressive, as I've explained, and any further delay will reduce the chances of success." "He could die, couldn't he? Is that what you're dancing around?" "Jayne Anne..." "I'm sorry, Ben, but I need to know!" "Mr. and Mrs. Windham, I understand this is overwhelming and seems to get worse with each minute that passes. Please know we'll do everything that can be done to make Brody well again." "You didn't answer the question." "The answer is yes, Brody's condition is critical, becoming more so with each passing minute. ALL is normally fatal if treatment is delayed too long. That's why I urge you to let us move forward immediately with the treatment regimen I've outlined." "Honey..." "It's okay, Jayne Anne, just let it out. That's it, just let it out." "How... How soon does he need to start treatment?" "Today." * * * * * Three Years Later "He's in complete remission." "That's wonderful!" "We can't thank you enough!" "We're not out of the woods just yet." "What?" "Why?" "Brody will need monitoring for the rest of his life in case the leukemia comes back." "How common is that?" "More common than we'd like, though not common enough for you to worry about it. You just need to be mindful of the possibility. Brody will need to be monitored for the rest of his life, and he'll spend at least the next few years taking medication." "What kind of medication?" "To start with, an immunosuppressant, a systemic steroid, and a prophylaxis antibiotic. In three to six months, assuming all goes well, we'll take him off the immunosupressant. Again if all goes well, three to six months after that we'll take him off the antibiotic." "What about the steroid?" "He may be on that for life, though we'll only know for sure each time he comes in for testing." "How often will that be necessary?" "Every month for the first year. So long as there are no signs of relapse, every six months after that." "For his whole life?" "I'm afraid so." "Oh God..." "It's possible, after a prolonged period in remission, that we could go to testing once a year, but it's not recommended except in the rarest of cases." "Well, we can always hope." "Yes, we can always hope." * * * * * Two Months Later "Honey, are you sure we should send him to kindergarten? All those kids with colds and flus and—" "Jayne Anne, we can't keep him in a bubble for the rest of his life." "Don't you think I know that?" "Jayne Anne..." "I'm sorry, Ben. I didn't mean to snap." "Yes you did. But I'm not taking it personally, baby doll. You've been through the ringer with Brody these past years while I worked. I can't rightly blame you for being upset, overprotective, short-tempered, angry, frustrated—" "Alright, you silly man! Cut it out already." "It's going to be fine, Jayne Anne." "But he still looks so sickly." "He's getting better." "Every day, I know. I see it. But what about the other kids..." "Do you want to try home schooling so he's ready to jump into the first grade next year?" "Of course not! He needs friends, he needs to socialize, he needs to learn alongside his peers— Oh you sneaky man. You just made me argue against my own point of view." "And did we learn anything?" "That my husband is a clever man who can always help me see the light." "So... Kindergarten?" "I suppose you're right. We can't keep him in a bubble for the rest of his life." "And he's getting better, stronger every day, looking healthier every day." "But you know how kids are, Ben. Looking like he does now, Brody'll be an outcast on his very first day." "I'm not saying it is, but even if that's true, it won't last forever. He's gaining weight, gaining color, looking better." "So you think being shunned will be temporary?" "Assuming anyone shuns him, Jayne Anne. Kids are resilient, so he'll survive either way." "And kids don't have the hang-ups adults have. Maybe it won't even matter to the other children." "Right, baby doll." "So maybe it won't be bad at all." "We can certainly hope as much."
  8. Brody and Jace have been inseparable best friends since the first day of kindergarten. By the time they reached high school, they were boyfriends hiding their love from pretty much everybody. They're full of hope and plans for a future together when graduation's just a few months distant. But lying about a weekend away leads to both families discovering their secret. All the choices that led them to that moment are complicated by a flurry of heat-of-the-moment choices made by both sets of parents. In the end, Brody and Jace make a few more choices that may just alter the future for everybody.
  9. This story was inspired by the Kyle character. Strange, huh? Yeah, I know. Honestly, though, many moons ago I met a neighborhood boy who was fifteen, attractive, unusually mature, and clearly—even if he didn't know it yet—sexually confused. The real Kyle developed a huge crush on me which lasted years before his family moved to another state. No, I never responded to that crush despite his increasing attempts to engage me both emotionally and sexually. A few years ago I had one of those random thoughts about the past. It happened to be the real Kyle who popped into my head, which made me go looking to see if I could find him. No luck there, but the thought wouldn't go away, so eventually I started writing a story. All I knew at the time was that it would be based loosely on the truth—gay guy moves into new neighborhood, meets fifteen-year-old kid, kid develops crush on gay guy as he figures out his sexuality, blah blah blah. What I refused to do, however, was write a story that hinged entirely on an adult-minor titillation vibe. Thus the Greg character could never show interest in Kyle, though I had no issue with Greg finding the kid attractive since that's no more inappropriate than liking dark chocolate; it's just natural. But that left me wondering how meeting a boy of fifteen could have a significant effect on a mature gay man if it didn't result in the gay man developing feelings for the boy. So—some of you will be pleased with this—I created a character originally called The Dick. I never gave him a name and he was never more than a nebulous shadow from the past, a guy who was Greg's first love and who hurt Greg in major ways. Not physically, no, but emotionally. In that first iteration, Greg was fifteen when he fell in love with The Dick. Except that didn't really create a problem significant enough to make Kyle important. As you can probably guess, it required that The Dick be an adult when they met and Greg fell for him. Which still didn't solve the boredom issue I was facing. Somehow I needed The Dick to be so significant that Kyle's presence and attractiveness would cause a profound impact on Greg, forcing him to face something terrible and painful from his past. Well, unexpectedly The Dick needed a name. Richard, right? That was an easy leap to make, so I made it. But he needed more than a name. And it only took about ten seconds of thought to realize what could be in Greg's past that would make meeting Kyle a potent catalyst for change in a thirty-year-old man. Basically, Richard, who became The Fiend since The Dick had too much levity associated with it, grew organically from the story as it developed, slowly taking on this dark and ominous persona. Because he'd been mature when Greg was young, making him a predator came naturally, especially because I needed Greg's hurt from Richard to be life-altering and of significant consequence. From there, making him Nate's father was a no-brainer. How could I make Greg's experience with Richard substantial for both guys? It's one thing for a best friend to feel hurt and anger at his best friend's assault; it's a much better challenge to overcome if the assailant was his father. So Richard was a simple, natural progression for a character who originally remained a nameless presence in the past upon whom all blame could be heaped for Greg's dating issues. Well, it started out being simple dating issues, or at least a severe disinterest in dating, but as Richard took shape, so too did a darker past and deeper problems for Greg. And Nate, as well. And finally, I originally wrote five separate endings for this story. One is the ending you've read, with Nate and Greg happily together. Two of the other endings I discarded immediately: Greg and Keigan getting together, which was too trite and predictable; and Greg and Kyle getting together when Kyle was nineteen, which required some romantic interest when Kyle was a minor, a line I was unwilling to cross. The fourth ending was sad: Greg withdrew from Nate because he loved him too much but couldn't have him, and Nate tried fixing it while his relationship with Rita progressed, ultimately ending with Nate and Rita preparing to marry while Greg was a lonely, anguished mess. In the last chapter, Greg sees them across the store where Nate and Rita are building their wedding gift registry. Nate looks hopeful and waves toward Greg, but all Greg can do is turn away as he begins crying. Yeah, after what I put Greg through, I really didn't want to leave him like that even if it was believable. The fifth alternate ending had Greg meeting someone at a party hosted by Keigan and Yannis, but he makes clear he can't really get involved with anyone because of his feelings for Nate. Later, at Greg's birthday party, he runs into Nate for the first time in a year or more, and they finally begin reconciling and rebuilding their friendship. Both are single and at the end, Nate asks Greg out on a date. I rejected that one because I wanted to give them a happy ending, not just a hopeful one. Hopefully some of that is interesting to those of you who like seeing a bit of what's behind the curtain. Thank you so much for all of your support, interest, kindness and feedback! I've never written for an audience; decades of writing always happened simply because I like to write and I have to do it to get stories to stop bouncing around inside my head. Posting this here on GA has taught me a great deal about sharing with others that which has historically been a personal endeavor resulting in something else to store in digital limbo. Now, perhaps, some of those wrongfully imprisoned stories can be released for the enjoyment of others. Again, thank you sincerely and wholeheartedly! Cheers and best regards, - Jason
  10. February 5, 2019 For fuck's sake! I felt so nervous I thought I might fly apart at any minute. To make matters worse, Greg could tell. I could see it in his expressions and in his eyes. But I kept trying to chill, really I did. I kept trying to calm the fuck down before I preemptively ruined a good plan. That's the curse of being as close as the two of us: secrets were laughable myths because we were always in each other's head. It was nearly impossible to hide anything. And even if we successfully hid something, the fact that we were hiding something was so obvious that it created a tense worry that tainted everything else. What he picked up from me was a fluttery, queasy unease that threated to undo everything I had planned. I intended to throw out sixteen years of Richard's legacy and start—restart, maybe—a tradition of making Greg's birthday at least a little about him and not always about others. It was fucking time for his birthday to be about him, damn it, even if he couldn't see it yet. Well, hopefully his attitude would change after this evening. If so, good plan; if not, not so good plan. Of course his birthday fell on a fucking Wednesday. How convenient, right? Yeah, not so much. Still, I made him come home early, shower, and dress for a nice romantic dinner. I had to remind myself to breathe when he came downstairs. Brown slim-fit cords, brown leather work boots, a tight glacial-blue button-down shirt that made his eyes absolutely pop, and a brown-and-black scuba jacket. After reminding myself to breathe, I had to remind myself that I had dinner plans and other plans because what I really wanted to do was drag him right back upstairs, undress him, then spend all night exploring and being explored. Fuck! He was my undoing! Every time I looked at him I thought he was more beautiful than the time before. Every time he kissed me it was better than the time before. Every time we touched the heat was hotter than the time before. You know, it's weird, me being straight yet in love with a guy, especially a guy as hot as Greg. Everybody—and I do mean everybody—envies me when they see us holding hands, kissing, staring into each other's eyes like lovestruck idiots mooning over each other. But that wasn't the point. I was saying it's weird being in love with a guy. From time to time I see a hot woman and the thought shoots through my head that she'd probably be a good lay, maybe she'd make a nice girlfriend, possibly she'd be a good wife. You know the thoughts, the same kinds of thoughts everyone has, the fleeting ideas that race around in our gray matter when somebody attractive crosses our path. I mean, come on already, being in love doesn't mean I'm dead or blind. But just as quickly those thoughts would vanish. Not because I felt guilty, but instead because I felt more than satisfied. In a way, sometimes anyhow, I felt unworthy. Seriously, Greg's like the smartest, hottest, most caring guy on the planet. Maybe I'm biased, but I've thought of him that way since I met him at the impressionable age of ten. There I sat, my first day in a new school after moving halfway across the country, and I couldn't get more than a few words out of anybody. I was a skinny drink of water back then, not terribly tall for my age, kinda puny and uninteresting really, a nobody in a new school without a friend to talk to. Then he walked into the classroom, looked around, and headed straight for me. Oh but hell was he a good looking kid. Taller, better defined, absolutely looking like a child model at least a few years older than he was, his gaze locked on me, this breathtaking smile spread across his face, his eyes absolutely twinkled, and then he was standing right in front of me. With a flick of his hand toward the empty seat beside me, he quietly—shyly, I'd say, though for fuck's sake I couldn't understand why that guy needed to be shy around me or anybody else—he shyly asked if he could sit with me. Hell yes! But instead of saying it, I just kind of nodded, feeling my cheeks burn. Okay, I was thoroughly intimidated, like big time scared of this guy. He practically had an entourage. What ten-year-old kid has an entourage? Anyway, nearly every other kid came by to say hello and ask him about his summer and talk about all the stuff he might or might not be up to and what the fuck ever else they could think of. Obviously they just wanted to talk to him, be seen with him, and I could see why. He was so nice, so good looking, so frighteningly smart and absolutely kind. He remembered everybody's name, remembered all the personal details that let him ask questions about pets, brothers and sisters, family members, intended vacation destinations. Holy hell the kid was amazing. But through all that, he kept turning back to me, engaging me, and he made a point of introducing me to everybody he talked to. And in every moment of peace he got, he talked to me. I mean really talked to me, asking about me, learning about me, engaging me in conversation and drawing me out of my new-kid-scared-to-death shell. By the end of that first day it felt like we'd known each other forever. We laughed, joked, talked, learned about each other, and despite how obviously popular he was and how much the other kids spent most of their time vying for his time, the majority of his focus had been on me. All day long. I'd never felt so special and appreciated in my life. And to my amazement, he never stopped making me feel that way. I'd also never felt so connected to someone. Even on that first day, there was something about Greg that felt necessary to me. It was like he was a fucking piece of me that I'd unknowingly lost and suddenly rediscovered. By the time I went home that afternoon, I couldn't stop the thought running through my head telling me I couldn't wait to see him again the next day and I sure as hell hoped it hadn't all been a dream. Which, even if it's not clear, brings me back to his birthday. I took him to dinner at a nice restaurant, a romantic dinner at a little Italian bistro, practically a hole in the wall we'd stumbled upon years before. Like everybody he came in contact with, Greg became friends with the owners, an elderly couple. And any friend of Greg's... Of course they jumped at the chance to have us there for Greg's birthday, though I made them promise they wouldn't make a big deal out of it. "Don't even mention it," I'd told them. Yeah, the way Greg dealt with his birthday was yet another sign of Richard's longstanding impact on our lives. If my plan for the evening was good, he'd never see his birthday the same again; we'd reclaim it from Richard, make it Greg's again. And if my plan was bad... Well, best not to think negatively. Think happy thoughts, as Mom always said. After a beautiful candlelit dinner with wine and conversation and those fucking mind-boggling looks that made me weak in the knees, not to mention a healthy number of touches, we thanked the owners for a delicious meal and a wonderful time. I held his hand on the way out to the car. I couldn't help it. There I was, a womanizer who could have any woman I wanted—I'm not so stupid as to deny that my work in the gym gave me a pretty hot bod that brought me all sorts of attention, and not just from women. Anyway, there I was, a man who could probably get just about any woman I wanted, and yet the only thing I wanted was him, Greg, my G-Man. Strange that it was Richard's meddling in my head that made me realize what I was feeling. I knew from the day we met that Greg was important to me, special to me. He'd insinuated himself into my life and heart in ways I didn't fully understand. At least until Richard started poking at those feelings, trying to figure them out, trying to manipulate them so I'd never be comfortable with what I felt. In that sense I had to thank Richard. He made me look at what I was feeling, made me evaluate the emotions Greg elicited from me. Taking a close look made me realize I was in love with him. Which scared the hell out of me. Richard's brainwashing made me think those feelings would be nothing short of detrimental, the ruination of what was most important to me—my relationship with Greg. Not only that, but I was a straight kid, totally heterosexual, always fantasizing about soft curves and ample bosoms and painted lips and all that stuff. Despite all that, I discovered I was completely in love with my best friend. A guy! Fuck! So it took a while for me to get over that shit, the whole time finding my feelings for him kept growing and strengthening. G-Man was right when he wondered how many years we wasted in Richard's shadow. With his denial and my fear, we spent most of our lives madly in love with each other yet doing everything in our power to keep it secret, to keep it out of the light. We spent too long avoiding the most important thing in our lives. Then along came Kyle, upending the apple cart. I've thanked that kid time and again. He probably thinks I'm obsessive about gratitude, which I'm not. He just needs to understand he put us on the right path, helped us see we were broken yet capable of healing, helped us see what we'd always wanted was already right there in hour hands, just waiting to be noticed and nurtured, given a chance to grow. Fuck! Boy howdy did it grow. And I'm grateful for it. Anyway, we made it back to the car, hand in hand, and after we settled inside and buckled in, I took his hand again and kissed his palm before weaving our fingers together. Then I kissed the back of his hand. He could feel me shaking. If I could feel it, I sure as hell knew he could feel it. Again he gave me a look, inquisitive and concerned. Greg pulled our joined hands to his face so he could kiss my knuckles, one at a time, sweetly, his eyes never leaving mine. The sense of calm that overwhelmed me settled my nerves. For just a moment. "This is nice," he told me. "Dinner was yummy. Thank you, Nate." "Just want you to have a good evening, dude," I said. Then I pulled him to me and kissed him. It was a nice kiss, slow and passionate but not fiery and erotic. "Mmmm..." he groaned into my mouth as he wrapped a hand around the back of my neck and held me to him so our tongues could explore, a lazy wandering in known lands that always felt like a new discovery. When I broke the kiss to keep from suffocating, we leaned our foreheads together and shared our breath, noses touching. "I want to take you dancing," I said. "Where next?" he asked. "Home." He could tell by my tone I wasn't making a joke about the horizontal mambo. Though I admit the thought sent a bit too much blood to my groin. "Really?" Greg asked, suspicious. He was picking up on my nervousness again. Still. Whatever. Damn it! It was making the evening less enjoyable because it was making him worry. I could see it in his head, his expression and eyes and body language saying he felt uncertain because I was giving off this twitchy, secretive, anxious vibe foreshadowing something coming later in the evening. The fucking truth was that I did have something planned for later in the evening and it was making me twitchy, secretive and anxious. Hell, I was sweating like a nervous farm animal and having a hard time meeting his gaze because he read me too well when he looked in my eyes. Not that he wasn't reading me fine in every other way, but if I let him look in my eyes for too long, he'd know what was coming. And that I couldn't allow. I leaned back in the seat and started the car. Then I pulled our joined hands to my face and kissed his wrist, the back of his hand, his knuckles. "Come on, G-Man," I said, my voice regrettably tremulous and breathy, "let's go home." We tossed our jackets on the bar, along with keys, wallets, phones, whatever. Not once since I'd grabbed his hand and dragged him to the car had I allowed us to go even a second without being in contact with each other. He was still picking up my nervousness, that feeling that I was hiding something and was going to drop it on him later and was disquieted by all of it. Which made him feel about the same. It was a perfect example of why being so close to someone made it fucking hard as hell to pull off a surprise. I had to keep him out of my head to make it successful, which just made me look suspicious as hell, like I was trying to hide something. Which I was, goddammit! Still, he never doubted me. Worried, sure, but never doubted me. He knew I loved him more than life itself. He knew making him happy was the best way to make me happy. But since I was nervous and wouldn't tell him why or what caused it, he was nervous. So despite our best efforts to have a good evening, we'd arrived home with nerves pulled tight. Thank fuck I'd never have to pull off a secret like this ever again. I didn't think either of us would survive it. I dragged him to the living room. Keeping a grip on his hand, I used my foot to push the coffee table up against the sofa, giving us more room. I grabbed the remote and turned on the sound system. It was already set to do what I wanted, so I dropped the remote and turned back to Greg. The stereo kicked on and soft slow music filled the house. My music tastes were eclectic. Everybody expected the big muscular black man to listen to hip hop or rap. I liked neither. What I enjoyed was classical to country to pop to rock and alt and a lot of other stuff. What I liked most of all was stuff from the last forty years or so, mostly the mushy, kissy-kissy songs that were slow and meaningful. Nope, I'm definitely not a stereotype. Wrapping my arms around him, I pulled him to me and sighed as he embraced me, his arms sliding around my torso and squeezing me to him. As though we'd telepathically discussed it, we started to dance. "As much as we danced together all those years," I said, "we never did slow dances until two years ago at your birthday bash." "Yeah," he breathed against my ear as he leaned down enough to press his cheek against mine. "I wish we'd done it sooner." "Feels nice," I mumbled, my voice husky. What that man did to me with just a look amplified a thousandfold with a touch. With the music low and the tempo relaxed, an intimate sense of romance settled over us. Romance. I'd never experienced it with anyone other than Greg. The funny thing about that was the romance between us had always been there, even if we didn't know it. It was in the touches, the looks, the kisses, the hugs, the words. It was always there, right there all along. Stupid us, though, and stupid Richard. Despite the number of woman I'd been with over the years, not one had made me feel the way Greg made me feel. That sense of intimacy and romance was singular to the man I held in my arms. "I'm so glad Uncle Farid helped us move on from Richard's bullshit," I told him. He squeezed me, kissed my cheek, then his voice breathed into my ear as he whispered, "I can't imagine not having this, this right here, this thing with you that's got me all wrapped up and tied in knots and feeling like nothing can hurt me so long as we're together." I shivered, moaned even, but I couldn't let him sidetrack me. I had a plan. "This is everything I've ever wanted, G-Man. I wish I could explain what you do for me, how you make me feel, what kind of hope and light you bring to my world." "We're beyond Richard now, Little Big Man. We prevailed. We finally have what he tried to destroy." "Happiness. Love. Belonging." "All of it. I have all of it with you, Nate." He kissed my ear then my cheek before nuzzling against me again. We moved slowly as the song changed, still holding each other, no sexual tension involved, just love and romance and comfort. And nervousness. "I think..." "What, Nate?" Oh, he could tell my nerves just fired. But I had a plan, damn it, and I was going to fucking follow through with it. "I think," I began again, putting more strength in my soft tone so I didn't sound strangled and unsure, "there are a few more things we need to overcome." He leaned back a bit. I tightened my grip, not wanting him to slip away from me, not wanting to separate from him. Despite being a gym rat, I was smaller and weaker than Greg. He came by it naturally. If he wanted to push me away, if he wanted to break our embrace, he could do it. I knew he could and he knew he could. I hoped he'd feel my resolve to keep him close and acquiesce to my wishes. Aah... He did. Pulling us tight against each other, he nested his lips near my ear and whispered in a less sure voice, "What, Nate? What else do we need to overcome?" "I want to give you something for your birthday, G-Man." He flinched. That caused me to grip him tighter. I kept us moving, but his body became rigid, his movements stiff. "Dance with me, G-Man." "I am." Suddenly his voice sounded pained, uncomfortable. "Relax, Greg. Just relax. Hold me, let me lead, dance with me." Aside from the soft music, silence blanketed us, a shadowy cloak that enveloped us. "Richard took that away from you, G-Man." "He said he came to give me a birthday gift." He practically snarled. Or growled. Or something equally throaty and anguished. Yeah, Uncle Farid told me about this. We'd dealt with it in therapy, but he still pulled me aside and explained that what Richard did to Greg on his birthday had forever tainted his view of self-worth on the day that celebrated his coming into the world, a day that should celebrate his life but instead languished in the dark recesses of despair that Greg still carried with him. Just this one thing remained. We weren't done with therapy. No, not even close. But we'd accomplished so much, faced so many terrors and tribulations and torments from the past. We'd exorcised Richard from so many aspects of our lives. But there was this one thing Greg needed to face, to overcome. His birthday. Of all the rash and troubling decisions Richard ever made, permanently damaging someone's birthday, making it a horror rather than a holiday, was as vile an act as anyone could commit. And if I could get Greg to accept my birthday gift to him, it would take care of the second thing Richard left behind. I'd discussed my plan with Uncle Farid and Mom and Dad. Especially Dad. No matter how close Greg was to Mom, he and Dad had something else, some other level of relationship, some understanding of each other that made Gavin a better sounding board for my idea. He'd agreed, as had the others, that what I intended to give Greg on his birthday was the one thing he most wanted but would never ask for, mainly because he'd realized I was the stumbling stone to making it happen. My fear of loving him had created the biggest problem for us. He'd never push me before I was ready. He just didn't know I'd been ready for a while, biding my time until I could do what was necessary, wanted, and ultimately helpful. At least I hoped it would be helpful. It might be harmful if Greg can't get beyond his fear of receiving anything on his birthday. "I know, G-Man. I know what he said. And I know what it's done to you." "But I've—" "Accomplished a lot because of it. Nobody doubts that. Creating Silver Rain and having the annual birthday bash fundraiser has helped countless kids who would've been left without assistance otherwise. But that's not really the point." "Isn't it?" he asked in a perfunctory tone. "Don't be agitated, G-Man. Please just listen to me." I kissed his cheek and held him tighter, letting my strength and resolve and love flow into him. When I felt him relax against me, I pulled back enough to put us face to face, breathing in and out of each other. Then I kissed him, a soft kiss without heat but full of affection, a promissory note of things to come. "I want to give you something for your birthday," I repeated against his lips. "It's something you want. It's something I want. It's something we both want." "I... I'm not sure..." "Shhh... Just listen, G-Man. Hear my voice and my words, feel me hold you." He nodded, so slight that it would have passed unnoticed had our lips not been touching. "You've always been my strength, G-Man. You've always been the one I look up to, the man who always has the answers, the part of me I rely on when the rest of me stumbles and falls. "You're the light that lights my way when it's dark. You're my soft, warm overcoat when it's cold. You're the fire that heats my heart. You're the strength that holds back the world when it presses in on me. You're the balm that soothes and the voice that calms and the gentle touch that takes away the pain." I kissed him again, letting everything I felt flow through that kiss. He'd taught me that trick over the past few years, taught me better how to communicate through touch and, more importantly, how to let a kiss be more than a kiss, how to let a kiss be a communion of souls. When I pulled back, I saw the tear that streaked down his cheek, a single tear. Neither of us moved to wipe it away. "You're the first breath of spring that helps me bloom after winter's thaw. You're the sunshine breaking through the storm. You're the safe harbor I return to time and time and time again, always keeping me secure. "You're home to me, G-Man, the place I long for and the place I seek and the place I belong." I reached up and cupped his cheek, leaning back enough so we could see one another. "You're the answer to the questions I didn't understand before. Where am I going? Who am I? Where can I find happiness? Who completes me?" I kissed him. His glacial blue eyes remained locked on my gaze. "You're the life I've always wanted but feared to have. You're the love I've sought but couldn't find. You're the part of my soul born in another body." I disentangled our arms and took a tiny step back, just enough so I could kneel with his hands gripped in my own. His eyes widened. "G-Man... Greg... You're the family I've always wanted. You took me in and sheltered me, protected me, taught me, loved me, helped me. You came to me that first day of school and made me feel important and special, and you've made me feel that way every day since then." I reached into my pocket and pulled out the black velvet box. If he was aware of the movement, he didn't indicate it, his eyes never moving from mine. "The gift I want to give you is forever. The birthday gift I want to give you is my life for yours, all of me for all of you. I want to give you everything I have and everything I am." I flipped open the box and held it up so he could see it, still holding his hand. The ring was a lustrous platinum band, wide and heavy, with two dark lines separating the polished outer bands from the brushed, darker inner band. Three black diamonds punctuated the thick inner band. "You're my everything, G-Man, the love of my life and the fire in my soul and the only future I want. You've been my friend, my brother, my lover, my peace and my comfort and my hope. You made me a member of your family long ago in every way possible save one. For your birthday, I want to give you the last part of me. "Greg Beaumont, help me get rid of the last trace of Richard. Give me your name and let me be your husband for the rest of our lives, so we can build a family and a future together." His eyes were alight with a joy I'd never seen in him before, sparkling and twinkling despite the tears. "Greg Beaumont, for your birthday I'm giving you this ring and I'm giving you me." I took a deep breath, my nerves settling because I could already see the answer. "Greg Beaumont, would you do me the honor of marrying me and making me Nate Beaumont?" "Yes! Absolutely! Yes, Nate, yes yes yes!" He fell to his knees and pulled me to him, hugging me so tight I thought I'd suffocate. "Yes, Little Big Man. The answer is yes and I love you and I'll be the best husband the world's ever seen and we'll be the best parents for our kids and yes! Yes!" Eventually we separated, hugs and kisses galore later, and I was able to slip the ring on his finger. "Happy birthday, G-Man," I whispered into his ear as I held him. "You've made me the happiest man alive." THE END
  11. February 10, 2017 I squeezed his hand as I gave him a reassuring look, then we both returned our gazes to our therapist as Nate said, "We've discussed this in depth. We're confident in our decision." After exhaling a cloud of smoke, Uncle Farid glanced between us, from one to the other, his gaze considering and serious. Finally he smiled and shook his head. "Both of you remain mired in the aftermath of Richard's handiwork, though Greg's somewhat further along since meeting Kyle last year forced him to deal with what he'd been hiding from himself for so many years. For you, Nate, we've only recently stumbled upon this pseudo-phobia that's based on your feelings for Greg." He took another puff from his cigarette before tamping it in the ashtray. "Normally I'd emphasize the need for separate therapy sessions as it would allow us to freely delve into and discuss and address the issues you both face." Both Nate and I looked ready to interrupt, so Farid lifted a hand to forestall our argument. "However," he continued, "I'm nobody's fool. Greg's the catalyst for your healing, Nate, because without him you wouldn't know about or have the ability to face the fear Richard spent so much time engendering within you. It will probably assist us to have him here so you're consistently pushed to face that fear and empowered to overcome it, allowing us to inspect it, understand it, and ultimately dismantle it. "Besides," he added with a grin, "as long as it took the two of you to reach this place, with all you've faced and all you've fought, I'd be a fool to try to separate you." Jotting down a few notes on the pad in his lap, his eyes not on us, he asked, "Any preference on the day of the week? It'll be longer than your sessions have been in the past since we'll be dealing with both of you at the same time, individually and as a couple, so bear that in mind." I looked at the beautiful man beside me, our hands clasped with fingers intertwined, and we silently discussed the matter with a series of expressions that lasted no more than a few seconds. Back to Uncle Farid I answered, "Fridays. Can we still have mornings and just extend it?" He nodded as he wrote a little more. "I'll have Jan update the schedule and send a confirmation to both of you." When he finally looked up, his avuncular humor slid away as his therapist seriousness slipped into place. "With that settled, let's begin with you, Nate. From what you boys have told me already, it took a powerful sexual event with Greg to help you see beyond your fear and realize what you stood to lose if you let Richard win. Sex can be atavistic, a primal, instinctual coupling with no purpose save the coupling itself, which is where I believe you two started that night. But sex can also be transformative, even transcendent, when the strength of the event helps someone see beyond their own understanding, if not actually allowing them to overcome the limitations imposed by that understanding. Given that, tell me, Nate, why do you think the experience was profound enough to help you see beyond the fear and understand it was a construct built to hinder your happiness rather than protect it?" * * * * * March 14, 2017 We lay in post-orgasmic bliss, sweaty with chests heaving and muscles weak and wants sated and needs fulfilled. Nate's head rested on my chest as he drew lazy patterns on my torso with his fingertips. "I want you to make love to me." "What?" I coughed, clearing my throat since it suddenly felt constricted. "I told you before, G-Man, we're equals in this, all of me for all of you." "But I told you—" "You're not built for first-timers, I know. Which is irrelevant. I see what it does to you when I make love to you. I want you to make me feel the same thing." Propping himself up on his elbow so he could look me in the eye, he asked, "So what do we do to make that happen?" "Butt plugs," I responded. In for a penny and all. "Come again?" His eyebrows jumped up despite the trace of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. "We'll start small, work our way up. It'll take a few days. You'll wear each to grow accustomed to it, then we'll step up a size." "What about—" I stopped his words with a kiss, slow and expressive of understanding and trust. When I released him, he looked so much more relaxed, not to mention a wee bit lustful and a whole lot happy. "Trust me, Little Big Man." "I do," he whispered before he captured my mouth with his. * * * * * March 18, 2017 Nate stormed into the house, his shirt flying across the room as he dropped his sweatpants and underwear, stepping out of them, leaving him naked except for his shoes and socks. "Look at it!" He was pointing at the impressive erection standing tall and firm in front of him. "Me like," I responded in a husky tone, my eyes glazing over. "It's been like this all day." Despite trying to sound perturbed, his lust-filled undertone said otherwise. Not to mention the pure want in his expression. "So you like the way that feels in your ass, huh?" He squirmed a bit, slight movements in his hips telling me he was using his muscles to work at the plug. Then in a breathy tone he whispered, "Yeah. It feels... really good." He had me pinned down on the couch before I could think of something to say. * * * * * March 21, 2017 "Thank you for dinner, G-Man. That was so good." "Happy birthday," I whispered against his lips before kissing him. When we came up for air, he tried for a stern gaze but accomplished something between humored and annoyed instead. "You shouldn't have bought me a new car, dude." "Yeah, I should have. You've mentioned a few times that you'd like to look at something new. Once I got you to admit what you were interested in, I took it from there." "But a car..." "It's just a car, Nate." He attempted an exasperated sigh, but it came out sounding pleased. Pressing my body against his so he could feel my interest and I could feel his, grinding against him, I kissed along his jaw until I reached his ear, then I whispered, "I have one more gift for you, Little Big Man." "No, G-Man, you've already—" "Can you feel my gift pressing against you?" I asked, my voice husky and full of want. "Oh fuck..." he moaned, thrusting his hips to press us together. "Tonight? Can we? Am I ready?" "Let's head upstairs and find out together." * * * * * "Holy fucking shit..." Nate said sotto voce against my lips, his forehead against mine, his body resting atop mine. I moved my hips just a little, which caused him to gasp. Though we'd both climaxed, I was still inside him and he was still feeling every bit of me. "I think you liked that," I told him before kissing him slowly, sensually, lovingly. "You have no idea," he groaned. "I've never had a hands-free orgasm before." He kissed me tenderly. "That was amazing, G-Man." The next kiss was a bit more needy, a bit more wanting. "Fucking hell, that was incredible." He gyrated his hips to move me inside him. His whole body trembled as he grabbed my face and proceeded to curl my toes with a soul-searing kiss. "Now I see why you seem to come apart when I make love to you. I'm gonna want to do that again." Another kiss. "And again." A deeper kiss. "And again." "Maybe later. Because now it's time for part two of this birthday gift." "Part two?" he asked, confused. "My turn," I growled as I captured his mouth with mine while I flipped us over. I intended to ride him until he couldn't remember his own name. Some immeasurable time later he lay beside me nearly incoherent, satiated beyond words, grasping me with needy hands and holding me close as he showered little kisses all over my face and neck. Just before he drifted into slumber, he whispered, "I love you so much, G-Man." "Happy birthday, Little Big Man," I breathed into his ear. "I love you more than words can convey." * * * * * May 25, 2017 "Have you two given much thought to marriage?" Mom asked. Though she was busy setting the table while Dad helped me in the kitchen, I could still see the mischievous twinkle in her eye. "We've talked about it," I replied, intentionally sounding dismissive, as though the subject had little weight. My father stared at me, clearly expecting more. When I remained silent, busy preparing dinner, he prompted, "And?" "Fine," I grumbled with a roll of my eyes, though they knew it was all theatrics. After a swig of beer I explained, "Yes, we've talked about it. Yes, it's something we want to do. No, we're not ready." Then I went back to cooking. Mom came up behind me and smacked me in the shoulder. "Ow!" I wailed. Overly dramatic, of course. Rubbing where she hit me I spun around and complained, "That hurt, mother of mine!" Dad hid his snicker by rummaging in the fridge for the fresh Parmesan cheese I needed. "Oh please, son of mine," she began, her tone letting me know I was close to real pain, "if I wanted to hurt you, you'd know it." She took a deep breath before adding, "Now that I have your attention, let's get back to the subject we were discussing." "Which was?" "Careful, Greg," Dad warned. "You're being brave or stupid considering how close she's standing to you." "Better listen to your father." "Okay. I surrender." I held up my hands to emphasize my point. Turning back to the stove lest I burn dinner, I told them, "Nate and I agree that we should continue our therapy and focus on getting better before we take a big step like that." "But you guys have known each other—" "For decades," I offered, completing my father's argument. "And you've lived—" "Together for three-quarters of that time." "I'll finish my own sentences, thank you very much," my mother snapped, though the humored grin on her face belied her tone. "Oops. My bad." She hit me again. "Ouch! Keep that up and I won't be able to finish dinner. We'll starve." "Starving will be the least of your worries," Dad chuckled as he grated the Parmesan cheese. "Gosh, you two are a tough crowd," I complained. Mom ignored my remark and said, "Marriage. Discuss." "We know our relationship is solid. We know we're closer than most married couples. We know there are no skeletons in the closet and no surprise personality traits and no hidden agendas and no need for getting to know each other. But it's more complicated than that. We're still dealing with therapy for what Richard did, so adding a new dynamic to our relationship is enough change for now. We want to make sure we're both better before we take the next step. So we need time. We don't want another surprise from that asshole to pop up and blow things apart. Let us deal with it in our own time, let us make sure we're healing and not regressing, let us make sure there's not another unpleasant surprise hidden in our heads, then we can feel confident about moving forward with marriage." I spun around and pulled Yvonne into my arms, hugging her tight. "Give us time, Mom. I promise it's as important to us as it is to you guys. We've all waited long enough for Nate and I to be happy together. We're happy now, we can be happier still, but let us move at our pace and let us decide when we're comfortable and let us be sure Richard's not still lurking in the shadows waiting to cause more damage." She rose on her tiptoes and kissed my cheek, hugging me tightly, and quietly said, "You've given me the answer I wanted to hear." Mom released me and set about finishing the table for dinner. Squeezing my shoulder, Dad said, "We're proud of you two, Greg, and we're really happy for you. We know you'll make the right decisions together and in your own time." "Speaking of time, when's he supposed to be here?" she inquired. "He's at the new gym, had a little extra work to do, but he's on his way. Should be here in fifteen minutes or so." "Excellent. It'll be nice to sit down and enjoy a family dinner with the whole family here." I caught the slight blush on Dad's cheeks after he heard Mom's words. She knew precisely what she was saying and how it would be interpreted, which gave me a little thrill for them. I was pretty sure our parents were getting close to patching up their relationship. * * * * * July 23, 2017 I gave Nate a considered look before asking in a hushed tone, "Have you thought about kids?" "Of course I have, G-Man. You know I have." Sure, I knew he had. I knew he'd thought about kids with a wife and a house and a white picket fence and all that jazz. I wasn't asking about that, though, wasn't asking about his ingrained response thanks to Richard. Quietly, shyly, almost in a whisper I clarified, "I mean with me." He lifted his head from my chest and settled it on the pillow beside me. Gently, his touch full of compassion, he pulled me over so I faced him. He grabbed one of my hands and held it as he settled the other on my cheek, letting his thumb caress my skin. "Of course I have, G-Man." His tone was subdued yet sure. "I've thought about it for a long time, long before we figured out our shit and wound up where we are now. I used to fantasize about it even though I was scared of the idea." "Really?" "Don't sound so surprised, dude. You might have been in denial, hiding how you felt from yourself, but I wasn't. I was just scared of what I felt. That doesn't mean it wasn't in my face all the time and that doesn't mean I wasn't letting my mind wander all the what-if paths." I rested an arm over his side and let my fingertips lightly trace patters on the skin of his back. "I've been thinking about it a lot, Nate." "Oh yeah?" His question held a hint of awe, a touch of wonder, a lot of interest, and plenty of hope. "Yeah." I couldn't help my dreamy quiet tone when I told him, "I've been thinking about it quite a bit. I've been thinking I'd like to have kids. With you. Build a family. With you. Live the dream with kids and pets and school and all the fun and torture that entails." Leaning my forehead against his, I let my words breathe against his lips when I finished, "With you." Nate released my hand and wrapped his arms around me, pulling me to him, my face settling against his chest. Squeezing me and rubbing my back even as I returned the embrace, he kissed the top of my head before saying, "That's my biggest dream, G-Man, now that I have you. I want to build a family with you, grow old with you, have kids and grandkids and maybe even great-grandkids." He kissed the top of my head again before rubbing his chin in my hair. There was a slight hitch in his voice, a hint of tears, when he added, "I want us to have kids, Greg. I want all of it. With you." * * * * * November 8, 2017 "So are you gay?" Kyle asked Nate. "It's complicated," I answered as I wrapped a towel around my waist and walked into the bedroom. "It really isn't," Nate said. "The answer is no, I'm not gay." "So you're bi?" "No." Wrapping an arm around me, he pulled me down onto his lap and held me tightly as he told Kyle, "I'm not gay or bi. I'm straight. I just happen to love a man, this wonderful, beautiful, one-of-a-kind man right here." He kissed my shoulder to alleviate any confusion about the man he spoke of. "Making him happy makes me happy, so here we are." Never one to silence his curiosity, Kyle asked, "So you're not attracted to any other men?" "Not at all. Not once have I seen a man who made me wonder what it would be like to be with him. Except this one. Just this one and no other. He's the only one for me." He slid out of the chair and settled me in it, stealing my breath with a kiss before saying, "Just this one, Kyle. Now, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I need a shower." "Catch you later, man." "Good to talk to you again, Kyle." "Same here, Nate." Basketball Boy's eyes tracked Nate as he walked away. The effect was something like having a voyeuristic laptop, its field of vision limited only by how willing I was to move the computer and its attached camera. "You look healthy," I noted, glancing at his bare torso on the screen. "You're more defined and you have more muscle mass than you did when you were here for my birthday." Though we'd texted a few times, it had taken two months before he called and another month before we started regular video chats. Over the intervening months, our contacts grew in frequency and our conversations and interactions slowly returned to the comfortable intimacy we'd once enjoyed. I understood his distance and the time he needed to overcome his feelings for me. First loves that didn't work out never made life easy and never went away, but they could be managed and they could be turned into good memories and even better friendships. It just took time, which I gave to Kyle in whatever quantity he needed. "Still working out?" "Yeah, man." "Sticking to the diet?" He ducked his head, looking a little embarrassed. "It's okay," I told him. "You're young and your metabolism is turned up as far as it'll go. Just try to stick to it when you can. It'll help with adding muscle." "What happens when I think I have enough?" "We'll help you change your routine and diet from growth to maintenance. No big deal at all." "Thanks. You guys are too awesome for words." "Again, I'm glad someone recognizes my greatness." "I was mostly talking about Nate." "Asshole!" "No he's not," Nate shouted from the bathroom. "He's just being honest." "Asshole!" I shot back. After our laughter faded I asked Kyle, "So what's up, dude? You said you had something important to ask." If blushes were fire, Basketball Boy would have spontaneously combusted. His cheeks flamed red, the tips of his ears turned crimson, and his neck looked like a rapidly spreading burn making its way from his head to his chest. "Dude, calm down," I chuckled. "It can't be that bad." "No," he mumbled. "No, it's not bad. Just... Well, I mean..." "Spit it out, dude!" Nate shouted, still in the bathroom. "I thought you were taking a shower!" Kyle shouted back. "I'm getting there." When I glanced at the en suite, Nate had stripped and stood at the walk-in shower, hanging a fresh towel on the rack near the door. He caught my gaze and mouthed, "I love you." "I love you," I replied. Then my eyes wandered up and down his body, taking in every inch of his mouthwatering beauty. It made me lick my lips. "He's naked, isn't he?" "Huh?" I muttered, turning back to the screen. "Oh, yeah, he is. How'd you know?" "Come on, man, licking your lips, your eyes glaze over, you look like you're ready to leap from the chair and tackle him. Seemed kinda obvious." "Oh. Right. Suppose so." Resetting my thoughts and erasing the image of naked Nate standing there waiting for me to devour him, I looked at Kyle, whose blush had ebbed, and prompted, "So you had something to talk about." And the blush flared up again. "Right. Okay." He took a deep breath. "You... like... I don't know... You..." "What?" I laughed. This had to be good with the way he was acting. Another deep breath fortified him. "You like to suck dick, right?" The color drained from my face at the same time Nate burst into uproarious laughter from the shower. "Oh shit..." Kyle moaned. "That's embarrassing. I'm sorry." Shaking my head, waving a hand at him to dismiss the apology, I stuttered, "Well... Yeah, Kyle... I... Uh... Sure, yeah, you might say I like to suck dick." "He's really good at it, too!" Nate shouted. Kyle's laughter was loud and heartfelt. My blush was almost as pronounced as his had been. "Shut it, you!" I hollered toward the bathroom door, though I had to bite back a chuckle so as not to ruin the stern tone I used. Then back to the laptop: "Now let's be serious. I'm sure you have a point. Yes, I'm a gay man and yes, I like sucking dick. Why are we having this conversation?" "Can you teach me how?" "What?" Nate and I asked simultaneously. Basketball Boy's skin darkened and darkened and darkened. He had his eyes squeezed shut, his head down and shaking from side to side. "Fuck..." he mumbled. "How can he hear me over the shower?" "Bionic hearing." I rolled my eyes for effect. "I heard you roll your eyes," Nate announced. Kyle and I laughed some more. "Okay. You want to know about... well..." "Giving a blowjob." He said it quietly, like a secret. "He wants to know how to suck dick, G-Man. Give the kid a break and tell him all your secrets. Just wait, Kyle, he'll tell you how and you'll be an expert before you know it. You'll be blowing dicks like a pro and blowing minds like a Jedi master!" "Jesus Christ!" Kyle howled, his whole body trembling with laughter. "Nate, stop it, please!" I begged, though mostly the words came out jumbled and broken because I couldn't stop laughing despite feeling abashed. "He's a few clowns short of a circus, isn't he?" From the shower came a laugh-filled "I heard that, Kyle!" After the laughter died, I sat in silence for a few moments, holding up a finger to indicate to Kyle that he should give me a minute. My mind settled and the humor faded, which left me facing a quandary. Deciding a big brother should help his little brother, I let my concerns about the conversation slip away. "Are we talking about Mitch?" His cheeks flushed once again and he diverted his eyes, only for a moment thought. Then: "Yeah. I think. Maybe." "I didn't realize it was a hard question." "Yes, okay, yes, we're talking about Mitch." "Teach him everything you know, G-Man!" "Why?" Kyle asked. "Because he's the white wizard of gay sex, dude! Let Greg teach you how to work magic and your new boy toy won't know what hit him!" Again our laughter was slow to die, as was Basketball Boy's blush. After we caught our breath and calmed, I decided to get serious. Or at least a little serious. "Okay, here's the deal, Kyle. I'll answer all your questions, I'll give you all the pointers and instruction I can, I'll tell you everything I can think of, I'll share all my secrets, but you have to promise me three things." He squared his shoulders and gave me a determined look. "What three things?" "First, you listen and take to heart everything I say about safe sex. Second, no matter how embarrassed you are or how silly you think a question is, don't hesitate to ask me anything no matter how big or small. And third, we get to meet your—Is he your boyfriend now or are you just fuckbu—" "Boyfriend," he interrupted without hesitation. "Kissed?" The blush came back. "Yeah," he admitted quietly. "Anything else?" "Not really. A little touching. Nothing else. Not yet anyway." No hesitation that time either. "Okay. The third thing is we get to meet your boyfriend. Bring him over and let's have a video call so we can talk to him, take a look at him, see if I need to come down there and threaten him within an inch of his life if he hurts you, all that stuff big brothers do." Chuckling, he shook his head slightly before agreeing. "Okay. Sure on all three things. Besides, I already planned to have him here next time we do this because... well... I want you to meet him. I want to make sure you like him and I want to make sure he likes you." I grinned, happy and overjoyed and thrilled about this turn of events. "Okay," I began, "I'm glad we're on the same page. So let's get started. Got a banana?" * * * * * June 2, 2018 I hugged Kyle, the embrace tight enough to interfere with his breathing. But neither of us cared. He squeezed me with just as much fervor. "I'm so proud of you, Kyle," I whispered in his ear. "I'm so very, very proud of you." "Thank you," he said quietly. When we finally released each other, he stepped over to Nate and they shared a hug and whispered words. Meanwhile, I turned my attention to Mitch. When he put his hand out to shake, I stepped inside his arm and wrapped him up in a hug. "I think we can dispense with shaking hands and go right to hugs, don't you think?" I asked him. "Yeah," he agreed with a smile as he wrapped his arms around me. Mitch was a good looking kid—Hell, he was a young man, like Kyle, but they'd probably always be kids to me. I suppose I was feeling old. Anyway, he was a good looking young man, a few inches taller than Kyle, so probably standing about five ten or eleven, with light brown hair short on the sides and just long enough on top to fall across his forehead. He probably weighed a hundred sixty pounds, give or take, making him lean, perhaps rangy but probably more like a well defined runner. He had honey-colored eyes that sparkled with all manner of intelligence and mischief. And he was a real looker, a handsome young man with a dimple in his left cheek and a shallow cleft in his chin. We'd talked not long after Kyle started his sex education calls, meeting Mitch the first time as he sat nervously in Kyle's room looking like a deer caught in headlights. I never learned what Kyle had told him about me or our relationship, but he seemed intimidated by me. Not a few conversations with him were spent surreptitiously convincing him I was no competition for Kyle's affection, I didn't plan on killing Mitch unless he hurt Kyle, and I really wanted to be his good friend if he intended to be an important part of Basketball Boy's life. Over time he calmed and relaxed, our burgeoning friendship soon growing to a comfortable level, allowing us to joke with each other. Eventually Mitch even felt comfortable calling me separately, sidebar calls focused on things he wanted to know about Kyle, things he could do to make him happy, things Mitch would run by me to make sure Kyle would like his plans, and of course things Mitch wanted my approval for or things he wanted to check with me before addressing with Kyle. More and more he treated me like his boyfriend's protective big brother. I released Mitch and we chatted amicably as Kyle and Nate likewise chatted, but the Orlando afternoon grew warm and my stomach grew impatient, so eventually we said our goodbyes to Gerald and Teresa and MJ before herding Kyle and Mitch to the rental car. We'd promised to take them to lunch after graduation; I knew just the place to go. * * * * * "I can't believe Keigan owns this restaurant!" Kyle exclaimed after greeting our mutual friend from Dallas. Keigan wanted to stay and chat, but the restaurant was packed and he had work to do. "He and his husband just opened this place," Nate explained. "Yannis," I said in answer to Kyle's unspoken question. Well, unspoken with words but spoken clearly with his expression. "The guy from your birthday party?" "Yeah." "They own it together?" Mitch inquired. "They both started out with restaurants in Dallas, one Greek and the other a burger joint." "A really good burger joint," Kyle interjected. "After Greg introduced them," Nate told the boys, "they hit it off, started dating, eventually moved in together, and then married just last month." "With their combined restaurant expertise and Keigan's business acumen, they came up with a plan for places like this." I gestured around the rugged yet comfortable dining room in which we'd been seated. "Wow..." Kyle mumbled as he looked around. "Did they move here?" Nate looked at Mitch and answered, "No. But their business plan has them expanding outside of Texas. This is the first." "Orlando's a busy city with tourism, so it made sense." "I can see that." Basketball Boy nodded appreciatively. * * * * * "SMU?" I couldn't hide the grin on my face. Kyle had been considering the school, but I hadn't pushed for confirmation, instead allowing him time to consider his options. "Full scholarship," Mitch announced with pride. "Really?" "Yeah, Nate, for their engineering program." "Wow. I'm duly impressed, dude." "So am I," I agreed. Nate turned to Kyle's boyfriend and asked, "What about you? Where are you going?" "SMU," he answered, reaching over and joining hands with Kyle, the two sharing a beautiful moment full of loving expressions. "Engineering as well?" "No," he said to me, "I want to be a psychiatrist." He blushed then, looking down for a moment before meeting my gaze and adding, "I want to help kids. I want..." "Tell him, Mitch." Kyle's voice was nervous yet supportive, encouraging his boyfriend to say what he needed to say. "It's okay." "I know it's presumptuous, Greg, but... but I'd really like to get my degree and then work for a place like Silver Rain, if not Silver Rain itself, to help kids who maybe don't get the help they need elsewhere." Nate and I shared a look, silent communication passing between us. Then we both looked back at Mitch and I said, "When you get to Dallas and get settled, before school starts this autumn, how about you and I sit down and have a little chat, see what your passions are, your goals, your intentions toward Kyle—" I added that list with a humorous sternness in my voice. "—and then we can go from there." "Really?" the boys asked in unison. "Really." * * * * * September 29, 2018 "Hey, Mom." Nate picked her up and hugged her. As I embraced my father I said, "Good to see you, Dad." "You too, Greg." "Put me down, baby boy! Put me down!" She was giggling like a schoolgirl. Nate set her down gently. We swapped positions and I hugged Mom against me, nuzzling my face in her hair. "Good to see you, mother of mine." "Always good to see you, son of mine." She rested her cheek against my chest and held me tight, rubbing my back. When I released her, I noticed Nate and Dad in a whispered conversation. Lacking bionic hearing, I couldn't make out what was being said. Also lacking a nosy gene, I didn't ask about it either. "I hope you boys are hungry," Gavin began as we turned toward the dining room, "because we somehow managed to make way too much for four people." "Blame your father," Mom shot over her shoulder, smiling, her eyes twinkling when she looked at him. "You know Nate eats like ten times his own bodyweight each day, so it shouldn't be a problem." "Hey!" Since we were holding hands, he had to swing across his own torso to smack my arm. "You struck me!" I whined. "Mom, Dad, he hit me!" "They never grow up," she complained. "It's like they never moved out, too," Dad added. "Because they're constantly coming over to eat our food." "And drink our beer." "Our?" Nate interrupted. And then I saw it. Giving Nate's hand a squeeze to get his attention, I gave him a look that told him the shit just got real. I released his hand and stepped to where both Mom and Dad had stopped and turned around, both of them looking like fish out of water as their mouths opened and closed with nary a sound. Feeling Nate's watchful gaze as I moved, I reached down and grabbed Mom's hand. Her left hand. Pulling it to me, I gently held her fingers out so I could look at the ring she wore. The new ring. On her ring finger. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure Nate saw it as well. "Do you two have something you need to tell us?" he asked them in his best strict father voice. "Well..." "We just..." "Stop," I said through a laugh. Surprisingly, they both slammed their mouths shut. "We know. Greg and I already know." "We've known all along." "With Dad's laundry folded neatly in the basket waiting to be put away." "With Dad's favorite beer in the fridge." "With the looks." "The touches." "The attempts to hide said looks and touches." "Not to mention the stolen kisses." "Alright! Alright!" She was giggling and smiling. "You caught us," Dad admitted. "Except..." "Except what, baby boy?" "The ring, Mom." My tone was condescending yet humored. "Set a date yet?" Nate asked. "Are we invited?" "I will not be a bridesmaid." "Don't look at me to be a maid of honor. Ain't happening." "Stop!" Dad growled, trying to stop his laughter. "You boys are a mess." "So when did this happen?" I asked, turning serious, releasing Mom's hand and stepping back. Nate immediately took my hand in his. They looked at each other, so much love in their eyes. I almost melted when they joined hands. "Today," he began. "This afternoon," she clarified. "I couldn't wait." "I didn't want him to." "We were going to tell you." "It's not a secret or anything." "And of course you'll both be in the wedding." "Like that wasn't going to happen," Dad scoffed. "Hey," Nate said to get everyone's attention, his gaze especially keen when he looked at Dad, "let's eat before it gets cold. You can tell us all about the proposal and the wedding." Glancing at me and smiling, he said, "We definitely want to hear everything."
  12. February 6, 2017 He slid out of me slowly, the fires dwindling, the embers cooling, the heat dissipating. When at last he was no longer inside me, I only knew our joining had ended by the exquisite emptiness I felt. His gentle movement was full of so much care, so much affection, and I knew by the reappearance of that keen void within and the softness of his extraction that Nate would always be the only one, the only man capable of overcoming the panic that otherwise gripped me at the very thought of being penetrated. Which made what we'd done all the more bittersweet, since everything we'd gone through indicated Richard's legacy would be the end of our relationship and the death of whatever promise might have existed that we could be just a little bit more than we already were. His lips left mine and dropped feathery kisses along my jaw as our breathing slowed. Just as I started to run my hands from his hips up his torso, he lifted himself on one arm anchored by a hand beside my head. The movement showed every muscle taught and prominent, making him look like a dark Adonis, the epitome of masculine beauty painted in deep brown hues. Nate drew his hand from between us, the one he'd used on my cock. Holding it in front of his face, we both could see the evidence of my orgasm covering it. Look at his eyes. Holy fucking shit, look at his eyes. Again his pupils dilated and his eyes glazed as a wanton desire filled his expression, his cheeks darkening with a blush as he moved his hand to his mouth, licking each valley and suckling each peak and lapping every plain. I moaned. Bloody hell, I moaned and fought to keep my eyes from rolling back in my head as I watched him, both disbelief and burning lust fighting for prominence. What he was doing was so erotic, but more than that it was beautiful. Completely unaffected and not exaggerated in any way, I watched as he thoroughly and honestly enjoyed consuming my essence, tasting it and savoring it and leaving none of it unconsumed. I was just piecing myself back together after the most profound experience of my life, and suddenly he threatened to blow me apart again with nothing more than this lazy, desirous consumption. His gaze never wavered as he swallowed every last drop, leaving behind only his own saliva. Then he reached over the edge of the sofa and grabbed the tee shirt I'd dropped on the floor. With no hesitation and a not inconsiderable amount of patience and affection, he cleaned me from chin to ass. After that he cleaned himself before tossing aside the shirt. Nate slipped sideways and settled between me and the back of the sofa, facing me. I rolled on my side and leaned into him enough to capture his lips, slipping my tongue inside and basking in the mix of flavors—his and mine. He responded with a generous moan, chasing me as I broke the kiss and rested my head against the arm of the sofa. Our legs were a jumbled mess and our arms slipped around each other. He ducked his head slightly to rest his face against my chest. My breathing eventually calmed and my vision cleared. I kissed his head and sighed. "That was..." "Incredible. Mind-blowing. Beautiful—Fuck, G-Man, you were absolutely fucking beautiful. Watching you come apart like that was... just... wow. I've never seen anything that wonderful." "You did that, Little Big Man. You made me feel... everything I've ever dreamed of feeling." He kissed my chest but remained quiet. Rhetorically I mumbled, "I wonder if it could always be like that." Nate kissed my chest again before saying, "I hope so." I jerked back from him. "What?" Pushing his head into the back of the couch so he could see my face, he parroted, "What?" "Wasn't that..." "What? Wasn't that what?" The ache in my chest had come back since the hormones of a sexual frenzy had faded. Wonderful though it might have been, I had no delusions about what we'd just done. "Wasn't that... Weren't you just... Well, I thought that was a mercy fuck." The hurt in his eyes pained me deeply but didn't stop me from adding, "Wasn't that goodbye? After everything else, wasn't that a farewell?" His gasp was slight but significant, his expression dark and anguished, his voice disappointed yet stern when he replied, "Fuck, G-Man, what the hell? No, that's wasn't a pity fuck. God fucking damn it to fucking hell! Why would you think that?" When he struggled to get off the couch, I shackled him with my arms and legs and held him against me. "I'm sorry, Nate. I'm sorry. I just don't know what's going on... with us... with this between us. I don't know where we are anymore." He shook his head, a small movement, then he pressed his face against my chest again. "Fucking shit, G-Man, something wonderful and beautiful and overwhelming and potent just happened. We just shared something powerful and sacred. Why the flying fuck would you think it was a pity fuck, dude? That hurts." "I'm sorry. I just... I just don't know what's happening." Lifting his face to mine, he kissed me, tender and sweet, then whispered against my lips, "That was a singular phenomenon, Greg. That was a religious experience. It's like for a little while the fear vanished and I realized what I had and what I might lose. And seeing you... come apart like that, all the emotions, all the pleasure you felt that flowed right into me... Fuck, G-Man, I felt like the king of the world because I was making you feel that way, I was making you feel so good you came undone." "I'm sorry—" "Stop saying that! Stop apologizing!" "Why'd it happen, Nate? Why'd you do that?" A huff of warm moist breath hit my face, and I breathed it in like the last gasp of a dying man. "It just happened," he admitted, resting his forehead against mine. "I told you I've never been attracted to a guy, any guy, except you. I feel so connected to you and you're the most beautiful person I've ever known and I've been sexually turned on by you since I was a kid and you're the single greatest fantasy I have and your smell drives me crazy and with my face against your skin I just thought... Hell, I couldn't control myself. I thought I was going to lose you and I thought I couldn't hurt anything more than I already had, so I wanted it and I went for it because you overwhelm me and I'm not sorry I did it and I'd do it again—" I silenced him with a kiss, sliding my tongue into his open mouth and communing with him with intimacy and affection and love, but no lust. At least not right at that moment. After I came up for air I asked, "What do you want, Nate?" "What do you mean?" he mumbled, resting his cheek against mine. "Did you just want tonight? Or do you want more?" "More," he replied without hesitation. "Do you want forever?" "Only with you." Again no hesitation. "But it won't be easy, G-Man," he continued, meeting my gaze, "because I'm seriously fucked up right now. I'm already terrified because of what happened and thinking I'm going to lose you because this can't be real and I'm just—" Once more I captured his lips to kill his words. "You didn't know I was here, did you?" I asked when I finally broke the kiss. "Not before I saw your car in the garage. But I had to find you. Mom and Dad and I talked all day Saturday. They really helped me see I was fucking things up pretty badly." "We've both done a bang-up job of fucking things up, Nate." "Yeah, maybe, but this time I put the whammy on it in a big way. They asked if I could live with myself if I never saw you again. They asked if I thought I might ever find someone else who'd make me feel the way you do. They asked if this fear—it's so stupid, too, because you offered yourself to me and I ran away fearing I'd lose you if I accepted. Anyway, they asked if this fear would be easier to conquer with or without you by my side." He let out a sigh, one full of self-flagellating frustration. "They helped me understand I could deal with the fear, get past it, with Uncle Farid you know, but that I'd never forgive myself if I didn't try to fix it. But I didn't know how." "Seems you did a pretty good job moving us in that direction." "But you know I'd never use sex as a tool. It just happened. I never would've considered doing it to get from point A to point B." "Did it work? Do you think it got us to point B?" "I think it got us over the obstacle long enough for me to see I was going to lose what mattered most if I didn't stop being a coward and start dealing with shit." "Hey," I whispered, caressing his cheek. "You are many things, Nate Sawyer, but a coward is not one of them." Deciding to lighten the mood somewhat, I took a play from Kyle's and Teresa's conversational handbook and tried a lateral jump. "So... you licked your hand clean, and I'm pretty sure you enjoyed it." His face scrunched up in embarrassment as he snickered. "I did enjoy it." "You hated it before, those two times. You'd run to the bathroom and spit it out, then rinse with mouthwash. But what you did earlier wasn't a show for my benefit. Trust me, I could tell. So what changed?" "You know, like every red-blooded boy—even the ones who deny it—I tasted mine when I was young and I tasted it again when I was older. It didn't disgust me but it didn't do anything for me either." "You said you enjoyed it though. Just now, I mean. With mine." "I told you before... you now, those two times when... well, I told you I didn't like it." With a sheepish grin he admitted in a hushed tone, "But I do. I have since the first time. I'd run to the bathroom, savor it, swallow it, then rinse and pretend like it was gross." "You just said it doesn't do anything for you." "I said mine doesn't do anything for me. And I have no interest in anyone else's. The thought of tasting or swallowing someone else's cum is a nonstarter. But yours... Well, I think it tastes better than mine. Which isn't the point. I like it because it's yours, it's part of you that you've given to me. I actually fantasize about it a lot, about tasting yours and swallowing it. I just couldn't admit it, couldn't let you know." "Why?" His voice took on a slight tremble when he answered, "The same reason I pretended like us messing around was stupid and silly and not going to lead anywhere." Nodding slowly, still stroking his cheek, I whispered, "Fear?" With a small shrug he answered, "Yeah, kind of... I was scared how I felt would be obvious, then the shit would hit the fan and everything would blow up—" "Like he told you it would." "Right. Like he said." Nate took a deep breath and huffed it out in frustration. "But it wasn't just that." "No?" "No. It wasn't all me, G-Man." I smashed my eyes shut and sighed. After a quick shake of my head I looked at him. "My blind spot?" His tone was apologetic yet caring when he said, "You acted like it was best friends getting off together, like it was no big deal, like it didn't mean anything. But I knew if it happened too much—hell, if it happened again after the second time—I wouldn't be able to hide how I felt. I knew you'd see it was a lot more than that to me." What kind of idiot had I been to build the blind spot, to perfect the act of self-deception as a means to deny what I didn't want to face? I'd hidden so much from myself, so many truths. But then it took on a life of its own, growing and spreading until its shadow fell over everything that mattered. Fucking Richard... "I'm sorry, Nate—" "Don't, G-Man. Don't apologize for what that fucktard did to us. He fucked with our heads and left us with this shitstorm blowing around in our brains." I leaned forward and kissed his forehead. "It was just bad timing then, don't you think? You wanted it but were scared of it and I wanted it but was blind to how I felt." He tucked his head under my chin, resting his cheek against my chest. "Everything was fucked up back then. It's all fucked up now, too, but in a different way." Wrapping my arms around him and hugging him close, I kissed the top of his head. "It's not fucked up now, Nate," I whispered, "but it's complicated and messy and imperfect." "We can fix it, though, right, G-Man? Don't you think we can fix it?" "I know we can, Little Big Man. Together we can do anything." * * * * * We'd made coffee, stoked the fire back to a warming blaze, pulled a blanket over our still naked forms, and snuggled together on the couch as we talked. "Uncle Farid taught me to be brutally honest with myself. That helped me realize my penchant for hooking up with women then walking away from them came from an inability to connect with them and the fact that I was constantly wondering if any of them could make me feel the way you do." "Rita—" "I thought you were getting together with Keigan. You'd been pulling away from me, slowly but noticeably. I know, I found out why later, but at the time I didn't know. I thought you were moving away from me so you could move toward Keigan. Rita was the luck of the draw, you might say. I realized if I lost you to Keigan, I'd be alone, really alone, so I needed to connect somehow to someone before that happened. "But I couldn't connect with them, G-Man. At first I didn't care because it was just meaningless sex, then I cared because I felt it was something I should do, then I fixated on it with Rita because I thought I was going to lose you." "Dude, you told Keigan how to find me." "I know. I was scared of anything happening between us and I wasn't sure about your feelings anymore since you'd hidden them away so well, but I wanted you to be happy. If it wasn't going to be with me, then I wanted to help you find someone who could make you feel that way." Shaking my head, dismayed at how much time and effort we'd wasted over the years because of The Fiend's pernicious tinkering in our heads, I huffed out a breath. "What?" Nate asked. I decided to put aside the unending anger and frustration over what I couldn't change and instead focused on us, the beautiful man in my arms who completed me because he contained part of my soul, the part I wasn't born with but was destined to discover. "When did you know?" I asked. "Know what?" "Huh. That question had a complete thought with it in my head." We both chuckled. "When did you know you had feelings for me?" He shrugged. "When Richard started messing with my head, I was about thirteen. The first time he brought up my feelings making you leave, he asked me if I felt more for you than friendship. I hadn't thought about it up until that point. I mean, I knew I had strong feelings for you but I always thought it was a mix of loving my best friend and hero worship." "Hero worship?" I squawked, my cheeks flaming. I actually shuddered at the thought. Nate gave me look that clearly said I was daft. "Come on, dude, you were the most popular guy in school, you were the best looking guy, you were always the hottest and friendliest and most charismatic guy around. Everybody wanted to be your friend, if not more." My blush crept down my neck and up into my ears. "Don't," he chastised me with an affectionate grin. "You know it's true." Waving away our tangent, he continued, "Anyway, Richard asked me if I had other feelings for you. I'd never thought about it before. I knew I loved you more than I'd ever loved anybody else because you were BMOC yet you never left me behind. You always kept me by your side no matter what. And regardless of who came along, you always made me feel like the most important person in your life." "You always have been," I mumbled. "I know." He gave me a quick kiss. "I know, G-Man. But when he asked how I felt, it made me stop and think about it for the first time. I started looking at how I felt and what I thought and began realizing there was something else there. "By the time I turned fourteen, I'd come to realize I was madly in love with you. Which totally fucking freaked me out because I also realized I was attracted to you sexually. It was like this total emotional thing that made you the center of my universe." "But you were straight..." "Yeah. I knew I only looked at girls, never looked at a guy for more than comparative purposes, so how screwed up was I to find I was actually fantasizing about my best friend, so in love with him that I wanted to spend my life with him? Well, I thought I was pretty well off my rocker, which Richard capitalized on by beating into my brain that I was straight and needed to find a woman and definitely shouldn't think of you as more than a friend lest I blow up our relationship and lose you forever." I bracketed his face with my hands and pulled him to me, planting a slow and fiery and loving kiss on his lips. Then leaning my forehead against his I whispered, "You'll never lose me, Nate. Never. The only thing that can take me away from you is death. Until that comes, you're stuck with me." "Darn," he grumbled through a growing smile. "That'll suck." "Yeah," I breathed against his lips, "it's gonna be miserable for us, but that's just how it's got to be." He kissed me before saying, "We'll just have to suffer, I guess." Nate leaned back a bit so he could meet my gaze. With curiosity in his voice he asked, "What about you?" "What about me?" "When did you realize how you felt about me?" "The day I met you." "What?" "Don't look so shocked. I didn't know what to call it at the time, but the moment I saw you sitting alone that day, something drew me to you. After spending about an hour with you, I knew you were going to be an important part of my life, though I couldn't have said why I thought that. By the end of the day, I couldn't imagine not knowing you and I couldn't imagine a future without you. And within a month I knew I needed you to stop the ache in my chest when we were apart and I needed you to create that giddy euphoria I felt when we were together. I constantly wanted to hear your voice, see your face, make you smile, know you were happy. "So by the time I was eleven, I knew I was in love with you. I also knew I loved you more than I thought I could ever love anybody. It was like you were a part of me that I hadn't known I was missing until we met." Scrunching up his face with a facetious scowl he complained, "But I was such a scrawny, insignificant kid who couldn't get a girl to look at me twice!" "You've always been beautiful to me, Nate," I quietly told him, stroking his cheek. "From the first day we met you've always been the most beautiful person in the world to me. By the time I came out I was desperate to touch you, to kiss you, to explore your body with my hands and lips and tongue. I wanted so badly for you to have sex with me. I also knew I could go my entire life without any of that so long as it kept you in my life." I shrugged. Then I grinned. "That you turned into a total fucking hottie is just icing on the cake, but my feelings would be the same even if that hadn't happened." "You're... you're just amazing, Mr. Beaumont." "So are you, Mr. Sawyer." * * * * * "Listen, G-Man, because I'm being serious. What happened... what we shared... that was powerful voodoo. No, I'm serious, dude! It's like something happened, like the fear in me isn't as strong as it was or something. It's like... I don't know how to say it... It's like that was the most intimate and potent experience of my life—I don't just mean that was the best orgasm I've ever experienced, which it was. But it was a lot more than the most satisfying sex I've ever had. It was a spiritual experience or something. What I felt was so profound and so potent—What? Why are you looking at me like that?" "Because you're telling me exactly what I've been thinking." "You felt it too, huh?" "Oh yeah. Couldn't you tell?" "Oh yeah. And..." "What?" "All I could think when you were coming undone was that I was so happy to see you like that and spending the rest of my life making you feel that way would... well, it would make me happy." Suddenly he began to blush, so he ducked his head, pressing a kiss against my chest. "What?" I asked. "What was that look for?" He mumbled something against my skin but I couldn't understand him. Pulling his face up so I could see him, I said, "Repeat that." "I want you to teach me." His voice was so soft, so meek. And very embarrassed. "Teach you what?" "Teach me how to make you feel good." "Oh, that's easy. I can teach you all about gay sex." "No, G-Man, I don't want to know about gay sex. I've never been attracted to a man, I've never looked at one and wondered what it would be like, nothing like that at all. I'm straight—" "I'm not challenging your heterosexuality, Nate." "I didn't say you were. I'm just telling you I don't need to know how to make every man feel good, because that's never going to happen; I only need to know how to make you feel good, because that's all I want to do." With a mischievous smirk I asked, "You mean teach you how to suck my dick, how to take me to the hilt?" He blushed and nodded. "Teach you how to rim me like a pro?" He ducked his without breaking eye contact. And nodded again. "Teach you how to use your fingers to make me whimper and whine until I explode?" He was holding back a chuckle even as his blush deepened, his dark skin growing progressively darker. Another nod. "Teach you where all my buttons are so you know how to play me like an instrument?" He nodded once more but remained silent. "Teach you how to bottom?" I doubt this part, which could be an issue. I'm versatile. Though, if what he did to me earlier is any indication, I might just become a pig bottom. For him anyway. His mouth worked a few times and his blush exploded. I could see it spreading down his neck. He surprised me when he nodded. "I'm not exactly built for first-timers, Nate." "I'm not asking for a first time." "What?" I nearly shouted the question. Vigorously shaking his head, he cupped my cheeks and stared into my eyes. "No, G-Man, that's not what I meant. I mean I'm not asking you to be my first like some kind of springboard to other experiences with other men. I'm not asking you to take my cherry so I can move on from there. I'm saying it's just part of what I want to give you, which is all of me, and you're going to be my first and only. I want us to be equal, all of me for all of you." "Just..." "What, G-Man?" "I won't lie to you, Nate. It's going to hurt at first. Like I said, I'm not built for first-timers." "But you'll help me through it, right? You'll do whatever you can to prepare me, and you'll teach me, and you'll take care of me, right?" "Of course! You know I will." "That means you're built just right for me," he said sotto voce before capturing my lips. * * * * * "When you had sex with guys," he interrupted, "do you remember—Fuck! Of course you remember. When you'd hook up with a guy, I always asked if you played pitcher or catcher." "Right. We always asked about each other's extracurricular activities. I don't know, it was like we were—Oh..." Nate watched me closely as I considered what he'd said. Giving him an inquisitive look, a sudden thought popped out of my mouth. "You were jealous." "I was. All the time. Couldn't help it." "As for pitching and catching, you wanted to know if I'd gotten over the panic attacks." "You were panicking?" So gentle a tone, so worried an expression. He looked quite worried. "I never told you. I should have." After a deep breath I continued, "I couldn't do it, Nate. I should've told you what trying to bottom did to me, how much fear it engendered, the blood rushing in my ears and the clammy sweat and the uncontrollable shaking and the blinding flashes of terror and... well, the panic. It was always so overwhelming. All I could think of was Richard and what he did to me. I didn't tell you because I thought I was pathetic to let something from so long ago control my sex life today. That's why I just told you I was scared of doing it." "How did you know you'd like it?" "Fingers and toys." "Toys?" His eyebrows climbed toward his scalp and his eyes widened. "Dildos, Nate." "You have dildos?" "Yes." Blushing profusely and dropping my face I admitted, "And if you must know, my favorite is the one that looks like yours." It was his turn to blush. "Maybe we'll get a chance to play with them together," he said hopefully. "But that sidetrack aside, the point was I always asked because you told me you were scared to try it. Also, after the first few times, I realized by your tone and expression that you were frustrated and disappointed sometimes when you'd tell me you topped, like that hadn't been your first choice." "I'm versatile. I like both. I just never got to bottom before tonight." "Right." He looked at me expectantly. "Isn't it obvious?" I asked him. "Isn't what obvious?" "The answer to the question swirling around in your head." "Why did it go so smoothly tonight?" "Yeah, that question." "What's the answer?" "I'd think it was obvious. I was scared before, sure, scared of having a panic attack in front of somebody who might not care or might try to push or might do something untoward, even if it was to freak out and leave me while I tried to get my shit together. "I didn't have that fear with you. And not just because I knew if I panicked that you'd take care of me. That wasn't it at all. I wasn't scared because I always knew there had to be someone who could get me through that barricade, who could help me overcome the phobic response I'd always had." "You thought it was me?" "I knew it was you, Nate. I think I've always known. There's no one I trust more, no one I care about more, no one else I'd want to help me experience that. Even if I wanted it before with someone else, it was a shallow want, not strong enough to push me." "You didn't even hesitate." "I'd never hesitate with you. If there's something I can't accomplish with you, it simply can't be done." * * * * * A bed of glowing coals stood in place of the blazing fire we'd rebuilt. We'd talked for hours, long enough to realize neither of us would get any sleep that night. "What did you mean when you said you needed to know?" "When?" "Earlier. When things were just starting to heat up—Oh, you asshole!" My hand leaped to my neck, cradling it as though I'd suffered a grievous wound. "You marked me, didn't you?" His grin blossomed into a full smile even as he turned away from me. A brief nod, slight and abashed, then he locked his eyes on me again. "Yeah. Sorry." "No you're not!" I accused with mock horror, though I was smiling as well. "Both sides?" I leaned first this way then that way so he could get a good look. Nate reached out, gently tracing beneath one ear with his fingertips and beneath the other with his knuckles, the touch light and affectionate. "Oops." "How bad?" "Well, one's not so bad." I waited. When he said nothing more, I prompted, "And the other?" "Uh... Yeah, you see... It's... Well, G-Man, the first one's pretty big and pretty dark." "And right below my ears! How can I hide that?" My outrage didn't sound convincing to me, so I knew it didn't fool him. Something about Nate marking me that way titillated and thrilled. Whatever disapproving looks I might receive from mindless prudes meant little to me. The reason I liked the idea was simple: Nate had claimed me as his, had marked his territory. The caveman in me found that idea pleasing, not to mention stimulating. Even as his chuckle burgeoned into a full laugh, a deep, throaty sound that was honest and resonant and pleasurable to hear, he cringed while replying, "It's winter, dude. Wear a scarf." I smacked him playfully, my palm against his bare chest making enough noise to sound like a fatal strike when in reality it caused him to laugh louder and harder. Shaking my head, I joined him. Eventually our raucous outburst slowed enough for us to catch our breath. Once I felt I had enough air to speak, I returned to the previous topic. "So, back to the question I asked. When everything was heating up between us, you said, 'I need this. I need to know.' What did you need to know?" His expression turned serious, contemplative. Nate took my hand and wove our fingers together, kissing my knuckles, the back of my hand, my wrist. "You don't have to—" Something akin to a determined look passed across his face, promptly replaced by adoration. "All I've wanted is for you to find your happiness, ever since we were kids that's all I've wanted. You've always brought such happiness to me despite the fact that we weren't what I wanted. "And we're so fucking happy together, G-Man. We have a great relationship, we love each other dearly, we'd do anything for each other. So I wondered... I mean, I thought, what if I'm the one? What if it's me that helps you get out of the past and into a future you deserve? What if I'm the guy who gives you your happily ever after? "We messed around twice before and it failed for various reasons, part of it sabotage on my part. So tonight, once things started to go that way, once I realized I wanted more than anything to have at least one time with you when maybe things could be perfect, I needed to know if we could do it, if we could be intimate despite the baggage, if we could have sex that was rich and satisfying and joyous and wonderful. I needed to know if it would be as awesome as the fantasies I've had since we were teenagers. I needed to know if I could spend the rest of my life with you and never need a woman to provide something that I wasn't getting." "Did you get your answers?" I asked in a hushed tone. For some reason I was fearful, though I knew I needn't be. His answer was emphatic. "Yes. Absolutely. Without room for doubt." He set his coffee cup on the table, took mine from me and put it with his, and finally stretched out on top of me. When our lips met it was like lightning and fire and the sun blazing bright. "What we shared tonight was only the tip of the iceberg. What we shared tonight was magical and fulfilling and more than I've ever shared with anyone before, more than I ever thought possible. You have a lot more to teach me and I have a lot more to experience, which means being with you is going to blow my mind and leave me reeling. Not only that, but being with you means being with the only person on this planet who completes me." Very softly he added, "Nobody can possibly compare to that." "I love you, Little Big Man." "I love you, G-Man." My eyes closed and my heart raced and my spirit soared when he leaned in for another kiss.
  13. February 6, 2001 Detective Weston chewed his cigar with gritted teeth. The madder he got the more he chewed, and the more he chewed the faster the cigar disappeared. He'd throw the occasional angry glance at District Attorney Landers, though it wasn't Landers that put a burr under his saddle. It was the damned FBI and their jurisdiction crap. "Don't worry," Landers said, not the least bit flustered as he slapped a roll of papers against his open palm. "This is bullshit!" Weston growled. Waving the thick stack of documents in the detective's direction, the finely suited district attorney smiled the smile of a predator. "Not anymore, it's not." The ding of the elevator's arrival had them both turning toward the sound. Nurses and doctors shuffled and meandered and consulted quietly in the hospital's intensive care unit, but neither man had eyes for anything other than the four incompetent assholes stepping out of the elevator. After glancing around, the group of interlopers spotted the two men and immediately headed in their direction. The woman leading the group was tall, lean, lithe, and Weston thought she might be pretty if she didn't look like she had a flagpole stuck up her ass. Her white blouse primly contained beneath a slim blue blazer buttoned snug beneath her less than ample bosom, her slacks too spacious to show her figure, FBI Special Agent Dempsey marched ahead with the safe assumption that her entourage would follow in her wake. Already waving her credentials as she prepared to stake a leading claim in the investigation of Richard Sawyer, her gaze met the unflinching stare of Dallas's District Attorney and she frowned, as though she'd just caught a whiff of something unpleasant. "DA Landers," she greeted with just a hint of disdain in her voice, "what a ... pleasant surprise." "Stow it, Dempsey," he replied, taking the step necessary to close the distance between them, stabbing her in the gut with the stiff roll of papers in his hand. He felt childish satisfaction when she huffed out a startled breath, her hands automatically wrapping around the documents as he released them. "What—" He didn't let her finish. "As of this morning—I'm sure you've been too busy primping and preparing a speech for this moment to keep up with such mundane minutia—the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas has issued an emergency restraining order against the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Washington DC Metro Police halting any jurisdiction claims you might or might not make in matters pertaining to Doctor Richard Sawyer and his alleged crimes." The pleasure her shocked and outraged expression made him feel amplified his resolve; he'd always wanted to take this particular special agent down a notch or ten. "Furthermore, said District Court has also issued an emergency restraining order against the FBI and DC Metro halting any attempts to interfere, undermine, participate in or otherwise insinuate into the local investigation, arrest, charging and trying of Doctor Richard Sawyer. As you'll notice from the court orders in your hand, SAC Dempsey, the court took the bold initiative of staying its own orders and bumping the matter up to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for emergency review." Leaning forward enough to invade the FBI agent's personal space and thereby forcing her to lean away, he added with a growl, "That court remanded the matter back to the District Court with its full support of its decision. Therefore, Agent Dempsey—" He loved the flinch it caused to drop the Special from her title. "—the FBI and the capital's police are hereby ordered to get its nose out of our business until we've dealt with this matter." Dempsey huffed, nearly spat, then proclaimed, "This is absurd! We have interstate crimes involved, which clearly—" "Stow it, Miss High-and-Mighty," Weston barked. Waving his pudgy hand at her and her group he explained, "You ... people—" That word came out sounding like it really didn't apply. "—knew for three fucking months what he was capable of, what he'd already been up to in our esteemed nation's capital, and you told us fuck all shit about it. And now ... now we've got a boy who's already gone through seven hours of surgery just to keep him alive and keep him from making his injuries worse. His parents say he has more surgery coming. That boy—" He waved vaguely toward the ICU room behind him. "—will be shitting through a hole cut into his intestines for months, because the damage is so severe. His kidneys are so bruised there might be permanent damage, and even if there isn't, he'll be pissing blood for a good long while. His fucking eye socket is fractured." He punctuated that by tapping above his own eye. "He has a major concussion, lost more blood than a boy that size should contain, has two broken ribs and several permanent teeth that could fall out at any minute ... and his fucking windpipe is crushed to the point where they had to put a tube down his throat just so he could breathe. Fuck all, people, he won't be able to talk normally—if at all—for a good long while. His face is smashed to high heaven so he doesn't even look human anymore. He's beaten and battered from head to foot, like a damn stampede ground him underfoot." He couldn't continue. He just couldn't do it. He was so disgusted, so angry, so horrified by this case, and to think these assholes from the FBI and the DC Metro Police knew and didn't so much as offer a simple phone call to let them know they might want to keep an eye on the bastard. The short, heavyset cop huffed in derision and turned away. He couldn't even look at them anymore. "We were in the middle of investigating an increasing number of claims by former patients," Dempsey offered, though it sounded like an excuse even to her ears. "You could've warned us," the DA replied in a tone so devoid of emotion that its coldness sent a chill up the spine of everyone who heard it. "We have a teenager in there fighting for his life who will be permanently scarred both inside and out, a boy who's suffered a tragedy no human should suffer. No, maybe we couldn't have prevented it, but we'd feel a mite bit better about the situation if somebody in the know had reached out with a simple courtesy call. But you didn't," he went on with a scowl, his voice dropping, "and now we have a mighty big mess to deal with." "But interstate—" "No! You have the court orders in your hand, little miss. I suggest you read them, then I suggest you talk to your superiors, then I suggest you think long and hard about why we have a crime so heinous that the federal courts have granted us jurisdiction despite clear federal crimes." Stepping closer, he finished, "Ask yourself this, Miss S-A-C: Why would both the District and Circuit Courts agree that our case supersedes the DC and federal cases? And then ask yourself what you might have done differently to avoid this situation." He spun on his heels and walked a few steps before stopping and turning back. "By the way," he said to the stunned faces that stared back, "DC Metro and the FBI are hereby prohibited from having any interaction with the victim and the suspect, as well as any witnesses, friends, family members or others with direct or tangential connections to this case. You're also prohibited from visiting any related locations, issuing or serving any warrants, speaking to investigators or other law enforcement personnel involved in this matter ... You know what? Let's make it real simple, since you people are obviously dumber than a sack of wet hair. Stay away from this case in its entirety until I say otherwise." With a glower he said, "Don't try me on this, folks, because it'll take me the blink of an eye to be back in the District Court to have you arrested for federal witness tampering, contempt, obstruction, and anything else I come up with when I reach the courthouse. Trust me, this is Texas and we don't take kindly to people hurting our kids, and that includes the incompetent fools who knew this might happen but didn't think it important enough to mention it." "In a way, you're at least partially responsible for this bullshit," Detective Weston offered with as much disgust as he could muster. "It would be a real shame if somebody revealed to the public that this boy was savagely beaten and raped because the FBI and DC Metro Police knew what Sawyer was capable of but didn't want to share that information with anybody else. Oh, and his parents already have that information, but for now we've convinced them that it would be counterproductive to publicize it." The district attorney had an unpleasant smile on his face when he offered, "Of course, I'm not sure how much longer we can convince them to sit on that information. But I suppose we'll do our best ... for now." * * * * * February 8, 2001 The pain in his head kept him nauseated and disoriented, yet The Fiend swam up from sleep toward the light of wakefulness. Before he opened his eyes, however, he became aware of a presence, perhaps more than one. Although cognizant of his location—in a hospital—and aware that things had spiraled out of control, he felt confident he could minimize the damage from this debacle once his head cleared and he had sufficient time to formulate a sound plan. Assuming the other person or persons in the room were medical staff, he slowly opened his eyes, blinking and squinting. Though when he attempted to reach up and rub the sleep from his eyes, a sharp clank halted the movement after only a few inches. He yanked his hand a few times, feeling the sharp bite of metal against his wrist with each pull, so he glanced down. Then groaned and let his head fall back. Such a simple movement had caused a great deal more pain than he had anticipated. "Good afternoon, Doctor Sawyer." The voice was gravelly and rough, deep and throaty and ... somehow menacing. With his eyes still closed, he evaluated his options, understanding the implied sneer in his title indicated the person in the room was less likely to be a hospital employee and more likely someone with law enforcement. Richard understood the precariousness of his situation from that simple greeting alone. Thus he settled his mind and cleared his thoughts, letting loose his great intellect and human understanding with the intention of mitigating whatever fallout might be in store. Again opening his eyes, he attempted to reach up with his other arm only to be met with the same clank and halt that had stayed his previous attempt with his right arm. Handcuffs, he realized. He was cuffed to the hospital bed. The Fiend let his squinting eyes wander about the room until they fell upon a squat, overweight man in a rumpled suit and askew tie, a frumpy little Native American with messy hair and a chewed cigar dangling from the corner of his mouth. Detective, he thought, then he let his eyes wander from the obvious policeman to the more dashing, taller, WASPish gentleman beside him, seated in a chair against the wall, one leg dangling over the knee of the other, hands clasped in his lap, for all the world looking as though prepared for an important business meeting. "Thirsty," he croaked. "You're on IV fluids, Doctor Sawyer. It seems you might've bumped your head and they're concerned about nausea and possible issues swallowing, so you'll have to be patient. The nurse'll be back to check on you shortly. Just as soon as we're done." That last sentence sounded ominous, threatening even, and The Fiend again reevaluated the situation. He could remember going to see The Boy, arriving at his house full of desire and need and a superior sense of accomplishment, knowing he would find Greg home alone and ripe for harvest. He also remembered the outrage at The Boy's denial based on the ludicrous emotional attachment the adolescent felt toward Richard's own son. More and more he regretted siring a child despite the reasons that made the decision sensible at the time. But more than all that, The Fiend remembered how quickly things fell apart, how his anger overrode his intellect, how he had decided taking by force what he had expected to be offered by choice had become the only path available to him. He remembered the shivering sense of guilty pleasure that accompanied overpowering The Boy and subduing him. And he remembered the primitive carnal satisfaction that came from taking and taking and taking. Then, much to his surprise, The Boy had somehow surprised him, knocked him aside long enough to attempt escape. And he remembered the television. Near the door. Moving too fast and intercepting his forward momentum and direction. Then nothing but bits and pieces. A little from the ambulance. A little from the hospital. Then a little more and a little more, all leading to the moment he now found himself in, handcuffed to a bed whilst facing down on obvious detective and one silent yet intimidating other who probably represented the District Attorney. His suit looked far too pristine and pressed and expensive to belong to a lowly cop. "Who are you?" The grin on the detective's face looked wrong, too sure, too forced, too angry. "My name's Detective Weston with the Dallas Police. And this—" He gestured to his left toward the man in the chair. "—is District Attorney Landers." Not an ADA, The Fiend thought. Clearly I need to up my game if the big man himself is here. "Is there a problem?" The Fiend asked innocently, making sure to include a hint of nervousness, a dash of curiosity, and more discomfort and pain than he actually felt. The detective scowled. "It's just a concussion, Doctor, so you can drop the act. You're only here because they wanted to keep you for observation, not because you're in mortal danger." Increasing his curiosity and mixing it with unease and confusion, Richard blinked repeatedly and settled on an expression of inquisitive discombobulation. "I'm sorry, detective. I'm not sure I know what's going on here, but I'm more than willing to help in whatever way I can." "How generous." District Attorney Landers let his words drip with disdain and incredulity, a viscous combination oozing with peril aimed right at The Fiend. Clank. Richard glanced down at his hand, securely cuffed to the bed's railing. How had he forgotten about the cuffs already? These two men and their aura of superior anger, not to mention the predatory gleam in the detective's eyes, had somehow unnerved him. "For the protection of all the other young boys in the state," the detective offered with snide distaste. "I beg your pardon?" The Fiend responded, meeting the policeman's gaze. Gesturing to the cuffs as he approached the bed, Weston explained, "The cuffs. They're there to protect the other young boys in the state." "I'm not sure I follow." "Let's cut the bullshit, Doctor. Why don't you shut your pie hole and listen. We haven't read you your rights yet, but I'm sure you know what they are and what they mean. We're not here to question you and we're not here for a confession." "We're here to make you squirm," the DA added, his voice low and smooth and all the more dangerous. A brief shake of his head made it hurt more, so The Fiend halted that the moment it started. Using that gesture to indicate confusion or lack of understanding seemed an unnecessary discomfort, as he was more than capable of manipulating these men without the benefit of non-verbal cues. "You seem to have me at a disadvantage—" "Like you had that young boy at a disadvantage?" came the sharp rebuke from the detective, eyes ablaze and lips mashed into a thin gash with the chewed cigar as its only interruption. "I don't think—" "As I said, Doctor, you might want to bite your tongue instead of letting it waggle. We're not interested in your mind games and your acting skills and whatever other tricks you have up your sleeve. We're just here to share a bit of information, then the two nice uniformed officers stationed outside your door are going to come in here, read you your rights, then babysit you until we can haul your ass downtown." Rising from the chair, Landers straightened his suit jacket, buttoned it, smoothed the front of it, squared his shoulders, then moved to join the detective standing astride the bed. His silence unnerved The Fiend, as though the man was enjoying a particularly captivating show instead of trying to intimidate a suspect. He exuded confidence, as did the cop. That did not bode well for Richard, and he knew it. Flipping through sheets of paper bound in a plan clasped folder, Weston shifted his cigar to the other corner of his mouth before saying, "You assaulted a young boy and raped him repeatedly—" "I never!" His voice increasingly tense and disgusted, the detective explained, "Your genitals were covered with his blood. Your fists, knees and the tips of your shoes were covered with his blood and his skin. You had his hair, skin and blood under your fingernails. He had your skin, blood and hair under his fingernails. Your pubic hair was found glued to his body by blood and semen. His rectum had—fucking hell—his rectum was covered with and full of your semen, and your pubic hair was found inside his rectum as well. The hospital's staff and attending physicians are ready to expertly testify as to the level of medical knowledge necessary to inflict the injuries suffered by your victim, including how those injuries are consistent with that knowledge being used to overpower someone." Falling silent, the detective glanced at the DA, who gave a small nod. Back to Richard the detective added, "And we found your fingerprints around his neck. They were perfectly matched to the strangulation bruises." "Fingerprints on skin?" "If we get to them quickly enough. And we did. In this case." "So much for do no harm," the DA growled. "Interesting enough, Doctor, the physical evidence against you is so irrefutable and incontrovertible that the victim's testimony is unnecessary for conviction. Which makes you wonder what he might have to say to add to our case." Richard grimaced. It looked like a flinch from pain in his head but it came from frustration, mostly aimed at himself. He had lost control, allowed primitive emotions to override his intellect, all because The Boy still loved his son and it so angered The Fiend that a child would deny him based on so pathetic a thing, as though love meant anything, counted for anything, when pleasures of the flesh were all that mattered. "By the way, Doctor, the FBI and the DC Metro Police are here. It appears they have some questions for you, in addition to some more bad news. But don't worry about them. We're holding them at bay for now so we can deal with this little matter first. Once we're done, we'll let them join the party." Both men, looking smug and satisfied, turned and walked toward the door. But before they reached it, the squat detective looked back. "One more thing, Doctor." The Fiend felt nauseated, and not because of the concussion. "We have forensic psychologists and psychiatrists on staff. They've already talked to your son and they've already made plans to talk to the young boy you viciously attacked. It seems, in addition to aggravated sexual battery on a minor, aggravated assault of a minor, forcible sodomy, and carnal knowledge of a minor, we'll be adding charges of coercion and enticement. What amazes me, Doctor, is that we've only been at this for a little more than three days. Makes you wonder what we'll come up with tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, or next week. Yeah, sure makes you wonder." With that, both men walked out the door as two uniformed police officers walked in, neither looking particular friendly. * * * * * April 11, 2001 "Your Honor, as you can see from the documentation submitted and the testimony provided, it behooves Child Protective Services to petition for the immediate termination of the father's parental rights. Though not physically abused, psychiatric investigation has discovered that the child has endured years of psychological and emotional abuse in addition to emotional neglect. In light of the father's incarceration and pending trials here in Dallas, in Washington DC and in federal court, we believe, in the child's longterm interests, a better home environment and familial setting will be best." "Where has he been staying since the father's arrest?" "With his best friend's family, Your Honor, as per his wishes and the wishes of the Beaumont family. This move was and is supported by testimony and evaluations as being the most appropriate environment for him." "The best friend was a victim of the father, was he not?" "Yes, Your Honor, in the criminal case pending here in Dallas." "Interesting. I see you've also petitioned this court to recognize Yvonne and Gavin Beaumont as his legal guardians, is that correct?" "Yes, Your Honor. Again, CPS believes this to be the best environment for him through the remainder of his adolescent years." "And what if the father's found innocent?" "The dispositions of those charges have no bearing on these proceedings, Your Honor. Our findings are separate from the criminal complaints." "Is there any intention of petitioning for an emancipation decree?" "No, Your Honor. That would not be in the child's best interests." "Very well. In light of the evidence and testimony, and in the boy's best interests, this court finds sufficient cause to terminate Richard Sawyer's parental rights and grant legal guardianship of Nathanial Sawyer to Yvonne and Gavin Beaumont, as per your petition, both orders effective immediately. In addition, I'm instructing Child Protective Services to continue monitoring the boy's wellbeing until such time as this court vacates its order or he reaches legal adulthood, whichever comes first, to include quarterly reports submitted to this court. It is so ordered." "Thank you, Your Honor." * * * * * August 9, 2003 "What do you mean we can't sue him? Why the hell not?" "Please, sir, calm down for a minute and let me explain." "You bet your bottom dollar you'll explain. He hurt our boy! He's gotta pay!" "Mr. Hamilton, please, take a seat." "Honey, sit down, please, and let him explain." "Fine. Explain." "There are two problems with trying to sue him in civil court. The first is that he hasn't been convicted for sexually assaulting your son. In a civil trial, you'll have to prove to the jury that he did it. Since the police have all the evidence and we can't get to it until they go to trial and reveal it, you'll have to rely on your son's testimony and only your son's testimony—" "What about all those other boys?" "You can't sue on their behalf and, without a conviction, their testimony would be irrelevant and inadmissible since it has nothing to do with your son's assault." "That boy in Texas, we can use him. He was convicted of that one, right?" "That came years after your son's assault. It doesn't help because it only shows Mr. Sawyer was capable of a crime much later in life and in another state. Besides, you can't force that kid to testify. He's still a minor and this isn't a criminal case." "Well that's a load of crap!" "Honey, please. Now, you said there were two problems." "Right. The first being you'd have to prove he did it without access to any evidence except your son's testimony. The second problem is that Mr. Sawyer, for whatever reason, put all his assets in a trust under his son's name." "What in hell does that mean?" "Honey, let him explain. Hush now, John." "What that means, Mr. Hamilton, is that, aside from his medical practice and the money necessary for living expenses, Mr. Sawyer sank all his other assets—houses, car, investments, savings—in a trust under his son's name. His parental rights were terminated years ago, so even he doesn't have access to the trust anymore. Everything's locked up waiting for his son to turn eighteen." "Then we'll sue the son!" "Honey! Absolutely not." "Why not? That's the asshole's stuff. Just because it's under the son's name, that doesn't mean we can't sue him." "Mr. Hamilton, his son is a victim of his father. You'd be suing a victim, and you'd be punishing a son for his father's crimes." "That's absurd. It's not even his money, it's his father's." "Not anymore. It belongs to his son and his father isn't involved, can't touch it, has no claims against it." "That's the craziest thing I ever heard. Of course we can sue him. It'd be like suing his estate." "No, Mr. Hamilton, it would be like suing his son, an adolescent who's also a victim. He had nothing to do with his father's activities. Taking him to court will be the fastest way to make yourself public enemy number one. Besides, you can't sue because Mr. Sawyer no longer owns the assets. The son can't even touch the assets for another year or so. Right now they're being managed by his legal guardians." "We'll sue them." "Honey! Now you're just being stupid." "Somebody has to pay!" "You're not looking for justice, are you, Mr. Hamilton?" "Of course I am!" "No, I don't think you are." "But somebody has to pay!" "Even if he's not convicted for any other crimes, he's been convicted of several crimes in Texas. He has almost a hundred fifty years of prison ahead of him without the possibility of parole." "That's not enough! He has to pay for what he did to our son! He has to pay!" * * * * * September 19, 2006 "They convicted him on all counts." Greg looked at Nate, his face blank. Nate stared back, unsure if feeling happy about the news made him a bad person. Both boys turned back to Yvonne. "But there's another trial," she added. "There's a federal case against him for transporting some of the boys over state lines." "How long did he get?" Greg asked, his voice devoid of emotion, his reaction distant and stoic. Shaking her head, again feeling anger and upset, especially seeing this cold detachment in her son, she shrugged, answered, "Almost two thousand years." "What?" Nate couldn't believe it. How was that possible? "I read that each molestation conviction is ninety-nine years, to be served consecutively, plus all the other charges with seventeen victims involved. Yeah, it came out near two thousand years." "Huh," Greg remarked. "The fucker got what he deserved, I guess." Yvonne watched her son and wondered if he'd ever be the same person he was before. Farid had said Greg was using some kind of self-deception to avoid the feelings and memories he didn't want to deal with, a potent kind of denial, and his mother felt it had somehow changed him. He wasn't unemotional or anything, but there was this strangeness to his reactions sometimes, as though he wasn't really seeing or reacting to the real world, at least not the world everyone else experienced. Very slowly, she saw Greg's hand slide across the table toward Nate, whose hand set aside his fork and slid toward Greg. Somewhere in the middle they joined hands. When both boys—Goodness, they were twenty already and she was still thinking of them as boys—when they looked at each other, there was such trust and love and affection in their eyes and expressions, and it seemed they each gained strength from the other. She loved her boys and she cherished the unique and powerful bond they shared. But still she worried for both of them. Somewhere deep inside where she seldom ventured, Yvonne feared that Richard wasn't done with her family. Not yet anyway. * * * * * March 24, 2008 "Did you hear?" Nate asked softly. He could see the answer in Greg's face when their eyes met. Nate rushed to him and wrapped him in his arms as Greg began crying, mumbling over and over, "Is it really over?" The news media had been carrying the story since it happened a few hours earlier. On his way to his federal trial, looking haggard and thin and dispirited, Richard had reached the courthouse and exited the FBI vehicle, surrounded by agents. In the underground parking garage, as they made their way toward the entrance, one of the armed guards approached them, apparently looking disinterested and casual. But when he was within ten feet of the group, he drew his weapon and opened fire, hitting The Fiend seven times before falling to the barrage of bullets the FBI agents sent in his direction. Both men died at the scene and two of the agents were wounded, though not critically. * * * * * Terrence Hamilton—Terry to his friends and family—was twelve years old when The Fiend decided the youngster was ready. The kid's torment lasted two years before Richard lost interest. Terry was Richard's youngest victim. He was also his first victim. Terry committed suicide two weeks before the guilty verdict was handed down in the second trial. That made him The Fiend's last victim as well. The guard who killed Richard that day was John Hamilton, Terry's father.
  14. February 4, 2017 Something kith and kin to anguished resignation gripped me, and in response lethargy settled in, a weariness of soul and mind and heart that, coupled with the hurt, left me barren and fatigued. Jaded. That's it. I feel jaded, just worn down and beaten and careworn with life. This must be what a haggard heart feels like, as though the death of hope is a toxin, spreading from its source and killing everything in its path. Yeah, that's it. A part of me died this morning and the rest of me is following it to the grave. Kyle and I dragged our still tired selves, along with our bags, into the house. After weeping into the Omni's nice bed linens for half an hour, I'd realized I might intercept Nate at the house, might catch him there and stop him from running away from his fear, perhaps helping him face it and conquer it. Right. I thought I'd be the knight in shining armor riding in to vanquish The Fiend and thereby save the day. Uh huh ... But it only took the garage door rising a little for me to realize his car wasn't there. That was when what little hope I had left crumbled and I began feeling numb. Sure, the unbearable pain was still there, the ridiculous amount of disappointment still churned inside me, but it all began feeling like someone else's heartache. It's called denial. You're very good at that, remember? Denying it would only carry me so far, I knew, but it would keep me running long enough not to spoil the rest of Kyle's visit. Well, not spoil it anymore than I already had. We trudged inside under the dark cloud of my torment. "He's not messy, is he?" "Nate?" I asked, though I couldn't imagine anyone else he'd ask about under the circumstances. Our rushed travel from the Omni to the house was borne of the hope that we'd find Nate there, giving us a chance to talk, hopefully to fix what seemed so terribly broken. I couldn't have lied to Kyle about what happened even if I'd wanted to, thus he knew the truth and why I'd been in such a funk all morning. Basketball Boy nodded, glancing at me. "No. Neither of us are, in point of fact. Thankfully we both share a common sense of domestic decorum, thus—" I gestured elegantly like a real estate agent showing off a property to prospective buyers. "—all neat and tidy, though cleanly lived in rather than pristine, which would be like living in a museum." I grimaced for effect. "Mom constantly reminds us to pick up after ourselves, to clean our rooms, to put our dirty dishes where they belong, all that stuff." "Of course she does. You're kids. Procreation is a messy business from start to finish." He chuckled, shaking his head. "You can take your stuff up to the guest room." "We're not going back to the other hotel?" How could I explain it? Running hither and yon trying to locate him wasn't a consideration. Since he wasn't at the house, I had no hope of reconciling with Nate, no hope of finding him now that I realized he didn't want to be found. If he'd wanted me to find him, I'd have discovered him at home. His absence spoke volumes. So staying at the house made sense to me. I needed to start packing. It behooved me to skedaddle just as Nate had, but I'd have to make mine permanent and quick, meaning I needed to get the rest of my stuff out of the house as quickly as possible. That meant going back to the hotel I'd been living in was counterproductive. "No," I responded, offering what I hoped was a dismissive shrug. Kyle knew the score, though, and his frightening ability to observe and analyze and deduce meant he saw right through the pretense. "You think he'll come back here?" His voice held a boatload of doubt with a teaspoon of promise. Another shrug. It was quickly becoming my go-to response. "Probably not. But I have things I need to do here. So ... here we stay." "Okay." He turned and headed up the stairs, his backpack swinging from one shoulder. Shunning the creeping ache in my chest and avoiding the scampering thoughts in my head, I tossed my bag and jacket on the bar and grabbed a beer from the fridge, guzzled it, grabbed another, drank half that one, then fetched the weed from the coat closet and wandered into the living room, dropping onto the couch like so much dead weight. "It's nine in the morning, man." "So?" I replied defensively, glancing at Kyle as he rounded the bottom of the staircase and approached me. "Isn't it a bit early to drink beer?" "No." I thought about leaving it at that, but for the sake of education I said, "Unless you're an alcoholic, that is. Besides, the silliness about only drinking between certain times of the day is meddlesome religion that somehow slithered its way into law." "Religion and government should never mix," he intoned, as though speaking to a child. "True that. Thus—" I waggled the half-empty bottle at him, gulped what remained, stood, and went to the kitchen for another one. Then over my shoulder: "—I don't adhere to that nonsense. If drinking in the morning was good enough for the Romans ..." "But the Roman Empire fell." "And so did I," I mumbled, grabbing another ale from the refrigerator. When I turned around, he'd already made himself comfortable on the couch. "Want one?" He glanced at me, gave it a moment of thought, then answered, "Not right now." "Want something for breakfast?" "That I'd definitely take." "Coming right up, sir." After a quick swallow of beer, I set about the business of morning nourishment. * * * * * Before she had time to get more than the first syllable of hello out of her mouth, I interrupted, "Mom, is Nate there?" I couldn't say what possessed me to call. A few too many beers? A couple of joints? Depression? Pain? A profound sense of loss? Overwhelming melancholy? Any of a number of other anguished emotional responses I was suffering? Something else entirely? Again, I couldn't say. "Listen, son of mine, give him some time and some space. You should know a little something about needing that." Ouch. Getting the smackdown from my own mother hurt like hell under the circumstances. Nothing like a deserved dose of tit for tat to amplify the symptoms of heartache. "I need to see him. I need to talk to him." I didn't sound desperate, I wasn't on the verge of tears. But no one could deny the emptiness in my voice that welled from deep within me. It gushed out in my words and my expressions and my breathing and every little thing I did. "Greg, you will not come over here and you will not bother him and you will not push him, do you hear me? And stop calling him, too." The last she added with exasperation. I huffed, not angrily so much as disgustedly. Hadn't I said pretty much the same to Nate when he kept trying to contact me after I walked out? Why did it hurt so much more when the tables were turned? Dropping my head, a deep sigh escaping my lips, I admitted defeat. "You're right. I'm being stupid and hypocritical." "You're being a selfish ass is what you're being." "Fuck, Mom, do you have to make it hurt more?" "To make sure you get the point? Probably." I sighed again. "You're right." "All I can recommend is that you step back, focus on other things, try to keep your mind occupied elsewhere. What happens will happen in its own sweet time." "Then tell me one thing." "What's that, honey?" "Is he okay? I mean, is he going to be alright?" It was her turn to sigh. Then: "Only time will tell." * * * * * "That was totally awesome!" Kyle declared, holding the joint out for me to take. "Mars Attacks! is only funny when accompanied by mind-altering accoutrements. Otherwise it's kind of tedious and silly." "Man, it was silly alright." I shook my head, deciding it was a moot point to explain my use of the word had been vastly different from his. Too emotionally drained to care and too physically tired to say more than necessities, I let it go. After tamping the roach in the ashtray, I stood and stretched. "Hitting the sack?" he asked. "Yeah. It's been a long day." Basketball Boy slowly pushed himself upright from the sofa, arched his back and stretched, groaned in a way that was pure physical satisfaction, then turned to me and said, "I guess I'm gonna head on up as well." Placing a hand on his arm to halt him, I waited for him to meet my gaze again. "Thanks, Kyle. For helping me with the furniture upstairs. For helping me move all that crap downstairs. For coming here for the weekend. For everything." "It's all good," he replied, a slight blush creeping into his cheeks, a small shrug in one shoulder. Forget it. You can give him a lesson on courtesy and graciousness later. My hand moved from his arm to his neck, gave him a slight squeeze. "No, really, Kyle, thank you. This weekend didn't turn out anything like I expected. You've been a real friend—I mean you've been a real brother to me despite all the shit. I've really enjoyed your company, your help, your support. I just wanted you to know." To my pleasant surprise, he closed the gap between us and pulled me into a hug. I hadn't realized how much I needed someone to touch me, to hold me, to make me feel like I wasn't alone. He anchored me as I temporarily lost myself in a maelstrom of emotions. That simple embrace was just the medicine I needed to get through the night. We cleaned what little mess we'd made, beer bottles in the recycle bin, weed back in the coat closet, candles extinguished. Then we both headed up to bed since he had an early flight the following morning. I stood in the doorway of Nate's bedroom pondering the wisdom of sleeping in his bed. Since Kyle had helped me dismantle mine as a prelude to my permanent exile from this phase of my life, the only other option was the couch. Nate's bed won. Dropping my clothes in a pile on the floor, I slid beneath the covers and snuggled into his pillows. And I inhaled deeply, finding myself surrounded by his smell. Yeah, I can deal with this. For just one night maybe it'll feel like the dream is real instead of dead. Maybe for just one night ... * * * * * February 5, 2017 "Remember I'm coming down there in a few weeks. You interested in hanging out and going to lunch with me and a bunch of people you don't know?" I punctuated the question with a quirky grin. Kyle met my gaze in the middle of the DFW airport terminal and drew in a deep breath. Then quietly yet confidently he replied, "I don't think that's a good idea." It felt like a punch in the gut. Suddenly I had a hard time catching my breath. The mountainous pain in my chest, thus far held in check with denial, suddenly grew too large to contain. I found it difficult to focus on the face in front of me. "What?" I felt sure I said it, but Basketball Boy just stared, his expression blank. So I tried again, putting a bit more force into my diaphragm's attempt to push air out of my lungs and through my vocal cords. "What ... what do you mean?" A look of loving sympathy spread across his face as he closed the small distance between us, his voice becoming quieter, more intimate. "I think maybe it would be good for me to have some time ... away ... from you, I mean." Yes, this hurts. I can't believe how much it hurts. "Why?" The question was little more than an exhale. You know the answer already. You kinda knew this was coming, too. His head tilted slightly to one side, almost like one does when dealing with a child who just can't seem to grasp a simple concept, though I knew he didn't mean it in a condescending way. "I need to get over you, Greg. I thought a month away helped, but coming back here and seeing you made it all explode like it'd just been waiting for a little air from you to blaze just as hot as it was when I left." "Fuck ..." I moaned. I couldn't argue with his logic. I could definitely sympathize with the emotional truth of it. Resting his hand on my arm, giving a small squeeze, he said, "We'll still talk, but not as frequently, at least not for the next little while. I think it's best if I'm away from you for a bit." "How long?" My voice was breathy. I felt like I was going to start crying. Again. "I don't know," he admitted, and that was the best and most honest answer he could've given. Dropping my head, taking a deep breath to fortify my nerves, I nodded slightly. "I understand. Better than most, I guess." Meeting his gaze again I told him, "I just wish it didn't have to be this way." His eyes glistened with unshed tears and his breathing tripped a little here and stumbled a little there. It was obvious to me he was fighting himself on this decision, his intellect saying it was the right play while his emotions screamed foul. Cupping his face, sliding my thumb across his cheek beneath his eye, I said, "Believe me, Kyle, I completely understand." "I don't want to lose you," he mumbled, "but I can't live like this either." My arms snaked around him and pulled him into me, nestling his face against my chest, rubbing his back and letting him draw some measure of strength and reassurance from me. He automatically wrapped his arms around me and held on for dear life. "It's the most adult decision you can make," I admitted. "I wish it wasn't necessary, but I truly do understand and I really think it'll help you." "I wish it didn't hurt so much," he mumbled against me before sniffling. I had no response to that. It would hurt, that much was true. It was necessary, that was equally true. It also sucked big time, which was as true as anything could be. We held each other in silence as thousands of travelers flowed around us like water around a stone. For many minutes we stood like that, unmoved by the world rushing to and fro as we focused on each other, on the moment, on the feelings. "I'm sorry your birthday weekend turned into shit." "It's all good." "I'm really sorry I told you this on your actual birthday. I feel like I just kicked your puppy." Again I shrugged. The gesture already felt mechanical, automatic. "It is what it is, Kyle." I made the words sound dismissive or disinterested or something like that. I felt nothing of the sort. "This isn't the end of us." "Of course not," I huffed. "We'll talk, I promise." "It's up to you, Kyle. I'll do anything I can for you, you know that. Whatever distance or time you need, it's all up to you." His response was quiet and profound. "Please wait for me." Finally he had to go, get through security, find his gate and board his plane. We hugged fiercely, struggled to let go, said goodbye many times more than necessary, and watched as the gulf between us grew. I could only hope it wouldn't grow into a distance too vast to overcome. Once he'd disappeared into the secure area, I headed to the house. Throughout the commute I felt like I'd left some part of me behind, perhaps a critical part now that I'd lost Nate. * * * * * Hours passed, all day in fact, considering I last saw Kyle around eight in the morning and had arrived home little more than an hour later and— No, I didn't arrive home. I arrived at the house, which isn't my home anymore. Oh, right. True that. Needless to say, I accomplished much, all of it marked with sweat and not a few tears. Despite the beer and weed I'd indulged in throughout the day, I still felt wired and rushed and pretty much like I was coked out of my mind. A big part of that, no doubt, came from the emotional urges that pulled me in too many directions. Call him, don't call him, leave it all behind, stay and try to fix it, hope for the best, there is no hope, all things end, this doesn't have to end, and on it went. That alone stretched me to the breaking point. At a quarter of eleven that night, the feverish activity of packing and cleaning and preparing to relocate ground to a halt while I mentally inventoried the furniture carefully disassembled and placed near the bedroom door, the luggage and boxes full of my life's remnants that I hadn't taken with me the first time I left, and the boxes and various other containers and bags already stacked and piled in the dining room downstairs. "Not much more," I mumbled to the empty house. Almost everything in the master suite and anything Nate didn't use would go with me. In the final analysis, it wasn't much at all, though it seemed otherwise when trying to pack and prepare all of it in one weekend. This time I'm leaving nothing behind. This part of my life is over. A little more packing tomorrow, then I'll call some movers and have everything put in storage until I figure out where to go from here. With a fire blazing in the living room and in the master suite—I could no longer call it my room—plus the heater cranked to take the edge off the winter chill, all the physical activity, including running up and down the stairs with various loads of stuff, left me sweaty and feeling gritty. Finally pausing near the sofa, I shed everything but my underwear, intending to take a shower before crashing. When I turned to grab my overnight bag from the bar where I'd unceremoniously dumped it that morning—what felt like another lifetime ago—I tried to avoid looking at the various photos on the walls. I'd already packed the portion of them that I wanted to keep. Well, I wanted to keep them all since most of them portrayed the last twenty-one years I'd shared with Nate, but I knew he'd want them as well, so it behooved me to take a selection of them while not taking everything with significance. Damn it, they're all significant! You know what I mean. Even as I tried not to look at it, one photo drew my gaze nonetheless. It was the large glass print of Nate and I when we vacationed on the Spanish island of Ibiza. A local photographer discovered us on the beach as we frolicked and laughed and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves with nary a concern. The camera had caught us in a moment of intense levity, me holding Nate in my arms as I prepared to carry him into the water, both our faces aglow with gleeful eyes and mirthful expressions and laughing smiles that seemed to indicate limitless potential and a bottomless reservoir of love. It'd always been my favorite image. When my blind spot was in full force, the picture simply reminded me of the greatest relationship I'd ever have and of the greatest man I'd ever know. Once the blind spot fell, the picture became a symbol of hope because it looked so much like a couple powerfully in love and always in the throes of joy and abandon so long as they were together. Like a venerated religious artifact to the faithful masses, I carefully and reverentially took the image from the wall and held it before me, letting light from the kitchen fall on it and through it and over it. Beautifully printed on blemish-free glass, it was breathtaking and heartbreaking and moving and touching and so many other things. I was functioning on less sleep than I required, more emotional turmoil than I could handle, little food, too much booze and too much pot, and an overabundance of time spent in my own head. To say I was wiped out would be to understate matters. Though I needed to shower and hit the sack—I intended to rise early so I could hopefully finish my task and leave before Nate came home—I decided to lie on the couch for a few moments, just a minute or two, just long enough to rest my creaky bones and tender muscles and tortured heart. Hugging the picture to my chest, I settled on the sofa and closed my eyes. Just for a minute or two ... * * * * * "You look so tired and beaten, G-Man." I didn't wake to the sound of the garage door rising, the car entering and parking, the kitchen door opening, or both it and the garage door closing. I didn't wake to the sound of keys and wallet and jacket and cell phone laid quietly on the bar. I didn't wake to the sound of footsteps moving from the kitchen's tile to the dining room's hardwood to the living room's carpet. I didn't wake when a body settled on the couch where I slept, hips nudging against my waist. I didn't wake when steady careful hands slid the glass photograph from under my arms and set it silently on the coffee table. No, none of that woke me. "What have I done?" Sadness can be consuming, taking from us so many different things, be it our sanity, our hope, our peace, our comfort, our health, our anything. Including our rest. Which was why I slept through the noises and activities that should've elicited consciousness. I'd been sleepwalking since I read that letter at the Omni, a heartbroken somnambulist stumbling and mumbling through life, trying to look normal whilst feeling dark and pained and unaware and disinterested. So it didn't surprise me that sadness made sleep a deeper and vaguer world, troubled and fitful and not the least bit restful, truly a little death to add to the bigger one I was suffering. "Why's all your stuff ... Oh fuck." What pulled me inexorably and reluctantly from the depths of uneasy and haunted slumber was the hand against my face, the thumb stroking my cheek, the touch as light as a zephyr. The undeniable gentleness and warmth of that hand drew me up from the abyss. "I've really messed up, haven't I?" Physical touch had always been my language of choice, a way to express emotions—especially love. That I'd taught Nate how to speak the same way didn't surprise me; that I needed him to speak to me in that way made my sense of loss all the worse. He was the only other person on the planet fluent in my mother tongue. "I know we've always been able to fix what's broken, but I don't know if this can be fixed." As I climbed upward from the chasm, the soft words that didn't register in my mind as words so much as inaudible whisperings meant for someone else's ears began taking shape. Coupled with the emotion and care hidden in the soft susurrus, the touch began telling me things I refused to accept, thus I refused to open my eyes, refused to acknowledge consciousness, refused to indicate my wakefulness. Instead, I kept my eyes closed, tried to keep my breathing regular, and plotted my quickest escape. "You're so fucking beautiful. You've always been so beautiful." Even in sleep, my semi-eidetic mind recorded any words and numbers my senses absorbed. This oft times left me wondering where certain tidbits came from, having overheard a telephone conversation or television program or radio show while I slept. But not in that moment, not while I struggled to look like slumber incarnate even as the hand on my face and the whisperings in my ear beckoned to me. "I know you're awake. Please just listen to me, G-Man." My eyes fluttered open, the light from the kitchen—which I accidentally left on—stinging enough to make me squeeze them shut for a moment before trying again. The sight that filled my vision when finally I could see was Nate sitting on the edge of the sofa, his face weary and distressed, his eyes bloodshot and hollow. He wore the same clothes he'd worn to the party Friday evening, except they looked slept in, wrinkled and rumpled and untidy. Only a peripheral observation caught that his beautiful seafoam shirt hung unbuttoned and open and dangling from one shoulder, as though he began undressing on the way in from the garage. Under different circumstances I'd have let my eyes consume every inch of exposed skin, let my imagination toy with all the things I wanted to do to that bare muscular torso. But such flights of fancy had no place in our new world, probably never again. When I met his gaze, he stared back with such a profound sense of loss and love that it immediately brought me to tears. "What time ..." I muttered. "Almost midnight," he answered softly. "Happy birthday, G-Man," he added in a tone that oozed sadness and regret. "I almost missed it. And I really messed up your weekend. I'm sorry." Too much ... I can't do this. It's too much. "Shhh ... It's okay, Greg. You're the strongest man I know. You can do anything." I pushed myself up on my elbows, meaning to crawl off the couch and get the hell out of the house. I never intended to be there when he came home. I didn't want the unpleasantness, the discomfort, the awkward silence, the painful reminder of what we lost to The Fiend. Or, rather, what we stupidly sacrificed to him. "I'll leave," I croaked, hoarse with sleep and emotion. "I'll finish ..." I glanced around trying to understand how much more work I had left. "I'll finish some other time," I mumbled in surrender. Nate's hand slid from my face to my chest, fingers splayed. His touch felt like fire burning against my bare skin, such affectionate tenderness as he stopped my rickety movement. "No," he responded in a hushed tone. His eyes never left mine, such kindness and sorrow mixed in them. "You look like shit. Have you even slept since the other night? Have you eaten? Fuck, what have I done?" "I look like shit because I feel like shit," I mumbled. "Sleep's hard to come by and not restful when I find it. I don't have much of an appetite. As for what you've done, I suppose it's what you thought you had to do and I'm in no position to question or comment on that." A single tear escaped his control and made its way slowly down his cheek. I could see his muscles dance as he dispatched it with a dismissive rub. I pushed forward or up or sideways, which I couldn't tell. I only knew that I meant to get off the couch and out of the house. "You need to stay. I need to talk to you." When he gently pushed against my chest, I fell back, listless and dispirited. I had neither the energy nor the inclination to argue the point. There was a deep thrumming ache in the center of my being that seemed to pulse throughout my entire body with every heartbeat, until even my bones felt tired and sore. If he wanted to shoot off more painfully barbed rejections, I was in no condition to force my way out of the line of fire. And to be brutally honest with myself, I had no interest in dissuading him from trying. I might never see him or talk to him again after I moved the last of my things out of the house, thus the selfish part of me knew I would tolerate whatever dashed hopes and immortal wounds this chat might cause just so I could have one last moment with the other half of my soul. I settled back on the sofa. Nate shrugged his shirt off the one shoulder it dangled from before reaching down and grabbing my hand, placing it flat against his chest, right over his heart, pressing his own hand against it to hold it in place. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping to capture and contain the tears welling there. I failed miserably. Wetness spread from my eyes down my cheeks, down the sides of my face, down my neck. "Don't cry. Oh my precious Greg, please don't cry!" He leaned down and kissed the tears from my cheeks, from my closed eyelids, his thumb lightly stroking my face while he squeezed my hand and held it against him. Then he gently kissed my lips, a slow joining that had no pressure or lust or desire in it, just comfort and love. "Please don't cry, G-Man," he whispered against my face. His hand slid down along my neck to my chest, coming to rest over my erratically pounding heart, his fingers lightly massaging my fevered skin. "It hurts me so much to see you cry. It hurts even worse to know I made it happen. Please, G-Man, please don't cry." Nate let his lips brush against mine again, only the slightest touch, as light as air yet heavy with emotion. I shivered, almost jerked away, almost turned my face to avoid what must surely be goodbye. I'd had quite enough pain in the last few months and I couldn't take more, especially not from him. Sitting upright, still holding my hand to his chest, pressing it tight against him, he admitted in a hushed tone, "I'm a coward. I ran when I should've stayed. But instead I ran because I was overwhelmed with fear. I took the coward's way out instead of manning up and facing you like you faced me." There was such misery in his eyes, such sorrow. How much more pain would we accept from a dead man? I wondered. How much more can Richard hurt us from the grave? "I don't know how to fix what's broken," he continued. "I don't know how to move beyond this fear of losing you. I don't know what to do." As he spoke, I was only vaguely aware of his hand over my heart. His fingers began gently and slowly moving in tiny circles and patterns against my bare skin, raising goosebumps and chills. He seemed so lost that I doubted he was aware of it. "You had the balls to face me and tell me when you were leaving. You cared enough and were man enough to look me in the eyes and say why you thought you had to leave and to explain the feelings and thoughts that made you reach that conclusion. "Me? I wrote you a Dear John letter and went slinking out while you slept. Now tell me that's not cowardice." "Fear is a powerful motivator, Nate." My voice was shaky, uncertain, stinking of emotional decay and dead hope and gangrenous wounds that would never heal. "Don't make excuses for me, G-Man," he whispered. Then somewhat louder he continued, "Please don't do that, don't try to make me feel better for doing what I did. It was selfish and it was hurtful and it spit in your face while mocking everything we've ever felt for each other, everything we've ever shared, everything we've ever faced together. You showed courage and honored our relationship and demonstrated unflinching love, but I insulted you and I insulted us and in the dead of night I ran like a scared child so no one would see me fleeing in panic. And why was I fleeing? Because that's what Richard taught me to do." The last he spat with disgust, some of it aimed at himself. Nate released my hand so he could wipe the tears from his face. As my hand came to rest against his bare skin, it began a slow slide downward, a soft stroke over his nipple and around his pectorals, gently coming to rest just above and to the right of his navel. I glanced down at it, as if it belonged to someone else, and I ordered my eyes back to his when I flattened my hand against his hot skin and started gliding my thumb back and forth over the ridges of his muscles. "Mom said she thought Richard's damage had been the greatest on your fifteenth birthday, but after all this she said he'd left a bomb that didn't go off until fifteen years later, a bomb that inflicted more damage than anything he could've done physically. She cried, G-Man, literally cried and said she didn't think it was possible but she hated him more now than she ever had. She cursed him and swore she'd spit on his grave if she ever cared to visit it. "And that's the point, isn't it? He's been dead for more than ten years yet we're still wallowing in the muck he left behind, still empowering him by soiling ourselves with the shit he threw at us years and years ago." Dropping his face and shaking his head, he whispered, "You were right, what you said while we were dancing. We've wasted a lot of years and we've let him take so much from us. We're the only ones who can stop him from hurting us anymore. Only I couldn't see it, or maybe I was too scared to see it. I ran because he taught me to fear what we could be, taught me to fear what I felt for you, taught me to fear until all I knew was fear." His whole hand had started moving. The caress was light and minor, but I felt it, especially when he'd barely graze my nipple, a button wired directly to my libido and my cock. Highly erogenous zones, he never quite touched it with pressure enough to elicit anything more than a minor shudder, a tremor so low on the Richter scale as to be ignored by all. Except me. After a deep, unsteady breath, his eyes leaped to mine but then immediately dropped to hungrily take in my bare torso. Then they jumped to his hand, which stilled, before returning to my face. Unshed tears glistened in the deep pools of his dark brown eyes and a kind of horrified sorrow at self-inflicted wounds showed clearly in his expression. "My only true emotional bond, outside of family, is with you. That's why I never connected with any of those women. Deep down inside I didn't want to and didn't think I needed to, deep down inside I couldn't. I already had the connection that mattered most, the connection I always wanted and never had to look for because it came to me." In a hushed voice he added, "You came to me, G-Man. That first day of school you came to me." I didn't know where this was going. Was it goodbye? Was it a way to excuse running out on me that night? Was it an attempt to walk himself through understanding why we could never be together? Was it something else? I honestly didn't know. When his tongue sneaked out to wet his dry lips, my eyes snapped to the motion, then my teeth clamped down on my bottom lip as my gaze climbed back to his. In time to see his eyes move to my eyes from my lips. Which made me lick my lips as a kind of test. He glanced down at my tongue until it disappeared. Unbeknownst to him, at least as far as I could tell, his hand had once again started massaging my chest, lazy caresses with his fingers and slow swipes with his palm. Because he sat facing the kitchen, thus the light, I realized his pupils were dilated and he had an unusually provocative look about him. In a voice low and lazy he explained, "See, Greg, I was so scared of losing you that night because I'd admitted how I felt. So after an hour or two, when you changed positions, I woke up enough to panic. And then I ran. I was scared of losing you so I abandoned you." My hand slid up his torso of its own volition, or perhaps with a little help from me, and slowly caressed his chest, not to elicit arousal but to offer comfort. "Nate ..." "I'm tired of being scared, Greg. I'm tired of living in fear. Mom said I could either let Richard win or I could take action to stop him. She said I was the one handing him his last victory, on a silver platter no less, so it was all up to me." My mouth opened a few times, closing silently because I didn't know what to say. Then I realized we were reliving Friday night, the dancing and kissing, the admissions, and in the end, the heartache. Though it pained me to do so, I quietly told him, "I can't do this anymore, Nate. You know how I feel. You say you feel the same and then leave me a letter that cuts me a thousand times. This is killing me. If you really know how I feel about you, then you know what I want. If you want the same thing ..." I shrugged, at a loss for words. "I want it, too," he whispered huskily, his dark eyes soft and troubled. "But it scares the shit out of me. If I screw this up, I lose you forever. Like I told you, I don't think I can survive that." Dropping his head again, a lone tear falling into oblivion, he shrugged then moaned, "I don't know what to do." Nate lifted his face and his eyes held such love, such hurt, such conflict, yet still he reached out and ran the backs of his fingers down my cheek. I shut my eyes and turned into the touch. Waves of fiery heat and gentle warmth spread from his hand on my cheek and his hand on my chest, emotional turmoil made manifest by the physical want and hurtful regret he seemed to pour into me through his touch. Sliding my hand from his chest to beneath his arm and grabbing his shoulder with the other, I gripped him and pulled him toward me, wanting nothing more than to wrap my arms around him and hold him, probably for the last time. He nestled his face against my neck while sliding his legs up and tangling them with mine. I could feel a tear or two as they fell on my skin. He shook, breathed heavily, and did his best to wrap me in his arms and hold me close. "I don't want to lose you," he murmured, his lips tickling my throat, his breath warm and moist against my skin. "So where does that leave us?" My voice was husky yet uncertain. His head pivoted slightly and his shoulders rose and fell. So that's it, I guess. We've come full circle. The thought made me squeeze him tighter, spreading my legs so he could settle between then. I turned my head slightly so his would fit more comfortably against me. Which placed his lips just below my ear. Nate inhaled deeply, exhaled, inhaled slower and deeper as he pressed his face against my skin. We've been here before. It didn't end well. He took me by surprise when he licked at that spot just below my ear, the one he'd discovered the first time we messed around with each other, when we'd gone slow in an exploratory introduction to each other's body. I felt certain he remembered where my buttons were and how they worked. When his tongue swirled and teased the tender flesh, fire shot through my body, causing my hips to buck and my cock to harden. I might have moaned, too. Yeah, that was definitely a moan. His teeth nipped the moist skin, catching it lightly, and a blaze roared to life inside me. "What are you doing?" I groaned, turning my head further to increase his access and grinding my crotch into his. He's hard. Fucking hell. I gasped and cried out when he began sucking blood to the surface, right there in that spot, right there where it lit a fire that shot down to my cock, spreading from there to every part of my body, every intimate and erogenous part that suddenly felt very much aware. "Nate ..." He kept sucking—I was going to have one hell of a hickey, and it'd be impossible to hide—his tongue flicking against the skin and his teeth nipping lightly. Everything he did sent tendrils of flame through my body. I can't breathe. I can't think. Oh hell, am I making those desperate noises, those whimpers? My fingers clawed at Nate's back, trying to pull him into me even as I anchored myself to him, not wanting to lose myself in this, not wanting to make it more than goodbye sex, a pity fuck, a moment of weakness that'd end too soon, whatever. More oxygen. I need more oxygen. I'm gonna pass out. With a wet pop he came off my neck. He actually fucking growled, the rumble passing from his body into mine, shaking me to my core. When he blew gently against the wet, tender flesh, I shivered, moaned, lost my mind. "Nate ... Why ... Fuck ..." His weight lifted, vanished, though I was kind of maybe sort of aware of activity on the couch, my body possibly vaguely perhaps registering slight movement and bounces passing from the cushions into my back. Then a quick yank near my waist and cool air shocked me when it hit my exposed crotch. He just took my underwear off me. What the fuck is happening? Still struggling to breathe, my eyes fluttered open in time to see his face above mine, his expression soulful and wanting and ... something else. Lust, sure, but something else was there, some kind of determination or purpose. I grabbed his head and pulled him to me. Unlike all the times before when I'd kissed him, I didn't hold back on this one. My tongue dove into his mouth and I opened myself to him, let the kiss fill with all my needs and wants and feelings, let it say what needed to be said. His strength failed under the onslaught and he collapsed on top of me. Everywhere his skin touched mine, more fires started, more heat, more flames, more passion. Gripping the back of his head with a near painful hold, my other hand slid down his back, feeling the muscles ripple and flex. Just when I reached his ass, hoping to slide my hand beneath the fabric, his knees buckled and an explosion went off in my crotch as I simultaneously grabbed a handful of bare flesh and a fiery bar of pure heat landed against my cock. "Fuck ..." I groaned. He's naked. He stripped while I was incoherent. Fuck me running, what's gotten into him? I ground myself against him as he reciprocated, moaning into my mouth as our tongues danced and dueled. Nate wrenched himself away from my mouth, his face hovering just above mine. We breathed from each other, stared at each other, panting and looking. "You were in denial before," he whispered. "And I was scared shitless. We never had a chance those two times." "What about ... what about now?" He grinned, a cocky grin that couldn't hide his nervousness or his love or his desire. Or his fear. His dark eyes smoldered despite the nerves and apprehension, clear and desirous and intent. His mouth opened a few times but no words came forth. Obviously he didn't have an answer. Instead of putting too much thought into it, he dropped to my left, the side of my neck he hadn't already ravaged, his lips landing on the skin just below my ear. Fuck yeah he remembers where all my buttons are. "Nate ... Aaah ..." His teeth grabbed a bit of flesh, held it snug, his tongue lapping at my skin. Then his lips sucked at the tender spot and once again fires burned bright, flames flashing through me. I writhed and bucked and felt my whole body heat up until I began sweating with feverish intensity. Unlike the first time, he released me quickly, no doubt still leaving a hickey, albeit a smaller, less angry mark. But still ... he'd marked me. Again. As I struggled to breathe, light kisses rained down on my nose, my cheeks, my forehead, my eyelids, my lips. Then he was gone, settling between my legs, spreading them so he could sit back on his haunches, his dark brown eyes devouring me from top to bottom. "Nate, why?" I bit my lip, not sure why I asked or why it mattered. If I could have him just this once, this one time with a clear mind so I could feel both emotionally and physically, wouldn't that be worth it? Wouldn't that be the best goodbye? "I've never thought a man attractive ... except you," he whispered with too much awe to keep me from blushing. Profusely. "I need this. I need to know." "Know what?" My voice was breathy, hushed, throaty. Rather than answering, he leaned forward and kissed me, brief and potent, then began licking and kissing and nibbling along my body. My head feel back and I moaned, enjoying his exploration. He expertly hit each nipple only briefly, knowing that was a sure way to push me over the edge. Groans and moans and shivers erupted from me almost continuously, not just from the pleasure of his mouth, tongue and teeth, but also from the overwhelming emotions I felt knowing this time was different, this time we both knew damn well what we felt, this time we both knew ... that maybe it was the last time we could be together. Not wanting to move too quickly, I reached down and grabbed Nate, pulling him up to me so we could trade kisses while our hands roamed and wandered. Though the skin we felt wasn't foreign, the moment was, alive with what hadn't existed the first two times we'd done this. Thigh to thigh and chest to chest, we writhed against each other. More fire, more heat. He grunted when I moved my hips so I could push my cock against his. The shiver that went through him made me tremble. "Fuck ..." he groaned when I snaked a hand between us and gripped us both together. He jerked into my hand and gasped. Two hot velvet rods slick with sweat and precum slid through my fist. My arm slid from between us, leaving Nate writhing and pressing in his search for friction. I grabbed his thighs and gave a tug. When his head snapped up, his eyes not quite so clear and a great deal less uncertain, I nodded in answer to his silent question before giving his thighs another tug. I wanted it. So badly. His hands went to the arm of the sofa and pushed, lifting his upper body as he slid his hips forward, graceful and smooth. Once he knelt across my chest, looking down with anticipation and worry, I ran my hands up his bare torso as I gazed longingly at his cock. Although not as large as mine, it was big and thick and uncut, the foreskin pulled back just enough to show the dripping tip, the covered head swollen. It was straight and dark and thick and long and beautiful and Nate's ... Fuck yes, it was Nate's, and that's all that really mattered. I have a dildo that size. And the same color, too. It's my favorite. Just a coincidence, I'm sure. His head fell back as he grabbed my hands, guiding them across his taught skin and trembling muscles. One he stopped over a nipple and the other he drew up to his face, rubbing against it with feline intensity. Heat radiated off him, especially his crotch, and his smell—that heavenly and intoxicating smell—mixed with a muskiness that made me shiver. I could spend the rest of my life with that smell and never miss another scent. When I pinched his nipple, his body shook and his hips bucked forward. I captured the head of his cock with my lips during the unexpected thrust. Closing my lips around it, I sucked, swirling my tongue around the head and into the foreskin, probing and massaging. And I was quite aware of the warm fluid that spread onto my tongue when I applied pressure against his slit. I'd never forget that taste, nor would I ever enjoy another quite as much. "Fuck ... Greg ..." Did he just whimper? Holy fucking hell but was that the sexiest sound in the world. Well, at least at this moment. I'd really like to see if I can get him to make some other sounds, see if maybe something might sound even sexier. Not the best position for sucking dick, lying back on the couch, I did my best anyway, curling myself forward, head off the armrest, taking more of him into my mouth. He was too thick and too rigid and my angle too shallow for me to get more than half of him inside before the helmeted head ran into the top of my throat. I'd never get him in further like this, though I really wanted all of him. Instead of impaling my brain on his shaft, I let my tongue do some of the work my throat couldn't by wiggling and pressing it against the underside. Just because I could, I swallowed repeatedly around the head. Nate collapsed, shaking as with palsy, groaning next to my ear, his hands saving him from going over the end of the couch. Which would've been funny but highly disappointing. I grabbed the base of his cock, using my own spit to lube it as it extended the reach of my mouth, both working in concert. He groaned again, a broken, hitched sound that came in sequence with his body's spasms. Then a major disappointment when Nate gently slid backward, pulling himself from my mouth. His ragged breathing was deep and desperate against my head, his tremors beautiful. I tried to keep stroking with my hand but he moved back again, out of my reach. Before I could complain, he muttered a "fuck" under his breath, then he captured my mouth with his. Even as we kissed, he slid further down, stretching his body out again, his cock leaving a trail of my spit and his fluid. He settled between my legs again and slid away from my lips. Kissing and nibbling and licking, he made a direct line from my face to my cock. "Nate ..." I groaned. He didn't have a lot of experience with that particular activity, all of it learned from me the two times we'd messed around with each other. But I wasn't worried about that. No, I was concerned I was too wired to survive too much attention there. Besides, I wanted to know. I had to know. If he could take me to the one place I'd never been able to visit since Richard. Only Nate had been able to rim me without pushing me toward panic and only Nate had been able to finger me without causing terror. But I wasn't so stupid as to assume that those two accomplishments equated to achieving the unmentionable. He bobbed a few times, struggling with my size, grazing me once with his teeth, emitting a light gag when he pushed down too far and too fast. Even if he puked on me, though, the idea of what he was doing was enough to push me toward orgasm, let alone the feeling of it. Gently grabbing his head and pulling him up, he faced me long enough for me to beg, "Please ..." He looked as surprised as I felt, but I echoed, "Please ... Nate ..." "Are you sure?" he whispered, reverent and respectful, even a bit unsure. "Please ..." If we failed, it wouldn't do any more harm to us than we'd already done, so I had to know, we had to try. And though I wasn't religious, I prayed to every god I'd ever studied from every religion ever mentioned in every history class I ever took, asking each and every one of them to grant me this one thing. Nate took me into his mouth again, working me as best he could. I felt his tremors, his worry. But I also felt his finger probing my hole, rubbing in gentle circles, slight pressure causing more fires erupting inside me. Yet he didn't try to penetrate me. Instead he focused on fanning the flames with touches and teases. My legs shook, both nerves and want, both fear and love. I dropped my head back and moaned as he worked my cock in his mouth, inexpertly yes, but still the best I'd ever had because it was him, it was Nate, and this time we knew what the fuck we were doing, though maybe not why. Don't question it. Just let it happen. Enjoy it in case it's farewell. When he hummed around my cock at the same time he worked directly against my hole, I bucked and whimpered, melting in the heat. He came off my cock with a wet plop, then licked down the shaft to my balls, giving them only cursory treatment as I begged and writhed. At that point I didn't care about anything else other than the possibility that he could do something for me that no one had been able to do before. At least not forcefully. Nate's strong hands settled beneath my thighs and lifted them, more his strength than my participation. Nerves began firing off, some of fear, some of desire, some of primitive want, and some of anticipation. "Nate ... Please ..." I reached down and grabbed behind my knees, pulling my legs back to ease his access. Why am I begging so much? Um, because it's Nate. And because maybe, just maybe, he can do this for you. Yeah, those were two very good reasons to beg. He'd never done anything anal before we hooked up those two times. He'd never considered it. But I think maybe he had thought about it, at least now I think that given what I know about his feelings. Because he never blinked when I walked him through rimming and fingering me those two times, never even looked askance at the idea. No, Nate had followed my instructions and guidance without hesitation. I think he enjoyed the activities as much as he enjoyed what it did to me. There'd been an innate pleasure in his approach, and an inherent desire to bring pleasure, though I hadn't recognized it at the time. Damn blind spot! Damn Richard! Without pause, his tongue traced down from my balls and began swirling around and teasing my opening, fanning the fire within me to a heightened blaze, sending heat along my nerves until every part of me felt the flames. He kept probing then backing off, probing then backing off, each time using a little more pressure. And he never released my cock, stroking it with a firm grip but not enough speed to make me orgasm. Yeah, he remembers what I like. I was thrusting toward him, trying to get more of his tongue into me, trying to move his hand faster. "Nate, please!" A hoarse whisper. Maybe I meant whimper, but whatever. And so he went at me, bombarding my hole with a jackhammer of tongue jabs, his hand twisting around the head of my cock, this thumb inside my foreskin as he swiped and circled the tip. "Nate ... Fuck ..." I approached the edge without realizing it, pressure building, body shaking, head lolled back and mouth agape and mind clouded and Nate working me like a master musician works an instrument. He was pushing all the right buttons and I was going to fall. A few errant white explosions fired off behind my closed eyelids. It was enough to make me realize he had to stop, he had to stop right then or it would end before it began, I'd tip over the edge before I knew. I dropped my legs enough to wrap them around his head, enough to pull him forward, away, off, to make him stop. "Oh fuck ..." he muttered, his hands resting on my legs, feeling my tremors, seeing the lost look on my face, my struggle to breathe, the shuddering back and forth of my head, my eyes squeezed shut. "I'll stop. I'm sorry." "No," I groaned. He misunderstood the signals. Even as I tried to claw my way back to sanity, even as I tried to control my breathing so I didn't hyperventilate, I told him, "Too close. Too much. Please, Nate, I need you ... I need you in me. Please make me feel." One arm fell, dangling off the side of the couch, gesturing vaguely toward the floor. "Lube," I mumbled. Then: "Jeans. Pocket." "I need a condom." "No. Please no. I need to feel you, Nate, please." "But—" "Please. I trust you, Nate. Please do this for me. I want you inside me, all of you, start to finish." Slight movement at the end of the couch didn't draw me back fast enough, didn't interest me. Rustling on the floor beside the couch didn't seem important. Then came the crinkling of the lube packet, the tearing of plastic. That very much interested me. I glanced down to meet Nate's gaze, his dark brown eyes gentle and attentive and thoughtful and concerned. "Are you sure?" he said quietly. "Yeah." I didn't sound so sure, so I tried again. "Yes. Please, Nate, please make love to me." The glow that erupted in his features looked of divine origin, the lust in his eyes diminished only insofar as love filled them. "I'll try to make you feel good, G-Man." His voice trembled, probably with nervousness as much as worry. This could blow up in our faces. Quickly. "I'm burning up, Nate. Please ... Too much too quickly. Please, I don't know how long I can hold on ..." With such soft strength that it felt like love, he slipped his hands under my legs, prompting me to lift them. I grabbed them again, pulling them back, exposing myself to him, granting him access to the most intimate part of me. The coolness of the lube caused me to jerk a little as he spread it across my hole, working it around and over, then he pushed a slick finger against me, the pressure slight and growing until it slipped inside. My head feel back and my hips bucked. There might have been a sound coming from my throat, although I wasn't sure. Nate worked me open, in and out, twisting, helping me relax. He murmured quietly, knowing his voice would help, knowing his voice might make all the difference in the world. "Relax for me, G-Man. I'll take care of you." Then two fingers followed by soft kisses to the insides of my thighs, my ass. "Open up for me, Greg. That's it, relax and open for me." His fingers sank inside until they could sink no further, at which point he began scissoring and curling them, stretching me and touching my most sacred places, hitting the buttons no one else could touch. Fire. A lot more fire, flames flickering and spreading, racing from his penetration to every corner of my body. A wildfire blazing out of control. Nate quickly located my prostate, drumming his fingers against it, then stroking it, them drumming against it again. I jerked and shook, trembled and shivered, sweat drenching me, and every touch was a new burst of flames, every stroke lighting a new match. Fireworks. White fireworks behind my clenched eyelids. My brain sizzling in the heat, thought burning away. Hot. I'm too hot. I can't breathe. It's too hot to breathe. A third finger. More drumming, more stroking, more stretching. "Please ..." I couldn't tell if I said it, so I tried again, forcing air out of my lungs and through my vocal cords, yet still a broken blast of breath carried nothing more than a whimper. "Please ..." I finally said. Everything was on fire, every part of me, and it was flowing from Nate's hand into my ass and out from there, spreading, wild, uncontrolled, consuming. "Too much ... Not enough ... Fuck ..." Moving my head from side to side didn't find any cooler air, didn't find a way to breathe that didn't include heat and fire and more fireworks exploding inside my head. Then it eased away, his fingers eased out, the fires dimmed, maintained, didn't grow. And the fireworks stopped. A light kiss, gentle and loving. "Talk to me, G-Man." His face was blurry, hanging in the air above me, concerned yet very much wanting to give me what I wanted, very much full of love. And fear. I wrapped my arms around him, trembling and limp arms with no strength, barely able to interpret the fuzzy commands from my befuddled brain. "Please, Nate." I couldn't stop shaking, and I felt a tear streak down the side of my face into my ear. I didn't care. "Please," I pleaded, rocking forward enough to kiss him, a quick peck since I hadn't the strength or control to do more. "Shhh. I gotcha, G-Man," he whispered against my lips before kissing me, deep and passionate and oh so very tender. His body moved a tiny fraction and I felt him, there, against me, large and fiery hot against my hole where I burned brighter and faster and out of control, my heart hammering in the heat and my body trembling. "Relax," he whispered into my ear, his breath cool and moist against the flames of my being. My fingers dug into his back and he applied pressure, a slow and increasing pressure, each little bit fanning the flames and sending sparks on the wind of my soul to start yet more fires, to burn me, to send me over the edge ablaze and drenched in the fuel of my downfall. Nate pushed a little more, his lips dropping kisses light as snow along my ears and cheeks and eyelids and forehead and, finally, lips. Then he popped in and a strangled whimpering stuttering cry was ripped from me and I held on tighter and dug into his back deeper and pulled him closer and wrapped my legs to force him deeper and fire so much fire and I was going to die a fiery death of glory as he pushed slowly into me. "Breathe, G-Man, please just breathe," he whispered against my lips, then against my ear, then against my face and my neck and everywhere his lips traveled he told me to breathe and relax and he pushed in and in and deeper and the fires blazed and the heat increased and I shuddered and trembled and shivered and moaned and cried out to him stop give me more deeper I can't do it please oh please I'm going to burn and he set me afire and kept pushing and kept penetrating so very slowly until the friction burns burst into flames and more white fireworks exploded behind my eyelids and I knew I'd surely die. Inch by inch he penetrated, gyrating his hips carefully to help me feel him everywhere inside, and deeper and deeper he went into my body, and every inch made more fires and every gyration fanned the flames and every touch and every kiss and every bit more of him inside me felt hotter and more dangerous and all I could see were specks of white like so much snow filling my vision from a fusillade of fireworks. "Full ..." I mumbled. "So full ... Please, Nate. Please make love to me." I tightened my grip around his back and thought he'd stop breathing from the pressure and if he moved even a little I'd explode apart from the fire and the heat and the unending fireworks in my head. So I wrapped my legs tighter around his waist and pulled him in further because I needed it and I'd die in the flames a happy man and I couldn't feel anything except him and the heat and the pleasure that was so overwhelming. He eased out slowly, raking the embers of his penetration into pyres of joy and blazes of feeling and then he slowly pushed back in all the way and so deep he was at the very core of me where the fire burned so bright because he was there and I was there and this was the man I needed and wanted and he could make me feel and I knew I could never get enough and I was burning and burning burning burning. Nate's body undulated with serpentine precision and he was in and out and in and out at an increasing pace and I was too hot and couldn't breathe and moved my face looking for air only to find the scorch of his lips and tongue and his lungs filling mine and I begged and writhed and bucked and the fireworks exploded until there was nothing but fireworks to see. His size and angle were perfect, striking a spark each time he penetrated and retreated as he rubbed against my prostate and hit the nerves that started fires and increased the friction as his bare cock touched me inside where no one had been since Richard hurt me so much and I needed him there always and forever to keep me lit and burning. As his body rippled with each stroke in and out, his washboard abs slithered along my cock, pressing it between us. Too much. I can't hold on. I'm lost in this. I've never felt such absolute pleasure before and I'm going to burn up the first time and it was worth it. "Stay with me, G-Man." More kisses, my face burning where he touched. "Stay right here, G-Man, and we'll feel together." He pistoned in and out, deep and deeper and deepest, and the blaze was too big and too out of control and too hot and I only saw fireworks. "Too much ... Oh fucking hell ... Nate!" I couldn't hold on anymore. He was too sweaty or I was too weak or I'd already become lost in all of it and blinded by the smoke from the fires that kept burning and I was so hot and he wasn't fucking me hard and fast but making love to me with a tempo that was beyond perfect and beyond sensual and beyond loving and his kisses never ended and his whisperings kept blowing oxygen on the flames. My hands slipped from his back, settling on his hips simply because that's where they fell. I couldn't use him as my anchor anymore because I couldn't hold on anymore. It was too much. I was going to fall over the edge because it was too much and the fires were too hot and all of me was burning. I couldn't tell him it was too much, I couldn't tell him it was perfect, I couldn't tell him anything because the fireworks had overwhelmed my brain and my synapses had overheated and I was lost in the fire and no words could do justice or make sense or form or ... That was when he reached between us and grabbed my cock firmly around the head, twisting and stroking, using my foreskin in concert with his grip to light a new fire with the fuel I was leaking and an explosion started right there beneath his hand at the same time another started inside me as he slid deep and gyrated and another started where his lips met mine and his tongue slid into my mouth and the explosions spread and joined and the fires made them greater than they should be and every part of felt like it would fly apart at any minute. "I'm gonna ..." "In me ..." I managed to say, the one thing I needed to say because I needed him there with me and I needed us together. "I'm cumming ..." he moaned into my mouth as he pushed deep inside me, his body trembling, his hips bucking, his breath hitching and stuttering. I exploded into a million pieces as he throbbed inside and the wet heat with which he filled me ignited the last fire and started the last explosion and white blinded me as my brain filled with featureless fireworks and pleasure sent my atoms scattering across the universe and my skin burned away and my ass burned and my cock burned and in that moment I felt the greatest love I'd ever felt as Nate settled atop me and whispered, "I gotcha, G-Man. I gotcha." As my mind shattered and my body expanded to fill the voids beyond the reach of thought and the fires raged and the explosions overwhelmed my mind and I shook and gasped and wept and felt for the first time like I was really alive, he held me, wrapped me in his strong arms, still inside me and still fanning the flames. From a land far in the distance an awestruck voice whispered against my trembling lips, "I love you so fucking much."
  15. February 3, 2017 By half past eight the party had blossomed into a crowd of at least a thousand people, some dancing, some dining, some lounging, some browsing the various displays, many fellowshipping, most drinking a social lubricant of one kind or another. With Nate's fingers still threaded with mine, I walked with him and Kyle and the rest of my VIP group to the small stage. That's where I left them nursing their drinks so I could grab the microphone and join the DJ on the dais. I bumped him with my shoulder. Gabriel smiled, nodded. I smiled. Then I nodded. It was time. The music slowly faded, Gabriel blushing as he watched me watch him. For one of the metroplex's most popular and in-demand DJs who also happened to be one helluva sexy man, he forever tickled me with his shy flirtations. When the speakers fell silent, the constant murmur of voices in the ballroom began to die away, faces turning, eyes seeking. I suddenly felt self-conscious despite having done this every year since I turned eighteen. Though back then the size of the crowd didn't reach such intimidating proportions. Oh how the party had grown over the years. "Your attention, please!" I thumped the microphone a few times, the drumming bass reverberating through the ballroom. Considering most were already staring at me, I felt a bit silly, but I wanted to ensure I had everyone's full attention. After the last voice hushed and the last pair of eyes fell upon me, I stepped around the DJ equipment and stood at the edge of the stage. "In years past my speeches at this annual event have been full of levity and anecdotes coupled with examples of what Silver Rain accomplished in the prior twelve months and what we planned to accomplish in the year ahead. I hope you'll bear with me this time around as I do something a little different." My words sound shaky. Fuck, this is going to be more difficult than I imagined. My eyes sought Nate's face and, upon discovering it, the support and love pouring from him washed over me. He was definitely in my head again and he was definitely aware I was embarking on a new path, even if he didn't know what direction that path would lead. I gave him a slight nod and a grateful smile to acknowledge his support and to thank him for it. A wave of supportive voices washed across the ballroom to fill the unexpected pause, heads nodding, faces rapt and attentive. Without prompting, the lights dimmed, the two large projection screens on the wall behind me came to life, and a warm spotlight wrapped me in its glow. I knew the screens in the adjoining ballroom would likewise come to life, showing the same things shown behind me with the added benefit of a picture-in-picture video of my speech. Glancing at my friends and family standing at the front of the crowd, scanning each face as they watched me expectantly, I drew strength from them, from the knowledge that, though they didn't know what I intended to say, they would understand better than the thousand or more arrayed behind them. Then I let my eyes wander the crowd, meeting gazes briefly, trying to make my words personal to each and every person in attendance. "I was always close to my grandparents. Never you mind that having only one grandchild limited their options a bit." Chuckles erupted across the crowd. "Admittedly, only three were alive by the time I was old enough to understand who they were and to retain memories of them. "Time, however, eventually takes everything from us. One by one my remaining grandparents passed away until only my paternal grandfather remained. With his health failing, I spent as much time with him as I could, having grown fond of the wrinkled, lively, unrepentant old codger." Titters and snickers followed that description. "Well, as oft happens with rambunctious children, in the summer of my eighth year I broke my leg during a rather dangerous playground adventure. There might have been aliens involved. Or pirates. Maybe both." More chuckling, knowing nods and smiles abounded. "Thankfully Grandpa stepped up to the plate to help since I needed assistance and my parents had work." As I spoke, the screens behind me showed a slowly changing menagerie of photographs of my grandparents, eventually narrowing to focus on Grandma and Grandpa Beaumont, then finally to just Grandpa Beaumont. Some of the photos came from his life before me and some came from his life after my birth, showing us often huddled together in gleeful laughter or embarking on some grand adventure or snuggled together on his sofa, photo albums spread across our laps, my face showing rapt attention as I fell under his spell once again, engrossed in his latest tale. "Since my adventuring was seriously curtailed by a full-leg cast and crutches, I spent that first week doing nothing but sitting and listening to his stories. Oh let me tell you, friends of mine, my grandfather had all sorts of stories, like tales of battle from foreign wars and tales of a world vastly different from the one in which I was growing up and tales of family many generations removed." I swallowed a lump in my throat. "And, of course, tales of love." I cleared my throat a few times, blinked repeatedly, smiled. "My grandmother, Grandpa Beaumont's wife, died before I was born, so I only knew her through his stories, through my parents and my aunt and uncle, and through the wondrous photo albums Grandpa would inevitably use as visual aids while his words weaved the tapestry of yet another enthralling narrative. Even at the ripe old age of eight, I never doubted the profound love that had existed between Grandma and Grandpa Beaumont, a love evident in the photos as much as in the tears he shed and the hitch in his voice and the emotion that infused every word when he'd tell me about their life together. "So imagine my surprise when, during that week of broken-legged incarceration, Grandpa sat me down and pulled out a photo album I'd never seen before. He'd struggled as he dug through his closet, pulling down mounds of debris and detritus from the top shelf until he found what looked to my young eyes to be an ancient, leather-bound artifact from time immemorial. "With a reverence I'd never witnessed before, Grandpa settled beside me on that old couch of his and slowly opened the album with a respect that bordered on religious awe. He wrapped an arm around me and pulled me close. His voice full of emotions I'd never heard from him before, he told me a story, punctuating it with the pictures, old and faded and few of them in color. "'You know I loved your grandma,' he said, 'and I loved her with all my heart. But I'm not long for this world, Greg, so I want to tell you about my first love. I think it's important for you to know.' Hoarse with affection and anguish and regret, he then shared a story about another man, a young man he'd grown up with, a young man he'd fallen in love with, a young man he'd lost to the quest for a normal life." Wiping my eyes, I glanced back at the screens to see a few of the grainy images showing Grandpa Beaumont and Sonny Dowden, mostly together but sometimes separately. Back to the respectfully silent crowd I continued, "His name was Sonny, though Grandpa called him Silver because his eyes were steel gray. He and Grandpa grew up together. Their friendship was deep and incontrovertible. But it was more than friendship. Grandpa Beaumont and Sonny grew closer and closer until they both realized they were in love with each other. Back then, as you can imagine, such a thing was absolutely intolerable and considered unnatural, if not downright evil. So they hid their feelings and their relationship. "As the boys grew older, my great-grandparents approached their son to let him know it was time to put away childish things. They made it abundantly clear that his role in the family empire could blow away like so many autumn leaves if he didn't turn his back on what they clearly saw as an immoral way of life. To Grandpa's surprise, his parents knew about Sonny and tolerated it only because they expected it to go away on its own. But when it didn't, they threatened to ostracize their own son and cut him off from the family fortune just to ensure they weren't embarrassed by what they called moral bankruptcy. "Young and impressionable and desperate to retain the wealth and prestige of his family, Grandpa decided he couldn't be that man. So he told Sonny it was over, everything between them. He ordered Sonny never to contact him, never to try and see him, to forget that he existed. And he told—no, threatened is the right word—threatened Sonny by saying that, should he ever tell anyone about what they'd shared, the full power of the Beaumont dynasty would sweep down and crush him like a bug. Then he simply walked away and set about being the normal heterosexual the world expected him to be." Again I wiped my eyes, but I refused to cry. This story wasn't about catharsis; it was about something far more important. "Leaving behind his heartbroken love, Grandpa forged ahead with filling the role that had been laid out for him on the day he was born. He met a girl and married, had two children, took over the family businesses, lived the life every normal man should live. Yet always in the back of his mind he wondered, regretted, worried, loved." Gesturing to the photo of Grandma and Grandpa on display behind me, I continued, "My grandparents lived a life full of love and family, a life full of happiness and contentment. And Grandpa, true to the pledge he made to his parents and to himself, never acted on the longing he had to find Sonny, to find his Silver. He hid those feelings deep inside and denied them. "But when Grandma died, his own parents long gone from this world, Grandpa realized he had the wherewithal to locate Sonny without betraying anyone. He therefore set the full power of his wealth and industry upon the task of locating his first love, if for no other reason than to satisfy his need to say goodbye in the way he'd denied himself when he angrily snuffed out the relationship and walked away from the boy who owned his heart." Both screens switched to a simple gravestone showing Sonny Dowden's name along with the dates of his birth and death, no other inscription evident, the stone cracked and chipped and neglected. "What he found broke his heart. Sonny had lamented the loss of his soul mate, had never tried to connect with anyone else, had shriveled into a lifeless husk of his former self. Within a year of Grandpa leaving him, Silver had become a recluse, depressed and anguished and beyond comfort." I wiped a stray tear from my cheek. "Sonny killed himself less than twelve months after losing his first love." Sniffles and shuffling abounded, though no one looked away from the screens. "Grandpa told me that day, nestled against him on that old worn sofa, dumbfounded by the terrible thing he was saying—my parents raised me to be blind to all but the heart of a person—that he wouldn't trade a minute of the life he'd chosen, but he still regretted not living the life he could've had, the life he'd left behind. "I couldn't understand how something so terrible could happen. And I especially couldn't understand the loss Grandpa had suffered, both when he walked away from Sonny and when he eventually found him again. More than any of that, though, I couldn't understand why no one was there to help Sonny, to talk him down from the ledge his life had become, to offer a shoulder or an ear or a compassionate word of support; I couldn't understand how anyone could be left so desolate and alone that taking their own life merited nothing more than a brief mention in the local newspaper and a featureless and emotionless headstone above a nondescript grave." With a sad shake of my head I told the crowd, "Wrapping his warm wrinkled hands around mine, his cheeks stained by tears a lifetime in the making, Grandpa Beaumont said to me, 'His parents knew. Like mine, they'd figured it out on their own. They kicked him out of the house and told him he wasn't their son anymore, and they didn't mind spreading the news around so everyone would hate him.' "'And me? His tears were all I remembered from the day I left him, that heartbroken expression marring his beautiful face and the endless, silent tears falling like so much silver rain from those beautiful yet hurt gray eyes.' Snuggling me closer, sniffling, he added, 'Don't ever let anyone tell you who to be or how to think or what to feel.' Squeezing my hands tightly, kissing me atop the head, he said, 'Who you are and what you think and how you feel are already inside you, Greg. Don't ever let anyone take that away from you.'" Tapping the side of my head with my index finger, I explained, "Even back then my family was aware of the strange quirk of memory I possess that allows me to remember every word I see and hear. At the time my grandfather told me that tale, I didn't fully appreciate its implications or meaning. Sure, I understood the words just fine and I understood the emotions even better since I felt them through and through, but what he was really telling me didn't register until later. Much later ..." The screens behind me slowly shifted to brighter colors, brighter photos, all from the years following Grandpa's death. A few of the images showed me alone or me with Mom or Dad, but those quickly changed tone when Nate appeared. Every picture after that told the same story: Nate and I were inseparable. "I didn't know—well, I didn't understand, anyway—that I was gay until I was eleven or twelve. I came out when I was thirteen. And by fourteen I'd gone back to that old photo album of Grandpa's, I'd gone back to the story he told me about Sonny. And I was left wondering what he'd seen in me years earlier, what he'd understood about me that I myself hadn't understood." After a deep breath I said, "He passed away not long after he told me that story. While I didn't understand it at the time, he'd left a rather sizable trust fund for me, his only grandchild, and with it he'd left a note scrawled in his shaky handwriting that simply said, 'Use it to make life better.' What struck me about that was that he didn't say use it to make my life better, he didn't say use it to make my family's life better. No. I'd come to understand later that perhaps he'd known me better than my whole family, because he'd said use it to make life better. "Let's jump ahead seven years, if you don't mind ... When I turned fifteen, something happened that forever altered the way I viewed my birthday." Again the screens changed. Now they showed a hospital room with a damaged and broken adolescent boy connected to tubes and monitors, surrounded by family and friends. "For my fifteenth birthday, a man decided to come to my home and assault me, both physically and sexually." I ignored the gasps, the sniffs, the murmured words of shock and horror. "Once he lost control, he focused solely on the damage he could inflict and the gratification he could draw from the experience. He spent hours inflicting catastrophic trauma to my body, but he'd spent years leading up to that day harming my mind, which in the scheme of things was the greater damage." The pictures slowly progressed to my release from the hospital. Then they moved on to later years, moments at home, moments at school, moments with family, almost always moments with Nate. "I've never been one to focus on the acquisition of material possessions, mind you, but by the time I turned sixteen I just wanted to ignore my birthday altogether, pretend it was just another day, no less important than a dreary Monday or a dreamy Saturday." Photos from my childhood slowly changed to images of other children, their smiling faces as they dined, as they talked around a fire, as they played, as they read, as they hugged. "By the time I turned seventeen, however, my birthday had taken on greater depth. Not for selfish reasons, I mean, but rather because my birthday had been forever altered and I could either embrace the tension and make of it something meaningful, or I could wallow in misery and pout away the day for the rest of my life. "You have to understand my fifteenth birthday made me realize that Texas didn't offer a great deal of support for non-heterosexual children. I was horrified to see I was basically growing up in a world not too dissimilar to the one that had taken Grandpa away from Sonny, the world that had thought it completely acceptable to browbeat a man into betraying his love and belittling another until he took his own life solely on the basis of who he loved. As Mom and Dad explained to me at the time, Texas isn't exactly known to be inclusive or understanding or progressive in thought. That was something I decided I could maybe change, even if only a little bit." The screens faded to a logo, silver clouds parting, silver drops of rain falling, sun peeking through the clouds, the hint of a rainbow resting atop an invisible horizon. "Grandpa Beaumont's trust fund wasn't accessible to me until I turned eighteen. At seventeen I didn't fully grasp the amount of money available to me, but I did grasp that I could make life better with it, better for those less fortunate, better for those growing up in a world still inexcusably hostile toward them because they were born different from the majority. "Working with my father, who by the way is the most brilliant businessman I've ever known—" I gave him a heartfelt smile and nod as supportive applause rippled across the room. "—the first thing I did on my eighteenth birthday was split off a sizable chunk of my trust fund to establish Silver Rain, a non-profit foundation focused exclusively on helping non-heterosexual children and their families." The screen began showing images of hospitals, courtrooms, comfortable beds and warm dining rooms, all interspersed with children ranging in age from maybe twelve to eighteen, in addition to adults helping those children. "Silver Rain provides shelter to runaways, legal services, fostering and adoptive services, health care, financial assistance, funding, therapy, individual and family counseling, job training and placement services, and a host of other types of assistance to kids rejected by family, rejected by friends, rejected by society. With a massive volunteer workforce as well as full-time staff, Silver Rain has expanded throughout Texas and has helped thousands of children reconnect with their families, find jobs and housing, receive medical care, enjoy shelter when they couldn't go home, and the list goes on ... "Planned throughout my seventeenth year, my eighteenth birthday also started a tradition. Rather than celebrating my birthday as a day about me, I chose to use it as a day about Silver Rain and the kids we help, the families we heal, the lives we save." Gesturing around the vast ballroom as the lights slowly brightened, I continued, "Everything you see here has been donated or paid for by sponsors, from the ballrooms to the coffee bar and alcohol bars to the hors d'oeuvres if you feel peckish and the dinner next door—" I gestured to my right. "—in the Dallas Ballroom if you feel famished to DJ Gabriel Gustavo—" I gestured to the delectable Latino on my left. "—who's offering his time and equipment and vast music library—" A gratefully robust round of applause erupted as he bowed repeatedly toward the crowd. "—and on it goes. Plus, of course, our various sponsors who donated all the wonderful prizes you could win with each raffle ticket you purchase. And all the money we make tonight goes directly to Silver Rain, to help fund the work we've been doing since two thousand four." I took a deep breath, bracing myself. "In the intervening years since I founded Silver Rain and began the Birthday Bash tradition, I regrettably hid from my own tragedy. Basically, I was caught in the shadow of my assailant, which therefore meant I hid from a great deal of life. Silver Rain still had my full financial backing as well as whatever leadership it needed plus my fundraising efforts, but I stepped back and allowed others to carry the load of managing operations and planning growth, retaining final approval for myself but otherwise using distance to shield myself from memories of torment and tragedy. "With the help of family and friends, though, I've spent the last year overcoming an evil man's influence and the hurt he so readily inflicted. And in the process of dealing with the pain from my own history, I've rediscovered promise in the future and fanned the flames of passion with which I created Silver Rain." I continued speaking over the near constant applause and cheers, "So this year I'm proud to announce I'm moving back into the full leadership role for Silver Rain. One of our first endeavors is to begin expanding outside Texas with the goal of becoming a national force to help the children society too often ignores ... or worse. "In addition, I've spent many months preparing an expansion of our services. Silver Rain Technologies will open its doors in the coming week. It's a not-for-profit private business venture that will pump all profits into the Silver Rain foundation. We'll offer a wealth of technology services to paying customers, but more importantly we'll offer internships, job training and employment opportunities to the kids we help at Silver Rain while providing a continuous revenue stream to enable us to expand our work and help more kids." The applause was thunderous, making me blush while taking a small bow. Then I waited for the noise to settle. "Everything you eat and drink tonight is free with a raffle ticket. The music you dance to and enjoy is free thanks to Gabriel. The hotel room you might stay in if you're too lubricated or tired is free. The only cost to you was the admission fee, which purchased one raffle ticket for each person paid for, plus any additional raffle tickets you purchase during the night. Again, all those proceeds go directly to Silver Rain with no overhead deducted. And, as always, I'll make a matching donation equal to tonight's total, so for every thousand-dollar raffle ticket you buy, two thousand dollars goes directly to Silver Rain to help children who might otherwise have no help at all." Waving away the applause and gesturing around the ballroom, gesturing to the various displays and the various drink stations and food offerings, I announced, "Tonight is about enjoying yourselves while helping those who don't always have the help they need and deserve. Tonight is about helping kids heal, helping them discover who they are, helping them survive, helping them find jobs, helping them learn, helping them move on to higher education, helping them find family and friends, helping them have a warm bed and a warm meal when they're unwelcome everywhere else, and most importantly, helping them realize there's nothing wrong with them. Tonight is about preventing another tragedy like Sonny's. "So buy as many raffle tickets as your purse or wallet will allow, or pull out your checkbook and write a big number on it to donate. In either case, know that that money is going to a worthwhile cause. Enjoy the evening with fellowship and good food and yummy drinks. Enjoy learning more about Silver Rain at the kiosks scattered throughout the ballrooms. Most of all, enjoy the feeling that comes with knowing you're doing a good deed." I gave Gabriel a nod and slowly the music began building in volume as the screens behind me faded to black. Looking at the crowd, I smiled before enthusiastically shouting, "Welcome to the fourteenth annual Silver Rain Birthday Bash!" Applause and cheers and whistles crescendoed to a deafening roar as I blushed, a single tear streaking down my cheek. * * * * * February 4, 2017 Hours seemed like days. Not that I found it tedious to shake all those hands, to accept all those checks, to receive all the gushing gratitude and support. No, that wasn't it at all. Nothing compared to the passion I had for Silver Rain and the work we did, work I'd not neglected for years but instead avoided as I left it in the hands of those more capable. My affliction had been not willful ignorance but denial, my own charity pushed into the recesses of my blind spot where it wouldn't make me face the truth of why I'd created it. I'd remained one of its biggest benefactors and I'd never stopped offering guidance and leadership and I'd never considered letting the yearly fundraising party fall by the wayside and I've never balked at my figurehead duties. Despite all that, I'd avoided too much involvement and too much thought. And that really hurt in hindsight. Just something else Richard almost took from me. But at the end of the night, after prizes were raffled and meals eaten and dances danced—I danced with so many people that my feet actually hurt, including Kyle, who knew how to cut the rug—I still had a plan and a purpose that was a kind of selfish selflessness. I wanted to win Nate's heart, needed it with all my being, but of equal import was my hope that I could help him step out of Richard's shadow. By one in the morning the crowd had dwindled until only small pockets of people huddled here and there. Often playing at clubs that didn't close until four in the morning, Gabriel was still going strong. He'd stripped off his sweatshirt and finished the night in a skin-tight tank top—no one complained about that, by the way—but otherwise he looked fresh and ready to party until sunrise. The bastard! After having Trey escort Kyle up to his room—the poor kid had had a seriously long day, what with getting up for school that morning before catching a flight from Florida to Texas that afternoon followed by spending hours at a huge charity gala, not to mention any emotional drain he'd suffered—I had my other employees and volunteers start gently prodding the stragglers to move on or accept one of the available rooms. I didn't care where they went so long as they went away. Keigan and Yannis left around midnight, Malinda and Brandon a short time later, and Mom, Dad, Uncle Farid and Aunt Jan had trickled out the door shortly after the raffle at eleven. Clearly age negatively affects party time. How very unfortunate. Throughout the evening, as had always been the case during these events, Nate supported me as much as he could. Sometimes that meant showing up with a drink, sometimes just a hand on the small of my back, sometimes a hug, sometimes just a smile from nearby, that smile he never gave to anyone else. But I refused to let him get bogged down with me, always thanking him profusely with words or a look or am embrace before sending him off to dance, to eat, to drink, to visit, to enjoy himself. No matter the goings on in our relationship, I knew he'd be there when the time came. And the time had finally come. I made my way across the nearly empty ballroom. Nate leaned against the coffee bar. As if he could feel my gaze, he turned slowly in my direction. The smile that bloomed on his face when our eyes met was the one he only gave to me, gleaming and warm and honest and full of affection. I was ten years old the first time I saw that smile; it took my breath away. It was no less devastating twenty-one years later. "Hey, you," he greeted as I approached. "Hey, yourself." "Busy night?" "Yeah." "Was it a good one?" "The best one yet." His smile was breathtaking, heartfelt. "I'm glad to hear it." Reaching out, I took his hand in mine. "Let's make it a better one. Dance with me, Nate." His pause was so slight as to be inconsequential, the flicker of fear in his eyes so brief as to be imagined. Then he squared his shoulders, nodded. I motioned to Trey, who immediately jogged over to me. "Time to wrap it up," I told him. "Sure thing, boss." "Asshole." I grinned, shook my head. "Whatever you say, boss." I gave him a light smack on the shoulder and said, "Go on, you bonehead. Tell everybody they have my sincere thanks. I'll give them an update as soon as I can." He grinned. "Did we do good?" "Yeah, Trey, we did indeed." "I'll let'em know, boss." His grin widened at my scowl. Then he glanced at Nate before returning his gaze to me. Leaning in close, he whispered in my ear, "All my hopes." He spun on his heels and marched away. I shrugged at Nate's inquisitive look. And I focused on keeping my mind and expression blank. The last thing I needed was him getting in my head, reading my intentions and using them to smack headlong into Richard's vile mental wall. That time would come. Even as people were gently herded toward the exits, I motioned to Gabriel, a simple and brief spin of my index finger in the air. He ducked his head and smiled, nodded confirmation. Dragging him by his hand, I pulled Nate to dance area. "Dude, we haven't danced together since our club days." "What, like five or six years ago the last time?" He shrugged, pensive with a hint of longing. "Something like that." "This'll be different, Nate." "How so?" When the quick tempo of some random pop song rapidly dwindled and the air settled quiet and expectant, Nate's eyes narrowed a bit, watching me closely, curiosity and a tinge of apprehension in his expression. The electronica intro for "I Am You" by Depeche Mode, one of Nate's favorite songs, slowly filled the emptiness the quiet revealed. Little did he know Gabriel's playlist for this private dance party consisted of a specific selection of Nate's favorite songs, songs with meaning, songs that would speak to the heart of him while providing the intimate tempos I needed. I stepped close to him, lifted his hand and held it over my heart, wrapped my other arm around the small of his back and pulled him close. Snugging him against me, his apprehension quickly growing into fear, I leaned down enough to whisper in his ear. "Don't think. Just feel." He shivered as my breath caressed his skin, my lips grazing his ear. Lights around the ballroom dimmed, leaving a warm glow above the dance area while the rest fell away into darkness. "Don't think, Nate. Just feel with me." He stiffened against me but didn't push away. With my lips still at his ear, I wrapped my arm tighter around him, pressing his hand against my chest, and I began leading us, gentle sways and turns. Because we both loved to dance, this was no shuffling, stumbling, knee-knocking debacle, but instead it was a resonance of two bodies moving as one, sinuous and leonine and graceful and elegant, yet not a hint of pretension or show. The hand that had been draped by his side, dangling uselessly, slowly rose, coming to rest on my arm, his grip like velvet-clad iron. Shivers and trembles moved from his body to mine; I absorbed them like venom drawn from a wound. "When you left, I thought you'd forget me." His voice was hardly a whisper, "No, Little Big Man. No. I knew the first time we met that I'd never be able to forget you." My words were nothing but air breathed into his ear, lips caressing the meaning against his skin. He leaned into my voice without thinking, goosebumps erupting on his neck, the slightest tremor vibrating him from head to toe. "You don't have to fear losing me, Nate. Never again. I'll never leave your side, you hear me?" He nodded, such a slight movement. "Leaving was foolish. I was an idiot, not seeing clearly. It was a mistake that won't happen again." Pressing my lips to his ear I added, "There's nothing to fear anymore because I'm not going anywhere." Nestling my cheek against his, my breath undulating across his ear, my parted lips pressed against his skin and settled there, I inhaled his scent and felt dizzy from it, intoxicated. In silence I kept us moving, body to body, sensuous movements easing us through the dimness. When the electronica began to fade, the cymbal and drum and electric guitar of "Enigma" by Trapt slowly replaced it, the transition as smooth as gentle waves washing ashore, the boundary between one and the other blurred where they met. Nate pulled his head back. I responded, meeting his gaze, our faces close enough to taste each other's breath. A suspicious look quickly passed before he smiled. "You?" he asked, gesturing skyward with his head. "For you," I replied sotto voce. "You're a sneaky bastard, G-Man." "I do what I can." There was that smile again, the one meant just for me. It came coupled with a look of profound gratitude. Then to the slightly faster beat I moved us, holding him close, letting silence settle between us, letting our bodies speak to each other without words. We stared, eyes locked. In his I could see Nate struggling against Richard. To help the better man win the fight, I leaned forward the scant distance it took and kissed him, capturing his lips with mine and pouring from my soul into his soul every bit of love and strength I had, every bit of hope and promise, every bit of me for him. Though he staggered, swayed, I held him upright, held him against me. His body shook and I held him. His grip tightened and I held him. I held him through the kiss, a powerful telling of my feelings directly into the heart of him. I kissed him with a potency and furor the likes of which I'd never used in a kiss before. I kissed him like my life depended on it. Eventually I came up for air. Nate went limp against me, hitched breathing ragged and desperate. He dropped his face against my shoulder with a slow shake of his head. I knew he could feel my heart hammering beneath his hand, still held against my chest between us. I knew he could hear my rapid breathing. I knew he could feel my love washing over him in waves, carried to the shores of his soul by the strength of my embrace. But mostly I knew he could feel my resolve, my desire to push us out of Richard's shadow. "Why?" he murmured against me. The hitch in his voice told me was near tears. "Why did you do that, G-Man?" Turning my head slightly, I settled my lips against his ear once again and spoke softly. "Feel with me, Nate. Don't think. Just feel." "I don't know ... I don't know what I'm supposed to feel." "Feel how much I love you. Feel how much you mean to me. Feel how much I need you in my life." "I don't ... I'm not sure ... " "Just feel, Nate. Don't think about it. I'm right here and I love you and I'm not going anywhere. Just feel with me ..." I held him and danced with him, keeping us as close as two bodies can be while dressed, keeping him secure in my hold as he felt the strength of my heartbeat against his hand. As the song slowly began to fade, the drums and cymbals and electric guitars were replaced by the piano of "All of Me" by John Legend. Nate shook his head against me, a broken chuckle muffled by my shoulder. Then he sniffed. I kept us moving, always moving. When John Legend's piano gave way to the piano of "My Immortal" by Evanescence, his body shook against me. Then he moaned, "Oh fuck ..." "Nate?" "What?" he muttered. He sounded like he was reaching an emotional edge, a precipice where he could either jump or retreat. I needed to push him more. For in the end, he either had to jump or hope had to die. "Look at me, Nate." The moment he lifted his head from my shoulder, the song piercing our hearts and minds and souls, I gazed into his wounded eyes, the eyes of a man haunted by the past and frightened of the future. "Just feel, Nate. Stop thinking and just feel with me." Against his lips I whispered, "I love you." I kissed him again. I made it the most meaningful yet, so much of me passing through my lips into him. He juddered bodily, his grip on my arm a stranglehold. He'd probably leave bruises if he kept at it. I didn't care. Nate pressed forward enough to let me know he was feeling, not thinking. He'd participated in each kiss to an increasing degree, but he'd never chased as I retreated. I pressed forward, opening my very being and pouring it into him. That's when he moaned, a throaty, quiet groan that came from someplace deep. Brushing my tongue across his bottom lip caused him to gasp, which was what I wanted. I slipped my tongue into his mouth, tentative, sliding it across his lips and teeth until I met his tongue. That's when he jerked away, pushing with both arms, shaking his head. Strong though he was, I was bigger and stronger, albeit not enough to win an endless struggle with him. Knowing time was of the essence, I released his hand and grabbed his shoulder as I pulled with the arm around his waist. "No!" he shouted. "I need to find—" I didn't let him finish that shit. That was Richard thinking. I wanted Nate feeling. Slamming my lips against his and kissing him with passion and love and lust and everything I felt for him, with all my strength I turned us and backed him against the wall, pinning him with my body and pulling him against me with my arms. Since his mouth had already been open, I slid my tongue in with ease and began chasing his, dueling, penetrating and retreating, tasting. Nate's mouth was hot velvet, slick and sweet, his breath a drug I inhaled greedily. His shudder was potent, his moan more so. I swallowed the sound and pressed my body harder against his. It wasn't a sexual move, though it could've been; on the contrary, it was a communication tool, my promise to him that I'd see this through. Nate writhed and pushed, but he never turned his head away and he never hit me. If he had, he knew it would've ended the night right then. After Richard and my fifteenth birthday, violence was the one button I had that could override everything else. Pulling away from his mouth, leaving him gasping and dazed and the fight in him weak and impotent, I growled, "Tell me what you feel, Nate! Tell me! Don't think, just feel! Tell me!" His head shaking was ferocious, eyes squeezed shut. "I can't! I don't know!" Wrapping a hand behind his neck, I pulled his face to mine even as I leaned forward to capture his mouth yet again. He could've bit my tongue. He could've turned his head. He could've pushed me away. He could've done a million things, but instead he moaned as my tongue wrestled with his, as my lips bruised his, as we inhaled and exhaled into each other. The song gently transitioned to "Iris" by The Goo Goo Dolls. I was vaguely aware of his body stiffening when the music became clear enough to recognize. Gentling the kiss, morphing from passion to love, I slid both hands up to his face and bracketed him, cupping his cheeks with light touches, deepening the kiss emotionally while I shallowed its lust, my fingers massaging and caressing. Relaxing, backing away, slowing down, I broke the kiss with an ease that made it difficult to know when it ended. Then I kissed him repeatedly, lightly, affectionately, lovingly, each a moment frozen in time. "I love you, Nate Sawyer, I love you so much it hurts, like a great weight on my chest and a knife in my heart and a need so powerful only one man can satisfy it. I love you so very much, Nate." His eyes were closed, his cheeks flushed, his lips swollen and luscious and wet, his breathing ragged and rapid and barely controlled. I leaned my forehead against his, sharing breaths, my hands slowly moving down to his shoulders. When he reached up and gripped my upper arms, I worried the push would come next. "Stop letting him win." I whispered against his lips before kissing him. "He's controlled us for too long." Another kiss, my hands on his chest, caressing, meandering back to his shoulders. "How many years have we wasted in his shadow?" Another kiss, slow and purposeful, one hand on his chest, another rubbing the back of his neck. "It's time to come into the light, Little Big Man." Another kiss. "Do you want to stay safely alone or do you want to take a risk for happiness?" Another kiss. "Where we go from here is totally up to you, Nate." Another kiss. "It's time to leave Richard in the past." Another kiss, soft and easy. "I love you." Another kiss. Once more resting my forehead against his, I tried to catch my breath, deep inhales and powerful exhales. His sniffles and hitched breathing let me know about the tears. I gently wiped them from his cheeks, running my thumbs between our faces, keeping my forehead pressed to his. Nate shivered, breathing hard, eyes still squeezed shut. Occasionally he shook his head from side to side, tiny movements almost overlooked, as if negating a proposition. Or clearing his head. "Don't let him keep taking everything away from us, Nate. Hasn't he taken enough already? Hasn't he hurt us enough already? How much more will you sacrifice to him before you realize he's gone and never coming back and the only harm he can do to us now is what we inflict on ourselves in his name?" That broke him. He clung to me like a drowning man holding a life preserver, his body wracked with sobs. Dropping his head to my shoulder, Nate wept and shook and silently poured out his anguish and sorrow and regret. Hugging him to me, I held him tightly, closely, rubbing his back and whispering to him that I loved him, I was there for him, I'd never leave him, I loved him more than life itself, he could count on me, and on I went. His weight against me was welcome as he drew strength from me. "Please ..." he moaned against me. "Please what?" I whispered against his ear. "Don't ever leave me." "I'll never leave you again. I was a fool to do what I did. I was a fool to hurt you that way." "I never fully understood what I was feeling or what I had until it was almost ripped away twice. I can't do this without you" "Do what?" "Live ... Be happy ... Love ... I need you, G-Man. Fuck, I need you so much it hurts." "I'm right here, Nate. I'm not going anywhere. I love you." He stood upright, leaning back against the wall, his face to the ceiling, eyes closed, cheeks stained by tears. His hands still gripped my arms, a solid but not tight hold. As "Iris" fell to silence, giving way to the orchestral sound of "Everything" by Lifehouse, his grip tightened for just a moment, lips quivering. Gently cupping his face, I tilted his head down so we were eye to eye despite his being closed, then I kissed him, a light touch, just a hint of pressure. Soft trembles passed over him. "Feel with me, Nate. Don't think, just feel. Forget everything he ever told you, forget what he taught you to believe about you and me and us." Another gentle kiss. "Just feel with me, Nate. Come out of his shadow and feel with me." Another kiss, a promise for days to come. In a whisper against his lips I repeated, "Just feel with me, Nate. Don't think about it, just feel how much I love you and feel how much I want to be with you and feel with me ..." The lightest pressure against my mouth as he leaned forward a breath, a hair, less than a millimeter. But I felt it. Despite our tears and anguish and the torments of history still plaguing us and the pain of so many years wasted and the near irreparable harm his father did to us for his own gleefully sick wants, Nate moved just enough to touch his lips to mine. "Tell me, Nate. Don't think about, Little Big Man. Just feel it. Tell me what it is you feel." He inhaled, ragged and pained. Then so quietly I almost didn't hear it, he said, "I love you. I've loved you for so long I almost don't remember not loving you." "I love you, too." When his lips touched mine the second time, he moved but I didn't. It was his kiss. My stomach flipped and churned with that indescribable joy that comes only from being kissed by someone who holds my heart, someone I love. Anyone who's ever been kissed by someone they love would know the feeling. And he was a damn good kisser, soft and gentle yet firm and unflinching. So much passion, so much emotion. He sampled me with tentative pressure. And I nearly fainted when his tongue teased my lips, getting me to open and accept. He tasted of the beer he'd had earlier, and spices from the dinner he'd had in the ballroom next door, and a taste that I knew was all him, all Nate. I nearly crumbled beneath the weight of the moment, so intoxicated did I feel, so elated, so hopeful. Our tongues caressed and entwined and lavished, exploring, touching, communing. When he finally pulled away, his eyes slowly opening, it left me breathless. And wanting more. Nate pulled my face down to lean our foreheads together. My hands slowly explored downward until they wrapped around his waist, my fingers softly kneading and touching and caressing, drawing forth faint shivers. "I don't know what to do," he whispered. "Don't think about it, Nate. Just feel. What do you feel you should do." Again he inhaled a stuttering breath before exhaling. I sucked in his breath like it was the only air left in the world. "I don't know," he murmured. "I'm scared. I don't want to lose you. I've almost lost you twice. I couldn't handle it again, Greg. Not again. Never again. I don't think I could take it." "Hey hey hey ... You're not going to lose me, Nate. I'm never leaving your side as long as you want me there. I'm not going anywhere. I love you, Little Big Man." The song faded slowly until it was joined by the introductory guitar of "Say" by John Mayer. "Fuck, dude," he started with quick shake of his head against mine and an almost silent snicker, "did you do that?" "The music?" "Yeah." It was a word caught on a breath. I nodded my head against his. "Yeah." "You did good, G-Man. All the right ones." "I did it for you, Nate. I'd do anything for you." "I know." He turned his head enough to rest his cheek against mine. The inches I had on him meant I was looking over his head and his cheek was more against my jaw than anything else. I slowly dropped my head to equalize the experience. "Where do we go from here?" he asked. "Upstairs to get some sleep. It's been a long night." "And emotional," he snorted, though it was weak. "Yeah ... It's definitely been emotional." I had no intention of trying anything sexual with him, at least not yet. I felt what I'd accomplished thus far was precarious and needed gentle support and nurturing so it didn't blow up on us. Everything else would come if I could get us out of Richard's shadow. At least I finally knew how he felt. And that made me the happiest man on the planet despite the obstacles we still needed to overcome. Like the day I brought him home from the shared session with Uncle Farid, I helped Nate collect his jacket before supporting him to the elevator, up to the suite, into the bedroom. I undressed him and settled him under the covers, then I quickly undressed and joined him, wrapping my body around him, holding him close, kissing his head and ear and neck, snuggling us together until it became impossible to tell where one of us ended and the other began. Quietly, only the sound of breathing piercing the dark, I held him and listened until he fell asleep. Then I closed my eyes and drifted into slumber hoping we'd finally moved beyond the shadow of The Fiend. * * * * * Several hours later my cell woke me. A new text message. Groggily and bleary-eyed, I rolled slightly and reached toward the nightstand. Too much silence. The clock showed just after seven in the morning. At least I'd had five hours of sleep, five hours of the most blissful yet fitful sleep of my life, filled with thoughts and dreams of Nate and where we were and where we were going and what it would take to get both of us out of Richard's shadow and into the light of a new life. Something's changed, something's different. Something's wrong. As my hand hovered over the edge of the bed, a foreboding sense of unease blanketed me, cloaked me with the impression that something was amiss. My eyes briefly scanned the half of the room I could see without turning my head. Where are his clothes? Lifting the phone and glancing at the screen, Kyle had sent me a message, no doubt letting me know he was awake. Well, out of bed anyway, since awake might come later after the night we had. I sent one back saying I was just waking up and would get back to him once I reached lucidity. Assuming that was an attainable goal. What's that piece of paper that was under my phone? Slowly, afraid of what I'd see, I glanced over my shoulder. The bed's empty. My hand made a slow move toward that side of the bed, afraid of what it would discover, afraid of the truth I already knew, afraid of what it meant. The sheets are cold. So is the pillow. He's been gone for some time. "Nate?" I quietly called, my voice hoarse with sleep and reticent to force a confrontation with the facts I couldn't deny. No sound of the television, no sound of the coffee maker, no sound of dishes, no rustling as someone moves on the couch, no soft footsteps as a sleepy man approaches the door to see if I'm really awake. Only the cold echo of my own weak voice reached my ears. The paper. It wasn't there last night. Look at the mother fucking paper! Shivers wracked my body, not from cold but from fear, a dread that reached inside me and gripped my heart and squeezed it until I couldn't breathe, couldn't think, couldn't move. That's his handwriting, clean and neat and masculine. As if it might burn me, only my fingertips brushed the piece of hotel stationery, moving it in tiny sliding increments until it rested near me, near the bed, near revelation. Why? Why would this happen? Afraid it might sting, maybe bite, certainly hurt, I trapped the corner of the paper between my fingers and dragged it off the nightstand. Despite resting my arm on the bed and looking down at the note and its pristine writing, it shook and rattled and blurred. Greg, Please forgive me for writing this in a letter. I should've said it to you in person, but I knew I wouldn't get through it if I tried. You fog my mind and cloud my senses and roil my emotions into a storm. You're worth more than gibberish, hence the note. I want to say that I'm sorry, sorry for everything. Part of me wants to say I wish we'd never met, that way Richard would never have seen you and he'd never have screwed up our lives to severely. But we both know it would be a lie because meeting you was the greatest event in my life. I just wish a different man had sired me. Things would be so different now. I always knew I'd break your heart. Somehow I always knew. For years I wasn't sure about how you felt, but still I just knew I'd break your heart. If I could make you happy, it would fulfill every desire I've had since we were kids. It's just that I don't know who I am anymore and you merit better than sitting around hoping I eventually figure out my shit. I don't know if I can be the man you want, the man you think I am, the man you deserve, and it would be selfish hubris to expect you to wait for me. What a pisser it would be if you did that only to find I can't be that man. There's so much fear in me that it feels like I'm strangling. All of it is a fear of losing you. But if I try to be what you want, if I try to be that man, I might fail. If I fail, it'll hurt you beyond repair and you'll walk away without a backward glance. It nearly killed me when I almost lost you to Richard. It felt like part of me died when you walked out of our house after telling me we couldn't be friends anymore. I'm sorry, Greg, but I wouldn't survive a third time. It's easier this way. Maybe it doesn't feel like it—it sure as hell doesn't feel like it to me—but we both know this is easier. This is better for both of us. I hope you find what you're looking for, and I say that with all sincerity instead of the spite and anger with which so many others say it. My hope is genuine and heartfelt. You deserve happiness, more than any other person on the planet, and I really hope you find it one day. You've been my life for so long that I don't know how to live without you, but I'll figure it out because that's what's best for you. I wouldn't change a moment of what we've had together except, maybe, to wish I didn't feel this way anymore. Maybe then I could be the man you want me to be. I love you, G-Man. And I'm sorry. Nate The writing blurred and blurred and blurred, but I could see well enough to notice the first tear as it landed on the trembling paper. My hand opened and the letter slid off the bed and drifted to the floor. I rolled over and dropped into the space he'd occupied, burying my face in his pillow. And then I broke beneath the weight of it as tears came hot and heavy and sobs choked me. But his scent still lingered. There was at least that.
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