NO, I WASN'T DEAD!: I explain my prolonged absence at the end of the story.

DISCLAIMER: The story that follows is a work of fiction. Some characters may be based on real people, but this story should not be considered accurate or truthful representations of any actual person. This story is not intended to reflect the behavior, personal hygiene, sexual proclivities, or sleepwear preference of any real person, living or dead.

WARNING: This story deals with homosexual themes. If this offends you, read no further. If you are under 18 years of age, read no further. If accessing this story causes you break any laws applicable in your area, read no further. If you hate the taste of caramel, eat no Werthers.

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Part 13 - Friday Night

I tried to take a nap, but it was useless.

No one would leave me alone long enough. After I'd left the others on the basketball court and headed up to my room, it wasn't fifteen minutes before Mike was tapping on the door, asking whether I wanted to talk. I remember smiling at him and thanking him, but my answer had been "no." I just wanted to be alone. He eventually agreed to let me sleep, but reminded me that he'd be available if I needed him. He even used Dad's favourite joke: "You know where I live."

I didn't tell my parents about Kevin's attacking me. I wanted to ask Robby and Mike not to tell them about it either, but I knew that was useless. My parents would find out. They always found out. Which was just as well most of the time: the great thing about my family was that we didn't keep secrets from each other. Even when I'd come out to them, my parents really seemed more upset by my having kept it from them for two years than by the fact that I was gay.

Mike had been gone for maybe ten minutes before Robby and Stacey showed, and I got to have the same conversation again. Then again fifteen minutes later, on the phone with Howie, who called from his room to check on me. I could hear Nick and AJ in the background. Brian, Howie told me, was talking to Kevin in the other suite. They'd all been in on the conversation at first, but then both Brian and Kevin had suggested they be left to talk alone.

Once I'd hung up the phone, it was just a few minutes before Mike was at the door again with a bowl of ice cream and the news that the Boys were going to have dinner in their rooms, so the dining room would be safe for me. Both things cheered me up. Mike left pretty quickly. I just had time to polish off the ice cream before the phone rang again. This time it was Nick, with the same news about dinner and concern in his voice.

"Yeah, I'm okay," I told him. "How's Brian? And how's Kevin?"

He didn't answer at first. "Well, they're still in the other room talking. We—the three of us—pretty much decided to order dinner up here without telling them."

"Nick..." I knew what I wanted to ask, but I wasn't sure how to say it. "Has this ever happened before? Does Kevin lose his temper a lot?"

"Not usually. He's pretty ambitious and driven to succeed, and he can be very demanding sometimes, but he's usually a pretty even-tempered guy," Nick told me. "If you're asking why he lost it with you, I don't know. But if Brian can't get it out of him, no one can."

"He's not still mad, is he?" I asked, almost afraid of the answer. "He won't hurt Brian?"

There was another pause. "No, Kev's not mad anymore. The whole time we were in his room, he just cried and said he was sorry. I don't think he's gonna hurt anyone, least of all Brian." His tone lightened. "After all, Brian will just grin and Kev will soften up."

I chuckled. "Yeah, I've seen that grin. It's hard to be mad at a face like that."


Even though the dining room was now "safe," I didn't feel much like dinner, and that's what I told Robby when he came upstairs to tell me dinner was ready. What I did want was to walk. I got up and dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and my hiking boots. The stairs nearest my room was far from the dining room, so it was simple thing to slip quietly into the gym and then outside.

The sun had set, and there was a slight chill in the air. I hadn't brought a jacket, but I figured I could survive the chill pretty well. If it got too cold, I thought, I'd just walk faster and keep warm. I knew better than to head off into the woods in the dark. I knew the paths pretty well, but it would still be foolish, especially since no one knew where I was. But our house stood atop a little hill with trees all around it at varying distances. If I stuck to the tree line, I'd have a safe place to walk, with enough ambient light from the house and outbuildings to keep me from stumbling.

I set of toward the trees past the stable, rounding toward the parking lot. A minute later I was walking along the trees, making a large circle with the house always on my right. I did have enough light for my purposes, but I knew also that no one could see me: I'd just be a dark shape against the dark trees. So I'd have some uninterrupted quiet to get some thinking done.

Ah, but what to think about?

It had been quite a week so far, even before Kevin had shoved me into the gym wall that afternoon. I'd met a famous singing group, made friends with them,—well, most of them, I thought ruefully—had one of them come out to me and then learned that two others went after guys too, showed off my musical talents to them and been soundly complimented, and spent a great night in Dallas with them paying the bill. Another week like this, and I'd need a vacation.

As happy as most of this week had been, I still felt sad without really knowing why. Mentally, I started Mom's questioning technique, asking myself about various possible causes for my feeling to see which one seemed right. Kevin's anger with me wasn't the cause, because I'd noticed it a little yesterday. I got a little sadder when I thought about them leaving on Monday, but also there had been something about waking up with Brian that morning that had saddened me. I'd got too interested in Mike and Nick to think about it much, but the feeling had definitely been there.

By now, I was rounding the lower end of the south pasture and passing the gate Kevin and I had ridden through three days ago. From here I had a good view of the south side of the hotel. Glancing up, I noticed that all the bedroom windows were dark except Nick's and Howie's. If Brian and Kevin were still talking in Kevin's room, they were doing it in the dark. Of course, they could be talking in the living room.


I stumbled a little just then, so I returned my attention to where I was walking. "What was I thinking about?" I asked aloud. Oh, yeah, the thought came. Why was I sad waking up with Brian?

It didn't make sense. It had been warm and comfortable, and I liked Brian a lot. I really thought of him as a friend, and it had been fun to hold him, to know that he wanted to sleep next to me on the couch.

So why had it been depressing? It should have felt great. After all, it had been a long time since I'd slept with anyone and waking up next to... Ah, that was it! Waking up with Brian just reminded me how long it had been since I'd awakened with someone else.

Even though Brian and I had just held each other, that was still the closest thing I'd come to sex in over a year. I hadn't thought about it—well, hadn't let myself think about it, really—so I hadn't realized how much I'd missed having the affection, the closeness, the plain and simple lustful sweatiness of having a sex life. I had a great life, and Robby and Mike were the best friends I could possibly have, besides being my brothers. But that couldn't replace everything.

Man, wouldn't Ethan love this? He may not say much, but he's always told me that I should get out of this house and have a life. He understood that I didn't want to party or sleep around as much as he did, but he's told me over and over that if I didn't want a casual relationship then I should find someone to be serious with, but find someone!

For the past few months, he hadn't nagged me at all; he'd just taken to calling me "Brother Benjamin." Only he didn't say it like he was talking to his own brother. He said it like he was talking to a monk.

"Well, little brother," I said aloud, "I guess you were right. I don't like being alone. Once these guys are gone, I may head down to Austin and let you show me around." After all, Austin was a very cool place, and it had a lot of cute fraternity guys with short hair, too much money, and Jeep Wranglers.


By now I was behind the tractor barn, so I turned and headed toward the house. My thoughts went random for the most part as I walked slowly toward the front porch.

The memory of Kevin's attack popped up now and then, though I consciously tried not to worry about it. I didn't know why he'd done it, so I didn't know whether I should worry or not. Better to wait until I talked to the other Boys and found out what they'd learned from Kevin.

Still, it's hard to force the mind not to think about something troubling, logical or not. So Kevin did return. And once he brought this unhappy thought: what if Kevin was mad at me personally and he or his company used that as an excuse to hurt Dad's studio. They wouldn't even have to try to hurt us. All they'd need to do is stop using us—no more trips here for the BSB, no recording sessions for NSYNC or any of their other acts. Even if they never said anything derogatory about our studio, people would notice that they'd used us once and never went back. That could really hurt the studio's reputation and Dad's prospects for more contracts with bigger acts.

That thought was nagging at me when I opened the front door and stepped into the hall. After closing it and turning around, I saw Dad behind me in the hallway.

"Where've you been?" he asked. "We thought you were asleep upstairs." His voice was a little concerned but calm—every bit the loving yet manly Dad I knew.

"I just went for a walk. I had some thinking to do."

By now, he'd stepped toward me and put his hand on my shoulder. " 'you all right?" he asked softly.

"Yeah," I smiled at him. "I'm okay. I think I've figured out a couple of things that I didn't even know were bothering me." My smile left me when I added, "I still don't know why Kevin was so mad at me this afternoon. You heard about that, I guess?"

He nodded. "Robby and Stacey told me. They didn't know the reason either."

"I hope it's nothing serious. I'd hate for him to hold this against you and the studio, whatever it is."

It was his turn to smile. "Don't worry about that. Let's find out the reason before we start worrying about the ramifications. Besides, the other four seem to have had a great time. At least, AJ has had a great time with Stacey." His smile was broad now. I thought for a second about telling him about the great time Nick seemed to be having with Mike, but instead I went in search of food.


Dad had already cleaned the kitchen after dinner, but Robby was in there washing the dishes he'd brought down from the Boys' suites. When he heard someone enter, he evidentally thought I was Mike, because he said, "There is no more grape soda. Go back upstairs."

"Why is Mike upstairs?" I asked him.

Robby turned around to look at me. "He and Nick are on three, playing Nintendo. Are you okay?"

"Yeah. Just hungry. Is there anything for a sandwich?"

Robby smiled. "Always. There's even cold cans of DP in the fridge."

"You're too good to me," I told him, opening the fridge. "And there is too some grape soda left?"

"In there?" Robby sounded surprised.

"No," I grinned at him. "Dad keeps a stash in the mini-fridge in Mom's studio."


We talked about a lot of nothing as I made a ham and cheese sandwich and sat on the island to eat it. I was almost done eating as Robby rinsed the now empty sink and wiped his hands on a towel. "So," he began turning toward me, "do you know what was up with Kevin?"

I shook my head as I finished chewing and swallowed. "No. I was gonna ask you. I've been upstairs or outside since it happened. Have you heard anything?"

"Nothing. I took their dinner up, but I only saw Nick and Howie. AJ was taking a shower, and Brian and Kevin were still in the other suite talking. When I went up later to get the dishes, I only saw Howie. He said that Nick was on the phone and AJ was somewhere with Stacey. Brian and Kevin hadn't wanted to eat, but Nick had finished it off."

That made me smile. "That boy can eat, can't he?"

"He eats like a soccer team. If he ever stops dancing, he's gonna be huge."

I smiled. "He won't stop dancing. Even if screaming pubescent girls would let him, he'd keep dancing to burn off some of that energy."

Robby frowned. "I wonder what else he does to burn off energy."

I saw what he meant. "Don't worry," I told him. "Mike's a big boy, and Nick's not gonna force him to do anything."

"But what if Mike wants to do something?"

I shrugged. "Then you and I can't stop him. And he'd only get mad at us if we tried."

Robby stared into my eyes for a second. "Would you try to stop him?" he finally asked.

"I'd stop him from doing something stupid, if necessary. But I don't think it would be necessary: Mike's pretty level-headed." I kept my tone flat, even though I was a little angry with Robby's implication. "But I wouldn't stop Mike from trying something if he wanted to."

Robby stood there for almost half a minute before he asked quietly, "Do you think Mike's gay?"

"It doesn't matter what I think," I said, being honest and yet dodging the question at the same time. "Mike will have to figure that one out, and he says he's not. But you've got to resist the urge to pigeonhole people, Robbo. You can't divide the world into straight and gay. There's a lot of variations in between."

"So Mike may be a variation."

"Maybe. Like I said, he'll have to figure that one out. All we can do is answer questions and support him whatever his decision."

Robby and I talked a few minutes more before he announced that he was going to bed. "I didn't get enough sleep last night," he explained. He was headed toward the door that led into the hall when the other door—the one to the dining room—swung open quietly.

In it stood red-eyed Brian with a red-eyed Kevin behind him. "Ben," Brian said in a raspy voice, "can we talk to you?"


Brian had a sad, almost pleading look in his bright blue eyes. So did Kevin. Even though his colouring was darker, his eyes were the same blue—why hadn't I noticed that before? They both stood still, awaiting my reply. Robby was standing still too: he'd stopped his progress toward the other door and was glancing from me to Brian. I knew he couldn't see Kevin through the door that Brian held open, but he must have guessed who Brian had meant when he'd said "we."

They looked so sad that it seemed cruel to make them wait. "Sure," I said. I was surprised at how soft my own voice sounded: I'd been going for my "reassuring big brother" tone but had missed it by a lot. "Do you want to talk here, or someplace where we can sit down?"

"We can sit in the dining room," Robby suggested. And we all knew that he was also saying, "I'm staying."

Brian and Kevin didn't look happy, but I didn't know whether it was because Robby was going to stay or because they didn't want to talk in the dining room. I decided to assume it was the room, the one option I could change. I couldn't do much about Robby being part of the conversation, and I wouldn't have if I could: I wanted Robby to stay. I wasn't afraid of Kevin hurting me, but I did want some support if this got ugly—I still didn't know what was going on.

"The dining room's too public," I said. I thought about the nearby rooms. They were all open to other rooms, and there were too many people in the building to be really private in them. "Let's go sit in the library," I suggested. The others agreed, and Robby led the way, being careful to walk with me. I glanced back once and saw Brian hanging close to Kevin.

The library was just beyond the game room. It too had French doors that faced the pool, but it wasn't light and airy like the other rooms along the patio. The paneling and shelves were all stained a dark cherrywood, and the drapes were navy blue, thought they were backed with white to match the other windows from outside. Shelves lined with books and framed photographs lined the two side walls, and the cherrywood desk from my father's old law office in Chicago sat diagonally in one corner, facing a maroon leather couch.

This was my father's serious room. Dad was a lot of fun most of the time: my memories of him mainly involved him strumming his guitar and making horrible puns. But back in Chicago I'd seen him become his corporate attorney self in a room very like this one, and he'd seemed pretty formidable: charming but way too clever to be taken advantage of. Since we'd moved to Texas, this room had been used mostly for serious conversations. This was the room we came to when we were in trouble for something, the room in which my parents had explained sex to me when I was in junior high. This was also the room in which I'd explained my sex to them when I was in college.

Robby took a staight-backed chair near the door, leaving the couch and the chair near the desk for us. I was impressed by his foresight. He was close enough to be present without his presence interfering. I sat in the chair, and Brian and Kevin sat on the couch, Kevin sitting closest to me.


"Ben," Brian began, "we just want to explain..."

"I want to explain," Kevin interrupted gently, "what happened this afternoon." His eyes were red and watery, and he looked exhausted. "I'm so sorry it happened, Ben. I really am."

"What happened?" I asked softly. I tried to give him my most understanding smile. I could feel my eyes tearing up too.

Kevin looked at me for a second before lowering his eyes. I heard him breathe in deeply before he steeled himself visibly, swallowed hard and looked me in the eyes again. This time he didn't look so tired. He looked more determined, more like the Kevin I'd gotten to know that week. "I got mad at you," he said, his voice a little tight and forced, "because I thought you were taking advantage of Brian, that you were taking advantage of his being confused about..., uh...things to get him into bed."

I felt a little like I'd been hit in the gut. I don't know what was worse: that he'd believed me capable of such a thing, or that his suspicions had so closely mirrored mine from that morning. I could understand how he could believe such a thing, but I was insulted and angry at the same time.

"So you were protecting Brian?" I ventured finally, still trying to reconcile my feelings of anger and understanding.

"I thought I was," he said quickly. "He's had a hard time lately—he's spent months trying to figures things out—and I was afraid that you were using that to get to him, to...." His voice trailed off.

"To fuck him," I said. It was cold-blooded, I know, but the words were out of my mouth before I considered them. Brian and Robby looked a bit shocked. Kevin crumbled a little.

"Yeah, I guess so," he said. "I don't want to sound conceited, but there are lots of people who try to use us and take advantage of us. We've been used enough, by people we thought we could trust. They've used us to make money for them, commited to working everyday for weeks at a time, didn't give a damn about us or our families or our problems. Then we all agreed that no one was going to take advantage of us anymore. I didn't want anything to happen to Brian."

"Ben wouldn't do that," Robby said flatly. We turned to look at him. His face was expressionless, hard. I've seen him lose his temper: this expression was worse.

"Robby," I said quietly, "you know that because you know me. You've known me your whole life. Kevin's known me since Monday. He has no more reason to trust me that you do to trust him." Robbie's face softened a little, and both Kevin and Brian turned grateful faces to me. At that second, I wasn't angry any more. I was a stranger to Kevin—an unknown, a possible threat to his cousin. He'd protected him the way I would have protected my brothers from them if necessary.

And I also understood what Robby had been getting at in the kitchen earlier, whether he realized it or not: he trusted Mike as much as I did. But maybe he didn't trust Nick.

"I'm sorry I didn't trust you," Kevin said.

I shook my head at him. "You didn't have any reason to. In fact, it probably looked pretty bad. You caught Brian talking to me in the middle of the night in a dark room, when he wouldn't talk to you guys. He told me things before he told the rest of you. Then last night we slept together on the couch. Add to that the fact that he's part of a successful musical group and we run a fledgling recording studio, and it probably looked like I was taking advantage."

"But you weren't," Brian said. "That's what I've been telling him all afternoon. I told him all about your telling me to figure out my feelings before I got involved with anyone. All you've been telling me this week is to go slow until I know if I really am gay..." He stopped short, remembering Robby was in the room a split second before Kevin and I. We all looked in my brother's direction.

Robby returned our gaze, then grinned. "Calm down, guys. I had it figured out when I saw the way you two looked at each other this afternoon."


Brian relaxed a little, then cast a slightly nervous glance toward Kevin. Kevin was looking at Robby, his face calm. "So now we have to trust you to keep the secret, too," Kevin said.

Robby grinned. "Yeah, I guess you do." For a second, I was afraid that one of his badly timed jokes was coming, but Robby stayed serious. "But you can trust me. I know this would not be good for your careers, and I like you guys too much to try to hurt you. I won't tell anyone about Brian, or Nick either, by the way."

"You know about Nick too!" Brian sounded surprised. He and Kevin traded looks, and I wondered if they were thinking what I was thinking: did Robby know about Howie too?

"Yeah," Robby laughed. "When I woke up this morning, he was wrapped around Mike in the other bed. I guess my brothers are irresistible." Brian smiled over at me, which made me feel really good for some reason. "So, when is somebody gonna come on to me?" Robby asked, his grin wide.

We laughed. "They're not," Kevin said with a smile. "I told them to stay away, 'cause I wanted you for myself." It was good to hear him laugh. He looked a lot younger now than he had in the kitchen. I realized then that he was a man with strong emotions, good and bad. What I'd taken to be an unfeeling face all week was probably just him keeping a tight rein on himself, another feeling I knew well. I wondered for a second whether that was a side effect of being the "big brother."


The laughter went on for a while longer. I think we were all just glad to relax a little. "So, are we okay?" Kevin asked me after a minute or so, sounding a little timid.

"As far as I'm concerned, we are," I said. "I like you, Kevin. And I like your cousin here." Brian returned my quick smile. "I just want to be your friends—nothing else. I'm not trying to get anything more than that from you."

"I know that," Kevin said. "After Brian told me what you'd said to him the other night, I realized that I'd misjudged you. Thank you, by the way, for taking care of him and telling him to take it slow." He was still talking to me, but now he was looking at Brian. I could see the fondness between them.

"What Brian's doing is a big deal," I said. "It changes everything. Nobody should do something like that without thinking things through."

Off to my left, I heard Robby blow his breath out. The rest of us looked at him, and he said, "Ben thinks everyone should think everything through. Whatever it is, he also has the same sermon: go slowly, think about it for a long time, and then don't do anything." He was smiling at me, but I could feel a lot of genuine criticism behind his words. But it wasn't anything I hadn't heard before: Robby and Ethan both thought I was a little cowardly. At least Robby could deliver his opinion gently.

"But in this case, he's right," Brian defended me. "My being gay is not just going to affect me and my family, but it could ruin my career and take my best friends down with me. I have a lot of things to think about before I do anything."

"And," Kevin interrupted him, "you should talk to us and let us help you make decisions. We'll have to be careful about the fans and the press, of course, but I don't want you to make yourself lonely and miserable just to protect us."

"Well, I do know something that I'd like to do right now," Brian said slowly. He paused, and we all waited until he added, "I want food."


So back to the kitchen we went. This time, though, we were noisier, walking all together and talking to each other. Just before we reached the end of the hall, we ran into Dad. He was coming through the door from the dining room, headed toward the staircase.We stopped and looked at him. He stopped and looked at us. Seeing who was there and that we were smiling and talking, he relaxed a little. "You men work everything out," he asked Kevin and me.

Kevin said a quiet, "Yes, sir."

"Yeah," I said. I looked at Kevin and added, "It was just a misunderstanding."

"Most things are when you get right down to it," Dad said as he crossed in front of us to go up the stairs. "You men clean up the kitchen when you're done. It's your mothers turn to cook tomorrow, and she'd better find everything clean and ready to go." We promised we would, and he was gone. He'd really been talking to Robby and me—he would never ask clients to clean the kitchen—but I figured that Brian and Kevin would probably pitch in to help even if they weren't asked.

We resumed our trip into the kitchen, but Kevin didn't move. He stood for a second, staring up the stairs where Dad had gone.

"You okay?" Robby asked him gently.

"Your dad is great," Kevin said very quietly.

Robby laughed a little bit. "Until we try to get away with something."

Then it was my turn to laugh. "Then you find out why it sucks sometimes to have a lawyer for a father," I said. "You should experience one of his interrogations. Fifty or so questions, rapic-fired point blank, and you never know which one is gonna screw you."

We were moving again, through the kitchen door. As he followed me into the kitchen, Brian continued the conversation. "Your dad's a lawyer? Then why does he run a recording studio?"

"He was a lawyer when we lived in Chicago," I explained as I headed to the fridge. "A corporate attorney, protecting corporations from other corporate attorneys."

"But he'd always wanted to be a musician," Robby went on. "He'd played in this little local band in college, and that got him interested in recording. After we moved here, he started playing around with building a studio. About five years ago, he decided to go for it. He loves to run the recording sessions, but I still think he'd rather be the one playing."

"What does he play?" Kevin asked.

Robby looked slightly confused. "If you mean what music, he plays classic rock."

"Only, it wasn't classic when he learned to play it," I interrupted with a grin.

"If you mean what instrument," Robby went on, "he plays guitar. He taught me to play. He taught all of us to play."

Brian looked at me. "You play guitar?" he asked.

"Yeah, we all do, just like Mom gave us all piano lessons. But I was good at one, and Robby was really good at the other." I still had the refrigerator door open. "I don't see any kind of leftovers. Are sandwiches okay?" The guys agreed to making sandwiches, and I began pulling things out. Brian took them and set them on the kitchen island, while Robby got plates, knives and glasses.

"What about Mike and Ethan? They play guitar and piano too?" Brian continued.

"Mike can play both a little bit," Robby said, "but he'd rather play drums. And Ethan can play just about anything: piano, guitar, bass, sax, flute..."

"Flute!" Kevin said, a little surprised.

"Yeah, he played sax in our high school band," I told him. "When he found out that the fingering system was the same for the flute, he borrowed one over Christmas vacation one year and taught himself to play. For Father's Day, we played Jethro Tull songs for Dad."

"Who's Jethro Tull?" Kevin asked.

"Some Sixties band," Robby said. "They have some pretty cool songs, and there's a rock'n'roll flute in most of them. Dad loves them. He says he even jammed with them once when he was in college."

"I think it's cool that you Dad gets to go back to music after all these years," Brian said.

The sandwiches were good, but the conversation was better. We were all really relaxed around each other now. Kevin was back to being the guy I'd met on Monday, and Brian told us embarrassing stories about AJ, Howie and Nick. I asked him once if there were any embarrassing stories about him. He said "no," but Kevin laughed and told me to ask him later, when Brian wasn't around.

Brian also warned Robby about trading pranks with Nick and told us some of the things Nick had pulled on the rest of them over the years. Robby just smiled knowingly and said, "Just make sure that Nick takes his shower first in the morning, Brian. That's all I'm gonna say."


Before long, Kevin was yawning. "Guys, I've got to get some sleep," Kevin said. "It's been a long day."

"And we didn't get much sleep last night," Robby added.

"You coming, Bri?" Kevin asked his cousin.

"Not yet," Brian responded. "You go ahead. I'm gonna help them clean up."

Kevin looked at Brian for a fraction of a second, his face expressionless. Maybe it was nothing, but maybe he was thinking something. All he said was, "Okay. Well, good night, guys." He stood up and yawned again, this time making Robby yawn too. When he saw that, he laughed a little and patted Robby on the back. Kevin gave Brian a quick hug, then he surprised me by grabbing me in a tight hug. "I'm sorry I misjudged you," he whispered in my ear.

"You were protecting someone you care about," I whispered back. "I would have done the same thing."

He released the hug and stood up straight. "Good night, Ben," he said with a little smile before he turned and disappeared through the dining room door.

A few sandwiches hadn't made much of a mess, so with three of us working we'd have the kitchen clean in no time. But before we got the food and condiments in the fridge, Robby was yawning again and looking bleary eyed. "Robby," Brian said, "why don't you go to bed? Ben and I can clean this up."

Robby looked at me with half-closed eyes. "You sure?" he asked.

"Yeah, go on upstairs, Robbo," I told him. "Get some sleep." It didn't take him long to yawn his thanks and go, leaving Brian and I alone.

Brian looked at me. "Robbo?" he asked.

I smiled at him. "That's our cute name for him: Benji, Robbo, and Mikey."

"What about Ethan?"

"Eath," I told him. "Like Heath but without the H. C'mon: I'll wash; you dry."

In a few minutes we had the dishes done. We'd been very diligent about it—except when Brian started splashing me with water. After the third time, I retaliated by putting suds on his nose. A couple of times we were laughing so loudly that I worried about waking my parents in the room above us.

Finally, the dishes were washed, dried and put away. The counters were wiped down; the sinks were rinsed; the kitchen was clean. Still Brian and I lingered, not quite ready to leave.

"Ben," Brian said finally, "I can't believe I just met you four days ago. You've really become a good friend."

I smiled at him. "I feel the same way. In just four days, you guys have become some of the best friends I have. Like I was telling Howie this afternoon, I hope we can stay in touch after you leave. I'd really like us to stay friends for longer than a week."

I was probably imagining it, but it seemed like Brian's grin faded a little while I was talking. But he was still smiling and still looking me in the eyes. "I know we're just friends..." He hesitated a second before going on. "...but can I sleep with you tonight? Just as friends."

I thought about how it had felt to wake up with him that morning. Even though it had reminded me how lonely I was for someone special in my life, it had still felt great to have a warm, living body next to me. And it was nice to hold on to Brian, even if he was just a friend and not a boyfriend. "Yeah," I told him quietly. "I'd like that."

His grin went back to full brightness.


We used the other staircase to get up to my rooms. I could make my way around pretty well in the dark, but I thought I should turn on the hall light for Brian, and it was best to do this away from my parent's room. As we went up the stairs, I draped my arm around his shoulders, and his arm went around my back. It felt very natural, very casual.

Upstairs, we stepped into the little hallway that connected the two bedrooms with my little living room. The first bedroom—the one that used to be Ethan's—was dark and quiet, but I pulled the door shut anyway. I'd always had a thing about wanting all the doors shut when I went to bed. The next door opened onto our bathroom, and I flipped the lights on as I went by. "There's usually a couple of new toothbrushes in that drawer," I told Brian, "if you want one. And after all the mustard and pastrami you just ate, I hope you do."

"Why?" Brian asked innocently. "Do you have any plans for my mouth?"

"I don't want you to exhale and set fire to the sheets," I said. I was a little surprised that he was flirting with me. After all, we were just supposed to be friends. "What do you want to sleep in? I'll loan you some clothes."

This time he paused and seemed uncertain. "Uh, what do you sleep in?" he asked.

"Boxers or sweatpants," I said. "Depends how hot or cold it is. Tonight it's probably sweatpants: it's a little cool outside, and I like to leave the window open if I can. I like to sleep in a cold room. I'll close it if you want."

"That's okay: leave it open. And sweatpants sound good to me, too," he said.

"'Need a T-shirt?" I asked.

"Not unless you don't have blankets," he smiled back at me. He used the bathroom while I changed into some sweatpants in my room and found clothes for him. He must have found a toothbrush too: I could hear him brushing. And judging from the amount of time he spent, he must have done a careful job. I guess celebrities have to protect their pearly whites.

While I waited for the bathroom, I straightened up the room a little—no need for him to see what a pig I was.

"My pastrami breath is all gone," Brian said as he entered. "Now I smell like Mentadent."

I feigned surprise. "What a coincidence! That's exactly the same kind of toothpaste I use."

"Imagine that! Hey, it is cold in here!"

"You want me to close the window."

"No, I'll survive," Brian replied, looking at the bed. "At least you have lots of blankets."

"I know it's kinda weird: I get the room cold and then have lots of blankets and six or seven pillows. Mom calls it my 'nest.'"

"'Sounds cozy to me," he said.

"Here are some sweatpants for you. I'll be back in a few," I said handing him the pants and then heading into the bathroom. When I got back into the room, Brian had put on the sweatpants and neatly folded his pants and shirt over the back of my chair. He had his back to the door as he put a CD into the little portable player on my dresser. He wasn't a muscular as Kevin—or Howie, for that matter—but his body looked strong and lean, like someone who didn't work at muscles but just had them naturally.

I was noticing how smooth the skin of his back looked when I began to hear Duke Ellington from the CD player. "You like Duke Ellington?" I asked him.

He turned around, startled a little. From the front, his body looked even better. Between basketball and all that dancing, Brian was in very good shape. "I haven't really listened to him much," he said about the music. "It just seemed like something relaxing to listen to. Do you mind?"

"No problem," I said, as I sat on the bed and took my socks off. "It's nice music to go to sleep to." I pulled the blankets back and slid between the sheets. The fabric was really cool against my bare back I shivered just a little and nestled down into the blanket. "This is so much more comfortable than that couch."

"And bigger too," Brian said. "Maybe you won't be crowding me all night."

I smiled up at him. "I'll crowd you if I feel like it. You look like you could use a really good crowding."

"D'ya want me to get the lights?" he asked.

When I replied "please," he flipped the light switch and climbed into the bed. I'd bought my king-sized bed right after I'd come home from college. I regretted it almost immediately, once I had to buy sheets for the thing and the price had reminded me of student loans. Then I regretted it again when it had taken five of us to wrestle the mattress of the stairs and into the room. Since then, however, I'd noticed that my sleep habits had changed. When I slept in a college dorm twin sized bed, I'd slept a little curled up. But now that I had the room to spread out, I did. And now that someone else was in it, it was nice that there was so much room.

"Ben, this bed is huge," Brian said.

"Yeah, it has its own congressman," I teased him. "You should have seen this room before I moved my desk and computer into Ethan's room. It was really crowded in here."

"I'd bet," he said. Then he turned on his side to face me and his voice got cute, "So, what dya need such a big bed for, huh?"

"Just in case I ever seduced a Boy Band, I wanted to have room for all of them," I said.

"Well, you've only got one of us here," he said, amused, "and I'm not seduced."

"It's just Friday," I told him, deadpan. "I've still got two days."

Brian didn't reply for a second, and the room was awfully quiet. I noticed then that my eyes had adjusted to the lighting. When Brian had first turned off the light, the room had been very dark, but now there as a warm yellowish glow coming through the open window from the security lights near the tractor barn. I could make out most of the room and the shape of Brian lying next to me, on his side and raised up on one elbow.

Brian sounded serious when he finally said, "Do you want to seduce me?"

I was serious too. "No, we're friends, and I think we should keep it that way." I wished then that I could see his face, but his back was toward the window so his face were all shadow to me. "You're leaving in two days," I went on, "and I don't think it's fair to either one of us to get too involved just in time to say 'goodbye' to each other."

Brian seemed to think about this. "That's pretty much what I was thinking," he said. "Besides, this is all pretty new to me, and I'm not sure how much I'm ready to do with a guy." He craned his head toward me a little, and his voice was softer when he said, "How long did it take you to fool around with a guy after you knew you were gay?"

I laughed remembering it. "About three hours," I said before rushing to explain. "It was at some party in college. I'd spent most of the night sitting at a table in the corner and drinking one rum & Coke after another, very slowly. Finally, the last couple went off somewhere, and the only people left were me and the guy throwing the party. Matt was his name. He was a pretty good friend of mine, and became a better one later."

That comment probably raised questions, but I let them go and went on with the story. "Well, anyway, Matt came over with a bottle of rum in one hand and a bottle of Coke in the other. He sat down, told me that he'd been watching me and asked me what was wrong. I don't know if it was trust or depression or rum that did it, but I told him that I was gay. He told me that he'd thought I was and that he was too. It felt great to finally tell someone..."

"I know," Brian interrupted. "I felt that with you the other night."

I smiled at him, not knowing if he could see it in the dim light. "We sat there and talked for almost two hours. I told Matt all about the things I'd been feeling, that I'd been keeping to myself. And he kept refilling my glass with rum and Coke—heavy on the rum, I think. After a couple of hours of listening to me, Matt leaned over and kissed me."

"What did you think when he did that?"

"Well, my first thought," I laughed, "was I bet my breath stinks from all this rum. Then I started to feel the kiss and I got into it. Pretty soon, Matt leaned back and said, "Come to bed with me." So I did."

"Just like that?"

"Yeah. Well, no. I mean, I'd known him for months—we had all the same friends—so I trusted him. It wasn't like I went to bed with a stranger."

"Did you..." Brian couldn't finish that question, so he tried another one. "What did you do?"

"We mostly made out," I said, feeling a little shy suddenly. "But he did let me, uh, explore. I'd never touched a naked man before, and I was drunk enough to just roam around with my hands. And my mouth" I could feel myself blushing when I said it. "He went down on me, and then we went down on each other. He was sober and careful, and we took all the necessary precautions."

"What happened with you two after that night?" Brian's breathing was a little shallow.

"Oh, we became good friends. He introduced me to his friends—the ones I didn't already know—and they kind of adopted me and helped me come out."

"Did you two ever...?" His voice trailed off.

"We never became a couple," I said, wondering if that answered the question he didn't know how to finish, "but we did fool around after that. We did lots of things in bed, but it was always very casual, just two friends having a good time, no strings attached. I had a couple of boyfriends in college, but mostly I just fooled around casually with friends of mine."

I yawned my way through the last word. Brian laughed a little. He managed to say, "You need to sleep," before yawning himself.

"So do you!" I said. "Say 'no' if you want to, but can I hold you while we sleep?"

"I'd like that," Brian answered, already moving toward me. Then we were together, lying on our sides, face to face. There was some space between our chests, but our bellies were touching, and Brian bent one of his knees, bringing it up between my legs. I felt his short, warm, heavy breaths against my neck and shoulder just a second before I noticed that I was breathing the same way. The warm, smooth skin of Brian's chest was against my chest. My left draped lazily over his side while I snaked my right arm under him and reached up to cup the back of his head in my right hand.

I stroked the back of his head. "Your hair is so soft," I whispered breathily.

"So is your skin," he said. His left hand was on my right shoulder, and his right hand was gently stroking the skin under my left arm. "I've never touched a guy like this. I never thought that they could have such soft skin."

"I like the way men feel better than women," I told him, recalling for a second the time Mike and I had had a similar conversation under very different circumstances. "Women's skin is soft and smooth, but men have some texture to it. It's smooth and soft, but there's some feeling there that I didn't notice on the few women I've touched. And men have these wonderful muscles under their skin," I added as my left hand began to feel firmly up the muscles of Brian's back.

Brian exhaled heavily, and I got an idea. "And," I went on, "men kiss better than women too. Women kiss very softly, almost like they're afraid of kissing. But men kiss firmly, like they'd eat you alive if you don't kiss them back just as hard."

"Kiss me," Brian panted. I put my left hand on his cheek and held his head. Angling his head slightly, I pressed my mouth on his. Our slightly open lips met and sealed against each other, firm but not too firm. I pulled back a littlle as I closed my lips, then opened them again and pressed again, a little harder. Again I pulled back and then pressed in harder, turning my head a bit. The tip of my tongue extended, brushed his lips, met his warm, wet tongue. The two brushed against each other as my lips continued to open wider then close a little, open then close, open, close.

Then Brian let out a little moan. He grabbed my head and pressed his mouth hard against mine. He forced my lips wider apart, exposing the edges of my teeth to the kiss. His tongue dove into my mouth, stroking, searching, exploring. I closed my lips around it and sucked, hard but not too hard.

After a short stretch of forever that wasn't long enough, the kiss was over. We both fell back slightly, our arms still holding each other and our breathing really heavy now. "I see what you mean," Brian said. "I've never felt a kiss like that from a girl."

I was about to say something wonderfully sweet, witty and wise, but a yawn stopped me. Brian laughed again. "Let's just say that was our 'good night kiss.' Good night, Benji."

"Good night, Bri Bri." I said. I still don't know where it came from.

"Bri Bri?" I could almost hear his eyebrows go up when he said it.

"I don't know," I said as I pressed my face toward his. I puckered my lips together and kissed him lightly. "It just came out." Another kiss.

"I kinda like it," he whispered before he kissed me back. "Good night."

I rolled onto my back and hugged Brian to me. With my back on the mattress and my head turned face up, I couldn't see him. But I could feel him, warm against me. My right arm was snaked around him, and my hand rested on his back. His head was on my right shoulder and his face was pressed into my neck. "Good night, Bri Bri," I said into the ceiling.

Then sleep took us.


* I spilled hot chocolate in my lap while typing.

MAN, I yawned a lot while typing that last part.

THIS PART TOOK A VERY LONG TIME, and I'm sorry. There was a pretty fierce thunderstorm here two weeks ago, and my computer took some damage. Everything seemed to work except my modem (so I couldn't post) and all the floppy drives (so I couldn't submit from another computer). Knowing that Nifty was on hiatus for a few days, I didn't worry too much about the newest installment (though it was Hell not having my email).

But I've kept writing. Look for Part 14 in a couple of days and Part 15 soon thereafter. I'm very sorry about the delay, and I thank everyone for the thirty-one email messages I had waiting for me when I got online again. I'm going to start answering right away.

YOU HAVE PROBABLY hear the news that both Kevin and Brian have announced their engagements. (Not to each other, you sick puppies. They're cousins, and even Kentucky isn't that backward. Now, Missouri... ) I, for one, am not the least bit upset. Good for them. I hope they're happy: they deserve to be, considering how happy their work has made so many people. But I did notice one significant thing during the televised interviews on MTV: in our stories, we writers have made the BSB out to be a lot smarter and more well-spoken than they really seem to be in person. Yeah for us!

PLEASE, no hate mail from Missouri.

FINALLY, to JLB in Florida, I don't know where you got those pictures of Danny Devito in drag, but thank you ... I think.








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