Disclaimer: This is a work of complete fiction.  It does not and will not exist outside the fantasy world.

Matt Caper

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Chapter 21

Throughout that Summer, we saw Kyle and Matt nearly every day. Garrett was often utilized by his mother to help with his barely two year old twin siblings. Nonetheless, he spent most weekends with us. We kept busy with fun activities, though very few of them held the same cost as laser tag. Mostly we just played in the park or the yard, or we played games inside. Landon and Noah joined us on many occasions, Will and Dane participated only a few times. Pete joined in nearly every time, as long as he wasn't working.

Behind us, Jake stayed in his own world, and we didn't see him as much as we liked. Nor did we see David very much, since Nicholas and TJ were away at camp. But according to Jake, David had found himself a girlfriend, so his time was bound to be occupied no matter where his friends were.

I received letters from both Nicholas and TJ, usually one a week from each boy. It wasn't nearly enough for this worried brother, but I suppose it was better than nothing. With all the activities that they wrote about, it's really a wonder they had time to write at all. I was glad they were having such a super time, but that didn't stop me from counting down the days until they returned. I wanted my boys back in my arms. Granny also received letters from Nicholas, whereas the letters I received were meant for me, my parents, and all the other boys. Truthfully, it was sweet of him to write consistently, when he must've been tired at the end of each day.

In other happenings on the home front, Pete's relationship with Matt took some getting used to. There were occasions when Matt stayed over without Kyle or Garrett. Because of that, eventually Matt had to tell Eli about him and Pete. I thought Eli would go ballistic when he found out, but apparently Matt thought he could trust him. I was the one who was proved wrong; Eli was very calm about it, taking it in stride. Ironically, as a result of that, I thought I'd better talk to him about it. It was the same night Matt shared his secret; Eli and I were in bed together, while Matt and Pete had gone out for some late night shopping at Wally World.

"Will you tell me how you feel about what Matt told you?" I asked. "I thought you took it really well."

"It's okay," he murmured. He was snuggled against me, but with his back to me, so I couldn't see his face to determine his feelings.

"That's it?" I asked, after a few moments of silence.

He sort of shrugged. "Yeah."

I fought the urge to laugh at his brevity of words. "You and Kyle are good buds, huh?"

"Yeah, Kyle's my best friend," he acknowledged.

"That's cool. He's a good kid."

Suddenly Eli turned over to look at me. "You think Kyle can do homeschool with us next Fall? He said his sister said she don't care, except somebody has to pick him up every day, `cause he rides the bus to regular school."

I grinned. "So you two have this all worked out already, do you?"

He offered me an innocent smile. "So can he?"

"Well, let me talk to Sarah about it myself. Also, I have to work out how we're going to do the homeschool thing this next year. Will's working full time now, and I expect Landon will be, too. Noah's old enough to watch you guys, but I have to make sure he's up to it, first."

"But we do our work on our own," he pointed out. "Except when you come home and help us."

"I know, hon, but Landon and Will were there to just watch you and take care of things. Someone responsible has to be there to make sure you're safe, and that you're fed, and all that good stuff." Eli turned back over and pushed back against me. I embraced him tenderly. "You're getting big, you know it? I'm very proud of you."

"For getting big?" he asked.

I laughed. "No, for being such an awesome kid."

He rotated his body again and snuggled against me front to front. "And you're an awesome dad," he said, and buried his face in my chest. He was sure to feel my heart swell a hundred times its original size.

One particular Saturday afternoon that Summer, in early July, Noah, Landon, Eli and I paid Granny a visit. It had been more than two years since I'd met her and the boys. She was getting closer to ninety, but still getting around okay. Her neighbors still helped her out, but I was now bringing a few things from the store to her every weekend. That Saturday it was frozen vegetables, milk and light bulbs, things she'd asked for the day before. We stepped into the front room, ready to greet her with hugs, until Noah stopped dead in his tracks. All of us were behind him and nearly crashed into each other.

"What's the hold-up?" I asked, for Noah wasn't moving at all. I peered around from the back of the group and saw another woman sitting in my usual recliner. She stood, and she and Noah seemed to be staring each other down. Immediately a dread began to form in the pit of my stomach.

"Wow," the woman breathed. "Noah, you've gotten so big!" She was nervous, wringing her hands together tightly.

I walked through to the kitchen, put up the items I'd brought over, took a slow, deep breath, and returned to the livingroom. Nobody had moved. I bent down and kissed Granny on the cheek.

"Alicia, this is Grey Taylor," said Granny in a tight voice. "Grey, this is Alicia Warren, my daughter-in-law."

I took in her appearance and found it lacking in taste. Her jean shorts were possibly tighter than anything TJ had ever worn, and all she wore above that was a crop top. In between was barely any flesh, mostly bones. Her weathered face wore too much make-up, and her skin what little there was of it was paler than death. She nervously waved, her voice trembled as she tried to giggle. "I heard a lot about you," she said in a heavy Texas drawl.

I moved closer to shake her hand, then I decided I'd better dictate a seating arrangement, lest everyone stand the entire time. "Please, sit down," I said dryly. I sat on the couch, which was beside Granny's chair with a table separating them. I sat closest to Granny, drew Eli down next to me, and Landon and Noah sat on the other end.

No one spoke for several moments, and I'm sure everyone felt as awkward as I did. Alicia darted her eyes from Granny to me to the kids repeatedly. Finally Noah spoke. "What're you doing here?" he asked his mother.

"Well I... I just got outta rehab, honey. They say I'm much better now. See, I had this drug addiction, and I thought I would die. But now here I am, good as new." She made another attempt at being gleeful and positive. "I wanted to see you. I missed my babies."

"We haven't seen you in two years or more," Noah continued sharply.

"I know, honey, but I couldn't help it. See, these addictions, they make people forget about the ones they love. They take hold of you, make you like you ain't even human anymore." She kept darting her hand across her bangs as if to adjust them, though they barely moved, what with all the hairspray in them.

"So, it's not your fault you ditched us for drugs?" said Noah, getting angrier.

"Well, uh, no, you're right, it's my fault. I came to apologize, really," she said, though I wondered if that was true. "I just wasn't myself, see. I got with this man who wasn't good for me, but see, I'm better now. No more drugs."

"Aren't you and dad still married?" Noah bit.

"Yeah, but honey, he ain't gonna he coming back."

"So? You're still married." She didn't seem to know how to respond. Noah kept going, and I could see his anger rising. "Who cares, anyway? We're not gonna live with you, not ever again."

Alicia recoiled and looked to be near tears. "I know, baby. I'm moving in with Granny, in your old room. I'm gonna get a job and help her out for a change."

Noah stood. "Whatever. I'll believe it when I see it. You never did nothin' but lie. And don't expect me to be your son again. You can fuck off." He stormed out the front door to gasps from both Alicia and Granny, and Landon followed.

I stood, too, pulling Eli with me. "We'll come back another time, Granny. Don't worry about Noah, he'll work through it."

"Okay, darlin'," said Granny.

I stopped and gazed at Alicia before walking out. "I hope you're serious about sticking around this time," I said. "Noah doesn't know it, but he still needs you." She began to shed a few tears and nodded, and Eli and I left. Landon was outside by our (brand new) minivan, consoling Noah, who was unsuccessfully fighting back tears. I approached him and gave him what I knew he needed; a strong hug. Then we piled in the vehicle, and I thought we were due for some ice cream.

In a booth at Braum's, our favorite burger and ice cream joint, I soothed Noah's anger by reaching across the table and straightening his growing bangs. Actually, that may not have helped his anger, but it helped me, at any rate, to have that physical connection. "Give her a chance," I said, and he scowled. "No, seriously. Just wait and see if she's going to follow through this time. If she doesn't, then she's still the lying bitch she always was."

"Damn right," he mumbled.

"And if she does follow through," I continued, "then maybe you can give her the chance to see how awesome you've become. Remember, she's the one who missed out on something good, not you."

"I'll think about it," he said darkly. "She doesn't deserve another chance to get to know me."

"Nope, she doesn't," I said, and he seemed surprised I would agree. "No, you're totally right. She doesn't deserve shit. She deserves less than shit. But if she's really clean now, and if she sticks around, you'll eventually stop being mad at her and forgive her for all the shit she did and didn't do, and you'll become a better person because of it."

"Maybe," he murmured. It was all I could hope for at that moment.

I had to give Alicia some credit for trying. She was at Granny's every time we came to visit for the rest of the Summer. I didn't plan on telling Nicholas about her until he was back home. I hoped by then she and Noah would be on much better terms. He eventually told her that Landon was his boyfriend, something we'd never explicitly told Granny. I thought she reacted pretty well to the news, until she caught me alone later.

"What're we going to do about Noah?" she whispered, even though we were outside away from the others.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You know. The whole gay thing with Landon and everything."

I frowned. "Why should we do anything about it?"

"Because," she drawled, "we can get him help. Maybe he can be fixed now, while he's still a kid."

I suddenly envisioned smacking her repeatedly in the face, but I resisted. "Alicia, he doesn't need to be fixed. That's just how he was made. He can't change his sexuality just like you can't change yours. Although you might think about changing your wardrobe. Just sayin'. You won't get a good job looking like that." She was still wearing clothes too tight for her, not to mention too revealing. "Noah's trying his best not to judge you for what you went through, so don't go judging him for something he can't do anything about."

She frowned, too, but she nodded. Hopefully I'd given her something to think about. Part of it apparently worked, though, because she eventually started changing how she dressed. And wouldn't you know it, she soon after landed a job. She became a waitress at a restaurant in town that I considered to be a decent place. We supported her by eating there as often as possible, which both surprised and delighted her. I figured the more moral support she had, the greater her chances were of making it in the long run.

While Noah was experiencing changes in his life, so was I. Firstly, I had decided to continue online classes during the Summer. I was going to be in school forever if I didn't, at least it felt like forever. I wanted to be done as soon as possible, so that I could concentrate on paying for Landon's college classes. He would be starting in the Fall and had opted for online classes, also, over going to the community college. He was working thirty something hours a week already, and he didn't want to lose that.

My job, however, did change. At the end of July, I stayed late one Friday to finish up some work. Afterward, I suited up in my speedo and swam a few laps, which I could do without a lifeguard now, since I was a lifeguard. When I exited the locker room after changing, Gloria shouted at me to come in her office.

"What's up?" I asked. I was shocked to see her desk was neat and clean, something it never was. I was used to seeing papers and office supplies and various objects piled all over it. "Are you going on vacation and didn't tell me?"

She chuckled and shook her head. "You don't miss a thing, do you? Yeah, I'm going on vacation. A long one."

I peered closely at her as I sat opposite her. "What does that mean?"

"I'm retiring. Getting the hell out of dodge."

"Oh my god!" I exclaimed. "Tell me you're not leaving right now! What the hell would I do?"

"Chill out!" she said. "I'm not leaving until I get my replacement trained. That's part of the deal. But I've already recommended to the City board that you take my place. And they're ready to offer you the position, because of the work you've done up `til now."

I nearly fainted in my chair. "Does this come with a raise?" I had no idea how much she made.

She laughed. "You'd get nearly double a year what you're getting now."

I had to stand up, before I actually did faint. "Holy shit!"

"Your hours will be more, you know that. But you get weekends off, unless you want to choose two weekdays to have off. You'll be salaried. You also get benefits, vacation days, and all that jazz. You start Monday if you say yes, and you better say yes, because I already told them you'd do it." She smiled sweetly.

"Yes, yes, yes!" I cried happily. "Definitely!"

"Good," she looked happy. "I'll see you Monday, no later than eight a.m."

I ran out of there actually, I rather danced out of there and couldn't wait to tell my boys. It pained me that Nicholas wasn't there for the news, too. But at least he would return in less than a month. I drove to Granny's first, thinking the boys might be there. They weren't, but I got to share my news with Granny and Alicia. Alicia poured some cheap wine for us to celebrate. It was really nasty, but we had a good time, anyway.

"Oh darlin'," Granny gushed. "I'm just so thrilled for you! You've come a long way in two years."

"I know it!" I downed the remaining wine in my glass and set it aside. "Alicia, that's nasty stuff, where did you find it?"

"Got it for free," she laughed. "They serve it at work."

"Remind me never to order any," I grinned. "Yeah, I'm on top of the world right now. I just wish Nicholas was home to share the good news. I'm not so worried about Landon and Noah's college education now."

Granny gasped lightly, and Alicia also looked shocked. I realized only then that I'd never spoken my intentions to pay for Nicholas' and Noah's college educations. "You mean to pay for Noah's college?" Granny asked.

"Yes," I said resolutely. "Nicholas and Eli's, too, but theirs will be a while, obviously. Noah only has a couple more years."

Granny sat back in her recliner and waved a hand at Alicia. "See, darlin'?" she told her daughter-in-law. "I told you this young man was God-sent." She turned back to me. "I told her you will have custody of the kids when I go, just so we're clear about that."

I glanced at Alicia worriedly, hoping she would be okay with that. Of course, there was no way I was letting her have the kids. "I told Granny she's not allowed to go anytime soon," I said to Alicia.

She smiled nervously. "It's okay, I know it's the best thing for them. But I'll still get to see them, won't I? I mean, if Granny passes away? She said you get this house, too."

I knew what she was getting at. She didn't want to be shut out of our lives, nor did she want to be without a place to live. "Don't worry, Alicia. I won't keep you from seeing them. You are their mother, for better or for worse. They need you. They'll always need you. And you can live in this house as long as you want to, I'll make sure of that. If the boys are eighteen, the property will be theirs, not mine. But if I know our boys like I think I do, they won't push you away." She was understandably relieved. "Anyway, I better get going. I haven't even seen the kids yet."

I found them at home, along with several extras, thanks to Landon's chauffer service. "House meeting!" I called from the livingroom. "Everyone join me in here!" Boys filed in from every which way. Pete and Matt came out of Pete's room, Landon and Noah came out of their room, Will and Dane came out of Will's room, then surprisingly, Jake and David came from the kitchen, followed by Eli, Kyle and Garrett. "Super, everyone's here! I have good news."

"You adopted another kid?" Noah quipped. I laughed, but no one else did. I realized they were seriously waiting to see if that was the news, which made me laugh even more.

"No, no kids today." I fixed my gaze on Jake, who smiled with anticipation. "If you ever want to sell this house, I'm ready to buy it from you."

"Whoa!" Jake exclaimed. "What'd you do, win the lottery?"

I shook my head. "You guys are looking at the new manager of the YCC." Everyone began exclaiming and congratulating me at once, and I beamed brighter than the sun. "I'll be working longer hours, but I still get two days off, whatever days I want. And I get benefits now, which means health insurance for me and the kids, and hopefully dental, too. I get paid vacations, and here's the best part: my salary is nearly double now what it was." Again exclamations circled the room.

"Does that mean our allowances double, too?" asked Landon.

I swiped at his head and missed. "No, but it means your college is paid for."

"Rock on!" he said, and he gave me a sweet hug.

Everyone dispersed, and I crashed into my recliner. Garrett immediately joined me. "Hey, kiddo. How was your week?"

He shrugged. "Okay." He didn't say more than that, so I just caressed him while resting my weary bones.

Jake joined us in a few minutes, sitting on the arm of the chair. "I'm thinking about your offer. It's not a bad idea. I guess it's time to buy a real house for myself. Would you let me remain in the guest house until I find another house?"

"What a stupid question, of course I will. You can stay there as long as you like, and we won't bother you."

"Hey, if I know you, Eli won't be your last kid. You're going to need all the room you can get." We both laughed, but I knew he was absolutely right.

Jake prepared all the paperwork the next day, Saturday, and by the Saturday after that, I'd been approved for a loan and owned my very own house. My parents were ecstatic about the job and the house, and I was about to jump out of my skin waiting to tell Nicholas all the great happenings.

Only a couple of days before Nicholas was slated to return, Jake came to me and asked for help moving. "You bought a house already?!" I asked with great surprise.

He grinned. "It's in my parents' neighborhood. Wait `til you see it! David's happy, because he can walk to my house now."

"That's awesome, Jake! Yeah, man, put me and the kids to work." Not having a whole lot of stuff, we had him packed and moved within a day. Mostly he had to buy new things, but the house came with appliances, which made things a lot easier. Actually, the house was pretty swanky, and we `oohed' and `ahhed' as he gave us the tour. "You have to promise we'll visit each other," I told him, pointing my finger threateningly. "If I don't hear from you in a long time, I'm loading up all these kids, and we're invading your house."

"Okay, okay!" he laughed. "Don't worry. We're friends for life."

"Damn straight," I said and hugged him.

Back at our house, everyone sort of lingered in the livingroom. "So?" began Landon. "The guest house is empty now. You're not going to rent it out, are you?"

I saw his hopeful look, and I knew he and Noah desperately wanted to move into it. I smirked and shook my head. "Nope, not gonna rent it." I looked around until my eyes landed on Will. "You're welcome to one of the bedrooms, if you want it."

Will was shocked I would address him instead of Landon. "No way, really?! Dude, I'd love it! I think I should pay you rent, though."

"No, man, no rent. No utilities. Just your own food. When you graduate college, then you can pay rent." He hugged me and left to pack his things, and presumably to call Dane. I focused on Pete next. "Same goes for you," I said. He and Matt, I knew, could use the privacy. Everyone probably assumed he and Matt were an item by now, but no one had brought it up, to my knowledge. "If you want a room over there, it's yours. You guys are welcome in the main house any time, that should go without saying."

"I make enough to pay rent now," Pete informed me. "Let me do that, at least."

"Pete, it's not like you're a charity case or anything. I just don't like charging my friends rent. I've been blessed to have this house, and I want to share it. So go pack your things. You and Will can fight over the rooms."

I sat in my recliner and sighed, and Landon frowned. "But there's three rooms in the guest house," he said, as if to remind me.

"There is?" I played dumb. "I thought there were only two?"

"You know there's three," Landon scowled. "Shouldn't someone move in there, too?"

I sighed as if being heavily taxed and stood up. It was difficult to keep from grinning. "Then I guess you better go claim the room you want." Once I said that, I couldn't hold back my grin any longer. Noah squealed, and they both attacked me with a hug. But a few seconds later, they ran to their current bedroom and almost immediately ran out again, one carrying a nightstand, the other carrying a lamp. They ran to claim their bedroom, which turned out to be the one they had before we moved.

Eli appeared before me moments after that. "Do I get my own room, too?"

I nodded. "If you want it, absolutely. You and Kyle don't have to sleep on the couch anymore."

"Cool!" he grinned. "Can I still sleep with you sometimes?"

"Of course you can," I said, smoothing his hair. "Any time you want." He ran to gather his things as well, and I followed. "Are the boys coming over tonight?" I asked. It was Friday again, and Nicholas was coming home the next day.

"Yes," he mumbled, pulling clothes out of our closet. "Pete said he would pick them up. Will you help me move my dresser to the other room?"

"Sure. Which bedroom do you want?"

"I want Landon and Noah's old room." So we moved Eli and everyone else to their new dwellings. I had to move the extra bed in my room to the guest house. When Mom and Dad moved, they took only their bed from the master bedroom, and I moved the two beds from my old room into the master. That left my old room the only empty one, only now it was Pete's room. All the boys appeared to be entirely happy, and I was happy to have two extra bedrooms now.

I was also very, very excited knowing I'd see Nicholas and TJ again soon. I could think of nothing else as Garrett and I got in bed that night. I barely slept a wink, and even though the bus from the camp wouldn't arrive until late afternoon, I got up early, had breakfast, and began preparing for my boy's return. I hung the banner we'd all made, double checked my shopping list for the celebration we would have that night, and then dressed in sloppy clothes and left everyone sleeping while I did the actual shopping, and filled my van with gas. It was late morning when I returned, and still no one had stirred. I put up the groceries and gifts, shed my clothes, and jumped in the shower.

In the midst of my shower, I was startled as the door opened and Garrett joined me. "Morning, sleepy head," I said, kissing that head. He mumbled a greeting in return and began soaping up, while I shampooed my hair. I washed his hair next, which he seemed to really enjoy. Only when I shut off the water and retrieved towels for us did he speak.

"Will you dry me, too?" he asked sweetly. Once I'd given myself a once over with my towel, I grabbed his and began with his hair. Then I knelt before him and wrapped the towel around him, rubbing him all over his body. He got hard as I was doing that, though I had expected it. As usual, he didn't seem to mind, or even notice. When he was sufficiently dry, I returned my attention to myself, while Garrett lingered near.

He followed me to the bedroom, and I retrieved the underwear from his overnight things first, knelt down again, and he stepped in them and allowed me to pull them up. I donned my own underwear and lounged on the bed, where Garrett joined me yet again. "What do you want for lunch? Or breakfast, as it were?" I asked him.

"Dunno," he mumbled, as his limbs entangled with mine.

"Are you hungry?"

"Yep."

I chuckled. "I'll figure out something that's quick. I just need to rest for a minute."

That "minute" turned into two hours. When I awoke, hearing voices from the front of the house, I was immediately in a panic. I scrambled to find my phone, scaring Garrett in the process. When I discovered I still had a couple of hours before we had to leave for Amarillo, I relaxed. "I was afraid I'd overslept," I explained to Garrett, who was watching me fearfully. "Nicholas would kill me."

Garrett and I dressed, and he followed me to the kitchen. "Lunch in a few," I called to the boys playing the Wii. I dragged out pre-formed burger patties and cooked them on my countertop grill, which was quick and easy. I sent texts to the boys in the guest house, and they soon joined us. I made everyone get dressed and ready immediately afterward, and we left home half an hour before I had scheduled us to leave. I wanted to be sitting there waiting when the bus arrived. Traveling with me were Eli and his three friends, and Pete. Landon, Noah and Will agreed to stay at home, bake the cake, and get everything else ready, and Dane came to spend the day with them.

I should've expected the bus to be late. Buses are never on time. They arrived an hour and a half later than they were supposed to, and we were all starving by then. But I didn't care about anything else when I saw that bus. The three of us who knew Nicholas and TJ were about to wet our pants with excitement. We watched as kids began to step out wearily, and it seemed like forever before we saw anyone we knew. But at last TJ appeared, grinned when he saw us, and ran to us. I offered him a great big bear hug and kissed his newly tanned cheek.

"Oh my god, I missed you!" I cried, finally letting him hug everyone else. And when TJ moved away, I saw Nicholas standing behind him, grinning from ear to ear. Or I saw someone; no one had paid attention to him, because he certainly didn't look like the Nicholas I knew.

I gasped loudly, and everyone turned to see what I was staring at. "Who the hell are you?!" I said, gaping. As well as also being tan like TJ, my Nicholas had grown at least four inches in height, and his body had filled out really nicely. He actually looked like a fourteen year old, something I didn't expect until he was sixteen.

"I missed you, too," he smirked, and his voice shared with us yet another significant change; it wasn't deep by any means, but it wasn't the same high-pitched boy voice it used to be. There was a definite gravelly tinge to it that most boys have between ages twelve and fifteen. I felt like I'd missed a whole season in his life, not being around for those changes. Like a frog's tongue lashes out to snag a fly, I rushed forward at sonic speed and locked him in my embrace.

"I'm never letting you go again," my words were muffled against his head. "I missed you so much." After more than a full minute, he had to pry himself away so the others could welcome him home. I gathered their luggage, packed it in the back of the van, and ushered everyone in. The two boys fawned over our new van, which I'd forgotten they hadn't seen yet, while I headed us back home.

Garrett was able to claim the front seat again, for Nicholas and TJ remained together in the front bench seat, along with Pete, while Eli, Kyle and Matt claimed the back. Eli's three new friends were introduced, and then it was all about camp. The entire drive back home was given to story after story, with Nicholas and TJ playing tag team with their descriptions. It was all so exciting and all hard to take in at once. They really had done a lot, and I was amazed. Nicholas obviously felt his money was well spent. Already they wanted to go back the next Summer, and already I was selfishly dreading that.

The boys knew me well enough to know I'd planned a party for their return, so they weren't too surprised. Nevertheless, we had great fun. We delved into our dinner as soon as possible, and then we delved into a load of sweets that I knew I would regret later. When we were settling in the livingroom with our choice of dessert, they finally had exhausted most of their stories of camp, at least the ones they wanted to tell right away. "So what else is new around here, besides a new van and new friends for Eli?" Nicholas asked.

"Pete bought my Caddy," I began. "Oh! I got a promotion to manager at work, with a salary, benefits, vacation and everything. Gloria retired. Um, let's see, I bought this house when I got my new job. Jake doesn't live here anymore, so we have two extra bedrooms. Pete, Will, Landon and Noah all live in the guest house now. What else, guys?" I asked the others. TJ and Nicholas were already floored by that much information alone, but then Noah dropped the bomb that I'd forgotten about.

"Momma's back," he said quietly. "She lives with Granny. They want us to come over tomorrow. She even got a waitress job at Texas Rose. She's back for real this time." I was glad to hear him speak so positively about her.

Nicholas remained silent and expressionless for a moment, until he nodded. "I knew she'd come back someday. She doesn't get drunk anymore or anything?"

Noah shook his head firmly. "She's doing good, Nicky. She wants to see you bad. I didn't wanna talk to her for a while, until I figured out she wasn't gonna leave again."

Nicholas shrugged. "I guess I'll see for myself, tomorrow." That was all he said about it.

Most of us gathered to watch a movie later in the evening. Pete and Matt snuggled in one recliner, and I saw Nicholas taking notice of the couple, though he said nothing. I was disappointed, then, when he joined TJ, Eli and Kyle on the couch instead of taking his usual place with me. Garrett snatched up that spot, though, and I welcomed him warmly. Nicholas noticed that as well and watched us curiously.

I drove TJ home after the movie, knowing his mom would be anxiously waiting for him. Not long after that, people began dispersing to their own living spaces, though the four youngest were still playing the Wii. "I need a TV in my room," Eli announced, "so we can watch our own movies and play games."

"Use your allowance," I suggested. "I'm exhausted, so I'm going to bed. Goodnight, boys."

I found Nicholas in the bedroom, and it was such a joy to actually see him there, as opposed to merely imagining his presence. He was putting away the last of his travel things. I was grinning like a fool while watching him. He caught my expression and grinned in return. "What?" he asked.

"I'm so ridiculously happy to have you back. I missed the hell out of you." I began to undress, now beginning to feel the strain of the long day in my muscles.

"I can't lie, I had a really great time. I'm glad I went," he said. "But I thought about you every day, actually mostly at night. I wanted to sleep in TJ's bed, so I could sleep better, but most of the other boys wouldn't have understood. It's hard to sleep without you."

"I know what you mean!" I exclaimed. "At least I had Eli. Well, until he made his new friends. Garrett usually sleeps with me, now. But they're not you."

He smiled sweetly, also beginning to undress. I was sitting in my underwear, on the bed, rubbing one of my feet. "I need a long, hot bath," he stated. "Will you come talk to me just for a while?"

"Of course, hon."

"Aww, I missed you calling me `hon'!" He removed all his clothes, tossed them in the dirty laundry basket, and I followed him to the tub. Amusingly, I noted he still didn't have a stitch of hair on his body, save for his head. I also noticed he didn't have as much of a tan line as I expected.

"Lots of skinny dipping there, I expect?" I mused.

He giggled. "Yeah, but mainly the boys. Most of the girls wouldn't strip off." What happened next caught me way off guard and threw me for a loop. Nicholas bent over at the tub, turned on the water, and remained bent over as he tested the water temperature. I suddenly got the weirdest sensation in my gut as I stared at his backside, and to my surprise and horror, my cock sprang to life with a vengeance. I couldn't make sense of it, except that his ass was fuller now, more plump than before, and a slight golden tint made it much more sensual and inviting than I ever thought it could be.

Involuntarily, I emitted a guttural sound while wondering just what to do. I decided I needed to get out of there before Nicholas noticed. But a couple of seconds later, it was too late. He turned his head, still bent over, and looked to see what my issue was. His eyes landed on my tented briefs, and his eyebrows lifted. I rushed to come up with an excuse.

"I, um... Well, I haven't jerked off lately. I mean, it's been more than a week, so..."

"It's no big deal," he told me, but his voice sounded a little funny, I thought. "TJ and I didn't really have problems with that, because we all decided if all of us jerked off in the shower together, then nobody had to be embarrassed about it."

I smiled in spite of myself. "Hey, you're using correct grammar now." Suddenly I felt remiss in not correcting my boys' grammar in every day speech. When I helped them with their homework, I always taught them the best I could, but I'd never stopped them in our regular conversations when they said something grammatically incorrect.

"I'm getting older and smarter," he said with mock arrogance. "It's time I learned to be a proper gentleman with proper language skills."

"Okay, then," I laughed. He stood upright while the tub was filling, and when he turned around, I discovered his cock was throbbing as well. Mine jumped, as if trying to draw me to his. "Maybe I should wait for you in bed," I suggested. "This is, well, kind of weird."

He nodded sadly and stepped into the water. "I won't take too long," he said.

Back in the bedroom, Garrett was waiting for me. He'd already undressed and sat still on the edge of my bed. His eyes noticeably widened when he saw I was hard, and immediately his cock jumped up and joined the party. I stopped and stood a couple of feet from him, trying not to lose myself in frustration. But before I could do or say anything, Matt walked in the room. He was in his underwear, too. He grinned when he saw the state of us.

"Dude, you didn't tell me you and Grey were fucking," he said to Garrett, who blushed terribly and ducked his head.

"We're not, Matt," I said firmly. "This isn't what it looks like."

"Oh." He seemed disappointed. "Then what made you catch wood?"

"Nothing," I said. "I haven't jerked off in a while. It's just one of those things. Did you want something?"

"Do you have a plunger? The other toilet is stopped up."

"Yeah, hang on." I stepped back into the bathroom, where Nicholas was stroking himself slowly. It occurred to me his body height wasn't the only thing that had gotten bigger. He stopped abruptly when I came in. "I just need the plunger," I said and retreated again. I gave it to Matt and hoped he would leave right away. "Don't stuff too much toilet paper in it at once," I advised. "Flush several times if you have to."

Matt smiled and nodded. "Y'all have fun," he said and winked, then left the room.

I merely shook my head. "That boy is something else." I came to the bed, and Garrett scrambled to pull the covers back for me. We settled in and snuggled up as usual, but it was very awkward for me since both of us were still aroused. That was nothing, however, compared to the following situation. Garrett suddenly cupped my crotch and began to fondle me.

"Whoa," I gasped. "Whatcha doing?"

He looked up at me with wide, affectionate eyes. "Matt said I should do the things he taught me, with you. He said you'd love it."

I smiled and kissed the boy's nose. "Don't pay attention to Matt. Do you want to do those things with me?"

He gave a half-shrug. "It would be okay, I guess. I like it the way it is better, though."

I nodded, very much relieved. "So do I, Garrett."

He smiled. I loved his smile. "Really?"

"You bet, hon. Things are perfect the way they are. I don't wanna have sex with you. I just wanna love you and make you feel safe."

He was obviously as relieved as I was. "You love me?" he asked, both with surprise and with hope.

"Yes, I do," I said, and kissed his lips. "You're like my adopted son, just like Eli. I'll always love you."

He clung to me like there was no tomorrow, and I held him securely against me. We remained in that position until Nicholas exited the bathroom. I turned my head to see him, and he frowned deeply. "What the matter?" I asked. He had his towel wrapped around his waist and folded his arms across his smooth, bare chest.

"I thought it would be just you and me tonight," he muttered.

"Garrett always sleeps with me, I told you that." Garrett lifted his head to watch us.

Nicholas shook his head. "Find somewhere else to sleep, Garrett." He threw our covers back. "Go sleep with Eli, or get in one of the empty beds." Garrett, looking scared shitless, didn't move. "Go!" Nicholas ordered.

"Nicky!" I began to reprimand him. "What's gotten into you? Garrett's staying right here."

Nicholas flushed red with anger. He threw his wet towel on the floor, yanked a pair of underwear out of the dresser, put them on, and turned back to us with a look of death. "Then I'll sleep somewhere else." He stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him.

"You stay right here," I told Garrett, and I tore after Nicholas. I caught up to him in the livingroom and followed him down into the basement, where he apparently intended to sleep. I kept forgetting about the basement, which gave us both a third empty bedroom and a third bathroom. "This is so unlike you," I said, though Nicholas kept moving without looking at me. "You didn't mind Eli sleeping with us, why would you care about Garrett?"

"Garrett's not your son," he mumbled. We reached the bed downstairs, and Nicholas got in it facing away from me. "Go away, please."

"No," I defied him. "I want to resolve this." He didn't move, or look at me, or speak. Finally I forced his body over toward me, but he jerked it back. "What is wrong with you?!"

"It's obvious I've been replaced," he said darkly. "I was gone too long, so you had to get another boy to replace me."

"That's ridiculous!" I cried.

"Oh yeah?" he spat, turning toward me. "He sits in the front seat on the way home, he cuddles with you in the recliner, and he cuddles with you in bed." He turned away again, pulling the blanket up to his neck. "So I'll sleep down here from now on."

"Nicky, hon, that's not true," I said gently, reaching to caress him. But as soon as I touched him, he violently shrugged me off.

"Go be with fucking Garrett!" he shouted.

I recoiled, feeling very hurt. This was so unlike Nicholas, I didn't know how to respond. I left him there and returned to my room.

"I'm really sorry," Garrett whispered as I got in bed.

"It's not your fault, Garrett," I soothed. "I love Nicholas with all my heart, but I also meant it when I said I love you. I'd never kick you out of my bed, if you didn't want to go. Nicky will get over it. It's probably just hormones." I didn't believe it was merely hormones, but I didn't think I was in the wrong this time. I just needed to figure out a way to resolve things.

"I love you," said Garrett, embracing me tightly.

I kissed his head and settled against him. "I love you, too. Sweet dreams."