Reservations – A Novel


By Drew Filchak




Chapter Seven:  "Complexities"



          “Joel.  Wake up.  Cleats is gone.”

          Alarm filled his unfocused russet eyes.  He blinked twice as he tensed and struggled to sit up. 

          “What time is it?”  His normal, melodic baritone rasped with gruff raggedness.

          “Twenty till five.” 

          My grasp on his shoulder caused his neck to bend towards my hand as he reflexively sought to come closer to the intimacy offered by my touch.  He snorted once then shook his head to clear the sleep from his eyes. 

          “What happened?  I feel like we only just now returned to bed.  What do you mean gone?”  He swung to a sitting position on the side of the bed and I dropped to my knees between his legs.

          I moved my hand from his shoulder to his waist and looked up to him.  I felt my face pinch with worry.  “I could only doze after we returned to bed and finally I got up a few minutes ago.  The boy’s door was open and I saw that Cleats, Cody and Ben weren’t in their beds so I checked the other rooms and found Ben and Cody on the couch in the study, but no Cleats.  Cody’s still asleep, but Ben’s awake and he told me.”

          “Told you what?”  His eyes met mine.

          My jaw clenched once.  “That Cleats wouldn’t listen and went to find this fucking Johnny Ice guy.  Ben said Cleats is convinced that Mauricio was murdered.” 

          A wrenching spasm shook me.  I felt instantly nauseous with worry; my stomach suddenly feeling like it was going to heave.  I grabbed my mouth just as I spit out some partially digested food mixed with a large amount of bile.  Joel grabbed a handful of tissues from the side stand and pressed them to my hand.  The emotion and adrenaline sped through my body. 

          “Blair!  Calm down now, okay?”  His unyielding, firm tone reached through my upset and stopped the worry from spiraling further.  “What else did Ben say?”

          I wiped my mouth and hand. 

          “I told him that my boy could handle himself.”

          I snapped my head towards the annoyed voice coming from the bedroom door.  Ben stood in the doorway with a blend of anger and worry on his face.  I saw his face twist with upset as I quickly wiped the remaining spit from my mouth and sat back onto my heels.  His glare held blatant irritation and challenge.

          “You guys think we’re such little kids because we’re just fifteen, but you need to just fuckin’ chill out.  We can take care of ourselves.”

          I felt my emotion change from worry to resentment and anger.  My head pulled back and I started to respond with my own irritated reply until Joel’s gesture towards Ben stopped me.  He reached his arm towards Ben and signaled with a flip of his hand for Ben to come towards us.

          “C’mere, buddy,” Joel said then patted the spot on the mattress next to him. 

          Ben’s look changed from irritation to hesitancy as he tilted his head to the side and dropped his gaze to the floor.  “You don’t have any clothes on.”

          My eyes darted back to Joel’s groin and looked at the soft organ hanging over his lightly haired testicles to the mattress, resting its head on the sheet.  I dropped my chin then, unable to contain a smirk and rubbed my eyes once in surprised realization.  My brief irritation faded.  Joel looked down at himself and grunted in shared surprise, then reached for his discarded pair of briefs that lay on the floor next to the bed.

          “Sorry,” he chuckled self-consciously then quickly dropped his feet through the leg holes and slipped the briefs over his narrow hips.  I watched as his member flopped over the waistband of the shorts.  He rearranged his now covered genitals with a quick, unconscious grasp then turned back towards the red-faced youth. 

          “Better?”  Joel grinned.  Ben tipped his head and smirked. 

          “Nice ass.”

          I chuckled lowly as I sighed.  Instantly, I was thankful that I didn’t snap back at him.  The flash of anger I’d felt at Ben’s previous heated words turned into a confusing blend of worry about their implied meaning and an instant understanding of the truth they contained.  In many ways, they weren’t kids anymore.  Life had robbed them of their youth.  They were now young adults whether I liked the idea or not. 

          Joel patted the bed again and Ben crossed the room to join us.  Our eyes met.  I saw a small bit of regret lying next to the steadfast challenge in his blue-eyed gaze. 

          “I know that you’re not kids anymore in a lot of ways, Ben, but leaving in the middle of the night to go after a very dangerous sounding drug dealer isn’t a very adult thing to do.”  I paused as he stopped in front of me.  I saw him wince slightly at my words.  “Your boy Cleats could be in real trouble and I know you think I’m over-reacting, but you should have let us know when you couldn’t stop him.”  I held his gaze then reached for his hand and loosely wrapped my fingers around his.  “I wish you’d let us all be together in this.” 

          Joel nodded, but remained silent.  Ben’s eyes filled with tears.

          “Why?  So you can get so upset you make yourself sick?  We all kept trying to tell Mauricio that he needed to stay away from Ice and The Brood, but ...” the tears rolled down his cheeks silently, “he just kept going back.  He wanted to get in with Ice so he could get rich and go and show his mom and sister that they were wrong calling him a loser.”

          Joel pulled Ben close as his tears fell.  “It’s all right, Ben.  I know you miss him.”

          Ben winced when he heard Joel’s words.  He pulled from the embrace and wiped away the tears.  “I’m not gonna miss that asshole.  It’s his own fault.  I told him to meet us back at the crib after paying off Ice.”  He shook his head once violently then I watched as a new wave of tears fell.  His words shocked me not because of their content, but because of their unspoken meaning.  My heart ached as I realized that Ben wanted to distance himself from the loss of his friend so that he didn’t have to deal with the pain of losing him or deal with the guilt of abandoning him.  I suddenly felt a strong need to shift his focus because I could feel myself suddenly drowning in the need to help the boys and not knowing if I had what it took to deal with the intensity of their very real problems.

          “How long ago did Cleats leave, bud?”

          He looked at me through his tears then wiped them away with the back of his hand.  He shrugged.  “An hour ago, maybe.  I don’t know.”

          I glanced at Joel and saw the same resigned look in his eyes that I was feeling.  “Do you have any idea where this Ice guy is?”

          Ben immediately shook his head.  “No.  None of us do.  Cleats was the only one that ever even met the scum with Mauricio and that was on the street somewhere.  He just really wanted to find out what he could, but he said he’d be back before the doctor guy showed up.” 

          Relief flooded me and Joel saw it in my face.  He turned from me to Ben.  “So are you saying that you think that Cleats only wanted to find out information and not confront Ice?”

          “Cleats is stupid, Fu Man, not dumb.  He was going to find Ranus and pump him for the info.  Then he was going to the cops.”  He looked at me briefly then dropped his eyes.  “If you’d have stayed around long enough for me to get up without waking Cody, I’d have told you that.” 

          “Sorry.  I guess I freaked a little bit.”

          He nodded.  “Enough to make yourself puke.  You gotta stop worrying about us so much, Blair.”

          “You may be right, Ben,” Joel began, his voice quiet and controlled.  “But all of you must remember that you’re only fifteen and sixteen and leaving in the middle of the night by yourself is not only the wrong thing to do, but it’s dangerous.”

          “He made me promise not to tell you guys.  What was I supposed to do?”

          “See,” Joel continued as he placed his hand on the back of Ben’s neck, “that’s where the problem started.  Asking you to do that and you agreeing put us in the situation where Blair got too upset with worry and you got angry with us for treating you like kids.  I know you guys haven’t had anyone to answer to for a while, but now I need to remind you that part of our rule about respecting us and our things also includes not keeping things from us and letting us know where you are.”

          “He knew you wouldn’t let him go, but he had to find Ranus now because he always disappears during the day.”

          “No.  We wouldn’t have let him go, not alone at least, but neither one of you gave us a choice to go with him or try and work out another solution, now did you?”  Joel tilted his head in question towards the teen.  He waited while Ben first glanced at me then back between his knees to the floor.

          “What?”  He finally asked.  “Are you saying that you’d have gone with him?”

          “I’m not saying what I’d have done, Ben.  But whatever it would have been, I can assure you that Cleats wouldn’t be out on the streets alone in the middle of the night no matter how tough he is or how used to it he’s become.”

          I watched as he processed Joel’s reply and wondered if I could have remained so calm and in control.  My stomach still was tight with worry about Cleats being out alone, but at least my fear that he was going to confront some thug by himself had eased a bit.  I felt a little of my frustration from earlier flare again.  Why couldn’t Ben see that we worry because we care?  What was stopping him from trusting us or from believing that we wanted to keep him and all the boys safe for a change?  My frustration and anger reached my eyes and as I looked again at Ben, I saw that he recognized it for what it was. 

          Renewed irritation and defiance flashed back at me from behind his blonde bangs.  “I’m sorry, okay?”  He flung the words back at me.  “I fucked up.  Geez, are you gonna stay mad at me for the rest of my life?”

          My fatigue overwhelmed me suddenly.  The restless hour and a half of sleep I’d managed before waking up an hour ago had failed miserably to refresh me even slightly.  I rubbed my eyes repeatedly then sighed wearily.

          “No, Ben, I’m not.  I’m a little tired, sorry.  But if you’d drop the know-it-all attitude I promise I’ll try and not treat you like a kid all the time.”  I winced as I saw his face twist in surprise.  ‘Shit!’ I thought, ‘That wasn’t what I meant ... or was it?’

          “Ben, I’m sorry,” I said as I leaned forward onto my knees and lifted his chin.  “That came out wrong, okay?  I didn’t mean it like that.  What I meant was ....”  I dropped my words, suddenly at a loss for an explanation.  “I ... I don’t know what I meant, bud.  Just ... sorry.  I need some coffee.”

          I released his chin when I received no response and stood up with a sigh.  I felt Joel’s eyes on me, but ignored them as I walked from the room.  I glanced into the boys' room and verified that Chris and Timmy and Mau were still there, then walked to the study to check on Cody.  He remained asleep on the couch with his arms wrapped tightly around his chest.  I pulled a light blanket from the basket at the end of the couch and covered him then made my way to the kitchen.

          I watched the coffee drip into the decanter while my thoughts drifted to the boys’ reaction after Ranus had called with the news.  Timmy had started to cry and buried his head in Mau’s chest.  As usual, Mau remained silent, and surprisingly, so did Chris.  No one but Timmy shed any tears though I could tell both Ben and Cody were on the verge.  Cleats had paced around the room continuing with his assertion that Mauricio never used drugs and that this had all been Ice’s doing.  Cody finally left the room having remained silent himself.  Timmy’s crying continued and Joel moved over to where Mau and Timmy sat.  Without thinking, Joel had reached towards Mau to rub his shoulder in comfort and Mau lurched back from his hand releasing Timmy.  I watched as fear had filled Mau’s eyes as they darted from Joel to me.  Joel jerked his hand back in realization of what he’d inadvertently done.  His words of apology and repeated assurance that he was sorry seemed to ease Mau’s building and apparent desire to flee.  Cleats had noticed the exchange and switched from his grumblings long enough to chastise Mau for being such a baby.  Chris and Ben had glared at Cleats and Chris told Mau to come on over by him were he sat on the mattress and leaned against the bed.  He also told Mau to chill out, but he’d followed it with his own assurance that Joel wouldn’t hurt him.

          The boys hadn’t wanted to talk much after that, so Joel and I said goodnight and told them to come wake us up if they needed anything.  And now I realized, as I stared at the slowly filling pot, that even with the bedroom door open, I hadn’t heard Cleats leave.  I blamed myself as much as either one of the boys.  While I lay in bed later, my mind kept trying to wrap its thought around Mau’s terrified response and visceral fear towards Joel’s touch.  Joel had muttered repeatedly that he knew better than to try and touch Mau and had finally drifted to sleep.

          As I came out of my thoughts, I was slightly startled to realize there was another presence leaning next to me against the counter.  I looked over to find Ben’s blue eyes studying me intently.  I offered him a weak grin, but remained silent.

          “Fu Man said we needed to kiss and make up,” he said with a smirk and a roll of his eyes.  “I told him I wasn’t kissing no guy, no matter how hunky they were.”

          I think it was the roll of his eyes more than his words that caused me to chuckle.  “You can stop calling me hunky anytime now, pup.  I’m not built that well, you know.”

          Ben grinned.  “I don’t know man.  When you came into the room without your shirt and just your whities on when Ranus called, your muscles sure were all over the place.  I think even Cleats was impressed.  And I know both Chris and Cody threw wood.  That’s why Cody got up and left, cause he was worried you’d see it.”

          I chuckled then sighed.  “Sorry.  I wasn’t thinking.”

          “Don’t be.  I know Chris and Cody loved it and it makes me want to use Joel’s workout stuff.  Do you think he’d show me some Kung Fu moves?”

          My nod and grin brought a brightening to Ben’s face.  “So when did you join Cody on the couch?”

          He shrugged.  “When I couldn’t get Cleats to stay here.  I could tell Cody was cold so I got behind him to warm him up.  I couldn’t go back to sleep myself.”

          “You two looked pretty comfortable together when I came in looking for you.  Have you always slept together like that?”

          He suddenly looked uncertain as he shrugged in response to my question.  “I don’t know.  Maybe.”

          I studied him.  “It’s okay, Ben.  I didn’t mean anything by it.”  I lightly bumped my shoulder into his, then grabbed a couple of coffee mugs and set them in front of the almost full pot.  When I turned back to Ben, he was rubbing the edge of his thumbnail against the edge of his middle fingernails in focused study as if he could file one with the other. 

          Quietly he spoke to me without looking up.  “I like him next to me when I sleep.  He sometimes tries stuff with me, but I ... I don’t want that shit and he knows it.  But he always tries it anyway and tells me he loves me.” 

          That surprised me.  It wasn't what he said that surprised me, because I’d already suspected as much, but the fact that Ben would open up enough to share it with me lightened the heaviness I was feeling after our earlier tension in the bedroom.  I turned back to the pot and quickly filled our cups then brought them with me and leaned again next to him.  He smelled the aroma then sipped the hot liquid gingerly.

          After my first sip, I turned my head to him halfway.  “And what do you say to him when he tells you that he loves you?”

          He quickly looked at me then returned his eyes to his cup.  “I tell him I love him back.”

          My eyebrows lifted in surprise.

          “I’m not gay, Blair.  I just ... like hangin’ close to him when I sleep.  I like him in my arms, you know, but that doesn’t make me gay, man.”

          “I know it doesn’t, Ben and I believe you when you say you’re not gay.  But just so you know, it would be all right with me if you were, okay?”

          The slight nod was all I received in response and I decided to shift the conversation.  “Do you have any idea what Mau’s response to Joel trying to touch him was all about?  Has he shared anything at all with you about what’s happened to him?”

          “Nothing, Blair.  Honest.”  I could see the slight relief in him that I wanted to talk about something other than him and Cody.  “The only thing he’s said after all our questions was the one word answer of ‘Maui’ when we asked him where he was from.  It took him at least a month to let us touch him without jumping.”

          “So just ‘Maui’ after over two months together with you guys?  Incredible.  My heart just hurts when I think about what could have caused his silence.”

          “Well, one time he did yell out ‘no’ when Cody grabbed his dick when he was standing in his underwear once.  I didn’t see it happen, but I think that Cody was trying to do him and Mau fuckin’ almost punched him.  They’re cool now, but I thought Mau was gonna leave after that.  Chris yelled at Cody and Cody apologized.”  He drank again from his cup then mumbled something I didn’t hear.

          “What was that?”

          “I said, he had a lot of bruises.  When he showed up on the streets, they were all over his arms and body.  I think he was beaten up pretty badly, and you can’t see ‘em anymore, but his arms were all scraped up and shit.  Chris stole some medicine cream and stuff and after he put it on him, Mau cried and Chris hugged him.  For a long time, Chris was the only one that could touch him.”

          I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or that I was simply saturated with the continuous drama that seemed to keep leaking from these boys, but I wanted to run away somewhere.  It was all just so real.  Then my will to help them returned and before I could stop myself, I threw my arm around Ben and pulled him close to me in a one-armed hug.  He didn’t try to pull away.

          “Can you see why we worry so much about you guys being out there alone?  What’s happened to you and to Chris and Mau and all of them, can happen again because there are horrible people out there that want nothing more than to get their fucking hands on you.  Do you see that, Ben?”

          I released my hug and moved to stand before him.  He watched me intently as I placed my hands on his shoulder and dipped my head towards him.  “Ben, I ... I know it’s only been a few days since we met, but I would lose it completely if anything happened to any of you ... you especially.”

          I tucked his hair behind his ear and tried to offer him a smile.  “Please, promise me that you’ll let us know where you are when you’re outside this apartment.  Please?”

          He slowly nodded towards me repeatedly as he returned my intense look.  Then he surprised me and pulled me into an unyielding, tight hug.  He mumbled something into my shoulder, but refused to repeat it when I asked what he said.  His body felt so small and thin in my arms, so fragile.  I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind.

          “You hungry?  You need to eat something.”  He shook his head and continued to hold me tightly.  “You’re safe, bud.  All of you are now and if you’ll let us, we’ll do everything we can to keep you that way, okay?”  I felt his head nod into my shoulder.  I stroked the back of his hair and reveled in the satisfying and right feeling of holding him close -- offering him safety and love. 

          I had never thought much about having children of my own.  The desire to raise kids had only been a passing thought, even when I’d been in a couple of fairly satisfying relationships.  But I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that I loved this kid that I held in my arms and would do anything to make him happy.  I kissed the side of his head and pulled back from his hug.

          “Boy, you sure know how to give a good hug!  Thanks for that.  I really needed it about now.”

          Ruby blush covered his face, but he gave me a wide grin.  “You and the Fu Man are so cool, Blair.  I’m sorry I didn’t keep Cleats here.”

          I tucked another stray lock behind his ear.  “That’s not your job, bud.  Okay?  We’ll talk to Cleats when he gets back.  Now, are you sure you’re not hungry?  I think your ribs left marks in my flesh.”

          Before he could answer, I heard Cody’s voice behind me.

          “Forget about him.  I’m hungry.”

          I turned to look at him and laughed.  Even with the new cut, his hair still looked un-kept.  He stood in his boxers and t-shirt in the doorway leading from the hall.  The front of his shorts was tented with a morning erection that he seemed oblivious to.

          “Damn, Codes,” Ben scoffed playfully.  “Go take a piss or something.”

          Cody rolled his eyes and yawned.  “It’s just a boner, Bone.  Get over it.”

          I laughed again and rolled my own eyes in exaggeration at Ben.  “Yeah, Bone.  It’s just a boner.”  I turned and grinned at Cody.  “So you want some waffles?”





          Joel and I waited in the hallway as the doctor finished a hushed conversation with his Nurse Practioner, Mary.  A loud, terrified shout fifteen minutes ago had caused us to lurch towards the study door where Marc Prentice, his nurse and Mau were convened for Mau’s examination.  When we arrived, we found Prentice and Mary kneeling next to Mau’s inert form.  Because of Mau’s fears, Mary had been performing the examination and when she approached Mau with the syringe to begin taking the four samples of blood, he jumped off of the makeshift exam table screaming and backing into a coffee table.  Prentice tried to grab him to stop his fall and Mau had screamed again then blacked out. 

          Once I had herded the boys out of the doorway, Prentice and Mary had taken the needed blood and Joel had helped to remove Mau’s clothing.  His body revealed a horror story by its scars.  Between his legs and on his scrotum and buttocks were cigarette burns, now healed, but leaving the evidence of brutal abuse behind.  His anus showed signs of significant tearing, again now healed.  But the initial examination of his urethra caused Prentice to become alarmed and Joel and I to become livid with rage.  The scaring to his urethra showed that some undetermined object had been forced up the tube leaving Prentice to suspect that Mau currently had and would most likely have for the rest of his life if corrective surgery were not attempted, problems urinating without pain.  Ben had confirmed that he’d witnessed many times that Mau would wince in pain when they urinated next to each other. 

          Now, standing in the hallway, the indisputable fact that Mau had been raped repeatedly caused my heart and gut to twist with blinding rage.  I held Joel as his face remained blank and very pale.  We looked into each other’s eyes and vowed silently that we would find the bastards that had done this to Mau.  Our foreheads touched and I was able to feel Joel’s presence intimately.  We exchanged no words, but our commitment to each other and to the boys renewed itself ten times over.

          By the time Prentice exited the room, we’d been able to bury our rage.  Chris remained in the room with Mau’s head in his lap.  His hands -- gently stroking Mau’s spiked, black hair -- moved in a soft, soothing rhythm as he hummed some nameless tune. 

          “I can have initial HIV results from the blood tests within a few hours.  My pull alone at the hospital should be enough to get the rest of the results STAT, but if I need it Joel I'll call for your added weight.  We’ve cultured his penis, anus and mouth, just like we did with Chris, Ben and Cody and will do with the last boy … uh …”

          “Cleats.  He’s here now and is waiting for you when ever you’re ready.”  Joel explained. 

          “Good,” Prentice continued.  “I know that you know this and probably do not need to hear it from me again, but Mau needs some intense psychotherapy beginning yesterday.  His reaction, combined with the blatant evidence of repeated rape, is indicative of a fractured psyche.”

          “Do you mean a split personality?”  I asked.

          “No.  Sorry.  In layman’s terms, I mean that he has been through a psychological trauma that has caused him to break from reality and withdraw from the basic, human function of interacting with other humans – most obviously displayed by his refusal to speak and compounded by his refusal to relate any personal information about himself to even the other boys.  To me, it’s amazing that he even lets the other boys touch him or that he’s becomes part of the quote ‘pack’.”

          Joel nodded.  “Bill was going to come over today to meet the boys.  He told me that he knows of a female associate that used to specialize with psychological trauma in children.  She teaches now as a part-time substitute because she said she’d seen too much, but has agreed to meet with Mau at least for an evaluation.”

          “Good.  The sooner the better, Joel.”  He looked at both of us and paused before he continued.  “I take it you’re going to find out who did this to him?”

          Joel nodded and Prentice tipped his head slowly in acceptance of the unspoken, though predetermined, outcome.  “Well then,” he continued, “why don’t we get a blood sample from both of you so we can hopefully see about you two getting rid of those nasty condoms?”

          “Sounds good to me,” I said.  Joel blushed. 

          Prentice chuckled at Joel’s response.  “That’s cute, Joel.  I still can’t believe that the great Joel Summers woke up one day and decided to become a fag.  Who’d of guessed.”  His grin remained tight on his lips, but spoke volumes about the closeness the two of them shared.

          My face burst into a well-needed smile.

          “Don’t start with the fag stuff, Marc.  We’re trying to get the boys, Cleats and Ben especially, to use other names.”  A grin accented his shaking head as he winked at Marc.  “So you never thought I’d join the ranks, eh?  Why not?  I’m surprised that you never made a pass at me knowing your predilection for tall, dark and handsome men.”

          Marc grinned widely as he turned towards the study.  “You’re joking, right?  Even if I’d thought there was a chance, you were wound so fucking tightly that I figured you were best left up to some other poor soul to terrorize.”  He glanced at me as he opened the door and winked.  “My condolences, Blair.”


          I sat in the media room and watched as Ben and Cody teamed up against Chris and a very subdued Mau in a racecar match on the video game.  Prentice and his nurse had finished with Cleats and Joel was showing them out.  Joel stopped by to whisper that he was going to talk with Cleats and I nodded, thankful that Joel was going to handle Cleats’ middle-of-the-night departure.  I was happy just sitting on the couch watching the race.  Timmy had draped himself over the arms of the large, leather chair while he read through one of Joel’s books on becoming a pilot.  Ben’s car crashed and I watched as Chris and Mau tapped their fists together in triumph. 

          I yawned.  My too brief interlude with the sandman was catching up with me and it was only a little after ten in the morning.  I had a conference call at eleven with our Chicago team about the shipping firm acquisition and looked into my empty coffee cup.  ‘I need more caffeine,’ I mused randomly.

          Standing, I grinned as Ben and Cody launched to their feet in a happy dance over Chris’ demise on the roadway then headed for the kitchen.

          A loud shout of ‘Fuck You’ startled me and I launched down the hall towards the study.

          Cleats stood in the doorway, his fists were clenched and the veins in his neck flared rigidly beneath his brown skin.  “You ain’t my fuckin’ father, man.  I’m gone.”

          He turned from the door as I arrived and nearly charged into me.  “Out of my way, Blair.  Your man’s made it clear I’m just fuckin’ baggage.”  He hissed his anger and vehemence as he tried to step around me.

          My mind spun at the hurt contained in his voice and without thinking, I grabbed him by the shoulders.  He struggled to get away as his anger surged.

          “Cleats stop!  You can’t leave.  You just got here.  What happened?”

          Joel appeared at the door.  His face contained a mix of rigid anger and regret.  “I did not call you baggage, nor do I want you to leave.  I asked you nicely to simply let us know what you’re doing and where you’re going.”

          “Bullshit, man!  That’s a fuckin’ lie.  What about yanking me outta here so fast my head’ll spin?  Huh?  What about that?”

          “I said that if the judge finds out that I don’t know where you are, he’ll yank you out of here so fast that it’ll make your head spin.  That goes for all of you.  I’m trying to avoid that, Clayton.  I want you here, but you have to respect our wishes on this point.”  His voice rose as the passion from his anger and regret surged forth.

          I turned to see the other boys standing at the end of the hallway watching Joel and Cleats shout at each other.  I waved for them to head back to what they were doing, then threw my arm around Cleats and prodded him back into the study, closing the door behind us.

          “Get your hands off me, man,” Cleats growled, “before I have to hurt you.”

          I sighed and released him.  I chuckled at him with a wide grin.

          "What's so funny, white boy?"

          "Cleats?  I'm what, five-foot, eleven and a hundred and ninety pounds and you're maybe five nine and all of a hundred and fifty pounds?"

          "So?  I could still hurt you."

          "And why would you want to do that, Cleats?"

          "Nobody touches me without my permission, especially no white faggots."

          "Quit with the race shit, Cleats.  Does it really matter to you that Joel and I are white?  Or is what's really bugging you that we are asking that you let us know where you are and what you're doing?"

          He looked at Joel with a jut of his chin accenting his words.  "Like I told the man over there, you ain't my father and I didn't listen to that fake nigga either.  Always tellin' me what to do.  Fuck him and fuck you guys, too."

          Joel's flat voice crossed the short distance between us from where he leaned against the edge of the desk with his arms folded across his chest.  "Let me spell something out for you, Clayton.  If you're going to stay here with us, and I certainly hope you choose to do so, you will show us respect and stop calling us faggots or telling us to 'fuck off'.  And you'll let us know what you're doing.  I won't have it any other way.  Do I make myself clear, Clayton?"

          I stared at Joel open-mouthed, trying to figure out why he was taking such a rigid stand with Cleats and why he was using such a commanding voice.  What happened to trying a subtler, more persuasive and understanding approach?

          "Don't call me Clayton, man."  He said while looking sideways at Joel.  His face was half turned from us as he looked at the carpet. 

          "I'll call you Clayton any time you're acting like an angry, petulant child."  His stance remained unmoving yet relaxed.  "Now, I asked if I made myself clear to you.  Did I?"

          Cleats snapped his head to look towards Joel and his eyes glared briefly at him before I saw the anger slowly begin to fade.  He nodded once towards Joel and dipped his head in a capitulating gesture.  Then, quietly, he whined.  "Man!" 

          "Good.  Thank you."

          Cleats looked at him again, this time his eyes contained surprise, but he remained quiet.

          Joel dropped his arms and placed his hands next to his hips on the edge of the desk.  "I want you to hear me say this, Cleats.  You are as important to me as anyone of your boys that are probably huddled outside of the door listening.  Blair and I didn't just want to help Ben and figured that we had to take all of you out of default.  From the point that I drove home with Ben from the police station last Friday night and heard about the seven of you living in that building, I wanted to help all of you.  And that means you too, Cleats.  Blair is right.  You need to forget about the color issue if you can.  I have zero idea what it is like to be black and growing up in this country, but please try and see that we don't see the color of your skin – we see that you're a sixteen almost seventeen year-old, good looking young man with a tremendous amount of potential."

          "Yeah?  What potential, Fu Man?  The only potential I got is that I can run fast.  And that ain't going to get me anywhere."

          I discreetly grinned at his usage of Ben's name for Joel and I watched as the corner of my lover's mouth twitched at the sound of the name. 

          "Your potential is unlimited, Cleats.  You can do and make of yourself, with or without our help, anything you put your mind and heart to.  It all starts with your education and from there, you can go and do anything you want.  Dr. Prentice said you plagued him with questions about what he was doing as he checked you over and what he was going to do with your blood and urine samples.  You want to be a doctor?  Great!  We'll help you be one.  Maybe a sports doctor or a researcher or a businessman like Blair and me.  It doesn't matter what you want to be, Cleats.  You just have to believe in yourself enough to not give up.  That's what potential is all about and the little bit I've seen of you, you're loaded with potential."

          "You're saying you're gonna help me go to college to become a doctor?"  His voice overflowed with disbelief.  "Bullshit, man.  You guys are nice and all, but that's just fuckin' bullshit.  Nobody's that nice, especially to a black … to someone they don't know."

          "I'm not bullshitting you, Cleats.  Whether you guys stay connected with us at Blair's house or not, as long as you keep trying, we're going to see that you have what you need to succeed in whatever you want to do.  You want to have your own auto repair garage?  Great.  It'll have everything you need to get started.  You want to be a dancer in a Broadway musical?  Great.  You'll have the best dance lessons money can buy.  Cleats, we can't do it for you, but we can help you along the way."

          "You're serious."  His eyes darted to mine to see if he could tell through me that Joel was telling the truth. 

          I simply looked back at him as Joel continued.

          "Think about it, Cleats.  There's no hurry to make up your mind.  I hope you'll be with us for a long time to come."  Joel stood as he finished his last words and approached Cleats with a smile on his face.  He reached his hand towards Cleats and his smile dropped into a grin when Cleats returned the shake.  They bumped fists to finish then Joel's grin faded.

          "I know I'm not you're father, Cleats.  But if you'll let me, I'd like to act as your father might have if things had been different.  I understand that you need your freedom and because of that and before you got a little huffy with me, I was going to see what you thought about us getting you your own cell phone so that you can stay in touch with us when you're out in the world doing your 'Cleats' thing."

          A slow grin spread his lips widely.  "That'd be a'ight.  That way I wouldn't be pissin' the Fu Man off all the time."

          "Exactly what I was thinking."  Joel laughed.  "No more late night disappearances, right?"

          "I'll do my best, man," he grinned.  Joel raised his eyebrows to make his point and Cleats raised his fist towards Joel for another bump.  "I'm just shittin' with ya, man.  No more late night disappearances."

          "Good.  Then why don't you go get something to eat now that you've had your blood drawn?  The rest of the guys had waffles after their exam."

          "Now that you mention it," he grinned and rubbed his stomach.  "Sorry I got so hot back there.  Thanks for being cool."

          As Cleats headed for the kitchen I turned towards Joel and raised my hands in question.  "How did you know that what he needed was discipline and structure?"

          Joel tipped his head to the side in a slight shrug.  "I just figured that he really didn't want the trouble he was making for himself and really liked it here.  I'm not sure of everything that happened with him and his father in Chicago, but he isn't fucked up yet.  No one with as good and honest of eyes as he has can be fucked up.  I'm glad I listened to my gut."

          "Me too, Fu Man."

          Joel laughed.  "Don't you start too!"   He pulled me into his arms and kissed me.  The kiss grew passionate and I reveled in the feel of Joel's muscular body in my arms.  Just as my hands fell and grabbed Joel's butt, I heard a voice behind me.

          "Go for it, Blair."

          We pulled our lips apart and looked to see Cody grinning from the doorway.

          "And what can we do for you, you under-aged peeping Tom?"  I smirked.

          "Bone and I kicked Chris and Mau from here to Indy in the race and we wanted to take you and Joel on next."

          I laughed.  "I bet they weren't too happy, but sorry, kiddo.  I have a phone conference with Chicago in fifteen minutes and I too need to get something to eat first."

          "I'll take you on.  Timmy or Cleats can be my partner."

          Cody's face lit up.  "Cool!  You're terrible at it.  We're gonna kick your butt, Fu Man."

          Joel shook his head and groaned.




          I'm not sure when the tears began.


          The quiet in the apartment stood out in contrast to the seemingly constant activity of the last four days.  I sat in the living room and stared through the floor-to-ceiling windows at the blue, late-April sky.  Joel had left on a mission to find cell phones for the boys and I used the time alone to take a long run down the Highline Canal, further pushing the near exhaustion I felt after very little sleep. 

          The events of the past twelve or thirteen hours since Cleats received his middle-of-the-night phone call from Ranus left me drained and incapable of doing anything else but sit in front of the window and watch the clouds go by.  Unfortunately, there were no clouds to watch, just the perfect Colorado blue sky.  Actually, clouds may have been too stimulating for me at this point.

          Bill and the boys were out seeing the latest Eddie Murphy movie.  He'd shown up around one o'clock, dressed in cargo shorts that reached below his knees and a baggy, worn t-shirt with a faded UCLA emblem across the chest.  His ball cap sat reversed on his head while a pair of throwback, wire rim glasses with blue lenses rested mid-way down his nose. 

          He shook hands with Joel upon entering and told me that he was glad to meet the person worthy enough to make Joel gush like a schoolgirl.  He led the way to the media room then stopped in the doorway and scanned the room.  After roughly ten seconds, he nodded to himself and entered while Joel and I remained at the door.  He said hello to the boys and told them that while his name was Bill the Evil Houseparent, they could just call him Bill.  Cody and Mau looked at each other as if to say the guy was weird and Timmy and Ben grinned.  Chris appraised him from head to toe then said hello.  Cleats continued to sleep on the couch. 

          He didn't ask them their names, but it became readily apparent that he knew who each one was.  He sat on the floor next to Cody and Mau and asked them by name if they knew about the secret door out of the maze on the game they were currently playing.  Within five minutes, he had Cody telling him why he called Ben by the nickname Bone and Tim had moved closer to him, grinning happily.  Before Joel and I headed to the study, I saw a wide grin on Mau's face after Bill swatted Cleats' leg to wake him up because he was snoring. 

          Fifteen minutes later, they left in search of cheeseburgers and fries.  Joel's easy and comfortable grin caused my own feelings of comfort to rise. 


          And now I sat there with a twisted smile on my lips and tears rolling down my cheeks.  I held my cell phone in one hand while my other hand rested in my lap.  Joel's phone call fifteen minutes earlier, promising that he would be home in twenty minutes, remained predominant in my thoughts.  Marc Prentice had called with the preliminary HIV results from Chris, Cody, Ben, Cleats and Mau's samples.  The others’ were negative.  Mau’s was not. 

          Joel passed on the meaningless reminder from Prentice that the samples would be tested again, the full test results would be available within three days, and that there had been many false positive results in the past.  But ... it was all meaningless to me.  He was only 16.



          Raw, stunned shock, followed closely by ultimate delight, flooded the room when the boys returned home and found six cell phones lined up on the breakfast bar.  Their faces glowed with excitement as they each grabbed the phone identified with their names on sticky notes.  In the three hours since Joel came home, the phones had received their initial charge and he'd programmed each of the other phones with the six boys' numbers along with our contact information.  The equipment was ready to go. 

          The only negative part of the whole experience was when they realized that the only people they wanted to or could call and share their excitement about the phones with were standing in the room.  But that only stopped them for a brief moment.  Within minutes, the apartment filled with the sounds of ringing phones and it became clear that individualized ring tones would be needed to tell the phones apart when a call came in.  Joel had also purchased colored faceplates and surprisingly, none of the boys minded the color chosen for them.  Joel had chuckled to me when I mentioned it and he assured me that it would only be a matter of time.

          After the initial surprise and excitement faded and the boys became lost in programming their phones with distinctive features, Bill shared with us something that had happened outside of the theatre. 

          They had arrived at the complex, which was part of the 16th Street pedestrian mall in the heart of downtown Denver, about fifteen minutes prior to the start of the movie.  Ben and Cody recognized two other teenage boys loitering outside the theatre entrance and walked over to talk with them while Bill and the rest of them bought tickets.  Once inside the theatre, Bill bought drinks for the boys.  He said that he watched as Cody and Ben bought four hotdogs and a large container of popcorn.  Initially, he shared that he was surprised, as they'd both just finished double cheeseburgers and enormous orders of French fries.  Then as the rest of the boys headed into the theatre, he hung back and watched as Cody and Ben took the food out to their friends who started eating immediately.  Ben gave the teens what money he had in his pocket and then they walked by Bill, both consciously avoiding his gaze as though they were embarrassed.  

          "I didn't say anything to them and they didn't mention it to me as we walked back here after the show," Bill said.  "But I have to tell you, it was the most selfless act of kindness that I've witnessed in many years."  He looked at me then shifted his gaze towards Joel.  "With the exception of what you two are doing now."

          My eyes clouded with tears.  The sheer intensity of the past 15 hours coupled with my own fears of inadequacy about meeting Joel's need and the needs of the boys, flooded me initially with overwhelming emotion, but ultimately, fiercely, the resolve I'd made to remain in control in front of the boys kicked in.

          "No!"  I exclaimed forcefully under my breath.  I clenched my eyes shut tightly as my fists balled up.

          Joel, watching my reaction to Bill's story, clasped my thigh gently and then softly kissed my cheek.  "It's okay, Love."

          Bill observed our interaction; a concerned expression etched his face.  I saw him wait patiently from his chair, opposite of where we sat next to each other on the couch, for an explanation.  I was out of words.  I couldn't muster the energy that was needed to relate the news about Mau.  I could only look at him through the thin sheen of moisture that covered my eyes. 

          Joel sighed as he took my hand in his.  "Prentice called.  Mau is HIV positive."

          His jaw clenched visibly and his head rose, slowly and in a controlled movement, then dropped down once.  That movement comprised his whole response as I watched Joel's words sink into his processing mind.

          A minute passed.

          Bill's gaze slowly shifted from Joel to me, then back again to Joel.

          "Are you two ready for this?" 

          Instinctively, I knew that Bill's question wasn't about Mau's condition, but about Joel and me as a new couple.  Amazed, I stared back at him as his gaze bore into mine.  The question darted randomly through my mind.  'Are we ready for this ... as a couple?  Is any couple every ready to set their relationship in the back seat and make others more important?'   I didn't find a ready answer and so I continued to stare back at him.  'Did I need Joel to answer this question ... be the leader ... be the All Star that is constantly ready for anything?'  A little over two months had passed since he first walked into the restaurant and sat at the bar, rigid and drained of passion.  Through a miracle, I was allowed to join him in his life and on his path; he joined mine as well -- readily and with utter devotion.  The past month literally roared by as we embraced each other on a day-to-day, hour-by-hour journey into the truth of what comprised us as individuals -- and what possibly sustained us as a couple.

          To turn and look at him now, sitting next to me with his big, brown eyes filled with a single question, was the extent of what it took to propel the answer readily upward above the endlessly tossing sea of dramas.  The simple answer flowed from my lips.

          "If I have you next to me, regardless of the tumult whirling around us, I’m ready.  I have waited my whole life for you to be here, next to me, in this moment.  And Joel . . . I know you’re ready for this too."

          His eyes welled with clear surety.  He wiped the corner of his eye and looked at the moisture that covered his fingertip.  Surprise and awe filled his expression.  Then, still staring at his interrupted tear, he spoke to me as his face lifted into a smile.  "For a second time in a month, I have tears in my eyes.  The first time came on the plane when I received the incredible gift of your consent for us to try and spend our lives together."  He turned his body to face me and, reaching towards me with both hands, gently touched my cheeks.  His touch … his caress, reached into my soul.  "And now you fill me with the most complete feeling of joy I've known.  I am complete with you.  I am Atlas."

          Slowly and with delicate, intimate purpose, he brushed his lips against mine.  Our noses touched.  Our eyes locked.  Our love authenticated itself into a living, breathing being.

          "Fuck me!"  Bill swore quietly.  "I gotta get me some of that!  What you two have going is intense … and … I have no doubt you're ready for what ever comes your way.  Shit!"

          Joel kissed me quickly once then turned to Bill with a silly grin.  "Isn't he just fucking amazing, Bill?  He's gone through the last month, treading around and over and through every single challenge my life naturally ejects and then … I bring six, desperately needy kids into our lives and he goes with it with barely a blink of his eyes -- after only a fucking month with me!"

          Joel grabbed my hand and brought it to his lips.  I laughed for the utter inability to absorb or contain another single feeling or thought.  I felt like I would explode if I didn't.

          "I need for you to underwrite the research into some kind of device that I can wear on my body that will fill me with your essence when you're physically not with me.  If you could only see me when you're not around, Joel.  I'm amazing, all right -- I'm a fucking amazing mess!"  My laughter continued as he pulled me close to him and wrapped me in his arms. 

          "I've already given it to you, Mr. Michaels.  I have one too." 

          He stroked the ring he'd given me on the return trip from Paris.  His touch caused a tremendous sigh of realization to well from me.  My smile, weary from the day and all the emotion we'd experienced, relaxed onto my face and into my heart. 

          "So you have, Mr. Summers.  Thanks.  I needed the reminder." 

          I turned towards Bill and looked at the smirk in his eyes.  "Thank you for helping us to see through the shit, Bill.  We needed it right now."

          He grinned and gave me a quick nod.  Then I continued.

          "But enough of this mushy stuff.  Bill, we obviously need more from you than just helping us to raise these boys.  What do we do now?  Do we tell Mau?  Do we tell the other boys?"

          He nodded again as Joel and I untangled ourselves from each other and turned to face him squarely.  "Yes.  You need to tell Mau.  And now is the best time to do it.  From what I've seen, he'll be very reluctant to be alone with the two of you, understandably so.  I might suggest that you have Ben or Chris with you for a couple of reasons -- one, so that Mau doesn't feel threatened and double-teamed and two, because he'll need support and a reassuring hug and he won't be able to receive that from either of you."

          Joel and I both nodded as we saw the wisdom in his approach. 

          "I think we need to add Cody to the mix," Joel said.  "We can talk to all four of them at the same time."

          "That'll work even better, Joel."

          Joel looked at me and took a deep breath.  "I guess there's no better time than now.  Ready, love?"

          I shook my head.  "No, but we have to do it."

          "Good," Bill said.  "I'll go with you and say goodbye to all of them.  I've promised to come over tomorrow and show them a couple of secrets about a few of the Xbox games.  Plus, Chris and I have a discussion on religious semantics to finish.  He's quite intelligent, if you haven't already guessed."

          Joel raised his eyebrows as we turned to look for the boys. 


          Our plan of speaking with the four boys separate from the others didn't go quite as we imagined it.  Joel found Chris and Cody in the media room with Ben and Timmy.  Cleats and Mau were text messaging each other on their phones in the bedroom.  When I asked Mau if he would join Chris, Cody, Ben and Joel in the study, Cleats picked up on Mau's hesitance and told Mau that he'd come along for the ride.  A similar event happened with Joel and the others. 

          In the end, the eight of us converged on the study.

          "Look, guys.  Blair and I really just wanted to talk with Cody, Mau, Ben and Chris right now.  It's pretty personal stuff, you know.  I promise we'll catch up with you when we're finished."

          "Look, Fu Man," Cody said, "we know this is about the doctor and shit, so just spill it.  If the four of us are going to die from some terrible disease, then we all need to hear about it at the same time."

          Chris nodded, as did the others.  Joel and I looked at each other and realized that the choice was up to the boys.  Joel sighed.

          "All right, then."  He gestured to the couch.  "Have a seat."

          Timmy, Ben and Cody sat on the couch while the others dropped to the floor in front of it.  Joel and I took the chairs that sat opposite of the boys. 

          "Cody, you're right.  This does have to do with Dr. Prentice.

          "Told ya," Cody mumbled.

          "Yes," Joel continued, giving me a quick glance.  "In light of certain things you've shared with us," he used his hand to encompass all six boys with his statement, "we asked Dr. Prentice to put a rush on the blood tests for the four of you.  I don't mean to embarrass any of you, but the four of you have, voluntarily or against your will, had unprotected anal sex."

           Chris and Cody nodded while Ben blushed and dropped his head.  Cody grabbed his hand and gave it a squeeze.  Mau stared blankly at Joel, conveying no emotion.  Joel continued as he looked into Mau's eyes.  "Mau, I'm sorry.  We had the doctor check you out this morning when you were ... uh, after you fainted.  What he found caused the three of us to realize that ... um, we needed to rush your tests also."

          Mau's gaze didn't vary.  He continued to stare unwaveringly across the distance between himself and Joel.  I saw the other boys glance towards him with a mixture of questioning looks.  His eyes looked back at Joel flatly. 

          "Please forgive me ... us ... for invading your privacy without your permission.  I can only ask that you believe that it was never our intention to do so."

          When Joel received no indication or response from Mau, he took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  "I'm so sorry, Mau.  Your preliminary blood test came back HIV positive."

          Mau blinked repeatedly as he continued to stare at Joel.  He nodded slightly a couple of times.

          "Fuck!"  Cleats swore. 

          Chris, who was sitting next to Mau, went to put his arm around Mau's shoulders, but Mau shrugged off the hug and looked at the carpet. 

          Timmy turned to Cody.  "Does that mean Mau's gonna die?"

          Cody shook his head firmly.  "No!"  He exclaimed quietly, forcefully, but his eyes filled with tears.  Ben's eyes glistened also. 

          "Everybody, listen to me.  We will get the full test results back on Friday, okay?  You three tested negative and Mau ... we'll know more then, okay?"

          Mau looked up to Joel and nodded again.  His face betrayed little emotion as his gaze drifted to me.  I dropped to my knees from the chair and leaned towards him. 

          "It's gonna be okay, Mau.  We'll be right beside you whenever you need us to be.  And so will your boys.  I want to give you a hug right now badly, but only if you want one."

          He shook his head definitively then leaned against Chris.  I smiled gently at him and watched as Chris laid his arm loosely on Mau's shoulders. 




          I lay with my head in Joel's lap. 

          I'd just returned to the study after checking on the boys.  Chris, Cody and Ben were on the terrace, leaning against the railing wall looking out across the city.  They were silent and lost in their thoughts as I stood in the open doorway leading from the living room.  Cleats and Timmy were watching a movie and Mau lay on his mattress in the bedroom listening to music and playing with his cell phone. 

          My half-consumed glass of wine sat on the coffee table as my lover, whose mere presence calmed me, stroked my hair.  There were no words needed to fill the moment. 

          Dinner had been a somber event for the most part.  Joel was able to stir up a little excitement as he talked about taking the boys into the mountains on Thursday for a little bit of spring skiing.  I planned to stay in the city in order to handle a video conference with the people in Paris. 

          Prior to meeting Joel, I seldom felt doubt about my abilities to handle a situation, any situation, in which I'd inadvertently find myself.  Business dealings were one thing and Hank had been correct in saying that I felt like a rookie in the All Stars.  That was fine.  I could deal with being a rookie again.  But the boys were a different story.  I'd had no lead up to this, no gradual training and suddenly, the stakes were higher than I ever dreamed or imagined they would be. 

          I thought about how my anger had flared early this morning when Ben had hissed that we needed to chill out and not treat them like children.  Granted, his point had a valid side to it, but the adult in me knew intuitively that they also desperately needed to be treated like kids again -- shown love and discipline and be given the chance to make mistakes and learn from them.  But what about the mistake that I almost made?  I'd wanted to lash out at Ben and scream that Cleats' leaving and Ben's failure to stop him was childish and irresponsible.  Now, I knew that the main reason that I wanted to strike back verbally at Ben was because his 'you need to fuckin' chill out' had lacked any kind of respect that I expected to be shown from youths towards adults. 

          'Respect is earned, not instantly granted, Blair,' the voice in my head stated firmly.  I felt antiquated.  My being gay and most-times single had provided me no easy opportunity or exposure to teenagers or the youth culture as a whole.  Was I getting what I need now?

          I sighed and closed my eyes.

          "What's wrong, love?"  Joel asked, seeing my sigh and sensing my upset.

          "I was thinking about how I almost yelled at Ben this morning in the bedroom.  I almost lost it when in truth, that was the last thing I wanted to do, but the overwhelming urge to ‘rage on’ was definitely present."  I looked up into his eyes and felt his hand continue to stroke my hair.  "Joel?  I don't know if I'm cut out for this kid-raising thing.  You handle everything so naturally, but to me, everything is a crisis and every decision has huge stakes."

          He silently stroked my hair for a minute.  The solemn expression on his face as he looked into my eyes spoke volumes without uttering a word.  I saw love looking back at me as well as consummate faith.

          "I have twelve years of recent experience at this 'kid-raising' thing, Blair.  Don't forget that.  But also, don't forget that I have no recent experience at being in a relationship.  You do.  Together we can do both -- help raise the boys and know a satisfying and fulfilling relationship.  We're not going to be doing either one alone."

          It seemed that for the hundredth time in just a few days, my eyes filled with tears.  Again, he was right and I'd forgotten that I wasn't alone in this.  "Just so you know," I said trying to wipe the tears from my eyes with a half smile, "I've cried more in the last few days than I've cried in years.  These constant tears are starting to piss me off."

          He smiled.  "I happen to like them and I'm a little envious of your ability to show such deep emotion, love.  Please, don't hold it back."

          That was it.  His words pushed me over the edge.  All I could see was Mau's refusal of a hug and how alone he actually saw himself.  Racking tears and emotion surged from me.  My tears, accented by low sobs, fell freely.  The horrors I saw in my mind that each of the boys had been through and that I'd seen first hand evidence of on Mau's young body, overwhelmed my sensibilities. 

          "Oh, Mau," I sobbed, my face wracked in anguish.  "I'm so sorry!" 

          I rolled my face into Joel's lap as I cried in sympathetic pain for Mau, for all of them.  Joel pulled me tightly to him and continued to stroke my head.  Then, his arm stilled and I heard a soft, unfamiliar voice speaking above me.

          "Don't let Blair cry, Fu Man.  Not for me."

          I reflexively pulled my head from Joel's lap and saw Mau standing next to the couch, his hand resting on Joel's forearm.  Tears covered my face and through them I saw Mau's face contorted in distress and worry.  He reached for my face and tentatively touched his fingertips to my tears.

          "Don't cry, Blair."

          I offered him a weak smile through my tears and gently placed my hand against his on my cheek.  I looked into his dark brown eyes seeing only haunting resignation looking back at me.  I nodded slowly as we shared the gaze.

          "Okay," I replied softly. 

          "Thanks, Mau," Joel whispered as he drew his arm up and encircled Mau's waist, pulling him closer to us. 

          A faint smile crossed Mau's lips.


Special thanks goes to Rock Hunter for his endless efforts to edit this mess.  Thanks, Bud! 


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