***Note:  Sorry for the delay.  I lost six days, so thanks for your patience.  Also, if there's a problem with the new format, please let me know. ***


A Continuation of the Reservations Series

By Drew Filchak

             There are times when things become suddenly very clear.  The results of your actions and your decisions stand up in front of you and demand an accounting.  Good intentions aside, the romances which try and weave themselves into the mesh of our daily lives, are sometimes simply based on the desire to do something good, relieve someone's pain -- if only for the short term.  Seldom though, do good intentions have enough staying power for a significant, appreciable life span with youth.  Adults find ways, by feeding their selfish machinations, to sustain the illusion that their good deeds will have merit and lasting influence, but youth lives in the moment with its indomitable ideals and fragile passions.
              I now stood confronted with the shattered remains of my illusions, my good intentions.  Any adult, savvy in the ways of dealing with youth and their emotional vortexes, would have known the folly of attempting to apply balm to flaring, teenage hormones and anxieties.  Loving intentions noted, caring intentions not withstanding, I should have stayed out of the fray.  But I didn't.  And now I was faced with the remains of shattered love on Cody's tear-stained face with Ben's expression showing his dawning understanding of the repercussions of his own actions.  
            What had I done?
            "I mean it, dude.  Stay away."
            Cody's flat voice, devoid of the irrepressible spirit I'd become accustomed to being bathed in over the past week, weakened my knees and spirit.  It sounded as though he had passed beyond the boundaries of his ability to sustain his hope, which said the world was not based in shit -- that it wasn't just a dumping ground where he was expected to exist.  No one should know this possible eventuality as intimately as he did; for it to be so easily recognizable in his voice -- especially not a sixteen-year-old.
             I dropped onto the passenger seat.  
            Ben's presence in the driver's doorway continued to hold my focus.  I felt his shared, stalled words -- his regret.  And I sensed that he felt as lost in the moment as I did.  
            Cody shifted in the backseat and I heard the door handle release.  
            "No!"  Ben yelled.  Then his voice dropped.  "Don't!"  He gasped.
            I heard Cody pause in his retreat and as I turned slowly to face him, I saw his eyes focus, not seeing, on the back of the passenger headrest.  He waited without any indication that he was doing so.  Maybe he didn't realize it himself.  His tears had stopped, but his eyes remained corpse-like, lifeless.    Part of me desperately wanted Ben to say something to make everything all right.  But then I was bitterly reminded of Ben's pronouncement that I was the one good with the words.  Yet, I now realized that words were not real life, but rather just a crutch, a bandage used to maintain the illusion of harmony.  How did a fifteen-year-old know this and I didn't?
             "Codes … I …" he stammered.  His hesitation only served to increase the already acute tension between them.  
            "What?"  His whisper, articulate and fierce, underscored the stress they both were feeling.
            "Dude, you can't leave …" Ben started.
            "Why?  'Cause you're gonna tell me you love me," Cody spat out viciously.  "Been there."
            "…me.  You can't leave me."
            Brown eyes rose slowly to meet blue -- Cody's flat gaze met Ben's fearful realization.  
            "Watch me."
            The back door opened fully and Cody climbed out, leaving the door open and began to head toward the street exit.  Overwhelming dread paralyzed me.  I knew I'd make another mistake if I intervened.  It was Ben who finally acted.
            "Blair?"  He hissed, pleading with me to do something without really voicing his need.
            I looked towards him briefly and saw the question as well as disbelief and torment in his eyes.  I hesitated for another moment, needing some reason, some justification for involving myself.  And then it came to me.  Regardless of my mistakes with Cody and Ben, the boys were my responsibility and I couldn't let Cody leave, not like this.
            As I rounded the rear of the car, I saw Cody stop as he faced the pedestrian exit door.  I walked towards him slowly, watching as he stared at the door.  When I was within ten feet of him, he turned to come back to the car, stopping abruptly when he saw me.  I forced a smile to my face in an offer of a truce and comfort.  His expression showed matching pain and upset as the two emotions battled with his clear desire to stay.  He stared at me as new tears filled his eyes and I sensed in him a powerful need to belong, to be wanted.
            My held tilted in question as my smile became genuine and soft.
            "I don't want to go B-Man."
            Relief flooded me and my face lighted with emotion.  I opened my arms and took a few steps forward.  He moved into my offered hug and wrapped his arms around me with surprising strength and passion.  
            "I'm sorry, Codes.  I screwed up by trying to fix stuff with you and Ben."
            His arms clenched me tightly for a moment then he pulled back to look at me with a confused expression.
            "You didn't do anything, B.  I was just stupid for believing …" His words faded as his eyes glanced behind me.  I wasn't sure what was conveyed with his glance towards Ben, but I felt his body shudder before he pulled from my arms.  "Sorry I just left."
            "It's okay, bud.  Next time though, would you call me first?  My old heart about stopped when Chris told us you'd taken your pack with you."  My eyes clenched with relief and I sighed.  It felt like we'd skirted another calamity.  Then, my thought went to Joel and the other boys out looking for Cody.  I reached for my cell phone then winked at Cody.  "We need to call off the search party."
            Cody's eyes widened for a moment then he sagged.  "Shit.  I really fucked up."
            "It's okay, Cody.  They couldn't have got too far yet."  I laid my hand on his shoulder and we started towards the cars and the elevator.  
            Ben stood next to the car watching as we approached.  His gaze dropped to the pavement and he turned away.  "I'll be up later."
            I nodded.  "All right, pup."
            A look of bitterness mixed with pain filled Cody's face as he passed Ben -- eyes glancing quickly once towards him then returning to look forward.  
            The elevator door opened immediately and as we entered, I turned to see Ben sliding to the pavement against the car door, knees drawn up.  He rested his head against his fist and stared off into the garage.

            I awoke at three in the morning after a few fitful hours of sleep and made my way down the hall.  The light snoring from the boy's room helped calm my anxiety and as I stood in the doorway, I counted five sleeping forms sprawled on the mattresses on the floor.  Ben's bed was empty and I grimaced.  Turning, I stepped across the hallway into Megan's room.  The form in Megan's bed remained motionless as I stopped just inside the door.  I rubbed my face tiredly.
            Frustration swelled in me.  A sense of inadequacy surged and left me feeling impotent in my ability to help Ben and Cody -- hell, to help any of the boys.  I sighed and with a last look at Ben, I stepped back into the hallway, turning back to the promise of Joel's warmth.  
            Ten minutes later, I heard movement outside of our partially open bedroom door.  I rolled over to see Ben's head peeking through the opening.  
            "What's wrong, Ben?"  I whispered.
            He stepped into the room and the dim glow from the hallway allowed me to watch him shrug.  "I can't sleep.  It's too quiet in Megan's room."
            I sat up and waved him over.  "C'mon in, pup.  It's a big bed."

            I woke to the feel of a raspy tongue licking my face and the insistent purr from a hungry cat.  Mikey had decided that it was time for me to get up and feed him and wasn't giving me much choice.  Blurry-eyed, I rubbed his ears then looked over to the right side of the bed and saw Ben curled up with his pillow held tightly in his arms, sleeping soundly.
            The sight both lifted my spirits and caused them to plunge as I remembered the lost look on his face as he crawled into my side of the bed.  The loss and separation from his best bud and bedmate for the past three months seeped from his expressionless eyes.  His mumbled 'thanks' brought my heart into my throat as I moved to the center of the bed.  It was filled with pain; pain and angst.  My boy was hurting and confused and I knew there was nothing I could do about it except to pull him close to me.  Ben had dropped into sleep almost immediately and I whispered to him just how sorry I was for everything.  
            Now, in the morning light, I sighed into Mikey's fur as I rubbed his ears.  I had to figure out what I was doing because I'd done enough damage already is it was.  
            Allowing another sigh, I slid carefully from the covers and tried to exit the bed on the left side over Joel.  My movement roused him enough that he grabbed me and pressed his erection into my groin.  
            "This is nice," he purred.  
            I grinned then pecked his lips once.  "Not now, Tiger.  We're not alone."
            Joel's eyes flew open and looked into mine then turned to the right.  He sighed.  "When did he come visiting?"  His whispered question came out throaty and low.
            "Around three.  Said he couldn't sleep in Megan's room because it was too quiet.  I think it was more that it was too lonely.  Cody's on the floor with the others."
            Joel sniffed then pulled my groin into his.  "Glad I woke up when I did.  If you're getting out, I might've rolled over to get a little lovin' from you and found another surprise."
            I kissed him quickly again, feeling my own erection rising.  "I love you and I promise that the first chance we get, we're gonna get all squishy without a condom."
            His grin brought a further stir to my groin and I growled lowly, then pressed myself up and slid off the bed.  Joel rolled onto his side with his back facing Ben and pulled his pillow close.  He blew me a kiss, which I returned, then moved from the bed and pulled on a pair of sweat pants over my briefs.  
            I staggered slightly in the hallway as I stepped a little too confidently on my left foot while trying to avoid Mikey as he wove between my feet.  A slight flaring ache awakened me fully and I leaned on the door jam of the boy's room to let the tenderness in my ankle subside.  My glance into the room caused my heartbeat to quicken.  One of the boys was missing.  I sensed it immediately.  Then I knew.  Cleats!
            'Fuck!'  I knew in an instant that he was gone.  He'd never be up this early.  He was always the last to get up.  
            'Fuck!' my mind screamed again.  I limped into the room and moved towards the bathroom door.  Empty.  'Goddamnit!  When did he leave?'  I knew he was in the room when I checked on the boys at three.
            My thoughts were interrupted by the distant sound of my cell phone.  I ran from the room, ignoring the growing pain in my ankle.  By the third ring, I'd rounded through the doorway to the kitchen and snatched my cell phone from the counter.  
            "Hello!"  My greeting came out as a demand.  
            "We got us a problem, boss."

            Joel and I pulled into the parking lot of the White Spot on Colfax and Speer.  The morning breakfast rush had yet to begin.  It was still before six.  I saw a man dressed in multiple layers of clothes wave to us from a booth.  We started towards him as he eyed us intently -- his head covered with a baggy, wool winter cap, but surprisingly his face was clean-shaven.  
            As we approached the table, his lips pursed out to us as if to say he'd finished his survey of us and made his decision.  I bristled, slightly intimidated and slightly irritated for some reason.
            "Ranus?"  I asked.
            He nodded.  "So I got me pretty, rich boy one and rich boy two with my little call, huh?  Two white boys for the price of one."
            I stared at him without responding, my eyes fixed on his deep brown orbs.  Joel stepped forward and held out his hand.  
            "Joel Summers."
            Ranus nodded again then slowly clasped Joel's hand.  "Ranus Williams."
            Joel jerked his head back slightly and eyed Ranus closely.  "The poet," he said, unable to hide the surprise in his voice.  
            I watched as the left corner of Ranus' lip curved slightly upward.  "That was a long time ago."
            "My library holds copies of everything you've written.  My wife and I used to spend entire evenings reading your work to each other."  Joel gestured towards the booth and Ranus tipped his head in invitation.  Joel slid onto the seat, moving towards the center backside of the table.  
            "None of that matters right now," Ranus said as he looked again into my eyes.  "What does matter, and what caused me to call, is the fact that we have a shared bird ready to fly again, man -- a bird that may have tested his flight feathers before, but lacks enough maturity to know what's good for him."
            My gaze narrowed as I listened to his words.  The last time I'd talked with him, his diction, articulation, delivery and vocabulary sounded like it belonged to a wholly uneducated man who only knew what he'd learned on the streets.  He returned my stare.
            "What game are you playing?"  I said, my suspicion clearly apparent in my voice and stance.  
            Joel turned quickly towards me in surprise and I held my hand up to stop him.  Then, I waited for Ranus' response.
            "I ain't playin' no game, pretty white boy, 'cept the game of life, man," he replied, dropping into his street talk.  "Just 'cuz yous rich boys is payin' me to paint yer house, don't mean shit to me, man.  I got my reasons, blood.  You feelin' me?  You feelin' what I'm sayin'?"
            His eyes twinkled as he held my gaze.  "Now, does that make you feel better, Blair?"
            I licked my lips and studied him.  Obviously, my first impression of him came from our conversation.  I thought of him in the exact way that he'd intended me to, but why the ruse?  The boys trusted him and I had to admit to myself that he had only ever looked out for their best interest, but I don't like deception and the plain truth was that we'd been deceived.
            "Blair?"  Joel asked with a slight amount of confusion mixed with annoyance.  "Are you gonna sit down?"
            I nodded and dropped my gaze from Ranus' eyes.  "Where's Cleats?"
            "He's probably saying goodbye to his lady, and we all know that could be a while."  His smirk contained a measure of pride and humor.  "He'll be here in time.  Don't worry."
            "I worry because he's our charge at the moment … at least for another three weeks," I growled.  "But something caused him to jump ship and run and I take that personally."
            The twinkle in his eyes returned.  "You should, you know … take it personally that is.  He's leaving partly because of you."
            I stared at him, then looked at Joel.  A shudder ran down my spine as I absorbed his words.  What could I have done to make Cleats want to leave?  It didn't make any sense.  I'd treated him the same as I treated the rest of the boys.  I'd laughed and joked.  I'd listened to him when he spoke.  What did I do?
            Joel cleared his throat.  "Okay, Ranus.  You're obviously more in the know than we are.  Would you please explain what's going on and why you say that Cleats is leaving partly because of Blair?  That's quite a bomb to drop out of thin air."
            "He says you don't like him," Ranus grinned as he continued to study my face.  "Also that he's just with you two because he was a part of the group and would have never been offered help on his own."
            "And you believe him?"  I felt stunned by the implications of his words.
            He shook his head and shrugged.  "That's not important, now is it?  What's important is that he believes it.  He says you never talk to him, at least not like the other guys."
            I went to deny his words, but the sliver of truth they contained stopped me.  I dropped my gaze to the tabletop as my face flushed.  Was there more truth in his words than I wanted to admit?  I did like Cleats, very much actually, but over the past week I had to admit that he and I were very different and I hadn't initiated much one-on-one conversation because of those differences.  I guess I didn't know how to cross the distance between us.
            "And that's why he's leaving," I asked still focusing on the tabletop.
            "I said that was only partly the reason."
            "What's the other part," Joel asked.
            "'Cause he's afraid."
            "Of what?  Us?"  There was a tinge of surprise to Joel's words.
            "No.  He's says you're both harmless."  Ranus grinned with a tip of his head.  "Well, maybe not the Fu Man."
            Joel slowly tipped his head upward, but didn't smile.  Ranus continued.
            "He's afraid that this isn't real and that this stuff just doesn't happen and that the 'dream will be over soon', I think he said.  He can't see that the two of you are for real."
            "Huh," Joel replied.  "Well, we're just going to have to change his perception then, aren't we?"
            "That's about how I see it."
            "And you called to help us out?"
            Ranus nodded.
            "I checked you out with your boy, Hank.  You're what you say you are and my boys need a home that I can't provide them."
            Joel snorted in surprise.  "I find it a little hard to believe that people just stopped buying your books.  The residuals from school sales alone would have to be enough to live on.  Your work is required curriculum."
            I looked up toward Ranus and watched his gaze narrow in response to Joel's words.  
            "I haven't had that option for over ten years.  We'll just leave it at that."
            The server appeared next to the table setting an empty coffee mug in front of Joel and me.  I watched her fill the mugs as my thoughts drifted to the events of the past week.
            Ben and I had gone to try and convince his boys to join him at the apartment.  And they'd agreed.  >From that point, I'd begun to screw up.  I'd hurt Ben with my selfish desire to be alone.  I'd pushed things between Cody and Ben with the intention of helping, and now, all they knew was pain.  I'd obviously ignored Cleats to the point of making him feel not welcome.  I'd pissed Joel off to the point of him thinking that I wanted our relationship to end.  Chris couldn't even accept my hug last night when I wanted to offer him support.  I'd gotten Hank so pissed at me that he wouldn't even respond to my questions until Joel arrived.  Fuck!  The only ones I didn't think I'd fucked with were Mau and Timmy.  
            'Yeah.  Well just give me time,' I thought bitterly.
            The thought of confronting Cleats and trying to get him to stay was suddenly beyond my ability to deal with.  I stood up and turned towards Joel.
            "Look, I have to leave.  Bring Cleats home."  My eyes beseeched him to understand without further explanation.  "Please."
            He studied my face, wide-eyed as his mouth opened to speak.  I waved him silent.  "Please, babe."
            His slight nod and worried looked hit me as I turned towards the door.
            My thoughts from last night in the parking garage echoed again through my mind.
            'What had I done?'  The repercussion of my actions rippled outwards from the shock waves of the nuclear accident called good intentions … my good intentions.

            The chill infused me as I sat with my arms around my knees on the ratty, stained mattress.  I scanned the room for the hundredth time in the past couple of hours, seeing images of the boys huddled together for warmth or sharing some food that wasn't enough to feed one of them, much less seven.  And, I also saw them laughing as Cody teased Ben about his dick or as Cleats let go with one of his offensive, but humorous remarks.  I saw them lounging against each other just like they'd done for the past week in the media room or on their mattresses.
            'The mattresses on the floor…'  I sighed as the thought brought a surprise grunt and chuckle.  Mau and Timmy had asked if they had to use real beds at the new place.  I'd nodded at the time, but now it seemed like such a stupid response.  What did it matter?
            'I didn't purposefully ignore him.'  The thought about Cleats echoed again unbidden.  I didn't purposefully intend to hurt any of them.  When I thought of the pain in Ben's eyes, bleeding from his heart over my unintentional slight of him and his feelings while I was wrapped up in Mau's shit, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell I thought I was trying to do with these boys.  I had no more experience with teenagers than I did with conducting brain surgery.  And in my arrogance, I now saw that I could hurt them as fatally as I could with a simple slip of the scalpel.  
            My heart clenched as I thought of how incredibly vulnerable Mau was.  And here I was playing the adult, the parent … the counselor, while the seconds ticked away towards detonation.  I had no more right to promise Mau any type of security than those bastards had a right to rape and torture him.  Who was I trying to fool?  Who was I trying to impress?  Joel?  Hank?  Myself?  If I didn't stop my unlicensed counseling … my shot-in-the-dark parenting, I could possibly fuck Mau up for good!
            My thoughts blackened further as the memory of Ben sitting on my chest at the new place flashed before my eyes.  Talk about fucking some kid up!  In just a few short days, I'd fallen hopelessly in love with Ben, or at least the idea of Ben, and let my desires to comfort and shelter and heal him drive me recklessly onward into professing my desire to adopt him -- after less than a week!  Am I insane?  Am I just some repressed, love-starved sap?  With Joel, I'd at least spent the better part of a month twisting my desire for him into some semblance of love.  But with Ben, it had happened in mere hours.  Within the first moments of the first morning when I'd gazed at him sleeping in the spare room, I'd lost my heart to him.  At least with Joel, romantic and physical desires sustained my feelings.  With Ben, I had nothing but selfish, mental daydreams ripe with the idea of raising a son, plus pathetic, emotional longings to simply see him smile and know happiness.  And that was sure to lead to more pain and additional, disastrous repercussions.
            'Stupid!  Just stupid, Blair!'  I yelled to myself as my hands feverishly rubbed my eyes.  'You used to be in control of your life, asshole.  Now you're trying to control other people's lives because you can't control your own!"
            A strong surge of frustration drove me to my feet.  "Goddamnit!”  The shout echoed across the empty room, reverberating with pathetic indulgence.
            "Chill out, pretty boy."
            A startled shout exploded from me, unbidden.  I spun towards the voice as my heart instantly raced with adrenaline.  Pain pulsed jaggedly through my ankle.
            Ranus leaned against the doorframe smirking.  
            "What the fuck!"  I yelled, my embarrassment instantly turning to anger.  "What the fuck are you doing here?"
            Ranus chuckled.  "Looking for another missing bird."
            More games.  "What the hell's that mean?"  I wasn't up for any more innuendo or charades.  
            "Hmm ...," he returned.  "Bird's testy."
            "Look, Ranus, no more games, all right?  I'm played out.  Just answer my question."  The rush from my surprise had already started to drain from me and the sinking, drowning feeling from moments earlier reasserted itself.
            "You're missing in action, pretty boy and I had a feeling I'd find you here."
            I ignored his taunt and glared at him confused.  "Missing?  What are you talking about?"  My hand reached for my cell phone and found the clip empty.  I looked down in surprise.  "Fuck!"
            "You left it on the seat.  And this ..." he reached to grab my cane that I suddenly noticed was leaning against the wall, "you left in that pretty car."  He chuckled again.  "Pretty car, pretty boy."
            I grunted.  "What's with the pretty boy shit?  It's starting to annoy me."
            "I see that.  I also see that you're easily annoyed."
            I sighed and closed my eyes, drawing a deep breath, then began to limp my way towards him.  "Whatever, man.  You wanna toss me the cane?  I need to get to a phone."
            The cane sailed through the air followed shortly by my phone.  Luckily, I caught both.  I stared at the phone as my thoughts tried to comprehend why Joel had given it to Ranus.  I looked at him.  
            "Cleats showed up 'bout an hour ago and agreed to return to the apartment to talk with you after your sugar daddy set him straight on a few things."
            Relief filled my sigh as I realized that I might have another chance with Cleats, then, my thoughts from earlier rose again.  I nodded and sniffed.  "Great.  Another chance to fuck up."
            I quickly dialed Joel's phone, then assured him I wasn't missing and that I'd be home soon.  I avoided his questions and reassured him I didn't need a ride.  Once finished, I turned to Ranus.
            "So how'd you know where to find me?"
            "You're an open book, bird."  
            My irritation flared and I'd reached the limit of being civil.  "Enough, Ranus."
            "Enough of what?"  He grinned, eyes sparkling with a knowing glint.
            "Enough of the sage, street-wise black man routine and enough with the half-answers and insults.  I don't need ..."  My words stalled as the building emotion suddenly lost its force.  I really had reached the point of saying 'fuck it'.  I needed to be anywhere but here.  I needed to be away from his grinning, knowing smirk and the judgment that radiated from his every move or glance or word.    I needed to be alone while at the same time, I was desperate to get home and see if there was any chance to salvage my connection with Cleats, however weak and tentative.  
            My gaze dropped to the floor in resignation.  I knew there wasn't much hope for Cleats and me because I'd never found any words to say to him to bridge the differences between us.  I sensed the anger that Joel recognized in Cleats, but what left me immobilized was his deeply-rooted, yet unrecognized, acceptance of the futility of it all -- his 'why try' belief because there's no hope.  But on top of the underlying despair, was the fact the he was utterly heterosexual.  I'd been in the business world long enough to be able to deal with straight men and their fearful aversion to homosexuals, but Cleats held contempt for Joel and me.  He held up his sexuality like a badge, a shield, with his derogatory jokes and words being his sword.  
            I realized as I stood there, looking at the littered floor of the boy's crib, that each time over the past week when I'd heard him spit out another anti-gay slur, made in jest or not, I'd closed off from him a little more.  And his perpetual comments regarding the sweetness of whatever 'pussy' he was getting caused me to sigh inwardly with disdain each time.  So, where was the hope that the two of us could ever truly connect?  How were we supposed to find common ground?
            My grunt and slow shake of my head stemmed from my own futile feelings, but it did snap me out of my dark musings.  I started towards the door, ignoring Ranus as I passed him.  I felt his gaze watch me as I moved into the equally littered hallway.  
            The smirk contained in his words stopped me.
            "Poor pretty boy doesn't have a clue about what my boy, Cleats, needs."
            "You're right," I replied gruffly, "I don't.  You seem to, but you're too wrapped up in being some kind of victim to take pity on this 'pretty boy' and share your great wisdom.  So thanks for the call about Cleats and for the rest of it, fuck off."
            I continued towards the stairs.
            "The Fu Man can handle Cleats' shit and work through his anger and get him to see just what promise he has inside of him, but you need to give him all the love you can.  Just like what you've done with my other boys."  The normal gruffness in his voice faded as he continued.  "You need to hug him, pretty boy.  You need to give him the tenderness that only a mother can give, because he desperately needs to know that someone loves him.  Set all the rest of the shit you're struggling with aside and open your heart to him.  Touch him, love him and all of the black-white, gay-straight walls will come tumbling down.  I promise."
            I whirled to face him as the truth of his words slammed into my mind and swelled my heart.  My petty anger instantly dissolved.
            "He'll never let me."
            "Yes, he will, pretty boy," he said as he slowly approached.
            "He'll think I'm coming on to him."
            "Maybe, at first, but if you don't let go and keep holding him tightly, his heart is going to recognize that it's love you want to give him and not, what I assume to be, your very pretty dick."
            My mouth dropped open with the apparent come on.  He tipped his head up slowly once then winked at me.  "I have a thing for blonde haired, blue eyed studs with rippling muscles and an ass made by the gods."  He winked again and his smirk returned.
            I didn't know what to say.  "I ... uh ..."
            He nodded.  "If Summers ever decides he wants pussy again, you look me up.  You feelin' me, pretty boy?"
            My snort of surprise brought a grin to his face.  
            "Now, let's go," he continued, moving past me and beginning down the stairs.  "Cleats has about as much patience as a bull in heat.  Plus, I'm hungry and Fu Man promised me some food while we conduct a little business."

            Twenty minutes later, I limped up to the restaurant's street entrance and entered with Ranus.   The place was starting to fill up with customers wanting their Sunday morning breakfast.  Six of the tables were full along with a number of bar spots.  The weekend bartender waived to me then tilted his head towards a corner seat.  Surprisingly, Cleats sat at the bar alone.  Our eyes locked briefly then he shifted his gaze to Ranus.  Two patrons stood to leave and stopped to talk with the host, effectively blocking the view of my flighty 'bird'.  I saw Ranus nod once then he turned to face me.
            "Remember what I said.  I'm going upstairs.  What's the secret password?"  His eyes pierced mine with quiet directive.  
            I nodded, acknowledging the chance I had.  "Just tell Barry that Blair said to send you up because Joel's expecting you."
            He tipped his chin towards me once, then started through the restaurant.  I turned my gaze in Cleats' direction and breathed deeply.  
            A half wary, half angry expression stood on his face as I approached him.  I didn't stop when I reached his seat, but moved closer.  His head pulled back in surprise.
            "I'm so glad you're here, Cleats," I said softly as I grabbed his shoulders and turned him to face me, pulling him to his feet.  My arms encircled his shoulders.              "Come 'ere."
            He tried to pull from my arms, but I drew him tightly to my chest.  "What the fuck you doing, man?"  He hissed, trying to push me away.
            "Something I should have done a week ago," I replied softly.  "I'm sorry, Cleats."
            His struggles increased.  He hissed again.  "Man, this is too faggy, Blair.  Stop.  People are staring."
            I shook my head.  "I know.  Fuck 'em.  I want to hug you."
            I tightened my embrace and his struggles gradually began to dwindle.  When I felt his arm grab my back, I grinned and sighed, then began to slowly rock back and forth.  "You're a good kid, Cleats.  I mean that."  My whisper was heard only by him.  "I'm sorry I've been so standoffish.  I promise to make it up to you, bud.  Don't leave."
            He gasped quietly at my words and I felt him shudder.  I placed a kiss on the side of his head and continued the hug.  After a while, I pulled back and smiled.  His eyes were slightly wet with tears and he quickly pinched the bridge of his nose to clear them.  Then, without realizing it, he deftly looked around to see if anyone was staring.  Finally, he looked up towards me.
            "You mean all that shit?"  He wasn't grinning or smirking, just simply looking into my eyes, seriously, questioningly.
            I nodded slowly.  "I'm not the best at all of this adult to teen communication thing, Clayton.  Give me another chance?"
            His grin returned.  "You ain't gonna hug me in public again are you?"
            I matched his grin.  "Probably."
            His head shook back and forth and his grin dropped into a smirk.  "Man!"
            I laughed.  "Sorry, Cleats.  I'm just a huggy, touchy type of guy.  Think you can live with that?"
            He tipped his chin up once and rolled his eyes.  
            "Good," I chuckled.  "Wanna head upstairs?"
            Another tip of his chin answered me.  
            "Good.  C'mon."  
            When we were half way through the restaurant, I casually threw my arm across his shoulders and heard him sigh resignedly.  I chuckled.
            "Man," he whined.  "Chicago can't be as bad as this."  
            Loud, raspy laughter rolled from the kitchen as we entered the apartment.  It could only belong to Ranus.  Then I heard Joel's voice.
            "I can't imagine what he said in response to that."
            Ranus laughed again.  "It was incoherent."
            Cleats and I entered the kitchen and found Joel leaning against the counter facing Ranus as he sat next to Chris at the breakfast bar with a plate of scrambled eggs and toast in front of him.  Joel's grin felt like a nice welcome home hug.
            "What's so funny, guys?"  I asked giving Cleats a sideways wink.  He grinned and shrugged.
            Ranus turned towards us smirking.  "We're talking about your pretty dick, pretty boy."
            My eyes popped open as I exhaled forcefully with a grunt and looked at Joel.  His head shook back and forth, as he chuckled.
            "Correction, Ranus," he said.  "You were talking about his pretty dick.  I was just listening."
            The expression on Cleats' face was priceless.  It contained a combination of disbelief and shock with a small amount of confusion.  Chris laughed.
            "Close your mouth, Cleats.  You too, Blair.  Don't want the flies getting in."  His eyes sparkled with humor and playfulness.  "And by the way, just so you know, Blair, I'm pissed.  You let Mau and Ben sleep with you and you've shone Ranus your dick.  All I've gotten away with is coppin' a feel of your calf.  This sucks!"
            Ranus laughed and Joel grinned.  I sputtered.  "I did not show Ranus my dick.  He's just dreaming."  My response caused Chris to roll his eyes.  I found my stride again.  "And besides," I began with another wink at Cleats.  "You're too old to sleep with us and too young to expect anything more along those lines."
            Chris sighed.  "Like I said, this sucks."
            Joel snorted once and then changed the subject.  "So Clayton, I see your bag is still around your shoulder.  You going somewhere?"
            Cleats quickly scanned across Joel then at Ranus and Chris and finally settled his eyes on me.  I could see, during the brief pause before he answered, that he too stood at a similar crossroads, just like I'd done previously.
            The left road held a return to his past in Chicago, the right, offered a return to his life on the streets, though this time alone.  And forward presented its own share of uncertainty.  Yet, I also sensed a deeper, personal crossroads.  He had known only anger and struggle during his previous experiences in Chicago with his father and the life he knew there.  That road held only more of the same for him.  Still, the choice to the right, which offered independence, also contained the element of struggle, which while not being insurmountable, held little hope for a chance at any kind of future.  He'd be alone again with the prospect of being loved and cared for -- a desire and need which I didn't think he even realized propelled him through his day -- standing always just out of reach.  
            Life with his boys and us though, unsettled him more than the two other choices combined.  We offered only the verbal promise of family ties with all the inherent restrictions.  Yet, now, and thanks to Ranus, I could offer him love and tenderness, which I hoped he'd felt through our hug in the restaurant.  Had it been enough to show him that I wanted him to be with us, and that there was no differences which we couldn't overcome?  I wasn't sure, but I did know that the uncertainty I sensed in him frightened him more than he realized.  Life in a loving family unit held it's own pending repercussions bound up in commitment and fidelity to one's self.  
            And I think he sensed all of these things as he stared into my eyes.
            I reached to brush my fingers through his neat, three inch dreadlocks and stroked his temple with my thumb.  My eyes almost teared with the longing I saw in his gaze for more touch juxtaposed next to his desperate desire to trust that I or Joel wouldn't ultimately screw him by withdrawing our caring and support.
            "I promise," I whispered.
            His hand slowly reached up to his shoulder, then he thumbed the strap into his hand and dropped the bag to the floor.  "I'm hungry, man," he said to me, then looked at Joel.  "You got any more grub or did the Ran Man eat it all?"
            Joel chuckled with a nod and I grinned then threw my arm around his shoulder and pulled him close, placing a kiss on his forehead.  Looking down I saw him grin and roll his eyes as he winced.
            "See!"  Chris started, grinning devilishly.  "And now you're huggin' all over Cleats.  What, am I, too much of a temptation or something?"
            I laughed and released Cleats then moved around the edge of the breakfast bar and pulled Chris into a hug as he sat on the stool.  "That's it, stud.  You're way too much of a temptation."
            His arms wrapped themselves around my shoulders as he nested into my chest.  His muffled, 'I knew it' prompted a snort from Cleats.
            "You better watch it, B, or he's gonna fag out on you."
            Joel laughed.  "I think I'd have something to say about that."
            Chris pulled his head from my chest and sighed dramatically.  "Don't worry, Fu.  It'd just be sex.  Hot, steamy sex for sure, but nothing more."
            I groaned and removed my arms then messed the top of his hair.  "Christ, stud.  You're incorrigible."
            He grinned.  "Incorrigible enough to get my wish?"
            Ranus chuckled.  "This is good.  The whelp needs to learn a little humility."
            "You're sure talking funny, Ranus.  What's up with that?"  Cleats asked as he moved towards the stove and the skillet of eggs.  
            "You can't judge a book by its tattered cover, pup."  Joel replied then glanced quickly towards Ranus.  "You're looking at a phenomenally accomplished poet that actually had the sense to decline a turn as Poet Laureate."
            Chris and Cleats swung their heads in tandem towards Ranus.  
            "What's a Poet Laureate?"  Cleats asked.
            Chris gasped.  "It's the top poet in the country for a while.  Laureates are the dudes or chicks that become the face of poetry and sometimes the conscience of the country."  He turned towards Ranus again.  "No shit, man?"  
             Ranus shrugged.  
            Chris continued.  "What happened?"
            Ranus paused to finish his coffee before answering.  "None of your business, boy," he said, then looked towards Joel.  "And you shouldn't have said anything, Summers.  What you and me talked about should have stayed between you and me."
            Joel shook his head.  "Sorry.  I disagree.  I told you, I'm not the type of person that allows for … what happened to you to continue unabated if there's something I can do about it."
            "What's he talking about Ran Man?"  Cleats asked.
            "Nothing," Ranus said as he glared at Joel and stood up.  "You and me need to talk.  Privately."
            Joel nodded then after a quick glance towards me, nodded towards the hallway.  "Let's go into my office, Mr. Williams."
            Ranus stomped through the kitchen and Joel followed him into the hallway after filling a carafe with coffee.  I turned to find Chris looking at me, his eyes filled with questions.
            "What's going on, Blair?  Are you telling me he's the Ranus Williams?  We studied American Poetry for a semester last year and we spent a whole week on his stuff.  Mrs. Whittaker said he disappeared ten years ago and hasn't written anything since."
            "Well, you know more about it than I do.  Joel is very familiar with his work, but I've only just heard about him.  I don't read a lot of poetry normally.  So you'll have to wait just like me for answers."  I headed to the stove where Cleats stood holding an empty plate as he looked towards the empty doorway that Joel and Ranus just exited through.  "You still hungry, Cleats?"
            He slowly nodded and looked at his plate.  "Well, fill it up, then nuke it.  I'm sure the eggs are cold by now.  There's some bread or tortillas if you want something more."
            "Cool, B."  
            "Where're the rest of the guys, Chris?"
            He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb.  "Mau and Timmy are watching TV and I think that Cody and Ben are still asleep.  I haven't seen them."
            I nodded.  "Thanks.  Did you eat?"
            "Yeah.  I made the eggs for us after Joel got back.  There's some sausage in the oven, Cleats, if you want some."
            Cleats' eyes grew wide as he licked his lips.  "Cool."
            I winked at Chris then headed out of the kitchen towards the bedrooms.  Ben must have been worn out from the huge highs and lows experienced yesterday if he was still asleep.  Cody too.  I wasn't quite prepared for the sight of Cody and Ben lying next to each other on the floor mattresses.  They both slept soundly -- Cody curled into Ben's chest with Ben cradling Cody in his arms.  Under the blanket, I could see that Ben's leg draped itself over Cody's hips.
            I backed out of the doorway, pulling the door nearly shut then stood in the hallway as my head shook slowly back and forth.  I'd only been gone maybe three hours, but obviously, I'd missed something.
            'Good,' I thought to myself.  'Now, just stay out of whatever's happening.'  I headed back down the hallway to the kitchen.
            "Still sleeping?"  Chris asked.  
            I nodded and grabbed a sausage link from the pan and pulled an ice wrap out of the freezer.  On my way through to the media room, Cleats threw out a typical comment that brought a grin to my face.
            "A couple of bums, man"
            Mau sprawled across the couch as the original Matrix blasted from the TV.  Timmy was on the floor hunching over a pillow pulled tightly to his chest, his spine arching backwards.  I grimaced with the thought of my back in a similar position, then chuckled as I realized just how flexible prepubescent boys were.  
            I grinned.  "There can be only One!"  I yelled, my voice straining to be heard above the music.
            Mau looked up at me and smiled then rolled his eyes.  "That's Highlander, B.  This is the Matrix."
            I feigned confusion until a smile gripped my lips.  "I was just seeing if you were still awake."
            Timmy looked at me over his shoulder.  "Of course we're still awake, Blair.  We just got up."
            "Oh.  Is it still morning?"  I said with a grin.  "As loud as you're playing this movie I figured it had to be much later."
            Mau rolled his eyes and reached for the remote, bringing the volume down a few decibels.  
            "That's better.  Did you guys eat anything?"
            I received a nod from Mau.  Timmy rolled onto his back and rubbed his stomach.  "Yeah.  I had four sausages.  Look, I'm starting to get fat."  He pulled his shirt tight against his stomach and push out with his abdominal muscles.  The sight caused me to throw my head back in laughter.  
            "Yes you are, Tim.  We're gonna have to get more food and you more clothes if you keep that up."  My laughter continued as I applied the ice wrap and moved to the couch.  I tapped Mau's foot, indicating I wanted to sit with him.  He pulled his feet back and I relaxed into the soft leather, placing my foot on the coffee table, then grabbed Mau's feet and pulled them onto my leg.  He grinned and turned back to the movie.
            The pain in my ankle was at least confined to a low throb.  The walk back to the apartment was longer than I had planned on and now it was nice to sit with Mau and Timmy and give it a little ice therapy.  Plus, I loved The Matrix, not to mention Keanu Reeves was pretty easy on the eyes.
            My thoughts started to drift to Cody and Ben, then eased out a sigh and lost myself in the action in front of me.  Thirty minutes later, I felt a touch on my shoulder and looked to find Joel standing behind me.  He bent down and placed a kiss on my cheek then whispered in my ear.
            "Brady just called.  They have Latosi and his wife in custody."
            I turned sharply to look into his eyes and saw blazing resolution and stark hatred.  I gave him a quick nod then tickled Mau's feet, which he retracted immediately.  My brows rose once as I gave him a fake grin that I didn't feel, then stood and left the room with Joel.  We didn't speak until we arrived at his office.  Ranus wasn't there and Joel shared that he was in the shower in Megan's room.  
            "So tell me what Brady said."
            Joel nodded as he refilled his coffee cup and poured some for me.  "The scum didn't have a clue that the gig was up and Jenkins had been arrested.  The Agents found him at a second home he has on Oahu.  Brady said he denied the entire thing and had reported Mau missing the first day.  The Agent-in-Charge of the Hawaii operation informed him that they had video footage of the sale and I guess Latosi crumbled and refused to say anything else.  They got his wife too, who I guess spilled everything she knew about Jenkins in the hopes that it would help her case.  Brady assured me it wouldn't and that they'd both be charged with child trafficking, which carries a minimum sentence of something like twenty years.  He said though that it was only for the one charge and they would also be charged with child endangerment and about six other felonies."
            Joel's grin and gaze held the promise of more.  
            "I can tell that there's more to the story."
            He nodded as his grin dropped and he took my hand.  "The wife admitted that Latosi set up the accident which killed Mau's parents and sister.  She said he drugged Mau's father's drink then setup a fake emergency phone call about Mau to pull him and his wife and daughter from the barbeque.  It was on the drive home that the drug finally hit his blood stream."
            "Fuck, Joel!  This sounds life a damned movie!"
            He nodded again.  "He'll be charged with three counts of murder and she'll be charged as an accessory."
            "And what about Jenkins?"
            "Child trafficking, rape of a minor and about ten other things.  He's history and Brady says he knows it.  I guess they found a contact list with about fifteen names on it and they're beginning to track the sick bastards down.  But whoever the guy is that was on the footage with the torture and non-sexual abuse, seems to have disappeared and Jenkins isn't talking."
            I couldn't believe what I was I was hearing.  How had so much evil been allowed to be perpetrated and focused on one small boy?  Better yet, how had Mau survived it all?  "Christ, Joel!  His parents and sister were murdered and he was drugged then sold to sadistic perverts and raped god- knows how many times.  It all just makes me sick!  How are we ever to be able to help him?  Fuck!"
            Joel took my coffee mug from my hands and placed it on the table then pulled me to him.  "Blair, we're going to keep doing what we've done for the past week.  We're going to flood him with love and security and let the professionals help with the rest.  Gayle and him already have a small connection and we have to trust that it'll be enough."  He kissed my forehead as I shuddered.
            Part of me simply wanted to run back to the media room and grab hold of Mau and never let him go.  It all seemed too much to fathom and absorb and I couldn't even begin to think of how he would deal with this information.  "We're not going to tell him all of this, are we?"
            "No," Joel began.  "At least not all at once.  We'll need to have Bill and Gayle help us on this, babe.  I do, though, want to tell him that Latosi is in jail and will be going to prison for the next million years.  I think it will help some.  Chris told me this morning that Mau had another nightmare last night.  I guess Chris woke up to Mau's whimpering.  He said he just moved over and held Mau.  So part of me says that if Mau knows the sick fucks are in jail, it might help."
            "Did you tell him about the money yet?"
            I pulled from Joel to see Ranus standing in the doorway.  He wore a pair of Joel's casual velour sweat pants with a matching zippered top.  His hair was styled in long dreadlocks that hung to his shoulders.  The beret-styled skull cap he'd formally worn was absent and I found the change in his appearance to be remarkable.  
            "What money?"  I asked looking again at Joel.  
            "Blood money."  Ranus grunted as he moved into the room and dropped into the chair across from us.  
            Joel nodded.  "Brady said that was Latosi's motivation.  Mau's parents were each insured for five hundred thousand and his sister for two-fifty.  As Mau's guardian, he controlled the money."
            The utter brutality of the whole thing was too much for me.  I launched from the couch with a half-growl, half-yell.  "God damn it!  Are you fucking telling me that Mau's life was ruined for a shitty million dollars?  The fucker should be given the death penalty!  God damn him!"  
            Joel stood and grabbed my face in his hands.  "Blair, it's okay.  The fucker's going to pay and Mau is safe now."
            "But he was raped and tortured, Joel!  It's not okay!  It's just not!"  My tears let loose and my voice choked with the roar of emotions surging through me.  "He's a priceless child and that bastard murdered his family for the fucking money, then sold him.  Sold him, Joel!"  I felt Joel's arms tighten around me as he tried to offer support even though, right now, I felt truly inconsolable.  I heard a gasp from behind Joel and opened my eyes to see Mau standing in the doorway with Cleats and Chris behind him.  
            It was obvious that he'd been there long enough to hear the truth of his family's death.  Shock covered his face as he locked his gaze with mine across the room.  Tears filled his eyes, overflowing onto his cheeks.  His mouth stood open adding to the horror which filled his eyes.  
            I pulled from Joel and ran to him, catching him just as his legs started to cave beneath him.
            "Blair!"  He wailed through his horror and shock.  I dropped to the floor with him as he flung his arms around my neck.  His body shuddered in my arms as he cried out the newly-awakened pain he harbored over the loss of his family.  I heard him cry 'daddy' repeatedly through his tears into my chest.  And then the realization hit me.  He'd blamed his father for his mother's and sister's deaths, plus what had happened to him afterwards.
            "Cubbo … honey!  Mau!"  I said trying to get his attention.  "The FBI got Latosi and he's going to prison for good.  Do you hear me?  Mau?"  I sensed Joel kneel next to me as I pressed Mau's head into my chest.  Mau's grip on my neck tightened.  "Your dad didn't do anything wrong, honey, and the FBI has the bastards that did it all."
            Ranus' voice sliced through my own emotional tears from behind me.  "Why the hell did you let him come back here?"  
            I looked up to see Chris sputter in shock at the accusation.  Cleats responded.
            "Hey, man.  He'd just come into the kitchen when we heard Blair start yelling.  Then he took off down the hall."
            "It's okay, Cleats.  You too, Chris," Joel said firmly as I continued to rock Mau in my arms.  Joel continued.  "Why don't you guys head back to the kitchen and …" Joel stopped as Chris interrupted him.
            "No, Joel.  We're staying."  He then dropped to his knees in front of me and placed his hand next to mine on Mau's head.  
            Mau clenched me tighter as his sobs rippled through my chest.  I rubbed his back and kissed the top of his head.  "I'm so sorry, sweetie, so sorry."  He crawled further into my lap as his tears continued.  
            I felt Chris's hand on the back of my hair giving me a gentle stroke.  I look to see his eyes draining tears to match my own.  Cleats dropped to the floor next to me and I felt his hand on my leg.  It was as if they both were offering me support so that I could continue to give whatever I had to Mau as his emotional torrent continued.
            We sat like that for at least five minutes, me placing an occasional kiss on Mau's head and whispering soothing words that I hoped somehow helped him.  His tears and choking sobs slowed, then stopped all together.  I heard him whimper a few times then felt his body relax in my arms.  He'd cried himself to exhaustion.  After a few more minutes, I worked my arm under Mau's legs and mouthed for Chris to help me stand up.  Mau whimpered again in his sleep, but quieted once I was fully standing.  
            I headed through the door towards the kitchen and ultimately the bedroom wing.  Chris and Cleats preceded me down the hallway, but I stopped them from opening their bedroom door.  
            "Your bros are still asleep.  Let's put him in our bed."
            Once settled, Chris offered to stay with Mau.  The gesture touched me deeply.  These boys only had each other, and they continually amazed me how seriously and genuinely they cared for each other.  Chris crawled into the center of the bed and laid down next to Mau with his arms across his shoulders.  The move made me smile as again my emotions swelled.  I tapped Cleats on the shoulder and as he turned from looking at Chris and Mau, his face was a mask of rage.  His jaw trembled with the force of effort required to contain his emotions.  He slowly shook his head back and forth.
            "C'mon, bud," I whispered then put my arm around his shoulder and gently pulled him from the room.  
            I closed the door and felt Cleats stop with me.  "He was sold?"  Cleats hissed.  "Sold to some fuckers that raped him?"
            I sighed resignedly at my failure to control myself earlier, then looked into Cleats' incredulous, rage-filled brown eyes and nodded.
            "For how long, Blair?  How long did they do it to him?"
            "Cleats," I began as I tried to avoid answering him.
            "No, man.  C'mon.  How long?"
            "About four months I think.  Ben told me that Mau showed up sometime in late February, right?"
            Cleats nodded.  
            "Well, then it was about four months."
            He looked at me as his eyes filled with tears.  "It's just not right, B."  
            The pain and confusion in his voice stabbed into me.  These boys, these young, already wounded boys shouldn't have ever known some of the stuff I blurted out in my self-serving tantrum.  
            "You should never have heard that, Cleats.  I'm so sorry.  I fucked up again and you guys bore the brunt of it.  Mau especially."
            "You're wrong, B.  You didn't fuck up.  We gotta know this shit.  We're his homies, man."  He wiped his face quickly and sniffed.  "How can you say you fucked up?  You were fucking amazing, B.  I … I can't believe how cool you were."
            I held my hands up to stop him.  "It wasn't cool, Cleats.  I'm the one that caused it all."
            He looked at me like I was crazy.  "Man, you gotta chill out, Blair.  You didn't cause shit.  You helped him man!"
            A deep sigh and growl rumbled from my lips.  I dropped my head into my hands rubbing my eyes resignedly.  I wanted to believe what he was saying, but the truth from an adult perspective was slightly different.  Mau should never have heard all of that and especially not in the way that he heard it.  Thinking for the past six months that his father had set up everything and being told by Jenkins that his father had sold him because he didn't want him any longer, was something even Gayle had initially balked at handling.  Now, simply because I couldn't control myself, he'd found out that his family had been murdered.  How much more could he be expected to take, to handle?  How much more could all of us handle?  
            Suddenly, in the middle of my caustic self-review, I felt Cleats' hand on either side of my head, then I felt him press his lips against my hair.  He kissed my head a second time then moved his arms to my shoulders and enveloped me in a hug.  
            I shuddered.
            "You didn't do nothing wrong, B-man.  You're the greatest and we all need you for … I don't know, to be strong or something.  I need it and so do my boys."
            A deep breath filled my lungs as I realized that he was partly right.  The boys didn't need to see me like this.  I nodded and relaxed for a moment, savoring the feel of his long, muscular arms around me.  They felt like Joel's and I felt secure and supported for the moment.  Safe.
            I raised my head and Cleats dropped his arms.  "Thanks, Cleats.  I guess I needed that."
            He grinned and shrugged.  "You're getting me all touchy, huggy now."
            My smile was filled with a bit of disbelief, but still genuine.  "You and I have come a long way quickly, bud."
            "Tell me about it."
            I chuckled just as I heard the boy's room door open.  Ben and Cody appeared, dressed in just their boxers and baggy t-shirts, holding hands.  
            The sight brought a smile to my face.  I looked at Cody.  "That's good to see."
            He blushed, then grinned widely.  "He's a sweet talker," he said as he flicked a quick glance at Ben.  "And when he cuddled up next to me this morning and told me …" he paused and looked at Cleats before continuing, "well said his sweet talk, I knew I couldn't stay mad at him."
            Ben looked at me with shiny, bright eyes then turned and kissed Cody's cheek.  Cody's blush deepened.
            "Damn, Codes," Cleats chimed.  "Looks like you got Bone wrapped around your finger.  Shit.  Now it's just me and the Mau-man to handle all the women."
            Cody lighted the hallway with his smile and Ben raised his eyebrows a couple of times then moved behind Cody and encircled his waist with his arms.  Ben looked at me again.  "So what's going on?  What are you guys doing hangin' in the hallway?"
            I closed my eyes and shook my head.  
            "What?"  Ben asked curiously.  "What'd we miss?"
            Cleats and I both sighed and looked at each other.  I grunted and Cleats let out a quiet, disbelieving chuckle.
            "Man!  I shouldn't even tell you shit.  You love bums have slept through it all.  If you were actually in there sleeping, man."
            "What?"  Ben asked, ignoring Cleats' tease.  "What happened?"
            I sighed, knowing that Ben wouldn't rest until he was fully informed.  "C'mon.  I need more coffee, as I'm sure you do, pup.  Let's go to the kitchen."

            A couple hours after the intense events with Mau in the office, I stepped from our bedroom after checking to see that he was still sleeping.  Chris had stayed with him for an hour.
            I returned to the office where Joel, Ranus and Rob huddled developing a strategy to aid Ranus.  I was still reeling somewhat anxiously from the intensity of his story.  Rob reviewed his notes one last time as I entered.
            "Okay.  I think I have enough to get started.  I'll begin with your publishing house.  Once I obtain a copy of the Power of Attorney that Ranus was forced to sign, I'll send it to Legal for their opinion as to its validity.  I'll also have Legal draft a Revocation of Power of Attorney so that the Publishing House will stop sending proceeds to Manchester and release sales figures from the past ten years on your work to our office."
            He stopped and eyed Ranus intensely.  "You're certain you will test clean on blood and urine tests?"
            Ranus returned Rob's look, his jaw set firmly as he replied.  "It's been six years.  Period."  
            "Okay.  If you'll have the tests done tomorrow, I'll see about getting the lab to rush the results.  I don't know if they will be needed, but I think it would be best to have them in reserve, just in case."
            Joel nodded.  "I agree.  It'll be a stretch, but once confronted, your agent might threaten to bring up the drug use again and involve the authorities.  I still wish you would let me speak with Brady from the Bureau."
            "No.  That's final."  Ranus growled.  "I'm not going to jail."
            I interrupted.  "Sorry if you've already explained this to me, but I'm having a hard time staying focused.  Just what leverage do we have to force him to relinquish power over your assets.  You said he had proof that you were involved in the woman's death, but you also said that you remember seeing her dressing and that she was fine before you passed out.  How are you going to prove that she overdosed on her own or with your agent's help, if it was ten years ago?"
            Joel answered for Ranus.  "That's really not what we are trying to do.  We're trying to stop his agent from any further blackmail and retrieve the money due to Ranus.  If we can't force Manchester to admit to the blackmail and return what's owed, I'll make sure that he's hit with every legal threat possible backed up by every power name I know in Chicago.  The video tape and pictures that Manchester has held over Ranus could have been faked.  They'd never hold up in court."
            "And so," I replied, "you're going to force Manchester to stop the blackmail and embezzlement by threatening to expose his actions."
            Joel nodded.  "Yes."
            I nodded in return.  I felt like I was up to speed even though my thoughts were still focused on Mau.  There was a final question I needed an answer to though.  I shifted my gaze to face Ranus.  "Can I ask why, once you got yourself clean, you've haven't stopped this before, meaning, why haven't you found a lawyer to help put this bastard away, for Christ's sake?  Why'd you let it continue?"
            His steel gray eyes locked with mine and for I moment I sensed raw anger and contempt flowing to me through his gaze.  I wanted to look away, but couldn't allow myself to give in.  Our history, albeit brief, had been a contest of wills and I was damn sick of his 'pretty boy' label and everything it represented.  
            "Four different lawyers refused to see me because I was obviously just another bum brutha from the streets.  They all told me to go to hell.  After you get kicked enough times, you just stay down.  Plus, I've never really known what happened that night."  His eyes flared with anger.  "Does that answer your question, pretty boy?"    
            I looked at him without responding while his lock on my eyes held steady.  He snorted and continued.  "You should spend a week with me and we'll see just how pretty you look when you come home to Sugar Daddy, filthy and smelling like a sewer."
            "Poor Ranus," I replied bitingly.  "Such a tale of woe.  If you're looking for pity, I'm fresh out."  I gestured with my hand to the door.  "There are six boys out there, who through no fault of their own, are real victims.  I'll save my pity and understanding for them.  We all make choices."
            I set my coffee cup on the table and stood up.  I was through with his attitudes and dramas.  If Joel wanted to help, fine.  I shouldn't have bothered coming back to the office.  
            Joel's eyes flicked to mine once quickly and I held his gaze for a moment before taking a deep breath and turning towards the door.  Christ!  I was sick to death of dramas and sagas and constant, non-stop intensity.  I headed to the kitchen.
            Ben stood at the counter fixing two sandwiches and looked up as I entered.  
            "Dang, dude.  What's eating you?"
            His obvious effort at cleaning up his language broke though my black musings and brought a smile to my face.  "Dang?"  I asked as I sent him a wink.  "I like that, pup."
            He rolled his eyes and smirked.  "Don't change the subject, Blair.  You look like you're ready to wig out on someone.  Whazzup?"  
            "I'm gonna wig out on you if one of those sandwiches aren't for me."
            "Ooh.  I'm scared."  He said as his body suddenly shook with feigned fright.  
            I laughed.  "Nothing's up.  I think I'm gonna go chill out in the lounger and give my ankle a break."
            He nodded, realizing I wasn't going to explain myself further.  "Cool.  Let me take Cody his grub, then I'll join you.  Me and you's gotta talk."
            I snorted.  "You's?  You've been out of school too long, obviously."
            "Hmm," he replied with a grunt.  "Maybe I should bring you a beer, too.  You're in way too bitchy of a mood."
            I couldn't help, but chuckle.  "That'd be fine, pup.  Thanks."  
            I grabbed a fresh ice wrap from the freezer and headed out to the patio.  Ben joined me shortly with a sandwich for both of us and a beer for me.
            In the middle of my first bite, he stunned me with his question.  "What's it gonna take, B-man, for you to believe that you're not going to fuck us up?  We're not like expensive china, ya know."
            I nearly chocked on the food in my mouth.  Once I swallowed, I turned to face him.
            "Where'd that come from, Ben?"
            "Well, the look on your face a few minutes ago told me you were whacked about something and I think it has to do with all the apologizing you've been doing since last night."
            I looked at him intently as I tried to focus my thoughts into an adult response, but it was difficult.  This was a fifteen-year-old, even though he sounded like he was twenty-five.  "Look, Ben.  I need you to just be a kid and not worry about me.  Okay?  I'm fine."
            He took another bite of his sandwich and replied before he was finished chewing.  " No you're not.  That's baloney, Blair."
            He shrugged.  "It's nicer than bullshit," he replied around his mouthful of food, then swallowed the last of his bite.  "You're strung and we all know it."
            I coughed.  "Strung?"  I didn't want to talk with him about this.
            Exasperation filled his sigh.  "Strung tight?  Like too tight?"
            I nodded while the thought skittered across my mind that I probably shouldn't let him continue, but I'd had enough 'contests of wills' today and I didn't want to piss anyone else off.  
            "Okay.  And your point is?"
            "Dude, you apologized to Cody for sticking your nose into our stuff and screwing everything up.  You apologized to Cleats for not giving him enough attention and you apologized to me last night when you thought I was asleep.  You haven't done anything wrong, Blair.  Get a clue."
            Why was I surprised that the boys had already talked about everything?  My reply came after first taking a long swallow of beer.  "Anything else, dad?"
            Ben glared at me and I sighed then hurried on.  "Look, Ben, I heard what you said and thanks for saying it.  I don't mean to be flippant or make you think what you're saying isn't important.  And knowing you're aware and concerned enough about me to bring this all up means so much to me.  But it's been one hell of a week for all of us and I'd love to just sit out here and have a few beers while you and I talk about anything but me."  I said reaching over to ruffle his hair.  Then I realized that I needed to add one more off-limits topic.  " Or you and Cody."
            He paused and studied me before he nodded and took another bite of his sandwich.  "Why can't we talk about Cody?"
            "Because that's between you and him."
            "But you're the only one I can talk to about him."
            I wasn't following him.  "Why?  What about your other boys?"  
            The exasperation that accompanied the roll of his eyes was almost comical.  Obviously, I didn't have a clue.  
            "Blair!”  He cried with actual upset in his voice.  His sandwich was suddenly forgotten on his lap.  "Why are you doggin' me?  What'd I do to piss you off?"
            "What?"  I asked instantly, confused.  "I'm not mad at you in the least, bud.  You haven't done anything but be a great kid."
            "Then why are you fuckin' not answering me?  What Cleats said was right, man.  We all need you to like … I don't know … to talk to.  Why you so scared all of a sudden?"
            That was it, wasn't it?  I was scared -- scared of making more mistakes, but I'd already told myself that my fear wasn't going to get me anywhere with the boys … it wasn't going to help them.  I took a deep breath and swung my legs off the lounger to look at Ben squarely.  His face was covered in frustration and upset and he looked at me out of the corners of his eyes, pissed and hurt.  
            My sigh rose from deep inside me because I suddenly realized that he needed my commitment.  "Look, pup.  If you guys promise not to hate me if I make mistakes, and you can better bet I will, then I'll promise to not be too afraid that I'm gonna screw you up.  Deal?"
            "You are scared."
            I nodded.  "I've never even spent much time around kids your age.  Joel's a pro, but not me, and yes, I'm pretty scared that I'll fuck up."
            Ben grinned.  "Nice language, pop."
            I snorted and dropped my head to my chest as a big grin covered my face.  I leaned forward on the balls of my feet between the chairs and kissed him on the forehead.  "I love you, Ben.  You know that, don't you?"
            His head bounced up and down nodding and the grin that spread over his face caused my worries to melt and my emotions to swell.  "Me too, Blair."  He whispered.
            I winked.  "So … tell me about Cody."
            His arms dropped helplessly to his sides and his head rolled away from me for a moment then back to center.  A deep, heartfelt sigh rushed from his lips.  "It's like a volcano going off every time he kisses me."
            I smirked as I reveled in his young love.  "And what about the gay thing?"
            His eyes rolled once as his grin widened.  "So what."

            The Rocky Mountains stood majestically before me, rising out of the foothills and glimmering with the touch of the late afternoon sun on the snowy peaks.  Their stillness resonated deeply within me.  I'd been drawn to Denver twenty-some years ago and knew I'd found my home when I stood in City Park as a young, twenty-year-old man and gazed at the awesome grandeur the mountains provided as a backdrop for the rising city.
            Now, as I leaned against the half-wall cornice of Joel's building, watching the late-April sun drop slowly to its resting place behind the peaks, I finally accepted the fact that even though some times I made mistakes, like with Ben and Cody and Cleats and Mau …I wasn't going to hold back my feelings or my involvement with the boys.  Cleats' comment from earlier this morning had continued to echo in my thoughts throughout the day.  And when Ben, knowingly or unknowingly, reiterated Cleats' sentiment, I had to admit that I could only give them what I had to give.  I couldn't keep them from further hurt, but it was the 'being there' for them when they did hurt that counted most and was what they needed desperately.
            A satisfied smile crept over my face as I heard the roof access door open behind me.  I turned to see Joel coming towards me, a goofy grin plastered over his mien.
            "What's that grin for, babe?"
            "Because I knew I'd find you up here, that's all."
            "Uh huh.  Why don't I believe you?"
            He looked guilty, suddenly, like I'd caught him in a prank.  "Well … I told the boys they were on their own for dinner tonight."
            I looked at him sideways, tilting my head in question.  Then the access door opened again and out came Cleats and Chris carrying a table covered in a white cloth, followed by Ben and Cody with two of the dining room chairs.  Timmy came next with a stack of plates, silverware and napkins, grinning wildly.  Last to emerge was Hank, dressed in a white shirt and black bow tie.  A silly smirk was plastered on his face, stretching from ear to ear.  His arms held a bottle of Joel's Bordeaux.  In his left hand were two wine glasses and in the other, a bud vase with a single red rose.  
            My eyes widened in surprise, then I looked back towards the door, hoping that Mau would be coming through it last.  "Uh, wow, babe," I started, then looked again at the door.  "Where's Mau?  Is he okay?"
            Joel kissed my lips softly as he nodded.  "He's watching TV with Ranus.  No worries, okay?"  
            I nodded then pulled his head to mine for a longer kiss.  
            "Go for it, B-Man!"  Cody's giggle caused me to pull back from Joel embarrassed.
            Joel winked at me then turned to the boys.  "All right.  Be gone, you hooligans.  Adults only on the roof."
            I watched as Ben's eyes lit up as Chris and Cleats grabbed Timmy between them, one held his legs and the other held his chest.  They lifted him above their heads and headed towards the door with Timmy shrieking laughter, and giggling the whole way.  
            Ben grabbed Cody's hand and tried to pull him from the roof, but Cody had to get in one final parting shot.  "Now you guys can finally get all squishy with each other."
            My mouth dropped open in shock as the boys ran to the door giggling madly.  I turned to Joel and saw an equally shocked expression on his stunned face.  
            "How could they have heard that?"  I asked as my shock gave way to chuckles.
            Joel shook his head, amazed, but didn't answer.
            Then I heard Hank's low chuckle.  "My sister always says, guys, that with kids in the house, the walls have ears."
            The three of us laughed in understanding.  
            Joel took my hand in his and grabbed the rose from its vase.  We walked to the western edge and he put his arm around my waist as we faced the sunset.  He brought the rose to my face, and as I inhaled its deep scent, I was suddenly reminded of the return trip from France three weeks earlier where he'd proposed.  
            "God, Joel.  It's only been three weeks!"  
            "I know, love.  Three, very intense weeks."
            I swallowed.  "And the intensity doesn't seem to want to let up, you know?"
            He nodded then gently kissed my temple.  "You wanna share what all that was about with Ranus earlier?"
            I sighed and shook my head back and forth slowly.  "No.  Not tonight."  I turned and drew him to me so that his groin pressed firmly into mine.  "Tonight needs to be just ours, okay, Lover?  I don't know about you, but I need my Arthur badly… all to myself."
            Joel grinned with a quiet sigh.  "And I need just my Lancelot.  Tonight, our knights can fend for themselves."
            I heard Hank clear his throat behind us and we turned to face him.  
            "Arthur and Lancelot, huh?"  He winked as he tried to contain a smirk.  "Well then, your wine, my Liege."  He said playfully as he handed Joel his glass.  "And … your wine, oh Champion."
            I snorted and shook my head as I took the glass.  "Thanks, bud."
            Hank grinned and nodded.  "Your first course will be ready whenever you are, my friends."
            We clinked our glasses in a silent toast, then sipped gingerly.  As I lost myself in his rich, brown eyes, I realized, thankfully, for the first time in the last twenty-four hours, that there was also a good connotation which could be applied to the concept of repercussions.
            He stood before me.

Not Quite Finished
Comments are appreciated.   dfilchak@qwest.net