By SFWriter
Copyright 1998 -- 2013, All rights reserved.

SF42a: The Price We Pay ...


* * * * * * *

"Ladies and Gentleman! Welcome to the final round of this years Regional Championships! After 32 outstanding bouts, we have our two finalists. The winner of this bout not only becomes our Regional Champion, he also receives an automatic entry into the Under 19 Nationals! Our first finalist is the current champion, defending his title. Hailing from Takada Kai Dojo in Merlow of the Greater Merlow District, Daniel `Storm' Marcus!"

I made it. I made it to the finals. I'm standing on the center mat after a long, grueling day of competition. The whole crowd filling the Merlow Super Dome is fixed on me now. The air is absolutely electric. Call me confident, but I knew I'd make it here. This is my life. I've been doing this for over a decade. This is what I've worked for. A shot at the nationals. So why do I feel like I've already lost? And why do I feel beaten when I should be relishing this moment?

I wish I'd never come back. I wish I'd never left. I don't know what to think anymore. I'm lost. Next to Mom dying, these are probably two of the worst days of my life. All I have is my rage now. It's gotten me this far today. And now I face the source of much of my anger. Finally, we put an end to an underlying feud that's consumed us for more than a year. I should've ended this a long time ago. It shouldn't have come to this. But he wanted this as much as I did, though for different reasons. I want to win because this is what I've worked for. He wants to win ... because he wants to be better than I am.

It shouldn't be this way. This is my fault somehow. I could've prevented this, I'm sure of it. All of it. I didn't. Now I'm not sure whether I can finish this the way I want to. Because I know there's more on the line here than the Regionals Championship or a shot at the Nationals. Yet now there's no turning back. This is it.

"And his opponent, also hailing from the Takada Kai Dojo ..."

* * * * * * *

–Two days earlier

Dade woke up feeling groggy and wasted. His whole body felt heavy and cold, yet he wasn't in the place he expected to be. He was wrapped in a warm blanket in his own room. The morning sun was just beginning to burst through his window, stifled by the dark clouds still lingering.

"How are you feeling?"

Dade hadn't yet noticed the presence of someone else in his room. He turned his attention towards the foot of his bed to see Marty Lee sitting in his bean bag. It appeared as if he'd actually slept there. Something that normally would have annoyed Dade, but right now his energy wouldn't allow it.

"What are you doing here?" Dade asked finally, "Were you the one who helped me?"

"You don't remember?" Marty Lee asked in surprise.

"I thought it was Storm."

"It was Storm."

"He's here? I knew it was him!"

"Of course, he wouldn't have been there without me. But let's not dwell on the details." Marty Lee said with a slight smirk.

"Hope you're not expecting a thank you." Dade moaned uncomfortably.

"From you? Hardly."

"So what are you doing here then?"

"Keeping an eye on you. Storm asked Doc Haslan to make sure you were ok. He said you'd be fine."

"I'm ok." Dade said as he tried to sit up, "Bet you think this means I'm out of the regionals, huh?"

"Only if you're a pussy." Marty Lee said with a slight hint of mischief.

"Yeah, yeah. How's your lip?" Dade asked with a smirk.

"Just fine. Well, I'd love to leave you, but I told Storm I'd hang around till he got back."

"Where's he gone?"

"To see Lucas."

"So Storm came with you? You were the one who brought him to me?"


"Where'd you guys meet up? Did he know something was wrong?"

"How would I know? You two have your own little thing going on." Marty Lee said with a shrug, "I knew you might be upset after what Ashley said. I'm sorry for that. I took her to the airport and made her go back to Hamilton. I met Storm there. He was ... worried. I told him what happened. I'm sure you can figure out the rest."

Dade noticed Marty Lee breaking eye contact towards the end of his sentence. Suspicion began to creep into Dade. He could tell Marty Lee wasn't being completely forthcoming with him.

"What happened? You're leaving something out."

"Maybe I am." Marty Lee said as he stood up and stretched with a yawn, "Not the best sleep I've had, but your bean bag is pretty comfortable."

"As long as you didn't touch me while I was sleeping. Freak." Dade sneered, "Storm's the one who gives everyone a second chance. I'm not. I appreciate you helping me, but I haven't forgotten anything."

"You weren't complaining before, Dade. You wanted to be a better fighter, remember? So you didn't like the way I trained you? I don't care. It worked, didn't it? You wanted to learn fast, you wanted to learn hard. So I taught you hard."

"That's not what I'm talking about. I can take that shit. But you took advantage of me. And you know what I'm talking about."

"How was I supposed to know what was going on in your head? Besides, you were the new guy and I was the MVP. I owned you for a week and I took what I wanted."

"I don't think that was quite what they had in mind when they came up with that rule."

"Who are you more angry at? Me? Or yourself? You wanted it, Dade. You wanted someone to own you. To tell you what to do. Now you're angry about it because you're such a better person now. I gave you what you needed and I took what I wanted. You have a problem with it, take it up with someone who gives a fuck." Marty Lee said with a simmering anger.

Dade could sense that Marty Lee's aggressiveness may have been due to guilt now for what he'd done. Or perhaps he was simply being defensive. Something Marty Lee rarely did, especially with anger.

"I want to know something."

"What, Dade?"

"Were you getting to me because you couldn't have Storm? And honestly, tell me now, do you speak fag or were you just getting your rocks off?"

"Big questions, Dade. That was your problem. You had this whole inferiority complex going on with Storm. I didn't know then what I know now." Marty Lee said with a staunch expression on his face, "Maybe if I did, I would've ... handled you differently."

"Guess that's as close to sorry as I'm going to get from you."

"Before your mother died, we were actually getting along. I let you lash out at me, because I understand now what was going on in your head. I let you get a free hit yesterday too. I want us to get along, Dade. I don't need anymore enemies than I already have. As far as I'm concerned though, we're even. So if you push me now, I will push you back."

"Ok. I can handle that. I still think you're a freak though. At least you're trying."

"Then that's settled."

"Not really, but I think I can cut you some slack. Or try to. Don't expect to be best friends though."

"You're a feisty one, Dade." Marty Lee said with a small smile, "But you've got character."

"You didn't answer my question though. There was something a little unnatural in your obsession with my brother. Before at least. Not now. Was I just his replacement?"

"Yes. If you want me to be honest. I do find you much more appealing now, but I think you already know that. And honestly, was it all that bad?"

"It was, actually. So let's just forget it ever happened and make sure it stays between us."

"It has and it will. Besides, I think if Storm found out, he'd kill me. Literally."

"Nah, he wouldn't. You didn't force me. You just took advantage of my fragile state of mind." Dade smiled, "And ... you did own me for the week. But you really are fucked up."

Dade began to laugh at how laughable it all seemed in hindsight. He was actually starting to pity Marty Lee for being so pathetic in his attempt to dominate him.

"Still, I can't blame you. Who wouldn't wanna put their hands on me?" Dade grinned.

"I think this conversation's over." Marty Lee blushed, "And just for the record, I don't speak fag. I speak gaelic."

Dade reacted with a hearty laugh. He wasn't sure what the intent of Marty Lee's comment was. He did think that Marty Lee was attempting to be funny. Whether there was any deeper meaning to his comment was still up for grabs. Marty Lee however seemed to stare at Dade contemplatively. Giving Dade an almost exact imitation of his own trademark eyebrow.

"What happened to you yesterday?" Marty Lee asked curiously, "You seem a lot different today. I don't quite know what it is, but there's something different."

"Nothing." Dade smiled as he sat up, "I'm just happy to be alive that's all. And my brother's back."

"Well, whatever you say. You know, you were talking in your sleep."


"You talked in your sleep."

"Uh, so what did I say?"

"Something about your Mom and Storm. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Although you seemed to mention Marcel a lot."


"So you're back on the market again, huh?"

"What's it to you? As if you're gonna get any."

"Spare me. But if you really want to get into a bit of a mind fuck, Dade. How about this? I don't really think you're into guys. And do you want to know why?"

"I'm not. I'm into anything with a pair of legs. Two legs preferably. Just as long as I can spread em, I'm sweet. But I'll bite, why do you think that?"

"You were just being a follower. Besides, isn't that what we're supposed to do at our age? Fool around. Experiment. Try to imitate our role models. In your case, your brother."

"Whatever you say, Dr. Phil. If you want the honest truth, I don't give it a hell of a lot of thought. Maybe you're right in a way, maybe not."

"So you really did care about Marcel then?"

"Not that it's any of your business, but yeah. I did and I do. But I think that ship has sailed out for the last time." Dade said with a somber sigh, "What do you care?"

"I don't know. I guess I'm just curious. Do you think you'll get back in the game anytime soon?"

"I don't know. Why? You interested?" Dade asked wryly.

"Like you said. Who wouldn't be?"

"Well that's nice of you to say, but I get the feeling you're not really interested in anybody. Have you ever been? I've never seen you with anyone. Is there anyone? Guy? Girl? Rat?"

"No. You're the only guy for me, Dade." Marty Lee smirked.

Dade shuddered and shook his head at Marty Lee. He suddenly felt the urge to throw a shirt on so he wouldn't be on display. For most people, he wouldn't mind showing off a bit. Not for Marty Lee. Not after everything he'd done to Dade in the past. Everything they'd both done.

"Most people find you intimidating, Marty Lee." Dade said as he stared at Marty Lee with a tinge of sympathy, "Not me. I used to. Now I just think you're rather sad. You got your kicks out of making me do what you wanted me to do. And I guess I got my kicks out of letting you. I think you're gonna have a pretty sad life though if you think that's going to get you anything worthwhile."

Marty Lee seemed to be visibly affected by Dade's words. His steely demeanor began to falter for an instant before he tightened up again. He stared back at Dade with a mildly defiant glare. Dade had obviously hit a nerve.

"Is there anything I can get for you?" Marty Lee asked as he headed for the door.

"No. I'm fine."

"Then if you don't mind, can I use your gym and your shower?"

"Whatever you need." Dade said with a nod, "Make yourself at home."

Marty Lee nodded a thank you before he left the room. Dade lay back and pondered over his conversation with Marty Lee. He had genuine reasons for disliking Marty Lee. Maybe even hating. He doubted they could really be friends, but at least they might be able to have an understanding. He felt a lot of pity for the youngest Miller sibling. He reminded Dade a lot of himself. He seemed very isolated and alone, and to an extent he really was. Where as in Dade's case, he simply felt isolated and alone, but he never really was. Only in the last twenty four hours did Dade really let go of a lot of the baggage that had plagued him for so long.

Though he still didn't feel a hundred percent, he dragged himself out of bed and headed for the shower. He turned the shower up as hot as he could possibly bare. Trying to burn out any cold that remained in his body. By the time he had changed and made his way downstairs, Marty Lee was serving up breakfast.

"You shouldn't have." Dade said as he sat down at the table.

"I was going to bring it up. I hope you don't mind me using your kitchen."

"I always wanted a maid actually. Did you have a go in the gym yet? Mike did a pretty good job, don't you think? Or is it not up to your upper class standards?" Dade asked with a half grin, "We're not silver spooners like you."

"You mean like me or Marcel? And I'd appreciate it if you didn't call me that. Just so you know, I think Mike did a great job of it. He renovated the whole basement?"

"Yup. Good with his hands. I never asked you, how do you like living with Lucas now? I liked your bachelor pad."

"You never asked me because you were too busy spitting daggers at me." Marty Lee smiled, "I guess I like living with Lucas. I like living with other people. Sometimes I miss being the king of my own castle, but I don't think I'd want to go back. How about you? You like being the king of this castle now?"

"Is that a trick question or just a stupid one? I hate it. This house is too big for just me. This house is meant to be a busy house with lots of life in it. Not to mention it's a bitch to clean up all on my own. I'm gonna ask Storm to come home. I don't give a fuck what Lucas wants. Which reminds me, what the hell has he been doing with Ashley?"

"It's not really my place to say." Marty Lee said as he turned his eyes away from Dade.

Again, Dade was suspicious of Marty Lee. Only now, the pieces began to fall into place a little more. Dade began to connect the dots and realized that in both instances of Marty Lee trying to dodge a subject, Ashley was involved. Finally, it all clicked for Dade.

"What happened at the airport?" Dade asked with a serious tone, "What did she say to Storm?"

"Shit, you're good."

"Come on, tell me."

"Ash freaked out on Storm about Lucas. I swear, I had no idea. I had a feeling, but I didn't know for certain. That's why I wanted to send her home, I didn't want her to push anything with Lucas or cause anymore trouble here."

"But it was too late, wasn't it? I was right. That son of a bitch was fucking her, wasn't he?"

"It's not that simple, Dade. He wasn't fuc..."

"Then what did she say to Storm?"

"I'm not going to say. You're gonna have to talk to Storm. I don't want to get involved."

"He did something though, didn't he? I saw them kissing yesterday when I went after him."

"You saw her kissing him. He pushed her off, remember?"

"I don't understand. Something happened, you're just not telling me. I can understand that though." Dade sighed, "I wanna say too that I'm grateful you tried to watch out for Storm's best interests. Something I sure wasn't doing."

"Lucas is a good person, Dade. Why do you hate him so much? Same reason you hate me?"

"Not quite." Dade said flatly, "And I don't hate him. I just have my reasons for ... not really liking him. I knew something like this would happen and I knew it would be him. I swear, if he hurts Storm, I'll kill him."

"Figuratively speaking, I hope."

"Naturally. Is that why Storm had to leave me? I know he would've stayed till I woke up if everything was ok with them."

"Dade, don't ask me. Please. I told you what I could. I'm sure Storm will tell you the rest if he wants to."

"I hope he's ok. And if something did happen, I hope he kicks Lucas's ass and throws him to the curb."

"I don't."

"Yeah ... well, you and I have our own loyalties. I guess I'll just have to wait till Storm comes back to find out just what's going on though."

* * * * * * *

I've been dreading this moment. Seeing Lucas finally. At least if I didn't see him, I could try and brush off a lot of what Ashley said to me at the airport. I could try and mull through everything in my head. Overanalyze and think too much about what he may or may not have done. Create a thousand different scenarios for the future. All the mental preparation I'd done for this moment though, seemed to suddenly dissipate into an absolute brain freeze. Here I am, standing over Lucas with absolutely no idea of what I should do next. I've actually been here for hours, but I haven't had the heart to wake him. I'm half glad that he's passed out. That bothers me. It's obvious that he's been drinking heavily for quite a while. I don't know whether that's just because of me not being here or perhaps because of Ashley. Now that I'm here though, I can't stand the anticipation or anxiety of not knowing the truth. I get the sinking sensation that there is some truth in what Ashley said to me. It's fair to say that I'm really not her biggest fan anymore. She came at me with the intention of shattering my world. She did a pretty good job of it. But only Lucas can finish what she started in trying to break me.

Still though, I really want to cry right now. And not for the expected reasons either. I'm still trying to digest everything Ashley said to me. Everything she claimed to have done with Lucas. I'm still in a state of numbness from that. Along with a nice dash of denial. Yet that's not why I feel like crying. Seeing my baby like this is what makes me want to cry. Passed out on the couch like some pathetic drunk. His face still pained as he sleeps. It's obvious he's been crying. It's obvious he feels alone. I don't care what he's done. I never want to see him like this.

"Hey. Baby." I say with a gentle nudge.

He doesn't respond at first, which isn't surprising. He's enough of a sleepyhead normally. He's at least double that when he's been drinking. I don't care. I nudge him again till he begins to stir. When his eyes do finally open and he looks up at me, I don't think he quite registers that it's me. He stares at me curiously for a good long while. His hand reaches up and grazes my cheek. His eyes still look a little glazy, but he's finally clicked on to the fact that he isn't dreaming. For such an upbeat, positive person, Lucas can have some of the saddest eyes I've ever seen. And right now I'm seeing them.



It's in this moment that I realize just how long I've been away. Time seemed to pass by pretty swiftly for me, but Lucas looks as though he's been through some long drawn out process. It's like we haven't seen each other in forever. He looks terrible. Like he's had the worst time of his life lately. It shows in his face. The way he's looking at me. The way he still hasn't managed to say more than one word yet. The way tears seem to silently release themselves from his pain filled eyes.

"Don't you think you'd be more comfortable in bed?" I asked with a small smile.

"I can't believe you're here. Am I dreaming?"

"You're obviously still a little wasted, but you're not dreaming. Can I have a hug?"

I pulled him to his feet, with a fair bit of effort. When he was finally standing, I gave him a huge hug. He smelt like a brewery, but I didn't really care. I can't believe I've been away from him this long. I missed him. I missed feeling him like this. Having him in my arms. He was still a bit dazed, but he held on to me like I would disappear if he didn't. Our foreheads found themselves leaning against one another, in a way that was completely second nature to us now. It was something we did and probably always would. I found myself tempted to claim my first strawberry fix in ages. I didn't though. For some reason, that was one thing I was holding back on. An angel kiss, however innocent it is, is still something that is extremely intimate and personal for me. And as much as I wanted to share that level of intimacy with Lucas again, my own fears were holding me back. I could sense that Lucas too was holding back in a way. I think he already knew. Already knew that somehow I'd found out. His eyes wouldn't make direct contact with mine once we'd stood up. That was a dead giveaway. And that's what started getting the eyes just a tad watery for me. Even without saying anything, he'd confirmed my worst fears. It wasn't long before a few tears were creeping down my cheek. It was then that Lucas finally looked me in the eyes. He knew. I knew. Something had happened between him and Ashley. Something had changed between him and me.

I could see the shame and guilt written all over his face. The way the tears came more freely from him as soon as he'd made direct eye contact with me. Then it was me who turned my eyes away, but still remained firmly in our embrace. It was starting to hit me now. The impact I'd held off since my run in with Ashley. It was impacting on me now like I couldn't have imagined. It really did feel like my world was starting to crumble again. And for some reason, I thought of mom. This is one of those times I felt like running home to her. So she could make it all better for me and tell me it would all be ok. My jaw started to shake. My lips began to tremble. My breathing quickened. I found myself having a hard time trying to control my rising need to freak out. The sudden rushes of anger that were starting to replace the grief. I felt like packing my bags and moving to denial. I wanted to snap. Right then and there, I wanted to just blow up and lash. Instead, I just gripped Lucas back into a hug and squeezed him as hard as I could.

"How did you know?" Lucas whimpered as he buried his head in my shoulder, "Am I that transparent, Dude?"

I couldn't even respond with words. They would've just fallen out of my mouth in some pathetic attempt to form a sentence. Besides, I was too dumbstruck now to say anything. I guess my heart had already told me something was wrong. Then the look in Lucas's eyes confirmed what I already felt. But to actually hear the words. To hear him say with his own lips. It was true. He'd cheated on me.

Now it hit. Now as much I as I wanted to try and be the better man about this. As much as I wanted to be rational about this whole situation. I just couldn't do it. It was all real now. There was no camping up in denial anymore.

I've had some defining moments in my life. Moments that have tested my ability to function. Mom's death. Almost losing Dade. My parent's getting divorced. This is one of those moments. As long as I live, I will never forget this.

I wonder if he has any idea just how much I love him. And how terrified I've been of experiencing this very feeling. The feeling of Lucas absolutely tearing my world apart. That's twice in one year for me.

I think he was beginning to realize now just how much effect his words had on me. And how much this was all beginning to hurt just a little more than I thought I could handle.

I pushed him away slowly and stepped back. There was no point trying to hide the devastation I felt right now. I doubt even Lucas truly understands. He probably thinks this whole time I've been away, I've just been lapping it up without him. He has no idea what I've been thinking about. No idea what huge commitments I've made in my mind. No idea how close I was to giving myself to him the way he's wanted me to.

"I can't do this." I said as tears ran down my face, "I can't handle this. I'm sorry. I thought I could."

I turned and headed straight for the door. I barely made a step towards it before Lucas grabbed my arm and pulled me back. He held me up against the wall like a ragdoll. I may as well have been, because right now I was breaking down inside.

"No!" He screamed at me.

The look on his face was filled with a surprising amount of anger. The force of his voice was one I rarely heard. I didn't expect this. He wouldn't budge. He kept me there till he knew I wouldn't try to get away. It almost reminded me of the night at the train station. I tried to leave him then too.

"Don't you dare leave." He fumed, "Don't you dare!"

"Wha...? What is this?" I asked in confusion, "What are you doing?"

"Don't you dare try to leave me. You're not leaving. You're not walking out that door."

"I never said I was leaving you. I just said I couldn't handle this. Not now." I cried, shaking my head in disbelief, "Why are you doing this to me?"

"Storm, I know you're hurting. But you've gotta give me a chance to explain. You've gotta give us a chance to work this out. You just got back. I missed you so bad it was killing me. There's no way in hell, Dude. No way in hell that I'm letting you walk out that door. Because I know if you do, you won't come back. So we're going to talk about this. I'm gonna tell you what happened. You can yell at me, you can get angry. You can do whatever you want to me, Baby. But you're not leaving me. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

By now I was shaking. I was trying my best not to sob, but I couldn't help myself. I was just shellshocked. I didn't know what to say or do. I never expected Lucas to be this aggressive or forceful. I guess he's that terrified that I will walk out that door and not come back, that he feels he has no choice. I was still angry, but right now I was mostly just numb. He could've done whatever he wanted to me and I don't think I would've been able to stop him.

"Can you please take your hands off me now?" I said in as cool a voice as I could muster.

"No." He cried as he shook his head, "No, I can't. Can you please stay?"

"I said now."

I think Lucas realized that I was serious now. I'd managed to regain my composure and made it obvious to him that I didn't appreciate being manhandled. He let me go and turned away in shame as he began to quietly weep to himself.

"You know, people seem to think I'm easy to push around these days. I'm not. I'm just a little more in control than I used to be. Don't ever do that again."

"Storm, I didn't mean to hurt you. I just didn't want you to go. I'm sorry." He whimpered in frustration as he brushed his from his face, "You know I'd never hurt you like that. Oh geez, I don't know what to do. I'm just making everything worse."

"Can't get much worse, Lucas." I said as I leaned back against the wall.

I slumped down to the ground and rested my head on my knees. Maybe he was right to stop me. Maybe I wouldn't have come back if I walked out that door. In my head I said I would, but he knows me as much as I know him, so maybe he was right.

"I don't want you to go, Baby." Lucas cried as he sat on his haunches in front of me.

"Don't call me baby. Don't you fucking call me baby."

It's starting to get out. That typical old Storm anger. I'm about ready to just snap.

"Now you're getting angry. I haven't seen you angry in a long time."

"Should've seen me at Drake then."

"I'm glad I didn't, Dude."

"Well, I have a right to be angry. I'm trying to be civil about this, but do you have any idea how I'm feeling right now? You have no idea what you've done to me. What you've done to us."

"I was drunk, Dude. I didn't even remember it happening at first."

"I never should've agreed to her coming back here. But the thing was, I respected your history with her and I trusted you. You know what that is, Lucas? That's what relationships are made of. It isn't love, Lucas. Love is great, but if you don't have trust, it's all for shit. I guess this is partly my fault for being away so long, right? You got lonely and depressed and wanted someone while I was away?"

"Huh? Dude, what are you talking about?"

"You did sleep with her while I was gone, didn't you? Isn't that why you slept with her? Because I was away so long?"

"Dude, I swear. Nothing happened the whole time you were away. She wanted it to, but I wouldn't let her."

"Then what the hell are we talking about here? You did do something didn't yo..." I began to say as I suddenly realized just what Lucas was saying, "Oh wait a fucking minute. No, no, no!"

"What, Storm?"

"You mean to tell me that you didn't sleep with her the whole time I was away?"

"Of course I didn't."

"But you did fuck her?"

"I ... I ... yes."

"You sick son of a bitch. You fucked her while I was still here!" I literally screamed at him as I jumped to my feet, "You fucked her while we were together! This whole time I half excused what you'd done because I thought it happened while I was away!"

"I thought you already knew."

"Unfortunately for me, Marty Lee shut his sister up before she could go into detail. I can't believe this. Wait a minute ... the only time she was around before was ... oh no. No, you can't be serious. The night of the school ball?"

Lucas slid down the opposite wall of the hallway. He began shaking his head like this couldn't be happening. His eyes filled with tears as he looked up at me. Finally he nodded his confirmation to me. My teeth gritted together as I struggled to contain the anger that threatened to flash out of me. I was utterly disgusted.

"You ... you ... heartless mother fucker. How could you do this to me? That was our night! How could you do this to us? We were happy. Why, Lucas? Why?"

"It didn't mean anything, Storm. It didn't, I swear. It was just sex. I don't even remember how it happened."

"You don't have `just sex', Lucas. It's not in your nature. You make love. You made love ... to her! You touched someone else. You belong to me! I'm supposed to be the love of your life, not that bitch."

"I know you're angry, Storm. Bu..."

"You bet your fucking ass I am. My whole life changed because of you. I never wanted to be this way. But you made me realize that I needed to be. Because I needed you. And now everything we've done. Everything we've worked for, you just threw away on a stupid fuck. This was always my worst fear, Lucas. That you wouldn't love me enough to say no. That you'd let someone else be with you the way only I'm supposed to. And right under my nose." I said with a pained expression, "I think I'm gonna be sick."

"What is it, Storm? Are you sick?" Lucas asked with a quick change in his demeanor, "Do we have to see Haslan?"

"I'm fine." I snapped back, "I'm just fine. Don't act like you give a shit. I hate you right now. I can't believe you did this."

"Don't judge me! Don't act like you've never fucked up before. If you did something like this, I'd give you another chance. Because I think we're worth fighting for."

"Yeah, I've fucked up before. I'm not perfect. But I've never stuck my cock anywhere it didn't belong. You're the only person I've ever been with like that. I was a virgin when I met you. You're the only person who has ever had me. You're the only person I ever wanted to have me. What happened? Was it me? Is this not what you want anymore? Is she the one you want? If she was, why couldn't you just tell me? I've heard of guys who tell their girlfriends they're jumping the fence to play on the other team. Is that what you want? You want to jump back over the fence and play for the girls again?"

Lucas didn't even respond. He just sat there frustrated. He'd look at me every so often and shake his head, then bury his head in his arms. I couldn't handle seeing him cry like this. I don't think I've seen him so distraught before. I don't want him to be unhappy. But I don't want to be unhappy either. And I can't even think straight right now. Part of me wants to just lash at him and punish him for what he's done. Berate him till he feels as bad as I do. Most of me knows it's not worth it though. And to be honest, no matter what he does, Lucas is someone I'd never want to hurt intentionally. And no matter what's happened, I still don't truly believe that he wanted to hurt me intentionally either. That's all I'm holding on to. It isn't much, but it's something.

"I know you want to hurt me for what I've done. I know how you are, Storm. I know how you are. Best friend, worst enemy. But you're holding back. Why?"

"Why do you think? I don't care what you've done, Lucas. You'll never be my enemy. I know I'm angry. I've said some things, but I don't want to go down that track with you. You don't deserve it. I don't want to fight now. I'm over it."

"Then you'll stay?"

"No. I don't say this to be mean, but I can't even look at you right now. Just the thought of you two. I look at you and I see it. I can't handle that. I'm sorry, Lucas. You have to let me go."

"Do you need some time? Maybe? Do you think you could ever forgive me?"

"Let's just leave it alone for now. I need to think. I've gotta go."

"Will you be back? You still live here, don't you? You can stay here and I'll go. Just don't leave. Please."

"There are some things I need to do. Some things I need to work out in my head too. I'll come back though. Maybe around three?"

"This afternoon?"

"Yeah. Maybe we can talk better after some of the emotion has dissipated."

I was still feeling overwhelmed by everything that had happened. I was so close to just letting rip on Lucas more than I did. I wanted to say things in the heat of the moment. I've learnt from past experience though that I often do things in the heat of the moment. Especially when I get angry. It often ends up biting me in the ass later on. So I figure now it's probably better to just let things cool down for a while and come back later on. Maybe then we can figure this out without hurting each other anymore.

"You really have changed, Storm." Lucas said gratefully, "Thank you."

"Don't thank me." I said as I headed for the door.

I turned back to look at him one last time. I think my eyes gave away the sudden rush of emotion I felt. Hurt surpassed only by Mom's death. That's how I felt. I think he knew because he looked back at me with equally sad eyes.

"I'm sorry if I said things that hurt you." I said with a small smile, "I'll see you later."

He feigned a small smile back, but his eyes were filled with so much remorse and sorrow. I left with that image burned into my mind. I found the prospect of just getting in my jeep and driving off into the sunset quite appealing right now. That would be the easy way out. But I can't do that without talking to Lucas again. I guess I'll see what happens.

* * * * * * *

Josh sat in his father's work office, dutifully tending to his paperwork. His mind was distracted. He'd managed to avoid Brad for most of the day. He was still angry at Brad for his actions the night before. Though his anger was becoming more hurt and disappointment as the day wore on. How could Brad risk their friendship just to get himself off? He somehow doubted that Brad had any malicious intentions. Still, Josh didn't appreciate being used for Brad's sexual gratification.

"Finish up what you're doing, Son. I'm closing early. Give Brad a ride home too please." Colin said over the intercom, "I'll see you at home.

"Yes, Sir."

Josh immediately began packing up. Brad had been respectful enough to stay out of Josh's way today, but now they were going to have to be in the same space. By the time Josh had packed up and headed out to his Cherokee, Brad was waiting by the passenger door.

Josh said nothing to Brad. He jumped in the driver's seat and unlocked Brad's door to get in. Josh could feel Brad's eyes on him the entire drive. The tension between them was palpable. Josh was tempted to say something to Brad. To open the floodgates to a conversation. He wanted to tell Brad how angry he was. To ask Brad why he did it. He knew Brad was waiting for him to give an opening to some sort of dialogue. Yet before either of them could make a move, they'd already arrived at Brad's house.

"Thanks for the ride." Brad said quietly as he jumped out of the car.

Josh didn't start the car immediately. He was frustrated by the way things were between him and Brad now. He thought their friendship was worth something. Yet he was too proud to make the first move and had been waiting for Brad to make it. Brad hadn't. He had a sinking feeling that maybe things wouldn't be the same between them again.


"Yeah?" Josh said in surprise as Brad stuck his head through the passenger window.

"Would you come in for a little while? Can we talk?"

Josh responded with a nod. He followed Brad inside and found Billy playing video games in the lounge. Josh felt a little awkward having Billy around while him and Brad were talking. Even if they would be in Brad's room.

"Loser, you were supposed to clean the yard before pops got home. You're gonna get it when he gets back."

"Why didn't you clean it up? I was working. You've probably been sitting there all day playing that stupid game."

"Shut up." Billy snapped back as he turned to face Brad and realized Josh was standing next to him, "Oh hey. Hi."

"Hi, Billy." Josh nodded, "What are you playing?"

"It's this game called Empires. It's about …"

"Shut up, Billy. Josh doesn't want to talk to you."

"Shut up faggot. You wait till pops gets home."

Brad waved Billy off as he led Josh into his bedroom. Before Brad could leave the lounge, Billy threw the phone at his head. Brad was about to turn around and throw it back at him before Josh grabbed his arm.

"What'd you do that for you little jerk?"

"So you could call your boyfriend. Storm called looking for you. He's back in town. You better watch out, Josh. Brad can't get a girlfriend like you can. Don't let Brad lock you in his room, he might wanna play with you. I bet that's what you and Storm do, aye Brad? All faggots are perverts. I'm gonna tell pops you're still talking to him. If you ever end up queer like him, you better watch out. Pops will kill you."

"Come on, Josh." Brad snapped as the pair went into his room, "Sorry about him. He's an ignorant little shit."

"At least you don't have to worry about anything he says." Josh said as Brad motioned for him to sit down.

"He's just being macho. Just ignore him. He's always having a go at me since I became the school loser."

"So what did you want to talk about?"

"Umm ..." Brad stuttered as he suddenly lost his train of thought, "Well, I'm sorry for what I did yesterday. I'm really sorry."

"Why'd you do it? Were you just looking for someone to get you off?"

"I thought ... maybe if we tried it, I could you know ... maybe get to like it. Then maybe ..."

"Then maybe we could be together?" Josh asked wryly, "Is that how you think it works? I thought you were smarter than that, Brad. I thought we'd been through this already. You're not like me. It's not contagious. You can't just decide you want to be like me. It doesn't work like that."

"I bet some people can make themselves like it. All guys like ... umm ... you know. All guys like getting laid. We're close already, Josh. I mean if we just did that, it'd be like official, wouldn't it? I thought that's what you wanted."

"I'm going home now, Brad. I want you to leave this alone. Let's just be friends and leave it at that, ok? I think you need a girlfriend. You must be sexually frustrated." Josh said with a surprising smile, "Is that it?"

"Oh man." Brad said red faced, "How embarrassing. How do you do it, Josh? You're still a virgin and you've had so many chances. I know if you really wanted it, you could have someone. Not me. I wish I could get laid, but it's just not going to happen anytime soon."

"This is kinda funny." Josh said with a small laugh, "I'm sorry. Don't be embarrassed. Everybody gets horny."

"But don't you ever want to just ... do it? How have you lasted so long? I mean, I think even if I was like you and going out with Claire, I would've slept with her. She's so fine, how could you not?"

"Because I'm not you. You're into ... girls."

"What about guys? I'm sure you've had chances. Didn't you ever want to just do it?"

"Yeah, I've had chances. I'm just ... saving it. It's important to me."

"Man, I don't know how you do it. I respect you for it though."

"You almost broke me, Brad." Josh smiled, "You have to promise never to try that again. I have a hard enough time as it is without you confusing me. Can I go now?"

"Don't you want to hang out?"

"Not really. You might ... try again." Josh smirked as he stood up, "Don't worry, we'll hang out tomorrow. You're going to watch the regionals, aren't you?"

"The whole dojo is going to support our entrants. But I think everyone from school is going to watch. The whole of Merlow will probably be there. It should be cool."

"I just realized. Did your brother say that Storm was back in town?"

"Hey, I think he did. But even if he was, why would he call me? He never calls anyone. I'll give him a call and find out. He must be back for the regionals."

"Maybe I'll go over and say hi. You better start doing your yard before you get into trouble. Maybe you can work off some of the frustration." Josh teased as he nudged Brad.

"Don't touch me, I might get excited."

"You've got a serious case of blue balls." Josh laughed as he left Brad's room.

Josh wasn't really sure if he and Brad had resolved much of what was happening between them, but at least they were talking now. His spirits were a lot higher than they had been earlier in the day. He was surprised to find that Brad's father Jeremiah was now standing in the lounge. He was an intimidating man, but one Josh had always gotten along with.

"Hello, Josh." Jeremiah said as he gave Josh a firm handshake.

"Hello, Sir."

"Pops, Brad didn't do the yard." Billy said with a wicked smirk.

"Sorry, Dad. I just got home from working down at the car yard with Mr. Barrett." Brad said as he grimaced at his little brother.

"So why didn't you do it, Billy?" Jeremiah asked with a stern face, "Have you been playing that game all day?"

"But ... Brad was supposed to do it."

"Your brother was working. You should be doing the same. Now get out there and do it before I take my belt to you Boy. And you finish out there you can start on dinner."

"But ..." Billy began to say before he held his tongue, "Yes, Sir."


Billy was about to leave when he turned back with a smirk on his face. Brad glared back at him, trying to figure out what his brother was so smug about.

"Oh, Brad. Don't forget to call Storm back." Billy smirked before he left the room.

"What's he doing calling here?" Jeremiah asked as he turned his attention to Brad, "I don't want you spending any time with those sorts of people. They're a bad influence. You can hang out with Josh, but I don't want you going anywhere near that Marcus kid."

"But he's my friend."

"Spend more time with Josh. He's a good boy. You need to be more like him. Maybe you should go to church with the Barretts this Sunday. What do you say, Josh?"

Josh began to feel extremely self conscious. Brad's father was just one more person who thought he was something different to what he really was. Just like his parent's. As far as they were all concerned, he was a respectful, well mannered young man. A responsible person who looked after his family and never caused any trouble or spoke out of turn. A young man who had a bright future and would make any father happy for him to marry their daughter. Just like all good Christian men did.

"Ahh ... that would be just fine, Sir." Josh said nervously, "I'm sure my parent's would love that."

"I remember when both our families used to go to Sunday service together. I may not be as regular anymore, but I still know right from wrong. And I'm sorry, Son, but that other boy is on the path of the sinners. I want you to stay away from him."

"He's a good person, Pop. Josh is friends with him."

"That's ok. Josh is strong enough to resist any temptation. I don't want that Daniel kid turning you into one of them. It's no wonder his father ran off. He probably knew way back then and couldn't bear the shame. If I was his father, I'd fix him up."

"I should probably go." Josh said as he shook Jeremiah's hand again and made his exit, "I'll talk to you later, Brad. Goodbye, Sir."

Josh left before Brad could follow him out. He didn't want to be a part of that conversation anymore. He was proud of Brad for trying to stand up for Storm. As much as he could without being disrespectful to his father. It scared him to think that people were so narrow minded. It also steeled his resolve never to tell his parents the truth. And if that meant being single for the rest of his life, then he would be.

* * * * * * *

I walked through the front door to find Dade and Marty Lee sitting in the lounge. I didn't mean to take this long to come back to Dade, but it's just been one of those days. If I thought he would be ok, I probably would've stayed out a while longer. It was odd seeing these two like this. I knew at some point they may have actually gotten along, but lately Marty Lee has been one of Dade's least favorite people. Now they were sitting here like they didn't actually mind being around each other.

Dade's back was toward me and he hadn't realized I was back yet. I was pretty glad to see him. I say pretty glad, because even though we're close, we haven't been as close as we once were. Not for a long time. I'd like to get things back the way they were, but I think we need to build our trust levels back up with each other. I snuck up behind him and wrapped my arms around his neck. I gave him a big kiss on the cheek and a hug from behind before he realized it was me.

"Storm!" Dade grinned with those big dimples of his.

"Hey, Bro. Sorry I took so long. How you feeling?"

He hopped over the seat and jumped up on me. He wrapped his legs around me and almost squeezed the life out of me in bone crunching hug. He just about knocked me over, but thankfully I kept my balance. I swear sometimes he can be such a big kid. I mean, I'm only ten months older than him and he's the same size as me. But times like now he just feels like a big kid with me.

"I'm so happy you're home." Dade said as I held him, "Thank you so much. I knew you'd come."

"You can get off now, Dade. I'm happy to see you too, but would you mind?"

"Yup, I would. Promise you won't go anywhere if I let you go?"

"I promise."

He gave me another squeeze before he jumped off. He still had a grin on his face as we slapped a handshake to one another and sat down on the couch. Marty Lee wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to say, so he just sat there awkwardly. I could tell he was ready to make a quiet exit.

"Marty Lee, thanks for sticking around."

"You're welcome, Storm. I'm sure Dade didn't need me though. As you can tell, he's looking pretty good. I should probably go."

"You don't have to. You're welcome to stay as long as you like. Unless you have plans."

"I want to get some training in. Make sure I'm ready for the regionals. Uhh, will I see you later, Storm? At home?"

"Umm ... you might. I'm going back soon."

"Oh cool. I'll see you there then."

Dade nodded his gratitude towards Marty Lee. Marty Lee responded with a suitably veiled nod of his own before he left. By the time I turned my attention back to Dade, his smile seemed a little less bright than it was a moment ago.

"What's wrong? You feeling ok?"

"I'm fine. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm ok, Storm. I'm really ok." Dade said as he looked me in the eyes, "I mean it. I'm ok. I feel great. Best I've felt in ages. Really."

"I believe you." I said with a warm smile, "What happened? Something while I was gone? Almost getting yourself killed again?"

"I jumped off."

"What!? You jumped off Reese Bridge?"

"I sure did. It's hard to explain, but I jumped off so I could get rid of all the shit. You know? I jumped and then caught myself. Biggest rush in my life."

"You stupid little crazy mother fucker." I said in disbelief, "Have you gone completely nuts?"

"I was heading that way. You just have to believe me. I'm ok. And I'll never ever do that again. Next time I'll go bungy jumping."

"You're damn skippy you'll never do that again. Of all the s…"

"Storm!" Dade said as he put his hands on my shoulders, "I'm ok. Ok? Just leave it. I promise I'll never do it again."

"You're sure you're ok?"

"I'm sure. I feel way better. But ..."

"But what?"

"But are you really going back? I thought you might want to come home now. After ... welll ..."

"After everything with Lucas?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry. Marty Lee confirmed some of my own suspicions. Are you ok?"

"I've been through worse." I said as I grabbed Dade's hand and squeezed it, "But there's no sense in pretending it doesn't hurt like hell. I'm not too proud to admit that."

"You've always got me, Storm."

"How about you? Are you ok?"

"I told you I was ok."

"I mean ... you know, with Marcel."

"That's minor compared to what you're going through. I never really expected him to come back. I know why he's running away. I've waited for him so many times and I've tried everything I could. He made the choice and I have to respect that. I was pretty pissed when he called me, but I was expecting it."

"I tried to convince him to come back first. I know he's afraid, but he shouldn't have left things this way. Not again."

"I'm not doing this again with him. Even if he came back now, I think I've finally reached a point where enough is enough. Besides, I think he needs a friend more than anything else right now. And that's something I'll always be to him. I just wish he'd let me in the way he lets you in."

"Dade, don't bring me into this."

"I'm not blaming you for anything. It was always going to be hard with him, because you two are loyalists. Places he'd hold back with me are places he'd go with you. You two are best friends. I tried to get to him, and I know he cared about me. But to be honest, he trusted you more than he trusted anyone else. Me included. Sometimes I think you chose the wrong guy. Maybe you two are the ones who belong together. I know this might upset you, but I think he'd let you help him the way I couldn't. He'd trust you to be gentl..."

"Dade, Dade, Dade. I don't wanna hear this." I said as I shook my head at him, "That's just ... icky. Marcel and I are best friends. We're as tight as you can get. But we will never ever go there."

"I'm just saying. I guess ... things are just a little clearer for me now. I'm not gonna fall apart again."

I looked him in the eyes and tried to see if he really meant it. I think he did. I know he's still vulnerable. I guess he always will be in a way. I don't blame him for feeling so low in the past. I could only imagine what he must have been going through. Maybe he'd finally made his peace with Mom. Maybe he'd finally made peace with himself.

"You have so much potential, Dade. I wish you could see yourself the way I do. I want you to be happy. I want you to have everything you want from life. Most of all, I want you to realize that you are Dade Paul Marcus. Don't let things you had no control over be such a powerful force in your life. You're my brother and you're my blood. You're my family. No matter what else you have doubts about. Never ever doubt that. Even when I'm being an asshole to you."

"Have I ever told you that you're the best big brother in the world? And I'm sorry for everything I've ever done to hurt you. I truly am, Storm. I know I've fucked up. But I want us to try and rebuild what we had before. I want you to trust me again. The way you used to. I know it might take some time, but you gotta let me try. We're all we've got left now."

"That's not true. Mike worries about you too. I'm not the only brother you have. He wanted me to tell you that if you ever wanna get away, then go to him. Let him take care of you the way he took care of me. I'm not all you've got. Abby has her own life and I know we're not as close as we should be, but you can always go to her too. Dad will be back soon as well. He wants to stay, but that choice is up to you."

"Why not you? It's up to you too. This is gonna be your house in a little while. Soon as you turn eighteen."

"Yeah, but you're the man of the house now. You're the one who lives here. This house will never be just mine. I just want you to realize that you're not alone. And I'm not all you've got. There are a lot of people who love you."

"Well maybe you aren't the only thing I've got. But you're the best thing. I want you to come home. We can take care of each other. I know Dad wants to try and I love him for that. But I think him moving back here for good is a backward step for him. If Mom were still here than maybe. But you and I are old enough to take care of ourselves now. I don't want to put him. And Abby, well you said it yourself. We're just not that close."

"She has a lot going on in her life too, Dade. I shouldn't be the one to tell you this, but she's pregnant. We're both gonna be uncles."

"Are you serious? She never told me." Dade said with wide eyes.

"I'm sure she was planning on it. She was asking me for advice. Me of all people. She's the oldest. She just wasn't sure whether her and Rob should get married, just because she's pregnant."

"What'd you tell her?" Dade said with a huge grin, "Man this is so cool!"

"I told her to marry him because she loves him. They've been engaged long enough. She was feeling bad because Mom won't be here to see her first grandchild."

"Yeah." Dade sighed, "That's great news though. And man we need great news around here. How about Sarah? Miraculous recovery yet?"

"No. And well ... she's doing as good as you'd expect. She's better off there. She doesn't have to try and be brave for anyone. There's nobody to hassle her. I'm really hoping she pulls through this. If anyone deserves children, it's them. I know if she were well enough, they'd try straight away. Sarah would love to give Mike a child before ... well, just in case."

"I want to go and see them, Storm. But I don't wanna ask Dad. Hell, he hasn't bought me a car yet!"

"Umm ... you're right. But just trust me on this. He hasn't forgotten. Just be patient. You never know, he might get you a better one since you're the baby of the family and you had to wait longer than me and Abby. But if he does, I'll tell him to get a bomb of a car instead." I said with a smirk.

"Well gee, thanks. I'm gonna need some wheels now that I'm back on the market. Something to impress all those girls with."

"When it comes to you, I don't think it'll be your car that they're interested in. I know you have a lot more experience than me with women, but be careful. You think you'll ever eye up another guy or is that it for you?"

"I dunno. Marty Lee seems to think I was just trying to imitate you. Since you're my awesomely awesome role model and such. He had some sort of shit theory. But coming from him, I'm not likely to give it any credit."

"I have a theory." I said with a grin.

"Which is?"

"As long as it has a hole, you're happy."

"Bro, you think me such a slut?" Dade asked in mock hurt.

"Umm ... yes. Let's compare. How many people have I had sex with? One. How many people has Dade had sex with?"

"Uhh ..."

"Do I need more than one hand to count?"

"I can't tell you, it would be rude to kiss and tell."

"I'm not talking about kissing. I know it's a few. But how much more than a few?"

"Oh man, now you're making me feel like a slut! I never set out to sleep with heaps of girls. It just ... kinda happened. But like lately, it was only Claire. It was a while before then that I was with another girl."

"And protection?"

"Every time!" Dade said proudly, "Umm ... yeah, every time."

"Dade ..."

"Uhh ... Claire. I umm ... I don't think we actually did."

"You gotta be safe, Dade. There are so many diseases now. Not to mention getting a girl pregnant. You know what happened with Mom and Dad. They were younger than you when Mom got pregnant with Abby. Don't think it can't happen. Especially the way you attract them. And next week you're gonna get checked out by Haslan. Better to be safe. And it's the responsible thing to do. And next time, every time, protection. Ok?"

"Yes, Storm." Dade sighed, "I promise."

"When did this conversation become a lecture?"

"Hey, I'm glad to have somebody around to lecture me."

"Subject change. Enough of me sounding like an uncool ogre. Have you been writing any songs lately? How's that guitar going?"

"It's awesome, Storm. Actually, I might have one song that'll suit both of us right now. I wrote it ages ago and put it in the back of my head with every other song I've written. Just a little song. It's pretty raw and not ve..."

"Shut up and sing it already."

So he did. I tried not to smile so much, but I always thought Dade was a great singer. I always thought music was one of his hidden talents. I think he pushes with the sports side because it gets more noticeable recognition or it's `cool'. But I think he really bares his soul when he sings. And I hope he does more with it.

At the end of the day
I can look back and smile
At the end of the day
I knew love for a while
So much words could never say

I like to think I'm a pretty good singer and I know some basic piano and violin, but Dade has the lion share when it comes to musical talent. Sometimes I think he got the lion's share of everything!

We went through our times
We thought love made us fly
Yeah we were unstoppable

But right now all I could do was zone in on his voice and sound of his guitar. His voice is surprisingly pure and vulnerable when he sings. A quality I appreciate.

And though love reached an end
And the pain settled in
At the end of the day
I can still look back

"Aaahhh..." I said nodding my head knowing exactly the meaning behind the words. "That was nice, Bro."

"Nice but raw and a bit repetitive. But gimmie a few days and I might have it turned into something more substantial." Dade said putting his guitar back in its case and beside his desk.

"You're way too hard on yourself." I said standing up. "Just like me. I have to go now."

"Hey sit down." Dade said signaling me to sit back down. "Don't let my shitty little song scare you off."

"It wasn't shitty. It was appropriate, that's for sure. I think it was something I needed to hear."

"A good thing, I hope."

"Yep. Now I have to go and talk to Lucas."

"You're coming back?"

"Yeah, Dade. I'll definitely be back. Then we'll do some training and get an early night. We've both got a big day tomorrow."

* * * * * * *

Claire stood at the front door of the Marcus house, waiting for someone to answer her knocks. There were no cars in the driveway, so the obvious thought would be that no one was home. Yet Claire held out hope that Dade was home and the car was simply in the garage. After waiting for several minutes, she realized that probably wasn't the case.

"No one home?" A familiar voice said from behind Claire, "Shall we just go in anyway?"

Claire turned around and broke out with a huge smile. This was the last person she expected to see. But she was certainly glad to see him.

"Marcel!" Claire yelled happily as she hugged him.

The two shared a brief but sincere hug before Claire pulled away. Both had smiles plastered on their faces and seemed genuinely happy to see one another. She held Marcel's hand as the two of them sat down at the Marcus doorstep.

"What are you doing here? I thought you weren't coming back."

"Unfinished business." Marcel said with a somber nod.

"You too, huh?"

"Have you spoken to Dade or Storm today?"

"I didn't even know Storm was back." Claire said in surprise, "When did he get back?"


"Did you two come back together?"


"Any chance Sarah might be back soon?" Claire asked hopefully.

"She wants to come back real bad. Right now I think she's in the best place now. Just have to keep your fingers crossed that they'll come back."

"It's good to see you. How long are you back for?"

"I'm not sure. I wasn't sure I wanted to even come back. But Storm has a way of getting to me. Besides, it gave me a good excuse to be here for the regionals." Marcel said with a shrug.

"Who do you think? You think it'll be one of our own here in Merlow?"

"Marty Lee and Storm are Merlow's best hopes. Storm's the best hope, I think. I'd put my money on him."

"Not Dade?" Claire asked in surprise.

"Not really. It's not that I don't think he's good. I just think Storm has more experience. And he's higher ranked and the defending champion. Odds on, I'd give it to Storm to retain. He's the best in the region, that's why he's champion."

"Kinda like you." Claire smiled, "You're pretty good at what you do too."

"Trying to be." Marcel said with a feigned smile, "I have a bit of work to do."

"Not just on the outside either, I imagine." Claire said with a sympathetic tone as she rubbed Marcel's arm, "You know I'm always here. I'm no Sarah, but I do a pretty good Claire impersonation. Would you like to get some lunch with me? Come on, don't say no."

"I wasn't planning to." Marcel smiled, "I'd love to. Maybe I'll lay low and wait till after the regionals to catch up with the two hotties. I wouldn't want to distract them."

"Good point." Claire said with a contemplative glance, "Yeah."

"Something on your mind?"

"No, no. Okay, I'll just call Carl and let him know we're going to lunch. I guess I should let him know his boyfriend's back in town too. I swear if I didn't know myself that Carl was straight, I'd swear he was in love with Storm. Mind you, Storm has a funny way of making people loyal to him, doesn't he?"

"You could say that. He was always the center of our group. I don't know what it is about him. He just seems to have that affect on people. But you know him and Carl have been friends for years. So you'd expect them to be pretty tight."

"I guess I'm just so used to having my men end up liking other men." Claire laughed, "Now I'm paranoid this one will end up the same. I know he won't though."

"Of course not." Marcel grinned as he put his hand on the small of Claire's back and walked towards her car, "You're his little princess. Come on, Beautiful. Let's get out of here."

* * * * * * *

I find myself standing at Lucas's front door finally. It's a little before 3pm, so I hope he's ready for me. Apparently he is, because he answers the door before I have a chance to knock. The reception I get this time is a lot different to the one I got this morning. Lucas looks like a million bucks. He's all cleaned up and from what I can see, so is the rest of the house. It sure doesn't smell like beer anymore, which is great. I never did like the smell of alcohol.

"Hi." I said with a small smile, "You look ... great."

"Thanks." Lucas said with a big smile, "Thanks for coming back. I'm sorry you found me like that this morning. I know how much you hate that buzz. I'm glad you're here."

"Me too."

I walked in to find the house had received the same treatment as Lucas. It was spotless and tidy. Both Lucas and I have our moments where we're tidy or not so tidy. I like to think I'm the tidier of the two of us, but Lucas is definitely the most anal. And I mean that in the `one little thing out of place annoys him' kind of anal. So it was odd to see him so ... well, messed up this morning. That's not like him. I guess that was a side effect of his drinking. I can understand if people want to drink. But I've seen first hand from Mike's father what it can do to you. I know Lucas has always enjoyed his beer, but I don't like the way he's been abusing it while I've been gone. I don't want to say he has a problem yet. And with any luck it won't become one. He sure looks a damn sight better now than he did this morning. Smells better too.

"Marty Lee isn't here?" I asked as I walked past his bedroom and headed for the lounge.

"He's at the dojo. Last minute training for tomorrow."

"Probably what I should be doing."

An awkward silence fell upon us. We both stood in the lounge waiting for the other to speak. The atmosphere though was completely different to how it was this morning. Don't get me wrong, I'm still feeling it. But either I'm numb to it, or it's going to hit me later on. I think it might be the latter. Kinda like Mom.

I like to think that I have more of a control on my emotions now. And that I handle situations a little better than I did in the past. And that is perhaps why things aren't as tense right now as they might have been.

Lucas seemed to be waiting for me to speak. Like he was either afraid to say something or he was waiting for me to tell him off. First Dade and now him. Geez, I'm turning into my Mom. Actually, she wouldn't tell us off. She'd just look at us and we knew were fucked. Thinking about her like that actually made me smile. Which in turn seemed to make Lucas smile. Thanks Mom.

I'm not going to tell him off. He's older than I am. We're both adults. And not really by choice or age, but life experience. He knows he screwed up. He doesn't need me to remind him. Not right now. This is going to be a civil conversation. No Storm freak outs!

"Uhh Dude ... are you going to say anything?" Lucas asked finally.

"I'm sorry."

"What are you sorry for?" Lucas asked confused.

"Being away so long."

"Dude, don't be like that. You needed that time away. I told you to go, remember?"

"Everything feels different now. I feel like the outsider this time. Like I'm visiting. I thought this was my home. Now I feel like I don't really have one, you know? I don't say that to make you feel bad. It just feels different after everything that's happened. And Dade is the one who deserves that house now. Not me. I feel a little lost to be honest. Not quite sure just where I'm supposed to belong."

"You're thinking about Saran City?" Lucas asked me with those sad eyes of his, "You're thinking of going back?"

"To where? I don't have a home there either. And I'm not interested in intruding on Mike and Sarah's life. I spent enough time with them. I don't know, Lucas. I don't know."

"If I lose you ... you don't know how much I'll really be losing. You changed my life, Storm. You made it better. You made me better."

"Oh please. You're just saying that because I taught you how to cook." I said with a small laugh.

"Cook?" Lucas laughed, "Cook? I knew how to cook!"

That helped to keep the mood light. And it was nice to see him smiling, even laughing. It looks good on him. Hell, he looks good anyway. I just like seeing him smile rather than frown or pout. He smiles at me gratefully. As if he knew I had intentionally tried to make things easier between us.

As much as I might try though, there was still a lot to sort out between us. And it didn't take long for that fact to sink back in.

"I don't know what to do, Lucas." I said with a shrug, "I ... have absolutely no idea. I feel like I've been trying to find myself since Mom died. And I still haven't quite found where I'm supposed to fit now. This just makes me feel like it's going to be a long while before I find where I'm supposed to fit too."

"I'm sorry, Storm." Lucas sighed, "I'm so sorry."

"I ... don't feel angry. I just feel numb. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say to you. Maybe it'll hit me later."

"Shit, Dude." Lucas said with a gulp, "That just means it's gonna hit big. You're gonna come at me bigtime."

"It's only when I remind myself of how much ..." I said with a deep breath, "Of how much I love you ... that it hurts more than I think I can take right now. I guess that's why I'd rather just keep things light right now. So ..."

"Are you going to enter the regionals tomorrow?"

"Yeah. It's what I've always wanted, right?" I said with a feigned smile, "A decade of doing this and if I win, I get my shot at the nationals. This is my big chance."

"I'm sorry if I ruined your prep."

"You gonna come watch?"

"Can I?"


And then the silence came again. This time a little harder to bear than before. I try not to look at him, because when I do, it starts to hurt again. I'm not going to let it hurt. Not yet. Not now. It's still too raw. I don't want to say something out of anger. Not to him. He's so beautiful. He's still an angel to me. I still love him like crazy. I can't see myself ever feeling any different. I guess that's just me. I'm a one man Charlie.

He seems surprised when I reach out and take his hand. I just ... I need to feel him, you know? I'm afraid I might start crying now, because his touch is so real to me. Holding his hand in mine is right. It's right for me.

He's still a little tentative. He's just letting me do what I want to him. Letting me hold his hand. I want him to take control the way he did this morning when I tried to leave. I guess he's too afraid to push things right now.

I close my eyes and hold his hand to my lips. Kissing it and feeling his skin on my lips. When I open my eyes, he's smiling at me. His eyes are beginning to water up, but he's trying to control himself as much as I am.

"I still think you're the greatest." I say with a smile.

"Only when you're with me."

"Come here. Gimmie a hug."

I held him in my arms and hugged him. Still using every ounce of control to stop myself from succumbing. My hands rub up and down his back. This feels good. It feels nice. He smells so good. He feels so good in my arms. He's still holding back, but he's reveling in this moment as much as I am.

Somehow, don't ask me how. But somehow we end up in our traditional position of resting our foreheads against one another. A few silent tears have escaped him, but he's still trying to keep himself from really breaking down. I'm glad too, because I wouldn't have been far behind.

I feel my heart beginning to pound the longer we're like this. So close. There's no anger there anymore. Just wanting. Needing. I want so much to kiss him right now. To get my strawberry fix. He wants it too. We're so close we can feel each other's breath on the other's lips. But he knows I won't do it. It's too personal. Too intimate. And I'm not sure I can handle anything more intimate than what we're doing right now.

"Do I have a chance to make this better?" Lucas asked.

"I hope so." I said with a lump in my throat, "Because I don't think I could ever love someone as much as I love you. So my life would be pretty sad if it went on without you in it."

I think that was the breaking point for Lucas. He began to whimper softly as his cries broke free. I wrapped my arms around him, but the sobs and cries continued. Still soft and gentle, but constant and unabating. I hurt then. Not just for me, but for him.

And so we stood there holding each other. Nothing really resolved. No great declarations or attempts to reconcile. No decisions. I knew that would all have to come. I knew it would come. And I knew the hurt would come back. I knew I would break eventually. I knew we would have to deal with this sooner or later. I knew I would have to find out whether I had it in myself to get past this. To find a semblance of trust that was strong enough to rebuild our foundations. But right now, it would all have to wait. Right now, this is all I want. No words. No thoughts. Just this.

* * * * * * *

The Barrett family had just finished their evening meal together. Josh was in the kitchen helping his mother with the dishes. A gesture she always appreciated. In Josh's traditional family, it was usually the women who were in the kitchen and the men who went out to work. But Josh always went out of his way to help his mother. To help both his parents. His duty to them and his younger sister was always his top priority. They deserved nothing less in his eyes.

"Hey, Joshy. You gonna take me to the movies tonight?" Carly asked as she entered the kitchen.


"Son, I forgot to ask if you could chaperone your sister and her friends to the movies."

"Are any boys going?" Josh asked with a smile, "I hope not."

"I'm twelve. I can go out with boys my own age. I'm old enough."

"I don't think so, Carly Bear." Josh said with a cheeky wink.

"Listen to your brother, Sweetheart. He's just looking out for you. Now go and get ready."

Josh decided he'd better go and get himself ready too since he was now on chaperone duty. He didn't mind doing it. Not when it came to Carly. The thought of her going out on her own was far more frightening. He knew the world wasn't as rosey as she might like it to be, and it was his duty to protect her from things she might understand or be ready for.

Josh's mind was still a little unsettled from his earlier visit to Brad's house. He'd always known Brad's father to be a hard man. A strict and stern individual. Josh still had a fair amount of respect for him, simply for the fact that he was Brad's father and an elder. But his viewpoints and attitude towards Storm scared him. If he felt that way about Storm, how would he feel about Josh if the truth ever got out? Even more than that, how would his parents feel? It galvanized his determination never to tell his parent's. The only way he could ever get away with not telling them would be to give up that part of his life altogether. He couldn't be gay if was never with anyone, right?

He couldn't bear the possible rejection from his parent's. Couldn't bear to let Carly down or subject her to taunts from her friends. But most of all he couldn't bear the idea that his parent's would want nothing to do with him. Or view him as a disappointment. He didn't want to turn their lives upside down because of himself.

He gritted his teeth as a shiver ran up his spine. He wished at this moment more than anything that he was normal.

"Joshy! Phone for you." Carly said as she knocked on Josh's door.

"Hold on, I'll be right there." Josh said as he quickly finished buttoning up his shirt.

"It's Brad." Carly said as Josh opened the door and she handed the phone to him.

"Thanks. I'll just finish this phone call and we can go." Josh said as he held the phone up to his ear, "Brad?"

"Hey." Brad said, sounding a little nervous, "Umm ... what are you doing?"

"I'm just getting ready to take Carly to the movies."

"Listen, I was wondering. Do you think we could talk? Could I maybe meet you there? We're ok, aren't we?"

"Well ... ok. Meet me there. I'll be the guy with a group of twelve year olds to look after." Josh said with a smile, "Is everything ok?"

"Sure. I just ... uhh ... I want to hang out. I'll see you there."

"Ok, Brad. See you there."

* * * * * * *

Marty Lee walked back into the Sheridan house after his final training before tomorrow's regionals. He found Lucas sitting alone in the lounge. The television was off. The stereo was silent. Lucas seemed to just be staring into space. Thankfully the only drink beside him was a glass of water. At least Marty Lee hoped it was water and not vodka. That would be a step up from beer. A step in the wrong direction. Especially the way Lucas had been going lately.

"Hey." Lucas said with a feigned smile as he broke from his gaze, "How was training?"

"It was ok. I ... I saw Storm down at the dojo with Dade. He didn't say much. Is everything ok?"

Lucas bit his lip and looked away from Marty Lee. Marty Lee could see that Lucas was on the verge of tears. He looked as though he'd been crying. Something Marty Lee noticed a lot lately. But under the circumstances, it was understandable.

"He never does what I expect him to." Lucas said with a croak in his voice, "He always ..."

"Always what?"

"Always surprises me. He does things that make me feel like I love him more than I did before. And sometimes I think that's impossible because I already love him more than I think I could love anyone."

"That's ... good, right?" Marty Lee asked with a shrug.

"Only if I have him. It's great if I have him. If I don't have him, it's ..." Lucas said as his eyes strained, "It's the opposite. You work it out."

"Is he coming back?"

"That's the million dollar question." Lucas gasped, "I'm not sure what to expect. I should be grateful he still cares about me. Still worries about me. Even now."

"Grateful maybe. Surprised no." Marty Lee said with an attempt at reassurance, "I hope it all works out the way you want it to, Lucas."

"Thank you." Lucas said with a smile that broke through his sad eyes, "I appreciate your support, Dude. I really do."

"I owe it to you. Both of you. And maybe one day I'll even tell you why." Marty Lee said before he turned and walked away.

Marty Lee walked into his room and threw his gear down on his bed. His guilt had been riding him constantly. In part it drove him to try and make amends to the people he'd hurt. People like Dade who knew he'd hurt them. And people like Storm and Lucas, who had no real idea of what he was capable of. They both thought they knew, but they had no real idea. As much as he'd tried to get away from it, he knew the time was coming when he'd have to come clean. Only then would he feel as if he could be trustworthy to the people he'd become genuinely attached to.

He wasn't often one to feel fear. But his fear had grown as his dependence on other had grown stronger. He was finally laying roots in this town. Lucas was the most obvious. And even though Dade was outwardly hostile towards Marty Lee and probably did have a great dislike of him. Even then, Marty Lee had grown accustomed to having Dade in his life. He was familiar now. Storm was a much more complex situation. The two had begun as nemeses, and were still nemeses to a certain degree. But there was also a genuine sense of respect and loyalty between them. More so for Marty Lee than for Storm. Yet obviously Storm's attitude had changed enough to ask Marty Lee to take his place in the dojo while he was away. Being placed in a position of responsibility where people look to you for guidance was a sobering experience for Marty Lee. It made him feel more grounded and necessary. It forced him to change his attitude towards others.

All these things and more had led Marty Lee to where he was today. Connected to people he never planned or wanted to be connected to. He was part of something now. Something more than just himself.

His fear came from losing that connection. From once again being isolated and alone. From losing things ... people that he'd grown to love having in his life. However strange that life and those relationships may be. Merlow was home for him now. This was where he wanted to be. And these were the people he wanted around him. Losing that was something that genuinely frightened him. And that fear was the only reason he kept his secret. But like all secrets, it had grown in the silence. Grown so much that it ate at him. Ate at his conscience. The only way to get rid of it was to let it out. It was almost time to let it out.

* * * * * * *

Josh stood outside the Cinema Megaplex with Carly and two of her best friends. He wasn't exactly sure when or where he was supposed to meet Brad, but figured they'd bump into each other eventually.

"Are you expecting anyone else, Carly?"

"Just Link."


"Yeah, here he is!" Carly said excitedly as she pointed toward the car park.

Josh looked in the direction she was pointing and spotted the young Link. Josh figured he must be about thirteen. The fact that he seemed a little mature for Carly wasn't the only thing that bothered Josh. It was simply the fact that he was a he. A he that dressed like was fifteen or sixteen, and was tall enough to pull it off. Definitely a no go for his baby sister.

"Carly, I told you no boys. You're too young to date." Josh said with a frown.

"Joshy, I'm not a baby."

"You're a baby until I say you're not a baby." Josh said with a smile, "And he looks way too mature for you, Carly Bear."

"You don't even know him. He's the coolest guy in school. Everybody loves him."

"Coolest guy in school?" Josh said with his best impersonation of a Dade eyebrow, "You're definitely not going anywhere on your own with him now."

"Joshy, don't embarrass me." Carly pleaded.

Josh was about to say something when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He immediately figured it was Brad, but when he turned around it wasn't Brad at all. It was in fact Maya Williams. The last person Josh expected to see.

"Hi, Josh." Maya said with a warm smile, "I take it you're on chaperone duty too?"

"Yeah. I don't know about these kids these days." Josh smiled, "When did we become parents?"

"I know what you mean. This is my little brother, Link." Maya said as she motioned for Link to say hello.

"Hi, Josh." Link said as he extended his hand to Josh, "It's so cool to meet you. I play the same position as you in my team. I think you're the best. Carly thinks I could make the cut when I get to Merlow High."

Josh nodded in response and shook the young boy's hand. He didn't want to be rude, but this kid gave him the creeps. Simply because he seemed so much more worldly than his baby sister was.

"I know exactly what you're thinking, Josh." Maya said with a knowing smile, "And don't worry, I'm here to make sure they don't get into any trouble either."

"If I had it my way, she wouldn't be going out till she was eighteen." Josh said with a small laugh, "But I'm glad you're here to help."

"Uhh hey." Brad said as he surprised both Maya and Josh, "Hi everyone. Hey Carly Bear."

"Brad, don't call me that in public." Carly moaned, "I'm too old for that."

"Uh oh, that's not good." Brad said with a mock frown, "She's at that age, Josh."

"Joshy, can we go in now?" Carly pleaded, "The movie's just about starting and we haven't even got our popcorn."

"Listen, if you guys need to talk, I'll take them in. I'll save you a seat inside, Josh." Maya said as she motioned for Carly and the gang to follow her.

"Here, Carly. Get some snacks and I'll see you inside. Everyone stay with Maya and don't wander off." Josh said as he handed Carly some money.

"Joshy, I'm not a child. Nothing's going to happen to me."

"You're right, Carly Bear. Because you're going to do everything I tell you. And you're going to do everything Maya tells you until I get inside. Now go on and I'll be there soon."

Brad tried not to laugh as Maya led her entourage away. Josh as well couldn't help smiling as he watched his sister walking off.

"She's growing up way too fast." Josh laughed, "I wish she could've stayed ten forever."

"They sprout up pretty fast, don't they? And it's only gonna get worse for you, Josh. Trying to protect her from all those evil boys as she gets older."

"Don't remind me."

"You're a good big brother, Josh. You'll be ok."

"I hope so. It's scary. I don't want her going anywhere near that boy. He just looks so mature for her. And he's supposedly the coolest guy in school. And you know what all the `coolest guys' in school are like."

"Then we'll both have to chaperone her on every single date till she turns eighteen."

"I intend to." Josh grinned, "You know what girls are like at that age. They want to be popular and do things to be popular. I'm having nightmares here."

"I think you'd make a great dad. You have a good protective nature. She's lucky to have you around. And look on the bright side. You get to sit with Maya all night."

"I'm sure you'd rather take my place. I know you think she's hot."

"Umm yeah." Brad said as he motioned for Josh to follow him.

The two ended up at the back of the Megaplex in a dark alley. Josh wasn't quite sure what Brad's intentions were or why he wanted to come to this place. There was no one around and not a lot of light coverage.

"Why did you want to talk to me? It sounded important." Josh asked.

"Well ... it was about what my Dad said. I hope he didn't upset you."

"It didn't. Everyone's entitled to their opinions."

"I hope that means you'll come back around again. I hope he didn't scare you away. He really does like you."

"I wonder if he still would if he knew. Not that that will ever happen. I think I'm going to be single for a very long time, Brad."

"You can't just forget who you are, Josh. You're not like Storm or Lucas. You can't jump the fence. This is who you are. You told me yourself and I know you meant it."

"I'm not forgetting. I'm just ignoring. It's my life. It's my right." Josh said defiantly, "I won't do to another woman what I did to Claire. I tried it and it didn't work and I hurt her in the process. And I'm not going to be with a guy, because that would mean hiding. I wouldn't want to do that either. I've made up my mind, Brad. I don't want this. I don't want to be like this. I'll just ... be single."

"For the rest of your life?"

"If that's what it takes."

"Josh, that's so stupid!" Brad said sounding almost angry, "You've come so far to accept who you are."

"It's not who I am, Brad. It's what I am. It's not who I am. Who I am is Josh. I'm a brother and a son before I'm anything else. Being gay is at the bottom of my list of priorities."

"But think of how lonely you'll be. Think of everything you'll miss out on. Don't you think your parents will love you no matter what?

"Get with the real world, Brad. Look at your dad for crying out loud." Josh said angrily, "And you know what my parents are like. Why the hell are you pushing this?"

"Because I want you to be happy, Josh. And I know you'll be miserable if you have to live with this your whole life. I know that there are more people out there who hate than people who care. But you have to give your parents more credit. They're good people, Josh. They love you."

"Screw you." Josh snapped suddenly, "You don't know anything about my parents. You don't know anything about me! Don't tell me how I should live my life. It's my life. Not yours."

"I do know you, Josh. I just wanna be your friend. I just wanna help you. Think of everything you're going to miss out on."

"Like what?" Josh asked somewhat defiantly, "Rainbow parades and Queer Eye marathons? No thank you. Not my style."

Brad lunged forward and pressed Josh against the wall. Before Josh could react, Brad planted his lips on Josh's and kissed him with a passion. Josh was stunned, and fought back at first, but Brad was too insistent. Brad didn't stop at a simple angel kiss. He pushed for a full make out session. Their tongues lapping softly against one another and intertwining. It wasn't till Josh began to loosen up that Brad pulled away.

"Things like that." Brad said as he caught his breath, "Can you go the rest of your life without that?"

"What the hell did you do that for?" Josh asked still a little stunned.

"I'm just trying to make a point." Brad said with tears beginning to form in his eyes, "Josh, you've done things for me that no one else ever has. Things that normal friends don't do for each other. Like when we went camping. And loads of other times. I owe it to you to help you anyway I can. I want you to be happy and I don't want you to be miserable. You're my best friend. Can't you see I just want to help?"

"Asshole!" Josh yelled suddenly as he shoved Brad away, "I told you never to touch me like that again!"

"You didn't seem to mind at the time." Brad said as he struggled to compose himself, "Josh, don't do this. I just want to help."

Josh let out an angry scowl as he began pacing back and forth. He was frustrated by Brad's sense of caring for him and infuriated by his unwillingness to drop the issue. Part of what Brad was doing made Josh furious at him. Made Josh want to almost knock him out. The other part of what Brad was doing made Josh feel for him even more. And soon Josh's anger gave way to frustrated tears. He grabbed Brad and turned the tables so now Brad was against the wall.

"Damn it, Brad. You can't keep doing this to me. I just get over how I feel for you and then you do things like this that make me want you even more. But it's like torture because you're giving me these little pieces when I know I'll never have you." Josh said as he held Brad by the collar, "You said if I really wanted it that you'd let me. Well what if I told you right now that I wanted it? That I wanted you to be my first real boyfriend. You know I have feelings for you and you've been messing with my head for so long. You're confusing the hell out of me. Well I've had it. If you really think that this is so important for me. Prove it. Give me what I want and make it worth my while. Would you give me everything that I wanted? Just to make me happy?"

"Josh ..." Brad said in disbelief, "I ..."

"Kissing is one thing. Anybody can kiss. An actor can kiss. You do it real well, Brad. What about the rest? What about when I want to hold hands?" Josh said as tears streamed down his face, "What about when I want to tell you I love you and hear it back. What about when I want that first time? Would you make it worth the risk of telling my parent's about me? Would you make it worth turning my whole life upside down just for that feeling you keep telling me I'll miss?"

"Josh, please."

"Would you!?" Josh yelled angrily.

Josh's eyes were fixed on Brad's face. He already knew what he thought the answer would be. But he held out a glimmer of hope that maybe Brad would say yes. In his heart though, he knew that wasn't going to happen. Something that was confirmed when Brad slowly raised his eyes to meet Josh's.

"No." Brad said in a somber tone.

"That's what I thought. Don't tell me you understand what I'm going through. You have no idea!" Josh yelled as he began backing away, "I'm sick of this, Brad. I don't want you to talk to me. I don't want you to look at me. I want you out of my life! Don't you ever come near me again! I swear if you ever do, watch out."

Josh began walking away from Brad, looking as angry as Brad had ever seen him. He still had tears in his eyes and somehow Brad knew he'd hurt him more than he'd helped.

"Josh! Please!" Brad cried in frustration, "I'll give you what you want!"

But it was too late. Josh had disappeared and Brad was left sitting against the concrete wall. He cursed himself inside for making things worse for Josh. He had the sinking sensation that Josh might never forgive him for this. And that petrified Brad. Because even for their brief break from being friends, they'd almost spent the rest of their lives together.

"Damn it." Brad cursed, "I'll give it to you if that's what you really want. Just please don't leave me, Josh."

Little did Brad realize that this entire time a pair of eyes had watched him from the bushes. A pair of eyes that wanted nothing more than to make Brad miserable. And his eyes had just seen the perfect ammunition.

* * * * * * *

The night before the biggest tournament of my life, and it just didn't seem to matter. The biggest regionals I had ever competed in. Not only would it be held in Merlow for the first time ever, but this time whoever won would get automatic entry into the nationals. It almost didn't seem fair. I'd already won the regionals four times in the last six years. Every year it became harder, but I'd been able to pull it off. There was never a shot at the nationals on the line though. This was something I'd always dreamed about and now, I felt I had probably the worst chance of success. The worst preparation. The worst mindset. Even if I didn't win, I still had a chance of getting through to the nationals on past credit. But I didn't want to count on maybes. I wanted to get through by winning the regionals. And to be honest, I like being the regionals champion.

It was the silence now that killed me though. Sitting here in my old room, on my old bed. Trying to make it my own again. Too much time had passed though. Not to mention the fact that it was bare and devoid of most of my own stuff. It wasn't as comforting as I hoped it would be. To be honest, the one place I wanted to be right now was right next to Lucas.

It's easier being away from Lucas, when I'm actually away. Away from Merlow. In Saran City or Drake it was always easier because I knew we couldn't physically be together if we wanted to. But here in Merlow, it was so different. I wondered if he was up right now too. Wondered whether he was looking out his window like I was. I sometimes think I'd forgive him right now for everything if his beautiful face just showed up at my window. Though I think we both knew that this was bigger than anything in the past. It wouldn't be so easy to go away. Not for me. And as much as Lucas might just want us to be together, it wouldn't be easy for him either. He would feel guilty and I would bad that he was feeling guilty.

Still, it was beginning to hurt now. Here in the dark. I almost felt like being the one this time to ask if I could sleep next to Dade. Usually it was always Dade. He asked me if I wanted him to sleep in my room tonight. I told him I thought we were getting too big for that. I don't think he liked that. I guess it was the end of an era for him. For both of us.

I wish Mike was here. I find him to be a real stabilizer. Especially when I'm on the outs with Lucas. He'd always know what to say.

I heard some faint footsteps outside my door before it opened slowly. In that moment I wished it was so many people. Lucas, Mike, even Marcel. But I knew it would be Dade. And sure enough it was him. Being dutiful as ever and making sure I was ok.

"I couldn't sleep." Dade said as he stepped inside, "Because I knew you couldn't sleep."

"It's not the same anymore, Dade. Being here in this house. In this room. It doesn't feel like my room anymore."

"I know, but it will. Do you wanna sleep in my room? My room still feels like my room."

"That's because it is still your room." I said with a small laugh, "Thanks but I'm ok in here. Besides, one thing that is still the same in here is my bed. And quite frankly, my bed is better than your bed. Bigger too."

He came over and sat on the bed next to me. Rubbing my back reassuringly as he looked at me. I feigned a smile back at him and looked back out the window.

"I know you feel lost, Storm. I know it hurts right now. But if there's anywhere in the world that you should feel safe in, it's right here. This is home, Storm. This will always be home. Just pretend Mom's still asleep in her room. Mike's next door. Everything's the same. Just close your eyes and imagine that. Then you'll remember what it felt like."

"I don't need to close my eyes to remember." I said with a small smile, "But thank you for that. It helps. But ..."

"But what?"

"Would ... would you mind staying in here tonight? I don't think I want to be alone."

"I thought you said we were too big for that." Dade said mischievously, "You're lucky you're still half my blood."


"Because if we had nothing at all, I'd be all over you in your sleep."

"I changed my mind. Get out ya little freak." I laughed, "You're a little demento."

"Yeah yeah, heard it all before. Shut up." Dade said nonchalantly as he lay down next to me, "Unlike you, I'm actually tired. Now maybe I can get some sleep since I won't be in my room worrying about you. Night, Bro. I love you."

"I love you too, Dade. Thanks."

"Anytime, anywhere, anything." Dade yawned, "Night."

I stayed sitting up with my head on my knees. Still staring aimlessly out the window. Dade still rubbed my back instinctively, but he'd already yawned and was well on his way to sleep. I wish it was that easy for me. Still, I was glad Dade seemed ... better. He was a little more like his old self. Confident and sure. It was good to see.

Dade's presence has the desired effect. He really is different now. Or the same. Whichever way you want to look at it. But his presence is reassuring, even calming. I surprise myself with a yawn. I try to imagine what Dade said. I pretended that Mom was still asleep in her room. That Mike was next door. That maybe Sarah was staying over. It made me smile.

"Thanks, Dade." I said to myself as I finally lay down.

I can hear the dreamscape calling me. I rested my head on Dade's arm and it felt like he was the older one again. I still had strawberries on the brain, but they were a little easier to handle now. I knew there was still a lot of unfinished business between me and Lucas, but for now it would have to wait. I can hear the dreamscape calling me.

* * * * * * *