by Julien Gregg
copyright 2003 - 2004 Julien Gregg

This story is about homosexual teenagers.  If you are offended by this kind of story, then you shouldn't read mine.  If it is not legal for you to read erotic fiction where you live, then you should not read this story.  If you have questions or comments, email me at  You can also visit my webpage at  This story is copyrighted, so please do not duplicate it in whole or in part without permission.

Chapter 3

"Mom!" screamed Nick as we battled each other to get down the stairs to Steve first.

I couldn't believe what they'd done to him.  One whole side of his face was a massive bruise.  His left eye was swollen almost completely shut, and his lips were bloody.  He was holding his side, and it looked like he was leaning on the door frame for support.  I was crying by the time I reached him.

"Steve, oh God," I breathed as I took his hand.

"Tommy, it hurts," he said, and then his knees buckled.

Thankfully, Mike had come with Mom and Sharon when Nick screamed.  He caught Steve before he fell to the floor, and, taking him in his arms, he rushed him to the living room.  He barely had him placed on the couch before Sharon was looking him over.  I stood in the doorway to the living room, shaking and crying.  My mom came over and took me in her arms.

"Mike, call 911," said Sharon.  "Tell them I think he may have broken ribs and a concussion."

"Is he going to be ok, Mom?" asked Nick, and he sounded as upset as I was.

"Nick, I need you, Jeremy and Tommy to go back up to your room," she said calmly.

"I'm not leaving him," I said quickly.

"Fine," she said, her expression softening as she looked at me.  "Nick, you take Jeremy upstairs. Son, he really doesn't need to see this."

"Ok, Mom," he said, but his shoulders slumped and he put his head down.

"I'll call from the hospital and let you know," said Sharon.  "Mike, you may want to call the police and have them meet us there. Where the Hell is Vince?"

"I'm right here," said Vince, startling everyone as he came into the house.  "Sharon, is he alright?"

"What the Hell happened, Vince?" she demanded, turning to face him with fire in her eyes.  "You were supposed to be watching out for him. You promised!"

"I tried, Sharon," he said, and for the first time I saw him cry.

"Here's a wet cloth to wipe his face, Sharon," said Mike as he came back from the kitchen.  "The police will meet us at the hospital."

"You called the police?" cried Vince.

"You bet your ass we called the police," spat Sharon.  "This has gone on long enough, Vince. I helped you get guardianship, helped you keep him at home and even looked the other way when I saw a bruise here and there, but you promised me that this wouldn't happen again. What's so different this time than last summer?"

"Sharon," he said, and then he was sobbing.

"He's not going back to that house again, Vince," said Mike.  "I won't stand for this, and Sharon should have told me."

"He said he could protect him, Mike," said Sharon.

"I don't care what he said, Sharon," screamed Mike as I heard the siren of the ambulance.  "Look at him now!"

The paramedics took over for Sharon, and they kept saying things that I couldn't follow.  I watched as my boyfriend was belted to a gurney and wheeled right past me out the door.  I couldn't stand it.  I lost it when I heard the ambulance doors close.  My mom held me tight, and I'm glad she did.  I probably would have fell over if she hadn't.

I don't even remember getting into Mom's car, but the next thing I knew we were driving down the street.  My mother was furious.  I could tell by the way her temples throbbed.  I couldn't believe that Sharon and Vince had let Steve stay in the house with abusive parents.  I just couldn't believe it.  Why would she do something like that? I couldn't even think of a reason even slightly good enough to do something like that.

At the hospital, Sharon, Mike and Vince were all pacing in the emergency waiting room.  My mother talked to Mike for a few minutes, but when Sharon turned to her, my mother shook her head and walked away.  Sharon's shoulders slumped, and she started to cry.  I had to stay away from her, because I knew that I would rip into her if she said one word to me.  I'd never forgive her for letting Steve get hurt.

When Mike lead Sharon and Vince into the private family waiting room, I wanted to follow, but Mike told me to stay where I was for a few minutes.  Furious, I complied.  I wouldn't stay out of that room for long.  I knew that the doctor would go there to tell them what was going on, and I wasn't going to be shoved aside like I wasn't important.  I was worried about him, too.  I was about to just barge in there when Mike came back out and motioned for me and my mom to come inside the room.

"Sorry about that, Tommy," he said.  "I was just respecting something that Steve asked me a long time ago. I needed to talk to Sharon and Vince alone for a few minutes. I want you to know that I wasn't trying to keep you out of anything, and I'm going to talk to Steve about telling you everything as soon as he's better."

"Thank you, Mike," I said.  "When will we hear anything?"

"I don't have an answer for that," he said.  "We don't know exactly what's wrong, so it could be a while."

"Why, Mike?" I asked, trying hard not to cry again.

"He asked me to keep his secret, Tommy," he said.

"No," I said.  "Why do parents do this to their kids?"

"Oh, Tommy," he said, hugging me.  "If I could answer that, it wouldn't happen to anyone ever again."

We sat there for what seemed like forever.  My mom kept whispering to me that everything was going to be ok, but I didn't believe a word of it.  Sharon kept talking to Mike, but he didn't look too happy, either.  Vince just sat off by himself, crying.  I didn't know what to feel about Vince right then.  Sharon had said that he'd promised to protect Steve, and it looked like he failed.  Was I angry with him? Did I feel sorry for him? I didn't know what to think.

Mike called Nick to tell him that the doctor was with Steve, and he asked how Jeremy was holding up.  He must not have gotten the answer he wanted, because he told Nick to call Wendy's house and ask if Mrs. Benson could come and get Jeremy.  He said to explain what had happened, and then he wanted Nick to call back.  He gave him the extension to the phone he was on, and then he hung up.

The police had already left before Mom and I got to the hospital.  I heard Mike telling Sharon that they were arresting Mr. and Mrs. Sutton.  Vince looked miserable when Mike said that, but Sharon's expression never changed.  She just sat there and stared at the floor.

Amazingly, I fell asleep, leaning against my mother.  It wasn't a peaceful sleep, though.  I dreamt that Steve was talking to Nick in the hall at school, but when I walked up to them, they both walked away.  Every time I caught up with them, Steve would tell me to mind my own business.  I jerked awake when I heard the doctor come into the room.

"He's going to be ok," said the doctor.  He was tall with a bald head and glasses.  "Mr. Sutton, your brother is asking for someone named Tommy."

"That's me," I said, standing.

"Well, son, he's awake, and he's asking for you," he said, looking at me hard.  "Don't upset him, and he'll probably fall asleep on you. Don't try to wake him. We've given him some medicine for his pain, and its going to put him to sleep."

"What did they do to him?" I asked before I could stop myself.

"Well, son, he has some bruised ribs, a minor concussion and he's pretty banged up," said the doctor.  "We're going to keep him here overnight, but I think he can go home in the morning."

"He won't be going home," said Mike.  "The police said that someone from Social Service would be here soon. I would appreciate it if you would send them in here."

I followed the doctor back to see Steve.  When I got into the examining room, he looked terrible.  His lips were split, and they were starting to swell.  There was a knot on his forehead, and his eyes were black.  At least he wasn't bleeding anymore.  I don't think I could have handled that.

"Tommy," he said weakly.  His eyes were slowly opening and closing.  The drug must have been working.

"Hey," I said, trying really hard to keep my emotions in check.  "I'm here."  I held his hand as I stood next to the bed.

"I'm ok," he said.  "Don't worry about me."

"Steve, just rest," I said.  "I love you, and I want you to rest."

"I love you," he said as tears welled up in his eyes.

I kissed his face on the side that wasn't puffy and bruised, and when I leaned back to look at him again, he was out.  The doctor told me that I should return to the waiting room and let him sleep.  I nodded and followed him back.  When we got there, there was a woman with long red hair, dressed in a blue business suit talking to Mike and Vince.

"Your parents have both been arrested," she said.  "Its up to Steven to press charges. Now I'm issuing an emergency restraining order against your parents in Steven's name. He isn't to return to the house. We'll place him into protective custody . . ."

"He's coming to stay with us," my mother said, standing to face the woman.  "My name is Donna Porter, and I'm an attorney with Lauren, Banning and Hart. Here's my card, and my home number is on the back. Call me tomorrow, and we'll discuss this matter further."

"What is your interest in this matter?" asked the social worker.

"I'm his guardian," said Vince.  "Is that being taken from me?"

"And who are you?" she asked, turning to look at Vince.

"I'm Vince Sutton," he said.  "Steve is my younger brother. Guardianship was awarded to me the day I turned eighteen."

"Then why was Steven in the home of your parents?" she asked.

"We live there," he said.  "But I won't go back there tonight, and I won't take Steve back there ever again."

"Where would you be staying tonight?" she asked.

"They're both staying with me," said my mother.  "Now, if you would just take my card and call me tomorrow, we'll sort all of this out then. Right now, we are all very worried, and we're very tired."

"Mr. Sutton, do you agree to this?" she asked, turning to Vince.  I was surprised that my mom didn't go off on her.

"Yes, I do," he said.  "We'll talk more tomorrow. Right now, I'd like to see my brother."

She left, but she didn't look happy about it.  Clearly she didn't know that Vince was Steve's guardian.  I didn't know what that would mean to the police, but I hoped that they locked Mr. and Mrs. Sutton away for good.  My mother didn't seem to have calmed down, though.  She was glaring at Vince.

"You and I are going to have a long talk, Vince," she said.

"I know," he said.  "Mrs. Porter . . ."

"You might as well call me Donna," she said.

"Ok, look," he said, looking down.  "I tried to keep this from happening. I really tried."

"We'll talk about this at my house," she said.  "Go and ask the doctor what time we can pick up Steve."

"We're not just going to leave him here," I said quickly.

"Tommy," sighed Mom.  "We won't be doing him any good if we stay here all night long. We'll come in early tomorrow morning, and we'll take him home with us."

"I'm going to stop by the house and get some of mine and Steve's clothes," said Vince.  "I'll meet you at your house."

"Just get some of your clothes," she said.  "Steve has plenty of clothes at our house."

"Right," he said.

"And if your parents are somehow at home," she said, glaring at him.  "Don't even stop. We'll find something for you to wear."

"Ok," he said, and then he was gone.  It was like he couldn't wait to get away from us.

"I don't think that Vince should remain as Steve's guardian," said Mike once Vince was gone.  "He clearly can't protect him."

"I want to know why they were still in that house!" cried my mother.  "What on Earth were they doing there?"

"Sharon says that Steve begged her not to make sure that Vince moved him out of the house," said Mike.

"He begged?" asked my mother.

"He said that he couldn't make them accept him if he wasn't there," said Sharon.

"This is acceptance, isn't it?" my mother's tone was like ice.

"I talked to Patty and Jeff," said Sharon.  "Patty swore . . ."

"You said that this was no different than last summer," said Mom.  "If something like this happened last summer, what good was a promise?"

"Steve tried to kill himself last summer," said Mike.  "That's what I was referring to. Nothing this bad happened before that I know of."

"What about bruises?" she asked.  "You also talked about bruises."

"Well, he explained them away, and for most of them, Nick backed him up," said Sharon.  "I only said that, because when I saw him like that, the bruises came to mind again."

"Jesus," my mother sighed, sitting down.  "Why would you help Vince keep him at home if you suspected . . ."

"I never suspected this," she said.  "I would have never let him take Steve back there if I had suspected something like this was going on."

"He's dropped hints, Sharon," said my mother.  "In front of Tommy, he's dropped hints when I talk to him. You can't tell me that he didn't drop hints around you."

"What are you talking about?" asked Mike.

"When we talked about the karate classes," I said, "Mom said that we should be able to defend ourselves from a threat, and Steve said something about the threat coming from home."

"My God," said Mike.  "Had he ever said anything like that in front of you, Sharon?"

"Not like that," she said.  "But there were things that left me wondering. Every time he said something that made me wonder, I talked to him about it, and he swore that his parents never hit him. I grilled Vince like crazy, and he swore that he'd never seen his parents hit Steve."

"Tommy, we're leaving," said Mom.  She turned around, grabbed the shoulder of my shirt, and we walked out of the room.

In the car, she was quiet.  Every time I said something, she told me she needed to think.  I wanted to ask her if Steve had said anything else like that day that I hadn't picked up on.  I couldn't believe I didn't talk to him about it when he said that.  I should have talked to him and made him tell me what was going on.

"Stop that, Tommy," my mother said, startling me.

"Stop what?" I asked.

"Feeling guilty," she said, sensing what I was thinking somehow.  "Steve chose not to tell you anything for a reason. Beating yourself up over it won't do you, or him any good."

When we got to the house, Vince was already parked out front.  He got out of his car when he saw us.  I still didn't know what to think of him now.  He had to know that something was going on.  There was no way that he could have missed it.  I really didn't want Steve to live with Vince anymore.

"They weren't home," he said.  "I got some more clothes for Steve, anyway. I'm guessing he'll be living here."

"You're guessing correctly," she said.

"So you're going to have my guardianship revoked?" he asked as we walked into the house.

"I haven't decided," she said, sitting down on the couch.  "I want to talk to you before I make any other decisions."

"I swear that this is the first time that anything like this has happened," he said.  "I would have taken him and left if it weren't."

"I'd like to believe that," she said.  "Tell me what happened tonight."

"Well," he said, clearing his throat.  "I got a phone call from a friend, and when I went to answer it, no one was on the line. I went back to the dining room, but the doors were closed, and when I tried to open them, something was holding them shut. I heard Steve and my father yelling at each other, and then I heard something that sounded like a chair hitting the wall, and then Steve started screaming for help."

"And where was your mother?" she asked.  I didn't know if I could listen to much more.  I was torn between being furious and being sickened.

"She was screaming at my father to leave him alone," he said.  Tears slid down his cheeks, and he stared at the table like he was just looking at nothing.  "When I got the doors open, Steve was lying on the floor, and my father was kicking him. My mom tried to pull Dad away, but he slammed her against the wall. When he went after her, Steve ran out of the house."

"Your mother was trying to protect him?" she asked.

"That's one way to look at it," he replied coldly.  "Steve had been trying to get Mom and Dad to accept him for weeks. He was staying home every other night, and they kept telling him that they didn't want to see him at all. He wouldn't give up. No matter what I told him, he just kept saying that they really loved him and just didn't realize it."

"That poor boy," said my mom, and I could see tears running down her face, too.

"My mom is no better than my father," he said.  "She doesn't hit Steve, but she screams at him, calls him names and tells him that he's sick. Verbal abuse can sometimes be worse than physical."

"How long has your father been hurting Steve?" she asked.

"This was the first time that it got that bad," he said.  "Usually, he'd only slap him across the face and tell him that he slapped him like that because he was a pussy boy."

"Your mother and father make me sick," I said before I could stop myself.

"Donna, you have to understand that Steve was trying to make things better between him and our parents," said Vince.  "I begged him to just stay upstairs or come over here, but he wouldn't. He said that he was going to spend the holiday with his family, and they were going to talk this out."

"And this is what he gets for reaching out," she sighed.  "I'm not letting him go back to that house."

"I can't live there anymore, so Steve won't be living there, either," he said.

"Why can't you live there?" she asked.

"After seeing my father do that to Steve," he said, "I wouldn't have wanted to stay anyway, but because I defend him so much, my father said that I could just live in the gutter with the faggot."

"Did you tell the police all of this?" asked Mom.

"I told them exactly what I told you," he said.  "They said they need to talk to Steve, and I don't know what he's going to tell them. Every time Sharon would ask him what was going on, he would just tell her that he was making progress."

"He didn't want anyone to know what it was like there," said my mom.

"Donna, I begged him to just stay away from Dad," said Vince, and then he was sobbing again.  "I begged him."

"This isn't your fault, Vince," said my mom, reaching for his hand.  "This is your parents. They're responsible. Steve didn't know that this would happen. He's a sixteen year old boy that wanted his mother and father to love him, and this is what they did to him."

"But I was supposed to protect him," he sobbed.

"Then protect him," she said.  "Make him tell the police the truth tomorrow. Make him talk."

"Are you going to have my guardianship taken away from me?" he asked, looking scared.

"I don't think that punishing you for trying to protect your brother is the right answer, Vince," she said.  "But you are still a boy yourself. You don't need the responsibility of taking care of him."

"Please don't," he said.

"Vince, I'll leave things the way they are under one condition," she said firmly.

"What's that?" he asked.

"You move in here," she said.  "Steve is going to need a lot of love, Vince. He's going to need to learn to feel that love, and it won't work if it just comes from you. I want both of you to live here until Steve turns eighteen. I have a spare bedroom for you to sleep in, and Steve can sleep in Tommy's room. I don't think they'd have it any other way."

"You'd let us live here?" he asked.

"Of course I'd let you live here," she said as if he'd asked the craziest question.  "Steve is like a son to me. I don't know you very well, but I know that you can't support him and go to college at the same time. Let me help, Vince."

"Thank you so much," he said.  "I didn't know where we were going to go if you let me keep guardianship."

"We'll ask the police tomorrow if they can make sure that your parents aren't home one day, so you guys can get your things," she said.  "We'll rent a truck."

"We don't need to rent a truck," he said.  "Dustin has a truck. He was going to help us move as soon as I found a place, anyway."

"You were moving?" I asked.

"I hadn't told Steve yet," he said, "but I was so sick of the way they treated him. It was so awful to watch him practically beg them to love him every day and only get hurt in the process. I was going to get a job, find a cheep apartment and move. I was just going to put my foot down and make Steve come with me."

"Well, you can call Dustin in the morning," she said.  "I've met him a few times. He seems like a nice guy."

"He's a great guy," I said.  "What time are we going back to the hospital?"

"Well, I want to be there to talk to Steve as soon as possible," she said.  "I was thinking about getting there around six."

"Will they let us in?" I asked.

"They will if they don't want a law suit," she said.

That settled it.  The conversation was over.  Mom showed Vince where to get blankets and a pillow for the couch, but I said he'd be much more comfortable on one of the air beds.  He helped me get it all set up in my room.  We talked about anything we could think of that didn't have anything to do with Steve.  I'd never talked to Vince so much, so I didn't know what he was interested in.  We ended up talking about karate.

Mom made us some sandwiches, and although I didn't think my stomach would hold them, I ate four.  We'd gone all day without anything to eat since breakfast.  Our food was all next door.  That's when I thought to call Nick.  He came right over with a pie and plates for all three of us.  Mom thanked him and hugged him.

"My mom and dad are arguing," he said.  "Dad's really upset with Mom."

"I saw that, honey," she said.  "They'll work it out. How's Jeremy?"

"He's at Wendy's right now," he said.  "Mom called over there, and Jeremy is doing ok. Wendy was a nervous wreck, though."

"Well, once he gets settled, everyone can come and see him," she said.

"He's coming here?" he asked, looking at me and then at Vince.

"We're moving in," said Vince.  "Donna's moving me into the guest room."

"I thought that was going to be your office," he said, grinning at my mom.

"Well, it was," she said.  "I've been working so much that I never got the chance to convert it. So it just stayed empty."

"Steve's going to sleep in your room?" asked Nick, nodding at me.

"Where else did you think he was going to sleep?" I asked.

"Dumb question," he laughed.

Nick stayed until after nine, and then Sharon called to have Mom send him home.  They talked for a little while, and Mom told me that Sharon and Mike were ok.  They wanted Nick home with them to talk to him about what had happened.  Mom asked me if I needed to talk, and I told her that I didn't know what to say.  She hugged me, and then went up to bed.

Vince and I sat in my room, watching television.  Nothing was really on that we wanted to see, but that wasn't the point.  I think Vince was trying to keep his mind off of Steve, but he wasn't successful.  After the news was over, he decided to try and get some sleep.  I didn't think that he would be able to sleep at all, but he surprised me.  As soon as I heard his breathing become regular, I logged on the internet and sent Ben and Andy separate emails wishing them a happy holiday and telling them a bit of what had happened.

After giving up and going to bed, I laid there, thinking about Steve.  I tried to be happy, because he was moving in with me, but I kept seeing his bruised face.  I cried silent tears for him that night, and I vowed that I wouldn't let anything happen to him again if I had to learn every form of Martial Arts to protect him.  You just don't know how much you love a person until you see them hurt.

I must have fallen asleep, because my mom was shaking me awake at five the next morning.  I looked down at the air bed, but it wasn't there, and for a second, I thought it had all been a bad dream.  Then I heard the shower running across the hall, and I knew that Vince had just gotten up earlier.  My boyfriend was still lying in the hospital, and his father had really put him there.

"Use my shower, and hurry up," said Mom once she determined that I was actually awake.  "Breakfast is on the table, and you're going to eat something before we leave. Tell Vince to come on downstairs when he's done."

I was getting clothes to put on for after my shower when Vince came into the room in nothing but a towel, holding the clothes he'd worn the day before.  He blushed when I looked at him, and I had to try hard to keep from laughing.

"I forgot to take clothes with me," he said sheepishly.  "Habit. I usually get dressed in my room."

"No worries," I said.  "Go ahead. Mom said to come downstairs and eat when you're done. I'm going to take a shower, and then I'll be down."

"Thanks, Tommy," he said.

Mom had made pancakes for us, and I actually ate pretty well.  There was a knot in my stomach, but that didn't stop my hunger.  After we ate, we climbed into the Taurus, and Vince followed us to the hospital.  We were met by a portly grey haired nurse when we got to the floor they'd moved Steve to.

"Visiting hours don't start until nine," she said, glancing at her watch for emphasis.

"Yeah, well, we're early," said Mom.  "Now, we've come to see Steve Sutton. The doctor told us last night that he'd be releasing him this morning. He's been through a traumatic ordeal, and he's going to need to see some loving faces."

"What are your names?" she asked quickly.

"I'm Donna Porter, and this is my son, Tommy," said Mom.

"I'm Vince Sutton," said Vince.  "Steve's my brother."

"I had to check," said the nurse.  Her name tag informed me that her name was Nancy.  "We're under strict orders that his parents are not to see him."

"May we?" asked Mom, but she was already moving forward.

"Absolutely," she said, stepping out of our way.  "He was sleeping a few minutes ago."

"Thank you," said my mother.

"Hey, Bud," said Steve, smiling weakly when I walked into his room ahead of Mom and Vince.  "I'm glad to see you."

"I'm glad to see you, too," I said, walking over and kissing him lightly on the forehead.  "I thought about you all night."

"Well, I'm ok," he said, yawning.  "Don't worry about me."

"That's bullshit," said Vince as he and Mom came into the room.  "No more tough guy, Steve. We know you're not ok."

"Morning, Vince," he said.  "Can't get anything past you."

"Good morning, Steve," said my mom, and she kissed his forehead, too.

"Morning, Donna," he said.  "When do I get to go home?"

"Well, that's the interesting part," she replied.  "You and Vince are moving in with me and Tommy, and I don't want any argument from you."

"Mom and Dad?" he asked with fear in his eyes.

"Jail," said Vince.  "And we're going to talk to the cops later today."

"You called the police?" gasped Steve in panic.  "Vince!"

"Mike called the police," said my mom.  "And you are going to tell them exactly what happened, young man."

"Yes, ma'am," he said as tears welled up in his eyes.  "They really hate me, don't they?"

"Steve, don't," said Vince.  "They aren't worth it."

"They're our parents, Vince," he said.  "How do you expect me to feel about the fact that my own mom and dad hate me?"

"Look what he did to you, Steve," said Vince.  "How can you care about that after this?"

"Enough," said my mother.  "He doesn't need to have this discussion right now."

"Sorry," said Vince, but I could tell that he would start the discussion over again the minute that they were alone.

"Are you mad at me, or something, Bud?" he asked, looking at me.

"No!" I said quickly.  "Steve, I'm not mad at you at all. I've just been staying out of the conversation, because I didn't know what to say."

"About me, or my mom and dad?" he asked.

"Steve, I have a lot of things to say about you, baby," I said.  "But this other stuff is new for me."

"I'm sorry about that," he said.  "I should have told you."

"Don't worry about that right now," I said.  "We have plenty of time to talk."

"Still love me?" he asked.

"Steve, I love you more than ever," I said.  "Don't ever think that I don't."

"I'm sorry," he said.  "I'm just a little scared of everything right now."

"I understand that," I said.  "I just don't want you to think that I don't care."

"Thanks, Tommy," he said.

I went over and sat on the edge of his bed.  It was a good thing that he had a private room, because he took my hand and didn't let go.  My mom and Vince sat in the chairs after dragging them over to the bed.  The doctor came in around eight and talked to my mom after he examined Steve.  He said he could go home as soon as he ate his breakfast, so I kind of helped him to get him out of there faster.

When it was actually time for him to leave the hospital, an aide came with a wheelchair to take him down to the car.  Vince didn't like it, but Steve and my mom said that he would ride in the back seat of my mom's Taurus.  It was hard for him to even get in the car.  His ribs hurt him really bad.  Mom was gentle with him, and she kept telling him she was sorry every time he said, "Ow."

It took a long time for us to get him back out of the car at the house, and it was even more stressful for him climbing the steps of the front porch and getting inside to the couch.  My mom rearranged the pillows of the couch around him to both cushion his wound and prop him up.  By the time she was done, his face was red, and he was sweating.

"Do you need a pain pill?" she asked as she backed away from the couch.

"I guess I should," he said.  I could hear the pain in his voice.  "I just don't like what they do to me."

"Well, its up to you, Steve," she said.  "I just don't want you to sit there in pain."

"I'll take one," he said.

"Tommy, I need you and Vince to move your bed into the guest room," said Mom.  "Inflate your air bed for your room. We're going to have to get you a bigger bed."

"Well, I have a double bed back at the house," said Vince.  "They can use that one, if we can get it over here."

"Have you called Dustin?" asked Mom as she handed Steve his pill and a glass of water.

"I'll call him in a few minutes," he said.  "I wanted to wait for the police."

"That's right," she said.  "Tommy, get that card off the kitchen counter. I need to call them and let them know that Steve is home."

Twenty minutes later, Steve was dozing, and Vince and I were moving my bed to the bedroom next to mine.  It was Vince's bedroom now, and he talked about where to put his dresser and his desk.  He asked if there was a way that he could connect his computer to our internet connection, and I explained that we were set up with access for up to six computers.  He was happy about that, because a lot of his classes had online work requirements.

"What are you studying?" I asked as we were putting the bed back together in his room.

"Well, I want to major in Computer Programming," he said.  "The class that I'll need the internet for is Statistics. I have a list of URLs that I need to check facts and things on."

"What's college like?" I asked more to pass the time than to satisfy any real curiosity.

"Different than high school," he laughed.  "For one thing, I don't have any classes before ten in the morning."

"That's cool," I said, wondering what it would be like not to have to be at school before eight in the morning every day.

"Most of the time, I only have like two or three classes in a day," he said.  "I'll show you the catalogue if you want."

"Sure," I said.  "Maybe I'll even figure out what I want to do after high school."

"Your mom would be happy to hear that," he laughed.  "Think you might be a lawyer?"

"Nope," I said.  "I don't think I could do that. I just don't see it."

"Well, there's plenty of time for you to decide what you want to do," he said.  "Its not like you're graduating from high school tomorrow."

"Yeah," I replied absently.

When we got the bed put together, we dragged the air bed out of the hall closet where Vince had put it that morning, and he helped me inflate it again.  I got clean sheets and a mattress cover from the closet and made the bed.  Mom would have to get me a quilt from her room.  Vince had taken all of the bedding that he'd used downstairs to the laundry room already.

Two police officers and a plain clothesed detective came just after lunch to talk to Vince and Steve about what had happened.  Mom and I stayed in the kitchen while they talked.  I didn't really want to know the extent of what had taken place.  I didn't think I would be able to stand the details.  Mom didn't seem like she wanted to hear them any more than I did.

"How are you doing?" she asked while we sat at the table across from each other.

"I'm all right," I replied.  "I'm trying not to think about it too much."

"Well, if you need to talk about things, I'm here, Tommy," she said.  "I go back to work tomorrow, but if you need me, you can always call me."

"Yeah," I said noncommittally.

"Sharon's right next door . . ."

"I don't think I'd talk to Sharon about much, Mom," I said heatedly.  "I think she's done enough."

"Go easy on her, Tommy," said Mom.  "She's hurting over this, too."

"I don't want to talk about Sharon right now," I said.

"Ok," she said slowly.  "What about Nick?"

"What about him?" I asked.

"Well, I don't want you to start neglecting your other friends now that Steve is living under the same roof as you are," she said.  "That would be wrong, Tommy."

"I didn't intend to neglect anyone," I said.  "These are Steve's friends, too."

"I understand that," she said.  "Sometimes, though, when you are Steve get together, you shut out everyone else, and that's not right."

"So you're saying that Steve and I should never take any alone time to just work on us?" I asked.  This conversation was making me angry already.

"No, that's not what I'm saying," she said.  "With Steve living here with us, you two are going to have plenty of alone time, Tommy. I'm just asking you to make sure that it doesn't all become alone time with Steve. You have friends, and friendships require you to spend time with those friends. I'm not saying that you've neglected anyone at any time. I know that its hard to balance friends with a relationship and school, but I just want to make sure that you two don't just start hiding out here, shutting out all of your friends."

"I wouldn't do that," I said coldly.

"Just stop, Tommy," she said suddenly angry.  "You've been doing this since you got together with Steve, and its going to stop right now."

"What are you talking about?" I demanded.

"This," she said, pointing at me.  "Every time anyone has any suggestions about you and Steve, you get angry. You were never like this before. If this is any indication, then I don't think you're ready for a serious relationship. I know that you and Steve aren't going to have it easy. Hell, it isn't easy for either of you right now, but this anger has got to stop. When we say anything about what you two need to think about, we're trying to help you."

I sat there, trying very hard not to scream at her.  The problem was, she was right.  I had been jumping to the first conclusion whenever anyone made the simplest suggestion.  I didn't know why, but I wasn't giving up Steve.  I'd work on it, talk to someone or anything else, but I wasn't giving up my relationship with him for anything.

"I'm sorry, Mom," I said finally.  "I know what you're saying, and I see that you're right. It makes me mad, but I see that you're right about me. I don't know why I get like this, but I don't want to end my relationship."

"I'm not saying you have to, Tommy," she said.  "That's exactly what I'm talking about. You get angry, because whenever someone says something about you and Steve, you instantly think that they are against the relationship."

"I just know how most people will react to us, Mom," I said.

"But you already know how me, Sharon, Mike and all of your friends have reacted," she said.  "We accepted it. We embraced it, but you still jump down our throats for the slightest suggestion."

"I've never had a relationship before, Mom," I said.  "I'm not sure why, but I'm scared that it won't last. I'm afraid that one of you might change your mind, and then Steve will change his."

"Tommy," she said.  "I just moved him into our house. If I was going to change my mind, why would I do that?"

"I know," I said, looking down at my hands on the table.  "I don't know why I do this."

"Well, I want you to work on it," she said.  "Because this isn't you."

"Uh, Donna?" said Vince from the kitchen doorway.  We hadn't even heard him come in.  "The detective wants to talk to you about when to get our stuff from Mom and Dad's."

"Yeah," she said.  "I'll be right there."

Vince came and sat at the table with me while Mom went to talk to the detective.  I instantly expected him to lecture me, too.  Then I understood exactly what Mom was talking about, and it made me sick.  I had changed when Steve and I started.  I had changed into an untrusting, cold person to everyone but Steve.  Mom was right, and now that I saw that, I had to figure out how to stop it.  I couldn't be that way.

"You ok?" asked Vince, lifting me out of my thoughts.

"No," I admitted.  "I'm a jerk."

"Not all of the time," he said, smiling.

"Yeah?" I said unable to keep from smiling back.  He had a smile almost as compelling as Steve's.

In his own way, Vince was just as attractive as Steve.  His hair was darker, and he had dark eyes instead of Steve's icy blue.  He had a great body, and as I said, he had that Sutton smile.  His eyes were always friendly, and he never looked down on Steve for his sexuality.  I wondered how it went when Steve had come out to him.

"Yeah," he said.  "Most of the time, you're a pretty cool guy. Last night and this morning, while we moved the bed, you were great. I can see what your mom is talking about, though. You're awesome on your own, but when Steve walks into the room, you instantly become Steve's boyfriend.

"Don't give up your own identity for Steve," he continued.  "That isn't what my brother wants. He likes you. He wouldn't like someone that only existed because of him. Steve is a great guy, and I can tell that you really do care about him. Just don't get too wrapped up in the whole relationship thing. You're both still kids, really. Be kids, Tommy. Don't grow up faster than you're supposed to."

After that, I had a lot to think about.  He was right about me changing from myself into Steve's boyfriend whenever Steve was around.  I wondered if Steve noticed that.  He had to if everyone else could see it.  I didn't know exactly what to do about it, though.  Recognizing the problem wasn't a solution to it.  Now I had to do something about it.  I couldn't talk to Steve about it right now.  God knew he had his own problems to deal with, and it would be wrong of me to burden him with my own.

That day, I spent most of my time on the couch beside Steve, and I consciously tried to include my mom and Vince in any conversation that Steve and I had.  I noticed him giving me strange looks from time to time, but he smiled a lot, and his eyes told me that he was happy.  Maybe he had noticed and just didn't know how to tell me about it.

That night, it was very hard for Steve to get comfortable on the air bed.  Mom said that we'd have Vince's bed before too long, and Steve told her it wouldn't matter if his ribs still hurt.  The doctor had told him that his ribs would hurt for a few weeks, and I wondered just what that would mean for him in school and karate.  It would be hard to walk up and down the stairs, carrying books at school every day with his ribs.  Karate was probably out of the question.  The warm up exercises would be enough to make him howl in pain from his ribs.  It seemed that my boyfriend was going to be out of commission for a while.

"What are you thinking about, Bud?" he asked.  Mom had left the room after he finally got to a comfortable position, and it was just us.

"You," I replied simply.  "I'm always thinking about you."

"I love you, Tommy," he said, smiling that famous smile at me.  Even coming from his injured lips and face, that smile made my heart warm and my stomach queasy.

"I love you, too," I replied, leaning over to kiss his forehead.

We laid there in silence.  I thought of all of the things that I really wanted to say to Steve.  I wanted to tell him that I understood his silence, even if I couldn't completely accept it.  It was selfish, I know, but I couldn't help feeling cheated by the fact that all of my friends in Storyville knew what had happened to Steve.  I, on the other hand, did not.  What felt wrong about that was the fact that Steve was my boyfriend.  He wasn't just another of my friends.

Take Jeremy, for example.  There was a very big secret that he and my friends kept about his past and current life.  I was not in the loop on that one, either.  However, though I wished that he'd trust me enough to share it all with me, I couldn't feel cheated by his silence, because I was simply his friend.  I wasn't even a close friend to him.  That was mainly because he never said much of anything, but I wasn't sure that we could be close friends even if he talked non stop like Peter.  The point was that I could accept not knowing about Jeremy's past, but Steve's was another matter.

I'd never say anything to him about it.  That would have just been rude.  It just made me uncomfortable from time to time.  It was as if he didn't fully trust me.  That thought was always followed up by the fact that he hadn't known me long enough to trust me completely.  He didn't know me any better than I knew him.

Sure, I knew what he liked to eat, his favorite color, his favorite place to read, his best sleeping position and I even knew how he liked to be touched and kissed.  That wasn't really knowing him, though.  I wasn't even sure if he knew that much about me.  With him living in my house and sharing my room and my bed, he was going to get to know me.  He'd been spending every other night with me since we'd gotten together, but now he'd be with me all of the time.  He would get to know me very well, and I hoped that I'd get to know him just as well.

It surprised me to come to the understanding that, though we said the words all of the time, and we definitely felt strongly for each other, we weren't really in love.  I finally realized why everyone always said that it wasn't possible for us to be in love with each other as much as we claimed to be.  I felt foolish for getting angry with them for merely pointing out what I could have seen for myself if I'd only thought about it long enough.

Steve's easy breathing beside me told me that he was sleeping.  I carefully and quietly slid out of the bed and went to my computer.  Whenever anything big happened in my life, I always let Andy and Ben know about it.  My best friend and his brother would always be my sounding boards no matter how close I got with my new friends.  Perhaps that was kind of rude, but I couldn't help where my loyalties were.

I left them both lengthy emails outlining my thoughts and tonight's discoveries one by one.  I also told them that I didn't really expect any advice, because I pretty much had my problem figured out.  The only way I would find a way to solve it was to think about it some more.  I did love Steve, even if I wasn't in love with him, I loved him.  That counted for a lot in the scheme of things.  He was going to be living under the same roof with me, so I knew that it would be only a matter of time before we both found out exactly how much we loved each other.  Maybe it wouldn't go any further than the teenage puppy love stage, but I hoped that it would.  Where there's hope, there's a way, right?

The next morning, after helping Steve bathe, dress and get down the stairs to the kitchen, my mother made us breakfast and then gave Steve the welcome to the family lecture.  She went over the rules and told him what she expected of him while Vince and I just looked at him with sympathy and understanding.  Mom's lectures could be relentless, but Steve handled his like a trooper.

The day was full of activity as first Nick, then Wendy, Peter and Jeremy arrived to see for themselves that Steve was, in fact, all right.  I left them alone for a while to talk amongst themselves about things that Steve still had not told me.  He looked uncomfortable when I excused myself to work on a paper for school, and he even looked like he was going to protest for a bit.  I didn't want our talk to be a public conversation, so I ignored his silent plea for me to remain by his side.

The guys stayed for lunch after Vince insisted, and I took mine in my room, eating between paragraphs.  This time, I was just too involved in my report to drag myself away from it for long.  I met Steve's sad eyes when I said that I'd be in my room, working, and I felt guilty, but I left him with our friends and his brother anyway.  I wasn't trying to punish him, but I really didn't know how to convey my feelings to him in front of the group.

When my report was finished, I went downstairs to find Steve propped up on the couch again.  Vince was sitting in the recliner, and Dustin was on the loveseat.  His presence surprised me, but I was happy to see him.  He and Vince were discussing the use of Dustin's truck for the move.  It was set for the next day, and Vince asked me to help.

"Steve won't really be able to move much," he said.  "Do you mind helping?"

"Not at all," I replied.  "I'll help out as much as I can."

"Well, I'm going to go over and pack up our stuff tonight," he said.  "I'm just waiting for your mother to come home, so I can discuss it with her."

Steve stirred as I sat down beside him.  He smiled sadly at me, and then looked away.  He spoke quietly to Dustin, thanking him for helping out.  When Vince told him that I would be helping them move their stuff, Steve flinched.  He looked at me again, and this time his eyes were unreadable.

"Thanks, Tommy," he said before swinging his gaze away from me again.  I had thought that his sad expression and silence were just due to his experience, but his formal use of my name instead of the nickname he'd given me told me he was upset with me.

"You don't have to thank me," I said, taking his hand.  He didn't pull away from me, but as I held his hand, his fingers remained relaxed.  He didn't return my grip.  This was getting bad.

Dustin must have noticed that something wasn't right, because he was clearly uncomfortable as he excused himself to go to Mr. Hively's.  I let go of Steve's hand and went to the kitchen to make myself something to eat, leaving Vince and Steve alone in the living room.  I'd clearly screwed up.  What if, Steve's wanting me to sit in on his discussion with the group was his way of trying to let me in a bit more, and I just didn't see it? I hoped that I could do something to make him feel like he could trust me again.  I was rapidly coming to understand that I was a real prick.

Mom came home around five, and she wasn't in the best of moods, either.  She said hello to all of us and then went upstairs to change.  Vince looked worried, and I knew he was thinking about having to talk to her about going over to his parents' house to pack.  With her in this mood, I wouldn't have discussed the grass outside with her.  I felt sorry for Vince.

All through supper, Mom and Vince talked about getting Vince's and Steve's things packed to move in the morning.  Vince explained to her that his parents were not even in town, and Mom accepted that, but she still wanted someone to go with him.  He said he'd ask Mike if he would go, and that calmed my mother's worries.

Steve and I were completely silent during the meal, and I know that Mom noticed, because she glanced at me repeatedly.  I didn't know what to say to her, so I just kept my mouth shut.  I was going to have to talk to Steve before I could talk to anyone else.  I'd hurt him again, and I had to fix it.  I felt like shit for hurting him while he was suffering so much.

"Talk to me, Tommy," he said after I'd helped him upstairs after supper.  "Why didn't you stay with me when I needed you?"

"Steve," I said, but nothing else came out.  I looked at my feet as if the answers were there, stamped on the leather.

"Are you mad at me?" he asked.  "Because that's what it feels like."

"No!" I gasped, taking his hand.  "Steve, I'm not mad at you for anything."

"Then what?" he asked.  "Did you not want me to live here?"

"That's not it, either," I said.  "You were going to have to talk about what happened again, and I didn't want to intrude on that discussion. Steve, you haven't told me much about your past, and I was trying to respect you by not hanging around for details you hadn't told me."

"But that's just it, Tommy," he said.  "I wanted to tell you then."

"Steve, that's a discussion we should have in private," I replied.

"But everyone already knows what I'm going to talk to you about, Tommy," he said.

"Yeah, but none of them know anything about what I want to say to you," I said.  "If you're going to tell me what's happened in your past, I have to tell you what's in mine. I want to tell you."

Then, right on time, someone knocked on my bedroom door.  I sighed in frustration before opening the door to confront Nick.  I almost told him to leave, but the smile on his face was too good for me to knock it down.  I stepped aside and allowed him to come in, looking at Steve with a patient expression.

"Hey guys," he said.

"Hey, Nicky," sighed Steve.  "What's up?"

"Just thought I'd come and hang out with you guys," he said.

So for a few hours, we put off our talk.  I didn't like it, but Steve didn't say anything to Nick about leaving, so I let it ride.  We played video games and talked about Steve returning to school.  The doctor had said that Steve could return to school a week after Monday, so there wasn't much to talk about there.  He was excused from gym class for another two weeks after that, and our workouts and karate were out of the question for even longer.

Nick told Steve that Sharon would be taking an hour out of each work day the next week to come and talk to him.  I didn't like that, but it seemed to make Steve feel better, so I didn't say anything.  I still hadn't decided just what I thought of Sharon after learning that she'd agreed to let Vince keep Steve at home with their parents.  That was a problem I'd have to wait on until Steve told me more about that time.

My mom made us a snack and allowed us to ferry the food up to my room, because it was so hard for Steve to get up and down the stairs.  Nick stayed for that, too, and Vince came into our room to talk to us about what time we'd start moving stuff, and where Steve would be when we got back.  He didn't want to have to move things around him, so Steve agreed to get up early and stay in the living room.

Finally, around nine, both of them left the room.  Nick had to go home, and Vince said he was turning in.  Steve and I sat there being quiet for a few minutes, and then I decided to help him get ready for bed.  He didn't put up a fight as I helped him change clothes, and he was silent while I changed, but when I asked if he was ready to go to bed, he just looked at me for a minute.

"We have to talk, Tommy," he said finally.  "This isn't going to wait any longer. I don't like what's going on between us."

"What do you mean?" I asked quickly.

"This silence," he said.  "You're mad at me, and I know why."

"I'm not mad at you, Steve," I said.  "I told you that already."

"It was unfair of me not to tell you anything while I was going back and forth between here and my ho . . . my parents' house," he said.  "I'm sorry about that. I just wanted to try and make them understand that I'm still the same boy I was before I told them I was gay. I didn't want you, or your mom to talk me out of what I planned. It didn't work, and now this happened. I know you don't like it that I kept you in the dark, and I'm sorry, Tommy. I'm really sorry."

Instead of responding to that, I started telling him how I figured out I was gay.  I told him all about Ben and the afternoon and sleep over jerk off sessions we'd had growing up.  I told him how I started to feel about them and how I'd wanted to go further.  He listened as I told him how upset I'd been over Ben and Laura Darns.  I even told him about all the times I thought about killing myself, because I was scared to tell my mother the truth.

He said nothing as I told him about how I'd shut out all of my friends and stayed in my room.  I told him about all the arguments and fights I'd had with my mom over not taking any of Ben's calls and having her send him away when he came to the apartment.  He listened to all of the fears and worries I'd had during those days, and I told him what had happened when I came out to my mother.  He looked worried when I told him how sick I'd gotten, but I told him that it got better, and I even came out to Ben the very next day.

Now he knew why Ben and I were so close, even though Ben now lived so far away.  I told him about Andy and all that he'd done, and was continuing to do for me.  I even confessed about emailing both of them to tell them what had happened and how I felt about it all.  He didn't say anything for a while after I was done.  I was afraid that he was upset with me for telling Andy and Ben about what had happened to him, and I was starting to worry.

"I'm sorry that I told them about what happened to you," I said.  "I should have discussed that with you, but I was very upset, and I had to get it off my chest."

"I'm not angry about it, Tommy," he said.  "I was just thinking that I wished that I'd had a friend like Andy when I came out."

"What about Dustin?" I asked, thinking about all of the times that he and Dustin had talked privately about what, I didn't know.

"Dustin isn't out to anyone other than me, Nick, Wendy and Keith," said Steve.  "Peter and Jeremy barely know him. His parents would flip out if he told them. He's just as confused and scared of someone discovering his secret as I've been all this time. I know that you think that I'm happy that my friends accept me, and I am. Telling them all was the second hardest thing I've ever done.

"Wendy pretty much already knew," he continued.  "When Dustin told her that they couldn't date anymore, he told her he was gay. It wasn't long after that when I told her about me. She knew that something was wrong, because she'd been to the house and it was clear that nothing was right there."

"You'll meet Andy after Christmas," I said, reminding him of our upcoming trip to Maine with Nick and his parents.  He smiled at that.

"I did try to kill myself right after I told my parents," he said, looking away from me.  I could hear the emotion in his voice as he spoke.  "I told Vince first, and he told me that I had to tell Mom and Dad. I fought him on that for a few weeks, and he let me alone. But the thought of telling them scared me so much. I knew what they'd say, and I couldn't stop worrying. My grades started to fall, and I started to lose weight. My mom trapped me in my room one night, grilling me about what was wrong with me. She thought I was on drugs."  He laughed at that, but it was a bitter laugh.

"I couldn't tell her the truth," he continued.  "so she grounded me for a month. Every day, she badgered me about what was wrong with me, and the more she did, the more scared I got. I started throwing up one night, because I just couldn't take it anymore. Vince found me in the bathroom, and he said it had to stop. He said that if I didn't tell them, then he would. I had no choice after that, because he went downstairs and called a family meeting."

He talked on and on, telling me about the night that he told his parents he was gay.  His mother didn't say a word, but his father had plenty to say.  He told me about the first time his father had ever hit him.  It was always the same, he told me.  His father would slap him, open handed across the face.  He'd tell him that he hit him like he was a girl.

"It got so bad that I couldn't stand it," he said.  "My dad kept telling me how much of a disappointment I was, and my mom wouldn't even look at me. Vince always tried to intercede when Dad would hit me, and Dad would call him a fag and all kinds of names. Vince could have just let it go on, but he gave Dad an ultimatum. He said that if he hit me again, he'd call family service.

"That made things worse," he continued. "Dad never hit me when Vince was around, but any time he'd leave the house, it was open season on me. He'd watch every move I made, and he'd slap me for anything he thought looked gay. After a few weeks, I just couldn't take it anymore. I took my mother's bottle of tranquilizers and went up to my room. Vince found me on my bedroom floor when he came home from work that night. He called 911, because we were alone in the house. My mom and dad had gone to dinner with friends.

"Sharon and Mike came to the hospital," he said.  "Sharon stayed by my side while they pumped my stomach. It was too late, because a lot of the pills had made it into my system. I was really screwed up for a while. They kept me in the hospital for over a week. Sharon came every day to keep me company. How she got away with taking so much time off of work I'll never know, but she got the whole story out of me, from coming out of the closet to my parents' reactions.

"She threatened my parents. I heard about it later from Vince. Mike got the ball rolling to have me removed from their care. I begged and begged him not to do it, so in the end, he helped Vince get guardianship. He had just turned eighteen. Sharon almost didn't agree to it, because we'd still be living at home. It took me a week to get her to let us stay there."

He was crying by then, and I kneeled in front of him as he sat in my computer chair, holing his hands in my own.  He didn't say anything for a while, and I didn't know what to say to him about it.  I just let him cry it out for a few minutes.  When I was about to say something, he went on.

"I came out to Nick the day I got out of the hospital," he said.  "After telling him, it was easy to tell Wendy. What I didn't know was that she and Dustin had broken up while I was in the hospital, and he'd told her he was gay, too. She asked me if I'd ever done anything with him, and I freaked out. I swore that I hadn't, and she believed me, but she was distant for a few days. I gave her time to accept me, and she came back to see me two days later like nothing had ever happened.

"Peter was another story all together," he continued.  "He got mad at me for hiding things from him. He didn't know about me being gay, but he was mad, because he thought my parents had really been hurting me when he found out that Vince had been awarded guardianship. He was mad at me for keeping that from him. When I told him I was gay, he just didn't seem to care about that. He was still mad at me for not confiding in him that my parents were hurting me.

"Jeremy . . ." he faltered, and I looked up into his sad blue eyes, silently trying to give him courage.  "He was completely different. He was scared of me for a while after I told him. I can't tell you why, because Jeremy's secrets are his own, but it took him a little longer to come around. The rest you know."

"I love you so much, Steve," I said after he finished.  "I want you to know that. I wasn't mad at you at all today. I was just giving you the space I thought you needed. I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings."

"I was so scared that you didn't want me, either," he said as tears fell from his eyes.

"What do you mean?" I asked, dreading the answer that I was sure was about to come.

"My own parents don't want me, Tommy," he said.  "Do you have any idea what that's like?"

"Steve, your parents don't deserve you," I said.  "I know you can't see that right now, and I won't push you, but you are a great guy. People love you, Steve. Wendy, Peter, Nick even Jeremy loves you, and I don't know what his story is, but I know that something seriously fucked up happened to that kid. We love you, Steve."

Talking to him clearly wasn't going to lighten his mood, and I knew that it would take time.  I had no idea what to say to him about his parents.  He was right.  I didn't have any idea what it was like to know that my own parents didn't love me.  My mother was great about my sexuality.  I had no idea how my father would have taken it, but Mom told me that he wouldn't have cared about it at all.  She said that his love was an unconditional love.  If he loved someone, he just loved them.

It was almost one before Steve let me help him to bed.  I laid there beside him silently praying to God to help him get over this.  I was almost asleep when his hand found mine.  We slept like that until Vince woke me up to get ready to go and move their things from their parents' house to mine.

I hated to leave Steve, but he promised me that he'd be ok.  It was Saturday, so my mom was home.  She told me to get out of the way and let her spend some time with Steve for a change.  I laughed at that, and I was so happy when I saw a genuine smile dance on his face.  Having seen that, I left with Vince and Dustin to move my much loved boyfriend's things into my house.  It didn't take near as long as I thought it would.

We left Steve's bed, but we brought his computer, clothes, dresser and all of his personal things.  I felt a little strange being in his bedroom without him there.  It wasn't so bad with Dustin and Vince in there with me, though.  They just kept putting things in boxes and bags and carrying them to Dustin's truck.  After getting Vince's things packed and in the truck, we left the Sutton house, hopefully for good.

When we got back to the house, Nick and Jeremy were there, talking to Steve and my mom.  They both quickly offered to help us unload the truck, and we were thankful for that.  I noticed that Jeremy seemed a bit more withdrawn that day, but I knew that asking him if he was ok was pointless.  Sometimes Jeremy frustrated me to no end, but he was clearly in a very dour mood, so I just let it slide.  One day, I was going to corner that kid and make him understand that I was a friend that wanted to help.

Once we got all of Steve's things into my room, he wanted to go upstairs and make sure that he had a say in where things went, so Nick, Vince and I helped him up the stairs.  I kept insisting that we didn't need the extra help, I'd helped him up and down the stairs countless times since he'd come home yesterday, but his brother and best friend wouldn't hear of it.  Steve told me after they weren't in hearing range that they'd made it more difficult than anything else.

"Are you sure you're ok with this, Bud?" Steve asked me as we moved my furniture around to fit his dresser and desk into my room.  I smiled, and my heart soared at his use of the pet name he'd given me.

"The room is huge, Steve," I said, thinking that it was high time I find a nickname for him.  "I don't care about moving things around. As long as you have your stuff here, too. The room isn't just mine anymore."

"Thank you," he said simply, and I hugged him lightly.

"You have to learn a whole knew way to get him in bed now," said Nick once he, Vince and Dustin got Vince's bed put together where mine had been.  Vince had even given me his nightstands and taken my smaller one with the bed.

"He has absolutely no trouble getting me into bed, Nicky," said Steve barely keeping a straight face.

The double meaning of his statement wasn't lost on any of us, either.  Dustin chuckled out loud, Vince smiled, and Nick blushed.  It was fun seeing him interact with all of them.  I liked it, because the sadness seemed to be gone from his voice and eyes.  It was as if they had, just for a little while, made him forget his problems and injuries.

One we got everything where Steve and I wanted it, it was time for lunch.  That meant there was another comedy in errors as Vince and Dustin decided they were helping Steve down the stairs and to the table.  I wasn't sure, but I thought that he was saying "Ow" a few times more than necessary just to make them nervous.  He really did like it better when I was the only one helping him up and down the stairs.

"I swear to God, Vince," he said breathlessly when we got to the kitchen, "if you come in our room tonight and try to put me in bed, I'll kill you."

"Your boyfriend can have that duty," said Vince, grinning like an idiot.

"He's nicer to me than you are," said Steve, smiling at me.  "He likes me."

"You know," said Vince, "if you weren't hurt, I'd wop you one for that statement."

We all laughed at that one as we took our seats around the rarely used dining room table.  Mom had invited Dustin and Nick to stay for lunch, and the kitchen table just wasn't large enough to accommodate so many people.  We had a fun lunch with Dustin and Vince trading light insults back and forth and blaming each other for each of Steve's complaints on his trip down the stairs.  Even my mom smiled all the way through it.

Steve and I were completely at ease with each other for the rest of the day.  I think sharing our experiences with each other had knocked down the last wall between us.  My mom commented on how close we seemed all of a sudden, and I told her that we'd finally discussed everything.  She also told me that I was doing a great job of including everyone in my conversations and not just centering on Steve.  I wasn't aware that I'd been doing anything differently, but I was glad that she noticed.

We stayed downstairs until after supper.  I was starting to think that his trip down the stairs with the help of Dustin and Vince had really hurt him.  He even took a pain pill when my mother offered it.  He dozed off and on while we watched television, but he seemed to perk back up after supper.  Sharon came over for a bit after supper to talk to me and Steve both.  After Steve had told me all about his past, I wasn't angry with her anymore, and I wanted her to know that.

"I know that you were angry with me, Tommy," she said.  "I can't explain anything unless Steve gives me permission."

"Its ok, Sharon," he said, tightening his arm around my shoulders.  "I've told him everything."

"Well, I'm glad," she said.  "If you two are going to be in a relationship, you shouldn't keep things from each other."

"I wasn't keeping it from him," he protested.  "Its just hard for me to talk about it."

"I told him all about how I came out and the aftermath of it, too," I said.  "We're closer since we had our talk."

"I'm glad to hear it," she said, "and it shows."

"And Sharon," I said, "I'm not mad at you."

"Thank you, Tommy," she said, smiling at me.

"Sharon, are things ok between you and Mike?" asked Steve, startling her.

"Whatever gave you the idea that they weren't?" she asked quickly.

"Well, Nick told us last night that you and Mike weren't really talking much," he said, looking down.  "I hate to think that its because of me."

"Well, Nick shouldn't tell tales outside of the house," she said.  "Mike and I are just fine, Steven. You weren't to blame for our argument, anyway. We worked it all out last night and this morning."

"I'm glad," he said.

We talked about our trip to Maine, and Steve asked her if she was still going to let him go.  She told us that he could go as long as he took it easy and didn't get too active.  She said that she was going to drive us out to spend the day with Ben and Andy shortly after we arrived, and I was thrilled to hear it.  I'd already chatted with Ben about our visit, and I'd given Sharon their phone number, so she could call and set it all up.

That night, Steve was a little restless when we finally got upstairs.  I was getting ready to take my shower when I noticed that he had something on his mind.  He kept looking at me, but whenever I looked back, he looked away.  I was enjoying our little peeking game for a few minutes, but as his expression grew troubled, I decided to make him talk.

"What's wrong?" I asked, sitting on the bed beside him.

"I need to take a shower, Bud," he said softly.

"Well, you can take yours first," I said, completely missing his point it seemed.

"I can't . . . uh . . . I can't do it alone," he said, pointing at his side.

"Well, I don't think anyone will say anything if I take one with you," I said slowly.

"I'm not asking for any funny stuff, Bud," he said as his eyes brightened.  "I just need a little help is all."

"Its ok," I said.  "It isn't like we haven't seen each other naked already."

"What will your mom think?" he asked, looking at the floor.

"I don't think she'd mind," I said.  "If she says anything, we'll explain why we did it."

I took his hand and we crept across the hall to the bathroom.  I helped him undress and I was amazed as more and more of his body was revealed.  It hurt to see all of the bruises his father had left on him, but I tried to hide that as much as possible.  I didn't want him to be upset about it.  When I looked up at his face, he smiled shyly at me.  Then I noticed why he appeared so nervous.

"Sorry," he said softly, looking away from me.

"Hey," I said, "its a compliment. Don't worry about it."

I quickly got undressed and started the shower, adjusting the water to the right level.  I helped him get inside the stall and then slipped in after him.  We had a few awkward moments, and we said very little to each other, but we managed to get clean.  I washed his back for him, and then I worked on washing his hair.  He was taller than me, so it was a bit of a chore.  All of the sliding against each other with soapy bodies had an effect on me, and we both tried to laugh that one off.

I was helping him dry off and get dressed when Vince knocked on the door.  We both froze and smiled at each other.  He quickly said, "We'll be out in a minute."

"Save me some hot water," was all Vince had to say about it before walking back down the hall to his room.

After laughing like hyenas, I finished helping him dress, dressed myself, and we went back across the hall.  He kept smiling at me off an on, and he blushed every time.  I didn't know what he was so embarrassed about, though.  We'd slept naked together on countless occasions.  We'd never actually had sex, but we'd had our hands all over each other.  What was his deal?

"What's up?" I finally asked as we got ready to go to bed.

"It turned me on," he admitted quietly.  Again he blushed.

"Well," I said, smiling at him.  "If it makes you feel any better, it turned me on, too."

"Yeah?" he asked.


"I love you, Bud," he said.

"I love you back," I said, kissing him lightly on his hurt lips.  The swelling had gone down, but they still looked really sore.  We fell asleep with the same erect afflictions.

Bright and early the next morning, Nick was there with Jeremy in tow.  I was both surprised and annoyed that Nick was awake so early.  He caught us with our pants down, literally, because we still hadn't gotten out of bed.  Even before recent events, Steve and I had decided that Sunday was our off day, so we, naturally, were trying to sleep in.  So, when we heard them knocking on the bedroom door, Steve first groaned and then, in his half sleep, forgot about his bruised ribs and turned on his side.

"Fuck!" he cried, rolling back to his back quickly.

"Damn it," I said as I watched his face contort in pain.  "Whoever you are at the door, you'd better have an excellent reason for waking us up!"

As if that was the cue to come on in, Nick burst through the door saying, "What happened?"

"God, Nick!" cried Steve as he glared over my shoulder.

"What?" asked Nick.  Jeremy just looked worried.

"You woke us up," I said.  "He turned over on the wrong side and hurt himself."

"Uh, you guys might want to cover yourselves up," said Nick, turning to Jeremy who was now blushing the deepest red I've ever seen on a human face.

"Perfect," I groaned as I noticed that in all the movement, the satin comforter that my mother had given us for the bed had slipped off, leaving us both exposed.

"Get out, brainiac, God!" cried Steve.  "Give us time to get up and get dressed. We'll meet you downstairs."

"Steve, are you all right?" I asked once the door was closed with Nick and Jeremy on the other side of it.

"That hurt," he said plaintively.  "Damn him."

"You don't have to get up," I said.  "I could just bring you a pain pill, and you could go back to sleep."

"No," he said, slowly starting to move again.  "If I stay up here, Nick will just come back upstairs."

"You're probably right," I agreed.  "Need help?"

"Please," he replied.

It was hard for him, but we made it out of the bed, and I even helped him get dressed.  We chose a sweat shirt and pants for him that day, because of Nick's rude wake up call.  I could still see pain in his eyes, but he wasn't saying anything about it.  When we finally got down the stairs to the kitchen, he asked my mom for a pain pill, and I glared at Nick.

Steve was groggy for the rest of the morning after his pill took effect, but he seemed happy enough, so I didn't read Nick the riot act for waking us up.  We calmly told him that Sundays were our off day, and we liked to sleep in.  He apologized and that was that.  Jeremy watched the conversation with interest.

Steve wanted to go outside, and since he'd had his pain pill, Mom said it wouldn't be too difficult to get his coat on him.  It had gotten a lot colder over the weekend, and it could snow at any time.  Nick had told me that Steve loved snow, so I hoped that he was healed a lot more by the time we went to Maine to visit with Ben.

I noticed that day that Jeremy had an even more difficult time looking any of us in the eye.  I wondered what was wrong, but I knew that he wouldn't tell me, so I didn't ask.  Jeremy would either talk to me when he was ready, or he wouldn't.  I had to just understand.  That was, after all, what being a friend was all about.

For most of the day, Nick and Jeremy just hung out with us.  We sat out on the porch for a while just talking about nothing in particular.  Nick had told us not to talk about our trip to Maine in front of Jeremy.  He didn't say why, so I just did what he asked.  I still thought there was something bothering Jeremy, but I didn't know how to go about finding out what that might be.  He was definitely a frustrating friend.

Mom called us inside for lunch around noon, and I think Steve was ready to go in by then, because his teeth were chattering.  It was really starting to get cold.  I wasn't sure if I liked it or not.  Growing up in Florida hadn't prepared me for this kind of weather.  I'd seen snow in pictures and on television, but I wasn't sure I would like the real thing.

Right after lunch, Sharon came over for a private chat with Steve.  I took Nick and Jeremy up to my room to play video games while they talked.  I wasn't upset about their private talks anymore.  After Steve and I had finally told each other everything that we'd been hiding, I understood why he talked to Sharon.  I was surprised, however, when Sharon and my mom left together after that talk, telling us to be good and not destroy the house.

Steve got quiet as the evening approached.  I wondered if it had something to do with the talk he'd had with Sharon, but I didn't want to ask him what was said.  I understood that she was visiting him as a therapist, so I knew that it wouldn't be right to ask Steve what they said to each other.  I just held his hand, and he smiled at me, but it was still a sad smile.

Mom came back shortly before six that night.  She was smiling and laughing as she came in the door, and I could here Sharon saying something to her from outside.  When she came in and found us all sitting in the living room, she smiled at us.  I knew instantly that she and Sharon were up to something.

"You boys hungry?" she asked, smiling wider.

"Starved," said Vince, giving her a scrutinizing look.

"Well, why don't I get something together for supper," she said, walking out of the living room, leaving us all looking at each other.

"What was that about?" asked Vince once she was gone.

"I'm not sure," I replied.  "She's up to something."

"Whatever it is," said Nick, "my mom is in on it, too."

"I noticed that," said Steve.  "What do you think they're up to?"

"Christmas shopping," mumbled Jeremy.  "It was obvious."

"That does explain why she woke us up so early," said Nick.  "She and Dad had something to do this morning, and they wanted us out of the house."

"That's why you woke us up?" asked Steve.  "Because your mom sent you over here?"

"Yeah, dude," he said.  "Do you think I would get up at seven in the morning on my own?"

"When do you think we'll get to go shopping for gifts?" I asked, thinking of what I'd get for Steve.

"Well, you could always ask Dustin or Vince to take you shopping, Tommy," said Nick.  "They both have cars."

"Vince is taking me on Friday," said Steve.  "That's when we get the check."

"Check?" I asked, looking at him.

"Uh, yeah," he said.  "My parents have to pay Vince child support or something. We get a check every week."

"All right, you knuckle heads," said my mother, coming back to the living room.  "Get ready for supper. Its about ready."

I took Steve to the downstairs bathroom so that we could wash up.  Nick and Jeremy went upstairs to use the other bathroom.  We were all just coming into the dining room when Mom started putting the food on the table.  Vince came in, commenting on how good the food smelled.  He and my mom talked quietly in the kitchen for a few minutes, and then they came back to eat.

We all talked about Christmas all through the meal.  Nick asked my mom where we were having the dinner, and it dawned on me that we had started something with Thanksgiving.  The Porters and the Andrews were getting very close.  Mom said that we'd open our presents from our parents in our respective houses, and then we'd go to dinner at his house and open presents from friends.  I smiled at the thought of that.  It was nice to kind of have an extended family to celebrate with.  I'd never had that before.  My mom was the only living relative that I had.

Nick and Jeremy went back to Nick's after supper.  Me, Steve, Vince and my mom went to the living room after I'd helped her wash and dry the dishes by hand.  I wondered why she didn't just use the dishwasher, but I didn't ask.  When we got to the living room, I understood.  Vince and Steve were having a brother to brother conversation, and Mom wanted to make sure that we were both occupied.

"I only have one class tomorrow," Vince was saying.  "I'll be here with you for the rest of the day until Tommy gets home."

"What time is your class?" asked Steve.  "Sharon is coming around noon to have a chat with me."

"She's going to be doing that every day, Steve," said Vince.

"Do you two want us to go into the other room, so you can talk?" asked my mom, halting their discussion.

"No," said Steve.  "If you're going to be looking out for us, then you need to be in on our talks."

"Well, if you're talking about your week off of school," she said, sitting in her recliner, "I've pretty much got that covered."

"You do?" asked Steve as I sat beside him on the couch.

"Well, my case isn't moving at all," she said.  "We've been a little side tracked with some legal things, so I'll be working from home more or less all week."

"See, Steve," said Vince.  "You won't be as alone all day as you thought."

"I just wanted to make sure that someone was going to be here," he said.  "I wasn't sure about being alone in the house all day."

"Well, you seem to be getting around a bit better," she said, eyeing me.  "So you'll pretty much be able to do as you please I guess. I'll just be in the dining room a lot, so you can just holler for me if you need anything."

"Thanks, Donna," he said.

"I'm going to get your homework and bring it to you after school tomorrow," I said.

"That'll give you something to do during the day," said Vince.

We talked about that for a little while longer, and then we all settled in to watch a television movie.  Mom got us each a soda, and we just sat there, watching the television.  Every now and then, Steve would squeeze my hand, and I'd return the grip for a few seconds.  I thought about what it would be like to be at school all day without seeing him there, but I knew that he'd have it worse, sitting around the house with no one here by my mom.

When we went upstairs to bed, Steve surprised me by going up the stairs without assistance.  He leaned on the rail a lot, but he made it.  He even changed his clothes and got into bed without help.  I wondered just how much of our help he really needed.  When he saw me looking at him, he smiled shyly and blushed.

"I probably could've done all of this on my own from the beginning," he said.  "I just liked the contact."

"That's ok," I said.  "I liked helping you."

"Can we still take our showers together?" he asked with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

"Well," I said slowly, trying to pretend to think about it, "it probably wouldn't be a good idea to leave you alone in that slippery shower. I don't see why we couldn't."

"Thanks, Bud," he said.

As the week went by, Steve and I continued to take our showers together every morning.  My mom noticed, but she didn't say anything about it.  Steve continued to get stronger, and I got used to not having him at school with me.  Nick, Peter and Wendy all made that easier to deal with.  I didn't have one class without one of them in it.  Lunch was different, because Steve had always been the one to keep the conversations going, and strangely, that task fell to me.

I got to know my friends a little bit better, and I realized just what Vince and my mom had been talking about when they said that I had been shutting people out and only paying attention to Steve.  I decided that even when he came back to school, I was going to work on keeping our conversations going, and I'd try to spend a little time with each of our friends without Steve.  After all, I was more than just Steve's boyfriend.

On Friday, my mom took Steve to see his doctor.  When I got home, he told me all about what the doctor said.  Steve was doing much better, and his bruises were starting to change color, so they'd be fading soon.  His ribs were still sore, but they weren't as bad as they had been, so the doctor said he could go back to school on Monday, but he wasn't to participate in gym class until he saw the doctor again in two weeks.  Mom said that the doctor said that Steve could go back to his workouts as long as he lifted a lot less and went slower.  He couldn't work out unless someone was there with him each time.  Since we always worked out together, that wasn't a problem.

We cut our workouts down to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays after that, though.  Running was the only thing we would still do every day.  Sunday was still our off day, so my mom and Sharon would check in with Steve on Sundays to see how he was felling and make sure he wasn't over doing anything.  We worked out for about a half hour before Vince took Steve to do his Christmas shopping.

When they left, I called Peter to see if he wanted to hang out for a while.  I was trying to put my plan to hang out with my friends without Steve into motion.  Peter came over, and we sat in my room, playing video games and talking.  It was strange to be sitting there with him alone like that.  I was sure I'd get used to it, though.

"I think this is the first time that you and I have hung out alone, Tommy," he said when we got up to my room.

"Yeah," I said.  "I'm trying to remedy that."

"Glad you did," he said.  "So what do you want to do?"

"Well, we can play video games, surf the internet or watch a movie," I said.  "Unless you want to do something else."

"Video games will be ok," he said.

Talking with Peter was easy and natural.  I found out that we had a lot of similar interests.  He liked to swim and go camping just as much as I did.  He said he'd have loved to have been able to swim in the ocean, and we talked about surfing for a while, too.  He told me all about skateboarding, and I confessed that I'd never really been interested in it.  He told me he'd teach me to ride if I wanted, and I thought that one over.

"What about Sunday?" he asked.  "I don't have anything to do on Sunday. We could get you a board and we could ride for a while. I'll show you some things."

"Sounds good to me," I said.  "We'll have to do it in the morning, because I have something to do at the gym later that day."

"Really? What?" he asked.

"Well, they're giving out certificates and things for karate," I said.  "I'm not getting any that I know of, but I'm supposed to be there anyway."

"Tommy, why did you guys start taking karate?" he asked after a few minutes of silence.

"Well, my mom actually recommended it," I replied.  "She wanted us to be prepared in case anyone found out about us and started any trouble. This way we could defend ourselves."

"That's cool," he said.  "You know, though, that if anything happens, I'll be there for you guys, right?"

"Thanks, Peter," I said.  "But I wouldn't want to drag anyone into anything. Besides, it isn't like I'm planning to out myself all over town."

"I just want you to know that you have friends that will back you up if you need us, Tommy," he said seriously.

We talked more about it for a while, but I was just blown away by what he'd said and the way he'd said it.  I couldn't believe how stupid I'd been, shutting everyone out like that.  I hoped that I could keep up with my friendships, because if I couldn't, then that meant that what Steve and I had would soon turn into a problem.  I didn't want that for us.  I really cared about Steve, and I believed that as we got to know each other more, I would really be in love with him.

After Peter left, I called Wendy.  I asked if she would mind giving me a ride to do some Christmas shopping of my own the next day.  She said she'd pick me up after ten, and I thought that this was another way to keep the ball rolling and get to know my friends separate from Steve.  She and I had only talked privately at her party, and I wanted to make sure that she knew that I counted her as one of my friends and not just one of Steve's friends.

Steve and Vince came home around nine that night with several gift wrapped boxes.  Steve smiled, looking like a big kid as he placed the boxes in the living room closet.  Thanksgiving being what it had been, our tradition of putting up the Christmas Tree on Thanksgiving night wasn't honored that year, so we were storing presents in the closet for now.  Mom still hadn't said when she wanted to put up the tree.  I kept thinking about asking about it, but I never remembered while I was talking to her.

"So, what did you do while we were gone?" asked Steve once we were up in our room.

"Peter came over, and we played a few video games," I said.  "He's going to teach me to ride a skateboard on Sunday."

"Great," he said.  "I knew it wouldn't be long before he talked you into that."

"You don't sound happy about it," I said.

"Oh, I don't mind it," he said.  "I just don't want you to become obsessed with it like he is at times."

"Oh don't worry," I said, slipping my arms lightly around him, "the only thing I'm obsessed with right now is you."

"I like that about you," he said, kissing me.

"I have to talk to my mom about giving me the rest of my allowance," I said.  "Wendy's taking me shopping in the morning."

"What about our run?" he asked, looking hurt.

"Oh stop," I said, laughing at him.  "The mall doesn't even open until ten. We'll be done with our run long before then."

"I know," he said, chuckling.  "I just wanted to see what you'd say to that."

"Testing me?" I asked, raising an eyebrow at him.

"Oh yeah," he said.  "You passed though."

"Good," I said, wondering what he was talking about.  I decided to let it go as we settled down into the bed.  I turned on my side and rubbed his chest.

"I love you, Bud," he said.

"I love you, too," I assured him as I leaned down and kissed him.

At ten the next morning, Wendy pulled up in front of our house and I met her at the door.  She smiled at me and asked me how Steve was as we walked down the walk to her car.  I told her that he was getting better every day, and that he was excited about going back to school on Monday.  She knew all of this, I was sure, but maybe she just didn't know how to talk to me about anything other than Steve.  I hoped to change that if it was the case.

"So which mall do you want to go to?" she asked as we got into her car.

"Well, Bucklan is closer, but Pine Falls has more stores," I said.  "Do you mind going across town?"

"No," she said.  "I don't shop at Bucklan any way. They never seem to have anything there besides old people stuff."

As she drove, we talked about school and the upcoming Christmas break.  She was going skiing with her parents and was very excited about it.  She said that they had gone every year, but hadn't been able to for the last few, because of her father's work schedule.  I told her about going to Maine with Sharon and Mike and about seeing Ben again after a year.

"Does he know you're coming?" she asked, pulling into the mall parking lot.

"Yeah," I said.  "He's as exited as I am."

"Steve's going to be lonely without you," she said.  "None of us will be around much for the break. Jeremy will probably go with you guys."

"Steve's going, too," I said.  "Sharon said that he was part of the family."

"That's good," she said.  "He hates to ski, so I wouldn't have asked him to come along with us."

We got out of the car and walked into the mall.  I was a little nervous to be carrying over five hundred dollars in my pocket.  My mom had told me that there was no way I'd need all of my allowance for Christmas shopping, but I also told her that I wanted to have money for the trip.  She'd given it all to me, but now I was wondering why I hadn't just left a lot of it with her.  The trip wasn't for a few weeks, and what was I supposed to do with the money?

"Oh my God!" I gasped as we passed the pet store.  They had kittens in the window, and I'd always wanted a cat.

I know, I know, most guys prefer dogs, but I look at it this way, if you get a dog, you have to house break him, train him, and you run the risk of the dog getting too excited and breaking everything in the house.  Less chance of most of that with a cat, besides, cats were softer, and they liked to cuddle more than dogs.

"Awe," she sighed.  "Look at them all."

"I want a cat so bad," I said, looking at all of the little black and white kittens.

"Well, you don't want one from here," she said, pulling me away by the arm.  "Trust me."

"What are you talking about?" I asked, looking back at the kittens.

"They come from kitten farms," she said.

"Farms?" I asked.

"Yeah, they're these places where people breed cats and dogs but they don't get any of their shots or anything," she said.

"That's really sad," I said, glancing one last time at the kittens in the window.

"That's not all," she said.  "The kittens you see are probably just the ones that survived the farm. Most of them are very badly cared for and don't live long. Even the ones you saw could die from some nasty side effect once they've been adopted."

"How do you know about all of this?" I asked, staring at her.

"Well, they had some big news special on about it last week while I was sick," she said.  "I usually change the channel when the news comes on, but I watched it this time. Let me tell you, I was depressed and sick after the special."

"I bet," I said.  "So why doesn't anyone do anything about it?"

"I don't know," she said.  "Apparently, they are doing something, or it wouldn't have made the news."

"Did they mention that pet store in the special?" I asked.

"Not that one, but they did talk about the one at Bucklan, so I just wouldn't trust either of them," she said.

We walked off, looking at different things through store windows, but Wendy kept looking back toward the pet store.  I could tell that the news special had really bothered her.  I tried really hard to distract her by pulling her into a music store.  I was almost successful.  She looked through all of the music videos and CDs, but he was kind of quiet the whole time.

"Still thinking about the cats?" I asked as she stood, staring at a poster of a lion.

"Yeah," she sighed.  "It just really got to me."

"I can see that," I replied.  "Want to talk about it?"

"No," she said.  "What I want is a pretzel from upstairs."

She grabbed my arm and dragged me through the store to the exit.  She talked about Aunt Mary's Pretzels all the way up the escalator, telling me that they were the best soft pretzels in the world.  She had me laughing like crazy by the time we reached the second floor.  I thought it was funny how I was trying to take her mind off of those cats, and she was the one that took my mind off of them.

The pretzels were awesome, and we sat in the food court, watching the people walking by.  We talked about each one we saw.  I wasn't conscious of it, but we gradually started to only comment on the guys that walked by.  It was clear that she hadn't failed to notice, though.  She kept smiling at me after every hot guy walked by.

"This is so much fun," she said.  "Steve and I used to do this, but his heart was never in it. He'd look, but he rarely said much. You are a blast!"

"Thanks," I replied.  "We really should do some shopping, though."

"Yeah," she sighed.  "That is why we came here."

We crept slowly from store to store not really buying much, but we looked at everything.  She was fun to shop with.  Before that day, I'd never spent more than twenty minutes looking in any store.  She had an approach to shopping that was a little strange but kind of fun.  By the time we were ready to leave, I had something for just about everyone I wanted to shop for.  I'd even managed to sneak a gift for her while she wasn't looking.  We laughed and talked about all of the guys we'd seen all the way back to my house.

"You know what?" I asked as we got closer to my house.  "I don't know how I'm going to hide this stuff until Christmas. I didn't even have it wrapped."

"That's no problem," she said, turning onto the street before mine.  "We'll just go over to the drug store across from the school. They'll wrap everything for you for fifteen bucks."

"That's not too bad," I said.  "That way Steve and my mom won't see what I got them."

"Yeah, and we can have floats while we wait," she laughed.

So while they gift wrapped all of my gifts, Wendy and I sat at the soda fountain idly sipping sodas and talking about everything from skiing to skateboarding.  She had a way of teasing Peter about his skateboard that was hilarious.  She called him Peter Pan every time she found him skating down the street.  She said that he usually tried to make obscene gestures, but he always fell off his board.

"You're mean," I laughed.

"Well, he deserves is," she said through stitches of laughter.  "We used to date a long time ago. It was kid's stuff, but we both never let each other live it down."

"You are mean!" I said, laughing harder.

"I'm really glad we hung out today, Tommy," she said seriously.

"Me too," I said.  "We'll have to do something again."

"Soon," she agreed.  "But Steve will whine that I'm taking up all of his boyfriend's time."

"Well, I'm more than just Steve's boyfriend," I said quickly.  "Besides, we live together, right? We have plenty of time to spend together."

"You guys are cute together," she said.  "I'm glad that you are together. Steve was really lonely until you got here."

"Tell me," I said, thinking about her party.  "What exactly did Steve say to you about me before your party?"

"That!" she laughed.  "Well, he said that he liked you, and if I went after you, he'd never forgive me."

"He said that?" I asked, smiling.

"Yeah," she said.  "I felt sorry for him at first, though. I mean, I thought you were straight, and he was just setting himself up for heartache."

"Well, I pulled a fast one on everyone," I said.

"You sure did," she said.  "None of us suspected. You about gave Peter a heart attack."

"I noticed," I laughed.

We collected the gifts and headed back to my house.  When we got there, Steve wasn't there.  My mom told me that Steve had gone next door to hang out with Nick.  She was making supper, so she told me to go and ask if he was coming home or staying over there.  I put all of my gifts in the closet, leaving them in bags and went next door.

"Hey, Bud," said Steve when I got to Nick's room.  "I was wondering when you were going to come back."

"We had a good time together," I said.

"What did you buy me?" asked Nick, grinning like he was insane.

"An empty box," I replied.  "What'd you get me?"

"About the same," he said.

"Then we're even," I laughed.

"Sit down, Tommy," said Steve, patting the bed beside him.  "We're almost done with our game."

"Well, Mom sent me over to ask you if you were coming home for supper or not," I said, sitting beside him.

"What time?" he asked.

"She's cooking now," I told him.

"Well, like I said, we're almost done with the game," he said.  "I'll come home when we're finished."

"Ok," I said, kissing him.  "See you soon, then. Later, Nick."

"Later, Tommy," said Nick from the floor.

Back at my house, I helped my mother set the table and get things ready.  Vince came in while we were setting the table.  He went straight to the bathroom to wash his hands and then helped us.  He and my mom talked about his Christmas shopping while they carried food to the table.  He said he'd gotten everything he wanted for everyone.

"You went shopping today?" I asked.

"Yeah, and I saw you and Wendy at Bucklan," he said.  "You were stuffing your faces with pretzels."

"Those are so good," I laughed.

"Where's Steve?" he asked.

"Nick's," I replied.  "He said he'd be home after they finished playing their game."

"Did you get Steve's gift?" asked Mom as we sat down at the table.

"We can pick it up on Christmas Eve," he replied.  "He's going to love it."

"What'd you get him?" I asked.

"Nope," laughed Vince.  "I'm not telling you anything. You'll tell him for sure."

"Right," I said.  "I can keep a secret."

"From Steve?" asked my mother, smiling at me.

Steve came in and we all started to eat.  Throughout the meal, Steve and Vince kept quizzing each other about the gifts they'd got each other.  It was funny to see them both trying every tactic they had to needle the secret out of each other.  My mom and I only commented when they asked us what we thought about a gift either of them had gotten for someone else.  It was nice to see Steve happy.