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 4

Monday, at school, everyone was really happy to see Steve come back to school.  I hadn't realized just how many friends Steve had until he walked into the quad before classes that morning.  Tons of people came by to say hello and welcome him back to school.  He looked a bit overwhelmed, but he was happy to see them, too.  My boyfriend was quite popular.  Mark and Rick both came over to welcome him back, and he seemed genuinely happy to see them both.

I hadn't asked either of them to come over since Steve and Vince had moved in.  I was a little worried that Steve and I would slip or something.  It was hard for me to keep my hands off of him as it was, adding straight friends who didn't know about us would be even more difficult.  We'd have had to watch ourselves very closely.  I didn't think we'd have any fun with Mark or Rick if we were constantly on guard.

There were only two weeks until Christmas Vacation, and with that came the end of our first semester, so our classes started to get brutal.  We covered a lot of information each day, getting us ready for finals the last three days before vacation.  Steve and I were both very busy the first week he was back to school.  We had tons of homework, studying for quizzes and tests, karate practice and workouts.  Sharon was still taking Steve for a soda so they could talk every day, too.  By that Friday, we were both exhausted.  I didn't know how either of us were going to survive if we kept everything up.

"What do you think we should do?" asked Steve when I told him what I was thinking.  We were sitting in our room, trying to study, but it wasn't working.  He kept nodding off, and I kept staring at him.

"Well, we can't stop karate," I said.  "The classes are paid for, and I like them too much to stop."

"Me too," he said.  "Now that I'm actually back."

"Well, there has to be a way for us to study and retain the information better," I said.  "Maybe if we stop working out until after finals, we wouldn't be so tired."

"We could do that," he said.  "We could also join the rest of our friends for study sessions. Its better to quiz a group than one person. That way you get the right answer a lot more."

"Is that a backhanded remark about my answers?" I asked, glaring playfully at him.

"No, Bud," he said, smiling.  "I'm just thinking about our finals."

"Sure," I said, shoving him lightly.

"Don't," he said.  "If we start that, we'll never get done with all of this before Supper. Is your mom coming home in time for supper?"

"I sure hope so," I said, thinking that I didn't want to eat another of Vince's meals.  He wasn't the greatest cook in the world, but Steve and I never said anything to him about it.  Hurting his feelings wasn't something either of us wanted to do.

"Well, maybe we can get Vince to order take out if your mom isn't going to be here," he said, letting me know that we were both thinking the exact same thing.

"Well, we won't be eating anything if we don't get this stuff done," I reminded him.

When we were finally done with homework, we went downstairs to find my mother in the kitchen.  We looked at each other and smiled as Vince walked into the kitchen.  Mom said hello to us, and then she wanted us out of this kitchen so she could cook.  The living room became our waiting room as Vince and Steve argued over what we were going to watch.  I got a kick out of watching and hearing them bicker like brothers.  It was nice to see them at ease with each other.  Since Steve had gotten out of the hospital, things had been a bit tense between him and his brother.

They continued their light bantering over dinner.  Even Mom seemed to enjoy watching them.  We only got into their argument whenever one of them would enlist our help against the other.  We had a great time, though.  That night, dinner was more fun than it had been in a while.  When we were finished, Steve even helped my mom clear the table.  Vince and I went back to the living room where he started arguing with me over what to watch.  At first, I didn't want to get into it with him, but then I understood that he was just treating me like another brother, so I played along.

"No karate tonight?" asked Vince once we'd actually agreed on something to watch.

"Not tonight," I replied.  "Our instructor is participating in a tournament."

"That's cool," said Vince.  "Where?"

"About fifty miles from here," I replied.  "We're all invited to come and watch, but Steve and I don't really want to go."

"Why not?"

"Well, tonight would have been Steve's first night back," I explained.  "After the huge response he got at school on Monday, he just doesn't feel like being the center of attention at Darren's tournament."

"I can understand that," said Vince.  "So what will you guys be doing this weekend?"

"Studying, I guess," I said.

"Finals?" he asked.

"Brutal," I sighed.  "I'll be glad when they're over."

"Then you have your trip to Maine to look forward to," commented Vince.

"Yeah!" I smiled at that one.  "I can't wait to see Ben again!"

"I'm kind of looking forward to meeting this Ben guy myself," said Steve as he and Mom came into the living room.

"You'll like him," I said, taking his hand as he sat down beside me on the couch.

"Well, if you do, then I'm sure I will, too," he said.

"You two are sickening," laughed Vince.

"Shut up, goof," said Steve.  "Go find a girlfriend."

"So I can be as sickening as you?" he countered.

"Bug off," laughed Steve.  "Don't you have finals?"

"Sure I do," he replied.  "I just study for mine in the library at school."

"Well that sounds boring," said Steve.  "I can't study without a partner." He nudged me as he said this.

"That's not studying, creep," said Vince.

"Sure it is, pervert," said Steve, twisting his face into a grimace.  "Get your mind out of the gutter."

"I'm not the one who 'studies' with a partner," laughed Vince.

"Whatever," sighed Steve.  "You're just jealous."

"Right," said Vince.  "Jealous."

They were quiet after that.  Me and Mom just chuckled at them.  They were having fun, though.  That was what was important.  We settled down and watched television for a while, but it wasn't long before both me and Steve were yawning.  He kept tightening his grip on my hand, so I knew that he wanted to go to bed.

"Night guys," I said, dragging my boyfriend off the couch by his hand.

"More studying?" quipped Vince.

"Bug off," said Steve.  "I'm too tired to argue with you now."

"Night boys," my mom said as we passed her on our way out of the living room.

"Don't stay up too late," called Vince.

"Bug off!" laughed Steve.

As soon as we got upstairs, he was all over me.  He kissed me hard on the mouth, ignoring the pain that must have been coursing through his lips, and then he kissed my neck while pulling me into the bedroom.  I was so shocked by his behavior that I didn't even respond at first.  I just rode the wave, letting him do what he wanted.

"I thought you were tired," I said, coming to my senses.

"I am," he said, falling onto the bed.  "But I love you."

"Well, I love you, too," I said, climbing into the bed with him.

"We don't have to do anything if you don't want to," he said.  "Its just been a while."

"Well, I didn't say I didn't want to do anything," I said, kissing him.

That kiss started a parade of touches, kisses and groans of pleasure from both of us.  We made love slowly, showing each other exactly how much we loved each other.  When it was over, we curled up together.  After one last kiss, we let sleep take us, and I was off to a night filled with dreams of my lover.

We stuck pretty close to each other all day Saturday.  Every now and then, we'd kiss or hug each other.  My mom smiled at us a lot, but Vince laughed.  He was starting to get on my nerves.  If he wasn't Steve's brother, I would have said something.  Luckily, he left to hang out with his friends shortly after we came downstairs.

"He's bothering you, huh?" asked Steve as he caught me staring after Vince as he left.

"A bit," I admitted.

"He's just playing with us, Tommy," he said.  "If he had a problem with us being together, he wouldn't say anything at all to us."

We ate breakfast with Mom, and I continued to think about Vince laughing at us.  No matter what Steve said, it still made me uncomfortable.  This was my first relationship, and I wasn't all that comfortable with showing anyone anything.  If I couldn't be comfortable in my own home, then why bother at all? My mom didn't have any problem with me and Steve showing affection, and Steve said that Vince didn't, but that's not what it looked like to me.

I was quiet all through breakfast, and thankfully neither Mom nor Steve commented on it.  After breakfast, I curled up on the couch with Steve, but I was still self conscious about it.  I was really mad at Vince for making me feel that way.  Steve and I usually just let things happen freely with each other, but I was going to have to watch what I did and didn't do with Steve when Vince was around.  I didn't like the way he laughed at us, and I wasn't going to set myself up for more of the same.

When Vince came back, I sat up and moved over a bit, so that Steve and I weren't touching at all.  It was bad of me to do it, but when Steve reached for me, I got up and told them I was going to study in my room.  My mom gave me a concerned look as I passed her, but I wasn't in the mood for a confrontation just then.  I went straight upstairs and closed my bedroom door behind me.

I did study for a while.  I got most of my Chemistry notes covered and then I just got bored with studying.  Steve hadn't come upstairs, so I just logged on to my computer and chatted with Ben for a while.  I told him all about the way that Vince had acted earlier, and he said that he understood how I felt about it.  I wasn't exactly comfortable telling Ben about kissing Steve or anything like that, but I had to talk to someone and get it off my chest.

'Talk to Vince about it, if it bothers you so much,' he typed.

'I'd rather just not talk to Vince at all right now,' I replied.

'Then your problem isn't going to go away, Tommy,' he said.

'It will if I just don't do any of that in front of him,' I said.  'It just sucks that I feel like I can't kiss my boyfriend in my own house.'

'I don't know what to tell you other than to talk it out with Vince,' he said.  'I'm sorry.'

'That's ok,' I typed.

'I can't wait for you guys to get here,' he said, changing the subject.  'My mom is practically sick of hearing about it already. Its all I can talk about most of the time.'

'I'm psyched about it, too,' I typed with a smile on my face.  'Nick and Steve can't wait to meet you.'

'I'm looking forward to meeting them, too,' he replied.  'Are you guys going to spend the night here?'

'I don't know,' I said.  I hadn't really even thought about that.  I hadn't discussed that with Sharon, so I didn't know what was going to happen.

I told him that I would talk to Sharon and the guys about that and get back to him on it.  I was just logging off when Vince knocked on the door.  He stuck his head in to tell me that lunch was ready, and I was surprised that I'd been upstairs so long.  I also wondered why he had come up to tell me instead of Steve.  When I got downstairs, I found out why.  Steve wasn't even there.

"Where's Steve?" I asked as I sat at the table.

"He's eating lunch with Nick," said my mom.  "He said for you to come over after lunch."

"Ok," I said.  I hoped that he hadn't left because of me.

"He's a little mad at me right now," said Vince.  "I guess I made you guys uncomfortable this morning. I'm sorry about that. Tommy, I was just giving him flack. He's my kid brother, and we've always acted that way with each other. It had nothing to do with what you guys were doing. I told you that I'm happy that you're together, and I mean that."

"Apology accepted," I replied.  "Its just that this is just as new to me as it is to everyone else, and I got a little upset when I thought that showing affection was going to bother you."

"It doesn't bother me," he said.  "What bothers me is that I upset you and Steve."

"Well, you and I are fine," I said.  "Now all I have to do is go make up with Steve."

"Well, you're going to eat before you go," said my mother.  "Steve isn't angry with you, anyway."

I sat there and ate everything on my plate like a good boy, making my mother happy.  The whole time I was worried that Steve was mad at me.  I wasted no time after putting my plate in the dishwasher.  I went straight over to Nick's.  Sharon told me that they were upstairs.  I wanted to talk to her about Maine, so I sat down with her in the living room.

"I wanted to ask you something," I said.  "Ben and I were chatting earlier, and he asked if me, Steve and Nick would be spending the night at his house when we visit."

"Well, that's up to the three of you," she said.  "I don't have a problem with it. I was just going to drop you guys off, meet his parents and then drive back. I can pick you guys up the next day. You can even spend two nights if they agree and you all want to."

"Thanks, Sharon," I said.  "I'll let Ben know, and I'll talk it over with Steve and Nick."

"I was hoping to take Jeremy along," she said.  "That doesn't look like its going to happen, though."

"It would have been nice to have him with us," I said.

"Yes, it would have been," she said, smiling at me.

"Well, I'm going to get upstairs and talk to those two," I said.  "Thanks again."

"You're welcome," she said.

"There you are!" said Steve when I walked into Nick's room.  They were playing a video game, and Nick paused it when I came in.

"Mom made me clean my plate before she let me out of the house," I said.  "I'm sorry about earlier."

"Don't be," he said.  "I talked to Vince about it, and he said he'd talk to you."

"He did," I said, sitting on the bed beside him.

"Good," he said.  "All settled?"

"Yeah," I said before leaning in for a kiss.

"That's nice," he said, putting his arms around me.  "I felt like crap when you walked away from me like that, but I understand."

"I'm sorry," I said, hugging him tighter.

"I love you, Bud," he whispered in my ear.

"I love you, too," I whispered in reply, thinking, again, that I needed to come up with a nickname for him.

"Alright, you two," said Nick.  "Stop that, so we can finish this game."

They went back to their game, and I continued to distract my boyfriend.  I kept him giggling more than anything, but judging from the crotch of his jeans, I was having more than one effect on him.  Nick was starting to get agitated by it, so I decided to leave Steve alone to play the game, but he had other plans.

"Come here," he said, smiling wickedly at me as he tossed the game controller aside.

"Come on, guys!" cried Nick.  "We were almost done!"

"He needs my attention right now, Nick," said Steve as he grabbed me.

"Hey!" I protested weakly.

"Do that in your own room," said Nick, turning his back on us.

"He's right," I said.  "Now you play with Nick, and I'll just sit here."

"You're in for it tonight, Bud," he said, smiling that killer smile at me.

"Promises, promises," I said, smiling back at him as innocently as I could.

"So, you guys go at it constantly, huh?" said Nick from the floor, out of nowhere.

"What?" I gasped.  "Nick, that's none of your business!"

"What? I was just making conversation," he said as if he'd asked us about the weather.  "Do you guys like do 'it' and everything?"

"Nick!" Steve cried.  "Could you be more nosey?"

"Embarrassed?" he asked, smirking at us.

"Yes!" we both said in unison.

"Well, now you know how I feel watching you two grope each other all the time," he said, going from smirking at us to glaring at us heatedly.

"We do not grope each other," protested Steve.

"I didn't know that seeing us be affectionate bothered you so much, Nick," I said seriously.  I'd already had this discussion once that day.

"It doesn't bother me until it gets in the way of something," he said.  "Like this game. We were playing, and he was doing good until you got here. First you were all over him, and now he's all over you."

"We are not all over each other," said Steve.  "We were just playing. If you want us to be all over each other, turn yourself into a fly and buzz your ass to our bedroom wall later."

"Steve!" I gasped, turning to look at my boyfriend.

"What?" he asked.  "He started it."

"No, you guys started it," said Nick, but he was laughing now.

"Alright," said Steve.  "Let's finish the game."

They went back to playing the video game, and I was a good boy and just watched until they were done.  By the time they got finished, it was time for me and Steve to go home for supper.  Vince was helping my mom set the table when we got there.  Steve and I sat in our usual spots across the table from Mom and Vince, but I was still reticent to show any type of affection to Steve in front of Vince.  He'd apologized and said he was only giving Steve a hard time, but the whole thing still stung a bit.

"So what are you two doing tomorrow?" asked my mother as she put supper on the table.

"I don't know," said Steve.  "Probably study some more. I thought I'd call Wendy and see if she wanted to come study with us."

"That'd be good," I said.  "She has the exact same classes as we do, just at different hours of the day."

"Yeah, and she told me yesterday that she doesn't think she's going to pass the Chem final if she doesn't do some serious studying," he said.

"We'll help her study, then," I said.

"Finals are next Friday?" asked my mom.

"Wednesday, Thursday and Friday," I said.  "They said that they didn't want to bombard us with tests every hour. I have two on Wednesday, two more on Thursday and three on Friday."

"Same for me," said Steve.  "Friday is totally going to suck."

"What's the hardest final you have?" asked Vince.

"Definitely Chem," I said.  "I've been over my notes at least a thousand times since Monday, and I still don't know everything I should."

"Well at least we have the key points for the test," said Steve.  "That's a big bonus."

"Yeah," I agreed.  "I'm trying to decide what to do for the extra credit."

"We'll think of something," he said.

"What about you, Vince?" asked my mom.  "When are your finals?"

"Well, we've already taken one, and I only have three classes this semester," he said.  "I can take the other two as early as Tuesday."

"Are you ready for them?" she asked.

"As ready as I'll ever be," he said.  "I think I'll at least pass them both."

After supper, Steve called Wendy to invite her over to study the next day, and she was very happy to agree.  We went up to our room and studied a bit on our own.  We quizzed each other on dates and events for History, and then we silently worked on Algebra problems.  I wasn't in any real danger of failing Algebra at all.  Steve needed a bit of help with it now and then, but he had the hang of it for the most part.  Chemistry was the one that had all of us running scared.

"Hey, what do you think about spending a couple of nights with Ben when we get to Maine?" I asked him during one of our breaks.

"Sounds good to me," he said, scratching his head.  "What about Nick?"

"Well, Nick was invited, too," I said.  "Ben is excited about meeting you both."

"Well, I'm sure he'll go for it," Steve said.  "If Ben is half as cool as you say he is, he and Nick will be instant friends."

"He's going to try and talk his parents into letting him visit us for a week or so this summer," I said.  "What do you think about that?"

"Well, I don't really have an opinion about it," he said slowly.  "I mean, he's your best friend, so I'd be happy that you got to spend some time with him, but I don't even know the guy. I've chatted with him online like twice, but that's it."

"You'll like him," I assured him.  "Everyone likes Ben."

"That good of a guy, huh?" he asked, smiling at me.

"Yup," I replied, pulling on his shirt to bring him close enough to me for a kiss.

"So what do you think?" he asked, looking at our books.  "Study more, or just wait till tomorrow?"

"Tomorrow," I said.  "Let's go bug Nick some more."

"Sounds like a plan," he laughed.

We went next door, but Nick wasn't there.  Sharon said that he was spending the night at Peter's.  That meant that Steve and I were out of luck where Nick was concerned.  We went back home to just sit around and watch television.  Vince was out with friends again, so when Steve opened his arms to me on the couch, I went to him.  We cuddled up and channel surfed.

"Where's your mom?" he asked after a few minutes of silence.

"Probably in her room," I said.  "She may be in the shower."

"Yeah," he said.

We finally found an old television show to watch, and both of us started dozing in front of the television.  Every now and then, he'd rub my arms lightly to keep us from falling asleep.  We both agreed that it was just wrong for teenagers to fall asleep before nine on a Saturday night.  When that didn't stop us from dozing off, he started to tickle me.

"Hey!" I cried, grabbing his hand.  "That's not fair."

"Its working," he said, struggling to get his hands free.  "You're wide awake."

"I wasn't the only one falling asleep," I reminded him, letting go of his hands and attacking his ribs.

He tried to get me off of him, but I was too fast for him.  I went from his ribs to his stomach, knowing that his stomach was the most ticklish spot on his body.  We rolled off the couch and fell on the floor.  Between the coffee table and the couch, he got me.  His fingers dug into my sides as he tried to make me lose control of my bladder.  I was laughing so hard that I almost couldn't breathe.  He was giggling and breathing hard.  He kept chanting that I was in for it now.

"What the Hell is going on in here?" demanded my mother from the doorway, making us freeze where we were.

"He's tickling me!" I breathed.

"No ruff housing in my living room, boys," she said, coming all the way into the room.  "Get off the floor."

"He was falling asleep, Donna," said Steve quickly.  "I had to keep him awake."

"Well, you both look wide awake now," she said, trying hard not to smile.  "Get up."

Mom sat with us for the rest of the evening.  She talked about her case, telling us as much as she could without giving anything away that would get her into trouble.  She wasn't happy with the way it was going, and she didn't have much time to turn things around.  She said that she'd be calling her final witness Monday morning.

"So you think your client is about to be found guilty?" asked Steve.

"Most probably so," she said.  "I don't see how the verdict could be any different."

"Is he guilty?" I asked.

"I don't really know the answer to that question," she sighed.  "I didn't think he was when I first started to represent him, but now I'm not so sure."

"I don't think I could be a lawyer," I said.  "I couldn't defend someone I knew was guilty."

"Well, think about the other side," she said.  "Prosecutors constantly have to try and convict people that they think might be innocent. If the evidence is strong enough, then they always have to forget about what they believe and prosecute the case to the best of their abilities."

"That would suck," said Steve.  "I couldn't send an innocent man to prison."

"Well, what do you think you want to do after school?" she asked.

"I'm not sure," he said.  "I was thinking about being a teacher, but I don't think I'd have the patience for that. Maybe I'll just get a job somewhere after college and not worry about it."

"Oh, there must be something you're interested in," she said.

"Well, sure," he said.  "I'm interested in a lot of things, but that doesn't mean that I can see myself doing any of them."

"You have time," she said.  "You may change your mind."

"What about you, Bud?" he asked me.  "What do you want to do?"

"I want the same thing I've always wanted," I replied.  "I want to be a computer programmer."

"There's money in that," he said.

"Money has nothing to do with it," I said.  "I just like computers."

"Tommy, you've been interested in computers for as long as I can remember," said my mother.  "With all of the new software, not to mention the new hardware coming out, there really is money to be made."

"I know that," I replied.  "Its just that I want to be a programmer, because I like it. I'm not really concerned with the money."

"I would be," said Steve.  "I'd love to be rich."

"Being rich doesn't really appeal to me," I said honestly.  "As long as I can pay my bills and put food on my table, then I'll be happy."

"Are you telling me that you wouldn't jump at the chance to have enough money to just be able to do what you please at any time?" he asked.

"You don't have to be wealthy to be able to do what you want at any given time," I said.  "It just depends on how big your dreams are, I guess."

"Well, what if you wanted to go to Paris, or something?" asked my mother.

"Paris?" I asked, considering it.  "I don't speak French, and I don't want to learn. Paris looks nice in the pictures, but I'm not really sure that I'd actually want to visit."

"What about Italy?" asked Steve.

"Well, the only reason that I would even want to visit another country would be to find any family I might have there," I said.  "I don't have any family in any other country that I know of, so I'm not really all that interested in visiting anywhere. I may change my mind later, but right now it just isn't important."

We talked back and forth about things we'd like to do, and my mother surprised me by saying that she had always wanted to go to Greece.  I'd never heard her even mention anything like that before.  I told them that I would like to see the rest of the country that I live in before exploring a foreign country.  They thought about that for a while.

After the news was over, Steve and I went back upstairs to our room.  We were both tired, and once we'd stripped out of our clothes and climbed under the comforter into bed, we just cuddled up and went to sleep.

The next morning, it was the urgent call of nature that woke me up.  Steve was sleeping peacefully, and his arm was draped over my chest.  I had to slide out from under it carefully to keep from waking him up.  The clock on the nightstand told me that it was nearly eleven.  I smiled as I thought that our plan to start sleeping in on Sundays was working.

After the bathroom, I got dressed and went downstairs.  Mom wasn't home, but Vince was in the living room.  He smiled at me when I came down, but he didn't say anything.  I was just walking into the kitchen when Mom walked in the back door, carrying two grocery bags.  I went out and helped her unload the car.

"Thanks," she said once we had everything in the house.  "Where's Steve?"

"Sleeping," I replied.  "I didn't wake him up."

"So you guys are actually succeeding at sleeping in on Sundays?" she asked as she started to put the groceries away.

"Looks that way," I said.  "I have to wake him up, though. We're supposed to call Wendy around noon. She's coming over to study."

"Are you seriously having problems with your school work?" she asked.

"Not problems," I said.  "Chemistry is really hard. That's the one we're all worried about. My grades in the class have been really good, but the semester final is going to be huge."

"You have how long?" she asked.

"The Chem final is Friday," I said.

"Why are they making you take the finals so close together?" she asked.  "You still have another week of school."

"I don't know," I replied.  "We're supposed to be doing some fun things the final week of the semester, so I guess they wanted to get the finals out of the way early."

"Hmm," she said.  "Go wake you Steve and call Wendy."

When I got back upstairs, Steve was just sitting up in the bed.  He smiled at me when he saw me, and I sat down on the bed beside him, drawing him into my arms for a quick hug.

"Morning, Bud," he said as he yawned.

"Morning," I said.  "Its almost afternoon."

"Wow," he said, looking at the clock.  "Do we have time to shower before we call Wendy?"

"A quick one," I said.  "No fun stuff."

We were downstairs, showered, dried and dressed in twenty minutes.  Steve called Wendy, and my mom started making sandwiches.  She always liked to feed people when they came over, and everyone knew it.  I just sat down at the table and watched.

"What?" she asked after I'd been watching for a few minutes.

"Nothing," I replied.  "Just watching you."

"How many people are coming to study?" she asked.

"Just Wendy," I said.  "Nick is at Peter's, and Jeremy is at home, I guess."

"Well, I'll make enough sandwiches for everyone," she said.  "I'll put some chips in a bowl and there's soda in the fridge."

"Thanks, Mom," I said as I went into the living room to find Steve.

"Hey," he said when I sat beside him on the couch.  "Wendy will be here soon."

"Cool," I said.  "Mom's making lunch for us."

"Study food?" he asked, smiling at me.

"I guess," I chuckled.

We sat there, watching television while we waited for Wendy.  I didn't pull away when Steve put his arm around me, and I didn't even glance at Vince.  He'd apologized, and though I wasn't sure that I believed him, I'd decided that it wasn't fair to punish Steve over it.  I scooted closer to him, and he tightened his grip.

"Bet you guys'll be glad to get those finals out of the way," said Vince without even looking our way.

"God, yes!" sighed Steve.  "I'm so tired of studying."

"Five days," I reminded him.  "Then we're done until the end of next semester."

"Yeah," he said sarcastically.  "Then we'll have two finals for each class!"

"Not every class," I said.  "Some of our classes are only a semester long."

"Bright side?" he asked, giving me a cockeyed grin.

"Something like that," I said, grinning back at him.  "Then we'll have summer."

"And you'll get your license," he said, smiling.

"I'm not so excited about that," I admitted.  "What good's a license with no car?"

"That reminds me," he said, pulling away from me slightly.  "I'm going to find a job, so I can save money for a car."

"Do you think you can find one that will allow you to keep going to karate?" I asked.

"They'll have to," he shrugged.  "Besides, I'm a student. They can't work me too much."

"I guess I can get a job after my birthday," I said.  "That way I can save for a car, too."

"We could work together," he said.

"Maybe," I replied as Wendy knocked on the front door.

We wasted no time on small talk.  Wendy said hello to Mom and Vince, and she answered the questions my mother asked her about her family and her weekend.  Then we spread our books out on the dining room table and got down to business.  My mom came in a few minutes after we started with the plate of sandwiches.  Vince followed with the bowl of chips and returned a few seconds later with sodas for each of us.

We studied silently for a while, and then we started quizzing each other.  I was surprised at how much I knew, and I was thankful for the other answers I was receiving with Wendy studying with us.  I hoped that we'd have more study sessions with her like this one.  I even hoped that Jeremy and Peter would be interested in studying with us.  With that many people making sure that we each learned what we needed, we'd be A students in no time.

"You out of soda Wendy?" asked Steve while I was thinking.

"No," she said, going back to her Chemistry book.

"You, Bud?" he asked.

"Yeah," I said as I tipped my can and found it empty.

"I'll get us both one," he said, taking my can and walking into the kitchen.

"Thanks, babe," I said as he sat a fresh can down in front of me.

"You two are sweet," said Wendy.  "You're so good to each other. Every time I see you together, you make me smile."

"Oh, we have our moments," chuckled Steve.  "Tommy's good at walking away from me when he's angry, and I'm good at clamming up. We're working on that, though."

"I really am sorry about walking away from you," I said, reaching across the table for his hand.

"I know, Bud," he said, smiling at me.  "I accepted your apology, and I understood. Besides, last time it was because you were uncomfortable."

"Yeah, but that's no reason to treat you that way," I said.  "I'll work on it."

"Don't be hard on yourself about it," he said, squeezing my hand.  "I still have to learn to open up and talk when I get in my moods."

"Yeah, but I can understand your silence," I said.  "I don't get angry with you for it."

"No, just hurt," he said, looking at me seriously.  "I can see it every time you ask me what's wrong and I don't answer. Your eyes can't hide."

"But I don't get mad," I said.

"No, you get hurt," he insisted.  "That's worse. I feel like shit every time I see that look in your eyes, and I know that I'm the one that caused it, Bud."

"Don't be so hard on yourself," I said, giving his own advice back to him.  "You're working on it, and that's all I need."

"I think we're done studying for the day," said Wendy.  "Its almost five."

"Wow," said Steve, looking at the clock on the wall behind him.  "I had no idea we'd been studying so long."

"Mom keeps peeking in at us," I said.  "She's probably ready to start supper."

"You staying, Wendy?" asked Steve.

"Not tonight," she said.  "Dustin is coming for supper, so I have to go home."

"How's that working out for you?" Steve asked her.

"Its hard, but I'm dealing," she said.

We said goodbye to her, and Mom sent her home with another soda.  That night, Vince cooked supper, giving my mother a break.  It wasn't bad.  I even had seconds.  He was full of chatter at the table, too.  He talked about a girl he'd met, and he said that he thought she might like him, too.  Steve and I smiled at each other.  It was nice to see Vince so excited.

"Will we meet this young lady that's got you so excited?" asked my mother, smiling at him.

"Soon," he said.  "I don't even know if she likes me, yet."

"Well, what does she look like?" asked Steve.

"She's beautiful," said Vince, smiling.  "She had long dark hair and the darkest eyes I've ever seen."

"What's her name?" asked my mother.

"Maria," he said, smiling.

"Is she in one of your classes?" I asked.

"No," he said, and then he laughed.

"What's so funny?" asked Steve.

"Well, when I first met her, I thought she was a lesbian," he said, chuckling harder.

"Why on Earth would you think that?" asked my mother.

"It was the way we met," he said.  "She was helping a bunch of girls make posters for a lesbian event on campus. So, I just thought that she was with them."

"So why was she with them?" I asked.

"What I didn't know was that the GSA was sponsoring the event that they were making posters to promote," he said.  "She had just joined, so I'd never met her."

"What's the GSA?" asked Steve.

"The Gay Straight Alliance," he said.  "Its a group . . ."

"I know what it is," said Steve.  "Why are you in the GSA?"

"Well, when you came out to me, I realized that I didn't know any gay people," he said.  "Or so I thought. I'd heard about this group where gay students and straight students were working together on projects that would promote acceptance and understanding, so I talked to a friend of mine about it, and it turned out that he's one of the people that got the group started. He took me to a meeting, and I met a lot of people. There were people there that I knew already, and I'd had no idea that they were gay."

"You joined the GSA because of me?" asked Steve with wonder in his voice.

"Well, I wanted to understand, and I wanted to really be there for you," he said.  "Where do you think I got all of that advice I tried to give you after you tried to kill yourself?"

"Wow," he said, looking at his brother with new respect.

"Maria?" my mother prompted.

"Right," he said, smiling again.  "I talked to her that day, and she told me that her little brother is gay, and she was pretty much doing exactly what I had done. She joined the GSA right after her brother told his family."

"I hope that their parents were better about it," mumbled Steve.

"Actually, their mother died when they were very young," he said.  "Their father was great about it, though. Maria says that her dad is a member of PFLAG, and he's even planning to march in the Gay Pride Parade next June."

"We have a parade here?" I asked.

"Sure," said Vince.  "There's a festival and everything. They hold the festival in Merriment Park."

"What do they do there?" I asked.  "I've seen pictures of festivals in other cities on the internet, but I don't really know what goes on at one."

"Well, I've never been to Pride," said Vince.  "I'm planning to attend the next one, though. We're even going to have a float in the parade."

"Cool," said Steve.  "Maybe we could go, Bud."

"Maybe," I said.

"Well," said Vince, glancing at the clock, "I'd better get the table cleared. I have to be at the school in about forty minutes."

"We'll take care of that for you," I said.  "You go ahead and get ready."

"Thanks, Tommy," he said.

Steve and I cleared the table and loaded all of the dishes into the dishwasher.  After we were finished, my mother announced that she was going to make brownies.  I didn't know what the special occasion was, but my mother's brownies were awesome, so I just smiled.  Steve helped her get everything started while I went to the living room to watch television.

When the brownies were in the oven, Mom and Steve came to the living room.  We found a movie on one of the movie channels and settled in to watch.  The brownies were done about forty-five minutes later, and we each enjoyed a warm and gooey brownie while we watched the rest of the movie.

When it was over, Steve and I were both ready for bed.  We said goodnight to my mother and went upstairs to change.  Once we were in bed, we snuggled together and went right to sleep in each other's arms.

The cursed alarm went off at four-thirty, and my first impulse was to just turn it off and go back to sleep, but I knew that we had to get up.  Steve's workouts were helping his ribs heal, and we'd been neglecting them for a while.  We sleepily dressed in our sweat suits and quietly made our way to the basement.  It didn't take us long to fully wake up once we were down there.  Stretches and body contact quickly turned us from sleepy to aroused.  We spent an hour working out and making each other crazy.

We spent a bit longer in the shower than usual for a school day, and I had to constantly remind Steve that we'd be late if we kept playing.  He pouted for a few minutes, but we finally lathered each other up and took care of the business of showering.  We were more frustrated by the time we were dressed and seated at the kitchen table with bowls of cereal in front of us.  My mother didn't seem to notice, though.

"Good morning, boys," she said as she came into the kitchen.  She was dressed in one of her business suits, so I knew she'd be going into the office.

"Morning," said Steve.  "School sucks."

"Easy," she chuckled.  "It isn't that bad. Vacation starts soon."

"Yeah it does," I said with a smile.  "I can't wait."

We ate our breakfast as Vince came down to the table.  He didn't look happy to be awake, and for the first time ever, I saw him drink a cup of coffee.  My mother smiled warmly at him, but she didn't say anything.  He looked like he'd snap if anyone said anything, so we were all quiet.  After we'd eaten, Nick came over and waited with us.

"You all ready?" grumbled Vince as he rinsed his coffee cup.

All the way to school, Vince seemed more irritated with our chatter than usual.  I wondered why he'd been up so late the night before.  That had to be what was going on, because he had bags under his eyes, and he kept yawning.  I didn't think asking him about it would be a good idea, so I quietly told Steve and Nick to be quiet.

"What's his problem?" asked Nick as we watching Vince speed away once he'd dropped us all off.

"Don't know," said Steve.  "Maybe he doesn't want to go to school."

"He was talking about studying last night," I said.  "Maybe he was up late."

"Well, duh," said Nick.  "Did you see how tired he was? You know he was up late."

"Whatever," I said as I noticed a group of kids in front of the school by the bushes.  They were chanting something, and the way they'd formed a circle, I was sure there was a fight.

"What's that?" asked Steve as we walked closer.

"Looks like a fight," said Nick.

"Yeah," I said.

Then we heard Jeremy's voice.  He was screaming for someone to stop hitting him, and that was all it took.  Nick, Steve and I took off like lightning.  They had Jeremy in the center of the circle, and two other boys were taking turns hitting him.  They kept calling him a fag, and the circle of students surrounding them were laughing and shoving Jeremy back into the fight every time he tried to get away.

"What the Hell are you guys doing?" I cried as I dove into the center of the circle with Steve and Nick right on my tale.

"What the fuck do you care, Porter?" demanded Jason Cox, the school's biggest trouble maker.

"Leave him alone," said Nick.  "What did he do to you?"

"He's a fag," said Eric Thomas, Jason's side kick and partner in mayhem.

"You're dead," said Steve in a cold tone just before he jumped in front of Jeremy and started punching Eric in the face.

I saw Jason start forward to help his friend, and I grabbed his arm and turned him around.  He swung at me, hitting me squarely in the jaw.  It rocked me, but I recovered fast enough to block his next hit.  Without thinking, I used everything that Dave had taught us in karate.  The next thing I knew, Jason was on the ground.

"Wow!" cried Nick beside me.  "You knocked him out!"

"That's not a good thing," I said, but I couldn't deny the satisfaction I felt.

Steve and Eric were both staring at me, and Jeremy had run off.  Before I could even say anything, Mr. Twain was dragging us all into the dean's office.  Mr. Benson wasn't exactly thrilled to see us.  I was surprised to see Jeremy sitting in Mr. Benson's office when we got there.  He had a black eye and his lower lip was kind of swollen.

"Will one of you tell me what happened?" asked Mr. Benson when we all got into the room.

"We noticed the fight," said Steve, "and we walked over to see what was going on. When we heard Jeremy screaming, we jumped in to stop the fight."

"You stopped it, all right," said Eric, glaring hatefully at me.

"Hey, man," I said hotly, "he hit me first. I defended myself."

"You defended yourself so much that you don't have a mark on you, and Jason is unconscious."

"Why were you . . ."

"Enough," cried Mr. Benson.  "I'm suspending each of you."

"Finals!" cried Nick.  "And I wasn't even involved in the fight!"

"You'll all be sent home today, and you won't return to school tomorrow," said Mr. Benson, ignoring Nick.  "We'll see you all back on Wednesday, and I expect there to be no more occurrences like this one."

The next thing I knew, Steve, Nick, Eric, Jeremy and I were all waiting for rides home.  We hadn't even gotten to first hour! I couldn't decide what to be made about the most.  Eric kept glaring at me, and Steve kept glaring at him.  Jeremy looked scared, and Nick looked defeated.  Vince arrived and picked me, Steve, Nick and Jeremy up, leaving Eric to glare at us as we drove away.

"What the Hell did you boys do?" demanded Vince.

"Don't yell at us, Vince," said Steve.  "They started it by picking on Jeremy. We just jumped in to make them leave him alone."

"Well, Donna is steaming," he said.

"You should have seen Tommy go!" cried Nick.

"You think this is funny?" asked Vince.  "This isn't funny, Nick. Your mom is waiting for you, too."

"But I didn't do anything," said Nick.  "I just stood there."

"Well you had to have done something for Mr. Benson to suspend you," insisted Vince.

"That's not fair, Vince," I said.  "Nick really didn't do anything. You weren't even there."

We were all silent after that.  Vince drove a bit fast, so I knew that I'd made him mad.  I didn't care at that point.  He had no right to assume anything.  For all he knew, we could've been the ones who were being picked on, and he just fired away at Nick like it was all his fault.  I was going to have to talk to my mother.  With the way Vince was acting, I was sure that he'd said something to her.

"Nicholai, home," said Sharon from their front porch when we pulled up.

"Here we go," he sighed.

"Jeremy, too," said Sharon.

"Tommy," called my mother from our front door.  "You and Steve get in here."

We walked into the house, and Vince drove away.  Mom was sitting in the living room when we walked in.  She didn't look happy.  Steve and I sat on the couch and waited for the tirade to begin.  She looked at us for a few minutes and then sighed.  I didn't know what to expect from her.  I'd never been in trouble for fighting before.

"First of all, I think its good that you defended Jeremy," she said, shocking me.

"How did you . . ."

"Mitch Benson called," she said, cutting me off.  "He said that Jason told the truth, and he's sorry for suspending you four."

"Does this mean we can go back to school?" asked Steve.

"No," she said.  "He said that the suspension sticks, but he is expelling Jason, and Eric will be dealt with on Wednesday."

"You're not mad?" I asked.

"I'm not mad," she said.  "I'm concerned, though."

"About?" asked Steve.

"Tommy, you knocked him out," she said.  "I know that you know better than to start a fight, and I know that you were defending yourself, but I think you went too far."

"I didn't mean to hit him that hard," I said.  "He hit me, and I just reacted."

"How many times did you hit him?" she asked.

"Just once," Steve and I said at the same time.

"Ok," she said.  "Then you need to realize your own strength."

"I didn't mean for this to happen, Mom," I said.  "I was just trying to stick up for my friend."

"I understand that," she said.  "I know why you did it, Tommy. You just have to be more careful. I'm not going to tell you to back down when someone hits you, but please don't hurt anyone like this again."

"Mom, I feel bad about it, and I'm going to talk to Dave about it tonight," I said.

We talked about it a little bit longer, but Mom wasn't angry.  She thought it was a good idea that I discuss it with Dave, though.  I didn't like the fact that I'd knocked Jason out like that.  I was only defending myself, but perhaps I'd gone about it wrong.  I'd have to wait to discuss it with Dave.  Until then, I decided to just try not to think about it too much.

Nick and Jeremy came over a little while later, and I noticed a change in Jeremy.  He smiled a lot more, and he even had more to say that usual.  I also noticed that when he spoke, I was the one he was usually talking to.  He looked me directly in the eye, and he even sat closer to me in the living room than he ever had before.

"Thanks for sticking up for me," he said.

"You don't have to thank me, Jeremy," I said.  "We're friends, and I don't let anyone pick on my friends."

"I didn't even fight back," he said.  "I never do."

"But you take karate, and you're further ahead in the class than we are," I said, wondering just why he never fought back.

"Yeah," he said, "but I don't like to fight."

"Well, neither do I, but I won't let someone get away with hitting me or one of my friends," I replied, getting a smile in return.

We hung out in the living room for a while, and Mom made lunch for us all.  She'd taken the day off, and I felt bad about that, because I knew that she needed to be at the office.  Right after lunch, Sharon came to get Steve for their daily talk, and Nick went home to work on cleaning the house.  That was his punishment for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Jeremy stayed with me.

"What do you want to do while Steve's gone?" I asked him.

"I'd like to go and visit my brother," he said.  "Would you come with me?"

"Sure," I said.

"We can take the bus," he said.  "Its on the other side of town."

"Won't your brother be in school?" I asked.

"No," he said.  "Thomas graduated last year. He lives at Sunnydale."

"Oh," I said.  I had no idea what Sunnydale was.

"Sharon usually takes me to see Thomas," he said.  "But right now, I want you to meet him."

I went and told my mother where we were going, and she offered to drive us.  Jeremy didn't seem to mind, so I took her up on her offer.  Jeremy talked about Thomas the whole way there.  My mom kept glancing at me, but I just shrugged.  This was the first time I'd ever heard of Thomas.  I didn't even know that Jeremy had a brother.

Sunnydale turned out to be a state care facility for the handicapped.  A nurse met us as we got off the elevator on the third floor.  She smiled when she saw Jeremy, and he seemed to know her.

"Hey, Jeremy," said the red headed nurse.  "Thomas is in his room. He's been asking about you today."

"Thanks, Bonnie," said Jeremy.  "This is my friend, Tommy and his mom, Donna."

"Nice to meet you both," said Bonnie.  "Where are Nick and Sharon?"

"They're both at home," said Jeremy.

"Well, you tell them I said hello, ok?" she asked.

"I will," he said.

He led us down the hall, and I saw many people of various ages in the hall and the rooms as we passed them.  With some of them it was hard to see why there would be in Sunnydale.  They didn't look handicapped in any way.  A few of them were mentally handicapped, and I could tell that by what they were doing or how they talked.

We stopped at the end of the hall, two doors from the window.  Inside the room was a boy that was probably a bit taller than me with dark hair that was cut very short.  His back was to the door, so I couldn't see his face.  Jeremy motioned for me and my mother to stay in the hall while he went into the room to greet his brother.

"Hey, Thomas," said Jeremy, making the other boy turn to face him slowly.

"Jeremy!" cried Thomas, clapping his hands.  A soft smile spread across his face, and his slanted eyes were shining.  "You came to see me!"

"I brought friends, too," said Jeremy, waving for us to come into the room.  "This is my good friend, Tommy and his mom, Donna."

"Hello, Tommy," said Thomas, smiling at me.  "That's my name, too."

"Nice to meet you, Thomas," I said.

"Donna," he said, looking at my mother.  "Pretty."

"Why thank you, Thomas," said my mother.  "Its nice to meet you."

"We can't stay too long, Thomas," said Jeremy.  "Its almost time for your activities."

"Yeah?" inquired Thomas.  "With the pictures and the glue?"

"That's right," confirmed Jeremy.  "I just wanted you to meet my friend, Tommy."

"Very nice to meet you, Tommy," said Thomas without taking his eyes off of Jeremy.

"Very nice to meet you, too, Thomas," I replied.

We visited with Thomas for a little while longer, and he showed me his collage boards.  They were just random pictures from magazines and catalogues that he'd cut out and pasted to poster board.  I'm sure that they meant something really important to Thomas, but to me they were just pictures of pretty people and things.

On the way back to our house, Jeremy told us all about Thomas.  He told us that the state had taken him and Thomas away from their parents about five years ago, and Thomas wasn't welcomed in any of the foster homes.  Sunnydale wasn't the best place for him, but they were good to him and always made sure that he had what he needed and most of the things that he wanted.

"When I'm old enough," said Jeremy.  "I'm going to take him home with me."

"That's very noble of you, Jeremy," said my mother.  "What about college?"

"If it means I can't take care of Thomas, then I won't go to college," he said.

"I don't think Thomas would want you to sacrifice your education," said my mother.  "I'm sure there's a way that Thomas can live with you, and you can go to school."

"Sharon promises to look into it for me," he said.  "Mike is handling mine and Thomas's case. So far, the state is still our guardian."

"Well, Mike is a great attorney," said my mother.  "He'll do right by both of you."

"I trust him," said Jeremy.  "I just want my brother out of Sunnydale."

"Are you ready to tell us what the fight was all about today?" asked my mother.  I wasn't sure that it was such a good idea for her to ask him about that, though.  He'd just started to open up to us, and I didn't want to ruin it.

"Jason is my foster brother," he said.  "He's always calling me a fag. Today, his friend Eric decided to help him, and things just got bad."

"Why would he call you a fag?" I asked.  "You aren't even gay."

"Well, that has nothing to do with it, really," he said.  "Its because of why the state took us away from our parents to begin with. My father used to molest us both."

He'd said it so quickly that you would almost think he was comfortable with telling us about it.  One look at his face told us otherwise.  He was staring out the window at the passing houses, and there were tears in his eyes reflecting the sun.  I felt so sorry for him, but I also knew that pity wasn't something that he needed.  Acceptance was golden.

"That doesn't make what he does to you right," I said.  "Have you told your foster parents about it?"

"They're his real mom and dad," he said.  "They don't care what he says or does to me. All they care about is the check they get for taking care of me."

We were all quiet after that statement.  I could tell that my mother was thinking, though.  She kept glancing at Jeremy through the rearview mirror, and then she would sigh.  She'd talk to me about it when she was ready.  For the moment, I was just happy that Jeremy trusted me enough to open up.  I was also sickened by what his father had done to him and Thomas.  I hoped that his father was in jail, but I didn't really want to ask him about that.

When we got home, Mom sent me and Jeremy into the house while she went next door to talk to Sharon.  Steve was in the house, talking to Vince when we walked in.  He smiled at me when I came in, and Vince apologized for his behavior that morning.  I told him I wasn't upset about it at all.  Everyone has bad days.

"Where were you guys?" asked Steve.  "I came back and no one was here."

"I had Donna give me and Tommy a ride to visit Thomas," said Jeremy.

"Really?" asked Steve.  "I'm sorry I missed it. I haven't seen Thomas in a while. How is he?"

"He's good," said Jeremy.  "He was really happy to meet Tommy."

"Where is your mom, Bud?" Steve asked, turning to me.

"Next door," I said.  "She wanted to talk to Sharon about something."

"Ah," said Steve.  "Sharon was going to invite us all out to dinner. She said there was something that she and Mike wanted to celebrate."

"Celebrate?" I asked.

"Beats me," he shrugged.  "Jeremy, you're over there a lot. Do you know what she's talking about?"

"Not really," he said.  "Maybe something has happened with my case."

"We'll see," said Steve.

"Jeremy," called my mother as she walked in the house.  "Sharon wants you next door. She asked me to send you over as soon as I got back."

"I'll be back later, Tommy," said Jeremy.  "Thank you for coming with me to see Thomas."

"Thanks for asking, Jeremy," I said.  "Hopefully, we'll do it again soon."

"We're all going to dinner with the Andrews tonight," Mom said when Jeremy was safely out the door.  "They're celebrating."

"Did you find out what they're celebrating?" asked Steve.  "Sharon was in such a good mood earlier, but Jeremy is hoping that it has something to do with his case."

"Well, that's just it," said Mom.  "Sharon and Mike were issued a foster license today, and Jeremy is moving in with them. She's telling Jeremy now."

"That's great!" cried Steve.  "He was so unhappy living with the Coxes, and Jason is always so cruel to him."

"I heard about that in the car on the way home," said Mom.  "Sharon talked to Mitch about that this morning. They've expelled Jason."

"What are they going to do about Eric?" I asked.  "He was in on it too, today."

"Well, all Mitch said was that Eric would be dealt with on Wednesday," she replied.  "I don't know what's going to happen."

"I just hope that this doesn't cause problems for Jeremy," said Steve.  "The things that Jason was saying about him could really cause trouble at school."

"But he isn't gay," I said.

"That doesn't matter," replied Steve.  "Once a rumor starts, its almost impossible to live down, Tommy."

"I know," I sighed.

"Nick is worried about what they're going to say about us," said Steve.

"What?" I asked.  "Why would they say anything about us?"

"Well, we defended Jeremy," he said.

"We defended our friend, Steve," I said.  "That doesn't mean anything. I know what you and Nick are thinking, but that doesn't mean they'll think we're gay."

"We'll see," he said.  "What are we going to do about it if they start talking about us?"

"I don't know," I said.  What would we do?

"We could just tell the truth," he said, shocking the crap out of me.  "I mean, if they already think it, then why not confirm it? After the way you knocked out Jason this morning, I'm sure no one would bother you."

"Are you saying that you want to come out at school?" I asked.

"Not really," he said.  "I don't want to, but if the rumor has already started, then why not? I mean, I don't want to lie to anyone. Until now, no one has ever asked me the question, so I was safe."

"I see what you mean," I said.

"So you are going to come out at school?" asked my mother.

"I don't know," I said, looking at Steve.

"If no one asks, I'm not telling," he said.  "But I won't lie, Donna."

"I understand that, Steve," she said.  "I also have to think about Tommy. I don't want either of you putting yourselves in a dangerous position."

"We can handle ourselves," he said.

"I know you can," she said.  "Just remember that karate can't stop everything."

I thought hard about that after Mom went upstairs to grab the laundry.  Steve and I sat in the living room with Vince, and he and Vince talked about it, but I didn't say anything.  Did I really want to come out? I was worried about what it would mean.  My safety would be over.  Well, that's a bit melodramatic, but the safety of not worrying about what everyone thought of me would definitely be over.  Everyone would know, and I wouldn't be able to change that.

Coming out would have its advantages, though.  I wouldn't have to worry about how I looked at Steve or touched him in public.  I'd be able to say whatever I wanted to him without worrying about who was listening.  Were the benefits better than the risks? I really had to think about this some more, but we'd be going back to school on Wednesday morning.  If the rumor had already started, then Steve was going to come out.  What would he think of me if he came out, and I didn't?

"This is really bugging you isn't it, Bud?" asked Steve, breaking into my thoughts.

"Kind of," I said.  "I'm just not sure if I'm ready to come out, Steve."

"Well, maybe we won't have to," he said.  "When Wendy gets home, we'll call her and ask her what everyone is saying."

"Still," I said, "I don't know if I can actually come out, even if the rumor has already started. I mean, it would only be a rumor. Not everyone would believe it."

"I won't lie to them, Tommy," he said seriously.  "I don't like lying."

"I don't, either," I said.  "I just don't know about this."

"I don't want this to be a big issue between us," he said.

"Neither do I," I replied.  "I just don't know if I'm ready to do this, Steve."

"Well, the issue may be moot," he said.

"Or it could be in our faces on Wednesday," I countered.  "I just don't see why I have to come out of the closet just because I helped a friend."

"That isn't what I said," he sighed.  "Tommy, all I said was that I won't lie if they ask me the question."

"I'm not asking you to," I said.  "I just don't know if I can even answer that question."

"You're mad at me, aren't you?" he asked, looking at me hard.

"I'm not mad at you," I said.  "I'm just worried. Steve, I just don't know if I can do this."

"I'm not asking you to do anything, Bud," he said, putting his arm around me.  "I only said that I wouldn't lie."

"So, you're saying that you think I will lie if they ask me?" I asked, pulling away from him.

"Wait," he said.  "This isn't going right. I didn't mean to imply that you would lie, Tommy."

"Alright, you two," said my mother, who I didn't even know had come back downstairs.  "I was afraid of this. Stop fighting right now."

"We're not fighting," said Steve.  "We're talking."

"Well, from the looks on your faces, I'd say you're doing a little more than talking," said Vince.

"I don't want to talk about this any more," I said.  "We're supposed to be happy for Jeremy."

"We are happy for Jeremy," said Steve.  His eyes were hard, and if looks could kill, I'd have probably been dead.

"Well, I think I'll be happy for him in the other room," I said, getting up and walking out of the room without looking back.

What was I doing? I'd walked away from him again! I couldn't stand that look in his eyes, though.  He'd asked me if I was angry with him, and I'd actually lied.  At least, I thought it was a lie.  I didn't know for sure if I was angry with him for saying that he'd come out if they asked or not.  What I did know was that if he came out, I'd eventually have to come out, too.  He just hadn't thought about that part of it.  Even if I didn't answer the question at all, eventually, I'd have to.

As it turned out, we didn't have to call Wendy, because she called us.  Steve talked to her for almost half an hour.  I sat in the dining room and heard his side of the conversation.  It sounded like no one was talking about our sexuality, but everyone was talking about the fight itself and how it turned out.  A lot of people were happy about Jason being expelled, but there were some that were angry about it.  Those were the ones that I was worried about.  His followers wouldn't waste much time coming up with something to tear me down after being instrumental in removing their hero from school.

I went upstairs and logged on to the internet, looking for Andy.  I really needed some advice about this, and since he'd come out at sixteen, he was the one to talk to.  He wasn't logged on to any of the messengers, so I sent him a lengthy email, rambling about what had happened and the feared aftermath that was to follow.  I hoped that he'd get back to me before I had to go back to school.  I didn't want to just have it blow up in my face without his advice.

"Your mom says its time to get ready, Tommy," said Steve, coming into the room.

"Steve," I said, turning to face him, "are we ok?"

"I love you, Tommy," he said, walking toward me.  "I hate to argue with you, and it turns out that we argued over nothing. I just won't lie."

"Babe, I never asked you to lie," I said, standing up and putting my arms around him.  "I just asked you not to put me in a position that would make me uncomfortable."

"Bud, I'd never do that to you," he said.  "At least not on purpose."

"Don't you see that if you came out, I'd have to come out, too?" I asked.

"That's not necessarily true," he said.

"Yes, it is," I said.  "How long do you think it would last between us if you were out to everyone, and I wasn't? How long could you go without telling someone who you were with if they asked?"

"Well, that would be easy," he said.  "I'd just tell them that it wasn't their business."

"How long do you think that answer would hold up?" I asked.

"As long as I made it hold up," he said.  "Tommy, I'd never force you to come out of the closet. That's something that you'd have to decide on your own."

"You don't understand," I said.  "Guilt would eat me up if you were out of the closet to everyone, and I wasn't. There would be no way for me to really share any of the things that would happen after you came out if I weren't out, too. That would tear us apart, Steve."

"So what are you asking me to do?" he asked.  "You know I won't lie to them about it if they ask."

"I'm not asking you to lie," I replied.  "I'm asking for time and understanding."

"I do understand, Bud," he said.

"Steve, it hasn't happened yet," I said.  "I'm asking you to understand when it happens."

He hugged me tight, and I kissed his neck.  We had to get ready, or my mother would be up to give us a loud incentive.  We dressed in silence.  I could tell that Steve had more to say on the issue, and I had more that I wanted to put into the conversation, but I wasn't ready to talk about it now.  We were ready by the time my mother came to get us moving.

"Still fighting?" she asked as she looked at our faces.

"Not fighting," I said.  "We were talking, but we're done for now."

"Then come on," she said, turning and walking away.

Mike had called and made reservations at Giovanni's, a very popular Italian restaurant.  The whole restaurant was decorated in jade green and ruby red.  The tables were small and intimate with green tablecloths and red napkins.  We were shown to a larger table in the back of the restaurant where a busboy was busy filling our water glasses.  I was shocked to see that the busboy was Mark.

"Hey, Tommy, Steve," he said, smiling as we walked to the table.

"Hey, Mark," I said.  "I didn't know you worked here."

"I've been working here for about two weeks," he said.  "I can't talk now, but I'll be back to make sure that you guys have everything you need."

We all sat down, and Sharon, Mike and my mother started to talk about how nice the restaurant was.  Nick kept watching me and Steve, and Jeremy just stared at the table.  He looked stunned, and I imagined that he was probably in shock that he'd gotten what he wanted.  That is, if living with the Andrews family is what he really wanted.  I wondered what, if anything, this meant for Thomas.  I didn't want to be the one to bring that up, so I remained quiet.

"So you guys know the busboy?" asked Sharon, trying to bring us into the conversation.

"He's a friend from karate," I replied.  "We didn't know he even worked here."

"I didn't even know he was sixteen," said Steve.

"I thought he was older," said Nick.  "He's in the advanced class."

"That doesn't mean he's older," interjected Jeremy.  "I'm in the advanced class, and I'm younger than all of you."

"That's true," said Nick.  "When did you start karate, anyway?"

"Two years ago," said Jeremy without elaborating.

After that, the adults talked about getting Jeremy all situated in his new bedroom.  Sharon was giving up her office for Jeremy to have a bedroom.  Unlike my mother's, Sharon's was filled with a desk and other furniture and supplies.  She asked Vince to help move things to a storage facility, and Vince again offered to ask Dustin for the use of his truck.

Jeremy was kind of quiet again, but every time I looked at him, he was smiling, so I assumed he was happy.  I was very happy that he trusted me enough to open up to me.  I hadn't understood his actions until he'd told us about his father.  Now everything was clear.  I understood why he was so afraid of anyone touching him, and his initial reaction to mine and Steve's relationship now made sense.

We stayed at the restaurant pretty late.  Everyone was having a good time, so no one said anything about leaving.  Nick and Steve were talking about how cool it was going to be to have Jeremy around even more.  Mark returned several times to refill water glasses and take empty dishes off the table for us.  We left him a big tip when we left.

We got home with only twenty minutes to get ready for karate.  Steve and I showered together without talking and very little body contact.  I still had a lot to think about, and he, evidently, was not very happy with me.  I didn't like the way things were going, but I didn't know exactly what to do to fix them, either.  If he couldn't understand where I was coming from, I just didn't know what to say.

When we got to the class, Dave pulled me aside to talk to me about the fight at school.  He told me that he understood that I'd fought back in self defense, and he said I'd done nothing wrong.  However, I was stronger than I realized, and my one hit could have seriously hurt Jason.  He asked that I try and be careful when using my strength.  I told him that I would, and he let me join the rest of the class.

We'd been working on Chinte, and David had us go over it many times until everyone had each move down.  We worked slowly, doing each move in almost slow motion, but the effect was tiresome.  Even doing the moves slowly, I could feel the workout on each of my muscles, and they still ached from the workout with Steve the day before.

By the time we got home, I was so tired, I could barely stand up.  Mom noticed and told me that I should probably go to bed.  She asked that we sleep in the next day, because we weren't going to school.  She said that she wanted us to get some rest and take the day off from working out or running.  Steve and I readily agreed.  We'd had a long day.

"So we're ok?" he asked once we were up in our room.

"We're fine," I replied.  "All I ask is for understanding, Steve."

"You'll have all of it that you need," he said, hugging me.

I woke up at ten the next morning to an empty house.  Vince was in class, Mom was at the office, and I had to look around for Steve.  It wasn't time for Sharon to come talk to him, so I didn't know where he was.  After checking the bathroom, kitchen and living room, I found him in the dining room.  He was dressed in his sweat suit, practicing Chinte.  I sat down on the stairs to watch him work out.  He made it look so simple and even graceful.  It was clear that his sweat suit was getting to tight for his body, because I could see each of his muscle straining against the thin fabric of his suit as they responded to his workout.

Watching him, I noticed that he'd changed a little since I'd met him.  He was still as gorgeous as ever, but his hair was a bit longer, falling in a natural part in the middle.  Oblivious to me, he took his sweat soaked shirt off, and I admired his muscular form.  The bruises were all almost gone, but even with them, he was beautiful.  His sculpted torso had taken on a bit more muscle definition from all of our workouts, and, covered in sweat, his body seemed to shine.  His tan was almost completely gone, but his skin had a natural golden color.  He was perfect, and I couldn't remember why I'd ever argued with him in the first place.

Wearing my satin gym shorts, I got up and stood behind him, trying to time my movements to his.  Alone, we were doing much better with our moves than we had in the class.  We were moving a bit faster, too, and that made it all come together a little better.  Before long, I could feel my own sweat running down my chest, and my tired muscles let me know that they, too, could feel the workout.

"Woe!" cried Steve, when he turned to find me behind him.  "Tommy!"

"Sorry," I said through a laugh.  "I wasn't trying to scare you. I came down and saw you, so I thought I'd just join you."

"Glad you did," he said, pulling my sweaty body against his own.  "Morning."

"Morning," I replied, wrapping my arms around him.

"I love you," I said into his neck.

"I love you, too," he replied.

"Have I told you, lately, how good you look covered in sweat?" he asked, smiling at me.

"Oh, I think you're hitting on me," I chuckled.

"Shower?" he asked, raising one eyebrow.

"Definitely," I said, grabbing his hand and pulling him back upstairs.

He was pulling my shorts off half way up the stairs.  I laughed and started taking the stairs two at a time.  I was completely nude by the time we got to the top of the stairs.  Its a good thing no one was at home.  What a show we'd have given them!  I took my time pulling his sweat pants down, leaving a trail of kissed down his sweaty torso.

My mother was walking through the door when we came back down the stairs all clean and in fresh clothes.  She smiled at us, and taking in our wet hair, raised her eyebrows.

"Just getting out of bed?" she asked.

"Oh, no," said Steve.  "We've been up for over two hours."

"Ah," she said, smiling at us.

We ate lunch with her and listened while she talked about another new case that she hoped to get.  The firm was deciding which attorney to give it to.  She said that this particular case could be huge.  It was nice to see her excited, but I worried about how much she worked.  Because of that, I wasn't so happy to hear that she was up for another big case.

"So you'd be working late again?" asked Steve, taking the words right out of my mouth.

"Probably," she said, eyeing me.  "Actually, this particular case could take months."

"Is this case that important?" I asked.

"Yes, Tommy," she said.  "I know you don't like me working so much, but I really want this case."

"You know I would never ask you not to take a case," I said.  "I just worry that you never get any rest."

"I rest," she protested.

"You don't eat right when you're involved with a case, either," I said.

"I eat fine," she said.

"Just be careful, Mom," I said.

"Which one of us is the child here?" she asked, smiling at me.  "I promise to get plenty of rest, and I'll eat all of my vegetables."

"You're impossible," I chuckled.

We chatted more until she had to get back to the office.  After that, Steve and I settled in for some intense studying, taking advantage of our extra day to study for the two finals that we'd be taking the next day.  I got so wrapped up in my History, I didn't even hear Vince come in at two.  He was followed by Nick.

"Hey guys," said Nick as he came into the dining room with a gloomy look on his face.

"Hey," said Steve.  "What's wrong with you?"

"We can't go to Maine after Christmas," he said, slumping into the chair across the table from us.  "My aunt called last night and told Mom that her mother in law is having surgery two days after Christmas, and they'll be in New York."

"Damn," I said, closing my History book.

"I was really looking forward to meeting Ben and Andy," said Steve.

"Me, too," said Nick.  "I wish there was a way that we could just go to see them."

"I don't see any way for us to do that," I said.  "My mom wouldn't let me go just to see Ben and Andy, I don't think."

"Why not?" asked Nick.  "They're your friends. Doesn't she like them?"

"Oh, she likes them both just fine," I said.  "She just wouldn't impose on Mary and Donald like that. I can hear her now."

"That sucks," said Nick.  "My mom probably wouldn't let me go even if yours said we could."

"There has to be a way for us to visit with them," I said, thinking about it.

"Well, we'd better think of it fast," said Steve.  "Then we'd better figure out some way to convince Donna and Sharon."

"Right," said Nick sarcastically.  "I could probably flap my arms and learn to fly before we'd come up with a way to convince my mom."

We sat there, sulking, until my mother came in the door.  I could instantly tell that she'd gotten the case she wanted, because there was a smile on her face bright enough to light up the dark side of the moon.  She noticed that we were all down hearted, and her winning smile froze and then faltered.  She came into the dining room and put her purse and briefcase on the table.

"What's wrong?" she asked, looking at each of us one at a time.

"We can't go to Maine," sighed Nick.

"Why not?" she asked, sitting down at the table.

"My uncle's mother is having surgery two days after Christmas, so they'll all be in New York for that," said Nick.

"Sorry, guys," said my mother.  "I wish there was something I could do about it."

"Couldn't we just fly out there to see Ben and Andy?" I asked.

"Tommy, that would be a nine days instead of two with Ben and Andy," she said.  "Don't you think that Donald and Mary might want to have their children to themselves over the holiday?"

"We thought of that, too," said Steve.  "There's no way to visit them on this break."

"I guess we'll just have to wait for summer," I sighed.  "I was just really looking forward to this."

"I know you were, and I'm sorry," said my mother.  "We'll think of something for the summer. Maybe you could go and spend a week there then."

"Yeah, maybe," I breathed.

"I got my case," she said, trying to change the subject.

"Congratulations," I said.  "When do you start?"

"Tomorrow morning," she said.  "We're going to start prepping witnesses."

"So what did you guys do today, other than study?" asked Nick.  It was clear that he was trying to change the subject.

"Chinte," said Steve, smiling from ear to ear.

"I bet," laughed Nick.

"Hey, Nick," I said quickly, "when was the last time you masturbated?"

"Hey!" he laughed.  "I get it."

"Where's Jeremy?" asked Steve.

"He's at the house, talking to my mom," said Nick.  "They're talking about Thomas."

"Ah," said Steve.

"Well, you perverted young men clean off the table," said my mother.  "I'm going to start supper."

"Yes, Mom," I said, smiling at her.

Over supper, we talked about anything and everything other than my mother's case.  Vince told us about a date that he had with Maria, and we all wanted to know when we were going to meet her.  He just smiled and shook his head.  Steve teased him about being ashamed of us for a while, and then my mother started asking him all sorts of questions about Maria.  She was kidding, but she made it sound serious.  It turned out to be a pretty fun supper for us all.

The next morning, I had butterflies in my stomach as we got ready for school.  Wendy had told us that no one was talking about us being gay, but that didn't stop me from worrying about Jason's friends.  Eric would be there, too, and that was another source of worry.  If anyone was going to start saying anything, I was sure it would be Eric.  I was distracted, thinking about all of this, all the way to school.

When we walked into the building, I half expected for everyone to stop talking and turn to look at us.  Nothing like that happened.  Wendy spotted us, and she dragged us into the quad.  Peter and Marcy were there, and they both smiled when they saw us.  We all talked about finals.  No one even brought up the fight.  The only time that things got tense was when Eric walked into the quad and right past us.  We all stopped talking and watched him, but he didn't say a word to us.  He didn't even look at us.

The day drags on as only test days can.  In History class, I surprised myself by actually knowing almost all of the answers on the test without having to spend an inordinately long amount of time thinking about each one.  When I finished the test, I took it up to the front of the room and placed it in the basket on Mr. Lammer's desk like every other test or assignment and went back to my seat.  I sat there, staring at nothing and thinking about Ben.

I was really upset that I wouldn't be able to go to Maine and spend time with him and Andy.  I'd received an extensive response to the email I'd sent Andy, and it was filled with "I can't wait to see you" and "it'll be cool to meet your friends".  None of that would be happening now, and I felt cheated.  I wished that there was some way that we could still visit with them for the short amount of time that Winter Break allowed.  No matter what my History filled mind thought of, there was nothing to be done about it.  I was just going to have to email or call Ben and tell him that I couldn't come.

I was surprised when I found myself in the cafeteria, seated next to Steve across from Nick and Jeremy, that I'd brooded about the visit for most of the day.  I hoped that I'd at least paid half attention in the classes between History and lunch.  If I hadn't, I would certainly hear about it from the teachers when finals were over.

"What's wrong, Bud?" asked Steve, squeezing my knee.  We forget from time to time just where we are when we show affection.

"Just thinking about Ben," I said.  "I really wanted to go to Maine."

"I'm sorry," he said.  "I wanted to meet him and his brother, too."

"Well, there's always summer," I replied.  "Though it sucks that I have to wait that long."

"Are they coming here this summer?" asked Wendy.  "Because I think it is extremely unfair that I don't get to meet the boys you talk about so much."

"Me, too," said Peter.  "I've heard so much about Ben that I feel like I should know him."

"I don't know," I said.  "I haven't even had a chance to tell him that I'm not coming, so we haven't discussed summer plans."

"Well, get with it, Porter," laughed Wendy.  "The rest of your friends are growing impatient."

"I'll see what I can do," I said, smiling at her.

As I trotted off to Literature class, I was hoping that I could keep my disappointment at not taking the trip out of my head long enough to remember what I needed to for the final.  This was the only class that I had with Eric, so that would be another distraction, but to my surprise, he wasn't in class.  I tried not to think about that at all as I sat down in my seat and waited for the dreaded five hundred question test to be handed out.  A lot of people were frantically skimming their notes at the last minute, but that was something I just never did.  If I didn't know the material by test day, then I wouldn't know it by fiendishly searching my notes for anything I could soak into my mind at the last minute.

It turned out that I didn't have to worry about blocking anything from my mind.  Once the test was on my desk, I pretty much flew through the questions much like the History test.  However, the essay at the end stopped me short for a few seconds.  Then I just let my mind fill with a subject that had been on my mind all day and wrote the essay.  When I handed in my test, I was happy to see that I hadn't taken any longer than most of the other students in class.  I sat back in my seat and just watched everyone for the remainder of the hour.  The rest of my classes would all be review, so I pretty much had an easy ending of the day ahead.

I met up with Nick, Jeremy and Steve at the end of the day.  The three of them were talking excitedly when I walked up to them.  I didn't know what they were talking about, but they all stopped talking when they saw me.  That was a sure fire way to make me mad at all of them, and they knew it.  I let it ride for a little while, though.  I was just as quiet as they were as we got in Vince's car.

Vince must have noticed that something was going on, too, because he looked at each of us with a searching expression.  When none of us said a word, he put the car in drive and we left the parking lot.  I was getting angrier by the minute, but I was determined not to say a word to the three of them.  If they wanted to keep their secrets, then I'd let them.  I just wouldn't have anything to do with them.  Nick and Steve knew better than to do this, but they were doing it anyway.

"I'll see you guys in a little while," said Nick as we all got out of the car.

"Later, Nick," said Steve as I walked past them all and into the house.

I was surprised to see that my mother was home already.  She smiled at me when I walked into the house, and I gave her a smile in return, but I went straight to the dining room and opened my Algebra book and notes.  I pushed Steve and the others out of my mind and started to study.  He came in, sat across from me, and opened his own notes and text book, but we never said anything.  He looked at me from time to time, but I pretended not to notice.

When Mom informed us that she was going to start supper, I gathered my books and put them all back in my backpack.  Steve did the same, but we still didn't say anything to each other.  I went into the living room to watch television, and he went into the kitchen.  I channel surfed, but there was nothing on that I wanted to see, so I turned it off and walked up the stairs, passing Vince in the upstairs hall.

"Tommy, is something wrong?" he asked.

"Isn't there always?" I answered with a question of my own.

"Are you guys fighting?" he asked, looking concerned.

"Maybe you'd better leave this one alone, Vince," I said.  "I'm not sure what's going on just yet, but I won't talk to him until he talks to me."

"I don't understand how you two get yourselves into these things," he said, passing me and going down the stairs.

I got on my computer and emailed Ben about our not being able to come to Maine.  He wasn't online, so I told him that I'd call him after supper.  I was just getting ready to go back downstairs when my mother came into my room.  She shut the door and sat on my bed.  We were both quiet for a few minutes just looking at each other.

"What's going on?" she asked finally.

"I don't have the first clue," I said.  "Steve was talking to Nick and Jeremy when I found them after school, and they looked like they were excited about what they were saying. They all stopped talking when I walked up to them, and I haven't heard another word from any of them since."

"This again?" she sighed.

"We'll do this as long as he wants, Mom," I said.  "The ball is in his court. He knew what would happen if he did this again, so let him reap his own reward."

"Tommy, you sound as if you don't care," she said, looking at me closely.

"Oh, I care," I informed her.  "I care a great deal, but I can't make them talk to me, Mom, and I won't talk to people who keep secrets from me like this. You know that about me already."

We didn't speak a word during supper.  Not even Vince had anything to say.  The tension in the air was thicker than smog, but none of us seemed to want to break it.  I helped my mother clear the table after supper, and still no one said anything.  I wondered just how long this could go on before it drove us all insane.  It hadn't even been a full day, and I was already getting there.

When Vince drove me, Nick, Jeremy and Steve to karate, no one said a word.  Nick squirmed in his seat beside me, and he kept looking at me, but he didn't say anything.  That was just fine with me, though.  I didn't want to hear anything from him or Jeremy.  I wanted to hear it from Steve, but he wasn't going to talk, so I would just stay mad at them all.

I stayed away from all of them for the entire three hours of class, too.  David noticed that something wasn't right with us, but he didn't say anything.  When he broke us up into four man teams, he didn't put any of us in the same team, either.  That was a good idea, because I was sure that I'd actually hit hard if Steve or Nick were facing off with me.  Instead, I got Mark.

"What's up with you guys?" he asked during the break.  "You're usually as thick as thieves."

"Secrets, Mark," I sighed.  "I hate them, they know it, and they're keeping them."

"Ah," he said.  "So you're giving them the silent treatment?"

"We're giving each other the silent treatment," I corrected.  "This can go on as long as they like. I don't care."

"Well, if things aren't better between you guys after school tomorrow, why don't you come hang out with me and Rick for a while?" he asked.  "We're going to the mall to get a few things for our trip."

"Sounds good to me," I said.  "What time should I find a ride to your house?"

"You can ride home with me and Rick," he said.  "If you want."

"Sounds like a plan," I said.  "I'll meet you guys at your locker after last bell."

"Cool," he said.  "I'll drop you back at your place on my way to work."

"Alright," I said.

We got back to practice after that.  David was trying to get us psyched about a tournament that was coming.  He said that we, as first year students, could enter, but we couldn't compete in all of the competition.  I wasn't interested in a tournament, but I practiced just as hard as everyone else.  We ended our class that day with more Chinte.  I was getting pretty good at each of the moves, so I didn't mind it at all.

When we got home, I used my mother's shower, leaving Steve alone in our room.  When I was showered and dressed, I went downstairs to tell my mother what my plans were for the next day.  She didn't seem completely happy about it all, but she granted permission.  I went upstairs to go to bed after that.  Steve was already in bed when I got there.  I lay down beside him, turning my back to him, and sleep took me fast.

The next morning, I didn't wait for Steve to get up before starting off on our morning run.  I jogged to the park and started to pick up speed when I got there.  Steve showed up about twenty minutes after I got there, but I made sure that there was distance between us.  After doing only two laps around the park, I headed home to shower and get ready for school.  We hadn't said one word to each other.  When Steve got home, I was eating breakfast with my mother.

"Smells good," he said as he came into the kitchen.  "I'm going to grab a shower, but save me some?"

"Sure," said my mother, glancing at me.

Finished, I put my plate and glass in the dishwasher, kissed my mother on the cheek and went to catch the school bus.  I knew all of the kids that rode the bus from our neighborhood, but I didn't talk to any of them on the bus stop.  They didn't seem to care about that, either.  They were all engrossed in their own conversations.  The bus driver asked me who I was and why I'd never rode the bus before, and I explained that I usually had a ride to school.  After that, I found an empty seat.

Instead of hanging out with everyone in the quad, I went straight to History class and used the extra time to go over some Chemistry notes.  The final wasn't until the next day, but I was still sure that I could use all of the studying I could get in.  Luckily, we didn't cover anything new that day, and the period was just spent quietly, working on whatever we needed.

I took the Algebra final the next hour, and I was reasonably sure that I did really well on it.  Math was never a problem for me, but tests sometimes got to me.  However, I was pretty certain that I'd done ok on each of the three tests I'd taken.  My next final wasn't until sixth hour, so the rest of the time between was spent reviewing again.

At lunch, I sat with Mark and Rick instead of my usual group.  We talked about what they were going to get at the mall, and I was a little jealous that the two of them had been given permission to go to Rick's family's cabin by the lake for the entire holiday.  They'd return to their homes for Christmas day, but then they were free to go back to the cabin.

"In the summer, we're pretty much there all of the time," said Rick.  "Sometimes my family will come and stay for a few nights, and that's Hell for us, but we pretty much have the place to ourselves all summer."

"Maybe you can come out sometime this summer and hang out with us," said Mark.  "We could swim or something."

"That sounds fun," I said.  "I'm trying to get my best friend and his brother to either visit here, or I'll go to Maine to see them this summer. I'm not sure how that will go, but we'll see."

"Well, we're on for after school today, though, right?" asked Rick as everyone began to leave the cafeteria.

"Right," I replied.  "I'll meet you guys at Mark's locker after the last bell."

"Cool," said Mark.  "See you in Gym."

Literature was another free hour, so I used that time to go over more Chemistry notes.  Steve was in that class with me, but instead of sitting beside him, I chose a seat in the back.  He looked upset about it, but I didn't stick around to hear anything he had to say.  Maybe I was being childish, but I didn't care at that point.  I despised secrets, and he knew it.  That forty-five minute period seemed to last forever.

The computer final was a bit difficult.  It wasn't that I didn't know the answers to the questions on the test.  They were just tricky.  On a few of the questions, there were several different answers that could be correct.  I, for once, was glad that the test was not multiple choice.  We had to write in our answers, and that allowed me to give each answer that I thought was correct.

As promised, I met Mark and Rick at Mark's locker minutes after the last bell sounded.  They were both excited about something that had happened in the last class of the day.  The didn't stop talking when I got there, so I heard what had happened.  It seemed that Eric had been expelled along with Jason.  He was informed as soon as he got to school Wednesday morning.  Mark said that Mr. Benson had told him that, had he known the full extent of Monday's event, he would have been expelled then.  I wondered if that was what Nick, Steve and Jeremy had been talking about, but if that had been all it was, why wouldn't they have included me in the conversation?

"Ready to go?" asked Rick as Mark shut his locker.

"Sure," I said, following the two of them out the side door of the building.

"So what's going on between you and your friends?" asked Rick.  "Usually, you guys are really tight."

"Well, yesterday, I caught them talking about something, and they seemed to be kind of agitated by whatever it was," I explained.  "When they saw me coming, they clammed up. None of them has said a word to me since, and I haven't said anything to them, either. They know I despise secrets, and I have the distinct impression that whatever they were talking about involved me in some way."

"They should tell you then," said Mark as we drove out of the parking lot, passing Vince's car.

"I agree," I said, "and Steve and Nick both know full well what happens when they talk about me behind my back."

"They've done it before?" asked Rick.

"Once," I said.  "That time, when I found out what they were talking about, I let it go, because I understood why they didn't want me to hear it at first."

When we got to the mall, they went straight to the sporting goods store.  This was the first time I'd been to the Bucklan Mall, so I just followed them around, looking at this and that.  I didn't see anything that really called out to me, so I didn't spend any money.  They stocked up on kerosene lamps, camping dishes and other camping supplies.  On the way to Rick's, they stopped and purchased a few cans of kerosene.  We unloaded the car at Rick's, putting everything in the garage, and then Mark and I were on our way to his house, so he could shower and get ready for work.

"That's my sister's car," he said as we pulled into the driveway of a large, two story stucco house.  "My dad is probably still at work."

I followed him inside where he introduced me to his sister.  She had long dark hair like Mark's, and her dark eyes were just like his, too.  When he told me her name, I thought of Vince.  I stood there for a second, looking at her and wondering if this was the Maria that Vince had been talking about.

"I've heard a lot about you," she said, shaking my hand.  "Mark tells me that you take karate, too."

"That's right," I said, smiling at her.  "We work our butts off."

"Does Vince Sutton live with you?" she asked as she let go of my hand.

"Yes, he does," I replied.  "He and his brother Steve moved in the day after Thanksgiving."

"I thought you looked familiar," she said.  "We go to college together."

"I've heard Vince mention you," I admitted.

Suddenly, I remembered the entire conversation with Vince.  He'd said that he had met Maria through the GSA, and that her younger brother had come out of the closet the previous year.  That would be Mark.  I wasn't sure if he knew that I was gay, though, so I didn't say a word about it.  I just followed him upstairs.

"Well, welcome to my room," he said, opening his bedroom door.  "Its a mess, but I never have time to really clean it."

"No problem," I said.  "You should see our room."

"I can imagine the mess two boys would leave behind in a room," he chuckled.  "Make yourself comfortable. I'm going to grab a shower."

Mark was a good looking boy.  He had dark brown hair that was almost black with dark eyes and a nice smile.  He kept his hair short and kind of spiked, and he always looked like he was in a good mood.  He wasn't as attractive as Steve, but he was definitely in the hot category.  I sat on his bed, looking around his room at all of the posters of martial arts and football players on his walls.  There was one thing in the center of the wall above his bed that confirmed for me that Mark was gay.  I small rainbow flag was tacked to the wall between two posters of Bruce Lee.

Knowing for sure now, I was more comfortable.  I knew that he wouldn't have a problem with my sexuality, so I thought about just telling him about it.  I couldn't think of a way to say anything, so I thought I'd just let him ask me.  I wasn't even sure if he was going to ask me, so I just sat there and waited for him to come back.  When he did, I wasn't prepared for the sight I saw.

He was wrapped in a towel, rubbing another towel over his head to dry his hair.  Before I could drag my eyes away from his wet, toned body, he dropped the towel around his waist and stepped into a pair of boxers.  He noticed me looking, and I blushed as I turned my head.  He chuckled and told me that he was just so used to changing in front of people in the locker room that he hadn't even thought about it.

"Its your room, dude," I said.

"Sorry if I made you uncomfortable," he said, pulling up his black dress pants.

"You work till close?" I asked, trying to change the subject.

"Nah," he said, grabbing a white dress shirt from his closet and putting his arms in the sleeves.  "They can't work me that long. I'm only sixteen, so I have to be out of there by ten."

"I bet the pay is good," I said.

"Well, I don't have anything to compare it to, really," he said.  "I like the money, though. Any amount of money is better than none."

"Yeah," I said.  "I'm hoping to get a good job when I turn sixteen."

"When's that?" he asked, grabbing his name tag and apron.

"In June," I replied, following him out of the room and down the stairs.

"Before or after school lets out?" he asked.

"Right after usually," I said.  "I like it that way."

"You're lucky," he said.  "My birthday was just last month, and I had to go to school."

"Well, summer birthdays are awesome," I agreed.

We chatted about this and that on our way to my house.  He said that he was happy that I'd hung out with him and Rick, and he hoped that we could do it again.  I told him that I liked that idea, too.  Then the conversation slipped into school and finals, and he admitted that he was just as nervous about the Chemistry final as I was.

"Tommy, don't let what anyone is saying get to you," he said as we pulled up in front of my house.  "Just know that if you need us, Rick and I will be there for you."

"What are you talking about?" I asked, turning to look at him.  "What is anyone saying?"

"You haven't heard?" he asked.

"Heard what?"

"Well, some of Jason's friends are spreading it around that you, Nick and Steve are gay," he said.  "Now, I don't care if its true or not. It just isn't anyone's business, so if you need us, we're there for you."

"Thanks," I said.

I stood on the sidewalk and watched him drive away.  My heart was beating faster, and I was starting to sweat.  As I stood there, thinking about what he'd said, it started to snow.