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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit my webpage at http://juliengregg.gayauthors.org/. This story is copyrighted, so please do not duplicate it in whole or in part without permission.
"Where have you been?" demanded my mother when I walked in the front door. "Steve and Vince said you rode off in someone's car. Then you don't come home for at least three hours. Tommy, what the Hell is going on with you?"
"I went to the mall with Mark and Rick," I said. "Then I went with Mark to his house so he could ready for work. He dropped me off here on his way to work. I'm sorry that I didn't call, and I should have said something about this last night, but I had a lot on my mind."
"Well, Steve has been worried sick," she said, glaring at me.
"Why?" I asked heatedly. "He hasn't said one word to me since school let out yesterday, Mom. Why is he so worried about someone he doesn't even want to talk to?"
"Tommy," she sighed. "You haven't exactly been big on conversation since yesterday, either."
"Well, turn about is fair play," I said. "Besides, I know what they were talking about now. It would have been nice if my boyfriend would have just told me that the whole school is talking about us."
"What do you mean?" she asked, looking concerned now.
"Mark told me that a bunch of Jason's friends are telling everyone that me, Nick and Steve are gay," I said. "This is exactly what we were worried about."
"Go wash up for supper," she said, stepping back out of my way. "We'll discuss this at the table."
Steve and Vince were sitting in the living room, so I knew that they'd heard me. I didn't feel like talking to either of them about it, though, so I just went upstairs and put my backpack on my bed. When I came back downstairs, everyone was already at the table. No one looked like they were hungry, though.
"What exactly did Mark tell you?" asked Vince when I sat down.
"He said that I shouldn't let what people were saying get to me," I replied. "Then he told me that he and Rick are there for us if we need them. When I asked him what he was talking about, he was shocked that I hadn't heard what everyone was saying."
"No one has said anything to you?" asked my mother.
"No," I said. "I don't even know if anyone was looking at me strange or not. I was too busy thinking to notice."
"I didn't like watching you ride off with Mark and Rick today," said Steve, finally speaking to me. "You didn't even tell me you weren't coming home with us."
"Oh, you're mad at me?" I asked coldly. "Well, Steve, I guess you now know what it feels like to be kept in the dark by your boyfriend. Did you think that I wouldn't hear about this? Did you think you were protecting me by keeping this secret? You know how I feel about you and Nick keeping things from me when they have to do with me."
"I just didn't want you to be upset," he said.
"Well, you did a fine job of making sure I didn't get upset, didn't you?" I spat. "Next time, don't bother to try to protect me, Steve. Tell me the truth."
"We talked to Mitch about it this morning," said Steve. "He's trying to keep everyone from getting too riled up."
"So you went to the dean without telling me, too?" I said. "I can't believe you!"
"Why didn't you tell him any of this, Steve?" asked Vince, looking at his brother sternly.
"I just wanted to protect him," he said. "I didn't want him to be upset, and I thought I was doing the right thing."
"By lying to me?" I bit, knowing that I'd hit a sensitive issue with him.
"I didn't lie to you, Tommy," he said quickly.
"You kept information from me, Steve," I said, shaking my head. "That's the same thing. You say you wanted to protect me. What do you see me as? Am I some little boy who needs a big strong boyfriend to look out for him all of the time? If that's the way you see me, then I think you'd better find another boyfriend."
"Tommy," warned my mother.
"No!" I cried, standing up. "I'm serious. If this is the way its always going to between us, then I don't think I want there to be an 'us'."
I left the room, leaving my supper untouched. No one said anything as I walked away. Steve looked stunned, and Vince looked worried. My mother's mouth was hanging open, and I knew that I'd gone too far with her, but at that moment, I didn't really care. I went up to my room, sat on my bed and tried to study. That was a lost cause, though. I was furious, and there was no way I was going to be able to study anything.
I don't know how much time went by before my mother brought me something to eat. She looked worried, but she didn't say anything. She just put the plate on my desk and walked out of the room. I ate the pork chop and tried to eat my potatoes, but I just wasn't hungry. I couldn't believe that Steve would do this.
He didn't come upstairs at all that night. I finally gave up even trying to study and got ready for bed. It was lonely in that big bed all by myself, but I wasn't going to beg Steve to come to bed. If he really did think of me the way he made it seem, then I was serious about breaking up. I didn't need a bodyguard. I needed a boyfriend.
The next morning, after very little sleep, I heard everything the other kids on the bus were saying. A lot of them were talking about me, but none of them seemed to be hostile. Mostly they just kept asking each other if they thought it was really true. I was waiting for someone to ask me directly, but no one did. What would I have said if they had? Was I going to admit it? Would I lie about it?
Like the day before, I went straight to class after going to my locker. I noticed several kids watching me, but none of them said anything. I don't even know how I made it through the Chemistry final, but I did. I even thought I did pretty good on it. At lunch, I sat with Mark and Rick, but Wendy came to sit with us. She looked pissed off at first, but when she looked me in the eye, her expression softened.
"Is it true?" she asked me, and at first I had no idea what she was talking about.
"What?" I asked, looking at the others at the table.
"What Steve just told me," she said, eyeing the rest of our company as well.
"Come with me," I said, taking her hand and leading her out of the cafeteria.
"Well?" she asked once we were safely out of ear shot from anyone else.
"What did he tell you?" I asked.
"He said that you broke up with him last night," she said. "He's really upset, Tommy. Is it true?"
"If anyone broke up with anyone," I sighed, "he broke up with me."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, after what happened yesterday, I said some things," I said. "I never actually said that we were broke up, but if he thinks we are, then he's the one who broke up with me."
"You were fighting about what everyone is saying, right?" she asked.
"That's right," I said. "He knew about it, and him, Nick and Jeremy talked about it, but didn't tell me anything."
"So, what happens now?" she asked as Bobby Sherman started toward us. He was one of Jason's friends, so I knew that a confrontation was coming. I braced myself for it.
"I thought you were a fag, Porter," he chuckled when he got to us.
"You mean you actually think?" said Wendy hotly, turning to face him. "I thought all of you guys were retarded."
"You better watch your mouth," he said. "You might get yourself hurt, Wendy."
"Fuck you, Bobby," I said no longer able to remain quiet. "You're such a big shot that you have to threaten girls? Why don't you just go away? Go find the rest of your chums and leave us alone."
"Got a big mouth for a fag," he said, glaring at me. "You ready to back it up?"
"Are you ready to get expelled, Mr. Sherman?" asked Wendy's father, startling all of us. "I've had about enough of your antics, so if you don't march yourself back to the cafeteria and shut you mouth, I will expel you."
"This isn't over, Porter," Bobby said, glaring at me again.
"One more word, Sherman, and you're out of here," said Mitch. "Now move."
We watched him walk into the cafeteria, and then we turned to look at Mitch. He was quiet for a few minutes. I didn't now what to say to him about what had just happened, but I knew that Steve and Nick had already talked to him about what people were saying. I wasn't sure if I wanted to talk to him about it or not.
"We were just talking," said Wendy, breaking the silence.
"Well, if any of them give you anymore trouble," he said. "Tell me. Both of you."
For the rest of the day, I noticed everyone. Some looked away when I looked at them, some smiled, and other snickered. I wasn't sure what to do about it all, though. I wasn't ready to come out of the closet. At the same time, I wanted it to just be over. I wanted to be able to stop hiding, and I wanted everyone to know about it.
"Are you going to come out?" asked Mark as he drove me home. Rick sat beside him.
"Did I tell you that I was gay?" I asked.
"No," he said. "But I'm pretty sure you are, Tommy. I even knew what Wendy was talking about at lunch. You broke up with Steve over this, didn't you?"
I was amazed at how much he really did know about me. I supposed that it wasn't difficult for other gays to see through me and Steve, but how did he know what Wendy and I talked about? I hadn't said a word about it when I got back to lunch, and Wendy had gone back to the other table. I didn't know what to think.
"I didn't break up with anyone," I said.
"Well, we want you to know that if you do decided to come out, we're with you," said Rick, shocking the Hell out of me.
"What do you mean?" I asked, looking at him as he turned around in his seat to face me.
"Exactly what you think I mean," he replied. "If you come out, we'll come out, too."
"Don't look so shocked, Tommy," said Mark, looking at me through the rear view mirror. "We're all friends here."
After that, Rick told me that he and Mark had been together for almost two years. He said that a lot of people already knew about them, but not everyone did. Coming out, to them, wasn't such an issue. They had the full support of their friends, and their families were behind them completely. I opened up and told them about what was going on between me and Steve, and Mark told me not to be so hard on him. He said that working things out was definitely the right thing to do. I had much to think about when they dropped me off in front of my house.
Instead of really letting my mind work on the problem, I went inside. Vince was sitting in the living room, and my mother wasn't home. I hadn't actually checked to see if Vince's car was sitting in front of the house, but since he was sitting in the living room, I supposed it had to be. I went upstairs to my bedroom and found it empty. No Steve. Retracing my steps, I confirmed first that he was nowhere in the house. Looking out the window, I also confirmed that Vince's car was not in front of the house.
"Where's Steve?" I asked, sitting down in the recliner.
"Wendy's," sighed Vince. "Look, Tommy, if you two are really going to break up, then tell him for sure, ok? Because this moping, broken heart shit is driving me crazy."
"I never said I was breaking up with him, Vince," I replied. "And I think its completely stupid for him to go around telling everyone that I already did."
"You weren't exactly verbal with him, Tommy," he said. "Before supper yesterday, I mean."
"This goes both ways, damn it," I gasped. "Why in the Hell am I the only one around here with a burnt ass over this? He wasn't talking to me any more than I was talking to him. Poor Steve. Great."
"Oh, and if he'd talked to you first, you would have just forgave him for whatever you think he's done wrong?" he asked, glaring at me.
"Fuck you, Vince," I said. "This has nothing to do with you. We're not children, and I don't enjoy being treated like one. We're having problems, sure, but that doesn't give you, or anyone else the right to sit there, looking all high and mighty and blame me for it. It takes two, remember?"
"What's with you?" he asked. "Are you mad at me, or it is the entire world?"
"Oh, I don't know," I said sarcastically. "I actually paid attention today, and for the first time in my entire life, I was called a fag. Coming out is really weighing on my mind today, Vince, but I'm sorry if it ruins your perfect existence."
"Who called you a fag?" demanded Steve from the doorway. I hadn't heard him come in, because Vince and I were yelling at each other.
"Bobby Sherman," I said, turning to face him. "And I'm mad at you, you know? Stop going to Wendy about our problems, Steve. If we were broke up, I'm sure I wouldn't have had to be told about it by one of our friends."
"So you're talking to me again?" he asked, coming completely into the room.
"No," I spat. "I'm yelling at you!"
"You don't have to come out, you know?" he said.
"Actually, I think I've already done that, thanks," I said. "I just didn't deny anything to Mark and Rick in the car on the way home, so I don't know, but I think that was clearly an admission. It just stuns me that they said if I wanted to come out at school, they would, too."
"What?" he asked. Disbelief was clearly written all over his face.
"That's right," I said, nodding my head. "They're gay, and they're a couple. Nice how we notice things, isn't it?"
"Never mind them for now," he said, sitting on the couch beside his brother. "Are we broke up?"
"Well, unless you're breaking up with me, then I didn't think we were," I said. "We had a fight, Steve. It happens with couples sometimes. That doesn't mean that we broke up."
"Are you going to be sarcastic with me all the time now?" he asked.
"Well, I hadn't planned on it, no," I said. "Right now, I'm just a little upset. Don't fret, though, I'm not as upset with you as I was yesterday. I think I might actually calm down about that long enough to freak out over coming out at school."
"You're what?" asked my mother, who had either snuck in, or I was yelling too loud to notice again.
"I'm coming out of the closet," I said. "No point in hiding it all now, is there?"
"I thought you said you weren't ready for that," she said.
"Well, Mom, I kind of blew it today," I said. "I was discussing the fact that I hadn't broken up with Steve today in the hall with Wendy, and Bobby Sherman heard every word we said. So, Monday, exactly what I was afraid Steve would do to me will happen to him. I'm trying to think of a way to apologize to him in advance."
"What do you have to apologize to me for?" asked Steve.
"Because I kind of inadvertently outed you, too," I said.
"How do you figure?" he asked, cocking his head.
"Well, when Mark and Rick asked me if I broke up with you, I said I hadn't broken up with anyone," I said.
"That's not outing me," he said. "I already outed myself today, anyway."
"You did?" I asked, walking over to sit beside him on the couch.
"Yeah," he said. "Mindy Cleary asked if I was gay, and I told her that I was. She asked me if I had a boyfriend, and I said it was none of her business."
"So are you two done fighting?" asked my mother.
"God, I hope so," I breathed. "I'm still mad at him for hiding things from me, but I don't want to break up with him, and I feel really bad that he thought I already had."
"I think we'd better go upstairs and talk," said Steve, standing and pulling me up as he did. "And, Vince? Stay out of our relationship from now on, please. Don't say anything," he said as Vince prepared to protest, "just do as I ask."
With that said, he led me, by the hand, out of the living room and up the stairs. I asked to be informed when supper was ready, and then we left the two of them gaping at us. As soon as we were behind the closed bedroom door, our arms were around each other, and we were preaching our apologies into each other's necks.
"I'm sorry that I made you think I wanted to break up," I said, kissing his neck.
"I'm so sorry for keeping things from you again, Tommy," he replied. "If I do it again, hit me over the head and make me talk to you."
"I love you, Steve," I said, pulling back to look into his eyes.
"I love you, too," he said before laying a kiss on me that rocked me and made my knees weak.
We sat on the bed, talking and never taking our hands off of each other. I admitted that I had been stubborn and kind of stupid the past two days, and he told me that he'd been scared shitless that I was actually leaving him. I kissed him and hugged him, trying to make him understand that I would never leave him for something so stupid. I suddenly couldn't excuse my actions, and I felt so evil for making him suffer.
When it was time to go to karate practice, Nick and Jeremy were both surprised to see Steve and I walk out to the car, holding hands. Jeremy smiled as we opened the car door and shuffled into the back seat next to him, leaving Nick standing on the sidewalk, gawking. He finally got in the front seat with Vince, and we took off for karate.
"I take it things are better between you two," said Nick without turning to look at us.
"He's still pretty upset about us not telling him," said Steve, looking at me, "but, yeah, things are fine between us."
"Does that mean that you'll be riding to school with us and sitting with us at lunch?" asked Jeremy.
"That, and I'll also be hanging out in the quad before class every morning," I said. "I was an ass, and I'm sorry, guys."
At karate, we were having a free day. They were signing up for the tournament, but Steve and I had no interest. Dave tried to change our minds, but we weren't swayed. Mark and Rick both signed up for the tournament, and Jeremy signed up as well. Nick sat with us while we watched them all stand in line.
"Jeremy's really excited about this tournament," he said.
"We'll all go to support him," I said.
"He's quite the fighter," said Steve. "I just don't understand why he doesn't defend himself."
"He told me that he's afraid that if he starts fighting back, it will go too far," I informed them. "He's afraid of hurting someone."
"I can understand that," said Steve. "I worry about that sometimes, too."
"I've already done it," I said softly, thinking about Jason.
"You didn't mean to," said Nick.
"And you stopped when he went down," reminded Steve.
"Monday, things could get really hairy," I said.
"You're coming out on Monday?" asked Nick with wide eyes.
"That's the plan," I replied, shocking Steve as well.
"Were you going to discuss this with me?" asked Steve.
"I thought I already had," I said, smiling at his confused face.
"You said you thought you outed us to Mark and Rick," he said. "You never said anything about coming out at school."
"Remember, I said that Bobby heard every word I said to Wendy," I reminded him.
"You said that," he admitted. "So what's the plan?"
"I don't know," I replied. "I thought we'd at least hold hands on the way into the school."
"Sounds doable," he said, smiling at me.
"Good grief," said Nick. "You could just tell people."
"Well, most of them think they already know," I said. "Besides, we see guys and girls hold hands, and a lot more, at school every day."
"Equality, Nicky," said Steve. "That's what this is about."
"You know that in the process, we're outing a few other people," I said, looking at Mark and Rick.
"No, they'll be outing themselves, Tommy," Steve replied. "They're the ones that told you that if you came out, they would, too."
"True," I said. "I just hope everyone is ready for this."
We were quiet for the rest of the time we were there. Nick kept looking at us like he wanted to say something, but he thought better of it each time. I wondered how soon we'd be out in the karate class after coming out at school. I didn't think we'd have too many problems with the group of kids we had class with. None of them seemed to be too worried about that kind of thing. Mark assured me that several of them already knew about him and Rick, and they were fine with it.
"Tommy and Steve are coming out at school on Monday," Nick announced to Jeremy and Vince when we got in the car after class.
"You're what?" asked Jeremy, looking at us like we were crazy. "Did you both forget what happened on Monday?"
"Jason and Eric are retarded," claimed Steve. "The majority of our classmates will either be fine with it, or they won't say anything about it."
"You're sure about this?" asked Vince.
"Positive," I said.
We went to Wendy's on Saturday, and warned her, Peter and Marcy about what we were going to do. Marcy hadn't been told that we were gay, yet, so her reaction was the one that Steve and I were worried about. Instead of telling her outright, we just snuggled together while we watched the first movie. If she had anything against it, she never made it known to us.
"We have to talk to you guys," said Steve when Wendy was changing movies. "Its kind of serious."
"Ok," said Wendy, putting the next movie on top of the entertainment center instead of putting it in the DVD player. She sat down again and gave us her complete attention. "Shoot."
"Well, you all know that rumors are floating around the school about me, Tommy, Nick and Jeremy," he said. "First of all, I want to tell you all that Nick and Jeremy are straight."
"We know that," said Peter.
"Well, I already told one person that I'm gay at school on Friday," said Steve.
"And Bobby Sherman heard me and Wendy talking during lunch yesterday, too," I said.
"I was afraid of that," she said.
"Well, we've decided that Monday morning, we're coming out at school," said Steve. "Now I know that a lot of people won't like us, because of this, but I wanted to let you guys know what was coming before it happens."
"You know I don't care if you come out or not," said Wendy. "I'll stand beside you."
"I'm cool with it, guys," said Peter. "I'm with you if you need me. You know that."
"Well, I believe that it shouldn't matter one way or the other," said Marcy, looking us both in the eye. "I've suspected that you two were a couple since I started dating Peter. He wouldn't say anything, but it isn't hard to tell with the way you treat each other. I think its really great that you two have each other, and if you want everyone to know about it, then I say go for it."
"It sounds like Monday is going to be a very interesting day," laughed Wendy. "I'm looking forward to it."
"So am I," said Steve, putting his arm around me again.
When we got back to the house, Sharon and Mike were sitting in the living room with Mom and Vince. We were surprised to see them, and they looked like they had something on their minds. Steve and I sat in separate chairs and prepared for the onslaught of whatever they wanted to lecture us about. It was mad abundantly clear on many occasions that when they wanted to lecture us, we would not get away.
"Vince tells us that you are both planning to come out at school on Monday," said Sharon once we were seated. Vince was glaring at us like we'd done something terrible, and my mother was fidgeting nervously in her recliner.
"That's right," I replied. I was preparing myself for the argument I knew was coming.
"Have you thought about this?" asked Mike.
"Look," I sighed, "we've been over this with everyone else, and now I guess we'll do it again for you. Wendy and I were talking during lunch about me breaking up with Steve. When I told her that I hadn't broken up with, and wasn't planning to, Bobby Sherman heard every word we said. He called me a fag, and everyone in school has been talking about me and Steve. We thought it would be best if we just told them they were right."
"It isn't like we weren't thinking about doing this already," said Steve when I stopped talking. "After the fight on Monday, people were talking anyway. Someone asked me today if I was gay, and like I told all of you before, I didn't lie to her. I told her the truth, saying that it was none of her business when she asked if I had a boyfriend."
"Have you thought of what's going to happen after you make your announcement?" asked Sharon, looking like she was on the verge of panic.
"We've thought about everything," I assured her. "Whatever happens, we have friends who will back us, and we won't be the only ones to come out."
"This is insane," spat Vince.
"I thought I asked you to stay out of our relationship," said Steve, turning to look at his brother coldly. "You just couldn't do it, could you?"
"Steve, I think you're making a terrible mistake," said Vince.
"No," said Steve, standing up so fast that all of us jerked our heads in his direction. "My mistake was listening to you when you told me that I had to tell Mom and Dad. That was the biggest mistake of my life. They hate me now, Vince. Why do you think I would take your advice again?"
"You had to tell them sooner or later, Steve," said Vince calmly. "Don't blame it all on me."
"Sooner or later?" he asked, raising his voice with every word. "That's rich. Later would have certainly been better, wouldn't it, big brother? I mean, eighteen would have been a better age to be thrown out in the street by my father, right?"
"Steve," said Sharon.
"What?" he demanded, turning to her. "Truth sucks? Well, I'm sorry about that. I can't help it. The fact is, I've already been disowned by two of the most important people in my world, and now my brother, who made me tell them in the first place, thinks that my coming out to everyone is a mistake. When are you people going to just butt out and let me make my own decisions? I mean, first you tried to talk me into telling Tommy that I liked him and that I was gay. Now, that I agree I should have done from the beginning, but then you tried to talk me out of a relationship with him. Now you want me to keep my mouth shut, because you think it isn't the right thing.
"Damn it, Vince," he continued, "make up my mind. I can't figure you out. I mean, seriously, how long did you plan on keeping it a secret? You already joined the GSA. You've told them our story, and since you only have one little brother, that would mean that you've already broke the secret to the outside world, wouldn't it?"
"Attacking Vince isn't going to make things better, Steve," said Sharon.
"Oh, stop," he cried. "Every day you tell me the same thing. It isn't my fault that my parents did what they did. Looking forward and thinking about my future is what's best for me. Perhaps now isn't the time for me to be in such a serious relationship. Give it a rest. I'm not going to let any of you control me anymore. I've discussed this with my lover, and that's all I needed to do. We're both fine with it, so why don't you all just accept it and move on? You're not going to change my mind."
"I'm not going to listen to any more of this," said Vince, getting up to leave.
"Vincent Sutton, sit back down," said my mother in her most firm voice. "You told me that you wanted him to open up. He's done that, and now you don't want to hear it?"
"This isn't opening up, Donna," he said, glaring at Steve. "This is just blaming me for his life."
"My God," sighed Steve. "I don't blame you for anything, Vince. Why should I? You only told me that if I didn't come out to Mom and Dad that you were going to tell them yourself. That's pretty much pushing me into it, right?"
"And I saw what happened, Steve," he said. "Now you want to tell everyone, and I'm scared of what might happen to you if you do it."
"Fine," replied Steve. "I can accept that, but that doesn't change a damned thing. My mind is made up. Monday morning, I'm telling everyone."
"What do you have to say about this, Tommy?" asked Sharon.
I looked at her for a minute before answering. I was trying to figure out what her angle was. Vince was scared for Steve, and I could understand that, but what was Sharon's problem? Why did she even care about this? She'd told us that we'd eventually have to tell everyone the truth, so why was she trying to stop us from doing it now?
"I think that this is a decision that only concerns me and Steve," I said. "Now I know that you are worried about us, and that kind of makes it concern you, too. But its our life. We made this decision as a couple, and we'll stand by it together. Like I said before, we have friends that will stand beside us no matter what happens, Sharon. Your son is one of them."
"But that's just it," she said. "Don't you see that coming out, and forcing your friends to stand with you can make things hard for them?"
"So that's what this is all about?" Steve gasped. "You're afraid that by coming out of the closet, we're forcing Nick and Jeremy to stand beside us and fight for our cause? Sharon, they both told us on their own that they were behind us all the way. We didn't force either of them into anything. I thought you said you were concerned about us."
"I am," she said. "But Nicholai is my son."
"And Tommy is my son," said Mom. "I'm worried about what might happen to him after this, too, but I know when his mind is made up, there is no point in trying to make him change it. From what I've seen of Steve's character, the same goes for him. Now, we can either accept their decision, or we can lose them both. They can't control Nick, Jeremy or any of their other friends, Sharon. You can't control them, either.
"School exists in an entirely different world than home life," she continued. "How in the world do you expect to control anything that happens in school?"
"Well, I'm done with this discussion," said Steve. "My decision has been made. Vince, Sharon, if either of you have a problem with that, I'm sorry. If I spoke out of line to either of you, I apologize. However, the decision isn't either of yours to make. Tommy and I have made this decision together, and that's the way it should be. I'll be upstairs if anyone needs me, but if you come to talk to me about this, I'll just leave the house. Consider this dropped."
We sat there in stunned silence as we watched Steve walk out of the room. I couldn't believe he'd said the things he'd said. What he'd said to Vince, I couldn't argue with, because I knew that was how he really felt. The stuff about coming out at school, forcing our friends to stand up with us, and changing his mind I completely agreed with. Sure this whole thing scared the crap out of me, but it was something that I knew I had to do. Too many people were talking for this to just go away. No matter if we liked it or not, we were almost out of the closet already.
"Did you talk him into this?" demanded Sharon. "Is this your crazy idea to keep you guys together? You want to make everyone hate you both, so he has no choice but to stay with you?"
"Sharon," gasped my mother. "That's enough! You will not sit in my living room and talk to my son this way. Perhaps being your friend was a mistake. I assure you that if it was, I'll rectify it soon."
"Sharon, I didn't want to believe that you were actively trying to break me and Steve up," I said. "There were suspicious things that you said in the past, but each time you explained them away. This time, you can't explain it away. If you don't like the fact that Steve and I are together for whatever reason, I'd be happy if you'd just keep that to yourself.
"I'm being disrespectful," I continued. "I apologize for that. This won't be the last time, though. Your opinion of what is going on between me and Steve is irrelevant. I don't think it would be wise to advise him on anything now."
"I think its time for you to leave now, Sharon," said Vince, shocking all of us. "You won't be talking to Steve on a daily basis anymore, either. I'm his guardian, and I say that stops. If he decides to talk to you at all, it will be his choice. The daily soda trips are over."
I got up and left the room after that to search for my boyfriend. I found him in our room, lying on the bed. He was lying on his stomach, and his face was turned away from the door, so I didn't know if he was crying or not. I just walked over to the bed and sat down beside him, rubbing his back slowly and softly.
"Has she changed your mind?" he asked without turning to look at me.
"About what?" I asked.
"Me," he said, and I could hear genuine fear in his voice as he said it.
"Steve, no one will ever change my mind about you accept you," I said. "Sharon went too far, and I snapped back at her, my mom told her off, even Vince had something to say. It shocked us all, but he told Sharon to leave. I came upstairs after that."
"Vince told her to leave?" he asked, turning to look at me finally.
"He sure did," I said. "I don't know if she left, but she looked like she was ready to explode."
"She's been trying to talk me into slowing our relationship down, or even stopping it all together," he said, looking down at the bed.
"I don't know what her problem is," I said. "I told her off about that, though. If ever we decide not to be with each other, it won't be because of her."
"I think I'm done talking to her for a while," he said.
"Well, Vince already took care of that," I informed him. "He pulled the guardian card on her and said that she wasn't talking to you anymore unless you decided to talk to her."
"Vince did that?" he asked, looking at me with wide eyes.
"He sure did," I replied. "He's pretty upset about what you said to him, though."
"I didn't really mean it, Tommy," he said, looking worried again. "It just came out. I was upset, and I said exactly what I knew would hurt him."
"I can't say anything about that, Steve," I said him. "That's something you're going to have discuss with Vince."
"I'm mad at him, though," he said. "He's the one that went and got Sharon and Mike to try to talk me out of coming out."
"Well, Mike never really said much," I said. "I think it was mostly Sharon."
"But still," he said, "Vince is the one that started this."
"I know that," I said. "I also know that, even if you didn't mean to say the things you said to him, that's the way you really feel about everything that happened. I can't say that I blame you for feeling that way, but you and Vince have got to work something out. You have to find a way to either forgive him for it, or just move on."
"I know," he sighed.
"I love you, Steve," I said, stroking his back.
"Why?" he asked, confusing me.
"Why do I love you?" I asked as he nodded. "I love you for the boy that you are, Steve. You're sweet, funny, full of love, compassionate, understanding, sensitive, and you constantly think of everyone before you think of yourself. I love you for all of that and so much more I can't even put into words. I love you, Steven Sutton."
"You'll never leave me?" he asked, and I could hear the fear in his voice.
"Why do you think I'd leave you?" I asked him.
"Because," he said, and tears started to fall from his beautiful blue eyes. "My own parents don't love me, Tommy. My brother just wants to control me. Even Sharon wants to control me, but I don't think either of them really love me. If you love me as much as I believe you do, then I can't stand the thought of ever losing you."
"Steve, I will never hurt you, and if I ever do, it wouldn't be intentional on my part," I said, lying next to him in the bed. "I love you with all of my heart, and my love is completely unconditional. I can't promise that we'll be together forever, because people change, Steve. I can promise you that as long as I live, you will be in my heart."
"I love you so much that it scares me sometimes, Tommy," he said as I held him. "I know that sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but I really do love you. I think about you all of the time, and even when I'm with you, I miss you like crazy. I'm sorry for hiding things from you, and, yes, I was trying to protect you, but it wasn't because I think of you as anything less than a strong person who can handle just about anything. Its only because I love you, and I'd do anything to keep you from being unhappy."
"Steve, I'm not angry with you for keeping anything from me anymore," I assured him. "Even when I was angry about it, I knew why you were doing it. It hurt, but at the same time I loved you even more for it. I said things to you on Thursday that I can't take back, and I hate myself for it."
"Tommy, don't," he said, squeezing me. "We're past that now. I have you in my arms, and you apologized for that. I've apologized for making you say those things, and I can forgive you for what you said, if you can forgive me for doing the things that I did to make you say them."
"There's nothing to forgive," I said.
We were quiet after that. We just cuddled together, and occasionally we'd kiss or squeeze each other. This went on until we fell asleep in each other's arms. In that time, everything was right in the world, and no one could touch us. He was mine, and I was his. If only that time could have lasted forever. We really weren't prepared for the backlash of the days events, and when we were ripped out of our peaceful, perfect sleep by Nick, the reality of life slammed us like a truck at full speed.
"What the Hell happened over here?" demanded Nick before either of us completely conscious. "My mom and dad just had the biggest fight I've ever seen them have, and the way they threw your names back and forth at each other, makes me think that its because of you!"
"Calm down, Nick," I said, sitting up. "What happened?"
"Well, my dad said something about my mother butting into everyone's lives and making things worse," he rambled. "Then, my mom packed a bag and walked out of the house. She said she hoped that we were all happy without her, Tommy. What did you guys do?"
"Oh, God," said Steve, sitting up beside me. "Nick, I'm sorry."
"Sorry for what, Steve?" he demanded. "What did you two say to them while they were here?"
"Your mom was trying to talk us out of coming out at school," I said. "Things got a little heated, and Steve told us all a few things that he and your mother talk about when she takes him for their daily talks. My mom, and your dad got mad about it, I guess."
"What has she said to you?" he asked Steve.
"Well, she's constantly trying to convince me that Tommy and I are too young to be in love," he said. "She tells me that I'm not ready for the type of relationship that we have, and that I should either slow it down or stop it completely."
"And then she said that we were pushing you and Jeremy into defending us when we come out at school," I said. "After Steve came up here, she asked me if this was my doing. She asked me if this was my way of making sure that everyone hated Steve, and he would only have me, or something like that."
"She said what?" gasped Steve beside me.
"Shit," sighed Nick.
"Steve, I never planned anything," I said quickly as he put his arms around me. "I swear."
"Tommy, I know you didn't plan anything," he said. "I don't know why she said that stuff to you, but I know it isn't true."
"My mom said all of that?" asked Nick with a stunned face.
"She said a lot more than that," said Steve. "Donna was ready to throw her out of the house, but Vince beat her to it."
"Vince threw my mother out of the house?" he asked.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," I said. "He just told her that he thought it would be best if she left. He did say that she wasn't talking to Steve anymore. He said that their soda trips were over."
"Well, my mom and dad have been fighting a lot lately," said Nick. "Most of the time it was over Jeremy, but sometimes it was bout you two."
"Why did they fight over Jeremy?" I asked.
"Something about the way she teats him," said Nick. "I don't know exactly what they were yelling about."
Right after he got those words out of his mouth, my mother came to the door to tell us to come downstairs. When we got there, Mike was sitting in the living room with Vince. He smiled a sad smile when he saw us, and I felt bad for him. He told us that Sharon had gone to Maine to get away for a while, and he was sorry for the trouble. Steve and I both assured him that neither of us were angry with him for anything. After that, he took Nick and went home.
We had a very quiet supper that evening. Mom and I both kept looking at each other, but every time, we'd look away quickly. Vince and Steve stared at their plates. It was obvious that both of them were still thinking about what Steve had said to Vince earlier. I wished that there was some way to cheer both of them up, but what Steve had said hurt Vince, but what Vince had done hurt Steve. This was something they'd have to work out on their own. I couldn't get involved on either side.
After supper, Steve and I went upstairs and watched a movie. We never let go of each other through the whole thing, but we also said nothing to each other. I knew that he was still upset over the "discussion" we'd had earlier with Vince and Sharon. I gave him time and let him think. I never took my arm off of him, though. I wanted him to know that I was still there for him if he needed to talk about it. I didn't know what I'd say, but I was there for him.
I don't think I was supposed to know it, but Steve cried himself to sleep that night. It hurt to just do nothing about it, but I knew that he wouldn't have wanted me to remark on it. It was long after he'd cried himself out before I finally drifted off to a nightmare infested sleep of my own. Luckily however, I didn't remember the nightmare when I woke up the next day.
"Morning," mumbled Steve as I tried to slip out from under his arm.
"Morning," I said. "If you don't let me get up, it'll soon be a wet morning."
"Hurry," he sighed as he stretched and rolled over. "Come back to bed."
I passed Vince on my way to the bathroom. He looked no better than Steve as he mumbled a good morning to me and went back to his room. I used the bathroom and raced back to the bedroom to crawl back in bed with Steve. He wrapped his arm around me again and nuzzled my neck. God, how I loved him.
"We should get up soon," I said as I turned over to put my own arm over him.
"Sunday," he mumbled, pulling me closer.
"Yes, but . . ."
"Shh," he cut me off. "Just be with me."
I must have gone back to sleep, because the next thing I knew, Steve was crawling over with me without even trying to be subtle. He mumbled something unintelligible, and he raced to the bedroom door, threw it open and nearly leaped across the hall to the bathroom. I stretched and yawned, wondering what time it was. The clock shocked me awake, telling me that we'd slept again all right. It was nearly one. I jumped out of bed, grabbed clean clothes for me and Steve and ran to the bathroom.
"Hey!" cried Steve when I opened the door.
"Its just me," I said. "I brought clothes for us to put on. We need to take a shower."
"What time is it?" he asked.
"Almost one," I replied. "We told Peter we'd be at his house at one, remember?"
"Shit," he sighed.
We both jumped into the shower as soon as I had the water temperature right. There was no time for anything other than getting clean, so we made short work of it and were out of the shower, dressed, teeth brushed and shaved by one-thirty. A quick call to Peter took care of his being angry with us. He laughed at me when I said we'd only gotten up little more than half an hour before I called him.
"Is Vince bringing you?" he asked. "Or do you need a ride?"
"Probably better if you give us a ride," I said.
Peter picked us up about ten minutes later. I could tell he wanted to ask what was going on, but he didn't. Steve was being quiet, and I wasn't in the mood to really talk much, either. I told myself that I had to snap out of it and be a good friend for Peter. The last thing he needed was to have us be moody the whole time we were at his house.
"One more week of school before vacation," he said, breaking the silence for me.
"Yeah," I agreed. "An eventful week."
"It sure will be," chuckled Peter. "I'm actually looking forward to tomorrow."
"Me too," said Steve. "I can't wait to just get it over with, so everyone will stop trying to talk me out of it."
"Who's trying to talk you out of it?" asked Peter, glancing at Steve through his rearview mirror.
"Oh, just Vince and Sharon so far," he said, and I cringed. "I don't know who else I'll see before school tomorrow."
"Well, you're still doing it, right?" asked Peter, looking at me.
"Oh yes," I said. "No backing out now. Too late for that."
"That's right," said Steve. "Besides, I'm sick of hiding."
"Well, just remember that we're all behind you," said Peter.
"Just don't tell your mom," mumbled Steve, and I cringed again.
"Dude, what's that about?" asked Peter, consulting the rearview again.
"Long story," said Steve. "Sorry I said anything."
Naturally, Peter wanted to know what was going on, so Steve told him all about our talk with Sharon and Vince the night before. I filled in when Steve got to where he left the room, but we didn't tell them about Mike and Sharon's fight, or about Sharon leaving for Maine. Peter whistled through his teeth.
"Damn, guys," he said. "So Sharon doesn't want you two together? I thought she was all for it?"
"Well, that's the way she acted when Tommy was around," said Steve. "But as soon as I was alone with her, she changed her tune."
"That sucks," said Peter.
We didn't talk about that for the rest of the time we spent with Peter. What we did was play pool in his basement. I wasn't that good at it, but I really enjoyed the game. Peter was a pro, and he quickly made both me and Steve losers. We played six games between the two of us, and neither of us were all that good.
"We have got to practice before we play you next time," laughed Steve as he and Peter put away the pool sticks. "You made us look like idiots."
"Well, I play with my dad and his friends almost every Tuesday night," he said.
"That explains it," I laughed. "But we really suck."
"We'll get better, Bud," said Steve. It was the first time he'd used the pet name for me all day. It made me smile.
About that time, we heard a rumbling above our heads. We all got quiet for a minute, and then Peter went back to covering the pool table like nothing was going on. Steve and I continued to glance up at the ceiling of the basement and back at each other. Peter suggested watching a movie as the source of the rumbling came tearing down the basement stairs.
"Hey, Peter!" cried a young boy with dark blond hair and brown eyes. He couldn't have been older than twelve, and he reminded me of what Ben had looked like when he was younger.
"Hi, Dyllan," said Peter. "What's up?"
"I just wanted to come over and play pool with you guys," said Dyllan, glancing at the covered pool table.
"We just got done, buddy," replied Peter. "We're going to watch a movie. You can watch it with us if you want."
"Cool!" exclaimed Dyllan.
"Oh," said Peter, glancing at me and Steve, "these are my friends Tommy and Steve. Guys, this is Dyllan. His family just moved in next door a few days ago."
"Nice to meet you, Dyllan," I said, shaking his hand. Steve did the same, and then we settled into chairs to watch a movie.
Dyllan talked through the entire thing, and ordinarily, that would have irritated me to no end, but the movie, a cheep knock off version of Harry Potter, wasn't very good, so I didn't mind his constant chatter. He told us all about his dad's new job at a plastic factory in town, the name of which he couldn't think of. His mom was a teacher who would be subbing at Storyville High soon, so we'd get to meet her some time. He had no brothers or sisters, but his mother was pregnant, so that would change soon.
Shortly after the movie was over, Peter's dad called downstairs to tell Dyllan that his mother wanted him to come home for supper. We were invited to eat with the Nolls, and we accepted. Steve called home to tell my mom that we wouldn't be home for supper, and then we were sitting at their dining table while Mrs. Noll started packing fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy and corn to the table.
"So, are you both ready for Christmas Vacation?" asked Mr. Noll right after Mrs. Noll sat down at the other end of the table.
"We can't wait," I said, answering for Steve, too. "We were supposed to fly to Maine to see a few really good friends of mine, but that trips has been called off."
"Well, you two are more than welcome to hang out here with us over the vacation," said Mrs. Noll.
"Thank you," said Steve.
"Steven, how are things between you and your parents since you and Vince moved out?" she asked, making Steve wince. "Any progress?"
"No, ma'am," he said. "Vince doesn't want me to know, but the house is up for sale, and my parents moved to Oregon."
He hadn't said a word about this to me, and I wondered if that was part of the reason he was so quiet lately. I wished that I could help him with his parents, but there was nothing anyone could do if they wanted to hold on to their prejudice. It was sad to think that parents could just stop loving their own children like that.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Steven," she said with a sad smile. "So, you're both living with Tommy and his family?"
"Yes," replied Steve. "We're very lucky that Tommy's mother is such a great person."
"I've met Donna," said Mr. Noll. "She handled my nephew, William's, court case."
"I didn't know that," I said.
"Damn fine lawyer," said Mr. Noll. "Nice woman, too."
"Thank you," I said.
"You be sure and thank your mother for all she did," said Mr. Noll.
"I will, sir," I replied.
"Boys, you may as well call us Ted and Barbara," said Mrs. Noll. "We're not that old, yet."
"Ok, Barbara," I said, making her smile.
The rest of the meal was filled with pleasant conversation, and Steve even joined in it, making me feel slightly better about him. I was still worried about him, but there was a time, and a place, for everything. This was not the place for us to have one of our serious talks. That would have to wait until we were back at home in our room.
After supper, I helped Barbara clear the table while Steve and Peter talked with Ted about school. Barbara thanked me for helping her, but I assured her it was the least I could do after such a great meal. I liked Peter's parents. They were both easy to get along with, and they treated us like men instead of boys like so many other adults were prone to.
When Peter dropped us off at home, we encountered Vince leaving the house. He and Steve said nothing to each other as they passed each other, and I worried even more. If they weren't even going to speak to each other, then how were they supposed to fix the rift between them? I hoped that one of them came to their senses soon. Silence would only make things worse for both of them. I'd thought that Steve had figured that out already.
With jury selection over, Mom was back to working on briefs in the dining room. She smiled at us when we came in, but she said nothing. Steve and I went straight upstairs, took off most of our clothes and cuddled together on the bed while we at least tried to pay attention to a television movie. Between his erection throbbing against my backside and me kissing his fingers, the movie didn't stand a snowball's chance in Hell.
"Are you nervous about tomorrow?" he asked me as I kissed up his hand to his forearm.
"Not really," I said. "I thought I would be, but like you, I just want to get it over with before someone tries to stop me again."
"I'm kind of nervous, Bud," he said in a hushed voice.
"You want to change your mind?" I asked, giving him the opportunity.
"No," he said. "I'm just nervous about what everyone will say. I've been thinking about my mom and dad a lot."
"I thought you might've been," I said, turning over to face him. He buried his face in my neck.
"I'm a coward," he said.
"No, you're not," I answered, holding him a bit tighter. "Steve, you're about the bravest person I know."
"How do you figure?"
"Well, you stuck it out, trying to win your parents over for so long," I said. "If I had been in your shoes, I would have just crumbled."
"All that showed was that I was stupid to think they'd ever change," he sighed.
"Steve, you're parents are wrong," I said firmly. "Not you."
"I love you, Tommy," he said, and I could feel tears on my neck.
"I love you, too," I said, kissing his shoulder. "If you want to just not say or do anything to let anyone know we're gay tomorrow, I'll understand. We'll deal with the ones who know already."
"You're holding my hand all the way from the car to the quad, Tommy," he said. "I can't back out just because of nerves."
"Your wish," I said.
"I'll be ok, Tommy," he assured me. "I'm just nervous, and Vince and Sharon had a big hand in making me feel this way."
"I know," I said, getting angry all over again.
"Calm down, Bud," he said, obviously feeling the tension roll through my body. "That's over. We come out tomorrow as planned, and then they can just shut up."
"Sounds good to me," I sighed.
He pulled me closer and kissed me lightly. I stared into his eyes, and I could see a mixture of fear and desire in them. Maybe coming out wasn't exactly the thing to do, but I couldn't deny him anything. In that moment, I knew that I would do whatever it took to make him happy. I knew then, beyond a shadow of a doubt, I was in love with him.
"Let's make love," he whispered, and I devoured his mouth.
We were up and working out before four the next morning. I knew that both of us were trying to burn off all of the nervous energy that was running through us. We were both nervous about what was coming, and neither of us wanted to say anything to each other until it happened and was over. That way, neither one of us could even try to talk the other out of doing this. My mother called us into the house at five-thirty to shower and eat breakfast.
"You're both very quiet this morning," she said when both of us were seated in the kitchen with plates of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of us. We'd silently passed salt, pepper and the juice back and forth after nodding at my mother.
"Thinking," I said quickly. There was no way I was going to admit that I was nervous. Vince was sitting across from us, looking at us hard.
"Nervous?" he asked, glancing at Steve when he said it.
"About grades," I replied sharply.
Right then, Jeremy and Nick came through the side door of the house and into the kitchen. They were both smiling with obvious excitement about the upcoming event. I wished that they didn't look so excited, because their excitement made me feel more nervous. I glanced at Steve, but he was still glaring at Vince. I would have thought that things couldn't have gotten worse, but then Nick spoke, and that's exactly how things got.
"So what time is Peter getting here?" he asked. "I don't want to be late."
"Peter?" asked Vince, looking at me.
"He'll be here in a few minutes," said Steve. "Calm down, Nick."
"What's going on?" asked Vince, looking from me to Steve.
"Peter is going to be driving us to school from now until I buy my car," said Steve without even glancing in his brother's direction. "It would be very good if I could put at least a part of the money that my brother's parents send every week into a bank account to save it for a car and my future."
"Damn it, Steve," spat Vince, "I'm right here."
"Tommy, let's go wait for Peter outside," said Steve, standing up and grabbing his half eaten breakfast. He didn't wait for me to follow him. He just cleaned his plate, ran the disposal, put the empty plate in the dishwasher and left the room.
"You could have told me that you were having Peter come after you guys today, Tommy," said Vince.
"Look," I said. "This was the first I heard of it. He must have talked to him about it yesterday while I wasn't paying attention. As to how Nick and Jeremy knew about it before me, I'm completely clueless. I assure you, however, I will find out."
I got up and imitated Steve's actions in cleaning up my half eaten breakfast before going outside with Nick and Jeremy on my heels. Steve was sitting on the front porch with his backpack. I was about to turn around and go back inside when Nick handed me mine. At times, Nick was a handy guy to have around.
"I asked Peter to take us to school from now on yesterday," said Steve as I sat down beside him. "With everything else on my mind, I forgot to tell you."
"Peter called me last night to tell me he'd be over this morning to get us," explained Nick.
"Mad?" asked Steve, turning to look at me finally.
"No," I said. "Just would have been nice to know before this morning."
"Yeah," he said, squeezing my hand. "I'm sorry."
"Apology accepted," I said, leaning in for a kiss.
"Oh my God!" gasped Nick. "You two really are coming out everywhere."
It was then that I noticed that Dustin's dad was standing in his front yard gawking at us with a slack jaw. Surprisingly, the only thought that I had about that was that we'd probably no longer be welcome at the Sunday poker games. Steve didn't even flinch. He just smiled and waved at Mr. Miller.
"Morning, Mr. Miller," he called.
Mr. Miller didn't reply. He just turned around and went into the house, tugging his bathrobe closed tighter as he went. Steve and I looked at each other for a few seconds, and he looked like he was going to say something, but just then, Peter drove up. We all got up and walked to the car, and once again, I was nervous about going to school.
Peter and Nick talked about Marcy the whole way to school. Steve and I sat in the back seat with Jeremy and remained completely quiet. He never let go of my hand, but the closer we got to school, the tighter his grip got. I finally had to tug a bit to get him to loosen up. When I looked ahead again, we were pulling into the parking lot.
"Ready for this?" asked Steve as we got out of the car. He glanced around quickly as he said it.
"I'm ready," I replied, but my heart was slamming around in my chest. I reached for his hand, and he gave it willingly.
We walked through the parking lot, and no one even noticed. When we walked into the school, several people looked at us. They looked down at our clasped hands and then back up at our faces. This was it. If anyone was going to say something, I was ready for it. Steve smiled at everyone just like he always did, and most of them went back to their conversations. We continued to my locker. We'd long since stopped using separate lockers.
"Well," he said as he took my hand again after we'd taken off our coats, sorted through and selected the right boos, "no one said anything."
"So far, we're ok," I agreed.
We walked back to the quad, hand in hand. No one said a word about it. When we got to where Wendy and Marcy were waiting for us, I sat down on the ledge that went all the way around the room. Steve spread my legs and sat on the floor between them. Out of habit, I put my hands on his shoulders.
"Fags," called Bobby Sherman as he and three of his friends walked by.
"Breeder," called Steve in reply, but thankfully, Bobby and his troop kept walking.
"That's one," I said, giving Steve's shoulders a squeeze.
"He's a feeb," said Steve. "Forget about him."
We talked with our friends like we did every other morning, and no one else had anything negative to say about us. I scanned the room, watching the other students watch us on and off. Then I spotted Mark and Rick coming in from their lockers. They, too were hand in hand. They walked over to us and sat exactly the way we were with Rick on the ledge and Mark between his legs.
"Hey, guys," said Mark with a smile. "How's it going?"
"So far, Sherman's the only one with a mouth," said Steve. "No worries."
"No one else?" asked Rick, looking around the room.
"Nope," I said. "Not so far."
Throughout the day, many people asked me questions, but none of them seemed to be too upset about it, so I answered each one honestly. I didn't see Mark or Rick again until lunch when they came over to our table to sit. I thought it was strange, but then I noticed the guys that they usually sat with staring at us.
"Hope you don't mind," said Mark as he sat down across from me and Steve. "Those guys can't deal with it."
"Sorry," said Steve. "But if they can't, then they weren't friends to begin with."
"That's what I said," Rick sighed. "Sucks, though. We've known them all our lives."
"Greetings, my fellow exiles," said Nick as he came over and sat down.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Peter as he and Jeremy came over to sit.
"Oh, just a discussion in Algebra," he replied. "Seems I'm guilty by association."
"That's just wrong," said Steve.
"Dude, chill," said Nick. "I told them all that you don't have to be gay to have gay friends. The ones who are really cool will be ok. I'm not worried."
"But still . . ."
"Listen," Nick cut me off, "I told you that I'm behind you guys completely. I knew that some people would get the wrong idea, but I don't care. Like I said, if they're cool, they'll deal."
"What about you guys?" asked Rick. "Any problems, besides Sherman?"
"None for me," I said. "Some people have asked me questions, but no one has been out right rude or anything."
"What kind of questions?" asked Steve.
"Well, Mindy Cleary asked me if I was really gay," I said. "I told her that I was. She said that she saw us this morning, and now she knows who your boyfriend is. She was really cool about it. She even told me that it was about time we admitted it, and she told me she thought we made a cute couple."
"You're lucky," said Mark. "I've had two people threaten to kick my ass today. One of them was Bobby Sherman."
"Oh, yeah," I said. "He threatened to beat mine on Friday."
"Well," he chuckled, "at least I won't be the only one with a broken ass."
"Nah," said Steve, smiling at me, "Tommy can take him. He'll be the one getting his ass kicked if he starts anything."
"Damned right!" cried Jeremy, startling all of us. He was smiling at me, and I just smiled right back at him.
"Well, I'm not worried about Sherman," said Mark. "But he never does anything without his boys."
"You mean like Jason?" asked Jeremy, shocking me again.
"Right," chuckled Rick.
The bell rang, and I even shocked myself. As we stood up, Steve turned to me, and before I even thought about it, I kissed him on the lips. "Later, Cutie," I said as he smiled at me with red cheeks.
"Your locker, after school, stud," he said as the cat calls and whistles started around us.
I had no real problems until Gym. Mark and I walked into the locker room together, and as soon as we got there, the name calling started. We did our best to ignore it, but Bobby Sherman didn't give us that chance. He stalked over to us and planted himself in our path.
"I ain't changing with a couple of fags looking at my jock," he said.
"You're operating under the assumption that one of us would be interested in what's behind that jock, Bobby," said Mark.
"Fuck you, fag!" bellowed Bobby as two of his friends walked over to join him.
"Sorry," I said, glaring at him. "Not even on a bad day, Sherman."
"Alright, break it up, dirt balls," called Coach Meyer. "No dressing out today. I want everyone on the bleachers ten minutes ago."
"Well, I guess the fags won't get to gawk today," said Bobby, glaring back at me.
"Sherman, you go ahead and go talk to Mr. Benson for the rest of the period," said Coach. "I'm sure he'd be real interested in your views on expulsion."
"You're dead, faggots," he hissed before pivoting and stalking out of the locker room.
Mark and I looked at each other, but we didn't say anything. We just followed everyone else to the gymnasium and sat off to the side on the bleachers, giving everyone space. I didn't like being threatened, and I'm sure that Mark and I were thinking the same thing. If Bobby wanted trouble, we'd certainly give it to him.
Coach called roll, and then he embarked on a discussion about tolerance and acceptance. Mark and I were both shocked by what he had to say about treating people with respect regardless of their sexual preference. He told us all that in his locker room, there would be no "bullshit". Several students mumbled under their breath, and one by one, Coach sent them out of class. This wasn't doing anything to help out cause. They'd all surely blame us.
After that class, the name calling really began. We heard several slurs as we walked to our lockers. When I got to mine, Steve was already there, but he didn't smile when he saw me. There were several boys around, and it seemed like most of them had something to say to us as I joined my lover at our locker. It wasn't long before Bobby the two of his friends that had been kicked out of gym class came stalking toward us. Without even knowing that they'd come over to us, we were suddenly joined by Mark, Rick, Peter, Nick and Jeremy.
"Well, look," Bobby said loudly, "all of the fags in one neat little place."
"I suggest you back off, Bobby," said Jeremy, stunning all of us. His voice sounded hard and mean, and he'd never stood up to anyone that I'd known of. "There are more of us than there are of you, and you'll get hurt."
"You've been asking for it since you got Jason and Eric expelled, faggot," Bobby replied. "I'd keep my mouth shut if I were you."
"If you were me, you'd have a brain," said Jeremy, taking a step closer to Bobby as the rest of us stood there and just gawked at him.
"Don't fuck with me, Stokes," hissed Bobby. "I'll kick your ass."
"Bring it," said Jeremy, and then he moved very quickly into a fighting stance.
"Back off, Sherman," said Nick as he, Steve and I stepped forward beside Jeremy.
"Fuck you, Andrews," said Bobby. "Me and my boys are going to teach all of you girly little faggots a lesson."
"Do you really want to get your ass kicked by a bunch of 'girly little faggots'?" asked Rick as he and Mark joined us as well. Peter was still standing back looking stunned and fearful at the same time.
Then, Bobby moved to either shove or hit Jeremy, and before any of us knew what was what, Jeremy went into action. He started kicking and punching Bobby as Danny Orrant and Chad Platt came to his defense, both of them attacking Jeremy. Steve grabbed Danny, and I grabbed Chad. Both of them went down hard, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mr. Benson watching us closely. When Jeremy finally knocked Bobby on his ass, Mr. Benson came over to us.
"Well, boys," he said. "It looks like you decided to pick on the wrong group."
We stood there, shocked by his words. Was he actually going to let us get away with this? We'd been warned not to fight the day we'd come back from suspension, and now, Mitch Benson was standing over the three boys who had started this fight, telling them they'd picked on the wrong guys? What was this?
"Mr. Benson, Jeremy started the fight," said Bobby, pointing at Jeremy.
"No, Mr. Sherman," said Mitch, "you started this fight, and your friends decided to help you. For that, you will all be suspended."
"That's not fair!" cried Danny, getting up off the floor. "What about them?"
"From what I saw, those boys defended themselves," said Mitch. "You three attacked. Not them."
"So we're suspended, and they get to walk?" demanded Chad.
"No," said Mitch. "You three have three days of suspension, and these three have three days of detention. A fight is a fight. Your punishment is more severe, because you started the fight. I was standing just across the isle of lockers, watching the entire event from the moment you three left my office."
"This isn't fair," reiterated Bobby.
"You were warned before leaving my office that these boys were to be left alone," said Mitch. "I believe you said that wasn't fair, too."
"They don't belong in our school," spat Danny. "I don't want to go to school with fags."
"Then you don't want to go to school here," replied Mitch firmly. "If you'd like I can see to it that you are expelled rather than suspended."
"What?" cried Danny. "You can't expel me!"
"I'm most certain that I can," replied Mitch. "Right now you have three days suspension. One more word from any of you, and it will be five. Let me assure you that when you return from suspension, if any of you step out of line at all, you will be expelled."
We watched as Danny, Bobby and Chad walked away. I was still stunned that Jeremy had reacted the way he had. Just a week ago, he had stood in a circle of boys, letting them do whatever they wanted without fighting back. Today, he'd basically attacked Bobby. I was in shock while we followed Mitch back to his office to start our detention.
"You'll only have to wait until those three are gone," he said once we got into his office. "I'm not really keeping you here for detention. I wanted to talk to you boys about what happened, though."
"You said you saw it all," said Nick.
"I did," he said. "Now, I'm letting you guys off easy this time, but I don't want any more fighting."
"We will defend ourselves," said Steve. "I'm sorry, Mit . . . Mr. Benson, but I won't back down if someone is throwing a punch at me."
"I don't expect any of you to back down in that event," said Mitch. "I do have to reprimand you for fighting, though. Next time, it really will be a week of detention. I've informed the rest of the staff to keep their eyes open. I want this stopped before it starts. Now, I have to tell you that there are certain members of the staff that aren't on your side on this. I have instructed them that they will react in any situation for each of you, or they will be facing disciplinary actions."
Peter was waiting for us when we came out of the school. He apologized for not standing with us, but none of us were upset with him about it. He said that he was just so blown away by Jeremy that he couldn't really react. We all understood that, and we kept verbally patting Jeremy on the back for his actions.
"You guys stuck up for me," he said. "No one ever stuck up for me before, so when you were in trouble, I stuck up for you."
We had decided to keep it quiet, because we didn't want our parents or Vince to be worried, but as soon as Steve and I walked in the front door, Vince was just hanging up the telephone. We already knew who had been on the phone. He looked at us for a few minutes, saying nothing, and then he started to shake his head.
"I knew this would happen," he said. "I warned both of you, but you wouldn't listen to me."
"Vince, save it," said Steve. "I don't want to hear about it from you. We're out now, and there isn't anything that you, or anyone can do about it. Just drop it."
"Oh, so I'm supposed to say nothing when my little brother almost gets stomped by three homophobic assholes in school?" demanded Vince hotly.
"We had a run in with three boys that got kicked out of gym class for calling Tommy and Mark fags," he said. "Sure, they're homophobic, but they weren't about to kick my ass, Vince. I can take care of myself."
"And I'm not supposed to worry about you?" he asked.
"I didn't say you weren't supposed to worry," replied Steve. "You just can't start screaming at me all the time over this stuff. There isn't anything any of us can do about the way people think, Vince. Really."
"We're fine, Vince," I said. "We're not hurt, and we didn't hurt anyone."
"That's not the point, Tommy," he said. "I will worry about you two every day now. Not that I didn't before, but now it will be worse. You have no idea what people are capable of."
"Oh, you've got that wrong," said Steve. "I'm very aware of what people are capable of. I have frequent headaches that remind me of what people are capable of."
"You know what?" sighed Vince. "Never mind."
We watched him walk up the stairs before either of us moved from the front door. I could understand that he worried, but he always seemed to get bent out of shape whenever Steve or I didn't agree with him on something he felt strongly about. I couldn't decide if we should just keep our personal opinions to ourselves when he talked to us or not.
We went upstairs to do what little homework we had before supper. We heard my mother come home around four, and then we could hear her talking to Vince. We couldn't hear what was said, but Vince was raising his voice a lot. I hoped that he wasn't getting my mother all riled up over this issue. We were both fine, and we both knew how to defend ourselves. She'd made sure of that herself. I didn't feel like arguing with her after she'd probably had a long day.
"Tommy and Steve," she called up the stairs, "come on, we're going out to eat."
We looked at each other, and then we put our books away, grabbed our coats and headed down the stairs. Vince was nowhere in sight, and when I looked out the living room window, his car wasn't in front of the house. I hoped that he and my mother hadn't gotten into a fight. They'd been doing that a lot since the discussion with Sharon and Mike.
"Where's Vince?" asked Steve when we got to the kitchen.
"He went to talk to Maria," she said. "He's very worried about you two."
"We know," said Steve. "But honestly, there isn't anything anyone can do about it all."
"I know," she said. "We discussed this last night after you two went upstairs to bed. You're both out now, and that's all there is to it. If you have problems with anyone, you know who to go to, and if it gets serious, you know how to defend yourselves. I told him that we can't do anything about today's fight."
"You should have seen Jeremy," said Steve.
"Come on," she said, grabbing her purse. "You can tell me in the car. I'm hungry."
Mom was both surprised and thrilled to hear of Jeremy's uncharacteristic actions. She was pleased most with what he'd said about standing up for us, because we'd stood up for him. She said that Jeremy seemed to be coming out of his shell more and more when he was around me and Steve, and Steve agreed with her. He said he'd never seen Jeremy act the way he'd been acting.
She took us to Popeye's for chicken, and while we ate, we talked about the fight and every other aspect of our day at school. She told us that she would worry, yes, but she knew that there was nothing she do about anything that went on at school. If it got too dangerous for us to be there, then she'd make sure that we weren't there anymore. She'd talked to Mitch Benson twice that day. Once when he called to tell her that we had, in fact, come out, and the second call was to inform her of the fight.
She also told us how proud she was of us. She said that it took courage to come out to our classmates, and she was proud of that. We talked about Vince, and she agreed that he was getting a little too upset about the whole thing. She was worried, too, but she wasn't going to ride us about it the way Vince seemed to want to.
After we ate, we went to find a real Christmas Tree. Mom said that she'd been putting it off long enough, and Christmas wasn't that far off. When I asked about a real tree, she said that there was a real tree in the lobby of the firm, and she loved the way it smelled. She drove the Bucklan Mall parking lot where a small section had been converted into a "Christmas Tree Farm." They had trees lined up in rows, and a woman was selling plastic cups of hot chocolate for a dime. We each got a cup and sipped the chocolate while we browsed through the rows of trees. There were still several to choose from, but most of them were kind of thin and small. We finally found a five foot tree that was pretty full, so Steve and I toted the tree to the car while Mom paid for it. While we stood back and watched, two boys a little older than us came over and tied the tree to the top of my mom's car.
On the way home, Mom drove around, and we looked at all of the lights and decorations that people had in windows, in their yards, around their trees and bushes and on top of their houses. She told us that maybe next year, we'd decorate our own house with lights. We'd never done anything like that before, because we'd never lived in a house. We'd always lived in apartments, so the most we could do was put electric candles in the windows.
Back at home, we got all of the Christmas decorations from the hall closet, and then Steve and I untied the tree and brought it in the house. They'd given Mom a free tree stand, and Steve and I had a Hell of a time getting it on the bottom of the tree. Once we accomplished that task, we stood the tree up in front of the bay window in the living room. Mom had moved the couch and recliner while we toiled over the tree stand. Adding lights and ornaments proved to be a chore with three of us doing it. Mom put the angel on the top of the tree. It was a beautiful gold and ivory angel made of porcelain with satin wings. Mom said it was her mother's, and that was pretty much all she had to remember her by.
One the tree was decorated, Mom plugged it in, and we stood back with the lights off to admire our work. When she turned on the lights again, Steve and I went from window to window adding our electric candles, and Mom took a wreath out of the closet that she'd gotten at work and hung it on the front door. Our Christmas decorating complete, we settled down in the living room drinking more hot chocolate that Mom had made while Steve and I were decorating the windows.
We started to nod off around nine. We'd been up and active all day long, getting an early start that morning to burn off all of the nervous energy. Steve and I said goodnight to my mother, and then we walked, hand in hand, up the stairs to our room. We were so tired that we did nothing more than strip, climb in bed and cuddle until we were both asleep.
The next morning, Vince joined us for our run. It was odd, and I was used to having the mornings with Steve all to myself, but I didn't say anything about it. As usual, no words were spoken while we ran. Steve and I ran side by side with Vince trailing behind us. I wondered if this was just his way of keeping an eye on us, but I wasn't going to mention my thoughts to Steve. He was touchy enough when it came to his brother worrying.
Showered, dressed and ready for the day, we got back downstairs in just enough time to eat breakfast with Mom. She had court that morning, so she would be leaving a little earlier than usual. Vince said nothing throughout breakfast, and it was starting to make me nervous. I knew he had plenty to say to us, and even though I hated to argue with him about school, I disliked his silence even more.
Thankfully, Nick and Jeremy came through the side door shortly after we sat down. They were both chipper for a change, and I welcomed the distraction from Vince. Jeremy talked more than usual that morning, and I continued to marvel over the changes he was displaying. It was nice to finally see this side of him.
"Mike gave us 'the talk' this morning before he left for work," said Jeremy. "No fighting today."
"Yeah, he talked to Mitch like three times yesterday," laughed Nick. "He said that they're working on something that will possibly make things a bit better at school. I tried to tell him that things weren't bad there, but he just shook his head and stopped listening."
"What are they doing?" I asked as Steve took my empty plate to the dishwasher with his own.
"Well, I think they're going to hold an assembly or something," said Jeremy. "Something about new school policy."
"Great," I sighed. "More changes because of us."
When Peter got there to pick us up, we were still talking about the probably assembly and what it would mean for us. Steve and I were worried that it would cause even more problems for us, because everyone would blame us for the new rules in school. Peter said that he hoped that they just left things alone. He'd assured his parents that we were handling ourselves very well. Both of his parents were on the school board, so I hoped that they could influence Mitch's decision.
Mark and Rick met us in the parking lot, and we all walked into the school together. We held hands just like we had the day before, but this time, no one even glanced at us. Day two of being out of the closet was going just fine so far. We all separated to go to lockers, and when we met up in the quad again, we sat just like we had the day before, and still, no one said anything. We got the same looks from students as we had the day before, but no one seemed to have malice in their expressions.
"So, my dad held a meeting with the staff last night," said Wendy when she got to the quad. "He gave them a strict set of rules to follow."
"I thought that he was going to give the students different rules," said Jeremy.
"Well, according to what he said to my mom after the meeting," she said. "he doesn't think that's such a hot idea."
"Good," sighed Steve. "The last thing we needed was rules imposed on the entire school over our coming out of the closet. There's no way that we would be able to live that down."
"I'm going to talk to Mr. Benson during lunch," said Mark. "I already have an appointment. After I get his input on my idea, I'll talk to you guys. How about if Rick and I come to your house after school?"
"Sound fine to me," I said, glancing at Steve.
"No karate tonight," he said. "It'll be ok."
"Speaking of karate," said Rick. "Where were you two?"
"We went to pick a Christmas Tree with my mom," I replied. "She called Dave and told him we wouldn't be there."
"A lot of kids weren't there last night," said Mark. "Dave was in a foul mood, too. He didn't say anything to us, but I think that people have quit class, because we're there."
"That's bullshit," spat Jeremy. "What do we do about that?"
"I don't know," I said slowly. "We'll figure something out, though."
The bell rang, and we all separated to go to our first hour classes. I thought about the karate class all through History class. If people were really quitting karate just because of us being there, then maybe we shouldn't be there. I hated to even think about quitting karate, and I knew that my mom and Vince would have plenty to say on the issue, but I didn't want Dave's class to suffer over us, either. There were at least two hundred kids in our karate classes. They were grouped into different classes with different teachers, but Dave owned the center, so if a vast amount of kids quit, it would hurt Dave the most. Was our being there really that important?
I continued to turn all of this over in my head through my next two classes, barely hearing anything that either teacher had to say. Thankfully, no one called on me to answer anything. We weren't doing anything important since finals had already been taken, so I was safe being a slacker. I just wished that I knew what to do about it all. There probably wasn't anything that I could do to make things completely better. Either I quit karate to make the others happy, or I stayed and Dave's center suffered for it. Both options were bad for me. I really didn't want to quit.
At lunch, I did my best to pay attention to the conversation my lover was having with our friends, and I even contributed, but I was still in a funk. This whole thing had my mind working over time. Steve noticed, but thankfully, he didn't say anything. Maybe he was thinking about it all just as hard as I was.
"Where's Mark?" I asked, suddenly noticing that he wasn't sitting beside Rick.
"He had an appointment with Mr. Benson," said Rick. "He told you about it this morning, right?"
"Yeah," I sighed. "Sorry. I'm just thinking."
"Yeah," laughed Nick, "we noticed."
To everyone's surprise, Frank Pierce and Doug Harlan came to sit with us a few minutes later. They were both seniors and on the football team. At first I was nervous about them sitting with us. I had no idea what to expect from them. Neither of them had ever said a word to any of us that I knew of.
"Hey guys," said Frank as they sat down. "I've been hearing a lot of crap around school today."
"Oh?" I stupidly replied.
"Yeah," said Doug. "Seems a lot of people are pretty pissed off at you guys."
"We noticed," said Steve, looking at the pair of seniors levelly.
"Well, I just want you guys to know that I won't stand by and let people give you shit just because your gay," said Frank. "I have an uncle in California that's gay, and he's a really cool guy. I don't know either of you, but I just wanted to let you know that I'll be watching. If anyone starts any trouble, we'll be there for you."
"Thanks, Frank," I said, silently breathing a sigh of relief.
"Just think of us as extended friends," said Doug, smiling. "We won't get in your way, or anything. We'll just come along when you need a little extra help."
"That's it," said Frank. "A friendly envoy."
"By the way," said Doug, "I noticed that neither of you were in class last night. Why?"
"It was a family thing," said Steve.
I didn't even know that Doug was even in our karate class. He talked a bit about the large number of absences, and he confirmed our fear that they were because of us. He said that he and Frank were talking to those who'd skipped class about getting over their stupidity and coming back. He said that he hoped to see us Wednesday night, and he wanted to know why neither of us had signed up for the tournament."
"We didn't get into karate to win anything," explained Steve. "We started the class to learn self defense."
"Well, you couldn't have a better teacher," said Frank. "But you should at least think about the tournament. It could give you some respect with the others."
They left us after that, and I had even more to think about. I wasn't even slightly interested in a tournament, but now I wasn't so sure I would quit karate. I thought that doing everything I normally did was the right way to go about it. I hadn't changed one bit. All I'd done was stop hiding who I really was. If people couldn't deal with that, then there wasn't much I could do about it. People would either accept it, get over it, or they would continue to hold their prejudices. I was just one teen aged boy. There wasn't much I could do to change the way people thought. I made up mind to do some more thinking about it later, though.
After lunch, I paid more attention in my classes. I even participated in most of the class discussions. I got a few stares from my classmates, but I pretended not to notice most of them. I just went on like nothing was happening. Gym class was a bit different, though. That day, we had to dress out, and Mark and I both noticed that a lot of the lockers around ours in the locker room were now unoccupied. The students who had used them before yesterday had moved to the other side of the locker room.
"Don't be looking at my jock, faggot," said Lyle Penrich as he sat down on the bench about three feet from me and Mark. He was another senior, but he wasn't a football player. He was tall and thin, and his face was covered with acne. If he hadn't been such an ass about the whole thing, I'd have never looked his way even once.
"I'm sorry," I said. "What was that you said?"
"You heard me," he hissed. "I don't like fags looking at me."
"In that case," I said sarcastically, "you have absolutely nothing to worry about."
"What did you say?" he asked, turning to look at me.
"I don't think there's a gay male on the face of the Earth that would be too interested in checking you out, Lyle," I said. "In fact, if you hadn't opened your mouth, I would have never even realized you were here."
"Are you trying to piss me off?" he asked as Mark put his hand on my arm to try and hush me.
"No, Lyle," I said. "You're doing a pretty good job of pissing yourself off."
"Fuck you, Porter," he said, grabbing his bag and stalking away from us with his lock in his hand.
"You know, you didn't have to respond to him, Tommy," said Mark after Lyle was gone.
"I know that," I replied. "I guess I'm just getting tired of attitudes."
"Already?" he asked. "Its only been two days."
We finished dressing and headed to the weight room. There were only seven of us in that particular activity, and judging by the way the other five students watched me and Mark, you'd have thought we had the plague. Coach Ryerson, the football coach who always monitored the weight room, hollered for everyone to get started. He didn't even glance in our direction. Mark and I just walked over to one of the machines and started to work out.
As most of the guys in class tried to make sure that Mark and I weren't watching them in the showers, it turned out that we were the ones on display. I chuckled a bit over that, and Mark just hook his head. We were the gay ones, and they were checking us out. No one said anything, though. Lyle wasn't in the showers, but we saw him when we came out.
"Finally," he huffed. "If you two prissy boys had taken any longer in there, I'd have missed my bus."
He clutched the towel that was around his hips and stalked off to the shower. Mark and I laughed out loud over that one. We were dressed and standing at my locker when Steve arrived. We were still laughing, too. Steve smiled at me, and his eyes got big as I leaned in and kissed him. He kissed back and then smiled again.
"What's so funny?" he asked.
"Oh, just gym class," said Mark. "I'll meet you guys at your house in a few minutes. I have to get to my locker and find Rick."
"Later," I called as he trailed off.
"That's right," said Steve as he closed our locker. "He was supposed to tell us what he had to talk to Mitch about."
"That's why he's meeting us at our house, silly," I said, taking his hand and dragging him through the throng of students to the exit.
On the way home, Peter was very upset. He said that he and Marcy were not getting along that day for anything. The problem was that he was, as she put it, just not sensitive to her needs. He said he just didn't understand why she was acting that way when most girls would thank him for what he's said and done.
"What are you talking about?" asked Nick.
"Well, she wants to have sex," he said. "I don't."
"Why not?" asked Steve, looking at him like he was crazy.
"Well, we haven't been together that long, and we don't know each other that well," said Peter. "I just don't think that we should just jump into bed right now. I told her I wanted to wait awhile, and she flipped out on me."
"I don't think that Tommy and Steve are the couple to advise you on this, Pete," chuckled Nick as he looked at us over his shoulder.
"What are we? Sex fiends?" gasped Steve, reaching up to punch Nick in the arm.
"We're ok, babe," I said, patting his leg. "Nick's just suffering from a sore right hand."
"Thanks, Bud?" he replied flashing that smile of his at me.
Jeremy and Peter were laughing like crazy over my statement. Nick looked at me with mock murder in his eyes, and that only made me and Steve start laughing. By the time we got to my house, we were laughing like hyenas.