Storyville 3
By Julien Gregg
Chapter Thirteen

Time moved pretty fast. Noah was moved into Sharon and Mike's by the end of the week. Leo was happy about that. He started working with me at DH3 the next week and that went really well. Training him was simple and he caught on to everything really quickly. The Halliwell cousins spent less and less time in the coffee house. They were still there most nights for a cup of coffee but they didn't have much to do with the actual running of the store. I talked to Ben on the telephone at least every week. I still hadn't told him about Nick kissing me or his confession. I don't know why but I felt like I should actually talk to Nick about that. He hadn't called me, but I got a letter from him every week. Nothing really important was ever said in his letters. He told me about his life on campus and his classes. They were more like duty letters.

Greg, Thad, Leo, Tyler, Brian, Ian and I were now a regular crowd at the Campus Diner on Saturdays. Every other week either I or Leo would be absent from the group because of work. We rarely worked the same shifts. The waitresses knew us all by name and smiled when we came in. We all made sure to leave them nice tips and go out of our way to make waiting on us simple. We ordered the same things every Saturday and we rarely needed the waitress for anything once we had our food.

Life became a little tense in the dorms just before Thanksgiving. Our new RA, Mike Mallory, was a homophobic jock and he made it a point to call us names whenever he saw any of us. We'd complained to the dean but it hadn't gotten us anywhere. I was ready to leave the dorm and go back to living in my house but I wanted my friends to go with me. There just wasn't enough room for that. Brian and Ian were already living off campus in a nice apartment and Greg, Thad and Leo would fit right in at the house but with Andy there and Gage there a lot of the time there just wasn't enough room. In the end we all decided to be in the dorms with a buddy at all times.

One of the strangest things that had happened was Loren and Steve. Tyler had told me just before Thanksgiving that he'd seen them here and there. They seemed much more than friendly. After the Thanksgiving holiday it was official. The entire gay community at the college knew that Steve was dating Loren. Tyler seemed to think that this would bother me, but I was fine with it. I was over Steve and he could do what ever he wanted. He had Vince and Maria to worry over him.

I had dinner with Vince and Maria as often as I could. Thankfully Steve kept himself out of the apartment when I came over. He was always given plenty of warning. Vince didn't seem to like Loren. He talked about him a lot while I was there. Maria said that she thought he was an attractive guy, but he had a lot of rough edges. That was as close to saying that she didn't like someone as I'd ever heard Maria get. I didn't know what to say to them about it. I didn't like Loren either, but he was Steve's boyfriend not mine.

On the boyfriend front I'd shocked myself with Tyler. My feelings of friendship changed around the holiday and I found myself really wanting to be with Tyler. Fortunately Tyler felt the same way about me. He'd admitted that he was getting a bit frustrated with me when he thought I was only interested in friendship. We agreed to date for a while and see what happened. Our first date had been a complete disaster because we'd walked into the restaurant and found Loren and Steve sitting at a table. Both of us were miserable with them there and for some reason it never occurred to us to leave and go elsewhere.

For our second date I invited Tyler to the house. I cooked a meal for just the two of us and we decided to just watch a movie in the living room. Andy was at Gage's apartment that night, so we snuggled up on the couch and tried to pay attention to the movie, but we paid more attention to each other than anything else. I had him in my arms and there was no watching a movie. With him so close I could smell his scent. It was a mixture of his shampoo, gel, deodorant and cologne. Underneath that there was another smell that I couldn't quite identify. I loved it, though. I decided to just call it the Tyler smell.

We fit together very nicely. I had my back against the couch with his back against me. My arm was around him so that I could hold his hand. Most of the time he stared at our hands while I nuzzled the back of his neck. It felt great to have him next to me like that. It was an intimacy that I'd missed and hadn't known that I'd been longing for until that moment. It just felt right. The movie ended without us having paid much attention and it stayed on its title screen for a while.

"This is nice," he said finally, and I held him tighter.

"It sure is," I replied. "This has turned out to be a very nice date."

"So should I kick you for not asking me out sooner?" he chuckled.

"TJ you have to understand that I was still a little stung from the ending of my relationship with Steve," I said. "I guess I just wasn't ready for anything like this."

"I do understand, Tommy," he replied, rubbing his fingers over my hand as he spoke. "I'm just happy that you finally decided that you were ready. I was about to go crazy wanting to touch you like this and not being able to."

"Well you can touch me whenever you want now," I sighed, holding him tight. "Just make sure that we're in an appropriate place."

"The dorm is getting to be a not so appropriate place lately," he said, and I sighed.

Life in the dorm was slowly becoming more than I could handle and I knew that I'd have to do something about it soon. If I confronted Mike there would be a fight and that would get me kicked out of school. I couldn't have that. Semester finals were just around the corner. We had one week until Winter Break and then finals. There had to be something I could do.

"You got quiet," he said.

"Just thinking about the dorm," I replied. "I know how bad it's getting, believe me."

"Well you could always move home," he said.

"But what about you and the others?" I asked. "This house is big enough for me to bring you and two others. There's the apartment over the garage as well."

"Who are you wanting to come with you?" he asked.

"Well, you of course," I said. "Greg, Leo and Thad should come too."

"Will they all agree to move in here?" he asked. "I know I'd love to live here, but I don't know what the others will say."

"Well I guess the first question I should ask is if you're comfortable moving in here as my lover and sharing my bed with me," I said slowly.

He was quiet for a minute and I was so scared that he would say no. I knew it was fast but I thought we could handle it if we just kept communicating and being open. I'd accepted that he wasn't Steve, so I knew that there would be a lot of differences between this relationship and the last one. I was ready for those differences. I just hoped that he was open to the possibility of a committed relationship.

"I'm fine with that, Tommy," he said. "I'm just wondering how we'll spin that one if my parents come to visit. I mean, they're the ones that will have to send me money to pay my share."

"Your dorm is paid for all year, right?" I asked, thinking fast.

"Yeah, but if I move in here . . ."

"You'll be paid up for a year," I interrupted. "You'd just have to help out with food."

"What about the bills, Tommy?" he asked. "Is everyone else going to be all right with that?"

"They'll have to be," I replied. "I'll just charge them less as if you were paying a share. It'll be all right, TJ. Don't worry."

"So when are we doing this?" he asked.

"I'm thinking over Winter Break," I replied.

"Well that works for all of you, but I'm going back to Canada for the break," he said.

I'd forgotten about that completely. We'd only been dating for a month and now he was going to be leaving for three weeks. I wondered how I'd handle that one. As for the rest I knew we'd fit. The house would be a bit crowded, but there were two extra bedrooms and the apartment over the garage which was currently empty. We'd fit if we just compromised on a few things. I wondered if Thad and Leo would mind still being room mates.

"Well we'll move your things into the house before you go," I said finally. "We'll figure all of this out, TJ. First I have to talk to the others."

"So when were you planning to talk to them?" he asked, rubbing his fingers over my hand.

"Well we'll all be together tomorrow," I replied. "Leo won't be there but I'm sure he'll show up later."

"Then if they all agree I guess we're moving," he said, and I couldn't read his tone.

I was worried about what he thought about cohabitation so early in our relationship. We'd agreed to take things slow but I really wanted him with me. Sure it was fast, but I was still sure that with lots of communication we could do it. I just hoped he was as confident as I was.

Just then Andy came home from a date with Gage. He stopped when he came through the door and looked at us for a moment before taking off his coat and hanging it on the coat tree. I smiled at him, but I wondered what his thoughts were about finding TJ and I snuggled on the couch.

"You guys look nice and warm," he said, sliding into the recliner across from us.

"We are," said TJ. "Tommy and I were having a serious discussion."

"Did I interrupt?"

"No," I replied quickly. "I think our part of the discussion is over. Now I think it's time that we talk to you about what we've decided."

"All right," he said slowly, eyeing me. "Shoot."

"You know about our RA and his attitude about us, right?" I asked. He nodded, so I continued. "Well we were discussing moving in here. It would be me, Tyler, Greg, Leo and Thad. What do you think?"

He was quiet for a moment, and I worried that he would have an objection. It was my house, but it was also his home. It had been his home for so long that without him it wouldn't seem like home to me. I wanted him to be on board with this idea but I didn't want him to be uncomfortable.

"Sounds good, actually," he said. "The house is so empty now that you've moved to the dorm. I still don't understand why you wanted to in the first place. It'll be crowded, but it'll be like old times again."

"Thanks, Andy," I said with a big smile.

"You didn't need my permission, Tommy," he said. "This is your house after all."

"But it's your home," I replied. "I wouldn't just do anything here without at least warning you first."

"And I thank you for that," he chuckled. "When will this be taking place?"

"Well I have to talk to the others about it first," I said slowly. "I don't even know if they'll agree to it."

"And when will you be having this chat?"

"Tomorrow," I said. "We'll all be together tomorrow, so that's the best time."

"Sounds good," he said. "Just make sure you let me know what they say and when to expect everyone to start moving in."

"Well if they agree I thought we'd all start moving over Winter Break."

"That'd work," he said, rubbing his chin. "Let me know if any of them need help. I can at least help out with my truck."

"Thanks, Andy," I said, grinning at him.

That was all settled. About an hour later TJ and I said our goodbyes to Andy and headed back to the dorm. Greg wasn't in when I got there so I decided to get in some studying. The hall was quiet and I was thankful that I hadn't run into Mike. I wasn't in the mood for anything from him that night. I still had thinking to do about me and TJ moving in together.

A voice in the back of my mind screamed that it was too soon and that to do this now would be the end of us, but I didn't believe that voice. I chalked it up to my own nerves about it. TJ and I were just starting out but I believed that if we just stuck with it we'd make it. He wasn't Steve Sutton, and that was the important thing. I had to keep that in mind.

I did manage to set my thoughts of my new relationship aside long enough to get through the Psych chapter that had been assigned for extra credit. I was half way through my English chapter when Greg came in. He didn't look happy at all. He slung his coat over his bed and slumped into his chair.

"Rough night?" I asked, closing my English text.

"It wasn't until I came home," he said gruffly. "Mike was in the hall. I swear that bastard gets more stupid every day."

"What'd he do this time?" I asked.

"Oh the usual, called me a fag and tried to give me shit," he sighed. "Same old. Did he get you?"

"No," I replied. "I was lucky. He wasn't in the hall when I came home."

"Man, I'm seriously thinking about moving into an apartment," he said.

I looked at him for a moment as the wheels turned in my head. This was probably the best time to talk to Greg about moving into my house. If he was this fed up with Mike it would probably be something he'd want to do. I certainly hoped I could get him on board before I talked to the others.

"I might have a solution to this," I said slowly.


"Well, Tyler and I were talking earlier about all of us moving into my house," I said. "It's big enough. Leo and Thad might have to share a room still, but at least we wouldn't have Mike to deal with."

"Are you serious?" he asked. "I mean it would be great for me, but what about you and Tyler?"

"We talked about that and we both think we can deal," I said, not wanting to go into detail.

"Then I'm in," he said. "When do we do this?"

"Well I have to talk to everyone first," I said. "I talked to Andy about it tonight and he's all for it. He even offered to help everyone move. Well, at least he offered the use of his truck."

"That's great," he said. "Need help convincing the minions?"

"I might," I said. "I was planning on bringing it up at the diner tomorrow."

"That'd work," he said with a yawn. "We'll be together except for Leo."

"I'll talk to Leo about it when he gets off work," I replied. "So it's a go as far as you're concerned?"

"Hell yeah," he said. "You have a seriously nice house, Tommy. I think it'd be great."

"Then if everyone is in we'll start moving over Winter Break," I said. "I assume you're not going home."

"You assumed correctly," he said with a chuckle.

"Then we're set," I said.

"I'm gonna grab a quick shower," he said. "Then I want to tell you about my night before Mike."

"Deal," I said, stretching.

While he went to shower I returned to my English text. I wanted to have everything read before I went to bed so I could have the weekend to do other things. I was just finishing up when Greg came back to the room in a towel. He winked at me as he dropped it and started to get into his chest of drawers to get his boxers.

"Eye candy for the gay boy," he said with his back turned. He even wiggled his ass.

"Whatever," I laughed. "You get off on having gay boys look at your ass. That's why you do this."

"You bet your gay ass I get off on it," he laughed. "Man I have to tell you about Adam and Pete."

"Adam and Pete?" I asked.

"Adam Wells is in my Sociology class," he said in explanation. "I went over to his place tonight to study for this group thing we were assigned."

"Ah," I said. "And Pete?"

"Pete is one of Adam's room mates," he replied. "They're like lovers or something. But that's not what was strange. There's this kid, Melvin, living there. I think he's on the football team. Any way, he's like their servant or something. Everything one of them asked for, Melvin got up to get it."

"Weird," I commented.

"That's not the worst," he said. "I had to use the can, and they sent me to the upstairs bathroom. Said something about the one downstairs not working, but I think they wanted me to see what was upstairs."

"What was upstairs?" I asked, my curiosity tweaked.

"There was this guy up there in one of the bedrooms," he said. "The room had no door, so I could see in as I walked up the stairs. Any way, this guy is naked and tied to the bed. He didn't say a word to me as I made my way to the bathroom, but man was it strange."

"Did you ask Adam or Pete about him?" I asked.

"No, dude," he replied. "What would I have said?"

"True," I laughed.

"But think about it," he said excitedly. "He's probably like their sex slave. How cool would that be?"

"You want a male sex slave?" I asked, looking at him hard.

"No," he laughed. "I'd want a female sex slave, but think about it."

"Not interested," I laughed.

He went on about that for at least an hour. I finally fell asleep without ever hearing the end of it all. The next morning all he wanted to talk about was moving. I reminded him that we had to talk to the others about it first. Then he couldn't wait for lunch to roll around. He bugged me until it was time to head over to the diner.

Thad and Brian were already there when we arrived. TJ came in a few minutes later and smiled at me when he saw me. We sat down and told the waitress that we'd wait for Ian before we ordered. We always ordered the same thing so it wasn't like there would be a big decision for us to make in that department.

Greg kept staring at me expectantly, but I wasn't saying anything until everyone was there. Sure Ian and Brian had an apartment, but I wanted to talk about it with everyone present anyway. I'd still have to stop in at DH3 to talk to Leo, but I didn't want to have to repeat myself over and over again. By the time Ian got there everyone knew I had something to say because Greg kept kicking me under the table.

"So spill it, little brother," Brian said with a huge grin on his face as soon as the waitress left the table with our standard orders.

"Well everyone is having trouble with Mike in the dorm, right?" I asked. They nodded so I continued. "Tyler and I were talking last night and I came up with a solution to this. I own a house in case anyone has forgotten. What we were talking about was moving into it. Now Brian, I know that you and Ian have an apartment. I'm not asking you to move in because of that. Thad, you, Greg and Leo are welcome. Tyler and I are moving into the house over Winter Break."

"Are you kidding?" Thad asked with wide eyes. "Hell yeah I'm interested. What do we have to pay there?"

"Well the house is paid for so I guess all we'd have to pay for is utilities," I said. "I'd ask for help with property tax but that's been taken care of for now."

"Sounds reasonable," said Greg. "I'm in."

"Me too!" Thad said enthusiastically. "What about Leo?"

"Well I was planning to head over to the coffee house after we leave here to talk to him about it," I said. I didn't think Leo would have much of a problem with it actually. His brother was living next door and this would put them closer together again.

So it was settled. Thad, Greg and Tyler were on board. That just left Leo, and I didn't foresee any problems there. They talked back and forth about how cool it was going to be to live off campus as we ate. As soon as we were finished, Tyler and I headed for DH3 to talk to Leo. It wasn't busy when we got there so we were able to talk freely.

"What's up guys?" Leo asked as we came in.

"Got something to talk to you about," I said, sitting at the bar.

"Let me serve this stuff and I'll be right with you," he said, picking up a tray with three mugs of coffee on it and walking away.

"Think he'll go for it?" Tyler asked as we watched him serve his table.

"I'm sure he will," I said. "It's all going to be fine, TJ. Don't worry."

"I'm not worried," he replied. "I just want everyone there."

"All right you two," Leo said as he walked back behind the bar. "What's going on?"

"Well we talked to everyone at lunch today about moving into my house," I said. "With all the crap we're getting from Mike in the dorm I just thought it would be easier."

"You mean all of us?" he asked.

"Well, Brian and Ian have an apartment," I said. "But Greg, TJ, you and Thad are welcome. The others have said yes already."

"Well I'm in if you're all sure you want me to live with you," he said.

"Of course we want you to live with us," I replied.

"Well then let's discuss the specifics after I get off work," he said as more customers came in.

And so it was set. We were all in agreement. Now all I had to do was tell Andy it was a go.

Chapter Fourteen

"Just put the boxes in the living room," I said when we all pulled up in front of the house. "They're all marked so we'll know whose is whose. Let's worry about the bigger stuff for now."

The bigger stuff consisted of two beds that Thad had purchased for himself and Leo, four trunks and three chests of drawers. There was a hutch and couch table coming from Dean Halliwell, too. I didn't know why he was giving them to us though. It wasn't like the house wasn't fully furnished. The only thing we'd needed was beds. There was still a bed in the second bedroom, so Greg wasn't in need of one. All of my stuff had been moved into my mother's bedroom the year before so there was plenty of room in the second bedroom for Greg and all of his stuff.

Leo was taking Vince's old room. Thad had bought him a single bed and a chest of drawers. This had caused a long conversation between the two at the diner the night before when Thad announced that he'd purchased these things. Leo had insisted that he let him pay him back, but Thad wouldn't hear of it. He said they were a gift and refused to talk about it anymore.

Thad was actually moving into the basement bedroom that had once belonged to Phillip. He'd spent an hour looking the room over the night before and declared it his lair. I was actually glad that he liked that room because I'd wanted Leo on the second floor with me and Greg. The bedroom he was inhabiting wasn't big enough for two beds and neither was the basement room. Greg had claimed my old room so that left things to be decided between the two of them.

Andy had moved almost all of his stuff out of the house and into the garage apartment. When I tried to protest he told me that it was actually perfect. He said that Gage was having trouble with his landlord and if I didn't mind he would be moving in with Andy. I thought it was a good idea but I hated that he had been moved out of the house.

We got everything off the truck and into the house with no problems. Noah came over to help Leo set up his room and I was happy to see them talking excitedly as they walked up the stairs with boxes in their arms. Andy helped me take my boxes, trunks and TJ's boxes up to my room. I was a little nervous actually. Later in the afternoon my friends would be returning to Storyville from their schools. I was going to be face to face with Nick soon. I wondered exactly how that would feel.

"You're being awful quiet, Tommy," Andy said as we got the last of the boxes up to my room. "Thinking about your mom?"

"Actually I was thinking about Nick," I replied, looking at the floor. I didn't want to tell him exactly what had happened between us the night before Nick left for school, but I needed to talk to someone or I was going to go insane.

"Something wrong between you and Nick?" he asked, sitting on the edge of my bed and looking up at me.

"I'm not sure," I admitted. "Wrong may not be the right word to use in this situation. Something happened before he left for school and I'm a bit confused."

"What happened?" he asked.

"Well," I stammered. "This is really private, Andy. I don't feel comfortable telling you what happened without Nick's permission."

"Are you talking about Nick kissing you?" he asked, flooring me.

I stared at him in shock for what must have been an eternity. How did Andy know about this? I couldn't think of any way for him to have found out. I hadn't said anything. Nick was gone. Had he seen us? I'd thought he was with Gage that night, but if I'd been wrong he could have seen us. But why had he waited so long to say anything about it?

"How did you . . ."

"Nick," he replied. "He's called me about a hundred times since he left. He's one confused guy, Tommy. I've tried to be there for him as much as possible, but a lot of what he needs to figure out he has to do on his own."

"Wait," I said, sitting beside him with a sigh. "Nick has been calling you? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because our conversations have been very personal and very private," he said. "I didn't tell anyone what you and I talked about when you needed to talk."

"I understand," I replied. "But I'm still very confused. Nick will be here in a few hours and I don't know what to say to him."

"He's having a similar problem," informed Andy. "How have your letters back and forth been?"

"Stinted at best," I mumbled. "He tells me about school and his classes but there's nothing really friendly in the letters."

"That's because he doesn't know what to say to you," he said. "He's just as confused about that kiss as you are."

"But he has to have some feelings about it," I protested.

"He does," replied Andy. "He has a lot of different feelings about it, actually. He's scared of what it will do to your friendship for one. He's also terrified that you've said something to someone about it."

"I haven't!" I gasped. "I've been going nuts about this privately since he left. I would never . . ."

"Calm down," he said, holding up a hand. "I know you wouldn't have said anything. I've lived with you long enough to know you very well, Tommy. I told him the same thing. He's just worried. You know how it goes. You don't have to be logical when you worry."

"I know that," I replied, thinking about all the times I'd worried about silly things for hours at a time.

"You haven't told him about Tyler, either," he pointed out.

I hadn't either. Tyler and I were a relatively new relationship. I'd told Nick about meeting Tyler, Greg and Thad. I just hadn't gone into much detail about any of them. What was Andy implying? Was Nick going to be hurt because of me and Tyler? That was just too much to even worry about. I mean it was so strange to think about Nick in this way. He'd always been my friend. Nothing more.

"It isn't like TJ and I have been together that long," I said weakly.

"I know," he said. "The fact still remains that he doesn't know about the two of you. Then there's the fact that Tyler isn't here right now. He won't even get to meet him for a while."

"TJ's coming back two days before classes resume," I said slowly. "Nick will probably leave around that time, too. They won't have much time to get to know each other."

"You're wrong about that, actually," he said, making me snap my attention back to him. "Nick won't be leaving when he comes home. He's going to sit this semester out and start at Storyville University next year."

"What?" I asked quickly. "He hasn't said anything about that to me in his letters."

"Well what have you told him about in your letters?" he said, looking at me hard.

"Right," I sighed. We'd both been very vague in our letters. Thinking back on them it was like we weren't even friends. It was like we were performing a job by writing letters back and forth to each other. I didn't like that at all. Nick and I'd had our fair share of problems in the past but we were closer than those letters made it seem. I loved Nick Andrews like a brother.

"Look," he said with a sigh. "Ben and Wendy will get here pretty soon, too. Just make sure that you set aside some time to really talk to Nick alone. Believe me you two need to work this out. With him moving home you really need to figure out what's what between the two of you."

"But that's just it, Andy," I said quickly. "I can only offer him friendship. I love him like a brother, but I'm with TJ."

"Then tell him that much," he said. "He's a big boy, Tommy. He'll understand. Maybe not right away, but he will understand."

"Thanks, Andy," I said as he got up and left the room.

I spent about an hour putting my stuff away. I had debated on putting TJ's things away but I thought he might like to do that himself. Once I was done I went downstairs for a snack. I found the rest of the gang sitting in the dinning room talking.

"Andy says we need to go to the grocery store," Leo informed me when I entered the dining room. "He says there's not enough food to feed everyone."

"Well I guess that's probably true," I sighed. "Until today there's only been Andy and Gage around here."

"So who's going to the store?" Thad asked.

"Well first we need to sit down and make a list of the foods that everyone wants," I said, taking a seat beside Greg at the table. "Then we need to work out how we pay for groceries, who cooks on which days and so forth."

"I can't cook," said Thad. "You'd all die if I did."

"Then you'd better learn how," I laughed. "I'll take Sundays."

"I've got Tuesdays," said Greg. "I'm not going to be home much on Mondays for a while."

"Then I'll take Wednesday," said Leo, smirking at Thad. "I'm not the best cook, but my food won't kill anyone."

"But I don't know how to cook," Thad complained.

"We'll all pitch in to help you learn, Thad," said Greg. "Why don't we leave Mondays for Tyler and Saturdays for no one. Thad can have Thursdays."

"What do you mean no one cooks on Saturdays?" Leo asked.

"Well, we eat at the diner on Saturdays," I replied. "For the rest of the day we can all just fend for ourselves."

"I see lunch meat in my future," laughed Greg, rubbing his belly.

"Now for who pays for groceries," I said, laughing at Greg. "With so many people living here we'll have to go to the grocery store at least twice a week. I can do the shopping if everyone agrees, and I have enough in my house account to buy groceries for the week. You guys would just have to put money in some other way."

"What about utilities?" Thad asked. "How do we pay those?"

"Well there are three," I said. "Water, electric and gas. Trash is paid for by the year and it was just paid last week. What we'll do is divide each by the number of people living here. Until TJ comes back that will be five. That's the amount that each of us pays for each utility bill."

"What about the internet?" Greg asked.

"We'll do the same with that," I replied. "That also covers the cable television."

"Sounds good," said Leo. "I noticed that my room has a cable for both television and my computer."

"All of the bedrooms have those jacks," I replied. "We're all wired and ready."

"Cool," said Thad. "So when do the bills come in?"

"Around the first of the month," I said. "We're fine for now, but around the fifth of January we'll be ready to pay up."

After that we discussed keeping the house clean, laundry, yard work and finally the grocery list. Leo and I headed off for the grocery store to do the shopping while the rest of them finished setting up their stuff. Greg was excited about his own internet connection. I was just happy to finally be going after something to eat.

"You and Thad must be getting along better," I said once Leo and I were buckled into my car.

"We are, why?"

"Well you left Noah with him," I replied cautiously. "That's a big step for you."

"I figured maybe he could talk to Thad," he said. "I don't know much about the gay thing other than the crap I was taught growing up. He has that already. What he needs to learn is how to be who he is without prejudice getting in the way."

That statement gave me pause. Leo continued to surprise me as we got to know each other. That statement told me a lot about where his head was with Noah's sexuality. He hadn't come to talk to me so far, but I didn't think talking to Thad was such a good idea either. I couldn't tell Leo that. I wanted the two of them to be friends. I ended up saying nothing about it.

We went through the supermarket, putting the things on our list in our two carts. I noticed Leo's eyes go wide a few times as he mentally calculated the price of the food we were putting the carts. That made me chuckle. Leo still didn't know the extent of my house account. I decided that I wouldn't say anything about it and just let him think it over for a while.

At the check-out lane his eye nearly popped out of his skull as the items were tallied. The final total had him gasping while I laughed. I handed the cashier my bank card and watched as the bag-boy got everything in paper bags. They offered drive up loading and I accepted. I had to actually tug at Leo's arm to get him to follow me.

He was quiet while we walked to the car, drove around to the pick up lane and the groceries were loaded into the car. I think he expected the manager to come out and tell us that we couldn't have the groceries. As we drove away he stared at me with an awed expression. I guess he didn't expect me to have the six hundred dollars it cost for the groceries.

"Something wrong, Leo?" I asked, trying hard not to laugh. It wasn't like me to be that way but I couldn't help it that time. Leo was always so serious about things that I thought he needed to be shook up a bit.

"No," he said, closing his mouth and turning to look straight ahead.

"Look," I said, deciding to let him in on the truth. "When my mother was killed I was compensated heavily by her insurance. The firm she was working for also had a policy on her and I was the sole beneficiary. That's where my money comes from."

"You didn't have to explain," he said. "I was just shocked. You spent more on one week's worth of groceries than my parents spent on six weeks."

"Well I'll confess that that's more than one week we bought," I replied. "My friends are coming home soon and I plan to have a little get together to welcome them home."

"That's nice," he said. "It'll be strange to see them all again."

"Well only Ben, Wendy and Nick are coming home," I said. "Mark won't be home for the holiday and Peter's family moved to Atlanta."

"Will you ever get to see them again?" he asked.

"Sure I will," I said. "We'll fly out there some time to visit or they'll fly back here. We're all friends, Leo. Just because we've entered a new stage in our lives doesn't mean that we never want to see each other again."

"Right," he said. "I guess I've just never had real friends before."

"Well you have some now," I informed him. "I can't speak for the others, but in me you've found a dyed in the wool friend."

"Thanks, Tommy," he said as we pulled into the driveway at the house.

"No thanks required, Leo," I said as we got out of the car. "Just keep being a friend."

"Count on it," he said with a smile. "I'll go round up the 'mates to help pull this stuff in the house."

"Thanks," I said as I opened the back door on my side and reached in to start taking the bags in the house.

I lined the bags up on the side porch so that they could just come out to the porch and grab a bag. I figured that was good enough for me. I was half way through when Noah came running out of the house. He looked like he was crying and he ran straight across the yard to the Andrews house. Next I heard Leo yelling. I forgot about the bags and went inside.

Greg was standing in the dining room, looking at the open basement door. I could hear Leo and Thad yelling at each other from the opened door. I looked at Greg and he shrugged. As I got closer to the door I heard what the yelling was about. Leo called Thad a bastard and Thad said that it had been Noah kissing him. My perfect little arrangement suddenly seemed a lot less perfect.

Chapter Fifteen

"Tell me again what happened," Tyler said when I told him about the blow up between Leo and Thad from the night before. We were on the phone and it was just hours before I was due at work.

"Well from what I understand Noah was talking to Thad about what it was like to be gay where he came from or something," I said, playing with the phone cord. "For some reason, Noah kissed Thad and Leo caught them. Leo went nuts, of course. Noah flew out of the house like his ass was on fire, and now Leo and Thad aren't speaking."

"So Noah kissed Thad," said Tyler slowly. "Did Thad kiss back?"

"He says he was too surprised to do anything," I replied.

"Well then why is Leo mad at Thad?"

"You know Leo has a little problem with homosexuality," I reminded him. "This probably just tipped the scales in his mind a bit."

"Poor guy," he said.

"Yeah," I sighed. "But listen I've got to get ready for work. You have fun with your family and don't kill your sister."

"I'll try," he laughed. "Have a good day at work."

"Later," I said.

"Sooner," he replied.

I got off the phone and headed straight to the shower. Greg and Thad were both already at work. Leo was waiting for me to relieve him. I was glad that I wasn't going to have to be around for any more of the tense moments between Leo and Thad. Noah had all but backed up Thad's version of what had happened, but Leo still wouldn't talk to Thad. I wasn't in the mood for that sort of thing so being at work for the closing shift wasn't such a bad thing.

Twenty minutes later, showered and dressed I headed out the door. I found Noah sitting on the porch. He looked sad, so I sat down beside him and put my arm around him. None of this was really his fault. He was just a confused kid with raging hormones. Thad and Leo were being idiots.

"Hey, Noah," I said softly. "How's it going?"

"Not so good," he said. "My brother treats me like I have the plague."

"Leo will calm down," I said. "If he doesn't soon then I'll talk sense to him."

"Thad won't talk to me either," he said.

"Well Thad is a different story," I explained. "You spooked him. Noah, you can't go around kissing people without their permission."

"I just want to know what it felt like," he said miserably.

"I understand," I replied. "I really do. Thad will be all right. He just needs some time to calm down about it. Leo's attitude isn't helping him though."

"Why is Leo so mad at Thad?" he asked, looking up at me. "I mean I'm the one who kissed Thad. It wasn't the other way around."

"And Leo knows that," I said. "He'll get over himself eventually."

"Will you talk to him?" he asked hopefully.

"I will," I said, looking at my watch. "But right now I have to get to work and relieve him. If I don't he'll be mad about something else. You gonna hang around?"

"No," he said quietly. "I'm going to help Thomas with his art today."

"Well you have fun," I said. "I'll see you later."

"Ok," he said as I hopped in my car.

Half way across town I got the shock of my life. I passed a bus stop. It was one of those brown shelter stops with plexiglas walls and a tin roof. What shocked me was the person standing there waiting for a bus. The first thing I noticed was the cast on his right arm. My stomach began to quiver as I looked at him. I even slowed down a bit to get a good look. Standing there was Jason Cox!

He was supposed to still be in prison for assaulting me in high school. What was he doing waiting for a bus? I didn't stop to confirm that it was him. I kept on going. I was a bit shaken but I thought about it long and hard. By the time I reached DH3 I was sure that it had to have been someone who looked like Jason. Jason was still in prison. I was sure that they would have warned me if he'd been released. Wasn't that the way it worked?

I tried my best to just put it out of my mind when I got to work. Leo was in a huff as soon as he saw me. I had half a mind to tell him off about his antics right then and there. Luckily for him there were customers in the place. I had to console myself with glaring at him.

"There are three tables who haven't paid," he said tersely when I got behind the counter. "That couple by the window have paid, but they may want another round."

"Thanks," I said simply. "Let me clock in and then you can get out of here."

"Fine," he said, turning to go back to the tip jar.

I just sighed and walked away. There was a note for me taped to my time card and I sighed as I read all about Drake's unhappiness with Leo's current attitude. That was just another thing I had to talk to him about. He was really screwing things up for himself. If he didn't stop his antics soon he'd be out of a job. Then I was sure the roommates would demand that he move out. I didn't want that to happen.

"Can I talk to you for a minute before you go, Leo?" I asked as I came back out from the store room.

"Yes, but I'd really like to leave," he said. "Let me clock out."

"I'll wait for you," I said for lack of anything nicer to say.

I was really getting angry with him. He had to know that he was being an ass about everything. I mean, what the hell was he mad at me for? It wasn't like I was the one who suggested that we leave Noah with Thad the night before. I hadn't done a damned thing to him.

"Look," he said as he came back out of the store room. "If this is about Thad and Noah . . ."

"This is about you," I said, cutting him off. "Have a seat, Leo."

"Fine," he huffed, walking around the counter and sitting on a stool in front of me.

"First I want to warn you about this," I said, handing him the note. I gave him a few seconds to look it over. "Drake is not happy with the way you've been acting at work. I got you this job, Leo, because I thought you needed it. If you don't need it then quit. Don't walk around here acting like a sour ass if you want this job or Drake will fire you."

"Is that it?" he asked hotly.

"No that's not it," I snapped, and then took a deep breath. "Leo, you have got to stop walking around acting all pissed off all the time. I know that you're upset about what happened between Noah and Thad, but get over it. You're treating the rest of us like it was our fault. If you remember correctly I wasn't the one who decided to leave Noah with Thad to begin with."

"I never said you were," he said.

"No, but you've been biting my head off every time I talk to you, and I want it to stop," I said. "Greg said you snapped at him this morning when he offered you juice. Leo we won't put up with that."

"Fine I'll be nicer to everyone," he snapped again.

"Whatever," I sighed. "I've given you your warnings. You'll either get your head out of your ass and be a human again or you'll suffer the consequences."

"I'll see you at home," he said, getting off his stool.

"And talk to your brother," I snapped. "He's actually under the assumption that you care about him."

I watched him walk out of the coffee shop while holding my breath. I couldn't believe how quickly he'd gotten under my skin. I honestly wanted to be his friend but he had the damned way of making it difficult for me. If he didn't change soon I wasn't sure how much longer I would be able to make excuses for his behavior.

The afternoon wore on with little business. Classes weren't in session so I had no studying to do. I hadn't brought a text with me. This made the day drag on. For once I was actually glad that it was taking forever. I wasn't in the mood for more of Leo's attitude so that meant as long as I was at work I was safe. I waited until I was down to one customer sitting at a table in the corner, reading a newspaper and sipping a cup of coffee to start washing mugs and glasses. I was nearly finished when I heard the bell over the door jingle. I didn't even turn around. I figured whoever it was would come to the counter.

"Hey, dork," said a familiar voice. I nearly dropped the mug I was washing as I turned around to face Ben.

"Spaz!" I cried excitedly. "When did you get home?"

"About a half hour ago," he replied. "I had to answer a million questions after I dropped Wendy at her house. Then I beat my ass over here to see you."

"God it's good to see you," I said, rushing around the counter so I could crush him in a hug. To hell with the customer watching with wide eyes.

"It's good to see you, too," he chuckled, clutching me just as tight as I clutched him. "So what's been going on that you haven't told me in your letters, twerp?"

"Oh loads," I said, letting go of him. "Coffee?"

"Sure, mocha," he said with his signature grin.

"Well I'm sure you'll be surprised to learn that Leo is being a world class ass lately," I said.

"Yeah, my mom told me about Noah and Thad," he laughed. "Bet that burned Leo's ass good."

"Your mom knows about the kiss?"

"Of course she does," he laughed. "Do you think there's anything that happens in that neighborhood that my mom doesn't find out about?"

"Well no," I chuckled. "I can't believe you're here."

"Yeah, I thought the drive back would kill me," he said. "Wendy wanted to stop everywhere to grab something."

"Sounds like my partner in crime," I laughed.

We talked about everything we could think of while I took a break now and then to wait on customers. Before I knew it the last customer of the day was paying his bill and it was time to lock the door and clean up. It went fast with Ben helping. We talked about different things the whole time. I clocked out and we agreed to meet at my house. The drive home took no time and then I was parking in the driveway with Ben pulling in behind me. Wendy was sitting on the porch when we got there.

"Freak!" she cried, hopping to her feet and running over to wrap her arms around me as I got out of my car.

"Hey Wonder Woman!" I cried, holding her tight. "I missed you like crazy!"

"Oh God did I miss you," she said before kissing me on the cheek.

"Come on in the house," I said. "I want you to meet the gang."

"I've seen Leo," she said. "He didn't seem exactly overjoyed to see me though."

"Yeah, he's being a mega ass right now," I said. "Don't worry though, we'll lock him in his room if he doesn't play nice."

We got inside and I introduced my best friends to Greg and Thad. We all sat around the dining room table talking about school and old times. Greg and Thad got a huge kick out of the way that Ben and I bantered back and forth. Wendy declared them both hunks and that had me and Ben laughing like crazy. Before they left for the night I made them promise to have dinner with us on Friday, and I promised that I would be the one doing the cooking that night.

The next day I had to meet with Vince, Andy and the rest of the Storyville University GSA to help put the final plans for the annual Christmas Party together. The party was going to be held in the gymnasium. Maria got Wendy and a few of her friends to help with decorations. All of the students that were still in town and were a part of the GSA had all said they'd be there. My household was included on that list as well as Ian. Brian had said that he'd try to get that night off and be there, too. Wendy and Ben both said they wouldn't miss it for the world. I was shocked when even Leo said that he'd come to the party.

I'd noticed that day that he'd been acting a bit better. He and Thad were still not speaking but at least Leo was making an effort to be nice to everyone. I was happy about that. I just hoped that he was acting better while he was at work. He'd opened that day and I had the closing shift once again, so I hoped he was on his best behavior. Drake was there with him.

When I got home from my meeting Nick was sitting in my dining room talking to Greg and Thad. I was both happy to see him and nervous as hell. He smiled weakly at me as I came in the door and I walked over and gave him a hug. It felt awkward but I decided that I wasn't going to treat him any differently.

"It's good to see you, Tommy," he said when I let go of him.

"It's great to see you, Nick," I said, sitting down beside him. "How was school?"

"Not very good," he sighed. "I've decided to transfer to Storyville and come home."

"Well it'll be nice to have you around again," I said with a smile.

"Thanks," he said. "I think it'll be nice to be home."

It didn't take a genius to figure out that there was tension between us. Greg and Thad both made excuses to leave the house after that. I was thankful because I really needed to have that talk with Nick. He fidgeted with the place mat on the table in front of him until they were gone.

"So how are you really?" I asked once the side door was shut with my roommates safely on the other side of it.

"Miserable," he sighed. "I've been thinking about noting but you since I left."

"I've been thinking a lot about you, too, Nick," I said.

"Tommy, I don't want you to think that anything has to change between us," he said. "I hope that it doesn't. That kiss was just . . ."

"Don't play it off, Nick," I said. "Let's be honest with each other. We've never had any trouble telling each other anything in the past. Let's not start now."

"Ok," he sighed, running his fingers through his hair. "The truth is that I wanted to kiss you the day I saw you for the first time. When you got hit by that ball I really hadn't seen you standing in the yard. But when I was standing over you it was like my stomach was on fire. I couldn't believe how good looking you were. It drove me crazy for weeks. Then we got into that argument about me reading your email and I wanted to tell you about me so bad but I couldn't. I hadn't even told Steve."

"Are you trying to tell me that you're gay?"

"Hell I don't know what I am anymore," he said. "I'm not gay. I know that. I like girls just fine. It's just that I like you too. I can't explain it because I don't understand it either. I've never been attracted to any other guy in my life, Tommy. To be honest sometimes you scare the hell out of me."

"Nick . . ."

"No," he said, cutting me off. "Let me get this off my chest, Tommy. What I'm telling you is that sometimes I think I'm in love with you. I know I'm not really in love with you. But sometimes I think I could be. I love you like a brother, Tommy. I just had a moment of weakness when I was about to leave. I'd been drinking and I just couldn't stand it anymore. It started to get worse when you and Steve broke up. As long as you two were together you were his guy, you know? Then he hurt you and I hated him for it.

It was eating me up how I felt about you all that time, Tommy. Then he went and did what he did. It was like I could have everything I wanted all of a sudden. I just didn't know how to tell you about it. I had all of these feelings and I couldn't sort them out. I just did what I'd wanted to do the first day I saw you. I came over here and kissed you."

We were both silent for a while after that. I didn't really understand everything that he'd said but I knew one thing: I wanted to stay friends. There was no way that I could reciprocate his feelings of romantic love, but I loved him just as much as he loved me in the brotherly sense. I didn't want that to end.

"I don't know what to say to that, Nick," I admitted after a moment. "I just know that I love you like a brother. I hated thinking that something was happening to our friendship that might end it. I'm happy that you're staying home. I missed you like crazy, but I can't return your feelings of romantic love."

"I'm not in love with you," he said quickly. "Tommy, I don't know how to explain this. I really don't. I love you, yes. But I don't love you that way. I just need to sort out what I do feel and who I am."

"So where do we go from here as friends?" I asked.

"Hopefully our friendship won't change," he said. "I guess that depends on you."

"Well as far as I'm concerned it hasn't changed," I said, hoping to God that I could really keep from feeling strange about our friendship after this.

"Good," he sighed. "I was hoping you would say that. It's getting late so I'd better get next door. I'll see you tomorrow?"

"I'll be home from work around three," I said.

I watched him walk out the door and sighed. That had been one strange conversation and my head was swimming because of it. I got up and went upstairs to shower and clear my head. There was no point in dwelling on it. I just needed to see if our friendship could stay the way it had always been. I hoped it would. That was the last thing I thought of before I went to sleep.

For the rest of the week things were great between Nick and me. Ben and I were nearly inseparable again. Wendy was with us a lot but I had work and she was helping Maria set up the gym at the university for the party. That was all anyone could talk about as the night grew closer. The party was going to be held on Christmas Eve and we had three days to go.

I spent the days when I wasn't at work shopping for presents for everyone. Wendy accompanied me more often than not and things were like they used to be with us. We had a blast shopping and even managed to buy something for everyone. On Christmas Eve morning our tree was up with all of the presents under it. I still didn't understand why Greg and Thad didn't want to go home for Christmas. I didn't press either of them about it though. I wanted this Christmas to be a happy one.

We had lunch together and I didn't even have to bite my tongue where Leo was concerned. He and Noah had come to a truce where the kissing of Thad was concerned. He and Thad were at least being civil to one another again. I was happy about that and decided that I couldn't ask for more at that point. Leo was an enigma in his own right and I would never understand him.

Brian wasn't able to get the night off so Ian was going to ride to the party with me and Nick. We were three excited guys as we drove to the university. The parking lot was full of cars when we got there and we could hear the music from the lot. Ian wasn't happy about Brian having to work but I promised him we'd do our best to keep him occupied.

The gym was decorated like a winter wonderland. Fake snow had been sprayed on just about everything. Tables were set up at one end of the gym with white plastic table cloths. Pine cones and pine garland were put together in interesting patterns to make the center pieces with candles in the center. We chose a table and then went to find out friends.

We found Dustin and Phillip at the refreshment table talking to Charlie and Vince. We each hugged each other and wished each other Merry Christmas. We wandered around looking for Ben and Wendy. I finally found them kissing under the mistletoe. I laughed silently when I saw them, but I left them to it. I actually felt a little left out with Tyler in Canada. We'd talked for two hours that morning, but I still wished he was there with me.

Maria found us as we sat down at our table. She looked beautiful in her long emerald velvet gown. The dress code for the party was formal and she looked like a queen with her hair pulled up. There were little green gems in her hair as well.

"Tommy you look great," she said, looking me up and down when I stood to hug her. I was dressed in a black tux with a red tie. I hated to wear them, but it was a formal party.

"Thank you," I said, hugging her. "So do you."

"Guys if you'll excuse me I'm going to have a word with the DJ," said Ian as he got up from the table.

We smiled at him but didn't say anything. Maria started asking Nick about school as Ben and Wendy made their way over to our table talking about the presents lined up on the table near the DJ. Maria explained that they were just small things that would work as presents for either sex. We laughed about it for a few minutes.

Then there was a bright light. We all stopped laughing and looked over at the DJ's table. I know that I expected it to be a light show, but the loud explosion that followed the light changed my happy excitement to terror. The entire gym shook. I was thrown off my feet and then everything went dark.