Brian and Pete
Chapter Twenty-One
Coming To Terms

Copyright Notice - Copyright 2000-2004 by DeweyWriter Ltd.
    This story is copyrighted by the author and the author retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form, physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise without the authors expressed written permission. All applicable copyright laws apply and will be enforced.


    

    Kathlene and I went back to the kitchen. I was extremely relieved that she had agreed to let me and Pete stay there. It was much easier that way, not to mention a lot less expensive.

    Chaos ruled my mind and my anger was still at the danger point, but somehow I managed a calm exterior as I asked Pete to help me unload the car. Chris, Mac and Pedro volunteered to help, and before I could respond, Pete had accepted their offer. I had wanted to tell him what was happening and where I was going so he wouldn't worry too much. For some reason I didn't think sharing with Mac and Pedro the issues which caused my anger was appropriate. I liked them both, but this was something I had to deal with. Since it affected me, it affected my boyfriend as well. As the other guys were with us constantly to the car and back, I had to wait until Pete and I were alone in the bedroom before I could speak to him as I changed into running clothes.

    He was as understanding as he ever was and said he'd go running with me, but I asked him not to. It was going to be one of those runs where I wasn't sure when I would be back. Pete gave me a tender kiss on the forehead and a big hug before he sent me on my way. He gave me my reflective vest as I walked out of the room to the front door, and said he'd explain what was happening if Kathlene didn't. With a smile I didn't quite feel, I left him on the front porch and ran into the balmy summer evening.

    My brain was filled with a riot of different thoughts as I chose a route that would lead me to La Playa Field. My mind still refused to grasp everything that had happened. Between my mom, Joe and Brenda, David, and now Tony's assailants, I had been given a pretty nasty dose of hate. Pete was affected to some degree, and greatly affected by his mom and dad, but the issues around my mom and David and Tony just devastated me.

    I had been under the impression that my mom had given her blessing to my relationship with Pete, and that she understood the nature of that relationship. It was a mistake on my part to take anything for granted, especially mom's mind-set toward us given her past. Instead of being understanding, she turned out to be homophobic. That was something I hadn't prepared myself for, and it had set me reeling emotionally.

    David, on the other hand, had been easy to figure out. While I'd lived with Chris and his mom, David had made it very clear that he didn't like me after he found out I was gay. Prior to that he treated me like a brother. I knew that he would take it badly if Chris came out to him, but I never would have thought he would physically attack him. I guess David really didn't believe in unconditional love for his brother.

    When I approached the park I saw some kids about my age playing football and some younger kids playing on the play structure. I continued my run around the perimeter of La Playa Field, trying to ignore the activity of the people around me.

    I was finding it difficult to blank out my mind as I usually did when I ran. It was disconcerting because normally when I was under stress I could more easily let go and let my legs do my thinking. All the incidents I'd heard and experienced in the previous twelve hours had somehow cut me off from my place of peace.

    What little solitude I'd found was interrupted by a football crossing my path. I picked it up and looked for the owner. A boy who looked to be about fifteen stopped thirty feet in front of me.

    "Hey," he said, "thanks for getting the ball."

    "No problem," I answered.

    I tossed him the football in a tight spiral and moved to continue my run, but his strange look stopped me.

    He asked, "You're Brian Kellam, aren't you?"

    I warily replied, "Yeah, and who are you?"

    "Manuel Rodriguez," he supplied. "My brother knows your sister."

    "He has my sympathy," I responded. "Is there something you wanted?"

    "Well," Manuel hesitated, "Kinda'. I was wondering if what your sister said about you is true."

    "And what was that?" I asked through a clinched jaw.

    The boy said hesitantly, "You know... are you... like..."

    "Like..."

    "Gay?" He whispered.

    What calm I had managed to achieve fled as my anger returned in full. I struggled to maintain my composure and not pound the kid into a grease spot.

    "Why do you care?" I grated out the question.

    "I've never met a gay person around my age before." Manuel seemed to gain courage now that the subject had been broached. "So are you?"

    "It's none of your fucking business what I am," I said in a cold rage. You go back and tell all your friends to leave me alone. I won't warn them... or you... again."

    Although Manuel had gained courage, his next statement proved he hadn't gained common sense enough to know I was about ready to bury him where he stood.

    "So you are gay."

    I strode up to him and put my nose within inches of his.

    "I may be gay, kid, but I can still kick your ass into next week.

    An expression of fear crossed his face as I stood there toe-to-toe with him, but he didn't back off. In my peripheral vision I saw his friends coming up on us. He glanced at them and smiled slightly.

    "You were saying?" Manuel taunted smugly as his five friends reached us, every single one of them standing at least three inches taller than me.

    "Is there a problem here?" One of his buddies asked.

    "You may have your friends," I growled as I glared into Manuel's eyes, "but if you or any of them start a fight, I will make sure you don't walk away from it- even if it kills me."

    He digested my words and swallowed involuntarily. He backed away to where his friends stood and addressed his compatriots.

    "Come on, guys," he said. "Let's go play ball."

    As they turned to follow their path back into the field, I yelled, "Remember what I said Manuel. I can find you!"

    He didn't respond to my implied threat, but my stomach did. I suddenly felt queasy and light headed. I knew I had to get away from the field and back to Kathlene as soon as I could. The most direct route would still take me a half hour to get there, but my gut informed me I wouldn't make it that far.

    When I was out of sight of the field I stepped off the sidewalk and vomited what little was in my stomach into the weeds beside the concrete. I stayed there for a few minutes until I could run again. Once I was up and on my way, my stomach still felt queasy but I knew I wasn't going to throw up again.

    Back at the house, I walked up the stairs without a word to anyone. I met Chris as he came out of the bathroom and darted past him. After locking the door I bolted to the toilet and heaved again, spitting nothing but yellow-green bitter bile into the bowl.

    I could feel the poison of my rage coursing through my veins, and it was literally making me ill. I realized with horror that the confrontation at the park had been my doing. I could have answered his questions and gone on my way without any trouble, but my unreasonable sensitivity had blown the whole incident out of proportion. I felt dirty and guilty.

    Once more I heaved but nothing remained to come out. A knock at the door startled me.

    "Brian?" Pete called. "Come on, baby, let me in."

    Standing up was a struggle, as was staggering the few steps to unlock the door. I opened it a crack before backing away. Pete entered and took in my appearance. His face filled with sympathy and compassion as my tears at last started to fall down my cheeks and to the floor below. His open arms seemed so inviting, but I could not make myself move into them. When I didn't move Pete came to me and wrapped his arms around me. I couldn't resist as he gathered me to him. Only then could I let my emotional dam burst. I didn't even try to talk until I felt I had control again. He held me until I regained some semblance of composure.

    "Are you okay, Bri?" Pete asked worriedly.

    "No, I'm not okay." I moaned. "All this shit is really getting to me, Pete! I almost got into a fight on the way home because a kid recognized me and asked if I was gay! I almost killed him!"

    You didn't touch him, right? He inquired in a worried tone.

    No, but God I wanted to, I confessed. He just wouldn't let it go.

    "Then you're doing fine, baby," Pete affirmed.

    "Fine?" I pulled away from him until I could see his face. "I'm puking my guts out and you think I'm fine?"

    Pete nodded. "Sure do. You stayed in control and didn't hurt anyone."

    I lay my head back down on Pete's shoulder.

    "Then why do I feel like absolute shit?" I asked him.

    "Because," Pete said calmly, "there's a lot on your mind and the stress is huge."

    "But what about you?" I asked. "You're parents are back together."

    "I know. It still feels like I'm the reason they broke up in the first place, but I'm working on it." Pete chuckled, "I think you're more stressed out about it than I am."

    I pulled away from him. "Didn't you say that things would be better off if you hadn't been born?" I asked brutally.

    Pete stared as me for a moment and then began to undress.

    "What are you doing?" I asked with surprise.

    "You need to go to bed and rest, but I'm not going to let you into the sleeping bag with me unless you take a shower. And since I'm in here with you, I thought I might join you."

    He continued stripping as I looked on in disbelief.

    "But what about Kathlene and Chris?"

    His answering smile could be called nothing other than devilish. "They can take their shower later."

    "I don't really feel like doing anything, Pete. I'm sorry."

    "Then we can just hold each other for a while."

    He dropped his shorts to the floor and then started to undress me in silence. I let him, using him as a support and a balance point since my legs were none too steady.

    When we were both naked, Pete looked into my eyes and said, "Besides, I think I need it too."
    

    Pete and I were eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast when Brenda came into the room followed by Kevin. They separated at the kitchen entry, Pete's mom going to the refrigerator and my boyfriend's adopted dad going out the front door. Neither of them said a word to each other or looked at us.

    Brenda continued gathering ingredients for an omelet and placed them on the counter near the stove. She then walked to the stairs and called Joanne down for breakfast before turning the stove on and melting some butter in a pan.

    Minutes went by before Joanne appeared, clad in a pastel pink knee-length dress with matching tights and shoes. I observed my mother as she greeted Joanne effusively, remarking on how well she had done dressing herself for the first day of class. Joanne beamed at the compliment and sat next to me at the table. She looked at me for an instant before telling mom about what she was going to do for the day.

    I got up and went to my room to dress for class. When I boarded the bus it was full of kids of all ages, some I knew and others I didn't. I finally found a seat in the middle and sat next to a hulking form whose face I could not see. The bus bounced down the road and arrived at school. When I got off the bus I walked into the school building and realized I was not wearing any clothing.

    I covered myself as best I could with my backpack and sprinted for the bathroom. My dad was there and eyed me shamefully as I darted into a stall. I knew I wouldn't be able to stay there forever. The door burst inward and my father directed me out of the bathroom without a single word.

    Ignoring the snickers and not-so-veiled insults leveled at me as I walked, I found my way to my locker. The bag holding my gym clothes hung inside. Grabbing the duffle bag, I walked to the locker room and pulled out my clothing. I dressed unhurriedly and went out to the gym for roll call. There stood my mother staring at me. Everyone was staring at me. I stood beside myself and took in my appearance. I was wearing the same pink pastel dress that Dawn had worn that morning. Pete stood near me, pointedly ignoring my presence. In a panic I looked at my mom.

    She glared disgustedly and spat, "I wanted a son!"
    

    I couldn't sit up. Something was weighing me down, preventing me from leaping to my feet as I was trying to do.

    "Brian, what is it?" Pete asked in a panicked voice.

    I ceased trying to extricate my body from his embrace and gulped air in an effort to calm down. I was safe with Pete. It was just a dream and none of it was real. I squeezed my eyes closed tightly and then relaxed them, trying to get that final image out of my head. Rolling into Pete, I wrapped my arms around him and just let myself breathe, inhaling his scent and pressing myself against him for maximum skin contact. He was my anchor in reality. He was my reality, and I had to keep that firmly in mind as the days, weeks and months to come passed.

    "Bri, baby, what is it? You..."

    "It's okay, Pete," I said in a controlled manner. "I just... had a nightmare. I don't remember what it was."

    Pete pushed me away. "Brian, there's no need to lie to me," Pete said with a touch of anger. "If you don't want to tell me then say so."

    He rolled away from me and pulled the covers over him.

    After a moment of shock, I quietly said, "It was strange. Everything was jumbled up. Your mom was in it. So was Kevin, my mom, Joanne, my dad. You. The last thing... I was in front of my mom. She said she wanted a son instead of me. Then I woke up."

    Pete still didn't respond. I closed my eyes again and the vision came to the forefront of my mind.

    "You wouldn't even look at me," I continued quietly. "I could tell you were ashamed of me and didn't want me anymore."

    "Why was I ashamed of you? Pete asked without moving."

    "I was wearing a dress. I looked like a girl."

    "Was it a pretty dress?"

    I don't know what I expected from Pete, but that wasn't it. I fought my first instinct and answered his question.

    "Uh, yeah, I guess."

    "Oh," Pete responded. "Okay."

    I waited for him to say something more, but I realized he wasn't going to when I heard him start snoring lightly.

    I kicked him gently and asked, "Is that all you have to say? `Okay?'"

    "Um hmm," Pete hummed sleepily.

    "I don't understand," I said, perplexed. "Wouldn't it bother you if I wore a dress?"

    Pete rolled over to look at me, the small smile crossing his lips revealed by the light leaking in around the window blinds. He reached out and caressed my cheek lovingly.

    "Only if it was ugly."

    I was completely stunned. "You're joking."

    Pete raised himself up on an elbow and looked into my eyes, his hand still on my cheek.

    "Brian, it wouldn't matter in the slightest if you wore a tutu every day of the week. I know who you are, and I love you. All of you. Besides, I'd love to see you in tights some time. You have a body to show off."

    I stared at him in astonishment.

    "Maybe I'll come and watch you wrestle next year. You have to promise to wear a uniform that's a size too small."

    I snorted. "Those things hid nothing when you wear the right size."

    "You'll have to model them for me then. Now are you going to go to sleep, Bri?"

    "Would you wear a dress?"

    "Depends on the occasion. Halloween would be okay."

    I lay down next to him without another word, thinking my boyfriend was bereft of his senses. My mind then took off and imagined Pete in various dresses and gowns. I chuckled myself to sleep.
    

    The next morning came much too early. I woke before Pete and decided another run would be just what I needed to get the kinks worked out and the day off to a good start. After dressing in socks, running shorts and shoes I headed out the front door and stretched my body into wakefulness. The air was cool against my skin and felt invigorating. When I set off on my path I decided to run out to the high school and take a few laps around the track. Along the way I saw a lot of people beginning their morning routine as the sun crested the San Francisco hills. Some of them even nodded to me and called out to me. I stopped along the way and spoke with several people, letting them know I was visiting for a few days. It seemed I hadn't been forgotten completely.

    When I reached the school I was surprised to find no one there. I suddenly didn't want to be there for some reason and took off toward La Playa Field. The sun was well overhead by the time I got there. I figured a good two hours had passed since I began my run. When I got there I found a group of kids playing football in the early morning sun. As I approached I saw that it was Manuel Rodriguez and his pals. Before I could think about it, I altered my course toward them. I had something I needed to do.

    They noticed me about twenty yards away when I slowed my run into a walk. Wary eyes turned on me, but I held up my hands as a peace gesture and came to a halt about ten feet away.

    "I owe you an apology," I said in opening. "Manuel, you asked me a question and I reacted badly."

    I had everyone's attention at that point. Manuel and seven others stood staring at me.

    "What I did was wrong. It didn't matter why you asked. To threaten you was wrong, and I'm sorry."

    Eight pairs of eyes bored into me, trying to discern my real reason for talking to them. I'm sure they wouldn't believe that I apologized for myself and not for them, but that didn't matter. I had done as my conscience dictated and I felt better for it.

    Manuel hesitated then asked, "So, are you?"

    I glanced around. I was certain I could escape them if necessary. I made up my mind.

    "Yes, I'm gay."

    Surprised glances were shared.

    "I don't get it, said one of the others. Look at you! You're a weight lifter. I know you played football and wrestled. How can you be a fag?"

    The slur did not affect me for some reason. I continued to speak calmly and rationally.

    "Playing sports and lifting weights has nothing to do with it. I'm a guy who loves another person who happens to be a guy. I'm no different than any of you are otherwise. I play football. I wrestle..."

    "Just to cop a feel, I bet," came the comment from another boy.

    "...because I enjoy the sport, and that's the only reason. My boyfriend is the only person I'm interested in."

    "I don't want any of you fags looking at my dick in the shower!" Spat another.

    I laughed, and the laugh came easily. "Don't flatter yourself. And as far as that goes, I defy any of you to tell me you've never looked at another guy's dick just to check out the competition. Besides, if there are any gay guys in your class, you think they're going to tell you and risk getting the shit beat out of them every day?"

    "They better stay away from me!" The same boy said.

    I fixed the kid with a baleful stare. "Assholes like you don't understand and aren't willing to learn. Your kind are why there is so much hate in the world.

    "We're just like anyone else. I like sports, I like to read, I like to learn. I enjoy video games and running. I like to lift weights." I motioned to my body with my hands. "You can tell that just by looking at me.

    "We're not out for your dick, regardless of what you think. Sure, some guy might develop a crush on another guy, but that's no different than a crush you get for a girl. All they- we- want is to be left alone to learn who we are. That's all."

    "And one other thing. Be careful what you say about," and I used the term with derision, "fags. You'd be surprised. You never know when one of them might decide to beat the shit out of you instead of the other way around. Have fun, guys."

    I resumed my run leaving eight very thoughtful boys behind me. I idly wondered if I'd made an impression on any of them, and then decided only time would tell, and I wouldn't be around to know anyway.

    By the time I returned to the house Pete and Chris were eating breakfast on the patio. At just past nine o'clock, the day promised to be a scorcher. I went straight upstairs and took a nice cool shower. The water felt wonderful as it cascaded over my body and rinsed away the sweat.

    I thought about what I'd done at the park and was really happy with the way it turned out. I knew I'd have to tell Pete; it would make him glad, too.

    After dressing in the bedroom, I decided to take some time and read for a little while. I pulled my book out of my bag and settled in on the floor at the foot of the bed. I used to sit there when I lived with the Forns when I was feeling really vulnerable and needed to hide, but after some time, it became where I read unless I was trying to go to sleep.

    It wasn't long before a knock sounded at the door. I told whomever it was to come in. Chris opened the door and looked for me for a moment before spying me in the corner. He leaned against the doorjamb and observed me as I read. It made me nervous.

    "What, Chris?" I asked.

    "Just thinking `bout stuff." He seemed uncomfortable dropped his eyes down to the floor.

    "What kind of stuff?" I prodded him.

    He didn't answer for a moment, then spoke quietly. "You sitting there kinda reminds me of Tony. He sits on the floor when he reads, too."

    I didn't reply to Chris' statement; instead, I just peered at him. After a short time he met my gaze. There was a hard glint to his blue eyes I'd never seen before. Chris looked like he'd been through a battle for his life and nearly lost. He was clenching his jaw every few seconds. If I didn't know him as well as I did, I would have thought he was angry.

    "We need to get going, Bri. I volunteered you to help set up at Tony's place for the party."

    "You volunteered me?"

    "Yeah," Chris confirmed bluntly.

    "Okay," I responded, "let me throw on a shirt and shoes."

    As I did so, Chris leaned against the doorjamb. Although he watched me finish dressing quietly, I got the impression it wasn't me he was seeing.
    

    "Hi B-Brian!"

    "Hey Tony," I said gently with a smile. "How `ya doin', bro?"

    Tony didn't look too bad, but I wasn't sure what I was expecting, either. There were faint yellow patches spread out across his body where bruises once were, and he wore casts on his right arm and leg. The cast on his leg was covered with an intricate airbrush painting of a phoenix rising from ashes, and the cast on his arm was decorated with a pen-and-ink drawing of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out. In spite of the gravity of the situation, the image of the greatest physicist the world has ever known brought a grin to my face.

    "Doing okay... for the most part. I'm healing, except this d-damn stuttering. Doc says my... speech center was hurt when they c-cracked my skull."

    I struggled to maintain my composure at the evidence of the obvious brutality of the attack against my friend. I sat next to him on the couch as Chris sat on his right side. A silent exchange passed between him and Tony, and I saw Chris shudder with a long sigh. Tony leaned against Chris as he was enveloped in his boyfriend's arms. Tony tilted his head backward so he could see Chris' face and whispered to him. I could barely make out his words.

    "I'm here, dude, Tony said. I'm okay. I'm b-better than that... `cause I got you."

    Chris gazed down at Tony for a long moment and then kissed his forehead. A single tear slid down Chris' cheek.

    "Aw, Chris..." Tony quietly voiced his concern about Chris' well being and sat upright as best he could given the weight of the casts. Chris and I both assisted him, and when Tony rolled to his right, I got up and helped him position his leg cast so he could more or less lie on his boyfriend.

    I walked back to the entry to give Chris and Tony a little privacy. Pete had watched the exchange from that distance and he seemed frightened. When I stood in front of him I put my arms around him, startling him a bit. Concern overcame me and colored my expression. Pete looked down at me, his feelings matching mine if his face was any indication. He stared through me for a long moment and then physically shook himself free of whatever vision he was experiencing.

    "Hello, boys. You must be Pete and Brian. I'm Mike Braden, Tony's father."

    He extended his hand as he walked up to us. Pete took it first and cleared his throat so he could speak clearly. Even so, his voice cracked a bit.

    "Pete Patterson. It's good to meet you, Mr. Braden."

    They shook as Mike smiled. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Pete."

    He turned his attention to me. I realized that as soon as I'd heard his voice I'd jumped away from Pete on reflex, and it pissed me off. I hated it when I did that, because it was just another symptom of my insecurity with Pete.

    "You must be Brian," the man said. Seeing my cross expression, he asked, "Is... everything okay?"

    "What? Oh, yeah, I just thought of something." I took his hand. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Braden. I can't tell you how glad I am that Tony is... I mean, that Tony's..."

    I couldn't figure out what to say. The man smiled gently and gripped my shoulder as we shook.

    "We're glad he's alive and home, too, Brian."

    Embarrassment reddened my cheeks. Our eyes met and something significant passed between us, but I wasn't sure what it was. I felt better.

    "Chris has told us a lot about you," Mike continued and grinned at the two of us. "If even half of what he told us is true..."

    Pete grinned at me, like he was telling me, I told you so.

    "Oh, it's true, Pete said. I'm really lucky to have Brian, and that's something I've known since we first figured everything out, Mr. Braden," he said, glancing between us.

    Mike then looked over my shoulder to see Chris and Tony. A bandage obscured Tony's face, but it was plain there was an odd, tense air around them. It didn't seem to me like it was bad, just the two of them being totally wrapped up in each other.

    "They'll be okay," Mike said.

    "Yeah, we really hope so," Pete answered cryptically.

    Pete met my gaze as I stared at him, trying to get some idea of what he was talking about. Something strange was happening and my inability to figure it out was making me even angrier with myself than I already was.

    "Tony told us about the last time you met, Brian," Mike said.

    "Really?" I asked noncommittally.

    "You managed to impress him," Mike said with appreciation. "That doesn't happen often. You helped him when he didn't know what to do. Thank you."

    "It's okay, Mr. Braden," I rebutted. "I like Tony. I consider him a friend. And besides, he's made Chris happy, and for that I owe him."

    Mike peered into my eyes for a moment, glanced at Pete, and then returned his gaze to me.

    "You're really close to them, aren't you? Kathlene and Chris, I mean."

    The answer to Mr. Braden's question was obvious, but I felt he was searching for something deeper.

    "If it weren't for Chris and Kathlene," I responded with gravity, "I wouldn't be here right now. I would have died. They saved me."

    Tony's father stared hard at me, his eyes burning into mine. While I found it uncomfortable to do so, I met his gaze. The man seemed to be looking through me into someplace else, but he refocused on me very quickly.

    "From what?" He asked. The intensity of his demeanor was frightening. Much seemed to depend on my answer.

    "From myself," I answered simply, still unflinchingly meeting his gaze.

    I could feel Pete snake his arm around me supportively, or maybe protectively given Mr. Braden's apparent attitude. I could understand why Pete would feel we were being threatened, but it was obvious to me that Mr. Braden was searching for an answer to a question he hadn't asked himself before. I stood patiently, waiting for the examination to end. Pete squeezed me tighter and I patted his leg to let him know we were okay.

    Mike returned to the present as if someone had snapped fingers to wake him from a hypnotic trance. He blinked three times and then dropped his eyes to the floor.

    "Are you okay, Mr. Braden?" Pete questioned quietly.

    "Yes, Pete. I was just... thinking... trying to imagine what it must have been like..."

    "It's over and done," I affirmed. I"'m in a better place now. So is Tony."

    Mr. Braden smiled slightly.

    "You're right," he said and shook himself out of his introspective morass. "Why don't you guys head out back and help finish up."

    "Sure."

    Pete led me by the hand out the back door and into the yard where Mac and Pedro were making an absolute jumble with the decorations, bickering about placement and color. Balloons and crepe paper were strewn about with no rhyme or reason at all. Pete and I glanced at one another and then my boyfriend did something so outrageous I thought I'd piss myself.

    "Boys," he said with the quintessential stereotypical lisp, "you're making a mess. Who told you to decorate anyway? Never send a straight boy to do a gay boy's work, I swear."

    My eyes all but popped out of my head, and Mac and Pedro weren't sure whether to laugh or run away. With hands on his hips, Pete sauntered his way to the table and removed a balloon from Mac's hand. Mac just stared at him like he was purple with pink polka dots.

    "Yeah, Mac," Pedro interjected. "You know gay boys blow better than straight boys!"

    That was all we could take. I burst out laughing so hard that I staggered into the wall. Mac was laughing uproariously and holding his gut. Pedro had fallen over and was on the patio rolling on his back and shortly was left writhing in silent mirth. Tears were falling from my eyes and I couldn't catch my breath.

    "Oh man," Mac said between gasps. "Don't go there, dog. Just don't go there."

    Pedro was still rolling around, managing to squeeze out a syllable every now and then between seizures. "Straight boy.. gay boy's work... blow..." He was again reduced to a helplessness as the humor overtook him once more.

    Tony and Chris joined us just in time for the rest of us to get down to completing the decorating. A chuckle still escaped us here and there, leaving Chris and Tony wondering what had happened.

    When they asked, Mac said, "Ya had to be there, dog."

    "You certainly did, girlfriend," Pete said, once again mimicking the lisp and flopping his hand.

    Tony grinned and looked up at Chris who wore an astonished expression. Mac and Pedro once again surrendered to the laughter effectively ending any progress we had been making. I stifled a giggle and just smiled as I watched Pete try to keep a straight face.

    Chris just shook his head and said, "Oooo-kay!"

    I lost it at that point, as did Pete. Tony began laughing and buried his face in Chris' shoulder. Chris seemed pleasantly surprised and hugged Tony to him as he started chuckling, too. While I stood there watching Chris and Tony, a hole grew in my stomach. It felt as though I'd lost something dear to me, something precious. A piece of my life was being ripped away unexpectedly.

    I tried to maintain a fake smile as I walked up to Pete, but once I was near him, I pulled him to me and buried my face in his chest. Tears were leaking out of my eyes and soaking Pete's shirt. He realized I wasn't laughing when I sobbed. Pete wrapped his arms around me and held me tightly as he kissed my forehead. He began to rock me gently and murmuring in my ear, his voice so low I could only feel the vibrations through his chest.

    As the laughter died around me, I fought to regain my composure, but it was a lost cause. Pete began to lead me away from the patio into the corner of the yard. I could hear the others whispering behind us. Pete stopped and just held me for a while as I tried to reign in my emotions.

    "Bri," he said gently as he brushed hair from my eyes, "what's wrong?"

    I pulled away from him enough to dry an eye on my shoulder. "Nothing. It's stupid."

    "It's not stupid if it made you break down into tears, baby," Pete said gently. "Tell me."

    "It's just... I look at Chris and Tony, and I see him so happy... it's like I'm losing him."

    "Losing him?" Pete asked, his voice strained. "How?"

    I looked up at him and saw the fear he was trying to hide.

    "Pete, I told you. I love you. I love Chris too, but it's different. I don't want to be with him, but I want him close and it's like Tony is coming between us. I'm not making any sense.

    "No, Brian, you are. You're making perfect sense." Pete pulled me to him once more. "But all I can do is hold you, because Chris and Tony are the real deal. They really do love each other. You can see that, can't you?"

    "Yeah, and I think that's what set me off. Did you see how Tony looks at him?"

    "Uh huh," Pete agreed, "and I saw how Chris looks back. I'm happy for them."

    "I am too, but I have this stupid fucking hole in the pit of my stomach...."

    "Let's go talk to them," Pete suggested. "Maybe by saying it you can work it out."

    I looked up at him. The idea of telling Tony what I was feeling about his relationship with Chris scared me. I was afraid of what it would do to my friendship with him, and ultimately my relationship with Chris.

    Turning in Pete's arms, I observed Tony and Chris sitting at the table while Mac and Pedro continued to hang balloons and streamers. They were watching Pete and me while whispering to one another. Tony said something that caused Chris' eyebrows to rise and look down on his boyfriend. Tony met his gaze, and in that moment I knew without a doubt that Tony had taken my place in Chris' life. The backyard could have exploded and it would not have torn Chris away from Tony. I hugged Pete again.

    "We'll talk to them, but after the party," I said in a near-whisper. "I don't want to ruin it for them."

    Pete squeezed me back and said, "You're the best, Bri."

    We held the embrace for a short while longer and then separated to complete the task at hand. Chris approached me after settling Tony on a chair so he could banter with Pedro and Mac.

    "Are you okay, Brian?" Chris asked.

    "I'm fine, Chris. There's just a lot on my mind right now."

    His eyes narrowed. "I hate it when you say that. It always means you're hiding something."

    I smiled. "Chris, really. I'm okay. I have some things I need to get straight in my head. That's all."

    Chris' expression didn't change. I noticed Pete observing the exchange in my peripheral vision.

    I allowed my smile to broaden. "Chris, go back to Tony. Let him know exactly how much you love him."

    His eyes narrowed briefly, but when I directed him to Tony with a toss of my head, Chris walked away and sat next to his skate-punk. I don't know if he said anything to his boyfriend or not, but I felt Chris' eyes on me until the next person arrived to celebrate Tony's homecoming.

    A Chinese man with square gray-lensed glasses and a grey shirt walked through the back door. After surveying the landscape, he walked over to Tony and gave a slight bow that Tony returned from his seated position.

    "Hi, Chen," Tony said to the man with a broad smile.

    In a voice I had to strain to hear, the man called Chen said, "Tony, you look better today. How is the walking mountain?"

    Chris snorted as Tony laughed. With a playful grin, Tony said, "You'll have to ask him."

    Chen cocked his head at an angle and gave a thin smile. "I shall. The small man turned to Chris. Can you see me through the clouds up around your head?"

    Chris smiled broadly and said, "No clouds up here, but I suppose you're not tall enough to see this high."

    The three of them cracked up laughing and Tony threw his head against Chris who kissed the top of his head in a gesture of carefree affection. Observing the act lifted my heart and widened the hole in my gut.

    This dichotomy was killing me. On one hand I was ecstatic for Chris and Tony, that they were by all appearances in love and happy with each other. On the other hand, down on a primal level, I felt like my territory was being encroached upon. Pete lightly shoved me toward the pack of laughing hyenas as Chris spoke.

    "Where is Juan?" He asked.

    "He will be here soon. He took a client to lunch to discuss the work we will do for him." Chen turned toward us as Pete and I approached.

    "Pete, Brian, t-this is Chen... our very good friend," Tony said in his odd cadence.

    "Hi, Chen. I'm Brian," I extended my hand, which the man shook.

    "Hello, Brian. It is good to meet you," the man said with a slight bow.

    "And this is my boyfriend, Pete."

    Pete looked at me as I introduced him, surprised at the qualification. I gave him a lopsided grin, and he smiled back before offering his hand to the shorter man.

    "Hello, Chen. Nice to meet you."

    "And you as well, Pete. Please excuse me. I am needed inside." Chen again bowed slightly before retreating into the house.

    After Chen was inside, Tony said, "He's g-gotta be the smartest person I know, dude."

    "Really?" I asked.

    Tony nodded his head. "You should sit in... on one of our conversations sometime. You'd enjoy it."

    "Maybe I'll do that," I replied. "What are you and Chris going to do now?"

    "Probably sneak off somewhere for, ah... you know," Pedro jumped in unexpectedly.

    "Can you blame me?" Tony countered.

    Chris turned an interesting shade of pink at Pedro's comment. Tony was looking at Chris with such intensity that I almost didn't understand it. Chris did, and it showed by the way he gazed back at Tony. He wrapped his arms around the smaller, injured boy cradled against him. A kiss between the two would have been easier for me to watch than the absolute protectiveness Chris displayed. I had too many memories of finding the same comfort and the same safety in his arms when my life was at it worst.

    A twinge in my stomach prompted me to follow Chen inside in a rapid fashion.

    As I walked into the kitchen, I asked, "Bathroom?"

    "Right around the corner," said a woman who had arrived while I'd been outside.

    I bolted for the door and found it to be locked. I could hear a little girl singing off key. With no place left to go, I raced for the front door and threw it open. I knelt in front of some bushes against the house and heaved. Nothing rose from my stomach to my great relief. I remained on the ground for a moment to rest and attempt to gather myself.

    "Are you okay?" Asked the woman from the kitchen.

    "Yeah," I panted. "I just... something didn't agree with me."

    "I'm Jenny Braden, Tony's mom."

    "Hello Mrs. Braden," I said as I stood, more or less certain I wasn't going to lose it again. "I'm Brian. It's good to meet you, but I wish it wasn't like this."

    "Are you okay, baby?" Pete asked as he came barreling around the corner, almost running over the woman in his haste. "Oh, excuse me!" He said as he neatly avoided a collision with a rather impressive display of contortion.

    Jenny looked a bit disconcerted at the near miss, but replied, "It's okay, Pete."

    My boyfriend collected himself and sheepishly said, "I'm really sorry, Mrs. Braden. I didn't know you were there."

    "Obviously," she said with a hint of amusement.

    Pete blushed with embarrassment.

    "Kids." Jenny Braden walked back in the house while chuckling.

    Pete looked at me with deep concern. "This is really getting to you, Bri. Are you really okay?"

    "I have to be, Pete. I can't change anything, and I wouldn't if I could. I have you now, and Chris has Tony."

    "I'm really worried about you, Bri," Pete said seriously. "You haven't been like this in a long time."

    "Like what?" I asked.

    "You're more... emotional than you have been. It seems like you're on the verge of something serious, and it scares me."

    "There's just so much going on."

    I sat on the lawn and looked off in the distance at nothing. So many things were going through my mind at that moment. In the week or so we had been on our trip I had faced so much. Homophobia. Being tempted for the first time. My mom hating the fact I was gay. Feeling like I was losing Chris. And worst of all, I could feel myself pulling away from Pete because of the turmoil in my heart and soul. When I should be depending on his love and support, when I should be telling him everything, I was beginning to hold back.

    "Brian? Oh, sorry..." Chris had come around the corner and took in the situation immediately. "Um, are you okay, Brian?"

    "I'm fine, Chris," I said in rote response.

    Two sets of eyes focused on me through narrowed lids. The two people who knew me best in the world stood over me, not believing a word I'd said. It made me very nervous. I couldn't meet the gaze of either one of them.

    "I need to go for a run to clear my head," I said, grasping the only alternative I could find. "I'll be back soon."

    I stood up quickly and took off down the street at a quick clip.

    As I ran out of earshot, Chris' voice came to my ears. "You're running again, Brian!"

    I pretended not to hear him.
    

    When I returned from the short run, there were a number of cars in the front of the Braden home. Pete and Chris were sitting on the front porch talking quietly as I approached at a walk. They both saw me at the same time and stood up. Chris clapped Pete on the shoulder with an expression of sympathy and then retreated inside the house, leaving Pete standing alone while I drew nearer. He watched me closely, eyes narrowed slightly, with a pensive expression. I could tell that Pete was beyond worried about me, and that he had no idea what to do about it.

    When I reached the house, I walked right up to him, stopped, and stared into his eyes. The blue orbs were troubled by the uncertainty my actions had evoked. He studied me, looking from one eye to the other in an attempt to divine where I was mentally and emotionally, but I felt pretty closed off. Neither of us spoke for quite a while, just looking at each other. Pete raised his arms slightly, begging me to come to him, but willing to let me go on alone if that's what I needed to do. That gesture alone brought tears to my eyes.

    I stepped in to him, wrapping my arms around his waist and resting my head against his chest. He inhaled deeply and let it out in a long, shuddering sigh. It was then that I realized how much I had hurt him by just leaving as I had. I looked up at him again, an apology written on my face. He returned my gaze with moist eyes.

    "What do I do, Pete?" I whispered.

    His gaze was filled with compassion. "He's right, you know."

    "Who?" I asked.

    "Chris," Pete said flatly. "You're trying to run away from your problems and your feelings."

    "I know," I whispered again, "but I don't know what to do. I don't know how to deal with everything I'm feeling, Pete. There's just so much... it's overwhelming."

    Pete sighed again. "It hurts when I see you like this, Bri."

    I pulled my head back and saw by his expression the real pain I'd caused him. Pete gazed down at me, his face displaying a mix of uncertainty and sadness. I couldn't look into his eyes for longer than a second. Tears filled my own eyes and ran down my cheeks as I cursed myself for causing the most important person in my life anguish.

    "I'm sorry, Pete. I really am."

    "I know, baby," Pete said gently. "I just wish there was something more I could do to help you."

    "You do help me, Pete," I said earnestly. "You help me by just being here and listening. I only wish I didn't keep having this kind of stuff happen."

    "Like what, Bri?"

    "Like my mom. Like Kerry. Like your parents. Like... like this bullshit feeling I get when I see Chris and Tony together... and happy!"

    I raised my voice in anger. "I get so fucking pissed at myself. None of this should be affecting me like it is! I should be used to this by now, not breaking down into tears at the smallest little fucking..."

    "Brian Andrew Kellam, language!"

    Kathlene strode up the pathway from around the corner, apparently having walked from her home to the Braden's house. I glared at her as she passed us and she took no notice, oblivious to the fact I was vibrating with the tension I was feeling.

    When the door had closed behind her, I growled loudly in frustration. "I'm making the same fucking mistakes again! I'm so pissed at myself for these bullshit feelings that I just want to..."

    I felt like I needed to hit something to work out this anger I felt toward myself, but outside of Pete there was nothing that I could use as the recipient for my ire. I pushed away from Pete, fully intending to go running again to work off some of the frustration and anger, but the door opened once more. Tony poked his head out.

    "Dudes, you guys g-gonna hang out here all day or... come in and c-chow?"

    "We'll be there in a sec, Tony," Pete said. "We're almost done."

    Tony's eyes narrowed as he observed my sour expression. "Take the time you need," the injured boy said. "It's c-cool."

    Tony's response cooled me off just a bit. I saw Chris come up behind Tony as he closed the door. He said something and Tony just shook his head.

    "They know something's up, don't they?" I asked Pete quietly.

    "Yeah. It's kind of hard not to with you just taking off and then glaring at everyone that comes near," Pete said, his voice holding a note of frustration. "We talked about you while you were running. I didn't tell them anything, but Chris seems to have it pegged. Tony isn't sure, but I think he'll figure it out by the way you're acting. Pedro and Mac know something's up, too, but haven't asked me anything."

    "So I managed to ruin the party for them anyway, huh?" I asked bitterly.

    "No, I don't think so." Pete countered. "They're concerned, and so am I."

    "Wonderful. Fucking wonderful. God, it's like I pollute everything around me just by being here! I hate this. I hate my mom for lying to me. I hate your parents for what they did to us, and I hate myself for letting it all affect me!"

    "Why are you so angry, Brian?"

    I glared at the horizon, contemplating my answer. Pete waited patiently as we stood in silence for a moment. Again the door opened and Chris emerged. He walked directly to us and stopped just a few feet from me. I didn't acknowledge him. The fact he was there just increased my rage. I couldn't get a moment's peace.

    Heedless of Chris' presence Pete again asked, "Why are you so angry, Brian?"

    Again I didn't respond. Chris shifted from foot to foot while the silence grew longer.

    "Brian?" Pete asked again.

    When I didn't reply for a third time, Chris said, "He's angry because he's not in control. Right, Bri?"

    Pete was watching the huge young man thoughtfully. I glared at Chris, but he stood unfazed. It was then I noticed that Chris had carried his boyfriend out to join us. I met Tony's gaze and was startled by the intensity of his eyes. I felt like he had penetrated into the depths of my soul with that gaze, as though nothing was hidden from him.

    "Brian," he said, "It don't d-do no good to be angry. All... all it does is eat you up."

    "I know, Tony!" I barked. "God, don't you think I've been here before? Don't you think that I know what anger does to me? I almost fucking died because I was so goddamn angry!"

    "So you know getting pissed off doesn't work, then!" Tony barked back, without a stutter or a break in the sentence. "So t-try something else. You have a problem. What answer... is it looking for?"

    Chris' small smile annoyed me.

    "If I knew that I wouldn't be so pissed off!"

    "Dude, you make the c-choice to get p-pissed. Not me... not Chris, not Pete, you." Tony's eyes bore into mine. The strange delivery almost seemed purposeful because of the way it accentuated key points. "I know you're frustrated, but you ch-choose how to deal with it. Now, d-do you want to... get all bent out of shape and ch-chase everyone away, or do you want to solve the p-problem?"

    "I just want to be happy," I said meekly, unable to stay angry under Tony's gaze.

    "W-What is keeping you from being happy?" He asked in a rush.

    "My mom is a homophobe, Tony," I said. "She doesn't want me and Pete to be together."

    "Do you care?" Tony asked. "I mean, will you and P-Pete split because... she can't handle it?"

    "No. I'm not leaving Pete because of it."

    "Okay then. Problem solved," and he paused with an effort to control his words. "She's just g-gonna have to get used to it! She can only keep you ap-apart for so long, and then you'll... be together and there ain't shit sh-she can do about it. What's next?"

    I stared at the teenaged genius in disbelief. His brain might not be controlling his manner of speaking correctly, but the rest of his brain was clearly firing on all cylinders. Tony had pointed out the obvious: Pete and I were in this for the long haul together, and I would not be under her control forever. I just had to make sure that I kept that firmly in mind when dealing with my mother's issues.

    "Uh, I don't really want to talk about it right now, Tony," I said, half pleading.

    "Uh uh. That means it c-concerns me and Chris. Talk now."

    "It's not like that," I demurred.

    "Then how is it, Brian," Chris asked brutally.

    Pete moved behind me, pulling me to him until we were in contact, and then wrapped his arms around me in support. Nothing in his actions hinted at stopping the conversation and the direction it was heading. I stayed silent for a few moments, looking between the intense gaze from Tony and the near-angry glare from Chris. I closed my eyes and gathered what little emotional strength I had remaining.

    "You guys have to know that I am really, really happy for both of you," I started. "I watch you and Chris together and it's like it is meant to be. You make him so happy, Tony. And you make Tony happy, Chris. It doesn't take a genius to see that you two really love each other."

    I had to pause for a second to figure out how I was going to say what I was feeling and thinking.

    "The problem is that when I see you two together and being happy, it's like I'm losing something. I get a hole in my gut, and it's all I can do to hold it together."

    I looked at Tony. "Tony, after everything, I hope you know that I would never, ever intentionally do anything to hurt you."

    He nodded uncertainly.

    "There's this... connection that I have with Chris. It's real and it's like something's being physically ripped out of me when I think of him being taken away from me."

    I saw Tony's expression turn hostile, but I attempted to forestall his anger.

    "That's exactly what I mean, Tony! I want you and Chris to be happy. I want you and Chris to be as close as you want to be, but I want Chris close, too."

    "You know how you feel about Pedro and Mac?"

    Tony nodded, expression still uncertain and frosty.

    "I feel that way about Chris. I don't know why, but I feel like he's being pulled away from me, and it hurts. It hurts so fucking much, and I feel so fucking guilty for feeling it."

    I dropped my eyes to the ground. "I'm sorry," I said softly. "You don't deserve this. Neither of you do."

    Tony used Chris to hobble to within a foot of me. I felt him put his hand on my shoulder, and I looked up at him. The hostility I expected was nowhere to be found, but the intensity of his gaze hadn't diminished. It had captured me and I could not look away as Tony spoke. I was beginning to understand the tremendous effect it must have on Chris.

    "C-Chris is important to both of us, Brian. We both get some of the... same things from him, but you n-need to know that things have c-changed. There are things between him and me that you'll never know or experience."

    That's the way it should be though! That's why it's so fucked up that I feel this way!

    Let me finish, Tony said with surprising calm considering his condition. You and Chris have s-something between the two of you that... I'll never be able to know. We have d-different relationships, Brian. We both love Chris. You love him as a b-brother... I love him as something more. So what? You know how big his h-heart is. There's more than enough of him to g-go around. I don't want to take him away from you, B-Brian... but I do want to have my piece."

    "You shouldn't have to claim that though!"

    "I'm n-not claming it... Brian. I'm telling you h-h... how it is."

    Tony was right, and it pissed me off. I couldn't stop myself from feeling like I did about Chris because of our past. There was no way I could undo what I had felt about him before, and still felt. It scared me to think of what Pete would say if he could read my thoughts. Even I didn't like what I was thinking, but I couldn't stop.

    "Brian," Pete said my name quietly. It seemed like someone had clued him into my thoughts. "This isn't a contest. You can't compete with him on this."

    He looked over at Tony. My stomach turned into a knot. Chris hadn't said a word, but I knew he what he was thinking. It showed on his face: Tony had him and I didn't. I felt like a fucking greedy bastard. I wanted it all and I wanted it my way. It was insane.

    "Do you know what I'm losing?" I asked Tony.

    "C-can't lose s-something you never had, d-dude," he replied.

    It felt like Pete had hit me in the back of the head as hard as he could. I was beginning to see that I was fighting for an idea, not the reality. It was as if I didn't want the promise of what could have been to end. A dream was dying somewhere, and it hurt.

    "Would you w-want me... to pull this on you with P-Pete?" Tony asked me. It was quiet, but forceful.

    "No!" I said with the same force.

    He caught me off guard when he awkwardly stepped forward and hugged me. I tried not to flinch or pull away. However, my body was as stiff as a board. I managed to wrap one arm loosely around him. The other dangled uselessly at my side.

    "C-Chris and me," Tony whispered, "you h-helped make this happen. I w-won't forget what you've d-done for me, Brian. I'm not r-really taking... him away from you."

    Tony squeezed me with surprising strength for a long moment. When he released me, I looked in his eyes. The quiet consideration and love I saw was real, and it was for me.

    "Thank you, Tony," I whispered and tried hard to mean it.

    I felt a little bit better about where my relationship with Tony stood, but I knew that this was far from over. My feelings for Chris were intensifying and that, more than anything, scared the living shit out of me. I couldn't see how I was going to get out of this trap.

    Pete wrapped his arms around me lovingly, but the comfort I craved so much at that moment was not found in his embrace.
    

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