Brian and Pete
Chapter Twenty-Three
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 other forms known or unknown without the author's express written permission. All applicable copyright laws apply and will be enforced.
    For the second time in as many days I received a bloody nose from my boyfriend, and for the second time that day we cried ourselves out. The love of my life said nothing more as our tears fell and nothing while we sat holding one another. His silence was ominous because I knew so much more than what he had told me remained buried within him. A new enmity was born in my soul. Curt was persona non grata in my book, and if I ever saw the man again he would be hard pressed to survive the encounter. Brenda was categorized with Curt, her erstwhile boyfriend. My feelings toward both of them made Joe Jameson, Pete's father, seem a close friend in comparison.
    It was late by the time we walked back to the car. My headache, which had been diminished by adrenaline, was returning. My head began to throb as Pete navigated our way back to Kathlene's house, but the pain wasn't debilitating: it just hurt a lot. The silence we had let cover us continued as we made our way to the front door. Uneasiness hung over me like a cloud threatening rain. I was waiting for the coming cloudburst with trepidation, unsure which way the wind would blow with what Pete would hopefully reveal.
    The door opened just before we reached it, an anxious mother pulling on the handle. Kathlene seemed incensed and relieved at the same time.
    "Where have you two been? I've been worried sick over you!"
    "We made a stop..." I began, but Kathlene interrupted as I came into the light.
    "What on Earth? Have you two been fighting? "
    I looked down and saw my shirt stained with blood. Pete's shirt carried matching stains. I had no idea what my face looked like.
    My boyfriend moved past Kathlene without answering and climbed the stairs toward the bathroom. I dumbly watched him go and tried to move after him a moment later when I came to my senses. Kathlene was going to stop me, but a glance from me made her think otherwise.
    As I passed she laid a hand on my arm and said softly, "Take care of him, Brian. I'm here if you need anything."
    I smiled slightly. "I know, mom."
    I patted her hand and followed my boyfriend. I found him in the bathroom sitting on the toilet, fully clothed. He was frowning, staring at the floor. Pete glanced at me as I came in. His glower changed into an expression of sorrow.
    "What have I done, Brian?" He asked as he stood to meet me.
    Pete raised his hand to gently caress my bruised jaw. He chewed his bottom lip as tears came once more to his eyes.
    I put my fingers to his lips, preventing him from speaking. His eyes continued to leak tears.
    "Shhh... It's okay," Pete, I said as I stroked his face back to his neck. "I understand."
    I ran my hand through his hair one more time, again preventing him from speaking.
    "Shhh. Don't. Let it go, babe. It doesn't matter: I still have you, and I'm not going anywhere."
    I moved my hands down to unbutton his blood stained polo shirt and pulled it over his head, tossing it aside before I unbuttoned his shorts. He let them fall to the floor, but I could tell he was uncomfortable.
    "Bri, I can't..." he started, but again I interrupted him with a finger.
    I placed my hands on his chest and ran them down his taut abs and around his side to rest on his butt. I pulled him close to me and rested my head against his chest, listening to his heart race. My hands ran up his back, feeling the tension in his muscles. I wrapped my arms around him tightly, almost to the point of pain. I held that embrace for a moment before removing his boxer-briefs and pushing them to the floor, leaving him naked in front of me. Tears still emerged from his sad eyes.
    Quickly I removed my clothing. Pete stood unmoving while I did, observing my every move, his expression growing more fretful by the second. When I was done, I locked the door and returned to him. As I looked into his eyes, my heart broke and tears fell from my own.
    "I'm sorry, Bri..." Pete whispered.
    "It doesn't matter, Pete," I affirmed as I placed my hands on his shoulders. I met his gaze steadily and with as much conviction as I could muster, said, "I- love - you, and I'm never letting you go."
    "But I hit you, Bri! You never did that to me."
    "No, Pete, I did worse, but you still loved me!" I stated emphatically over his protests. "If you're trying to compare what happened tonight with all the shit I've given you in the last nine months, then you owe me a hell of a lot more than a bloody nose! You should have dumped me, but you didn't, even with all I put you through. Why would I leave the person I love more than anyone else in the world because of something this small?"
    He looked at me, his expression of sadness changing to one of curious disbelief. His arms pulled mine around him and we resumed our embrace. I stood listening to his decelerating heartbeat, soaking in the feel of his skin against mine.
    "You would've let me beat you up, wouldn't you?" He asked moments later.
    "I didn't want to hurt you any more than you already were," I murmured meekly.
    "So you were going to let me beat the shit out of you?"
    I didn't answer and instead pulled him tighter to me. His hand raised to stroke my hair. Pete inhaled deeply and sighed. I nuzzled his chest for a moment, content to stay there for the rest of my life. Pete's hand snuck around and lifted my chin. I looked in his eyes and was relieved to find the misery had fled, replaced by a weary calm.
    "We need to take a shower, baby," Pete commented quietly. "You look awful."
    "You don't," I said softly. "You're beautiful. You always have been."
    Tears unexpectedly filled my eyes, leaving me blinking in an attempt to clear them and restore my vision. Pete leaned in and kissed each eye gently as he resisted breaking down again.
    He hugged me tightly and murmured, "I don't deserve you."
    Through a sob, I replied, "You're right: you deserve better."
    He pushed me away, causing me to stumble.
    "Fuck you, Brian!" Pete grated angrily. "How can you say that? Just... just fuck you."
    Pete was livid. I stared at him, meeting his flashing eyes as he continued.
    "Why do you think that you're such a bad person? You've been like that since last November when you moved to Portland and I still don't see why!"
    "This isn't about me, it's about you - and why do you feel responsible for your parents splitting up? Why do you blame yourself for your grandparents dying? Why do you think it's your fault that Curt..." I dropped my eyes, knowing I'd gone too far.
    Pete closed the gap that separated us and lifted my chin again. He was chewing his lip once more, his eyes haunted by the past, a past I did not - and couldn't - know unless he told me.
    "Brian... Bri, I don't think I can make it through this without you." Pete said haltingly.
    "Are you planning on killing me?" I questioned him. "You'll have to, because there's no other way that I'm leaving your side. You've been through so much shit for me, how could I not be here for you when you need me? You think I'm gonna leave you? Well, fuck you, too."
    A wry half-smile crept onto Pete's lips. "Maybe someday."

    Kathlene was waiting for us in the living room when we came downstairs after cleaning up. I excused myself for a moment to put our dirty things in the washer while Pete sat down opposite Kathlene. Mother Forn laid her book down as I came to sit next to my boyfriend, and as if by some unheard signal, Chris descended from his room to join us. As he sat, Chris unexpectedly took the lead.
    "All right, Brian, I've waited all day. Spill it. No more half-truths, and no more evasions. I want the whole thing."
    Pete tensed at Chris' belligerent attitude, but I leaned back into him and, as I hoped, the contact calmed him.
    "There's not much to tell Chris. Like I said, being back here caused a lot of old memories to come up, and they've been bugging me all day."
    "They made you sick?" Chris asked pointedly.
    "Yeah, that and other things."
    I stared at my brother, debating on what answer to give him. A glance up told me Pete was waiting for my answer as well. Kathlene watched impassively with an obscure expression.
    I sighed. "Like remembering how stupid I've been, how I treated you and mom... and the panic attack. It all played a part. It's been a rough week, Chris. Give me a break."
    "What did you and Tony talk about?" Chris inquired with narrowed eyes.
    "What did he tell you?" I asked, afraid that the truth had come out.
    "He wouldn't say," Chris replied, "just that you had some things to get straight between you."
    I nodded. "That's right," I said as relief flooded my system.
    "Dammit, Brian..."
    "Christopher! Language!" Kathlene brought Chris up short, but he was more annoyed than chastened.
    "Brian, you're still hiding things from me. From us! Why?"
    "Maybe," Pete interjected tersely, "because it's none of your business? Hey, man, don't glare at me. Just think about it. What if we were sitting here grilling you over every detail of your day like this was the Spanish Inquisition?"
    "That's not fair," Chris asserted. "How would you like it if I took Brian and locked us up in my room for over an hour, Pete?"
    "It wouldn't bother me in the slightest," Pete retorted, "because I trust Brian - and that's not to say I don't think you trust Tony. The point is that no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise, Chris, a lot of time has passed since he lived with you. It's only natural you grow apart some."
    "Boys, this conversation is not getting us anywhere," Kathlene interrupted. "I'm tired and I want to go to bed, but not before I find out what happened tonight between you two." Her gaze was intense.
    Pete answered calmly but forcefully, "Brian and I have settled it between us and that's all you need to know. I'm going to bed now. Are you coming, baby?"
    I looked up at Pete and nodded, and then got up. I helped Pete stand.
    He looked at both of the Forns and said, "We appreciate your concern, Kathlene, and you too, Chris. It makes me feel good that you are so worried about us that you're mad because I'm not giving you the answers you want, but this is something that Brian and I have to work with together. Chris, we don't ask you about your intimate life with Tony, and we would expect the same from you. Can you understand that?"
    "But... Brian is my brother, " Chris pleaded. "You are too. I'm worried about him, Pete. He's been so sick... the only time I saw him like that was when he was starving himself."
    "Chris, is that what you think is happening?" I asked.
    "Is it?" Chris words were almost an accusation. "You didn't eat anything tonight and you threw up- twice!"
    "Excuse me, but I think it was pretty clear from the beginning that I wasn't feeling well. I didn't eat because I was too nervous and made myself sick because of it. I had a headache, which is coming back, by the way, that made me sick, too. Jesus, Chris..."
    "Brian..." Kathlene interjected warningly.
    " you really think I'm that stupid? Do you think for one second that Pete would let me go back to that?"
    Chris dropped his gaze and mumbled, "You're right. I'm sorry, Bri, Pete. I'm just so worried about you. I see you acting all freaked out and it reminds me of what happened last year. And... after what happened with Tony, I just... I don't want to lose you, Brian."
    "I'm not going anywhere, Chris. I have Pete to take care of me now. And I have you and mom, my dad, Kevin, Jason... I'm surrounded by people who love me, Chris. And so are you. The past is the past. I'm still dealing with it, but I'm okay."
    "It seems like the past is catching up to all of us," Kathlene said cautiously, testing the waters. "You boys are growing up so fast that I can't keep track. It seems like just yesterday that Brian knocked on that door after you were taken away, Pete. Sometimes it's easy for me to forget how grown up you are."
    Pete regarded Kathlene for a moment.
    "Don't think we're so grown up that we don't need you anymore, Kathlene, because it isn't true." Pete's eyes began to tear again as I watched a stunned, frightened expression cross his face. "I just realized that outside of Brian's mom, you're the closest thing I have to a mother."
    Pete sat back heavily on the couch, and I sat next to him. He looked at me as the first tear broke free and ran down his cheek. He made no attempt to wipe it away as he continued, watching me the entire time.
    "Brian and I walked out to my old place to see what had changed. After checking out some of the places we used to hang around at, we walked to the house. I saw my dad. He was mowing the back lawn. When he saw us he... he called me a faggot."
    I heard Chris groan. He unconsciously shifted to be closer to Kathlene, who put her hand on his leg and patted it reflexively. The gesture seemed to comfort Chris in some small measure.
    "That's not all. My mother was there, too. They're back together."
    Immediately, Kathlene gently said, "That has nothing to do with anything, Pete. I already know what you're thinking. You have no blame in anything that has happened. Your mother left your father because she was afraid for your life, and possibly her own."
    "But..." Pete tried to interrupt.
    "Don't talk, listen," Kathlene said with a quiet sternness. "You haven't told me much of what happened after you went to Portland. The fact that you sued her for your independence tells me that something went very wrong. I'm not asking you to tell us, Pete. Whatever happened, the moment she gave you up was the moment you ceased having any impact on her life. In no case is the child responsible for the parent's actions. If she went back to your father, then she made that choice regardless of anything else."
    "I don't care that they got back together," Pete said softly. "Not really. It was just a shock."
    "Honey, it does bother you. I know it and you know it."
    Pete sat silently for a moment and then stood again. He took my hand and pulled me up behind him.
    "Good Night, Kathlene, Chris. Thanks for talking to me," Pete said as he stood in front of them. "I...uh, I need to think about this for a while."
    Kathlene stood and hugged Pete tightly. I could see her lips moving slightly, and I knew she was praying for him. When she released Pete, she took my face into her hands and examined me closely, clucking her tongue.
    "Let me get you some ice for that nose, Brian. It doesn't look too bad, but it is swollen a bit. And the jaw too."
    "Okay, mom."
    I looked up to Pete but he refused to meet my gaze. I reached up and took his chin into my hand. He resisted me, forcing me to use both hands to get him to look at me. His eyes had reclaimed some of the terrible sadness from the bathroom. I wouldn't allow him to look away. I met his gaze, moving so that he had no choice but to meet my eyes. Tears formed again as he began to tremble.
    "Pete, it doesn't matter. I'm here and nothing you've done or could do will chase me away."
    "Bri... you don't know..." Pete trailed off as Chris watched us intently.
    "You'll tell me. When the time is right, you'll tell me. Until then, I'm here for you: to talk to or to hold you; to laugh and cry with you; whatever you need. Okay?"
    Pete's gaze shifted from my left eye to my right, his tears coming faster. I wiped them away with my thumbs, still holding his head, and then I released him to run my hands over his head to his neck. I couldn't tell if he was going to smile or start bawling.
    "I'm here too, Pete. I'll do whatever I can." Chris said, God love him.
    The large young man stood and clapped his hand on Pete's shoulder and squeezed.
    "Thank you, Chris," Pete whispered.
    "Don't forget me, either," Kathlene said as she returned and handed me an icepack. "You're one of my boys, Peter. I love you, and I'm here for you, no matter what. Our home is always open to you. To both of you."
    A single sob escaped him before a wan smile crossed his lips. He turned to Chris and embraced him hard. My brother bore up well, returning the embrace in kind. When he and Chris parted, Pete hugged Kathlene, if not as tightly, then at least with as much emotion. She pulled him down and kissed his forehead.
    "Thank you both," my boyfriend whispered, his smile was a bit warmer than it had been. "You just reminded me why Brian loves you so much. I think maybe I'm starting to, too."
    Kathlene gave Pete another quick hug and released him.
    "You boys go to bed. It's late."
    I took Pete's hand and led him toward the stairs.
    "G'night, mom. G'night, bro."
    "Good night. Sleep well," Kathlene answered for both Chris and herself.
    Chris smiled as I looked back at him, nodding slightly. I knew he didn't understand what Pete was going through; I wasn't even sure if I understood it. Perhaps he was simply happy to see Pete and me together. I returned his smile and climbed the stairs to our room, guiding my boyfriend's path. He followed without hesitation, closing the door behind him once we were in the bedroom.
    Pete wasted no time stripping his clothing from his body, and when I didn't move fast enough for him he helped me remove my own. Once we were both bare, Pete locked me in a gentle but passionate kiss that took my breath away. I melted into him. When we separated to breathe, I pushed him away from me.
    "Pete, what are you doing?" I asked
    "What does it look like?" He responded with unexpected good humor.
    "I don't think that we should, Pete," I stated. "A lot has happened today. For both of us."
    All traces of levity left his demeanor and voice. When he spoke, his tone carried such gravity and emotion that it hit me as if a physical blow.
    "Brian, I need this. It's not about sex. It's about love, about how connected I feel to you. There's this gap, this gulf between us, and I need to close it. I want to make love to you to feel love, not just to get off. Can you understand that?"
    I lost myself in his sky blue eyes for a moment. There was something there, something in his soul that cried out in need for confirmation of the love we shared. Pulling back slightly, I looked at him.
    "Are you sure?"
    Pete nodded, his eyes fearful that I would reject him. Instead I reached up and kissed him tenderly, trying to communicate in that simple gesture how much love I held for him in my heart. There was little sleep for either of us that night, but we didn't care. The space between us had been closed a little more.

    A soft knock at the door woke me fully from the languorous doze I was enjoying with my body wrapped around Pete, who was still sleeping soundly. I pulled up the sleeping bag to cover the lower half of our bodies.
    "Yeah?" I said quietly.
    The door opened slightly.
    "Morning Bri," Chris whispered.
    "Morning, Chris. C'mon in. Pete's still sleeping."
    The door opened enough to admit the large young man that was my adopted brother. He stared at me for a moment, and then a grin crossed his face as he spied our discarded clothing on the floor. I tightened my hold on Pete in response, causing my boyfriend to stir slightly. Chris' grin widened.
    "Pete's a pretty sound sleeper, so we don't have to be too quiet," I informed him.
    "That's okay," Chris said, shutting the door behind him. His eyes lingered over Pete and me, but not in a lecherous way. "I've never seen you guys like this."
    "We don't generally let people come in when we're naked in bed, either," I said with a smirk, causing Chris to blush slightly.
    "You know what I mean. Seeing you guys like you are right now kind of makes everything real, you know? I've see you hug and kiss and stuff, but being in bed..."
    "I know what you mean," I said quietly. "That's what seeing you and Tony yesterday did for me, only it freaked me out."
    "I still don't understand why, Bri."
    "It's not that difficult, Chris," I responded. "You know how much I depended on you and mom. When I saw you and Tony, it felt like I was losing you. I explained all this yesterday."
    Chris nodded. He continued watching me as I rested on Pete's chest, my head rising and falling with his deep, even breaths.
    "You know what I really like about times like this?" I asked rhetorically, my voice soft. "Listening to his heartbeat. There's something... comforting about it. I feel safe when I hear it."
    Chris face clouded. "Brian, are you guys okay? Since you left... in the times I've seen you together you've always been tight. This time it seems like something's wrong."
    "We're still tight, Chris. We have some things that haven't come up before that we need to work out." I raised my head from Pete's chest and gazed at my boyfriend. "Pete's got a lot of issues to deal with. Up until now he's had things to keep his mind off of them, but being down here, seeing his parents again - and together... it's really been hard on him.
    I laid my head back down. Pete rolled onto his side and threw his arm around me in his sleep, trapping me against him. His motion caused the sleeping bag to fall off. Chris blushed and politely looked away as I attempted to cover us. I managed to do so only by wriggling my way out of Pete's arms. He rolled onto his stomach, occupying the space I'd just left. Chris gave a low chuckle as I looked at Pete in consternation.
    "I guess it's time for me to get up," I complained, nonplussed.
    "Do you want to go for a run, Bri? That's the reason I knocked in the first place."
    I paused to assess the condition of my body. I was tired but not overly so despite Pete's and my shared nocturnal activities. My headache seemed to have disappeared as well. Pete started to snore lightly, and I knew without a doubt he'd sleep for at least another hour.
    "Sure," I answered, and I climbed out of bed heedless of my state of undress.
    "I'll, um, let you change," Chris said somewhat nervously. "I'll meet you downstairs."
    I glanced at Chris. "We lived together for a couple years, Chris. How many times have I been naked in front of you, here or in the locker room?"
    "It's, ah, different now, Brian."
    I stared at him for a moment, old feelings coursing back into my brain and body. With an effort, I shook myself free of my attraction to Chris and turned away.
    "Go ahead, Chris. I'll be down in a second."
    He left without a word, his expression conveying sympathy, and maybe a hint of the desire I felt. Chris half-smiled as he backed out and closed the door behind him. I pulled out a pair of athletic briefs and pulled them on with my running shorts.
    I was curiously torn between going with Chris and staying with Pete. I looked down and saw he was still asleep, but his eyes were moving quickly. My boyfriend was dreaming. I watched him for a moment before kneeling down by him. Just as I did, Pete's expression became troubled. He rolled onto his back, his head turning to face away from me, and then back. A frown asserted itself over his face. Instinctively I reached out and stroked his cheek.
    "It's just a dream," I whispered to him. "You're safe. We're together. All is well."
    I don't know why I said those words, but the effect was as unexpected as it was startling. A smile replaced the frown and his motions calmed. He faded back into restful sleep a moment later. Bending down, I kissed his lips lightly.
    "I love you, Pete."
    He inhaled deeply and let it out in a sigh. Still amazed at the impact my words had, I took my shoes and backed out of the room. Chris was waiting at the bottom of the stairs ready to go. I took a seat on the bottom step and put on my shoes.
    "I left a note for mom, Bri," Chris said. "Pete'll be able to find it too, if he looks."
    "Thanks," I said as I finished a double knot. "Chris, I'd like to go to La Playa again, if it's okay with you."
    "Sure. You looking for what's his name?" He asked curiously.
    I shrugged and stood. "Manuel? Not really. I just like running there. It's been a long time."
    "Okay. No problem."
    We went through our stretching routine just as we had when I lived with the Forns, not missing a beat. Chris led me out into the street on a good distance-eating pace. It was a little slower than what I did when I ran alone, but it felt good.
    The sky was obscured by fog that had rolled in over the night, adding a bit of a nip to the morning air. A bright spot here and there promised that the overcast conditions wouldn't last through the morning.
    It's a wonderful day for a run, I thought just before I slipped into the void and put thinking aside.
    Chris and I didn't speak one word during the entirety of our morning run, and I was grateful that he didn't make an issue of what had happened the night before. I had an idea of what was going through Pete's mind, but there were things he was hiding from me. Seeing him so torn up made me miserable. I know that what I said to him about not being everything to each other bothered him a lot, but I wasn't sure why. It seemed obvious to me that we needed to have friends, and that his friends and my friends wouldn't always walk in the same circles.
    We returned to the house a couple hours later and found that Pete was not there. I couldn't find a note but did find some dishes he'd used. Pete's absence worried me because I still did not know what I could expect from him in his current state of mind. Chris knew me well enough that he could tell I was worried about my boyfriend.
    "He'll be back, Bri," Chris said quietly. "Maybe he went for a run. Did you check the weight room?"
    "No. I'll go look."
    I walked out the garage door and to the weight room. Pete was there and doing presses on the bench station. He was concentrating so hard he didn't see or hear me enter to watch him. As I got closer I heard him muttering to himself as he lifted. His voice was just loud enough for me to hear him but not make out what he said. Pete finished out his set and rested in place, not bothering to sit up. After about a minute he began his next set. Pete began to struggle with five reps left. I walked over to where he was.
    "C'mon, babe. Push it out. Just a few more."
    Pete's focus didn't waver, and he did just as I said. With two reps left, he got the weights about halfway up. I reached in and provided enough lift so he could complete the rep, encouraging him the whole way. The last rep was more of a combined effort as Pete's arms and chest had given out.
    "Thanks, Bri," Pete said with no inflection as he sat up.
    I took a seat next to him and we both stared at a point on the floor. Neither of us spoke. I saw Chris poke his head in and retreat, giving us some time. I glanced at my boyfriend and saw a carefully neutral expression. I cleared my throat.
    "Pete, I want to help you."
    "You did," he carped bitterly. "You made a great punching bag last night."
    "I won't hit you, Pete," I said resolutely.
    "I know that, Brian. I shouldn't have hit you. "
    "No permanent damage was done," I commented. "I'm not angry about it."
    He cast a glare my direction, but it wasn't meant for me.
    "I hate myself for what I did last night."
    "I wish you wouldn't. It doesn't do anyone any good."
    "You didn't deserve it, Brian," Pete asserted. "I wouldn't blame you if you left."
    "And you didn't deserve all the shit I put you through, either," I reminded him. "You're still here."
    "This is different. You never hit me."
    "No," I said, anger coloring my tone. "I ripped your heart out on a daily basis instead. Look, is this going to turn into a who-done-who-wrong-worse contest? If so, you don't stand a chance."
    He glared at me again.
    "I'm serious!" I barked. "Jesus, Pete, look at all the crap I've pulled in just nine months since we've been back together! I just about killed myself - again, I treated you like absolute shit, I was mean, emotionally cruel... I abused you, Pete! You think a tap on the jaw and a little blood are going to make me want to leave you after everything I've been through? After everything you've done for me? Well, fuck you."
    I stood and walked toward the door but I was brought to a halt by Pete's voice.
    "Not now, but some day."
    I looked back at him. My boyfriend was smiling slightly. He stood and walked toward me until he was at arm's length. The smile he struggled to hold was replaced by fear.
    "I'm afraid, Brian. I'm afraid that I'm turning into Curt. I'm afraid that I'm going to hurt you- really hurt you." He paused as the first tear ran down his cheek. He dropped his eyes and said, "I'm afraid I'm going to chase you away."
    I stepped into him and wrapped my arms around his chest, squeezing hard. Pete exhaled in surprise. After a moment I let up the pressure but still kept him firmly in my embrace.
    "If you want to chase me away, Pete, you better bring a machete, because short of you cutting off my head I ain't leaving your side."
    "Be serious, Brian!" He gasped with exasperation.
    I backed up and glared at him, forcing him to meet my gaze.
    "I am serious. I mean what I said. That's what it's going to take to make me leave you. Now quit beating yourself up over this and let's go take a shower."
    "Brian, I..."
    "I think we both could use a hug, Pete, but I want to get out of these sweaty clothes first."
    "Just a hug."
    I love you.

    Chris left the house for Tony's immediately after cleaning up. Pete and I told Chris we'd be along a little later. My friend instinctively understood that Pete and I needed some time alone to work things out between us. I was sure that Chris wanted some time alone with Tony as well considering all the adults would be at work. I knew from what Tony had said the night before that he had to keep his blood pressure down due to the trauma visited upon him during the attack, which meant the couple would have to keep their pants zipped.
    Pete and I sat on the couch and watched some TV for a while before I became restless and began squirming.
    "What do you want to do, babe?" I asked him shortly before noon.
    "I don't know," he replied with a shrug.
    "Do you want to go out and see if we can pick up a game or something?"
    "Yeah, that sounds like fun," he said listlessly.
    "Okay. It'll get us out of the house, anyway. C'mon," I said as I pulled on his arm. "Get your shorts on."
    Pete rose from the couch and plodded up the stairs. His attitude worried me. I hadn't seen Pete this depressed before, even when he was dealing with me at my worst. The hope and fire he'd always had in his eyes was greatly reduced. Something had to be done to restore that vibrancy to my boyfriend, but I was at a loss as to what it would be. When he returned, Pete gave me a small smile. I could see little joy behind it.
    We drove out to La Playa field. As luck would have it, there was a group of kids our age playing football in the open field. I glanced at Pete and saw he wore a curious little smile.
    "Yeah. This is exactly what I need," he said as he turned off the car. "Let's get stretched out and run a lap. I want to get in the game."
    "Okay, babe," I said warily. "Whatever you want."
    Pete and I did as he suggested. When we were ready to join in, we approached the group. A sinking feeling began in my gut and went downward from there. I recognized some of the people playing, and it did not bode well.
    "Pete, let's go," I said, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder.
    "Why?" He asked curiously.
    Before I could respond, I heard a voice that had haunted my nightmares speak.
    "Well, well, well, well, well. Guess who's here. It's been a long time, Kellam."
    "Not long enough, Jeffries," I said through gritted teeth.
    Chuck Jeffries was the ringleader of a bunch of racist bigots. He and his cronies were responsible for driving Mac out of the wrestling team tryouts our freshman year because he was black, and then subjecting me to a merciless attack over the course of the wrestling season. His friends, also responsible for the beatings I received, flanked him. Greg Ross stood two inches over six feet and weighed a good one-eighty. Sam Weaver and John Keener were just under six feet and weighed about ten pounds more than what my five-foot eight-inch frame did at one-fifty. The head bigot was about the same size as Pete.
    "Did you come back for another beating?" Jeffries asked meanly.
    "C'mon, Pete. Lets go. I don't feel like slumming it today," I said quietly while backing away.
    "Running away, fag? If I'd known you were a queer when we slapped you down last time, you wouldn't've gotten up."
    Pete tensed behind me and took a step forward toward my antagonist. I placed a restraining hand on his shoulder.
    "Pete, it's not worth it. Let's go."
    He ignored my quiet request and shrugged my hand off.
    "You always were an ass, Chuck," Pete said. "I remember you from middle school. All you could do was pick on the smaller kids because you couldn't handle anyone your own size."
    Chuck's eyes narrowed. "I don't know who you are, but if you're with this little boy, that makes you a fag in my book."
    Sam, Greg and John moved to flank Jeffries. It was four against two. A quick glance at Pete surprised me. He wore a slight grin.
    "That's right. You couldn't even take on the younger kids without having your lackeys with you. I remember now. The kids in my scout troop used to complain about you all the time. Not once did I hear of you being alone and picking on anyone. That makes you a coward, doesn't it, Charlie? You always hid behind your stooges even when you went after someone smaller than you, and you're still doing it. Real brave. And as for Brian being a little boy, he's more of a man than you'll ever be. And in more ways than one."
    "Pete, this is not a good idea."
    Again he ignored me. All four of the boys facing off with us were angry.
    "You're about to get the shit beat out of you, faggot," Ross grated, hands balled into fists at his side.
    "How original," Pete said disdainfully. "So, coward, are you going to hide behind your bully boys for the rest of your life? Do you even have any balls?"
    "Pete, dammit..."
    Jeffries' face flushed.
    "What's wrong?" Pete taunted him. "Can't you face the truth, you ignorant bigoted bastard?" You're just like the man I used to call my dad, only he at least had the intelligence to hide it well.
    "He's mine," Chuck stated menacingly. "I'm gonna kill you, you queer fuck."
    "I don't think so. You don't have the balls, and you're too afraid to face me alone. You're right, Brian. He's not worth the sweat off my ass."
    Chuck charged Pete while his cronies stood there, still amazed by Pete's audacity. Jeffries' attack was short-lived, however, as Pete smoothly stepped to his left and landed a hard right cross on Chuck's nose. He went down like a ton of bricks. The rest of us stood there, stunned by the outcome, but I quickly regained my senses.
    "It's time to go, Pete!" I declared.
    Chuck was not moving. A rivulet of blood trickled from his nose and down his cheek. Pete was smiling again, but it was an evil smile. As if someone had snapped their fingers, the remaining three facing us attacked.
    Greg Ross was the first to reach us. He let loose with a roundhouse right that missed Pete's head by mere inches. In return he received my left fist to his groin. As he slipped to his knees, Sam Weaver rushed us from the right. I was between Pete and Sam. The corner of my eye caught sight of John Keener assaulting Pete from the left but I had no time to observe them.
    Sam came at me with his left fist drawn back. I quickly hopped to my right to clear the area around my feet. This caused Sam to twist his body more in order to still hit me with his left hand. I took advantage and lunged, striking him on his left shoulder. He lost his balance and fell to the ground. He rolled over to regain his feet but I didn't allow him the time to recover, leaping right at him with my fist flying. A resounding crunch rent the air when contact was made. I felt something give as my fist struck his jaw. Pain shot through my arm as I watched Weaver fall back. He lay on the ground, moaning. Something heavy struck me from the rear, forcing me down to the ground alongside of Sam. Whatever it was landed on me, causing me to lose my breath. I did my best to escape from John Keener's weight and scramble to my feet. It took me a few seconds to get my bearings, and when I did, I was awestruck.
    It was all over. Pete was standing over our opponents, his mean grin still in place. All four boys were down, and two were unconscious. Of the remaining two, one was out of the fight and the other was trying to regain his legs.
    "Stay down," Pete commanded him. "I don't want to make you bleed, too."
    John complied quickly.
    "When your buddies wake up, tell them that they got their ass beat by a couple of fags, and that they'll have to live with that for the rest of their lives. And so do you. Don't move until we're in the car. Got it?"
    Pete's hostile and ominous manner belied his smile, promising more violence should Keener not obey. Pete strode off toward the car without a backward glance. A quick look told me John was prudent and did not intend to follow. We got in the Malibu and Pete drove away from the park. La Playa Field was rapidly becoming a place I would have to avoid in the future.
    A moment later, I growled, "What the fuck was that?"
    Still grinning, he replied lightly, "He pissed me off."
    "No shit!" I quipped caustically. "You could have walked away. Why didn't you?"
    Pete didn't respond. He continued to serenely steer us toward the Forn residence, paying no heed to my examination of him through narrowed eyes.
    "You wanted that fight, didn't you?" I accused.
    Pete shrugged, his grin widening.
    "You enjoyed it!" I charged. "What's up with that?"
    "Tell me it didn't feel good to take them down, Brian," Pete commented.
    "That's not the point! Why did you want to fight them? You never fight!"
    Pete's demeanor changed in an instant. "I do now," he pronounced with a foreboding that chilled me.
    "Why, Pete? I don't understand..."
    "They were no better than he is," Pete declared. His smile reasserted itself, evil in aspect.
    "Who? Your dad?"
    He nodded sharply. "They deserve what they got."
    "This is wrong and you know it. This isn't the way to handle it, Pete!"
    "Yeah, well I don't care anymore," Pete shot back. "I'm tired of being shit on. It's my turn."
    I spoke directly. "Stop the car."
    "Why?" Pete questioned.
    "Stop the goddamn car!"
    "Fine! Don't get all pissy!"
    Pete pulled us over to the curb. We were about a mile from Kathlene's house. I opened the door and got out of the car.
    "What are you doing?" Pete asked.
    "We need to talk," I replied. "Right now, and not in the car."
    "Brian, this is ridiculous," he stated.
    "I mean it, Pete."
    "Get in the car," Pete requested with a sigh. "We'll talk when we get to Chris' place."
    I refused. "No. We'll talk now."
    "Brian, this is fucking stupid. Get in the car."
    I refused again. Pete's face was red and his face drawn into an angry scowl.
    "Get in the damn car!"
    I stared hard at my boyfriend. Everything that had happened in the last several days had hit him hard, but I had no idea that he would react in this way. His personality had changed overnight from the boy who was my foundation and safe place into an arrogant, combative bastard. Pete had changed into me, and the comparison I was forced to make angered me. I turned on my heel.
    "Where're you going?" Pete demanded harshly.
    "I'm walking. We'll talk when I get back," I said as I walked away.
    "Why?" Pete called after me.
    I turned. "I need to calm down, and I need to think," I informed him. "You should too," I added as an afterthought.
    Pete snorted. "Whatever."
    Only smoke and the odor of burning rubber remained as Pete sped away.
    Fifteen minutes later I stood at the Forn's front door. Pete's car was in the driveway. I wasn't sure if I was relieved or frightened. I spent another five minutes standing on the porch composing myself, preparing for the worst. When I felt I was ready, I opened the door and found Pete sitting on the living room couch with his head in his hands. His eyes shot to the door and relief flooded his expression. Pete stood and warily moved to stand in front of me. I peered up at him, keeping my face as neutral as possible. Pete met my gaze for only a second before dropping his eyes to the floor.
    "I'm sorry, Brian. I don't know... All this shit is coming down at once and it's messing with my head. I'm so angry... I took it out on those guys, and I took it out on you. I put you in danger, too. It was wrong."
    Pete raised tearful eyes to meet my gaze. "Brian? What's happening to me? I don't want to be this way. I don't want to be like my dad."
    "Then don't be," I replied sternly. "It's a choice you have to make, Pete. I can't do it for you."
    Pete cried, "I'm so scared, Bri! I can't do this alone!"
    "Who said you were alone, Pete? I told you I'm not going anywhere, and I mean it."
    I opened my arms to my love and he fell into me, crying. Leading him to the couch was an effort because Pete didn't seem to be able to walk, but I managed. His tears fell, soaking into my shirt. I savored the sensation of the damp material against my skin, feeling that I was finally giving back some of what Pete had given me over the past year. He had been so solid and reliable that I took his strength for granted. Now we were both in a bad place and we had to depend on each other. Being strong for Pete was not a role I was that familiar with. It was disconcerting, perhaps even disturbing for me because of my self-image and what I saw as a lack of success in dealing with my own problems, much less helping my boyfriend deal with his.
    As Pete wound down, my thoughts continued along this vein. I was most worried that I wouldn't have the fortitude to support Pete in his time of need and continue my progress in my own recovery, as Will called my efforts to heal the wounds of my past. I was still struggling with my mother's apparent loathing of what I was, the emotional issues surrounding Pete's departure, and my lack of self-worth. How could I be strong enough to help him, too?
    Pete raised his head and stared into my eyes for a moment before sitting up. He cleared his throat and rose, heading for the stairs. He disappeared into the bathroom and emerged again after loudly blowing his nose and crossed the hall to our room. He called me a moment later in a voice still husky from crying.
    He was sitting on the bed wearing nothing when I arrived, and was staring at the closet door. I stood at the threshold, observing him. When he spoke it was in a quiet voice, his tone urgent and compelling.
    "When I was growing up with my mom and dad, we weren't really that close. I always had the feeling that I was in the way or that I was some sort of... thing they used to impress people, or as an excuse to get them out of something they didn't want to do. We did family things like camping and vacations and such, but I never really felt... I don't know... like I was meant to be there. I felt like I was an outsider. I joined the scouts because my dad wanted me to and I thought it would make my dad like me more. All it really did is get him to pay more attention to what I did wrong. You know he used his belt on me, right?"
    I nodded. "You told me it was only when you really deserved it."
    "Yeah, well, I deserved it all the time. I thought it was normal until I met Kevin and Sharon." Pete reached up and absently scratched his head. "It got to a point where I practically killed myself to do things that I thought would make him proud of me, but he didn't really notice unless I'd done something wrong.
    "Sometimes we'd go out to dinner or something and they'd talk the whole time, and not say a word to me other than to ask me what I wanted to eat. I used to hear my dad complain about the fags he worked with and how gay something was... Mother would agree with him, because that's what she did. If it wasn't dinner then it was something else. After a while it seemed as if they could just give me up and continue with their lives as if I didn't exist, and it would be easier for them."
    Pete's eyes were locked on the floor. I leaned against the doorjamb and continued watching him. He seemed like he was in his own little universe at that moment, giving some of his long pent-up thoughts voice. I didn't want to disturb him if he was going to continue. He needed to get as much of it out as he could. He raised his hand and wiped his nose. Light glinted off the fresh tracks his tears made down his cheeks.
    "All I ever saw from my dad was anger, Bri. At least when it mattered. Everything else was a show. Fake. Just like my mom when I came out to her. She said it would be okay. She said she loved me. And I believed her. How stupid is that?"
    Pete sniffed again and murmured, "And then she took me away from you, and moved me in with Curt. Brian, he hurt me. He hurt me so bad... All I wanted was to be left alone. All I wanted was to get back to you. He wouldn't leave me alone.
    "They say that people who are abused become abusers. I don't want that, Bri. I couldn't live with myself if I really hurt you."
    He looked at me for the first time since he'd called me up. An indescribable sadness had set itself behind his glaring eyes, and that sadness changed slowly into fear.
    "I'm really afraid I'll end up like my dad and Curt."
    "You won't. The fact you are aware of it will help. We can get you a counselor if you want."
    "I don't want a counselor, Bri. I want you."
    "You have me, babe."
    "I don't want to lose you."
    "You won't." I walked over to where he was and knelt in front of him. "Pete, babe, we've talked about this several times. I'm not going anywhere. You're stuck with me. You'll have to kill me to get rid of me."
    "That's what I'm afraid of!"
    I studied his eyes for a moment and then wrapped my arms around him, resting my head against his chest. His heartbeat was strong and fast with his anxiety. Pete wrapped his arms around my head and hugged me to him.
    His chest rumbled as he tremulously whispered, "I'm so scared, Bri."
    I turned my head and kissed his chest.
    "You don't have to be afraid of losing me, Pete." I kissed his chest again.
    "I love you, Brian."
    "I love you too, Pete."
    In the time we had before we met Chris and Tony at the Braden house, we attempted to show each other just how deep our love for the other ran.

    "You d-dudes ready to jet?" Tony cried through the window as we climbed out of the Malibu.
    "Sure, Tony," Pete answered the injured young man. "Think you can get yourself in the back of the car?"
    "D-d-dude, I'll climb in the... trunk to get out of here."
    I heard Chris chuckling in the background while the screen door was knocked open by Tony's crutch. He said something we couldn't hear and Tony replied, "Fuck that! I'll t-t-take the roof if I have to!"
    Chris' laughter boomed out of the house. He was still grinning when he held the door open, allowing Tony to hobble through unimpeded. When his boyfriend was free, Chris returned to the house for the bag he and Tony were sharing for our trip to the city. Juan and Chen would be home that afternoon, but they had given Tony a key to their apartment the previous night so we could miss the rush hour traffic.
    I assisted Tony as he clambered into the car. Chris locked up the house and tossed his bag to Pete to put in the trunk, and then climbed in after his boyfriend. The massive young man filled the back seat leaving little room to accommodate Tony's casts, but they managed somehow to be comfortable.
    Pete took driving directions from Tony as he navigated through the San Francisco streets into the southern end of the city. After several near-accidents involving the local transportation services, we arrived at the building that housed Juan and Chen's apartment. We assisted Tony as he got out of the car, and Chris, to Tony's embarrassed pleasure, carried the young man up the stairs to the top-floor entrance of a narrow Victorian-style house. Pete and I retrieved our bags and followed them in.
    The apartment was larger than it seemed from the outside. The building was narrow and adjoined by two other houses just like it, but the houses had depth that provided a surprising amount of space. Chris took the baggage from Pete after settling Tony on the couch and placed it in a back bedroom, where I assumed we'd be sleeping. When he returned, he fell into the couch next to his boyfriend with a quake-causing thump. Pete sat on the floor, leaning against an easy chair. He motioned me to sit in front of him between his legs.
    Leaning back into him, I looked up into his still troubled eyes. A weak smile crossed his lips.
    "So, what gives, dudes?" Tony inquired. "You two've b-been acting like the... world's gonna end, `cept you ain't b-been makin' out."
    A laugh escaped me in spite of the inference of his words. I felt Pete stiffen behind me. A glance up told me he was not offended, but more hurt by the fact the situation existed. He stared at the young man for a long moment before inhaling deeply and sighing.
    "I'm having a hard time dealing with things," Pete said candidly. "Brian and I took a drive out to La Playa this morning. We wanted to see if there was a pick-up game going on. When we got there, Brian recognized a few of the guys playing football."
    When Chris and Tony looked toward me, I named them. "Chuck Jeffries, Greg Ross, Sam Weaver and John Keener."
    Chris remarked in a wispy voice, "Oh! Those were the guys who took you on after you stood up for Mac."
    I confirmed his assertion and Pete continued.
    "When we got there, Jeffries recognized Brian and asked him if he'd come back for another beating." Chris stirred next to his boyfriend as Pete went on. "The asshole called us faggots, and said that if he'd known Brian was gay last year, he would have beaten him so bad he wouldn't have gotten up."
    Tony's eyes were hard. He stared at us with a razor-sharp gaze. I could tell he was angry. Chris seemed more disturbed, perhaps even haunted by Pete's story. I knew he was thinking about what it would have been like had I been in Tony's place just over a year prior to the boy's beating.
    "Chuck didn't recognize me," said Pete after a pause. "I knew him, though. I remember him from grade school. He always had a pack with him, kind of like Brent Smith and Marc Woods did. I said something to Chuck about what I remember."
    "You provoked him into attacking you," I interjected acerbically.
    "Yeah," Pete allowed, "I guess I did."
    "He attacked you?" Chris asked, eyes wide and voice tight.
    "He tried," Pete answered with a grim satisfaction. "He took two steps toward me and ran right into my fist."
    Tony's eyes narrowed but he remained silent.
    Chris asked, "What about the other guys?"
    "Well, they attacked us after Jeffries went down. I don't remember exactly what happened, but fifteen seconds later they were on the ground."
    "Brian?" Chris asked for my version of events.
    "I don't remember much either. Ross attacked Pete and I hit him in the balls, and then Sam came at me. Somehow I ended up hitting him in the face. I might have hurt his jaw. The next thing I knew I was on the ground with someone lying on top of me. John rolled off of me and it was all over."
    An oppressive quiet enveloped us. Tony was now staring at his leg cast, his expression hostile. Chris was shaking his head in disbelief. As time passed, we all grew anxious. A malignant air had taken up residence in the room. It was as if the description of the violence hung around us as a physical presence. It was Tony who broke the silence.
    He said in a nearly absent manner, "I-Is that a-all there is? F-fighting?"
    Chris looked at Pete. "I don't remember you being a fighter, Pete. Why didn't you walk away?"
    My boyfriend sighed deeply. "I've been asking myself that question all day. I don't have an answer. I have an idea, but no answers."
    Our friends watched Pete expectantly, and I felt him shake himself free of whatever he had been thinking.
    "I think... it all comes down to me being angry at my mom and dad. And Curt. I tried to forget everything that happened up there before I went to live with Kevin and Sharon, but..."
    Tony's murmur was sad, forlorn. "You never forget. It's always there, waiting."
    "Yeah, Tony. And it's all coming out at once." Pete whispered the last sentence. "I'm not sure I can handle it."
    Pete's arms tightened around me as he buried his face in my neck. His body shook again, but this time it was sob. He regained control quickly as his warm tears soaked into my shoulder. I wormed my way out of his embrace. He looked at me quizzically as I pushed him forward, away from the chair he was leaning against. Once there was room, I sat behind him and pulled him against me, wrapping my arms around him and holding him tightly. It was Pete's turn to lean on me for support, and I couldn't think of any other way to express what I was feeling.
    Pete tried to bury himself in my arms. I continued to hug him to me as tightly as I dared. A glance at Chris and his boyfriend revealed a mixed reaction to Pete's admission of his struggles, but both allowed compassion to show through.
    "P-Pete, I know you love B-B-Brian," Tony's stuttering words held his confidence in the truth of his statement. "Would you ch-change anything if it meant you... and Brian wouldn't be together?"
    There was a slight pause before Pete said, "No. Some of it was really bad, but no. Not if it meant losing Brian."
    I squeezed my boyfriend in thanks for that affirmation, and Pete squeezed my arms in return.
    Tony looked at Chris and something meaningful passed between them. It was as if Tony was telling my best friend that he felt the same way about him and Chris using just his eyes. The larger youth seemed entranced, losing himself in Tony's gaze. I suddenly looked away, feeling as if I'd walked in on something incredibly intimate. The unreasonable urge to apologize to them for the intrusion seeded itself in my brain. The injured young man leaned into his boyfriend and kissed him lingeringly on the lips. Chris responded in a loving manner, the act seeming incredibly gentle for a man his size. When they separated, Chris rearranged Tony's position so that Tony was leaning against him much the same way as Pete was leaning against me.
    The four of us settled in. Conversation was light for the most part, only occasionally delving back into the realm of the painful realities of our lives. Chris and I continued to catch up with one another, and our boyfriends asked occasional questions about topics we brought up, but were, for the most part, quiet.
    A key inserted into the lock on the front door alerted us to the return of one resident. Juan came in carrying a briefcase and a bag of groceries.
    "Hi, guys. If you would, there's more in the car."
    We three able-bodied boys made the necessary trips to retrieve the food items Juan had brought home and unloaded them into the kitchen while Juan changed clothes. Chris and Tony had been there enough to know where everything went, so the task was completed before Juan returned.
    "Gracias, mis hermanos," Juan said upon seeing the empty bags.
    "No era nada. Tenía los burros lo hago," Tony replied with a broad grin.
    "Cuidado," Juan responded with a light warning tone. "Los burros son muy pesados y pueden aplastar pescados pequeños fácilmente."
    "Sí, sí, solamente quiero que el grande se sentara en mí." The mischief in Tony's demeanor was unmistakable. "Soy bastante seguro. Él ha sido bien enseñado."
    Juan smiled and said in return, "Tu eres un pequeño pescado malvado, Tony."
    "Muchas gracias, mi hermano!"
    The two smirked at each other while Pete and I traded glances. We weren't used to being cut out of the conversation. Chris was going on like it was nothing unusual, so I tried to shrug it off, but Juan caught my expression.
    "Did that bother you, Brian?" The elder Perez brother asked.
    "Yeah, a bit. I'm just not used to having people speak in another language like I'm not here. No offense meant, Tony, or to you, Juan." Tony nodded in acknowledgement, however his expression was unreadable. "I'm sure it happens all the time for you guys. It's just new to me, is all."
    "I apologize, Brian," Juan responded honestly. "I didn't realize..."
    I interrupted him. "Of course not. How could you? I'm a guest, and I don't expect you to change the way you live just because I'm - we're here."
    Tony's cool gaze touched me. I felt I had to say something.
    "It's cool, Tony. Seriously. I'll get used to it."
    The boy watched me for a moment more and then gave a half grin. Pete put his hand on my shoulder and exerted a gentle pressure to turn me toward him. He engulfed me in a tender embrace for a moment and then released me.
    "What was that for?" I questioned him quietly.
    "I need a reason?" Pete responded at a normal volume, his voice filled with a wry humor.
     "Yeah, you do!" I countered confidently.
    Pete arched an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I like that," he said haughtily. "I want to be able to take what I want, whenever I want it."
    "Yeah, I bet you do," I retorted. "Well, not with this skinny little white boy. You gotta ask fir..."
    Pete's lips pressed against mine, silencing whatever objections I was about to raise. Our three companions laughed at I melted into my boyfriend and responded to his advance, wrapping my arms around his body and squeezing tight. Pete broke the kiss and looked lovingly looked down on me.
    "Can I?" He asked, his tone reflecting the love he held for me.
    "Oh, yeah," I breathed. "Any time, anywhere."
    Another round of laughter issued forth from our friends. I stayed tucked in Pete's arms for a moment, resisting when he finally pushed me out to arms length.
    "Skinny little white boy?" Pete inquired with amusement.
    "Yeah," I replied. "I'm skinny..."
    "Yeah, right !" Chris said from the side.
    "...and I'm small..."
    "Compared to Chris, maybe," Tony shot in.
    "...and I'm a white boy."
    "That's for sure," Chris and Tony quipped together.
    I snorted in mock frustration. "Will you two find your own playmate and quit horning in on mine?"
    Tony looked at Chris and said, "He said h-horning."
    Chris' wide grin changed to laughter as Pete and I cracked up. Juan was chuckling as well while pulling out ingredients for our supper. He ordered Chris out of the kitchen when he volunteered to help, causing Tony to chuckle with mirth. Pete, on the other hand, was welcomed. His talents in the culinary realm were considerable compared to mine.
    Tony, Chris and I watched them move in concert and listened to them expand what was going to be a simple meal into a major undertaking. Tony was still leaning against Chris, who held him protectively with his arms wrapped around the injured young man. I observed them out of the corner of my eye as I watched the kitchen activity. Every once in a while, Tony would sigh and nuzzle into Chris, who squeezed him gently. A short time later, Tony had fallen asleep in his boyfriend's arms.
    Chris watched Tony sleep. As his eyes searched Tony's face, his expression grew suddenly stormy. He took a deep breath and allowed his head to droop, meeting Tony forehead-to-forehead as he let it out slowly. When he looked up again, he saw me watching him. His eyes were angry and sad at the same time. I stood and knelt at Chris' side. I spoke softly in an effort to not disturb Tony.
    "What is it, Chris?" I asked, pleading him to talk to me.
    He took a deep breath and let it out again, looking back at Tony.
    "I almost lost him, Bri," Chris choked out. "Those fuckers almost took him away from me."
    Although his voice was calm, I could hear the tremendous rage behind the words.
    "But they didn't, Chris," I reminded him. "Tony is right where he should be: in your arms. That is what's important. You guys are still together."
    As if he hadn't heard me, he quietly blurted, "I hate them, Brian. I really hate them, and I don't hate anybody."
    "They deserve your hate, Chris," I replied fervently.
    Chris cut his eyes to me and whispered, "I want to hurt them."
    "D-dude, don't let them do that t-to you," Tony said softly, surprising us. "They lost. I'm still here. B-Brian is right: that's what matters."
    Chris looked at his boyfriend when the first word left his mouth, and Tony ensnared him with his eyes. I backed away and sat on a chair, thinking.
    Chris and I felt the same way about the cowards who had attacked Tony. They deserved to be hurt. They deserved to be beaten to a pulp. They deserved to have their heads kicked in and their arms and legs shattered. They deserved more than the law was capable of giving them.
    "Brian, stop."
    I raised my eyes to meet Tony's gaze.
    "There's n-nothing we can do now," he said. "So q-quit thinking about it."
    "I'll try... It's not..." I trailed off, unsure of what I was about to say.
    "Fair? You're r-right, it ain't fair. Life ain't fair, but we g-go... on livin' anyway. We have to live our life, B-Brian. We have to live for today."
    I stared at the young genius relaxing in my brother's embrace, one question dominating my thoughts:

    I would like to express my appreciation to Tony, who provided the Spanish translation for this chapter. Thank you.

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