What's The Difference Between Me and You?

Book II

By Nick

Chapter One

Nick sat quietly in the office, swinging his feet back and forth in a chair that was designed for someone much larger to occupy. Down the hall, his dad was sitting down with Nick's new counselor, whom he referred to as Miss Sue, and as he waited, he wondered what they were saying about him. He was sure his dad had reached the end of his rope. That was what led to him bringing Nick to see her in the first place. On the way to her office, Jim had a long talk with him in the car about it.

"Don't be nervous buddy," Jim said, obviously trying to soothe his son. "You guys are just going to talk about things. I'll be in there too, so you have nothing to worry about."

"But what if she yells at me?" Nick asked, feeling a little weepy about meeting a stranger to talk about things that were personal as far as he was concerned.

"She's not going to yell at you babe," Jim reassured him. "I promise you she won't. Besides, I'll be there the whole time."

With that, Jim reached over and ran his hand softly over Nick's left cheek before taking his hand and holding it for the rest of the ride. It seemed to Nick that the drive there was taking an especially long time, but he knew that it was mainly due to the morning traffic rush. They had dropped James off at school before heading toward the large medical office complex, which was right in the middle of Virginia Beach.

Miss Sue was an older lady, probably in her late thirties, Nick thought, and she had a calm, soft, soothing voice and demeanor. She didn't come across as intimidating or mean at all. In fact, the tone of her voice put Nick at ease as soon as he cast his eyes on her. She had personally come out to the waiting area where Jim and Nick were sitting and introduced herself, taking a seat next to Nick and carrying on a casual conversation with the two of them before it was time to head back to her office.

Looking around her office, Nick was a little shocked. There were kid sized chairs and toys everywhere. Some of the toys looked brand new and some of them looked like they could have been ten or twenty years old. It was a pretty large office, too, and while it was full of toys, there seemed to be some kind of order to it all that Nick couldn't quite put his finger on. When she closed the door behind them, Nick saw a huge calendar on her door that displayed every month, but also that people, obviously kids, had written all over in colored marker.

When the session started, Nick's cheeks burned with shame as Jim spoke about what had prompted him to bring his son to see a psychologist in the first place. His words weren't harsh in the least, but they still had a gripping effect on his son, who wanted to hide as the details unraveled. Miss Sue simply nodded and every once in a while, she would take notes and ask a question.

While his dad was talking, Nick's mind wandered back to the first time he and his dad had dealt with the issue he was facing, remembering it all in great detail. He spent the next several minutes listening to his dad and thinking about what had happened so he could explain himself to Miss Sue, but he was having a hard time thinking of the reason he had done it. In fact, he had no idea why.

"Can you pin point when you think this all started?" she asked Jim, who straightened up in his seat and nodded.

"It actually started the first day James moved into our house," Jim said. "He moved in on a Sunday, and we pretty much had trouble all week long with it. It didn't get any better after that."

Nick knew his dad was right, but he didn't realize that it had become a problem in the sense that his dad and Miss Sue were talking about it in. He just looked at it as something he did sometimes, and like jacking up the car or pouring too many bubbles in the tub. Listening to his dad talk about it, though, almost made him start to cry.

When Miss Sue turned her attention his way, tears welled up in his eyes and he used his sleeve to wipe them away. As he pulled his arm away from his face, he saw Miss Sue moving his way with a box of Kleenex and a warm smile. She wrapped an arm around him and handed him a tissue, then she spoke to him in the most soothing voice he had ever heard in his life.

"Are you alright Nickolas?" she asked as he dabbed at his eyes. He sadly nodded and took a deep breath, trying to collect himself. He looked over at his dad, who had a worried expression on his face.

"I'm sorry daddy," he pleaded sadly. "I won't do it anymore. I promise."

Jim slid his chair over so that he was sitting right next to his son, then he took the Kleenex from him and used it to gently wipe his tears away, then he kissed him on top of the head.

"Buddy, it's not just that," Jim said thoughtfully. "There's a lot going on in your little head, buddy. I want to help you to be able to work all of it out. We've had a busy last couple of months, son. I know it's been hard on you."

With that, Nick broke down and started crying hard. He leaned over into his dad's arm, reaching out for Jim to lift him up into his lap. As soon as he felt himself being lifted out of his seat, he buried his face in his dad's chest and sniffled as his dad stroked the top of his head and gently shushed him.

"Nick, would you like to talk about something different?" Miss Sue asked softly. Even in his emotional state, Nick managed a small nod with his face still hiding in Jim's chest.

"What do you want to talk about, Nick?" she asked. "We're only going to talk about things today that make you feel good, okay?"

"Yes ma'am," Nick croaked as Jim lifted his head out of his chest with both hands. Nick looked around the room and saw his counselor smiling at him, so he turned his head to face her and wrapped his arms around Jim's chest, hugging him tightly and not letting go.

"Do you feel more comfortable where you are?" she asked with a smile. Nick nodded and tightened his grip on his dad, not wanting to be put back in his own seat. "Jim, is that okay with you?"

"This is fine with me," Jim answered, and even though Nick wasn't looking, he knew his dad was nodding too.

From there, Miss Sue went on to ask Nick about school, his friends, including Taylor, moving to Virginia from California and James. She asked him about fighting in school, and Nick told her what happened when he beat up Danny, who had shoved him first.

From there, they talked about Taylor, and Nick told her that they wanted to be brothers. He told her how Taylor had spent most weekends spending the night at his house, and that he hated it when Taylor wasn't around. He then bitterly mentioned the fact that James and Taylor couldn't get along very long because James always seemed to want to pick a fight with his friend. He sadly told her about the two fistfights they had, where James angrily brutalized Taylor when he thought he was cheating, both at Pokémon and football.

From there, she asked Nick to talk more about James, and more specifically, how he felt about James moving in with them and having to share his father's attention with him. Nick looked up at his dad's face for approval, and Jim nodded with a smile and said, "Be honest, son. You can say how you feel because that's why I brought you here."

From there, Nick went into a small tirade about James, and the fact that Jim told him it was okay to call him dad without asking Nick first. Then he said that he hated the way Jim always went easy on James for things that he would normally whip Nick over, and that he felt like James should be in trouble more often.

The next thing they talked about was moving to Virginia from California. She asked Nick how it made him feel, and he admitted that he was scared when they were getting ready to move. When she asked him to elaborate, he found himself spilling his guts about how he felt when the date of their impending move was near, and how he had found himself wishing at the time that he and his dad had never gone to Virginia for a vacation.

He tearfully recounted the evening he and his dad drove away, leaving his Papu behind with the hurt look that Nick couldn't get out of his mind. He had to stop for a moment and collect himself as Jim slowly rocked him back and forth, trying to calm down so he could go on. When he was able to continue, he talked about the week Jim left him alone in California with his papu while he went to Virginia. He conceded that he realized during that week why they were moving, but coming to that realization was disturbing to him.

In the final minutes of the session, Miss Sue asked Jim and Nick to talk to each other about their lives, and to be totally honest with each other. Jim went on to tell Nick that he understood that he hadn't always made the smartest decisions but that he always did what he thought was best for him. He also told him that he had dedicated his whole life to Nick, and that no matter what, he was the most precious person in the world to him.

But he also added that he loved James as if he were his own son. He said he understood that Nick felt threatened by his cousin, but that he had no reason to feel that way, and that they had already talked about that. He finished by telling Nick that he loved him more than his own life, and that he would always feel that way.

When Nick's turn came, he felt intimidated by the task at hand. Still, he took his turn and let his words flow naturally. He told his dad that he hated sharing him with James, but that he understood that James couldn't go home to his real parents. He said that even though he hated moving from California, he was glad that they had because if they hadn't he would have never met Taylor and his other friends. He also said that he was happy to live next door to his grandparents, and that he enjoyed seeing them on an almost daily basis.

He talked about the things that were always on his mind, but that he was afraid to talk to his dad about. He said that he felt like Jim was hard to talk to at times because of his affinity for exploding when he was frustrated, and that he didn't know how to approach certain subjects. When Miss Sue pressed him about this, he said that there were some things he was comfortable talking to his dad about, like his feelings for boys, but that he was afraid to bring certain things up, like questions about his mom. He was concerned that he would upset his dad, so he kept all of his questions to himself.

At that point, Miss Sue asked to speak to Jim alone for a few minutes before their time was up, and she escorted Nick to the waiting area before heading back to her office. When Jim emerged, Miss Sue was right behind him, smiling warmly as they walked up to the check out desk. While Jim was signing some forms, Miss Sue handed Nick a balloon that had a long string attached, and at the end of the string, there was a small pouch with suckers and hand stickers in it.

"Thank you ma'am," Nick said with a grin as he accepted the balloon.

"You're welcome, Nickolas," she said. "You know, you have the best dad a kid could ask for, right? He loves you very much, and I think next week when you come back, we'll talk about that some more."

"Yes ma'am," Nick said as Jim approached him and reached for his hand, prompting him to stand up.

On the way home, Jim turned the radio off and cleared his throat, letting Nick know that he had something on his mind.

"Son, I want you to know that I'm not mad at you for anything,' Jim said softly. "I just love you and care about you so much, and I want you feel good about things in your life."

Nick thought back on the session he had just been in with his dad and Miss Sue, and his mind went back to the night before when Jim seemed so frustrated with him. Taylor had gone home for the evening, and they sat down and ate supper. After dinner, Nick went into the family room with James to watch TV while Jim cleaned up in the kitchen and immediately picked a fight with him by yanking the remote control out of his hands and changing the channel.

"Hey, I was watching Wheel Of Fortune!" James hollered, instantly jumping out of his seat on the couch and advancing on Nick, who took a defensive posture and clung to the remote with both hands. James had his hands on the remote, and tried his hardest to wrestle it away from Nick, who found himself overmatched by his cousin's strength, but Nick had a vicious streak that James couldn't approach. Just as it seemed that James was going to prevail, Nick lifted his right foot and brought it down hard on James's shin, then he grabbed James's arm and bit down as hard as he could.

Before he could let go with his teeth, though, Jim was on him, separating the two and hauling Nick to the kitchen. Even though he knew he'd be in trouble, Nick smiled triumphantly and tried to shove the remote into his front pocket. He almost succeeded, but Jim spotted what he was doing and took the remote out of his hand.

"Nick, have you lost your Goddamn mind?" Jim snapped as he roughly led Nick to a chair at the table and forced him to sit down. From where he was in the kitchen, Nick could hear James sniffling in the living room, and he vindictively smiled to himself, knowing he'd won the latest round of fighting that the two of them had been engaging in. Unfortunately for Nick, his dad also spotted the grin on his face and wasn't happy. Jim reached out and took Nick's chin into his hand, forcing him to look into his angry eyes and demanding that Nick answer him. "I asked you a question, boy."
"James started it," Nick fibbed. He could tell from the look on his dads face that his lie was going over like a lead balloon, but still he persisted.

"Don't lie to me Nick," Jim warned. "This isn't funny, and I'm not laughing. As a matter of fact, I'm furious with you. You need to go sit in time out in your room. I'll be up in a little bit."

With that, Nick got up, shoving his chair back as hard as he could as he did, and stomped all the way up the stairs. When he got to his room, he slammed the door and flopped down on his bed, angry with his dad for sending him to his room. He knew that his punishment would only be exacerbated by slamming his door and having an attitude, and he might not have cared, but there were two things that made him think twice about fighting with his dad. The first was the fact that he and Jim were scheduled to go talk to someone about his behavior the very next day. The second, and most important to Nick, was that Taylor's birthday was coming up and he didn't want to be grounded from going to his best friend's party.

When his door opened and Jim walked in, Nick tried to steady his breathing and think about what he said before he spoke. He'd learned that this was always the smart route to take with Jim, who was displaying less patience for his combative nature toward James as the days wore on. In fact, to Nick, it seemed as if his dad was on James's side more often than not, and he didn't think that was very fair even if he did pick the majority of the fights they had. Jim took a seat on the edge of Nick's bed and looked at him expectantly, and Nick knew exactly what he had to say.

"I'm sorry for being mad tonight," Nick said in his sweetest voice. "I thought James was being mean to me."

"Really?" Jim said in a tone that Nick read as sarcasm. He knew his dad wasn't falling for it.

"No sir," Nick admitted, deciding that it was best to cop to rather than continue down the path he started on.

"So let's see, son," Jim said impatiently. "You picked a fight with your brother, you kicked him in the shin and then you lied to me twice. You want to add anything else to the list or are you ready to stop now?"

"He's not my brother," Nick said. "I don't like it when you say that."

"I see," Jim said, looking disappointed. He took a deep breath and looked reflectively at Nick, then he nodded his head. "Okay, you picked a fight with James. Does that sound better to you?"

"Yes sir," Nick said, nodding his head.

"Okay, now that we've cleared that up, let's talk about your punishment," Jim said calmly. "What do you think would be fair."

"I already got punished," Nick tried. "I'm in time out."

"Yeah," Jim said after drawing air in through his clenched teeth, a sound that Nick knew well. Jim wasn't falling for it. "I kinda figured you'd say that, Nick. The good news is, I've got something in mind that works a lot better for all of us."

"What is it?" Nick asked cautiously, wishing he'd have thought of something a little better when he had the chance.

"I think you should be grounded for at least the rest of the week," Jim said.

"But it's Sunday," Nick argued, and Jim nodded at him, as if to acknowledge that he was correct.

"Will I get to go to Taylor's birthday party?" Nick asked, and Jim raised an eyebrow at him.

"That'll be up to you, son," Jim said. "Do you think you can keep yourself contained this week? Or am I going to have to pull you and James apart again?"

"I promise to be good," Nick pleaded, desperate not to be grounded from Taylor's party.

"Okay, let's make a deal," Jim said. "You're grounded this week, but if you're good, and that means no fighting with James, you can go. If you aren't, though, you can't go."

"I promise daddy," Nick swore, trying to look at his dad with conviction.

"I mean it son," Jim warned. "If you pick even one fight with James this week, or mouth off even once, you won't go. Do you understand me?"

"Yes sir," Nick said, knowing it would be hard to keep his promise because James was just as good at instigating a fight with him as he was with James. "What if James picks a fight with me first?"

"Then you tell me, and I'll take care of it," Jim assured him. "Do we have a deal?"

"Yes sir," Nick said with a smile.

"Good," Jim said, standing up. "I'm going to run a bath for you. I want you to hop in, then I want you to get ready for bed, okay?"

"Okay dad," Nick said dutifully, getting up and following his dad out the door, down the hall and to the bathroom.

When Nick and his dad got home from his appointment, they sat together in the recliner and talked about some of the things that came out during their session. Nick cried a little bit, but he was able to keep himself together enough to tell his dad that he was scared that one day Jim was going to love James more than him, and that he wouldn't want Nick anymore, especially with his recent outbursts toward James.

"That's never going to happen baby," Jim said as he hugged his son to his chest. "I'll always love you more than anyone in the world. You know I love James too, but you also remember what we talked about, right?"

"Yes sir," Nick wept, still feeling insecure about losing his father's love.

"I know you've had a pretty rough four or five months, Nick," Jim said. "But everything's going to be fine, son. I know it doesn't seem that way to you, but trust me, it will. As a matter of fact, it already is. Didn't you have a good Christmas?"

"Uh huh," Nick said, his tears drying up.

"Well we're going to have more times like that from now on, son," Jim said. "It's going to be just like it has been, son."

"Do you promise?" Nick asked, looking up at his dad's face for an answer.

"I promise, sweetheart," Jim said softly.

"Okay daddy," Nick said quietly as his dad hugged him tightly. "Daddy?"

"Yes buddy?" Jim replied.

"I love you," Nick said.

"I love you too little boy," Jim said, kissing his son on the cheek and smiling down at him, then he continued. "You know, if there's something else you want to talk about, Nick, we can. Do you think there's something you want to talk about that we haven't talked about yet? Maybe about boys, or being gay or being straight?"

Nick thought about what his dad asked him and sighed. He thought about the feelings he had for Taylor, and how he liked it when he and Taylor were boyfriends. He also thought about the things he and Taylor did when they were alone, and he wondered to himself if Taylor would still want to be his boyfriend if he knew about Nick's trouble at home. Nick knew he could be honest with his dad about his feelings, but he was too scared to tell him what he and Taylor did together, especially since Taylor had already asked him not to tell anyone.

"What are you thinking about, buddy?" Jim asked.

"Well, maybe there's something I want to talk about with you," Nick said.

"Is it about that?" Jim asked, and Nick nodded. "Go ahead then, son. What's on your mind?"

"I wanted to tell you something daddy," Nick started. "I wanted you to know since before Christmas but I didn't get to tell you because there were too many people here."

"What is it, buddy?" Jim asked. Nick cleared his throat a little, then he thought twice about what he was about to say to his dad. He had already started, though, so he decided to go through with it.

"Well," he stammered a little bit. "Do you remember that time when.." Nick lost his voice for a moment, but when his dad gave him a gentle squeeze, he was able to go on.

"What time buddy?" Jim asked gently.

"When I told you about feeling gay sometimes," Nick said.

"Sure buddy," Jim said with a warm smile.

"Well, I guess," Nick started to say, but then he stopped for a moment before continuing. "I mean, I turned gay one day and I didn't turn straight again."

"Do you think that's what's been on your mind?" Jim asked thoughtfully, and Nick shrugged in reply. "Well I think this is something we can talk to Miss Sue about when we go see her next week."

"Are you disappointed in me?" Nick asked ashamedly.

"Of course not baby boy," Jim said as he gently ran the palm of his hand over Nick's forehead, pulling his hair back before planting a kiss on his head. "I love you Nick, and I'm very proud of you. Don't forget that, son."

"Even though I'm always gay now?" Nick asked, and Jim nodded.

"Being gay doesn't change anything, son," Jim said. "But I do think that maybe this has a lot to do with why you get so mad."

"How?" Nick asked, not sure that he agreed with his dad's assessment.

"Buddy, you have more on your mind than any other little kid I know of," Jim explained. "I think it might just be too much for you to handle. I know you don't understand everything, but that's why we're talking to Miss Sue."

"Will Miss Sue turn me straight?" Nick asked curiously.

"I don't think she can, son," Jim said. "Besides, I wouldn't ask her to do that, son. I love you just like this."

"Will Miss Sue make me be good?" he asked.

"I think she'll help you do that by yourself," Jim said. "You're the only person who can make that happen, though. Did you know that?"

Nick thought about what his dad was saying, and it made some sense to him, but at the same time, he was nervous about everything. He hated that his dad was so worried about him, and he knew what he could do about his attitude toward James, but at the same time, he wasn't sure about whether he could fix things or not. Even before his problem got worse, he had been having fights with his cousin, just not as often. But some time after Christmas, it had become a regular occurrence for his dad to have to separate Nick and James, and more often than not, Nick was the instigator of the fights.

"How daddy?" Nick asked, looking at his dad unsurely for an answer.

"Well for one you can come to me when you're upset about something," Jim said. "Instead of holding all of that anger in, you can talk about it and I bet you'll feel better."

"Will you be ashamed of me if I don't?" Nick asked.

"No way," Jim said. "I'm never going to be ashamed of you, son. Do you understand that?"

"Yes sir,' Nick said. "Will James try to fight with me?"

"He better not," Jim said. "If he does I'll ground him, and I already told him that."

"Thank you daddy," Nick said, snuggling up to his dad's chest and yawning.

"You're welcome buddy," Jim answered. "Are you feeling a little sleepy?"

"Yes," Nick answered as he felt his dad turn him so that he was being cradled in his arms. Nick smiled up at his dad and clung tightly to his chest for comfort until he fell asleep.

When he woke up he was in his room, under his covers and he could smell food. He got up and walked downstairs to the kitchen, where Jim was standing at the stove over a pot of soup.

"Hey buddy," Jim said with a smile when he spotted his son. "Are you hungry?"

Nick didn't answer his dad. Instead, he walked over to him and held his arms out, waiting to be picked up. As soon as he was off his feet, he rested his head on Jim's shoulder and yawned.

"Do you have to go potty?" Jim asked his softly.

"I just have to go pee," Nick said, and with that, Jim turned and carried him to the bathroom in the downstairs hallway. He set Nick down and stood him in front of the toilet, where Nick unbuttoned his pants and peed. When he was done, Jim guided him to the sink, where they washed their hands together, just like when Nick was really little. Jim would keep his hands over Nick's and rub their hands together with soap, then he held their hands under the running water until the soap was rinsed away. Finally he dried their hands together as Nick looked up and smiled at him, feeling nostalgic about the days when he would do that all the time with his dad.

While they ate their lunch, Jim let Nick sit in his lap and he fed him his soup and crackers, blowing on each bite and making sure it wasn't too hot for his son. When they were finished eating, they walked upstairs to Jim's room, where Nick let his dad wet, gel and brush his hair, which was messy from his earlier nap. When his hair was fixed, they both grabbed a coat and walked out the door, making sure that Skalaki was out in the garage before they left.

"Son, I want you to know that I meant what I said about coming to me when something's on your mind, okay?" Jim said as they drove out of the neighborhood. Nick nodded at his dad , then he looked out the window as they made a left turn off of their street and onto a main road, and Nick watched the trees whiz by.

They wound up driving for miles into Virginia Beach, until they reached Tidewater Community College, where Nick and his father walked up to a building, went inside, and found a book store. Jim picked out six textbooks that he had listed on a piece of paper, took them to the register and paid for them, then they were off again. When they stopped, they were sitting in front of Super Wal-Mart, and before they went in, Jim turned in his seat and faced Nick, who gave his dad all of his attention.

"We're going in to get Taylor a few things for his birthday," Jim said sternly. "But I'm letting you know now that if you don't behave this week, we'll be dropping them off at his house and not going to his party. Is that understood?"

"Yes sir," Nick said, relieved that his dad was giving him a chance at redemption. "I promise not to pick any fights with James or anyone else."

"Good boy," Jim said, opening his door and getting out. He waited for Nick, who crawled across the panel and the driver's seat to get out on his dad's side. They went inside and picked out three presents, then they found a card and a large envelope to fit it in. They were about to head to the register then Nick tugged at his dad's hand, prompting Jim to look down at him Questioningly.

"Can I get Taylor a card just from me?" he asked cautiously, not wanting to sound rude.

"What's wrong with this one?" Jim asked, holding the one up he had in his hand.

"Nothing," Nick explained. "I just wanted to give him one that was from me."

Jim gave him a pointed look that made him wince, but the look disappeared and with a sigh, Jim nodded and motioned with his head for Nick to go pick one out. It took him a few minutes, but Nick wanted to make sure he had an extra special card that Taylor would like. He finally settled on a larger than normal card, grabbed the envelope behind it, and handed it to his dad. Jim turned it around, looked at the price, and gawked.

"Four dollars and ninety five cents?" Jim said incredulously, but Nick looked up at him hopefully and he finally acquiesced and put it in the cart on top of the one that was from all of them. When they checked out, Nick was sure to keep his card separate from the other one, and he clutched it in his hands as they made the long drive back to their neighborhood. They were going to pick James up at school, but as they approached, they saw his bus make a left turn out onto Dam Neck Road, so they simply followed it as it took a left turn at the light onto General Booth Boulevard, then Jim got around it and drove home. Nick knew that his dad was more anxious about not being stuck behind the bus than he was about beating James home.

When they got there, Nick waited at the door for his dad, watching as he carried the bags up to the door and flipped through his keys simultaneously. When they got in, Nick put his card on the table and made a beeline for the bathroom in the hallway. While he was in there, he heard James come in and greet Jim, then he heard him run up the stairs. When he was finished, Nick washed his hands and came out to look at the clock. His heart sank when he saw the time, knowing that Taylor had already gotten off the bus and most likely knocked at the door, only to find that no one was home.

When James came downstairs, he spread his homework out on the table and sighed, then he wandered over to the refrigerator for something to eat. While he was at the fridge, Nick looked at his cousin's homework and scratched his head. The math looked easy to him, but the rest looked really complicated. As it turned out, though, James had the most trouble in math, and the rest seemed to come easy to him. He was about to extend his first olive branch by offering to help James with his math homework when Jim came to the table.

"James it's your turn to take Skalaki out," Jim reminded him, but before he could go any further, Nick spoke up.

"I'll do it," he offered. Then, without waiting for a reply, he hopped up, grabbed his jacket and went to the garage, where Skalaki was curled up on a blanket, and called out for him to follow him out the door. The temperature had dropped and Skalaki seemed hesitant to follow him out, but he finally obeyed Nick's command. They walked around from the side of the house to the back yard, and as he waited patiently for Skalaki to do something, Jim came out through the back door and smiled at him.

"Hey buddy," he said. "That was really nice of you."

"I'm trying to be good," Nick said truthfully.

"I can tell," Jim said warmly. "But I don't want you to do everything for James, okay? He still has to do his own chores."

"Okay," Nick said, feeling a little deflated because he wasn't sure if Jim was admonishing him or not. "Can I call Taylor?"

"You can call and talk for a little bit," Jim said firmly. "But not too long, son. Remember, you're still grounded."

"I know," Nick said quietly, looking at the ground.

"As soon as Skalaki's done, you can call him, okay?" Jim said, and Nick nodded. With that, Jim turned and went back inside. By the time Nick and Skalaki made it back in, James was hard at work on his homework and Jim was working on his laptop, so Nick took the phone off of its charger and took it to his room, where he laid on his bed and dialed Taylor's number.

There was no answer, except for the voicemail, so Nick left a message explaining that he was calling because they weren't home earlier and he didn't know if Taylor had come over earlier or not. He also said that he was grounded and couldn't use the phone again, and that he'd see Taylor the next morning at the bus stop.

He hung the phone up with a heavy sigh and took it back downstairs, where he set it on the charger, then he went back to his room to read. While he was reading, he lost track of time. Before he knew it, he could smell dinner cooking, and he realized that he was hungry, so he went downstairs to see what they were having. His dad was at the stove, frying chicken, and James was at the table, putting three cups out with ice in them, so Nick climbed up onto the breakfast nook and let his legs dangle off the side as he watched them work to get dinner ready.

"There you are," Jim said with a smile when he turned and spotted him sitting on the counter. "Go wash your hands, babe. Dinner's almost ready."

Nick did what he was told, and when he made it back to the kitchen, the plates were made up and James had poured Hawaiian Punch in the cups. Dinner was quiet, but only because everyone was enjoying their food. When they were done eating, Jim cleaned up and Nick followed his cousin into the family room, determined not to fight this time. He sat quietly while James surfed the channels, looking determined as ever to irritate Nick by stopping at a channel long enough for Nick to get into the show, only to change it without asking. Still, Nick kept his mouth shut and smiled because he was being good, even if James was getting on his last nerve.

"Hey guys," Jim said, popping his head into the family room. "I have to run next door really fast, You boys want to come along?"

"No sir," James answered, and Nick shook his head at his dad. Jim shrugged, grabbed a thick binder from the bookshelf, and walked through the family room to the back door. As soon as his dad was gone, Nick got up and walked back into the dining room, where he found the card he picked out for Taylor. He opened it up and looked at it with a smile, content with the romantic nature of giving his boyfriend a card of his own. He sighed contentedly and closed it when James walked up from behind him and snatched it out of his hands.

"James, that's mine," Nick said as civilly as he could. He reached out for it, but James was too fast for him and pulled it out of his reach, then held it up in the air so Nick couldn't take it back. Before Nick could react though, James turned and ran as fast as he could out of the dining room and into the bathroom, where he locked the door and read it out loud in a mocking tone that was more irritating than embarrassing to Nick, who's only defense was to knock on the door and ask James to give him the card back.

Finally, Nick gave up and walked dejectedly back to the family room, on the verge of tears that he didn't want James to see. He sat and stewed for the next ten minutes, angry that James hadn't emerged with his card yet and that he seemed hell bent on stirring up trouble. Just when Nick thought he might explode, the back door opened and Jim walked in. He gave Nick a look of concern and sat next to him.

"What's wrong honey?" he asked, wrapping an arm around Nick, who smiled on the inside but kept his flustered look as he tattled on his cousin.

"James stole my card and took it in the bathroom," Nick said sadly. "He won't give it back."

"Let me take care of that, babe," Jim said sympathetically, standing up and heading into the hallway, where he pounded on the bathroom door.

Nick heard the door open, then he saw James hurrying into the family room with Jim hot on his heels. He turned and handed the card to Jim, who had an impatient look on his face, then he turned and faced Nick.

"I'm sorry Nick," James said pleadingly. "I was just joking around."

"Go to your room," Jim said shortly. With that, James looked down at the floor and moved ashamedly up the stairs. As soon as he was out of site, Jim sat next to Nick and handed him the card. It had a huge wrinkle in it from James snatching it from him, and seeing that his card was ruined almost reduced Nick to tears.

"We'll get you another one to give him, buddy," Jim said sympathetically. "I'm sorry James ruined this one for you."

"Will we find one like this?" Nick asked, and Jim brushed his hair out of his eyes and sighed.

"We'll go back to Wal-Mart and look, okay?" he offered, and Nick nodded sadly.

"Why did he do it daddy?" Nick asked, heartbroken that his special card was ruined.

"I don't know, babe," Jim said. "But I'll take care of it. I promise he won't do this again."

"Will you spank him?" Nick asked.

"Did I spank you last night?" Jim replied.

"No sir," Nick answered sadly.

"He's going to buy you a new card," Jim said convincingly. "If you can't find this one, you can get a more expensive one. How does that sound?"

"Good," Nick said with a grin, thinking of the prospect of sticking it to his cousin by finding a more expensive card. When they were finished talking, Jim went upstairs and talked to James. They came back down together, and James immediately apologized to Nick for what he did.

"I'm trying to be nice to you," Nick told his cousin. "That's why I took Skalaki out earlier."

"I know," James said remorsefully. "I'm sorry I was a jerk. I'm going to buy you a new card."

Satisfied with his cousin's apology, Nick let it drop. They talked about Taylor's party, and James said something that disturbed Nick. From the look on Jim's face, Nick could tell that he was shaken up too.

"I haven't had a birthday party since we moved to Tennessee," James said. "I remember having one in California, but that was the last one."

"Did you get presents?" Nick asked, and James shook his head sadly.

"I used to get cards with money in them, but.." James started but his voice trailed off and he took a deep breath, as if trying to keep his composure. Nick looked at his dad, who wrapped his arm around James and smiled sadly back at him, and he couldn't believe it. He didn't understand how someone could just not have a birthday party. Everyone had them, he thought.

That evening, as his dad was tucking him in, Nick decided that he wanted to tell him something.

"I'm not mad at James for ruining Taylor's card," he said quietly. "He doesn't have to buy me a new one, daddy. I have money."

"That's really sweet of you pal," Jim said, leaning down to kiss him goodnight. "But James is going to have to learn to take responsibility for his own actions. That means buying a replacement for the card he ruined."

"Maybe he doesn't understand why a birthday card is special," Nick countered.

"He might not, son," Jim said, bringing the covers up to Nick's chest. "But he has to learn that it's not okay to do stuff like that. He's going to be okay, buddy."

When Jim got up and turned out the light, Nick laid still and looked off into the darkness, thinking about what James's life must have been like. The more he learned about it, the more troubling it was, and he knew that there was a lot he didn't know about, and he wondered what he'd learn one day.








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