"You know the drill, Abram. Into the locker with you," Cassandra said, crossing her arms over her chest with a serious expression. Her eyes left no room for argument, though the last thing Abram wanted was to climb into his locker. Of all their friendship traditions, he hated this one the most. Confined spaces and he had never gotten along.
"Come on, this is the worst birthday tradition ever. I seriously gotta spend thirteen minutes in there? Can't we just go enjoy lunch?" Abram protested, looking at his open locker with a steadily growing nervousness.
Cassandra glared at him. "I did it last month when I turned thirteen, and Patricia . . . er . . . Paul and Everett both did it, too. You know the rule. One minute for every year. We've been doing it since the sixth grade."
"That was last year. It's hardly a tradition if we've only done it once," Abram said, pointedly ignoring Cassandra's stern gaze. She was the keeper of the traditions, the one who maintained the unwritten code they'd all agreed on back in their sandbox days. Well, everyone but Everett. They'd moved past the sandbox long before Everett moved into Sanitaria Springs and joined them on the playground. Strangely, he kept the traditions alive better than anyone other than Cassandra.
"Yes, but we're making it a tradition," Cassandra said pointedly. "Come on, if we all did it, you have to do it, too."
"The drug awareness people said I shouldn't listen to people who said that," Abram replied.
Cassandra rolled her eyes. "They also said you shouldn't be around people who smoke marijuana, but your parents are okay?"
"CASS! I'm going to kill you!" the high-pitched voice of Paul interrupted their conversation, but neither Abram nor Cassandra showed any fear at the appearance of the boy storming down the hall toward them. The rest of the students didn't may much mind, either, despite the glitter which covered Paul's upper body, a few specks even landed across his ample breasts, accentuating them in ways Paul desperately wished they wouldn't.
Although Cassandra didn't feel so bad about the glitter itself, she did bite her lip with uncertainty on seeing how distraught Paul was at the attention drawn to his female anatomy. Paul's parents wouldn't allow him to bind his breasts, for they had yet to see his gender identification as anything other than a mental illness for them to diagnose and treat.
"Paul . . . I see you got my . . . gift?" Cassandra said, wincing as she saw the genuine pain in Paul's eyes.
"This prank war has gone on long enough, Athos," Paul said through gritted teeth, pulling up short and putting a finger in Cassandra's face. Even in his anger, he still used her code name now that he was close enough to make her feel how personally outraged he was at the prank. Paul was too short to look Cassandra directly in the eye, but he managed to get Cassandra to shrink down enough that it didn't matter. "It's time we stopped this."
Abram liked the prank war. It was one of the fun traditions. Sure, sometimes it meant opening a homemade glitter bomb when you thought you were opening a Pringles can, but at least it was festive. He'd long approved of Cassandra's style and would defend her choices any day, though he preferred using more colorful techniques.
"Come on, Paul, the prank war is tradi . . ." he received a stern glare from Cassandra as soon as he opened his mouth and stopped short of self-incrimination. It didn't matter, of course. It was now two on one.
"Aren't you supposed to be doing time, Aramis?" Paul said, rounding on Abram with blazing eyes. "If you think I've forgotten what you did to me last month, guess again. I still double check the mirror every morning to make sure my teeth aren't blue, and I'm still not sure how you turned my bathroom water red."
"It's a gift," Abram replied with a shrug and a grin he hoped would charm his way back into Paul's good graces. Sneaking into Paul's bathroom before heading home for the night and slipping a non-toxic dye capsule inside the faucet head was one of his crowning achievements in the prank wars. He'd gone a step further and added blue food coloring inside Paul's toothpaste tube, and Paul had shown up to school the next day with blue teeth and scared his house was haunted. "If you ever want bloody water, I'm your man."
"No thanks, I already have enough blood as is," Paul said, grimacing as he glanced back at Cassandra. "How the hell are girls supposed to put up with this period shit? It has to be the most inconvenient part about being born one. I am ready to be done with my vagina now . . ."
"Dude!" Abram said, blushing at the mention of the v-word. "Can we not talk about that in public?"
"What? My transition is bothering you?" Paul asked with a glare.
Abram shook his head firmly. "No, just . . . vaginas are gross."
"I couldn't agree more," Paul said.
Cassandra snorted. "I happen to enjoy mine."
"Athos!" Abram said, covering his face with his hands. He peeked through his fingers at Paul and said, "Porthos, why'd you have to bring it up? This is so embarrassing!"
"I wouldn't have had to bring it up if Athos hadn't put a damn glitter-bomb in my lunch," Paul said. "Literally everyone is staring at my breasts now."
"No one is staring at your breasts," Cassandra replied. "Have you forgotten that we're practically invisible in this school? Everyone ignores the four Musketqueers."
"Speaking of four, shouldn't Everett be here?" Abram asked. "If you're all serious about me doing this stupid tradition, the least he could do is be here. Our D'artagnan needs to stop being late."
Paul snorted. "We should just start calling him Dart for short, since he's always running to make it places on time. No matter how fast he runs, he still never quite makes it though, does he?"
"Speak of the devil," Cassandra said, nodding past Paul to where Everett approached by way of the cafeteria. He looked as sharp as ever, wearing his form-fitting black jeans under a black vest and white-button-up combo. Abram watched him come and didn't feel the least bit ashamed. They were all friends here, and they all knew he had a crush on Everett, Everett included.
Abram had been the first Musketqueer—the name the four friends called themselves now—he'd known he liked boys since he was nine, and he had the most open-minded parents who had taught him early that being gay wasn't a problem. He had a gay uncle and a transgender cousin, and both were accepted with equal love at all extended family gatherings.
He knew he had it good, though sometimes he wished he had it a little bit better and Everett would commit to being more than friends. Everett's darker skin and black hair intrigued Abram in ways he couldn't fully comprehend. He didn't think of his friend as exotic—no, there were several other kids of Asian descent in the school as well, and Abram didn't think they were exotic either. They'd grown up in the states just like him.
Of his friends, only Cassandra hadn't been born in the US, though she'd come to Sanitaria Springs when she was two and only her closest friends knew she was originally Canadian. Paul wasn't out of place at all, as plenty of black kids walked the halls of their school, and the diverse population of the school made racial persecution rare.
On occasion, people bothered Abram about his half-Mexican heritage, but he knew he had current politics to blame for that. People with a last name like Sanchez seemed to have targets painted on their backs wherever they looked, no matter if they appeared mostly white or not.
But his friends protected him, partly because of the code they'd agreed on, but mostly because they saw themselves in each other. Skin color and background didn't matter to the Musketqueers, certainly not when they were already considered outcasts by the rest of the school. It wasn't sexuality which kept their peers from including them, either, but rather the thing which had separated the classes since the beginning of time. They were the nerds.
The four Musketqueers were smart, they liked school and learning, hated sports, and followed every obscure trend they could find. They shared a fondness for classic literature and attending museums. Only Cassandra played videogames regularly, spending most of her free time playing the toughest game out there when she didn't have her nose buried in a book. Paul collected stamps of all things, something Abram had heard of only from his grandmother. Abram himself spent most of his time playing imaginary games in his back yard, and sometimes his friends even joined him when they weren't feeling too foolish. And Everett . . .
Abram sighed as Everett approached, studying his face with barely contained awe. Everett liked drag queens and Broadway musicals, had the best fashion sense of anyone Abram had ever seen, and was an amateur YouTube star reviewing every single gay topic under the sun and rolling in the views. To Abram's freshly thirteen-year-old self, Everett was practically a god.
"Okay, I know what you're going to say . . ." Everett said, raising his hands dramatically, "I'm late. But why isn't Abram in the locker already? By my calculations, he should've already come out by now."
Cassandra harrumphed and said, "He won't go in. Says it's a stupid tradition."
Everett fully knew the power he had over Abram, as did the others. Paul and Cassandra watched with amusement as Everett stepped up to Abram, reaching up to Abram's cheek and whispering in a sultry voice. "Abram . . . Do it. For me?"
Abram shuddered and pulled away, feeling his whole body tremble from the tactile contact. "Fuck . . ." he groaned, turning away so they wouldn't see his steadily growing boner.
"Stupid boyfriend powers," Paul grumbled.
"We are not boyfriends," Abram said. Not matter how much he wished otherwise, he didn't want Everett to think he thought of them as boyfriends. Abram's parents had long-instilled in him a devotion to honesty and wishing for a different reality never made it happen. "Just because we're both gay—"
"Hey, I never committed to that label," Everett interrupted.
Abram sighed and resumed chastising Paul. "Okay fine, just because I'm gay and Everett likes some boys, doesn't mean we're—"
Everett interrupted Abram again. "I mean, there are some girls out there who—"
"D'artagnan," Paul snapped. "Shut up, or we'll run out of time. He needs to get in the locker now, or there won't be any time left in lunch by the time he gets out. We've only got fifteen minutes left, that's only two to spare." He turned back to Abram and said. "Now, keep up your end of the bargain. We all agreed to do this, and isn't the Musketqueer code important to you?"
"All for fun and fun for all?" Abram said. "You're really going to pull out that tired old phrase? This has never been 'fun' for me."
"Well, we all did it for your enjoyment," Cassandra said pointedly. "Turnabout is fair play, Aramis."
"Fuck it, fine," Abram said, opening his locker then turning back to face his three friends. "But this is the last time. We're even after I do this. I'm the youngest, so that means once I'm done we're all on equal footing, right? I'm calling veto once we're square."
Cassandra, Paul, and Everett shared a look before turning back to Abram. "We'll talk after you keep up your end of the bargain," Everett said, but then smiled and added, "You are soooo cute when you're put out."
Abram's erection sprang fully to life, and he turned away from them again, slipping out of his jacket. Then he turned back to them again and flipped them off before climbing backwards into his locker. He let the door close most of the way, but he refused to be in total darkness and left it open a crack.
Taking several calming breaths, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to forget he was trapped in a little box. As his body hit the metal of the locker, something moved near his ear, and another near his right arm. In the dim light left to him, they looked like little shadowy spiders.
Abram was done in an instant. "What the hell? Spiders! Holy fuck! God dammit!"
He tore out of the locker so quickly he ran into Cassandra and knocked her over, then went sprawling over her to land on the floor. When he climbed back to his feet, Paul was laughing next to a grinning Everett, and Abram wanted to punch them both.
"Relax, dude, they're not real. See?" Paul said, reaching into the locker and pulling one of the spiders from the wall. Now that Abram could see it in the light, it was obviously mechanical and not the least bit frightening. "They're these cool little robots I found which move in response to nearby vibrations."
"Fuck you, Paul," Abram growled. "You know I hate spiders."
"And you know I hate blue teeth," Paul replied with a twitch. "I told you I'd get you back."
Abram shook his head and replied angrily, "This is seriously the stupidest birthday celebration ever."
Paul rolled his eyes and said, "You didn't even finish your time."
"What the fuck did you say?" Abram said, stepping forward and pushing Paul with both hands with enough strength to send him falling backwards. Abram stepped after him, intending to shout all his grievances down at his friend, but a hand on his shoulder held him back.
"Whoa, Abram, calm down . . ." Cassandra said, but Abram reacted reflexively and threw her hand off him, pushing her back against the lockers in the same movement.
"Stay off me, Cass!" Abram said, glaring at her shocked face as he turned back to Paul. He caught a shift of movement out of the corner of his eye and thought Paul was coming up to attack him back and pushed out with his hand defensively as he turned.
"Abram!" Everett shouted as Abram's palm collided with his face.
"Oh fuck, Everett . . . I'm so sorry!" Abram said, covering his mouth with both of his hands as he finally took a moment to get his emotions under control. He looked at all his friends and saw the pain in their eyes and instantly regretted his actions. Everett shook his head and stepped away from him, gingerly touching his nose and inspecting it for blood. Paul remained on the floor, a look of absolute disgust on his face. Cassandra avoided his gaze entirely.
"Break it up! Everyone needs to calm down!" a voice said from the crowd who'd stopped to watch them at the first hint of a scuffle. Mrs. Forrest, one of the seventh grade English teachers, stepped around the students until she stopped to help Paul to his feet.
"Sorry, Mrs. Forrest," Abram said.
Mrs. Forrest's eyes narrowed as she said, "You know fighting is not allowed."
"Yes, ma'am. Things just got a little out of hand," Cassandra offered.
"I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough. We're going down to the Ms. Jensen's office right now," Mrs. Forrest replied.
A chorus of voices answered, "Yes, Mrs. Forrest."
None of the four friends spoke as they followed Mrs. Forrest down the hall, but murmurs followed them for the first minute until they were out of range of anyone who'd witnessed the short scuffle. Abram hated being the center of attention almost as much as he hated tight spaces and spiders, but even Everett who liked the spotlight didn't look very comfortable now.
Neither did his other two friends, and Abram wanted to crawl into a hole and die. A nice, big, open hole with lots of space. Somewhere he could breathe and forget this ever happened. By the time they made it to Ms. Jensen's office, he was feeling more contrite than ever.
As soon as Mrs. Forrest set them down in the row of chairs in the main office and left to speak to Ms. Jensen, Abram broke the silence. "I'm sorry I got all of you into this . . . it's my fault."
"Sort of. I shouldn't have put those spiders in there," Paul admitted.
"It's okay," Abram replied with as much sincerity as he could muster. "I actually think they're pretty cool now that I've had a chance to calm down. Where the hell did you find those?"
"Cool Nifty Robo Gadgets dot com," Paul said. "The site looks really fishy, though, but I couldn't resist, and I had Uncle Jerry's credit card because he asked me to go buy him some candy . . ."
"He was stoned again?" Abram asked.
"Yeah . . ." Paul sighed.
"Well, this is definitely both of your faults, and not mine at all. I don't even know why I'm here. You pushed me and—" Cassandra said testily until Paul's snort interrupted her.
"And you coerced him into that locker," Paul said. "We're all complicit, Athos."
"I guess you're right," Cassandra said with a sigh. "I'm sorry, Abram."
"I for one am in the clear," Everett said. Abram turned to see his smirk and caught him rubbing his cheek at the same time.
"Everett!" Paul said scandalized.
"By that I mean, I may have convinced you to go in the locker, but I'm pretty sure punching me in the face balances things out. I'm good to call us even, if you are," Everett said, flashing Abram a disarming smile.
Abram returned it without hesitation. "Definitely."
Mrs. Forrest and Ms. Jensen stepped out from the principal's office. The former left the main office with a wave and the latter greeted them with a tight smile. "Good afternoon, kids. If you'll follow me into my office, please?"
Four solemn heads nodded in agreement and they rose from their seats to follow Ms. Jensen back. As soon as the door was closed, Ms. Jensen gestured for the students to sit and then took her own seat on the other side of her desk. "I understand you four were caught fighting in the halls by Mrs. Forrest?"
"Yes, Ms. Jensen," Cassandra said, "but it isn't what it looks like."
"It looks like four of my best students let one of their pranks get out of hand. Again," Ms. Jensen said with a slightly amused expression. "Because I can't think of any other reason why you four of all people would be fighting."
"That's exactly what happened, Ms. Jensen," Everett said. "We're sorry."
Ms. Jensen nodded and sighed. "Well, unfortunately, the rules are very clear on this. I'm going to have to suspend all four of you for one day. There is a zero-tolerance policy on this matter, after all. We're going to call your parents, too. But . . . I'll explain it was a misunderstanding and hope they won't go too hard on you."
She adjusted a paper on her desk and reached toward the cup which held her pens, a cup which was currently empty of everything but a yellow highlighter. Frowning, Ms. Jensen opened several drawers on her desk in search of elusive writing implements.
"Are you looking for a pen, Ms. Jensen?" Cassandra asked, reaching to her breast pocket to offer a black capped pen to Ms. Jensen.
Abram, Paul, and Everett spoke up in unison as they saw Ms. Jensen reach for the pen. "No!"
"Relax, guys, it's not full of confetti," Cassandra said. "I didn't bring one of those today."
Ms. Jensen took the pen with a raised eyebrow and nodded her thanks, then pulled the cap from the pen. A light pop filled the air and glitter and confetti showered over Ms. Jensen's head, chest, and arms.
"Shit!" Cassandra said, covering her mouth. "I guess that one was full of confetti . . ."
Abram's parents were lenient, and only grounded him for one of the three days he had off school. Cassandra had it bad, since she was personally responsible for getting the two extra days tacked onto their sentence, and she'd received two weeks of nothing but school and home. Paul would be gone for a week, leaving just Everett and Abram to hang out, as Everett managed to talk his way out of being grounded for any of it. Since his other friends were being punished, however, he didn't have much to do until Abram was free.
"So, three days of suspension thanks to Athos . . ." Everett said, chuckling as he sat down on the edge of Abram's bed, swinging his backpack into his lap, "but at least this will be an interesting story to tell our grandkids someday."
"Our grandkids?" Abram asked. "Yours and mine separately, or together?"
"Do you ever think about anything other than you and me being together?" Everett asked, grinning.
Abram shook his head. "Nope. We're thirteen. According to my parents, it's common to think about that."
"I admit, I've always admired your honesty," Everett replied.
"I'm really sorry we forced you into that locker," Everett said, for once dropping his smile as his eyes grew serious. "In hindsight, that was messed up. I mean, if other kids did that to one of us, we'd consider that bullying, wouldn't we? And the rest of us would prank that bully until we were convinced they'd never do it to another kid again."
"Does that mean you're okay with ending the tradition?" Abram asked hopefully.
"Definitely," Everett said. "And, I brought you something. I had to get Kenneth from my biology class to get it out of my locker for me. I meant to give it to you at school but since we haven't been allowed back . . ." He opened his backpack and pulled out a wrapped present, handing it to Abram.
Abram excitedly ripped open the packaging and opened the plain box inside, then stared at Everett in confusion. "A bath mat and towels?" he asked, lifting one of the white cloths from the box.
Everett grinned and said, "Watch."
He took one of the towels from the box and walked into Abram's bathroom, waving for Abram to follow him. Skeptical, Abram stepped through the door as Everett held the towel under the faucet and turned it on. The cloth immediately turned blood red where the water hit it.
"No fucking way! That is so cool!" Abram said, stepping up to inspect the cloth. "And the bathmat does that, too?"
Everett nodded and said, "I know you love color." He grinned but also twitched nervously as he added, "I like color, too."
"This is seriously one of the coolest gifts I've ever received," Abram said, reaching out to offer a hug to his friend. Everett let him in and they embraced as Abram said quietly, "Thanks, D'artagnan."
"You're welcome, Aramis," Everett said, then his voice caught in his throat for a moment as he said quietly. "I've got one more thing for you."
Abram pulled back to look at him in confusion, but before he got the chance, Everett pressed their lips together in a quick but electric kiss. Abram's whole body seemed to vibrate from the brief contact, and his knees grew weak.
"Wow . . ." he whispered, meeting Everett's questioning eyes. "That was . . . unexpected and amazing."
"I think you're the most colorful person I know," Everett said with surprising confidence, "and I'd like to see more of it. Please don't think this means I'm gay—I don't know what I am, but I'm hoping we can find out together."
"You mean it, Everett?" Abram asked hopefully.
Everett's eyes danced and took Abram along for the ride. "Can I kiss you again to prove it?"
Everett turned on the camera, smirking at the flashing red light. This would be one of his most interesting videos, and to be somewhat difficult for him as well. But, some unseen force compelled him to talk about it with someone, and at least he didn't know anyone personally on YouTube. His closest friends already knew, but that was part of the problem.
"Hey, everyone, I know it's been a long time since my last video. I wasn't trying to neglect you, I promise." He smiled at the camera and leaned back in the chair, crossing his hands over his lap, index fingers tapping together. He'd rehearsed this several times, but facing the moment now gave him jitters.
"You see, I've been kind of busy. The spring diving season just started a few weeks ago, and before that, well . . . I've been seeing someone. You've heard me mention them before, but . . ." He trailed off with a growl and clicked off his camera, immediately deleting the footage. Why did this have to be so difficult? Couldn't he just commit to this?
He sighed, swiping open his phone to stare at the new background image of five young men in pink swimsuits, including himself and one of his closest friends, known both as Abram and Aramis. How he managed to convince Abram to join their independent diving team had been one mystery but getting him to pose for that picture had been quite another. Either way, Everett was glad he had access to it, and knew Abram had a matching copy on his desk at home. But what did the strange feelings toward the boy holding the stuffed pig mean?
He had to talk this out, and, strange as it seemed to some people, the camera helped. He turned it back on and spoke to his future audience again. "What I need to say takes me back to the time I got suspended recently, so I'm going to start there. Trust me, it's about to get good."
"You don't have the guts to challenge me, Everett," Cassandra said, poking Everett hard in the chest. He took a step back from the force, glancing at Abram making his purchases at the convenience store counter. He'd have no support for a minute at least, as Abram had noticed the chips in front and would take this time to select one.
"Is that a fact?" Everett asked. "You really think you can out swim me and my friends? You know we're on the local aquatics team, right?"
Cassandra scoffed. "Yes, but as I recall, your event is diving, and the rest of your teammates are only on there because they're your friends. Five boys who have never swam professionally in their life . . . Beating you would be a cinch. Your facility is a joke compared to the aquatic center in Binghamton. I've seen you dive, and it's not even impressive."
"Just because you go to a fancy swimming pool doesn't mean you can swim any better than anyone else, Athos," Everett replied. "Let's make this interesting. Just you and me, head to head, freestyle, 100 meters."
"You're on," Cassandra said.
Abram joined them, carrying a bag of chips and a large piece of beef jerky he'd just bought from the convenience store next to them. He opened the bag and took a chip, oblivious to the tension in the air between Cassandra and Everett until he offered the open bag in their direction. Glancing between them, he sighed and asked, "Okay, what set you off now?"
"D'artagnan seems to think he can beat me in swimming," Cassandra replied, "And now there's a specific challenge. We need to bet something on it. Any ideas, Aramis?"
Abram sighed heavily. "Really, again? Can't you two stop competing? Can't we just enjoy that we're all free from being grounded after the suspension fiasco? It took nearly six weeks for Paul's parents to finally come around and let him out on a Sunday. Come on, have a chip. It's a new flavor, a combination of Salt and Vinegar and pizza."
"That sounds revolting," Everett said. "Have you already had one?"
Abram nodded. "Yep. It's pretty good, you should really try—"
Everett cut him off with a kiss, tasting the flavor on Abram's tongue. He came away scrunching up his nose. "Nope, not even tasting you makes that worthwhile. I might not even be able to kiss you again until you brush your teeth. Did you at least buy any gum?"
Abram shook his head. Everett sighed and said, "I guess I'll go buy some before we leave."
"You two are cute, but this isn't over, you know," Cassandra said. "We're going to find something to bet on this competition."
"What competition?" Paul asked, dismounting his bike as he pulled up next to them. "Don't tell me, Athos and D'artagnan again?" he looked at Abram for confirmation.
"Yep," Abram said. "Some swimming thing."
"I wish they'd let me on the boy's team," Paul said. "Apparently as long as I have breasts, they have issues."
"Maybe someday it won't be so bad," Cassandra suggested. "I'm not trying to be insensitive, but would you really want to wear your binder in the water, or not be able to use it?"
Paul nodded. "You have a point, of course, but we all know what I prefer is to not have the breasts at all. While I'm at it, I'd like to get rid of all the excess fat on my body. I feel like such a pig sometimes."
"I know what you mean," Abram said, eyeing the bag of chips in his hand. "I eat all this junk food, and I just can't seem to stop myself."
"That's it!" Cassandra said excitedly.
"What's it?" Everett said, eyes narrowing. "Is the bet going to have something to do with junk food now?"
"No, silly," Cassandra replied, "whoever loses the competition has to spend the whole day dressed as a pig."
Everett rolled his eyes. "Really, that's the best you could come up with?"
Cassandra folded her arms and said, "Fine, suggest something better."
"Come on, Everett, just accept the terms, please?" Abram grasped Everett's arm and stared into his eyes pleadingly. "We all got together today so we could go see a movie, and if you to keep arguing, we're going to miss the previews. You know how much I hate missing previews."
"Yeah, Dart," Paul said. "It's bad enough you two are even fighting."
Everett sighed and extended his hand to Cassandra. "Fine, whoever loses has to spend the entire day dressed as a pig."
Cassandra shook his hand. "Next Saturday, at your swimming pool. I don't need some fancy aquatic center to beat you."
"I guess we'll see, won't we?"
Everett stared at the camera in silence for a moment. He'd have to edit this part out later, the awkward silences never sat well with his audience. As much as he preferred his speech to be more natural, he hated the time he spent in the comment section reading people's complaints about the way he spoke. He was 100% certain what part he should say next, but the picture on his phone gave him an idea.
"So that's what led to the competition," he explained, swiping to the picture of him and his swimming buddies. He held it in front of the camera. "I'll add this to the video later, but just in case I forget, this is the day of the competition. Now, you're probably wondering why we were already dressed as pigs and why my friends decided to join me."
"Well, first you have to understand that it's all Abram's fault," Everett said fondly, pulling the picture back and looking at it again. "Both the good and the bad in this case, and I couldn't ask for a better swimming mate. But, do you know what I just noticed?"
He held the picture up again and pointed at himself in it. "You can't even tell that I'm Asian in this picture, can you?" He laughed and set the picture aside, then stared back at the camera.
"So, that entire week was spent with Cassandra and I always at each other's throats, with Abram and Paul playing peacemakers, of course. But what really mattered was Friday night."
On the Friday before the competition, Everett walked to Abram's house after school. He had stayed an hour later to work on a group project for his science class, but Abram had suggested they could stay in and watch a movie or play video games all night. Abram's parents would be gone for most of the evening. They still didn't know that he and Everett were dating, and before Everett knew it, Abram had invited him for a sleepover.
The prospects of what they might do excited Everett, though he doubted they'd attempt anything their parents would disapprove of. Their relationship was still new, and at thirteen, no matter how horny he was, the thought of anything sexual with Abram made him more nervous than anything.
By the time he made it to Abram's house the dirty thoughts and the warm Spring weather had made him sweat in his thick hoodie. He knocked on the door, urging Abram to hurry so he could shed the extra layer. When Abram arrived, they exchanged pleasantries and a quick peck on the lips before walking upstairs to Abram's room.
"What would you like to do first?" Abram asked after Everett settled onto his bed.
"I feel all sweaty. I need a shower," Everett said. "Could I maybe do that before we play anything?"
"I usually shower in the morning," Abram said.
"I don't. I like to shower before bed," Everett replied. "Or anytime I feel sweaty. I like the water."
"Well, you can use my bathroom, if you want."
Everett nodded in appreciation. "Cool." He wiggled his eyebrows at Abram and stripped out of his shirt, tossing it onto Abram's bed. Since they often swam together, seeing each other shirtless was common enough, but this was different. Everett wanted Abram to see him this way, and that desire transcended the action beyond the mundane. Abram blushed and looked away, then immediately looked back, his eyes lingering on Everett's back as he fished through his backpack for his extra clothes and set them aside. He pulled out a towel next and headed to the bathroom attached to Abram's room.
After hanging the towel from an available hook, Everett slid the shower curtain open and turned on the water. As he reached in to test the water temperature, some of the water ran down his arm and dripped onto the white bathmat beneath his feet. He grinned as the water droplets changed the color of the mat to a bright red.
"Dude!" He shouted.
Abram shuffled up against the door and asked, "Yeah?"
"This mat is so awesome!" Everett said. "It got a little spray on it from the shower, and it looks like it's splattered with blood!"
"I know, right?" Abram chuckled. "Thanks for getting it for me."
"Anything for you," Everett replied, glowing at the response. Whether from the heat of the water or the praise, his body grew between his legs as well. He needed to get in the shower and take care of his erection before it grew too out of control.
He stripped off the rest of his clothes and stepped into the shower, closing the opaque curtain after him. The quickly warming water relaxed most of him immediately, though as soon as the moisture hit him, he reached down to take care of the only tension remaining. The thought of Abram on the other side of the wall made him horny as hell.
Nearly a minute into his stroking, he'd established a good rhythm and was approaching his climax when he heard a knock on the bathroom door. "Hey, I n . . . pee . . . good?" Abram mumbled through the door.
"I can't hear you!" Everett called out, pausing in his ministration. "What's that?"
The door cracked open slightly and Abram shouted over the water. "I said, I need to pee, can I come in?"
"Uh, yeah . . . sure," Everett said, letting go of his shaft.
"Thanks," Abram said, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. "I know I could've just gone down the hall, but . . ."
"Yeah, it's not a problem," Everett replied. He waited until he heard Abram start to urinate and then reached for the soap to clean himself until Abram left. He couldn't jack off while Abram was in the room, although the thought only magnified his desire for stimulation. Once the toilet flushed, Everett listened intently for the sound of Abram leaving, and resumed stroking as soon as a door opened and closed.
He finished sometime later, grunting and panting as a single cry of ecstasy echoed through the bathroom over the running water. He collapsed against the wall, spent, his knees weak. He rinsed off and turned off the water, then opened the curtain to reach for his towel. He immediately noticed Abram's flushed face from his position on the toilet. "Whoa . . ." Everett started, reaching for the shower curtain while still leaning forward for the towel. "what are you . . ." he continued, then lost his balance, his feet sliding out from under him. He tried to get planted but ended up collapsing awkwardly on top of his ankle, pain shooting through his leg as he pulled the shower curtain down on top of him, ripping the adjustable curtain-rod from the wall. "Ow!"
"Jesus! Are you okay?" Abram wiped his ass and flushed while Everett sat in a dazed heap at the bottom of the shower.
"I'm not sure . . . I . . . what are you still doing in here?" Everett asked, trying to rearrange his tangled limbs to find a more comfortable position to stand from. His ankle throbbed every second it lay pinned beneath him.
Abram washed his hands, then came over to Everett. He extended a hand to his boyfriend and said, "I ended up needing to do a number two, but then I realized I was out of toilet paper, so I got some from the supply closet, and that took longer so I'm . . ." he paused when Everett took his hand, and the shower curtain fell away between them and he got an eyeful of Everett below the waist. He looked away and ended up dropping Everett in the process.
"Dammit, Abram!" Everett shouted. "Help me up!"
"I'm sorry, I thought you, I didn't want to . . ." Abram stammered. "I mean, I wanted to, but . . ."
"I might have sprained or twisted my ankle or something in the fall. I know it's awkward, but . . . just hand me a towel?" Everett suggested through gritted teeth.
Abram nodded and took Everett's towel from the hook. "Yeah . . . here."
"Thanks." Everett said, drying off his arms for better grip before sliding the towel beneath him and tying it around his waist as well as he could manage in his current position. "Now, give me a hand, please?"
Abram managed to pull Everett up the second time and supported him out of the bathroom until setting him on the bed. As soon as Everett was settled, Abram blushed and said awkwardly, "Were you . . . jacking off in there?"
Everett paled. "You heard that . . .?"
"I . . ." Abram sighed. "God dammit, I don't know what to say."
Everett groaned, but managed to push his embarrassment aside long enough to address the situation rationally. "Well, it's embarrassing, but since we're dating, we should probably have the conversation at some point." He shrugged and continued, "Yeah, I was jacking off in there, and yes, I was thinking about you, and now that I know you heard me, I'm getting another boner. I'm throbbing in two places, and one feels much better than the other."
"How can you talk about that so easily?" Abram asked.
Everett smirked. "Dude . . . I'm on YouTube. Conversations like these are easy to talk about once you've faced the comment section."
"Yeah . . ." Everett said, slowly losing confidence. "Um . . . so, I need to dry off and get my clothes back on. Could I stay on your bed for that?"
"Sure. I, uh . . . I guess so."
"I'm just asking, because I'm wet, you know?"
"Yeah, I get it," Abram said, shifting uncomfortably. "Do you want me to bring you your clothes?"
"Sure," Everett replied. "That would be great. Thank you."
Abram fetched the clothes Everett had set aside earlier. "Here. Um . . . I know you said you're comfortable with things, but . . ." He glanced subconsciously down at the tenting beneath the towel.
"Oh." Everett chuckled. "I was actually just about to ask you for privacy. Helping me up was one thing, but I don't think I'm quite ready for . . . well, to give you a private show in your bedroom. We'll restrict it to audio performances only for now." He grinned, hoping the lightness would lessen Abram's embarrassment.
"Yeah, I don't think I'm ready for that, either," Abram replied, laughing. He grew quiet and added, "Even though I would like it. Sometime. You know?"
"I do." Everett nodded. "And I want to . . . sometime. I mean . . . the nudity itself doesn't bother me. We've changed in front of each other loads of times for swimming, but . . . it's the fact that we're in your bedroom."
"Totally get it," Abram said, then clamped his hand over his mouth. His eyes widened as he added, "Shit, the swimming thing!"
"God dammit!" Everett said. "I didn't even think about that! Cass is gonna kick my ass with my ankle in this condition!"
"Maybe we could get her to change the date?" Abram suggested.
"Are you kidding me?" Everett replied. "You realize who you're talking about, right? Bets are an honored tradition for Cassandra."
"You're right. She would just declare herself winner if you didn't race." Abram sighed. "We've lost already."
"Guess I better get used to being a pig on crutches, huh?"
"Get dressed. My grandpa's old cane is here somewhere. I'll go look for that while you're . . ." Abram glanced down at Everett's crotch again. ". . . Up here. Also, I think I have an idea about how to save face."
"Don't worry about it," Abram replied confidently. "Leave this all up to me."
Everett stared at the camera again and immediately blushed. "Note to self, delete the part about me jacking off . . . that does not belong on YouTube. Probably shouldn't mention the conversation about sex and nudity with Abram, either. While you're at it . . ." he sighed. "Delete everything between the challenge and this. I'll sum it all up."
"Unfortunately, I sprained my ankle the day before the competition. It happened because Abram surprised me, and I slipped. That meant I had no chance of winning the competition, and so Abram told me he had a plan. He was an amazing caretaker all night, getting me ice for my ankle and helping me get to and from places, but he wouldn't tell me what the plan was. He said, 'I want to make sure it works, first'. So, Friday night passed and Saturday morning I went to the doctor with my mother as Abram disappeared."
Everett wanted to pace the floor next to the swimming pool, but the effort of getting up on his crutches dissuaded any chance of that. Instead, he sat on one of the benches along the wall, watching the other swimmers enjoy themselves. The two swimming lanes remained open, and he'd already spoken with the lifeguards about making sure he'd have access soon. The impromptu competition would begin in a half hour. Though Everett had received strict instructions not to participate, without Abram to stop him, he'd have to do something to satisfy Cassandra. She hadn't arrived yet, thankfully, but he hoped Abram would show up first.
And then Abram arrived, two shopping bags in hand, one more heavily laden than the other. He grinned at Everett and asked, "How's your ankle?"
"How's my . . . where the hell have you been, Abram?" Everett asked. "After you dropped me off at my house this morning, you haven't answered any texts."
"I left my phone in the car. I still can't find it," Abram replied, shrugging as if it didn't matter.
Everett sighed. "Okay, I'll answer your question first, but then you have to tell me what's going on."
"I intend to," Abram said. "Why wouldn't I?"
Everett rolled his eyes. "The doctor says it's a sprain, but a mild one. I should feel better pretty soon. Not soon enough, of course."
"Well, I thought we could address that," Abram said. "I'll race for you."
Everett scoffed. "I don't know if Cass will be okay with that."
"She will if we've already admitted we lost," Abram said, handing the larger bag to Everett. "Here."
"What's this?" Everett asked, taking the bag and looking inside. He had to dig around before he realized what he was looking at.
"Are Brad, Keith, and Jason here already?" Abram asked, looking around the pool for their other swimming friends. "I bought one for each of them, too. Had to go all the way to Binghamton with Mom."
"Pink swimming briefs?" Everett asked, raising an eyebrow. "What is this for?"
"Try the other bag, and you'll understand," Abram said, handing over the second bag.
Everett reached into the bag and pulled out a pig-snout mask. Everything clicked together as he grinned at Abram. "Oh . . . man, you are crazy. But . . . I guess it's only fair, huh?"
"The other options are to argue with Cass to try and get her to change the date, or to simply not race, which she'd take as chickening out," Abram said. "We both know that's not an option.
"You're right," Everett said. "So, why'd you buy some for all of us?"
"I figured . . ." Abram shifted uncomfortably. "I didn't think you'd want to do it by yourself. I was going to see if I could convince the rest of the team, too."
Everett set the bags aside and opened his arms, inviting Abram into a hug. He kissed his boyfriend on the cheek and said, "You're amazing. Thank you."
Abram returned the affection in kind and then gathered up Everett's crutches. "Come on. Let's go get changed."
They found their teammates on the way to the locker room. It didn't take long to convince them to join in on the fun. All three were good guys who enjoyed a laugh, and since they would do it as a team, no one minded. Within a few minutes, all five of them were dressed in pink swimming briefs and pig snouts and wore them proudly.
When they came out of the locker room, Cassandra and Paul were standing just outside, looking for them. Cassandra was already dressed in her simple blue racing suit, and Paul was still dressed for winter. Everett and Abram approached, with the former lagging behind on his crutches as Cassandra addressed Abram. "Why are you guys dressed like that?"
"Everett injured himself yesterday, and won't be able to race," Abram said. "I'll be taking his place. Since that violates the original terms, we thought we'd just admit defeat now."
"I would've let you reschedule," Cassandra said. "Why didn't you say something?"
"You?" Abram asked.
Cassandra snorted, looking at Everett. "Yes. I'm not heartless, you know."
"You literally signed everyone's yearbooks with 'heartless bitch' last year," Paul said.
"You have a point, I guess," Cassandra sighed. "Well, I still want to race you, D'artagnan. The whole point was for us to compete."
"Can it just be a friendly competition next time?" Abram suggested, looking to Paul for support.
Cassandra and Everett shared a look. "Sure," she said.
"Promise us," Paul said.
"I promise," Cassandra sighed, then tweaked Everett's snout. "But, you look good in pink. You both do."
"Thanks. Shall we?" Abram asked, gesturing toward the open lanes.
"Let's do it, Aramis," Cassandra said. "I look forward to beating you, too."
Abram sighed and removed the pig snout. "Paul, hold my nose?"
Paul nodded and took it from him. "You got it, dude."
Cassandra and Abram lined up on the blocks to begin the race, and Paul stood ready with a stop watch. The race would end where it began, with both swimmers crossing the pool and returning to the blocks twice. Everett moved into the nearby bleachers to get a good view of the race, while his swimming buddies waited near the block.
Paul started the race with a loud shout and the competitors dove into the water. They surfaced some distance out, and to everyone's surprise, Abram took an early lead. He swam his hardest with Cassandra trailing behind, getting farther back by the second. Everett had seen her swim before. There should've been no contest between her and Abram; she should've beaten him easily.
But Abram's lead only widened, and he touched the block while Cassandra was still halfway back across the pool. Abram climbed out of the pool to the stunned yet excited shouting of their teammates, with Everett shouting loudest, hoping Abram could hear him from across the pool.
Cassandra climbed out of the pool, limping. She said something to Paul, who supported her over to a bench before opening a backpack there and handing something to her. The limp slowly fading, Cassandra made her way into the stands, a stuffed pig carried under her arm.
"D'artagnan," she said when she arrived, wincing from some unidentified pain. "Everett . . . I'm sorry to hear about your ankle. I hope we'll get a chance to race for real, soon. Aramis did you proud, though. He's not so bad, really."
"I know you let him win," Everett said, his eyes narrowing. "Why would you do that?"
"Actually, I got a leg cramp as soon as I hit the water," Cassandra said, chuckling. "First time it has ever happened to me, but I had to race anyway. Don't tell him, okay?"
"Sure," Everett replied, grinning. "While I do hope you're okay, does that mean you're going to have to dress up like a pig now?"
"Fuck no. My bet was with you," Cassandra replied. "But, I did want to make sure Abram had the grand prize." She handed the pig to Everett.
"He's going to love this!" Everett said, taking the pig and looking it over.
"Yeah . . . he deserves it too," Cassandra said. "You guys really are good together, you know?"
Everett raised an eyebrow. "We're thirteen. You're talking like we're some old couple."
"Nah . . . but who knows? You might get there someday," Cassandra said, shrugging. "I'm optimistic."
"You're never optimistic."
"So, you should listen and make sure you don't fuck this up," Cassandra said punching him lightly on the shoulder. "Thirteen isn't too young to know how you feel, but teenagers make a lot of mistakes, or so they tell me."
"Everyone. When I'm making mistakes." They shared a laugh, and Cassandra turned to leave.
"Cass?" Everett said, stopping her.
"I like competing with you, but I don't ever want you to think I'm angry at your or anything when we do," Everett said.
Cassandra smiled, nodding. "Likewise, D'artagnan."
She passed Abram on his way into the stands, giving him a quick hug and a whisper of congratulations before letting him go. He thanked her and then proceeded to join Everett. "Hey, the guys want to take a picture," he said. "Come join us!"
"Of course," Everett said, handing the pig to Abram before rising onto his crutches. "This is for you."
"This is so cute!" Abram said. "I love it."
"I knew you would," Everett said. "Let's go. But then you'll support me in the picture, so I don't have to have my crutches, right?"
"You go it," Abram replied.
They met their teammates halfway, and Paul handed Abram the pig snout. Abram slipped it on and said, "Do you want to be in the picture with us, Paul?"
"No, but I'll take it for you," he said. "Whose phone am I using?"
"Thanks, Paul," Everett said. "We can grab mine when I'm setting my crutches down on the bench."
The team situated themselves at the edge of the pool. The other boys all wanted the picture on their phones, too, so several of the nearby swimmers volunteered to help. As they prepared for the first round of pictures, Everett leaned into Abram and said, "Abram?"
"I love you," Everett whispered as the order to smile rose up from the amateur photographers.
"What?" Abram asked.
Everett grinned at the camera, his cheeks coloring as he remembered the moment. "So . . . maybe I don't know anything at thirteen? I like to think my friends and I are a bit more mature than others our age. Maybe not in all ways, considering the pranks and other things we do . . . but . . . I do think I know what love is, and this is it. At least a form of it."
"Maybe you're wondering if he said it back?" he asked. "Well, I'm not even sure he heard me, to tell you the truth. But that doesn't matter right now. It'll take me awhile to work up the courage to say it again unless he surprises me with it. Whether he answers or not doesn't change what I'm feeling."
"And that's why I'm making this video," Everett continued, "because I'm sick of denying things to myself. I'm bisexual, in love with Abram, and I don't know squat about the way the world works. This is my coming out video, official and uncontestable. I just want you to know, if you're struggling with identity, or sexuality, you've got a friend in me, and I'll always listen if you need."
"Peace, friends. Catch you next time," he reached up to click off the camera. As the red light faded, his phone vibrated loudly on his desk.
After reading the caller ID he answered it in surprise. "Abram? It's nearly midnight, what are you—"
"I love you too," Abram said in a rush.
Everett grinned, soaking in urgency of those words. "You heard me."
"Yeah . . . I'm sorry I didn't say anything right away," Abram said.
"It's okay," Everett replied softly, then continued more seriously. "Um . . . listen, I want to be open about our relationship. Do you think we could tell our parents?" All he heard was Abram's breathing for several seconds on the other end. "Abram?"
"Sorry, I . . ." Abram took a deep breath, "that's scary, but something I want, too. We haven't really done any sneaking around or anything, but . . . I would prefer to kiss you without having to hide. Let's do it."
Everett blushed and replied, "Maybe it's corny to say it again, but I love you."
"And I love you."
"Oh my god, we're so sappy!" Everett said, burying his face in his hands.
"Don't rub it in . . ." Abram said. "Although, someday, I wouldn't mind if you rubbed it in."
Everett's erection immediately sprang to life. "If you keep talking, we're going to have a repeat of the shower incident."
Abram hesitated for just a moment before saying, " . . . I'm game if you are."
"Is that a challenge?" Everett asked in surprise.
"No, it's an invitation," Abram said sweetly.