"So, when do I get to see him?" Britney asked, lightly jabbing her brother Casey in the side with her elbow.
"See who?" Casey asked, raising one eyebrow. He shook his head in confusion, which made his unbrushed brown hair fall in front of his eyes. He sighed and picked up the brush, carefully working it through his tangled mess of bed head as he stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Britney started tickling Casey until he moved out of the way. Now that she had access to the sink, she picked up her toothbrush and added a small drop of toothpaste as she said, "You know exactly what I'm talking about. Tara said you're all gooey over some guy you saw yesterday."
"Tara should keep her mouth shut," Casey replied, sticking his tongue out at his sister. "Why do you care, anyway? And why are you talking to my friends?"
Britney paused with the toothbrush an inch away from her lips, then lowered it and grinned at Casey. "Well, well, aren't we defensive today? For your information, I eavesdropped on your conversation with Tara yesterday, as a good big sister should. And I care, because I want to help you get a boyfriend, also like a good big sister should."
She started brushing then, keeping her gaze weirdly locked onto Casey's face. Casey shook his head in disgust and tried to leave the room, but Britney stepped in his path, still brushing vigorously. "Let me leave. I have to get ready."
Britney spat in the sink and quickly rinsed before responding. "You're not getting off that easily. This is the first guy I've heard about you liking in over a year. You're not gonna be young forever, and you should date someone while you're still in high school."
"It's not like that," Casey replied. "I don't want to date anyone. It's too complicated, and I don't care enough to work through the complications."
"Why? Because dad would never approve? It's not like he has to know you're dating a guy," Britney replied, crossing her arms over her chest. "What aren't you telling me?"
"Dad definitely wouldn't approve," Casey said. "But that's not it; not in this case, anyway. You really wouldn't get it, and I think I actually prefer it that way."
Britney's expression turned reproachful. "Really? I try to support you, and this is the thanks I get?"
Casey's eyes widened and he shook his head, chuckling softly. "Yeah, really supportive of you to demand an answer to a question I clearly don't want to answer. Isn't consent and respect something people are supposed to care about these days?"
Britney's expression softened, and she sighed as she stepped to the side, allowing Casey to pass. "You're right, and I'm sorry. If you don't want to talk about it, it's your business, and I won't intrude anymore."
Casey didn't move. "That's it? No guilt trips?"
Britney shook her head. "No guilt trips. I promise, as much as I was teasing, I genuinely want to support you and nothing more. If supporting you means staying out of it, then that's what I'll do. No more questions unless you decide you want to talk about it."
Pursing his lips in thought, Casey started moving again, past Britney and out of the bathroom. He turned around after exiting the doorway and said, "Do you have any plans today?"
"It's a Saturday, of course I have plans," Britney said. "I have plans to do nothing… unless one of my friends says that they want my company."
"How about we do breakfast, or brunch if you'd rather shower first," Casey said. "Down at the café on second?"
"Would that be Café Perk Me Up?" Britney asked. "I mean, a small town like this, you could really just call it 'the café'. It's not like we're drowning in cafés here in Sanitaria Springs."
Casey rolled his eyes and said, "That may be true, but do you want to go or not?"
"What's the occasion?" Britney asked.
"One of your friends wants your company," Casey said. "That friend is me."
"If I drive, you'll pay?" Britney replied.
Casey grinned. "Sounds fair, but impossible. You're the one with the driver's license, and the job."
"You're sixteen now; you should be thinking about getting both," Britney said, returning Casey's grin. "But don't worry, I'll get you today. Been a long time since we've hung out, and that's totally worth the cost."
"In that case, I'll give you more details about the one I'm 'all gooey over' when we're at the café," Casey replied, his eyes brightening with excitement.
"Oh? Does he work there?" Britney asked.
Casey shook his head. "No, but he's near the café. I'll show him to you, and you'll see exactly why I fell in love with him the moment I saw him."
"Okay, so that's one soy latte with caramel and a bacon, egg, and cheese croissant sandwich for you," the young barista said, setting the drink and sandwich in front of Britney. His green eyes caught the light in a pleasant way, and his smile was warm and inviting. She read his name tag; Seth. The name suited him.
His smile widened as he turned toward Casey with his tray and removed the other drink and sandwich from it. "An iced coffee with whole milk, white chocolate, and raspberry, and a vegetarian breakfast sandwich for you. Did I get everything right? Anything you need me to change?"
Casey returned Seth's smile and said, "No, we're good, thank you."
"Is that him?" Britney asked when Seth left their table. "He's cute, so I can see why. I love dark hair with bright eyes."
"No, not Seth," Casey said, laughing. "He is cute but very unavailable. I'm pretty sure he is dating this other guy, Foster, who is also a junior. They're very cute together, though I think Seth is cuter than Foster."
"Is it the redhead behind the counter?" Britney asked.
"No, it's not Grayson either," Casey replied. "Remember, I said the one I'm interested in doesn't work here. If you want me to tell you about it, you're going to have to stop assuming every single cute guy is the object of my affection."
Britney raised her hands in surrender. "You're right, I'm sorry. But you better get with the details or I'm going to start asking more questions. This food looks really good by the way, I've never gotten any food here before," she picked up her sandwich and took a bite, chewing quickly, then swallowing. "This is delicious."
"I'm not a fan of sausage, bacon, or ham, so I always get the vegetarian one, but if you like the sausage, maybe I'll give it a try," Casey said, taking a sip of his coffee. "The coffee is the real reason to come here, anyway."
"I definitely agree with that," Britney replied. "Though I thought the reason we came here today is that we both like sausage." She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.
Casey laughed at that. "I told you, it's not about that. Besides, if they served that kind of sausage here, I think the health department would close them down."
"True enough," Britney said. "Serving that much man meat in a small town is definitely a health code violation somewhere, I'm sure."
"Unfortunately," Casey said with a sigh.
"You know, my coworkers at the car wash say there are a lot of LGBT people in this town, and the number only seems to be growing," Britney said. "I'm sure you'll find the right sausage for you eventually. Besides, there's always the guy you're into now."
"Again, it's not like that," Casey replied.
Britney rolled her eyes. "You keep saying that, but you've failed to explain what you mean. I'd love some clarification; is that ever going to happen?"
"All right, I'll start explaining," Casey said. "But first, I'm going to take a bite of this, so you'll have to wait just a few more seconds." He lifted his sandwich and tore off a sizeable chunk, chewed quickly, then swallowed with a satisfied hum. "I'm so glad we came here."
"Me too, now talk," Britney replied.
"You won't believe the way he moves," Casey began, his eyes growing distant as he thought about the one he loved. "He has so much energy, it's amazing how he can fit so much in such a small body. He has this little wiggle to his butt that's just… it's funny and cute and just perfect, and I can't get enough of it."
"That's adorable," Britney said, squealing softly. "Is that all?"
"No, there's more. I think he might like me too, but that's really a guess. He came over to me, and he was definitely happy to see me. But you never really know true feelings just from one meeting, right?" Casey said.
Britney shrugged. "You can get an idea."
"Yeah, I suppose. I mean, I know how I feel about him. I want him, that's for sure. I love him, even," Casey said, but then his face fell. "But it doesn't matter. Dad would never be okay with it."
"You don't know that. You haven't even come out to Dad, he might surprise you," Britney said.
Casey shook his head. "That's not the problem. Trust me. I mean, that might be a problem at some point, but not in this case."
"Well, it's not about race. Dad's not racist, and considering his first wife was Jewish, I'd say he doesn't care about someone being from a different religion, either," Britney said.
"Just… you'll find out soon enough," Casey said, frowning out the window. "We'll go see him, and then you'll understand."
Britney reached out and placed her hand over Casey's to bring his gaze back to hers. "Whatever it is, we'll figure something out. If he likes you too, then there's no reason not to try, right?"
"It's impossible, but yeah," Casey said, shrugging. His frown softened into a neutral expression and even became a slight smile after a moment.
"Let's finish our food, and then you can show me," Britney suggested.
"Sounds good. Hey, so whatever happened to that guy you dated a couple of times last month. Trent, Troy…" Casey trailed off, searching for the name.
"Trevor," Britney said, sighing. "Now there's a boy Dad would approve of, which is precisely what made him so boring. Choir boy with no personality except devotion to Jesus. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but just not for me. However, there's this other guy in my AP Chemistry class, we call him Hanson, even though his first name is Jeff or something… anyway, he started a band with a couple of freshmen and he's so hot… like, you wouldn't believe…"
"Okay, are you ready to meet Bucky?" Casey said as they rounded the corner a block south from the coffee shop.
"The man you liked is named Bucky?" Britney asked.
Casey grinned evilly and said, "I never said it was a man."
"Um… what are you talking about?" Britney stopped walking and stared at her brother. Casey took her hand and pulled her forward.
They stopped in front of Maw and Paw Pet Supply, and Casey pointed at a large, secure area just inside the large bay window. Four mixed-breed puppies rolled around and played with each other inside the area, all clearly having a good time.
An older, female dog—most likely their mother—rested in one corner of the area, watching her pups with a single eye while the other remained closed. She was exhausted but seemed well-cared for. As Casey crouched in front of the window, one of the puppies, small and black, trotted over to them excitedly, his tail and hind legs bobbing in an unusual way. He stumbled once, then rose up again and put his forepaws against the glass right in front of Casey.
"Hello, Bucky," Casey said gently. "How are you today?"
"All this time, you've been talking about a puppy?" Britney asked, trying to decide if she should be mad or not. The puppy was certainly adorable, and she could see the appeal, but she didn't like being tricked by her brother.
Casey nodded and said, "Well, once I figured out that I could pull this ruse on you and get a chance to come to see him again, I had to. Would you have brought me over here if I'd just said I wanted to see a puppy?"
Britney shrugged. "I don't know, maybe. Probably not though."
"Then I'm glad I tricked you," Casey said, grinning. "Let's go inside. The mother actually belongs to the shop owner, and they're giving these puppies away to good homes. Of course, Dad has a no pet policy, so it won't be our home, but I do like seeing them while they're here."
"I'm game. Lead the way," Britney said, gesturing toward the door.
Casey grinned and eagerly pulled the door open, then stepped inside with Britney right behind him. He made his way over to the puppies and crouched down, immediately cooing at them while Bucky and his siblings approached. "I missed you, buddy!"
"Didn't you see him just yesterday?" Britney asked.
"Yeah, but… you can still miss someone after such a short time," Casey replied. "I wish I could pick him up and play with him a bit, but I don't want him to bond with me when I can't take him home."
"That makes sense," Britney said. "I'm sorry. I wish things were different."
"Brit?" said a female voice from behind them.
Britney turned around to see one of her classmates, Abigail, standing behind the cash register. She waved Britney over to her. "Hey, I haven't seen Abby in a bit. Do you mind if I catch up with her?" Britney asked.
"Bucky and I will be fine," Casey said. "Thank you again for bringing me here."
"Have fun," Britney said, then moved to the counter to speak with Abigail.
"Hey, I never expected to see you here! How's it going and what can we do for you?" Abigail asked with a wide smile. "You don't really strike me as the pet kind of person."
"I'm not, but it's mainly because of my dad. He doesn't like having to take care of animals, though I wish it was different for Casey's sake," Britney replied.
Abigail nodded; her eyes drawn to Casey. "I've seen him around, but I didn't realize he was your brother. He really loves those puppies."
"How long have you worked here?" Britney asked.
"About two years, since halfway through senior year in high school. My uncle owns the place, so it's a nice, laid back job while I go to college, you know?"
"Really? What's it like?"
Abigail shrugged. "Mostly boring, but we're also one of few places in town that carries any pet supplies, so we get pretty much everyone in town in here from time to time. I get to see a lot of people, but not all at once, which means it's pretty low pressure." A loud thump sounded from the back end of the store, drawing Britney's attention. Two teenage boys stood next to a large box, one pointing at the other and laughing. "However, my cousin and brother can be a bit annoying at times," Abigail said, rolling her eyes. "Boys, is everything okay over there?"
"Yeah, I just dropped a box and Kev won't stop laughing at me," said one of the boys, who was probably either fifteen or sixteen, with short, dark hair and glasses. He glared at the other boy, who looked like a thirteen-year-old male version of Abigail, with thick red hair and freckles.
"Will you two come here and talk to me after you're done stocking the shelves?" Abigail asked.
"Yes, sis," the redhead replied with mock respect. Abigail rolled her eyes.
Britney grinned. "They seem like quite a handful."
"My brother, mainly," Abigail said, nodding at the red-haired one first. "The dark-haired one is my cousin, Ten."
"Ten? That's an unusual name."
"It's short for Tennyson," Abigail explained. "My aunt has a thing for British poets. His brother's names are Byron, Emerson, and Kipling."
Britney frowned in thought, then slowly asked, "Emerson was American, wasn't he?"
Abigail laughed and leaned forward to whisper, "It's a sore spot with my aunt. She thought Emerson was British until after the birth certificate was signed and she was explaining it to one of her friends."
"I see," Britney said. She was about to change the subject when another customer came in and asked about a dog collar. Britney stepped out of the way, which moved her farther into the store. As she neared the two boys, she overheard their quiet conversation.
"Hey, puppy boy is back," Kev said.
"Shut up, what if he hears you?" Ten replied.
"Then you could stop being such a pussy and ask him for his number," Kev said. "Don't act like you weren't all crazy after he was here yesterday. You kept daydreaming and sticking me with the work. I had to sweep up everywhere after you because you didn't do it right."
"Would you just shut it!" Ten hissed. "Just because I like the way a guy looks it doesn't mean I'm in love with him."
"You wouldn't shut up about him yesterday," Kev replied. He continued in a mocking tone, "He's so cute! I love the way he was playing with the puppies. And he has that adorable smile, and those eyes, and—" the words became muffled as Ten clamped his hand over Kev's mouth.
"I'm not going to warn you again, Kevin," Ten growled. "If you keep this going, I'm not going to take you to the movies tonight."
There was no further response from either boy, but Britney had heard enough to spark her curiosity. She returned to Abigail and asked quietly, "I hate to go about it this way, but is your cousin gay?"
"He likes boys, yeah," Abigail replied with a shrug. "It's pretty common knowledge in our family. Is that a problem?"
"Not at all. Far from it, actually," Britney replied.
Abigail smiled with relief. "Good. Why do you ask?"
"Is he seeing anyone?"
"Not at the moment. He had a relationship last year, but it ended badly. The other boy just wasn't very good to Tennyson."
Britney nodded thoughtfully. "My brother is currently available, and… I know playing matchmaker is super tacky, but I think it'd be awesome if they could meet."
Abigail's smile broadened. "That would be good for a few reasons, actually. Ten doesn't have a lot of friends in town. He's been attending a private school up in Binghamton since he was very young, but he's going to be returning to the public system this year. His parents don't make enough to keep him enrolled at the private one. I keep telling him he needs to meet more people here, but he's kind of shy."
"Let me call my brother over for a second, and see how he feels about meeting your cousin," Britney said. She turned back to Casey and shouted, "Hey, puppy boy, get over here!"
Casey glanced over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow at Britney, but he rose to his feet and came over anyway. "What's going on?"
"I have a favor to ask you," Britney began, but before she could continue, Kev nearly ran into her from behind and disrupted the conversation.
"Kev, watch where you're going!" Abigail scolded.
"Sorry, my shoes just slipped on the floor because I was going too fast. We're all done with the stocking though. You said you wanted to see us?" Kev said.
"Where's Ten?" Abigail asked, then caught sight of him hiding at the edge of one of the aisles. "What are you doing back there?"
Ten approached, looking everywhere but at Abigail as his cheeks flushed a bright shade of red. "Sorry, I thought you were helping a customer and I didn't want to intrude."
"Oh no, these aren't customers, they're friends of mine," Abigail said. "Or at least Britney is."
Casey, who still hadn't met Abigail, put his hand out to her and said. "Hi, I'm Casey." As Abigail shook his hand, he turned his attention to Ten and did a double-take. "Um… it's nice to meet you all."
Britney gave Casey a weird look, then noticed the color in his cheeks. "Are you all right?" She asked.
Casey nodded and smiled. "Sorry if I'm being weird," he said to Ten. "I know this is probably strange, but do you ever go to the East Shore skate park in Binghamton?"
Ten's eyes widened to twice their size. "Um… yeah, that's right by my old school, actually. Why do you ask?"
"I've seen you there before… a couple of times," Casey replied. "You're really good. You have rad moves, dude."
Somehow it turned out to be possible for Ten's cheeks to grow even redder. "Thank you, uh… Casey. You have some rad moves yourself, er… you're um… you…" he trailed off, shifting awkwardly as he looked away.
"Thanks," Casey said, chuckling softly. "I hope this isn't too weird of me, but would you ever be willing to teach me how to board like that?"
Ten looked up, startled, though a smile quickly widened across his face. "Yeah, I'd be happy to!"
"Pussy," Kev mumbled, drawing all eyes to him.
Ten glared at his cousin, then his features softened, and he said, "Actually, you know what? Fuck it. It's 2019. Would you like to go out sometime, Casey?"
Casey took a step back and looked to Britney for support. She simply shrugged and grinned at him. He returned his attention to Ten and said, "Yeah, that'd be awesome, actually. Do you drink coffee?"
"Only at Perk when I'm here in town," Ten replied.
"Perfect," Casey said, grinning. "How about we meet there tomorrow, and we can talk without the audience?"
Britney and Abigail both laughed heartily at that, and the tension dissipated in the room. "I'm going to have to drive you, aren't I?" Britney asked. "Don't I get a say in this?"
"Tenny has a car," Kev offered, once again earning him everyone's attention.
"It's true," Ten said with a shrug. "If you're comfortable with it, I could definitely pick you up."
"Nah, let's stick to just driving for now. I don't let guys pick me up until the second date," Casey said.
Ten giggled at that and said, "Hey, let's go check out the puppies and we can exchange numbers. And talk without these guys listening in…" he glanced at Britney and Abigail and then spent extra time looking at Kev, then stepped toward the puppies. Casey followed him, both boys already talking under their breath about something and making each other laugh.
"Great, now I'm going to have to work for him tomorrow, huh?" Kev asked glumly.
"Tomorrow is Sunday, and we're closed," Abigail said.
Kev's eyes lit up. "Oh yeah! Shit, I better finish up today so I can go camping tonight. Unless there really was something you needed?"
"Just that the storeroom needs to be swept now that you're finished restocking," Abigail said. "I only wanted to remind you."
"Can I go home after that?" Kev asked. Abigail nodded, and Kev scampered away excitedly.
"Well, I guess we didn't need to set them up after all," Britney said, glancing back at her brother and Ten.
"I was really surprised at Tennyson, actually," Abigail said. "Kev must've really gotten under his skin. Ten's never that forward about anything."
"Casey has a way of drawing the truth out of people, especially when he likes them. He listens well," Britney replied.
Abigail laughed, drawing Britney's attention toward her again. "If that's the case, he might be tested by Ten. Once you get that kid talking, he never shuts up!"
"You never shut up," Ten said as he approached the counter with a puppy in his hands. "By the way, this is Bucky, and he's my new puppy."
"Bucky?" Abigail asked as Britney raised an eyebrow at Casey.
"Dad said I could have one of the puppies if I wanted, but I was just going to take the last one, originally," Ten explained. "But I let Casey pick, and he'd already named him, so…" he shrugged, then smiled at Casey as he handed him the puppy. "Now you two can bond."
Casey held Bucky up and made several unintelligible squealing sounds under his breath. "Oh, I love him so much! Have you seen the way he moves? He's so adorable."
"Yes," Ten said softly, looking at both puppy and boy. "Yes, he is."