Chapter 1

By Dabeagle


I know what you're going to say, that I'm an idiot. It's okay, I'd agree with you most of the time. I mean, I've done some amazingly dumb things. You don't believe me? There was the time I said yes to asking out Karen Gleason. My friend and partner in stupid ventures, Jared, dared me to ask her out - like really, really dared me. Karen is a nice enough looking girl, not exactly someone I'd say is out of my league, but she'd just broken up with Mike Hodges. Mike is 'sort of' a hothead in the way BP 'spilled a little oil' when that oil rig exploded. So I asked her out, she said yes - just to make him jealous - and the next thing you know Mike and I are trading punches and sharing detention.

I don't mean to sound like a complete idiot - I'm not. I get pretty good grades, but people confuse me sometimes. Or maybe I confuse me. Either way leads to the same thing, so I'm not sure how much it matters. Of course that leads you to wonder why I'm an idiot right this minute, right? Of course right. I just made out with Josh Wilson behind the grandstand of our high school. On the surface that might not sound like such a bad thing, and all things being equal it's not. Josh is a nice enough guy, sort of a weird chin, but good personality and nice eyes.

Josh just broke up with someone, which is sort of perfect because I don't mind being the catcher in a rebound type of thing. I'm not looking for a boyfriend because I'm not out, so sneaking in a little make-out isn't a bad thing. Josh isn't invested in me at all, and that works fine. But you see, this isn't the first time I've done this. Our school is pretty big, plenty of kids and more than a few out of the closet as gay, bi and other things that I don't really get. I mean, I have no issue with whatever makes a person feel like 'yeah, that's me!' but at the same time there are so many it's almost like you need a class to learn them all.

So this spring it's Josh. Over the winter it was Ray and Manuel. Last fall it was Derry. You know what they had in common? They'd just broken up. I rebounded them all, just enough to make-out a little. Awkward flirtation is kind of my thing. Maybe. Hey, I'm not a stud or anything. I'm second string for the football team, and I'm only there because Jared wanted us to play together. I suppose the way I look might have played into Jared thinking I'd like football; I've been told my entire life I look 'solid'. Not fat, not husky, not barrel-shaped - solid. The shit part is that it's true. I'm not fat, but I am kind of big boned. I'm not fat. Okay, you know what? Fuck you.

So anyway, that may not sound all that screwed up to you, but it gets better. In the fourth grade Jared Benson moved to town. I don't make friends easily and part of it is because of how I look. I'm not what anyone would call classically handsome, and wasn't even as a kid. Jared? He's the kind of guy that walks over and eats with the person sitting by themselves, just so long as you don't make a big thing out of it. That's always Jared's thing - don't make anything into a big thing. Guy has chill for days. Me? No chill.

Okay, I know, still not all that idiotic, and no - I'm not in love with Jared. So the Bensons move to town - the parents, and three kids. Kyrstie, the oldest, swallowed a 'Go Fuck Yourself' pill at some point in her life and she's got a semi-permanent scowl on her face that only relaxes slightly in her sleep. Or so I'm told. Jared I told you about. Then there's Luke, the baby of the family - they call him that though at a year behind Jared, it's not a big gap. Mrs. Benson has always seemed kind of frail, the few times I've met her. I guess Luke was a tough pregnancy or something, I don't really know.

The summer before Luke started tenth grade, eleventh for Jared and me, he came out. He didn't mean to, but being caught in his room with so few clothes on with another guy sort of let the cat out of the bag. Kyrstie was indifferent, Jared was pretty chill about it, but very unhappy that Luke kept something like that from him. Luke, for his part, didn't want to have to 'come out'. Jared thought about it and said he understood, but still felt unhappy to not know something important about Luke. You're thinking I came out then, right? Well, you're dumb then because I already told you I haven't. I mean, jeez - we're talking about how dumb I can be and you think that? Of course I didn't come out - do you have any idea how disappointed Jared will be I haven't told him? Even worse, do you have any idea how unhappy he'll be when I tell him I have the hots for his little brother?

Here's where I'm an idiot. As Josh walks away after our session, confident that he can still attract someone after breaking up with Luke, I sigh heavily. What do Josh, Ray, Manny and Derry all have in common besides being newly single? They'd all just broken up with Luke. Yep, I can't have him so I'm nailing his leftovers. Quietly, not making a big thing out of it. Jared might appreciate that, at least. See? I really am an idiot.

My phone rang so I fished it out of my pocket as I started walking toward the parking lot. I glanced at the phone before answering. "Jared, 'sup?"

"Kyrsti is on day eight million of her period." I hear her tell him to shut up. "No, you shut up," he says with no real teeth behind it. "Where are you, Jacky-boy? I want to hit Hero City."

"I can be there in five," I tell him.

"Ok, see you," he says and hangs up. Hero City is a local store that has video games, comics, movies, collectible toys, board games and some actual old arcade machines. We liked going there because we're not huge fans of corporate bullshit, and they have cool stuff. I also liked to doodle and comics provide a lot of great artwork to inspire me. I motored over in my junker and Jared starts down his driveway as I pulled in. He's about five ten, brown hair and eyes with an irritatingly clear complexion, and he always wore clothes that matched. Seriously, if you wanted to show someone a kid that would make them actually want to be around teens, it's Jared. It's freaky.

"If I had to spend another minute listening to her bitching," Jared said as he slid into the passenger seat, "I'd have to slip a Xanax into her soda or something."

I laughed, mostly because I don't have to live with her. "What's her problem now?" I asked as I put the car in reverse after he put his seat belt on.

"Fucking dance she got invited to by the latest guy she fooled into dating her - a military ball or something," he said with a snort. "Her date doesn't want to wear the pink cummerbund that would match with her Pepto-Bismol dress. I know it's stereotypical for girls to like pink, but seriously. Obsession doesn't begin to describe it."

"Speaking of a dance," I said, thinking of the upcoming Spring Dance at school. I glanced at Jared. He smiled reflexively and looked at me with a pleased expression.

"Yes, I asked Lauren. Yes, she said yes to going with me."

"Sweet," I said, smiling at him. He'd liked Lauren for a while and she was a nice person, fun. I always hated it a bit when he dated because he poured a lot of time into his relationships. Jared isn't a 'half-measures' kind of guy. I find it irritating how someone dates and instantly that person moves to the top of their attention and trust list, and friends they've had for a while just fall away. Jared's fallen into that dating hole a few times. If I had more friends, maybe it wouldn't bother me as much - but I doubt it.

"Stop," he said with a sigh. "It's a dance, we're not getting married and moving to Europe or something."

"I didn't say anything," I say.

"You don't have to," he replied and stretched. "I can't wait until you get with the whole dating program and I can annoy you by whining about not spending enough time around each other."

"I never said that, either," I said a little stiffly. I should stop now, but you'll recall I have no chill. "It's just that a pretty face shouldn't suddenly be worth the same as an old friend. It's not a time thing, not totally, but trust. I don't understand how people just drop their friends and act like this one person is worth losing everything they used to be."

We rode in silence for a minute before he spoke. "Been holding onto that for a while? You done or should I give you another minute?"

"Asshole," I muttered.

"I know. Did you know that people think the Bonobo monkeys spend all their time having sex?"

"Jesus take the wheel," I groaned. Jared picks up all kinds of weird things and randomly blurts them out to me.

"No, really. They have this reputation, right? I guess they sometimes rub uglies when they are in uncertain social situations. Can you imagine that in humans? Like in high school? We'd rub our junk raw with that cesspool of 'uncertain social situations'."

I pulled into the parking lot and let my head fall on the steering wheel. "Make it stop," I pleaded to the steering wheel.

"I think we're a little slicker than those monkeys, though," he said thoughtfully. "I bet we'd rub uglies with other people just to get off. I mean, that would really make things awkward, no?"

"You're so twisted," I said and a laugh escaped me.

"Yeah. I'm told it's part of my charm," he said as he climbed out of the car.

"By who? Your dad? I got a news flash for you - he lied," I said as I fell in beside him.

"Don't be jealous," he said in a superior tone. He put a hand on my shoulder to slow me and I glanced at him. "Just because you think something, doesn't make it true - or mean you have to believe it." I just snorted, yet feeling needy and grateful all at once. A small bell tinkled over the door as we entered. Harvey was behind the counter, a middle-aged guy with a weird haircut. I know some people say young styles or old styles are stupid - but he's, like, fifty and sporting an undercut with purple streaks. It's sort of like a grandpa trying to squeeze into skinny jeans and listen to hip-hop. You can do it, I guess, but I'm going to think you look weird - if that matters to you. Hmm. I'll bet no one cares what I think. Party on, Harvey.

For a little while we lost ourselves, horny monkeys forgotten as we pawed through the old comics in their plastic sleeves - the ones we can't afford - and then on to the discount bin where some of the lesser known or poorer condition comics were. I found a few with cool looking characters - this Quasar dude rocks despite sharing the name of a TV set we have in the garage. We drifted over to the graphic novels and the manga stuff before ending up where we usually did - the arcade.

I like playing my console at home. I don't mind PC games depending on what it is, but I really like co-op gaming and there is nothing like an arcade game for standing side-by-side and owning shit. Of course, this was also why we can't afford comics - we sink way too much of our spending cash on these things. Still, pretty cool to see your initials up there for a high score. Time sort of melted when we did stuff together. I didn't worry about my dad coming home and yelling or whether my mom was cooking with alcohol, or instead drinking and burning stuff that was meant to be food. My mom used to work for a pharmaceutical company. They ended up on the wrong end of a government investigation and got broken up and sold off. Not all of the people kept their jobs - that was when I learned the word redundancy. Mom had been high enough in the company to make good money, but not high enough to have known what was going on - or at least I didn't want to think so. She hadn't gone to jail, but outside of that I didn't know much.

Everything had fallen on my father after that. He was a retail manager and he worked weird hours - some nights and weekends for instance. Mom said she was still looking for work, but she seemed to spend most of her time drinking. Dad was frustrated and unhappy. I stayed out of the house as much as I could - with Jared or at work - when I wasn't at school.

The Benson family wasn't perfect, not by a long shot. Their mom had cheated on their dad which is what broke up the old family home and brought them to town when dad took the kids and a job transfer. Their mom lived about thirty minutes away, but things were still frosty between the parents even after all these years. Huh. Now that I think of it, the Mrs cheated with another Mrs, I'm pretty sure. Maybe that's why Luke didn't want to come out?

Anyway, you can see why I neither wanted to go home or be without my best friend.

Once we were out of cash, we headed back to his place. I followed him inside, even though he hadn't specifically invited me. It was more of a tacit toss of his head that beckoned me to follow him. Besides, he's my best friend. I don't need an engraved invitation.

"Hey, Dad," Jared said as we entered the kitchen.

"Hi, Mr. Benson," I said nearly at the same time.

He glanced over at us from his position by the stove. "Guys," he said shortly. "Jared, I told you to get your stuff from the dryer. Go down and grab your basket and get to folding."

"Crap, sorry," Jared replied and turned toward the basement door. "Jack, see you in my room?"

"Sure," I said with a nod.

"Jack, staying for dinner?" Mr. Benson asked.

"Sure, thanks," I replied. Mr. Benson kind of liked me, I think. He seemed reasonable as adults go. I headed away from him and through the house toward Jared's room, which was at the end of the house past all the other bedrooms. I figured I'd poke through Jared's graphic novels and occupy myself while he grabbed his crap. Kyrsti's door was closed, but I could hear her screech clearly. I guess maybe she was still fighting over the cummerbund or something. Luke's door was standing open and he was sitting in front of his PC in shorts and a tee with some nearly naked character on his screen. He turned, maybe at hearing my footsteps and lifted his chin toward me.

"Hey, Jack," he said.

I leaned casually in his doorway. "Hey. What's that?" I asked, jutting my chin at his screen.

He looked back at the screen as if he'd forgotten what he'd been doing and then back at me. He broke into a smile and said, "Slut-mogging my toon."

I frowned lightly and he started to chuckle. Luke was so...transcendent when he smiled or laughed. Kind of made my heart do weird things. My breathing sometimes got into the act. Higher brain functions were frequently affected, too, but that was harder to tell on account of all the dumb things I do.

"And that is...staring at your character with no clothes on?" I asked.

"Almost, it's like this," he said with a laugh, lifting a leg up and resting his foot on the chair. "The game calls it transmogrification, but the players call it transmog or mogging, right?"

"Okay. And?"

"So you can change the way your armor looks with this, right?"

"Like tints or dyes?" I asked, thinking of other, similar style games I'd played.

"Almost," he said, his voice taking on a tone like he was impressed I'd thought of that connection all by myself. Shithead. Cute shithead, but still. "Transmog takes that a step further and lets you change the the way something looks, not just the color. See, look," he said to me, waiting for me to get close enough to see before he clicked on the shoulder slot for his character. A separate window showed pages of options for how the shoulder slot could be displayed - things with long tusks wrapped with twine or guts or something, ornate plate gear and fantastical stuff with moving tentacles or other embellishments.

"That's pretty cool," I said honestly.

"Yup," he said as he clicked to have the shoulder slot not display a graphic. "So when you make them look like they aren't wearing much - that's slut-mogging."

I chuckled. "I thought it was the female characters that wore iron bikinis?"

"Equal opportunity ogling in this game," he said with a chuckle. "Where's my brother?"

"Getting his laundry."

"Oh, shit!" he said getting up out of his chair. "I better get mine together, then. Dad is such a Nazi about laundry days. Well, you know."

"Yeah," I said, taking his vacated seat while he gathered his clothes which were strewn all over the floor. I know it's not theoretically freaky to look at your crush. Like, to stare. Luke and Jared had some features that made it apparent they were related - high cheekbones, the same eyes and irritatingly clear skin. Luke, though, was...perfectly proportioned. His clothes fit him right, almost like the default sizes were made for him versus when I get stuff and am told 'well, that brand runs large or small'. His legs were strong without looking like he did leg days only, and his chest and arms were completely in balance - wide shoulders tapering at his waist. It's funny because I guess some people would just say he's average, and I guess he was - but perfectly average. Like, beautifully average. Oh, hell, I don't know what I mean.

"Fuck," he grumbled as he stared down at his phone. I'd been so busy listing his assets in my head I hadn't noticed he'd stopped gathering his laundry.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

He frowned. "Josh is stiffing me on the concert tickets," he groaned. "God damn it!"

I felt a stupid attack coming on. It's sort of like a heart attack, I guess, except it means I'm going to do something stupid. I know this because Luke needs something and I'm going to contort myself like, well, a contortionist to fix it for him.

"What concert?" I asked, trying not to sound interested or horny. Jesus, did I just think that?

"Panic! At the Disco," he said absently as he tapped on the screen. "His parents were going to drive us, but now he's bailing. I mean I said we could go as friends, but he's all 'I've moved on' and shit."

"Weird, uh, band name," I said, trying to sound casual. I also suddenly felt bad. I wondered if my making out with Josh earlier had affirmed for him that it was okay to be a dick to Luke? "I mean, the way it's spelled out? The exclamation point after panic? It's like it reads like someone is yelling out the first word and then saying the rest calmly, right?"

He glanced up at me and smiled, flashing a dimple on one side of his face. "Panic!" he said loudly and raising a fist in the air before lowering his tone to something conversational, "At the disco."

We looked at each other for a moment and then started to laugh. "Exactly," I said.

Luke sat down on his bed, curling one foot under him and sighing. "I was looking forward to that show."

Don't do it. I can feel the stupid rising like vomit in my throat. "You, um, like that band?"

"Totally," he said. "I've been looking forward to this for months. Josh was supposed to be my date and he said he'd pay me for one of the tickets - so now I have to talk to my dad, too, since he paid for them. Dammit, I'm going to have to work it off and he's going to be pissed."

"When, um, is it?" I asked, still trying to stave off the stupid. It was pushing me hard, but I was doing a decent job of keeping it in check so far. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

He looked up at me and pulled a face. "Next Saturday. Same day as the school dance. Nobody will be free for that," he said, growing dejected.

The stupid swelled until I couldn't hold it in anymore. "I could buy the ticket off you," I said. Crap, I said it out loud. Stupid!

He looked up at me, raising an eyebrow. "You like their music?"

I cleared my throat. "I like music."

"You'd pay sixty-five dollars to listen to a band you're not specifically into?"

I coughed lightly. "Not like I'm going to the dance."

His eyes got a little wider by the second and a smile bloomed on his face. "Jack, that would be fantastic! Are you sure?" he asked, standing and smiling in a way I could never say no to.

"Yeah, I'm sure," I said. I wasn't, not really. This was kind of like a date. I mean, he didn't know that and I certainly would never say anything like that, but we were going to concert together so...that's a date, right? But Luke was happy. He was kind of hopping in front of me, thanking me and starting to babble about the band. He said they were from Las Vegas, had been around for years, and their lead singer was bi. I wonder how much he appreciates having a singer lean toward something he can relate to versus just liking their music?

"I'm so excited! I never would have thought to ask you," he said, his smile never fading and his dimples looking like they might stay there when his face relaxed.

"I like music," I said with a shrug. It's true I like music, I'm just not wrapped up in it, I guess. I prefer having the radio on in the car or if I'm working or exercising, but I'm not really a fan of specific bands or singers.

"What are you so wound up about?" Kyrsti said from the doorway. I hadn't even noticed her.

"Josh screwed me on the concert tickets, but Jack is going to go with me. Oh!" he said turning toward me. "Is it cool if you drive us?"

"Completely," I said, my face feeling hot.

"Might as well call you Jack Benson," she said sourly. "You sure we can't just put a bed in the basement and keep you there? Maybe my dad can foot your college bills, too."

"He's going to a concert with me, not marrying me," Luke said with a snort. The idea of living with Luke, seeing him in various states of undress - what we would do if married - suddenly had me trying to adjust myself. Subtly. I hoped. "Besides, if Jack moved in, we'd give him your room. At least he's not a bitch to everyone."

She gave him a sour expression, tossed an extra glare at me and huffed away.

"Dude. What is your sisters deal?"

Luke shook his head. "She's been like that since my parents broke up. I don't know what goes on in her twisted head."

Jared appeared in the doorway. "Dad says to start your laundry, Luke," he said, gesturing at me to follow him. I stood and nodded at Luke before going to Jared's room. Jared and Luke were obviously related when it came to how they cleaned their rooms - which is to say, not at all. It's just an observation; I'm not exactly a neat freak myself.

"I figured you'd be rifling through my books," Jared said as he set the basket down on his bed. He pulled the hanging stuff off the top of the basket where he'd laid it to keep it from getting any more wrinkled than it had to be.

"Luke had a game on his computer," I said absently while taking a seat at Jared's desk.

"What game?"

"You know, I forgot to ask," I said, feeling stupid. "He was stripping his character's clothes off and it seemed he was going to make him fight like that."

"Oh, yeah, he does shit like that," Jared said. "You know, in India people are told to cover their arms and legs, even. I think it would have been cool to live in ancient Greece, though, for the naked sports. Can you imagine heading over for a day of watching women wrestle naked?"

"Bet the lesbians enjoyed it," I said, rolling my eyes.

"Yeah, truth," he said with a grin. "Dad is going to take me to a tux rental place after dinner. You want to come with? Just in case you decide to ask Karen out again?"

I snorted, "Fuck you. I only did it because you wouldn't leave me alone about it."

"Yeah," he said thoughtfully. "I didn't think Mike would get so jealous. They broke up, so who'd have thought he'd be so shitty about it?"

"I guess he doesn't move on that easy, huh?"

"Maybe," he said. "So, are you going to ask anyone to the dance? Kind of running out of time, Jacky-boy."

"I don't think so," I said. Besides, I'm busy that night.

"Do you not like dances?" he asked as he folded his jeans and put them on a shelf in his closet. His house was weird - they had these shelves and cubbies built into their closets instead of dressers. "I don't think I remember you going to one since about sixth grade or so."

"I don't not like them," I said slowly. Besides in sixth grade you just went. There was no asking for a date.

"I thought Luke might go this year, but I heard he just broke up with what's his name."

"Josh," I said. I wasn't sure how to feel about that. Luke didn't seem to be upset about the break up, just the tickets. Josh was on his way to whatever new dating adventure he'd have - but I couldn't help the bitter taste of his name on my tongue, knowing where his tongue had been.

"Right. Shit timing, that," he said as he started to fold and stack his underwear. "Did you know unlicensed public dancing is illegal in Sweden?"

I blinked at him a few times. "Why?"

"To prevent riots," he replied, as if that made sense.

"Whatever," I said and spun around once in his chair.

"I was kind of hoping you'd get a date for the dance this time, Jack. Kind of be nice to double date."

The statement hung in the air with the weight of an accusation. Imagine me showing up to double with Jared, Luke on my arm. Jared would be so disappointed. We tell each other everything. Well, nearly. I'm sure he must have held some things back, though I have no idea what they might be. Probably some obscure fact that I really don't care about but, as he says, is part of his charm.

"Leave you speechless?" he teased.

"Um, no. Just...don't know what to say. I mean, I guess that's one way to hang out when you're dating, of course," I said, trying to sound slick.

He laughed. "Yeah. All you have to do is get a date, Jack."

I wasn't sure why he was pushing this dance thing, but I figured I'd better shut it down. "Well, Luke's date stiffed him on the tickets for a concert the same night. I told him I'd buy the ticket from him."

Jared chuckled as he placed folded items on his shelves and looked at me with a smile. "You know, I never worry about Luke anymore. Remember when that kid punched him when he was in seventh grade? And you demolished the kid for it?"

I shifted on my feet. "Yeah. Well, it's what you would have done."

"Right," he agreed. "But that's what I'm saying. If I'm not around, you've got his back." He wrinkled his nose. "I'm not sure I'd go to a concert with him, though. He likes weird stuff."

I shrugged and picked up one of Jared's graphic novels, flipping idly through the well worn pages. I felt the stupid in me swelling up. I felt like I wanted to tell him I was really into his brother, except that would have been a real asshole thing to do. He'd be really upset with me for not having told him before. The urge to tell him, though, was pretty strong.

Dinner was simple, and Mr. Benson seemed okay that Luke and I would hit up the concert Luke was so excited about. Jared's dad said they'd have to wait until Thursday when he got paid to go rent the tux for Jared's dance, and with that off the table I headed for home.

I spent the rest of the evening in my room with my sketchpad and playing songs by this Panic! band so I could at least seem like I knew something about them when I went. I mean, if I was paying sixty-five dollars for a date with Luke, I could at least try to get into whatever it was we were going to do together. I tried drawing Quasar, but the face was coming out a bit more like Luke's. To be honest, the body was much more like his, too. At least, I think so.

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