Birthday Blues

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle

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My thanks to Cole for editing and Ricky for beta reading. The feedback was crucial in the finished product.

My knee bobbed up and down as I waited impatiently for the day to be over. You'd think, with the end of the school year practically here they'd just let us go, right? But no, even if we have serious things to do elsewhere, we have to wait for the bell to ring. Even though we've basically had a study hall for the last twenty minutes, we sit here. And wait.

I dearly wished Alec would have just come and picked me up early from school, assuming he was home. He and Sasha probably took the chance to sleep in and wouldn't even be home until tonight – but if he was home, I wanted to see him!

I was tired of text messages; it was no substitute for having him here. The computer was okay, but you had to set up times when he wasn't studying or working some part time job. Even the phone was hit or miss, and mostly miss. All of it added up to me going through withdrawals from my big brother. There were some things you just needed him for, and right now I had a whopper.

Dad had offered to help, but this was one thing I'd saved for Alec. Dad and I had gone all in on the wrestling equipment when Robin asked me to join with him. Dad was thrilled to buy the gear, help me with the stupid cup and the special shoes and singlets and he showed up every time we competed – it was total bonding time. But I had shoveled my ass off all winter and started my own little detailing business when spring hit. I had a portable vacuum and cleaning material I bought from the snow money and I worked like crazy at that too. The net result was I wanted to buy my first car, just like Alec did, with my own money. Even if driving it was a ways off, yet.

The bell rang and I leapt from my seat, racing out the door and to my locker to deposit the last of my stuff. No homework, so it was just to dispose of what I'd lugged for a few classes and then I was heading for the door. I intended to catch a ride with Chase and Kale; they knew Alec and Sasha were due home today and I had no doubt they'd be anxious to see them too, and ready to pick up where they'd left off.

“Hey, Lucien! Wait for me!” Robin tugged on my arm and fell in beside me. “Jeez, you excited about something?”

“Me? No, what are you talking about?” I laughed as we exited the building.

“Kale's been counting the days. I swear he's worse than you are, and I didn't think that was possible.” Robin giggled and I pushed him.

“Wait till Kale leaves for school, then talk to me,” I replied. I grabbed his hand and pulled him towards Kale's Audi – to find him already there and Chase throwing his bag onto the passenger side floor.

“In a hurry today, babe?” Kale asked Chase.

“Oh, like you have any room to talk?” Chase laughed. “Now come on, and don't get a ticket.”

“Hey, I'm not the one freaking out here,” Kale said, not doing a very good job of hiding his smile.

“No, you just beat everyone to the car. You want to keep this up?” Chase asked.

“Okay, fine, I rush out here to make sure you all can get there quickly, this is what I get.” Kale said, letting his voice fall into that of an oft-put-upon, misunderstood fellow.

“Kale, really? I told you, Lucien said Alec doesn't even get here till tomorrow 'cause of some make up test and you're going to bust Chase's balls over getting to see Sasha?” Robin asked.

“What?” Kale's face dropped. “What do you mean, make up test?”

“Gotcha,” Robin smiled and broke out laughing.

“I knew that, I knew that,” Kale said, smiling.

“Hey, where you guys going?”

I knew that voice anywhere and I turned to see Alec and Sasha striding across the lawn towards us.

“Alec!” I screamed like an eleven-year-old girl and took off across the lawn and ran full tilt into him, crushing him to me.

“Whoa!” he laughed and squeezed me just as hard. “Wow, you got tall, Lu! Let me look at ya.”

He held me back by the shoulders and I just beamed at him. He was finally home! “I can't believe you're finally here - I missed you!” I said and pushed past his outstretched arms to crush him once more.

“I hope you're saving some of that for me,” Sasha said teasingly. I grinned and said very formally, “Of course, Uncle Sasha,” and hugged him. He laughed at me.

“I have to get used to being an uncle.”

Sasha and Chase were greeting each other, hugs all around – except Kale who was playing it cool and hanging closer to his car. Alec strolled over and then pointed at Kale's car.

“Holy shit, Kale! Did you get hit or something?”

“What?” Kale asked, turning to look at the car. Alec rushed in and lifted Kale in a bear hug from behind, twirling him around and calling out that he'd picked some fresh Kale. Kale, for his part was both laughing and demanding to be put down, and right now dammit!

“Nice to see some things are constant,” Hamster observed as he joined us.

“Hamster! My man!” Alec said with a grin while still holding Kale in the air but not putting him down. “I'd shake, but Kale's in season.”

“Okay, can we stop with the vegetable jokes? And put me the hell down!” Kale demanded.

“Wow, talk about your bitter greens,” Alec said as he dropped him. “Where's - oh there you are.” Alec said and pulled Chase in for a normal hug.

“It's nice to see you too, Alec,” Chase laughed.

“Yeah, we missed you.” Alec grinned.

“Uh, excuse me?” Kale asked.

“What?” Alec glanced at him.

“How about me? You only missed Chase?”

Alec threw an arm around Chase and lowered his head, looking up at Kale and speaking very seriously. “Kale, I have to tell you something.”

“Oh no,” Chase laughed and spun away from Alec.

“It's okay, we can tell everyone now!” Alec said, pretending hurt at Chase's avoiding him. “Sash said it was okay!”

It was good to have them home.

BB

We had a circus at home. The folks had an early dinner for everyone – nothing fancy, just burgers and such. Sasha said his folks were going to take him and Bobby to dinner when he got back in a few more days, but since Sasha'd seen them earlier he was able to hang out with us for a while.

There was a lot of questions flying around about school for everyone, daily stuff – nothing super important, just stuff to catch up on. Man, it was great. Alec wasted no time resuming picking on Kale and, before you could say 'welcome home' they were wrestling around like two little kids. They got told more than once to take it outside, but neither did.

Sasha and Chase were huddled together, catching up. They were such a contrast to Alec and Kale – calm and comparing notes, planning and laughing at their boyfriend's antics. I had settled in next to Robin, leaning my head on his shoulder. I was grateful he didn't think I was clingy, because I always wanted to touch him. I had his hand in mine and his thumb was stroking the back of my hand.

“Damn it, not again,” Austin moaned and I glanced over at him.

“What's up?” I asked.

“It's happening again. Every time I block a number, whoever this is finds a new one. It's getting old.”

“Wow, they don't give up,” Robin said.

“What's going on?” Chase asked, a frown creasing his normally happy face.

“Someone's been texting me. I put up with it for a while, I thought they'd just lose interest but I finally blocked them,” Austin explained. “But this is the third time, now.”

“What are they saying to you?” Sasha asked.

“Uh,” Austin's face colored.

“Whoever it is has a hard on for Hamster,” I supplied. “it's kind of creepy.”

“It sounds like harassment. Let me see?” Chase asked.

“Uh, Chase they're kind of...explicit.” Austin replied.

“I'm sure I've heard worse,” he said as he held his hand out for the phone. Austin reluctantly gave it to him and Chase thumbed through the texts.

“Okay, yeah, this is harassment. We should contact the phone company.”

“Uh, Uncle George did already. They said it was from a pre-paid phone,” Austin told him.

“That's disturbing,” Chase frowned. Sasha looked at the screen with him and his scowl was even worse.

“Hamster, do you have any idea who this could be?” Sasha asked.

“I wish I did,” he replied. “I've been showing all of this stuff to Robin and Lu, trying to see if we could figure it out but...I got nothing.”

“What's going on?” Alec asked, balancing a swearing Kale on his shoulder.

“Austin has a stalker,” I said.

“Probably 'cause of that stupid website,” Kale said. “Alec, put me down! Now!”

I leaned over and put my mouth to Robin's ear, “Does Kale actually seem mad to you?”

“Hell no. If Alec puts him down he'll just have to lift him up again,” Robin giggled.

As it was a school night, everyone drifted away eventually. As goodbyes were being said – and Alec and Kale began a final scuffle – I stepped out onto the porch with Robin and slipped my glasses off and buried my face in his neck, holding him.

“You'd think you were never going to see me again,” he teased.

“Don't say shit like that.”

“Lucien,” he said in a chiding tone.

“Can't I just enjoy holding you without you busting my balls?” I asked, giggling.

“Of course,” he said with a chuckle. “I'm not going to fight you, I know I'm irresistible.”

I leaned back and squinted at him, “Don't get a fat head, Kirkwood.”

“But, Lucien...”

I knew what was coming and I chose to kiss him rather than let him continue. That's how we were when everyone started walking onto the porch and we got a solid round of ribbing for not being able to keep our hands to ourselves. For once, I just grinned and didn't care.

Then they were all gone and I finally had my brother to myself. I changed for bed and then knocked on his door and, after getting the okay, stepped into the room to find him also getting ready for bed.

“Lu, this was great tonight, huh?” he asked with a grin.

“I know, it's like you're a rock star,” I grinned and hopped on to his bed to sit.

“I missed you guys,” he said and threw his shirt into the hamper. “You do okay without me?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Not too okay though, right?”

“Are you kidding me? You did hear me yell at school, right?” I laughed.

“Yeah, that was awesome,” he chuckled. “I missed you a ton. I swear, that's one of the things I just didn't really understand until it happened. I mean, leaving all you guys behind? That was really tough. If I hadn't had Sash, I'd have just come home.”

“Seriously?”

“Swear, bud. I missed you guys so bad,” he pulled a tee on and sat down next to me. “All the stuff they were talking about in class – every time a case with a kid was up for discussion I was just thinking of you and everything you had to go through before you got to us.”

“It worked out pretty good,” I said with a grin. “I missed you every day, Alec. We need, like, regular visits or something 'cause this phone and computer crap isn't cutting it.”

“Tell me about it,” he said and bumped me with his shoulder. “So, now that we have some time, what's on your mind?”

“What makes you ask that?” I asked, grinning.

“Oh, come now, don't tease me. You're my brother thus, you have an epic plan you wish to discuss,” he said and flashed me an evil grin.

“It's...actually, I don't know how epic it is but...” I shrugged. “I saved up almost twelve hundred bucks and I want to buy a car. I need you to help me.”

“Oh, buddy, let Dad help. He'll get you something better than I had – you deserve it,” he said with a shove. I was not going to fall for his wrestling feints like Kale, though.

“No, you bought your own car with your own money. I earned this, but I want to share it with you. Dad got to do the wrestling thing with me – and it was great,” I said holding my hand up. “Dad and I have really gotten pretty cool with each other. But I've been waiting 'till you came home – I'm going to buy my car just like you did.”

“Lu,” he said with a grin, “I appreciate the sentiment, but you saw what I got, right? You don't want that – you're not me.”

“But I want to be,” I said simply. He paused, as if I'd smacked some nerve he hadn't known was exposed.

“Well, all right then,” he said pulling me close. “We'll start tomorrow. So, tell me how things are with you and Robin? The pictures look great.”

“They are so good, I can't even believe it,” I said with a grin and pulled my feet under me. “I'm actually so happy I don't even know if I can tell you.”

“Well, try,” he said and leaned back against his headboard.

“He's always doing little things, little presents – he drops paper hearts in my locker so I find them when I go to get my books. It's funny, because he teases me 'cause I always want to hug him or lean on him, but then he does stuff that just makes me want to do that even more!”

“Wow,” he said with a smile, “you're a set of hopeless romantics!”

“You have no idea, and it's great. I don't care how corny the excuse is for a little gift, I'm just eating it up,” I admitted.

“You do anything back?”

“Oh, yeah. It's almost a competition. But that's just details, Alec. We're just happy to be with each other. For instance, I was ready to watch him play for the wrestling team, but he told me it'd take too much time away from us so I offered to join the team.”

“Yeah, I was wondering about that – you never really cared about sports.” He was fidgeting now, fluffing pillows behind him and I knew he was getting tired. I was too, I'd been on a knife's edge all day, first just wanting to see him and then waiting to talk to him alone.

“I still don't really. But I made a couple friends on the team and I didn't do too badly. I actually think I learned something, being a part of that – but it was really just so Robin could do what he wanted, you know?”

“Huh,” Alec said, stroking his chin dramatically. “Do you think that...nah!”

“What?”

“Well, I was just wondering – thinking out loud, you understand...”

“Alec, what?”

“Do you think Robin knows you'd do about anything for him?”

“Duh.”

“So do you think – maybe – it's possible he was moping about wanting to do wrestling, thinking you'd offer to go with him?”

“You...no, he'd have just....why would he do that?” I asked in confusion.

“Probably just to see you in that tight little wrestling thing,” Alec snickered.

“No, wait a second,” I said, thinking. “He...oh, that sneaky little...” I laughed.

“What?”

“He showed up here, kind of bumming around and when I asked him what was up he told me his friends were getting ready to start wrestling. I told him I'd come to every game.”

“Yeah.”

“He said they were called matches, or something – I never got that part down – but then when he said that it would be too much time apart and I said I'd join? Do you know he had an application for the team in his bag?”

“Hah, sounds like he wanted his wrestling and to eat you too! Oh, wait, that came out wrong,” he said and we both dissolved into giggles.

“I have to go to bed, but I wish I could sit up all night and talk to you, Lu. I really missed you, no joke. Come here,” he said and I was back into a crushing embrace, someplace where I could barely breathe but felt so, so secure.

“This summer, we'll have to spend a night, you and me, up all night – just talking. I don't want anything important to you to get away from me, okay?” Alec asked, slowly rocking me side to side.

“Promise,” I said.

BB

Alec brought me to school in the morning, late, and I raced to my locker before my first class and was delighted when a folded heart fell from the open locker. I snagged it and took it to class with me.

“Hey, Cowboy, you got another little love note?” Sophie asked.

“Yeah,” I replied with a grin and took my seat. I unfolded the heart which had a math problem inside – 2 Loved 2 Be 4 Gotten. I just grinned a the corny note and tucked it into my book.

“Can you get Robin to give my boyfriend lessons? He thinks penis shaped candy is the height of wit.”

“He didn't!”

“He did,” she shook her head. “I swear – you will tell me if Austin ever decides to try my side of the field, right?”

“Yeah, “ I said with a chuckle. “He's still trying to figure out what he wants. You met Cole, right?”

“Yeah, the Spring Formal. That seems like a pretty big deal to bring someone to that you aren't sure about, you know.”

“He knows he likes Cole, he knows Cole likes him. He's just not sure, yet, about if he's into boys or girls or both. I think he's into both, honestly.”

“Well, Cole better be nice or I'll pounce on that one. Mm, mm!”

“He's still getting those texts, he got one yesterday as a matter of fact.”

“That'd freak me right out,” she said and opened her book as the bell rang. “He needs to figure out who's doing that.”

Yeah, he does, I thought. But how? The rest of the day flew by. Our older brothers all went out, it being Friday, and I hung out with Robin at his house. Austin and Cole were meeting in town and we didn't want to infringe on their date time.

“Hi, Lucien, come on in,” Mrs. Kirkwood said as I arrived. “He's in the shower, I had him doing some yard work before dinner.”

“Thanks. How are you, Mrs. Kirkwood?” I asked, kicking my shoes off onto the mat by the door.

“Very well, thank you. Excited school is almost over?”

“Yeah! Alec and I are going to go hunting for a car for me. I can't wait!”

“It sounds like it!” she laughed. “That reminds me, we'll have to start thinking about a car for Robin, too. What do you think he'd like?”

“I don't think he cares that much,” I told her honestly. “I mean, he thinks a car is a car – just transportation and I have to tell you, I just don't get that.”

I'd followed her into the kitchen and sat down on one of the bar stools at the island. She was wrapping things from dinner and she glanced at me before asking, “Well, I'd like to look into something that would be useful. With Kale getting ready to go to college next year, I need someone to make grocery trips and take Jamie to school.”

“Well, he told me he's not a fan of leather seats,” I told her. “He says they burn his legs when they get hot in the summer so cloth is good.”

“Oh, that's good to know. Anything else?”

“Around here, four wheel drive would be nice,” I said, thinking out loud. “I also think you should find him a blue car to match his eyes.”

“Ha! Well, it would be a pretty color,” she agreed. “Thanks, that's far more information than we've gotten from Robin.” Robin came down the stairs two at a time in shorts and a tee shirt and hugged me from behind.

“Hi,” he said and kissed my cheek.

“Hi,” I said with a giggle.

“Come watch a movie with me?”

“Sure,” I said, climbing down from the stool. We went downstairs where there was a TV set up for the kids. Mr. Kirkwood claimed the one upstairs in the TV room, but the one downstairs had games and other stuff for the Kirkwood boys.

“Jamie is sleeping over at a friends house,” Robin told me. We climbed onto the loveseat and he flicked on the TV with the remote and started navigating to Netflix.

“Cool,” I said, placing a hand on his exposed thigh. He shifted a little, a grin playing across his face.

“So your birthday is coming up, is there anything in particular you want?” I asked.

“I don't know. Want to picnic or something? It's a little tough since your license is still a few months out. I could probably borrow the car after my drivers test, but I think I'm not allowed to have passengers for like, six months after passing my test or something. You know,” he said twisting his lips in thought. “I know it's a couple years off, but I don't like that I'm a year ahead of you, even though we're the same age. I mean, my birthday is at the end of June and yours is in October but you're a year behind me. We don't have any classes together and I'm going to graduate first. That sucks.”

“That was out of the blue. What does this have to do with your birthday?” I asked.

“I don't know. I've just been thinking about it, it bothers me.” He shrugged and then said, “I don't care what we do for my birthday, really. We'll have a party here I guess, have some kids over from school. They'll go home and I'll try to talk my mom into letting you stay over.”

“Do you think Kale said something to her? Is that why she's so suspicious?”

“I don't know,” he said. “Maybe it's just 'cause we're teens, maybe they think we're not going to last or something. Maybe she just doesn't like the idea of us sleeping together.”

“Do you think she suspects we've...slept together?”

“She acts pretty omnipotent; it's hard to tell what she knows and doesn't. Of course she knows we're a couple, but I kind of hate to think she knows about the sex just because everyone's made it such a big deal. Plus, it's kind of embarrassing to have your mom thinking about those things.”

“Yeah. I guess it must be weird to think of your kids doing stuff like that,” I agreed. “Speaking of which, these shorts are a little small on you.”

“I know,” he grinned slyly. “How about a comedy?”

“Okay,” I said and leaned against him, tracing his thigh muscles as he flipped through the selections.

“This one is supposed to be good, try it?” he asked and I nodded.

It was kind of silly, but we enjoyed it. Mrs. Kirkwood popped down a few times, checking laundry or, more likely, checking on us. At one point she asked if we wanted popcorn and I think we surprised her when we said yes and went upstairs to make it. I find it really annoying that people think our whole relationship is about trying to have sex.

It wasn't that we didn't want to, or that we hadn't – far from it. It was just that the sex was a small part of the whole thing. Thanks to Alec tweaking Kale's nose so effectively, everyone thought we were constantly sneaking off to stick something in each others orifices. Nights like this were just awesome, enjoying a silly movie and being close to him was my idea of a great date night.

I think the problem was made worse because I was so touchy feely with him. Everyone assumed if I was hugging up on him or we were kissing that we must be doing everything else, too. The fact is, we get about as little alone time as any other pair of horny teenagers. There's rules about keeping doors open and things like being checked on every so often to make sure dicks are still behind buckles and snaps...it was hard to find time for any type of sex stuff, really.

We headed back down with the popcorn and finished the movie, then he started another one – something adventurous. He put the bowl away and propped himself into the corner of the love seat with his legs across me. I promptly resumed stroking his skin, but then something dawned on me. At some point my hand strayed farther up his leg than I had before and I noted the lack of an undergarment. I looked at Robin, who was smiling.

“It's been a while,” he said quietly. I ran my hand up the leg of his shorts and under, verifying that there was nothing underneath but skin. His mother started down the stairs again and I began to withdraw my hand, but he pulled me down instead and I lay on my side, my head on his thigh.

“Watch this, it's cool,” Robin said as his mother's shoes hit the floor. My hand was trapped, pressed against his erection.

“Can we go back to comedies? This is boring,” I said, moving my fingers subtly.

“You don't like this?” he asked, shifting on the loveseat and pushing himself into me.

“Robin, be nice. Lucien is your guest, you guys should watch something you both like,” she said and opened the dryer.

“Okay, mom,” he said. “You sure you don't like this?” he asked me, pushing again.

“I'll see if it gets better,” I said. He grinned.

His mother had barely made it to the top of the stairs before I had his shorts down and my head in his lap. He was right - it had been a while.

BB

Saturday, Alec and I were out the door about ten and cruising used car lots. He was trying to find me something better than his old shit-box, but I didn't have the money for anything on a lot. So he checked out Craig's List and I flipped through a local classified ad magazine. We looked at a couple of them, but they didn't do anything for me. I wanted something with character, something unusual, and the cars we were finding were pretty much run of the mill.

“I'm afraid this is probably what you're going to find for the money, bud,” Alec told me as we examined a purple Dodge Neon.

“I don't mind getting something that needs work,” I told him, “I just don't want something...common.”

“Hey,” he said with a laugh and a hand on my shoulder. “It doesn't get much more common than a Nissan Sentra, like I had. If it's a special car, people want real money for it.”

“I don't mean special like...look,” I said as we turned and headed back to his car. “What made the POS special was you and what we all did in it. You're not dumb, I know you are aware of that. But none of these cars says fun to me. I gotta find something I can love.”

“It's okay to love your car, just don't love your car,” Alec laughed. “Besides, love is expensive. Do you know how much duct tape I used on that old car of mine?”

“I'll put real parts in it,” I grinned as I buckled by belt. “It'll be something fun to do with Robin and the Hamster.”

“You're not talking...”

“No,” I said, dragging the word out. “I'm not sharing Robin with anyone.”

“Oh, possessive are we?”

“Hell yeah,” I said. “Robin's too pretty for his own good. The part that causes trouble is he doesn't realize it. At school there's all these gay boys in the closet or the ones that think they might be bi? Everyone of them hits on him and he's just clueless.”

“Well, maybe he's trying not to encourage them,” Alec offered as he pulled up to the next address, a sagging Toyota rusting on someone's front lawn.

“I don't even want to get out of the car for that one,” I said and Alec pulled away from the curb. I gave him the next address and he resumed driving.

“You could be right, of course. Robin's not dumb – far from it, he's Honor Roll. But that doesn't mean he's always clued in when these boys and girls hit on him.”

“Girls too, huh? Don't they know he's dating you?”

“Please,” I said, waving my hand. “There are so many girls hoping this is a phase? Like they want to be there just in case he suddenly craves vagina? It's really unbelievable.”

“Geez. I mean, Robin's pretty but...damn.”

“Yeah, and that's only half the reason they chase him. I wish he'd be mean about it sometimes so they'd stop.”

“What's the other reason? You said half the reason is he's pretty...”

“Well, he's smart, comes from money, his daddy's a judge, so...”

“Yeah. So, do you ever get mean? To the folks hitting on him?”

“No. He's always telling me it doesn't mean anything and to let it go. I think it just encourages them to wait him out.”

“I'll have to ask Kale if anyone ever hit on Chase while they were dating,” he mused.

“Please, Alec, don't tell Kale about any of this. When it comes to Robin he's the definition of overprotective. Ever since Charlie died...I'm doing a good job of taking care of Robin, you know? He's okay.”

We pulled up to the next address and climbed out. The car was a Mitsubishi covered in black primer. “You know,” Alec said as we circled the car. “You can't ask Kale to stop caring or worrying about his brother. If Robin thinks it's overkill, he should be the one to talk to him.”

I ran my hand down the seam between the door and the front fender, noting the uneven gap. “I know, I've never said anything to Kale – exactly for that reason. I guess Robin doesn't mind too much, though, because he's never spoken to Kale as far as I know. Plus, I won't ask him to. It might put a wedge someplace and I don't want to do that. I can deal.”

“I think it was in an accident,” Alec said. “Look at how the nose doesn't line up with the rest of the body.”

“Yeah. I don't want it,” I said and we walked back to the car.

“I think it's smart, you trying not to get between Kale and Robin. Sometimes family stuff can get weird.” He started the car and we moved on.

“Yeah, probably. I mean, eventually it'll have to be dealt with but, realistically, I'm just happy being with him. Plus, Kale will go to school in the fall and I know Robin is going to miss him – so the last thing I want to do is look like I'm being unreasonable about Kale.”

“You're so smart,” Alec laughed. “I would have been all 'what the fuck?' at your age.”

“Well, it's not all about smarts or maturity,” I admitted. “Kale has been pretty good to me, too. I think he struggles with letting someone else care for Robin, or more like letting someone take care of Robin. Since our weird little family calls each other brothers all the time you think he'd get it, but I think he's enough of a control freak that he struggles with letting that go. I mean, I do feel like that – Kale and Chase have been there for me – rides, hanging out some and making me miss you and Sash not hurt so much. Kale's even gotten pretty decent at hugging, even though I kind of have to take it from him instead of him just giving it.”

“I figured Chase would be more of a natural hugger,” Alec mused.

“He is. Now that he has Austin he's practically giddy – which I know is kind of normal for him, but now he's pretty open about identifying all his little brothers for anyone that will listen. But Kale's hugs are a little more...guarded. Still, I think he needs them.”

“Hey, maybe you're doing more taking care of Kale than the other way around.”

“I don't know. He just looks like he needs them, sometimes. You know,” I said as I thought it through, “He doesn't look that way now that you're back. I wonder if he looks at me and misses you?”

“Get out!” Alec laughed.

“No, really. He's all better now that you're back. Whoa! Wait, stop!”

“What is it?” he asked.

“Look! What is that thing?” I asked.

“That box?”

“Yeah! Nobody has anything like that! Can we go look?” It was behind a few other cars on the lot of an old garage.

“Okay, why not?” he said and pulled over. I hopped out of the car and dodged between a few derelict cars to the metallic-blue box. All the tires were flat, it was covered in dirt and the rubber from the wipers was hanging in ragged banners. I poked my head up to the drivers side window I noted the long stick shift, the chairs with arm rests – which Alec's car had sorely lacked – and the gap between the two front seats wide enough to walk through. Glancing towards the back there were two seats, one each behind the passenger and driver seats, a wide gap and a large bench seat in the back.

Alec was looking in through the other side and grinned. “There's a fold up table in the middle, it's sweet!”

“Think it's for sale?”

“We can ask,” Alec said as he came around the blunt nose of the van. “Come on, let's take a closer look first.”

Walking around the body there were a few scratches, but nothing major. The wheel wells had a couple of spots bubbled up by rust, but again nothing major. The body seemed straight and the paint matched all the way around so there was no evidence of major damage. The more I looked at it, the cooler I thought it was.

We walked over to the garage and I felt a little spring in my step. The building looked like it had started life as a gas station of some kind with an attached garage for repairs. The canopy for the fuel tanks was still there but in a very dilapidated state and the pumps were gone – just bare threads from the rods that, once upon a time, held those pumps in place. The stucco was falling off in chunks and the paint was peeling anywhere there was any. We walked to the door and it actually tinkled as we hit a bell by moving it.

The inside was just as run down. There were books on the rows of shelving across the far wall – names like Chilton and others I couldn't read for the grease and grime blotting out letters. An old metal office desk dominated the left half of the room, piled high with auto repair industry magazines and business forms. I heard the flush of a toilet and a man appeared from a door hidden in the far left of the room at the end of the bookshelves.

“Hey, customers,” the old man said before easing himself into the wooden chair behind the desk, which squeaked its surprise. “What can I do ya for?”

“I wanted to ask about the blue van out front?” I asked.

“Sure, what do you want to know?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and lighting a cigarette.

“Is it for sale?” I asked

“What's wrong with it?” Alec asked at the same time.

“Yes, it can be bought and there is a lot wrong. That there is a Volkswagen Vanagon, a '91. The last year they made them. I got that one when it pulled up lame following the Grateful Dead or whomever. They couldn't afford to fix and there it sat since...” he looked up in thought, “Maybe 2006?”

“Wow, that long?” Alec asked, shooting me a worried look.

“Yep, it's a pig in a poke, no question. I'd wager, sitting that long, most of the hoses are cracked, not sure about the brake lines and I don't know what was wrong with it originally. Tires will be toast, too. It's a project.”

“Well, thanks,” Alec said but before he could get farther I jumped in.

“How much?”

The old man raised an eyebrow. “You like a challenge, do ya?”

“I'm a Kutsenko. Fixing this car up makes me just like my brother, so yeah, I want it.”

“Lucien, first? You're supposed to bargain. Second? You really need to work on your poker face.”

“Kutsenko?” the man swiveled his watery eyes to Alec. “You know Sal Zappala?”

“Zap? Sure I do – he and Travis,” Alec replied.

“Thought so,” he said. Turning to me the old man said, “Mr. Kutsenko, I'll be retiring soon, was going to have everything hauled off for scrap and just take the bucks. Let me find the title and we'll get it towed to you, no charge. Frankly, I hope you get her running – but it looks like a gumption trap to me. But even if you haul it off for scrap, I guess it's a thank you anyway.”

“Thank you for what?” I asked.

He stood and held his hand out to Alec. “Frank Zappala, Nonno to Sal. My grandson says you about walk on water.”

Alec took the offered hand, smiling and said, “Zap's a great kid. I wished I'd gotten to play with him.”

“He worked hard, made us proud. Anyway, let me find the title and you give me an address. I'll drop it off next week – you see some cars have to go before I can get to it.”

We walked back to Alec's car and buckled in. “Congratulations, that thing is a bigger hunk of junk than mine was!” Alec laughed.

“You wait, Alec,” I replied with a side grin. “We're going to have some great times in that.”

“Uh huh, I know what kind of times you're thinking, too. Speaking of, you decided what you're getting Robin for his birthday?”

“I think so. I have to talk to mom and dad tonight and, if that works out okay, go to the guidance office Monday and see what I can do.”

Alec pulled out onto the road and asked, “I don't get it.”

“Robin has everything,” I said. “In case you've forgotten, my boyfriend comes from money. I can't even afford to buy him the kind of shirts he's used to. Plus I have to listen to people's crap if I buy him clothes because then they say I just want to see him in them.”

“So? I want to see Sash in some things, it's why I get them for him.”

“Yeah, but you did such a good job making sure everyone knew we had sex that night, everyone thinks everything I do is about wanting to get into his pants,” I complained.

“So, just to be clear, you don't want in his pants? What kind of a boyfriend are you?”

“Alec!” I said and slapped his arm. “Of course I want in his pants, but I want way more than that.”

“Like what?” he asked, pretending to be dense. I knew he was just fishing to see what I'd say, but it was still a little aggravating.

“Alec, Robin's way more than a pretty face – it's the way I feel when I'm with him. It's...content. Balanced. If I had a crappy day I feel better when I'm with him.” I shrugged, “I'm not sure how to put it any better than that – he makes everything better.”

“Geez, you're going to give me a toothache with all this sweetness, Lu,” Alec said and gave me a light punch in the shoulder. “Aren't there any worries in paradise?”

“A little. Like...he says it worries him that he's going to graduate a year ahead of me. Who thinks that far out?”

“Someone who loves you, I guess.”

“Well, we're the same age. I just got held back moving through a few different schools. But that's why I'm going to ask the parents if I can get their support to try and graduate when he does.”

“That's...a huge commitment, Lu.”

“I know,” he said glumly. “I'm not exactly an honor roll student, either. But I can get help and it'll make him happy.”

“As a back up, can I make a suggestion?”

“Okay,” I said, rolling my eyes.

“You mention clothes? I have this underwear catalog...”

I burst out laughing and looked at my grinning brother. “Give it to me later.”

We drove the rest of the way in companionable silence, heading back to our home. I decided not to tell the parents about my new vehicle just yet. Perhaps that would be easier to take after I committed myself to this educational grindstone.

BB

“Well, to do what you're suggesting, Lucien, means you'd get no electives. It's fairly easy to double up on English and Social Studies classes because, unlike Math, the concepts taught in previous years aren't required to understand the following year. But, if we double up those two classes we can keep you on track and simply add in a Math elective in the senior year. I have to be honest, though,” Mrs. Gerard said, “This is going to be a lot of work.”

“I know. That's why I'm here, to figure out if I can do it.”

“Well, as your guidance counselor, I took a look at your records after your mom called me this morning. You've always been a solid student, though not an outstanding one. May I ask why the sudden academic interest?”

“When I first thought of this, I only had one reason – to graduate with my boyfriend. But as I've considered it I realized I want to make my mark like my brother did. People won't think I changed the world and I'm not going to win any football games, but I'll bet you remember I got this done.”

“I would, yes indeed. If you did accomplish this, I daresay it could look good for college,” she smiled. “Your parents support you – I'll have a letter sent home with the particulars. Good luck, Lucien.”

I sailed through my day, not caring how much work this was going to be. Robin would not believe it and that was way better than anything else I can think of. Still, I should probably get that back-up plan going since his birthday was mere weeks away.

So there I was, at home with my legs crossed as I stretched on my bed and examined the underwear catalog. I was just minding my own business when there was some noise downstairs and I think I heard my mother gasp all the way up in my room. It could only mean one thing: my bus was here!

I ran downstairs, taking them two at a time, and ran to the door where Mr. Zappala stood with an envelope.

“There he is,” the old man said. “The scrap guys were eager to take the other stuff so it happened faster than I thought. Here're the title and keys, signed all legal-like. Be careful, these old cars can get expensive.”

“Thank you!” I said enthusiastically. Mr. Zappala tipped his hat and headed back down the steps. I turned, beaming at my parents with the keys in my hand.

“I think you owe us an explanation,” my dad said as he and my mom looked somewhat bemused.

“It's Alec's fault,” I began reasonably. “He bought his own car with his own money and did the work. I have until October to get it running right and...”

“I knew it, it doesn't run,” my mother said, covering her mouth to hide the laugh.

“If it helps, Alec tried to talk me out of it. He said I deserved something better but I told him I wanted to do it the way he did it.”

“I really wish you had talked to us first. That thing looks pretty decrepit.” Dad was looking out the window at the bus, slumped down on four flat tires.

“Yep, but the price was right.”

“You paid something for it?” Mom gasped.

“Nope. The guy that owned it is Zap's grandpa – he said I could have it.”

“Well, at least there is that. You know,” Dad said, as he turned from with window to look at me, “Alec isn't exactly an authority on buying cars. I could have helped you, we could have financed something in a few months or you could have saved for the summer.”

“I know,” I said as I slipped my sneakers on. “Alec said the same thing. But I told him I wanted to do it like he did. I'm going to get my detailing stuff and clean it out!”

I ran out front and unlocked the sliding door, which groaned open. It was hot inside it and it smelled kind of moldy or something. I decided to air it out first and opened all the doors and then any windows I could get to. The tailgate wouldn't stay up, so I left that alone. I started wiping down the dash and anything that wasn't cloth. I cleaned out the glove box, which didn't want to stay closed afterward, and the ashtray was full of coins and, I think, the stub of a joint.

I washed the windows from the inside and then got my portable vacuum hooked up. I was cleaning away when a finger to my ribs just about scared the crap out of me. I switched off the vacuum to see a grinning Robin and Austin, who looked vaguely confused.

“What the hell...is this?” Austin asked as he started to laugh and walk around the bus.

“It's my bus!” I replied excitedly, ignoring his laughter.

“Babe,” Robin said, his eyes roving the dirty box. “What ever made you buy this?”

“Better question,” Austin asked as he finished walking around it. “Why are you cleaning it? You can't polish a turd.”

“Hey, Hamster? Shove it,” I said while sticking my tongue out. Then I turned to my boyfriend, “I got it myself and I'm going to fix it myself, just like Alec.”

“Lucien, that's sweet of you, but you don't have to copy everything Alec does,” Robin smiled and his eyes went wide as he looked at the bus again. “This looks like a ton of work. Do you even know if it runs?”

“Nope. But I know what we're doing this summer!” I said with a grin.

“Oh, wait a second,” Austin laughed.

“Nope, as my boyfriend and my best friend, you guys are committed.”

“Oh, man,” Austin said as he gave the bus some side eye. “You're going to play the best friend card on me?”

“Yep.”

Robin was looking inside and noted the table. “I guess you could use it for games or eating. Didn't they used to make these into campers?”

“I don't know. There's an owner's manual in the glove box.”

“We're going to need a repair manual, I'd guess,” Robin said thoughtfully. “I don't see a hood, where's the engine?”

“I...” I frowned, “I don't know.”

“Wow, we are pretty mighty mechanics. We don't even know where the engine is,” Austin laughed. We joined him with giggles and started hunting around to find the engine. We eventually found it in the back, under a hatch that was inside the van. It was covered in spider webs and all kinds of dirt and grease.

“That looks disgusting,” Robin said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“Well, I have to get home. I still have that English homework to get done,” Austin said. “I guess we should do some research and we'll need some tools.”

“Yeah. Alec offered duct tape,” I said sourly.

“That's what held his car together ,” Robin laughed. Austin headed out and Robin suggested we wash the outside before he had to leave. He said it would make it look better, at least. So I got out the buckets and sponges I used for my detailing work and we got started. We were done pretty quick, but the rinsing off is where I discovered this was just a ploy by my sneakier-than-I-thought boyfriend. No sooner had he gotten done spraying the van off than he turned the hose on me. I shrieked at the cold water and ran to the other side of the van, hidden from him and the hose.

He came around the corner, without the hose and I was pushing water from my face. Then he surprised me again by pushing me up against the side of the bus and laying an epic lip lock on me. I was gasping for breath when he pulled back and I asked, “What was that for?”

“You like legs, I like your skin wet.” He glanced down and added, “The soaked, clinging t-shirt isn't bad either.”

“Noted,” I smiled.

BB

As the week progressed I thought more and more on Robin's birthday. Graduating with him was really something for us both, I reasoned, because I didn't want him to leave me behind, either. I was also worried that he'd get in somewhere I couldn't, but I'd worry about that when the time came. For now, I had a plan – but the birthday gift was killing me. I'd found two pairs of underwear – and ordered them with Alec's card – but that wasn't a gift I could give him in front of everyone. I loved him in v-neck shirts, but he didn't like them as well. Not without something under them which I admit looked good, but not as good as skin.

I also didn't want to get him something cliché like a broken heart necklace...but I realized I hadn't considered jewelry as a whole. I didn't want to get him a ring – first off I didn't know his finger size and secondly I thought that would put some symbolic pressure on him that I didn't want. A necklace was okay, but they always dangle when people move and sometimes get put under clothes, making them useless. No earrings – thank goodness, Robin didn't seem to be interested and I didn't care for the idea of him with earrings.

I decided a bracelet was the way to go. That Saturday we all piled into Alec's car and decided to go into Binghamton to the open air mall. It was two or three blocks of shops with a pedestrian-only walkway between them. Many stores had displays out in the open air and the eateries had outdoor seating. Austin, Robin and I walked over to a storefront that sold over-sized gourmet cookies and got in line. While we were there, Austin got another text from his stalker and I had to admit, if it were me, I'd have been disturbed. This was not a secret admirer kind of thing, it was someone telling him how he'd pin him to a floor or a wall and just do him.

“Maybe you should just change the number,” Robin said. “If the guy is willing to blow cash on a disposable phone – and more than one – maybe that's the way to go.”

“Yeah, I was thinking that, too,” Austin said as he put his phone away. We stepped up to the counter and the guy behind the register asked what we'd like, but his tone was overly friendly and he was making eyes at Robin.

“I'll have the M&M chocolate chip,” I said, not masking my irritation. Robin noticed my tone of voice by giving me a curious look, but seemed clueless to the guy behind the counter, as usual. He never knew when people were flirting with him.

“That sounds good, but I want to try the snicker doodle,” Robin said, bringing his eyes from the list and smiling at the guy behind the counter. Yeah, the clerk was obviously taken because Austin had to tell him twice what he wanted.

“Any drinks?” the clerk asked.

“You want a cider, babe?” I asked Robin, emphasizing the endearment.

“Yeah, that sounds good.”

“Hamster?”

“No, thanks,” I turned back to the clerk and paid, not wanting Robin any closer to this guy. Jeez, I never thought of myself as the jealous type but I had to let this guy know Robin was taken. I thought I'd made my point, but I was so wrong.

I took our order from the guy and brought the stuff over to Robin and Austin. Robin pulled the cookie out absently and bit, but almost immediately frowned.

“Hey, this isn't what I ordered. Hang on, let me get another one,” he said and walked back over to the counter. I watched, nibbling my cookie, as the guy make apologetic gestures and replaced the cookie – actually gave him two. Robin rejoined us and pulled his cookie from its sleeve and a paper fluttered out. A name and number. Paul. An invitation to call him since he - he being my Robin - was so cute.

“Hey, where did this come from?” Robin asked as he examined the paper. Austin started to giggle but I wasn't so amused. I took the paper from Robin and then dragged him back to the counter.

“Paul?” I said to the guy. He turned to us uncertainly. “You're right, my boyfriend is so cute.” I turned to Robin and laid a lip lock on him. He responded automatically, opening his mouth and wrapping his arms around me. Austin coughed, as our public display of affection went on past the thirty second mark and I pulled back. I looked at Paul and said, “I appreciate the sentiment, but back off.”

We walked away and Austin started to build up from a snicker to a giggle until, finally, he was shaking with laughter.

“What's so funny?” I asked.

“I just...I've never seen you jealous before. Robin, was it good for you?”

“Hamster, my ego is so big right now,” Robin said with a smile.

“Because some random guy gave you his number?” I asked, narrowing my eyes.

“Because my boyfriend made sure everyone in the street knew whom I belonged to,” he said with a grin.

I nodded my head, smiling, “I guess that was a little possessive.”

“I'm not complaining, it was a new experience. I might have to start paying guys to walk up and hand me random phone numbers just to get intense make outs like that.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Just what's wrong with my normal make-outs?”

“They're great,” Robin said and gave me a lopsided grin, “But that one was epic.” He giggled and dragged me forward.

Hamster groaned, looking at his phone and I asked the obvious question. “Him again?”

“This guy must have money to keep getting phones or he's borrowing his friend's,” Austin complained.

“What does this one say?” Robin asked.

“Ugh, seriously?” Austin asked.

“Come on, tell us what the perv wants this time.”

“He says he wants to film his purple headed staff as it glides between my muscled dick grippers. Seriously? This is like bad porn.”

“Dick grippers?” I said and just about fell over laughing. When we recovered we quickly rejoined the others while I kept a look out for anything that could inspire me to find the perfect gift. I spotted a few jewelry counters but only one was interesting to me. I had to find a way to get away from Robin for a bit. I tapped Kale on the arm and leaned into him.

“I saw a spot I want to check out for Robin's birthday present. Can you keep him busy?”

“Sure,” Kale smiled. He whispered to Chase who passed it to Alec and Sasha – I was picturing some weird game of telephone and was afraid to think what the final message was. But, as a group, they surrounded Robin and herded him off to a clothing store. Subtle, guys.

I walked back to this shop where they make custom metal jewelry. I saw a few examples, but right away I knew what I wanted.

“Hey,” said the lady in the shop as she lifted her welding mask. She had a leather apron on and was working with some metal and heat to shape something that wasn't recognizable to me. She turned off her torch and set her mask on the counter and gave me a smile.

“Hi. I was looking at the jewelry and stuff, I was pretty amazed with the colors,” I said.

“Oh, well thank you,” she replied with a wide smile and walked over to the display case. “The colors are great, lets people customize things. Was there something you wanted to see or do you have an idea for a special piece?”

I glanced down at the metal bracelets, thin rods of metal twisted like rope and a silver metal ball welded to each end. The pre-made ones were sixty eight bucks, I was afraid what a custom job would cost – but I had an idea and I had my car money.

“I was thinking of something custom for my boyfriend,” I looked up at her and said, “it's his first birthday with us being together and I wanted to get him something really special.”

She put her elbow on the counter and rested her chin in her palm, “Aw, aren't you the sweetest thing. What's your idea?”

Thinking of the roses we'd exchanged and of our history, I wanted something that represented all of that. A culmination of how far we'd come, as it were. “Well, I'm thinking of using five colors. Is there a list of them?”

“Come over here, these are my barrels of stock,” she said and showed me the array of colored metals she had to work with.

“Oh, this is great,” I said and began to feel excited. “Okay, so I want...this blue, for his eyes and that green for mine. Then I need something to represent his birthstone,” I said.

“Is it in June?” she asked.

“Yeah, just a week away.”

“Well, June has a few options but I think we should go with these guys for the ends,” she said and produced two glazed looking ball bearings. “Instead of chrome, these will look like pearls once they get heated to weld them. Now, the other stones referenced for birthstones for June are moonstone and something called alexandrite. The trouble with those two is they come in a variety of colors, so pearl is probably the way to go.”

“So, four bands of color then,” I thought. “Okay so we have the blue and the green and I need one for my birthstone, which is October.”

“Well, that's another tricky one I think. Hang on, I usually know the current month because people are asking but I'm not so good at remembering them all,” she said and rummaged behind the counter before producing a small book. Thumbing through it she grunted. “Yeah, that's what I thought. October is tourmaline or opal, both can come in a bunch of colors. You know, though,” she said and tapped her finger to her chin.

“What?”

“Well, when brass gets heated it can turn some pretty colors which could look a little like some of the Opalescent stones. Or you could just pick a solid color.”

“No,” I said excitedly, “your idea sounds best.”

“What's the last color?”

“Red, for Charlie,” I said.

"Who's Charlie? He your boyfriend?” she asked, selecting the colors we'd discussed.

“He was Robin's first boyfriend. He died.”

She paused and looked over at me.

“I want Robin, my boyfriend, to know I haven't forgotten. I don't take for granted that I have Robin now, but I wouldn't if Charlie hadn't passed. I have to respect that.”

“Well, that sounds like about the best reason I can think of to remember an old boyfriend.”

“How much will this cost and how long will it take?” I asked.

She lay the rods out before her with the ball bearings and did some calculations. “Well, Just 'cause I like your story, I'll charge you what I would for something I already made – seventy. You can pick it up in a day or two. That work?”

“Yes,” I said. “I'll get my brother to bring his bank card over and pay for it, I have the cash at home to give back to him.”

“Okay, let's fill out an order form then.”

BB

Sunday morning Hamster, Alec and I sifted through the tools and stuff that Alec had left over in the garage from his old car. I wasn't sure how to use it all, but I figured this was a good time to get him to show me since he was making noises about a summer job. Once we'd assembled the stuff into a pile Hamster offered to organize it while Alec and I went to the auto parts store for a battery, anti-freeze, oil and filter so we could try some basics today.

Alec walked around the store, collecting the various things I'd need. I'd brought cash with me and was stupidly pleased to be able to buy this stuff, officially kicking off this restoration. He grabbed brake fluid in addition to the other stuff and asked for prices and availability on brake pads, shoes and such. We piled the stuff into his trunk and then climbed back in the car. He put the key in the ignition and paused, turning slightly to me.

“Lucien, I kind of envy you right now, you know.”

“Why?”

“When I got my car...well, Dad and I could work on it but he wasn't into it like you guys are. I didn't even have friends to make fixing it memorable. I mean, yeah, they bust your stones but you're right – once you get things going you're going to have a blast.”

“Well, you'll come too and you're helping, Alec,” I said and frowned as a sad look crossed his face. “What is it?”

“It's stupid,” he said as he started the car. I put my hand over his as he reached to put it into gear.

“What, Alec?”

“It's just...I bought that piece of shit 'cause I didn't think I deserved to have Mom and Dad blow bucks on me for a decent car. Then you come along and say you want to be just like me and you buy some jalopy...”

“Alec,” I said, a little disturbed in this crack in his personality. Nothing got to him, he was tough as nails.

“I told you it was stupid, I'm just being...”

“Alec, come on. Don't make me talk about how awesome you are, we'd both get embarrassed,” I said with a shove. He smiled, but I could tell whatever was bothering him was still there. “Really, what's wrong?”

He moved the car into reverse and then pulled us out of the lot and back on the road home. “I defended that car, and I was kind of proud it lasted as long as it did. But, Lu, I don't want junk for you. I want things to be better for you – you deserve it.”

“You keep saying that, Alec. We loved that stupid car – I want to make more great times just like you gave us.”

He shook his head and smiled, “I guess there really is more ways than one to look at something.”

“Alec, why would you think you didn't deserve something nice? That's insane, you're...”

“I know, a superhero, can do anything.” He reached over and messed my hair. “Don't inflate my ego, it's not safe.”

I put my hair back in place with my fingers. “This isn't over, Alec,” I warned him.

Once back we started in earnest. We changed the oil, topped up the coolant and installed the battery. I opened the drivers door and heard a three note chime and the light over the door was on. I was so excited! I was trying to think of some goofy pronouncement to make about the magnitude of turning the key for the first time, but Austin said something about my inability to turn anything on and the moment was lost. I turned the key and the engine turned over slowly, groaning in protest. I let the key off and then hit it again. It turned a little faster and then, suddenly, burst into life.

“Whoa!” I exclaimed and hopped out of the driver's seat to join the other two in staring at the engine – like we knew something about it. The idle was anything but smooth, running faster and then slowing down but I'd thought it didn't run at all so this was great. The engine rocked from side to side like a mechanical drunk.

“Let's see if it'll move,” Alec suggested and I climbed back into the driver's seat and pushed the clutch in. That should have been my first clue, in retrospect, that it went right to the floor but I didn't know enough about it yet. I pushed the brake which held for a moment, and then went right to the floor.

“Turn it off! Turn it off!” Alec called out. I shut it down and ran back to them. Alec was laying on the ground, looking under the bus.

“What's wrong?”

“Uh, you're leaking vital fluids, here.”

“What is it?” I asked as the clear fluid dripped steadily. Alec lay on his back and wiggled under the bus and I did the same.

“Brake line.” He pointed to a thin metal line covered in rust, now damp from the leaking fluid.

“Wow, that could be dangerous,” I said.

“Yeah,” Alec said absently and wiggled around the underside, glancing this way and that. “I think you'll need to replace all the lines, just to be safe. This thing was parked over dirt, not asphalt, so there was more moisture under it.”

“Okay,” I said. “Does that mean we can't start it again?”

“Well,” Alec sighed. “I'd go easy. Let's assess what we can, first. Now that it stopped, let's check the oil level and the rest, just to see if it's losing anything anywhere else.”

We worked on checking the various systems for leaks and then got the bus up onto jack stands so that we'd be able to better see the underside. I decided to do some research on my vehicle online and Austin and I went in to do just that.

He was tapping in search information while I washed my hands. Alec was showering to go out with his friends and the folks were out in the living room watching TV. I stood behind Austin and watched the screen.

“Damn. Lu, we better replace the fuel lines, look at this,” he said. I read the article quickly, detailing how the original lines developed cracks due to their age and could spray atomized fuel over the hot exhaust.

“Holy shit, yeah! That's on the list. I better start one, actually,” I said and pulled my phone out to do so.

“Hey, uh, Lu...bestie...”

I quirked an eyebrow at Austin. He was rarely shy, in fact he'd warmed right up after our trip to the mall on Christmas Eve.

“I'm just wondering....did you always like...guys? Like, attracted to them?”

“Well,” I said, putting my phone down. “Not in the womb, but right after that? Yeah.”

“Really? You're going to go all 'Alec' on me now?”

“I'm sorry, Hamster. It's just...I always was attracted to boys, even before I really knew I was attracted. So there wasn't any...I don't know...moment where I realized I was.”

“That sounds so much easier,” he muttered.

“What's going on, man?”

“It's Cole. Actually,” he said with a sigh, “It's me. But I think Cole's getting a little impatient with me, and I can't blame him.”

“What's up?” I asked, leaning back in my chair, like I'm not supposed to, and tilting it back on two legs.

“I like him, I really do. He's a really good looking guy...”

“But?”

“Well, I'm not sure I'm being fair to him. I don't want to lead him on. See,” he folded his hands on the table and his expression was truly troubled. “We've kissed and it was great – better than great. I was walking on air.”

“Okay, not hearing a problem,” I said.

“Well...” he moved his hands restlessly. “I don't know if I'm ready to say that I'm gay. I mean, I know – I shouldn't have taken him to the dance, that was just stupid.”

“You guys had a great time at the dance, you told me yourself.”

“I did, I did,” he conceded. “I was a little worried about bringing a guy as my date. But, I'm just a little...I still like girls, you know?”

“So?”

“So...how do I commit to Cole? He wants to...get more intimate.”

“Oh, I think I see why you're worried,” I said. I set my chair on the floor and said, “Hamster. If you want to fool around with Cole and he wants to fool around with you, then you should. You have to try it to know if you like it and Cole seems to be a pretty nice guy to find that out with.”

“Do you...well, yeah. I guess.”

“Hamster, you're fifteen. You don't have to decide right now if you like guys or girls better. Just be honest with Cole before, you know, you get your pee pee wet.”

“Lu!” he said, slightly scandalized but starting to laugh.

“What?” I said with a giggle. “Does pee pee sound funny to you?”

He laughed and said, “Not usually, but come on!”

“No! Look, it's the truth. If you're honest with Cole and realize you have to try things with him to know if you like it, that's the best anyone can ask for. If you guys don't work out, it won't be because you held back or weren't honest. It's okay, Austin, to let yourself fall in love.”

“Maybe you're right,” he sighed.

“Have you talked to Chase about any of this?”

“Oh, hell no.”

“Why not?” I asked, quizzically.

“He'd probably tell Kale and then everyone would be thinking I was having as much sex as you are,” he deadpanned.

“You,” I said, “are dead.” Next thing you know, I'm in trouble for wrestling in the house again.

BB

Alec came back in late and I was still in the kitchen looking things up about my bus. He ruffled my hair and asked me to join him, so I did. We sat out on the back deck, a pitcher of iced tea on the small table between us. I had kicked off my shoes and was lying with my hands behind my head and my feet crossed. A slight early summer breeze moved through my hair and I felt pretty happy.

“So, how come you go to Sasha with all your relationship problems?” Alec asked. I snorted.

“I don't have any relationship problems.”

“Well, all I see is pictures of you guys. You don't really talk to me about what's going on between you.”

“You're asking about sex, aren't you?” I dropped my hands back down into my lap in exasperation. “I don't tell you because anything you know – or you think you know – turns into something to tease Kale with.”

“So you're telling me you guys didn't go all the way your first night?”

“You know what?” I said, sitting up. “This is bullshit. You want to know if we had sex? Yes, we did. Did we fuck? No. We really did make love and anyone who thinks differently can fuck off.”

“Jesus, Lu, I'm sorry,” Alec said sitting up and holding his hands out.

“I am too, Alec. I love you and your sense of humor and so many things I can't even tell you – I want to be you, okay? I want people to love me like they do you – to be able to laugh and know hanging out with me is going to be fun because whatever it is, you'll make it fun. But I am so sick of everyone assuming Robin and I are just sex!” I threw myself back in the chair, crossing my arms and sighing deeply.

“I'm sorry, Lucien...”

“You know why I hate that so much?” I said, turning to look at him but keeping my closed off stance. “It cheats Robin. Yeah, I can go on about his body for a long time. Yes, I love his legs – and even he thinks it stops there – but I love his toes and his ankles and everything right up to the hair on his head.”

I sat back up and turned on the lounge chair to face him and pointed. “I know there are guys out there who are more muscular or stronger or who have bigger dicks and I don't care because of who that's all attached to. It's not fair to Robin when people say this shit because he's smart and he's caring and funny. I can tell you about the little romantic presents and notes until you're nauseated from all the sweetness, but the fact is I'm sick of all the focus on the tiny bit of a sex life we have.”

“Wow. I guess this has been building up for a while, huh?”

“You don't even know,” I said miserably. “Everyone checks up on us like we might drop trou any second no matter where we are. We just like being together – movies, homework, video games – it doesn't matter.”

“Well, I guess that's my fault,” Alec admitted glumly. “I didn't really think that one out too far ahead. That's one of those things I thought would be funny and kind of bit me in the ass.” He twisted his lips a little and said, “I'm not really someone you want to try to be.”

“Don't even try it,” I said, pushing his shoulder. “Just because you aren't perfect doesn't mean anything.”

I waited in silence for a few minutes, waiting for him to say something. Finally, it occurred to me that he was trying to not say something flip so he wouldn't make things worse – and he was coming up empty.

“Alec, what's going on with you?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, putting a fake smile on.

“Don't bullshit me, I know you. Whatever it is, I promise I'll listen. I'll even just shut up and listen if you want.”

He moved his lips in and out, pursed them and ran his hands down the cloth of his shorts as if they were sweating. He cleared his throat, coughed a little and began to speak.

“This isn't an excuse. I'm old enough to know what I'm doing and I know I make mistakes. But...when I was in fifth grade my parents wanted to get me a better education, so they had me go to this parochial school.”

“What's that?”

“A religious school. A nun ran it – I mean, she was the principal. But, I was in this new school and had no friends. Back then I wasn't the funny guy you see before you today,” he said with a weak smile. “You know, the kind who really knows how to piss off his little brother.”

“Alec...”

“No, I deserved it,” he held up a hand, “but this isn't about that. I was picked on as the new guy, not just normal stuff from the kids, but the teacher was horrible. She destroyed every shred of confidence I had.” He went on to detail how she belittled him about grades, his allergies, even making an example of him to the class once every few weeks.

“I kind of developed this thick skin and I started to mouth off to her. It got pretty bad and they didn't want me back for sixth grade,” he said and grinned wryly. “My folks didn't know what was going on with me and why I was being an asshole all of a sudden. But I realized, then, that people laughed and had fun when I cut up these authority figures. It got me into a lot of trouble – but didn't really make me any friends.

“I had a few friends, when the merger of the schools happened, but I really didn't know what that meant until Bobby and Sasha. Bobby stood up for me and Sasha,” his eyes moved up to meet mine. “He loved me.”

“That's...not what I pictured for you.”

“I know,” he said bobbing his head. “By the time you came along I was already the brilliant guy you see now. Sasha had already made a man out of me many times over and from that...foundation, I could do anything.”

Something had been tickling at the back of my mind and it suddenly resolved itself. “That's why you've been so reluctant about the car.”

“Yup,” he said with a nod. “I want you to have better, not feel so inadequate. But then, I have to remind myself, you're not me.”

“That's why you get so weird when I say I want to be like you,” I said with a grin. “I still do. You're awesome – except for telling Kale about my practically nonexistent sex life.”

“Thanks,” he said with a ghost of a smile. “You're only the second person I told this stuff to. I feel kind of...vulnerable to say it, and that bothers me because I'm your big brother. I shouldn't be all...hoping you make me feel better.”

“Why not? We're family, remember? Dragging me around to introduce me to strangers? Maybe I don't have the...wisdom to give you answers, but I promise I'll still love you when you're done telling me that you aren't perfect.”

“Whew!” Alec said and let out a little laugh. “I think I needed to hear that, silly as it sounds. I just told Sash about this the other night and I still feel a little out of it. I mean, I knew this stuff, but I try not to think about it.”

“You just told Sash? What about Kale?”

“I can't,” he said, shaking his head. “I can't talk to him about things. He's in the same boat I am. I mean, let me be clear – we can talk about things besides ourselves.”

“Clearly.”

“But ever since Kale and I talked that one time, for like ten minutes...he's never opened up to me again. It's like, he gave me a peek and couldn't take showing me any more. In fairness, I'm not exactly open to him – it's sad, really. I wish it were different, but I don't know how to do that.”

“Sure you do. You sit down and say, 'Look Kale, I'm not satisfied. I want more from our friendship'. Oh, and you want to talk to him less about Robin and I.” I grinned.

“So, yeah, about that...you seem like you're happy. Are you? Really? No bullshit.”

“Totally. I can honestly say my life has never been better.”

He raised an eyebrow. “That's great, Lu. I guess Robin must be a hell of a top.”

“Hey! Don't think I don't know you're fishing!” I laughed.

“Well, no, I just figured Leafy is probably the top...well, maybe not. He's hard to figure.” Alec said, leaning back in his chair. “I can see him as a pretty versatile guy, actually.”

“I can honestly say I've never thought about it,” I replied.

“Only got eyes for Robin, huh?”

“Well, you only have eyes for Sasha, right?”

“Well...I can see when someone's good looking,” Alec allowed.

“I can too. But I never really think much about it after that.”

“You figure the Kirkwood men are hung?” Alec said, tapping his chin.

“Seriously? You're asking me about my boyfriend's dick?”

“Me? No way! I'm not telling you about Sasha's long, generous, slightly curved...”

“Stop!” I said, covering my ears and laughing. “Look, all I'll say is everything on Robin is pretty, okay? He's got enough to make me happy, and that's my final word on it.”

“Pretty? Hm, who'd a thought that.”

“Can we talk about something else now?”

“Sure. Is the book coming in handy?”

“Some,” I allowed. “I can't wait to try number 17.”

“Wait, which one is 17?” he asked, sitting up.

“I'm not telling you,” I giggled.

“Lu! I don't have my own copy, you gotta tell me!” he said with a laugh.

“Nope, but I will say this,” I smiled devilishly. “He's going to whimper and tremble if I do it right.”

“Jesus, are you a lover or a flu bug?” he laughed.

“Come on, Alec. It's way more important to me that Robin feels good. Isn't it that way for you and Sash?” I needle him, turning the personal conversation towards him for once.

“Oh, well, Sash is in charge so he gets what he wants,” Alec said with a contented smile.

“So,” I said, deciding to change the subject. “Have you decided what you're doing for the summer?”

“I need a job,” he shrugged. “I figure Sash will do massage, maybe a part time job plus massage. Hey, you should have him teach you, especially with you guys being into sports. No kidding, it could be useful.”

“Yeah, I could see that. I'll ask him.”

“So, once that bus is safe, you guys will come up and see me, right? We have to stick together.”

“The bus has no air conditioning, I think everyone in it will be sticky,” I laughed.

Alec just sat there, giggling to himself. I rolled my eyes.

“Okay, I'm going to bed,” I said as I pulled myself up from the chair.

“Okay. Before you do, though, you have to tell me – what's number 17?”

“Goodnight, Alec,” I said with a laugh.

“Lu! Come on!” he whined and managed to chuckle all at once.

Some things will never change.

BB

Robin had requested a repair manual through the library. One of the small towns that was part of the Broome County Public Library system had it on the shelf. He described what we should be seeing for brake lines by studying the diagrams – which didn't make much sense to me, but he seemed to have a feel for the drawings. The book got there Tuesday so, that night, Robin directed Hamster and I as we replaced each section of brake line. Since we didn't want to get into trouble returning the book covered in greasy fingerprints, we agreed Robin would be the one to use it since it had been taken out in his name. The lines took us two days to replace, considering we were going to school during the day and working on the bus at night.

We talked a ton and Austin even sought Robin's opinion on his dilemma about Cole.

“I can appreciate you wanting to make the right decision,” Robin said as we gathered the tools up. “I can relate a little bit, because I was confused the first time I thought a boy was cute – because up till then, I'd only done things with girls.”

“Really?” Austin asked, pausing from our tool gathering.

“Yeah. I was a little conflicted, at first. I talked to Kale about it, since he was gay.” He snorted, “I guess I just wanted to know if this was how he felt when he figured it out, you know? I mean, he wasn't a lady's man or anything but I never really thought about it until he told us he and Chase were a couple.”

Austin wasn't even pretending to pick up the tools anymore, totally entranced as he was at Robin's story.

“Anyway, he suggested I could be bi – but he encouraged me to explore, to find out what I was and how I felt about it. It's really the only way to get some peace about things like that – getting more knowledge.”

“But, that made you decide you were gay?”

“I never made that decision. In fact,” he said with a smile, “even though I wondered what that made me, at first, I stopped worrying about being straight or gay and just accepted that I'm in love with a boy who loves me back. I don't need a label to validate my feelings. That's it and that's that.”

“Wow. Thanks, I feel pretty good about things now,” Austin said.

“What?” I said, hand on my hip and pointing at him with a wrench. “That's almost exactly what I said to you!”

“Yeah, but then you spoiled it all with that pee pee talk,” Hamster giggled.

“Were you talking about me again?” Robin teased.

“Yeah, I was telling him how pretty yours is,” I teased back.

“Yup,” Hamster nodded, “Not big, not massive, not well hung...pretty.”

“You're evil,” I said with a laugh and knocked him over. We started wrestling again, but at least I wouldn't get in trouble for being in the house when I did it.

BB

Thursday we replaced the brake pads and shoes. Brake shoes suck. They have these tough little springs and you have to stretch the ends up through holes, but you can't see the end of the spring until it's in the hole. That's not even mentioning the adjuster, that kept falling out of place... We also realized the wheel cylinders were leaking. At least they were cheap to replace, but I couldn't have them till next week because the warehouse didn't have any in stock. Then it was Friday, the day of Robin's party. Before that could happen, though, there was the issue of Hamster's stalker. We were at lunch when he got another explicit text and he just groaned.

“I thought you were going to get that changed,” I asked.

“I keep forgetting to ask. I mean, I think of it when it happens but then I forget when I see Uncle George.”

“Maybe if you guys quit talking sci fi paperbacks you could take care of this,” I teased.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said and put the phone down. It was about to go into its auto-off when I saw the number. It looked kind of familiar so I picked up his phone and woke it back up.

“Be right back,” I said and walked over to Sophie. “Hey, does this number look familiar to you?”

“Yeah,” she said slowly. “It does...but I can't quite place it.” She pulled her phone out and began to enter the numbers, which the phone matched with...Gavin, her boyfriend.

“Uh.”

“No, there has to be some mistake. The boy wants sex, but he's never even looked at a boy. Meet me after school, we'll fix this up.”

So, after school, Hamster, Robin and I met with Sophie and Gavin. “Okay, we solved it,” Sophie said. “It turns out Gavin loaned his phone to his little brother around lunch time.”

“His little brother?” Hamster asked.

“Yeah,” Gavin said. “Sorry about all this, really. I promise it's over. I was kind of embarrassed when I realized what was going on. I guess he saw you on that website sometime, the one for hot guys in public? Got his little thirteen-year-old pecker up.”

“Jesus,” Hamster said, putting a hand on his forehead.

“Well, that might have been the end of it, but I guess he met you by accident and he's been thinking about it ever since. He hasn't really figured out the whole flirting thing – he thought he was doing it right.”

“Have you seen what he's texted me?” Austin asked and pulled his phone out. Gavin's face went several shades of red and as he handed the phone back he said, “I'm really sorry. I'd be freaked out if I got stuff like that. I promise, you won't get messages like that from Phil anymore.”

“Phil? As in Phil Ashmore? Your last name is Ashmore?” Robin asked.

“Yeah, you know him?” Gavin asked.

“Little Phil? Four foot eight, maybe ninety pounds?”

“Yeah, that's him,” Gavin confirmed.

“He's the team manager for wrestling. Little Phil sent those texts?” Robin smiled and looked at Austin. “You were only ever in danger if you were unconscious in your own bed – he couldn't even drag you somewhere.”

“Still,” Hamster said, as he turned back to Gavin. “Be good if he'd stop.”

“Hey, Gavin, you said he met Austin by chance? When?” I asked.

“Ugh, I had to twist his arm to get that,” Gavin said while turning to Austin. “He said he ran into you in the bathroom up at the mall in Albany? Asked to take a picture?”

Hamster's eyes bulged. “He wanted a pic of my dick!”

Everyone grew silent until Sophie started to giggle. Then it passed like a contagion until we were all cracking up. Sophie patted Austin's arm and said, “I gotta ago, honey. But if you ever post that picture, I want a look.”

“Hey!” Gavin protested. They were engaged in discussion as they walked away – either he was about to learn a few things or he was about to be single. I kind of liked Gavin, so I hoped he'd learn something and treat Sophie a little better. He'd probably earned some points by handling the problem as quickly as he had, but I think there was an issue his family if penis candy was what he considered a great gift for his girlfriend.

BB

I put on nice khakis and a green polo that made the color in my eyes pop. Tan socks and brown dress shoes completed my look and I checked myself out carefully. I combed my hair again; it was in need of a trim but not too much. I was enjoying wearing my hair medium length and wanted to try and maintain it that way. Robin said not to grow it too long, but that this was okay because he liked how it felt running through his fingers.

I picked up my packages – one containing the underwear and the other his bracelet. On top was the letter from the school confirming my enrollment for next year in courses that would allow me to graduate a year early. I rode over with Alec and Sasha and was pleased that Alec seemed to have recovered after our talk. It made me feel good to think that my approval or my acceptance of him was as vital to him as the reverse was to me. I'd never really felt equal to Alec in any way, but now I felt like we were equally important to each other.

Things went wrong almost as soon as we arrived. I planned to give Robin the box with the underwear separately, but his mother took all the gifts from me with a smile and went to add them to the pile. I started to freak a little and Alec was highly amused. Sasha, upon hearing the problem, was more inclined to try and help me recover the package.

“Hi,” Robin said with a wide smile. “I was wondering when you'd get here.” He leaned forward and gave me a chaste kiss – after all his parents were just feet away.

“Hi, babe,” I said with a goofy, love smacked smile on my face. He looked good – light blue v-neck tee with a white undershirt, dark blue khakis and boat shoes of dark blue leather.

“Come here, I want to show you what my parents got me,” he grinned.

“Hey, five minutes and I come looking for you,” Kale said pointing a finger at us. I sighed and Robin ignored him as he dragged me off, out the back door of the house and to the far side where sat a metallic navy-blue Volkswagen Golf GTI.

“Wow,” I said, running a hand over the hood. “It's a beauty, Robbie.” I looked inside and he came up beside me.

“Yeah, it's perfect. All wheel drive – the special 'R' version – and cloth seats, six speed manual, moon roof – it's like someone told my parents what I'd want.”

In truth, I felt a tweak of jealousy. This car was awesome and far better than anything my parents could have helped me finance, much less have given me. Robin's hands wandered into the front pockets of my pants and pulled me back toward him.

“I can't wait for us to be able to go places in it. You're going to look great in there.”

I reached behind me and put my hands on his hips and turned my head back toward him. “I thought I had to fight the boys for you before, now it'll be so much worse when they see you have a great car! That's leaving the girls out, this thing is probably a pussy magnet, not that I'd know.”

“But it's so hot when you get jealous,” he giggled, planting a light kiss on my neck. He turned me around and made me forget about the car. I also forgot about anything else until Kale harrumphed from the corner of the house.

“Okay,” Robin said in surrender, “we're coming.”

“Just about!” Kale grunted and disappeared around the corner.

“You know, I think we should stay here and fuck just because they all think we are anyway,” I grumbled.

“You want to have sex out of spite?” Robin asked doubtfully.

“No. I'm just tired of the jokes and the watchful eyes. Robin, why can't anyone else see we're in love? Why is everyone assuming we're just horny and that's it? I'm sick of the judgment.”

“I know,” he sighed and took my hand, leading me back to the party. We proceeded to have a lot of fun – it was a mixed group and we danced and carried on pretty well. At last it was time to open gifts and my failure to get things back from the table hit me like a freight train. I made my way to Sasha who let me know the table had been kind of crowded most of the evening and he'd been unable to retrieve the package with the underwear.

Robin was opening packages and thanking people. Then he picked up my gifts. First was the bracelet and his eyes lit up with pleasure. I worked my way up to him, partly to explain the bracelet and partly to stop him from opening the other box.

“Do you like it?”

“It's beautiful!” He threw his arms around me.

“That looks like custom work,” his dad said and I took the opening.

“It was. Each color means something special.”

Robin looked down and studied the colors. “Remember the roses?” I asked.

He smiled and pointed to the green and blue bands, “For our eyes,” he said, grinning.

“The ends are your birthstone, pearls,” I said. “The one with all the colors is mine, because mine can be a lot of colors.”

“Is the red...” he looked up at me, eyes large.

“Yes. It's for him.”

His eyes grew wet and he pulled me in tightly. The others became uncomfortable with the tears and, since my gifts were the last to be opened, they no longer felt compelled to see him open anything else. They melted back to the food and the music as he shook in my arms. His mother appeared, perhaps no longer able to stand aside while her middle child cried and pulled him gently toward her.

He looked up at her, face wet and showed her the bracelet. I moved to give him some space but his hand was quickly on mine and keeping me close.

“What's wrong, Rob?” she asked tenderly with his father hovering behind her.

“Did you hear what he said about this bracelet? One he had made for me?”

“No, baby, I didn't. Do you want to tell me?” she asked as she sat down next to him on the picnic table. He dragged my hand until I sat down on the other side of him and he turned back to his mom.

“Lucien's loved me for more than a year – the whole time Charlie and I were dating, he was there. He did everything a friend should do – supported my relationship and was a good friend to Charlie and to me. He even told me, when Charlie was being so distant, what he thought was wrong. If it wasn't for Lucien, Charlie and I wouldn't have had that last bit of time together being happy. Instead I'd have been wondering what I did wrong and why Charlie was pushing me away.

“Lucien loved me so much, he did that for me. He so desperately wanted to tell me how he felt when we were in school, but he didn't want to make problems. So he sent me a flower – remember that blue rose from last year?”

“I do,” the Judge said. “I'd never seen a blue rose before.”

“He bought it because it matched my eyes. Later, when he was adopted I got him a green rose, for his eyes.” He lifted the bracelet and showed them the colors, then pointed out our birthstones and finally the red metal.

“Even now he still respects what Charlie and I had. Even though he's got me already, he never takes me for granted. Can you understand how that makes me feel? I'm so, so lucky,” he sniffled, “Thank God he waited for me.”

“Yes, I can see that,” his mother smiled at him and then at me. I knew I was as flushed as I can be – I didn't expect him to say this stuff to his folks, or at least not with me here like this. She brushed his cheek and then stood, coming over and giving me a quick hug. Holding me by the shoulders she said, “I've been worried this was too soon. I know now I can feel good about this and that you'll take care of my son. You have no idea how happy that makes me.”

Okay, I was ready to bawl. This was not cool. I was ready to do just about anything to get out of this situation – I'd even let her open the second box if she'd just stop. Instead she and her husband retreated, pleased discussion going on between them in hushed tones. Robin and I sat for a few minutes, just side by side. Then, slowly, he put his head on my shoulder. That was new, usually that was me leaning on him. I responded by leaning my head on top of his.

“I can't believe I just said that to my mom,” he said quietly.

“Came as a surprise to me too,” I replied.

“Did I embarrass you?”

“Well...”

He chuckled. “Sorry. Caught in the moment I guess.” He slipped the bracelet on and held it out, admiring it. “This is perfect. So many important things in my life.”

“So, new car...that thing looks really fast.”

“Yeah, probably,” he said and stood up, stretching and wiping his face. “I think it gets decent gas mileage. Probably need it to go get parts for your bus considering there are no junkyards close by. Hey, did I tell you I did a search and there's a junkyard with Vanagon parts up near Utica?”

“You're going to offer to drive and put used parts in your new car?” I asked, a little stunned.

“Yeah,” he said and grinned crookedly. “Any chance for a road trip together, right? We'll just put plastic down in the back or something.”

“What about after? When I get the bus running and on the road?”

“We can cuddle in back,” he smiled.

“But...won't you feel weird going from your fancy new car to my broke down jalopy?”

“Don't be silly. Didn't you read the owners manual?”

“No. You're in charge of the manuals. Why?”

“Your rear seat folds down into a full sized bed,” he said with a laugh.

“It does?” I said, my face breaking into a grin. “Have you told anyone else about this?”

“Not a chance,” he laughed. He glanced over and remembered that there was another gift waiting. He picked up the envelope and pulled the letter from the school out. Glancing over the text his face went slack. “Lucien...”

“Yeah?”

“You're going to do all this for me...for us?”

“I'm going to do my best.”

“Holy...” he glanced up at me and I felt the teeniest bit smug – no one had seen this coming. “I have to show my folks.”

“Wait!” I called and he spun around.

“What?”

“I'll meet you in your room, okay?”

“Yeah,” he said and headed happily into the house. I picked up the last gift and wandered inside as well. I heard Robin talking in the living room and, not wanting a repeat from his mom, I dodged them and snuck up the stairs and waited in his room. His room was much neater than mine, though thankfully he wasn't completely neat. His bed was unmade and clothes hung from the edge of his hamper and others were very nearly to the hamper, but hadn't quite made it.

I walked around and looked at the trophies he had for wrestling and lacrosse and some pictures of him and his family. One was of him running in Lacrosse gear and it made me think of how I first saw him. I was silly to think him superhuman, but I was right about being happy with him.

“Hey,” Kale said from the door way.

“Hi, Kale,” I said. “What's up?”

“I was just bringing my camera up, we're going to go out for a while. Robin's telling my folks what you're doing at school. That's huge, Lucien.”

“I know. I just hope I can do it, now that I put it out there,” I said.

“Robin will help you. I'll be at school, but you can email me – I'll do anything I can to help.”

“Thanks, Kale, I appreciate it.”

He entered the room and looked at the pictures I had been examining. He thumbed through the images on his camera and held it out to show me. The screen had Robin and me on the picnic table – he was leaning on my shoulder and my head was resting on his.

“It was a great moment,” Kale said quietly. “It'll look nice on the wall, here.”

“Think I can have a copy?” I asked.

“Yeah, of course.” He tried to give me an awkward hug and said he was proud of me, so I turned it into a real hug before he could get away.

“Kale, I'm going to miss you when you go to school,” I confessed. “It was bad enough with Alec and Sasha gone, but now all four of you? Who's going to be there for us?”

“We're still not that far away, Lu,” he said rubbing my back. “But you're right, you guys will have to take care of each other. You guys will be okay – but not too okay, right?”

“You and Alec,” I chuckled, “You're so alike.”

“Hey, no need for language like that,” Kale laughed.

“He loves you, you know,” I said, looking back at the picture of Robin on the field.

“He...” Kale cleared his throat. “I'm sure it's...you know.”

“Not that kind of love, you idiot,” I said to the picture. “You guys should be able to say that, though. You're his best friend – you're allowed to love each other.”

The room was quiet, and I don't know if I'd just said the wrong thing, but it was true. I stared at the image until I heard Robin come up the stairs and he and Kale murmured to each other at the door.

“This has been a perfect night,” Robin said as he embraced me from behind and rested his chin on my shoulder.

“It has been pretty special, huh?” I smiled as I turned my head toward him. He kissed me lightly and grinned.

“Yep. All I needed to finish it off was some guy to give me his number so you could show him what's what.”

I lifted an eyebrow and turned, took him by the hips and spun him against the wall and pinned him there with my body and my mouth. I kissed him with every bit of pent up emotion I'd been feeling that night and then, when he was gasping, I did it again. I heard someone clear their throat and broke the kiss and looked over my shoulder to see Kale, camera on us and then he snapped a picture.

“That's a good picture.” He smiled. “Alec and Sasha are leaving. Are you staying over or heading home?”

I glanced at Robin.

“He's staying, I asked mom after school.”

“Okay,” Kale left the doorway and I looked back at Robin.

“He's going to use that picture as further evidence that we fuck like bunnies.”

“Oh well,” Robin laughed.

“I better go say goodnight to Alec and Uncle Sasha. Coming?”

“Be there in a minute.”

I headed downstairs and out into the yard. Alec was with Chase, Austin and Sasha and they were laughing about something. I grinned, of course they were – Alec was there. I joined their group and Sasha grinned at me.

“You hit a home run with that bracelet,” he said.

“Did you ever,” Chase added. “You better be careful or Mrs. K will have you two married before you know it.”

“Just remember,” Alec said solemnly. “You can't wear white. We all know better.”

I rolled my eyes amid the laughter. Kale joined us and then, minutes later, Robin did as well. We said our good nights, Austin leading the group to hug Robin and wish him one last happy birthday. The other guests melted away as their rides came and then it was down to us.

“I'll grab us some pillows and a spare blanket from my room. You want to go down and set up the hide-a-bed?” Robin asked.

“Sure,” I replied and headed downstairs. I pulled the sofa cushions off and stacked them out of the way and pulled the bed frame out, springs creaking as it unfurled. I walked over to the laundry area and took the sheets out above the dryer that were kept here for the bed. I walked back over and then kicked my shoes off by the cushions. I started to spread the sheet out when my phone buzzed. I ignored it and spread out the fitted sheet, tucking it under the corners and then spreading the second sheet out. My phone buzzed again and I finished putting the sheet on before I pulled it out.

Two messages. I opened the first and was stunned to see it was a selfie. Robin was holding the phone out and the underwear was just so...perfect. The second one was with the other pair, but this time he was laying flat on his bed and I could see that the underwear I'd chosen covered about as little of his ass as I'd hoped.

I headed for the stairs, eager to see him before he covered back up, but ran into his mom.

“Lucien, I've got a few snacks for you guys in the kitchen. You want to come take them down?” she asked.

NO! “Thanks Mrs. K,” I replied.

“Did Robin show you the car?” she asked as she pulled a bag of chips from the cupboard.

“Yeah, it's awesome,” I replied. Make this go faster! He's nearly naked upstairs and this is such a tease!

“Well, your advice came in handy. I'm so glad he talks to someone,” she said while pulling a jar of salsa out for the chips. “Ice tea sound good?”

“Yes, Ma'am,” I replied, glumly realizing that he must be dressed by now. Sure enough he came thumping down the stairs with a couple of blankets and pillows. He was wearing those shorts that rode up on his legs a little and I started to sweat, thinking he must have one of those pairs on under his shorts. He smiled and walked away from me, but I couldn't tell through his shorts which ones. Ugh!

“Okay, Here you go,” she said, handing me a tray of stuff.

“Thanks, Mrs. K,” I replied and smiled at her, picked up the tray and headed down the stairs. Robin had already put the pillows on the bed and spread the blankets loosely. Now he was turning on the TV and waiting for Netflix to load.

“I have snacks from your mom,” I told him as I set the tray down on the table and then sidled over to him and whispered in his ear, “I was trying to get up to you but she stopped me! That was so, so hot.”

He smiled and pecked my lips before starting a movie.

“Goodnight boys,” Mrs. K said and then...the door upstairs closed. I glanced at him and he grinned.

“I got myself a present too,” he told me and reached under the blanket where he'd secreted a small box. “Open it?”

If it was for him, it has to be underwear was my thought, and I opened the small box to find...Speedos. With the school logo on the front left hip. I held them up and quirked an eyebrow at him.

“Go, try them on – but leave the bathroom door open so we can talk,” he said with a grin. I smiled and nodded then went to the bathroom to change.

“So I was noticing you seemed to enjoy wrestling this year,” he said.

“Yeah, it was okay.”

“Okay? You were number three in your weight class as a rookie. That's better than okay.”

“Well, I was only doing it so we could do something together,” I reasoned. I folded my clothes and ran my fingers around the outside edges of the suit. It felt odd, first to be in something so brief but also because of the unusual pressure they put on me.

“Well, I was thinking this would be our next thing. We could join the swim team – you're a better athlete than you realize and I get to see you wet all the time. It's a win-win, really.”

I grinned into the mirror and ran the water in the sink. “You think so?”

“Definitely.”

I got my hair damp and then wet my hands repeatedly, running water across my exposed skin before stepping out into Robin's view. I'm not sure which one of us was more entranced by the other. In my absence he'd stripped back down and had on the barely there pair, the ones that left so much backside open to view. He was laying on his stomach, staring at me.

“Is this you saying yes to the swim team?” he asked.

“You going to look at me like that every time I get out of the pool?”

“Oh...oh yeah. I will.”

“Well,” I said, taking a few steps toward him. "I guess I can't turn that down, then.”

He smiled and held his hand out. “Want to try number 17?”

BB

Saturday afternoon everyone was over to our house. Alec was helping us change something with the exhaust – Robin could explain how it fit, he'd examined the diagram, but I couldn't understand why he could make sense of it but I couldn't.

Chase and Kale were unloading my used tires from the back of Chase's truck. Alec had told me that, for now, a used set was fine. At least they would stay inflated and we could move it, unlike the cracked things it came with that didn't hold air.

We worked most of the afternoon, the older guys heading off around six for an evening out. Alec was telling them that they needed to try the game about cramming people into a car again, but with the bus. His twist was that, given the number of windows, we should do it naked. I'm not sure who hit him first.

Before he left he pulled me aside and whispered in my ear, “Okay, I won't ask what number 17 is. I just want to know, did you do it right?”

I gave him a crooked grin. “If the whimpering and trembling was any indication, yes.”

“My man,” he said giving me a high five.

“Alec, do not say anything to Kale.”

“Kale! I need to hit a bookstore, my man!” Alec called out. I was on his back in moments flat, trying to cover his mouth and pulling on anything I could to keep him away.

“Alec! No!” I said desperately. “I'll delete all your porn if you do!”

“Hey now,” he said, trying to fend me off. “That's playing dirty.”

“Alec,” I yelled, losing my grip and tearing his tee shirt on the way down as I landed in the dirt.

“Oh, I like this contest,” Kale whooped and the others took more notice.

Alec looked at me with the devil in his eye and my face fell. Please, this wasn't a joke. Something in his face shifted and he coughed. Straightening he looked at Kale.

“Leafy? Like what you see?” he said, parading the torn shirt and letting it fall off him.

“Oh, boo! I want my money back!” Kale laughed and shoved Alec away. I looked down, heaving a sigh of relief.

They melted away, then, to their own evening. Maybe an hour later we started the bus again, and almost right away it began to leak a red fluid rather heavily.

“It's bleeding,” Robin laughed.

“That time of the month?” Austin joked.

“Shit. What's that?” I said, turning the engine off. Hamster and I crawled underneath and described what we were seeing and, examining the diagrams, Robin said it was the power steering lines. They were metal and, after some searching, I discovered they were rusted through as well.

Fuck.

“Hey, it's after dinner time. Why don't we get a pizza and camp in the bus?” Robin suggested.

“Camp? In that thing?” Austin asked.

“Sure,” Robin said. “Let's put up the table for dinner. We'll grab a flashlight or a camping lantern and just hang out. When we get tired we'll pull the bed out and camp here. It's brilliant!”

“Works for me, I guess,” Austin said. “Let me phone Uncle George.”

“Camping, huh?” I asked Robin.

“Yeah. It has these little curtains for the windows and...” glancing at Austin to be sure he was out of hearing said, “I feel bad, sometimes, that we leave Austin out. Maybe it'll be better if he can figure out his situation with Cole, but I'd like him to hang out with us. I think we should try to spend some more time with him, make some memories with him.”

“Okay, sounds good. You ordering the food?”

“Yeah, you get plates, light, and the stuff so we can sleep out here?”

So we all set about our tasks and about forty minutes later we were inside eating food and laughing.

“I can't believe it turned out to be little Phil Ashmore,” Robin was giggling. “I mean, he barely comes up to your shoulder, Austin.”

“He's violently horny,” Austin confirmed before laughing. “At least I know I can take him if he starts again.”

“Maybe he'll start with selfies next,” I suggested. Robin kicked me under the table.

“I hope not. I may be a little wobbly on my attractions, but there is no doubt there.”

“Maybe, if he were to send you something...sexy?” I suggested and earned another kick.

“Nah. That kid needs someone to slap him,” Austin said.

“Maybe he likes that sort of thing,” Robin said and we all laughed.

Later we folded down the seat and spread out blankets and pillows. Robin spooned me and we began talking into the night.

“So, I took your guys' advice. You know, about Cole.”

“Yeah? How'd it go?” Robin asked, his breath moving past my ear in the darkness.

“It was good. Really good. I decided to, you know, talk to him first. I told him why I'd been holding back from doing stuff and he was pretty understanding, I think. Although, I think he kind of took it as a challenge, too.”

“How so?”

“Uh. Let's just say I'm not sure anyone ever got a better blowie in the history of forever.”

We giggled madly laughing into our hands.

“Did...did you, you know, reciprocate?”

“Yeah,” he said softly.

“And?” we asked in unison.

“I could get used to it.”

“That mean we'll get to have Cole hang out with us then?”

“Well. I guess I'd like that.”

And so would we. We slept, eventually, and woke as a tangle of bodies in the morning. One thing I was pleased about – we were already making memories with this van, and it wasn't even driveable.