A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle


My thanks to Cole Parker for editing and to Ryan Bartlett for his reading and suggestions. The feedback was crucial in the finished product.

“Welcome to Flubberbuster Burger, may I take your order?” I asked. They looked like cheerleaders with their boyfriends and they appeared to not be able to make decisions about what to eat. I shifted on the rubber mat that was supposed to make it easier to stand long hours and waited as they giggled and pointed at the menu.

'Come on,' I thought, 'it was Flubberbuster Burger, not a diner with eighty million options just waiting to be microwaved.'

“Don't I know you from school?” one of the girls asked, pushing aside her raven colored bangs.

“Oh, maybe,” I replied. I knew she didn't – different social circles didn't even begin to cover it. She tilted her head in thought and studied my face. She looked funny doing it and I smiled at her.

“Okay, so, I want...” I punched in the order and took their money. I scooted over to the other end of the counter and gave them their cups and scooped out their fries, laying them on a tray. Theresa, my manager, was covering for the guy who normally cooked the burgers. She hated doing that, but there was a limit to what she'd let me do. At nearly fifteen, I wasn't old enough to work there. But Theresa was my neighbor and wanted to help, so she paid me under the table. Since we were on winter break I was planning on racking up the hours. I only wished we'd be open for Christmas too, but I took what I could get.

She slid the burgers down the rail, and I slid them onto the tray and pushed it over to the crowd of kids. They were definitely from my school, the big 'R' for Rockefeller on their athletic team jackets. John Rockefeller was born in Binghamton, and one of his gifts to the city of his youth was the high school I attended. It probably hadn't been updated since he died.

The group settled in a corner and began to make noise. I walked over towards Theresa, who was handing off the cooking apron to Jorge, the regular cook.

“Hamster, how you doing tonight?” he asked.

“I'm good. How's your wife?”

“She is ready to pop, man! I tell you, the bigger she gets the more she hates my guts!” He laughed and I grinned at him. He wagged his finger. “She said to me, 'That was the last time you get laid, you son of a bitch!'”

“Ouch,” I laughed.

“Ah, she'll be happy once the baby is born. You wait, she can't resist me.”

“You smell that?” Theresa asked as she pushed off the wall she'd leaned on to listen. “There's so much bullshit I can't smell the burgers. I'm going for a smoke.” She cackled and headed for the back door. I glanced at the counter to verify it was still empty and walked to the back door.

“No, I will not give you a cigarette,” she said automatically.

“I didn't ask,” I said with my hands up.

“It's a nasty habit and once you get hooked it can be damn hard to quit.” She pointed her lit end at me. “Besides, you are supposed to use the money for food, not smokes.”

“I don't!” I protested. “I just steal my mom's sometimes!”

“Then she goes and buys more, wasting money! Go inside, you little idiot,” she said, waving me away.

I grumbled to myself as I went back inside. I started to wipe down the counters. It was nearly eight, so if we were going to get anyone else, they'd best hurry. They practically rolled the whole town up at nine – it shut down fast due to the lack of sidewalks. By nine thirty we had finished closing up and I was riding in Theresa's car back home. Her window was down and she was smoking and humming along to herself.

I waved goodbye to her as I walked next door to our trailer with my bag of food. The door clattered shut behind me and my mom got up from the little couch and followed me into the tiny combination kitchen/dining room.

“I'm starved!” she said, dropped into a chair and tossed her ashtray on the table. I put the bag on the table and dug us out a burger and fries each. I ate quickly and then went to my room to hang up my clothes for the next day. I took the time to do some push-ups and then lifted the little free-weights I'd acquired. I'd work most of the day with Theresa tomorrow and, even though I didn't have to be up early, I was kind of tired. I lay down in my underwear, cheap tighty whities, and pulled off my socks and tossed them into the hamper by the door. Well, close enough.

I pulled the blanket over me, sat back and opened my paperback and read until I couldn't keep my eyes open anymore.

I woke up about eight thirty and got up to pee. As soon as I was out from under the blanket my skin exploded in goose pimples. I dashed to the bathroom, my teeth chattering as I did my thing and ran back to my room. I put on sweats and did a half hour's worth of push ups and sit ups and various other ups. The room was still freezing, and I wrapped my blanket around me and wandered into the kitchen for a bowl of cereal. I read my book as I ate, pausing at the good parts, because it seemed like the crunch of the cereal made it tough to focus on the action. I wondered what it would be like to be the captain of a battle cruiser out in space; would I have the wits to survive? What if I had a mutinous crew? Some faction in my ranks that was sowing dissent? I glanced over at my mother's cigarette pack and thought about snagging one for later but heard Theresa's sharp rebuke about money in the back of my mind and decided it wasn't a necessity.

I didn't even like them, but it was so boring here. There were no kids my age and, even though I loved my books, it would have been nice to talk to someone sometimes. I glanced at the clock and placed a marker in my book and went to shower and get ready for work. As I finger combed my wet hair I heard my mom calling to me from outside. I grabbed my coat and walked to the front door to find her outside with a strange can shaped object with thin metal wire wrapped around the top, like a cage. A thin layer of snow was on the ground and big flakes were falling fast.

“Austin, help me get this inside,” she said. “I got cold last night – damn furnace went out about two o'clock – big pop! Fucking thing,” she muttered and sucked on her cigarette.

“Okay, I have to hurry, though,” I said and hopped down from the doorway. I seized the canister by the handles and lifted it up and into the house, turning it side to side and walking the heavy thing to the living room. Some kind of liquid, likely a fuel, sloshed inside the thing.

“Good! I'm going to get this place warmed up and take a damn nap,” she said with her lit butt hanging out of her mouth. “Get me one with onions tonight, huh?”

“Okay, see ya,” I said and ran next door to catch a ride in with Theresa.

~ H ~

“Thank you, have a nice day,” I said to the couple as I handed them their tray. The rush had been busier than usual, and I was glad because it meant I'd get to keep coming back. No business, no paycheck. I stretched and then went over to put paper place mats onto a stack of trays so they'd be ready if we got another rush. A mixed group of guys came in, college and high school I thought, and I went back to the counter.

“Welcome to Flubberbuster Burger, may I take your order?”

“Yes. Yes, you may,” said the guy, leaning over and looking at my chest. I glanced down, wondering if I had a suspicious sauce stain or something, but it was just my name tag. Glancing back up he was smiling and turned back to his friends. “It's him!”

I raised an eyebrow. The customer service manual Theresa made me study didn't cover this. Irate customers? Check. Picky ones? Check. How to handle a stick up? Check. Weirdos? Curiously, no.

“We,” the guy said, returning his attention to me, “decided our goal this weekend was to meet a celebrity.”

I felt putting my eyebrow back up wouldn't help, so I just waited.

“Hi, celebrity!” he said with a wide smile. Okay, now both my eyebrows went up, but I think it was justified.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

He made a few taps on his phone and showed me the screen. Looking at it I did a double take and took the phone from his hand. “What the hell?”

It was a picture of me, putting food on a tray. The caption was 'Load me up, cutie #AustinatFlubberbusterBurger'

“What is this?” I asked him.

“I told you, Alec,” a dark haired guy frowned at the phone's owner – apparently named Alec.

“You're right, Leafy. He doesn't seem the type,” Alec admitted as he reached for his phone. I pulled it back to me.

“What's going on? How did you get my picture?” I asked, suspiciously.

“It's not just me. Everyone's got it,” Alec grinned. “Lu, show him.”

Another guy stepped up and laid his phone on the counter. Showing me, he tapped through a few screens and there I was.

“I'm on the internet?” I asked, jaw hanging open. “Why?”

Lu scrolled up and showed me...a girl who looked vaguely familiar. “She posted it last night. It's a forum for...uh, hot guys in public places.”

“What?” I asked, frowning. “Why'd she do that? I don't even know her.”

“Hey, Chase...he kind of looks like you,” the frowny one said, finger to his chin.

“Me?” the one they'd called Chase said, a smile brightening his face and looking closer at me.

I looked back at him, but thought the resemblance to be passing at best.

“Hm. Maybe a little,” the dark haired guy said. “Blond, I see something in the face. Way more built, though. You're going to have to work out to catch him, Chase.” The dark haired guy grinned.

“I don't have to catch him, I only have to catch you,” Chase replied, sticking his tongue out.

“Hamster! You going to put an order through or what?” Jorge called out.

“Hamster?” Lu asked.

“Uh, are you guys eating?” I asked, my customer service skills forgotten. They ordered and I set about my normal tasks of giving them cups and scooping fries before adding the burgers to their tray. The blond in the group, Chase, broke away and flashed me a goofy but kind of dazzling smile.

“Sorry about that. We had nothing to do this weekend, so we let Alec talk us into this. I hope you aren't too embarrassed,” he said apologetically.

“Uh, no. Little...weirded out I guess, though.” I nodded to him. “Enjoy your meal.” I watched them sit together, the guy with glasses the odd man out. I lifted an eyebrow again and wondered if that was significant, especially if you considered what the one with the smile – Chase? – had said about only having to catch the frowning one. Leafy? Who the hell names their kid that?

I wiped the counter down and restocked the cups for the last ten minutes of my shift. Molly, one of the other part-timers, clocked in and came over to relieve me. She glanced at the table the guys were at and pursed her lips and let a breath out.

“Hello, sweet dreams,” she said.

“I know the guys, want me to get you a number?” I teased.

“Sure, Hamster. I believe you,” she said as she rolled her eyes. I decided to mess with her and walked around the counter, shooting smiles at her. As I got closer the look on her face shifted from someone who thought their leg was being pulled to someone who thought they were about to be embarrassed. She started to wave a finger at me but by then I was at the guys' table.

“Was everything okay?” I asked.

“Mine moo'd,” Alec replied and grinned at me. I smiled back.

“It did not,” the fellow next to him said. He brushed back his long hair and crumpled his wrapper. “It was all very good, actually.”

“I'm glad,” I replied. I glanced over at Molly, who was unable to leave the counter since she had a customer, but she was peering around the lady every few seconds to see what I was doing.

“Is everything all right?” asked the one with dark hair and bright blue eyes, which were now crinkled in a mild frown of concern. So weird, he had a frown for every occasion – he looked very serious.

“Hm? Oh, yeah, just playing a prank on my co-worker,” I smiled. His face went from a frown to curiosity as he peered around me to see Molly. By pure good luck she happened to look up and see him looking and she bobbled, then dropped the tray in her hand. “And that should do it. Thanks for your help, guys!”

“Whoa, hang on. I need a little quo prid – ” Alec turned back to the one with long hair. “Sasha, what's that phrase I want?”

“Quid pro quo?” Sasha asked.

“Yeah, that,” Alec said, giving me a satisfied look.

“What's that?” I asked.

“Sash, tell him,” Alec said.

“You mean you don't know?” the dark haired guy said, cracking the first smile I'd seen.

“Of course I know, Kale. Everything sounds better when Sash says it, though,” Alec said and smiled back.

“Kale, that's called bullshit right there, in case you missed it,” Lu said. The table chuckled and I cracked a smile.

“Basically it means he did something for you, now you have to return the favor,” the one with the nice smile, Chase, said to me.

“Like what?” I asked curiously.

“Group selfie. You're our first celebrity.”

“Alec, no!” Kale said.

“Kale said no, now you have to!” Alec said and then dropped to one knee. “Please?”

“I'm not a celebrity,” I said as I chuckled at his antics.

“Chase, move, let's go. Alec will be on his knees for a while – now's our chance,” Kale said with a grin, and Lu burst out laughing. Alec stuck his tongue out and then looked back at me.

“Please? Chase, you give him the puppy dog look. You're better at it.”

“What makes you think I'm better at it?” Chase asked as he stood from the booth.

“Please, Leafy'd still be single if you weren't,” Alec scoffed. Why were they calling Kale...oh. Like the vegetable. And for the record, I was right – some of them are gay.

“You're embarrassing him,” Kale sighed. “I shouldn't have let you talk me into this...”

“You say that now, but later? When we talk about cool shit we've done? Yeah, that's right,” Alec pointed at a smiling Kale, “it's always my weird ideas, isn't it?”

“Okay, fine, pain in the ass. Let's take the picture,” Kale grumped good naturedly. They seemed to have forgotten that I hadn't agreed, but they clustered around me and took the picture anyway. With pats on my shoulders and quick handshakes they all headed out. I felt bizarrely sorry to see them go. Molly was impatiently waiting for me to come back to the counter and hissed as soon as I was close enough.

“What did you do?”

“Relax,” I laughed, “they weren't here for you.”

“They don't go to our school. What were they here for?”

“Some girl took my picture last night and posted it to some forum,” I said as I went to get my coat. “They used something like, 'hashtag Austin at Flubberbuster Burger' or something.”

“I know that forum,” she said and pulled her phone out. I buttoned up my coat and waited for Theresa to finish going over what she wanted done that night with the assistant manager. I waited for Molly to tease me, unless those guys had totally faked me out somehow. It would be fair, since I'd gotten her.

“Hamster, you're famous!” she said with a giggle.

“You found the picture?” I asked. “Huh. I thought maybe it was some kind of elaborate prank.”

“No. No, it was not. But look! You have nearly three thousand up clicks.”

“What's an up click?”

“Kind of like a mob rating system. Up clicks move you up or down the rankings. Hamster, you're all the way up to double digits!” She laughed and turned her phone over to me. I saw the picture and she was pointing at the stats. There were also comments. Uh, wow, there were comments.

“This guy wants to blow me. So does this girl. And this one wants me to eat food off their...who are these people?” I asked, shaking my head.

“The Hamster is hot, who knew?” Molly laughed and took her phone back. I shrugged and headed to the back to catch my ride. Theresa was probably smoking out back. We rode in relative silence, my envelope of cash tucked in my coat. I was musing about the silly web page when Theresa remarked on the flashing lights in the general direction of home.

“Fred probably smacked Arlene around again. I don't know why they call the cops, she always tells them it was an accident. He'll kill her one day,” Theresa remarked.

“Hey, is that smoke? The lights are kind of reflecting off it,” I said. As we drew closer, we saw that it was, indeed, smoke. My heart was suddenly in my throat. My trailer was a burned out husk.

The next few hours were a blur of people, questions and complicated feelings of loss. Pending a formal investigation, they were calling it an accidental fire caused by a kerosene heater. One body was found. In one shift at work I'd lost my home and all the family I had in the world. It didn't stop there, either. First it was the cops and firefighters and then it was the lady from CPS, once someone realized I had no place to go. I saw the lady from CPS talking to Theresa, who was smoking away and shaking her head.

Mom and I hadn't been really cozy with each other, it was just what we had. She wasn't a great mom, and she told me from time to time it was no fun being saddled with a kid, either. She'd been the town pump and would let you have your way, as long as you said please first. She was kind of defiant about it, and I grew used to waking up and finding strange men partially dressed. Some of them even asked me if I was as easy as my mom. She was jealous when it came to that, so no one ever found out if I'd have said yes. I wouldn't, but that wasn't the point.

Now that familiar idiocy was behind me. I sat in the back of the police cruiser and was taken to the short term shelter in downtown Binghamton. I slept on a cot and was able to shower, but all I had was my uniform for clothes. Monday the CPS worker showed up – a different one – and I was taken to social services. I had a swab test done for DNA, I guess they didn't believe me when I said I had no family. I was placed into an uncomfortable seat in front of a desk. The woman behind the desk appeared to be made of fragile plastic who looked likely to shatter at any moment.

“Okay, so this is how this end of things works,” she said in a business-like tone. “At the age of fourteen you have the choice of two tracks you can take while in the foster care system. The first is we can try to find you a new family with the end goal for adoption. How do you feel about that?”

“Don't have much use for family,” I said.

“Well, it was harder to be adopted when you get older as well. The other path is Independent Living Skills, in which you learn about interviewing for jobs, building a resume, balancing your check book and then you can eventually get assistance to get your own apartment.”

“I like the idea of my own apartment,” I said, perking up.

“That could be considered when you're eighteen,” she said, dashing my hopes.

“So, what then? I mean, where do I live? I'm guessing you aren't going to let me walk out of here.”

“Hardly,” she said while glaring at her computer screen. “Interesting. What did you say your father's name was?”

“I didn't,” I replied. “I never knew the sperm donor.”

“Hm. Well, in the short term we'll put you in a group home. You'll have to change your school district, but we'll get you all set up.” She glanced at her screen again and gave another 'hm.'

“Is there something interesting there?” I asked.

“Possibly. We'll see. I'm going to put you down the hall for safe keeping, the shelter rep will be here soon to transport you.” With that I was dismissed. I wandered out the door and to the long hallway that led to the other offices and to the guarded vestibule. I wondered if they'd try to stop me if I were to try and leave? Were the guards just for people entering the building? Or did they have enough gumption to try and stop me? Would I even stand out enough that they'd think I had to be stopped?

I never got the chance to try. I was transported and then dumped in a group home until late Tuesday afternoon when the CPS lady – I hadn't bothered to learn her name – came to get me.

“Grab your stuff,” she said.

I held my hands out to my sides, “You're looking at it.”

“Where are your clothes?” she asked.

“This is all I have.”


I guess she missed the part where all my stuff burned up. You know, in the trailer fire. I sat in the car and she pulled out into traffic. In about ten minutes we left the city heading east on interstate 88. I glanced away from the passing scenery and looked at this miserable woman. She was looking out the windshield in a very robotic way, acknowledging neither the passing trees nor her passenger. Well, the trees may not care but her passenger had had just about had enough.

“So, are you driving me out to the country to dispose of my body?” I asked.

She glanced at me almost as if she'd forgotten I was there. “Not exactly,” she smiled. I wished she wouldn't, it doesn't suit her.

“So...where are we going then?”

“We found a relative of yours. I spoke to them yesterday, and they have tentatively agreed to see how you do with their son,” she replied.

“Tentatively? Relative? I don't have any relatives!”

“We found some, on your father's side.”


“Your DNA swab. We got a match in the state corrections database. I guess your father must have made a mistake somewhere along the way.” It went unsaid that she meant a mistake besides me.

“So...some people I'm supposed to be related to that I've never seen are saying I might be able to stay with them if I get along with their son?” I asked, my voice full of disbelief.

“I think they're concerned you'll be a bad influence,” she smirked. Bitch.

“Probably. I'll keep your number handy for when they kick me out,” I replied. She grunted.

“It'll be a big change. I have my doubts about this.”

“Yeah, I got that idea.” I said stonily.

“Hey, nothing against you, kid. Fact is you're going from a trailer to a pretty high end house. They'll probably want to burn your coat since it was not a name brand – maybe your shoes and underclothes too.”

“You mean they're snobs?”

She shrugged. “I don't know. I wear the same type of things you do.” She gave me a tired smile. “Social work isn't a ticket to a big payday.”

“Why are they even taking me now, then?”

“Well, I think it was two reasons. One, tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Maybe they're good church folk and will wait until after Christmas to call to send you back.”

“Thanks for the optimism. What's the other reason?”

“I think their kid shamed 'em into it. If you ask me, and you didn't...if you like it there, that's your key. Be nice to their kid.”

“I'm not kissing anyone's ass.”

“Yeah. I guess I'll see you Friday, then,” she grumbled.

We didn't speak the rest of the way, my unhappy worker and I. Shame, really, since we both thought this gig wouldn't work out. Snow flurries began about ten minutes later and continued steadily for the hour or so it took us to pull off the interstate and into the tiny town of Sanitaria Springs. She pulled into a station to gas up and I went inside to get a drink and a candy bar with the few dollars I had left. I figured I'd give the rest of it to whomever for gas and get a ride to Albany Friday instead of calling this lady back out to get me. I certainly didn't want to see her when we both got proved right.

Back in the car, we trundled on until turning into a very nice set of homes. I mean the kind you pick to go trick or treating at because they hand out full-sized candy bars. By the bag. There was lawn, covered in snow, between each house whose lights blazed behind large windows. We made it about ten houses deep before she put on her blinker and turned into a driveway that was approximately twenty seven cars long.

There was a two car garage with a third bay added on. No cars were in the driveway, but I could see people though a large bay window, apparently in a TV room of some kind. The faces were too small for me to note much. The room looked to be dominated by a long, leather sectional sofa and maybe a recliner was in the room as well – all I could see before we pulled up too far. I stared at the large house, intimidated and not liking the feeling. What the fuck do I have to be intimidated about? Nobody fucks with the Hamster, as Jorge liked to say.

Then again, Jorge said a lot of shit.

“Okay,” the social worker said as she grabbed her plastic bag full of papers, “gird your loins.”

“Whatever that means,” I mumbled as I unbuckled. I trailed behind her – not that I was scared or worried or anything. She just hobbled around the car faster than I expected.

She rang the bell and a dog barked somewhere deep in the house. There was a series of thumps – someone running without shoes – and the door was thrown open. Holy shit. It was the guy with the smile, Chase.

“Hi! Come on in!” he said. I didn't know about his folks, but he looked happy to see us. My sour companion knocked her boots off and stepped inside, and I stepped into the light and the guy got his first good look at me.

“Austin? From Flubberbusters?” he asked, his mouth dropping open in surprise.

“Hi,” I said, weakly raising my arm. His grin got wider and ran right into his eyes. Frequently people in books were described as having smiles that lit up their eyes, but I'd never really seen that. Now I knew someone whose eyes absolutely danced with his smile. It made me smile back. Whoa, better stop that – no sense getting settled.

“Welcome! Come on in!” he said. “Here, let me hang up your coat.”

“Don't burn it, I still have twenty two bucks in there,” I said seriously.

“Burn it?” he asked.

“Never mind,” I waved my hand. “Just let me take the last of my pay out of there.” I rooted around and pulled out the envelope, stashing it in my pants pocket.

“You are still dressed for work. Wait,” he paused while sliding a hanger through my coat, “don't you have to be sixteen to work in fast food?”

“Hello,” came an older male's voice, presumably his father. I turned to see my case worker waving in my direction. I guess introductions were starting.

“This is Austin Hamilton,” she said. “Austin, this is Mr. and Mrs. Dudley and their son, Chase.”

“We've met,” Chase bubbled. I'd never seen anyone bubble before.

“Hi,” I said, putting my hand up again.

“I have some paperwork to get us started through our trial period,” the CPS lady said.

“We can fill that out in the study,” Mr. Dudley said in a very urbane tone. It made me think of butlers in books who would escort madam to the conservatory. Uh oh, the Mrs. wasn't moving.

“Well, Austin, why don't you put your...shoes by the door?” she asked with a brittle smile.

This should be great. I hadn't had a shower since the night before, and my clothes hadn't been washed for three days. I walked over to the mat placed by the door and toed off my sneakers. I turned and she looked down, spotting my socks.

I looked down and then back at her. “What? You never get holey socks?”

“Oh,” she said with a sickly smile. “We do. But we usually tie them in knots and let the dog have them.”

She was serious.

“Come on, I have plenty. You can shower and put fresh clothes on,” Chase said, landing a hand on my shoulder. “We can get you more stuff tomorrow.”

“You don't have to,” I said. I looked at Mrs. Duh-dly as I'd dubbed her in my head. “I know I'll be sent on my way after Christmas. I can save this in case there's a Flubberbuster Burger wherever I go.”

“Whoa,” Chase said, “wrong idea. My friends and I are going shopping tomorrow. You have to come with us.”

I think I'd offended him. I tried to look apologetic but I'm afraid mild indigestion was all I could force onto my face.

“Come on,” he said and waved me to follow him deeper into the house. We went into the kitchen and up a back stairway. “This is my room,” he said, pointing to the first door on the left as we crested the stairs.

“Next to that is the bathroom,” he said as we turned a corner, “and the door at the end of the hall at the front of the house is my parents'. This is the spare room on the right and the left is an exercise room.”

“Exercise room?”

“Yeah, for working out,” he said and smiled while pantomiming running in place. “Come on.” I followed him to the bathroom and he showed me where the towels were, and spare toothbrushes, and he told me to leave my clothes in the hamper and he'd get me some sweats.

The bathroom was palatial. Textured tan tile covered the floor, the walls were done in small rock and the ceiling – holy crap, the ceiling. There was a ledge – kind of like crown molding, but much deeper and more decorative with gold leaf appointments running around the edges. About six inches past that step was the ceiling, done with a painting of some kind with a blue sky and whispy clouds. There was a tub sitting high off the ground with claw feet and a stand-up shower with so many nozzles I was afraid I'd get one hosing out my ass and another up my nostrils. Chase came back into the bathroom and jumped a bit when he saw me.

“Hey, I thought you'd be in the shower already. Here's some clothes for when you get out. Hurry, we can watch a movie or hang out or something.” He gave me that smile again, that bright smile that lit his eyes up. He left and I peeled off my uniform, tucking my pay envelope under the sweats, and put everything in the hamper. I snickered. I bet his mom would burn the hamper – clothes and all.

I fiddled around with the shower controls and thought I might not die from the drowning of my orifices after all and climbed in. It was unbelievable. Our trailer had such low water pressure and such a small hot-water tank that my mom had said it was like getting pissed on by a corpse. I never stopped to figure that one out. But this! Wow, I was getting a water massage! Hey, I thought, making a mental note: I had to be sure to take a shower Friday before they kicked me out!

I stood in the shower, washing and rewashing until I was wrinkly as all fucking hell. The water was still hot! I finally shut it off, thinking I'd look like a senior citizen if I stayed under much longer. I toweled off while standing on this fuzzy rug thing that felt incredibly soft under my feet. Way better than our old cracked linoleum. I brushed my teeth and finger brushed my short hair before going to see what Chase had laid out for me.

Tee shirt, sweatshirt with someone about to hit their horse with a club. What the hell kind of symbol was that? No underwear – though I think I'd have felt weird in someone else's undies – and sweat pants. No, not totally – at least not like any I'd seen. They weren't thick and fluffy, more dense and they sported three white stripes running down the sides with little zippers near the bottom. How useless were those fuckers?

I slid them on and wiggled around a bit, not used to the smooth cloth on my goods. Then I stuffed my envelope in the pocket of the pants. The size on the waist was pretty good, but because I lifted some the sweatshirt was a little snug. I hung the towel over the shower door and walked out of the bathroom.

“Hey! In here! Feel better?” Chase asked. I poked my head into his room. Holy shit balls. The room was huge, like twice the size of our old trailer. The carpeting was thick and spotless, the furniture was huge and kind of ornate. He had a desk with an open laptop on it. He was reclining on his bed, and when I walked in he set aside the tablet he'd been fooling with.

“Uh, yeah. Thanks. Nice shower,” I said. Nice shower – eloquent. What the hell could I have in common with these people? They were going to kick me to the curb so fast, I knew I'd better get my clothes back out of the hamper.

“I know, isn't it great?' he asked.


“Looks like the clothes fit – little loose, maybe,” he said as he scooted off the bed. I looked down. Little snug across the chest, as I'd noted, but the sleeves were definitely long. I'd worn worse. He reached out and rolled up the ends of the sweatshirt sleeves and I smiled at him.

“You're only a few years older than me. Little young to be my new mom aren't you, Chase?” I teased.

“Sorry,” he said with a rueful smile. “I've never had a little brother, and I'm insanely jealous of my friends that do.” He gave me the once over, pausing when he saw my feet.

“I have these great wool socks, you'll have to try them. They snag easy, though, so let me get you the nail clippers.”

I glanced down and saw that the whites of my nails were so clean, they looked gargantuan. I curled my toes in embarrassment.

Chase dug through a drawer and talked over his shoulder as he did. “So, wow, this is crazy, right? We just met the other day, and then we find out we're related?”

“Yeah. Crazy,” I said. He made a triumphant noise and walked back over with a leather case.

“Come on, sit down.” He patted his bed as he sat and offered me the case.

“You going to watch me clip my toe nails?” I asked.

“Well, not watch. I have a million questions, though!”

“Really?” I asked. What the hell could be so interesting?

“Sure. I mean, it was not every day you find your cousin, right?” His smile was back, and his eyes were dancing.

I opened the case and looked down at the gold-tinted toenail and fingernail clippers. There was one of those sticks for digging crap out from under the nail and some of those sandpaper things for – well, sanding down the nails. I glanced at Chase's hand and saw his nails were pretty damn good. I wondered if his parents would use that as another mark against me?

Reason for getting rid of the child? Can't clip his nails correctly, Judge.

I took out the toenail clippers and sat down on the bed next to Chase. I just started talking, telling him about life in the trailer park and the books I'd read and how important they were to me. I told him how Theresa had been letting me work under the table. I told him about the heater my mom had me help get into the single-wide shit-box that must have turned my old life to toast.

“Wow. That must be hard, to lose your mom like that.” I looked up at him and didn't recognize the look on his face. I'd seen so many faces in the last several days. The unemotional 'tough break, kid' faces of the police and firemen. The distaste of the CPS woman and the various looks the shelter people gave. Disinterest right down to the one that said I'd better watch my ass.

This was different. It was almost like...he cared.

“She was all I knew,” I shrugged. “It's always been just me and her. Not good, not bad. Just was.”

“Still, you must miss her though, right?”

“I...” I looked away from him, not wanting to watch the spark in his eyes go out. “I'd like to say I miss her but...there isn't much to miss.”

“That's sad,” he said and placed his hand on my shoulder. “I'm sorry for your loss, Austin. One of my friends died recently, and his boyfriend took it hard. We all did.”

Happy for a change from my lack of emotion, I asked, “What happened?”

“Car accident – very mundane. But he'd had a hard life. My boyfriend, Kale – you met him the other day. Or, no, maybe you didn't...” I glanced over at him to see a finger on his chin as he thought. I snipped along on my nails.

“I remember Alec,” I offered. “I thought the guy with long hair was his boyfriend.”

“Everyone remembers Alec,” Chase laughed. “He's a great, great guy. His boyfriend, Sasha, is just the best, though. He's really serene and helps to balance out all of Alec's silliness.”

“The guy with the glasses? Is that your boyfriend?”

“Lucien? Oh, no!” he laughed, a sound that was filled with real warmth. “Lu has been in love with Robin since he first saw him, poor kid. At least that worked out, finally.”

“Oh. If Robin's not your boyfriend, then...”

“No, he's my boyfriend's younger brother. It was his boyfriend who passed away. Charlie was his name.”

“I'm sorry,” I said awkwardly. Shit, that nail hadn't cut through and now it was dangling by a tiny end.

“Thank you, it was sweet of you to say. No, my boyfriend is usually wearing a concerned frown when you first meet him,” he smiled.

“Uh...Oh. Him.” He meant the dark haired guy, kind of the foil to Alec.

“Ah, I see you do remember him,” Chase giggled.

“Yeah...Uh, no offense. He doesn't seem very happy.” I caught myself in time as I almost added 'unlike you.'

“Well, I've known Kale a long time. I admit, he doesn't always make the best first impression. He's the kind of guy that would give you the shirt off his back – just do anything for you.”

“Probably frowning at you the whole way,” I muttered. I tried pulling on the bit of nail, but it wasn't moving so I tried to angle the stupid clippers to get it.

“Yes, that's true. He came out for me, though, if that gives you any idea how far he'd go.”

I glanced up again, and he wasn't looking at me anymore but smiling at a memory. He was the most seriously happy guy I'd ever met.

“I guess that's pretty far,” I admitted. “He seemed to loosen up. You know, at the end there at the store.”

“Yeah. He told me about this conversation he and Alec had.” He laughed again and put a hand on my arm. “Alec is always picking on him – he does it to me too, he's just one of those guys.”

“An asshole?”

“No, not even close. He's just trying to make you laugh. But Kale had surgery to correct a problem with his heart last year and Alec – the guy who jokes and has no sensitivity – got him to see why we were all happy for the scar on his chest.”

“And that would be...?”

“Because seeing the scar means we still have Kale here every day,” he smiled.

“Oh. Right. I guess that is a pretty good way to look at it.”

“Of course, Alec and Kale weren't always thick as thieves like they are now. I don't know if you overheard it in the restaurant, but Alec almost always calls Kale 'Leafy'.”

“Yeah, like the vegetable, right?”

“Exactly,” Chase smiled. “At first Kale was kind of put off, thought Alec was belittling him. But that's not really Alec's thing – he teases because he likes Kale.”

“So if he's busting your stones, he likes you?”

“Yeah. Alec likes most people, but like I said, Kale didn't take to it very well at first. He went from being prickly to being a puffer fish when Alec was around,” he laughed.

“They're good now, though?”

“Oh, yeah. They have a special appreciation for each other,” Chase said.

“That was just weird what you guys did, by the way,” I replied as I moved on to the next toe.

“Well, we were bored and Alec said, 'Look at this cute guy. He works at a burger joint an hour away; let's go meet a celebrity'. We were all like – nothing better to do!” He laughed at the memory and then continued, “Kale and Alec were arguing before we even got in the car.”


“Well, so you have this public forum, right? The whole idea is you see an attractive guy out working and you snap a picture and post it for people to rate. That's what Alec was talking about – where your picture was posted. So Alec comes out with this idea to go down and see you for ourselves and Kale said he didn't want to embarrass you at work. Alec, ever contrary when it comes to Kale, said maybe the original picture was staged. So now we had to go just to settle it. Trust me, neither one was going to admit the other won until we got there.”

“Didn't Kale realize he could have avoided it all if he just agreed with Alec?”

“Oh, that's just their thing. Trust me, they act differently, but they are two peas in a pod.”

I thought on that for a second and then decided to get the elephant out of my mind. “So...all you guys...are gay?”

“Yeah. Birds of a feather, you might say.” He was quiet, the rooms only sound that of the nail clippers. I looked up at him to see a pensive look on his face. “Are you okay with that?”

“Sure, why not?” I asked.

“Well...it was nothing, I guess. Did you see you made it all the way up to thirty three?”

“Thirty three what?” I asked. Okay, nails were done. I collected the clipped nails and dumped them in the little garbage by the bed.

“On the forum. I was just checking while you were in the shower. Oh, and you have two hundred and thirty seven marriage proposals and a bunch of other proposals I won't repeat,” he laughed.

“I saw some. A guy and a girl wanted to rim me,” I admitted.

“At the same time?”

“What? No! Wait, I don't know,” I replied honestly. Chase was rolling with laughter and I started to giggle too.

“Oh boy,” he said, wiping his eyes. He glanced down at my toes and bit his lower lip. I glanced down, but they looked like they always did.

“What? You have a foot fetish or something?”

He laughed again, “No, I don't. But – Austin, those toenails...”

“What's wrong with them?”

“Don't they snag on your socks?”

“Why do you think they have holes in them?” I asked, baffled.

“Are...are you serious?” He started to giggle and I smiled back.

“Sure. Wait, are they not supposed to?”

He fell back laughing again and I smiled, not sure what was so damn funny this time. He sat up and reached for the case with all the clippers and other torture devices. He selected the clippers and the sandpaper and then quirked an eyebrow at me.

“You want to touch my feet,” I stated.

“I want to help,” he said and then giggled again. It was the smile that danced in his eyes that made it okay, that made me see he wasn't making fun of me – not in a bad way.

“Okay,” I said slowly. “But no tickling.”

“Promise,” he said, holding up a hand. I slowly moved up so I was on his bed and it took a few minutes before he convinced me to stretch out and let him take my foot. It felt...weird. Not bad, but weird. No one else had ever touched my feet that I could think of – or many other parts, for that matter. Chase started to make small clips and then would sand down the nail. I tried to see, but if I wiggled he'd stab a finger into the sole of my foot and I'd yelp and tell him he promised not to tickle.

It reminded me of stories I'd read about other boys with better lives who did sleepovers with friends. They always had fun – even though I'd wager none of them did the other's nails. Chase kept up a steady stream of conversation about his friends and all the shopping they planned to do the next day. Apparently we were going to a huge mall near Albany and they had all been looking forward to it for some time. Chase switched feet and worked on the other one while I tried not to giggle at his incidental brushes of my feet. He was having fun telling me not to wiggle, and then doing it on purpose.

“What's going on?” Mr. Duh-dly asked from the doorway.

“Hi, Dad,” Chase grinned. I, however, recognized the look his father had and I yanked my feet back, sitting up fast. That was the look of a parent who doesn't like what he sees.

“We should pull the sofa bed out and get it ready,” his dad said, glancing between the two of us. I don't know what he thought was going on. We were both clothed and, unless Chase was about to suck my toes and stroke himself, I was pretty sure what we were doing was just borderline weird and nothing more.

“What? The bed in the spare room is much nicer,” Chase said.

“Needs dusting out, the sofa bed will do.”

“No, no,” Chase said, shaking his head. “he can stay up here with me. It'll be fun, like a sleepover.”

“Chase, no.”


“It's okay, Chase. I'll be fine with the sofa. I'm sure it was better than my old bed anyway.” I smiled at him and stood up, heading down behind Duh-dly and to the living room. The sofa bed was pulled out and the Mrs. was putting a pillow case on over a flat pillow. She placed it at the head of the bed and noticed we were there.

“Well, I hope Chase was being a good host,” she said. Host. As in I was his guest. Temporary. Thanks for the reminder.

“He was.” I looked down and frowned, “Though he forgot the mint on my pillow.”

There was an uncomfortable silence and I looked at the two adults, both clearly uncomfortable. How did they think I felt?

“Look. I know you guys don't want me here. Truth, I don't blame you. You don't know me and I don't know you.” I neglected to add the more I knew them, the less I wanted to. “Just let me get a decent night's sleep. I'll go up to Albany tomorrow and get separated from the group. I'll catch a bus and you'll never see me again.”

They looked at each other and the father cleared his throat. “I'm...sorry we've been less than...welcoming. We weren't prepared...” He sighed and nodded at his wife who folded her hands before looking at me.

“Did you know Terry? Your father?”

“No. I didn't even know who he was.”

She glanced back at her husband and sat on the arm of the couch. “Terry was...troubled. We had a very difficult upbringing, and he took the brunt of it, being the oldest of us. At eighteen he left home for the military. He said it would make a man out of him where my father had failed to.”

Her husband put a hand on her shoulder and she placed her hand on his.

“He came home and couldn't get back into civilian life. He drank. He fought. He...”

“Screwed,” I supplied.

“Yes, as good a word as any. I highly doubt there was any love in the act for him.” She hesitated and looked away from me. “We have made a good life for ourselves. We have had some good fortune, we work hard and we do our best to give back. I like to think that, whatever our faults, Chase is how we'll be remembered. He has an enormous heart and isn't spoiled by the finer things he's grown up with. He's the reason you're here.

“If we let you follow through with that reckless plan, my son would never forgive me. I admit I may not care very much what happens to you, something my brother left in some...willing woman. But I love my son, and I won't throw that away for you or anyone else.”

So saying she stood up and walked to the stairs with her husband and flicked the light switch. “Good night.”

I sat down on the thin mattress, which actually wasn't better than my old one, disproving my theory that I'd had the world's most uncomfortable mattress. There was plenty of ambient light from Christmas lights somewhere down the hall and one in the kitchen. I glanced around the living room, wishing I had a book – or to talk to Chase again – when I spotted a bookshelf. I walked over quietly and checked out the spines. Could it be the Dudley's were paperback book freaks? They were! Well, they have two redeeming qualities then. I started to run my finger along the titles to find a book to fall into when Chase came padding in the room and planted himself at the end of the mattress.

“I wasn't done,” he said a little stiffly and motioned for me to lay back down and present my foot. Something was wrong, though. His eyes weren't flashing and he wasn't smiling. He didn't look angry, exactly, but I wasn't entirely sure I wanted him holding any of my body parts either.

“Uh, that's okay. I don't think your dad was too happy.”

“Well, he'll just have to get over it, won't he?” he replied and made a rolling gesture with his hand. I shrugged to myself – whatever was going on, Chase didn't seem like the type to hurt anyone so I'd trust him a little. I lay back but against the back of the couch so I could see. Trust but verify, right? He flicked on the lamp and went back to work on me.

He was quiet as he worked and I was the tiniest bit uncomfortable. He sighed and looked up at me the way someone might if they were looking over the tops of their glasses.

“Were you seriously going to run away tomorrow?”

Huh. How'd he know? “Yes.”

“But why? Because of my parents?”

“They aren't the warmest – look, they don't want me here. They were pretty clear to the CPS lady, okay?” I hissed. “She told me this was temporary – a trial – and to be nice to you. Your parents are concerned I'll be a bad influence.”

I started to pull my foot back but he pinched the ankle from behind and I winced, holding still. His eyes had dropped back down and he grabbed hold of one of my toes, sanding a burr away.

“I love my parents, despite their flaws. In some ways I think they prepared me to fall in love with Kale; to be able to look a little closer at someone to find the things about them that are worth loving.” The scritching stopped and he blew on my foot. Looked closer, grabbed the next toe – hard enough that I knew better than to try and pull away or he'd do more to my toes than I wanted him to.

“I know they aren't the warmest or nicest people, and I'm not saying I'm perfect either. None of us are. Yes, they weren't going to help you, and yes, they are worried about your influence on me.” He looked up, full on this time, “But I know who I am, and you won't make me into someone I'm not. You might show me things about myself I didn't know yet, but that's growth.”

“You think I'm going to teach you something?” I guffawed. “Like what? How to smoke?”

“No, that's nasty.” He pointed at me with the file. “If I catch you doing it I'll have Alec devise a punishment. You will be healthy and live, dammit.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay, I'll be healthy – stop twisting my toe!” I hissed at him, and the pressure slackened off as he smiled in embarrassment.

“Sorry. Look,” he sighed and went back to that final toe. “There is plenty here. What my parents don't provide in warmth my friends – who are basically my found family – more than make up for. Once you get to know them, you'll wonder how you ever got by without them.”

“Your parents will kick me out by Friday,” I told him quietly. “You're the only one that doesn't seem to get that.”

“No, they won't. Not if I don't let them,” he said.

“Okay, one? You're a kid, and you have no power. Trust me, I know this. Two? Why would you care what happens to me?”

He looked up at me and held up my little toe – you know, the one you use like a curb feeler for sharp corners at night. “If I let you go, will you stay here and listen to me?”

“Okay,” I nodded. “Since you know about the running away, I guess you know I wanted a good night's sleep. I'm not going anywhere tonight. In fact, I found a book I haven't read yet.”

He frowned, but let go of my toe. I felt strangely sad to lose that odd contact with him. I'd never really craved physical contact like that. I mean, sure, I wanted to get laid – but this wasn't that kind of contact. It was somehow more...intimate. I pulled my feet under me and watched him as he did something similar.

“Kale has a big family, two younger brothers. I didn't always appreciate them,” he said holding a hand flat to his chest as he smiled at me. “One of them, I still don't – except I appreciate when I leave the room he's in.”



“You know – nice name for fart? He smells or something?”

Chase grinned, the smile going up into his eyes again. “No, he has a pretty bad mouth, actually. Don't get me wrong, he'd probably go ape on anyone who hurt his brothers but...outside of that he hasn't developed any redeeming qualities. Yet. He's a Kirkwood, so they'll come.”


“Well, Kale has another brother – Robin. Robin is...” He looked up and smiled before bringing his attention back to me. “For me, Robin is the reason everyone should have a little brother. He's everything nice you can think of, plus strong.”

“How come you didn't date him, then?”

“Oh, for all his good qualities, he's not Kale.”

“Not grumpy enough for you?”

He chuckled. “That's not it. Kale and I have something extra between us. Robin loves me, I am sure, but between us it was much more of a sibling kind of love. Robin isn't attracted to me, and I'm not attracted to him.”

“Is he a troll?”

“Hardly,” Chase laughed. “But where he's hard edges, Kale is...well, I won't say soft but...” He trailed off and I wondered if he was lost in thought when he said, “Kale is like one of those candy eggs you get at Easter. You know, the kind with the sweet chocolate shell? Inside it was all marshmallow softness? That's Kale. He's not that strong – or wasn't. He's really growing into being a big brother now. But once you get past that outer layer, he's the best guy. Really.”

“Okay,” I said uncertainly.

“I know, what's my point? My point is that Robin always made me want a little brother. Kale used to kind of share him with me, but in a way it made him feel bad because he felt like he wasn't being the big brother he should be. That happened as we got older, of course,” Chase explained.

I waited, wondering where this was going.

“Then we met Alec and Sasha and things just kind of took off from there. We've done so many things...” Chase started to giggle and I grew curious in spite of myself.


Chase was shaking from holding in a laugh. “Alec...he gets us doing the strangest things. One time we played 'strip Mario Kart'.”


“I know!” Chase shook with mirth and I couldn't help but smile at his apparent pleasure. “He said you had to lose a piece of clothing every time you didn't win a race. Kale was adamant - he was not going to play.”

“I can see that,” I replied, picturing Kale frowning.

“But, of course, we did. I think Lucien took the picture – Kale was so mad at first!” Chase covered his mouth with both hands, shaking wildly at the memory. I smiled at him, enjoying his fun by proxy. “We...we were all down to our underwear, on the floor, playing this stupid game. Alec...he was teasing Kale that we were going to see,” he wiped tears away as he tried to laugh quietly, “he told him we were all going to see his leafy stalk!”

We both laughed, covering our mouths to avoid getting caught by the Duh-dly Gestapo. We shook and I felt an odd twinge, sitting there with this boy whose very eyes danced with his mirth. It wasn't attraction per se, even though he was nice looking. It was more a sudden feeling of belonging. Of being in on the joke. A camaraderie that was something closer than co-workers and my chimney of a neighbor.

“Oh, that was so much fun,” Chase said after he gained some control. “Alec loves to tease Kale. I think Kale looks forward to it now, those two are very close. If Kale starts playing pranks I may have to separate them.”

“That's good stuff, but I don't see the connection.”

“Oh, right, I got off track, didn't I?” Chase smiled again – like he ever stopped – and asked, “You remember Lucien? The one with the glasses?”

I nodded that I did.

“Well, he was a foster child. He went through a really bad time, and Alec was assigned to him at school as part of a mentoring program. They are like – the chemistry was just great. Alec started calling Kale all the time – I'm sure some of it was purely to aggravate him – but he was calling him all the time for advice on how to be a good big brother.”

“He must have gotten some very serious advice. I didn't see him smile a whole lot.”

“Yeah,” Chase said, “Alec figured that Robin had turned out so well, Kale must have a clue.”

“Oh. Yeah, I can see that I guess. I have to meet this Robin guy,” I said.

“Oh, you will, I'm sure,” Chase said. “But more to the point, Lucien reminded me how much I'd wanted a little brother – in fact, I'm pretty jealous of Alec and Kale in that respect. So when I heard about you, I was just over the moon.”

“Me? But...hey, don't get too attached. Remember, I'm getting kicked to the curb with the Christmas tree and the used wrapping paper.”

“You're not garbage, and no you're not getting kicked,” Chase said firmly. “I don't know everything about you, but I know you aren't stupid, and I know you have a lot of tact for your age, and I think you could use someone you can trust in your life.”

I looked at him uncertainly. “Not that I don't agree with most of that...”

“Your tact and intelligence I knew when we first met you from the way you handled our motley little group. You were reasonably graceful about the whole forum and that group picture.”

“If you say so,” I mumbled.

“I do,” Chase confirmed. “Now you lost everything you had, but you've gained me. You'll see, tomorrow, that you'll have a whole new extended family. You'll have people you can trust and who will look out for you.”

“Not that I don't appreciate the offer – and you seem like a great guy – but what about your parents? And what if you discover I'm an asshole?”

“You leave my parents to me. You're not an asshole,” Chase giggled. “I have a finely tuned asshole detector.”

“Yeah, I guess you would, being gay and all.”

“Did you...just...no, you didn't!” Chase laughed and hit me with a pillow.

“Hey!” I grinned and held up my arms to fend off another strike. “It must help, right? Wouldn't Kale agree?”

He hit me a flurry of times then, laughing, and I was grinning as I tried to dodge him. We must have made too much noise because his father came down the stairs, probably ready to shoot me for ransacking his place or something, and was surprised to find Chase down in the living room.

“Chase. It's late, get some rest. Let our guest sleep.”

“Okay,” he said, dropping the pillow. His father retreated up the stairs, confident his good son would do as he'd been told. Chase leaned over and grabbed me in a hug that I returned awkwardly. He stood up and said good night. He paused in the doorway of the kitchen, and although his face was shrouded in shadow, I thought I could still see him smiling and his eyes sparkling.

“Austin, you're right. Kale does appreciate my asshole detector,” he giggled before he turned away and said, “I like his too,” and then he was gone, laughing up the stairs.

Was he talking about his...no. He did not just tell me he and Kale were pounding each other, did he? I started to laugh, burying my face in the pillow to keep his parents from a return visit. Once I'd recovered I cracked open the book and started to read.

~ H ~

I was awoken by sounds in the kitchen – closing cabinet doors, the clink of cups. I thought I smelled coffee and I struggled to wakefulness. My back was sore and I had to do some stretches to loosen things up, and then I climbed out of the bed. Glancing at the sofa I was debating if I should put the bed away or leave it out when Chase walked by with a caddy full of what looked like cleaning supplies.

“Morning,” I said. He stopped and turned to look at me, flashing me a not-quite-awake version of his smile.

“Hi, Austin. How did you sleep?”

“I slept,” I replied.

“Yeah, that bed isn't very comfortable,” he replied.

“How do you...I don't need to know,” I held my hands up and he chuckled.

“Not like that! Get your mind out of the gutter.”

“You must be there, too, if you know what I was thinking.”

He put a hand on his hip and lifted an eyebrow at me.

“What's with the cleaning stuff? Is that coffee I smell?”

“It's for cleaning, and yes, there is coffee. Why don't you get a cup and meet me in the spare room? Wait,” he stopped himself just as he was turning away. “You drink coffee?”

“You don't?”

“No. Nasty.”

“Nothing like a hot cup and a cig,” I opined, just to tweak him.

“No,” he put down the caddy and started walking towards me. I put my hands up, grinning at him and was, even then, telling him I was kidding as he wagged a finger at me and told me I wasn't allowed to do anything dangerous. It was pretty funny, considering he was probably two inches taller than I was, but I think I still could bench press him.

I became curious about that and pushed the hand he was wagging in my direction, egging him on. I taunted him, said I had a pack stashed outside to light up when no one was looking. I think he knew I was yanking his chain, but then again he might not have. Either way, he was on me and that sofa bed was getting a workout as we twisted and giggled while seeking some kind of decisive advantage. He was using his height and wasn't exactly weak, but when he dug an elbow into my ribs I started to giggle.

“You? Muscle guy? Ticklish?”

“No!” I howled as he did everything he could to dig into my ribs. I bucked and flipped him over and we tumbled off the bed and Chase cried out in pain.

“Ow! Ow, ow ow,” Chase groaned sitting up. Blood was seeping behind his fingers and his parents were suddenly there, glaring at me with the promise that I couldn't be gone soon enough. Apparently dear old dad decided a look wasn't clear enough.

“What did you do to my son, you thug!” He stood between Chase and me, as if I had to be restrained from finishing Chase off. I felt bad for hurting Chase already, but now I felt defensive with this judgmental asshole acting like I did it on purpose.

“We were fooling around, it was an accident!” I replied, louder than I needed to.

“You broke his nose!”

“No, he didn't,” Chase said in an exasperated tone. He was holding his head back, pinching his nose. “It was just a nose bleed. We were wrestling, Dad.”

“You've never had a bloody nose before,” his father said uncertainly

“Sure I have, you're just not there when I play soccer at the Kirkwoods. Plus, I never had a little brother to wrestle with – I always had to borrow Robin.” He snapped his fingers while trying to look at me with his nose pointing up. “Get your coffee and bring the cleaning stuff up, little brother.”

He was cracking on my height. I felt a smile sneak onto my face and I grabbed the caddy with the cleaning supplies and, dodging around his parents, walked out to the kitchen. After securing a cup of coffee I went up the back stairs and met Chase in the spare room.

“Not too bad for a spare room, huh?” he said, holding some tissue to his nose and checking periodically to see if the bleeding had stopped.

“Are you okay? I'm sorry about that,” I said. Obviously, he was okay and I was sorry – but I also needed to get that out of the way for what came next.

“I'm fine,” he said, flashing a smile.

“Okay. If you ever talk about my being short again, I'll give you another one.”

He burst out laughing at me and I grinned.

“I don't think you're supposed to laugh when you get threatened.”

“I'm sorry,” he snickered and tried to straighten his face. “You want to try again? I promise I won't laugh this time...shorty.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, I admit that one was weak. Maybe Alec will give you more of a challenge. Besides, I was going to get this room cleaned up before we leave,” he said, tossing the used tissue away.

“What for?” I asked, sipping from the cup.

“Well, to thwart my father's lame excuse as to why you aren't in this room yet. It'll be clean and you'll sleep in here tonight.”

“You aren't intimidated by your folks at all, are you?”

“No. Should I be?”

“Well, maybe intimidated is the wrong word. I guess...you just don't seem to accept their authority in some things.” I sat on the corner of the bed and sipped the coffee as Chase organized the supplies, getting out what he wanted.

He eventually stopped, then sat down on the corner of the bed and regarded me. “I was twelve when I realized that my parents weren't...nurturing or anything like that. Given that, you'd assume I'd be very cold as well. But for some reason, I developed in the opposite way. That realization, when I was twelve, made me want to be the complete opposite of my parents. Of course, I took it too far at first – after all, they do have good qualities.

“For instance, they are very organized and are excellent providers. Those two qualities means I've never known what it means to go hungry or worry if I won't have a home. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say they spoil me, because they are frugal, but I don't lack for anything material.”

I finished off my cup and set it on the nightstand. He handed me a cleaning cloth and a can of dusting spray and pointed at the dresser. He continued speaking as we wiped the very clean room down.

“The things I was missing, I mostly found with the Kirkwoods. As we got older, and I got better at reading Kale, I realized he had the same feelings I did but was too afraid to say so. I already knew what it meant to live without hugs and warmth, so I convinced him we shouldn't lose an opportunity to have that for ourselves.”

“Wait,” I said, turning to look at him. He glanced over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow. “Convinced him, how?”

“I kissed him,” he said with a grin.

“Where?” I asked, grinning back.

“In the library,” he giggled. I looked at him in confusion.

“No, where – not like, what building you were in!” I laughed.

“Oh! Oh, you are so perverted!” he laughed and said, “On the lips. Jesus, school library – wasn't going to yank his pants down and plant one down there!”

“Yet.” I wasn't facing him but I heard him struggling to contain his laughter.

Finally he giggled out, “Guilty.”

We settled down to finish wiping the room down. We both knew it was a contrivance on his father's part, but Chase wanted to play the game and so I did. Then he went to shower and suggested I do as well.

“I put your clothes through the wash last night – I had a hard time sleeping.”

“Dreaming about my toes,” I teased.

“No. You, actually,” he said.


“Not like that. You really do have a dirty mind.”

“I do,” I replied.

“I was excited you were here. Maybe I missed the first – what, fourteen? Fifteen years?” he asked. “But I'm going to take my chance to be a big brother for all it's worth.”

I decided to let him enjoy it. There was no sense in arguing that his parents were going to kick me out first chance they got. Still, as independent as I'd grown to be, it felt nice to have someone who wanted to take care of me.

After we got cleaned up I put on my old pants and underwear. I was looking for my socks and Chase told me he'd given them to the dog, doing a deadpan imitation of his mother. My jaw dropped and he tossed me a pair of his socks, chuckling at his own joke. I smiled to myself, realizing that he was enjoying teasing me.

We both had a bowl of cereal and were just picking up when his doorbell sounded. He rushed to the front door with the same enthusiasm he'd had when I'd arrived, which I guess said a lot about how excited he must have been if he greeted me the same way he does his friends. Unless, of course, he does that to the UPS guy or the pizza delivery driver too...

“Alec, Sasha, I'd like you to meet...” Chase was cut off as Alec's face bloomed in a smile.

“Hamster! My man!” He put a hand out and I shook it, surprised at his enthusiasm.

“Everyone else remembers you as Austin. My boyfriend? No, he goes with the nickname,” Sasha said with a smile and held his hand out. “It's nice to see you again. I wish I could say the circumstances weren't embarrassing for either of us, though.”

“I'm not embarrassed,” I replied.

“Alec's here, chances are you will be at some point. If nothing else, just by being in public with him,” Sasha burst out laughing and Alec just grinned, not bothering to try and fight that.

“I'm going to get the keys from my mom and start the van,” Chase said and he disappeared. I picked up the book I had started the night before, in case I got bored.

“So, this is a great surprise. Did you know Chase already?” Sasha asked. I could hear voices being raised in another room, but was unable to hear the individual words.

“Already? You mean before I met you guys? No,” I replied. Chase's voice spiked and I twitched, and I took a step towards the kitchen.

“I wouldn't,” Alec said. “Seriously.”

“Alec?” Sasha asked.

“I talked to Kale this morning. He sent me a text last night asking for a wake up call in case he wasn't up.”


“I guess Chase picked a fight with his folks,” Alec shrugged. “Man, I knew I liked that guy. Get 'em, Chase!”

“What fight? You decide to wait until we get here to tell me?” Sasha poked him.

“Dude, what fight? If his dad lays a hand on him...” I snarled.

“Whoa! You'll embarrass him!” Alec clamped a hand on my shoulder. “Big brothers don't get rescued by the little brother. Or the shorter one. It's a rule, somewhere.”

There came a brief knock at the door and Kale opened it, followed by Lucien and a guy I hadn't met.

“Kale, your boyfriend is a tiger, man,” Alec enthused.

“Shit. Are they arguing?”

“No,” Alec said, “Chase is annihilating them!”

“Alec,” Kale frowned before stalking off.

“Hey! How come you didn't try to stop him?” I huffed at Alec.

“Boyfriend,” Alec said slowly, as if I were dumb and pointed a finger in the direction Kale had gone. Then he pointed at me, “Hamster.”

I narrowed my eyes and was about to say something nasty when the guy I didn't know said, “This is Hamster? Damn.”

I turned to look at him, flashing blue eyes and a host of other features that made his resemblance to Kale too much to be coincidence. I wasn't entirely sure what he meant, though. He held out his hand and I accepted.

“I'm Robin, it's nice to meet you.”

“Thank you. It's nice to meet you, too. Chase told me about you.”

“Did he?” he smiled and arched an eyebrow. “I'll have to check in with you later and make sure it was good stuff.”

“It was,” I said. I didn't hear any more yelling, but I had no time to think as Alec was shoving Lucien in front of me.

“This is my little brother, Lucien Kutsenko.”

“Uh, yeah, we met. Hi,” I said. Lucien just laughed and shook my hand.

“I was adopted last week. Alec tells everyone that.”

“Oh! Well, congratulations,” I said, smiling at him. “Kind of...older for that, aren't you?”

“Yeah, definitely. But there's nothing like family,” he said.

“Right, ties that bind and gag!” Alec said maniacally while grabbing Lucien from behind in a quasi-headlock.

“Okay, okay, outside before someone changes their mind,” Kale said rushing back and pulling an aggravated Chase with him. I just followed everyone else out the door. Crap, forgot my coat! Oh well, they'll have heat in the van – at least I have a book!

“Shotgun!” Alec cried as he ran for the car.

“Hey! My boyfriend's driving, I sit up front!” Kale called and charged after Alec. I shook my head as we walked briskly, and Alec threw himself into the passenger seat while Kale was climbing in on top of him. They were both laughing and I cracked a smile.

“This is what you have to look forward to,” Sasha said with a laugh. With all the commotion up front I climbed all the way in the back. Sasha took a seat in the middle and Lucien sat to my right. I started to shift to make more room for him, but Robin suddenly squashed me from the left. They both looked at me with grins.

“What?” I asked.

“My brother was up half the night with his boyfriend on the phone. All the drama will be back here.”


“All night?” Sasha asked.

“Yep,” Robin confirmed.

“Will one of you be an adult and sit in the back?” Chase begged the two, still pushing each other for the front seat and carrying on.

“Kale! Sit back here with us so we can talk about Chase!” Lucien called out.

“Hey!” Chase said, looking in the rear view. “What did I ever do to you?”

“Traded me in,” Lucien said, shoving me and giggling.

“Easy,” I said. The battle was lost up front it seemed, and Kale had settled into the other middle chair. Once buckled in Chase started us on our way and Kale spun his chair around to face me.

“Uh oh,” Robin said in a sing song.

“So. We should probably get a few things ironed out,” Kale began with a very serious look on his face.

“Like what?” I asked slowly.

“First, stop scaring Chase with bullshit like you're going to try and ditch us today and disappear. You'll break his heart, and I'm not having that. None of us are.”

“Well, I was actually talking to...”

Robin bumped me and Lucien pushed me back the other way and I looked around in confusion.

“Second, stop acting like you're going to be out on the street come Friday. No matter what happens, you have family now.”

I looked at all the eyes on me, feeling a little unsettled. I was also a little less than pleased that this guy was talking to me in this tone of voice like I was going to obey.

“That's a nice speech, Kale,” I said quietly. “But you can't stop his parents from tossing me out – they aren't obligated to provide anything for me. Plus, you guys don't even know me. Where do you get off talking to me like that and feeding me this family crap?”

“It was not crap,” Sasha said quietly, firmly. “All of us found each other. We support each other, and it was very easy for us to have empathy and a desire to help. All we want from you is to let us do that. Kale is just telling you that in his big brother voice – because you might live with Chase, but you have three other big brothers now.”

“You have people,” Robin laughed and then stood up, shooing me over by the window.

“You trying to trap me in a corner?” I asked. I was only half joking; I really didn't know what to say to Sasha.

“No,” Robin said. “You're cute. I'm not letting my boyfriend pretend to sleep on you.”

“Whoa,” Lucien said. “Not fair!”

“What are you guys talking about?”

Lucien's hand came up over Robin's mouth as Robin looked ready to blurt it out. Oddly, it was Sasha who smiled and told the story.

“When Lucien first came with us it was for a movie night. He was already head over heels for Robin and pretended to fall asleep on him just to be close.”

Aw. Lucien and Robin were giggling and talking between themselves. Kale was still looking at me.


“I was just thinking how much you and Chase look alike.” He shook his head and leaned forward, placing his elbows on his knees. “Look. I'm not trying to be a dick. I love my boyfriend, he has a huge heart and he very much wants to help you. I don't know what you guys talked about last night or what you did, but he's bonded to you like a lioness to her cub. I can guarantee you, he is going to fight for you, and that means we will too.

“The only question is, will you fight for yourself?”

He sat back and turned his chair around, and Sasha smiled before doing the same. Finally, there was no focus on me and I felt a little sorry for myself. I was nearly fifteen and had just lost everything. No one had ever offered to help me like this, not even Theresa. Her giving me a job was the closest I'd ever come to what these guys were saying I could have. All I had to do was accept it – but why was that so hard to do?

Chase's parents hated my guts. I figured, somehow, the fight had been about me this morning. How could I ask Chase to be at odds with his folks for me, whom he didn't know from anyone? Kale's words about Chase's heart came back to me, and I had to agree – but his big heart was going to get him hurt, especially if he thought his parents would allow him to have a little brother.

That was another thing. How do I feel about the idea of having a big brother? I mean, first, we weren't brothers – we were first cousins. Second, apparently all the older kids in the car took a piece of that title. Do they expect me to, what, obey them or something? I was used to taking care of myself – could I even be anyone's little anything? What does being a little brother even mean to these guys? As much as I was filled with trepidation, there was one clear thing.

Chase cared about me, about what happened to me. I knew if his folks booted me like I expected, I was going to have a hard time getting up to Albany. But I knew, like the characters I like to read about, I had to have some honor and not hurt Chase. Not intentionally. I couldn't run from them, from him. Shit, how had he gotten that loyalty out of me so fast? I just hoped his friends followed through when his folks kicked me out.

I glanced at Robin and Lucien, who were leaning on each other and fast asleep. They looked so innocent together so...I don't know.

“Kind of melts your heart a little, doesn't it?” Kale asked, half turned in his chair.

I tilted my head a bit, allowed a small smile and nodded.

“Oh, come on,” he said softly, not wanting to wake them. “I saw you smile at them. That's how you feel when you're the big brother.”

~ H ~

I read on the ride up, catching bits of conversation and bits of music as the radio dial got fiddled with. At some point I ended up with Robin leaning on me and Lucien leaning on him. It felt weird. Not bad, necessarily, but weird. It was a little like when Chase was touching my toes – casually intimate. I glanced at them and noticed Lucien wasn't actually sleeping, just snuggling. He smiled and I returned it.

At last we were in the parking lot and everyone was out to stretch and make a mad dash for the bathroom. We regrouped outside the bathroom and Alec threw an arm around my shoulder.

“Hanging with the Hamster,” he said to the group, who chuckled.

“Why are you calling Austin that?” Robin asked.

“It's his nickname,” Alec said, as if everyone knew that. Robin looked at me, expectantly.

“It's true. Most people call me Hamster.”

“But...why?” Robin pointed at my upper body, which was decently built. “You're not exactly built like one.”

“Um, partly because of my last name – Hamilton – and partly because of my hair. I keep it short but I'm told it was really soft. Like a hamster someone had as a pet or something.” Next thing I knew there were all sorts of hands touching my hair. I started to laugh and twist away but they were kind of relentless.

“I have to agree, you're more developed in the chest than the average fourteen year old,” Kale said after they were done rubbing my head.

“My face is the only part of me that looks my age,” I replied.

“Oh really?” Alec said, making the words sound like a leer.

Too late, I realized his implication and grabbed my waistband. “No. The hair was one thing, I'm not proving that last statement.”

“Alec, he has you figured out,” Sasha laughed.

“Okay,” Chase said, trying to establish some order. “It's Christmas Eve so the mall closes at six. It's ten thirty now, let's make sure we're back here at five thirty at the latest.” He said this looking at Robin and Lucien, who simply nodded and were gone.

“They look great together,” Sasha said to Kale.

“They do, don't they?” Kale said, watching them with a fond look. Again, it looked foreign on his face, but I thought I could see that gooey middle that Chase claimed was there.

“After Charlie, I was worried for him,” Sasha said.

“You? I was nearly out of my mind,” Kale said. “You have no idea how grateful I am that Lucien didn't give up – that he made it a point to call and ask me to get Robin to go to his adoption.”

“You did a good job convincing him,” Sasha replied.

“Uh, I harassed him some, that's true,” Kale said and grinned at Sasha. “But I was in the car with Robin and put Lucien on speaker phone, so Robin heard him begging.”

“Go, Leafy! My man!” Alec smacked Kale on the back and the moment was gone as Kale and Alec were pushing and shoving like they were twelve.

“Sasha? Let's leave the boys and meet back up about two for lunch?” Chase suggested.

“Sure,” Sasha agreed.

“Austin, would you mind hanging out with Kale and Alec until lunch?” Chase asked.

“Uh, okay,” I said uncertainly.

“Don't worry, I just need a third person with them to call me if mall security kicks them out,” Chase laughed while getting an echoing, indignant, 'Hey!' from the both of them.

Chase kissed Kale and admonished him to be good, which Sasha mirrored with Alec and then they were walking away, heads together in discussion. I looked back and forth between Kale and Alec, who were a little disheveled from their exertions.

“Okay. I need to hit the jewelry store. Where do you need to go?” Alec asked Kale.

“I wish Chase was as easy to shop for as a piece of jewelry,” Kale said, shaking his head.

“Well, on the bright side, at least he's easy,” Alec said and ducked.

“You think he's easy? He's not the guy that lost his shirt on the first date!” Kale scoffed.

“Hey, Sasha can't help it if he wasn't prepared for my plans to get him out of his clothes,” Alec grinned.

“Well...” Kale struggled for a retort.

“Come on. You know what I'm getting Sash, you have to help me with the chain.” Alec started to walk and I followed. Kale kept checking to make sure I was there, which annoyed me a little.

“Oh, Kale! You know what you should get Chase?” Alec suddenly burst. “One of the pictures you took. You must have taken a great one of him, somewhere.”

“That seems a little weird,” I said, “giving a guy a gift that's a picture of himself?”

“Hm, Hamster's right,” Alec said dejectedly.

“Although...” Kale said in thought. “I did use the timer to take that group picture of us all after the clown car ride. Remember? Chase would love that.”

“Remember? How can I forget the day my baby brother saw your brother's hoo-ha?”

“You...you...” Kale's face contorted, trying to find the right word and not laugh. He finally burst forth, “Fucker!” and then they were both in stitches. “Hoo-ha? Really?”

“I was trying to be sensitive to the boy's ears! I don't know if Chase wants me talking about nuts and butts around him!”

“Hey!” I said indignantly, which did no good as they both just laughed. I felt a grin tugging at my mouth, even though I still felt kind of like the butt of a joke. I was nearly fifteen, not five!

They settled down enough to take a look at various gold and silver chains. Alec kept insisting it had to be durable. I got bored and wandered out of the store and sat down on a bench. Kale kept half an eye on me, but I dismissed him. I knew I wasn't running today and why. Chase had offered me hope, and I hadn't known I needed it.

About ten minutes later Kale sat down beside me, giggling.


“Oh, just Alec. He's entirely inappropriate sometimes.”

“Sometimes?” I smiled.

“Well...he does have limits,” Kale said. “But enough about Alec; that's an all day conversation.”

“Why do I feel like you're going to lecture me again?” I groaned.

“I'm sorry you felt like it was a lecture,” Kale said. “I just know how much this means to Chase.”

“That's another thing I don't get,” I said. “Look, I'm really not trying to be difficult here, but Chase doesn't even know me. Before yesterday all he knew of me was some stupid picture on the internet of me loading fast food on a plastic tray. Now he's treating me like some...”

“Long lost relative?”

“Well, I guess that works.” I sighed. “I'm just some kid from a trailer park. My mom was a free love kind of person. She just happened to get pregnant when she was being 'free' with Chase's uncle, I guess. It was just...chance.”

“I could try and analyze this for you, but it's really not that complicated. Chase is a happy person,” Kale said. I snorted. “I see you've noticed,” he said drily.

“Yeah,” I said, thinking of the smile that reached his eyes.

“He's also a pretty good judge of character. Now, I grant you that he was predisposed to like whoever walked through his door last night but whatever you guys talked about or did last night convinced him.” Kale shrugged.

“He says he has an asshole detector,” I replied. Then, the devil made me say, “He said you like that.”

“Well, yeah. Spotting jerks is pretty...wait a second.” He turned to look at me, reassessing me. “What exactly did you guys talk about?”

I was enjoying having him unbalanced, since he'd been doing it to me all day. “If it's any consolation, he likes your asshole detector too.”

“You,” he said pointing a finger at me, “are trouble.”

“I've been trying to tell you that. Besides, did Chase tell you why I said I was going to ditch you guys?”


“Then you know. His parents don't want me near their precious boy.”

“You got that right,” Kale said, leaning his elbows onto his legs. “That was the fight this morning. I was pretty surprised, though. Chase is usually pretty civil when he shames his folks, but this – it was nuclear.”

“I don't want to be any trouble or anyone's responsibility,” I said.

“Well, you had that choice taken away once Chase got hold of you.” Kale fell silent for a moment and then asked, “If you don't mind my asking, what did you guys talk about last night?”

“Nothing important. He was being really polite about telling me my toenails were unacceptable,” I started and Kale burst out laughing.

“He what?”

So I explained how Chase had tried to let me know I needed some improvement before he took things into his own hands. Literally. Kale was nearly apoplectic trying not to laugh. “Any...anything outside the nails?”

“I told him about the trailer park, how my mom died, all that.”

“Oh,” Kale said soberly. “I'm sorry about your mom.”

“Chase didn't tell you?”

“No. We share a lot of things in our group – maybe more than we should, but that's different.”

“That's more personal than Lucien seeing Robin's hoo-ha?” I snickered.

“Well,” Kale said, giggling, “those two didn't know we all knew. It makes it funnier, I guess. Although, I did feel bad for Lucien.”

“Why? Your bother doesn't look good naked?” I teased.

“Oh, I'm sure he does. But to Lucien it was like...I don't know. Overwhelming.”

“Huh,” I grunted.

“So your mom passed away? Is that why you're at Chase's now?” Kale asked.


“Do you mind if I ask how she passed?”

“Barbecued herself,” I replied. Cleared my throat, “She wasn't the brightest bulb on the tree. She put a kerosene heater in the living room of our trailer. I guess you're supposed to vent the space and she didn't. The firemen said she suffocated. Then the heater caught the trailer on fire.”

“I'm sorry, Austin.”

I sniffed, shrugged. “It is what it is.”

“So...what did you think of Chase?”

I glanced at Kale and looked away, down between my feet. “I think he's super nice. If I was, you know, a kid I'd like to have him as a big brother. But I'm nearly fifteen, and he's going to get that big heart broken when his parents tell him no.”

“You may be underestimating him,” Kale said.

“I'm not a fucking puppy, Kale. I'm a teenager they don't want any part of.”

“Well, that much is true. But I promise you, you'll be taken care of.”

“You know,” I said suddenly taking my feet. “I wish you guys would quit making me promises. I've been taking care of myself ,and I don't need no handouts.” I turned and marched back towards the bathrooms. Kale didn't try to stop me, but when I turned a corner I saw he wasn't too far behind me. I ducked into the bathroom and got in the short line. Leaning back against the wall I sighed deeply.

“Hey. Aren't you the guy from Flubberbusters?”

I glanced over to the speaker, a boy maybe a year or two younger than me. Straight brown hair fell from the crown of his head. He was looking at me expectantly.

“Yeah.” I replied listlessly. “That's me.”

“This is so awesome! Can I get a pic with you?”

“Uh, if you want. I guess.”

“Great!” he dashed over to the urinal before someone went around us. In short order I was there too.

“Turn a little this way,” the kid said. I glanced over to see him holding up his phone.

“What the hell?” I growled.


“What the hell do you think you're doing?” I asked, zipping up.

“Taking a picture!”

“Not of my dick!” I exclaimed.

“Well, your face is already out there – why not?”

I stared at him in shock. Shook my head, grumbling, and walked away. What is wrong with these kids? Kale and Alec were waiting at the end of the the hall and I sighed before falling in with them. Kale had the picture they had discussed earlier mailed to him off his computer by his littler brother and we were going to a store to have it made into something nice for Chase. We were passing Victoria's Secret when Alec started tugging us both back.

“Whoa, whoa! Kale! Let's get a pair of these,” he held up skimpy underwear, “and we'll glue candy to the crotch and give a pair each to Robin and Lu!”

“No!” Kale said, but not without laughing. “Are you kidding? Did you see how they were walking the morning after Lucien's adoption? They promised!”

“Actually,” Alec said, “They promised no sex, but as it was explained to me, it was making love.”

“Oh, please.” Kale scoffed.

“I didn't say I bought it, I'm just saying...”

“They didn't even use condoms!” Kale hissed as we walked out of the store.

“Hey, guys? I still see 'em as kind of innocent. Can you two not tell me all about them bare-backing?” I asked.

“We're not talking to you,” they said in near stereo.

Jesus, please get me to lunch and back to Chase.

~ H ~

We did finally meet for lunch, and Chase refused to let me pay for my own meal. I looked at him in irritation and he just smiled. Like he ever stopped, I thought to myself. The guys all compared notes, somewhat, on the shopping they had done. If Alec and Kale were any indication, Chase and Sasha were lying through their teeth.

When we broke up after the meal, I was with Chase and Sasha and they eagerly asked me about my time with their other halves. What I had to tell them didn't surprise them in the least.

“Oh, check it out!” Chase pointed to the cheesy mall construct of Santa's Workshop, complete with the fat man himself. A large camera was about eight feet from him and there were signs advertising having your picture taken with Santa.

“Austin, please?” Chase begged.

“What? You can go sit on his lap if you want.”

“No, come on, you go!”

“No! I'm not twelve!”

“Austin!” he whined.


“Come on, we'll all go!”

“I think this is better with just you two,” Sasha giggled.

“Austin! Come on,” Chase said and grabbed my arm. I started to pull back, but he had my arm extended and I wasn't able to overcome both his arm strength and the weight of his body as he leaned forward to pull me. Instead I started stumbling forward, off balance and feeling like a fool.

I compromised with Chase and agreed we could stand on either side of Santa. A Santa who smelled like too much Old Spice and not enough soap. Finally, we rejoined Sasha who smugly told us he'd posted our little photo session to his social network pages already. Ugh.

“Okay, let's go in here,” Chase said, indicating a trendier clothing store. “What size is your waist?”

“Uh, twenty nine. Why...no, hang on. You don't have to buy me clothes, Chase.”

“I know, but I'm going to. Now either you co-operate, or I buy a bunch of crap that may or may not fit you,” he said, arching his eyebrow at me.


“Okay, a rackful of Justin Bieber tee shirts it is,” he said turning from me.


“Austin,” Sasha said, placing a hand on my arm. “This you don't give back. You need clothes, he's offering – no strings.”

“I...don't want to seem ungrateful, but...” I said.

“I know,” Sasha said. “Just be graceful about it. Tell him if you don't like something and what you do. These are clothes, not something obscene.”

I sighed. “Okay.”

Chase was looking at tee shirts with My Little Pony on them. “I'm not a Bronie,” I said.

“Oh? Hm.”


“Don't be. One way or another I'm getting you some clothes today; you don't have to like it.” Chase lifted his chin, daring me to contradict him. It was kind of...cool. He wasn't intimidating, even now, but he just expected me to see that he was right and I should do this. He was trying to take care of me – maybe that was the problem. Okay, I had told myself not to burst his bubble – that was his parents' job.

“Dress me,” I said, holding my arms out.

“Yes!” he said, a spark back in his eyes. He asked questions, pulled jeans and shirts and sent me to the changing rooms. I had to model everything – he even did the mom finger check on my hip to see if the jeans were too snug! I came out in just jeans once and they both insisted I pose. I hammed it up, then laughed at how silly it was. But, of course, it wasn't just jeans, no. Khakis, two pairs of cords and too many shirts – tees, polos, sweaters. I was trying not to think about how much money was on the pile as he announced we were done with our first stop.

“First stop?”

“You need sneakers, dress shoes, underwear and socks,” Chase said reasonably.

“Chase,” I said looking down. “I feel bad you're spending all this on me.”

“Don't,” he said, dazzling with his smile. “It's making me very happy. Now, do you actually like the briefs? Or do you want something else?”

“More importantly,” Sasha said, “what kind of underwear would you like to be seen in, when that time comes?”

“Uh. I never really thought about it,” I said, feeling a little warm in the face. “Don't you just...hurry to get out of them?”

“Maybe the first time,” Sasha laughed.

They had a little fun with me over the underwear, holding up some stuff and asking me to model it. It was weird, but kind of funny too. Again, Chase made me feel like I was in on something rather than an outsider. He bought me a couple of packs of boxer briefs and two pairs of, uh, sexier underwear to try out. He bought me dress shoes in one place and dress pants and a few button-up shirts – it was exhausting. It also had to be God awful expensive. I finally mustered the courage to ask him how he could afford all this.

“You'll just get mad, let it go,” he said.

“Chase.” I said, my steps grinding to a halt.

“Austin, really. I told you to trust me and I'd handle it, didn't I? And you said you would.”

“You were talking about dealing with your parents,” I reminded him.


I realized that his parents were footing the bill, likely unwillingly. I then theorized that the argument this morning must have come from my needing clothes. I was divided about how I felt about that. On the one hand, I felt like a charity case. On the other hand, in less than twenty-four hours Chase had pulled me in and gone to bat for me like...well, like a big brother should. It left me unbalanced. With a final stop for toiletries and some smelly toilet water, we met up with the rest of our little band.

They were huddled around Robin and Lucien, who were holding up some strips of paper. As we approached, Robin waved us to look. We clustered around and looked at the photo booth pictures of them making faces, cramming cheek to cheek and kissing while laughing. I held the one of them cheek to cheek and just smiled at it.

“You can keep that one,” Robin said.

“Oh, uh, that's okay,” I said and tried to hand it back.

“No, it's only fair. After all, we have your picture.” Lucien said, grinning.

“What? Oh, you mean the website. Seriously...here, take it.”

“No, it's okay,” Robin said. “Every time I look at you, you seem so sad. I can see you like it. It's a happy picture, you look like you could use more happy.”

I was thinking he was about the sweetest damn thing, and then Lucien showed me his phone. I did a double take. It was me, in just the jeans, being silly and posing when I was trying clothes on.

“What the hell!” I grumbled. “Is that on the website too? How'd that happen?”

“Sasha,” Lucien laughed. “You have to watch the quiet ones!”

I turned and looked at a red, but chuckling Sasha. “Et tu, Sash? Et tu?”

“Oh, oh I know this!” Alec said and drew himself up to his full height. “E Plurbus Unum.”

“Isn't that the Latin on a penny or something?” Kale asked.

Sasha patted my arm. “Just email, no website.”

“Let's go eat!” Chase said, and we all started for the door.

~ H ~

The ride home was very quiet. I sat in the back and, this time, it was Lucien asleep on me. Robin explained that I was very comfortable and felt Lu should experience it. Alec was in the middle with Sasha and Kale sat next to Chase up front. I read my book and drifted off at some point in the ride. Between the warm car and the full belly, I was shot.

Once back at the house we piled out. Lucien took Alec's keys and ran over to start his car. Alec started going from person to person, giving hugs and wishing a merry Christmas. It started everyone doing it. I got a double from the Wonder Twins, Lucien and Robin.

“You guys are coming night after tomorrow, right?” Alec asked.

“What for?” Kale asked, rubbing his chin in exaggeration.

“You're only saying that because I can't properly spar with you,” Alec said, pointing at him. “But I will get you, my Leafy! And your little dog, too!” Then he cackled and ran for his car. Sasha chuckled and waved goodnight, taking Lucien with him.

Kale and Robin helped bring the embarrassing number of bags in the house and up to the guest room. Chase didn't even ask. After some protracted goodbyes Kale and Robin left as well.

“So, I have a few last-minute things to do. Feel free to hang your stuff up and get settled. I'll be back.”

“Uh, is this your way of saying 'stay in here while I go fight with my parents over you again'?”

“See? I told you! You're smart,” he laughed and closed the door behind him. I moved quietly, dumping things out in one motion so I didn't make repeated noise. I wanted to hear – if Mr. Duh-dly went after Chase, I wanted to know.

I heard a grumble, a spike in volume. Dropped, but still at uncivil levels. I wanted badly to run down there and get between them – but I already was. Besides, Alec had told me – little brothers don't go rescuing the big brothers. It was in the code or something stupid. A crash from downstairs and I was out the door, code be fucked, taking stairs three at a time and screaming, “Chase?”

“What? What's wrong?” Chase appeared in the entry to the kitchen. As I crossed the threshold I saw a heavy pie display stand had fallen, the metal base dented and the glass top shattered. I stepped past him, between him and his parents.

“Are you okay? I heard a crash.”

“You little bastard! You think I'd hit my own son? And you'd dare to...”

“Yeah, I dare!” I yelled. “I knew people that used to beat their family – you won't touch Chase!”

“Austin, Austin, it's okay. There was no violence,” Chase said, pulling me by my shoulder. “I promise. Go back to your room, I'll come up in a minute.”

I looked at him uncertainly, but he nodded and I retreated, slowly. I wanted his parents to know Chase wasn't alone, and I shot daggers at them with my eyes. But I went, not upstairs though, just up the first few. I wanted to be close – just in case.

“His room? His room?” his mother hissed.

“Yes,” Chase said firmly. “His room.”

“We spent nearly a thousand dollars on him today! Haven't we done enough for that hooligan?” asked his father. Jesus H. Christ, a thousand bucks?

“I told you, I'll take it from my life-guarding money.”

“You will not! You're supposed to save that!” His mother was back to hissing.

“You're lucky I didn't spend more, I sure as hell wanted to!” Chase snarled. “As it is, I got him just what he needed.”

“He needed three pairs of shoes?” his father said in disbelief.

“How many pairs do I have, Dad?” Chase asked.

“He's not our son!” they both said, nearly in harmony.

“Yeah, well, being your son is kind of embarrassing sometimes.” I heard him take a few steps and then spin back. I was on my feet, not wanting to be caught eavesdropping. “One more thing. You guys better get over this idea that you're kicking him out after Christmas or, I swear, I'm going with him.”

I dashed up the carpeted stairs and into my room. Tears were pricking my eyes and I tried to wipe them away, but fresh ones were leaking out. Chase opened the door, closed it and leaned against it, grunting in aggravation. I turned, but he saw.

“Austin? Oh, Austin, how much of that did you hear?” I heard him crossing the room.

“Stop,” I said, my voice thick and my breath unsteady as I tried to master myself. He slowed, but then his hand was on my shoulder. I tried to avoid looking at him, but he kept turning me with more force than I was willing to resist. My eyes met his and then I burst forth in a blubbering mess.

I don't remember the last time I cried. I don't like to cry. I never had time or a use for it. I also discovered, I never had anyone to make me feel better afterward. Chase held me and I disintegrated - I mean really, completely fell apart. I tried to tell him, in between the crying jags, that I'd thought they would hurt him. That I didn't want him to get kicked out and how sorry I was to make his life such a mess. I told him he was kind and sweet and I didn't deserve what he was giving me or what he was sacrificing for me.

I slumped to the floor and he slid down with me, never letting me go. I felt spit bubbles hit my lips and snot clogging my nose; tears filled my eyes and my breathing was erratic. I felt like an asshole.

Finally I crawled away from him and propped my back against the bed, letting my legs sprawl on the floor. Chase picked up a box of tissues from the dresser and brought them to me. I nodded my thanks and cleaned myself up, coughing and my breath still hitching a bit. Finally, finally I stopped.

“So,” Chase said from my side. “How much did you hear?”

I turned my head to him. He was on the floor, but facing me, his shoulder up against the bed.

“Everything. I'm sorry,” I said, looking down. “I didn't mean to hear. I just thought he was going to hurt you.”

“Has someone hurt you before?”

My breath hitched. An eye that should have run dry leaked another tear. I nodded.

“I think that was very brave of you,” Chase said, patting my leg. “But you should know, my parents aren't violent people. They don't even believe in spankings.”

“I just...”

“I know, it's okay. You were protecting your big brother,” he said softly.

I coughed out another hitched breath, felt fresh tears and nodded my head. “Did...did you mean it?”

“Every word.”

I sighed.

“We should probably sleep. We have a big day tomorrow,” he said, struggling to his feet. “Oh, my leg fell asleep!”

I stood slowly and asked him, “What's going on tomorrow?”

“Well, after presents we'll go to the Kirkwoods to exchange gifts. I'm sure Robin will con me into dropping him off at the Kutsenkos,” he smiled and said, “then try to con his way into an overnight so they can both walk like saddle-sore cowboys and think that nobody knows they just pounded each other silly.”

“I...can't believe you just said that.” I laughed, “They look so innocent.”

“I know, right? They get away with everything!” Chase giggled, shaking his leg and trying to stand on it. “I'm kidding, mostly. They're just in love and can't see enough of each other.”

I shook my head and kept thinking, 'they look so cute and innocent'.

“Anyway, after that we'll go to an early dinner at the club. We have a big day after that, too,” he said, putting full weight on his leg and starting to walk about a little, side to side. “Alec is having a party at his house – oh!” he snapped his fingers.


“That's going to be their con! Setting up the party!”


“Robin and Lucien,” he said,waving his hand. “Now, do I tell Kale or let the boys be boys?”

“Do you think Kale really wants to know that his brother is plotting to get laid?'

“Hm. You may have a point there,” Chase said and smiled. “Well, sleep well.”

He started to turn but I grabbed him, pulled him tight. Thanked him. Told him I...appreciated what he was trying to do.

“It's okay,” he said as he patted my back. “I love you, too.”

I put my clothes in the hamper and threw out my old underwear. I dug out the pajama bottoms Chase had bought for me and settled into bed with my book. I was too wide awake for sleep, and the book was so good I didn't fall asleep until nearly three.

~ H ~

I won't embarrass myself by doing a play by play about Christmas morning. Obviously I had no gifts for anyone, and Chase put a ribbon on my shirt and told me I was his present. It was corny, but had the desired effect.

I, meanwhile, felt embarrassed to get presents after everything that I got the day before. But there was Chase handing me two boxes, and an envelope.

“Chase,” I whined.

“Open, open,” he said, bouncing in place. He had his phone up, probably recording it. If he had labeled it 'Baby's first Christmas' I would have hurt him.

The big box was a new coat. “Check it out, it matches your eyes!” he said. I promised to look in a mirror later, but he was already on about how it was reversible and had a removable liner – he was just so excited.

The smaller box was an e-Reader, and the envelope was gift cards to the bookstore. I glanced up at him and felt the tears coming again. He was right there, of course, and as we hugged I thanked him repeatedly.

“Oh my God, Chase. This is the best thing ever. I can't wait to use it – I'll never lose all my books again!”

I even looked at his parents and thanked them, which they shockingly accepted. But Chase wasn't done. He pulled out a small box that wasn't wrapped and smiled. “I had Alec get this, but his gift wrap was completely unacceptable.”

“Was it poorly wrapped or something?” I asked dubiously.

“No,” he leaned in and whispered, “it had pictures of Santa screwing Rudolph. Where do you even find things like that?”

We both cracked up, and then I was near the stupid tears again. A phone, programmed with everyone's numbers – and there were waiting 'Merry Christmas' messages.

Chase's folks only had eyes for their little boy, drinking in his joy. I gained a bit of respect for them then. If they could take joy in Chase, maybe there was hope for them yet.

We got changed and headed out to the Kirkwoods. I won't linger there, either, except that they all had gift cards to the book store tucked inside a protective case for my reader for me. Kale was beaming as Chase geeked out over the picture he had been given.

“That was a good day,” Robin said to me.


“Yeah.” He sighed deeply and then asked, “Are you happy today? You look happier.”

“I'm...a little overwhelmed. But, yes, I'm happy.”

“That's good. Are you guys going to the Kutsenkos' from here?”

“I think so. Why, you want to ride your boyfriend? I mean, a ride to your boyfriend's?” I smiled, letting him know I was on to him.

“I'm not sure who will go first,” he said thoughtfully and then laughed. “Don't tell my brother.”

“That you guys are screwing? Too late.”

“What?” Robin asked in shock.

“Yeah. Something about you and Lucien walking funny the day after his adoption and no condoms.” I pointed at him. “I hate even saying that, because I thought you guys were all cute and innocent.”

“Austin! You think we're cute?” Robin said, pretending shock.

“No, don't go there,” I said with a laugh.

“Seriously, though,” he said. “Who knows about the condoms?”

“Everyone. I mean, everyone. I know,” I said.

“How embarrassing. I know this is Alec's fault, somehow, and I will get even,” he grinned. “But, you know, people always say to use them, and I did with Charlie. I don't know, with Lucien...”

“I don't want to know!” I said, holding a hand out.

“Why? Are you picturing Lucien and I going at it?”

“Gah! Chase? Time to go,” I called. Robin just giggled.

Of course, we dropped him at the Kutsenkos', who had more gift cards for me. Kale decided he could ride with us, and I thought he was on to Robin's plans. Of course, it wouldn't be a visit to Alec's without a story, and Alec was ready.

He'd been pretty good for our visit, but you just knew he was coiled and ready for the right situation. First he struck with doing something deceptively sweet, by giving Kale a charm on a chain that said '#BFF'.

“Wow. Alec, I don't know what to say,” Kale said as he looked at the expensive bauble.

“Well, I wanted to give you something nice as my new best friend, time to fill that position permanently,” Alec said formally. “Besides, the gold plated penis charm? Way too expensive.”

Kale looked at Alec, a mixture of wanting to laugh and something I wasn't quite sure about. Of all the things he could have said, of all the banter these guys had been throwing back and forth, he said, timidly, “Best friend?”

“Yeah,” Alec said uncomfortably. “Unless...I mean, come on, Leafy.”

“Hah,” Kale barked and put a hand over his mouth, looking at the gift. I realized, watching Kale's face, that his gooey center was on full display and he didn't know how to handle it. Chase saved his stunned boyfriend by tapping Alec's shoulder.

“Am I chopped liver here?”

“Nope,” Alec said with a broad grin. “This is for you. Uh, open when you guys are alone.”

“You know, from anyone else I'd think some harmless joke was in here,” Chase said with a shake of the box. “But from you? I'm taking that warning seriously.”

We were getting ready to leave – Kale having just had a tete a tete with Robin and Lucien – who I was sure would still not use condoms – when Alec struck again.

He draped himself all over Chase, who held him bemusedly. Alec's head was turned towards Sasha and he said, “Honey. Kale said we could do a wife swap. Do you mind?”

I turned to Kale, expecting his head to explode. Instead he said, “Alec, I told you – only if I can watch.”

We broke up in the biggest, loudest belly laughs. I mean, the room erupted. Alec was bent double and trying to high five Kale. Finally Chase grabbed Alec by his tie and said, “You cannot hang around my boyfriend anymore.”

“Aw, come on, Chase,” Alec whined.

“No! You two can't even get simple directions right. If anything, I'm watching.” The room erupted again, gasping for breath – but that wasn't the last word.

“Excuse me,” Sasha said, “But I think you should know that whoever is watching will get quite a show – because I'm more of a participant than a voyeur.”

“Orgy, orgy, orgy,” Alec chanted and the laughter was back. Well, except for his confused parents poking their heads out of the kitchen. “Orgy?” Alec said to them.

I was dreaming of all the books I could buy as we headed home. Chase helped me put on a tie for dinner and I had on the new dress clothes he'd bought me. I looked in the mirror and didn't recognize myself for a moment. I picked up the book I'd finished and brought it down to the living room to put back on the shelf. Chase's Dad was there, sitting in a wing chair, paperback in hand. His eyes drifted over the top of the book and he watched me approach.

I gave him a nervous smile and tapped the book in my hand before reaching to put it back.

“So. You're a big reader?” he asked.

“Yes, Mr. Dudley,” I replied, pausing with the book still in hand. It nearly broke my jaw to speak civilly, but I knew Chase would be disappointed if I started shit.

“Did you like the book?” he pointed to the one in my hand.


“And what, exactly, did you like?”

I thought about it for a moment and then said, “I liked that I thought the author wrote themselves into a bind when the paradox caused a whole new reality. I thought it was interesting how the end result of a lot of things was the same, but the path was different.”

His eyebrow rose a notch. “Was there anything else?”

“Yeah, actually.” I sat on the arm of the couch. “I thought the enemy was unique. There was other things, but that's a big part.”

“Interesting. The sequel is on the shelf. Let's...talk about it when you're done.”

“Sure,” I said and then added, “Mr. Dudley.” I put the book on the shelf and found the sequel. A nervous wave to the man, who was now ignoring me as he was buried in his book, and I went back upstairs.

The club was on the outskirts of Binghamton, and it was nice. Not overdone, but it was kind of elegant. Mrs. Dudley made a pleasant comment about my appearance, and I complimented her as well. I knew she didn't mean it, but I gave her points for trying. Maybe we could make some sort of...truce.

There were only two other things that were odd about dinner. There was a bus boy clearing tables and helping to bring out plates, and I couldn't seem to take my eyes off of him. There was something about the loose, easy way he carried himself that I admired and was attracted to. He had on snug black dress pants and very shiny dress shoes with a white button-up shirt and a black bow tie.

I felt a tap on my foot under the table and I glanced at Chase. He was tilting his head towards the bus boy and widening his eyes as he did so. Was he trying to get me to go talk to the guy? Oh, heck no! I shook my head and went back to my dessert. He kicked me again and I pursed my lips at him, widened my eyes and hissed at him to cut it out. The fucker laughed at me.

We stood from the table and Mr. Dudley took Mrs. Dudley's hand and we followed them into a room with a parquet dance floor and a bar on one end of the room. The Dudleys moved to the bar for an after dinner drink and Chase pushed me out on the dance floor. We wiggled around, standing on our own, just kind of moving to the beat. A girl came dancing up to me and pulled me off into the crowd. We danced a bit, and I was having a pretty good time until the music changed and we went into a slow song.

She moved in close, and I placed a hand on her hip and the other on her shoulder. Both her hands rested on my sides, and we swayed to the music.

“I'm Cathy. Cathy Peterson.”

“Austin Hamilton.”

“You're Austin from Flubberbusters,” she smiled. I was suddenly uncomfortable. She moved close in to me, and I felt a hand rub my junk.

“Hey now,” I said, trying to step back. She leaned in and offered to blow me. I mean, jumping Jesus.

I let go of her and walked back towards Chase. I walked off the dance floor and he followed a moment later.

“What happened?” he asked. “Where are you going?”

“Ugh!” I said, turning to face him. “I'm all screwed up!”


“Some chick in there, Cathy Peterson? You know her?”

“By reputation,” he said dubiously. “Usually her name is accompanied by 'Hoover' or 'Electrolux'.”

“She just groped me and offered to blow me!”

“Oh. She said something similar to Robin,” Chase frowned. “Uh, well, what did you say?”

“I walked away?” I said, throwing my hands up. “What, do you think I'd let some skank suck me?”

“I don't know – I don't even know what you're into, Austin. I mean,” he coughed, “you're an attractive guy. I'm sure you've had...offers.”

“Yeah,”I said, looking down, “From the guys that just rolled out of bed with my mom and wanted something tighter.”

“Ouch. Wait, did they...”

“No. My mom was territorial about her one night stands. Thank God.”

“Okay. I was curious because I thought I saw you eying the bus boy...”

“Uh...yeah...I can't deny that, I guess.”

“Why would you?”

“I don't know. I haven't, you know...been with anyone.” I licked my lips and said, quietly, “I guess I'm having trouble figuring out which team to play for, you know?”

“Oh. Yes, I understand now. It may be that you play for more than one, you know,” Chase replied.

“Maybe,” I agreed. This was such a weird conversation.

“Well, as your big brother, I promise to lead you only to nice people I approve of.”

“Gee, thanks!” I said, laughing.

“Of course. Now,” Chase said with a mischievous grin, “say hi to my friend, Cole Darby.”

“Huh?” I turned and there was the bus boy, tie undone and dangling around his neck and his top two buttons open to reveal the skin underneath.

“Hi,” he said with a confident smile.

“Uh, hi.”

“What's your name?”

“Hamster, uh,” I smacked my forehead, “Austin. Austin Hamilton.”

“Well, Austin. Would you come dance with me?”

I gulped. Glanced at Chase, who nodded encouragement, and then I accepted his outstretched hand. I looked back at Chase and said, “This better not end up on You Tube!”

~ H ~

The following morning was lazy. After breakfast I stayed in my room and read the book I'd gotten from downstairs until about ten thirty, when Chase knocked on my door.

“Come in,” I said absently, trying to get through the paragraph. He waited until I put the book down and looked up at him. He was giving me that indulgent smile, like I was four.

“So,” he spoke before I could, “Sasha is on his way over. He's getting close to being a licensed massage therapist, and he needs some practice. He's going to set up in the gym room, if you're interested.”

“A massage?” I asked.

“No dirty jokes,” Chase pointed a finger.

“I was just wondering how he got certified so fast. He's not very old – and you said licensed, so there must be a process to it,” I pointed out.

“Oh. I thought it was your dirty mind working overtime,” he grinned and sat on the bed. “Sasha took some of the basic courses as college credit his senior year. Over the summer and fall he took courses – he has a final in a week or so.”

“Isn't school out for everyone?”

“Mm hm,” he nodded. “He's not in a college or anything; it was a private certificate school. He figures he can make some extra bucks while he and Alec are in college.”

“That's pretty ambitious,” I said.

“He's smart. It's why we get along so well. Anyway, he's going to come give me a massage. You can go after that if you want.”

“Okay, I guess.”

Chase and I made small talk until Sasha arrived, and then I helped him get the table set up. Chase walked in with his robe on and I excused myself. I decided to venture downstairs for a drink, and as I descended the stairs, Mrs. Dudley was just starting to come up. I started to back up, but she noticed me and waved me down, turning to return to the ground floor. I hesitantly went down, bracing myself.

After all, it was Friday.

“My husband and I would like a word with you,” she said and walked into the living room where he sat, waiting. She took a seat next to him on the couch and asked me to sit as well. I decided to do Chase proud and go out being civil like he'd want.

“We find ourselves in a situation,” she said stiffly, one hand smoothing her skirt and the other holding that of her husband. “For my part, I...pre-judged you based on my brother. One thing I neglected to account for was that he and I, while growing up together, became very different people. Whether or not one of us was better in any measure than the other is irrelevant and subjective. The salient point is that we were not alike. Do you follow my meaning?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Good. Good,” she said, falling silent.

“I don't normally feel moved to explain myself, but I think it would be instructive in this instance,” her husband said. “When Ms...whatever her name was from the county called, we were quite stunned. We are organized people, we make plans and back-up plans. We had neither for the situation we were presented with. Our initial reaction was to say no, because we didn't know what to do if we said yes.”

“This is in addition to my own disposition,” she added.

“Just so. Chase, being young, is prone to be reckless. But he is also prone to do the...human thing without needing to plan. Sometimes he gets hurt by that, and other times...”

“What he – what we – are trying to say is that we recognize our mistake. I don't know who you are, Austin Hamilton, but I know that you've made my son joyously happy. I've seen you defend him from a perceived threat, and I've seen you accept him for who he is and who he loves.

“We may never be close, you and we. But I think we can agree we all have something in common.”

“Chase's happiness,” I said.

“Yes. On the basis of that, we propose to...reset our relationship and try to make things work. I have no desire to be at war in my own home, and I like to think that my husband and I are not so rigid that we cannot learn from our own mistakes – or admit them.”

“I would...like that,” I said. “I would really, really like that.” They weren't kicking me out! I was going to get to stay with Chase!

They kind of went back to what they were doing then, kind of dismissing me, but I didn't care. I took the stairs two at a time and paced my room until I heard the gym room door open.

“Austin? Your turn,” Chase called. I dashed to the door, flinging it open. Chase was standing in the door way of the gym room, talking to Sasha. I just crashed into him, crushing him to me.

“Austin! What the heck!” he giggled.

“They said I could stay! They said I could stay!” I whispered fiercely, lest they overhear and change their minds.

“They...of course they did. I told you so, didn't I?” Chase said with a smile. He glanced at Sasha and then looked back at me. “Go strip down and get into your robe. I'll see you after.”


“You can keep your underwear on, if you're more comfortable,” Sasha said with a smile.

“Right. Okay,” I said and walked back into my room. I set my clothes on the bed so I could put them on afterward, and when I was down to my underwear, I just didn't feel like I could go that extra step. I put my robe on and walked back over to the gym room.

“Okay, ready?” Sasha asked.

“I guess,” I said, shrugging.

“Don't be nervous. This is supposed to relax you. I'll step out to use the bathroom, and you can put your robe on the chair and slide under the blanket, on your belly. 'kay?”

Sasha left the room and closed the door. I shrugged the robe off and slid under the sheet and blanket. The table was kind of narrow, and there was a pad to rest my face on. In fact, it looked like a miniature, padded toilet seat. There was a cloth laid over it, so my face wouldn't sweat against the plastic. I rested on my elbows until Sasha tapped on the door before coming back in the room.

“So, Chase says you've never had a massage before?” he said, closing the door and thumbing through his phone.

“No,” I confirmed. Mellow music came from his phone, and he set it down before turning to me.

“Okay. Just lie down flat and put your arms at your sides.” He lifted the end of the cover and placed a pillow under each of my ankles before replacing the sheet. He pumped some lotion into his hand and then rubbed it to warm it. I lay down as instructed and felt his hands start moving across my back.

“You must be very excited right now,” he said as he worked the lotion into my skin.

“Totally. I was shocked,” I said enthusiastically.

“I can only imagine,” he said, pumping again and then working large circles on my shoulders.

“I really didn't think it would happen. I was kind of trying not to want it, you know?”

“Mmm, hm,” he said. On to the other shoulder. I shifted a little, starting to relax.

“Coming here has been a huge change for me. Before, with my mom, all I had were my books. It was like my mom wasn't even there. I do love my books, but until Chase started trying to take care of me...I guess I didn't know what I was missing.” It was so easy to talk to him, I felt the words just flowing from me.

“Chase is a very caring soul,” Sasha said. He moved up towards my head and began going up and down my back, pushing and kneading.

“You all are,” I said. “ I never had friends like you guys. There was no one my age in the trailer park, and the kids at school made friends with people they lived by or did things with – like they had friends from football or soccer or what have you.”

“Didn't you play sports? You have some muscles.”

“No. I had a weight lifting bar and a couple of free weights. I used those and did some sit ups and push ups.”

“It paid off,” he said as he unfolded the sheet and covered my back. He then moved down and uncovered one leg. Pinning the sheet under me, he pumped again and started on the calf and thigh.

“How long have all you guys been a group?”

“Oh, well,” he said, pulling and stretching my leg muscles. “Alec and I have been together for about three years. We met Chase and Kale last year – but during the school year. We were friends by the time they were juniors. Then Lucien arrived last year in September.”

He straightened my leg at the knee, putting it at a ninety degree angle and began to rotate it from a fixed point.

“Charlie happened before Lucien, and he and Robin dated for about a year before Charlie passed.”

“That must have been hard, a kid like that dying.”

“Incredibly so – but Robin took it hardest. He was in a real tailspin for months.”

“So...what happened? He and Lucien look really close.”

He covered the leg and moved to the other side. “Well, Lucien had a thing for Robin from the first time he saw him. Alec tried to defuse it by letting Lucien see Robin as a person instead of this dream he'd built up in his head.”

“How'd that work out?” I chuckled.

“Well, Robin is pretty special. It just reinforced the way Lucien felt. After Charlie died it took a few months for Robin to give himself permission to be in love again.”

“So...Lucien waited for him all that time?”

“Yes, he did,” Sasha said and put my leg down and recovered it, then pulled the pillow from under my legs. “Okay, I need you to turn over.” He lifted the sheet a tad to let me turn without disheveling everything.

He had me scoot down so he could remove the face rest, and then he sat behind my head and started working my neck and shoulders.

“So how long have they been together then?”

“Almost a week.”

“That's it? And they are...bare-backing?”

“Yeah,” Sasha's voice deepened. “The sex I kind of understand. Lucien already knew who Robin was and had been in love with him from a distance. Robin knew how Lucien felt, even though Lu tried to hide it. The bare-backing is a wrinkle none of us foresaw.”

He stood and ran his hands down one arm, lifting the arm and pulling, stretching. Then he worked the hand and forearm, then the shoulder before switching sides and repeating. Then he put the face pad behind my head and covered my chest with the sheet before moving down to my legs again.

“I know it's none of my business, but...if they love each other so much, how come all they do is screw? I thought there was supposed to be more to it than that?”

“Well, I think the screwing is exaggerated. My bet is most of the tall tales come from Alec's mouth and into Kale's ear.”

“Ah, classic Alec, messing with Kale's head.”

“It was disturbing you've only known my boyfriend a few days and already think of that as a 'classic Alec move',” Sasha chuckled. He started lifting the leg and bending it, moving it in large circles from the hip and stretching it.


“What do they do when Alec claims they are screwing?” he chuckled again. “Homework. Video games. Television. Sledding. Watching a movie under a blanket. Things everyone does, I guess. They don't seem to care as long as they are together.”

“I thought they looked cute and innocent together. I'm glad I wasn't totally wrong.” He'd moved on to the other leg and was now running the tips of his fingers deep into the thigh muscle.

“No, not at all. They are cute, and they are reasonably innocent. You can only be so innocent and be around Alec, though. Boy, you have a knot here. Does that hurt?”

“A little, maybe.”

He moved with just this thumb and I started when he hit something sore and I yelped. “Sorry. Okay, I'm going to come back and you tell me how bad it hurts on a scale of one to ten, ten being you're dying.”

His thumb slid along my skin and I felt the discomfort build. “Four. Five. Seven!”

“Okay. I'm just going to hold it. I can feel it breaking down slowly,” he said. “So I heard you had a nice dance the other night. How's the pain now?”

“Yeah. Uh, about a five.”

“Okay, just going to hold it some more. So tell me about the dance?”

“I'm guessing you mean Cole Darby...”

“No, the Hoover. Of course I meant Cole. I didn't know you were gay, by the way.”

“I don't think I am. I just...I don't know, I liked him. He's got an easy confidence and he seemed really nice. It was a little weird, dancing with a guy though. I felt like everyone was looking at us.”

“Eh. More people were likely watching that little tramp. How is it now?”

“Just pressure.”

“Okay,” he said and started pushing down the leg again. “Feels pretty good, Austin. A few small bumps here and there. That one in your thigh was the worst, but it wasn't too bad. How do you feel?”

“Pretty relaxed, actually,” I said with a yawn.

“Good. I'll go wash my hands and you can put your robe on. Thanks for volunteering.”

“How come you don't practice on Alec?”

“Because he expects a happy ending,” Sasha smiled and laughed as I cracked a smile.

~ H ~

We dressed casually for Alec's party. Chase made me change twice, apparently I was too casual. Kale picked us up and, just to be a turd, I asked him where Robin was.

“According to the text I got from Alec this morning, he's having trouble sitting down,” Kale muttered.

I giggled madly and Chase grinned. “Liar.”

“Yeah, I know. Can I just say, it feels weird to look at him and know he and Lucien are doing...”

“The things we do?”

“Yeah,” Kale nodded and then laughed. “Jesus, I'm a hypocrite. I helped get them together! Did I think they wouldn't fuck like bunnies?”

“Well, at least they do other things too. We know it isn't all about the sex, despite what Alec says.”

“Yeah, I know. Thank goodness for that.” He frowned and Chase asked why. “They blew up the condoms I gave them and let them fly out the window, like condom balloons. Alec said they were all over the front lawn!”

I burst out laughing, rolling in the back seat. They were grinning at my laughter, but I fell silent as a thought struck me.

“Hey. Putting condom balloons on the lawn sounds like an Alec thing.”

“That...he never gave them the condoms!” Kale smacked the steering wheel.

“Kale, didn't we just discuss that they weren't just having sex all the time?” Chase asked.

“Yeah...but, they did...”

“Yes, they did. I admit I was surprised they...went that far. But I don't think it was fair to assume that they are having sex every time someone's back is turned.”

Kale stopped at a light and just stared at Chase. Chase tilted his head. “I said not every time.”

Kale dipped his chin a bit, but didn't stop staring. Chase shifted. “Okay, I'll talk to them,” Chase said with a grin. Kale snorted.

~ H ~

When we arrived the place was pretty full. All our friends were there, and I was introduced to a few I didn't know. There was a very nice meal, and then Alec got up on the coffee table and asked for everyone's attention.

“First, I'd like to thank you all for coming. Some of you know that my grandpa passed away on a December the first. Every year we have a party in December to celebrate him, because he was happiest when the house was full and a good meal was on offer.”

“Here, here!” some adult said and glasses were raised.

“So every year we like to tell stories about him and remember the happy times. This year, we lost our friend Charlie Cooper. We were all hit hard and we miss him. But I'd like to remember Charlie as he was – happy, smiling and - ” Alec reached down to one of two small boxes at his feet. Opening one, he withdrew the skimpy panties from Victoria's Secret with candies glued to the front, “ - he was apparently up to no good in Home Ec!”

He tossed the panties to Robin, whose eyes were wet but his smile was wide.

“Now, I used to think I was a confident guy. I wasn't too scared to do much, and I know now that I got that confidence from my folks,” he said and clapped for them. A quick round of applause raced through the room and Alec shifted on his feet.

“But everything changed in my sophomore year. I met someone who made it possible for me to do so much more than I ever thought I could.” He looked down and took a breath. “My little brother – you've all met my little brother, right?”

The crowd chuckled and Alec made a motion, asking the crowd if they were sure. Then he continued, “My little brother thinks I can do anything. Only, I know it was all because I had a foundation given me by my parents, but I didn't truly spread my wings until I met Sasha.” A collective 'aww' came from the audience.

“All our friends know Sasha is – by far – my better half. He's better looking, smarter and he's the reason I have such great friends – Kale, Chase and Robin. Come here, Sash,” he said holding out his hand. Sasha climbed on top of the coffee table with him, an embarrassed but pleased smile on his face.

“Okay, so – hey, you all know Sash?” The crowd agreed that they did. “Okay. So, last year my friend Kale made a joke. Which was weird enough if you know him,” Alec smiled at Kale who flipped him off.

“But what he said stuck with me. You see, I told my new best friend – who is now my little brother - hey, have you all met my little brother?”

“Quit stalling!” Kale yelled. The crowd laughed.

“Yeah. So, anyway. I told my new best friend – who is now upgraded to being my brother - that I needed one because Sasha was already my future husband. And Kale – who is supposedly my best friend, now - said, 'I don't see a ring'.” He looked at Sasha and then back out at the collected people “I thought, well, who finds the love of their life in high school?

“Well, I did.” The crowd started to clap and Sasha had a hand over half his face, smiling in embarrassment.

“So. Sasha and I are going to SUNY Albany next month. But before we leave...I wanted to take this happy day when we remember the joy of our friends and family who can't be with us and add in some joy to our future.” So saying he crouched down and opened the second box, and then went to one knee and proffered a ring the size of a silver dollar.

“Sasha Buchanan, in front of all the people we love – I love you. Will you marry me?”

Sasha was nodding his head and said, “Of course I will. Of course, yes, yes yes.”

Alec was up and kissing Sasha and the room erupted in cheers. Alec leaned back and beamed at Sasha's face and I felt the love they had for each other. Alec lifted up the ring and Sasha guffawed, and the crowd quieted down and I could hear Sasha say, “How the hell can I wear that, Alec?”

“Oh, I got you this,” Alec said, withdrawing the chain he'd bought at the mall from the bottom of the box. Sasha shook his head and laughed.

“Alec, why – where did you get a ring so big?”

“Oh,” he looked down and then glanced at his friends. “Well, I know we're going to miss our friends – our family, really. And we all had so much fun with my old rust bucket – I had this made out of the engine block.”

Sasha burst out laughing and hugged Alec. Their friends moved close and congratulated them. I did as well, and they insisted we all get a group shot – they didn't have one with me. So we all crowded in on the couch and, as it grew quiet, Alec said, “Sash I'm sure glad you said yes. I'd already asked Kale to be my best man.”

“What?” Chase's head whipped to look at his boyfriend. “You knew?”

The bulb went off. Man, what a memory.