Muttley

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle

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I was up early for the first day of summer vacation and I eagerly showered and pulled on the dark blue shirt and pants my father had bought for me, as well as the dark work socks and steel toed boots. Given my height, I probably looked a little like an anime character, but I didn't care. It always seemed like my dad never made the effort with me – I was too small for the manly things that he identified with, but now that he was making an effort, I was going to embrace it. After all, if he tried and I didn't, who was to blame?

“Leaving in twenty, Dev!” he called up. I put a belt on and trotted down the stairs.

“Whoa, check you out,” he said conversationally. I smiled and held my arms out, showing off. The corner of his mouth turned up a little.

“Grab something to eat and we'll head out.”

I nodded and ate a quick breakfast, then I was climbing up into his truck and buckling in. He glanced at my pile of shit car and grunted.

“It's not worth the trouble to fix the heater core. You have to take the whole dash out, practically. We'll have to keep our eyes out for a good deal,” he mused and then fired up the old truck and we were on our way. His radio was tuned to a country station and we drove in companionable silence with the windows down, enjoying the early morning temperature.

Dad pulled into the drive through of a Dunkin Donuts and ordered himself a cup of coffee and two coffee rolls. Glancing at me he asked if I drank coffee.

I shrugged and tugged my mouth into a look, trying to communicate I hadn't tried.

“Want to try a cup?”

I nodded, again tugging my mouth around to try and convey my willingness to try.

“Gimme another medium, black. Cream and sugar to the side,” he said to the speaker and we drove around to pick the order up. “Just hang on 'til we get there to fix it, okay? Drinkin' a good cup is kind of more art than science.”

I quirked an eyebrow and the corner of my mouth at him but he said no more about it. We arrived at the shop he worked at, an independent place that did repairs for local folks and sold a few used cars. Dad had been here for years and had a good relationship with the owner and he repaired cars and did the occasional tow job. We walked into the small office and he set our items down.

“Now, Dev, here's the thing about coffee,” he said as he folded back the top of his lid to take a sip. “It's never exactly the same two pots in a row. See, no matter how much you try, there will always be differences – sometimes the beans taste a little bitter or sharp. Sometimes they can be real mellow so, just because you don't care for black coffee one time, doesn't mean you won't like it from another place. You follow me?”

I nodded.

“Okay, so, what I'm telling you is, take a sip of it while it's got nothing. If it tastes bitter to you, add some sugar to balance it. Cream alters the texture and, of course, the flavor but not in a way that affects the sweetness. Just, go slow with the changes so you can see what you like.”

As I glanced down at the coffee cup, I realized I never knew how seriously my dad took his coffee. I knew tons of people drank it, but it was usually considered an adult drink. Except at the house of this kid I used to know, Ben something. He had ADD really bad and his mom had explained that, in kids, things sometimes had the opposite effect as they did with adults – so stimulants like the caffeine in coffee could calm a kid with ADD, and so she had Ben on a routine of a cup in the morning – which made him feel pretty damn grownup.

I folded back the plastic tab on the lid and sampled the coffee. It was hot and slightly bitter on my tongue. I picked up a packet of sugar and stirred it in before trying it again. I found the bitterness was almost gone and the coffee pretty good. I glanced at my dad, who was sitting back and watching me with a thoughtful expression. I smiled, held the cup up as if toasting him and drank some more. His mouth twitched and he pulled out the coffee rolls and handed me one.

“I like starting my day like this,” he said as he took a bite. “Don't tell your mother, she's always on me about eating right – but I love my coffee roll.”

I felt a thrill as he took me into his confidence and happily bit into my own roll. It had a very sugary layer on top, which wasn't entirely pleasant, but I found taking a sip of coffee to go with it to be very good, indeed.

“I'm going to have you doing some odd jobs and watching me so you can learn, okay?” he said. I nodded and he continued, “If you run out of stuff to do, you can always sweep up and keep the place neat. Worst thing about a shop like this is how dangerous it can be, tripping over hoses or what have you. So keeping shit picked up is first thing.”

He went on to list a few more things, but it was all pretty basic. When he'd brought up the idea of me working with him for the summer, I'd been skeptical. Dad and I had never been close; in fact, I had the distinct impression he couldn't be bothered with me, sometimes. So when he made the offer, I was kind of stunned. I didn't think of myself as mechanically inclined and, even though he was a mechanic, he'd never even so much as looked at the problems my car had been having.

He gave me a few jobs to get started with and I headed out into the parking lot with a big broom and started to clean up the small lot. I emptied trash cans and cleaned up the bathroom and straightened the office before the owner came in.

“'Lo, Devyn, good to see you,” Bob McKinley said to me. Bob had always been a nice guy and I shook his hand in greeting. “Lot's looking good, we almost look professional,” he chuckled. I wheezed along with him and he put his stuff into the fridge before taking a seat at his desk.

“I got a truck coming today, a few cars we bought at auction. I want to send a few back on that truck, we've had 'em too long and I want them to head back to the auction. Let me get you a list and then I want you to run out and make sure they start, okay? Batteries might have gone dead.”

I nodded and waited for him to make his list and give me the keys. After checking each car I wrote down the one that had a problem and brought the list back to Bob.

“Hmm. Okay, show your dad and he'll get you up to speed on the battery charger and we'll go from there.”

I nodded and went out to my dad, and tapped a message on my phone to show him what I'd been told to do. He nodded and pointed to an extension cord and told me to grab it and follow him. He had a little box on wheels that he pulled toward the car in question and he took the key from me and pointed to an outdoor outlet to run the extension cord to. Once we were set, he started to explain.

“Okay, batteries are volatile things if you don't handle 'em right – kind of like women,” he chuckled and then went silent, awkwardly. “Uh, anyway. The red cable is the hot cable, or positive side, okay? Easy way to remember which one to hook up first is 'positive, yes, negative, no'.”

He went on to point out the small positive and minus symbols that corresponded to the color coded cables. Once we were hooked up, he showed me how to set the charger and then, that was it. “Now, we just let it go for an hour or so. See the draw, here? It's pulling ten amps, so the battery is borderline, but it's old. If it were newer, it'd pull more of a charge.”

While the battery charged dad took me into the shop and showed me where the tools were and how they were organized. “There is nothing worse than working a job and not being able to find the tool because,” he raised his voice and called toward the office, “some asshole didn't put it back!”

“Hell's your problem, now?” Bob asked, stepping into the garage with a cup of his own held in one hand.

“I was just telling Dev what a bitch it is to be working on something and not be able to find the tool you need.”

“If you weren't such a messy fucker, you could find things now, couldn't you?” Bob chuckled. “Don't go blaming me for your lack of cleanliness.”

“Don't listen to him, Dev,” Dad said. “You mark my words, you're looking for a tool, that tool over there has it on his desk.”

“One time, one time! Jesus, Dale, you're worse than a woman!”

“So are you, once a month,” Dad retorted.

“Ah, fuck you. Go do some work,” Bob laughed.

Around ten thirty the truck showed up and delivered some cars while the others were loaded up. I helped to park them closer to the building so they could be gone through and cleaned up. Then dad had me watch him do an oil change for an appointment, Mr. Farley who ran a feed store outside of town.

“There is a difference between places like us doing oil changes and places like those that promise quick service,” Dad explained as he put the car up on the lift. “Oil changes aren't complicated, but like anything else, they need to be done right. So, the car's engine is nice and warm, which means the oil is, too. That's the way you want it – if it's cold, it doesn't flow as well and you want to get as much of it out as you can, carrying as much junk out with it, as you can,” he explained.

I frowned at him and lifted my hands in puzzlement and he continued.

“The metal parts inside don't actually touch, see. They all ride on a thin layer of oil. Here,” he said and had me dip my finger into an open container. “Now rub your fingers together. Feel that? There's a thin coat that keeps the metal parts cooler and stops them from scraping against each other.”

I nodded my understanding and smiled at him. I was actually enjoying this!

He placed a container under the car and showed me how to remove the drain plug and then the oil filter, explaining each step. He showed me his method, putting a thin coat of clean oil on the sealing gasket of the new filter before spinning it into place. Then we replaced the drain plug gasket, and then the drain plug itself and lowered the car to add in the proper amount of oil, which he'd put onto the valve cover with a paint pen sometime in the past.

“Now, wipe your hands, and start up the car,” he said. “Don't touch the gas, just let it idle. The oil light should go out almost right away. Then, we check for leaks to make sure everything is okay, and it's done.”

Next, Dad had me bring in one of the new cars so we could give it an inspection. He showed me how to check the tire wear, the brakes and other items. “You want to assess how much you'll have to put into a car because all that stuff costs money. If you buy a car for, let's say for discussion, five hundred and it's worth a thousand, right? Well, if you have to put in four hundred bucks to make it roadworthy, and folks want to talk you down, then you aren't making squat, see? The whole idea is to turn a profit so you stay in business.”

By the end of the day I was tired, but excited about the way the day had gone. I'd learned a lot and spent time with my father that I'd never really thought would happen. I texted with Griffin for a bit, who was away for a few days on a family vacation, but I got drowsy early and went to bed.

The next few days were more of the same. Dad would teach me things and I'd do my best to absorb them. He would observe me, eventually, letting me do the work myself and I was oddly surprised at the feeling of accomplishment I had, both from completing a job, but from my father's mild praise for having done a good job. It was a novel feeling.

Friday afternoon a familiar blue bus pulled into the lot and my friends piled out – Robin, Lucien, Griffin, Derek and Hamster. I smiled widely and headed over to greet them, but was surprised as Griffin recoiled.

“Dev...you're filthy!” he said and then burst out laughing.

“Hold still,” Derek said, snapping a picture. I raised an eyebrow and flipped them off.

“I want to hug you, but...” Griffin laughed and grabbed me by my face and gave me a kiss, instead. “It's the only clean part on you!”

I wiggled my fingers as I approached him, threatening to touch him with my dirty fingers and that earned me a shove.

“What have we here? Malingering?” Bob asked in a genial tone, approaching our group.

“Hi,” Griffin said, taking charge. “I'm Dev's boyfriend. I just got back from vacation and I wanted proof he was working,” he snickered.

“Ah, I see. Yeah, we been putting the screws to him all week, haven't we Dev?”

“Well, we actually had another reason to stop,” Derek piped up. “My dad's going to help me buy a car. I'm using my money, too, but he told me to start looking.”

“Oh, all right,” Bob said and they began talking about what sort of car Derek was interested in.

I signed to Griff, 'Something with a high roof so he can ride Hamster in it.'

Hamster shoved me. “I know what my name looks like in sign, squirt.”

Griffin was laughing and so was I. I made plans to see them after work and, after eliciting another kiss from Griff, headed back to work. A short while later, however, I realized they were all sitting in the parking lot – in the bus – but for no apparent reason. My dad had noticed, too.

“Looks like a problem,” he said.

We both walked out as Lu walked around, explaining to the people that were now opening their own doors. “It's a new thing! It starts cold just fine, but if I turn it off after I've been driving, it doesn't want to start.”

“No start or not turning over?” my dad asked.

Turning to look at him, Lu said, “Not turning over. It's like the starter isn't engaging.”

“Hmm,” Dad said, arms akimbo. “Lights come up on the dash?”

“Yeah.”

“Does everything dim, like it's trying to start?”

“Uh.”

“Well,” Dad said, not waiting, “you could have a broken winding in the starter. When it's cold, it's close enough, but when it's hot, then the gap is too wide for the spark to jump.”

“A new starter?” Lu asked, kicking the asphalt with his sneaker. “Those aren't cheap, I priced them.”

Dad gave Lu a speculative look. “You priced starters?”

“Yeah,” Lu said, giving my dad a confused look. “If it's bad, I might have to swap it.”

“You do your own work?” my dad asked, his voice climbing a bit in register.

“Yeah. I can't afford a mechanic,” Lu said with a grin. “Besides, it's fun.” He went on to tell my dad all the things he'd done to his van, with everyone's help, and I had to admit it sounded impressive. Apparently, my dad agreed.

“Well, you know,” Dad said, “sometimes there is an easier answer.”

“Yeah?” Lu asked, ears perking.

“Yeah. Uh, can you slide under there without stands?”

“Not really well, can't move or see much,” Lu admitted.

“Well, maybe Dev can help, then,” Dad said. “See, these pancake motors are really compact and the starter isn't too far from an exhaust pipe. The little spade connectors on the solenoid can become loose, over time. They get heated up and they expand, cool off and they contract. They do that long enough, they start not to shrink enough and they don't make a solid connection. If you're lucky, maybe you just need to swap out the spade connectors.”

“How can I tell?” Lu asked.

“Let's have Dev wiggle under there and if he tweaks the wire, it should make contact and let you start it. That's decently conclusive.”

They all turned to look at me and I smiled and nodded.

Lu described to me where his starter was and what it looked like so I could find it. I slid under the bus and coughed as bits of grit stirred up. I glanced around in the dimness of the underside of the engine and spotted the starter. They asked if I saw it and I grunted in the affirmative. I reached up and moved the wires around, some, re-seating the connectors and then slid out from under. Lu ran around to the drivers seat and keyed the ignition – the bus started right up.

“Well, there ya go,” dad said. “You have some connectors at home or you need a couple?”

“I have a box of electrical connectors, thanks. I had to replace a bunch of the ground wires when I got it, so it made sense to keep them handy.”

“Yeah, old bus like that, definitely a good idea. Well, Dev, we best get back to it. Nice to meet you boys. Sparkplug,” he said, nodding to my boyfriend. He turned and headed back toward the garage.

“Thanks, Mr. Kennedy!” Lu called out. My dad turned and gave him a little wave and kept going.

“Wow. What happened to him?” Griff asked.

I shook my head and shrugged. 'He offered me a summer job with him. I felt like I had to take it, since he was trying.'

“Yeah, I understand. Looks like it's paying off, huh? Um, you'll shower before we go out tonight, right?” Griff asked.

“Griff, stop,” Robin teased, “Dev's already told us you like it dirty.”

They laughed and Griff's nose wrinkled. “Not like that,” he laughed.

'Think of the oil as lube,' I signed.

“Did you just say lube?” Robin asked suspiciously.

I glanced at him and wheezed a laugh. 'I can tell which part of sign you focused on.'

“Well, duh,” Robin laughed. “I want to know when you two are talking dirty right in front of us.”

“They're talking dirty? My Griffy?” Derek said, pretending to be shocked.

“Be quiet or we'll talk about your big dick,” Griff grouched back good naturedly amid cackles from the group.

“Don't laugh so hard, or we can bring up the breakfast table,” Derek said to Lu.

Lu turned a scandalized look to Robin, “Robin!”

“How did this end up getting me into trouble?” Robin laughed. “Hamster is the one with the big mouth!”

“He wouldn't know if you didn't....Jesus, you are in so much trouble right now!” Lu said, covering his eyes with his hand.

“No, Hamster is in trouble for telling Derek,” Robin giggled as he danced away from a swipe from Lucien. “Hamster, you get over Chloe walking in on you guys in the stock room?”

“Austin!” Derek said in exasperation.

“Rob. Revenge, man,” Hamster said, shaking his head. “Besides, getting a little frisky in the stock room is nothing compared to having your parent walk in on you while you wreck furniture. For a little guy, you must pack a punch, Lu,” he said with a snicker.

“Hamster,” Lu said in a threatening tone before looking at Robin. “Robin, you are in so much trouble, right now.”

I glanced at Griff, 'There are no secrets in this group.'

“Nope,” he said and leaned in, “But let me ask you, did you picture them in the stock room or that breakfast table thing?”

My mouth curled in a smile and I signed, 'Fringe benefit of hot guys talking sex.'

We both laughed, but they all missed my sign, busy as they were in teasing each other, and they began to bug Griff to see what they'd missed. Instead Griff chanced a hug goodbye and they all piled in to leave.

We started to clean up around four, picking up tools and putting them away. Bob was in the office filling out paperwork with a customer who was buying a five year old Dodge and dad and I pulled the bay doors down for the night. We said goodnight to Bob and headed home.

My phone had died – increasingly the battery wasn't lasting for a full day. I didn't want to ask my mom if I could put a new phone on my wish list for my birthday; I'd heard she and Dad talking about the fact money was tight. They were refinancing the house and, of course, the pipe breaking in the bathroom two weeks ago hadn't helped. It was one of the few times I was happy to see one of my uncles, who was a passably good plumber. Still, there had been damage to the bathroom and the water had leaked through the ceiling before it had gotten shut off, and those repairs had hit our emergency fund, hard.

“I talked to your mom before we left,” Dad said as he drove. “She's going to meet your Aunt Jen and bitch about their husbands for a bit. I thought we'd grab a burger, seeing as we're on our own tonight.”

I nodded. I had plans with Griff, but not until later that night – even so, Griff would understand since my dad didn't really ask to do anything with me. If it was one thing Griffin understood was the value of parents and I knew he wouldn't hold it against me if I was late.

We pulled into a place that just opened in town, a small chain called Flubberbuster Burger, and walked to the counter. Dad placed his order and then I used hand signals to pick a numbered meal. The girl behind the counter gave me a curious look, which Dad caught, and then he shocked me.

“You'll have to pardon my son, he's more talented with his fingers than his mouth.”

She tittered and I shot my dad a confused look. He smirked, and went to get his drink. I turned back and gave the girl a look of confused apology.

“Hey, you're Devyn Kennedy, right?” she asked.

I nodded and gave her a quizzical look.

“My friend, Pam Henderson - do you know her? She has the biggest crush on you,” she smiled. I returned her smile. I was glancing around for a pen to write a response – to tell her I was flattered, but taken, when she leaned forward. “Is it true, being mute, that you don't have a tongue? She was worried about that.”

I gave her the most dumbfounded look I could think of, and then, stuck my tongue out at her. She squeaked and then started to giggle. “I guess she doesn't have anything to worry about!”

I made a writing motion and she grabbed a pen and pushed a tray liner toward me, upside down. On it I wrote, 'I'm dating Griffin Douglas. Give your friend my apologies.'

“Oh, she knows you're dating him,” she said with a smile. “That doesn't really matter, it's a crush.”

I gave her an uncertain smile and then moved on, as someone had stepped up to the counter to order. I walked over and filled my cup and went to join Dad at the table. They called our number before I got there, though, and he headed up and returned with our tray.

Dad has a very specific way of eating a burger when we're out. He always pulls the fries out and spreads them on the tray liner or the bag and picks at them while eating a bite or two of his burger. He also always gets two packets of ketchup or, in this case, two of those Dixie cups full of ketchup. Always two. If he ran out, he'd get two more.

“You did a good job this week,” he said in an offhand manner. I smiled at him and gave him a thumbs up before I picked up my burger. We were quiet for maybe a minute as we ate, but then my father lurched into conversation that was stunning, if nothing else, because it was happening.

“You know, when I was a kid, my favorite thing was Saturday mornings,” he said. I looked at him and spread my hands out in question, and he continued. “Back then you had to watch what was scheduled on TV. You didn't have things like channels dedicated to cartoons or the internet where you can watch whatever you want, when you want to. So, on Saturday morning, I'd be up early and I'd watch cartoons for hours.”

I smiled, trying to picture my father as a child – it was pretty easy to imagine him watching TV, he did that a lot, now.

“My favorite thing about cartoons were the laughs. If they were laughing it either meant they were making fun of something or they just got overconfident and were about to get their asses handed to them. Like, if the coyote – Wile E. Coyote – started to laugh, you just knew something huge with an 'Acme' label was about to fall on him. Or, there was Woody Woodpecker,” he said, turning his gaze down toward his food. “He'd go 'ha, ha, ha, HA, ha', and that usually meant he'd just won, or he was going to get his butt kicked.”

I chuckled at his reminiscing.

“My old man, he was kind of an asshole. He didn't talk to us much. Times were hard, different then, too. He had all kinds of stuff in his head from going to war,” he said, his voice tapering. “Anyway, we could never have pets as kids, 'cause he didn't like them. But then, one year, he broke down and got mom a parakeet. She asked me to help name him, and we called him Woody.

“So, a few years go by, Dad has a heart attack at work, and your uncles had mostly moved out. Just me and Mom. I'm out a lot – I had friends, sports, a part time job since I was twelve delivering papers to help out, you know? But she's lonely, and she goes with me down to the pound and we picked out this little tan ball of fur.”

He fell silent for a moment and I sat waiting, forgetting there was food in front of me.

“So,” he said, finally, “when we got him home, mom wanted help to name him. So I picked my favorite cartoon dog. Now, you ask kids about cartoon dogs, some of them will say Scooby-Doo. Then you got the modern ones, like Brian off of that Family Guy. But my favorite one? The one whose laugh I liked? Muttley. So, that's what we named him.”

His eyes were moving around a bit and they finally settled on me. I was frozen, trying to process that the nickname my uncles used to mess with me actually had happy memories for my father.

“You know, when you and your mom left a few months ago, it got me to thinking. I know my old man was an asshole, but he had a reason. He came back from hell, and left a lot of friends behind him. He saw shit people weren't meant to. Me? All I got is that he raised me and grew up with your uncles as an example. So, I started thinking; it was easy to do in an empty house.

“You know, not making excuses, but when you got sick and lost your voice...I didn't know what to do.” He held up his hands and glanced at them, “I couldn't fix you. When you were born I put all the things on you my old man did, all the expectations. Football, baseball, dating cheerleaders and driving a convertible. Instead, you liked soccer.”

I lifted an eyebrow and he nodded.

“Yeah, baseball, too. My point is, I didn't handle it real well, and I know that, now. I made the mistake of telling one of your uncles, after you recovered, that when you laugh...it made me feel like I was nine years old again watching Saturday morning cartoons.”

I gave my dad a cautious smile.

He inhaled deeply and said, “You developed a different way, after that. I don't get sign language, my old man always told me I had enough trouble with English – maybe language just isn't my thing. I was disappointed you weren't a big guy like me. I was disappointed you weren't a football player, and that you were gay and...” he shook his head and looked down at his forgotten food. “I was disappointed in myself for treating my son like those things mattered. You seem like a happy kid, now. You didn't used to be, and I guess that's because of Sparkplug.”

He put a fry in his mouth and seemed to be thinking. “I still have a hard time understanding the thing with Ms. Carter. I tend to think that, if it had been me, I'd a welcomed it. But,” he sighed, “I know not everyone thinks the same and I don't like the idea of anyone forcing my kid to do something he doesn't want to. I'm...sorry.”

I got up and hugged him. He patted my back awkwardly, not used to physical displays of affection. As a result, I hadn't really been a hugger until Elliot; and now, with Griffin, I had achieved 'Master Hugger' status.

“Well, you better eat. I think you have a date with Sparky tonight.”

~M~

I plugged my phone in when I got home and texted Griff to let him know I was running late. Then I worked on getting cleaned up. I had to pay special attention to my cuticles since the grime from cars seemed to accumulate there. I could tell Griff wasn't thrilled if my hands weren't totally clean, even though he seemed to think being touched was more important.

Once done, I put on cargo shorts and a tee with an open button-down over it. Griff liked to tease me, since he was so dapper when it came to how he dressed, but I was a little more about comfort. It was an old discussion between us, as he'd told me at least a hundred times that you can look good and be comfortable, but that banter was as far as that went. He even helped me pick out stuff I liked, so at least I'd match. Or something. I think he just likes trying to squeeze two people into a changing room.

Griff stopped to get me and we headed to the movies to meet our friends. Griff playfully inspected my fingers when I got in the car and I raised an eyebrow at him. He responded by kissing my fingers and telling me I'd passed inspection.

“So, how was your first week as a working man?” he asked.

'Good. I enjoyed spending time with my dad. I'm getting to know him.'

“I'm getting jealous! I thought I'd be laying in bed with you all day this summer,” he snickered.

I blew a raspberry and laughed at him.

“What? That would be nice, wouldn't it? Just lay in bed all day?”

'You could talk me into it.'

We pulled up to a light and Griff turned to look at me. “Um, so, tomorrow...I kind of made plans for us.”

I grunted and waited. I had an idea I knew what his plans were.

“So, Philip is doing pretty well, but I know he feels left out on Friday nights. Don't frown, Dev, come on.”

I pursed my lips and signed, 'I don't know why you feel like you have to do anything else for him.'

“I feel bad for him, Dev,” Griff said as the car started moving again. “His dad messed him up and, you have to admit, he's working hard.”

'So? He scared you. Fuck him.'

“Dev,” he said, teasing me, “You know how hot I get when you stick up for me.”

'So I have to trade getting you hot for spending the day with that-'

“Dev!” he exclaimed, his voice laced with humor as he grabbed my hands. “Come on, babe! I know he...look. If you don't want to, I understand; but I told him I'd hang out with him tomorrow.”

I groaned and kicked my feet while crossing my arms petulantly. I'd go, but it was under protest. Ever since that kid had apologized to Griff, he almost pretended like the little slime hadn't scared him half to death. As bad as he must have felt, it was pretty damn bad for me, too, not knowing where the threat was coming from or how to best protect him from it. I was nobody's pugilist, but it'll be a cold day in hell before I just stand by and let someone screw with Griff. Not only that, it wasn't the first time the threat wasn't right in front of us, since that twatwaffle Royce had called him at school, once.

“I thought we could hang out at Fun Town? Do some miniature golf? You like the batting cages, then there's bumper boats.”

I sighed. 'Fine.'

“Babe.”

'I said, fine.'

He sighed, but the subject was dropped as we'd arrived at the mall. Our friends were on the sidewalk waiting for us and they wasted no time in greeting us.

“Wait! One does not simply walk into Mordor!” Lucien said with a cackle and holding his hand out as if to stop or warn us.

“Hey, did you guys get your second breakfast this morning?”

I glanced at Lu and signed, 'Shut it, before I tie your dick in a knot.'

“What did you say? Stop going so fast!” Lu laughed.

Griff leaned in and stage whispered, “I think only Derek's is big enough for that.” There was a chorus of laughter.

“Ow!” Hamster said as Derek hit his arm with a loud 'thwack'.

“You may never get laid, again,” Derek told him.

“Yeah. Uh huh,” Robin said, barely containing his laughter.

Derek narrowed his eyes and looked at his boyfriend. “We're going to have a talk.”

There was a chorus of 'oh's', quickly followed by giggles. Hamster turned to look at Robin.

“You know, I blame you.”

“What?” Robin asked, holding his hand to his chest. “Why me?”

“If you weren't so interested in my sex life-”

“What?” Robin said with a laugh.

“I knew it!” Lu exclaimed. “I'm warning you, Hamster, hands off!”

“Yeah, right,” Hamster snorted. “Like he doesn't tell you every detail. Fair is fair.”

“I don't ask!” Lu said defensively, “It's not my fault you two act like such pigs when you get together.”

“Pigs? Lu,” Hamster said, shaking his head and a smile spreading on his face. “I've never broken a table screwing my boyfriend. If that isn't the definition of trying to make Robin squeal, I don't know what is.”

Lu looked at Robin, who was laughing and holding his hands up defensively. He then looked at Derek. “Der, new rule. They can't hang out alone. Agreed?”

“Oh, I'm so with you on that,” Derek said, bumping fists. They turned and looked expectantly at their boyfriends. Hamster glanced at Robin and they started to snicker.

“Do you want to start, or shall I?” Robin asked.

“Wait!” Griff said, holding his hands out. “Wait till we get popcorn first!” I burst out in my wheezing laugh, and Griffin grinned at me.

“This isn't funny,” Lu said, looking back and forth between us as we laughed. “It's not funny!”

We snickered while Robin corralled his boyfriend. Griff and I brought up the rear of the group and I signed to him, 'Lucien has no idea how much Robin talks.'

“Oh? Let's talk tonight. Stay over?”

'I didn't bring any clothes for tomorrow.'

“I can live with that,” he laughed.

We got in line for the theater and I took a moment to appreciate my boyfriend's backside. He was wearing a stylish, of course, pair of shorts and I couldn't help laughing a little as I checked out his butt. I kept thinking of a bra commercial I saw where they emphasized 'lift and separate'. With the echoes in the large space, my laugh was lost, but I continued to appreciate my boyfriend's legs, lean and firm from running, as they disappeared into his shoes and – oh my God.

As soon as we bought our tickets I sidled over to Robin and said, 'I finally understand Lu's fascination with ankles.'

Robin looked down at his legs with an amused expression and I flicked his ear.

'Not yours. Dick.'

He laughed and ruffled my hair. I wish I could say things like that bother me – because I'm not a pet or a young child, not compared to them. But they all, especially Robin, seemed to enjoy doing that to me as a sign of affection – and I felt weird admitting to myself I liked it. Usually I'm not a big fan of anything that reminds me I'm short, petite, whatever the fuck you want to call it. I guess It does matter, though, who's saying or doing it.

We got in our seats just as the house lights started to come down. I grabbed Griffin in the dark and gave him a hard, fast kiss.

“Wow,” he said, the light from the screen showing me his smile. “What was that for?”

'Just wanted a kiss before you taste like buttered popcorn.'

“Uh huh,” he snickered and we settled in for the movie. Afterward we went to a local ice cream place for dessert and Griff called my mom for permission for me to stay over. He even managed to yawn into the phone – like she'd fall for that! In the end, she said yes, though, so we parted from our friends and headed back to Griffin's home.

His parents were in the living room and greeted us both. I liked his parents, they were really nice and you could tell they loved Griff. We hung out with them for a short time, telling them about the movie and they asked polite questions about my working with my dad. It wasn't until then that Griff sprung on his folks he'd invited me to stay over.

“Griffin,” his mother said, “I know you're nearly 17, but that doesn't mean you don't ask permission before you have guests in our home.”

“Um. I'm sorry,” Griff replied. “I guess I just, you know, assumed.”

“Well, it's a talk we should probably have, as uncomfortable as it is,” his father said and turned the TV off. That's when I knew it was serious, since my dad only turned the TV off if the house was on fire.

He invited us to sit and we did, in separate armchairs. I glanced at Griff, but he was sporting spots on his cheeks and – oh, fudge nuggets. They wanted to have 'the talk' with us.

“Griffin, we thought we'd have this conversation with just you. Considering how close you and Devyn have become and your history...I think it's natural that Mom and I be concerned.”

“Oh my God, Dad,” Griff said, covering his face. “We're not even talking about...we aren't...this is so embarrassing!”

“Devyn,” his mom said and I turned my attention to her. “I hope you understand, this isn't meant to embarrass either of you. But, my husband and I, feel that we weren't paying enough attention to our son before, and we all paid a price – none higher than Griffin.”

“Dev would never hurt me!” Griffin groaned.

“Be that as it may, we want the door to stay open. We want permission to be gotten for overnight stays and, even though we can't stop you from engaging in sexual activity...” his dad gave Griff a very, very pained look. “I hope you will consider delaying it for a good, long while. That is such an important step and,” his hand rose to cover his mouth, briefly, “so much of that experience was negative and taken away from you. I just...”

“Daddy means we want the special moments in life to be truly special for you. Please, don't put pressure on yourself,” she turned and glanced at me, “yourselves to jump into anything you haven't thought through. We realize Devyn isn't that...that monster. But we won't apologize for paying closer attention, Griffy. I'm sorry if that cramps your style.”

The room was silent for a few minutes as his folks gathered themselves. I'd imagine that speaking of, much less just thinking, what that fucking waste of a heartbeat Royce did to their son must just wipe them out, emotionally. I snapped my fingers to get Griff's attention and he glanced at me.

'Tell them that I love you and I appreciate them giving me the chance to earn their trust.'

He smiled, and the bloom on his cheeks was back in full force. He turned to his parents, who were waiting to have him translate.

“He said to tell you that he loves me and that he appreciates you giving him the chance to earn your trust.”

“Oh, Dev,” his dad said with a sigh. “You earned our trust, if there had been any doubt, when you defended him at your own expense. You also have our respect for the way you treat our son. My concern is that you guys will go too fast and for the wrong reasons. So, I'm just asking you guys to respect each other and take your time.”

I send to Griff, 'Should I tell him that you make me horny, too?'

Griff pursed his lips in amusement. “He says thank you for trusting him.”

“Liar,” his mom laughed. “I have no idea what he said, but you don't blush for a comment like that. Devyn?” she said, catching my attention again. “There is a toothbrush in the bathroom for you – Griff said your favorite color is pink, so that's what I got you.”

I shot Griff a sly look before nodding my thanks to his mom.

At last we were released and we got ready for bed. I'd only worn my clothes a few hours, so I was okay wearing them tomorrow. We brushed our teeth and then cuddled in bed, the light of the moon through the window providing our only light.

“Sorry about that. I can't believe they said that,” Griff said, his fingertips tracing small circles on my back.

I pushed back from him so I could sign. 'Don't apologize, they're right.'

“What do you mean?”

I sat up against his headboard so I could move my hands freely. 'I mean, they were right. We don't have to rush anything. We both had people take things away from us and distort sex like some kind of a fun house mirror. When I brought up oral, I wasn't trying to pressure you, before. I actually had a reason besides being horny.”

“Yeah? Because you love me?” he smiled.

I inclined my head toward him, 'Naturally. But I realized I could give you something else. That guy did nothing but take from you. For you, that's all sex or intimacy was. I wanted to do something just to make you feel good.'

His lower lip quivered and he slid over, putting his head on my chest. I felt a drop fall, but he was grabbing me tightly, and so all I could do was stroke his hair. With a final squeeze he released his grip on me and looked up.

“So, just for me, huh?”

I tilted my lips into a knowing smile. 'That, and I really wanted to.'

He grinned at me and scooted up for a kiss. Leaning back he gave me a thoughtful look. “Does that mean you don't want to, you know, have full on sex with me?”

'Oh, I do,' I nodded vigorously. 'I just don't want it to happen because we think it has to. I want it to happen when it's right and, even though it's an expression of love, I don't even care if it happens because we got all horny.' I paused and put a finger under Griffin's chin to make sure he was looking at me, and then I started again, 'I want to do everything with you. Everything. But I won't risk hurting you to do it. I'm happy how we are. I have nothing but time to get to know you better, physically and mentally. I can wait.'

Griff pulled me back down so he could snuggle and lay on my chest, again, and I pulled him tightly to me.

“You know, if it weren't for that bad things that have happened to us, we might never have met,” he said softly, his breath stirring the fine hairs of my chest. “If you hadn't lost your voice, maybe you'd be a different person, have been dating someone by the time I came along. If it weren't for Ms. Carter, you might never have met the guys. If Royce hadn't happened to me, I might never have met the guys.”

I squeezed him and he sighed. “It sounds weird to say, after everything, but I feel lucky. I feel safe with them and with you. I love them all. Then, of course, there's you.”

We kissed, and then started to grope, some. Things were getting hot and my mind was slowly melting when the light in the hall snapped on, pouring through the half-open door, and we jolted.

“I could have sworn I put those sheets in here,” his mother said from the hallway as a hinge squeaked. I sighed and pulled him close. Later, when the house was quiet, I'd wake him. For now? Holding him close was pretty much heaven.

~M~

I woke with the morning sun coming in though the windows, only partially blocked by a shade tree. Griffin was still sleeping, but I had to pee, so I got up and closed his black out curtains to cut back on the light. I did pull back just enough to leave the room dim so I could see, but so he wouldn't be disturbed or wake before I got back. Once back in the room I closed the door quietly and slipped back into bed. He'd rolled away from me in the night, but as I spooned him, he nudged backward into me. I reached an arm around, skimming his ribs and settling my palm flat on his abs.

“No. Royce, no,” he mumbled. I froze. Slowly I moved my hand away from him and began to shift back, but my worry intensified as he began to breathe faster. “Devyn. Have...find,” he murmured, beginning to jerk in his sleep. Realizing he was having a nightmare I reached for his shoulder to wake him when his eyes flew open and he gasped, his eyes roving madly.

“Devyn?”

I touched his shoulder and he leapt to me, clutching me and shaking. “Oh, God. You're here. You're here.”

I ran my hands up and down his back, trying to soothe away the memory of the nightmare. I was consumed with guilt. I should have known not to touch him like that in his sleep, of course he could have a nightmare!

“Devyn, thank God you're here,” he said, his grip on me easing.

I gently lay him back on the bed and signed, 'I'm sorry. I spooned you in your sleep and you started mumbling about Royce. I think I gave you that nightmare.'

“Oh, no, no you didn't, Devy,” he said, his breathing returning to normal. “I've had that dream a lot. It always ends the same way, though,” he said, turning his eyes to me and smiling. “You always hold me and tell me I'm safe because you love me.”

I looked at him dubiously.

“You know what's funny about the dream, though? You speak. I mean, I hear your voice, telling me I'm safe and you love me.” He reached a hand out and caressed my face, “I wish I could hear you speak. Your voice is clear, and you can communicate, but I wish I could hear you say you love me and that I'm safe.”

I nudged him until I was able to spoon him, again, and placed my hand over his stomach as I had before. I nuzzled forward, to his ear, and pushed air – no real sound, just a hint, really. It was almost a whisper. “Hi hove oo. Oo rr say.”

Griffin rolled over and grabbed me, again, whispering, “Oh, thank you. God, Devyn, I love you so much. Thank you.”

He eventually grew drowsy, again, and I snuggled into his loose embrace, and we slept in a bit more. When we did wake, his clock said it was almost ten and we stretched slowly.

“I'm going to shower,” he said.

'Are your folks home? Maybe we can conserve water?'

“So bad,” he said with a snicker. He climbed out of bed and went to get cleaned up. I heard the shower start and I waited five minutes before I got up and stuck my head out into the hall. Not hearing anything I crept to the top of the landing and, through a window in the backyard, I could see his folks working in the garden. Emboldened, I went back and slipped into the bathroom.

I slipped off my underwear and walked to the shower door, which was clear glass. Behind it, my boyfriend looked back at me, wet and lathered up. I tilted my head and regarded him as his eyes flicked toward the door and a grin spread across his face.

“You're bold.”

He pushed the door open toward me and I needed no more encouragement. It wasn't an overly tight fit, especially given our size, but it was enough that we had to stay close. Griffin looked me up and down and then, blushing, demurely said, “Would you do my back?”

We exited the shower shortly, completely clean because our soapy hands had touched everywhere on the other. Some parts, more than once. We walked back to the room wrapped in towels and Griff tossed his onto the bed and walked to his dresser. I think I forgot to breathe as I stood still, staring at his appetizing backside. He reached into a drawer and half turned to face me.

“Hey.” He seemed to realize I was staring and a blush spread from his cheeks and down his neck, along with a shy smile. “A picture lasts longer,” he teased.

I opened my eyes wide and reached for my phone as he giggled and told me 'no'. It was a race between my stupid phone being ready to take a picture and him covering up. I glanced up and, in disappointment, realized just how slow my phone was. I pouted.

He padded across the room in his shorts, and paused, placing a hand on his hip, an insolent grin playing on his lips. “Really? You just showered with me. What makes you think you need a naked picture of me?”

I pantomimed jerking off, a large grin on my face.

He laughed. “Come here, I have a drawer for you.”

I followed him, curious. He opened a drawer in his dresser and he had placed a few new items inside. I glanced at him, the question on my face.

“Last time I went shopping, I saw a few things that I knew you'd like. I grabbed them, so you'd have a change of clothes here. I thought it'd be nice if you kept a few things here. You know, just...” he shrugged. “I like the idea.”

I smiled at him and reached in to the drawer.

“Wait, wait,” he said and went over to sit on his bed. “Okay. I'm ready.”

'For what?'

“Payback,” he grinned. “You don't think I dropped that towel for nothing, do you? Nope, make with the getting naked.”

I grinned at him. 'Where's your phone?'

His grin dropped and he glanced around, spotting it over on his nightstand. He glanced at me and jumped off his bed while I dropped the towel and grabbed a pair of underwear – pink ones – and pulled them on. In fact, all the underclothes were pink. As I considered this, I heard his phone as he snapped a picture. I turned and he was grinning.

“Sexy!”

~M~

I got a text from Lu about eleven, asking if I'd come over and help him put a new radio into his bus. I guess my new status as shop gopher meant I knew something about cars, now. I showed the text to Griff, who let a small frown onto his face.

“Are you asking if that's okay with me?”

I let my head move side to side, a 'maybe' gesture.

He pursed his lips and pushed them to the side of his face. “I won't try to make you feel guilty, Dev. But I forgave him, I'm not sure why you can't. After all, he did it to me.”

I frowned at him, a spark of anger quickly becoming more. I started moving my hands emphatically. 'He fucking scared you. That asshole reached right into your personal nightmare and used it for himself. Do you have any idea how hard it is to love you and how powerless I felt as you shook from fear and there was nothing I could do?'

He sighed, “Dev-”

'No!' I signed, and added an emphatic grunt. 'He hurt you, yes, and you forgave him. He hurt me, too, by threatening someone I love – I haven't forgotten that.'

He nodded slowly and looked down. “I understand. I guess if it were the other way around, I might feel the same way. It's cool if you don't want to go today, I won't hold it against you. But I hope you can give him a chance to earn your forgiveness.” He reached out and took my hand, “Dev, I feel like I'm doing a good thing here, you know? I identify with this kid.”

I held my hands out wide, asking him how.

“Look, we all do things because it's how we're raised. We do other things because it's how we reacted, learned or were pre-programmed. Royce was a monster. At some point, I have to wonder, if he was Phil. I have to wonder if he got shaped by the things around him into that monster. If I can help save Philip – and in doing it, save another 'Griffin' down the line? I think that's worth it.”

I turned my eyes away and nodded, with a sigh.

“Dev,” he said, a gentle sigh escaping him. “He learned a lot of bad shit from his father. We used to laugh at Gavin for the things he did, but Phil was one step farther. Now, he sees he did wrong. Now, he's trying to fix it. Yes, he scared me – and I love you for so fiercely defending me. But if nobody shows Phil how to be Philip, how does this story end? How can Philip redeem himself if he's held prisoner by all the things he did wrong?”

My anger started to fizzle out, but it was settling into a sullen mood I didn't like very much. I looked up at Griff and said, 'I don't want to hate him just to be stubborn. But I don't forgive him. I saw you scared and upset and I know who did it to you.'

“Yeah, and you made him pay for it,” Griff said with a nod. “But that fight is over. You won. You defended me, but what now? Will you hate him forever? Even when he knows he was wrong, admits it, and tries to do better?”

I sighed unhappily. 'No, I guess not.'

“I understand if you need some time, Dev. In a way, now that you said this, I understand where you're coming from, and I appreciate it,” he wet his lips and smiled, “but I need you. I need your support while I do this. Philip isn't Phil, and I think if you let yourself see that, you might just like him.”

I snorted.

“He's kind of cute,” Griffin said, his head tilting from side to side as he spoke in a teasing manner. “You sure you can leave me alone with him?”

'If you want him to live, yeah.' I smiled.

“So, you're going to help Lu with his bus, huh? It seems like everyone does some work on that monstrosity – so far, I've managed to dodge it.”

'You? Manual labor?'

“Hey! I could do it! But, it's so...dirty!”

I tilted my head as I regarded him. 'I kind of like the garage work. What would you say if I wanted to be a mechanic?'

Griffin considered me for a moment and his face softened in a way I didn't understand. “Well, Devy, I'd have to invest in really good soap, I guess.”

I smirked, 'We could use it in the shower.'

He grinned back as he closed in for a kiss, “Yeah, we could.”

For a little while, there was no more talk of Philip or dirt or mechanical work or redemption. In fact, there really wasn't any talking at all.

~M~

Griffin drove off after dropping me at Lu's. I walked up to the front of the house and knocked, and was greeted by his mom. Because of my height, I guess, I've always elicited a hugging response from women, and a desire to throw me in the air from men. Mrs. Kutsenko indulged in the hug and called out to Lu.

“I'm in the kitchen!” he called back. “Do you need me?”

“No, Devyn is here,” she said.

I made my way to the kitchen and found Lu there, sitting at the breakfast table with a box and an instruction manual in front of him. The box read 'Blaupunkt: San Francisco' and it showed a radio on the front.

“Hey, Dev,” Lu greeted me. I nodded and took a seat across from him. “Thanks for coming, this is going to be a bit of a pain and I think you're just the guy to help me.”

I gave him a questioning look and spread my hands out.

“So, the old head unit isn't really that bad,” he said. I held up my hand and pulled my phone out to text, but grunted in frustration to discover it was dead again, already.

“Hang on,” Lu said, noting my phone. He went to the fridge and pulled a flat tablet style...thing...from the door and handed it to me. “It's mom's boogie board, she usually writes the grocery list on it as we run out of stuff and takes it with her. Grab the stylus and write.”

I nodded and wrote, 'What's a head unit?'

“It's what they call the radio, the main part,” he said. “There's the head unit, and the sleeve it slides into and a wiring harness.”

'Oh, okay. Why am I going to be helpful?'

“Well, don't take this the wrong way, but have you ever seen a door with the panel off of it? Like, the decorative panel so you don't see the glass or the motor and gear for lowering it?”

I shook my head.

“Well, some spaces are really tight. Now, with this radio? The wiring runs all the way through the dash and to the hinge in the door. Opening the door causes the wires to flex and, eventually, break. I have to thread some new wire through to the door speakers, but I don't think my hands will fit – I'm hoping it'll be easier for you.”

I nodded. I grinned and wrote, 'Is this the new table?'

He lowered his chin and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “That's never going to die, is it?”

'It's pretty entertaining. Hey, can I ask you a question?'

“Ugh,” he said, bringing a hand to his forehead. “Is it going to be about how we broke the table?”

'Sort of.'

He groaned and shook his head. “Okay. What?”

'How come you're so uncomfortable when talk of sex comes up? Everyone has to assume you and Robin have sex, why does it bother you so much?'

He sucked air between his teeth and shook his head. “Because what we do, exactly, should be for Robin and me. I mean, yeah, generalities are one thing – like knowing we have sex. But for me to, like, describe it in detail feels a little too personal.” Lu frowned and I waited. When he didn't continue I tapped the table to get his attention and then gave him a questioning gesture. His face colored.

“Uh, just a conversation Robin and I had. It's nothing.”

'Sounds like something.'

He sighed again. “I, uh, told Robin I wanted to have sex with him outside. A beach or a soft lawn. He pointed out that kind of goes against my desire for privacy.”

I grinned. 'I understand, I don't want anyone seeing Griff naked. They might want to take him from me!”

“Exactly!” Lu said, pointing at me. Then his face broke into a grin, “But, I guess we're both pretty stupid, then since neither of our boyfriends is going anywhere.”

I put a finger to my chin. 'Does that mean I have permission to see Robin naked?'

“Fuck no!” Lu said with a laugh. I wheezed at him and he ruffled the instructions, “We have work to do.”

Shortly we were out front, but were stopped short when Lu realized the doors were locked. “Shit, I left my keys in my room. Okay, no telling anyone about this, Kennedy,” he said and retrieved a spare key from a magnetic box inside the front bumper.

Soon we were pulling the old radio out and running new wires. He was right, the spaces inside the door, once the skin was off it, were very tight. We used heat shrink tubing on the wires, once he'd soldered them together. It was neat stuff to watch as he pushed the sleeve over the exposed wire and ran a flame under it. Like magic, the rubber-like substance shrank and adhered to the wire. We spent a good few hours setting up the new speakers as well.

“Hey, Dev, I appreciate you giving up some boyfriend time to help me out,” Lu said.

Picking up the portable board, I wrote, 'No problem, he's out with Philip, anyway.'

“Oh. He's going whole hog on helping him out, huh?”

I nodded.

“You don't look happy. You worried? Philip isn't bad looking, you know, when his mouth is closed.”

I blew him a raspberry and laughed. 'I don't think cheating is in Griffin's character. I'm just having a hard time being around Philip.'

“Oh, yeah, I can understand that. I mean, I wanted to fucking kill him when Robin told me what he'd said. Even Robin, mister free-spirit, wanted to break Phil's face.” He sighed, “I don't know how he held back. Hey – how did it feel to hit Phil?”

I shrugged. 'I was angry. I didn't feel satisfied or happy to hurt him. I was just out to hurt him.'

“You did a number on him, that's for sure.” Lu stood up and frowned down at the ground. “I'm glad Robin didn't hit him, in the end.”

I raised an eyebrow in question.

“I don't think he's ever been in a fight. I think he could, if he had to, but I know he's doing his best to give Philip a fresh chance, because Griff asked. That's Robin, in a nutshell – doing things because people he cares about say it's important to them. If he'd have pounded him to paste...I think it would have hurt Robin, in the long run. I think he would have lost some of his sweetness.”

'I wasn't proud to hurt him,' I wrote. 'I just finally had a target for all my rage about the things that scare Griffin. I can't get to Royce – which is probably a good thing since he'd probably kill me. But I felt all that...anger, that hurt and frustration, and used it on Phil.'

“Philip isn't to blame for Royce,” Lu said.

'Logically, I know that. But – we, you should understand. I saw Griff when Royce called him. Right then, I'd have taken on Royce. It wouldn't have mattered that he'd swat me like a fly. You saw him after Royce beat him, so you understand.'

“I do, kind of. When I saw Griff, my heart broke. It wasn't rage, not right off. It was sadness.”

I pursed my lips thoughtfully. 'I just want Griff to be safe.'

“Yeah, I get that. I don't think Philip plans to hurt him. Listen, can I tell you something that might help?”

I nodded.

“It's a little personal, so, please...anyway. Before Robin and I got together? I had some pretty explicit daydreams about what I wanted to do to him. It's true I never stole his underwear or left him nasty notes, but the fact is that kind of...lust is everywhere. That's one of the reasons I like things between Robin and I to be private – why give someone more ammo to want Robin? Why give them one more reason to try and take him from me?”

'I don't think Robin is going anywhere.'

“No,” Lu said, nodding, “He's not. But it's not Robin that worries me, not anymore. I used to worry someone would swoop in and...well, now it's the Royce's of the world that see him and want him. They worry me.”

'But you can't know what's in people's minds. You plan to, what, wrap Robin in a sheet so no one can lust over him? What about you?'

“Of course I don't expect Robin to walk around in a burka or something. What do you mean, 'what about me'?”

'Lu, you're a nice looking guy. Someone could be looking at you, too.'

“No, not if I'm standing next to Robin,” Lu said with a grin.

'I dunno. You're probably some freshman's reason to rub one out.' I grinned at him and he threw a piece of leftover wire at me.

“My point is,” Lu said with a sigh, “we all have a little lust going on. Phil expressed it way, way inappropriately. But what he was thinking? Wanting sex? We all do it, to a degree. I think, what matters, is how we express it. I expressed it by bringing Robin a flower and writing something he'd like on a card. Philip is learning new ways to express himself, and that isn't easy. Let's test this,” Lu said. He popped the power button and clear music flowed from the speakers.

“Wow,” Lu exclaimed. “We do good work!”

I nodded at him, smiling and pleased with the results. He switched it off and we started to pick up and chat. Within about a half an hour Griffin and Philip pulled up.

“You know,” Lu said to Griff, “That thing has no engine noise. It creeps up on you. It's not natural.”

“Oh, unlike yours that leaves oil spots wherever it's been?”

“Griff, Griff, Griff,” he said, shaking his head. “This is a VW. It's not a leak – it's marking territory.”

“Yeah, okay then,” Griff said with a roll of his eyes. Looking at me he said, “Wow. You did car work and aren't completely dirty.”

I stuck my tongue out at him.

“Hey, you show me tongue, you better be ready to follow through,” he said, putting his arms around me and giving me a quick kiss. “Did you get the radio installed?”

“Yup,” Lu supplied and popped the power button. Nothing happened. “Oh, now, what the fuck?” Lu grumbled.

He and I spent a few moments poking around, but then I think I stumbled on it. With the doors open, I pointed to the roof lights, which were out.

“Aww, shit!” Lu exclaimed and then pointed to the headlight switch. “I both love and hate that the headlights and radio are wired independently of the ignition switch so you can run either of them without the car being on. But now? With the headlights on for hours while we did the radio? Shit.” His face brightened, “Hey, Griff, since your car is practically a battery on wheels, want to give me a jump?”

“Um.” Griff glanced around in embarrassment. “I don't know where the battery is.”

“Philip,” Lu said, making the boy jump at suddenly being noticed. “Run into the garage there and grab the battery jumper? Looks like...um, a box. Big extension cord on it, plug that in and wheel her out.”

'I know what it looks like,' I wrote and waved Philip to follow me. We went into the garage and I spotted the squat box on wheels and the extension draped around it.

“Hey, um, Devyn?”

I glanced at Philip as I reached for the extension cord. He looked nervous. Aw, shit. He was out all day with Griff, I hope they didn't talk about me. His face looked a little wretched, and he placed his fist near the center of his chest and moved it in a circle. My eyes went wide.

'Did Griffin teach you that?'

“I'm sorry, Devyn, that's all I know. I, um...look.” He shifted on his feet and scratched the side of his face. “Look, I understand why you don't like me. I'm not a real likable guy. I'm not making excuses, I just want to explain, a little.”

I nodded and sighed inwardly.

“I knew I was gay really early. My dad was encouraging Gavin to 'chase tail' and I learned that. I had no friends afterward. I've had no friends for years, now; and I think you understand why.” He wiped his eye and continued, “When Griffin took the time to reach out to me...especially given what I did? Devyn,” he said with a sigh. “It's been so long since I had a friend, some one besides my parents to care about me. You have no idea how important this is to me.”

He hung his head, “If you don't want me around, I won't stay. I don't want to cause more problems. But,” he looked up and licked his lips, “If you could give me a chance to earn your forgiveness, I promise I'll work hard. I'm doing it, now, trying to...fix things.”

I studied Philip's face and, for the first time, saw something besides the jerk whose face I'd wanted to pound in. No, what I saw now was kid whose face was a study in misery, someone who was waiting – expecting – me to say no. To say 'fuck off and die in a fire'. Seeing that tugged a little on my heart and my resolve was wavering.

“Please?” he said. I thought his eyes might have been a little wet, and I didn't want to see that. I swore I'd be speaking to Griff about teaching him sign – that was cheating. Griff knew I respected people for taking the time to try and communicate with me. I stuck my hand out and he seized it, as a drowning man might a life preserver, and he began whispering his thanks, repeatedly sprinkled with promises not to let me down.

Yeah, yeah, I thought. I plugged in the charger and he wheeled it out.

Lu waved us over to the passenger side of the bus where he had the front seat all the way forward and a hidden hatch under the seat was propped up to reveal the battery.

“Positive, yes,” he said while hooking the red wire. “Negative, no,” he muttered. I grinned, thinking of my work the previous week.

He set the charger to work, and then popped the radio on just to prove it worked. The sound was clear and strong and Lu grinned before turning it back off.

“When I started looking around at radio's I got to wondering what VW's traditionally had. Looks like Blaupunkt was it. When I found out they had a model named San Francisco? Well, I had to have it.”

“Well, maybe Dev will decide to be an electrical engineer instead of a mechanic,” Griff grinned.

“Why? Because he helped install a car stereo? If that's an electrical engineer, then sanitation engineer makes a lot more sense to me, now.”

“Hah, shut up, Lu,” Griff said and stuck out his tongue. Turning to me he asked, “Ready? I texted you, but you didn't answer.”

'Phone died, again.'

“You need a new battery, or something.”

I shrugged.

“Um. Well, I was going to drop Philip off. Mom and Dad went to meet April's plane, so I thought we could get something to eat?”

I reached into my pockets and pulled them inside out.

Griffin stepped closer, so only I could hear, “I was asking you out. Are you angry with me?”

I pursed my lips and tilted my head a little. 'We can talk about it.'

“Okay,” he said, nodding slowly. “Well, we should go. I'm taking my boyfriend back from you, Lucien, before you decide to keep him for yourself.”

“I have just the spot to keep him!” Lu said, “check it out!” Turning he stepped into the bus through the sliding door and grabbed the bottom of the rear bench seat. With a tug, it lifted up to reveal a hidden storage space. “See? I could fit you both in there.”

“Philip, if Dev and I ever come up missing,” Griff trailed off, laughing.

“I'll only keep you 'til you tell me where you hid your lucky charms!” Lu said, using possibly the worlds worst Irish accent.

'Kiss my Irish ass,' I signed. 'Hey, what's in the bag?' I asked, pointing to the duffel in the, now revealed, space.

“Change of clothes for Robin and I and some, um, emergency supplies.”

'Like lube?'

“Dev!” Griffin burst out laughing. Lu just laughed at me and we said our goodbyes. Once in the car, Griff talked about the stuff they'd done and Philip chimed in happily. I didn't want to feel okay with Phil sounding happy, and I knew that meant I was being stubborn. Damn it.

Once Philip was home, Griff drove us to a nearby cafe with outdoor seating. They served light fare and we were seated quickly and had orders placed.

“So.” Griffin leaned forward and laced his fingers together. “Are you going to tell me why you're angry with me?”

I leaned back in the chair and regarded him. 'You taught him a sign. That's cheating.'

“I...what? What are you talking about?”

'Philip. He came in and said he was sorry. He signed. I don't like that you taught him that.'

Griffin schooled his face to neutrality and he said, “Devyn, babe, I didn't teach him anything.”

I narrowed my eyes, waiting for something extra, some sign of a silly joke. But, no, his face remained serious.

“He did ask me if it would be a problem for he and I to hang out. He could tell you don't like him – he'd have to be inbred to have missed it. But I promise you, babe, I didn't teach him anything. If he signed to you, he learned it on his own.”

I let out a breath and tilted my head up to the sky. Well, fuck.

“Now, my boyfriend just made some sort of accusation about me, I think, being disloyal. Care to explain that?”

I looked at him, chagrined. 'When we got the battery charger, he made his case. But he said he was sorry, first, in sign. I thought you were trying to...fix things. You know I respect people that go out of their way to learn to speak with me, like you, Elliot and the guys.”

“I know. But I had an ulterior motive,” he said, sliding his hand across the table. I reached for it, knowing my stupidity was forgiven. “I was trying to get in your pants.”

I wheezed out a laugh and he grinned at me. “God, I love it when you laugh. That sound...it's all you.”

'Not quite,' I said and explained to him what my father had said the night before.

“Wow. So, his brothers kind of stole his memory and used it to mess with you?”

I nodded.

“Why didn't he ever tell them to shut up or knock it off?”

'My guess is he was a coward, of a sort. He'd never really stood up to them, before. I think things are going the right way, now. I'm pretty sure he likes you. He says you make me happy.'

“Oh, does he now? And what do you think?”

'I know you make me happy. A little crazy, too, but happy.'

“So...does that mean you'll give Philip a chance?”

I rolled my eyes. 'Yes, I'll give your boy toy a chance.'

“Boy toy? Philip?” Griff placed a finger on his chin and looked up. “Hmm, that's not a bad idea.”

I slapped the table with a flat palm. 'No,' I wheezed, emphatically. His mouth twisted in humor.

“Okay, no touching Philip,” he said with a laugh. “But you better make up for all the touching I'm not getting from him, then.”

'Griffin Douglas, are you asking me to sleep over, again?'

“We could change houses? I wouldn't mind having a spot in your room for some clothes,” he said, his tone speculative.

'I have room for that,' I said with a grin.

~M~

My mother didn't have any reservations about my door being open or closed or that Griff was sleeping in my bed. I don't know why, for sure, but I thought I heard my father saying something about having to trust me sometime – and the fact that I couldn't knock Griff up. I don't think Griff was amused.

“Why would he assume I'm the bottom?” he asked as we lay in a tangled heap.

I tried to get my hands free to answer, but he wouldn't let go of them. “I'm not ashamed to bottom, not for you, you understand. But why would he assume it's me?”

I got an arm free and flexed for him.

“Oh really?” asked with a giggle. “You think you're more manly than I am?”

I pulled him close and put my forehead up against his. I slowly shook my head 'no'.

“Well-”

I kissed him.

“Hey!”

I kissed him again.

“You going to let me talk?” he demanded. I held up my hands, currently held by his own. His lips quivered with humor. “Okay, you may have a point.”

Letting my hands go, he looked at me, expectantly.

'What?'

“I thought you were going to explain why your dad thinks I'm the bottom?”

I shrugged, 'I guess every father pictures his son as the one doing the pushing.'

“The pushing?” he giggled into his pillow. “Did you just describe sex as pushing?”

'Look, I don't think my dad pictures me riding you like a jockey does a prize horse – in fact, I'm pretty sure he does his best not to think of it at all,' I said, wheezing at him, 'But now that you mention it, I don't think any parent describes their kid spreading their legs to get pounded.'

He moved his lips around in thought. “Yeah, I guess that's right. So,” he said, dropping his voice, “You want to pound me, huh?”

'I didn't say that,' I replied.

He looked at me pensively, lined furrowing on his forehead. “I would, you know. For you.”

I sat up a bit, similar to the previous night. 'Is something on your mind?'

“What do you mean?”

'This is the second night in a row you brought this up. We barely just blew each other a few weeks ago, and I don't like the way you say that. There's something wrong.'

“Well excuse me for offering up my body to you, Devyn,” he huffed and made to pull away.

'No!' I grunted as I signed. 'There is something wrong. Talk to me.'

He frowned a little and then sat up next to me, leaning on the headboard. “You know, I used to think there was something like a...timetable or a schedule to follow when it came to being intimate.” He glanced at me and said, “April used to say that it'd take at least three months before she'd consider putting out.”

'She said that to you?'

“Well, not exactly,” he chuckled. “I used to snoop a little. Plus, at home in California? My bedroom window was right over the front door, so I'd hear all her last minute discussions.”

'Okay. What does that have to do with...wait.' I sat up and glared at him. 'Are you saying this because you think you have to?'

“Not so much have to,” he said, wringing his hands. “But, look, wouldn't you expect your boyfriend to put out after three months? Isn't that normal?”

I climbed out of bed and stalked to the middle of the room, before I turned to face him. 'I expect to have sex with my boyfriend when we both think it's ready, not because of some arbitrary-'

He was out of bed and holding my hands and I struggled to free them.

“I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I just...Devy, stop. Please?”

I pulled my hands free and moved them angrily, 'Stop silencing me! That's like me putting a hand over your mouth to shut you up!'

“I..yeah, you're right,” he said and dropped his hands. “Dev, I just...look, I know I'm damaged and you have been so patient with me and you already said you wanted me. I just want you to know, I'll do it, for you.”

'Fuck that,' I said and waved my hand at him. 'We have our problems, so what? I'm not doing that until it's what you want, not because you have some idea you have to give it to me for, what? Keeping me happy? I thought we settled this last night?'

He slumped. “I just...” he brought a finger up and rubbed his eye.

'Hey, with all this talk...what about the other way around? Don't you want me?'

“Do I!” he said with a smile, which faltered. “I do,” he said, gently. “I just figured, you know, you've never done it before...”

'Ah, fuck,' I said, throwing up my arms. 'Fucking Royce! Listen, you know, I've thought about it. I've dreamed about it – you and me. But you know what? If you're not ready, it could be a really bad thing. If anything, I should probably bottom, first, don't you think?'

“Dev! I'm not broken!” he said in a loud whisper. “If I say I want you, then you better come get in bed and give me what I want!”

'No.'

“What?” he asked, his voice faltering.

'I said no. I see what's going on here and I won't let you do it.' I reached out and took his face in my hands. 'We decide when, not Royce. We decide how, not Royce. One day, I do want you. The only thing that cock-biter got right is how fucking beautiful you are. When that day comes, I don't want shadows of Royce looking over your shoulder and ruining it for either of us. Sex is between you and me; making love to you, is between you and me.'

Griff's eyes were wet and he ran a hand through his hair. “I kind of want to, Dev, but...I am a little scared. It never felt good with Royce. I'm afraid that, even with you, that it...that I...Devy,” he whispered, “What if I can't?”

I shrugged, 'Then you can't. Look, I don't even know if I'm going to like bottoming. Just because everyone else seems to get into it, doesn't mean we have to. If we do, and I think we will, then we decide for ourselves.'

He pushed his lips out and twisted his lips. “You're okay with, you know, not having me?”

'I don't know if I'd call it okay,' I said with a smile. 'Like the rest of you, your ass is...mmmm.'

He stepped into me and we hugged. It took maybe a minute before my body got over the emotion of the talk, the frustration, and realized that a guy I found really attractive had a lot of bare skin touching mine. It was evident his body had taken note as well, and I wasn't about to waste it. I pulled back and kissed him, guiding him backward, and began moving my lips down his neck, causing him to giggle. His calves bumped up against the foot board and I trailed my fingers down his back while I moved my mouth to his nipples, giving each plenty of attention. Hearing Griffin gasp in pleasure was all I needed.

Pushing my hands down his back further, I pushed past his underwear and grabbed the ass I'd complimented so recently. I was ready to back off if he reacted badly, but he groaned as I kneaded his cheeks and pulled him closer to me as I made my way down his stomach and to the front of his hips, which made him giggle again. I planned to nudge him back so that he sat and I'd finish removing his underwear and proceed to blow him until he made that low, guttural noise that let me know he was going over the edge.

Instead, as I grabbed his cheeks and pulled, he jumped up, and I almost dropped him – but not quite. I held him up by his ass, and he was kissing me fervently. In my struggle to remove his underwear we toppled over onto the bed, not even pausing to wonder if anyone had heard. We rolled about as I continued to tug on his underwear. He rolled up on top of me and I ran my hands down his silky legs, past the ankles I'd recently come to appreciate, and taking his underwear over his feet.

“I think I know what you want,” he said, huskily and moved up my chest. As his groin pressed down on my face, I suddenly found myself overcome with flashbacks of the school and that filthy woman shoving her crotch in my face. I struggled to sit, pushing him and he realized something was wrong. Jumping back he began asking what was wrong and if I was all right.

I held a hand up and just took a few, steadying breaths. 'I'm okay. It was just...bad position, bad memory.'

“Oh, oh my God,” he said, putting a hand to his face. “I'm so sorry. God damn it, I was forcing it.”

'What? I was doing my best to get you naked so I could blow you, what the hell were you forcing?'

He shook his head in short motions back and forth. “I figured I'd get you worked up and slide down until...you know.”

I growled. He wanted to get laid, he seemed intent on it. Okay, fine, he was getting laid! I pushed him back and attacked his lips with fervor, keeping him very occupied while I fumbled for a bottle of lube. I made my way down, hiding the hand that was behind me, trying to make sure there was enough lube in me and then some, before I went down on him.

Griffin is a man of noises. I mentioned the low sound he makes when he's about spent, but there are so many more. One that repeatedly thrills me is the gasp he makes and how his body stiffens when I suck him. His thighs tighten up, his head is thrown back, and right then – more than any other moment – he is mine. I own him. I took that opportunity to stuff two fingers in to loosen myself up, while I was sure his eyes were elsewhere. I moved my mouth back up and teased his stomach and nipples, and with him thusly distracted, I reached back and lubed his dick.

“Dev?” he questioned, but I had already backed up and felt the head of his dick sliding along my crack. “Dev, you don't have to...oh.”

I grunted and then whimpered in pain. I began breathing in hard, short bursts as sharp pains shot out around my hole. A sheen of sweat had popped up on my body, then suddenly felt like it was turning to ice. Oh, God, it hurt. I paused, panting.

“Dev, you don't have to. I can tell it hurts, please, babe,” he said, but I blocked him out and waved a hand at him, trying to tell him to shut up and tried to focus on relaxing. I slipped down a little more, and a truly painful snap that felt like someone grabbed onto my asshole with pliers hit me. I know another whine escaped me and some more heavy breathing as I threw my palm out onto his chest to steady myself. Griff's hands were on my legs, rubbing back and forth. My dick had gone limp, but it was drooling pre-cum all over his stomach.

With a hiss, and more breathy whimpers, I slid down and felt my ass touch his hips.

“Dev,” he said, tears standing in his eyes. “Jesus, Dev, it feels...you feel so...oh my God.”

I stayed still for a minute, letting my body adjust, and then began a slow rocking movement. One thing was for sure – it wasn't just that I owned him, no. I realized, with a smile on my face and a rapidly hardening dick, that he owned me. I leaned forward a bit and his legs gathered under him, keeping him buried in me. Then, slowly, he drew back and gently pushed up into me; his face filled with nothing but bliss.

'I'm yours,' I said.

~M~

I woke to Griff nibbling my ear and sucking on my neck. I wheezed as it tickled, but it was one I found I could live with pretty easily. Rolling over I was greeted with more kisses and a very loving expression.

“Good morning, lover boy.”

I smiled at him. I know some wouldn't find him attractive – maybe too short, not built enough or whatever. He was right for me, though. Everything about Griffin was both exciting and comforting to me; few moments more exciting than ones like these. There was intimacy, but not because of sex or the possibility of it. He was, willingly, naked and in my bed with his arms around me.

“Are you okay this morning?” he asked.

'Aches a little. It's okay.'

He let out a long breath. “That's good. I was a little worried, you know?”

I gave him a speculative look, but he wasn't going to answer unless I prompted him it seemed. 'Worried about what?'

He hesitated, rolling his lips inward and then smiled, but not one that reached his eyes. “I know you might not want to hear this; talking about Royce must get old.”

'Griff,' I signed, letting out a breath, 'we can always talk about whatever you want to or need to. I wish you'd stop acting like it's a burden for me to listen to you.'

He twisted his lips and one corner of his mouth tugged up as he nodded. “I know, I know. I should realize I don't have to apologize for things like that. The problem, Dev, is I want to be worthy of you. Wait!” he said, holding up a hand as I'd begun to respond. “I know you have a response, but, let me just say what I need to. Okay?”

I stilled my hands, conscious that he hadn't grabbed my wrists or impeded my hands. I nodded to him to continue.

“Devyn, I know I'm going to carry some of Royce around with me for a long time – maybe even the rest of my life. The trauma is something you understand, in your own way and through your own experience. For me, I know sex is supposed to feel good. I know, when I blew Royce, that he was enjoying it just as I know that you enjoy it. The difference is, you want to return that to me – that pleasure, that desire. Royce never did.

“After that first time with you – of all the times Royce fucked me, he'd never blown me. He'd never tried to make things good. The first time or two, Royce made things go a little more naturally, but I had nothing to compare it to. Like, he didn't force me, but it wasn't good, either. I was really, really sore and he wasn't exactly sympathetic as long as he got to park his dick in me.”

I was frowning deeply at him as I thought, again, how much I'd like to kill Royce. I was also wondering how he was tying this to us.

“Dev, you have no idea how much it meant to me, this new experience of someone desiring me – but not just for themselves, but to make me feel good.” He paused and placed a hand behind my head, drawing me in for a kiss and then pushing his forehead to mine and he spoke, softly, “I know, now, that if I want sex to feel good, it's going to come from you, Devyn Kennedy. I know when you take me – and you will – it's going to feel the way it's supposed to.”

'Aren't you worried about that? I mean, look how I reacted when you sat on my face.'

We both chuckled but he grew serious, again. Well, serious might be the wrong word. His face took on an expression I couldn't really name and he said, “Royce wasn't strictly out to hurt me during sex. He was just indifferent if it did hurt – and it did; and the only time that was different was if he had a point to make. I never topped him. As if I needed any reminders, our relationship was not one of equals. But you? You saw right through me. You saw all those complex things I was feeling about giving myself to you, and your response? To give yourself to me?

“Dev, last night you said you were mine. But, really? I'm yours.” His fingers combed through my hair and he murmured, “I'm yours, Dev. It's a little scary to say, but I can't deny it. I'm so in love with you.”

He nuzzled me and said, “But I was worried with how much I used to hurt...I didn't want you to hurt.”

'Aches, like I said. But you'll get more chances.'

We lay together quietly, cuddling and making soft touches, but nothing more. This is what true love feels like, I realized. It wasn't a thunderbolt, it wasn't a sudden realization. It was a slow understanding that things had changed – that I'd changed. I'd known, before, that I loved Griff but now I felt that grow to enormous, inconceivable proportions.

“We have to get cleaned up,” he said, tracing a finger on my chest. I lifted an eyebrow in question. “We're having a cookout to celebrate April coming home. Some of her friends will be there, and I'm expected and, of course, I'll need you with me.”

I nodded and stretched, and Griffin made a pleased noise, and then he was pressed tightly to me. “I think, first, some more of this, though,” and he proceeded to be very distracting.

About thirty minutes later I'd gotten out of the shower and reentered my room. Griffin headed for the bathroom, but in my doorway he turned and said, “Oh, by the way, we're going to pick up Philip on the way. Is that all right?”

I frowned but nodded.

We were soon on our way and, after picking Philip up, we found ourselves at the most boring party I can ever remember – I mean this was worse than being six and attending someone's sixtieth birthday. Griff's parents were nice, as always, and they were plainly pleased to see their daughter. April, though, was kind of cold and distant. Griff had introduced her to myself and Philip and she'd practically sniffed and walked away.

'What the hell was that about?' I asked.

“I'm really not sure,” he replied. Philip didn't render an opinion. For some reason it almost seemed as if there was a tacit agreement among April and her friends to ignore us, which didn't exactly hurt my feelings, but it annoyed me that April treated Griff like that. We stayed out in the back yard for a while, just for appearance sake, and then we three retreated inside.

We were in the kitchen, where Griff was pouring iced tea for us, when his sister came into the house and paused suddenly, seeing us. She took a step forward and obviously looked at me, running her eyes up and down my body. To say I felt a little weird is a vast, vast understatement.

“What's your problem, April?” Griff asked.

She turned a look of, perhaps, disgust to him. “You know, it was bad enough you managed to get Royce when you knew I wanted him. He was too good for you and I knew it from the start, so I wasn't all that surprised to hear you broke up. That was bad enough, but you go and trade him in on this skinny runt? What, was Royce's dick too small from the steroids? Or did all of Devyn's growth go into his crotch?”

Griffin's face froze in shock and hurt. I rounded on her and raised my hands to sign the holy shit out of her, but no one was more surprised than I was to hear Philip's voice echoing off the kitchen walls.

“Are you fucking stupid?” he demanded. “Do you know what that fuckwad did to your brother?”

Her face pinched in response to him, a look of disgusted dismissal. Philip, however, was just getting started.

“That psychopath beat your brother and raped him for a year! Did you hear me, you numb cunt? A year! After everything he went through, you still want Royce? He's going to jail for a long, long time!” Phil yelled, his body shaking and, by chance or by choice, he was now between April and Griff.

“After all that, Griff put himself back together and found a great boyfriend and he even stopped to pick my sorry ass up and help me out when no one else would!” he took a deep breath and threw every fiber into his voice, “So don't you talk about my friend like that! You shut your stupid, fat, dumb mouth!”

Philip was heaving and there was a hitch to his breath. I glanced at Griff, who was as wide eyed as I was, and I stepped over to put a hand on Philip's shoulder. He turned, his nose running, tears streaking down his face. “She can't talk like that about him, Dev. She can't.”

I nodded and pulled him close, while sparing a glance at Griff, expecting him to be, at the very least, upset. His face was calm, placid, even. He took a step forward and took Philip to himself, patting his back. April, for her part, had a stricken look on her face and a hand over her mouth.

“Griffy?” Her voice came as a horrified whisper. “Is this true?”

He regarded her soberly. “Yes.”

“Oh, Oh God, I'm-”

“Go away, April,” he said in that same, calm voice. “You've upset my friend and my boyfriend. Just, go away.”

~M~

Monday was back to work and listening to the good-natured ball busting my dad engaged in with Bob, learning to do a little bit more on a car, and getting mightily frustrated as it turned out they were far more complex than I realized. Griff stopped by just after lunch and brought me a cold drink. He explained he and Philip were going over to the Kirkwood's to go swimming, and what a shame it was I had to work.

About four o'clock my dad walked up to me, where I was cleaning up an oil spill, “Devyn, we need to get things cleaned up and cut out in about thirty minutes.”

I nodded and spread my hands in question.

He pursed his lips. “Your cousin, Nathan, is coming to stay with us for a bit. We're going to pick him up.”

I frowned, slightly. Nathan was a year or two behind me, making him a sophomore or junior this upcoming school year. He and I were very opposite; where I was short, he was above average height. Where my face was angular, his was more full. Not fat, just solid, I guess. He had light brown hair, contrasting to my blond, and he was a sports nut. I like to play a few things, but I'm not even close to his dedication. Also, while I was relatively pale and tended to need sunscreen, he was able to tan to a beautiful golden brown that I envied.

I didn't know much else about him, having been in limited contact. I was far more familiar with my uncle Frank and his wife, aunt Gloria. I had Frank to thank for my pink socks and for the subsequent fascination my boyfriend had with buying me pink underclothes. My aunt Gloria was nice enough, but my uncle Frank was a cockbiter. I had heard aunt Gloria had been ill recently, maybe that was it?

I put tools away and tidied up quickly and was ready to go when my dad came to get me. We motored across town and pulled up to their home, a duplex that didn't stand out a bit from all the other duplex's on the block. Franks lawn was, perhaps, a bit longer than anyone elses – in town. There was a bike leaning against their side of the house and the garage door was crooked, and not quite closed.

As we approached we could hear raised voices inside – the higher pitch of my aunt and the bass of my uncle. Dad knocked and then opened the door, not waiting for them to break off and admit us.

“Dale, what are you doing here?” Frank asked. He was standing in the living room, cigarette smoldering from between his fingers. In his other hand was a can of beer.

“I called him,” aunt Gloria said from the entrance to her kitchen. She looked tired and her hair was a style I wasn't used to seeing on her. She was wearing baggy clothes and her expression was one of relief, though I'm not sure why. “I'm sending Nate over to stay with them for a few days.”

“What the fuck for?” he asked, turning to look at her. He turned back to face his brother, “I'm sorry you came over, Dale. Nathan has shit to do around the house, he can't go anywhere. Besides,” he said, eyeing me, “I don't want them getting too close, you know? No offense.”

I stepped forward and held my middle finger up to him.

“You see, Dale? No respect. You need to smack him once in a while,” Frank said, quickly raising a hand as if to slap me. I flinched, but stood my ground.

“Frank, Nathan needs a few days away from this house. He's going,” aunt Gloria said. She glanced at me, “He's in his room. I told him not to come down 'til you got him.”

“Like you get a say?” Frank asked, glancing at her. “Christ, you're not even a woman anymore. Your tits were never much, but now? Am I right, Dale?” he asked with a guffaw.

It was so unexpected, I still have trouble expressing it. My dad took two steps and punched Frank dead in the face. Frank had flinched back, but he didn't have a chance to recover as my dad's other fist was already coming and crashed into his gut. Frank folded with a gasp and a look of shock on his face, and then fell backward onto the coffee table, turning it into kindling. Dad glanced at me, “Go get your cousin.”

I nodded and turned to head up the stairs. Taking them two at a time I came up to a short, switchback hallway. Nathan was framed in his doorway, a look of fear on his face.

“Who's hurt?”

I waved a finger at him, directing him back into his room. He retreated before me and I pulled out my phone to tell him what I wanted, but the damn thing was dead again! I glanced at him and mimed writing and he grabbed me a pen and paper.

'Your dad said some mean shit about your mom. My dad punched him out.'

“Man! I wish I could have seen that!” Nathan said, his mouth tightening in anger.

'You're mom wants you to come with us for a few days.'

“Yeah, I know. I packed a bag, already. I won't mind being away for a few days,” he replied. “All they do is fight; it's been way worse since mom got sick.”

'I remember someone saying she'd gotten sick. Is she okay?'

“She's going to live,” he said and walked over to his duffle bag. “But ever since the surgery, dad just keeps getting lower and lower with the shit he says. I wish I was strong enough to punch his ass out!”

'What surgery?' I asked.

“Oh. Um,” he hesitated and then ducked his head, “she had breast cancer. She was pretty upset when she found out – we both were. I was wearing stuff like the cancer ribbon to show support and I was trying to help out more around the house. I asked her for this pair of pink socks on account of that color is the one for cancer awareness, but my dad took them away,” he said with a sigh and shook his head, “anyway, she had a double mastectomy. Right after that, dad said she wasn't a woman any more.”

I thought of my mom and the way she and my dad had rebuilt their relationship and how my dad was doing his best to fix our relationship as well. Here was a boy acting like an adult, while the actual adult actively destroyed the family.

'If we hurry down, maybe he's bleeding or has a bruise,' I wrote and grinned. He returned a grim smile and we headed downstairs. Unfortunately, the scene had deteriorated.

Frank was holding a gun. He swung the barrel toward us as we hit the bottom of the stairs.

“Devyn, take Nathan outside,” my dad said, calmly.

“Don't you fucking dare!” Frank spat. “This is my God damned house and that's my fucking kid. I won't let you turn him into a faggot, too!”

I glanced behind me and Nathan was frozen in fear, looking much younger than he was. I put my arms out behind me and started edging him to the door.

“Stop!” Frank roared. I stopped and waited. He glared at us and then waved with the barrel of the pistol, “come here, boy.”

I turned as if I were just going to look at Nathan, and then I bum rushed him, carrying us both into the screen door. It flexed and collapsed under our combined weight and I heard it slam into the house behind us. The roar of a gun shot echoed behind us and Frank was yelling, but it sounded like our exit had created confusion in the house. Nathan was struggling and trying to run back into the house – and then there was a second, deafening bang.

“Mom!” Nathan screamed and fought me harder than I'd have thought possible, but I couldn't let him go. What if there were more shots coming? What if his mom had been shot? Oh, God, what about my dad? That thought weakened me for a moment and Nathan broke loose and scrambled to his feet. He darted through the open door, calling for his mother, and I was hot on his heels.

Frank was flat on his back and my dad stood over him. Aunt Gloria appeared somewhat dazed, but functioning. She leaning against the doorway unsteadily as my father called for help on his cell. Nathan dashed over to his mother, who winced as he put his arms around her. She pushed him back to arms length, revealing the gunshot wound on her side.

“Oh my God,” Nathan wailed. I approached him as my father popped the magazine from the gun and removed the round in the chamber. I moved a chair over behind aunt Gloria and guided her into it. Nathan was holding his mothers hand and weeping steadily as she brushed his hair and shushed him. I glanced over at Frank, who was groaning, but not moving and then moved my gaze to my father.

“Damn it, Frank,” he said with a sigh, “you always were an asshole.”

I found a clean towel and brought it to my aunt, and helped her place it firmly over the wound. Her face had gone pale and, I imagined, she was going into shock.

“Devyn? You and Nathan stand out front, make sure the emergency folks have no trouble finding us. I nodded and tugged Nathan away. The next few hours were a mess between the ambulance and the police and the endless amount of questions and paperwork. I figured out that, after Frank had fired at us, Gloria had gone after him and that was when she'd been shot. At that point Dad had cold cocked Frank, and taken his gun. Now, Gloria was on her way to the hospital and Frank was going to jail.

I borrowed dad's phone and asked mom to call Griff for me, since my phone was dead; it was far too much info to text and I knew Griff would worry while he waited for the rest of the story to come through. Dad, Nate and I went to the hospital and my mom met us there. We waited for news of aunt Gloria's condition while eating crappy cafeteria food.

“Hey, there you are,” Griffin said, appearing at our table.

“Hi, Griffin,” my mom greeted him warmly.

“Sparkplug,” my dad said, nodding.

I got up and hugged him and then realized he wasn't alone. His new shadow, Philip, was standing behind him uncomfortably. Releasing Griff I stepped over to Philip and gave him a short hug as well. Griff smiled at me and I rolled my eyes. 'Introduce yourself to my cousin, Nathan,' I told him.

“Nathan? Hi,” Griff said, extending his hand. “I'm Devyn's boyfriend, Griffin Douglas and this is our friend Philip Ashmore.” With the introductions done, we settled into conversation. The whole thing was both boring and exhausting at the same time. At last the doctors let us know she'd been stabilized and was in the ICU. They told us we should go home and call before coming down because she couldn't have visitors – her official status was critical but stable.

Griffin asked to give me a ride home, and so three cars made their way to my home. My mom started getting Nate settled into the spare bedroom while I huddled in my room with my friends.

'Thanks for coming, Philip,' I signed.

Griffin smiled and glanced at Philip, “He says thank you for coming tonight.”

“Oh, uh, yeah. Of course,” he replied with a bob of his head. He frowned slightly and continued, “I should probably say, though, I was hanging with Griff when your mom called. I mean, uh-”

“Philip, he said thank you for showing up. Just accept it!” Griffin said, laughing at Philip, who smiled sheepishly.

“I just don't want to take credit for things I wasn't, you know, setting out to do. I don't want to lie.”

I patted his shoulder and glanced at Griff. 'Are you busy tomorrow?'

“I'm on summer vacation, other than hanging out with Philip and not being able to text my boyfriend, I'm open,” he chuckled.

I grimaced, 'I need a new battery. Could you spend some time with Nathan tomorrow? All his friends will be by his house, I'd guess, and I have to work.'

“Yeah, of course,” Griffin replied. “I don't know him, though. Maybe – no, tonight probably isn't good. Oh!” he jumped, “did I tell you April came crawling to me last night?”

I shook my head. He clapped a hand onto Philip's shoulder, “I guess Philip's raw passion while screaming at her had an effect. Turns out she didn't know and was still being bitter about not getting to date Royce. For some stupid reason, she thinks I stole him rather than that he was gay.”

I rolled my eyes. 'Is she of the opinion you made a choice?'

Griff translated for the rest of the group before responding. “I think she was. I mean, it's worth it to her ego to believe me now.”

“Huh?” Philip asked.

“Well, if it was a choice, then Royce chose me over her. But if we're just wired that way, then Royce was always going to go for me versus her.”

“That's...fucked up. What about the rest of it?”

Griff's face smoothed out and he said, “All kidding aside, April and I aren't the closest. She actually told me some things – like that shes always felt like she was in my shadow. I was the one with musical talent, not her, et cetera. Then, when I came out, my folks were real protective over me. I guess she was just plain old jealous.”

“Well, she should be,” Philip said, seriously. “I'm a little jealous of her. Gavin is doing the best he can for me, but my dad raised him, too. If April wants to trade families, I'll volunteer to swap! Send her ass over to my dad's!”

Our laughter was interrupted by a knock at the door. I walked over and opened it to find Nate standing there, changed for bed, but looking a little out of place.

“Uh, sorry, I didn't realize everyone was still here.” He started to step back, but hesitantly. I knew, from his body language, he still wanted to come in so I snagged his arm and pulled him into the room, and closed the door.

'Is my mom driving you nuts?'

Griff translated and Nate's eyes went wide. I grinned at him and he looked at the other two in the room, gauging if he was being messed with.

'It's okay to say it,' I said, sitting on my bed. 'She does that to me every time I get hurt or whatever. Don't worry, Griff will take good care of you, tomorrow.'

Nate looked at Griff as my hands stilled and Griff turned his gaze to my cousin. “He's offended you think his mom is a pain in the ass,” he deadpanned.

I got up and shoved him and stuck my tongue out. He just laughed at looked back at Nate, “I'm kidding, of course. He says that's just how she is and that he has to work tomorrow, so Philip and I will come save you from his mom.”

He still looked uncertain. “Um, I have some friends I could probably hang out with,” he said slowly.

'But my mom will want you where she can find you. Plus, when your mom wakes up, you'll want to get there right away.'

Griff translated and Nate nodded, reluctantly. I sighed and took my boots off, revealing the pink socks Frank had thrust at me. They were well padded and suited my being on my feet a lot, so it was no surprise. Especially if you consider how my boyfriend seems to like them and, mysteriously, they have been breeding in my sock drawer and killing off the non-pink pairs.

“Hey!” Nate said, “My socks!”

'Your dad gave them to me when you got them. He said they weren't manly enough for you.'

After Griff translated, Nate burst out, “Yeah, well, he's an asshole. I would have worn them for my mom, you know? I asked for them – I told you that, didn't I?”

I nodded and walked over to my drawer, selecting a new pair that was still tied together with that thin plastic line some brands use. I tossed them to him, 'We'll be twins.'

Griff translated, chuckling, and Philip said, “Twins? He's taller, has different hair color, he can tan – twins? Really?”

'That was very descriptive, Philip,' I signed, arching an eyebrow.

“What did he say?” Philip asked, looking at Griff.

“Um, just an observation, really,” he replied and bumped me. I glanced at my boyfriend.

'Tell me I'm wrong?'

'You aren't,' he signed. 'But he was good. You can't expect him to not notice guys, Devyn.'

“Don't you hate that?” Philip said to Nate. “I just know they are talking about me.”

“You want to know what he said? Do what I did – buy a book, Ashmore,” Griff said, smiling sweetly.

“I will!” Philip said with determination and a small smile. “It's like a secret handshake, you're part of a club.”

“Small club,” Griff said. “As far as I know, besides Dev and I, only Teddy Granger, Elliot Lindley, and Sean Kelly. The rest only know a smattering, so, exclusive company.”

~M~

The week steadied out after that. Gloria was improving and she was just considered stable and moved out of ICU after a few days. Griff and Philip were spending time with Nathan and even hanging out some with his friends, just so he wasn't cut off from them. I guess my uncle had forbidden him to have a cell phone, so not being home really was cutting him off from everyone. Mom bought him a pre-paid phone so she could get in touch with them and he was profoundly happy about it.

I was actually enjoying having him around and was pleased to hear that my aunt would come stay with us for a bit to recover when she got out. She was exceptionally fragile, considering she hadn't even healed up from the previous surgery when Frank shot her.

Speaking of Frank, I hope he goes to jail for a long time. Uncle Ted put up his bail, and the first thing he did was show up at our door, demanding to take Nate. He made quite a fuss and, once again, the cops were called. It was a near thing – the cop was explaining to us that, despite the charges against him, there was no restraining order and he could, legally, take his son home and we had no right to stop him.

Nate walked out the front door and Frank called to him, like as pet to heel. “Come here, boy.”

Nathan fixed him with a steely glare, one I wouldn't have credited him with, and, voice wavering, he said, “You shot my mom. Fuck you, I'm not going anywhere with you.” Then, smiling grimly, he pulled up his pant-legs to reveal his pink socks. I capped it by putting an arm around his shoulders.

I'll never really know which thing did it. I'm sure the socks played a part, but I'd like to think my arm around Nate's shoulders helped. Next thing you know, dumb-ass Frank is shoving cops out of his way as he tried to plow up to us, screaming about fags and killing his own kid. Needless to say, shoving a cop wasn't smart. Punching one when they tried to restrain you? Well, that was just priceless.

Friday came and I got my first paycheck from Bob. Dad took me over to the bank on lunch break and I signed the back of the check and then gave it to him.

“You can just fill out a slip, Dev. They can put it right into your account.”

I took the envelope Bob had put the check in and I wrote on the back, 'I know things have been tight. I want to help.'

The corner of his mouth turned up. “You know, Devyn, some times there are these moments in life where you see your kids for who they really are. It makes you think, somewhere along the way, you did something right in raising them. I'm sure it came from your mom, but that's a damn nice thing to do, Dev.”

I smiled back at him, and then looked at him in confusion as he handed me the check back.

“Your mom and I are fine. We're smart enough to keep a reserve and we tighten our belts to make sure we have enough for just in case. Don't you worry about your folks, son, we're okay.”

Instead I bought a new battery for my phone and decided to take my boyfriend out to dinner. After a nice meal and walking around town, he pulled me into an alcove and we began to make out. It didn't take very long before we were both breathing heavily and pushing against each other.

“Shit,” he groaned. “I wish there was someplace we could go right now.”

I leaned back and looked him in the eye.

“Well,” he said with a shrug, “Everyone is home at my house and your house is packed – I'm horny now! I don't want to wait for everyone to go to sleep! Plus, April's room is right next to mine and I think we'd scar poor Nate since he's right next to yours...”

He was right, I thought dejectedly. We were both wound pretty tightly and, with everything going on, we hadn't had any alone time in a week. Griff's car wasn't going to be an option – the stupid seats don't go back and, for someone who dresses so neatly, he piles everything into his backseat like a junk drawer. Then, I was seized with a desperate, lust fueled, crazy idea.

I grinned and pulled him into a jog as we ran back to his car. Getting in he glanced at me, the question plain on his face. I directed him over to Lucien's house, where his bus sat in the deepening gloom; a tree next to it only increased the depth of the shadows. Getting out I held a finger over my lips, to keep Griff from speaking aloud. I crept over to the bus and felt inside the driver's side of the front bumper, which was shaped like a 'U' and open at the back.

I withdrew Lu's spare key and, with a smirk and a gleam in my eye, I opened the driver's door and waved Griff to join me. He was giggling and muttering that Lu was going to kill us, but I knew Lu was supposed to be gone with Robin this weekend on a trip to RPI to look at the campus. I pulled Griff to me in the backseat and said, 'This is supposed to fold out into a bed.'

“You want to have sex in Lu's bus?” he giggled.

It was about then I decided the bed was unnecessary and pulled Griff down on top of me. Perhaps forty-five minutes later, with both of us spent, we were startled when the door to the driver's side opened and there was the unmistakable sound of someone climbing in. Then, there was the sound of someone sniffing the air.

“What the fuck?” Lu muttered.

Shit! I started to laugh, wheezing out how silly the whole thing was.

“Hey!” Lu called out as he turned in his seat and spotted us. “You were fucking in my bus? What the hell! There better not be any pecker tracks on my seat!”

This was going to make a good story.

~The End~