We went back up and watched a TV show until the food arrived, then went down for dinner. Mason was pretty funny as he told us what each thing was and to try this sauce with it or that one – like he was some sort of expert. He even went so far as to make our first plates up for us. His mom was pretty amused with him, and I liked that she was getting to see this from him and trying to work on her relationship with him. It can be amazing what you see of people when you take the time to look.
“Cathy called, said she could stop by Thursday night. What do you think?” she asked me.
I glanced at Nathaniel and waited for him to bob his head once. I looked back to her and said, “Sounds like a date.”
“Really?” Mason asked, looking between Nathaniel and myself. I threw a noodle at him.
The girls arrived as we were cleaning up, and they greeted Nathaniel like a long lost friend. He looked appropriately confused. I was a little confused, too. Mrs. Gerhardt was still there, making noises about coming to see us at work and how nice it was we were making some pocket money and blah, blah, blah. Is this what mothers normally do? I had no idea. I almost wondered if she were on medication; she was so much more cheerful without her husband around.
We headed upstairs. The girls sat on one end of the futon, which squeezed four, or comfortably fit three plus Nathaniel. Mason sat on the floor between Ris's outstretched legs.
“What the hell?” I demanded. Mason let his head loll backward and she pushed it forward playfully, fingers buried in his hair.
“What?” Ris asked, trying to be innocent.
“This,” I said, waving a finger back and forth between them. “What the hell is going on?”
She grabbed his hair and pulled his head back, and he smiled, looking at me. “We're taking a step. I hear he's supposed to be making small steps, right?”
I glared at him. “Small steps doesn't mean wait a week to ask her to date, Mason.”
“We're not dating,” he said with a grin. “We're just a step closer. Hanging out. Texting. You have to admit, she's been around a lot lately.”
I dialed it back a little. I looked at Ris, who had a pleased expression on her face. “If he's doing this for you, you'd better be careful. Don't break him.”
Mason laughed and Ris smiled down at him. “I'm not doing this for Ris, Eth. I'm doing it for me.”
“Um, are you always this protective of your friends?” Nathaniel asked.
“With these two? You have to be,” I muttered and sat back. Nathaniel tried to sit on the floor but I pulled him up by me and we settled in with our snacks and watched the first movie. The movie was sort of forgettable, but funny at times. I didn't give it that much attention, because Nathaniel was pushed up between me and the armrest. That shouldn't have been something I noticed so much – I'd been crammed against Ris, Valerie and Mason at one time or another and never paid it much attention unless I was uncomfortable.
Nathaniel was different. I felt exceedingly warm wherever he touched me. I thought he'd notice and I was sweating with the anticipation, but he was watching the movie and laughing with us. With them, mostly. He had a little laugh to go with his small frame, but he shook hard when he laughed, and I felt him vibrating against me. I am such a freak. What is wrong with me? I felt overcome by the desire to wrap an arm around him and pull him even closer, and I wondered how he would interpret that.
He'd been abused. Molested. Possibly raped. No, definitely – molesting and abusing didn't really cover it. Someone had violently taken things from him, and the words used to describe that matter. How would he feel if I just put my arm around him? Trapped? Frightened? Might it drive him away before I could sort all of this out?
Once the first movie ended I sprang up. “I better swap some of those clothes around, huh?”
I looked down at Nathaniel and he gave me a look that seemed disappointed. He firmed up his expression and stood up with me. “I'll help.”
We headed down, letting the other three have first chance at the bathroom. In the laundry room I opened the dryer and reached for his clothes, but he pulled me back.
“No more exercise than necessary, remember?” he said, tone bored.
“I can help with the damn laundry,” I growled.
“Just not sit by me, huh?” he said, so low I almost missed it.
He sighed and straightened up to look at me. A mask had slid over his face, obscuring whatever he was feeling. It was sad to see, especially after I knew what his smile looked like.
“You were tense the whole movie, like you were made of stone. Then you jumped up as soon as it was over – why'd you even make me sit there if you were so uncomfortable?” he asked, his tone that same lifeless boredom he'd first used on me back on the bleachers at school. That time felt years away, now. I hated how he unplugged his emotions, how he hid himself. It suddenly made me think of how I'd unplugged my own emotions for years. I didn't want that for him.
I looked at him, and I imagined I saw sadness in his eyes. I hated that, too. “Nathaniel,” I said softly, a tone that I knew meant something to him. He reacted as I'd hoped, closing his eyes for a brief moment, then focused his gaze on me once more.
“Nathaniel, I'm more sorry than you know that you think I'm uncomfortable with you. It's true, but not in the way you think,” I said quietly, intently looking into his eyes. “I was stiff beside you because...all I could think of was you sitting next to me, pressed to me.”
“I don't understand.”
I rolled my lips inward and smiled, a stupid smile, one I'd never known to grace my features before. “I kept thinking I should put my arm around you.”
His eyes slowly widened as my words sunk in. Then his eyes narrowed. “Why the hell didn't you, then?”
I was a little taken aback by his tone, but my spine snapped back into place. “Well, first I thought the other guys would tease us.” That sounded lame, even to me. “But I think the biggest thing was...well, I didn't have your permission.”
He shook his head slowly in disbelief. “What are you talking about?”
“I thought,” I said carefully. “I should have permission to touch you like that.”
“Like what?” he asked, a little exasperated. “You touched my scars earlier. How was this more, what, intimate?”
I looked away quickly and cleared my throat. “I've never done that before. I saw the scars and I just felt...I had to....” I closed my eyes for a moment and then looked to him. “It was kind of unplanned. This would have been something I intended. And someone...touched you before. Without permission.”
He took a step toward me and grabbed my chin between his thumb and forefinger, just as he had back at the school after my father had beaten me. His eyes, bright and clear bored into my own. “You're not him. I know that.”
I stared down at his green eyes, flashing with intelligence and something feral. I reached up and took his wrist, slowly pulling his hand away from my chin and I leaned forward. I was thinking a kiss, just a light one to see what his lips felt like. Something to give me a clue if I was headed anywhere in the right direction. I wanted to be sure.
Instead he brought his free hand up, buried his fingers in the hair on the back of my head and pulled me down. Our lips crushed together, and I was shocked at how soft they felt, so inviting. The kiss was hard, insistent and couldn't be mistaken for anything but a kiss of desire. It was the opposite of the tentative experiment I was thinking of. I stepped closer to him to give myself fully to the kiss. I reached to wrap my arms around him, but he pushed my arm back and drove me backward against the wall. My ribs gave me a twinge, but I barely noticed. He tilted his head to one side and used his fingertips to adjust my head so he could take advantage.
The warmth of his tongue wrapped with mine was a sensation to be savored, but also to be consumed – and I did. Our tongues pushed past each other, then turned to curl in and slide past each other, wet friction like nothing I'd ever dreamed of.
He pulled back and down, and I realized he must have had to stand up on the balls of his feet a bit to make that work. He brought his hand from the back of my head around to my chin again and looked at me seriously.
“You have my permission to touch me. Do you understand?”
I nodded, a little breathless. “I understand.”
He nodded and hesitated. “Thank you. For thinking of me first.”
I nodded again without speaking. I was still struggling to categorize the kiss, to define its implications. He didn't seem to mind my befuddlement as he put his dry stuff on the folding table.
“Are there some grocery bags or something I can shove all these in to get them back to the car?”
I looked at him in confusion. “Why would you do that?”
He frowned at me. “What else do you expect me to do? I need clothes in my car to change into.”
I suddenly realized he intended to leave. I reached out and touched his shoulder, ran my fingers down his arm to take his hand in mine. I brought it up toward my face, stupidly marveling at the feel and clasped it between my hands. I kissed the back of his hand lightly. I don't know if I wanted to do that, or if it was because it would mean something to him. I dearly hope I wasn’t being heartlessly manipulative. I seemed to be lacking significant self-control and awareness all of a sudden.
“I want you to stay here for a few days, at least.”
He swallowed and looked slightly nervous. “Why?”
“It's not safe for you out there. It's hideously unsafe. Especially now. There isn't any reason to risk you being around those people anymore. I want to keep you by me, to keep you safe.”
He bit his lip the tiniest bit. “You...mean that?”
I nodded slowly and whispered, “I do.”
He smiled uncertainly. “Okay.”
We kept smiling at each other, snatching glances before looking away, but managed to get the clothes from the washer into the dryer. I heard some whispered giggles deep in the house and knew someone had overheard something or was speculating. That was fine. I had Nathaniel to unravel; the others could wait to figure me out. I laid out some of his shirts so they wouldn't be a wrinkly mess, and then we headed to the kitchen for juice before making our own stop at the bathroom. Finally we couldn't put off rejoining the others.
“Come on, we're waiting!” Mason whined.
We settled back into our seats. I put an arm around Nathaniel's shoulders and he cuddled into me. I didn't know if they noticed, and I didn't care. What I did notice was that they put on a gay teen romance called 'Love, Simon'. I couldn't relate. These rich kids in the 'burbs afraid to say who they are attracted to? That's a dream compared to what Nathaniel and I have been through.
Once the movie was done the girls stretched and got ready to leave. Ris gave Mason a peck on the cheek and a small hug, and Mason whispered something in her ear that made her laugh. Valerie looked ruefully at me, but smiled and said we looked good together. I awkwardly thanked her.
“Let's get changed for bed,” Mason said. “Oh. Um, let's drag the mattress off the bed downstairs and bring it up here. We can put the mattresses on the floor side-by-side and sleep that way.”
“Uh, why?” Nathaniel asked.
Mason looked at me. “Ethan is still having nightmares about his dad. I like to keep him close.”
Nathaniel smiled. “I'll grab some clothes to change into. I won't have to look like I'm playing dress up anymore.”
“Aww. I thought it was kind of cute,” Mason teased.
Nathaniel flipped him off and headed downstairs to the laundry room. Mason rounded on me.
“When were you going to tell me you had feelings for the little guy?”
“When I figure out what those feelings are, I'll let you know,” I said in a bored tone.
I glanced up at him to see him smiling that fond smile again and I started to smile in spite of my annoyance. He headed down to the other bedroom and I followed him. He dragged the mattress to the floor, and before I could do anything Nathaniel was back, dressed in shorts and a tee shirt.
“I almost forgot you shouldn't be doing this,” he said, stepping in front of me to help Mason with the mattress. I trailed behind, amused and annoyed. My body should be better than this, no thanks to my father.
We got the mattresses side by side and tossed some blankets and pillows on them willy nilly. After we brushed we got settled in and I somehow ended up in the middle, more or less. Mason had a mattress to himself, and really he could have left his on his bed, but that's Mason.
“No slurping sounds over there,” Mason teased.
“Please. You'd enjoy that too much,” I said. He made some gagging noises and I swung blindly with a pillow, causing him to giggle.
Shortly we settled down. It wasn't long before I heard the familiar sounds of Mason's deep, slow breaths. Kid could sleep anywhere. I, on the other hand, was acutely aware of Nathaniel being a few feet away from me. Of the way he'd kissed me. Of how soft his hair had felt.
“Nathaniel?” I whispered, surprising myself by having spoken. I heard him shift on the mattress.
“Yeah?” he replied, his whisper even lighter than my own.
“I...was just having trouble sleeping. I was wondering if you were awake.”
“Yeah.” I heard him take a deep breath. “Come here.”
I hesitantly inched over the mattress to where Nathaniel lay. He was facing me and I moved so our heads shared a pillow. I could barely make out his outline in the darkness, and the idea made my heart race. I could feel the hint of his breath moving past my face. I was agitated, and this little doofus had complicated everything. I wished I could see his eyes, just the glint of their formidable green. My musing was broken by his voice.
“Do you have scars?”
I paused. “Yeah. My dad gave me a couple.”
His hand appeared out of the gloom and hovered in my vision. “Show me?” he asked, his whisper raspy and unsure. I reached out for his hand, my skin feeling hot where I touched his skin, and guided his hand to just above my right hip. His fingers moved and my heart sped up as he traced the scar with his fingertips.
“He dragged me on concrete,” I whispered.
His fingers twitched at the statement. His hand covered the scar, and my chest started to ache from my breathing hard.
“Would you...I liked it before when you were stroking my hair,” he said. His tone told me he was likely blushing quite hard.
“I liked it, too.” I wasn’t sure anyone could hear me, even Nathaniel, who wasn't more than a foot or so away.
“Would you do that again?”
The question hung in the air. I forced myself to count to ten before I replied. “Yeah. I'd like that.”
His shadowy form was all I needed to find his soft hair and run my fingers through it. He moved closer, tucking his head under my chin, his forehead to my chest, and I caressed his hair until my arm was ready to fall off. Then I just held him loosely and slept.
There were no nightmares.
Sunday was a good day. Mason made waffles for breakfast, and we had a good day at work. Nathaniel had been left at home with Mrs. Gerhardt, and she seemed to have adopted him for the short term. They both showed up at the mall. He was wearing a new outfit and carrying a couple of bags, and he sported a nice haircut. I complimented him on the haircut and didn't know what to do that he was so intently focused on me. Or was I focused on him? The haircut did something odd to his features. His eyes kind of sparkled more, and he...looked good.
After work we hung around in Mason's room, alternating between watching TV and playing a game. It couldn't last though, and Mason was soon being Mason.
“So, Nathaniel,” he said. “What did it feel like to hear Kevin squeal like a stuck pig?”
Nathaniel raised an eyebrow at him and then glanced at me. I shrugged. “It didn't make me happy, if that's what you're asking,” he replied. “I was scared shitless, because if I missed or he spotted me before I got to him, I could end up in a world of shit.”
“Oh, right,” Mason said with a bob of his head. “Funny, I don't think of you like that anymore. You're like this indomitable force, out there fucking up the right people.”
Nathaniel looked at me for help and I shrugged again. “Mason is Mason,” I told him by way of explanation.
“Hey, where did you guys go after that party a few weeks ago?” Nathaniel asked Mason.
“After that fight? Heard about you and the liquor bottle, by the way. Nice thinking.” Mason grinned at Nathaniel who flashed a tight-lipped smile. “So we headed out in my car, but they were blocking the exit.”
“There were lights. I thought it could be them and didn't want to risk it,” I amended for him.
“Right. Just in case, Eth said they knew their way around the Glades way better than either of us. So Eth found this garage that was open and stashed us away until early morning, then we headed home.”
Nathaniel looked at me with a pleased expression. “Nice thinking.”
I shrugged. “Dumb luck. I saw that one was open a little and forced it up enough to get the car in. I don't know how many houses I passed before that without thinking of the garage.”
“You suck at taking a compliment,” Nathaniel stated.
“He totally does,” Mason agreed.
I looked back and forth between them. “Okay, that's enough of you two teaming up.”
Mason snorted, and Nathaniel's lips curled into a little smile.
“So at school, you guys will be like the new power couple?” Mason asked.
“Mase,” I said in a tone of warning.
“What?” he asked. “It's obvious you guys like each other. Oh, and by the way, let me just lay a few things out for you.”
“No,” I said threateningly.
“Ethan,” Nathaniel said, placing a hand on my forearm. I turned my head slightly toward him after glaring at Mason. “Let him get it out of his system.”
“You have no idea what you're opening up.” He looked at me calmly and I sighed, looking back at Mason. “Go ahead. Jerk.”
“Okay, that's thing number one,” he said, looking more serious than I expected. “Ethan doesn't do letting people know things, sometimes even me. I've known Eth for years, and I've found out more shit in the last two weeks than I have in two years. But I bring up something personal, something he doesn't want me to get into, and the difference is you say it's okay and he allows it. You have him doing things he doesn't want to, because you say it's okay.”
Nathaniel frowned lightly. “Just saying he should let you get it out of your system isn't making him do something he doesn't want to.”
“You're not immune, either,” he said, ignoring Nathaniel's statement. “I may seem like it, but I'm not stupid. You've been living in your car. I'm willing to bet staying here wasn't what you were going to do, either. You’ve looked uncomfortable since the minute you got here, except when Eth's around.”
“Are you happy, now?” I asked Nathaniel.
Nathaniel looked back at me steadily. “I underestimated him. We should get rid of him quietly.”
We both turned to look at Mason, and he glanced back and forth between us. “You guys are creeping me out.”
Nathaniel chuckled and I cracked a smile. “Let me tell you a few things, Mason Gerhardt. You'd be a vegetable about five times over if it weren't for Ethan looking out for you. Stupid? I don't know. You take risks like you don't care about yourself. Maybe you want Ethan to save you just so you know someone cares about you.”
“My guess is you need the reminder, which is stupid, because any moron can see he loves you like a lost puppy.” I glanced at Nathaniel, a question on my face. Nathaniel's gaze softened and he amended, “Or maybe like the brother he should have had instead of what he got stuck with.”
Mason shifted uncomfortably. It was one thing to overhear such stuff, another to be presented with it face to face I guess. That shouldn't be, though.
“Stop. You overheard me. You know what you mean to me, so let's not act like a couple of idiots, okay?” I said to him, trying to use a kind tone of voice, but I wasn't a big fan of things like this. I always felt...exposed. But that was stupid, right? This was Mason. “Okay, wait,” I said, suddenly seized by my own thoughts. “This is stupid. Maybe you don't know, Mason. I know I'm...not great with some things. I love you. You definitely are the brother I'd have chosen. Just because I don't say it...you have a right to know, I guess.”
Mason looked shell-shocked, and then he smiled tentatively. He looked at Nathaniel and said, “You're good for him. Whatever you guys decide this is, I'm backing you up.”
Nathaniel sighed lightly. “There is no 'this'. Ethan knows I like him. He's figuring out what to do with that.”
I clenched my jaw. “There is a 'this'. I just....”
“What?” Nathaniel asked after a moment.
“You want me to give you guys a minute?” Mason asked.
I shook my head. “No,” I whispered. I closed my eyes and let my chin drop to my chest. “I was thinking about what you asked me, Mase. Why Jackson's death didn't bother me the way you thought it should or might. For...years I've shut out most of my emotions, except anger. And loyalty.” I looked up at Mason, who was staring at me with a look of shock on his face. “I made a choice not to date because of my family, because of my goal to leave, and because I didn't have any good emotions to give to a relationship. You and I joked a few weeks ago about being the only relationship either of us could handle, and there was some truth to that.”
“I didn't mean that you couldn't...I was joking, Eth.”
I nodded and rubbed my face. “I know. But it was true. Why should I date and give all my anger to someone? Why would I bring anyone close to my family? Look at them. You have to be sure before you go doing stupid things like handing out your emotions. People can take them and do as they please. You have to be sure.” I glanced up at him. “Think about it, Mase. I told you I didn't want you close to Jackson, and I never once invited you into my house – not even for a glass of water.”
“It was as much for you as me. But now,” I said and looked over at Nathaniel, who was staring at me with such focus I thought of a bird of prey looking down at a mouse. “Now there's someone that knows all my dirty home life, who's been through some of the same things. He's angry, but he makes me...calmer.” I tore my gaze from Nathaniel and back to Mason. “It's something, right? It's a 'this', whatever that might be.”
Mason looked at me with that annoyingly fond look again. “Yeah, Eth. Definitely sounds like a 'this' to me. I like it. Hey, maybe we can double date, huh? I'm sure Valerie would understand – she definitely saw the arm around your man last night.”
I looked over at Nathaniel. His expression was serene, and I knew – knew deep in my gut – that talking about this had been the right thing, even if it had been scary. I felt sure, bone-deep sure. Maybe the kids from that movie were onto something with all that internalized fear. Maybe I could relate more than I thought.
“So...are you gay?” Nathaniel asked quietly.
I shrugged. “I guess. I feel for you, so if that's the word....”
He studied my face for a moment. “I'll take it.”
I nodded slowly. “Okay, then.”
He looked at me with a firm expression. “Be sure about this too, Ethan Miller. This thing we have? It's just between us. I won't share.”
Mason cleared his throat. “Um.”
“I meant romantically, Mason,” he said in a bored tone, not even bothering to look at him. Instead those green eyes were locked to mine. “I've wanted this – you – for a long time. Are you sure?”
He got it. He really got it. “I'm sure.”