Mason insisted Nathaniel's car was a piece of shit that might not start at any given moment, so he drove us all to school in his mom's Ford. I'm not sure if Nathaniel was amused or annoyed with Mason, but I liked having him with me. I didn't see much of Nathaniel during the day, but when I sat down in the locker room to change I heard him from the corner.
“Ethan Miller has a boyfriend.”
I grinned a little and said, “So does Nathaniel Benfield.”
“God, you guys are too cute together. I mean, I should go gay, that's so cute,” Mason said and then pretended to throw up.
“Don't bitch now, you had to make me talk,” I chided him. I still felt unsettled about exposing myself like that, but I also thought it was the right direction to go with some people. The ones that matter shouldn't have to guess if they do or not.
After gym, we dressed out for practice and Nathaniel sat on the bleachers to watch. I had an idea and got him to come down and help me with defensive drills. He only knew the basics of soccer from gym class, but that was enough – I just needed a mobile body, and mine still wasn't much good for that. Besides, I hated him being all the way over there when I could have him near me.
That was how the next few days went. We went to school and practice, Mason and I had work periodically, and we did homework together and slept in Mason's room. I loved stroking Nathaniel's hair until my arm ached, then I would fall asleep holding him to me. I had never wondered what anyone's hair felt like, never dreamed of holding anyone to me. I'd never thought I had the capacity.
Thursday, that all came to a crashing end.
I was at lunch with Mason, Ris and Valerie when officer dumbshit, aka Deputy Winchell, entered the lunchroom, trailed by Principal Watkins, and scanned the space. He spotted me and made a beeline. I stiffened and nudged Mason.
“Ethan Miller, I need you to come with me,” he said.
I shook my head, “Not without my lawyer. Get fucked.”
“Mr. Miller!” the principal gasped, and I felt a little bad. She'd always been nice to me. “You'll come to my office immediately.”
I glanced at them both, heart racing but willing my expression to be still. “I'm not going anywhere with him, Ma'am. I'm sorry.”
He shifted on his feet and leaned forward to growl, “You get on your feet before I cuff your delinquent ass and drag you out.”
“Like to see you try, Deputy Douche,” Mason said. Ris had her phone out to film and many others were getting the idea.
The cop looked at Mason. “Gerhardt? You too. Up.”
I glanced at Mason. He looked back and me and his face set. Before it got any worse the principal leaned in closely.
“Boys,” she said firmly. “There has been an incident. Come to my office right this second.”
“Why didn't he say that?” Mason asked as he stood and I joined him.
“I'm sure I'd like to know as well. He had a chip on his shoulder when he left this school, and it's only grown larger,” she said pointedly. Winchell frowned at her, but said nothing. We followed her back to her office, but as we did I texted Cathy to tell her something was brewing. She responded almost immediately that she knew and was at the school. I frowned. Why the hell hadn't she sent me something ahead of time, then?
As we entered the office I stopped. “Principal Watkins,” I said. She turned to face me and I said, “If this is about myself and Mason, then it's a near certainty it also involves Nathaniel Benfield.”
Her brow furrowed slightly. She looked at one of the secretaries. “Margaret, please have Nathaniel Benfield found and escorted to the office by a staff member.”
Margaret nodded and started clicking on her keyboard, probably looking Nathaniel's schedule up. The fact that she wanted him escorted only heightened a growing sense of anxiety building in my stomach and chest. The principal waved us into a conference room where Cathy and Mrs. Gerhardt awaited. Mrs. Gerhardt wrapped Mason in a tight hug and then reached blindly for me, pulling me over and into an awkward embrace.
Cathy stood and waited until Mrs. Gerhardt had herself under better control and waved us over to the end of the conference table. “I'll keep this short. There was a break in, a very understated one. We have video and audio. I'm hoping you can identify some of these people so we can get what we want from the DA, and get you out of this nightmare.”
I glanced at Mason and his mother, then back to Cathy. “The person I spoke to you about. He may be of more use in this. I asked the principal to get him.”
“Nathaniel?” Mrs. Gerhardt asked. “Oh my God, how could I have been so stupid? I should have brought his name up.”
“I'm glad you didn't, at least not to the deputy. The less they know, the stronger our hand,” Cathy said.
“That seems wrong,” Mrs. Gerhardt replied.
“They don't care about us,” I said to her. “They want convictions, people in jail, and to be re-elected. We can't afford to pretend this is about what's right.”
“Exactly,” Cathy agreed. “While we wait, why don't you have a look at the video?”
Mason and I sat side by side as Mrs. Gerhardt gave Cathy the address of the website that would let us view the video. We were focused on a camera facing the back of the house, and we could hear them speaking. Cathy rewound it and turned the volume up.
“I'll hit the bedrooms. We just need to make sure, then we can get them tonight,” one said, then turned and worked on the lock. I didn't recognize either man, but they got into the house pretty quickly in my estimation. A cold chill ran down my back as the clock numbers kept advancing. They were out in less than fifteen minutes, but we didn't hear them say if they'd found what they were looking for. If they'd hit the bedrooms they'd have found clothes for four people, perhaps five if Mr. Gerhardt had left anything.
I didn't recognize the faces, though one voice was vaguely familiar.
“We need Nathaniel.” I glanced at Mrs. Watkins and she stood, heading to the office to see if Nathaniel had arrived. I glanced at Mrs. Gerhardt. She looked tense, and I can't say I blamed her. Mason slid over and gave her a hug, and I moved over enough to place my hand on her shoulder. She raised a hand and placed it over mine and shook. The door had been left open just a bit and I heard the secretary tell Principal Watkins that she was still trying to find Nathaniel as he wasn't in the classroom he was supposed to be in.
I don't quite know how to describe the feeling that flooded through me. When my father attacked me, I was certainly scared. Resigned, but scared. I'm frequently annoyed. Lately I've been in pain, but that's not an emotion. Fear, pain, and about ten other things I can't put a finger on settled on my chest like an elephant. If pressed, I think I could honestly say my heart stopped beating. Is this what it feels like when someone you...when they are threatened? I'd stifled feelings when Mason was in trouble, but if I was honest with myself I'd covered them in a veneer of annoyance because I'd had to act in his interest. Now....
My mind ran forward. If they'd found Nathaniel, gotten him from the school, none of us would ever see him again. Not alive, and likely not in one piece. The realization was so vivid I could see someone covering his body with a white sheet. I could see the pucker from the knife wound on his shoulder, and then the sheet was covering his face.
Mrs. Watkins stepped back into the room. “We're having trouble finding Nathaniel. Do you have a phone number for him?”
“He doesn't have a phone,” I said, my voice feeling heavy with dread. “Where is he supposed to be?”
“He had a study hall. The proctor said he usually gets a pass to the library this period, but the library said he's not there.” I thought for a moment, realizing he was probably using part of that study hall to watch me in the library on the off times that I went there. Lunch ended partway through the period, the way they staggered lunch times. Where else could he have gone?
“Can you make an announcement on the PA?” I asked. “It could be an emergency. Someone may have him.”
Mrs. Watkins lost some of the color in her face and she turned to leave the room. Moments later her voice came up on the PA and she asked for Nathaniel Benfield to report to the office immediately. I stood still, feeling as if my body were turning to stone more and more each second as I desperately waited to hear that Nathaniel had been found. I ached to do something, anything, but I had no idea what that could be. I wondered how I could possibly seek vengeance for him. It took a few minutes for the principal to come back to the room, but she looked relieved. “I was just checking the security footage to see if anyone had entered the building when the home economics teacher called. She had Nathaniel with her – she said something about a waffle mix?”
I grinned as relief crashed through me, cold and reviving. I looked at Mason, who was looking back at me and chuckled. “My only question,” Mason said to me, “is if he's trying to learn because he liked waffles, or if he's trying to make waffles to take you away from me.”
I chuckled. “Maybe a little of both. Tough to top your waffles, though.”
“Right? I should have my own TV show. Waffle Genius. I could have my own line of custom waffle makers. I could be bigger than Bisquik or Aunt Jemima!”
Relief was loosening the knots in my muscles and joints, and I laughed too loudly at Mason's antics.
Five minutes later Nathaniel entered the room and I was unable to resist crushing him to me for just long enough to verify he was real and whole. I let him go and looked at him intently. “I'm sorry.”
He tilted his head. “For?”
“I...should have asked.”
His eyes narrowed and then he took a half-step forward. “That wasn't a one-time permission. You always have permission.”
My features faltered involuntarily as I was overcome by that amount of trust.
Glancing away he took in the room in a flash and looked back to me. “What's wrong?”
“Nathaniel Benfield? My name is Cathy Zuwalski and I'm your attorney. Come on over here. Take a look at this video and tell us if you recognize either of these men,” she said, waving him toward her laptop. Nathaniel looked to me for guidance and I nodded, walking with him to the laptop.
“Someone broke into our home,” I told him.
“Shit,” he muttered. He leaned forward as the video started up. “Yeah. That's George McKinney and Ryan Goshen.” He glanced at me. “Double-A. They know your dad.”
I looked at Cathy, whose mouth was a tight line. “Okay,” she said, “so the best outcome is we get these guys put somewhere they can't hurt you – both figuratively and their physical location.”
Nathaniel moved close to me, but addressed Cathy. “You mean so they know it's not in their interests to attack us, and also that they can't actually touch us?”
“Exactly. If we can set things right with the DA, we can get them to catch these guys in the act of coming for you. Then we let the DA squeeze them with what you know, without revealing who you are.”
I shook my head. “Because of the house, it'll be obvious who we are.”
“Yes, to them. But not to the people we want them to roll over on. You think?” Cathy asked.
Nathaniel hummed for a moment, looking out the window. “The Double-A has your father on notice about both of us. Me due to the previous...disagreement. You because he guaranteed he would bring you in as help. So they...shit!” he said angrily and looked at me. “This is my fault!”
“What are you talking about?” I asked him, confused.
“My car! It's in front of the house!” he dug his hands into his hair. “They must have been out hunting for me, probably because I've been missing from 'work' for a few days. The Double-A may think your father got rid of me, and he could be desperate to prove I'm alive. The car gave the house away – and that means they know you're likely there, too.”
“That's some wild speculation,” Cathy said. “It's kind of a random thing to find your car by dumb luck.”
I put an arm around Nathaniel and pulled him tightly to my side. “There are probably parts of this we don't know, and may never. The main point is they have found me, Nathaniel, and that puts everyone in danger.”
“Puts a lot of people in danger,” Cathy agreed. “If the Double-A figures the police have someone, they'll kill everyone connected to them to protect the organization.” She looked at me grimly. “I did quite a bit of research on them after our last conversation. I have an in at the local FBI field office, and these Double-A guys are no joke. If we're going to do anything, we're going to have to move fast.”
I nodded slowly, thinking. I looked at Nathaniel and leaned in, lowering my voice. “Are you with me?”
He looked up at me, those green eyes searching my brown ones. “I'm with you,” he said softly, but with more steel than most men could muster. I smiled grimly and nodded.
“Cathy we need three things, I think. New names, college tuition and protection.”
“Well your last name will be Gerhardt,” Mason said as he stood up from where he'd been sitting with his mother. “You're seriously screwed up if you think I'm letting that go by.”
Warmth flooded through me at his statement. “That might be a little obvious, Mase.”
“Actually, it may be smart,” Cathy said. “Firstly, the Double-A will burn tracks that lead to you, so they won't have much reason to come back for you. Changing the last name makes it harder to find you, especially if it's under seal.” She tapped her lips with her pen. “Let me talk to the DA. The Double-A is big enough we might get federal help.”
She called the deputy in and then she conference-called the DA. I was impressed with how aggressive she was with the DA, but also how intelligent she sounded. It wasn't all bluster and threat; she actually laid out a cohesive plan to protect us and get rid of the threat that also worked for the DA. Time was a factor, and if it was true that the Double-A was worried about my father having done anything, they might kill him before the cops could scoop him up.
Mrs. Gerhardt beckoned us over. Nathaniel took my hand and walked us to sit with her and Mason.
“This seems like a good time to talk about this, while they are negotiating,” she said. “Ethan, what's the situation with your mother?”
I looked at her blankly for a moment. “She's a mess. She has been as long as I've known her. I actually have no idea how she's still alive between her drinking and whatever else she puts in her body.”
“So...unfit to care for you.”
“She's unfit to care for a houseplant.”
She smiled grimly. “Anyone else besides your parents?”
I paused. “You mean that I lived with?”
“That, or anyone else who might possibly try to parent you.”
I snorted. “No. My sister Tina – Cristina – is nineteen, I think. If anything, she's as bad off as I am. We aren't close. Even if she wanted to try and take me on, I wouldn't.”
She nodded and looked at Nathaniel. “How about you? What's the story with your parents?”
He gave her a calculating look. “I have no father. My mother probably hasn't realized I haven't lived at home for more than a month. She's as addict, but still trying to act like she isn't.” He paused. “Why?”
She glanced at Mason and then back to us. “You guys need time to get back on your feet, to get ready for college – and to try and just be kids for the few years you have left of that.” She focused on me. “I was angry with you for presuming to lecture me about my relationship with my son. But once I cooled off I realized how your penchant for...being direct clarified things. I have my son back. You've always had his. Now Nathaniel has yours.”
“He can have forty-nine percent. I'll share, but Eth is still mine,” Mason said, smiling at us.
“You can work out the math,” Mrs. Gerhardt said with a little smile. “But when this is over, you guys are coming with me. I have the room, both in my home and in my heart. I won't tolerate you guys arguing with me about it – you need an adult to get you to the next stage, and I'm going to do that for you.”
I pushed my tongue against my teeth. I'm not one for other people telling me what I'm going to do, but she was solving some problems for me. I looked over at Nathaniel.
He'd been waiting for me to look at him, apparently. He said, “I go where you go.”
I smiled at him. I don't deserve him. I am better with him, though. More human than I am even with Mason. I turned back to Mrs. Gerhardt.
“Thank you,” I said, and this time it wasn't that hard. I looked at Mason. “I think you should have to change your last name. I don't think I look like a Gerhardt.”
Mason grinned. “Nathaniel does, but you maybe not so much.”
I grinned back at him. Clever to try and draw Nathaniel to his side, although they were both blond. What did that say about me? Did I have a type? Not worth thinking about, I decided. “Whatever it ends up being, Benfield is over.” I looked at Nathaniel. “Someone told me Benfields don't go to college, so we'll need a new last name. Solves that problem.”
“You think I'll just do whatever you want, don't you?” Nathaniel challenged, the corner of his mouth giving away the teasing behind his words.
“When you agree with me, yeah,” I said with a little smile. My attention was pulled quickly back to the conference call as the DA's tone and attitude went completely sour.
“Look, Ms. Zuwalski, that's a great story. If your...clients...want to do their civic duty and make a report about these people, that'd be great. But asking for all you are just because someone did a little B&E? I don't think this rises to that level.” He paused, but it was probably just for another venomous breath. “As far as calling the feds – please. I'm not embarrassing myself over the phone with them. Nice try.”
The call disconnected and Deputy Winchell frowned. He'd been invited in when the call had started to have a representative in the room, but he seemed as unhappy with the outcome as we were.
“Now what?” I asked, my voice hollow. All my dreams of going home and trying to unravel the mystery of Nathaniel and my feelings for him seemed to have just evaporated.
“Next I go over the officious prick's head,” she said in a determined tone. She pulled her phone out and tapped the screen a few times, put it on speaker, and set it on the table.
“FBI, Special Agent Garibaldi speaking.”
“Dante, it's Cathy.”
“Oh. Great,” he said and made an audible sigh.
“Do you have any interest in the Double-A?” she asked coyly.
There was a pause. “Are you serious?”
“I am. There is an operation of theirs on the ground, and I have two boys with information. The local DA has been dicking us around and just hung up. I have reason to believe their lives are in danger if they go back to their residence tonight.”
“Okay. Give me a couple of details, and I'll run this up the flag pole.”
Nathaniel and I were beckoned over. I looked at Nathaniel as I started to speak. “One operation has low-level workers removing copper piping and wiring from an abandoned development called the Glades.”
Nathaniel picked up the explanation seamlessly. “They’re taking the copper to a middleman, Petrello's Salvage, which is a front for the Double-A. It's one of their money-making operations to fund the rest of the network. They've also run guns in town and have two safe houses with drugs that I know of.”
“Okay, that'll do. Before I go, why did the DA turn this away?”
“These boys need protection, they need new names under seal, and they are smart enough to need an education when this is all over. The DA offered nothing.”
There was another pause and then a sigh. “You're going to be the death of me, Cathy,” he said. “Okay, let me make a few calls. You mentioned a reason they would be in danger tonight?”
“Yes. A break-in at the residence. Voice recording confirms they were looking for at least one of the boys. They would settle for any of them to put pressure on someone.”
“Okay. Take this address down. It's a safe house. Wait for me there, and I'll get started. I'll call you in an hour to update.” He provided a street address and hung up.
Cathy looked up at us. “Dante is a good man. Let's get out of here while it's still the unexpected move,” she said, putting her phone in her briefcase.
“What do you mean, the unexpected move?” Mason asked as we all stood up.
“Those thugs are planning to catch you at home tonight, maybe in the middle of the night. If you don't go home, they miss out. Right now they don't know you are aware of their plans, so we do the unexpected and don't go back to that house.” Cathy smiled at him and hefted her bag. “My car is out front. Meet you guys in the front of the school, and we'll drive over together.”
Nathaniel walked back over to me. As he got in reach, Cathy suddenly spoke again. “Nathaniel? How did you find out all this stuff? The safe houses, the recycling place as a front?”
He spoke in a steady tone, full of confidence. “People don't see me. Especially not as a threat. They say things, I see things – and remember them.”
She nodded in approval and then did the same to me, for some reason. I nodded and we three headed for our lockers to grab our stuff while Mrs. Gerhardt went with Cathy. We met up by the back doors and walked into the parking lot, passing Deputy Douche's parked cruiser. The day was cool and overcast, the kind of overcast that makes you think of long, despondent days. I was pondering that and thinking of a line from a book I read for school once where the author wrote about a boy looking out into the gray November sky as if it might gobble him up, 'that great gray beast November'. I didn't mind that it was overcast. In fact I couldn't give two flips about the weather.
I cared about very little any time Nathaniel slipped his hand into mine. Then I was all about the feel of his skin, the beat of my heart and the rushing sound in my ears.
“Nice of you to come to us,” a voice said. I looked up to see a man emerging from between the cars. I'd been so distracted we'd crossed nearly to the center of the lot. I turned to look behind us for an escape route.
“Ah, ah!” came a voice from behind. We three turned to put our backs against each other. He had a pistol of some kind in his hand – I know very little about guns except painful bits of metal come out one end and there is usually an asshole on the other. “Nothing crazy. Don't make me shoot.”
“Run!” Nathaniel screamed and we darted over the nearest car, tumbling to the ground and scuttling as quickly as we could. Both men swore and charged after us. I knew they wouldn't want to fire if they could help it. The school would go on lockdown, and police would swarm the campus. We dodged, using our size as an advantage, but that only went so far. I had slipped to the far side, three or four car lengths away from their heavy footsteps when I heard Mason cry out in pain.
“Got one!” one of the men snarled.
I jumped as Nathaniel slipped in next to me, his face set grimly and his hand holding my shoulder to remind me that I shouldn't put my head up.
“Okay, you little group of fuck-ups. You come here in thirty seconds, or blondie here gets a few grains of lead added to his diet.”
“Run! Ethan, ru-” he cried out, his warning cut off abruptly.
“That's enough out of you. Come on, Nathaniel. Robson wants to see you and your little friend. I don't have time to screw around here. Make me wait and I'll ice the punk.”
Nathaniel looked at me. His mask had slid over his features.
“Don't,” I said. “Don't go away from me.”
He tilted his head in a silent question.
“Your face. Your eyes. You went dead.”
He shook his head. “Not dead. Furious. Someone is messing with something that belongs to me. You're not going to grab a broomstick for this again, are you?”
I just looked at him.
“They're going to kill him no matter what we do. We have to get him back,” Nathaniel said. “I'd kill for a broomstick right now. It'll be just us and whatever anger we can dredge up. Our only advantage is that if they fire that gun it'll attract too much attention. Fight like they won't use it.”
He could run. I could, but I really can't. Nathaniel is going to stand with me, and for Mason. His green eyes were narrowed with the promise of violence, his jaw set in determination.
I stared at him with dawning acceptance. “I love you.”
His green eyes sparkled. “Well, fuck this. I'm not dying now!”
“Ten seconds, bitches. Then this one gets wasted and you still get hunted. Let's go, ladies!”
I nodded at him and we stood up.
“There!” One of the guys headed in our direction, gun in hand.
“Don't try any shit, you two. Get in the car,” the one holding Mason said. Mason looked terrified, and more than anything I wanted to kill the man that made him look that way.
I don't know why he didn't tell us to put our hands up. Maybe he never watched any cop shows, or maybe he was just a shitty criminal. He came around the end of the car and Nathaniel lunged. The gun went off, but it didn't stop me as I lunged forward as well. He swung blindly and the butt sideswiped my cheek, causing instant pain and lights to burst before my eyes, but it was almost as if it were happening to someone else.
“What the fuck is going on?” the guy with Mason screamed.
“Fuckers!” The criminal screamed repeatedly, the gun forgotten on the ground as he tried to turtle up rather than actively attack us. The key to any fight is to end it fast – there is no such thing as a fair or honorable fight. Just winners and losers. Nathaniel had gone for the soft tissue of his scrotum while I'd aimed at his face. I'd scrabbled at his eyes, smashed at his nose and pulled on an ear hard enough that it had moved under my grip. His shirt was stained red, sprinkled along the thin material. Nathaniel and I turned toward the man who had Mason and I was thinking we'd have to dodge around cars to get to him, but then he'd kill Mason. I was nearly frozen, realizing that I couldn't get to him in time. The man on the ground hollered and rolled, knocking into my ankles and causing me to go down to one knee to keep from falling over. He wasn't trying to attack me, just writhing in pain. The fucker.
“Hands up! Hands up! Drop the weapon! Drop it! Drop it!” I recognized Deputy Winchell's voice. He must have heard the shots and he'd come running out the back of the building. My guts turned to water as I heard a gun go off and I struggled to find my balance as I stumbled around the car to where I'd last seen the man with Mason. The man was on his back, and Mason was on the ground, lying on his side.
“Mason! Mase!” I stumbled to him, but Nathaniel passed me. I arrived just after he did. Mason had blood leaking from one of his ears and I thought for a world-ending moment that it was an entry wound. Then he stirred, and cupped his ear slowly. I heard him start to cry, to sob. I knelt down and pulled him to a sitting position and squeezed him hard enough that we might have become a single entity. Nathaniel had his hands on my shoulders, just enough pressure to let me know he was with me.
I buried my head against Mason's, telling him over and over that I had him. He clutched at me and blubbered in fear. I held him tighter, then Nathaniel let go of my shoulder and did his best to help me cocoon Mason from the world.