New Home, Old Family

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle


This is a commissioned story to feature Derek Pellegrini. Is there a character you'd like to see featured? Is there a serial story that you'd like to see an epilogue for? Email me and let's talk!

“He's still hung up on this thing, I wish I knew why,” Griff said, clearly irritated.

“You think he's still stuck on Boomer?” I asked idly.

“Derek, I wish it were that simple,” he replied and shook his head. We were sitting outside at a new place that served quick meals. The stuff seemed kind of average, but their outdoor seating was great for people watching. It was only a few blocks from the high school, the community center and the town park, so there was a reasonable amount of foot traffic as well as cars going by. Griff was talking about Philip and his never-ending issues since his relationship with Boomer had gone up in smoke.

“It's been months now, though. Hasn't Boomer moved on?” I asked. Truth be told I wasn't really invested in Philip or his problems. I guess he was one of the family members I just didn't like as much as others. I didn't feel bad about it, after all my mother is still family and I don't like her much at all. I loved my dad and my sister and most of my extended family – Austin, Lu, Robin, Griff, Devyn and so on. Philip had started out like a snot, and while I thought some of the shit he'd pulled was mildly amusing, I'd never really warmed to him. I'd help if he were in trouble, but I wasn't going out of my way to spend time with him.

“I'm not sure,” Griff said with a grimace. “You know he kissed Jamie, right?”

“I heard,” I said with a chuckle. “Not a move I'd have been interested in making. But Jamie's pretty tight with Emily, right? Doesn't that leave old Boomer out in the cold?”

“I don't know how straight anyone in that family is,” he replied. Griff tilted his head from side to side and leaned back in his chair. The table and chairs were painted wrought iron – uncomfortable wasn't the word. “The way Philip tells the story, they were at Perks and Logan, Trace and Jake came in. He felt like Boomer noticed them a little too much.”

“Boomer has good taste,” I said with a smile.

Griff smiled grimly and then sighed. “I have a feeling Philip's been hooking up with Sterling on the side.”

“Trying to win him back by putting out?” I asked, snickering.

“I just...I don't get it.” Griffin paused and looked at me seriously. “Why is it when you lay everything out logically, show people the steps they took to get where they are, that they can just close their eyes, stomp their feet and holler 'No! No! No!' ”

I laughed and he looked at me ruefully, the edges of his mouth turning up.

“Look, I'm on Boomer's side,” I said matter-of-factly. “I love Austin, I know he loves me and we're as solid as you can get. But!” I said, raising a finger and my eyebrows, “I see other guys and know they are hot. I'm not above a little fantasizing. I think most of the world is like that.”

“Oh, I agree,” Griff said with a nod. “I told you about Nate inadvertently watching Dev and me that one time, right?”

“Yeah. Lucky bastard,” I said with a grin and reached for my drink.

Griff laughed. “I was toying with the idea of asking him to film us some time, but I think that might be too weird.”

“I'll do it!” I said, laughing and leering at once.

“Yeah, right!” Griff said, laughing. “I'm not letting a horn dog like you do that. It'd turn into a three way or end up on the internet!”

“Hah!” I said, snorting a bit with laughter. “I don't know about that. Still, that's interesting – did you and Dev talk about it?”

“Sort of. Just an off the cuff conversation, you know? Nate isn't a threat, at least not in bed,” Griff said and frowned lightly.

“Jealous much?” I teased.

He gave me a tight lipped smile and raised his middle finger. “I don't have to be Dev's sole interest in life, but Nate takes up a huge space in his heart. It can be annoying at times. I'm just hoping this thing with Elliot and Nate sticks so Dev won't be so damned worried. I mean,” he said, holding his hand out palm up, “Nate's not a baby. He's a great guy, no question, but he isn't going to break.”

I looked at Griff steadily, letting him think that last bit over for a minute. He let out a sigh. “Derek, I don't understand this whole emotional thing everyone is going through about some of us going off to college. It's not like we're fighting and not family anymore, you know?”

I leaned back and rolled my lips in and out as I looked at him. “You know, Griff, if you care about us as much as I think you do, you may change your tune once you move. Am I right that you didn't miss your friends back in California all that much? When you were going to go to school out there in Disneyland it was because it had a great program, right? Not for reconnecting with an old crowd.”

He pursed his lips and let out a slow breath. “I see where you're going. Okay, maybe you're right. You think I'm being unreasonable?”

“I should reserve judgment until you see how it affects you. Who knows, maybe you're one of those guys that will deal with it easily because you have Dev and a couple of your friends there, even if it's not the whole family. But...maybe not.”

“You say that like I won't miss you,” Griff said flatly. “I will, Der. I'm's not forever, you know?”

I shrugged, a little uncomfortable. “It's change. Change is weird, sometimes.”

“Yeah,” he said slowly. “Anyway, I don't know what Philip's motivation is – just to get some physical affection, to try and win Boomer back through sex...I mean, I'm making assumptions with no real proof, you know? I just have a feeling he's been sneaking over to hook up.”

“So?” I said.

“What do you mean, so?” he asked, frowning.

“Griff,” I said with a chuckle. “You say Nate isn't a baby; neither is Philip. You can't make him change his mind – whatever that is.” Narrowing my eyes and smiling slyly I added, “I wonder if Dev worries about Philip taking up too much of your heart the way you do about Nate and Dev's heart?”

“Dick,” he said and sighed. He ran his fingers through his hair. “You're right. You're right! I need to back off of this. I mean, I'm worried for him, but you're totally right.”

“So. You and Dev make any...videos for yourself?” I asked, playing a devilish smile across my lips.

“Yes,” he said promptly, blushing a tad. “It's normal, you know.”

“I didn't say it wasn't,” I said demurely. “So...where do you keep these videos?”

He laughed at me and I joined him. “You really would watch me fuck, wouldn't you?”

“Hell yeah,” I said as I leaned back and smiled insolently. “It makes me curious. I mean, you're no stranger to porn, right?”

He cleared his throat. “I've dabbled in it,” he said. Smiling widely he laughed and continued, “Of course I've looked at porn. What's your point?”

“I just wonder if it's hotter knowing who the people are on screen, you know? I'm curious.”

“Well, you'll just have to stay curious,” he said with a smile.

“Come on, Nate's seen it!” I chided, grinning at him.

“You're impossible,” he said with a chuckle. “How'd you get to be such a horn dog?”

“Ugh, I think I got it from my mother,” I said with a groan. “My dad seems pretty cool with the little bit of dating he's done, but I can't imagine he's getting any action, you know? I mean, not like I want to think about it too much!”

“I know,” he said with a nod. “I heard my folks one afternoon when I came home early. I left again in a big hurry, let me tell you!”

“I shouldn't say that. I guess parents need love, too,” I laughed with him and took a sip of my drink. “I don't know. I bounced around, looked at a lot of stuff. Some of it gave me ideas for things to try with Austin. Some of it is just hot – good chemistry on screen, stuff like that. I mean, I'm totally sure I could get into a Lu porno, you know? I'm not as sure about you and Dev.”

“That's because you have a crush on Lu,” Griff pointed out with a grin.

“Guilty,” I said with a matching grin. “It's harmless. I just like to picture him naked once in a while and stroke one out.”

“God!” Griff said and leaned back in his chair, laughing hard. “Lu...Lu would be so embarrassed!”

“Eh, he's mostly gotten over it. I mean, he was never supposed to know, but Austin has a big mouth.”

“From what I hear, that's a good thing for you,” Griff replied and laughed hard at my surprised expression. I smiled at his laughter and nodded.

“Yeah. Everyone knows I'm above average in the family, which is a damn weird thing to say,” I said and snorted with amusement.

“Is that weird? Like, when did you realize you were...above average, as you put it?” he asked, resting his chin on his fist as he waited for my reply.

“Middle school,” I said easily. “I was changing and one of the coaches was walking by. He did a slight double take and I heard him mutter something about a horse. I'm pretty sure it had to do with being hung like one.”

“Huh. That must have been uncomfortable.”

I shook my head slowly. “No, not really. A little weird to hear an adult say something like that, especially a teacher about a kid, you know? But...” I shrugged. “I didn't really understand any of that and put it all together. If it happened now I think I'd be weirded out more than I was then. I've never been all that concerned with my size, not until Austin insisted on bottoming for me, anyway.”

“Huh,” Griff said again. “I guess conventional wisdom would make you think if you're big downstairs, you'd be preoccupied with putting it somewhere.”

I tilted my head from side to side. “Yes and no. I fantasize, like anyone else. I figured I'd let Austin have first crack at topping, and I liked bottoming so much I didn't think much about topping to be totally honest.”

“Really? It didn't cross your mind?” Griff asked with evident curiosity. “I mean, Dev and I are pretty versatile and from what I keep reading, people shouldn't be pegged into roles like top or bottom.”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “I agree. At the same time, people can have preferences. Like you guys like to swap. I like bottoming pretty well, but I'm appreciating topping now that I'm doing it. I don't know how I'd feel about a relationship where someone said 'Okay, I'm a top and you're a bottom' or whatever, and you just stick with predefined roles. I like sex, I want to experience new things.” I shrugged.

“So, wait,” he said. “You told me your dad doesn't seem to be getting much, but how does that have anything to do with your mother?”

“Oh! Just that she's horny as can be – she cheated on my dad, for Christ's sake,” I replied with a wave of my hand. “My sister and I seem to have pretty healthy libidos. My dad just seems like he has a take it or leave it kind of attitude.”

“Oh,” he said, maybe not sure what to say to that. He glanced at me and hesitated. I was about to ask him what was on his mind when he blurted out, “Are you going to miss me because we kissed? Are you...attracted to me?”

I leaned forward, grinning. “Of course I'm attracted, Griff. I'm attracted to a lot of guys. Finding you attractive is one thing, going beyond that is totally something else.”

Griff contemplated that and asked, “Isn't it different because we kissed?”

I pulled up the corner of my mouth in amusement, thinking of that kiss on the beach the summer before. Austin had a little thing for Devyn, and Griff and I had them kiss – and then Griff and I had kissed. It was just a kiss, nothing else attached, but it was an interesting question.

“Well, kissing you was pretty nice, I admit,” I told him honestly. “But I didn't kiss Dev, and I'm going to miss him as much as I do you. I've thought about Lu in a sexual way, but I never touched him, and never will. Robin is fantastic, one of the best people I've ever met and I'll miss him just as much. I'm just going to miss you because I love you, Griff. Besides,” I told him, giving him an affectionate look, “I remember how much you got hurt and how useful I felt giving you the safety of a good hug.” I paused. “Plus, you know me – if I had a thing for you, I could probably just say so. Maybe a little embarrassing, but I got over a lot of that once Austin outed me to Lu.” I grinned unrepentantly and Griff smiled and shook his head.

“It was a good kiss, that much was true,” he said quietly. “I kind of have a theory about all that.”

“Oh?” I asked, leaning forward.

“Well, before I get into that, remember how Austin said something about having weird conversations with Chase on that road trip they took?”

“Can I get you guys anything else?” asked the waitress, suddenly appearing at our table. I glanced at her and smiled. She was sporting a pony tail and a black skirt with a white polo that was tighter than it needed to be. She was probably a few years older than I was and tending toward the heavier side.

“Yes, please,” I said to her. “Can I please have a refill on this Strawberry lemonade and a second cheese quesadilla? One wasn't enough for me,” I said with a smile.

“Sure thing,” she said pleasantly and turned to Griff. “Would you like a refill on the raspberry iced tea?”

“Please,” Griff replied with a smile and she departed.

“So what about the road trip Austin took with Chase?” I asked, pulling him back.

“Well,” Griff hedged. “All he said was that there were weird topics. It sounded a little sketchy to me. Do you know any more about what they talked about – or really, why?”

“Oh, that!” I said with a chuckle. I paused as the waitress brought our drinks and told me my food would be right out. Looking at Griff I said, “Well, you know how Kale, Chase, Sasha and Alec have some sort of private orgy going on, right?”

“I...well, I heard things being said, yeah. So you're saying that's true? Not just some joking around?” Griff asked.

“No joke. I guess Austin was hanging out with Lu and Robin and went to the Kirkwoods' place to play video games or something,” I said, leaning forward slightly. “But when they walked into the basement, all four of those guys were naked and sleeping on the hide-a-bed.”

“No shit?” Griff asked, a look of wonder on his face. “That' weird! I don't see that crowd as much so I didn't really put a lot of thought into it, but they hook up?”

“Yep,” I replied. “Austin was kind of funny about it. He kept insisting it was Alec's fault or something weird like that. He told me it's hard for him to think of Chase as a sexual creature. I guess I can understand that. I know Chloe likes getting some action, but I don't really think about it. It'd never occur to me that she'd participate in something with a group of people or anything. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I think I do,” Griff said, nodding his head slowly. “So is that how the whole 'if you were single, who'd you date' kind of conversation came up between Austin and Chase?”

“Yeah,” I said and paused as my food arrived. I smiled at her and said thank you. Once she'd departed I turned my attention back to Griff. “Chase was explaining the emotional side of the sex they were all having, and he started to ask Austin who he'd consider for that kind of thing.”

“Like, a four-way or something?” Griff asked, leaning forward and dropping his voice.

“Yep,” I replied. “At first he was all 'I'm not cheating, I'm in love',” I said with a smile. “But Chase just kept changing the conditions to make the conversation move on, you know? Like if Austin were single, and then he popped down the list of the family.”

“I remember him telling me why he eliminated me,” Griff said quietly. “In some ways, I'll never leave Royce behind me.”

“It's okay, Griff. I'd do ya, if it makes you feel better,” I said with a snicker. He gave me an embarrassed look and started to laugh and I burst out laughing hard at his slight discomfiture. It wasn't true, though. Like Austin, I didn't think I'd ever see Griff like that, not really.

“You're enjoying this,” he accused. “You're as bad as Robin and the way he teases Lu.”

“Guilty!” I stated with a grin. “Besides, it's all just silly talk. I feel the same way about you that Austin does. You're really cute, but I mostly want to cuddle you and make sure you're safe. Sexily safe.”

“Jerk,” Griff said, snorted and then laughed at me. I felt a little bit of relief. I really did want to not let things like this be unsaid because of fear. I had a few friends that were very attractive – why shouldn't they know that? Being attractive didn't mean there was a romantic element involved, after all.

“So why did you want to know about that?” I asked and picked up a slice of my quesadilla.

“Well, it's like this,” Griff said, warming to his subject. “I think a little fantasy is a healthy thing, and not just about sexual fantasy. People dream about all kinds of things – jobs, a raise, a car or some epic trip they'd love to take, right?”

“Yeah, totally,” I said in agreement.

“Well, I think realizing some of those fantasies in a healthy way is a good thing. Like Austin in this instance, right? He liked Dev, not as a cheating thing but as a small fantasy – harmless. It stays harmless because of how it got handled.”

“Sure,” I said. “But it didn't need to be handled. Neither of them would have done anything, otherwise.”

“True,” Griff said and held a finger up. “But in a way, I think it's out of Austin's system, too. Like, he won't wonder what it's like to kiss Dev. I also base this on the fact that Dev likes Austin a bit, too.”

“Oh?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. “Do tell.”

“Well, because of his lack of speech, he'd been kind of isolated before, right? So when you and Austin got together he was kind of frustrated because he was right there, before you arrived, and hadn't even known Austin could swing that way.” Griff paused for a second to sip his drink. “So it's not like he was pining or anything – he ended up dating Elliot, you'll recall, and then he and I got together. But the two of them kissing kind of...maybe put some closure to the whole thing.”

I shrugged. “I think you're overthinking it. I can get why Dev would be attracted – Austin is pretty good looking and a super sweet guy. Devyn is adorable though, and I can totally see falling for him. But...the time for that possibility kind of came and went, you know? They didn't have lingering feelings for each other, or at least Austin didn't.”

“Dev, either,” Griff agreed. “But still, I think there was some value in them getting to do that.”

“Yeah. It got us laid!” I said and snorted. “Kissing you was fun, too. But like we said that night, it was just a kiss.”

“Yeah, no, totally,” Griff replied and waved his hands at me. “I wasn't trying to imply there was more to it.”

“Just as well,” I said, pretending to pout. “Austin would never go for group sex.”

Griff's eyes widened. “Are you saying you would?”

I smiled gently at him. “No, I don't think so. I like to think about it, might even like to watch a little, but that particular thing is just between me and the guy I love.”

Griff nodded and smiled. “I kind of thought that.”

“I know,” I said with a sigh. “I'm all talk.”

“Pretty good kisser, though,” he said and grinned at me. Ugh, I hope this summer lasts forever. I'm going to miss him. I'm going to miss all of them.


“So, guys, I have something to run past you.” My dad sat at the small dining room table with my sister, Chloe, and myself. One thing I really liked about my dad was that he always asked our opinion before major moves. He couldn't always do what we'd prefer, but I never felt like I was completely out of control – and I had felt that in spades when we found out my mother was cheating.

“What's up?” Chloe asked.

“Well, I don't know how much longer either of you will be living at home,” he said. “Chloe, you had a...tough first year at college. It may be that you're going to change majors or something, for instance.”

“Uh, yeah, okay,” she said uncertainly. Recovering herself a bit she continued, “I mean, I expect to do better.”

“I think so, too. I think it's a big adjustment to go from high school to college.” He turned his gaze to me. “Derek, even though you're a good student, you're not on track to get a scholarship or anything like that. So I kind of had a wild idea.”

“What is it? You blowing our college fund on a trip to Disney?” I asked with a grin. We all knew there was no college fund, courtesy of my mother.

“Better. What would you guys think of an investment?” He glanced back and forth between us as Chloe and I looked at one another.

“We don't have any money or credit, so I'm not sure where we come in?” Chloe asked.

My father smiled widely. “You probably know I had planned to leave you both the store, back when we owned it, before your mother and I divorced.”

“Please, don't bring all that up again,” I said. “It makes me sick to think about all the things she cost us, monetarily and otherwise.”

My dad nodded soberly. “Well, I found a new way to pass something on to you both. So, I know you guys had really wanted to live in a house again. Derek, I know you were really hoping we could get a good deal on one of these Victorians that isn't in bad shape. With you both heading to college,” he said and hesitated, “I thought maybe that was one dream we'd have to let go of. But a deal has come up and I've been tossing around ideas about how to make it work – and then it hit me.” He smiled at us and dove into his plan energetically. “What if we buy it – all three of us on the title – and we'll list it as a bed & breakfast?”

My sister looked at me, smiled, and looked back at my dad. “You mean go into business together?”

“Not right away, but yes,” he said with a nod. I smiled at the idea as he continued. “We'll move in and live in there, calling it a business while we remodel it between my work schedule and you two going to school. Eventually I'd guess we'd all move away and maybe I'd operate it as my retirement, but I would be able to leave it to you when I was gone.”

“Wait, you actually think I'd leave a Victorian if we had one? Dad, I'll be your roomie for life!” I said with a laugh.

“Ugh, not me,” Chloe said dismissively. “I'm already jealous of listening to Austin bone you.”

“Jesus,” my dad said, putting his hand to his forehead.

“You need to get laid,” I told her.

“I know, right? Can you - “

“No, I will not loan Austin to you,” I said firmly and started to laugh as she pooched out her lips.

“Well, if I'm going to be a surrogate mom for you guys, he's got to impregnate me the old fashioned way. No turkey basters for me!”

“Oh, hell no!” I cried out, laughing.

“Okay, that's the plan anyway, what do you guys think?” my dad interjected, probably in desperation.

“I think his boyfriend should be a shared object,” Chloe teased.

“About the investment, Chloe,” my dad said in a put-upon tone.

“Oh! I'm for it. It would be fun to fix it up, and if I move away at some point I'll have a place to stay for a visit. I think Derek might be on the fence, though,” she said slyly.

“Hell no,” I said firmly. “I'm completely for this. I'll even go to school for hospitality so I can run the place! A real Victorian inn? Count me in!”

“Okay! Great, well, I have a place for us to check out at the end of the week. Four o'clock on Friday, 391 3rd Avenue. This could be big!” he said and slapped his fingertips on the table excitedly like it was a drum.

Man. A Victorian. I could hardly wait!


I popped my headphones in and queued up my playlist. After a nice stretch I started jogging, slowly working my way up to a brisk pace. I liked to run. I wasn't competing with anyone, though I had during track season. I liked to keep my stamina up so I'd be in good shape for soccer in the fall. Given this would be my last year, I wanted to do well. As my shoes beat out a steady rhythm, my thoughts turned back to my conversation with Griff a few days before.

Some people might think it weird or inappropriate that I find a few of my friends hot. I don't. Some people might think it's wrong to fantasize about them once in a while, but I don't agree with that, either. I think it's just part of a healthy imagination and a strong libido. It's all mental masturbation, really. Passing thoughts that don't impact anything I do in the real world. It's sort of like reading a romance novel, I guess. You can have the emotional experience without changing anything.

Lu had always been high on my list of fantasy guys. I admired him for his devotion to Robin, for the kind of friend – human being – that he is, which is all well and good. Robin, though, has passed on some stuff to Austin, which then comes to me, about the kind of lover Lu is. Jesus, it's hot to think of. Some of it comes back to surprise, for me. For instance, Austin is classically attractive – he has high cheekbones, a super nice chest, the kindest heart in the world and he's intelligent with a loving personality. I have no doubt he's perfect for me.

Lu, on the other hand, seems more average in looks to me. Not that he's bad looking, not at all. He hides it better, though, I guess. He has glasses, is of average height and has questionable taste in vehicles. He used to dress a little more smartly when I first met him, but he's relaxed into a jeans and tee kind of guy. What sparks my imagination is the way he treats Robin – and from what I've heard, the way he treats him in the bedroom.

If you met them, you'd have no doubt within ten seconds that they are so close as to be a single entity. Not person, entity. The way Austin is perfect for me, they are perfect for each other. Looking at Lu, stereotypically speaking, you might think he's a shy, nerdy type with his glasses and toned down clothing. He actually has a nice body under that, and the glasses make me think of that meme about hot, nerdy guys. According to Austin, Robin says Lu is the absolute master of his body. Austin and I have a good, healthy sex life and I have no complaints. But the stories about Lu...I've had a few fantasies about being on the receiving end of his attention.

Robin has a great body, but he tends toward bottoming as I do, so it dampens my enthusiasm for fantasy with him. While I like to tease Griff, I couldn't ever see myself with him. Like Austin does, I can all too readily recall the terrible things Griff went through. In a way he's right that he'll never outrun Royce, but in a way none of us will. Now Devyn is a bit of a different story. Griff says Dev got it into his head that Griff liked muscles – like I do – and he started building himself up a bit. He's got a nice, balanced physique and I think he'd be a fun guy to date.

That's sort of how I look at the guys in the family. They all have good qualities, some are more attractive to me than others, and I love them all. I can do that and not sleep with them or make things awkward. It hardly matters what rattles around in my skull anyway, my heart is full with everything I have with Austin. Of course, that was a worry I had as well – keeping him. I know he's leaning heavily toward becoming a dentist like his Uncle George; the question is where he'd go to school. In one sense I'd think they teach all the same things, more or less, at any dentistry program. If one is considered 'the best' is there really that much of a difference?

It was a bridge I'd have to cross, but later.

I rounded a corner and the town park opened up in front of me. The park was a few square blocks and had open spaces, sporting courts like for basketball and tennis as well as stands of trees and cook-out spots. As I entered the park I saw Seth McAllister and Foster McGuire. Foster had a guitar out and was sitting cross legged while Seth lay on the grass with his head on Foster's thigh. I didn't know Foster well, and while Seth and I had talked a few times, we hadn't hung out a great deal. They looked nice together but were too far off to speak to. Besides, they looked like they were in their own little world – kinder to let them have that moment.

Seeing Seth reminded me of the time I'd walked into Perks and found Seth and Grayson floundering behind the counter as the owner had run out the door with his pregnant wife. If I remember correctly, the wife gave birth and the owner, Kyle, had expected his manager, Damon, to arrive shortly – but he'd been delayed by an auto accident he'd witnessed. The point-of-sale was similar to the one the IGA used, where I work, so I stepped in to help them out. We'd had some fun and I'd gotten free coffee and discounts from the place as a thank you, which was really nice of the owner. What drifted back to me, though, was the conversation I'd had just as we were getting ready to leave the store that morning, which was that Seth, Gray and Logan Whitmore were all kind of dating each other at the same time. Now, Seth was dating Foster and I was pretty sure Gray and Logan were still a thing. They all kind of moved in a circle that didn't overlap with mine all that often, but I liked to think we were still friends.

That conversation with Griff about how Alec, Sasha, Kale and Chase had some kind of thing going, coupled with – no pun intended – Seth, Gray and Logan's now defunct thruple thing had me wondering how things like that could even work. For instance, I really hadn't minded Dev and Austin kissing, but I think that had to do with the circumstances. I was there, everything was spelled out and it was just a kiss, not a roll in the hay. I'm pretty sure I'd feel differently if clothes had come off at some point and turned a bit more serious. I've never understood people that can separate sex from emotion.

A flash of sweaty skin caught my eye and I turned my head as a runner cleared a stand of trees and headed in my general direction. As I got closer, trying to check out the guy's chest, I realized I was checking out Philip Ashmore, the guy Griff was so worried about. He was really lean without any real upper body definition, yet it made the muscles he did have stand out sharply. I started to slow as he drew closer and, perhaps seeing me do so, he did the same until we stopped a few feet shy of each other, breathing heavily.

“Hey, Derek,” he said between gulps of air.

“Philip, how are you?” I asked, working to master my airflow. “I'm not used to seeing you run without your pace-buddy.”

He smiled lightly and rolled his eyes. “Griff and Dev were going to some outdoor concert. I wasn't interested in being a third wheel, you know?”

“Totally,” I said with a nod. “Thinking about track this year? If you can run a while, maybe you should try out for soccer?” I asked, just to make conversation.

He looked a little surprised. “Um, yeah, maybe I could. I mean, I don't know much about soccer. Some nice looking guys.”

“Fuck yeah, there are,” I said and laughed. He joined me, though a bit weaker. Oh, he was probably judging me because I have a boyfriend and dare to think other guys can still be hot. Seems like a good time to start running again. “Well,” I said, about to blow him off, when he interrupted.

“Have you talked to Griff? I mean, has he talked about me?”

I paused. “Some, I guess. Why do you ask?”

He frowned lightly. “You changed. I guess everyone knows and has an opinion about how Sterling and I broke up. So you say hot guys and laugh and then changed. I'm not stupid,” he said dejectedly. “So let me ask you. How can you look at other guys, and still call yourself loyal to Austin?”

I took a breath. “Simple, Philip. Everyone is entitled to private thoughts. Holding someone to a purity test like that is impossible for most people. I think the only guy that could come close is Lu. All he sees is Robin, but even Rob notices that there are other attractive people. The difference is in how you handle it.”

“So you're saying if Austin was looking at other guys, right in front of you, that you wouldn't mind?” Philip said challengingly.

“Context, Philip,” I replied. “If I were talking to him and he was staring or drooling, then yeah, I'd have an issue with it. But if he says 'check that guy out, nice ass' or something, I'd turn to see what he saw. He's not going to do anything about it. He's not going to get a number or hit on the person.”

Philip chewed his lower lip for a moment.

“Look, I don't even want to get into this mess. I know Griff wants to help you and all, but you have your point of view and you're entitled. Good luck getting that, though.”

“Fuck,” Philip muttered.


He pursed his lips in frustration. “Everyone used to hate me. Then, I thought I learned the right way to do things and it all seemed to be going well until I saw Sterling checking out some other guys. Now, everyone tells me I'm wrong. I've been sticking to my guns, but I'm starting to feel like an asshole.”

I was starting to feel a bit like one, too. “Look, Phil,” I said quietly, looking around for no real reason. “Everyone's got a right to ask for what they want in a relationship. Some people are like, one special person. There's others that do multiples. Others can't stay with one and just move on, never settling down. People are complicated. Relationships are complicated. If you want someone who won't even ever notice other people exist because they love you so much, good luck to you. I think it's super rare, but if that's what's important to you – good on you, you know?”

He closed his eyes and said, “Do you think Austin looks at other guys?”

“Pretty sure, yeah. Girls too, considering he's bi. I mean, we're surrounded by people. To me, it'd be weirder if he didn't notice.”

“Fuck,” he said again. Despite myself, I could see Phil was struggling. Like I said before, he was family even if he wasn't my favorite one. “I changed everything, or so I thought,” he said and looked up at me. “I changed my name, insisting people call me Philip in order to separate myself from Little Phil and everything I'd done to make people not like me. I had friends, eventually a boyfriend and now....”

“Phil. Philip. You've got the family, man. You and I aren't exactly the closest, but I'm still here for you. Don't go thinking you've lost everything.”

He looked at me a little forlornly. “Griff is kind of drifting. He's frustrated with me.”

“Frustrated, yeah. He cares about you. I don't know about the drifting thing, but he's worried for you.” I hesitated about saying anything more, since this was between Philip and Griff. “I mean, he's your friend, you know? I think he feels a little responsible for you, considering the way you became friends.”

Philip frowned and rolled his eyes. “You're probably right, but I'm not a little kid for Christ's sake.”

“Well, prove it, then,” I said. He looked at me, his eyes widening. “Seriously. Have a talk with Griff and be ready to listen. If you made up your mind before you talk to him for advice or whatever, then why are you bothering to talk to him?”

His brow drew down. “I have! He's not listening to me!”

“Okay,” I said and put my hands up. “It's not my business.”

“No, wait,” he said and I paused, sighing to myself. Why couldn't I keep my mouth shut? He sighed and said, “I don't think I'm totally wrong, here but...I guess, maybe, I'm not all right either. I just think that if you're with someone, you shouldn't be looking. At the least, not right in front of them.”

“That's your right. You have a relationship, you should talk about the rules. For me? I'm not worried that Austin will do more than notice someone. In my mind it's a matter of trust.” I paused and said, “If he wanted to cheat, I couldn't stop him, you know? I have to trust in what I know of him and the way we set up our relationship – that I can trust in him to do what we expect of each other.”

“But....” He glanced around and kicked at the sidewalk. “People do cheat. All the time. Marriages break. How do you find would kill me. You know?”

A rush of sympathy filled me. Okay, he was scared. Now I understood him a bit better. “Trust, Philip, is a fragile thing. It doesn't take a lot to break trust, even if people don't mean to.”

Philip looked at me intently for a minute and then asked, “Has that happened to you?”

“Yes,” I said easily. “My mother cheated on my father. It broke our family up, we lost our business, our home, our way of life and it's what brought me to the Springs.”

He pursed his lips slightly. “Did that affect your ability Think about marriage?”

I tilted my head and let the question tumble through my head for a moment. “I don't think so. My mother is...who she is. I'm not her, and neither is Austin – or anyone else.” I smiled at him. “I kind of take people at face value. Austin hasn't shown me anything to make me think he'd do anything like that, so I can trust in him.”

He studied me for a moment. “And what about you? Do you think you could...cheat?”

I sighed.

“I'm sorry,” he said quickly.

“Hang on,” I said and pushed a hand across my face. “Look, I think cheating is physical, okay? Having sex, kissing, blow jobs – that sort of thing. I don't think fantasy qualifies. There are some folks that disagree, and there are folks that talk about emotional cheating which I kind of get, but I'm a little shaky on how much I buy into it.”

“But Devyn kissed Austin! And you kissed Griff – doesn't that count?” he said, pouncing.

“No,” I said firmly. “We were all in agreement that it was just a kiss – nothing more. Intent has to count, Philip. The kiss wasn't in secret or with any malice behind it. It was just a kiss. If you're asking could I have had sex with Griff – or someone else – the answer is no. I'm not built that way. I need to be in a relationship with someone who also isn't built that way.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “Only you can decide what limits you can accept, but can't let your fear of bad things ruin opportunities for good things, either. But that's your call, not mine.”

“That's the part I don't understand, okay? I thought I was right,” he said, holding a hand flat to his chest. “I thought it was rude and the next thing to cheating to be looking at other guys in front of me like that – not that I would have been thrilled if he were doing it behind my back, either. It seems like no one agrees with me; but it's still okay that's what I want. No one wants to deal with me for feeling this way, but they want to say it's okay to feel that way? What the hell?”

My temper flared. “Okay, I see the issue. The reason I say it's up to you is because it's your relationship. If I think you're making decisions out of fear and insecurity, that's not really my business is it?” He opened his mouth and I spoke right over him. “No, you asked! You want my opinion? I think you're wrong. I think you're going to break up with a lot of guys about it. If it's what you want, fine because it doesn't affect me other than watching Griff worry about you.” I held a finger up to him. “Making choices about life and relationships out of fear and insecurity is a mistake.”

“How does any of this make me insecure?” he demanded.

I snorted. “If things seemed okay and some rando person came up to you and said 'Hey, Boomer was chatting up this guy over at the Dunkin' Donuts the other night' and your first reaction is jealousy and to go demand an explanation? Yeah, you're insecure. If being in a relationship means you spend all your time afraid he's going to find something better, what's the point of being in a relationship?”

“Whatever,” he said and stalked away.

“Jesus,” I muttered. I know I was lucky enough to figure this stuff out because I have a strong relationship, because I saw how my parents' relationship disintegrated and my friends seemed to have this kind of thing figured out. I hadn't meant to say anything to Philip, but I almost felt compelled. I sighed heavily and started to walk around the park to slowly work my way back up to running home. As I rounded a small stand of trees I spotted the basketball courts and glanced at the sweaty chests on display. I wandered toward them as my phone rang.

“Hey,” I said to Austin, thinking he was sort of a mind reader to call me right then.

“Hey. What are you doing?”

“I went for a run. Ran into Philip and we kind of exploded in stupidity about his break-up with Boomer. Now I'm looking at the sweaty guys playing basketball to feel better.”

“Jesus. Well, it's cheaper than Griff and his 'retail therapy' thing. Anything good at the courts?”

“Actually,” I said as there was a pause in the game. “I'm looking right at Coach Whitmore's, um, nephew? Relation of some kind, anyway.”

“Logan? What about him?”

“Logan, right. Well, his basketball shorts...let's just say, he's circumcised,” I said and started laughing along with Austin.

“Someone in town has your debilitating disease, huh?” Austin teased.

I sighed. “He's got a nicer body than I do. I have no idea how he's tan already, the lucky bastard. I have to burn at least one more time.”

“Aww, I don't know. I like you pale, slender and on your back.”

I paused and then started laughing, and he joined me. “Nice, Babe. So what's up?”

“My Aunt has that conference in Binghamton tonight, so my uncle wants to go for burgers and see that new sci-fi flick based on the series he and I read.”

“Oh? Thank goodness! Now I don't have to go!” I teased.

“Figured you'd be pleased,” he said with a chuckle. “But I figured I'd give you a call and tell you what was going on.”

“Okay. Are you going to meet us at that Victorian tomorrow? I can't wait to see it!” I said excitedly as the basketball game swept back into full speed. Some guys look damn good running, jumping and acting all athletic and shit.

“Totally. Text you tonight, okay?”

“Okay, Babe. Have fun. Love you.”

“Love you, too, Der.”

I sat on the bench at the side of the court and watched the eye candy. I made a little game out of watching for Logan's manhood to bounce and announce itself. It made me wonder if he knew what he was doing with that thing, and if Gray was lucky or not. Speaking of which, Gray was on the court as well. Huh, I guess I was easily distracted. I took a look at the other faces and recognized a few, but not well enough to speak to.

“Game!” announced one of the guys after a basket was made. There was a bunch of muttering, good game and crap like that. It was sort of pointless. I mean, it was better than being a jackass I guess, but I knew from experience that when you lost, you usually didn't feel very sportsmanlike. Some guys or girls could do that, but I wasn't one of them. Too competitive, I guess.

Grayson spotted me and ambled over in my direction. “Hey, Derek,” he said as he plopped down beside me. “What's up?”

“Checking out the eye candy. Looks like you're getting in some exercise,” I replied.

“Nice day out, school is out and I don't have to work. So what do I do? What Logan wants,” he said and chuckled.

“I thought you liked sports?”

“I do,” he said with a nod. “Just not as much as Logan. I'm not sure anyone enjoys sports as much as he does.”

I glanced at Logan who was with a line of guys that were taking foul shots. “The whole team thing, huh? I think of it like a pack mentality. Why are they shooting foul shots?”

“To see who plays next. Our team lost,” Gray replied. “I'm going to sit out a game, my ankle is bothering me.”

“What happened to your ankle?”

“I rolled it a little. It's not too bad, but I beat the crap out of it before and it's always a little dodgy. If I feel a tweak, I know to give it a rest.”

A new game started up and I watched for a moment. Of the guys on the court, Logan was the only one with a flouncing member, which only meant that others had athletic support or didn't have the size he apparently did. It got me tumbling from one thought to the next, not necessarily fully formed thoughts, about how some people valued a man's size more than the man and wondering if that had caused any jealousy for people in general. Given the conversation I'd just had about cheating and jealousy, I wondered how Gray had handled such things. Absently I said, “We never did have that talk about how that whole 'thruple' thing worked.”

He snorted. “Old news, now,” he said. “But yeah, we never did have that chat.”

“I was just talking to someone. Has some very serious ideas about what constitutes cheating. Kind of jumped into my head; wondering how you guys managed.” I turned to look at him and he blew out a breath.

“I don't know that we really 'handled' anything,” he said plainly. “Before that relationship, I thought Logan was totally straight and maybe a bigot.”

“Back up! What now?” I asked, turning toward him.

He chuckled and said, “It's true! I didn't realize that Logan and Seth were kind of a thing. Then Seth convinced me to buy a kiss from Logan at the kissing booth they had at the dance that year.”

“I'd have gone for tongue. Just saying,” I told him and laughed with him.

“It was a pretty chaste kiss, but was a good one.” He paused, glanced out at the court and then back to me. “Seth and Logan wanted to bring me in on their relationship.”

“Did that feel weird?”

“Um, not as much as you might think,” he said thoughtfully. “Any qualms I might have had were kind of wiped out because I was going to be kissing two guys I was attracted to, and since we were all dating the idea of cheating wasn't really an issue.”

I hummed in thought. “Did you have rules?”

“Yeah. I broke them, it's what broke us up – the short answer, anyway,” he said, his voice sounding a bit reticent.

“Oh? Um, sorry, didn't mean to dredge up crap,” I said apologetically.

“Nah,” he replied, waving my concern away. “It was just complicated. Seth felt like Logan and I were growing closer, like we had some kind of bond he didn't and was just trying to keep the status quo. But Logan walked into his room in just a towel, then I got it off him and...Seth walked in on that. One rule, I guess, was not to do stuff like that without us all there. An unspoken rule, I guess.”

“Oh. Huh. Yeah, I guess that sort of makes sense. Seems kind of complicated, too, if two are in the mood and the other isn't.”

“That was sort of the deal,” he said in a semi-reluctant tone. “Seth said he could have had sex with us, but it wasn't feeling right to him. It's all worked out now, though.”

“Huh. So, where do you stand on the whole sharing Logan thing now?” I asked out of curiosity, especially given Philip's point of view.

“Oh, fuck that – that's where I stand on it!” he said and burst out laughing. I joined him, thinking I felt largely the same way about Austin. “I mean, Seth is an exception. He's kind of always an exception, but it wouldn't be more than a kiss and it stops there. I don't have any fear that it'll turn into a make-out or more.”

“Interesting,” I said absently. “Last summer we had this big camping trip – you should totally come if they do it this year – and it came up that Austin had always thought Devyn was cute. Devyn Kennedy, you know him, right?”

“Sure, I know Dev. So how'd you take that? Your boyfriend thinking another guy was cute?”

“I thought he had good taste,” I deadpanned and laughed, and he joined me. “But it just came up from this weird conversation Austin had had with his cousin about who, of his friends, he'd date if he were single kind of thing.”

“Weird topic.”

“Long explanation,” I said with a roll of my eyes. “Anyway, Dev was the one. Turns out Dev had been a little disappointed when I showed up and snagged Austin, as he hadn't even known he was on the market, so to speak. So Griff and I thought it'd be kind of hot to see them kiss – and they did.”

Gray chuckled and shook his head. “And was it hot?”

“Yeah, not bad at all,” I said with a grin. “Then they wanted Griff and me to kiss, but that was pretty fast and then we went our own ways, you know?”

“Sure. Seeing Seth and Logan doesn't get me hot, though. Just seeing Logan does that all by itself,” Gray said with a grin.

“He, um, looks like a healthy boy,” I said with a snicker.

“Very healthy,” Gray confirmed. “He totally doesn't care, either. He'd have no problem stripping in the middle of downtown.” Gray grunted and then said, “I guess if you look like that, why would you, huh?”

“Eh, it's a human body. We all have them. Granted, we might like some more than others, but it's a little subjective.”


“Sounds like you have the same basic thoughts on cheating that I do,” I said. “I draw the line at sex, making out – that sort of thing.”

“Yeah, sort of,” Gray said. “I'm taking a more fatalistic approach.”


He sighed. “Logan is bi. He's smart, good looking and he's got a good heart. He's going to notice other people – and not just guys. Later on he might start to feel like he's missing out, not getting to have his own kids or...any number of things, I guess.” He cleared his throat. “What I'm saying is, even though gay guys in town largely have a great track record of lasting, I'm taking everything day-to-day. I love him, he loves me and I just want to hang onto that.” He held a hand up. “I don't take up all his time, I don't smother him but I do want to be the one he includes on things that are important to him, and he's the one I call for the same things.”

“It almost sounds like you think it's fate you won't last?”

“Let's just say I'm not ignoring the odds,” he said with a sigh. He glanced at me and smiled. “Logan is the whole reason I know I'm gay. I loved him before I really understood what I was feeling. I've always had a draw to him and now that he's mine, I'm holding him gently. I think of him like that old story about sand – I wonder if you know it?” he asked and then continued. “The way I remember it, a person has sand placed in the palm of their hand. If they squeeze the sand, it works its way out between their fingers – the tighter they hold the sand, the more of it slips away. But holding it gently, loosely or even putting it in a pocket so it has its own keep it that much longer.”

I nodded slowly. “That sounds like a really good plan,” I said quietly. “How's it working so far?”

He was looking out on the court at his boyfriend, who was running with the team on a fast break. “Better than I hoped,” he said quietly.

I cleared my throat. “Do you think he does...notice other attractive people?”

“I know he does,” Gray replied and then sighed. “I know he's had a little crush on this girl, Joanne Neecy. I worked it out of him, and he hadn't wanted to say anything.” He swallowed and glanced at me. “It was really hard to hear, but I think he's got to be able to talk to me. To tell me anything. If he does fall in love with someone else, I don't want to be the last to know. It would hurt no matter what, but...I don't know. I just want him to be able to say what he has to say.”

Respect for him blossomed in me. Damn, Gray really has it together. “How does Logan feel?”

“You know what? He said the crush didn't feel as strong once he was able to tell me. Neither of us understand why, but he says it's true.” He cleared his throat. “I know he loves me. I can feel it. He's a master at kissing – it's his favorite form of communication!”

We chuckled together. “Austin is a pretty good kisser, too. I admit, though, I move him from the make out to the bedroom kind of quick. Not that I'm against making out, I'm not,” I said quickly as he raised an eyebrow at me. “But ever since I discovered sex with Austin, I get in the mood for it kind of quickly.”

Gray blushed a bit and looked back out at the court. “I'm always ready when he is. It's funny,” he said and let out a little laugh. “Logan will start a make out and make it last forever – forever in a good way. But he looks to me to start peeling clothes off.” He lifted an eyebrow at me. “I'm always ready to get his clothes off.”

We laughed together and it felt good. I wondered for a flicker of a moment about Logan and I, how we shared being larger than average downstairs, and unthinkingly asked, “Does it matter to you that he's, um, so healthy?”

Gray turned toward me. “Does it matter to me that he's got a big dick? Does it matter to Austin?”

I gaped for a second and then laughed. “I guess it really isn't any secret in the family.” I shook my head. “As far as I can tell, it's only meant something to me because I was afraid I'd hurt him if I topped him.”

“Oh,” Gray said and colored slightly. “I guess that's what I get for being chippy, huh? More information than I planned on.”

“Yep! I don't really care who knows,” I affirmed. “I will say that once I did top him, I liked it. Not as much as bottoming, but I'm good with climbing up top sometimes.”

Gray looked out at to court and fell silent. I started to feel like I'd crossed a line with him. I just assumed everyone was somewhat open about their relationships and what they did – I mean, sex is a more or less logical end result of a romantic relationship. It comes as no surprise to find out a couple is having sex. Or is he nervous because he's not having sex?

“Did I just...make you uncomfortable?” I asked apologetically.

“Um, no. Not really,” he said quietly. “It's just...I'm not sure about taking that step.” He licked his lips. “Logan's not perfect. I think, once, I thought he was. I know he's flawed, now. I can even see my own flaws in a different light because of him. What we do's enough.”

I cleared my throat. “Not trying to be argumentative, and of course it's none of my business, but what do you mean by enough?”

He stayed silent for a moment. The game ended and the players switched teams around a bit, then they were off again. I began to feel restless. The sweat I'd built up running down here had long since dried and I was starting to feel a little sticky. I was readying to stand and excuse myself when he spoke.

“I think it'd hurt too much,” he said softly. Turning his eyes toward me he said, “I'm a little scared to let him do that. Scared to ask him to try. Scared because if I ask to do that to him, shouldn't I be ready for the same? What if it goes bad? Things between us are really good,” he said. “We hang out, we share everything together – sports, music, theater, movies and games. We fit really well together. Don't you think bad sex would threaten that?”

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “No, and I'll tell you why. You care enough not to just try to do something for just yourself and your pleasure. From what you've said, I think Logan would be at least as considerate as you are to him. Besides, maybe that won't be your thing, you know? Not all sex is about that as I'm sure you know.”

He let out a breath. “I want to talk to him about it. I wonder if it'll be too gay for him.”

“Doesn't get much gayer than having a dick in your mouth,” I said with a snicker. He turned to face me.

“Having a dick in your ass is.”

I sobered. “I'm sorry. For what it's worth, I think you should have the conversation.” Figuring he'd ask my experience, I continued, “I was reluctant to top for the reasons you're describing. There are ways to mitigate that, and it worked out for the best in the end. Take your time. What is it in the burg with us gay boys having to worry about these bi boys and their buttholes?” I grumbled. “Me and Austin, Jake with Jon and you with Logan. What if Logan wants to? What if he thinks he'd rather stick with blow jobs for a while? At least you don't have the question hanging in your mind, right? You were the one that wants him to talk to you. Boyfriend, heal thyself!”

He shot me an unsure look and then smiled a bit. “Yeah. I need to talk to him sometime about it. He's going to need a shower now, though, and I want to be ready for what comes after.”

“After?” I asked, but turned as the game was breaking up and Logan was walking toward us, sweaty and his bronzed skin glistening. The clear outline of his manhood swayed slightly in his shorts and I have to say, I think a lot of gay boys would have a sexual awakening seeing him like this.

“It's so damn hot!” Logan exclaimed as he plopped down next to Gray. “Did you see that guy getting all fancy with fade away shots? Thinks he's Jordan or something,” he added, punctuating it with a snort.

“I wasn't paying much attention,” Gray admitted. “I was talking to Derek.”

Logan leaned out to look over at me and smiled. “Hey, Derek. Don't ask me why, but I didn't even see you there.”

“Probably 'cause your cute boyfriend was sitting next to me,” I said and chuckled.

“I do tend to zone in on him, that's true,” Logan admitted. A slight flush filled Gray's cheeks and the corner of his mouth turned up slightly.

“You ready to call it, here?” Gray asked Logan.

“I think so. Your ankle probably could use some ice or something, huh? How's it feel?”

“I only tweaked it a little,” Gray said dismissively. “I was just being cautious. Derek and I were just talking about our old triple-boyfriend setup with Seth.”

“Oh?” Logan asked, quirking his eyebrows up and glancing at me. “What about it?”

“I was talking to someone who had some really strict ideas about cheating, and I was thinking it must have been even harder with more than one person – like what qualifies for cheating, stuff like that.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess that's true,” he said with a bob of his head. “We didn't really have that, or I hadn't thought so until things went sideways.” He looked at me steadily. “Gray couldn't resist me, see, and-” He was cut off as Gray smacked him and Logan laughed.

Gray looked at me. “He walked in with just a towel around his hips. I kissed him and somehow that made him drop his towel.” Gray glanced at Logan who was grinning and then back at me and said dryly, “I ask you – what should I have done? Let him cover up?”

I grinned. “Hell no!”

“Amen,” Gray said and held his hand up, which I promptly slapped in a high-five. Logan burst out laughing at us.

“Seriously,” I said, “Gray says that not having sex unless you guys were all there was like an unspoken rule.”

Logan nodded. “Yeah, kind of. At least, when Seth walked in on us, it sure felt like that was obvious. I guess Seth had felt like Gray and I had something special between us that Seth wasn't a part of, so he was kind of cock-blocking the situation.”

I screwed my face up as I laughed. “Cock blocking your boyfriends. What a weird sentence!”

Gray stood. “I think I'll take a couple Ibuprofen to finish off this ankle and maybe put it up.” Logan stood up beside him and I gained my feet as well.

“Good. I want to get home in time for the game, anyway,” Logan replied. He glanced over at me. “Derek, are you into baseball?”

“I go to watch Nate Kennedy play, sometimes,” I said with a shrug. “I don't know I'd go so far as being a fan.”

“Someone likes the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Gray said with a roll of his eyes. He lurched my way as Logan gave him a little shove.

“We could watch Hamilton again,” Logan said, his tone sly.

“You know what? I liked it more than I thought I would, but no,” Gray said and laughed a little. He turned toward me. “Have plans tonight?”

Thinking of Gray's comment about the shower and after, I started to shake my head. “I'm sure you guys could use some time to chill on your own.”

“Game isn't until seven,” Logan replied. “We'll have some junk food and hang out.”

“Yeah,” Gray said with a nice smile. “It'd be cool if you come hang out with us.”

I studied Gray's face for a minute, looking for a message that he was just being nice but he seemed genuine. “Austin is going to the movies with his Uncle, so sure. I'll go home and get cleaned up, see you around seven?”

“Perfect. Gives me time to get Logan cleaned up,” Gray said with a wicked look.

I jogged home, working my way back into a sweat. I let the conversations from the day swirl down into nothingness as my feet hit the ground. My breathing steadied as my body hit a perfect stride. I passed very few people, not that I was paying a great deal of attention. My mind had gone somewhat blank, but everything came back to me when I passed a middle aged man running the opposite direction. He had a gut, but I certainly didn't begrudge him running without a shirt – the dude was trying to improve himself. No, two things that mattered more kind of stuck with me. One was the unmistakable hunger in his eyes as he totally checked me out. The second thing was the ring on his finger, glinting in the sun.

A smile split my face. It was kind of flattering that he'd eyed me like that. I wasn't interested, not even as a fantasy, but it was pretty cool to see someone so...desirous of me. Who couldn't use the ego boost? I admit the ring intrigued me. Was he married to a man or a woman? Was he bi? Might he go home and tell his wife or husband that he'd seen some young guy out jogging and had to wipe the drool from his chin? I hoped so. I wanted that with Austin; the honesty, the realness of that kind of communication in a relationship.

I showered and headed into the kitchen to see what sort of leftovers were available. As I did my mind wandered from one disconnected thing to another: where Austin would go to school, Philip and his puritan view of the world, Griff and how he'd be off to school, and whether that guy was rubbing one out thinking of me. That brought me up for a second and I started to chuckle. I fantasized about others; it was kind of funny that it had never occurred to me that anyone might be fantasizing about me.

I headed over to Logan's house around six-thirty. I didn't drive, not that it would matter, because I didn't want to spend my money on a car and all that went with it. I saved my money because it had cost me time, bits of my life really, to get it. I didn't want to put it into something that needed repairs, refueling, insurance and fuck-all knows what Lu would make me do to it – I'd probably be repairing transmissions or something if he got his way.

Logan answered the door wearing a tee shirt and black track pants with three stripes running down each side. He must have been wearing something more supportive as his manhood wasn't quite as detailed now.

He escorted me through the house and into a basement room where Gray was curled on a couch in a tee and shorts, feet tucked beneath him.

“Yay! Now we can talk about more interesting stuff when the game gets boring,” he said with a grin.

“Be nice about my Pirates,” Logan growled playfully. I kicked my shoes off and settled into an over-sized chair. Gray teased Logan about his team and Logan would tickle him or lightly wrestle, which seemed to be the goal for Gray. It was kind of cute, but also weird because they were in a relationship and I wasn't – not with them, I mean. The idea turned my thinking back to Logan's bulge and wondering if he'd be any good with it.

The thought passed as the game started and we relaxed with some junk food. The Pirates were playing Atlanta, and the Braves had started a rookie pitcher – and man, it showed. By the third inning you could see the discouragement in the Atlanta dugout as the young pitcher was pulled from the game. They knew this one was over; all that was left were the motions.

Gray muted the TV and glanced at me with a grin. “So! I've been thinking about our conversation and I have to ask why you're so curious about the idea of cheating?”

Logan snaked his fingers into Gray's hair idly as I replied. “Well, I told you I'd been talking to someone with some definite ideas about cheating, right?” I asked. With his nod I continued, “Well, I guess the story is they were out somewhere and the ex checked out some guy. This person I was talking to decided that was cheating and broke it off.”

Logan had turned partway through the story and his jaw dropped. “Jeez! Seriously?”

“By that logic, I would have had to dump you over Joanne,” Gray said with a snicker.

“That's not fair,” Logan whined. “You never mention anyone you think is cute.”

“I do,” Gray demurred. “I tell you that you're sexy all the time.”

Logan rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Not what I meant, and you know it.” He paused and then grinned. “You thought your cousin's boyfriend was cute.”

“Declan? Sure, he's cute,” Gray agreed. “But I'm not interested in him more than that. Besides, I think it's a little rude to just go 'he's cute and he's cute and check out his ass' and stuff like that.”

“But we were both checking out Logan this afternoon,” I said in a questioning tone, just to mess with him.

“That's different,” Gray protested as Logan laughed and questioned my statement. Gray pushed Logan and said, “I can talk about and mentally feel up my boyfriend anytime I want.”

“True,” I said in agreement. “I sure do that with Austin.”

“I don't worry about Gray cheating,” Logan said firmly, pulling Gray back against him. “I didn't even care when he said Declan was cute. I mean, he was right I guess – he had a nice personality, decent looking but you could clearly see something extra between him and Corby. Corby was really cool, as a matter of fact.”

Gray looked at me. “He likes Corby because they're both bi. They bonded,” he said dryly. Logan squeezed him once as a consequence.

“That's kind of interesting,” I said, tilting my head. “I've read a few articles where researchers found the number of people identifying as bi has been steadily going up, especially among younger people.” I pursed my lips briefly. “I don't think it's that more people are sliding around on the Kinsey scale than in the past. I think it's just easier to express it, now.”

“I guess,” Logan replied with a shrug. “I went through a little crap, but it wasn't because of my sexuality. It was because my friends thought I was cheating on my 'girlfriend' at the time, and Seth.”

“I was the 'other man,' ” Gray said with a snicker.

“Oh?” I asked with curiosity.

“We were both seeing girls, but it was more of a convenience thing than a romantic thing,” Logan explained. “The girls were into each other and Seth and I were doing them a solid by being beards for them – we just didn't realize it was covering us, too.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“So my friends thought I was cheating on the girl by being with Seth, and then that I was double cheating or something by being with Gray – they didn't realize that Gray, Seth and I were all together at that point. We kind of leave the girls out of things because they are still keeping a lid on stuff. Family thing.”

“Oh, right,” I said with a nod. I had, truthfully, tried to think if I'd known a time when Logan or Seth had been dating a girl, but I'm not sure I knew them well enough to know – and let's face it, who has time to keep track of who is dating who outside of your own circle?

Logan glanced around the room and said, “We had a little showdown right here, actually. The guys from my basketball team were all kinds of getting things wrong.”

“You know what, though? In the end they got everything right,” Gray said and looked at me. “They completely didn't care who any of us were interested in, just that no one was getting cheated on or hurt – even something unusual like the three of us dating.”

“I don't think I could do that,” I said thoughtfully. “I like to look, fantasize maybe, but I draw the line there. Besides, I'm not sure I could feel the same way I do about Austin for someone else.”

“That would be tough,” Logan said with a nod. “If it makes any difference, I didn't feel the same way toward both Seth and Gray. I loved them both, but they're different people. The way I felt was the same, but different if that makes any sense.”

“Oh? How about you, Gray?” I asked, curious.

“I think...Logan and Seth brought different things to my relationship with them. So, yeah, I get loving each, but not quite the same way. I mean, I felt romantically toward both, but I think my motivations were different.” He glanced at Logan and then back to me. “I'd liked Logan for a long, long time before Seth came along and I know I wondered if it was wrong of me to get involved in a situation where I had those longstanding feelings for one of them.”

“He just wanted my body,” Logan said dryly and Gray stabbed an elbow back into Logan. Logan responded by laughing and pulling Gray tightly against him.

“So you think your cousin's boyfriend is cute, huh?”

“He is!” Gray said with a grin. “Kind of in an innocent way, though. Like Griff or Devyn.”

Thinking of how much those two got up to, I snorted with laughter. “What about your cousin? Is he cute?”

“Yeah, he's nice looking,” Gray said and turned toward Logan. “What would you say?”

“They were cool. I wasn't attracted to either of them,” Logan replied. “I liked Corby a lot, though.”

“Yeah, the bi connection, right?” I asked.

“Laugh if you like,” Logan said, “but there are some people that just insist I'm gay because of who I'm dating now. It bothered me a lot for a while because they can't just keep that kind of crap to themselves, you know? It's always got to be something they say in a crowded hallway just to troll up shit.”

I nodded. “True. Now that you mention it, the bi boys in this town have had quite the struggle.”

“Who else do you know of?” Logan asked, curiosity plain.

“Well, Nate Kennedy for one,” I said.

“I heard,” Gray said. “He seems like a nice guy.”

“Nate's sweet,” I confirmed. “Then there's Sean Kelly; he's dating Asher.” I rolled my eyes and said, “There's Jon Ellesier. He's dating Jake Thayer, and I don't know if Jon ever reconciled his sexuality to his satisfaction. Jake's a fucking saint with that one, I tell you.”

“I like Nate,” Logan said. “I played rec league baseball with him. I wish I'd have known he was bi before. Talking to people who are like you kind of helps to feel more normal, you know?”

“Normal is overrated,” I said. “I do know what you mean, though. The family gives you a sense of belonging.”


“Nate's cute, but you belong to me,” Gray growled at Logan, who raised an eyebrow at his boyfriend. Gray gave him a sour look and turned back toward me.

“So I think we all know we're talking about Philip, right?” Gray said, leaning back onto Logan. “I mean, everyone knows how they broke up.”

“I didn't,” Logan said.

“Yeah,” I said with a sigh. “Someone is concerned about how Philip is handling his love life. I'm thinking he's got to figure it out on his own. Like, finding someone who never notices that anyone else in the world is attractive because they're dating you is ultra rare.”

“So how is he handling it?” Logan asked.

“Well, my friend thinks that Philip is sneaking over to hook up with his ex. I'm not sure if he is, or what the end game would be of that sort of thing. I don't know if he's trying to get him back with sex or hooking up out of boredom but wanting someone familiar or some other fucked up thing.”

“Weird,” Gray said.

“So,” Logan said, stretching the word out while moving his lips close to Gray's ear. “You were checking me out on the court today, huh?”

Gray smiled and his eyes sparkled as he looked at me. “Yeah. Derek was pointing out how much of a healthy boy you are.”

I chuckled a little self-consciously and Logan glanced at me with wide eyes and laughed. Gray looked kind of smug, but he was laughing and turning to look at Logan.

“You needed to do laundry, didn't you?” Gray asked his boyfriend.

“Yeah,” Logan replied with a smile, yet a bit sheepishly. He looked at me and explained, “My mom bought a pack of boxers for me by mistake. I hate them and they are the last thing I'll wear. I had to do laundry, and they were all I had.”

“Oh,” I said speculatively. “I thought it might have been a plan to distract any gay basketball players.” I paused and snickered.

“It was,” Logan said. “Why do you think Gray was on my team? He'd be a mess if he was guarding me!”

“Oh, screw that!” Gray said with a laugh. “I think I can control myself!”

“I don't know,” Logan teased. It was kind of fun, watching them flirt as if I weren't there. It wasn't for show, they were just really relaxed with each other.

“So Logan,” I said, suddenly feeling bold and more comfortable with them than I ever had. “When did you realize you were a bit bigger than the other boys?”

He rested his head on Gray's shoulder and considered for a moment. “I think it was the summer I was twelve or thirteen,” he said, considering. “I was down at the town pool with the guys and I had my old swimsuit from the year before. It felt a little tight when I pulled it on, but I wanted to swim and I didn't really think about it that much. I hopped out and got in the pool, played a while, and when I climbed out at one point – you know how the suit can ride up your legs a bit?”

I nodded.

“Well, mine did. Everything had slipped past that little piece of netting in the suit and I was kind of on display for a second,” he said, his cheeks coloring as he chuckled. “Then some guy accused me of trying to get attention and weird stuff.”

“No one tried to land you just because of that?” I asked.

“Not that I know of.” He turned his gaze toward Gray. “Were you only after me for the size of my johnson?”

Gray snorted.

Logan giggled and looked back to me. “What about you?” I raised an eyebrow and Logan laughed. “Please, like nobody notices you.”

I pushed my lips off to one side in amusement before actually smiling. “I told Gray earlier a coach had made some offhand comment when I was in middle school, but it didn't mean a lot to me right then. It wasn't until I full-on started noticing other guys that I'd intentionally go commando to try and get their attention.”

“How'd that work out?”

“Flashing my wares in front of straight guys? About as well as you'd think,” I said wryly.

“Austin didn't notice?”

I tilted my head. “I took a different tack with Austin. I'd just moved here, I wasn't sure what my reception might be in a new town, et cetera. I was just playing things cool and got to know him slowly, which turns out was for the best.”

“I can't imagine going commando to get attention,” Logan said. “I don't have a problem with skin or anything, but it'd be weird to be trying to get people to look at my crotch.”

“People are looking, trust me,” Gray said and then laughed.

“You never used your size to your advantage?” I asked.

Logan blushed. “Well, once. Or I tried, sort of.”

“Oh?” Gray asked, turning his head.

Logan rolled his eyes. “When Seth and I were just starting to talk, I thought he was gay. I wanted a friend and I thought one of the things I could do was show him I wasn't concerned with him being gay. So we had gym together and I kind of gave him a pretty good look on the way to the showers.”

“You didn't do that for me,” Gray grumbled good naturedly.

“Me either!” I said brightly and laughed with them.

“Anyway,” Logan said with another roll of his eyes. “Why is your friend so concerned with Philip? Didn't he and his ex break up months ago?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “I guess Phil just hasn't gotten over it, or my friend thinks he hasn't. I told him I think he's got to let Phil figure this out, especially if he won't listen.”

“True,” Gray agreed.

Feeling a little devil on my shoulder I said, “I guess Logan must have been at the end of his laundry cycle. How does it feel to know you broke a couple up, Logan?”

Logan bubbled with laughter. “What, now?”

I grinned. “I guess Boomer was checking out you, Trace and Jake at Perks – that's what caused the breakup.”

Logan's jaw dropped. “You know, I think I remember that, now, only because Jake was there.” He glanced at Gray. “You remember Jake and Trace were a thing for about a half an hour? We'd gone out to Perks for some iced coffees and I remember Philip kind of storming out of there, but I never put it together.” He frowned and looked at me. “Are you serious about me actually having something to do with that?”

“No,” I said with a laugh. “But in all seriousness, even if all three of you were naked, Phil still needs to realize he and whoever he dates aren't the only people in the world.”

“I notice you call him Phil and Philip. Doesn't he go by Philip?” Gray asked.

“Yeah, but it was to separate himself from the 'Little Phil' persona. Besides, I'm lazy – so I shorten it to Phil.” I narrowed my eyes playfully. “We could call you Log. Truth in advertising.”

“What would we call you, then?” Gray countered.

“Hell if I know,” I said with a snort and we laughed.

I ended up walking home around ten. I had really enjoyed hanging out with them. I felt a little kinship with Logan and our shared...condition. I liked that he wasn't body conscious and I felt like it was something I should work toward. I don't think I'm overly paranoid or anything, but I can be kind of modest about my body. I think it's admirable when people have the attitude that we all have bodies in all sorts of configurations, and hiding them for the sake of embarrassment or what have you is pretty silly. Still, I guess Gray had a point – if you look like Logan, you have less reason to hide. Hell, if you look like Austin does, you should strut your buff self all the way down Main Street!


Our footsteps echoed off the hardwood floors. The paint had discolored on the walls; it was lighter where paintings or pictures had hung. Some of the windows had decorative stained glass accents, and some of the upstairs rooms had stained glass transoms over the doors. The windows had no curtains and the rooms were flooded with natural light. I had a notebook with me and I was making a list of things that needed addressing – not updating, no damn way. The kitchen was full of solid wood cabinetry, for example. I wasn't going to replace that with modern, fiberboard crap from a box store. The fixtures and door handles were mostly intact. I was in love with the place already.

“So?” Austin asked.

I glanced at him and grinned. “I want to live here so badly I can taste it!”

He chuckled and let out a sigh as he glanced around us. “It would be a lot of work. Every room needs paint. The chimney looked like it had some bricks missing and didn't the guy say the furnace wasn't that new?”

“Yep,” I said, referring to my list. “We'd also have to put thermal drapes over each window in the winter. If we upgrade the furnace, it makes sense to try to get central air to go with it. The last thing we want is window air units hanging out of those gorgeous stained glass windows!”

“The kitchen counters...they've seen better days.”

“Yeah,” I said dejectedly. “That would be the biggest thing, besides the furnace, that would have to be changed. Someone tiled over the original at some point, but it's ruined. The cabinets, though, those are staying. We'll need to strip them back down to the bare wood to restore them.”

“Easy, Bob Vila,” he said with a snort.

I smiled at him and headed toward the staircase, another treasure that would have to be unearthed. Someone had painted it, and not that well. I was sure, based on the missing flecks and gouges that there was some fantastic wood underneath that would turn the staircase into a showpiece. I headed up the stairs and I could hear Austin trailing behind me. Chloe stood in the doorway of a room at the end of the hall, arms crossed. She glanced back at me and smiled.

“This one is mine, Der. You'll have to help me fix it up, though.” I joined her and we three stepped into the room. This room had a curved corner wall to match the circular, tower like feature on the outside of the house. A built-in bench lined the curve of the wall, a perfect sitting area. The walls were not marred by a door to a closet. None of the bedrooms had closets.

“We'll have to figure out what color you want for the wall,” I said to her quietly, taking in the room. “I think we should strip all the wood floors and buff them out, too.”

“Sounds expensive,” she said.

“I've been watching a lot of You Tube this week,” I said with a snicker. “I plan on a lot of tool rentals and help from friends.”

“Have you picked out a room?” she asked.

“Yeah. Want to see?”

She was quiet for a moment and then walked slowly to the window and sat down on the bench. “In a minute, maybe. I kind of want to...feel this space.”

“Okay,” I said with a smile and headed back into the hallway with Austin behind me.

“You didn't tell me which room you wanted,” he said. I smiled at him and headed down the hall, turning to a room that faced the back of the house. The windows were large and showed a tangle of small trees and assorted bramble behind the house. The room itself was smaller than the one Chloe had fallen in love with, but by and large the bedrooms were on the small side. Although I liked the idea of a king sized bed to roll around on, in all likelihood a full would be the limit. Austin walked past me to the windows and looked out.

“Looks like the backyard needs some taming,” he mused.

I smiled, looking at his form as the light washed all around him. “The windows face west in this room. I'll bet we could get some great sunsets,” I told him.

He glanced a bit from side to side. “I think you're right. I'll bet a nice chair right here would give me lots of natural light to read by.”

“There's a parlor downstairs for that,” I told him, amusement lacing my voice. “You can fill the shelves with books.”

He turned and smiled at me. “Almost seems a shame to make it a B&B. Inviting strangers to stay in your home?”

I glanced at the faded, dirty white walls – again, brighter where picture frames had hung – and considered his words.

“On the one hand I like the idea,” I told him. “I can work from home. I've always wanted to live in one of the gorgeous old homes, and I'll get to have it set up the way I'd like.” I paused and walked over to look out into the backyard. “On the other hand, what would I do with all this space for just us?”

His arms wrapped around me from behind and I leaned back, tilting my cheek to meet his.

“I have a plan,” he said quietly.

“Oh? Is it a secret?” I asked playfully.

“Not so much, no,” he said, turning his face into mine just a tad. “I'm planning on going to dental school.”

“Not much of a secret,” I teased, yet feeling my heart seize a bit as he mentioned the future. The future was fraught with uncertainties about where we'd go and how we'd end up.

“Well, Binghamton University has a dental program.” He paused, letting his breath flow past my ear. “Uncle George knows someone there. I'll have a place in their freshman class, as long as I maintain my grades.”

I turned to face him, hope blooming in my chest. “You'll be local for school? You're not going to Cornell or something else far away?”

He squinted his eyes slightly and brushed his fingertips past my cheek. “And run away from my future? My life? I don't think so,” he said and chuckled. “I don't think I'd ever consider anything so stupid.”

I hugged him, holding him tighter than I ever had. Clinging. Waves of worry were coming off me, being shed like a snake does its skin. “Thank you. Thank fucking goodness.”

He chuckled and spoke into my ear, “You didn't actually think I'd go somewhere without you, did you?”

I leaned back a bit, studying his face. He was amused, I guess. “I knew you'd need to follow your dream. I wasn't sure where that would take you.”

“I think it takes me here,” he said quietly. “I think this room is perfect for us. Maybe this house, even. Maybe, after I graduate and go to work at my Uncle's office – did I tell you he said he'd take me on?”

“No, you didn't,” I said, shaking my head.

“Well, he is,” he said. “After I've been there for a few years, he's thinking of retiring and leaving me the business.”

“Really?” I asked, astonished. “He'd do that for you?”

He squinted his eyes again. “Uncle George isn't such a bad sort. Even my Aunt has come around.”

“How could they not?” I asked and laughed. “I can't believe they ever weren't thrilled to have you.”

“Eh, eating all their food, corrupting their kid – not stuff anyone looks forward to.” He pulled me close suddenly. “But maybe this will be our room. Where we make love. Where we wake up to each other each day. Where we fall asleep in each other's arms. Maybe the other rooms in this house will be for the kids we'll have.” He nuzzled his nose against mine. “Maybe kids like me, who had a hard time fitting in other places.”

I let out a sigh of contentment. “That's sounds fantastic,” I told him sincerely. “I'll have to get a four post bed so we can try out new and interesting sex positions in here.”

“Might damage the ceiling if you put in a sex swing,” Chloe said from the open doorway. She made me blush a little, but I'd meant it. I had fantasies about a poster bed and my boyfriend.

“We'll need to invest in a good door lock too,” Austin stage whispered.

Chloe snickered as she walked to the back window and looked out into the wild yard. “That's a big old mess.” She turned toward us slightly. “Our part of this house is going to come mostly from sweat, you know. How many of your cute friends will show up to paint this place, huh?”

“Depends,” Austin said.

“On?” she asked.

“Will you be ogling them or not?”

“I only ogle you, sweet cheeks,” she said and giggled at him.

“Pretty sure they'll come to help, then,” Austin told her with a roll of his eyes. “Can't you do anything about her?”

Chloe and I laughed, but then she departed. I nibbled his ear and said, “She's just jealous you're all mine.”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “I think that's backward. You're all mine.”

“I can live with that,” I told him.

“The two of you, all you do is think of sex. Don't you?” he teased.

“Sort of,” I conceded. “I mean, even right now my head is filled with how to paint this place, sanding the floors, replacing the countertops and wondering how much tile I'll have to use in the bathrooms – and yet, I can see that four poster bed in here with us in great new positions.” I paused and gave him a sly look. “Call it multi-tasking.”

We had a moment, one balanced on a a sharp edge where I wondered if we were about to try and christen this room while the realtor was still in the house. It passed, though, as we heard my father's voice as he spoke to the realtor downstairs somewhere.

“So, you said there was a place to put my books?” Austin asked, breaking the sexual tension – or knocking it back a notch or two, at any rate.

“I did,” I told him with a smile. “Anyplace I plan to live with you has to have a place for books.”

“I knew it,” he said slyly. “You're thinking since your name will be on the deed, this will be our home.”

I turned toward him and demurely said, “Of course I did. Just like you going to school keeps us close together. You're just lucky I can't get pregnant or I'd drop a baby on you to keep us together.”

He paused. “Okay, that's kind of creepy.”

I wrinkled my nose. “Agreed. It sounded better in my head,” I told him and laughed. We headed back downstairs and I showed him to what would have been the rear parlor. Victorian homes often had a front parlor that was all for show, and a rear parlor where they'd actually hang out together. This room was just as in need of paint removal from wooden shelving as the rest of the house, but I could see Austin picturing all his books on the shelves.

He turned toward me and smiled. “You could have just sent me a picture of these shelves and I'd have agreed to move in with you,” he said with a grin.

“Noted,” I said wryly. I was mollified when he picked me up, spun me in a tight circle while grinning at me before setting me down and placing his forehead against mine.

“I'm going to live with the man I love,” he said softly. “It's been a good day.”


The house was closed on quickly. I don't know all the details, I just know everyone from the bank, to the realtor to my friend's parents commented that the whole thing was lightning quick. In the meantime I was spending a lot of time looking at paint samples and trying to figure out how to bring this old house to life from the inside out.

“You do realize,” my dad said the following week, “that we're moving in with the stuff we have, right? You don't need to start matching everything already.”

“Yes and no,” I told him with a grin. “The walls are important. They have to be a neutral color. I've read about people who paint one wall in a room a different, bold color. I don't care for the look, and I think I'm leaning toward more traditional schemes – and so, neutral wall colors. The problem is, I need to start stripping the paint from some of those wooden features to find out what we have there. They may need to be sealed, or maybe just have oil rubbed in to bring back some of their beauty.” I paused and said, “I really hope it's not monkey wood under there.”

My dad smiled and shook his head. “I remember when your grandfather used to say that. I'd ask him what kind of wood was used for something and he'd just call it monkey wood.”

“I think it means ugly or common stuff. I'm hoping there is some nice oak under there. Something with character,” I told him.

“Think you can get your friends to help us move in?” he asked.

“Already covered,” I told him with a little smugness and a healthy dollop of pride. “They volunteered.”

“Good kids. I guess moving to this town ended up being a good thing, huh?”

I nodded. “I'm not thanking Mom, though,” I told him.

Austin picked me up later in the day and we went over to the local big box store to look at paint again. We wandered through the store, checking out the cans of 'oops' paint that they had on sale – stuff someone ordered but deemed not quite what they'd wanted. They had some smaller samples too, but the only thing I actually bought was some paint stripper. He helped me pick out six or seven paint samples so I could put some of it on a wall and let it dry to get a real feel for what it looked like.

Even though we closed on the house, we didn't move in right away. I almost wanted to throw down a mattress on the floor and sleep there anyway, but we were finding that some of the plumbing wasn't working and with the furnace needing attention, there would be no hot water. Apparently the furnace heated a boiler of some kind, so we had to look at overhauling the whole setup.

“How did your dad afford this place on a store manager's salary?” Griff asked me one afternoon as I gave him a tour.

“He's been saving since we came to town. Renting an apartment had some advantages. He also didn't have to worry about me wanting a car or needing insurance. I mean, logically he could have just told me to save for it myself if I wanted one, but I have no interest.”

“Amazing. Did he get a deal on this place?”

“Did he ever,” I said with a grin. “I guess the owner passed away over ten years ago and the people that inherited it never lived here. Taxes had built up, and they hadn't been able to sell it when it was in better condition. They decided getting a little cash out of it rather than losing it all to tax seizure was the best way to go. Dad was able to take out enough to work some major repairs and upgrades, which we'll need.”

A knock came from the front door and I walked past the wooden inner door that stood open and to the heavy wooden outer doors with heavy glass, beveled at the edges, set in the frame. Through them I could see a middle aged guy with a blue uniform top and a patch over his heart with a name spelled out – 'Howard'. I opened the door.

“Hey there,” he said with a quick smile. “I'm from Ellsworth Heating and Cooling. I'm supposed to check out the furnace setup you have.”

“Oh, great! Come on in, I'll call my dad and let him know you're here – but you can get started,” I said with a grin. He nodded and entered the home and I took him over to the thin wooden door that let down into the basement. I hit the switch – push buttons rather than flip type switches – and naked bulbs illuminated the coarse space.

I retreated from the doorway and texted my dad to let him know the guy was there, and headed back to the staircase where I'd left Griff. He was looking at the painted handrail and frowning.

“Can you believe someone painted that?” I asked, tsking to myself.

“Sheer stupidity,” he said, letting his eyes run the length of the banister.

“I'm going to strip a bit of it off, see what's there. Interested?”

“Yeah,” he said with a little smile, but looking a little distracted. I grabbed the paint stripper from the hallway and one of the cheap brushes I'd bought for the purpose. I had to make a second trip for a plastic scraper and some paper I'd gotten just to wipe the old paint onto. I applied a thick layer of stripper to the top of the newel post and then waited for it to do its chemical work.

“I was talking to Philip this morning,” Griff said suddenly. Probably the reason he looked distracted.

“Oh?” I wasn't sure I wanted to head down this road again – check that, I knew I didn't, but I would for Griff.

“Yeah. He mentioned running into you the other day. I guess you hit a nerve,” he said quietly. “Got through to him in a way I couldn't. I appreciate you took the time.”

I glanced at Griff to see if he was teasing me, but he looked serious. I sighed and said, “Sure. I didn't really, you know, mean to. He just asked things and I answered.”

“Well, you might be glad you stopped asking. I kept asking, and I got a real whopper of a story out of him,” Griff said and sighed. I used the plastic scraper to test the paint, but it wasn't very soft yet. I glanced at Griff and raised an eyebrow, waiting for him to tell me – or not.

“He told me he sneaked out to meet Sterling a few times,” he said slowly.

“I like the name Boomer better,” I interjected. “Far more sexy. Anyway, go on.” I smiled at him, trying to ease the tension he seemed to be feeling.

Griff gave me a wan smile. “I guess they did some messing around, but it wasn't having the effect Philip expected, which was that Sterling would see what he was missing out on and apologize. I guess they did talk a little,” Griff said while running a hand through his hair and letting out a deep breath. “But Sterling didn't see things Philip's way. I guess Philip felt like he couldn't back down, even if he wanted to.”

I nodded slowly and poked at the soft paint again. “Yeah, I know how that works. You back yourself into a corner and think you'll feel too stupid if you change your stance. Hey, paint is coming up – and look! There's more paint underneath! Yay!” I said sarcastically.

“Yeah. Pride can be a real bitch,” Griff agreed. I applied a second coat of stripper while Griff continued. “Thing is, Philip got it in his head that he wanted to avoid relationships or something and he swung back a bit toward his Little Phil ways.”

“Really?” I said with a groan. “Was he harassing someone?”

“No. It's a little more complex than I made it sound.” He paused and I turned to look at him. He looked back for a moment and then said, “His mom got laid off. His dad isn't contributing. Things got tight around the house and he started to look for ways to bring in some bucks.” Griff snorted. “Not to help around the house, though. This was for him, saving for something, he said. Anyway, he got his brother to set up a bank account for him since you have to be eighteen, right? He told Gavin he was going to need the account for direct deposit for any job he applied for.”

I tilted my head from side to side. “My dad says companies used to hand out physical checks. Now it's all electronic, even the little places.”

“Right,” Griff agreed. “What Philip wanted the account for, though, was to open a webcam account.”

I whipped my head around so fast my neck cracked. “Webcam? Like getting naked for tips webcam?”

Griff grimaced. “Yeah. He started talking about how these guys would talk to him and how it made him feel hot and all that. But he started getting a few weirdos, too.”

“He's underage,” I stated flatly. “Didn't he have any idea how much trouble he could get into?”

Griff shrugged. “I don't think he was doing a whole lot of thinking.” He paused and took on a thoughtful expression. “I think he felt validated. Like the comments made him feel worth something at a time when he was vulnerable and feeling down.”

I smiled slyly at Griff. “Any chance you and Dev...?”

“What? No!” Griff looked shocked and then started to laugh, which was a damn sight better than the depressed look he was getting talking about Phil. Philip. Whatever. “I don't think I could do anything for, um, the public.”

“Private shows, I hear they are a thing,” I said with a grin.

He shook his head. “I know you wouldn't watch, even if I did that. So that means you're trying to cheer me up or distract me – but I'm not depressed about this, exactly.” He hesitated, maybe choosing his words carefully. “I worry about Philip because he got to see he was wrong about how to treat people and he made progress. Now he's regressing because he was wrong and couldn't admit it – or wrong to a degree.”

“What do you mean 'to a degree'?” I asked and scraped the old, now-wrinkled paint. It smeared and I saw a hint of the wood underneath this vile, ill-advised coating.

“Everyone has the right to ask for the things they want or need in a relationship. That doesn't necessarily mean they leave the relationship if they don't get their way. In this case I think he'd have been better off talking to Sterling about how looking at other guys while he was right there made him feel less valuable; that it hurt.” Griff sighed and raised his eyebrows. “Instead he confronted Sterling, they fought and there you go.”

“Okay, but how long has Boomer been looking at other guys?” I asked, just to play devil's advocate. “Like if it bothered Phil – Philip – maybe this had been building and he didn't know how to handle it? Or maybe he'd expressed this...displeasure before and it hadn't affected things?”

I applied more stripper while Griff let out a long sigh. “Yeah, there are parts to this that we'll never know. What concerns me is that Philip tried, was successful, then failed and he seems to think that defines him. I just don't understand how he ended up going from one thing to...whoring himself on cam.”

I pursed my lips for a moment. “You know, that's sort of prudish.”

Griff frowned. “How's that?”

“We're always encouraged to 'cover up' and told we have 'privates' and stuff like that.” I glanced at him and said, “Have you seen the articles about schools sending girls home to change because wearing a tank top is too much for boys to deal with?” I snorted. “I think it tempts too many old men in the school system, personally. My point is we all have bodies. For some people modesty comes naturally, for others it's forced on them. Personally, I don't have a problem with someone doing porn or camming, like Philip is.”

Griff's face registered shock. “But...I can see it for your partner, but for the world?”

I arched an eyebrow. “You can decide who it's for – that's my point. This is also an 'all things being equal' conversation – like I'm not condoning people being forced into that sort of thing.”

“Okay, but,” he said and held a finger up. “It was flimsy, but for the sake of conversation Philip did say he was doing it for the money because things were getting tight at home.”

“Okay, so I think you can look at it more than one way, but for me? If the choice was lose my house or starve versus jerking off on camera? No contest, I'm getting naked.”

Griff frowned and looked away. “That...doesn't sit well with me.”

Softly I said, “It doesn't have to. I just think you can't judge him for that. We could argue about the merits of him feeling good about himself because people are admiring his body, but he's not getting hurt. No one is.”

Griff shook his head slowly. “His body is just the surface. No one is appreciating his mind, his heart – just his hard on. How is that a good thing?”

I placed a hand on his shoulder. “It wouldn't be for you. You'd be out of control with random strangers saying things, telling you to do this or that. It's not you. Your experiences make it more not you.” I squeezed gently and said, “He's different. In this country if someone finds out, he might face some disdain or questions about his judgment, but it's the same thing as people who do porn for college money. Some people will look down on them, but you know what? They finished school, aren't drowning in student loan debt and if they are okay with having had sex on camera, who are we to judge them?”

Griff crossed his arms. “Okay, maybe in an all things being equal kind of argument. Philip has a history, though. His father withheld affection and Philip learned to emulate boorish, stalker-like behavior. I think he was on the road to ignoring or misinterpreting men's emotions and he could have ended up as a rapist or like Roy...Royce. I think this is really bad for him.”

I nodded in sympathy. “Did you say that to him?”

Griff looked away. “No. I was pretty upset and I missed a lot of what he said. Something like this might boost his ego short term, but it teaches him all the wrong things. Maybe even reinforces things his father did.”

I wasn't sure what to say to that. He had a point, and my point of view was a little naive. If I were to make the choice to cam or run off and do porn, I think I'd be okay with it. Maybe. Who knows?


I paused for a second, wondering who was in the house and then remembered the fellow from the heating company. Sure enough, Howard entered the room slowly and smiled as he saw us.

“Hi there. You have quite the setup in the basement, there,” he said, jerking his thumb behind him in the general direction of the basement door.

“My dad is on the way, but what do you think? How good or bad is it?” I asked.

He frowned lightly and rubbed the side of his face. “Well, the system downstairs is very, very old. Parts would be a problem if you wanted to try and restore it. I don't know what your plans are for the basement, but even removing that stuff would be a hell of a job.” He glanced at Griff and then back to me. “You'd have to go down there with sledgehammers or something and break it up; take the thing out in pieces. It's pretty damn heavy and big – I almost think it was installed before they put the floors or frame into this place!” He chuckled and I smiled uncertainly.

“So you're saying we should replace the whole thing?” I was wondering about the cost and this fellow's honesty, but the conversation was interrupted with the arrival of my father.

My dad greeted us and Howard introduced himself. Howard picked up the conversation with my dad, but kept glancing at us as he spoke as if he were keeping us in the conversation.

“I was just saying, there are some issues with the system you have in place. If you decide to try and keep or restore what you have, we'd be in for a tough time finding parts – or possibly having to modify it a great deal and that can get really expensive, because the labor time goes up doing restoration or modification type of work,” Howard explained. He glanced at me and said, “What I was about to say before your dad got here is that a system like the one you have wasn't very efficient, but if you were trying to restore the house to its roots, so to speak, that restoring something like that would be very, very expensive.”

“So you're saying the best option is to replace it?” my father asked.

“It is,” Howard confirmed. “But even then you have some options. I was just saying,” he said, nodding toward me again, “I'm not sure what plans you have for the basement, but you could regain a lot of it by removing what's down there. You'd have to do it by busting it up – not something you want to pay someone like me for. You pay me for knowledge of repair and installing, or even replacing more modern units. Removing something like this – once it's been unhooked from the ducting – isn't a good use of your money.”

“Hmm. Okay, what do you suggest?” my father asked.

“Honestly? If it were me, I'd rent a dumpster, get a bunch of folks together with sledgehammers and haul it up through the Bilco door. Maybe use a wheelbarrow once you're out of the basement.” He smiled. “If you toss in beer and pizza, you should get a good turnout.”

“What's a Bilco door?” Griff asked.

“If you walk around the the backside of the house,” Howard said. “You'll find this angled set of double doors.” He demonstrated by holding his hands together, his fingertips together to form a wedge. “They usually cover a set of steps that lead into basements and the like.”

“Is removing the old setup necessary?” my dad asked.

“Not strictly speaking, no,” Howard said. “Only if you want to regain the space. Otherwise, we'd set up a new furnace, run the duct work over to it – we'll like as not need to inspect that ducting to make sure everything goes where you want it to. On top of that, if you want the A/C unit, we'd have to set up a concrete pad for it to sit on and run power and ducting to it as well. I didn't go too far down the planning path since I wasn't sure if you were aiming for restoration or if you wanted to price a replacement.”

My dad pursed his lips and glanced at me. “What do you think, Derek?”

“I think we should tear out the old unit,” I told him, having decided during the conversation. “I'm not sure if you noticed, but these houses didn't really have much in the way of closets. There isn't any point in leaving that monstrosity in the basement where it just takes up space – space we could use for something else.”

He nodded slowly and said, “Yeah, I think I agree with you. Howard, what do you think this will run me?”

“Rough estimate? Don't hold me to it, it could go up or down depending on the ducts, how your power setup is and whatnot – but probably between ten and twelve thousand.”

I let out a low whistle. Howard turned and smiled lightly. “If the house hadn't been designed with ducts already, it would have been a lot worse. Some houses weren't designed with them, so you have to run all that tin all over the house. It's time consuming, which makes it more expensive.”

“What about hot water? There was a boiler down there, right?” I asked.

“Right,” Howard said. “Looks like they used the furnace to heat the water. If I were you, I'd put in a good water heater. I've had some good luck with the tankless ones where the customer wants to save space, but you can just as easily go with a traditional water heater.”

I glanced at Griff. “Want to bust up a boiler this weekend?” I asked, grinning.

“You'll want me to unhook a few things before you do.” Howard pulled out his phone and flipped through a few screens. “I could stop by Saturday morning and cap off a few things, unhook the ducting just so we don't add to the cost of anything needing to be replaced.” He grinned. “No need to destroy anything that doesn't need destroying.”

We spent a little more time with Howard, looking at the options for heating and cooling a big house like this and as he spoke, I grew to trust him a bit more. He had answers for our questions, and he was able to explain them so we understood what he said. He gave us options and lined up the pros and cons of each.


Saturday found me up at the crack of dawn, but I was excited to get started. I'd done small things with the house, but today really felt like it was real – today we would make our first major change to the house. The dumpster had been delivered Thursday and we'd hauled a few pieces of junk from the basement out. Getting those Bilco doors to open had been the first adventure, but after that it had gone all right.

My dad had bought three sledgehammers and a new wheelbarrow so we could get the chunks of the old, cast iron unit from the basement. I had managed to get a few friends to come over to help, not that I'd had any real doubt some of them would. Robin and Lu were picking up coffee and donuts for everyone, while Griff and Dev would likely be a little late because Griff just isn't a morning person. Grayson had offered to help at a later date because Logan had tickets to see a revival of 'Cabaret', and they'd be gone all weekend. Must be nice to make a theater trip to New York City – something for my bucket list, I guess.

I'd mentioned the project to Jake in passing, and he'd offered to come help, too. I wasn't as sure about that as he seemed to be. I liked Jake, but out of all the guys in the family his boyfriend was probably the most frustrating one. One might think that Philip would fill that role for me, but one would be wrong. Philip had made progress as a person, I just was over the relationship difficulties he had. Not only that, it wasn't my relationship. He was free to do as he chose and expect what he wanted from relationships, regardless of whether they were realistic – in my opinion. Jon was another can of worms entirely.

He's a nice enough looking guy in a general sense. His personality, though, is harder to deal with. He can be arrogant, a bit cold and somewhat rude. He's also intelligent, and some of the things Jake has said make me think the guy knows romance pretty well. I've never been able to see the better sides of him that Jake fell in love with. I've heard Jake complain, of course, about Jon's tone-deafness on some things, about his attitudes when it comes to money and respecting Jake's wishes to have some self-respect when it comes to financial things, and anything else Jon does to piss Jake off.

The one thing I do know about Jon is that he loves Jake, and in the end that's all that really matters to me. Jon hasn't really accepted the whole concept of the family, to my knowledge, but it's there if he needs it.

My dad made up a great breakfast for us. Chloe put on old clothes and had her hair under a bandanna. She'd gotten a look at the bit of wood on the bannister that was exposed when I had stripped a little paint from it, and now she was on a mission to strip the rest of the wood. I hadn't tried to see what was under the paint on the kitchen cabinets, but it was on my list.

We got to the house about a quarter to eight and I helped Chloe get settled with the stripper, brushes and drop paper. Dad went out and applied some more lubrication to the lock and hinges on the Bilco door while I headed down to replace a few light bulbs in the basement so we'd be able to see. I heard footsteps upstairs and a voice calling out a hello. I ran up to meet my friends, but Austin must have arrived about the same time and was leading Lu and Robin to the kitchen with their stuff.

“Coffee,” Austin said with a groan as he poured a cup from the box. Yes, a box. Weird as it sounds, the local chain sells a box container of coffee – called a box of Joe. Google it.

“Nectar of the gods,” Robin agreed as he sipped from his cup. “Morning, Der.”

“Hey guys,” I said with a wide smile, feeling awfully good that my faith in them was justified once again.

“Figuring we'll need to take turns with the hammers,” Austin said.

“Yeah. Probably some dust from this thing, right? Burnt shit from the inside and stuff?” Robin asked.

“I picked up masks and safety goggles,” I told them. “I put the package downstairs so I wouldn't lose them.”

“Well, hello boys,” Chloe said, practically purring at my friends. They all chuckled and greeted her. She walked over to the coffee and poured a cup before looking over at Austin. “So you guys will be smashing up that old equipment, huh? Manly thing breaking?”

“Yep,” Austin said with a grin. “You going to take a few swings with the hammer?” he asked.

She sipped from the cup and looked at him. “I might come watch. Will you be taking off your shirt?”

He tilted his head. “Really?”

“A girl needs these things, Austin,” she said, grinning.

“I was thinking we'd have Lu stand around naked, just for inspiration,” I said, deliberately not looking at him as I did.

“Perv,” Lu muttered.

“I could go for that, actually,” Robin said, and then shuffled sideways as Lu pushed him.

Chloe turned and looked at Lu with an appraising eye. He raised an eyebrow at her. Chloe glanced at me and said, “He'll do.”

Lu rolled his eyes amid the chuckles.

“I smell coffee!” Howard said, surprising us. He stood in the doorway of the kitchen in work clothes, though not his company uniform.

“Grab a cup,” Robin offered.

“Thank you,” Howard said with a grin. “I brought my son with me to unhook things, giving him a taste of the old man's job.”

As Howard moved into the room, we could plainly see the young man behind him. He was a little older than we were, I think, and had a nice build with a hesitant, but endearing smile. The most striking think about him was his eyes, or rather that the outer edges of his brows drew down and made him look sort of sad.

“Hi,” the boy said.

“He's Howard, too,” Howard said.

“Did you go to Columbia?” Robin asked.

“Um, no,” he said. His voice gaining strength he said, “I went to Chenango Valley. Graduated last year.”

“Coffee?” Lu asked of the younger Howard and he hesitated again. I wondered why and then I glanced at my sister. Oh.

“Sure. Um, thank you,” the younger Howard said as he moved toward the box of coffee, and closer to Chloe.

“Well, Howard the Younger,” I said formally. “I'm Derek, this is my boyfriend Austin. That is Lucien and his boyfriend Robin. This,” I said with a mild flourish, “is my sister, Chloe.”

The names of us guys, and the fact that we were all dating, seemed not to be noticed by Howard. Instead he looked at Chloe and, in a surprisingly clear voice said, “It's nice to meet you.”

“You too,” Chloe said and gave him a small smile. “Well, I better hit that staircase.” She glanced at Howard Jr. and said, “It won't strip itself, you know.”

“Needs help from an expert?” Austin quipped.

She looked at him archly. “I'm not an expert yet. You still have clothes on.”

He groaned and she laughed, exiting the room.

“She's a pistol, huh?” the elder Howard said with a grin.

“Yeah,” his son said, watching Chloe go, but then turning his attention back to us.

“How long do you think it'll take to unhook what you need to?” I asked Howard.

“I'll start with the furnace,” he said as he leaned back against the counter. “Even if some tin gets messed up, that'll go pretty fast. The boiler will take longer because of the water pipes, so I'll do that second so you gents can start dismantling the old furnace.”

“Great,” I said. “I got some disposable masks downstairs if you need them.”

Howard told his son to run out to the truck and grab a tool kit and to meet him downstairs. His son departed and Howard crossed the room and headed downstairs.

I glanced around at my friends. “What do you guys think of Junior?”

“He's nice,” Robin said. “Quiet. He certainly noticed your sister.”

“She's hard to miss,” Austin said dryly. “I'm not sure what would draw more attention – Chloe or a hurricane.”

“He looks sad,” Lu said quietly. “I can't tell if it's just a physical feature or something else.”

“Okay. So everyone knows we need to find out as much as possible for Chloe, right?” I said, looking around at them all.

“Can't Chloe find her own meals?” Austin asked with a chuckle.

“Would you rather have her asking Howie there to take his shirt off or you?” I asked tartly.

“Point. Let's start getting intel, boys!” Austin said, clapping his hands together.

“In here,” we heard Junior say and we looked to see him guiding Jake, and surprisingly, Jon into the kitchen.

“Hey guys. Coffee?” Robin asked, gesturing toward the box.

“Donuts. You didn't mention donuts,” Jon said to Jake in a playfully accusatory tone.

“One thing my boyfriend can't pass up is baked goods,” Jake said with a laugh.

“Grab some,” Austin said to Jon. “We have to wait a few minutes for the professionals to unhook the furnace before we can go all 'Hulk Smash!' on stuff.”

“Sweet,” Jon said and grabbed a donut.

I saw Junior do a sweep of the room, looking at us all and then he went down the stairs. He didn't have an expression to interpret, really, with that look. I have no idea if there was anything behind it or not. We talked for a few minutes and I took the guys on a tour, at least those that hadn't seen it before. Chloe made a few comments as we walked by.

“Damn. My own personal Chippendales show,” Chloe said, pretending to leer. Or I hope she was pretending.

“You know it,” Jon said and pulled on the hem of his shirt as if he'd be actually stripping. He was interrupted by a loud slap as Jake's hand landed on Jon's butt.

“Save that for later,” he said to Jon, who'd jumped in surprise.

“Oh, do that again! But this time, pull his hair!” Chloe said excitedly and laughed. Jon growled at Jake, but I was kind of impressed how far they'd progressed. I hadn't thought Jon would have tolerated that kind of display – one that had a bit of ownership to it, if you ask me. That was something I never thought Jon would allow.

“I can give her a show,” Jon said a tad petulantly.

“Okay,” Jake said brightly. “Guys, let's all stand over here with Chloe. Jon? Whenever you're ready, hon. Oh! Does anyone have any singles?”

Jon deflated slightly, which was also interesting. I had the impression he'd normally fight this pretty pigheadedly, but perhaps there was something going on in his head.

“He always does this,” Jon said, looking at Chloe who looked back with amusement. “Everywhere we go he's trying to pimp me out. It's degrading, I tell you. Degrading.”

Chloe turned to Jake. “How much for a lap dance?”

“Depends. How many clothes do you want him to take off?” Jake asked.

“Okay, I admit defeat – for now!” Jon said, pointing at Jake. We erupted in laughter and Jake wrapped his boyfriend in his arms, smiling. I guess his hard work was paying off.

We walked the house and then headed down into the basement. It took another thirty minutes or so before we could start, and Griff showed up with Dev in that time. We had a few guys hitting the old furnace to break it up, a couple hauling the chunks out the Bilco door and into the wheelbarrow, which had to be pushed around the house to reach the dumpster out front. Then we had a couple guys to empty it. We took turns trading jobs, making jokes and actually having fun destroying this broken pile of junk.

Around eleven Howard declared the boiler was safely tied off from water and electricity so we could start in on that as well. I walked up into the kitchen with them and picked up on Junior hesitating to just leave.

“Hey, Howard – Howie – Junior – JR? I'm not sure what to call you so your dad doesn't think I'm talking to him,” I said with a chuckle.

He smiled, probably having heard this before. “I hate being called Junior. Howard or JR is fine.”

“Howard,” I said, “Do you have any experience helping girls strip? Staircases, I mean?”

He got a crooked grin on his face. “I think I could learn.”

Just to be nice I walked him out to the staircase, which Chloe was about a third of the way done with. We'd still have to clean spots that were stubborn, but she was making good progress.

“Chloe, I brought you some help,” I said with a grin.

“Yeah?” she asked, blowing upward to knock a stray hair from her face. She looked at Howard and smiled. “You going to get paint on those nice clothes?”

He looked down. “Nice?”

“I'll just leave you two to it,” I said, patting Howard on the shoulder and heading back to my work.

The day was long – longer than I realized, actually. It wasn't until after six that we got the last of the old boiler and furnace into the dumpster. We all had some scrapes, were covered in dust and I know I was sweaty and tired – I had no doubt my friends were as well. My dad had gotten us prepped, but had to work that day. The assistant, a dramatic woman named Wendy, had called in for the third time that week. He had checked in with me and showed up just before seven with pizza and soda, which brought some smiles from my crew.

I noted Chloe seemed to have convinced Howard to hang out, and they stood side-by-side as they ate, talking quietly. So far he seemed nice, not the type she'd been attracting lately. I could respect a guy who was willing to help out with a crappy job to get to know someone, so he had my blessing at this point. I glanced around at my brothers, dirty and tired because they helped me yet smiling and joking with each other. I had a feeling of renewal run through me. It wasn't the pizza, but rather my strange and wonderful family.

It's interesting how we get reminded of things at odd times. I always felt comfortable that my family would be there to help me, and I for them. I was going to miss them as they headed off to college, but something like this effort they put in today served to remind me that I was important to them, too. Things like this effort today was what tied us together as surely as when we leaned on one another from grief or in joy.

“So Howie,” Chloe said, purring a bit at him, and I noted he didn't protest the name. “You'll soon find out that life with me is one uncomfortable situation after another.”

“Oh?” he asked, raising an eyebrow and giving her a pleasant looking smile.

“How do you feel about being surrounded by all these luscious gay boys?” she asked coquettishly.

He chuckled and looked around at us. “My cousin is gay. We don't see each other all that much, we get on pretty well. I think I get on all right with most people.”

“Who is your cousin?” Lu asked.

“You probably don't know him,” Howard said. “He lives over in Binghamton.”

“These guys have a secret network,” Jon deadpanned. “They probably know every gay guy by name, rank and serial number.”

Howard chuckled. “His name is Chris Licardi.”

“I know that name,” Jake said quietly and appeared to be in thought.

“Oh, hah. You better not,” Jon teased. Or tried to sound like he was teasing.

“Seriously,” Jake said. “How do I know that name?”

Howard shrugged. “He's got a cool boyfriend. They both play soccer for the school.”

“What's his boyfriend's name?” Jake asked.

“Noel,” Howard said. “It's an unusual name, hard to forget.”

Jake snapped his fingers and looked at Jon. “Remember when Gray had his cousin in town over the winter? We played football with them?”

“I played football, I don't know what you were doing,” Jon teased.

“I talk to them on Instagram,” Jake said to the group, ignoring Jon's teasing. “Corby's friend is named Chris and his boyfriend is Noel.”

“Jesus,” Jon groaned. “I was kidding about you guys knowing every gay guy!”

Jake raised an eyebrow at Jon, who looked back at him, obviously full of himself.

“Share that info with me, Jake,” I said. “I'll have to get the full report on Howard, here, since Chloe is thinking of conquering him.”

Howard blushed and chuckled and Chloe raised an eyebrow at me. “I'll do my own reconnaissance, thank you.” She slipped a hand into Howard's and he cleared his throat, smiling again. “See?”

I looked at him seriously. “I'd tell you to be careful with her, but honestly? She'll wreck you, man.”

He coughed lightly and glanced at her. Blushing more he said, “I hope so.”