WARNING: This story contains scenes depiction sexual relations between males. For a time one of those males won't exactly be of legal age in some parts of the country. If this type of material is offensive to your or is not legal in your place of residence DO NOT READ THIS STORY.


"My mom was really happy to learn that I was leaving the bed and dresser," Mike said as we carried boxes from the second story of his mother's house to the back of my truck. Steve was helping, but hadn't said a word to me so far. "I guess Steve doesn't have a dresser of his own now."

"You don't have to worry about Steve anymore," I pointed out as we headed back upstairs to get more boxes. "What did your mom say about you moving out like this?"

"She wasn't happy about it," he admitted. "But I'm eighteen. It wasn't like she could forbid it."

I didn't have anything to say about that. My talks with my mother had continued and I still hadn't told her about my sexuality. So far I was trying very hard not to rock the newly built boat we were sitting in. I liked how we were getting along so far and didn't want to do anything to change that. I did tell her about Mike moving in though. I just didn't go into why he was moving in.

"Well, it isn't like you're leaving town," I said.

"True," he replied. "This is the last of them."

I grabbed a box and headed back out of the room with it. Steve was sitting in the living room when I got downstairs with the box. I told him there weren't any left when Mike came down the stairs with the last one. Steve just nodded at me and turned his head. I wondered what was with him, but I wasn't going to dwell on it. I had other things to think about.

A lot had happened in the near two months since I'd moved back into my mother's house. For one thing my mother was now carefully pressing me to attend her wedding in June and I was thinking about actually going. Another thing was that I'd come out to Riley Wagoner and she was at my house with Ariel nearly every evening for at least a few hours. We studied together. Sometimes Danny would come over as well. I was very shocked when Danny accepted my sexuality flat out and told me that he thought it was cool as long as I wasn't after Riley. His attitude shocked me, but we were beginning to be good friends and I was happy for that.

So I wasn't so shocked to find Danny, Riley and Ariel sitting in the living room with Rex when Mike and I arrived with his thirty thousand boxes. Danny and Rex even helped carry it all upstairs and into my former room. We had it all up there in no time and then we left Mike to get settled in.

"So you two are going to the spring dance together then?" Danny asked when we all got settled in the living room.

"That's the plan," Riley said, smiling at me. "It'd be different if you could actually go with me."

"You know I'm not allowed at your school anymore," he said softly.

I still didn't know what that was about. Right after school started something of one sort or another had happened and Danny was barred from school property. Riley refused to talk about it, saying that it was a rule enforced by the dean. My curiosity was piqued, but I let it slide.

"The dance is still nearly a month away," I reminded them.

"That doesn't mean much to Riley," Danny snickered. "She's a girl, so she'll plan and plot until the day of."

"Stop that," she protested, smiling at him.

"You can sit here with me that night, Danny," said Rex. "We'll watch movies and whatever."

"Can I bring Ariel?" he asked.

"I don't see why not," Rex said. "She has enough toys here. All that we're missing is a crib."

"I can rectify that for you," Danny warned and Rex laughed.

Mike joined us shortly after that and we put a movie in and settled in to watch. Ariel cooperated nicely by falling asleep in her daddy's lap. I snuggled with Rex in the recliner and none of them paid any attention. I was happy with my friends and my relationship. The friendships and my relationship with Rex were comfortable and steady. I liked that.

"Danny, she's tired," Riley said, looking at her daughter as the child woke and became fussy. "We really need to get her in her bed."

"Well, I guess that's it for us, guys," he said with a lopsided grin as he looked at us.

"You guys have a good night and be careful," said Rex as we stood to say good night.

"We will," said Riley as she came over to give me a one arm hug, being careful not to squish Ariel between us. "See you tomorrow?"

"Sure thing," I said, hugging her back.

"Come here, you," said Danny, wrapping his arms around me and hugging me tight. This was new and it made me feel a little funny, but I hugged him back. "We need some time to hang out. Just the two of us," he said, holding me tighter.

"I'll see what I can do about that," I said, applying the same amount of pressure to our hug as he did.

"Thanks, Josh," he said, letting me go and then hugging Rex. I noticed that Riley was watching closely as Danny hugged me. I smiled at her.

Rex and I stood at the door to watch them as they made their way to Danny's Jeep. Once they were safely inside we closed the door and went back to the recliner. I was still reeling over Danny hugging me that way. Rex was being a little quiet too. I wondered if he'd noticed the difference in the hug he got from Danny and the one I got.

"I still can't believe Riley's so cool with us being gay," said Mike, breaking my train of thought.

"It doesn't shock me as much as it does when she first figured it out," I admitted. She had a gay sister after all. Still, I supposed it must be very different to find out that a guy you once had sex with was gay.

"Danny sure seems to like you," Mike pointed out, and I mentally cringed. I didn't want to talk about that yet.

"He seems like a nice enough guy," I replied, waiting for Rex to say something.

"He sure likes hugs," Rex said, pulling me closer to him and wrapping his arms around me.

"Sure seemed that way," I agreed, wondering if this was it or if he'd wait until we were alone to talk about it.

"Well, I'd love to sit and chat with you two," said Mike, stretching. "But I'm flat tired. Night guys."

"Night, Mike," we said almost at the same time.

We were quiet until he was safely upstairs. I waited for Rex to say something about the way Danny had hugged me. Then I thought about the way he'd hugged me myself. It was a little too intimate for the level of friendship that we had, but was it completely inappropriate? Was I reading too much into it? Then Rex spoke.

"Well what do you think? Watch the news or go to bed?" he asked.

"I think bed is a good idea," I replied, standing up and tugging on his hands to get him to follow me.

Nothing was said about the hug that night. Rex and I went upstairs and crawled into bed and cuddled ourselves to sleep. We didn't say another word that night. The next morning it was like nothing had happened so I thought I'd read too much into a simple hug and began to put it out of my mind. That is, until I got to school with Mike to find Riley waiting for us in the quad.

"Morning, boys," she said, smiling at us.

"Morning," we both said at the same time.

"Josh, I'm supposed to give you Danny's number," she said, handing me a slip of paper. "He said to call him later and you guys can set up some time to hang out."

"All right," I said carefully. "What sort of things does he like to do?"

"Well, I think those are questions you're supposed to ask him," she laughed. "Isn't that how you get to know someone?"

"Yes, I suppose it is," I replied, smiling at her.

"Listen, I'll see you both in calculus," she said. "I've got to get to the other side of the building and it's about time for first bell."

"See ya," I said.

"Later, boys," she said, smirking at us before she walked away.

To say that I forgot about the hug and his wanting to hang out as the day went on wouldn't be the truth, but I did manage to put it in the back of my mind and focus on what was going on at school. Steve still thought he had to sit with us at lunch. That brought Ralph with him. We included Steve in our conversations grudgingly, but Ralph we all-but ignored. I couldn't think of why the boy would sit at a table full of people that had nothing to say to him.

Right after lunch was calculus and I had to pay close attention in that class. Riley and Mike didn't have anything to say then. I guess they needed to pay attention as well. It wasn't until we were in my truck that Mike asked me if I was going to call Danny. I hadn't really thought about it all day. I'd let everything that school is keep me distracted. But I was sure that I'd call him. I didn't want to be rude about it.

"Hey!" he said excitedly when I called later that evening. "I wasn't sure if you were done with your walks and driveways yet. I was going to wait a bit and call you."

"We didn't have much to do," I replied. "It hasn't snowed much in a while."

"Won't be long and you'll go back to mowing then," he said.

"That's my livelihood," I said, wondering what he wanted to talk about, what the purpose was of having me call him.

"Listen, what are you doing tomorrow evening?" he asked.

"I don't have plans that I know of," I replied slowly.

"What do you think about hanging out over here?" he asked. His voice sounded hopeful, and I wondered again what was going on. "We could play video games or watch a flick."

"Sounds like fun," I said, deciding on the spot. How else would I find out what was going on.

"Great, so just give me a call before you come over," he said and then rattled off his address.

So that's how I found myself sitting in his living room the following evening. The house was one of those huge hundred thousand dollar homes not far from where my mother was living with the doctor. He let me in and I tried hard not to gawk. We walked down a hallway that had pictures lining the walls of Danny and Ariel. I noticed quickly that there were no pictures of Riley. Riley had told me that Danny's parents didn't like her.

He led me through a dining room with a long table with at least ten chairs. I wondered how big his family was. I'd never heard him or Riley talk about brothers or sisters before. From there we entered the kitchen and I saw that every modern kitchen appliance happily called the room home. He stopped at the huge double-door fridge and turned to me.

"Want a soda or something?"

"Sure, soda sounds good," I said.

"Dr. Pepper or Seven Up," he said, looking at me.

"Dr. Pepper," I replied.

"Good man," he said, smiling as he turned to the fridge.

Once we had our cold sodas my tour of the first floor of the house continued. We went back through the dining room and continued down the hall to a huge room. There were two couches, a humongous wide screen television and a fireplace in the room. In front of the television was every game system known to man, or at least known to me.

"Nice house," I said as we sat on the couch that faced the television.

"Thanks," he said. "Video games or a movie?"

"Game," I said.

For an hour we sat there with controllers in our hands, battling dark forces in a forbidden realm of one game or another. We laughed and talked about how cool this was or how much that sucked. All of it was about the game. I felt like we'd been friends forever. Things just seemed easy between us.

Then his parents came home. His mother was a beautiful woman with long blond hair and bright blue eyes. She smiled and shook my hand when Danny introduced us. His father was every bit the Italian man with dark hair that looked black, dark eyes and the same dark complexion as his son. He shook my hand, but didn't smile. He struck me as a severe man, the kind that liked to intimidate people. They left the room when Danny told them that we were playing video games. Then it was just the two of us again.

"It's after nine," he said when we stopped playing the game for good. "You probably need to get home."

"Yeah," I said, thinking of Rex. I hadn't known how long I'd be so I hadn't told him when to expect me. "This was fun."

"It was," he said, nodding. "We should do this again."

"Any time," I said, smiling at him. I'd really had a good time.

Rex only asked if I'd had a good time. I told him about the video game and meeting Danny's parents as well as my assessment of Danny's father. Mr. Scavello had not made a good impression on me. Rex laughed at that and told me that he and Mike had eaten pizza again. We were in bed by eleven.

Hanging out with Danny developed into a pattern very quickly. We alternated between playing video games at his house and walking around the mall, pretending to shop. Sometimes we actually bought something. We talked about Ariel a lot and he told me that his parents thought she hung the moon. They hadn't forgiven him for making them grandparents yet, though, and technically he and Riley were still forbidden to see each other. They only looked the other way because Danny being with Riley meant that they got to spend time with their granddaughter.

I told him about my mother and the doctor. I started from the beginning with how Rex and Rob had moved in across the street and my being lonely without Pete around to hang out with. Then my mother started to date the doctor and he made his opinion of the "queers across the street" well known from the get go. I told him about the doctor hitting me and how I'd moved in with Rex and Rob that same night. He didn't even blink when I told him how Rex and I started having sex shortly after that and have been together since.

I'd left out anything to do with Riley, and I didn't tell him about the events surrounding Christmas with Mike and Steve. By the time the Spring Fling arrived in April, Danny and I were getting to be really good friends. Rex hadn't said anything against it, and Danny and Riley still hung out at our house quite often. Mike was usually quite happy to be in his room with his computer, so he didn't miss me much.

"You and Danny seem to be getting pretty tight," Riley said at the dance.

We were seated at a table with Mike and Carla. The girls had coordinated dresses. Both wore red satin gowns with splits up the sides to their hips. Mike and I were in almost matching tuxes with red ties and carnations pinned to our chests. Everyone around school assumed that Riley and I were back together because of all the time we spent together during the day, so seeing us together at the dance wasn't a shock for anyone.

"We are," I agreed. "I like him. He's a good guy."

"He likes you, too," she said. "I've come close to being sick of hearing about you from time to time."

"That bad?"

"Not really," she said, smiling. "It's just that Danny lost a lot of friends when I got pregnant. Don't ask me why, but not many guys at Bryarwood High thought highly of it. So he doesn't have many friends. I'm glad the two of you are friends."

"Me too," I said. "Besides Mike, I don't have many friends either."

That got me to thinking. I really didn't have a large group of friends. We sat at a lunch table with Steve, Ralph, Carla and Erica, but none of them were friends outside of school. Carla and Mike were friendly enough to call each other from time to time. I also knew that they went to see movies together and sometimes to just hang out. I didn't have a group though, not outside of school. My friends consisted of Danny, Mike, Rob and Riley.

Danny and I hung out on Saturday for a big chunk of the day. Then he and Riley were at the house with Ariel for most of Sunday. Rex seemed happy enough so I didn't think there were any problems on that front. Life was going pretty smoothly. Rob came and spent the day with us as well. We hadn't seen much of him since we'd moved across the street. When his relationship with Tanner hadn't worked out he started seeing a man named Kelly. I'd never known a man named Kelly before, and we still hadn't met the guy. It was nice to have Rob over though.

The next morning things were very different at school. The first thing I noticed was that Steve and Ralph weren't with the football team. Instead they were standing across the quad by themselves. The team seemed to be alternating between looking at them and then talking quietly amongst themselves. That is until they saw me and Mike enter the school. Then they stared at us. I wondered what was going on. It only took a few minutes for us to find out. Riley came to talk to us, motioning for us to follow her out of the quad and away from the rest of the students.

"Word is going around rapidly that you, Mike, Steve and Ralph are gay," she said when we were standing next to my locker.

"What?" I gasped. Mike looked pale.

"It was the first thing I heard when I came into the building today," she said.

"What exactly are people saying?" I asked.

"Someone overheard Steve and Ralph talking at the dance," she said. "I don't know exactly what they were saying but everyone is saying that you, Steve, Ralph and Mike are gay now."

"Well we'll just deny it," Mike said quickly.

"Fuck this," I said, turning on him. "Are you that ashamed of who you are? Don't let a bunch of kids make you feel inferior, Mike. Don't let them make you lie."

"But this is high school, Josh," he said. "The football team will beat us senseless."

"Not if they can't get us alone," I said. "We'll just stick together."

"Me, Carla and Erica will stick close to you, too," said Riley. "I think we need to talk to Steve and Ralph."

"I don't want to talk to Steve and Ralph," Mike said. "I'm going home. I don't have to stay here anymore. I'm eighteen. I'll quit."

"A month before graduation?" I demanded. "Don't be stupid, Mike."

"Well it's that or get creamed every day," he said.

"When did you become a pussy?" I asked, getting angry. I'd be damned if I let this run me off and keep me from graduating.

"When it became more than half the school against me," he said honestly.

"I'm going to talk to Steve and Ralph," I said with a sigh. "You can do whatever you want, but I'm staying in school."

I didn't wait for him to reply before walking away. I heard Riley behind me, but I kept going. I didn't stop until I was standing in front of Steve and Ralph. Ralph looked at me with a challenging expression, but Steve put his head down. I sighed as I watched him. Whatever he'd said he'd made sure that we were all in the same boat. I just wanted to know exactly what I was being ostracized for.

"I was waiting for you to come talk to me," Steve said when he lifted his head and looked at me.

"What did you say at the dance that got everyone thinking we're all gay?" I demanded.

"I was telling Ralph about the cabin..."

"You were supposed to keep your mouth shut about that, Olin!" gasped Mike from behind me. I hadn't even noticed that he'd followed me.

"I didn't expect to be overheard," he snapped.

"Talking about it in a ballroom crowded with your fellow students wasn't bright," I said. "So what exactly did they overhear?"

"I don't know exactly what they heard," he said. "But Ralph had been after me forever to tell him what the big secret was. I just got tired of putting him off. I told him everything that happened. Anyone could have heard any part of it, I guess."

"Brilliant," I said as I heard the first bell. People began to move out of the quad and toward the classrooms then.

"So what are you going to do?" Steve asked.

"I'm going to class," I snapped and walked away from him.

People whispered when they saw me in every class. At lunch they didn't even bother to whisper. Riley and I made our way through the lunch line but we were stopped by Phil Stevens, one of the football players. He was a blond haired boy about the same height as me. I was probably more muscular than him, but not by far.

"Did you really let Steve Olin and Mike Santuci suck your dick?” he demanded.

"Yeah, I did," I said, looking him in the eye.

"And Riley doesn't care that you're a fag?" he asked, glaring at me.

"Apparently not," I replied as Riley took my hand and led me away. "What are you doing?"

"Salvaging at least a part of your reputation," she snapped. "Sit down."

"What, you think that if you pretend to be my girlfriend this will all blow over?" I asked.

"That's the idea," she said. "Carla is doing the same thing with Mike right this minute."

I turned to face the lunch line and saw exactly what she was talking about. Carla was standing very close to Mike, holding his hand as Phil talked to them. I saw Mike's face go pale once again, but apparently Phil didn't like his answer. The boy got a bit irate. I could hear him yelling as they walked away from him and joined us.

"This is humiliating," Mike sighed as they sat down. Riley and I sat with them.

"It's better than letting them know the absolute truth of the matter isn't it?" Carla asked. "Do you want them to pound you?"

Riley held my hand and Carla held Mike's as we walked to calculus. The snickering stopped when they saw that. I didn't think it was such a good idea for Riley to pretend to be my girlfriend. Danny and I were getting to be really good friends, but I didn't expect him to understand.

"Let me worry about that," she said when we were standing beside my truck at the end of the day. "He'll be fine with it. Don't worry."

"Well we're done for the day," I said. "I'll talk to you later."

"We'll be over as soon as we get Ariel," she said as I got in the truck. Mike was already waiting inside.

Grass hadn't really started to grow yet and it hadn't snowed lately so there were no lawns to take care of. Mike and I sat in the living room to wait for Danny and Riley to show up. This was Rex's day to work at the diner so he wouldn't be home for a while. I'd have to explain things to him when he got home.

"Calm down, Mike," I said as he paced back and forth.

"Calm down?" he asked. "We're ruined at school, Josh."

"We're not ruined," I replied. "I don't know why they're doing it, but the girls are seeing to it that we're not ruined. I don't know who's going to look out for Steve and Ralph..."

"I don't give a flying fuck about Steve and Ralph," he snapped. "Let them fend for themselves. They started this shit."

"I don't think they meant..."

"Don't defend them," he hissed, cutting me off. "Everything was fine until Steve opened his fucking mouth to Ralph."

"Mike, that's not fair," I said. "Think about it. Do you think Steve Olin would have told Ralph anything if he thought he'd be overheard?"

"How the hell should I know what that idiot..."

"Mike, think about it," I demanded as Riley and Danny came through the front door with Ariel.

"Hey, Buddy," said Danny as he came in. "Heard you boys had some trouble at school today."

"Hey, Dan," I said. "Nothing we can't handle. At least once I get Mike to calm down."

"I'm not going to calm down," snapped Mike, glaring at me. "You're the one worrying about..."

"Mike, stop it!" I hollered, making him wince. "He's in the same boat we are. Now isn't the time to hold a fucking grudge. Be a man, Mike. If you and Steve hadn't decided to molest me at the cabin none of this would be happening now. Sure, I let you both do what you did, but you're the ones that started it. Buck up, damn it. I'm not leaving him to the wolves just because you're mad at him."

Then there was a knock at the door. I looked around at everyone, taking inventory of my friends. The only one missing was Rob unless Carla or Erica had decided to come by. I supposed it would make sense if Carla decided to come and check on Mike. The knocking came again as I walked to the door. Of all of the people I was expecting to find on my doorstep, Carla, Erica, Rob, my mother, even the doctor, I was not expected Steve Olin. I also wasn't expecting his split lip or his black eye.

"Steve, what the hell happened to you?" I asked as I stepped aside to let him in the house.

"Word beat me home and my dad didn't like what he heard," he said, though his speech sounded thick.

"Your dad did this to you?" Mike asked. There was a shocked look on his face that quickly hardened into anger. I thought I was going to have to step between him and Steve before he spoke again and shocked me. "That bastard! You're his son!"

"Not anymore," Steve said as he sat on the couch. "He said I'm dead to him and told me to get out."

"Do you want to call the police?" I asked. I couldn't believe his father had done this to him.

"No!" he cried, his eyes opening wide. "Just let me call my brother."

"Steve, I think you need to go to the hospital," said Mike softly. I couldn't reconcile this tenderness with the bitter anger from moments ago, but I didn't question it. "You're hurt pretty bad."

I hadn't noticed that he was holding his side until Mike had said that. I wondered what else was wrong. Riley and Danny stared at him in horror. Riley kept Ariel held tightly against her chest, tying to make sure the child wasn't watching. Of course she was watching. She just didn't need to see that.

"Riley, you can take her in the kitchen," I said softly. "She shouldn't see this."

"Right," she said after a moment. "Danny?"

"Thanks, Josh," he said, patting my shoulder as he followed her out of the room.

"Let us take you to the hospital," said Mike. "Please, Steve. You're hurt."

"I need to talk to my brother," Steve said between gasping sobs. "Please, Mikie. I need him."

"All right, Steve," said Mike. "We'll call Dane. But you have to promise to let us take you to the hospital."

"They'll call the police!" hissed Steve.

"They should," insisted Mike. "He shouldn't get away with this."

While Mike tried to convince him to call the police, I grabbed the phone from the table and handed it to Steve. Mike stood back while Steve dialed and then put the phone to his ear. He gasped as he tried to sit up straighter and finally gave up. Then we heard him say his brother's name in a pitiful voice.

"It hurts, Dane," he cried. "It hurts so bad."

I could hear Dane talking, but I couldn't understand what he was saying. Slowly Steve told him the whole story. Then he handed the phone to me. Dane told me to wait a few minutes after he hung up and then go into another room and call for an ambulance. He was calling the police himself. He said he knew that Steve wouldn't turn their father in, but he was under no illusions about it. I did what he asked, though it felt like I was betraying Steve. Dane had told me to go to tell the paramedics to make sure the hospital called him so he could tell them what Steve wouldn't.

The 911 operator told me to stay on the line until the ambulance arrived, but he was calling for me from the living room. I handed the telephone to Riley and told her to keep talking to the operator while I went to talk to Steve. His face was turning black and blue, and his lip was even more swollen than before. His breathing hitched, and he clutched his left side every time it did. I worried that maybe his ribs were broken. I wished the ambulance would get there soon.

"Josh, I'm so sorry," he said, crying again. "I didn't mean for any of this to happy. Honest I didn't."

"Steve, buddy, don't worry about that now," I said, trying to sooth him. "That's not important. I'm not mad about it anyway. It happened, and we'll deal with it. Right now we need to get you some help."

"No hospital," he said, and then his eyes closed as his body slumped against the couch.

"Riley! Tell her that he passed out!" I cried from the living room.

"Is he all right?" Mike asked, his voice shaking.

"I don't know, Mike," I said. "I think his ribs are broken, but I don't think that would have made him pass out."

"When I was ten and broke my pelvis, I passed out just from the pain of it," Mike said absently as he stared at Steve's unconscious form.

"Maybe that's it," I said, hoping it was true. "Maybe it was the pain."

"I didn't want anything like this to happen to him, Josh," Mike said, looking at me with pleading eyes. "I was angry, but I wouldn't ever hurt anybody."

"Calm down, Mike," I said quickly. "This isn't your fault. This is his father's fault. I need you to be calm now, OK?"

"OK," he said, taking a deep breath. "Are they coming?"

"The operator said an ambulance had been dispatched," I replied. "It might take them a bit, Mike. Bryarwood isn't a small city."

It was as if telling him that was the cue for the sirens to start sounding. I could hear them coming closer, and Riley walked into the room with the phone. She'd left Ariel with Danny in the kitchen. I opened the front door and waited for the ambulance to make it to the house. When it did they moved quickly. They asked questions that I couldn't answer. I could tell them how long he'd been unconscious, that his injuries were swelling and that he kept clutching his left side. They asked how he'd received the injuries and I told them to make sure his brother was called. I even gave them the number.

They wanted to know if whoever had given him these injuries was in the house with us, and I told them that it was his father and he came here for help. They stopped questioning me after that. We watched as he was laid carefully on the stretcher and then they were out of the house, putting him in the back of the ambulance where one paramedic got inside with him and the other got into the cab to drive.

We followed them in my truck and Danny's Blazer. Mike kept asking me if Steve was going to be all right. I had no idea. I hoped he would be, but hope didn't make reality. The hospital wouldn't tell us anything of course, but we sat in the waiting room and waited for Dane to call one of us. Each of us had cell phones and I'd given him all of the numbers.

"Josh?" my mother's voice startled me as she came into the waiting room. "What's going on?"

"It's not me, Mom," I said. "A friend got beat up. We're here with him."

"It wasn't Rex or Rob?" she asked, looking scared.

"No, Mom," I said quickly. "It was a friend from school."

"What's his name?" she asked.

"Steve Olin," I replied.

"You sit here," she said. "I'll check on them and give you updates. I'll tell you what's going on, Josh."

"Thanks, Mom," I said, relieved.

It took a while, but Mom came to tell us that they'd taken Steve to Radiology for his X-Ray. She asked what happened, and I had to tell her about Steve's dad. I didn't tell her why though. She asked me if anyone had called the police, and I told her about Dane calling them from school.

The police had arrived before my mother came back to tell us more. They asked us a bunch of questions that we couldn't answer. We didn't know exactly when the attack took place or how long it lasted. We didn't know where his father was or how to contact him. Mike gave them his mom's cell number and they finally left us alone.

Mom came back to tell us that Steve had a severe concussion, four broken ribs and that one broken rib had punctured his left lung. He was in serious condition and they would be moving him to surgery very soon. She said Social Services had been called in to sign consent forms and advocate for Steve.

We were sent home, but Mom promised to keep us updated. Rex was there when we got there, and Rob was with him. He'd seen the ambulance and waited until there was someone home to find out what had happened. Rex hadn't known anything about it, so they were both extremely worried when we arrived. They were both outraged when I told them that we'd all been outed at school. They were shocked and appalled to hear about Steve and what his father had done to him. Rex hugged me tight after I'd told him about it.

Riley and Danny left shortly after we all explained about Steve. Ariel was asleep in Danny's arms and we all had school in the morning. I wasn't so sure that it was going to be a great place to be, but I wasn't going to run away from it. Mike seemed to be in a better place about it as well. I think seeing Steve beaten and broken had changed Mike's outlook. He wasn't scared now. He was angry.

Dane called around ten o'clock that night to ask me how things were at the hospital. I promised him that my mom was looking after Steve and that she'd call me with updates. She'd promised. He told me that he was leaving school to come back to Bryarwood. He asked if he could stay with us for a few days until he figured out what to do. I told him he was more than welcome to come and stay for a while. Rex and Mike were nodding as I said it.

Rex and I had a long talk about safety when we went to bed that night. I told him I wasn't really all that worried about the students at school. I told him about Riley pretending to be my girlfriend just until graduation and that Carla was doing the same thing for Mike. He wasn't completely thrilled about that, but he grudgingly admitted that it was better than letting the kids at school stew about what they'd heard and react violently. With Riley and Carla doing what they were doing, Rex said it might just confuse everyone even more.

What had happened to Steve was the talk of the school the next day. People that had whispered and snickered about me the day before now wanted information. I was shocked and a little happy to find that the majority of the student body was outraged by what had happened. I talked to several members of the football team and found them agitated and angry as well. Several of them told me that they never believed the rumors that were running around the school and they were doing their best to stop them in their tracks. I thanked each of them for that.

Dane arrived the following day. He told us that he had set it up that he could take his finals at Bryarwood University. He said it was a very unusual agreement, but he would be registering at Bryarwood University in the morning and getting all of the details hammered out. Then he went to the hospital. Rex and I were alone in the house because Mike was with Carla and Erica.

I told him about the attitude at school and he visibly relaxed. He'd been worried about me all day, thinking that something terrible could happen to me at any time. I assured him that the students were too upset over what Steve's dad had done to bother too much with me, Mike or Ralph. Ralph hadn't even been in school all day.

"I couldn't think straight all day, Josh," Rex said when we were in the recliner with me nearly in his lap. "I just kept imagining all of the horrible things that could happen to you."

"Don't do that," I said quickly, squeezing his hand. "Rex, I'm going to be fine. There's a little less than a month left of school. It'll be over soon. The kids at school didn't even believe what they heard. I think Riley and Carla really threw them. I'm happy that they were there for us, but I was fully prepared to face this."

"I don't want you to face this, Josh," he said. "If you're going to come out, wait until after graduation. Please."

"That was the plan," I said. "But Rex, I won't lie to them if they ask me a direct question."

"I know you won't lie, Josh," he said. "Just don't tell them anything unless they ask. With Riley walking around holding your hand, no matter how much I don't like that idea, they won't ask."

"You know that Riley is just trying to help, right?" I asked, turning to face him. "She's in love with Danny."

"I know that," he said. "It's just a little unnerving to have the only woman you've had sex with holding your hand and making people believe you're still together."

"It's only for the rest of the semester," I said after a moment of thought. "Once we graduate it won't be necessary to play games anymore."

"And will it also not be so necessary to spend so much time with Danny?" he asked. I'd wondered when this was going to come out. I just wasn't expecting it at that moment.

"Does it bother you that Danny and I are getting close?" I asked.

"I don't like the way he hugs you," said Rex. "And you're always so excited to go hang out with him."

"Rex, Danny is straight," I said firmly. "He's my friend. There's nothing for you to worry about."

"It doesn't feel that way," he sighed. "I know I'm being silly, but you spend a lot of time with Danny."

"We're friends..."

"Yeah," he said. "I know that you and Danny share DNA, but it's Riley's. I guess the connection there is what's really bothering me. What happens when Danny finds out that you and Riley had sex?"

"I don't know," I admitted after thinking about it for a few minutes. What would Danny have to say about that?

"I don't want you to get so close to him if he's just going to drop you as a friend as soon as he finds out about the history between you and Riley," Rex said.

"Well then, I guess the logical thing to do in this situation is get Riley to sit with me and Danny so we can clear the air," I said after another long moment. "At least then I'll know what Danny will think about it."

Rex wasn't thrilled with that idea either, but that's what I was going to do. The next day at school I told Riley about my discussion with Rex. I told her about how he wasn't exactly comfortable with her holding my hand and making people believe that we had a romantic relationship and that he was worried about my friendship with Danny, or the outcome of it when Danny learned the history between the two of us.

"Danny knows about us," she said, shocking me. "I told him everything when we first got back together, Josh. He knows all of it, even that we had sex."

"He knows?" I asked in dumbfounded wonder.

"Of course he knows," she said. "I can't be in a real relationship with him and keep a secret like that."

"Well then, I guess Rex is worried about nothing," I said.

"Well I see the way Danny hugs you," she said after a minute. "I asked him about it, and he told me that he just thinks of you like a brother. I don't know the logic behind that, but that's what he said."

"We are pretty close," I allowed.

"Yes, you are," she said. "I'm happy about that. I was serious when I told you that Danny didn't have many friends left."

"Well I guess we just have to get Rex to see that there's nothing to worry about," I said.

"Then we'll do that after school," she said quickly. "I want this all worked out as fast as possible. I'll pick up Ariel and get Danny. We'll be over as soon as I can get them there. Do you have lawns today?"

"Yeah," I said. "Three of them."

"Well we'll be waiting with Mike when you get home," she said. "As long as you don't care."

"That's fine," I said dismissively.

But that's not the way it happened. When Rex and I got back from mowing they were sitting in the living room. Ariel was playing on the living room floor, and my mother was sitting on the couch next to Riley. Rex and I looked at each other and then went straight to the living room. We sat on the ends of the coffee table so that we wouldn't get the furniture all sweaty.

"Hi, Mom," I said when we sat down. "What's going on?"

"I came to tell you about your friend," she said, smiling at me. "I see you have a lot of friends."

"Yeah," I said weakly. I didn't know what they'd told her.

"Well, Steve is recovering nicely," she said. "He wants you to come and see him, Josh. He asked for you specifically."

"I'll do that," I said.

"Curtis had a long talk with him yesterday," she said, watching my face. "You'd be surprised how much Curtis has changed, Josh. I wish you'd talk with him."

"I'll consider it," I said, wondering just what she meant by changed. Josh didn't consider having a long talk with Steve a change for the better or worse.

"He asked me to invite you to dinner," she said. "Friday night. Please come, Josh."

"Sure, Mom," I said, deciding on the spot. I wanted to see this change in the doctor for myself. "I'll be there. I'm bringing Rex with me, though."

"That's completely fine," she said, smiling at Rex. "I'm sure Curtis would like to apologize to Rex and Rob as well."

"He'll have to apologize to Rob later," I said a bit dazed. Apologize?

"Well, I've got to get back to the hospital," she said, looking from me to Rex and back again. "I'll see you soon."

"Yeah," I said weakly. "Thanks for coming, Mom. I'll get up to see Steve tomorrow."

She kissed my forehead before she left. I didn't even flinch. We were all silent as she left the house. I sat staring at the front door for a few minutes before I remembered to breathe. What had they told her? I wanted to demand the answer to that question immediately, but I remembered that Riley and Danny were here for a different reason. We'd get that out of the way first.

"Your mom is nice, Josh," Danny said, breaking the silence.

"Yeah," I said. "She's nice. That's not why you and Riley are here today though."

"No it isn't," he agreed. "She tells me that you and Rex are a little worried about me finding out about you and Riley."

"Well yeah," I said. "He was worried that our friendship would suffer when you learned about the history between me and Riley."

"Relax, Rex," Danny said, smiling at him. "I know all about Riley and Josh. She told me the day we decided to get back together. I don't care about that. We weren't together then. My friendship with Josh has nothing to do with the past. We're getting to know each other now. We're friends, and that's not going to change."

"All right," Rex said after a moment. "What about what she's doing at school for him now?"

"I think that's very nice of her," Danny replied. "Things could have been a lot worse for my friend if she hadn't stepped in the way she did. I don't have many friends, Rex. I'd like to keep the ones I do have. I also don't want them hurt for stupid reasons."

"Well then I'm happy to count you as one of my friends, Danny," said Rex. "Anyone who cares enough about Josh to not want him hurt is a friend of mine."

"There, see?" Danny said, smiling. "We're all friends, and we're going to remain friends." He turned to me and chuckled. "You, friend, need to shower. Buddy, you stink."

"Well thank you for pointing that out, buddy," I said, laughing.

After mowing and a shower the next day I got back in my truck and headed to the hospital. I found Ralph visiting with Steve when I got there. They both smiled at me when I came into the room. Dane had cleared it so that I could get in. He must have cleared it for Ralph, too. I wondered as I saw them why Ralph hadn't returned to school.

"Thanks for coming, Josh," said Steve when I sat down in one of the chairs beside his bed. "I wanted to thank you for helping me. I know you don't really like me."

"Going through a situation like this kind of changes things a bit, Steve," I said honestly. "You didn't deserve what happened to you, and I'm sorry that it happened. As for friendship, well I'm offering you mine if you'll accept it."

"I'd like that," he said, smiling. "Thanks, Josh."

"No need to thank me," I said. "Just be a good friend. That's all I ask."

"I'll do my best," he said.

"Ralph, I haven't seen you in school," I said, turning to face him.

"My parents pulled me out," he said. "I took my finals early so I can graduate, but I won't be coming back to school."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I said. "Did someone threaten you?"

"No," he said. "This is sort of an early protection thing. My parents don't want me to have to face what was going on at school for something that isn't true."

"You're not gay," I said. It was a statement. He'd made it pretty clear.

"No," he said. "I am open minded though. Steve is my best friend."

"Well, maybe I misjudged you, Ralph," I said after a moment.

"I think we misjudged each other, Josh," he said, smiling slightly.

"Friends?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, the smile growing to full on his face. "I'd like that."

As the days went by, Mike, Rex, Danny and Riley visited Steve in the hospital. Dane cleared each of them. We all wanted Steve to know that he had a group of friends if he wanted to accept them. From what everyone told me he accepted them readily. I was happy for that. Steve's ordeal was far from over and he'd need his friends as the time passed.

And then it was Friday. I went to school, mowed my lawns, showered and dressed and then Rex and I made the trip across the city to where my mother lived with the doctor. I was right about the house being close to Danny's. It was just three blocks away. It was a huge house, just like Danny's. I wondered why, if he had a house like this, had the doctor been ready to move into ours the summer before.

On the road to my reconciliation with my mother this was likely to be the last stop if what I planned to tell her and the doctor turned into a mess. She'd said the doctor, Curtis, had changed. Well I was prepared to test that change and see just how far along he was in accepting homosexuals as more than immoral people. Rex had tried to talk me out of what I was planning, but my mind was made up. My mother deserved to know about us at least. Testing Curtis was just an added bonus. I wanted to see how he would react to finding out his future stepson was a homosexual.

"Josh!" Mom said excitedly as she opened the door. "Welcome, honey. Come on in. Hello, Rex."

"Hi, Mom," I said, hugging her once I was inside the house.

The hallway was wide and brightly lit with seascape paintings on the walls. From the looks of the six paintings it was clear that they were the work of one artist. They were nice, not really what I would have expected to find on the doctor's walls. I looked at each of them as my mother led us to the living room where the doctor was waiting.

"Hello, gentlemen," he said, smiling at us. "Come on in."

"Rex, this is Doctor Curtis Birch," I said in introduction.

"Nice to meet you," Rex said, shaking the doctor's hand.

"Well have a seat, boys," said Curtis. "Can I get you a drink?"

"Juice or tea," my mother said, smiling at us.

"Juice for me," I said, sitting down on the huge black leather sofa. I looked around the room at the soft beige walls, smoky gray carpet and black leather furniture. More paintings adorned the walls of the living room. They weren't seascapes this time, landscapes were the theme of these four paintings. I noticed after a moment that all four were the same landscape from different angles.

"Juice is fine, thank you," Rex said as he sat down beside me.

"Coming right up," said my mother as she turned and headed out of the room, leaving us alone with the doctor.

"The artist is my daughter, Vanessa," said Curtis when he caught me looking at the paintings. "She and her husband are artists. They live in California."

"They're great," I said honestly.

"You'll meet her as well as my son, Franklin, at the wedding," he said, smiling.

"Right," I said, wondering if I'd even be at the wedding after tonight.

"I had an interesting conversation with your friend, Steven, earlier this week," said Curtis. "How is he?"

"He's doing a lot better," I replied. "He and his brother found an apartment not far from the university. Steve will be getting out of the hospital on Monday."

"That's good to hear," he said, smiling. "What happened to him was despicable."

"Yes it was," I agreed, thinking about the time that the doctor had punched me in the face and wondering what the difference was between what he'd done and what Steve's father had done to him. Steve's injuries were more severe, but it was still abuse.

"He told me about his scholarship," said Curtis. "I was happy to hear that his education wasn't going to suffer because of his ordeal."

"We're hoping he'll be healed enough to fulfill the requirements of his scholarship in time," I said.

Steve had a full paid scholarship to Bryarwood University, but it depended on football. With his injuries none of us were sure if he'd even be able to play the game at the beginning of the season. He'd said something about being on the injured list, but I wasn't sure if that meant they were going to give him a break or not.

"Yes," said Curtis, looking away for a second before looking me in the eye again. "And how are you doing in school, Josh?"

"I'm doing really well," I replied. "I was informed yesterday that I've been awarded a partial scholarship to Bryarwood U."

"That's good to hear," he said, smiling. "Your mother was worried about paying for your tuition. I assured her we'd get it taken care of though."

"Nothing to worry about," I said quickly, not liking the "we" in his statement about taking care of my tuition. "The scholarship covers everything but housing, and I already have a house."

"Well there, it looks like you've got it safely handled," he said, still smiling.

"Here we are," said my mother as she returned to the room with glasses of juice for me and Rex.

"Thank you," I said when she handed me my glass, and heard Rex say the same when she'd handed him his.

"I'm so glad you're here," she said, beaming at me as she sat beside the doctor on the couch.

"Your mother has been working very hard on dinner," said Curtis. "She tells me that lasagna is your favorite dish, Joshua."

"It is," I replied, smiling at my mother. "You didn't have to go all out, Mom."

"It isn't every day that my son and his friend come to visit," she said dismissively. She was smiling as she said it. I noticed that her smile didn't slip even when she finally noticed how close together Rex and I were sitting.

We talked about my mowing and how we'd taken on a few more lawns at the beginning of the season. Mom said that she had heard that I was now taking care of Linda Spanner's lawn. Linda and my mother had been friends since high school. This kept the conversation comfortable, but I knew the topic wouldn't last. When it ran out she talked about my friends.

"Nice group," she said about the gathered group at the house when she'd arrived on Tuesday to talk to me about Steve. "They spoke very highly of you, especially Danny."

"Danny and I are really close friends," I said. "Which has happened rather quickly. We've only been hanging out since the beginning of the semester."

I was trying to figure out the best way to tell her about me and Rex. I couldn't decide if I should ease into it, tell her I was gay first or just blurt it out. I wanted to get it out in the open. It was the best way to see if the doctor's nice attitude would survive the knowledge. I sat there listening to Rex and my mom talk about Danny and Riley as well as Ariel. My mother thought she was a beautiful child. I decided to just bite the bullet and get it over with after that.

"Mom, I have something to tell you," I said, feeling Rex stiffen beside me as I spoke. "Something I think you need to know."

"What is it?" she asked, still smiling, but her eyes looked worried.

"It's about me and Rex," I said, taking his hand in mine. He let me do this with no resistance and I was happy for that. "We're in love, Mom. I'm gay."

I don't know how I had remained so calm through it, but I really wasn't all that worried about her reaction. I was sure she'd take it all right. There might be tears but nothing major. The doctor was the one I was worried about. I watched them both closely, but I watched him the closest. I was waiting for his tirade to start.

"Well I can't think of a better person to love you than Rex," my mother said after a moment. The smile was back on her face as she said it. "I'm happy for you both."

I was stunned by this. There were no tears, but I hadn't expected such a quick acceptance. The doctor still hadn't said anything. He was looking at our hands folded together on my left thigh. Soon my mother was looking at him out of the corner of her eye as well. I got the feeling that even she was waiting to see how changed he really was.

"Well," he said, smiling a smile that didn't even seem forced. "It seems we have cause to celebrate."

And the night moved on. I was suspicious of the doctor’s quick acceptance, but I didn't push things. We moved to the dining room where even more of Vanessa's paintings could be found. Mom served the food and we ate, talking about my plans for the future. The doctor complimented me on my decision to study business and finance. Mom wanted to know about Mike and why he was living with us.

By the time we left the house I was completely and thoroughly dazed. Rex didn't seem much better off as we climbed into my truck and drove home. I thought about the doctor's anticlimactic reaction to the news all the way home where Mike was waiting for us to give him the details of the entire evening.

It seemed the hard parts of my life, the immediate parts, were over. I'd gotten the air cleared between me and Danny, and our friendship seemed stronger than ever. I'd told my mother the truth about me and Rex, and she'd accepted it. Now I just had to get through finals and graduation. I'd worry about the wedding later.

Steve returned to school and everyone gave him a hero's welcome. He was back just in time for finals and they were brutal. To celebrate when we were done we all went to the Galaxy Diner where Rex worked. We had a great time with the entire gang assembled for once. Even Rob came out to celebrate with us, and we got to meet Kelly for the first time.

At twenty-one years old, Kelly was quite a looker. He worse a green Tasmanian Devil t-shirt that was tight over his muscular frame. He stood at about five feet, ten inches tall with dark hair that was cut short and shaved almost to the scalp in the back and on the sides. He smiled at everyone and it lit up his face.

We had another party the night before graduation. This one was at Kelly's house which was even bigger than the doctors. He had a huge pool that we all had as much fun as possible in that night while he and Rob manned the grill, cooking steaks and baked potatoes. Rob and Kelly gave me my graduation present that night. It was a "Class of '08" t-shirt that was the same shade of green as the shirt Kelly had worn the night we'd met him.

Rex waited to give me his gift until the next morning. It was a bracelet and necklace with thick silver links. I love them both and wore them to the graduation ceremony. He sat with Rob, Kelly, Mom and Curtis to watch as I walked across the stage to get my diploma. When it was over we all went our separate ways again. I had dinner with Mom, Rex, Rob, Kelly and Curtis at Che Pips, a new restaurant in the commercial section of the city.

The very next morning my mother was back at the house. She'd driven a new silver Lexus and I loved it as soon as I saw it. She came in and decided to make us a late breakfast of French toast with vanilla and cinnamon, sprinkled with powdered sugar and doused in maple syrup. We sat around the kitchen table in hog heaven as we ate.

"I'm so proud of you, Josh," she said when everyone was finished. "I knew you'd graduate, but I didn't expect it to feel like time flew by faster than a plane in the sky. I love you, honey."

"Thank you, Mom," I said, getting out of my seat and going to hug her. "I love you, too."

"Now if you'd just give me a ride back to the house," she said, turning and grabbing her purse from the counter.

"A ride?" I asked in confusion. "You drove that shiny new Lexus over here, Mom. Did you forget about it?"

"Oh I haven't forgotten the car," she said, smiling at me. "That's your graduation present from me and Curtis."

"Oh my God!" I cried, smiling at her like an idiot. "It's mine?"

"It's yours, honey," she said, smiling back at me. "Please accept it. It would make Curtis so happy. Josh he really is trying."

"I accept," I said. "I'll even drive over and shake his hand to thank him."

"I love you," she said, wrapping her arms around me and squeezing me tight.

The Lexus was brand new with black leather interior, a car stereo that played CD and took SD cards as well as USB. The entire car was computerized with power windows, locks, seats and a moon roof. It drove like a dream, the engine making almost no sound what so ever. I talked excitedly about the car all the way to Curtis's house where, as promised, I shook the man's hand and thanked him for the car. He had the signed title in his hand when I arrived. He even went with me to switch the car into my name before I went home.

All of my friends went nuts over the car. I was too excited to be anything but happy about it. I decided that if Curtis was actually trying to change I'd finally give him the break that Rob had asked me to give him so long ago. They were getting married after all. The man would officially be my stepfather in three weeks.

Those three weeks took no time in passing. Before I knew it I was being fitted for a tux, having agreed to stand up with Curtis. Rex looked dashing in his tux and I was so happy that Curtis had asked him to stand with him as well. I met his son, Franklin, the day we were all fitted for our tuxes.

Franklin was tall, at least six foot, four inches tall, with dark curly hair and bright icy blue eyes. He smiled at me when he shook my hand and I was surprised to see dimples in his cheeks. I found him to be pleasant and a bit charming, though I really didn't even know what "charming" meant at the time.

I walked down the isle with Vanessa. She was my mother's maid of honor. I'd met the twenty-five year old woman that very morning. She'd taken a break from helping my mother get ready just to come out of the bedroom and shake my hand. She was a beautiful brunette with long hair that hung past her shoulders. Her eyes were the same icy blue color as her brothers, and her smile dazzled me.

"We'll have to get to know each other later, Josh," she said. "Welcome to the family!"

"Thanks, Vanessa," I said, smiling at her. Then she surprised me by hugging me.

"You'll have to get used to that in this family," she laughed when she saw my startled look. "Franky's worse than me when it comes to physical affection. You'll see."

I thought about what it would be like to have a sister and brother as I left the house and headed to the church to get ready with the guys. Just as she'd predicted, Franklin engulfed me in his arms as soon as I was inside the church, calling me "little brother" as he led me to the changing room to get into my tux. Rex was already there, smiling from ear to ear.

Two hours later we walked down the isle and stood beside the man I'd hated for a while and finally come to at least try to respect as he said his vows and then kissed my mother, his wife. I had mixed emotions running through me as I watched them walk back down the isle as husband and wife. Rex and I would never have that if the political climate didn't change where we lived. I felt cheated in a way. I had to push that aside and be happy for my mother.

At the end of the reception, which was held in the Hilton's ball room, my mother hugged me so tight I thought she'd break my ribs. They weren't coming back after the honeymoon. Franklin, Vanessa, her husband and I were going to be packing up what was left at the house and getting it ready to be shipped to California. I hugged her back, thinking about how much I would miss her when she was gone.

"I love you, Josh," she said into my ear. "I couldn't have asked for a better son. I love you so much, and I'm so proud of you. Take care of Rex, honey. He loves you so much."

"I will, Mom," I said. "I love you, too. Thank you for being my mom."

I watched them drive away in the limo and held Rex's hand. There was one more thing I needed to do before I could say that I was officially out of the closet. The day after the wedding, Rex and I took a break from packing up the house and went to Oak Park Cemetery to visit my father's grave. We bought flowers along the way, roses.

"Dad," I said as we stood in front of the huge marble head stone with my father's name engraved on the front. "I want you to meet someone. I'm sorry I didn't bring him here a long time ago." I took Rex's hand and he stood beside me. "This is Rex, Dad. He's the man I'm in love with."

Rex put his arms around me and we shared a passionate kiss as we stood there. The sun was bright in the sky and a gentle breeze blew our hair a bit. I imagined it was my father, telling me he approved. I realized in that moment that though my life hadn't been perfect up to that day, I was happy. Life is sure confusing, but sometimes things just fall into place and you find yourself happy in spite of yourself.

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