Chris St. Jacques stretched out in his rolling chair and put his feet up on the computer desk, tilting himself back, hands tucked behind his head. He felt awkward; talking about a friend behind his back was something Chris didn't like. On the other hand, Alan was also his friend and he needed someone to confide in. Chris found himself in the awkward position of picking from column `A' or column `B' - complicated by the fact that he owed both his friends the right to approach him in confidence.

He shook his head. God knows they were both there for me when I needed it.

"So why do you think there's something wrong?" he asked cautiously. Then his eyes widened. "Jesus, are you tryin' to say he's cheatin' on you?" Chris shook his head, answering his own question before Alan could get a word out. "Naaa - that isn't like Dave. But we could always follow him if you want."

Alan Curran lay slumped chest-down across Chris' bed, chin on top of his folded hands, knees bent and letting his feet slowly pace the air. The corner of his mouth twitched and he turned his head so he could see his friend in full view and he snorted. "I think we did the following routine once before but… I dunno. I don't think he's foolin' around, Chris. I mean it's not like he's ever `suddenly missing' or makin' excuses about having to cancel out on something we planned."

Alan let out a long breath, rubbed his chin against his hands while he frowned and let his eyes drift downcast again. "If you wanna know the truth, I think maybe he's tired of me," he said with an unhappy sigh, sitting up and pointing to his own body. "I mean - just look at me, Chris. I'm short, I'm skinny, and I got no illusions about what I look like. Hell, I'm not even as smart as he is."

"Shut up," Chris shot back sharply. "I've told you about puttin' yourself down like that."

Alan rolled his eyes. "Right - sure. You gonna tell me I look like a young Brad Pitt?"

Chris grimaced, leaned back more. "No, I'm not. Okay, you don't have movie star looks. Neither do I."

"But David does."

"Never mind about that! Lemme finish," Chris said, exasperated. "Alright, so Calvin Klein isn't bustin' down your door to put you in any ads. But I swear, you're not ugly, Alan! You've got some nice features, not to mention a lot of other good qualities that I know David likes in people."

"Remember Jamie and that other one, Jeremy?" he said, nodding towards the photo. "Real nice looks… but when you came down to it, both of `em slithered."

Alan shrugged. He'd figured out the year before that Chris' first boyfriend was the kind of guy that would nail anything with a hole and a heartbeat. But David's different than that, he thought.

"And yeah," Chris continued, "you're skinny - but so am I, and neither one of us is ever gonna see the five-foot-nine marker without a stool or lookin' up. But dumb? Bullshit. You spent way too much time hearin' that crap from your father, so you stopped trying. I mean, look at your last quarter in school after David an' I coached you - maybe you didn't draw aces but B and B+ average on your report? With an A in biology thrown in for good measure? I say that proves you're not dumb."

Alan snickered, turning to look at Chris again. "Yeah, just lazy. That's what Brother Chuck said when he gave me the A - and be careful in that seat or you'll flip over."

Chris ignored Alan's last comment and continued to stretch back, swiveling slowly to the left and right. "This Brother Chuck prob'ly just meant to get you going. He still gave you an A - and even if he tossed in a dig, he congratulated you for it. He just wants you to keep workin' at it."

"Whatever," Alan mumbled, rolling over onto his back and laying his ankles across the bed's headboard, bouncing his heels. "Okay, maybe I'm not so dumb. And maybe I'm not the total dog I think I am either - but that still doesn't help to explain David. I mean, it's like he's completely lost interest. When we do it, I get the feelin' he just wants it over and done with as quick as we can. I mean, he's real good to me, but half the time he doesn't want to bother finishin' for himself once I pop unless I push. And Jesus, Dave used to climb on top like he was ready to drill for oil, and I can't even remember the last time we did it like that."

"It was at least the morning before Gay Pride," Chris said offhandedly.

Alan blushed, giving him a shocked look.

Chris shrugged. "Martin and I were next door in the guest room, remember?" He paused, then began to giggle. "God, I felt sorry for him. I mean I'm used to it, but I thought the kid was gonna pass out just listenin' to you guys! Then the poor kid ran for the bathroom he had to do it so bad. Didn't take him long either."

Alan blushed but grinned. "C'mon! We weren't that loud!"

Chris rolled his eyes. "Bullshit! I mean, I've heard you guys before. But all Martin really knows are pics and vids on his computer. Listening to you guys live totally drove him over the edge."

They both chuckled, then Alan shuffled around on the bed. "This is so weird. A year ago I never thought I'd be talkin' about stuff like this with anyone… about what I like doin' in bed with a guy."

Chris shrugged. "Makes two of us, but we do `those things' now instead of just think about `em, so it doesn't hurt to compare notes and talk about it. But seriously, David can't be… you know." Chris held out his arm and let it drop at the elbow and dangle.

Alan shook his head. "Everything starts okay," he said quietly. "And no - he doesn't suddenly drop like that. It's just like he doesn't want to finish once he sees I'm all set, and we just stop. That, plus I can't get him on top anymore, like I said. But otherwise, if I hint around - yeah he starts right up, just like always, but he never starts things anymore, C. Damn, it's almost like he's afraid to touch me sometimes."

He cleared his throat, then began idly picking at the pillow. "Has he said anything at work?" Alan asked in a small voice. "Maybe not about me. I mean… has he talked about having any problems?" Another thought flashed in his mind. And would you tell me if he did?

Chris shook his head, grateful he didn't have to decide what to say or how carefully to say it. "David's just like always," he said, "but it's not like we ever really talk about sex - I mean, over and above him needlin' me about when was the last time I got any." He leaned back more mulling it over. Damn, he thought. I haven't done anything since we went to the Cape. Gotta do somethin' about that.

Alan was about to warn Chris about over-leaning the chair again, but the simultaneous crash and Chris' sharp yelp made it irrelevant. Chris swore while he crawled up and righted the chair, rubbing the back of his head. He glared at Alan. "Thanks for the help," he said acidly.

Alan continued bouncing his heels on the headboard, staring up at the ceiling with his arms folded behind his head and smiling. "De nada, babe. And don't be gettin' pissy with me - I warned you 'bout it twice. If there's any blood, I can drive you to the hospital, but I bet you hurt the floor more than your head."

"I remember when you used to be a nice guy," Chris groused and sat carefully in the chair, this time upright. "So… what else? You said he's not suddenly cancelin' dates and stuff?"

Alan went silent for a moment. "Not exactly. We still get together a lot, but it's different all of a sudden. If we were both off, we'd usually split our time between his house and mine to hang out or meet. But for a week now, every time I say I'll swing by, he falls over his tongue tryin' to stop me, says he'll pick me up or we can meet and ride together. Yesterday, I drove up to his house in my jeep after work and he came runnin' out of his house - said he was goin' out and that he'd see me later."

"Nothing weird about that."

"No," Alan said, still staring up at the ceiling. "Except his mom was standin' in the door the whole time with her arms crossed lookin' pissed. She don't like me anyway, but that was a first."

Chris grunted. He had an opinion of Jennifer Sciuoto, but had wisely declined to voice it front of anyone, ever. David's mother may have always smiled when she saw him and said all the right things, but Chris could tell from her eyes that she considered him only slightly lower than dirt.

Alan swung his legs around and sat up on the bed, stretching. "I should go. My sister said she wanted me to help her put together a new entertainment center tonight - Eileen should be home by now."

They talked about nothing all the way down the stairs, then Chris waited at the door and waved until Alan backed his yellow Jeep Wrangler into the street and drove away into the distance.

Chris envied Alan the car… then remembered the years of abuse the boy had endured at the hands of his father for the down payment, and suddenly his own ten-year-old Tercel didn't sound like such a bad deal. That only cost him money, and his father helped him with that, even insuring and registering it for him. Some of his friends didn't think that was much - one even refused to ride in it - but then again, they were all swamped with school loans for college, and Roland St. Jacques was doing his best to foot the tuition at U-Lowell for Chris. He explained it was a choice: money for his education, or money to impress a bunch of jerks with a shiny machine that was worth two thousand bucks less than what he paid the moment he put the key in the ignition. Chris decided the Tercel looked pretty good after all.

He wandered to the kitchen, checking the wall clock: six forty-five. His mother had already called and said she'd be home by seven-thirty or eight - she was a realtor whose agency had an exclusive in a new upscale development in nearby Georgetown that had a few model homes finished and were marketing for pre-build buys for the rest. His father had come home, decided he was too lazy to cook, and had gone out to eat by himself once he confirmed that Chris didn't want to join him… which also gave his father the opportunity to stop off and have a beer and swap man-gossip at a tavern he liked in downtown Haverhill.

Chris made himself a sandwich and flipped on the television, a leg dangling over the couch arm as he surfed through soft-news shows that were little more than gossip and glitz, then passed on yet-another variation of Egyptian history being aired by both A&E and the History Channel - one as Secrets of the Pharaohs and the other as Secrets of the Pyramids. Both of them were re-cuts of the Secrets of Egypt he'd seen two weeks before.

Chris sighed, settling for a rerun of The Simpsons on channel 38. Big goddam switch from last year, he thought with a wry smile, when Chris spent every spare moment doing what he thought of as cruising - hanging out at the Salem Mall or searching up and down the boardwalks and beaches from Salisbury to Hampton hoping to get picked up. He shuddered at the memory, and some of the things he did hoping to hook up with someone for a little action.

Was I ever really that dumb an' desperate, he thought ruefully. God - I'm never doin' stuff like that again.

Chris thought of calling David, but had to admit he wasn't in the mood for the possibility of another heavy conversation. He felt a flash of guilt, considering the way both David and Alan were always there for him when he needed their help.

Everyone needs a time out for themselves, he told himself. I'll see David at work tomorrow, and if Alan calls again I'll do what I can. But tonight, I just want my mind to vegetate.

Chris had already seen the Simpsons episode at least three times and flicked through the local feed, shuddering when he came across reruns of Friends and Frasier from the Boston stations. Spencer for Hire was on TV-Land and TNT gave him the X-Files, which perked him up until he saw it was the stupid one made like it was a Cops episode. A quick check on the SciFi Channel showed the original Star Trek in progress, back when Klingons only had bushy eyebrows and rough complexions; all Chris needed to see was a ball of fur and knew it was the Tribble episode. He didn't bother with the national network affiliates - all talk and gossip shows, masquerading as news.

"Almost three hundred friggin' channels on the dish and not a damn thing that isn't a rerun or for idiots," he grumbled.

Frustrated, he clicked off the TV set and checked the clock again; not even quarter past seven. It was Wednesday, and he knew better than to bother checking if anything good might be on later.

Talk about a great night off work, he thought, bored.

He mulled over his situation, thinking of things to fill in his time. I really could use some new clothes for school, he told himself. At the same time he felt a twitch in his crotch, feeling a need to justify a trip to the Rockingham Park Mall - the only mall for thirty-five miles - to have something to do. It ain't cruisin' if you got a reason to be there. And if lightning strikes and you should happen to actually meet somebody…

"What the hell," he said, then grabbed his car keys.

Chris ambled through the long marble concourse of the quiet mall, sidestepping a pillar he knew from habit was there. He was looking down, balancing the shopping bags in his folded right arm and struggling to jam the bankcard back into his wallet without dropping anything, when he suddenly collided with something that wasn't exactly a pillar, unless you consider that sometimes flesh could be almost as solid. His victim turned quickly, accidentally elbowing Chris in the lower chest. The bags tumbled, his wallet went flying and his card clattered someplace else.

Chris looked up from the hard marble floor as the wall spun around and he stared up into small, menacing black eyes set off with a single eyebrow across the forehead. It was furrowed, and the mouth with the thick lips was slightly puckered. The dark eyes didn't look pleased. Chris noted the acne scars and gulped.

"Jesus, dude, I'm sorry," said a deep, nasal voice and the stranger with black wavy hair smiled and bent over to help Chris pick up his belongings, at the same time hanging on to the wrist of a dark-haired toddler. "I just spun around when you hit - didn't mean to clock ya."

"No sweat," Chris chuckled, feeling relieved. "I wasn't lookin' where I was goin' again - my mother says stuff like that's the story of my life."

The other young man stood up with two of the bags and Chris' Fleet card. His brown eyes blinked. "Hey! I know you," he said, and the smile widened. "You're the guy from Barrier's - you check me through all the time. Remember? You turned me on to those Amber books by Zelazny a couple weeks ago. Chris, right?" He grabbed at the little one who'd felt the grip on his wrist loosen and tried to hurl himself forward towards freedom.

"No, you don't, squirt," he said picking up the boy in his arms. The boy grinned back playfully and grabbed a handful of the thick, wavy hair and at the same time tried squirming away. "Just like me, huh? Already tryin' the wrestlin' moves to get away?" He grinned and rubbed his nose into the boy's. The little boy smiled back and giggled but rammed a fist into his captor's eye.

"Shit. Down you go," the young man said chuckling, then stood up and offered his free hand to Chris. "I'm Leo DiStefano," he said with a thick-lipped smile, showing a huge gap between his two front teeth. His thick, single eyebrow stretching across the bridge of his nose rode up when he smiled. "And the candidate for the WWWF is little Leo."

Chris recognized Leo and felt some relief, but his eyes widened as he looked at the child. "Wow - I didn't think you were old enough to have a kid," he replied without thinking, shaking the hand.

Leo chuckled. "He's Leo Two, not Junior. He's my sister's - she named him after me. She doesn't have a driver's license but she needed some stuff so I ran her down here tonight. We're only a couple miles away. And I cut her a break and said I'd hold on to Hell-Raiser here so she can actually get waited on and maybe even try on stuff for a change."

Chris dropped to a knee and made stupid sounds to the boy, which would have been okay if little Leo were a bit younger. The boy was fascinated by Chris' long nose and his eyes locked onto it. Leo Two grabbed it, twisting. Chris jerked back in pain and let out a few words he shouldn't have said in front of an almost three-year-old.

"Uh... sorry about my mouth," he said sheepishly and rubbed his aching nose, shooting venomous looks at the grinning boy.

Leo laughed. "Nuthin' he ain't already heard from me when he does the same kind of stuff. The trick is gettin' him not to repeat `em when his grandmother's around, `cuz she knows where he learned `em - and he ain't the one that gets whacked."

Chris noticed a short, petite girl with dark hair of about sixteen come out of a store holding a few bags. She smiled when she saw the three of them.

"Are you beating up on my kid again, Leo?" she asked.

He grinned. "Nah, but your kid's beating on people I know again. Oh, and he heard a new one tonight - but it wasn't me," Leo added defensively and pretended to panic, pointing at Chris. "So when he says it in front of Ma, I want your support. Last time, she smacked me silly, and I'm not takin' the rap for it. And Chris was justified!"

The girl smiled at Chris. He noticed a very slight version of the gap he'd seen in Leo's smile, but no further resemblance to her brother other than dark skin, brown eyes and black hair.

"I'm Tina - if I wait for the Stump here, I'll be old enough to drive before he thinks of this."

"He's Chris," Leo cut in, then blinked. "Chris - uh..."

"St. Jacques. I met Leo a few times where I work. You got a cute kid, Tina." He eyed the boy again, who stuck out his tongue. Vicious, but cute.

Tina nodded pleasantly before turning back to her brother. "I want to try something I saw on him, so you're sprung. Meet you back here in twenty minutes?"

Leo agreed. As she walked away he looked at Chris again, still smiling. "I know what you're thinkin' when you see her, so don't sweat it, okay?" he said in a lowered voice. "And thanks for not lookin' at her funny when she said Leo was hers. A lotta guys would."

Chris shuffled around looking embarrassed. "Believe me, I'm not one to throw stones. Criticize my friends maybe, but not throw stones."

"Sweet. Hey, wanna go up to the food court and get a Softee with me? I was gonna skip it with Leo around because he'd wind up wearin' most of it and Tina would bitch me out." He laughed. "Besides, a little company wouldn't hurt, and I can pick your brain for some more books. The ones you showed me were fun."

Chris smiled, nodded. "Yeah I can go for that - as long as they got chocolate jimmies. And I'm surprised you have to ask me about books - I see you in there all the time."

"Jimmies and a chocolate dip, then," Leo said laughing, and they moved off for the long, winding stairway in the center of the mall that would take them directly to the food courts on the second level.

"Most of the stuff I read is more technical," the young man said, taking two steps at a time, "but I needed a break. I used to do a lot of sci-fi when I was a kid, but I'm kinda out of touch. And most of my friends..." He let the words trail, then shook his head and sighed. "Well, if they read at all it's the comic page. Or maybe the police notes in the paper to keep track of their families."

They ordered up two vanilla doubles with chocolate trimmings and settled into a small table in the nearly empty food court. Chris watched Leo carefully. Leo rattled him a little at first, and Chris wondered if he were trying to pick him up. Then he decided that was silly; Leo was just as nice and easygoing the first time Chris helped him at Barrier's, in spite of his rough looks. And Chris could see him looking at girls when they passed as casually as he himself would check out guys as they sat chatting. Not ogling, just making that auto-check men do when they see something attractive. Chris decided he liked Leo. He also thought it might be a good idea never to piss him off.

"Uh, listen," Leo said, lowering his voice. "I sorta got a motive for invitin' you like this."

Chris' head popped up. Motive? Jesus, is he hitting on me after all? "Motive?" he asked, a twinge of nervousness in his voice. "For what?"

Leo shuffled around on the seat, caught a big gob of Softee leaking down with his tongue. "Damn things always melt too fast, `specially with the chocolate dip." He wiped his fingers. "Uh, yeah - motive. There's this guy you work with, David? Uh, is he... well - is he alright?"

Chris' forehead wrinkled. "What do you mean, `alright'?"

Leo shuffled around uncomfortably. "He's not - you know... kinda funny is he? I mean… you know."

Chris' eyes narrowed and he re-examined his opinion of Leo DiStefano. "David Sciuoto's one of my best friends," he said tersely. "No, better than that. He is my best friend. Care to tell me what you mean by funny? Was it funny `ha-ha' or funny somethin' else?"

Leo's face reddened slightly. "I knew I'd screw this up," he said, apologetically. "Look, I already figure he's a gay-boy and I don't care about that any more'n I care you are."

Chris' back stiffened. I swear, I got a sign over me in pink neon. It's gotta be something like that. "What makes you say that?" he said evenly.

Leo shrugged and blinked. "Uh, well… if I'm wrong I'm sorry, but…"

Chris waved it off but his tone sharpened. "Never mind. Not that it's any of your business, but, yeah, I am. And if you wanna know about Dave, you can ask him. So, what's next? You gonna ask one of us for a date? Or is this where you take me out to the parking lot and beat the crap out of me? Gotta warn you, it's been tried before. I hit mean, dirty and low. Then I run fast once you're down."

Leo shook his head and started turning red. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers. "Jesus H. Christ," he said with a sigh. "I knew I'd screw this up - Sandy says I got less class than a starvin' bum at a free lunch. Look, Chris - I'm not concerned about the gay part, okay? That's your business and no one else's and I guess I shouldn't've said it like that. I'm concerned about this David guy `cuz I found him tryin' to pound out my girlfriend's little brother last week, and he's... well, you got at least one thing in common with him, okay? Martin's just a lot more obvious than either of you guys and a lot younger, and I don't think it's right with a guy our age screwin' around with a kid his age."

Chris started to laugh, and Leo looked confused. "I'm sorry," Chris explained. "Look, you're talking about Martin Seduko, right? David and I know Martin, we met him last winter through some friends. And yeah, you're right - he's too young for us to mess with. Definitely not our type. But that's not what it's about - we know Martin from a gay youth group, and we've given him rides and stuff. Sometimes we give him a shoulder to cry on and an ear to confide in, too.

"But as for Dave tryin' stuff on him - with him - man, are you out of it! David's got a boyfriend our age even if he looks a lot younger, and I know David well enough to know he might be into boys, but he ain't into little boys. I mean… where do you get that stuff?" he added with a touch of amazement creeping into his voice. "Do you think gay guys recruit little kids the way Pat Buchanan and the other ignorant bigots claim?"

Leo shook his head and sighed, his dark Mediterranean skin turning a brick color. "No, I do not think crap like that. Maybe I look dumb to you - a lot of people think that when they meet me - but you got it all wrong. I was worried because…" Leo shifted uncomfortably, shot Chris a quick look and just as quickly turned away.

"Well you seen my sister, okay?" he said in a mild voice. "When she was thirteen, she thought she was all grown up, just because she developed a lot faster than all her friends. Used to like hangin' out with the older kids and all that stuff. I mean, every kid likes doing that, right?"

He paused, and his forehead furrowed again. "Then she met this jerk - an eighteen-year-old jerk - who saw something easy to knock off if he just said all the right things and my nephew's the result. Don't get me wrong - Little Leo's a real sweet kid but so's Tina; and thirteen was way too young for her to be a mother - so that's why I get suspicious when I see older guys messin' with someone younger. And since you met Martin, then…" He flailed around helplessly, looking for the right words, and finally shrugged.

"Well, it's obvious that he's… you know. And his sister told me anyway - Sandra Seduko's my girlfriend. Martin gets a lot of crap for bein' kinda fem - which he can't help - and he's lonely and that makes him an easy target. Especially for someone who's way too good lookin' and can feed a good line out. I just wanted to make sure your friend wasn't screwin' with Martin's head. Or anything else, either." Leo looked pensively at Chris. "Martin can't get knocked up, but he can sure as hell get fucked-up, ya know?"

Chris' jaw twitched. He finished off his Softee and began wiping off his hands. He studied Leo, who was so different from the image he projected - short and thuggish, with a thick neck; the heavy lips and the acne scarring. Combined with his blunt speaking, everything about him screamed `stupid' and `punk.' Chris still wouldn't want to run into him in a dark parking lot, but he also remembered the thick texts in electronics that Leo routinely bought or ordered at Barrier's. Leo was anything but stupid. And maybe his manner was rough, but he was no smart-ass jerk looking for trouble. Chris thought of his own father: a decent guy who had a foot permanently inserted in his mouth. He nodded.

"I know what you're talking about," Chris said slowly, softly. "And I understand. But honest to God, Leo - Dave would never mess with anyone's head like that, especially a kid. Yeah, Martin might think an older guy is cool right now, but he's… well, he's smart enough, but he still thinks like a kid. And I know all about how it feels finding out you were used, but at least I was old enough to deal with it. David's no weasel, guaranteed."

Leo grabbed a few napkins for himself, dipping them into the small cup of water he's asked for at the ice-cream counter and started wiping off his hands. He grinned, still avoiding Chris' eyes, embarrassed. "If the little guy even smells this thing on me, he'll squawk all the way home." He cleared his voice and looked up at Chris again, and put a dry hand on Chris' shoulder.

"Look, dude - I'm sorry if I got your back up and for puttin' you on the spot, but… like I said, I don't mean no harm and I like Martin. I just wanna make sure no one's screwin' with him okay? Sorry I made a mess of it." He glanced at his watch, then craned his neck to see if he could get a glimpse of the nearly empty concourse below from the gallery. "And that looks like Trouble and Tina down there, so I better go."

He held out his hand again and Chris shook it.

"You're nice people, Chris," Leo said smiling, withdrawing his hand. "Sorry if I made you feel like you were on the spot, okay? Like Sandy says - I just got no class." He darted off.

"You're nice people, too," Chris said to the empty air with a smile.

Chris finished the last of his Softee up and started to lick a finger, then stopped as he was suddenly aware that he was being watched. Instead he used the water Leo left on a napkin and looked up casually, caught sight of a nice looking sandy-blond guy around his own age. Chris perked up. Nice!

Suddenly aware he was caught, the sandy-blond head jerked around and moved on.

I've seen him, Chris thought. Then flashed on a day in late June when he'd responded to an invitation from the U-Mass Lowell English department to re-tour the North Campus he'd be attending in the fall and meet some of the faculty. He'd seen that face in one of the other small groups of new freshmen. Chris smiled.

Maybe I got me a possible, he snickered, remembering that day and how he thought the guy might have been checking him out. Then he remembered the rule he'd set for himself about public cruising after a little adventure the summer before. He mulled it over.

Hey, it ain't cruising, he thought, arguing with his conscience. I was just sittin' here and caught him looking, so I'm not breakin' any rules. If he's lookin' then I'd have rocks in my head if I didn't check, right? He paused, nodded to himself. Right.

Chris popped up, dumped his trash from the table and tried to casually hurry to the main walkway to see if he could catch a glimpse of the blond again. He stood and looked the small crowd over and sighed. Gone… and he could be in anyplace from Banana Republic to Filenes, he sighed.

He stuffed his hands in his pocket and walked the length of the concourse. Chris half-heartedly checked the shop windows to see if he could spot his quarry as he walked by on his way to the South Escalator, and then resigned himself to head for his car. On an impulse, he checked the escalator, perked up for a moment when he saw a mop of blond hair and then realized it was too blond and too long. But he did smile. Jesus, he's with Martin - whoa! And did he just rub Martin on the ass?

Chris chuckled watching a smiling but nervous Martin as the other boy reached over and patted Martin again. Yeah, look at the way Mart's swivelin' his head around hopin' no one saw him do it! Eat it up, kid. If you got yourself a boyfriend, go for it!

Chris watched them get to the bottom of the escalator, and then the unknown-blond with the denim cutoffs and the baggy tee shirt reached over and nudged at Martin's hand like he wanted to take it. Chris craned his neck more but whoever was with Martin was facing the wrong way and he couldn't quite catch a look. They were about the same height so Chris figured they had to be around the same age. He wasn't sure if Martin was smiling from that distance, but he saw his younger friend swivel in for a little hip check and his companion did the same and they slipped into the Game Zone Arcade. The body English looked good even from a distance.

Chris St. Jacques smiled to himself and decided that as much as he wanted to check it out, he didn't want Martin feeling awkward and decided to leave them alone. He glanced back again and scanned the second floor for any sign of his own unknown blond, and sighed as he started the short ride down the escalator when he didn't see him. He felt good though. Much as he felt lonely for himself, he liked seeing Martin with someone else for a change, no matter what their relationship. As far as Chris was concerned, if anyone ever needed a friend it was a lonely kid like Martin.

* * * * *

Martin sat in the front seat of the red Taurus, smoothing the legs of his thin board shorts, not sure what was going to happen next. He glanced over at Danny, sitting next to him in the dark, staring ahead and fidgeting. The radio played softly. They were parked in the lot of the old Dragon Rose Restaurant, next to Martin's trailer park where they'd met that afternoon. The Dragon Rose had shut down a year ago and even though land was prime on Route 28 in Salem, the building still hadn't changed hands. The lot was too small for the larger retail stores and there was no hope of expansion unless the trailer park itself were sold. The restaurant building was too old and run down to be revived without a major input of cash - but the owner sat on the real estate, holding out for too much money and determined to take not a penny less than he thought it was worth and unwilling to invest a nickel into rehabbing the old building. It added up to a substantial tax bill and nothing else. Salem property taxes were among the highest in the state.

Not that Martin cared about that as he sat in the dark. He was too nervous. Is this where he says he can't see me again, he wondered nervously. Is this when he decides I'm too girlish for him? Or too young?

Danny looked over at him, his face no more than a silhouette in the dark but Martin could see he was biting his lip. "I had a great time today, Martin. You're as cool as I thought you'd be," he said in his soft, all-boy voice. "And just as cute, too," he said, cautiously reaching over.

Martin felt the fingers of the other's hand slide over his own, and he sighed with relief. He was sure once Danny saw what he was like the boy would ditch him as fast as Ryan had. But Danny spent the day with him - hours at Canobie Lake Park on the rides all afternoon and into the evening, then a nice dinner at a Mexican restaurant on Route 28. He'd even refused to let Martin pay for anything.
"I been waitin' too long for this," Danny had said. "You're my guest, no matter what." Then he'd put an arm around Martin's shoulders whenever he could at Canobie, not caring how many people were around. He insisted on sitting close to Martin in the booth at the restaurant, not caring about the curious eyes. To Martin it was a far cry from Ryan last winter, who refused even to be seen in public with him. Total closet case, he thought.

Danny held his hand properly now and squeezed it. Martin smiled and squeezed back into the seat, still pouring out the sweat as he sat motionless, even as the air conditioner wooshed the cool air at him… well, almost motionless, except for one part that kept twitching around. He smiled in the dark while Danny squeezed his hand more firmly.

Martin swallowed hard. If he wants me to, I'll do it, he thought to himself. He's drop-dead gorgeous, he likes me, and I'll do anything he wants.

"I had a great time, too," Martin stammered finally, his voice cracking. Danny sniggered at the sound, then dropped Martin's hand long enough to trace the curves of Martin's face with his fingers. Martin felt something lurch in his pants again and tried desperately not to think of it. Danny swiveled in his seat more and leaned in close to Martin, his nose grazing Martin's cheek. He trembled when Danny's warm breath tickled his red-glowing skin.

Danny's hand slid over and around Martin's waist and pulled him closer to nuzzle, then whispered to Martin in the comforting dark.

"If - if I ask you to do something for me, you won't think I'm trying to take advantage, will ya?"

Martin stiffened. This is it, I know it. Oh Jesus, he wants me to do him here in the car, he thought in a panic. Okay. Mart, this is where the practice stuff with the bananas pay off - you saw him in the men's room and it's big. You're ready for it. You can control your throat. And the teeth! Jesus, watch out for the teeth. Just pray he's gonna be happy with just the front end for starters.

Martin licked his lips and turned his head, smiling with quivering lips, and found his eyes locked onto the other boy's. "I'll do anything for you, Danny." he said simply, his hoarse voice quivering.

The left hand reached out and kneaded Martin's left hip, the splayed-out thumb dangerously close to Martin's twitching crotch. The other hand continued to trace the contour of Martin's face, then he cupped Martin's chin and turned the boy's head so it rested on his shoulder. He whispered into Martin's ear, casually brushing his fingers through Martin's hair.

"I don't want you getting' the wrong idea, though, Martin… like I just wanna use you or anything."

Martin swallowed hard, almost choked. Ohgodohgodohgod whatever you friggin' want! raced through his head. "No man, I mean it," Martin croaked nervously. "I - I'll do whatever you want me to do to you. Uh, for you."

Danny's hands trembled. "Then - you'll do it? I mean it'll be my first time, Martin… You - you'll let me kiss you?"

Kiss? All he wants is a kiss? Dude, you can have anything you want! But Martin couldn't find his voice again so he nodded, eyes wide and mouth slack.

"I been wantin' this from the first time I laid eyes on your picture, `cuz your everything I'd hoped you'd be," Danny said and leaned in and brushed his lips against Martin's. Martin's mouth sprung open and his tongue lashed out as he lunged forward desperately.

Danny pulled back, chuckling and Martin was scared he'd blown it.

"Not like that, baby," Danny laughed quietly. "This ain't like in the porn vids - just kiss me, nice-like. Then maybe a little with the tips of our tongues after, okay? I wanna taste you, not eat you."

Danny leaned in again and their mouths met. This time Martin relaxed and let it happen, let Danny take charge and control the pace. He felt the strong hands slide behind him, pull him closer. They kissed, lips barely spread open, and after an eternity Martin felt the first tentative warm touch of Danny's tongue against the tip of his own. The kiss played on, and then Martin felt the tongue slide against the side of his own.

A shudder ran through him. His first kiss… the one he'd always remember. It felt incredible.

Martin fought to stay relaxed but felt the tension building in him and felt the front of his pants tightening even more. Then Danny was almost sitting in his lap as he twisted around the center console and the gear shift. Then he was sitting on Martin's lap, his arms and legs wrapped around the fourteen-year-old as their mouths shared their warmth and their tongues searched and probed. Martin felt his cock rigid in his pants as they kissed. Then he suddenly realized that the pressure against him was Danny, sitting on him and undulating his hips as they kissed, grinding down. Danny lunged forward again and kissed and pressed his backside down hard. Martin ignored the warning signs, unable to focus on what was happening and then…

"Oh, shit!" Martin croaked/whimpered, suddenly pulling back. But it was too late, and Danny still wriggled in his lap. He blushed. "Oh man! I didn't mean to…"

Danny laughed, then leaned forward and rubbed his nose against Martin's, studying the panic in the other boy's eyes. "As long as it felt good to you, I don't care if you didn't mean to or not - and it'll wash off both of us, even if it soaks through your skivvies an' pants," he said with a dirty grin. He eased off Martin, kissed his cheek one more time and clambered over the console into the other seat again. He giggled, pointing.

"Dude - that was a gusher. I can even see the stain in the dark."

Martin was flustered. "It looks like I peed myself. How'm I gonna walk into the house lookin' like this?"

"Just take your shirt off and tuck it in your belt," Danny said calmly. "I mean it's hot as hell out - no one's gonna think anything if you take your shirt off. It'll cover and you can stuff `em in the wash tomorrow."

Martin nodded. Oh man, he's cool. He knows how to keep his head. But you gotta make it up to him. "Uh, I can… you know - help you out if you want."

Danny shook his head, spoke in a shy voice. "I told you, Martin - I wanna make sure we're good for each other, okay? The only thing I wanted was a kiss. I mean, if it gets that far and we decide we'll be each other's first time, I want to make it special for you… just like I want it to be special for me. When it happens, I want us to be someplace nice an' safe - I wanna make love to you, not just score some head. I wanna hold you, feel your body and kiss you all over - not jam my dick in a hole in a dark car with my pants around my ankles. Plus we should get to know each other better."

Martin looked down, thoroughly deflated. "I guess I know what you think of me now," he said in a small voice.

Danny snorted. "For what - blowin' in your pants just now? Hey, I'm the jerk! Me rubbin' you like I was didn't help. If anyone's an asshole here, it's me." He reached out and smoothed Martin's hair again. "And I'm sorry for it, too - but not sorry that I made you feel good. And I know I did." He checked the clock on the dashboard. "And what you offered just now - I just got too much respect for you, Martin. If you didn't matter, maybe - but you matter."

Martin sighed, felt the hand reach out and take his again, then he spotted the clock on the dashboard. "Man, it's almost eleven!" he squeaked. "My mom's gonna have kittens."

Danny hung his head. "I miss my mom," he said unsteadily. "I miss my dad, too. That's what sucks - he probably doesn't even know I'm gone right now." He shook his head to clear it. They sat in silence for a few more minutes before Danny spoke again. "Look, I gotta jet, babe. Look for me on line tomorrow - `cuz I wanna set up another day with you."

Martin grinned. They gave another quick peck on the lips and Martin hopped out of the car, waited while Danny carefully eased out of the parking lot and onto the highway. Then Martin made for the far corner of the parking lot, moved the bushes out of his way and slipped through a hole in the chain link. He looked around carefully, but the mobile home park was dead except for the uniform drone of air conditioners in the sultry night. Martin slipped out of his sweat-streaked tee shirt and tucked it into the waist of his pants. Then he reached under the shirt and pulled the sticky fabric away from his skin. Damn, maybe wearin' whitey tighties wasn't that good an idea… but if I wore boxers, he'd a-seen me poppin' a rod all day.

Martin walked happily up the road to his mobile home. He smiled, noting that his father's truck wasn't there, but his mother's car was. That only meant one set of eyes. He popped open the front door. Helen Seduko looked up.

"Where'd you go?"

"Out," Martin answered, edging around the chair and heading for the short hall.

The corner of her mouth twitched. Out, huh? Smart ass. "Well, as long as you're still in one piece and I don't get no calls from the cops," she grumbled. "You with anyone?" she added hopefully.

"Just a friend," Martin said quickly, stepped into the short hall and marched to his bedroom.

Helen nodded, smiled and sighed with relief. Thank God he's got some friends… I didn't think anyone wanted to have anything to do with him, the poor kid.

She checked her watch again and smiled. One down, one to go. Sandy would be back soon, most likely with Leo, and then she could go to bed. She liked Leo. Leo had a future, even if he wasn't pretty to look at, and he treated Sandy right. She thought of her own husband, sitting on a stool at the White Buffalo, sucking down one draught after another, and let out a rueful laugh. She remembered how pretty he seemed almost twenty years and about a hundred pounds ago.

God knows handsome don't last - but for Sandy's sake, I hope the brains do. It'd be real nice if both of `em get a life outside a tin box, tied to a loser. Martin's smart, and he'll get out; I just hope she does, too.

Martin got into his room and shucked his clothes, using the soiled shorts to clean up the residue, thankful it hadn't had time to dry. He stuffed the clothes into a bin he kept handy by the futon, down deep next to the other soiled cloths. He read online about how others used tissue, but Martin gave up on that after the second try. He'd rather deal with stiff underwear shoved down under everything else than picking shreds of tissue out of his privates. The damn things always disintegrated. Paper towels were okay, but not the generic; Bounties were the best, but his mother tended to buy the bargain brands, unaware of just how important the factors of softness and absorbency were in some matters - both points Martin wasn't about to raise or answer.

The evidence was concealed until laundry day. That was Martin's job on Thursdays, when Sandy drove her mother to work and kept the car for mid-week errands, and the same day the Helen Seduko's paycheck was auto-deposited. Sandy did the shopping while Martin pulled duty at the Laundromat - even during the school year, when Sandy would just drop him there after school and take care of the house business.

Martin never squawked about it; he knew what few luxuries the family had were those his mother paid for. His father paid the park rental fee and the mortgage on the home, but his mother took care of everything else: food, clothing, special `fees' for the schools, plus the cable for the TV and his computer modem. She rarely said no about anything that was important and reasonable. Just because the woman was always too tired and played bingo with friends a few nights a week didn't mean she didn't care.

Martin knew she'd worked hard hours on the assembly lines of Compaq until they closed, and now worked even harder hours for less money for a contract chip manufacturer - her fingers crossed they didn't move the plant to Asia somewhere to save money, like so many other businesses in the area had, before her children were raised. Or over the border into Massachusetts where there were more skilled workers. Most Massachusetts people refused to work in New Hampshire because they had few legal rights and the unemployment was among the lowest in the country and difficult to collect. More and more companies were doing the reverse-flow over the border for that reason, even if taxes were higher. Even the new Governor's old company shut down their New Hampshire division - after the election, naturally. The hard-nosed businessman who'd built the company from the ground up swore after his inauguration he knew nothing about the Board of Directors decision to move… only a few weeks after he himself had resigned to begin a career in politics.

Martin sat on the edge of the futon after pulling on the loosest pair of shorts he could find. He'd left the door open slightly to let the cool air in from the air-conditioner down the hall and set his fan up to suck it in. His father wasn't home, and his mother never really tried to `surprise' him by popping in his door - she'd start to call from the living area before she went down the hall after him. The content boy dug the framed photo of Danny out and held it in his hands, looking down at the image, reliving the day. He smiled.

Canobie Lake Park was fun and the dinner even better. Then Danny suggested they hang in the mall for a little while before ending the day. That was the best part of the day.

Martin lay back grinning ear-to-ear, then held up his hand and examined the silver ring with a Greek Box design. He'd caught his breath when Danny saw him admiring it in the glass of the `Sylver Smyth Joolery Werks', a booth in the middle of the first-floor concourse. Danny handed over thirty dollars without hesitation and slipped it onto Martin's finger.

"For the boy I love," Danny said simply. Martin caught his breath when Danny said it.

The attendant at the kiosk, dressed in black with seven metal studs in his left ear and a foot-long bleached white braid trailing down his back took the money and muttered something about how `the fags got younger all the time.'

Martin looked down in embarrassment, but Danny froze. Then he angrily started chewing him out, and wouldn't back down even when the clerk called over the security guard.

"Then take me to the mall office," Danny demanded when the guard tried forcing them to leave. "That jerk insulted me and my friend - just `cuz I gave Martin a gift. A gift I bought from him."

"C'mon, guys," the guard said, trying to smooth it over. "It's just a word, y'know? It don't mean nuthin'."

"You gonna tell me you and the little swish ain't fags?" the kid jeered.

"I'm gay," Danny snapped at the stall attendant. "Not that it's any of your business. I don't know about Martin - I never asked him. But that's none of your fuckin' business anyway, is it?" He turned to the guard, looked him over carefully.

"Just a word, huh? It don't mean anything?" he said innocently as he read the name tag. "Okay Ramón. You like being called a spic?" he asked coldly.

Ramón's back stiffened and his eyes flared. "No," the guard answered, angry but honest.

Danny crossed his arms on his chest and glared up at the guard. "Cool. You're Spanish and you think spic's an insult. Well I'm gay, an' I don't like bein' insulted by bein' called a fag by a walkin' cartoon of a loser workin' for minimum wage. So take me to the mall office so I can fill out a complaint, okay? Because if you don't, I'll be filing one on you."

In the end, the guard forced the young man in the booth to apologize.

Martin was in awe. No physical threats - nothing like that. Danny was no bigger than he was, but he'd just dug in and defended his ground and won. Martin had never seen anything like it.

He looked at the ring, and reflected on what it meant. He remembered the kiss, and how it felt. He stared at the picture again and caressed it with his fingers.

He caught his breath when he saw the full, rich lips he'd only tasted a few minutes before. Pictures don't begin to tell you how nice those lips taste, he thought to himself. Or that he's tougher than steel or that he's got a soul like an angel. And I almost blew him off.

Martin lay back, the framed picture glass-side-down on his chest. He thought back to the day he fought with David. They'd argued and argued, and finally Martin had to admit David was right - no way was Danny as young as he claimed. He swore he'd break it off, and David finally left.

That night he'd challenged Danny on-line, intending to break off their relationship.

Mart: I no your old.
Danny: Why you say that?
Danny: IS bullshit! I know u for weaks if I was old I be after you for all kinds of stuff an syber just like all old trolls! An I showd u pics!
Mart: Danny i no you ful of shit. Maybe not old like 30 but u at least 17 maybe 18 an you are playin a game. I bet you just some str8 kid lookin for cheap laffs.

Martin had sat silent, waiting for the screen. He knew Danny was still there; MSN always let you know when someone left. If Danny left, it was because he'd been lying. And if he tried to play it out, Martin knew Danny would still be lying. Mentioning David Sciuoto was his ace in the hole; as soon as the bullshit started to flow, he'd drop the name - but not until then.

Danny: What makes u sure?
Mart: K fuk it. I see you later.
Danny: Please don't go Martin k? OK I lie. Not 16, Im 17.
Mart: Close to 18, rite? And pics were old shit?

There was a long pause and Martin waited, finger poised to close the chat window.

Danny: Cupple months. And I show u how old the pics r.

Martin saw the icon flash for a Video connection and hesitated. Then he reached up and spun his own camera around so it faced the wall, clicked `ok' for the connection. A black square opened up on the screen. The picture was washed out and flickery, but it was Danny alright, and in real time. Martin saw the panicky eyes he knew to be a pale blue, looking almost ready to tear. He saw the full, rich mouth. Danny mouthed words but there was no sound connection but Martin saw him attacking the keyboard.

Danny: See? I tol u those pics were real.
Mart: Y u lie about bein 17?
Danny: Cuz u said u was 15 so i said was 16 so u wud talk to me. Thot if was 2 old u wudn't want me. But u can see pics sent were real. I small guy, most think i'm yunger so you wud be ok with it.
Danny: an I realy like u martin and I didn't want u 2 go. I reely want u to be my boyfriend now more than anything. Pleeze don't go k? I need u.

Martin read, watching the tears run down Danny's face as he typed. He read how bad things had been for Danny in the last year. His mother died of cancer, and ever since it was just Danny and his father… and all his father did was drink when he wasn't at work. The man hardly knew Danny was alive. Worse, Danny was alone - no brothers or sisters or even cousins. He didn't beat Danny, but he ignored him, and that was almost as bad. Martin understood being alone, and he weakened

School was hard for Danny, too - he'd been outed, now no one would talk to him. They didn't attack - something Martin asked about carefully, ready to jump on a lie. In Massachusetts, even a hint of trouble in a school was likely to bring in the cops because of the anti-hate laws, and the mandate from the governor and the legislature that all public schools be a safe haven. Administrators needn't like it, school boards might hate it, but they could be held legally responsible for any attacks on a gay kid if they failed to act. If they continued to do nothing, they could be prosecuted for criminal negligence and be fired.

Martin watched Danny heaving for breath as he pounded the keyboard, face soaked with tears.
Danny: U all I got Martin. Pleeze dont go.
Danny: PLEEZE!
Danny: MARTIN I LUV U PLEEZE DONT GO I DO ANYTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Martin watched and read, saw the tears, seen the desperation in those eyes.
Suddenly, nothing else mattered.

So Danny knocked a year off his age. I added a year to mine. And Dave? What does he know? Him and Danny was a long time ago.

Danny had said the one thing to Martin no one else ever said to him before, and that shocked and thrilled Martin.

Danny said he loved him.

And no rich kid like David Sciuoto was going to take that away from him.