The Trouble with Pretending

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle

email

I stretched under the covers and a shudder went through my body. I'd been up too late the night before, staring at apartment listings and school district maps. I glanced at the bedside clock and was surprised that it was after ten. I never sleep in that late, but then our old apartment wasn't good at dampening sounds from other rooms let alone neighboring apartments. As if on cue I heard a thump from upstairs and Micah's giggle. Apparently he and Alec were playing.

It had only been a few weeks since we'd come home for the summer, but Micah had gone through a sea change in that time. Epiphanies weren't common to kids his age, not consciously anyway. If anything I think something internal clicked for him that, if pressed, he couldn't explain. There was no doubt, though, that the lovable kid Alec and I had hoped was under all that thorny hurt was starting to shine through. It was a very good thing; Micah had brought us both to the edge of madness more than once.

With a yawn I picked up my phone and glanced at the search I'd been doing the night before. The Albany city school district was total crap. Like a lot of places they had more renters than owners and it made a difference in income level, tax base, upkeep in the area and problems like crime. Not all areas were in the same boat, but the schools all seemed to be on the same crappy footing. Unfortunately, neighboring districts that were significantly better were proving to be more expensive, reflected in higher rental prices.

I scrolled to my saved items and looked again at a home for rent. It was sort of in the country, in a very good school district. It would take Alec and I longer to get to class, but the benefits for Micah were obvious. Of course, I'd also read that changing schools at his age was kind of dicey. He was unique in that he hadn't really made friends in Albany, but I guessed kids lived in unstable circumstances more often in that district and they might be more accepting of him because of that. He'd already changed school a few times as well, given his history. Pluses and minuses wherever you looked.

I sighed as I looked at the house, a four bedroom ranch with a basement. It was more house than we needed, but Micah would have room to play and experience life outside the crowded city, and of course the school system was a significant upgrade. There was just no way to afford the rent. With a sigh I dropped the phone and rubbed my face. Peeling back the covers I slid out of bed and pulled on some pajama bottoms and a tee shirt before pocketing my phone and heading upstairs. Living in the basement wasn't the most fun thing I'd ever done, but I was grateful Alec's parents had been willing to house our little family for the summer.

My parents would likely have tried to do something, but Mr. Kutsenko was much handier with power tools than my dads ever had been. It had been easier for him to build out a bedroom in his basement than it would have been for my dads. They'd have hired someone and paid a horrible amount of money. I was glad they didn't have to do that, even though it would have been nice to live with them for a bit again. I was glad the pool was closed today to repair a problem with the filtration system. Even though we'd only been working a few weeks, I was ready for a three-day weekend.

“Gah!” Micah exclaimed as I entered the kitchen. Glancing in-to the living room, I saw that Alec had lifted him by his flanks and was holding Micah triumphantly.

“What are you doing?” I asked affectionately.

Alec smiled at me. “I'm introducing young Simba to his kingdom!” he said and held Micah a tad higher. Then Alec tried to imitate some of the language Disney had used in the Lion King as Micah spluttered and wiggled, forcing Alec to set him down or risk dropping him.

“Your husband has issues,” Micah said to me seriously.

I smiled as I passed them on the way to the bathroom. “I know, sweetheart. Did you sleep well?”

“Sure,” Micah agreed. “What are we doing today?”

“Let me use the bathroom, first,” I said pulling the door open and disappearing to do my business. That was my only real complaint about the basement – no ready bathroom. Once done and with freshly washed face and hands, I headed for the kitchen to make coffee.

“Can we go see Nik?” Micah asked.

I felt warm for a moment that he was excited to spend time with my brother. “Probably. You two have plans?”

“Yeah,” Micah said as he opened the fridge. “He said he'd teach me to swear in Romanian.”

“Oh, did he now?” I asked with a knowing grin.

“Micah! I told you, tell Sash you're learning to play soccer from Nik!” Alec admonished as he entered the kitchen.

“You're telling him to lie to me?” as I opened the cupboard to get a coffee cup. “Hey, where are all the cups?”

“Looks muggy out today, babe,” Alec said as he leaned on the counter next to me.

I looked at him. “If the coffee cups are out on the lawn, not only are you washing them all, but your mother will kill you.”

Micah burst out in giggles and Alec looked at me innocently. “Hey, I had my bowl of coffee, what makes you special?”

I narrowed my eyes. “Bowl of coffee?”

“It's muggy out, I told you,” he said, grinning. I nudged him aside to gain access to the window over the sink that gave a view to the yard on the side of the house. Sure enough, coffee cups littered the lawn. I turned and grabbed the front of Alec's shirt.

“I think we both know we don't fuck with Sasha's morning coffee. Don't we, dear?”

“You know, I'll go get you a cup,” Alec said with a laugh. I poked him on the arm and he wiggled away, laughing as he went outside. I turned toward Micah and raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, yeah,” Micah said with a grumble as he headed for the door. “It was his idea, though.”

“At some point you have to take responsibility for Alec's decisions,” I said seriously.

“I know — wait, what?” he asked, coming to a stop.

“There is no way you didn't see Alec was doing something weird. If you go along with it....”

“But he's my dad. The adult. Responsible, even, if you don't know him. How is it I'm responsible?” he asked.

“Because you're smart enough to know when Dad is getting up to crap,” I said with a little laugh.

He just shrugged and headed out the door to help Alec pick up the coffee cups. Muggy out, indeed. If we were the religious type, Alec would be the warning about not leading someone into temptation. Micah popped back in to hand me a cup and, rather than wait for Alec, I washed it and poured myself a cup from the pot.

I'd always liked the Kutsenko's home. Much like my own, it had a warmth that came from good people inhabiting it. It felt natural to relax at the kitchen table and drink my coffee in peace. With my husband, however, that was unlikely to last.

“I thought it was funny,” Alec said as he brought in the cups loaded in his arms. Micah, his partner in crime, rolled his eyes and opened the front of the dishwasher so they could load it up with the grassy cups.

“Jamie would have thought so,” Alec said.

“That kind of tells you everything you need to know, right?” Micah replied and I snorted, covered my mouth and then burst out laughing. Micah started to giggle and Alec shook his head and grinned.

“When do you want to head over to your parents'?” Alec asked.

“Head over? Why, for Nik to teach — oh, shit!” I said and groaned. “I forgot. We said we'd help clean up today since Matei arrives next Wednesday, didn't we?”

“Technically...,” Alec said and I squinted at him, glaring with one eye. He took on a look of mock fear. “Yes, yes we did.”

I snorted and went back to my coffee. Micah wandered out into the living room and Alec sat at the table with me. “How did your search go last night?”

I sighed. “I found a perfect place, but we can't afford it. It seems to be the same general story at the moment in the better school districts.” I drained my cup and stood to get a refill. “I really think keeping Micah in that district is going to do more harm than good, though.”

The back door opened and Lu entered with a bag from a local auto parts store. “Good news, they had it in stock. Here's your card back, Alec.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What's this?”

Alec was tucking his card back into his wallet. “Lu is going to give our cars the oil changes we have been neglecting. He ran out to get filters this morning.”

“Oh. Thank you very much, Lu,” I said appreciatively. “I always mean to, but so many of those shops are only interested in upselling me crap I don't need.”

“I know!” Lu said with a laugh. “I went one time — just once! — and they couldn't find the air filter box on my bus and then, once I showed them, admitted they probably didn't have a replacement for it anyway!”

“You went to an oil change place?” Alec asked skeptically.

“I was thinking of a part time job, but it was more hard selling of crap you don't need than actual work. I passed.” Lu shrugged and called out. “Hey, you coming, Micah?”

Micah hustled out into the kitchen. “Yeah! Ready!”

“Come on, then,” Lu said with a grin and they headed out the door.

“He's good with Micah,” I commented.

“Yup. He's got super powers. Runs in the family,” Alec said with an insolent grin. I indulged him for a moment and then sat back down to enjoy my second cup. It was hard to let my mind be still, though. I worried about Micah and finding a good school for him. I worried about this summer visitor, Matei, and how he'd affect my parents and my little brother. If my parents fell in love with this kid, it'd mean a huge commitment. They already had one teen who struggled with his past, how hard would it be with two? Especially when Nik had a thing for his friend? How would they—

“Hey, where'd you go?” Alec asked as he placed a hand on my forearm.

I let out a breath and smiled at him. “Just thinking. Over-thinking, maybe.”

I thought he'd press me for a moment, but he just nodded and let it go. Alec got on his phone and started fooling around and I finished my coffee in relative peace. Alec liked to think I made most of our decisions and he just carried them out. It could be a little exhausting, carrying around that kind of responsibility. Sometimes I had to force him to participate a bit more in the decision-making, but I suppose it was part of the give-and-take of our relationship. Of course that was a little misleading as we wouldn't have Micah or have gotten into half the crazy things we have if it weren't for Alec and his decisions.

Although I knew I was going to get dirty at my parents, I went and took a quick shower. After dressing I went out the back door to find my car running and Lu explaining something to Micah.

“So how did he do?” I asked Lu.

He grinned and patted Micah on the shoulder. “He's a natural.”

I smiled at Micah and jumped as Alec grabbed me by my sides before darting around me. “Ready to go, Micah?” he asked.

“Ah, wash your hands before you get in my car. If you want to see Nik, you better hurry, too,” I added.

Micah walked quickly to the house to get clean and Alec decided to try and give Lu a nougie. Lu responded by putting his greasy fingers on Alec's face and I burst out laughing at the streaks of black. Alec grinned and held his arms out to me, miming a big wet kiss while I laughed and told him he better not.

Eventually we made it to my parents and spent the better part of the afternoon straightening up and preparing for long term company. Tom and Kevin Buchanan, or as I call them my dads, had been working hard to set their home up for a second child, and went out to get a few basics like new sheets for Matei. They'd found a day bed and put it in my old room. Once I'd left, my parents had converted it into an office of sorts, but neither of them worked from home that often so I wasn't sure of the point. I'd read an article about men having to do things like that – make bedrooms into dens or man-caves or what have you to fill a perceived void. For his part, Nik was very excited to see his friend and was pretty hyper. Micah made for a good distraction as he convinced Nik to teach him to play soccer. When my parents got back from the store the boys, Alec included, were out back playing.

“Does he ever run down?” Tom asked me.

“Micah or Alec?” I asked and chuckled.

“Alec. He seems like an endless supply of movement.”

“Yeah. He's loving having Micah around. He's got a buddy to do all the goofy things he enjoys without getting looked at strangely.” I glanced at my dads and they were looking at me, waiting for an explanation. “Alec says it's okay to act like a kid if you're in the company of one.”

“Ah. Yeah, that actually makes a lot of sense.”

I turned and leaned against the counter. “So, Matei. Is there a plan?”

“I'm going to put these on the bed,” said Kevin as he left and my remaining parent sat at the dinette and regarded me steadily.

“We aren't completely sure, yet. This visit may be the limit of what we can do. No doubt you've realized your parents aren't getting any younger,” he said with a little sigh.

“Yes. It occurred to me,” I said and took a seat across from him. “That's why I'm asking. Taking in Nik was beyond amazing. Even though I've always had faith in you, it was asking a lot for that. It made me very proud and I love you guys to bits for doing that for Nik, and for me.”

He smiled at me indulgently. “We'd do anything for our kids, I think. But before you give us too much credit, we did this for us, too.”

I cocked my head. “How so?”

“I figured I would need someone to wipe my butt when I'm too frail to do it myself.”

I smiled. “I'll make sure you have a cute aide to handle all of that.”

“There, you see?” he asked and laughed and I joined him. I shook my head at his answer. Though I'm sure they had wanted kids, there must be some natural limit where they just want to be alone as well, right?

“So...you have even less of a connection to Matei than you had with Nik, and he has a host of potential problems.” I sighed. “I'm worried,” I admitted.

He smiled lightly. “You and Bobby couldn't be more different, yet at the core you're the same. Wonderful people.”

“I think it's how I was raised,” I said with a smile. “What worries me is that streak of wonderful will net you more than you can manage. Nik is moody and finding his way. He has trust issues. He's going to trust Matei right off the bat and Mr. Preda said he'd been doing things with adults for money. I worry he'll be a bad influence.”

“That's possible,” he acknowledged. With a sigh he said, “We can't protect Nik from everything. He's not a baby. At the same time, having a friend visit may be a real key for him when it comes to growing that trust for us, as he relates to adults. Another wrinkle, however, might be how...attached or attracted Nik is to Matei. He looked an awful lot like Nathan at first, but his mannerisms and voice are completely different. I'd imagine that, when he arrives, he'll also not look quite so much like Nate. That video connection wasn't the clearest. Still,” he said and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “If Nik has unresolved feelings, it might get messy.”

I thought for a moment. “Yeah. Nik's feelings might be all over the place. At least they aren't in the same room at night, not that sex is the worst that could happen.”

“We considered that,” he said with a small nod of his head. “At the end of the day, Nik is going to snuggle that boy if he wants to. Nik has never cared about the door to his room being open or closed and we'll casually keep it open and check on them. Show a little trust, but verify they aren't getting up to nonsense.”

“Sounds like you've thought of everything,” I said with a nod.

“We did raise two boys, you know. We're not entirely stupid,” he said and laughed at me. He glanced at the clock over the stove. “I should get dinner started.”

“Little early, isn't it?”

“Well, Bobby loves my pot roast,” he said and glanced at me from the corner of my eye.

Opening my eyes in surprise I asked, “Bobby is coming home?”

Beaming he replied, “He got the job in South Carolina and only has a few weeks before it starts. He's coming home to visit for a few days.” He glanced at the clock again. “The train arrives in Binghamton in two hours.” He stood up and pulled the roast from the fridge, seasonings and his favorite baking pan.

He looked out the back door at the three boys in the backyard and then toward me. “So. Micah. How are you doing with that big change?”

I glanced toward the back door and sighed. “Right now, pretty good. He's really made things stressful more times than I can count. I know it's not entirely his fault – some of it is basic kid crap, but it gets exacerbated by the trauma from his past that influences his other behavior.”

“Are you okay? Have you and Alec talked about this?” he asked while rinsing off the meat.

“Yes, we talk quite a bit, actually.” I glanced at my dad and smiled. “As much as Alec loves Micah – and I do too – he hasn't forgotten that he loves me, too. I don't think either of us would have been able to handle Micah alone. We both need breaks, sometimes. Personal time just to clear our heads.”

“That can't be easy with school as well,” he said doubtfully.

“Easy? No.” I sighed again and smiled at him. “Some days have been very hard. We try to keep in mind all the things that have happened to Micah to make him the way he is, but it's not always an easy thing. He's had some kind of huge shift over the course of the past two weeks, though. I'm sure he'll backslide a bit, but we're really getting to see that wonderful kid we hoped was under all that damage.”

“That's encouraging. Was there some event that triggered this?”

“He made a few friends on his own,” I said. “He has people he talks to at school, but no one he really bonded with. He spent some time with the family, and I think that was good for him. He likes Lu – I mean a lot. Lu has the touch at calming him down. But one of the boys he made friends with tested his trust, and I think Micah came through that better than we could have hoped.”

“Tested his trust? How's that?” he asked, setting the oven to pre-heat.

“He tricked Micah into a kiss.”

Dad looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Micah never struck me as...I mean, I guess you can never be certain, but....”

“I think Micah is pretty firmly on the straight side of things. I think he thought that was clear to his friends, and why he felt betrayed when that little trick got pulled on him.” I sighed and smiled at my dad as he worked. “But he worked through it. He came out stronger. Flexed a little bit, I guess, on his ability to give someone a break. Considering his past and his trust issues, it was pretty major.”

My dad nodded. “I hope his friend doesn't screw it up. Can you imagine how fast he could backslide?”

“Oh, I know,” I replied seriously. “It's the last thing I want – for me or for Micah.”

Alec and Micah came back in the house, Nik trailing behind with an amused expression on his face. Micah was accusing Alec of cheating, which he probably had just from the way he was defending himself. Whenever he was doing something like that, he was just over the top about it.

“Alec, were you cheating?” I asked, teasing.

“Yes! He was!” Micah exclaimed. He turned to me and held his hands out, excitedly making his case. “I was going to kick it in the goal and Alec picked me up and turned me upside down, then he kicked the ball in my goal!”

“There's nothing against it in the rule book,” Alec said looking at me and grinning widely.

“Alec,” I chided. “How is he going to learn if you're just trying to entertain yourself?”

“He had fun!” Alec protested. Micah shot him some side eye and Alec started tickling him, causing Micah to laugh. “See? Look how much he's laughing about the good time he had!”

I rolled my eyes, but couldn't help but to smile.

“So, Micah and I are going to take a walk,” Alec said with an innocent look.

I sighed. “You have to teach him to wash his face better if you're going to keep stuffing him with ice cream. He'll be a pimple faced diabetic at this rate.”

“Come on, Little Bit,” Alec enthused. “Nik, ice cream?”

Nik looked at our dad, who nodded once, and he happily fell in behind Alec. In an odd way it made me think of him as the Pied Piper, even if he'd bring the kids back.

“Bye, Dad,” Micah said as he departed with Alec.

“Well. That's a new development,” my dad said. My other parent came down from setting up Matei's bedding and joined us at the table.

“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “He made some friends in town, and I think they asked him about us. I'm not entirely sure about what transpired – Jamie is being a little tight-lipped.”

“Jamie?”

“Mmhm. The youngest Kirkwood is taking his summer buddy duties seriously. Anyway, Micah came to us and asked if we'd be his dads. If we'd stick with him.” I looked back and forth between my dads. It was sort of funny, they seemed to know which dad we were asking for by some tone in our voice – and if they were ever wrong, we'd just say 'other one' as kids. We never did the dad and papa thing, or Daddy Kevin / Daddy Tom – and that sounds bizarre and slightly kinky, in my opinion.

“He outright asked? Wow. How do you feel about that?”

“Good, mostly,” I said and laughed. “Alec only sees the benefits. He's completely excited. I'm worried about getting better schooling for Micah. He needs to keep seeing his therapist – she is so good with him!”

“Let me make some coffee. Did the sheets work out okay?” Tom asked Kevin.

“Yeah, they look good.” He turned to me. We got lost in small talk about the things my parents had bought or changed around the house in preparation for Matei's impending visit. Even though it was temporary, my parents were treating it like a big deal and that had to please Nik. The front door opened and Nik reappeared, licking his fingers.

“Ice cream hands? You're supposed to eat that with your mouth, not your fingers, Nik,” Dad teased. Nik just smiled back. Dad shooed him away to get cleaned up, and Nik bounded up the stairs two at a time.

“So, no regrets becoming a parent so young?”

I shrugged. “He's been so good lately, it makes the hard times not feel quite so bad. He's happy, for now.”

“There are always ups and downs,” he said while switching the coffee pot on. “Some things a kid will never live down with their parents.”

“We talking the burnt rug, again? Or the camera in the lake?” I asked dryly and they both laughed. We shared the coffee and chatted about lighter subjects until Nik reappeared, looking freshly scrubbed and excited. My parents stood and one stated the pot roast was in the oven and didn't need supervision, and that he needed a few things from the store and the other said he'd grab his keys. It was creepy how in sync they were sometimes.

“Nik, when does Matei arrive again? I forgot,” I said with a wink.

“Wednesday! He will come to the same airport that I did! We will go to New York City to get him!”

“Gee, I wonder if you're excited,” I said with a laugh. “So. Have you made any plans about what you and Matei will do?”

“I am having many ideas,” Nik said, his eyes lighting up. “I want to ask you to take us to the pool with you. I want to take him to baseball game, and I want to take him to see Elliot make the music. I want Lucien to show him how to fix a car and I want—”

I laughed and hugged him quickly. “It sounds like you want him to experience the family, like you have.”

His eyes narrowed in thought and he nodded slowly. “Maybe this is true. Matei, he always told us that his father was going to come for him. I never ask him why his father wait, but I think about this very much now.” He looked at me guilelessly. “Do you think, maybe, Matei tell a little lie? One to make him feel better?”

“Maybe,” I said with a nod. “I thought about our birth parents sometimes when I was a child. Sometimes I would get mad at our dads and I would think about how our birth parents might have been different.” I snorted with laughter. “All kids think their parents are mean at some point, or unfair. But,” I said, my voice softening, “I never felt abandoned or alone the way you and Matei must have, sometimes. I guess we tell ourselves what we need to to get by, so things don't hurt so much.”

“Yes,” Nik agreed softly. “But I will show Matei the family. He will see.”

“He'll see what, Nik?” I asked gently, worried about the answer.

He looked me in the eye and said, “He will see he is not alone. He does not need father who never comes for him. Papas will love him.”

My heart trembled. “That's a lot to ask, Nik. You don't know what Matei wants, anymore. You haven't seen him for a few years...and, Niki, papas aren't young anymore.”

He shrugged in confusion. “Papas are always old.” His eyes opened wide in alarm. “Is something wrong with papas?”

I put my hands on his upper arms. “No, sweetheart. Papas are healthy. But...they are putting all their energy into you. They love you and are trying to help you grow and learn. Nik, you don't trust a lot of adults because of the priests, remember? We talked about that?”

“Yes,” he said unwillingly. “But I trust papas.”

“Right, but you've had time with papas, too. Matei, he doesn't know them – or any of us. How long did it take you to trust the family? Matei is coming for the summer, is it fair to ask him to understand everything you've learned in so short a time?”

His eyes clouded with doubt and then he looked away. “I want him to stay with me, Alexandru. I miss him. Much.”

“I know, sweetheart. I want you to enjoy seeing him and to make up for lost time. I just...I want you to remember there are always limits – limits to what the family can do, what Matei might be ready for, even how much papas can do.” I put my fingers under his chin to lift his gaze to mine. “Don't be sad. I just don't want you to pin all your hopes on Matei staying forever and forget to have fun with him.”

He looked up at me with a determined expression. “Papas will help. They always help. Is who they are.”

He turned from me and went down into the basement, probably to get on a video game and block out what I'd said. I just hoped it wasn't going to bite him.

I went home and got cleaned up, then my parents called and asked if I was coming to dinner to see Bobby. There was no way I could miss that! I couldn't believe he'd snuck in a visit on me without mentioning anything. I wondered what he was up to, but then it struck me.

“Something wrong?” Alec asked.

I glanced at him across our little bedroom. “Bobby. He's bringing home a girl.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Because he didn't tell me he was coming.” The corner of my mouth quirked up. “Bobby can't keep anything from me. I wonder if he's finally fallen in love?”

“Huh. Guess we'll see. Maybe we can treat him to dinner on...my new credit card!” Alec said, raising his voice like a game show announcer.

“No. We do not use credit cards,” I said firmly.

“But it has zero percent interest.”

“You still have to pay it back. No.”

“But you can pick the photo you want on it – family picture!”

“So you can look at us while drowning us in debt? No!” I said, starting to laugh at him.

“But I'm dying to use it!” he said with a whine. “Can you believe the ice cream stand doesn't take plastic?”

“Completely. Easier to dodge taxes with cash sales,” I replied.

“No fun,” Alec complained as I sat down on our bed. He flopped beside me. “Have a good visit with your dads?”

“Yeah,” I said, smiling. I glanced at him and he raised his eyebrows in curiosity. “They were asking about Micah and how we were coping.”

“What did you say?” he asked, rather than cracking wise. I eased back so we were side by side and our fingers tangled together.

“I was honest. Micah has been very tough, at times. I know we've talked a few times about how close we were to breaking between school and the tons of things that had to be dealt with for Micah.” I sighed. “Visits from the social workers, therapy, issues from the school not to mention his homework to say nothing of ours. It was...a lot. Then you add in his emotional problems....”

We lay in silence for a short time, perhaps turning over those words or thinking of some of the things we hadn't felt as prepared for as we might have thought. Micah wasn't a bad kid – meaning he's not evil. He doesn't do things with the purpose of causing harm. He does things that come across that way because he's learned that this is how he gets what he needs or wants. It's how he protects himself, though he doesn't consciously realize it.

“I think we would have always regretted it if we'd given up on him,” Alec said quietly. “He's been a pain in the ass, sometimes. He fights us on stuff that kind of leaves a person to scratch their head and wonder why. I wish I could say I never doubted us or him, and maybe that makes me weak or unfit for him to some people...but I'm looking at the way he's acting right now and hoping it lasts. The way he feels right now. I can't help but feel a little...vindicated. Proud we took his early punches and that he's more stable.”

I sighed and rolled on my side as he turned his head to meet my gaze. “I love him, Alec. If anyone ever needed love and didn't know how to get any, it's him. I have to agree with you, seeing him right now gives me hope. I know he'll backslide when something goes wrong, and there will be times when I'll feel hopeless – that it's all for nothing. Right now, though...I guess I have to soak this in and save it for when we have trouble again.”

Alec's eyes roamed over my face. “You're a good dad,” he said and smiled. “I'll help if you ever do feel hopeless again, but I think our boy has turned a corner. I'm not saying he won't look behind him again, but I think he's over the hump on his biggest issue.”

“And that would be?”

“Trust. Trust that we weren't going to dump him back into the system. Trust because he threw his worst at us and we didn't give up. He's learning to believe in us – us as his dads, us as a family, us as a forever kind of idea.” Alec smiled widely.

I tousled his hair. “Your heart is bigger than your brain, sometimes,” I teased.

“I know. What else did you talk to your dads about?”

I sighed. “Matei. Nik. What their plans were with him. I'm afraid they'll also act like their hearts are bigger than their brains,” I said to him in a low voice. “Not only that, but Matei has been living the kind of life that makes me afraid of what sort of effect he'll have on Nik. Mr. Preda said he'd 'been suspected of speaking to men' to get money, and some petty theft. Given Nik's idea that being gay is all about sex, I'm worried this is a bad situation.”

Alec frowned. “You mean it's not just about the sex?”

I stared at him until he blushed slightly. “Alec, I think there are enough small-minded people in the world who equate being gay with having sex.” I sighed and threw myself back on the bed. “I'm worried Nik will never figure out that sex isn't being gay – being attracted to the same sex is. Falling in love with the same sex is. Sex is just sex, especially until he feels something other than lust for a person.”

“Speaking of sex,” Alec said.

I rolled my head toward him and narrowed my eyes. “Speak carefully, Kutsenko.”

He smiled and took a breath. “I think...I've been thinking...maybe it's time to stop what we were doing with Kale and Chase.”

I rolled back up on my side once more, surprised. “Okay. Walk me through your thoughts.”

He looked up at the ceiling and cleared his throat. “It doesn't seem right to say my feelings have changed, exactly. I still love them, sex with them has been good, and I think in some ways it might have been...necessary.”

“Interesting. Go on.”

He turned his face toward me. “There was a need before. It was complicated before we all got together, but it seemed to make sense once we were there. Things I used to not be able to say, I could. Maybe I showed them I loved them with my body before I could speak the words, but they know, now. I know they love us. Even though the sex is good, do we need that anymore?” He licked his lips. “Our lives are changing. They have a kid, we have a kid. We have school systems to think of, homework – and I don't feel like I need to tell them I love them anymore. I don't feel that...hole inside me where I wasn't able to communicate what I felt.”

I smiled at him. “Even if people know you love them, it's always good to remind them.”

The corner of his mouth pulled up. “I can do that without sleeping with them. I don't think I want that anymore.”

I placed a hand on his chest. “We should all talk, but maybe you're right. Life changes, so do the rules and the relationships we have. It's the only constant.”

We snuggled lightly, enjoying a rare moment of peace. I can't say the moments were rare strictly because of Micah, either – though the silence was suspicious in that regard. With all we had going on, we didn't have a lot of opportunities to just be.

“So what are you thinking about Matei?” Alec asked.

I hummed against his chest, listening to his heart. “Obviously he's going to get a chance to experience things here. Nik wants to give the family to Matei, to try and steer things.” I closed my eyes and let out a deep breath. “He wants Matei to stay, now. I don't know what that will look like in a month, after they have been around each other for a while. Nik may have changed, so might Matei.” I patted his pec and sat up. “I feel some responsibility, though. So I'll need to put in some time helping my dads manage over the summer.”

“You think they want this kid?”

I thought for a moment. “That's hard to say; they don't know him. I think they want to cement their relationship with Nik – because he's at that stage where friends are more important than parents in terms of who he listens to or goes to for advice. It's awkward because he has had the influence of all the adults in his life from the time he was very young, but now he's been tossed into a cement mixture of different attitudes. I think they feel, on the one hand they had to do this for Matei.”

“And on the other hand?”

I looked down on my husband. “My dads are two of the most generous, selfless people I've ever met. Of course they want to help someone in need. I just hope Matei wants the help they can give – and that they aren't too old for this shit.”

~TTWP~

“Micah, Nate will have more baseball games. We'll be here all summer,” I said with a trace of exasperation.

“I wanted to catch a foul ball,” he grumbled.

“I bet Nate will teach you how to hit, if you're not such a grump,” I told him.

Micah raised an eyebrow. “You think so?”

“Nate's pretty cool like that,” I told him. At least, it's what I'd heard. I was totally out of my depth with baseball. “Besides, after dinner you can play with Nik.”

“I'm ready,” Alec said, emerging from the basement.

“Nik's all about this guy coming in from Rome. It's all he talks about,” Micah complained.

“Romania, buddy. That's where Nik's from; how he got his cool accent. Remember?”

“Still,” Micah said, being stubborn.

“Don't you have any friends you miss from up north?” Alec asked as we settled into the car for the ride to my parents.

“Not really,” Micah replied confidently.

“Well, think of how you might miss Carlo and Dominic after school starts. You'd be happy to know you were seeing them again, right?” I said, getting a little tired of the conversation.

“I guess,” he replied moodily. I decided to let the matter drop, or at least that part of it.

“Well, I know your Uncle Bobby is looking forward to meeting you,” I told him.

“Of course he is,” Micah said without a trace of sarcasm. “Obviously.”

“Obviously?” I asked, turning my head and looking at him with amusement.

He looked at me as if I were dumb. “You have bragged about me. Right?”

“Well,” Alec said slowly. “Did we tell Bobby about the hatchet?”

“You didn't!” Micah said, straining forward to try and stuff his face between the seats. “You wouldn't!”

“Well, seems relevant,” I said, facing front to hide my smile. In the spring some branches had come down in the small yard of our rental in Albany. We'd decided to clean up the branches and other mess because if we saved the landlord an expense, he'd sometimes pass it on to us in our rent. I'd told Micah to use one hand on the hatchet while he chopped small branches off the larger branch and he'd nodded as if he understood – and obviously I should have watched him more closely. Then he'd promptly grabbed it with two hands and tried to raise it like Thor to smack that branch and smacked his forehead instead.

“You guys suck,” Micah said, flopping back into the seat.

We got to my parents' house and let ourselves in. Tom, one of my dads, had always been the more domestic of the two. He enjoyed cooking and home improvement. Literally, it was nothing to him to decide to tear out part of a wall and make a built-in bookcase out of it for a weekend project. He also had a few cookbooks stuffed with his favorite recipes, sometimes things that had been handed down in his family. I didn't have his touch in the kitchen, but I did develop a taste for good food.

“Hi,” I said to him, hugging him from the side as he worked at the stove. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Hi,” he greeted me. “Actually, can you and Alec break out the outdoor furniture after dinner? Apparently we're hosting lunch with your grandparents tomorrow since they haven't seen Bobby or met your little bit of trouble,” he said, looking over his shoulder and smiling at Micah. Micah gave him a dubious look and brushed his bangs a bit. Probably wondering if his Grandpa Tom was referring to a hatchet incident.

“No problem,” Alec said. “I'll go check out the shed and -”

“No,” I said firmly. Alec stopped moving sort of like a robot whose battery had died. “You will drag Nik and Micah along, all three of you will get filthy before Bobby gets here. No.”

Alec turned and raised an eyebrow. “That was kind of creepy. Like psycho creepy.”

“Don't you mean psychic?” Micah asked.

Alec looked at him seriously and nodded with gravity. “Little of both.”

“You're impossible,” I grumbled.

“Look at all these people!” my other dad sad, entering the kitchen. He started handing out hugs and talking to the boys, alternately poking both Nik and Micah and inducing laughter from them at his dad-joke style. That didn't last very long before I heard the front door opening and my brother calling out.

“Anyone home?”

“Back here!” called out the dad who was cooking as he wiped his hands. I headed toward the front of the house because the kitchen wasn't large enough for all of us. Besides, I was anxious to get a look at the girl I was certain would be on Bobby's arm. I wasn't disappointed. The next few minutes were a tangle of hugs, greetings and introductions. Alec took on his role of proud parent, introducing Micah as if he were the second coming. I smiled indulgently, yet kept my eye on the brunette beside Bobby. She was pretty, with a hair style that seemed like it would be hard to maintain at home, so she probably had it done just for the trip. I liked that, wanting to impress Bobby's family.

“So, everyone, this is Cassandra,” Bobby said with a wide smile. “Sandy, these are my parents, Tom and Kevin Buchanan, my little brother Nik, my other little brother Sasha and his husband, Nub. And this little devil must be my nephew,” Bobby said raising his eyebrows and towering over Micah.v

“Nub?” Micah asked, completely ignoring Bobby's attempt to loom.

“Easy, Green Giant,” Alec said with a snort as he and Bobby shook hands. “It's nice to meet you, Sandy.”

“Oh, charmed,” Sandy said, her voice wavering a bit.

“Dinner is ready,” my dad said as he untied his apron. “Bobby, would you like to get settled in Sasha's old room while we get the food on the table? Give you a second to freshen up?”

Bobby handed his car keys to Nik and asked if he'd grab the bags from the trunk. Micah hopped in to help and the two boys headed outside while Bobby gave Sandy a quick tour so she could find the bathrooms and such. Alec, my dads and I headed back to the kitchen to start ferrying the food out to the table.

“Told you,” I said to Alec.

“Told him what?” Tom asked.

“He knew Bobby was bringing a girl home,” Alec said. “Psycho-psychic, I'm telling you.”

“Did you hear the way her voice shook?” Kevin, my non-cooking dad, asked. “I wonder what's with the nerv – Oh, shit! You don't think she's pregnant, do you?”

“Don't say things like that,” Tom said with a groan. “I'm not ready to be a grandpa.”

“You already are,” I pointed out.

“I used to like you,” he said dryly before shooing us along with our covered dishes. The boys brought the bags in while we were arranging the hot platters and they were chattering as they approached the table.

“Dad,” Micah said seriously, looking at me. “Nik says he's my uncle and I have to do what he says. Is that true?”

Bobby snickered as he entered the room with Sandy, waiting for me to reply. I'm not sure why he was amused, it's not like I was Alec and would mess with Micah. There's a reason he comes to me for most of his questions.

“He's my brother and you're my son, so he is your uncle,” I said. “But you're also pretty close in age, so I wouldn't worry about doing as he says.” I gave Nik the hairy eye and he just laughed at me.

“Actually, Nik,” Bobby said, putting a beefy arm around his shoulders. “All the pressure is actually on you. As an uncle, you have to set a good example for your nephew and protect him. It's kind of like being an older brother or being the fun parent.”

“I'm the fun parent!” Alec protested.

“What does that make me?” I asked.

“The not-fun parent?” Bobby asked and laughed. I stuck my tongue out at him.

“Nik and Micah, please go wash your hands for dinner.”

“Okay, Grandpa Kevin,” Micah said sweetly. My dad narrowed his eyes and then looked back and forth between Alec and I.

“I'm not sure which one of you put him up to that, which is kind of scary.”

“I've been telling you about the troubled streak your son has,” Alec replied seriously. I shoved him.

I glanced at Sandy who seemed nervous. “I'm sorry, Sandy. I'd like to say we're not always like this, but I'm not much of a liar.” A chuckle raced around the table, the boys joined us – pushing and shoving each other as they came down the hall from the bathroom – and the meal started awkwardly.

“Y'all don't say grace?” Sandy asked, her tone a bit shocked.

My dads glanced at each other before Tom addressed her. “We don't normally, but if you'd like to say a few words, that would be lovely.”

I placed a hand over Micah's as he was largely ignoring the tension in favor of the food. He looked at me with a question on his face and I whispered to him to hold on a moment.

“Oh. I, ah, I don't want to hold you up,” Sandy sputtered.

“Please,” my dad said and we waited in silence as Sandy said a small prayer thanking God for the food, company and the safe trip she and Bobby had just made. A murmur of 'amen' filled the room and was immediately replaced by the sound of food being placed on plates, requests to pass items and so forth. Conversation was fairly lively, though Sandy was quiet and didn't volunteer much. She glanced more than once at Micah, and I can't swear to it, at Alec and I in quick succession. It was weird. Each time she looked at Micah, either my husband or myself was next. She was coming off as an odd duck.

Once dinner was cleared the boys – and when I say that, I include Alec – went downstairs to play video games. Alec claimed he was supervising, but he fooled no one. I helped load the dishes into the dishwasher while Bobby put a pot of coffee on.

“Sandy is very pretty,” I said to him. He leaned back against the counter and smiled at me. I continued, “Seems a bit nervous.”

“Conservative background,” he said.

A frown creased my forehead. Conservative in and of itself wasn't a bad word. There were plenty of things I can agree should be handled conservatively – like money, trust and a few other things. It seems lately, though, when someone is from a conservative background it's a euphemism for small minded and a particular kind of religion.

“Don't be judgy,” he said, waving a finger playfully.

“I don't think I have been,” I said and raised an eyebrow. “Conservative is almost a dirty word these days.”

“I know,” he said and sighed lightly. “She's a good person. Just get to know her.”

“What did you think I'd do, Bobby?” I asked mildly. “Start an argument? Denounce her for the way she was raised? I think you know me better than that.”

“I do,” he said with a short nod. “I also know you have a son, now. I know he's had a hard road and he'd probably be upset if anyone called his family life into question, and I know how you'd react to that.” He tapped the side of his head with a finger. “I'm also sure some questions and loose fears like that are swirling in your head, and I wanted to put you at ease. I brought her home to meet the parents, Sash. Daddies didn't raise no dummies.”

I guffawed. “Those southern folks are already affecting your speech. Pretty soon it'll be 'howdy' and 'Murica' all over the place.”

“Nah,” he said with a chuckle. “I don't forget where I come from.”

I grabbed some cups and Bobby brought the coffee pot and a trivet back out to the table.

“Bobby, she's a delight. Where did you find her?” Tom gushed.

“He's biased,” Kevin retorted playfully. “She complimented his cooking.”

“Blue light special,” Bobby said with a a laugh. “They had her right next to the outdoor gear, kind of well hidden, so I got a deal.”

“Bobby,” she said with a little scoff and a blush. She looked at me and said, “The food was really good, though. My friends all told me I'd better pack things to eat because northern folks don't know how to find their way around a kitchen!”

I laughed. “As long as I can remember, Dad's been making great food.

“Well,” Kevin said consideringly. “There was that one time with the turkey.”

“Once! One time!” Tom said with a laugh and a shake of his head. He looked at Sandy and said, “I was trying to teach the boys how to cook. When it gets close to Thanksgiving the turkeys go on sale so we usually buy a few and keep them frozen.”

“Oh, I know!” Sandy said with a smile. “My mamma does that, too! Daddy bought her this freezer – you could fit a few dead bodies in it, I swear!”

“See? We could have used that, the way Bobby used to eat.”

“Hey, now,” Bobby said with a chuckle.

“Anyway,” Dad interrupted. “The whole day was a mess. My father was still resisting the idea that he needed any help with walking and he'd fallen down, so my mother was frantic on the phone with me while he bellowed in the background that he didn't need any help. I was trying to walk the boys through helping to get the turkey in the oven while managing that and we forgot one thing – and my husband never lets me forget!”

My other dad took a sip from his coffee and said in a calm voice, “Removing the neck and giblets seems kind of basic to me. What do you think, Sandy?”

“Oh!” she said brightly. “I see what you're doing, here. You are a bad man!” She smiled and giggled at my dad, who snapped his fingers in a playful gesture of having been bested. “I have to say, though, that considering how Bobby cooks these days? Well, that makes total sense.”

“Oh really?” Bobby asked, leaning back in his chair and putting an arm behind her, resting on the top of her chair. “I don't recall you complaining before.”

“Unless you made reservations, you likely didn't see me eating much, either,” she said with a sweet smile and we burst out laughing amid Bobby's amused protestations.

Micah came thundering upstairs and scooted over to the table. “Grandpa Tom? Is there dessert?”

Tom raised an eyebrow at Micah. “There could be. If there was, would you want some?”

“Yes, please!” Micah said with enthusiasm.

Tom stood up, smiling at Micah. “Why don't you let the other two know while I grab the dessert. Honey? If you're done picking on me, you going to get the plates and forks?”

As my parents left the room and Micah thundered back downstairs, Sandy looked at me with a weird look. I mean weird in that I had no idea what it meant.

“You know, at first I thought Bobby was teasing me when he said he had two daddies.” She glanced at him and then back to me. “He tells some tall tales.”

“Really?” I asked, shifting on my chair and feeling a little uncertain of where she was heading.

“Oh, sure! I mean, I figured you'd already know about his penchant for stretching the truth!” she said and laughed merrily. “He told me this long, complicated story about how your...uh, husband.” She paused having tripped over the word. “How he had to fight off all these people for you. He made him sound like one of those Lifetime specials that's about romance and torture all at once!”

I shifted on my seat and leaned forward so I could speak at a lower volume. “Please don't bring that up in front of Alec. He got beat up pretty badly and more than once, and yes – he was more or less defending me. I'm sure Bobby didn't embellish very much – he actually saw him in the locker room after those animals had beaten him with a belt, not me. It gave Alec nightmares for years, so please...don't bring it up around him.”

She looked caught for a moment, as if wondering if I were backing up Bobby's story just to tease her. I leaned forward again.

“Please. My husband is an amazing man and he'd walk across fire for me, our son or anyone that needed help. This isn't a joking matter.”

She brought a hand up to her chest and glanced at Bobby, who wore a serious expression. She looked back at me. “It's....true?”

“Yes.”

Here eyes went wider. “I...I've heard stories, but I was always told those kinds of things don't really happen. I know my brother's friends have boasted about, you know, straightening someone out, but I didn't think...this is real?”

Like a herd of wild animals Nik, Micah and Alec burst from the basement, all teasing each other and protesting jibes. My parents returned with a couple of pies, plates, a bowl of sliced fruit and whipped cream as a topping. A change came over Sandy as everyone retook their seats. She seemed not just shocked, but as if some fundamental pillar that held her world up had been kicked out from under her. I glanced at Bobby, wondering just what the heck was going on here.

“So, Micah,” Bobby said, leaning forward and surrounding his plate of pie with his big paws as if to ward someone off. “I hear you want to be a dentist.”

Micah jolted comically. “A dentist? No.”

“No? I thought it was a dentist. Orthodontist?”

“Um, no,” Micah said, shaking his head.

“Orthopedist?”

Micah tilted his head. “Isn't that for feet?”

“That's an oncologist. Right?” Bobby paused and looked at Sandy.

“What? Oh, foot doctor? That's a podiatrist. You know that,” she said, seeming to recover slightly. She looked at Micah. “He's teasing you, sweetheart. What is it you think you might want to do when you're all done with college?”

“Nate will teach me how to bat, so I'll probably be a baseball player,” Micah said off-handedly. “He's really good, you know. He's been scouted by the major leagues already and he's not even done with high school.”

“Really? My...well, what do you know?” she said with a bit of an off-kilter giggle. “I thought you might be interested in drama or hairdressin'.”

Micah looked at her with a blank expression. “Why would you put your hair in a dress?”

Nik leaned over to me. “What is hair dress? Is her clothes made from hair? What kind of hair?”

I chuckled a bit, but felt uncomfortable at her silly assumptions. “She means someone who works with hair for a living. You know, cutting, styling.” I mimed scissors cutting and ran my hand through his hair.

“Drama? Like drama club?” Micah said, picking up the conversation. “I don't like being in front of people. Who told you I'd do those things? Dad?” he asked, rounding on Alec.

“No, Little Bit,” Alec said quietly, his fork resting forgotten on his slice of pie. “That's what you call an assumption. It's based on a stereotype.”

Sandy was looking uncomfortable again. She looked at Bobby, a glint of desperation in her eyes.

“Sandy,” Bobby said quietly, placing his fork on his plate and resting an enormous paw over her hand. “Alec is in school for social work. Sasha is already a licensed masseur. Just because Micah's dads are gay, doesn't mean Micah is, and it doesn't limit what they can be.”

Sandy's eyes were wide as she looked around the table.

“Sandy,” Bobby said gently, pulling her attention back to him. “You're a sweet person. You've kind of lived in a bubble down there in your little town. I hope it's starting to sink in that I have dads, and I'm not gay either. We can definitely check that off the list, right?”

“Oh, lord, Bobby!” she groaned and put a hand on her forehead. He chuckled and pulled her against him lightly.

“Alec was on the same football team I was. I wanted you to meet everyone because, well, I think you're the kind of person who will change their opinions when they get new evidence.” He chuckled a little. “You've been hiding a little, saying I'm pulling your leg about having dads. About my brother and his husband. Look around you. Look at the home I grew up in. Isn't it just like your parents' home? Pictures on the wall of my family? Family dinner? You may be the only woman at the table, but doesn't this feel like it does when your parents put on a big meal?”

Her lips bunched, relaxed and repeated the movement. “I'm feeling a little pressured, right now,” she said quietly.

“Do you mind if I ask why?” Tom asked, forking a bite of pie he'd never admit was store bought.

Sandy took a few breaths. “I guess I didn't want to believe. Maybe I didn't want to think about it. I'm not sure my family would ever understand that I...that we....”

“We're being kind of awful,” Kevin said suddenly. “Why don't we change the subject for now, eh?”

Sandy shook her head sadly. “No. I mean, I appreciate what you're trying to do and... I appreciate it. Bobby is right, though. I've been ducking my head in the sand and not thinking about things.” She looked up at us and a weak smile flashed across her face. “Bobby is the sweetest man I've ever met. He's a gentleman, but not like what my parents think. I know when he's hurting, and he's not afraid that I know about it. He doesn't say anything to or about another woman that he wouldn't say to me or in my presence. He's a good, honest, decent man.”

“Just don't let him near your rug with any candles,” Kevin said in reply, smiling a bit to ease the tension.

The same weak smile flashed across her face and was gone. “Bobby has been teasing me about this trip for weeks about meeting y'all. I acted like he was teasing, especially in front of my family. When Bobby isn't there I tell them all what a storyteller he is.” She hesitated, glancing at Bobby and back to my dads. “I don't know how they'll react when they find out this is all true.” She held a hand up as if testifying. “I admit I believed a lot of things. Maybe I am a little small-town in my thinking. I have a lot of...notions about what gay people are all about. But...you raised Bobby. That kind of makes it hard to reconcile with what I think I know. Or thought. I don't know.”

Silence held for a moment, one that stretched. Bobby looked over at Micah. “So. Oncologist?”

Micah frowned. “Isn't that a cancer doctor?”

Bobby furrowed his brow. “I thought that was a Narcoleptic.”

Micah's eyes went wide. “That's someone that has sex with dead people!” He paused and looked around at the shocked faces. “I mean, isn't it?”

“That, uh, is necrophilia, honey,” Sandy said with a little smile at the corners of her mouth.

“Oh. Right,” Micah said, a little embarrassed.

“How about you, Nik? What kind of job do you think you might want?” Bobby asked, switching kids.

“I am going to be translator for the United Nations,” he said. “I know Romanian, now I must finish learning English.”

“Well, if you ever manage that there are plenty of people right here in the U.S. you can teach,” Bobby said with a chuckle.

Sandy looked at the clock and let out a small sigh. “I'll have to excuse myself for a minute. I have to call my mamma before it gets too late – I told her I'd call when we got here, but it's been non-stop, hasn't it?” she said and laughed lightly. She stood and walked to the front door, letting herself out onto the porch.

I looked at Bobby steadily, my dads fussed with their pie, but Alec was having none of it. “So. She doesn't approve of us, huh?”

Bobby leaned forward, grasping his hands together. “She's learning. She's the kindest soul you'll ever meet. She doesn't even know that she's met gay people before. Her family kind of acts like gay people don't exist – almost worse than calling them out, if you ask me. But she's charmed me, no doubt.” Bobby paused. “I'm just hoping I'm right. Statistics say that people become more accepting of gay people when they actually know one. Same thing for other cultures and what have you.”

Alec shifted uncomfortably. He wasn't happy, but wasn't sure how to express it with my parents there and still be respectful. I didn't have that problem.

“I'm disappointed, Bobby,” I told him. Micah's jaw dropped and he stared at me as I looked across the table at my eldest brother. “You brought home a girl to meet our parents who thinks we don't exist? Who thought what you said of your family was a joke?”

He frowned. “I think she wasn't sure which way to jump. Asking someone to go against their programming is one thing, against their parents is another. If it wasn't for how she felt for me, she wouldn't have been in that awkward middle ground.”

I shook my head. “My heart bleeds for her, Bobby. Really.” He opened his mouth, but I kept going. “Sure, okay, she was raised that way. What, exactly, is attractive to you about someone raised that way? With an entire family that thinks that way? What a family reunion we'll have!”

Bobby pursed his lips, his frown deepening. “Change is inevitable. Real change comes slow. Maybe her family will never understand. Maybe they won't ever accept my side of the family. She will. I'm telling you, Sash, she's a good soul, and I won't have you run her down.”

“Run her down?” I snapped. “She's asking my son if he's a walking stereotype because he has dads! She's assuming his sexuality like we put something in the water to magically change him!”

Bobby sighed. “I expected you to be more level-headed, Sash.”

I stood. “And I didn't expect you to want to join a bigoted family! Is that what you have to do to fit in down in South Carolina?”

“Oh, God.” Heads collectively turned to see Sandy standing in the doorway, hand over her mouth.

I was angry, yes, but I was also feeling embarrassed and stupid. “Micah, take your plate into the kitchen, please. We're going home, now.”

To his credit, he didn't grumble about not being quite done, just stood and shoved pie in his mouth as he went into the kitchen.

“Sasha, maybe we....” Tom trailed off. I felt his confusion, perhaps hurt to have Bobby bring someone like her into our home or at the way I'd taken the conversation. To subject my parents to someone who thought they were some kind of joke; or worse, hoped they were.

“No, Dad,” I said. “I should go. I'd take you with me if I could.” With a final shake of my head I gathered my family and left.

The ride home was quiet, and I didn't mind at all that Micah joined my father-in-law in the living room to watch a late baseball game. I headed down to our room with Alec trailing behind me.

“I haven't seen you that upset in a while,” Alec said quietly as he kicked his shoes into the corner.

I shook my head and blew out a breath. “At first I thought it was some kind of joke. I honestly didn't know what to feel. What does it say,” I asked, turning toward Alec, “when her family acts like people just don't exist? They are just erased – then you don't have to worry if they are persecuted, if they get sent to conversion torture or get beaten for the crime of saying who they are. What sort of people shoved their heads so far up their asses – and somehow, Bobby is making excuses. How?”

Alec sighed. “I don't know.”

My eyes felt wet, but I was more disappointed than I was sad. “I don't understand Bobby making excuses for her. For her family. Is this really the best he could do?”

I started getting changed for bed, and it wasn't long before Alec stepped up behind me and embraced me. The warmth of his body pressed to mine was a comfort. I leaned my head back against his shoulder and he kissed my head, just behind my ear.

“I love you,” he said quietly.

“I love you, too,” I said softly.

“What...the things I heard weren't god-awful. Stupid, maybe. She seemed dazed. What...set you off?”

I sighed and lifted my hands to cover his, which were laying one atop the other over my stomach. I ran my fingertips over his knuckles and soaked in the feel of him pressed to me.

“Sash?”

“Bobby told her what happened to you,” I said, the last word choking in my craw. I swallowed and cleared my throat. “He told her. She thought he was making it up. That things like that don't really happen. She thinks....”

“I'm here,” he said quietly.

I turned to face him, studying his face and looking into his eyes. “You might not have been. Who knows what ignorant people will do? You could be dead and that...woman...wouldn't believe it. Why do we have to try so hard to be seen? Why can't people just live without...why?”

He put his hand on the back of my head and I fell forward, tears leaking from my eyes.

“People are people, Sash,” he said quietly. “Good ones, bad ones and sometimes worse than the bad ones, the dumb ones. We can't make them change – but maybe Bobby has the right idea. If he thinks he sees something there to love, and if she loves him back? Well, maybe there will be some change. I mean, it's Bobby, right? He's had a lot of girlfriends. Maybe...we have to give him the benefit of the doubt, here.”

“I don't know,” I said softly.

Alec chuckled, his chest rumbling.

“What?” I asked, sniffling.

“I was just trying to picture Micah in a salon, trying to tease some old lady's hair into a beehive.”

He snickered and I chuckled a little. It was a funny idea, no doubt. The door to the basement opened and Micah came down the stairs two at a time. He walked over and hugged us both and we included him in our hug. He leaned back a bit and looked at me.

“Why are you crying?”

“I was just a little upset,” I said and wiped my eyes with the back of my hand. “Is the game over?”

“Yeah. Grandpa is going to bed. Are you guys going to watch a movie or something?” he asked hopefully.

I looked at Alec who shrugged, leaving it to me. “Sure,” I told Micah. He let out a happy sound and ran up to change for bed. Alec and I settled in on the bed and he started flipping through the offerings on a streaming service. I rested my head on his chest and drew comfort from him. Micah was back a few minutes later. I knew we weren't going to watch an entire movie. Micah would get settled and pass out before the opening music was over. Maybe it was his version of a sleepover, but if you want me to be honest – what I would like to think it is – is that he knows I'm hurting and he wants to be close to me. Maybe to protect me. To make me feel better. To provide solace in the best way he can.

I could be wrong, of course. But I've believed in Micah's better nature too long, worked too hard with him to peel back the layers of crap to find the joy inside him. So I'm going with this.

“Dad?” he asked.

“What?” Alec asked, slipping through selections on the screen.

“No, other one,” he said.

“What, sweetheart?” I asked and ran my fingers through his hair.

“Are you...should I be a hair dresser? Or do I have to do drama because I have dads?”

“Micah, you can do whatever you want as long as you're safe and happy,” I told him with a little laugh. “That's all I ask.”

“That lady. She made it sound like I should have to or something,” he persisted.

“She was using a stereotype, and not a very accurate one,” I told him. “That kind of thing can't hold you back, so don't worry about it.”

Alec clicked on a movie and I grabbed the control from him, backing out of it.

“What?” Alec asked innocently.

“Micah's not watching that,” I said sourly.

“Aww!” Micah whined. “Why? Does it have boobs in it?”

“I don't know,” I admitted. “But they do shoot an awful lot of people close up. Who cares if you see boobs? It's just a body.”

“Boobs are cool,” Micah said with a nervous giggle.

I clicked on another movie and the studio name came up on the screen.

“Will you call Nate for me? I want to learn how to hit.”

“Sure, sweetie,” I said.

Ten minutes later he was asleep, and I was not long afterward.

~TTWP~

Sunday morning I was surprised to find I'd slept late again, though I still felt tired. I'd had a hard time falling asleep thinking about Bobby and Sandy. Sometimes I find that I instinctively have a problem with a situation, but it takes a little time for me to articulate it well. I think that's why people think that I am calm in these situations, because I don't tackle them immediately. Last night I couldn't keep my mouth shut, but it was harder to articulate the why of all that. Yes, I'd definitely been angry about her disbelief about Alec's ordeal – how in the world could anyone ever take the story of someone getting the crap knocked out of them as 'storytelling'?

Questions like that and the dull, steady anger they invoked had served to keep me up and to give me dreams I could recall, and wasn't happy about. They were confusing situations where I had no power. Too many sad faces, too many 'nice' people letting things just happen. It was almost as if people were programmed to not see the crap going on around them, to put it out of their mind as soon as they no longer saw it.

I crawled out of bed and pulled on sweats and a tee shirt. I felt groggy as I made my way up through the empty kitchen and over to the bathroom. From there I shambled to the coffee maker, pleased to find three quarters of a pot ready to go. I poured a cup and sat down, reveling in the quiet. I didn't know where anyone was, but for the moment I was okay with that. I sat and sipped my coffee and let my mind stay blank.

I'm not sure how long I stayed like that – two cups of coffee, however long that took – and then I took a shower and got myself dressed. I knew I'd have to show up at my parents' house, if nothing else but to see my grandparents. I wasn't sure where my parents came down on this whole thing. No doubt they were torn, wanting the best for Bobby and still trying to be polite.

Once I was dressed I called Alec to see where they'd gotten off to.

“Hey, you're awake!” he said a little out of breath.

“Yeah. I had a hard time getting to sleep. I still didn't sleep well,” I told him. “Where are you guys?”

“I got in touch with Nate. Micah and I have been over at the school with him while he gives Micah pointers.”

“Oh, okay. Well, we should go to my parents for that get-together with my grandparents.”

“You know, I'm not so sure your grandparents want to see me. Your grandfather always swears at me.”

“Well, he does know you,” I conceded and laughed as Alec protested. “I think we should all go, at least for a little bit. Things will be tense between Bobby and I, maybe, but I still owe it to my parents and grandparents. Besides, if he swears at you, imagine how he'll handle Micah?”

“Oh. Yeah, must see TV right there. Okay, we'll be home soon to shower.”

“Where are your parents?” I asked.

“They wanted to go to this farmer's market and then they were talking about going to this winery for a tour.” Alec snorted. “Bunch of drunks.”

I laughed and he joined me. “Okay, see you guys in, what? Ten minutes?”

“Uh, more like thirty. That okay?”

“Well,” I said with a sigh.

“You're breaking up.”

“Alec. Blowing into the phone doesn't work when you're standing still.”

“If you can hear me, see you in thirty,” he said, raising his voice as if he were actually being cut off. I sighed and hung up the phone.

I was startled by the doorbell and walked toward the front of the house. I hadn't thought to wonder if Lucien was home – I'd barely seen him this weekend, as a matter of fact. I opened the front door and was surprised to find Bobby and Sandy on the front porch.

“Hi,” Bobby said with a bit of forced cheer.

“Bobby,” I said, wondering what he was doing. “Sandy, good morning.”

“Uh, I thought we should all talk. I mean, there's been a lot of discussion, but I – we – thought it would be a good idea to deal with this. Just not in front of the grandparents.”

Suddenly, I thought that was a capital idea. “Sure, come on in. Coffee?”

“I'm good. Sandy?”

“No. No, thank you,” she said quietly, but firmly.

I led them into the living room and we sat down – I in a chair and they together on the couch.

“Last night was uncomfortable, and I think you were rude,” Bobby said, one hand holding hers and one on his knee. “I hope you've reconsidered.”

I let out a breath. “You know why I haven't changed my mind, Bobby? Because it seems they are just so nice about it.”

Bobby frowned lightly. “Meaning?”

I shifted my attention to Sandy. “Sandy, didn't you say all the things Bobby told you, that you presented them to your family like he was a big jokester?”

She looked at me uncertainly, as if I were tricking her somehow. “Yes, I did. A storyteller I told them.”

“Even when he told you how my husband was brutally beaten for speaking to a gay man – me? You said to me 'those kinds of things don't really happen'.”

“Sasha,” Bobby grumbled in a warning tone.

“Do you know,” I said quietly. “I've been insulted, discriminated against, and my husband was beaten for being who he is. Those people are terrible. I'm sure you don't believe in that kind of thing. Right?”

“Well, no, I don't as a matter of fact,” she said, regaining some of her strength.

“And I guess you're the only one, right? You said you heard your brothers joke about having to 'straighten someone out', isn't that right?”

She shifted uncomfortably. Bobby made to stand and I held a hand out to still him, though it didn't.

“I think this was a mistake,” Bobby growled. “She's nice. Sweet. Why can't you give her the benefit of the doubt?”

“Because,” I said, my voice dropping an octave. “When people are so nice about it that they think it doesn't happen or that real bigotry is so rare – in fact that being labeled a bigot should only go to the most direct, mean-spirited of acts...well, that's just enabling it, isn't it?”

“I'm done,” Bobby said gruffly, but Sandy gasped. I studied her for a moment as Bobby took a step and then seemed to realize she wasn't rising to go with him.

“Sandy?” he asked.

She looked at me, and I waited for Bobby to turn his gaze to me before I spoke to him. “Do you remember that sign about the Nazis? The one where it says first they came for this particular kind of citizen, but I didn't protest because I wasn't one of them?” I stood up. “Pretending we don't exist, that we aren't people while being so darned nice about it – that kind of apathy is pretty insidious. You want to join a family like that? You think it's okay that she shoved her head in the sand and pretends Alec and I can't be real? Did you realize South Carolina just made it legal to discriminate against gay couples seeking to adopt?” I hissed at him, “It's that kind of thinking that allows for it. You know why? Because people like that think 'there aren't really any gays anyway, no harm at all to pass that'.”

“That's not fair!” Bobby said, raising his voice. “She just needed to see, then she'd understand and things will be different!”

“Excuse me,” Sandy said quietly, placing a restraining hand on Bobby's forearm. She directed her gaze at me and said, “You have said some mean, vile and truly awful things. I hate to say even more that you're right. When my brothers rough up someone and say that they are gay, that they are straightening them out, well, I thought they kind of were. Like maybe getting punished makes you see that's not how you ought to be.”

I glared at Bobby as he slumped slightly.

“What you're saying reminds me of another quote, something about all it taking for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing. So I have to say, Sasha, that yes you're right. But I also have to say Bobby is, too.” Her lip trembled and she said, “I have stuck my head in the sand. I know it'll be a big to-do with my family. But I love your brother. Maybe...I can be a light to my family. Maybe change is possible, even if it's slow.”

I sat back in my chair, my heart beating fast. Bobby slowly sank down beside her, taking one of her hands in his. “It won't be easy, Sandy,” he said quietly. “Your family has traditions and religion on their side.”

“I know,” she said softly, then turned toward him. “But you were raised by your daddies. You're not gay, and you're a good man. One who had faith in me to rise above myself. That seems like it's worth fighting for.”

Silence floated in the air for a not insignificant amount of time. Bobby sighed and said, “Sandy, this was just the beginning. Your family will probably never really embrace mine. But you know some gay people, and I think you could learn a lot from them.”

She looked furtively at me. “You mean your family?”

He shook his head. “Your niece, Samantha. She was on my field hockey team this year. We used Instagram messenger to send pictures of the games and update everyone on practice and things like that. I went to send her a message about a game and saw her photos...she has a very pretty girlfriend, but she can't tell her family. She's alone, Sandy.”

She raised a hand over her mouth. “Are you serious? Sam?”

“Yes. Your cousin Blaise, too. I'm pretty sure, anyway. Are you going to let your family force them to be invisible?”

She shook her head from side to side. “I can't let that happen. But how? What do I do?”

“Let them know they can be themselves, at least with you if it's not safe otherwise,” I said quietly. “Don't let them be caged by bars made of ignorance. Nourish them, and they'll grow strong enough to take care of themselves.”

Bobby sat, his arms around Sandy as she murmured under her breath. I didn't feel good, nor did I feel badly. Just tired, I guess.

The front door burst open and Micah was though like a shot. “Dad! Dad! I hit a home run!” I stood and turned to look as he excitedly entered the living room. He registered that there were guests and he looked at them. “Hi, Uncle Bobby, Aunt Sandy. Dad! Nate said it was a home run!”

“Wow, really? You hit it over the fence?” I asked with a trace of shock.

“I went beast mode on it!” Micah said and we high-fived. Alec walked in and paused at the sight of our guests, but came over to me without saying anything.

“He hit it a ton, babe,” Alec said to me. “Nate says he's got a solid swing and could be really good, if he tries hard.”

“Well, looks like he'll have to hit the batting cages, huh?” I asked and messed Micah's hair.

“Nate rocks,” Micah said. “I'm going to watch some videos of Tony Gwynn. Nate says he was one of the greatest batters of all time.”

“You can do that later,” I said. “We have to go back over to my parents, remember?”

Micah whined and Bobby cleared his throat. “So. Linebacker, huh, Micah?”

Micah raised an eyebrow. “That's football.”

“Really?” Bobby asked and tilted his whole body to look at Sandy before looking back at Micah. “Goalie, then? You want to be a pro goalie?”

“That's – no!” Micah started to laugh. “My dads told me you know sports.”

Bobby looked at him seriously. “So no on the goalie thing?”

Sandy smiled and said, “I think he can be whatever he wants. Don't you?”

“I don't know,” Bobby said. “He's got to overcome Alec as a parent.”

“Hey, my parents told me I can be anything I want.” Alec eyed Bobby and said, “So I decided to be an asshole.”

We burst out laughing. I was glad to have cleared things with Bobby and Sandy. Maybe I could have done it or said it better, but in the end we all have to pull for each other. If not because it's the right thing to do, then because if you don't help everyone else, who will be left to help you?