Ferroequinology

A Sanitaria Springs Story

By Dabeagle

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The heavy wooden door closed solidly. I liked the sound; it seemed like a vault door that would hold my secrets safely behind it.

“Robin Kirkwood,” Dr. Freeman said in his deep bass voice, smiling and crossing the room to sit across from me.

“Hi, Dr. Freeman,” I said and returned his smile. Dr. Freeman worked from home, and I liked his office space. The furniture was heavy and overstuffed, and I liked sinking into the seats.

“How have you been sleeping?” he asked.

“Pretty well, I think. I have a little trouble falling asleep sometimes, but not too bad, really.”

“Uh huh, that's good to hear. What are you thinking about when you can't fall asleep?” he asked knowingly, a smile playing about his lips.

I tilted my head. “I don't understand why my mind decides to wait until I'm tired and want to sleep to spring a neurosis or something on me.”

“You're too distracted to pay attention to it, otherwise,” he said with a chuckle. “So what's knocking around inside your brain-case?”

I frowned a little. “I'm starting to wonder who I am.”

“It's going to be an existential day, is it?” he asked and chuckled again. “In what way are you asking this question? What facet of yourself got called into question?”

“I think I figured that part out,” I said, kind of excited to see if he agreed with me. “I started thinking about it about a week after school let out. For some reason it didn't sink in immediately that I didn't have a practice to get to, or a paper to write. I know I'll have plenty of that in the fall, but the part that started me thinking was...who am I outside of that work?”

“You mean besides the obvious – son, brother, boyfriend, friend relationships?”

“Right,” I said. “And the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I was even capable of being an individual. Everything I do is with someone else.”

Dr. Freeman pursed his lips. “Humans are social creatures by nature. Some more that others. Some people lack this ability or it causes them such anxiety that we might call them anti-social. But I'm curious, now. Are you saying you don't do anything on your own?”

“Well, not nothing,” I conceded. “Personal hygiene, video games, but even then it's with other people. But I played a ton of team sports. As far back as I can remember I always enjoyed the team aspect of things. I've played since I was little. Now, if it's not a team sport, everything I do is with Lucien.”

“That's by preference, isn't it?” he asked.

I smiled. “Yes, of course. We've talked a lot about how afraid I am to lose him. It makes me think something else. If I were to lose him, what would be left of me? Without the team sports, without that...extra outlet, everything is him. He's the middle of my world.”

“Many people would categorize a loved one in that position in their lives,” he said. “What concerns you about this one?”

I bit my lip for a moment. “I love Lucien, and I know he loves me. But I've told you before, there's a voice in the back of my head that whispers that he's going to get tired of my damage.”

“I don't see the connection between the two,” he said, leading me along.

“I'm not sure I do, either. But...eventually people expect others to, I don't know, get better. Right?”

His eyelids fluttered slightly and he let a breath out. “Let's take a step back from looking at these problems and get a little perspective,” he said and shifted in his chair. Whenever he adjusted in a seat he kind of flopped, then shook around due to his size. It was sort of endearing. “Robin, anxiety like yours doesn't just up and leave. We're tackling this through our therapy of rational discussion, and we have the ability to go to a pharmaceutical option if we need to. We have other avenues as well, but let's focus there for now.”

“Okay.”

“So you have this underlying, base of anxiety, wanting to fit in, wanting to belong. Right? Everyone has that to one degree or another. It makes some people adopt overly-friendly personalities to succeed, or some go very much the opposite in order to avoid failure. It sounds like you solved some of that desire to fit in through sports.”

I nodded my head thoughtfully. “Okay, I can see that.”

“Once you went through Charlie's death, your anxieties changed,” he said gently. “The first time we realize that life is finite is a shocking thing. It's another good reason for people to have pets, so we learn about the cycle of life early on and can understand it.” He paused. “We have talked about the trauma of Charlie's death, how it affected you and continues to. For instance, Claire?”

I frowned reflexively, but didn't comment.

“And of course,” he said, without commenting on my reaction, “this brings us to Lucien.” He smiled for a moment. “I'm always intrigued by people of faith who lack that very thing for the important people in their lives.”

“I have faith in Lucien,” I said automatically.

“Do you?” he asked. “Does he understand the anxiety you feel?”

“We've talked about it a lot,” I said, a tad defensive. “He asks about my sessions, and he's always supportive.”

“And yet you feel as if he might walk away from you?”

I fidgeted. “Relationships end. Limits get reached.”

“Yes, they do,” he said heavily and sighed. “Nothing lasts forever. Your energy, though, goes to worrying about that ending – which could happen when you're both old men. It's an end, just not the one you worry about.”

I paused. “Yeah, okay. So we're back to worrying about things I can control.”

“Logically, yes,” he said and resettled himself again. “The key to avoiding medication, Robin, is that we work through the causes of the anxiety and try to deal with them. Sometimes we can go short-term meds to stabilize someone, but that's in a case of crisis – which you're not in. We still need to identify the roots of your anxiety in order for you to cope.”

“I thought the root was losing people?”

“Ah, yes, we have that. But now we have this new thing, a feeling of a lack of identity. A lack of individuality. Tell me, what does Robin Kirkwood do for fun?”

I smiled in a lopsided way. “My boyfriend.”

He laughed heartily. “Well, since you brought it up, how is your sex life going?”

“I can't complain,” I said unabashedly.

“Good. Your anxiety hasn't stopped you from enjoying that time?”

I shook my head. “Only that one time I told you about, months ago. Lucien always puts me first in the bedroom.”

He grunted. “What about him?”

I tilted my head. “What do you mean?”

“Well, if you're always first...?”

I snapped my head back in shock. “Holy shit. Am I taking advantage?”

He chuckled and held a hand up. “Hold on, hold on. Let's not get carried away.”

“But you said-”

“I asked what about him? You indicate that Lucien is very attentive to you, and you've never felt pressured or uncomfortable with him. Yet you're a deep guy, Robin. You worry about things that you don't realize you worry about. There are top level things like losing a person, which everyone can relate to – and by the way, holding that emotion endlessly is impossible for humans. We can worry, but there's always a break in the worry, because keeping up the intensity isn't possible.”

“Yeah. Like getting angry. Eventually it changes, but sometimes you can think about whatever made you angry and get there all over again.”

“Exactly,” he said with a big smile. “But I think you're like the old phrase 'still waters run deep', and what I mean by that is you notice things you don't realize you notice and a part of you worries about them. Now, before we get too far off in the weeds, let's head back to Charlie for a moment.”

“Okay,” I said quietly. It wasn't that I didn't want to talk about Charlie, exactly. Thoughts of him always brought up mixed emotions, though. I wasn't sure talking about him now was going to bring me any clarity.

“So Charlie comes along and you fall in love, and then he passes away. You mourn, but so deeply that people are fearful you won't come out of it.” He paused and shifted again, leaning forward and clasping his hands together, elbows on his knees. “I think this is a tipping point in your life. I think there is some key we're not seeing in the rubble of that disaster.”

I opened my mouth and closed it. I wasn't sure what to say. I had loved Charlie, and he'd always be special because it was a first love. My love for Lucien wasn't the same thing. It was a mature love, which is to say it's not based on the fire of us just having gotten together. Relationships, the early parts that burn hot and then go out, Lucien and I had long moved past that. I could bank the coals of our emotions and it kept everything warm and alive, yet it could rage when we were together as if it always had. If or when my relationship with Lucien would have happened was based on Charlie having died, though.

I looked up at Dr. Freeman. “Maybe guilt? Guilt for being happy with Lucien when Charlie is dead?”

He tilted his head from side to side. “Do you feel guilt?”

I thought for a moment. “I used to. When Charlie died I kind of lost it. I was mixed up between the weird state our relationship had been in, the things people were expecting of me or the way they tried to help. It was overwhelming.” I looked away from him and to the stained glass window, letting my gaze wander over the lead separating the colors. “Then I started to realize Lucien was waiting for me. That it was killing him to watch me go through this. How he was trying to make anything he could better for me.” I looked back at Dr. Freeman, who looked at me pensively. “I wondered what I had done, Why was I so bad that God had punished me so much.”

“Ah.” Dr. Freeman said gently, and leaned back in his chair. I sniffled and took a tissue to blow my nose with, which suddenly felt full.

“Robin, Robin, Robin,” he said, shaking his head and smiling.

“What?”

“There is one universal chorus that rings out in every mind and heart. Sometimes the drumbeat of that sound is constant and overwhelming. Sometimes it's so quiet that you have to wonder if it was beaten out of a person. Other times,” he said, looking at me with concern, “we don't realize what it's doing to us.”

I sniffed. “I'm not sure I understand.”

“Charlie died. That happened to him. It was an accident, something others will carry guilt about for the rest of their lives.” He leaned forward again, hunching over and clasping his hands together as before. He looked at me with a firm gaze. “You were affected. You suffered. But Charlie's death wasn't about you. It was about Charlie.”

I let out a ragged breath. “But didn't God know what he was doing? The damage? Why?”

“Only she knows. Or it. Or maybe it had nothing to do with a God or a plan. If it was a God who had a plan, do you think we'd understand that plan?” He paused. “I don't believe that to be the case. I think for all the craziness, the horrible feelings, the thing that is stuck in you is a little boy in the middle of your heart crying out – what about me?”

I recoiled. “You think I'm being selfish?”

“I hope you are, sometimes,” he said, still sounding firm. “You have to be, to live correctly. You need self-care, you need to eat right, get sleep, exercise, drink water and brush your teeth. You can't support anyone else if you're broken due to neglect – being selfish isn't a bad thing, Robin. Only when it's overdone.”

I tried to think, but I was running in circles. “Okay. I think I get that part, but I'm missing the point you're trying to make.”

“I think part of you still feels the unfairness of Charlie's passing, of how it affected you.”

I stared for a moment. “So losing people, I'm afraid of what it will do to me. But I'm not even thinking of the other person, or other people.”

He nodded. “Part of it. Of course, someone like Lucien would affect you very much. But then we come back to the other question – who are you without him?”

I shrugged and shook my head. “I don't know. I always prefer to be with him – and he seems to feel the same way. I was just thinking a moment ago how some relationships burn really brightly, but go out. Our burns hot, but I can bank it like a campfire and reignite things from the coals, if you follow my analogy.”

“I do,” he said with a smile. “I think successful long-term relationships and friendships are very similar. If you lost Lucien, you would still be yourself.”

“But who is that?” I asked.

He leaned back, the leather under him squeaking. “I think you already know, subconsciously. But what I'll say for today is, don't look at this summer as marking the end of the ways you fit in through your school days. Look at it as the opportunity to see where you'll grow and fit next.”

~F~

Lucien was busy with the Matei project – meaning Nik wanted Lucien to show Mat how to work on cars, essentially to increase the amount of face time Mat got with the family. I was in favor of helping but wasn't really in the mood to watch them put brake pads on something or whatever he had planned. Instead I decided to go with a more questionable choice.

I will say, to myself, Jon Ellesier had made some good progress in terms of being sociable and civilized, at least with me. He still seemed a little tense sometimes around some of the guys; who knows why, really. We had a pretty good friendship - mostly group hang-outs, but we had talked a little in hallways, a few lengthy texting conversations and sharing some funny memes. He'd participated in things we did as a group – snow football, pool parties, and even the occasional study group, especially once we got closer to end-of-year exams. He wasn't an easy guy to get to know, but I'd seen a few of his better moments, and I thought I understood what Jake probably saw in him.

I wasn't meeting him for any of those reasons, though. One thing I could value about Jon was his dedication to Jake, no matter what. He'd transformed himself for someone who saw more in him than anyone else did – though maybe it was less transforming and more evolving into who he was. I'd thought about the idea off and on, but hadn't reached a definitive answer. I'd always thought that people likely had the capacity to fall in love with nearly anyone, as a blank slate. Like, not that any two people could fall in love, but more that gender or age wasn't the deciding factor. Someone who identifies as gay could fall in love and be successful with a person of the opposite sex in the same way that someone who identified as straight could find love and success with a person of the same sex. I don't mean trying to change them, but rather that the possibility existed.

Maybe, more than anything, that philosophy applied to me. I'd never considered a guy before Charlie, but now that I had Lucien I can't really picture myself any other way. Even my brother Jamie, who'd been pretty straight, seemed to be walking a tightrope with his girlfriend and his friend Boomer. Where would Jamie land? With Emily, I had no doubt. But the fact of whatever he had with Boomer only proved my theory.

In any case, applying that to Jon, I thought he had connected with Jake in a way he hadn't with anyone else. Was it love? Undoubtedly. Would it last? I hoped so. Was it a good thing? Completely. Yet Jon was still Jon, and I figured he'd back my feelings up one way or another.

I like a few coffee places in town, but Quigley's, over in Binghamton, is one of my favorite places.I'd found it by accident when I was trolling through something or other online. They had pictures on the walls from local artists, had a strange Starbucks-lite theme going on with asymmetrical rooms, exposed wood and comfy chairs. When I had texted Jon the day before about a coffee meet up, he'd told me he had to go to Binghamton today because of some recall on his car. It was perfect.

I picked a spot with two soft, leather-like chairs and a small table between them. I sat and kept an eye on the other chair for when Jon arrived, scrolling through news and other stuff on my phone. There was a new super-hero movie coming out, and those were kind of fun. Griffin had sketched some of us as super heroes, once. It was kind of fun to think about. Flying was a pretty popular power to pick, but I thought walking through walls and stuff sounded neat. I idly wondered what super hero Lucien might dress up as?

“Hey,” Jon said, dropping into the seat beside me.

I smiled. “Hey, how are you?”

“Car dealerships blow. They give you appointments, then can't find parts, then blah, blah, blah. A total shit show.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, my car hasn't had any of those issues.”

“Yeah, yeah. I'm going to get a drink, and I'm starving. Have you had food here before?” he asked as he gained his feet.

“I haven't, but the drink I got is really good, so you're probably in good hands. Just don't piss 'em off at the counter and you should be okay.”

“What are you trying to say?” Jon asked challengingly, but puffing out his chest and smiling as he did. He laughed and headed for the counter.

Jon was probably the unlikeliest member of the family, with the possible exception of Philip. Or Phil. It didn't seem to matter as much anymore what you called him. I'm sure Dr. Freeman would say something like the name change had a use, and that had been achieved. Still, I'm not sure what motivates people to get on a webcam and show off their bodies. I thought of Lucien and thought I was glad it didn't appeal to him. If I had to pay to look at him, I'd be broke!

Jon wandered back over with a drink and a sandwich wrapped in wax-paper.

“This smells so good, I'm going to have to tell Jake so he can learn how to make it,” Jon commented as he dropped into the chair. The chair let out a long sigh as he settled. It amused me that Jon was certain Jake would just cook whatever he wanted. It was probably true; Jake seemed to enjoy making Jon happy.

“Smells good,” I said. “So is your car all taken care of?”

“Dude,” he said, pausing to chew. “It's not even my car! Richard said he didn't have time to get it taken care of, so he took my car to work and told me to take his in.”

I looked shocked. “You mean he asked you to do something to help him?”

“Fuck. You,” he said and grinned. “Doesn't matter, really. I had nothing better to do since Jake's working, and the manager hassled me last time I went in.”

“I think I heard about that,” I said, grinning.

“Whole town heard about it,” he said, grumbling.

“Well, I don't think they expected they'd need to put up a sign against kissing employees over the counter,” I said demurely.

“The fact that there wasn't means it was just fine. I mean, seriously.” I started to laugh at him and he grinned, but kept going. “We tell people their coffee is hot these days! Print it on the cup! It's obvious we need signs on everything or it's okay to do. I should sue!”

I laughed harder and he chuckled, amused as well. Jake had been embarrassed and told Jon he wasn't allowed in the store while he was working, which I'm sure was a rule Jon would break sooner than later.

“Did the manager actually throw you out?” I asked between my chuckles.

“Nah. He was just like 'Bro, nah. Wait till his shift's over.' Jake was the one kind of being flustered.”

“Did that on purpose, didn't you?” I said, grinning.

“Hell yeah,” he said with a wide grin. “I told him I was fucked up before we dated. He knew what he was getting into.”

I let loose with a big laugh. It was too much, really. “That's like you're out for everything, isn't it?”

His expression sobered. “Not really. He knew I was crazy.” He shrugged.

I wanted to tell him I saw a change in him, but I didn't think it would go over well, so I let it go.

“So, I appreciate the invite, but what's up?” Jon asked. I decided not to insult him by pretending there wasn't a reason.

“I know we don't usually hang out, even though we're friends and probably should,” I said, and Jon nodded and waved his hand in a move-along gesture. “But I wanted to ask you...if there was someone who'd been...bad or disloyal to Jake, and they were trying to fix things with him-”

“Fuck 'em. You know the story with Jake's mom?”

I frowned. “I heard she was really over-protective and kept him off sports teams because she was worried he'd get hurt or something.”

Jon snorted. “She stuffed him full of pills to keep him from intruding on her life. If she showed up, God help her. I have no doubt I'd lose my mind on her,” he said with such iron in his voice I actually believed him. He shook his head slightly. “Jake's problem is he's too forgiving. It's one reason we'll be together a long time, because you have no idea how often I piss him off.”

I smiled and rubbed the side of my nose. “Is that a fact?”

He leaned back and chuckled, sipping from his drink and balling up the wax paper from his sandwich in his other hand. “Robin, swear on anything you like – he may want to kill me about once a month, but I'd bury his mom without a second thought. I hope I never meet that cunt.”

I nodded soberly. “I have an idea how you feel.”

He quirked an eyebrow in curiosity. “Really? What could possibly be wrong in your little world?”

I snorted. “Dick.”

He grinned.

“Did you know Lucien has a sister?”

“Is she hot?”

I tilted my head side to side. “She looks a little like Lucien.”

“So that's a no?”

“My turn. Fuck. You.”

His grin grew wider. “Actually, pretty sure I met her once. What's her deal?”

I sighed. “The short version is she knew he was gay early and it wasn't a problem, until they got into a foster home with a particular brand of Jesus in it.”

“Oh, Christ.” He paused. “Ironic to swear about religion by using an object from that religion, huh?”

I chuckled. “Anyway, they terrorized Lucien before dumping him at social services. I guess they kept the daughter – the husband had uses for her.”

Jon's face twisted as if he'd bitten down on something sour. “So who's the one trying to weasel their way where?”

“His sister,” I said. “I know she suffered, too-”

“Yeah, no,” Jon said immediately. “I think the guy that...did whatever he did to her should have his balls sliced off with a rusty knife, but she chose to screw her brother over.”

“That's what I'm saying!” I exclaimed, holding my hands out. “I don't trust her as far as I can throw her!”

“So don't,” he said with a shrug.

“I wish it were that easy. I mean, yeah, I don't trust her – but Lucien is trying to 'work on their relationship'.”

Jon rolled his eyes. “Truth? I want to shatter Jake's mom. But...I can't always protect him, especially from himself.” Jon paused. “I try. I won't leave him hanging, but sometimes there's nothing I can do. It drives me fucking crazy.”

I deflated a bit. “Yeah. Yeah, I know what you mean.”

Jon shifted in his chair and then stood, dragged his chair closer and sat back down, facing me intently. I looked at him in curiosity, as this wasn't Jon-like behavior. Unless he was trying to intimidate someone, I guess.

“Theoretical stuff aside, I know how you feel, to a point. After my parents died, my brother fought to keep us all together. My uncle tried to get custody of Geoff and me.” He paused and sucked on his teeth for a moment. “The thing is, my uncle had spent his time hoping my dad would get better rather than helping my brother. Dad hated Geoff because he was gay, but...I was young enough that I had a good relationship with my parents. At least, I remember it that way.”

I nodded in sympathy. “That really divides your loyalties.”

Jon seemed not to notice my having spoken. “My uncle tried to start mending fences around Thanksgiving last year. I don't think Geoff can or will forgive him. I'm torn because I can't...really get a grip on how Geoff felt though all that. I know he's thorny and can be a real bastard, but I also understand there's a reason for it. I can be polite to my uncle, but I look at my brother – Geoff – and know some of his issues are at my uncle's feet.” He looked up at me. “Richard did what he had to to keep us all together. So I know where my loyalties lie, just like you do with Lu.”

I nodded slowly. “I guess the question is if we forgive someone.”

Jon tightened his jaw and nodded. “I don't forgive very much. It seems to me if you forgive people that screw you over, you're just asking for them to do it again. Still, there are always exceptions.”

I leaned forward, and for all the world we must have looked like conspirators. “With what I said about Claire, what's your take?”

His eyes studied my face for a moment, and then he let out a sigh. “I know the temptation is there to punish her for what she did. Maybe even there is an argument to be made about her being a kid in a bad situation – drowning – and she grabbed what she had to to stay afloat. I can see the logic.” His features hardened. “But if someone had hurt Jake, I'm not sure the why of it would matter much to me.”

“Yeah. That's kind of where I'm coming from.”

Jon pushed his chair back a bit and leaned back. “Of course, this is all bullshit anyway.”

I frowned. “How so?”

“It's not up to you or me to forgive Claire or Jake's mom, or my uncle. Our job is to remember our loyalties, and we back our people to the hilt.” He shrugged. “If Jake wanted to see his mom, I'd rage. I'd fight it. I'd also make sure I went with him, because I can't stop him. I can't control him, even though I'd like to sometimes.”

I nodded slowly, turning that over. “Yeah, I see your point. I've gone with Lucien a few times when he's met up with her, but I just think she's like a disease looking for a weakness to get in and corrupt him.”

Jon smirked. “Corrupt him how?”

I blew out a breath. “I'm a little religious,” I said. “I take what I want and leave the rest. There are a lot of people that can't do that, and she's one of them. She's changed, some. She's confused, more than a little. But I think people like that are dangerous. Not that she'd directly hurt Lucien, not physically. But first it's 'come to church with us'. Then it's 'join us for this mixer' or 'this youth ministry thing.' Then, if you go, you have all kinds of apparently reasonable people telling you who knows what?”

Jon chuckled and shook his head. “You need help.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“You're disgusting,” he said, continuing to be amused. “The both of you. I've only seen that kind of bond once in my life, and it only ended because one of them died.” He grew a bit more solemn after having spoken, but then said, “When you lose someone like that, you're never the same afterward.”

“I have no doubt,” I said softly. I cleared my throat. “So you think I just have to let Lucien do what he's going to do, and support him?”

“Fuck no,” Jon said with a snort. “You do everything you can to derail the stupid idea for his own good. You only go as a last resort!”

I burst out laughing and he joined me. “Good advice, man,” I said to him between my laughing.

“So Rob, why me?”

“Huh?”

“This question. Why me? You have about eighteen other people you could have asked.”

“Honestly? I expected you to see it my way,” I said with a grin.

“No, no,” Jon said, shaking a finger. “You're seeing things my way.”

I groaned. “Shit. They do say people become more alike the more time the spend around each other.” I narrowed my eyes. “You're not getting any nicer for all the time you spend with Jake.”

“It's 'cause I don't let him talk, much,” Jon said smugly. “Kissing him seems a way better use of my time – and his!”

I chuckled, but let it trail off as I backtracked on my earlier thought. “You know, for what it's worth, you are different.”

He sighed. “It's been a real experience.”

I tilted my head, since he hadn't shut me down. “A good one?”

He looked away. “For me, yeah. I'm...” He paused, and then looked up at me. “Did Jake ever tell you anything about my family?”

“No,” I said with a shake of my head. “I can't say that he has, not that I remember.”

He bobbed his head in acknowledgment. “You have no idea what that's worth to me. I wasn't kidding when I said I was fucked up. I know it. If you knew more, you'd think so, too.”

I gave him a sympathetic look. “I see a therapist.”

His brow wrinkled. “You do?”

“Yeah. Everyone has their stuff, Jon. I wouldn't think you're fucked up. I've often thought you were stand-offish, maybe didn't like us very much. I honestly chalked it up to what you must be going through, being with a guy for the first time in a relationship.”

“First actual relationship,” Jon said, his voice very low.

I nodded to let him know I'd heard, but moved past it. “You were always on guard. A little...aloof, I guess.”

He cleared his throat and glanced up at me. It may have been my imagination, but his gaze seemed different. I couldn't tell what it meant, if it were true. “Sorry,” he said in a very low voice. He cleared his throat again. “You're right. I have my stuff to deal with. I don't think about it all the time, but sometimes it sneaks up on me.”

“I can relate,” I told him.

He snorted. “Yeah? Like how?”

I sighed. “After Lucien's bus was torched, I fell into a pretty dark place. I'm sure you can understand – someone had attacked him, as far as I was concerned, and the thought of him...losing him...I've been in that position before. You know?”

He pursed his lips. “Yeah, I heard rumors somewhere. First boyfriend?”

“Right,” I said briskly. “Charlie was his name. He died suddenly. But this attack on Lucien was eating away at me, not just taking up my spare time, but eating up my relationship – my life. I even landed in jail for a short time.”

Jon's eyebrows went up. “Jail? You?”

“Me,” I confirmed. “My entire focus was on making Lucien safe. I...took it to extremes.”

Jon leaned back and sighed. “Yeah, I guess you can relate. Jake's got this...fuck. I don't even know if he really realizes it.”

I smiled. “Probably not. He's too busy being in love. Lucien is like that. He's always...well, I don't need to go into that,” I said, chuckling.

Jon sniffed, sort of a condescending sound. “So. Have you picked out where we're burying her body?”

I smiled. “Claire? I don't think I'm ready to whack her just yet. I just really, really...feel uncomfortable around her.”

Jon nodded. “Jake doesn't like my brother, Geoff. I think he's made some kind of peace about it, but I don't think they'll ever be besties or anything. Last year there was some drama at the dinner table that Jake was party to. He got stuck with checking in on Geoff the next morning – his idea!” Jon said defensively, but smiling.

“And?”

“Eh. He passed Geoff's test, whatever it was. I can't say the same for Geoff. I have a feeling Jake will always keep one eye open around him, but that's just being smart.”

I tapped my chin with my finger. “I wonder if that's the best way to go? Maybe I should just keep one eye on Claire.”

Jon sighed. “A year ago, I'd have said yeah. Completely the way to go. Now?” He shook his head. I thought he wasn't going to finish his thought, but then he looked away sharply and spoke in a low tone. “Now I spend a lot – and I mean a lot – of my time trying to figure out how to hold on to Jake. How to keep him fooled so he doesn't wake up one day and realize what sort of train wreck he's involved in.”

I grunted to myself. That must have been like passing a kidney stone for Jon to say. I appreciated the fact that this was a delicate moment in our friendship, perhaps a defining one.

“I think Jake sees you more clearly than you see yourself,” I told him, matching his low tone. “People don't just...fall in love for no reason. We all have stuff...we can't really compare it since, to us, it feels like the hardest road because it's ours.” I paused, unsure if I should push it, but decided to seize the moment.

Before I could, Jon looked at me intensely. “Do you ever worry someone is going to take Lu away from you?”

I chuckled, unable to stop myself. Jon frowned hard at me and I held a hand up. “It's not you, I promise. It's just – of all the ways I worry about losing Lucien, another guy isn't one of them.”

“Kind of full of yourself, aren't you?” Jon muttered.

“Nah, just realistic,” I said, wiping an eye. “Lucien isn't built that way. Most of the guys in our group aren't, I don't think.”

“Most? So there are a few to watch out for?” Jon asked, leaning in.

I shook my head and smiled. “You have nothing to worry about. Zero. Nada.”

Jon frowned. “Why?”

“Because, you moron, Jake loves you. Even if there was someone in our group that wanted to poach him – and just saying that's a real stretch – they are all in love with someone else. Good, strong relationships, Jon. Just like yours. Jake would have to want to leave you, and he doesn't.”

Jon frowned lightly and looked away. Poor guy, it must eat him up. With a start I realized I was doing the same thing, except I was seeking help for it. Funny how that sneaks up on me sometimes.

“How do you, you know,” he said, rolling his hand, “deal with that?”

I sighed. Jon stiffened, and I smiled to myself. So sensitive. “I don't worry about him leaving me for another guy. I worry about him dying. I worry about being so screwed up that he reaches his limit and walks away from me.”

Jon cocked an eyebrow. “You do?”

“Yeah,” I said softly. “I figure it has to be frustrating to deal with what I'm going through. He didn't sign up for that.”

Jon nodded sharply, and I think he understood what I meant. “And?”

“And I go to therapy. And I talk to Lucien. He does his best to support me, and I'm working on getting at the root of my issues and getting over them.”

“Issues?” Jon snorted.

I rolled my eyes and felt a touch of annoyance. “What? You still don't think I have them? Or are they just small potatoes to you?”

Jon looked slightly abashed. “I just..like, it seems like your life is easy. Maybe it's not. Maybe I was wrong.”

“My life is good,” I told him honestly. “Materially, I don't lack for anything. I have no idea what it is to go to bed hungry or to wonder where I'll be staying any given night. I stress because I know what it is to lose someone, and now that I have the ultimate someone, I'm afraid to lose him.”

Jon gave me a calculating look. “Aren't you ever worried he's going to think he's found someone better?”

“Yes and no,” I told him, feeling like this question wasn't just about my relationship, but his. “Lucien, right or wrong, thinks I'm it. I worry I'll end up pushing him away with my own internal issues, but I also know he loves me more than I thought anyone could or would. I don't worry he'll fall in love with someone else.” I paused. “Just like you shouldn't.”

Jon snorted and looked away. I let the moment sit and waited. A few moments later Jon spoke. “I just want this to last. I don't want to worry he'll wake up and wonder what the fuck he's doing with me.”

I leaned forward a bit. “Jon.”

His gaze turned toward me.

“He wants the same thing. You're going in the right direction. You got this.”

The corners of his mouth turned up. “Thanks for the pep talk, coach.”

“Any time,” I said with a smile, and leaned back into my chair.

Jon shifted uncomfortably, probably because he'd just shared more of himself with me than he ever had. So, he did what he does and changed the subject. “So, what are you going to do about Claire?”

I sighed. “Ride the situation out, I guess. Like you said, I can't control him.”

“Where's Lu, anyway? I usually don't see you guys apart.”

I rolled my eyes and chuckled. “Have you met Nik Buchanan? Sasha's little brother?”

Jon appeared to think for a moment. “Sasha who's dating Alec? I've met Alec.”

“Yes, though Sasha and Alec are married. Nik and Sasha are from Romania, and now Nik has his friend from the orphanage living with him.”

“Orphanage?” Jon asked, wrinkling his nose.

I ran through the Buchanan's history – adopting Alexander, who we call Sasha, and then how Kale and Chase had found Nik by accident. How Nik had come to the U.S. and how he was now working hard to make it possible for his friend Mat to stay. It was a lot of history, but I hoped it would help to tie Jon a little closer to the group. After all, he'd said that his uncle had tried to take charge of him and his siblings – or I guess two of them, since his oldest had raised him. Maybe knowing Nik and Mat had been in an orphanage, that there was a fate worse than family fighting over who would raise you, would mean something to him.

“Wow,” Jon said with a shake of his head. “I didn't know there were orphanages anymore.”

I nodded. “So part of Nik's big plan is to have Mat spending time with the family to help get him to adjust and adapt. Pretty good plan.”

“The family,” Jon said and snorted. I stayed judiciously silent. Jon slid his chair back to its original position and I felt a little disappointed. I didn't know if Jon rejected the idea of the support system, the family provided, or if he just didn't want to acknowledge it now. Maybe he felt he had enough support.

Jon stood up. “I'm going to head back to town. Um.” He paused, glancing away for a moment. “We do this...my buddy, Greg, might make the trip out from Boston. Be cool to introduce you guys.”

A deep sense of satisfaction swept through me. Jon did get it, maybe more than he ever had.

“That would be cool. Thanks for the meet up,” I said as I also stood to leave.

“Who does that? Thanks for meeting me? Next time, you're buying,” Jon said, some of his old bravado coming through.

I looked at him in mock surprise. “Next time? Oh, no. Why do you think we met out of town?”

“So your boyfriend wouldn't interrupt us planning to bury his sister,” Jon said and broke down in laughter. I couldn't help it, I joined him.

~F~

I spent the next few weeks cycling through different things I enjoyed and testing them out, in a way. For instance, I enjoyed watching baseball. There was an open invite to Nate's baseball games, and by proxy to Crispin's baseball games. I liked baseball; it just wasn't a sport I'd ever been very good at. The fact that I was pretty good at other sports and not this gave me a little appreciation for athletes that could do things I couldn't. Nate was good. Seriously good. Like college player among little leaguers good. I watched some games at home, too, but I enjoyed the live games more. I think it's because I was with my friends and there was a lot of talk and carrying on in the stands. Baseball is a social game.

In the meantime I revisited my enjoyment of comics and attempted to draw. Griff had some natural talent when it came to drawing, but within a week I determined that not only did I not have that gene; I wasn't even enjoying the attempt. I liked complete products, but I wasn't a fan of the process, and so I gave that up. However, my enjoyment of comic book heroes didn't just die. I spotted a local comic-con poster in town and convinced a few of the guys we should dress up and go. I recruited Logan, because he's a theater nerd underneath the sports nerd, and he got some help from Seth as we made costumes.

Cosplay is an odd thing. The idea is kind of pure – you dress up as a favorite character from whatever you like. Comics, video games, movies, TV shows – whatever floats your boat. It was kind of like Halloween in July, but there are always those people. The ones who don't respect your costume, who think someone is too fat or too old for a character. Not hot enough. Too short or too tall. Not the right skin color.

We had fun, no question. I loved Lucien in the skin tight outfit, if nothing else because it was sexy as fuck. But in the end some of the guys were self-conscious, the comic-con was small, and we just didn't have as much fun as I'd hoped. It also had the same flaw as baseball did – I was still in a group, and this wasn't something I felt I wanted to do on my own. I wasn't an arts and crafts person; I didn't see myself being able to sew a costume or anything.

One afternoon I put my neurosis on hold and tackled the idea that Lucien made our bedroom time all about me. His parents were at work, and I showed up before he was really ready to face the day. He's a mess when he first wakes up, and I find it really endearing. It's not just that his hair is messy; there is a slackness to his jaw and a glazed look in his eyes that takes several minutes to clear up. I think he was amused when I tied his wrists to the bed frame, but that stopped pretty fast when I made everything about him for a change. That's not to say I didn't enjoy myself or that I normally went to bed with him solely for my pleasure, but this time I was focused on blowing his mind, among other things.

Later, after I untied his wrists, we snuggled together on his comforter. There was always a duality after sex of wanting to get cleaned up, but not wanting to stop touching him.

“That was the best wake up I've ever had,” he said into my ear before kissing my neck.

“I just wanted to make it all about you,” I said softly, running my fingers through his hair as he nuzzled my neck.

“You didn't enjoy it?” he asked, stilling.

“I did,” I assured him. “I just wanted to focus on you.”

“Mission accomplished,” he said with a chuckle and pressed tightly against me. “God, I love you.”

“Love you,” I said softly. He inched his way up until we were kissing lazily.

He paused, the tip of our noses touching. “I'm going to return this favor. The first night we spend on our own, I'm going to make sure you never forget it.”

I smiled. “Is that a fact? Why wait?”

He sighed and nuzzled against me. “Because this is my parents' house. It'll be different when it's just us. We can walk around in our underwear, and I'll stop studying one night and take you to bed. Or I can blow you on the couch anytime I want. Or I can just...cuddle you. In every room of the house, I can cuddle you. If I need you I can just go into the room you're in. I like that you won't be in another house, on another street.”

That was the stuff right there. Talk about feeling all the feelings! I don't know if he knew how his words, his actions translated into the soaring emotions that fed my end of this relationship. He thought it was silly talk, probably. That romantic dross that filled cheap paperbacks. But this was the stuff that made up my heart, and what made me his – because he meant every word. But as much as I loved holding him, and being held, the fact that he hadn't showered yet was getting harder to ignore.

Eventually we got up and showered. As I washed his back I teased him about the comic-con and mentioned one coming up in New York City.

“Robin, no!” he whined without turning to face me. “I went along with it, but I think that's not our thing.”

I pressed up behind him and rested my chin on his shoulder as the water ran over us. “But you looked so sexy. Maybe you can wear it just for me?”

“Oh, my God,” he said, looking down. “Are we crossing into kinky things, now?”

I nibbled his ear, chuckled and went back to washing his back, dropping my hand down to soap his pert bottom.

“Ungh. That feels good.”

I wondered for a moment if the hot water might run out, then decided I didn't care. He braced his hands on the sides of the shower and I stretched him with my fingers, and then with my dick. I didn't top him very often, but when I did I always wondered why I didn't do it more. I reached around and grabbed the inside of his thighs and pulled him up. His toes barely touched the floor as I threw myself into him, straining to hold him in place as he urged me on.

I just couldn't get enough of him. Not sexually, not emotionally, it was never enough. Maybe I was some kind of vampire, leeching off him to sustain myself. Kind of a toxic idea, I guess.

After we dried off and dressed, we went out for a coffee. Lucien has taken a liking to the frozen vanilla chai drink at our local place. We sat down at an outside table and he sipped his drink, getting a little too close and sporting whipped cream on the end of his nose. So cute.

“You, uh, just there,” I said, pointing at my own nose.

“Blargh,” he said, wiping with his fingers. I chuckled and pushed a napkin at him.

“We should go up and look at apartments near RPI,” I said to him.

“Griff and Dev have been looking online,” he said. “They want to go up for a tour of the potential places. I'm up for the trip, but...Alec brought up an idea. I wanted to run it by you, see what you thought.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, this should be interesting.”

“You're telling me,” he said and blew out a breath. “Sasha has been looking at places to live to get Micah into a better school district. The trouble is that renting a house is pretty expensive, and it would be more room than they need.”

I frowned. “I don't want to live in the same house as Alec. No offense, but we can't do any of the things you were talking about this morning if we're in his house.”

Lucien smiled. With a sparkle in his eyes he asked, “Like those ideas, do you?”

“You know I do,” I said demurely. “Now what about this living arrangement?”

He was still looking pleased, but then he frowned lightly. “Alec showed me a house. It's a two-family with two bedrooms upstairs and two down. Alec was thinking that we might be able to get a deal if we went upstairs and he downstairs – or vice versa.”

I pursed my lips in thought. “Well, I like that idea better. I want our own space. At the same time, I've also been thinking about Dev and Griff. I really like the idea of living with them for college, at least a semester. Call me stupid, but I feel like I owe Griff a little for making the choice he did.”

Lucien bobbed his head from side to side. “Yeah, I can sort of see that. We were part of the reason he stayed instead of going to Disneyland. I don't know if he wants to live with us, though.”

“He does,” I said. “College rents are expensive, and he's looking to save – especially because his dad has groaned a bit looking at rental prices. Some schools have dorm requirements, but RPI is right in the middle of town so they have trouble getting the space to build dorms. That drives college rental prices up. I haven't looked, but we'd better get on it. If we can split rent and save money, plus get to stay close? Seems like a good deal.”

“Sounds like a plan.” He pulled his phone over and checked the time.

“Have a hot date?” I teased.

He snorted. “I'm on a hot date. No, I...I'm meeting Claire this afternoon.” He wasn't looking at me, so he didn't see my expression right away. When he looked up, however, it was plain as day. “I didn't want to mention it to you.”

“Why not?” I asked, clearing my throat.

“Because I know you don't get it.”

I shook my head. “I do get it, I just don't trust her. Babe, she-”

“Stop! Just...stop,” he said, the force of his tone diminishing. “It's pretty clear to everyone, even her, that you don't approve. I understand that, and I'm not going to try and change your mind. I want to try to work on this relationship, and pretty soon I won't be around to do it.”

Anger flashed through me, and was spent just as quickly. We didn't disagree that often, but Claire was definitely one of those things. I sighed. “Okay. What are you planning to do? I mean, you're meeting her?”

He paused as if I might say more, than nodded. “The park over by her house. Her church is doing a picnic thing-”

“Oh, Christ!” I snapped. “Lucien – okay, fine! I'm going with you, though.”

“No, you're not,” he said quietly. “I don't want you there.”

I felt like he'd slapped me. I stared at him, emotions swirling as I tried to formulate a response.

“Robin,” he said as he leaned forward. “This isn't about you, babe. This is completely not worth putting you through the stress of being there.” He paused. “And honestly? You're so unhappy it makes everyone else tense.”

I stiffened. It was on the tip of my tongue to make some wild statement about him choosing his sister over me. I don't even know how I resisted making the statement, but I knew I was angry and hurt at his words.

“I don't think it's unreasonable to want to protect you,” I said, starting my defense.

“She can't hurt me, Robin. She knows that at any time I can get up and walk away from her.” He chuckled and spread his arms out. “I mean, what do you think she's going to do?”

I couldn't stop myself. “Betray you. Hurt you. Her efforts to change the way you think haven't stopped. She's more accepting, but she also lives with that woman,” I snarled. Just thinking about Lucien's birth mother was enough to twist my guts. “Don't think for a second that she doesn't maintain the delusion that we don't belong together. She tells your sister that – you know she does.”

He shook his head at me. “Robin. When are you – look, let me just make this clear: no one is more important than you. I don't care if she doesn't approve, and no one is changing my mind about you.”

I looked down, a mixture of shame and frustration welling up inside. “I know it sounds like I'm making this all about me, but it's not.” I wiped at my nose, a sudden itch aggravating me further. “It's about history. It's about the way your birth mother won't stop obsessing over turning you into someone you're not. She could snap and decide to kidnap you – don't laugh! It's happened!”

He covered his eyes and kept chuckling, aggravating me further.

“She's not stable, is all I'm saying. They could influence you, and I don't think that would be for the better.”

Lucien reached out and took one of my hands. I was tempted to pull back because I was angry and a little mortified, but the connection with him was more important. His fingers tightened on mine and I responded in kind. I don't know why I felt so damn unstable, but I was holding his hand like it was a lifeline.

“My sister was a kid in a bad situation. As a kid myself, I didn't understand and it hurt. It still hurts. I want to not hold this against her for the rest of her life – or mine. I...understand the position she was in. Theoretically. If she and I had talked at the time, maybe things would be different. We're older now, and we have a chance to try and fix things. If you'd asked me last year, I couldn't have imagined trying. But I do want to try.”

I nodded slowly. “Okay. Well, I'll go with you.”

“No. You can't come, babe.”

I looked up sharply.

“I have to do this for me.” He looked at me intently. “Whenever you're around, you're my focus. I can't help it. Even when we're around a crowd of our family, I'm always conscious of you – where you are, how you feel emotionally. I need some time to figure this out, and I need you to trust me to do that.”

My nose felt clearer, then stung slightly as my eyes watered. “Okay,” I whispered.

A short time later he left to go meet them, and I went home to brood. This thing with his sister, I had to find a way to let it go.

~F~

We went up to Albany with Dev and Griff for an overnight. We had a bunch of apartments to check out, but I was mulling over the idea of living in the house Lucien had described. Micah had been through a lot in his short life, which made me think of Charlie and how unfair his life had been. It wasn't fair to equate Charlie with Micah, but once I'd done so it was hard to shake. That haunted the back of my mind as we looked at apartments – which were nothing exciting, and pretty pricey.

“I can't believe they want twelve hundred a month for that place,” Griffin said as we left the latest building.

“Did you hear those people fighting?” Lucien asked.

“I think the whole building heard them,” Griff said with a snort.

We went out to eat and then to our hotel, but it was kind of boring. We were excited to be looking at the next stage in our lives, but it was disappointing to see how we might be living. Not only that, we were away from home and the hotel was just...boring. Devyn saved us all with an ad he'd found on his phone for a local gay bar that had an 18 and over night on Thursday – tonight.

I'm not sure what I expected, but it was just a dimly lit place where I danced like crazy. We'd never had trouble at school dances, but it was always chaperoned and very proper. Here, we could dance like we meant it, and grind on our other halves as the situation demanded. It was incredibly freeing, and I felt like I could dance all night. The room was hot, and in no time I was sweating and probably looked like a hot mess, but I didn't care. It was so much fun!

At one point Lucien got embarrassed, but it reminded me of something that happened to us a few years ago. We had been shopping in the open air mall in Binghamton and had decided to get cookies. The guy behind the counter was flirting with me, even though I didn't realize it, and slipped his phone number into the sleeve with my cookie in it. Even though I'm pretty empathetic, flirting from a stranger goes right past me. I don't have the emotional connection, so it just sails by, unnoticed.

Lucien, however, noticed. He dragged me back into the store and told the clerk in no uncertain terms that I was his and then he kissed me the way only a jealous boy can. I mean he kissed me so hard, I think his lips were superimposed on mine for a week! I'd teased him a few times about that, sometimes just to get him to get all possessive on me. It was cute when he thought some guy or girl might have a chance with me, sometimes. He was mostly over it, but that night in Albany, the tables were turned.

Devyn and Griffin had been dancing with us, and Griff went to buy us all some water. When he came back he told a story about how some guy was making lewd comments about Lucien. Lucien looked shocked! He never understood how others might find him attractive, but I saw my chance and pinned him to the wall in my own display of dominance and ownership. We didn't get back to the hotel until around one in the morning, all sweaty and tired.

“I need a shower before I can think about sleeping,” Griff announced. Devyn yawned, but nodded as he grabbed clean underwear and followed Griff.

“I had so much fun,” I said, draping my arms around Lucien's neck and looking at him fondly.

He smiled back at me and said, “You just think I got served with the crack that guy supposedly made.”

“You're officially on notice,” I said, agreeing with him. “You're hot. Random strangers want to sleep with you.”

He looked up at me, his eyes moving minutely and then he shook his head. “I don't care that the guy wanted me. It didn't make you jealous, though?”

I titled my head and regarded him as if he were silly. “Jealous of what? You think he's the only person that ever looked at you and had impure thoughts?” I tilted my head forward so our foreheads touched. “He can see you anytime he wants – in his dreams. I'm not jealous, and have zero reason to be.”

He shook his head and smiled at me. “I love your confidence in us. In me.” He looked at me soberly. “But if he'd said that about you, I'd have had to kill him. You understand that, right?”

I grinned and he laughed with me. Griff and Dev were done faster than I'd have thought, and I headed in to get cleaned up as well. Lucien joined me, but it was the most straightforward bathing experience we'd ever had together. Sure, we cleaned each other, but the exhaustion really was bone deep at that point. Soon we were cuddled under the blanket and dreaming.

In the morning Griff and Dev ran out to get us coffee and something baked to start our day. Lucien and I took our time getting ready for the day, then checked out of the hotel. We had thought to look at one more apartment while we were there, but were discouraged from the day before. We were out by the car, drinking our coffee and more or less delaying getting on the road when Sasha called Lucien. When he hung up he glanced around at us and let out a sigh.

“So, hey. I know we were looking at apartments and all – and twelve hundred a month for each of us is a lot. What would you guys think if we were in a two bedroom apartment as roomies?”

Lucien already knew I'd approve, so I glanced at Dev and Griff.

“That would be amazing!” Griff said, looking to Dev, who grinned in confirmation. Looking back at us, Griff said, “But the larger apartments all cost more. Did you have something in mind?”

“Wait,” I said, stopping the conversation. “If you guys were good with this, why didn't you say anything?”

Dev signed and Griff turned to us, laughing as he did. “Dev was worried about furniture getting broken!”

“One time – One time!” Lucien groaned, but chuckled as well. It was a funny sound. “Anyway, Sasha has been looking for a place in a nearby school district because he wants Micah to be in a better school. He asked if we'd go look at this place, a two-family home with upstairs/downstairs apartments.”

Dev signed and Griff said, “Yeah,” then looked at us. “I'd enjoy having them around. Micah's a decent kid, and after all he's been through, well, we could be around for him. I mean, school has to come first, but that seems like a pretty good choice.”

“Cool,” Lucien said. “Sasha called the agency that has the place. I guess Sash found out from a friend of a friend that someone was moving out suddenly or being evicted and the place may not be on the market yet, or it may not be quite ready.”

“Evicted?” I asked, frowning lightly. “I wonder if it's a bad neighborhood.”

Lucien shrugged. “We'll see. He texted the address, so let's head over. Sash says there will be a guy there to show us the place for the next few hours. We should ask for Wyatt Beltane, he said.”

I drove us over. We'd have had more room in Lucien's bus, but we made better time with me driving my car. Lucien had a habit of going to every VW garage and junkyard in search of 'spares' as he called them. I wanted to keep us on track. Besides, I like driving my car fast with the windows down and the sunroof open. It only gets better with friends.

The drive took us about fifteen minutes from our hotel. On the way Griff was mapping out travel times to the school from this potential rental.

“It looks like about fifteen minutes to drive in. Dev, the community college is on the way, so that's good. Didn't we look at an apartment complex in this town?” Griff chatted away.

“I think this is a 'who you know' kind of deal,” Lucien told him. “The commute looks pretty good, if you ask me. I hope the place is decent – I'd like to go home with this decided or at least close to it.”

I'd like it to be decided as well, but my mind was also turning toward all the things we'd have to do in the fall. I expected the schoolwork to be significantly harder and for there to be a lot of it. We'd also have mundane things like cooking and laundry to keep track of, which my mother delighted in reminding me. She also pulled me aside and went over how to do laundry, citing some event to do with Kale. I'd have to ask about that, but I kept forgetting. Then there was my mental shift about Micah, and wanting to try and be available if nothing else.

Then there was living with new people and whatever habits they may have. I loved both Dev and Griff, but we also had plenty of time away from each other. Would our relationship suffer? How would we be affected with all the things Lucien had said about the way he wanted to live with me? I would love all the affection he could give, but would that change with roommates, even ones as dear as Dev and Griff?

“Turn here, babe,” Lucien said, bringing me back to reality. We turned down a straight road with cars parked in front of houses on both sides. I slowed down as we looked for house numbers, and Dev clapped his hands and pointed when he spotted the right one. I pulled to the curb and we climbed out to look at the house.

It wasn't impressive as houses go. It had a small front porch that ran the face of the house, and the second floor had a balcony over the front porch. The outside was covered by wooden shingles that were painted or bleached white; I wasn't sure which or how that look was made. A bay window bowed out from the front, and I thought I could see the top of a similar window on the second floor. A dumpster was in the narrow driveway, and behind the house there looked to be a small garage. The front door was standing open and a young man in a pair of work pants, boots, a long sleeved shirt – in this heat! - ballcap and a face mask stepped through the doorway with a garbage can in his hands. He paused when he saw us.

“Uh.”

Lucien stepped forward. “Hi. We're looking for Wyatt?”

“Uh. Yes. That's me. You're...crap. I thought you'd be longer. I thought. Um, crap. Okay.”

He was so flustered it was kind of adorable.

“Let me just dump this,” he said, “and wash my hands.” He almost seemed to be speaking to himself. He emptied the garbage can, set it down and pulled off his mask. He held up a finger, stating that he'd be right back, and ran inside. We all looked at each other.

“I'm guessing the house is definitely not ready for people to view,” Griff said with a trace of sarcasm. We chuckled, and approached the front porch. We climbed the steps and sat or leaned along the railing as we waited for the nervous Wyatt to return. Moments later he did, face and hands washed and his hair slightly damp and appearing as if he'd run a comb through it. The ballcap had been discarded during his spiffing up.

“Hi! I'm Wyatt Beltane,” he said, holding his hand out to each of us in turn. He had short, coppery-brown colored hair and green eyes and was clearly nervous. “I have to apologize. I didn't think you'd be here until this afternoon and...a friend in class told me about his friend looking to rent a house for his family, and this house – ugh!”

I looked at the guys and then back to the stressed out Wyatt. “Ugh?”

“We had some bad tenants,” he said, his face coloring. “My dad runs a realty company, but he also has a few houses that he uses as rental properties. The people that lived upstairs gave us all kinds of trouble and we had to have them evicted. I mean, we couldn't keep a downstairs tenant because of these people! It was nuts. So when I got word someone needed a house, I was pretty pleased! I'm, uh, the agent for the house.”

Huh. Dad's letting him learn the ropes of a family business. Good for him. I instinctively liked Wyatt. The rental agents we'd spoken to had been sort of like used car salesmen – all hard sell and sleaze, or dismissive since we were young. Wyatt wasn't much older than we were, though, and he seemed more concerned about looking professional than he did in judging us.

“My brother-in-law asked us to stop by. I'm sorry, he didn't mention a specific time and we have a long drive home,” Lucien said, speaking up for us. “He just said you'd be available for a few hours.”

“No problem, none at all,” Wyatt said solicitously. Then a look of concern crossed his face. “So this place isn't for you? Right, you just said that. Um.”

“Well,” I said, saving the earnest fellow, “There's a possibility that we may rent the whole house.”

Wyatt's eyes got larger. “Oh really? Oh. Uh, crap. I'm really sorry, I'm new at this and I'm kind of – I'm a little off my game.”

“I can't imagine why,” Griffin said, smiling at Wyatt. “I mean, first time up to bat for your dad. Tough listing. Bad tenants and I'm guessing the property isn't making money with the lower floor having been empty. Relax. We're not here to shred you.”

“Right. Yeah, of course. Um, so why don't we look at the downstairs? It makes a better impression,” Wyatt said, trailing off a little miserably as if realizing he shouldn't have said that. I don't think the poor fellow was cut out for sales, but I liked him. I think his nervousness made him seem real and honest. We followed him through the door, which opened into a small landing with a set of stairs going to the second floor, and a door to the right that led to the downstairs apartment.

“I like the floors,” Griffin said. I looked down at the wooden floor, polished and lacquered. It was the sort of wooden floor they don't make anymore, with light wood laid out in narrow slats.

“I do, too,” I said. There was a radiator in each room, and there were two bedrooms that were on the smaller side. I was going to take some pictures to show Alec and Sasha later, but Lucien got on the phone with Sasha and was describing the rooms. The kitchen was updated with nice looking cabinets and stone counter tops. The rooms were clean and bright, filled with natural light. The only real downside was the narrowness of the spaces.

“Is the upstairs a similar layout?” Griff asked.

“Uh, yeah, pretty close. There's an enclosed porch on the back of the second floor – not really a bedroom, but you could use it in a pinch. There's-”

“Wyatt? Babe, where are you?”

We turned to see a guy coming in the door, about Wyatt's age with reddish brown hair and amazing dimples, which were at full power as he smiled at Wyatt.

“Colin? Is it lunch time already?” Wyatt asked as he looked down at his watch.

“Having too much fun without me? Showing houses will be what breaks us up, huh?” Colin asked with a chuckle.

Wyatt turned red, but smiled at Colin. He suddenly remembered he wasn't alone.

“He was just showing us the apartment,” Lucien said. “We're looking at renting the house. Wyatt,” he said, turning back toward him. “Can we see upstairs?”

“Uh. Well, as long as you keep in mind it's not in move-in condition.”

“Those last tenants were awful,” Colin commented. “I'll wait down here, we can eat when you're done, Wyatt.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, waving to Colin as we filed out of the room after Wyatt. Upstairs I immediately understood the hesitancy to show the apartment. The walls were covered in spray paint, there was garbage on the floor and the kitchen was a wreck, with a few cabinet doors hanging on by a single screw. Each room was a real mess, but I was trying to imagine it cleaned up and with a fresh coat of paint. I liked that the bedrooms were on opposite ends of the apartment, so each couple could have some privacy. I found I also liked the...non-sterile feel of the house. It was old. It had history, but not a grand one like having been part of the underground railroad. It was the history of its occupants. People trying to get by, feed their families and raise their kids – probably try to make more.

“We would paint and clean the whole place, of course,” Wyatt said. “Can I ask – you've mentioned renting the whole place. My friend only told me about their friend and his family?”

“Oh!” Lucien said. “My brother and his husband would want the downstairs for them and their son. We four were looking at renting the upper, maybe.”

“There's only two bedrooms,” Wyatt said in a confused tone, and then paused. “Oh. Oh!” Chuckles broke out among us and Wyatt reddened again.

“If we get the place, maybe you and your boyfriend can join us for dinner sometime,” Griffin said with a grin.

“Oh. Uh, that would be cool.” Wyatt, if anything, looked slightly more nervous.

“I'm sorry, did I assume? I thought that was your boyfriend,” Griffin said, sounding uncertain.

Wyatt smiled, and it was a special smile. “Colin is my boyfriend. I just...I'm kind of an organized person and I'm completely unorganized right now. I had a schedule in my head, and I thought I could get the place looking a little better before you got here – it's not even listed, yet. It's not the way I wanted to show my first place, you know?” He smiled grimly. “What is your time frame?” Wyatt asked.

“Late August, early September,” I said. “We'd be looking at it as a student rental.”

“Oh, nice,” Wyatt said, seeming to relax a little bit. “What school will you be going to?”

“RPI, the community college and the downstairs guys would be at SUNY Albany,” Griff said. “What's the situation with utilities? Anything included?”

I let them gather the information. I was lost in the possibilities and feeling like this would be the first home I'd share with Lucien. I glanced at him, his gaze focused as he listened to Wyatt explain. If it were a movie or book, he'd turn right now to see what I was feeling. It wasn't and it's not, but that's okay. I was pretty sure I'd get to show him.

~F~

“This doesn't look like a professional set up,” Jamie said with a trace of derision in his tone.

“The field we'd usually play on is flooded, so they shifted the game here,” Cris explained.

The field was essentially a backstop with a three-tier set of bleachers to either side, and that was it. No fence for a home run, no announcer, no concession stand – just a backstop in a grassy spot in a park. We'd decided to spend the afternoon watching one of Nate and Crispin's travel games. They'd both tried out for the same team, even though it was a longer commute for Crispin. He didn't seem to mind, since he brought Dylan to his games anyway. Somehow Lucien's bus had gotten filled up with Sean, Asher, Jamie, Mat, Nik and Averi – and most bizarrely, Katie MacKensie. Katie had dated Scott Ellis, Asher's brother, off and on for the last year and a half or so. She'd been hanging around with Averi, who'd been visiting with Nik and Mat. More likely Mat, with Nik as interpreter.

Crispin had brought Dylan, per usual, and Nate had ridden with them.

“Nate, is Elliot coming?” I asked.

“Yeah, when he gets done with work,” he said with a nod. “He puts a lot of hours in, trying to help his mom out.”

Our groups climbed up onto the bleachers, and I noted a little league game that I hoped was finishing up going on in front of us. If it weren't for the fact we were already there, I'd have said we should skip the game. Bleachers are bleachers, but this didn't feel like our normal setup. I like concession stand cheeseburgers. Baseball is a game of quick bursts, but the atmosphere in the stands is usually relaxed and I enjoy the chatter. This didn't seem like it would be that way.

“How about I run over and find us some snacks?” Lucien asked.

I smiled at him, enjoying that he knew me so well. “Nah, thanks. Besides, I'm not sure where anything is here in – where are we again?”

“Glen Castle,” Nate supplied.

I wasn't sure what had prompted the teasing, but I heard Asher say to Katie, “I can call Scott for you, if you want.”

“Sure. Call him a jerk. Call him a crappy boyfriend. Better yet, remind him he's single,” Katie said back, flipping her hair and raising an eyebrow in challenge. Asher just laughed.

“You wanted to date him,” he reminded her.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” she said with a shrug. “He gets horny, we're on again. He's busy, we're off again. I need a little more than that. Don't get me wrong, he has his moments, but damn! Should have named that boy inconsistent instead of Scott.”

Beside her Mat and Averi were pressed tightly together, despite the space on the bench. I could relate.

“Nik. Nik!” Katie said, getting the boy's attention.

“What?” he asked, leaning forward.

“Look at the umpire. Doesn't he have a great butt?”

I glanced at Lucien, who wasn't paying attention, so I looked over at the field, and the umpire in question. Little league teams will often hire teenage umpires to officiate their games. Older, more experienced umpires would in turn officiate the teens' games. The umpire was about five-five, and from the edges of the ball cap I saw his sandy brown hair. It was showing some lightening, maybe due to the summer sun. His pants did fit him well, and I guess he had a decent butt.

I looked over to get Nik's response. His ears had gone red, but he smiled as he shot looks at the ump, and then to Katie. “Yes, is good butt. You want to squeeze?”

“I would ruin him. Ugh, it's just fun to think about,” Katie said, glancing at the umpire who was waiting for the next pitch, then back to Nik. “One of us should get him. Right?”

“Yes. I will keep him in my closet,” Nik said and laughed. Mat questioned him, then said something loudly in Romanian.

“What did he say?” Katie asked, chuckling at Mat's tone.

“He say any boy I pick has to be better looking that Matei. He is not so sure this one is better looking,” Nik relayed, laughing at his friend.

“Well, we need to find out,” Katie said. “Um, hey Lu? Would you have pen and some paper in your van?”

“Bus.”

“What?”

“It's not a van. It's a bus.”

“Okay,” she said, elongating the word. “Any chance of pen and paper in your bus?”

“Yeah, probably in the glove box,” he said, smiling about having screwed with her.

She ran across the grass to the bus and I glanced at Lucien. He raised an eyebrow and asked if I knew why she wanted pen and paper.

“Not completely, but it has something to do with Nik, her and the umpire,” I said with a snicker. He glanced at the ump and shrugged.

“Nice butt, I guess. Damn, it's hot out,” he said.

I raised an eyebrow. “Did you just offer another guy a compliment?”

He shifted a little and grinned. “Things can be nice. Not like your butt, though. That is a-”

“Yeah, okay, going to stop you there!” I said with a laugh and he grinned wider at me.

Katie returned and plopped down on the bench below us, right next to Nik. “Okay. What's your Snap?” she asked, referring to the phone app Snapchat.

“Why? What are you doing?” Nik asked in amused embarrassment. I glanced at Lucien who was also listening in.

“I'll put my information on one side – phone, Snap, Insta – and yours on the other. I'll tell him if he's into girls, hit this one up,” she said pointing to her side of the napkin, “and if he likes boys to hit up yours.”

Nik laughed, but didn't sound as nervous as he had before. “Okay, sure,” he said. Mat said something else in Romanian and Nik turned toward him.

“English, Matei!” he chided.

“He has hat. Mask. You want date for butt?” He held his hands up.

“Good point,” Katie said, and her face scrunched into a thoughtful frown. “How can we get him to show us his face?”

“He'll probably take it off between innings,” Cris said. “Just wait.” He stood up and said, “I'm going to hit a convenience store and get some cold drinks. Anyone want to chip in or come with?”

A chunk of our group stood and money changed hands and lists were made. The inning seemed to linger; what with misplays and hit batters it was a wonder they got through games at all at this level. At one point there was a meeting on the mound where a bunch of players from the infield surrounded the pitcher, ostensibly to offer encouragement or work a strategy. I overheard one of the coaches muttering 'meeting of the no-minds' and covered my mouth to hide a laugh, even though it wasn't very nice. At that age they could be talking about anything out there – even the baseball game they were playing!

We chatted idly while the little league game dragged on. Cris returned with the others, stating the convenience store was only a few blocks away. We all got our drinks, which I was instantly grateful for. Then, as Cris had said, during the middle of an inning the young umpire pulled his mask off, squeezed it between his knees and then pulled his cap off to run a hand through his hair. He had a nice face, and his sweat dampened hair fell in an appealing way across his forehead. Katie stood up, and with a water bottle in hand, headed around the backstop and over to the umpire.

She smiled and spoke to him, though I couldn't really hear what she said. She handed the ump the water bottle, which he smiled about and I could see him say thanks. Then she handed him the napkin, flipping it over so he could see. His lips moved into a smile, and just the tips of his cheeks flushed.

“Aww,” I said. Lucien chuckled at me and I shoved him hard enough that he had to grab the bleacher to keep from falling off. “Jerk,” I told him with a grin.

Katie made her way back and the umpire stuffed the napkin into his pocket before downing half the water, then pulling his cap and mask back into place.

“What did he say?” Nik asked.

“He's got lips. Kissing lips!” Katie said as she sat back down. “Nice skin. Soft voice.”

I smiled at them. It was stupid, of course, but fun to watch something like that play out in front of me. Eventually the little league game ended. I think the score was 48-12, but I lost count. We got a bit more animated when Nate and Cris got out there, and the game was markedly better. Elliot arrived and sat beside us with his game outfit – Nate's high school jersey complete with Kennedy on the back, and the travel team's hat.

After the greetings were over I said, “Nate says you're working a ton of hours.”

“Yeah, hard to make up for what my dad used to make. It's not a ton, but it helps my mom out. Besides, I won't be able to do that once school starts in the fall.”

“I'd heard you were thinking community college?”

“The state has a new free tuition policy at state schools, so I'm hitting SUNY Binghamton. The music director is a talented woman who has experience on Broadway, so I'm looking forward to it.” He paused and smiled as he glanced at the field. “Doesn't hurt to have more good reasons to stick around home, too.”

“I told you,” Dylan said, sliding over to sit by Elliot. “You should listen to me more.”

Elliot laughed. “I'm never going to get past that with you, am I?”

“Not while it's to my advantage, no,” Dylan said and laughed. “You have to admit, though. Nate's worth it.”

“Yeah, no argument there,” Elliot said. “Hey, weren't those guys at the last game in Port Crane?”

We all turned and looked over at two guys in polo shirts and slacks. They didn't seem like parents there to watch their kid. The few parents in attendance were on the bleachers, or had brought their own chairs with attached umbrellas to avoid the heat. These guys were making notes.

“Scouts. They're major league scouts,” I said with sudden conviction.

“I'm just going to tell them who to scout,” Elliot said suddenly and stood up.

“Wait for me,” Dylan said quickly as he fell in beside Elliot.

“Wouldn't that be something?” I said with an air of amazement. “What if we knew someone who was in the major leagues?”

“You might have to switch the team you root for,” Lucien teased. I gave him a knowing smile, but turned back to watch Elliot and Dylan as they went to lobby for their boyfriends. My attention was drawn back to the row below me by Nik and Mat giggling and Katie making snorting sounds. I glanced down, but couldn't see anything except that it looked like they were huddled around Nik – and his phone.

I glanced at Lucien and with my gaze directed him to Nik. He raised an eyebrow and asked, “Nik? What's up?”

Nik looked back, smiling and blushing. “Cute umpire is like boys.”

Aww.

~F~

“I just don't understand why it's a secret,” I said, feeling aggravated.

“It's not. I just...look, it upsets you. I figured it's better if I just don't bring it up,” Lucien said, obviously frustrated with me.

I bit my tongue. I kept the phone in place, but I was at a loss and anything I said was going to make this worse. I heard him sigh on the other end of the line, and it just made me more aggravated.

“Babe. Look, I'm sorry I didn't say anything. I thought it was the best way to deal.”

“I don't need to know every detail of what you do,” I said in a measured tone. “But she worries me. I don't like not knowing important things.”

I heard him sigh and I bit back a shitty comment, but just.

“Well, you didn't miss anything new. Well, except that we fought.”

“You don't think that's important?”

“It was,” he said in a tired tone. “It's just...I have to make decisions about this and you've picked a side.”

“Yeah. Yours. Not apologizing for it, either,” I said firmly.

“No, yours,” Lucien snapped. “I want to try and fix things, and you're trying to stop me.”

“Because she has history of hurting you!” I said in disbelief.

I heard him groan, which confused me. “Robin...Babe. I need to do this for me. This has zero to do with any confidence in you or us. I'm not going to change from her or whatever her church people might say.”

“When people repeat things often enough, they can begin to sound logical,” I said, feeling stupid for having the argument to begin with.

In a slightly bored tone he said, “She's still trying to make peace between me and the egg donor, she's still 'getting used' to the idea I'm dating and going to marry the love of my life. Her intentions are peaceful, and I shut her down when she gets too far out of whack. If I'm going to bring her back, I have to be willing to talk to her, too. You see that, don't you?”

I sighed. “Yes. I don't like it, but yes.”

Lucien chuckled. “I'll tell you something, if you don't get a big head about it.”

“Shit head. What is it?” I asked, my anger cooling.

“I like that you don't like this.”

I paused. “Um, why? Do you like aggravating me? Worrying me?”

“Well, your protectiveness is kind of hot,” he said, his tone teasing. “But honestly, I need reminders that Claire and I don't see things eye to eye. You're right, she didn't do right by me, and I'm soft enough to forget that sometimes. At the same time, I'd like to think she's not lost to me – or me to her. People deserve chances, Robin.”

“They do,” I said quietly. “Just not when they hurt you.”

“And that, right there, is why I love you. I have to go. I'll call you after?”

I bit my lip. “Maybe stop by instead?”

“See you then.”

I let the phone drop on my bed and walked to my window. He drove me nuts, sometimes. We don't fight a lot, but Claire...that was a sore spot. I felt restless and decided to go for a run, just to get out of the house. Ten minutes later I had my headphones in and I was jogging down the road. It felt good to get outside, but it took me a minute to regulate my breathing. All my exercise had been fighting with Lucien, it seemed. I'd loved him as well, that sure counted as exercise, yet if I wanted to avoid gaining weight and – wait, where did that come from?

I slowed to a stop, my arms akimbo as I turned that over in my head. I'd never cared about my weight. I was happy with my body, the achievements I'd made through sports and exercise, but I'd never worried before about how I looked. Well, not a great deal, anyway. I thought on that and decided it wasn't entirely true. I wore nice clothes and was a little more involved in picking out what was purchased for me. I took the time to groom myself well. So where had that thought about weight come from?

I wiped the sweat from my forehead and placed my hands behind my hips, arching my back into a stretch. I felt a couple of pops and groaned. I tilted my shoulders side to side, limbering up. I opened my eyes and started forth at a slow trot. I noted a middle-aged man running on the opposite side of the street, his shirt drenched and his belly protruding obviously. The other obvious thing was the way he was noticing me. After he passed I realized there was a definite hunger in his eyes, and not even my limited flirtation detection skills could miss it. It amused me a little, but my mind quickly turned back to beating myself up about fighting with Lucien over his sister.

Up ahead I saw the flashing lights of the train crossing. I sped up for a half a second in an attempt to beat it, but the arms were already down and I didn't feel like letting a train smash me into the ground. The freight train lumbered into view and then the rhythmic click-clack of the wheels going over the rails hit my ears. It was loud enough to interfere with my music, but rather than raise the volume I popped my headphones out and closed my eyes, listening to the steady pulse of the train passing by. In a flash I wondered about taking a train ride somewhere. I could barely wait for the train to go by so I could go home and find out about taking a train ride.

~F~

“Hey,” Lucien said as he walked through my bedroom door.

I turned my head to look at him from my lounging position on my bed. “Hey, Babe.”

His eyes flicked down my body and back up to my face. “Damn. You are prime for cuddling.” I looked down at myself, clad in comfy sweatpants and a tee shirt. There may have been a couple crumbs on my chest from the crackers I'd eaten a little bit ago. Boy finds me desirable even when I'm a mess.

I grinned. “Well get to it, then.”

“I brought you some of those croissants from that place that you like,” he said as he kicked his shoes off and slid onto the bed with me. “What are you watching?”

“I forgot,” I told him. “Croissants? What's the occasion?”

“Just a reminder that even when I'm with them, I'm still thinking of you.” Argh. God, he's good at that.

“Mind if I put something on?”

“Go ahead.”

He flipped through the selections and turned a show on. “I've been wanting to see this.”

So we spent the next hour and a half cuddled together watching some independent movie he'd picked out. There's something so relaxing about having him with me. I love holding him, and having him snuggle me in return. I was so relaxed I could have slept, except the movie was pretty good and kept my attention. When it was over we took turns hitting the bathroom, then got resettled into our snuggling pose.

“So.” He studied my face, though I wasn't sure what he was looking for. “You've been a real butterfly this summer about doing stuff – new stuff. What sparked that?”

I studied his face for a minute in return, gazing at a face that was as familiar to me as my own. “Who do you think I am?

He cocked his head in confusion. “I think you're Robin Gabriel Kirkwood, my boyfriend and the hottest guy on the planet. Maybe the universe.”

“Is that all?” I asked, having half-expected him to say something like this.

He placed his hand on the side of my face and said, “My whole world is here in my hand. What else is there?”

I smiled at him as my emotions flooded through me. I like to joke and tease, to play a prank or two, but nothing beats Lucien in his romantic moments.

“What am I when you're not there?”

He frowned lightly. “Nothing changes. You're still you.”

I pushed my lips together and off to one side before replying. “I told Dr. Freeman that I was feeling a little...unmoored. I used to have team sports and stuff to kind of define me, but what do I like to do on my own?”

“I'm not sure I understand,” Lucien said, waiting for me to fill him in as he idly played with my hair.

“I mean everything I do is with you or as part of a group. What do I like? Who am I?”

“You're a gamer,” he said. “You're a sports fan. Brother, friend...lover.”

I smiled at him. Maybe I should have just asked him who I was.

“I think you're amazing. Smart, funny, and always willing to put yourself out there to help someone. It's inspiring.”

“It is?” I asked.

“Makes me want to spend the rest of my life with you,” he said solemnly.

I tangled my fingers with his free hand, and was grateful for him. My heart was swelling with emotion, and that was enough to deal with.

“Well, I've been trying new things, trying to see where I fit. Looking for something that's...me. But,” I said with a shake of my head, “I think I'm not built that way. Or maybe not entirely. I shared everything with the group this summer – the comic-con, baseball. Everything. Maybe I'm the kind of person who prefers groups.”

He kissed my forehead, but made no comment. I don't know what he thought of my statements, and maybe he was turning it over in his mind but I didn't want to talk about myself anymore. I switched to a TV show, and in short order Lucien was breathing steadily, having drifted off to sleep.

I looked at him as he dreamed his dreams and felt a centering peace fill me. I'm no theologian, but I wonder if what we think of as God is something simpler than an all knowing being, is just the power of the emotion that can tie two people together. Maybe the divine is in each of us, and thrives when we connect with each other. Who knows?

I slipped from the bed and went to use the bathroom, then went downstairs to find a drink. My mom was walking through the kitchen from the family room.

“Headed to bed, Mom?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think so,” she said and smiled tiredly. “I'm an old lady. I can't do these late nights anymore.”

I glanced at the clock on the stove. “Oh, I didn't realize it was after ten.”

“Time flies when you're with people you love,” she said and patted my cheek.

I smiled at her. “We watched a movie. Cuddling is about the closest to heaven I think I can get right now.”

“Considering you'd have to die to get any closer, let's count that as a blessing,” she said with a tired laugh. “It seems amazing that both you and Kale found someone so special while you were so young. I wish I'd had your certainty when I was younger.”

I tilted my head. “Falling for dad wasn't easy?” I asked, filling a glass with orange juice.

“The dashing lawyer, the debonair fellow with the smile that could charm the pants off every secretary in New York City? Oh no. I was very cautious about your father,” she said with a grin.

“What's this now?” my dad asked as he entered the room, shutting off the light in the family room as he did.

“Mom seems to think you were too charming to trust,” I said with a grin.

He hugged her from behind. “She had nothing to worry about. When you know, you know. I just had to wait until she felt the same way.”

She shook her head, but smiled. “Did Lucien go home?”

“No. He fell asleep watching TV.”

“You guys have come a long way. You have such a strong relationship, it's hard to believe,” my dad said.

I widened my eyes and blew out a breath. I was thinking of my thoughts on God and how they applied to Lucien, but I just didn't want to say that to my parents. “If there is someone for everyone, he's the one for me. I don't think I could love someone more than I do him, and he even loves me when I'm in sweats and have crumbs on my shirt.”

My dad let out a deep chuckle. He kissed my mom and said, “I'll be right up. Just want to grab something from my office.”

“Oh. Okay,” she said with a smile that seemed like she knew something. “Good night, sweetheart,” she said to me and we hugged as I replied, then she headed up to bed.

I drained my glass, rinsed it and put it in the dishwasher. Mom hates coming down in the morning to a 'dirty sink', so she'd trained us all to fill the dishwasher her way.

“You know, my dad was a tough man,” my dad said as he reentered the kitchen. “Military. Came from a big family, lots of mouths to feed. Despite his flaws, and the man had more than a few, he said perhaps the wisest words to me anyone ever has said.”

“Oh?” I asked, curious.

Dad leaned on the counter across from me and smiled softly. “He said the secret to a good life was to find someone you love and show them how much every day. Never say 'I love you' just to say it back. Always let that person know that when you hold their face, you're holding your world in your hands.”

My jaw dropped. “Grandpa said that?”

My dad smiled sadly. “I know you guys didn't get to know him well. He wasn't easy to get to know. Kind of closed off. Gruff, even. But I think he would have wanted you to have this,” he said, pulling a small box from his pocket.

I accepted in with curiosity and opened the box to find a ring. It was gold with a short line of three diamonds. The ring was dented, used and yet still strong. I looked up at my dad.

“One day you're going to marry him. I know you told us that before, but I think I can see that future now. I can see he's your world. Maybe even your universe. I hope your grandfather's ring will make an appropriate engagement ring for Lucien.”

My eyes watered and I couldn't speak, so I stepped forward and hugged my dad. He held me tightly, the way fathers seem to be able to do and others can't quite figure out. From the time I was little when he'd lift me up and hug me, to the present day when I'm as tall as he is, his hug has always been firm and comforting.

“Thank you. I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, Robbie.”

I stayed in the kitchen after he'd left and looked at the ring. I wanted to wake Lucien and give it to him now, but I wanted to get a small chain first. We'd probably have to get the ring sized, so he could wear it around his neck until then. I headed back upstairs and brushed my teeth, then went back into my room. Lucien was sprawled out, his mouth slightly open. I placed the box containing the ring into my nightstand and then tossed aside my sweats and shirt for sleeping. Slipping in next to Lucien I blew on his face, forcing some air up his nose. He jerked, snorted and opened his eyes.

“Jerk,” he said, giving me a sleepy grin. “Startled me.”

“You're sleeping in your clothes. I know you hate that,” I told him.

“Yeah,” he said with a yawn and glanced at the clock on my nightstand. “Jeez, sorry to conk out on you.” He sat up and pulled his shirt off, then wiggled out of his jeans. After he tossed his socks aside I took his glasses and set them on the nightstand.

We cuddled up under the blankets, and I felt that peace steal over me. Yeah, the concept of the divine must have come from someone deeply in love. And cuddling the object of that love.

“So, Claire stood up to the egg donor today,” Lucien said softly.

“Oh?” I asked, letting my fingers slide up and down his forearm.

“Yeah. Eggy was insisting on the Rousseau last name, and Claire turned around and told her if she wanted a relationship with me, she'd better get used to me being a Kutsenko – and if she couldn't, to leave so she and I could still have something.”

“I'm...stunned,” I admitted. “I didn't think she had that in her.”

“I wasn't sure either, honestly. But you know, sometimes people can surprise you,” he said, snuggling in closer. “What did you do today?”

He rested his forehead on my chest as we lay side by side and I stroked his back, holding him loosely with the other arm. “I went for a run this afternoon. Did some thinking.”

“Come to any conclusions?”

“Sort of. I got cut off by a train and I liked the sound of the wheels going over the track. When I got back I looked up passenger train rides and there's one a few hours away, a scenic train ride with a meal and a glass roof for viewing. I thought it might be fun. What do you think?”

“You want to do it?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“I'm in then. Whatever you want, Babe.”

His breathing evened out and then he rolled away from me, and I snuggled in behind him, soaking in the heat of his body and the scent of his skin. I thought about him and me in that apartment, and maybe that would be a good place to give him the ring that said I wanted him with me for the rest of his life. Not my life, but his. I didn't want to lose a minute of being with him, so I hope God takes me first.

~F~

Two weeks later we boarded the Delaware and Ulster Railroad out of tiny Arkville, NY. We sat in the upper level under a glass ceiling, and for two hours I was in heaven. We ate a meal on the train, watched the scenery and talked. The rails were magic, and the gentle rhythm of the click-clack over the tracks spoke to me in a way I wasn't used to. Maybe in a past life I'd traveled the rails of old America. Whatever it was, I was hooked.

Lucien sat beside me, and my neck was a little stiff from facing one direction to look out of the window. I rubbed my neck and Lucien asked if my neck was sore.

“A little,” I said. “Keeping my head turned to look at the scenery is putting a kink into it.”

He pulled me back toward him, twisting me so I was leaning against him and he started to knead my neck gently while I lay back against him, watching the trees go by. It was serene.

“Are you happy?” Lucien asked me in a low voice.

I nodded and tilted my head back so I could look up at him. Sort of. “This is great. I had no idea I could enjoy trains so much.”

Lucien was silent for a moment and I snuggled back into him. He draped an arm across my chest and held me loosely.

“Kind of neat everyone agreed about the house, huh? Looking forward to it?”

“Am I!” I said excitedly, then just to tweak Lucien I said, “Wait until we walk in on Dev and Griff going at it on the couch!”

He poked me in the side and I jumped, so he did it repeatedly, playfully asking me if I really wanted to watch them going at it.

Griff turned around, his knees likely on the seat in front of us. “Are you kidding? We're going to make bank filming you two.”

“I don't think so,” Lucien said, shaking his head.

“No, really. Think of it as financing your future. We can run our own website and everything.”

“Hmm,” I said, pretending to think about it while grinning and looking up at Lucien.

“No. Okay, deal's off – you're corrupting my boyfriend!” Lucien told Griff sternly.

Griff looked down, probably to interpret Dev's hand signals, then looked back at us, “Dev wants to add furniture insurance.”

“Screw you, Dev!” Lucien called out, and I shook with laughter.

“I heard sex scenes are being filmed,” Derek said, appearing in the aisle. “I just want you to know, I have experience with a camera.”

“Perverts,” Lucien muttered and pulled me closer, which only made me laugh harder.

I glanced over at Griff. “One favor?”

“What's that?” he asked.

“I've been told my first night in the new apartment is going to be out of this world, so maybe we can stagger the moving in days?”

Griff looked at Lucien wolfishly and Derek started to playfully tease about wanting to sell tickets. It was all to tweak my boyfriend, but he bore it with reasonably good grace. He should be used to their teasing by now. Especially Derek, since he had a thing for Lucien. I could understand – I had a pretty big thing for him myself.

It would be an exciting time, living on our own. Sharing a bed with Lucien every night. Meals planned together, the fights we were sure to have. We'd get to share that experience with two great people who would help me tease Lucien to the edge of turning into a tomato. We'd also have Alec and Sasha downstairs, along with Micah. I sighed and looked out the window. I hoped I'd get a chance to make a difference in his life, and when I got that chance I hoped I wouldn't fail him.

When we got home I started doing research, and a few days later I was busy creating buildings and laying down track for an N-Gauge model train layout. I was reading books, tearing buildings out and making better ones like a madman. As much as I loved Lucien and spending time with him, as soon as he said he was working with Mat, I went to my trains.

~F~

“So, trains, huh? That's an interesting choice. It used to be a really big hobby,” Dr. Freeman said.

“I know. This antique store had a couple boxes of Model Railroader magazine really cheap, so I've been reading them. I laid out a small oval track and I let the train run while I work on the buildings, trees – oh! I've found a pretty neat way to make water, too! I'm really enjoying it.”

“What does Lucien think?”

“He told me I can probably set my layout up in the enclosed porch of the apartment we're renting for school in the fall. He's not as interested – which is to say, he's polite, but this is for me.”

“Ah. How about that?” he said with a smile. “It only took most of the summer, but there you are. You're a ferroequinologist.”

I paused.

“A person who studies trains,” he said and chuckled again.

“Yes. I have a lot to learn, though. It's amazing the number of passenger rail lines we used to have before cars and airplanes. I like the train. Maybe one summer Lucien and I can take the train from New York to Los Angeles.”

“Quite the adventure. So. How are we feeling these days?”

I nodded my head slowly. “I still hate that Lucien is seeing Claire, but she recently showed some spine and stood up to his egg donor, so maybe I was a little wrong about her.”

“A little?”

I frowned. “She still did what she did. If it were anyone else – and I know I'm being unreasonable – then I would be more sympathetic. But she hurt Lucien, and I'm kind of irrational about that.”

“Well, realizing that the way you feel isn't the appropriate response is a positive thing. We all have situations where we have to rein in our baser instincts when it comes to someone we care for. Understanding that we need to take a breath is a positive thing, Robin.”

I nodded. “I know. I still don't like it, but I understand it better.”

“How are you feeling about leaving for college?”

I rubbed my hands along my jeans. “Excited. A little worried. I'm wondering how much I'll miss my family.”

“I foresee road trips in your future.”

I grinned at him. “No doubt. I'm excited, though. Griff and Dev will be with us all the time. I guess we'll get to know each other in close quarters, and that worries me a little. Hopefully before the end of the year Devyn will be able to speak a bit. It'll be fun to see just how much Griff has been filtering the guy,” I said, laughing.

“How are you feeling about Lucien? About his safety?”

I tilted my head from side to side. “Some days are better than others. I know he's smart, not reckless. I'm reminding myself of that when I get anxious. I'm also trying to be more...in the moment with him. Present in our relationship. Did I tell you what he did a few weeks ago?”

“What?” he asked with amusement.

“I'm lying in bed in sweats and a tee, cracker crumbs on my shirt and he looks me up and down and tells me how much he wants to cuddle me. I mean, I was a mess and he still...you know?”

He smiled widely. “I do, but I won't tell you why. Well, you give me a call if you want to aim for a weekend appointment while you're gone. Are you sure you don't want me to refer you to someone up there for the next several months?”

I tilted my head to one side and pursed my lips. “I think I'm good for now. Thanks anyway.”

We stood up and headed toward the door to his office. “Have plans this afternoon?”

“I have a box car I want to weather. It's not as easy as you might think.”

“What about Lucien?”

I glanced at Dr. Freeman. “He can watch if he wants,” I said with a grin.




'The End'.