Billy O'Shea was a fighter, and nobody who knew him would argue that. He won many fights, too, and had established his reputation as a fighter and winner by the time he was eight years old. Between the ages of eight and sixteen he hadn't gotten into many real fights, but his reputation held up just the same.

Bill was a bit short for his age - five foot six, when most guys were inches taller. He wasn't the shortest person he knew, but not far off either. Still, he was built like a small tank, and he was strong for his age, not just his size. He wasn't a gym rat, but he had broad shoulders, powerful arms and legs, and a vee-shaped torso that made him seem taller than he was. Nobody messed with Bill O'Shea. He had an open and friendly face, and he was generally what anyone would call a happy-go-lucky guy. Nobody messed with him anyhow; because he had that reputation for one thing, and because his personality had earned him friends rather than enemies.

He was trying to add to that list of friends with a new girl he had met on the first day of school. They were both Sophomores, and she was a girl from Mexico who was new to the school. He had walked her home after school the first day, but had a hard time seeing her after that, given different neighborhoods, different schedules, and the fact that they hadn't exchanged phone numbers. Halloween was about a month away, and he desperately wanted to ask her to the first school dance of the year, so he was busy contacting people he thought might help him out.

He started with his best friend, who lived two doors away from him, so it was a visit. He looked at Aaron, "You know who Romi is, right?"

Aaron nodded, "I know who she is. I see her around at school."

"I want to ask her out," Billy said. "I walked her home from school once, but we never get a chance to talk. I know where she lives, but I don't want to just show up there."

Aaron scrunched his face like he did when he was thinking, then said hopefully, "Jim Andreas knows her, I think. You know him, right? He's a tall kid? Jim."

"I know him," Billy said thoughtfully. "Oh! He lives down that way, too. That's how I met her ... when some guys were knockin' on Jim she was there. You don't know his number, do you?"

Aaron shook his head, "No, I don't really know the guy except who he is." He looked sadly at Bill, "I don't know if he's the right guy to ask, either. Every time I see Romi she's with Jim."

Billy's face fell momentarily, but he recovered quickly, "I remember. Jim told me himself that they're not going out. Like they're just friends."

Aaron gave Bill a perplexed look, then muttered, "Maybe Jim will grow up to be a monk, or a friar or something."

Bill grinned at his friend and said, "I hope so. I'll see if Jim's number is in the book."

Aaron looked Billy in the eyes and said, "You know where she lives. Go ring the bell. What's the worst that could happen?"

Aaron was right, Bill knew that. He had a bus pass, so the cost was squat, all he needed was the nerve.

That night at dinner, he was quiet and a little nervous. He could talk to his father, and they had talked endlessly after Billy's mother died, but this was different. It was a matter of the heart, and Billy's first question ever about such things to his father.

Billy didn't have to ask his father to wait at the table, because it was his father's turn to do the dishes. He waited until his brother left anyhow, then said, "Dad, I want to talk to you."

His father looked at Bill, mild surprise on his face. "About what?"

Bill looked at the table, hesitated, then said, "There's this girl at school. I don't know her much, but I really like her." He looked at his father, who looked back, waiting. "Her name's Romi, and I can't remember her last name because I only heard it once." He smiled weakly, "There's lots of syllables."

"A foreign name?" his father asked.

Billy nodded, "Mexican. Well, she's from Mexico, the name must be."

Mr. O'Shea relaxed. Mexico wasn't all that foreign, and he'd been there himself. He remembered beer, sunshine, tequila and pretty ladies, and fondly at that. He smiled at Bill and said, "What's the problem? I enjoy just thinking about Mexico."

Bill soaked that up, then said, "That's not my problem. She doesn't really know me, and I don't have her number and ..." he threw his hands up, "What do I do?"

Bill's father could see that his son was serious, so he thought his answer out in advance. "Listen, Bill. You'll probably face this a lot of times. You have to believe that the girl wants to know you as much as you want to know her. That's your starting point, anyhow. If you're wrong, you're wrong, but never ask a girl out if you don't think of course she'll want to go. If you get shot down, then you do, but you can't even get shot down if you don't ask first." He smiled gently, "And you'll never ask if you think too much about the answer."

Billy looked at his father, then smiled, and the smile turned into a grin. "You've been shot down? How else would you know all this?"

His father moved abruptly, picking up some plates from the table. "Everyone gets denied at some point, Bill. Don't let it stop you from trying. I don't know what else to say. You're an O'Shea. If this one girl doesn't end up liking you, then move on. There's little likelihood of that happening anyhow."

When Billy asked why, his dad's eyes shifted left and right, up and down, then he smirked at his son, "It's because you're an honest man, Bill. You've been since day one, too." He blinked, "People like that, you know. Girls like honesty, everyone does."

Billy looked at his dad, then smiled, "Thanks, I think." He smirked, "How honest should I be?"

"Billy," his father said. "Use your head. There are women you can say anything to, and there are women you can't get fresh with at all. If you learn one thing, it should be how to tell the difference up front. That's what they mean about having your cake and eating it too, or however that goes." He looked at the dishes in the sink and mumbled, "Probably a bad example, anyhow."

Bill was satisfied and said, "Thanks. I'll do the dishes if you want."

His father looked around, and there wasn't much to do. "No, you go find that girl and talk to her. I can do this."

Bill looked at the clock, then walked out the front door and down the street to the bus stop. He had his student pass, so the ride out would be free, and back too, if he caught the bus before nine, otherwise he'd have to pay.

The bus brought him to within a block of where he'd walked Romi to that first day, and he remembered their driveway. When he walked up it, he recalled what a nice little enclave he thought it was the first time he'd seen it.

He stopped at the first house, not knowing where he should be, and a young boy's voice asked, "Who you lookin' for?"

Billy stopped and looked, then saw the boy sitting at an outdoor table. "I'm looking for Romi," Bill said. "Do you know her? Am I in the right place?"

"Who are you?" the boy asked.

Billy approached him so he could see better and said, "I'm Bill O'Shea. Who're you?"

The boy smiled and stood. "I am Diego, Romi's brother. Your intentions are?"

"What?" Billy laughed. "My intentions? Um ..."

Diego laughed, "Don't say it! My sister is chaste, and she gonna stay that way."

Billy liked Diego's response, and he laughed again. "Don't worry, Diego. My intentions are pure," he said, thinking pure lust. "I met Romi at school. I want to know how she's doing, and I just never get to see her there. She didn't know her phone number to give to me, so here I am."

Diego stood there for a moment. He was as tall as Bill, slender, and a handsome boy. He peered at Billy's face and said, "Romi spoke of you. Stand here. I'll go get her."

He disappeared inside, and in a few minutes Romi walked out, looking beautiful in a pink sweater and light-colored jeans.

She smiled shyly and said, "Billy."

Bill smiled at her good looks, and he was really happy to see her again. "Romi, I ... um, it's good to see you. How are you?"

She approached him and said, "It's good to see you, too. I've hoped to see you, but we never meet." She indicated a little bistro table with two chairs, and even though it was getting chilly out, they sat there to be alone.

Billy asked again, "So, how are you? I thought you'd call me with your number."

She said, "You gave me the wrong number. I call, and I get an answering system for a doctor's office. Press one to do this, press two to do that."

Bill scrunched up his face. "Really? What the heck number did I give you?"

Romi smiled sardonically, "The Americana Health Clinic number is what you gave me." She smiled more brightly and offered, "I have it memorized. It's five-four-seven ... "

Bill interrupted and slapped his head at the same time. "Five-four-seven? I can't believe I did that. It's backwards." He blushed and said, "What's worse? Not knowing your own number, or writing it down backwards?"

Romi smiled, because she had concluded that Bill gave her a wrong number so he wouldn't have to bother with her. She said softly, "I know our number now. Would you like to have it?"

Bill raised his eyebrows and nodded. Romi went inside for a moment and came back with a pad of paper and a pen. She sat and wrote her number, then slid the pad over to Billy. He thought that even her handwriting was attractive, and wrote his number down as neatly as he could, then gave her the sheet he'd written on.

He said hesitantly, "I came to ask you to the Halloween dance, Romi. It's the first dance of the year. It's not until next month, but if you're not already going with someone, I'd like it if you went with me."

Romi smiled and said almost distantly, "Halloween. Do you wear costumes?"

Bill shrugged, "Costumes are optional, I think. Do you like costumes? Lots of kids wear them, but lots don't, too."

Romi beamed, "I adore costumes. In Mexico we have big doings for the Day of the Dead. Many of us dress up in a costume."

"Day of the Dead," Bill mumbled. "I've heard of that. Isn't it morbid?"

Romi laughed lightly, "No, not morbid at all. It's a celebration for children and those who have gone before. We commune with our departed ones, and we celebrate the continuity of life." She smiled brightly, "And we eat! Do we ever eat! The food is different, but it must be like your Thanksgiving here."

Bill returned Romi's smile, partly to share her enthusiasm, but also because he'd just learned something, and it had to be important to Romi for her to relate it so easily. There was time before the dance, so he thought he'd find who was organizing it and suggest that they give it a little Mexican flavor. It would be nice to include something that Romi would recognize.

He said, "So ... the dance. Will you go with me?"

Romi gave him a coy look and said, "I'd love to go with you." Billy beamed, and Romi added, "You'll have to ask my father, of course. Oh, and Jim Andreas will come with us as my chaperone."

Billy mouthed the word 'chaperone' and was about to speak when Romi laughed. "Jim is my friend, and we were already planning to go. I hope you don't mind."

"No. No, no. Not at all," Bill managed to squeak.

Romi said more seriously, "You will have to speak with my father, and also meet my mother. Would you like to meet them now?"

Billy nodded stupidly, his mouth slightly open.

Romi smiled as she stood, "Don't be afraid. My father will tease you, but my mother will make him stop. You already made it past Diego, and he's our gatekeeper. My father is easier to please than him."

Billy stood nervously, his hands in his pockets to keep the sweat down, and Romi went back inside. She was back in a moment, leading her parents, another man, and Diego. Billy took a deep breath while Romi said, "Mother, Father, I would like to introduce Bill O'Shea. Bill, this is my mother, my father," she indicated the other man, "My brother Paolo, and you have already met Diego."

Romi's father smiled and held out his hand, "Hello, young man. Welcome to our home."

Bill shook hands with him, then in turn with Romi's mother, with Paolo, and with a smirking Diego before the father said, "Please sit down," which Billy did gladly, not certain how much longer his legs would have held him up.

"O'Shea," Romi's father mused. "Irish?"

"Irish-American," Billy said nervously. "Irish on my dad's side. My mom was Scottish. They were both born here."

Romi put her hand over her mouth in shock when she heard Billy refer to his mother in the past tense. Now she understood the trace of melancholy she had detected in him, and why he left that first day to cook dinner for his family.

"You said 'was' when speaking of your mother," Romi's mother said worriedly. "Did something happen to her?"

"Elvina," her husband said gently, placing his hand on her wrist.

"It's alright," Billy said. He looked at Romi when he spoke again, "She had cancer, and they just couldn't defeat it. She died just before last Christmas." He felt good that he managed to say it without tears, but Romi gasped audibly, and the rest of her family looked at Bill sadly.

That made him self conscious again, so he was glad that Romi's father spoke next. His voice was sad and gentle, "Your family ... you're getting along?"

Bill grimaced, thinking he understood the question. He said flatly, "It was awful. I have my bad moments, and I know we all do." He looked across the table and said, "We're doing alright."

There was an awkward silence, then Romi's father said, "We are all sorry for your loss." He smiled weakly, "I believe your visit here is for a happier purpose. Would you care to state that purpose?"

Bill smiled, certain that he'd passed muster, but still nervous. "I want to ask Romi to our school's Halloween dance. I'd like your permission."

Romi's father smiled, and he said softly, "Permission granted." He leaned forward and said, "Now tell us about you, and the rest of your family."

Billy did, and he learned about Romi's family too. He stayed for another hour, and Romi moved close beside him. He could smell her, and he was intoxicated by the sweetness of her scent, and more so by the wonder of her very presence.

Afterward, Paolo drove Bill home, following Billy's shortcuts. He liked Bill too, and he had a question, so he asked it. "Take the snot. What does that mean?"

"What?" Billy asked.

"Take the snot. My sister said you spoke it in Latin the first day she met you."

Billy didn't remember, and said so. Paolo said, "She said you called Jim 'nosepicker', then said 'carpe mucum'. That's take the snot, right?"

Bill laughed the rest of the way home, and was still laughing in the driveway.

"Listen, Paolo. This is from a long time ago, but Jim used to - you know, put his finger in his nose. We're talking sixth grade here."

Paolo looked at Bill without seeming to understand. Bill said, "I got him to stop, so now that he doesn't do it anymore, I call him a nosepicker."

Paolo waited, and when Bill noticed he said, "Last year I took Latin."

Paolo's eyes opened wider, "And you looked up nose picker as an exercise in Latin?"

Billy laughed, "No, I looked up booger, and mucum comes close. I knew that someday I'd want to tell somebody to get that booger they're looking for, and 'carpe' isn't too far off.. So it's carpe mucum, or seize the booger!"

Paolo snorted and said, "I won't tell my father this if you tell me where I am."

Bill realized the shortcuts would be hard to backtrack, so he told Paolo the long, but easy way home, and they left as friends, saying, "Carpe mucum," at the same time, and laughing happily. Billy, instead of going into his own house, skipped two doors down to tell Aaron. He was used to not knocking, and so opened the front door and called in, "It's me," before proceeding.

"In here," Aaron called from the kitchen, and Bill found him at the table doing homework. Aaron looked up, a smile of relief on his face, and he said, "Tell me you know Euripides."

Billy looked behind him quickly, then smirked at Aaron, "Euripides? Yeah, I think I kicked his ass in fourth grade."

Aaron groaned and his chin dropped to the table. "This is serious!" He lifted a bunch of loose papers to demonstrate and asked, "How can they do this? School just started. How can they want a report on a Greek playwright? He's been dead for two thousand years, and I get three days to do this report."

Billy looked in the refrigerator and pulled out two apples, one of which he handed to Aaron as he sat opposite him. "I don't think he's really dead, Castle. That's just part of the myth. Kind of like George Bush being a cowboy ... or a real Texan for that matter. I'm sure it was Euripides that I mopped up the playground with."

Aaron sat back with a hopeless expression on his face, folded his arms, and stated, "That was Uri Pader, and you gave him your lunch after you squished his."

Billy shrugged and took a bite of apple, "Pader, Pides, who can tell the difference? Anyhow, I warned you about the perils of drama class, so you're on your own."

Aaron eyed Billy and asked, "So the purpose of your visit is?"

Billy beamed, "I took your advice. I went to Romi's and asked her to the dance." He snickered, "I have to take Jim Andreas, too, but she said yes."

Aaron giggled, "You have like a bisexual date?"

"Yeah, so what?" Billy asked. "It's our first date. If it doesn't work out with Romi, I'll have a built-in fallback position."

"You're crude," Aaron said. "Come on, tell me."

"I met her whole family," Billy smiled. "They're really nice people. Get this; I had to ask her father for permission to ask Romi to the dance. Is that neat or what?"

"I don't know about neat," Aaron said. "Kind of old-fashioned, though, and I guess that's pretty neat." He looked at Billy, then the apple he was eating. He picked up his own apple and took a bite, then asked, "So, will you help me with Euripides?"

Billy's eyes bored into Aaron's, and he read through Aaron's notes before finally saying, "Okay, write this down. Euripides was a guy who was born when time ran backwards. He started life in four-eighty BC or thereabouts, and croaked in four-oh-six, or seventy-four years before he was born. He was actually seventy-four when he died, but they did things differently then in Greece. At the time, Greek society was at a high point. They built the Parthenon, for example, and they were doing really well with their wars. They plundered the known world, and either murdered or enslaved entire populations for their own amusement."

Aaron was laughing, and Bill said, "You're not writing this down. Will you remember?"

Aaron barely managed, "How would I forget? There's more?"

"Are you doing your homework, Aaron?" Mr. Castle asked, opening the door. Aaron nodded, and the door closed.

Billy went on eagerly, "I didn't get to Euripides yet. He was a writer, like I said, and he knew that Greece would get itself in trouble if everyone stayed on a slavery high for too long. Kind of like Alan Greenspan does when the economy gets too hot, but a different kind of economy. He also knew that however much the Greeks loved to party, eat, drink, and laugh, they loved to cry even more. So he started writing sappy plays. Scratch that, make it tragic plays. Like soap operas before soap was even invented. He was a man of the time, though, and the ancient Greek equivalent of Leno made fun of him, so you know he did his job well. And he had all the Grecians crying urns full of tears."

Bill leaned forward and pointed at a piece of paper, "List out his plays here, Aar. Rate them even, with like one to five teardrops. Then finish with your own words. Say how much old Euripides means to you, and make it profound." He smiled at Aaron, "How'm I doing? If you want to stretch it, you could question his death and mention that there's no clear proof he ever died. Then say that there's a better than fair chance he was in fourth grade with us."

Aaron and Billy had loved nonsense ever since they met. This was no different, but Billy was a scholar inside, and Aaron knew he could use the outline Bill had given him to write a good report. He knew better than to thank him, too, so he looked at Bill and said, "Sappy is a good word. Is that what you were when you gave Pader your lunch?"

Billy's face darkened, "No, Aaron. My sandwich that day was liver and kumquat, and I would have paid Pides to take it. How's Evan, anyhow?"

"What, no segue?" Aaron asked. "Evan's okay. He's more surprised than anything, I think. Well, he surprised his family, too. It can't be bad, because I'm invited over this weekend to meet everybody, and I can stay over on Friday and Saturday."

"No shit?" Billy asked, truly surprised himself.

Aaron filled Billy in on what he'd heard from Evan, and Bill was greatly relieved. He'd last seen Evan inside a police station, and even though his friend was joking around, Bill had a clear feeling for Evan's inner terror at the time.

Aaron shrugged happily, "It wasn't what he thought, I guess. He's home, and he's back in school. He says his parents are kind of freaked out, but it's not like they hate him for being gay or anything. More like it's a gigantic surprise. They already went to PFLAG with my parents."

Bill looked at Aaron while he thought about those words, then said, "Evan had it wrong, huh? Things are okay there?"

"I don't know," Aaron said. "I think it's weird for him, but he sounds pretty happy when he calls."

Bill relaxed. He was used to making friends easily, and when Evan Smiley crossed his path that first time he was one more easy friend. Bill just hadn't been prepared for Evan himself, or for making such a good friend so fast. Then he lost him just as abruptly after just a few months, and he was hopeful that he could get back in contact. "Tell him I said hi," Billy told Aaron. "Give me his number, and I'll call him."

"Okay," Aaron said, then he added sweetly, "Go home now, alright? I know what I want to say about Yuri Pader." He looked coyly at Billy, "And thanks. But go anyhow."

Billy huffed and stood, and when he was at the door he turned to Aaron and said, "Bye. I love you, man."

Aaron smiled warmly at Billy because that sentiment was mutual. Then he turned back to his homework and realized that Bill had pretty much handed him Euripides on a platter. All he had to do himself was strip out the nonsense and fill in the details. He lifted his eyes briefly to where Billy had last stood, and he could still picture him there. He licked his lips and turned to his report.

Billy didn't really play down his intellect, Aaron thought. He didn't tout it, either, but Aaron had thought for a long time that Bill had a certain genius about him. He was always a step ahead in his thinking, and that didn't hurt Aaron's perception of him, or anyone else's. At the same time, Bill was down to Earth in his dealings with people, and it was Billy who managed to make Aaron feel worthwhile at an early age, when even his own brother teased him for being a sissy.

They watched cartoons together after they became friends, and Aaron loved the Road Runner while Bill laughed his head off at Wile E. Coyote. The cartoon that made Aaron laugh most, though, was the Tasmanian Devil, who always showed up spinning in a cloud of dust, then would stop momentarily to smile, then spin off to do in his adversaries. To Aaron, that Devil was Billy, and it was his own reality that made it so. For it was always Bill who spun into sight when things got tough for Aaron, whether on the playground or the way home from school. Billy the Whirling Dervish, with his fists flying this way and that, until Aaron's tormentors ran off crying in their own pain.

Aaron knew that a lot of people would have felt they owed a debt to Billy, but Billy wouldn't allow it. He'd told Aaron since first grade that he got more than he gave. That was because Aaron drew pictures for Billy, sang songs for him, and dreamed up little things that made Billy laugh.

In return, Billy beat up bullies, including Aaron's older brother who was two years older, and much bigger than Billy. In the long run, Billy's defense of Aaron's person served a larger purpose than simple protection. Because of Billy, Aaron had nine relatively hassle-free years to develop into the happy charmer that he was; to develop his talents in art, music and drama; to hone his irreverent sense of humor; to become the loving, caring young man that might have never emerged otherwise. He also got the chance to make friends, and left unmolested he was good at that. He'd grown up cute, and that was turning to handsome as he matured. Looks are always an attraction to others, even if some won't admit it, so Aaron had that natural attraction for people. His cheerful nature and many talents drew people closer to him, to where they could see and understand the kind person he was. When that happened, Aaron was natural friend material, and that hadn't changed much when he reached the age where people achieved an awareness of sexuality.

People who would by nature scorn gays would give Aaron Castle an exception just because they liked him for other reasons, and by that age their friendship was too tight to change. That was Billy's true gift to Aaron, although neither of them thought of it that way. Aaron was that rare boy who didn't have to disguise the fact that he was gay. He was obvious in a stereotypical sense to begin with, but the kids he'd grown up with had already formed their bonds, and only added to the protective shield that Bill O'Shea had started.

Aaron started his Euripides report in the middle, by opening his book and listing out the plays like Bill had suggested. He was surprised by the number of them, and thought he'd use the Internet to narrow things down. He still liked Bill's idea of rating them, so maybe a quick system of teardrops would work.

Billy had stopped briefly on his way out to talk with Aaron's folks, then hurried up the street to his own house. He had some homework to finish himself, and the tension he felt visiting Romi had actually left him feeling tired. When he went into his house, his father was watching something on television. He lowered the sound when Bill walked in, cocked his eyebrow and asked, "Well?"

Bill smirked, "Yeah, I'm fine. How about yourself?"

Mr. O'Shea put his neck back against the chair and looked up, mumbling, "This is what I get." He looked back at Bill and said, "Let me specificate my question. You left here to see a girl. Did you see her? If so, how did it go? If not, where have you been? It's a school night."

Bill smiled and sat on another chair. "I don't think specificate is a word, Pop, but it would make a real good one." He couldn't help smiling, "I did go to see a girl, and I saw her. I think I could look at her for a really long time, too."

Bill's father smiled, "A looker?"

Bill nodded, "She's more than that," he said softly. He smiled dreamily, "I don't have words quite yet." He took a quick breath and said, "Anyhow, I met her family, and they're real nice. They just moved from Mexico, but they all speak this perfect English. Oh, the place they live in is really nice, too. Did you ever hear of Carlson Court?"

"Carlson Court?" his father asked in surprise. "Of course I've heard of it. I guess it was built just about when you were born, and there's a story that goes with it. It was designed by a world-famous architect, and it was built as a compound for an artist who died before he ever lived there. He was trying to make a statement, and there was at least one book written about the whole thing. I'll never forget the days when it was happening. People on one side were hailing it as this big architectural masterpiece, and calling it a leap of faith in urban living. The town didn't see it that way, because it was in a big commercial area, and they were buying up tax and job producing property to build homes for one family. They took over two downtown acres there, and all the commerce that was there had to find someplace else. There was one misunderstanding after another, and the government in general was against the project. It was a pretty intense fight right up to the end, when a court gave the go-ahead for the project."

Billy said, "Wow! That happened in Riverton? I wonder why I never heard about it."

His father said, "I'll find the name of the book. I'm sure the library has it. Anyhow, the businesses found new places; they didn't leave town. Local contractors built the place, and they made money. Now Carlson Court is in every book about architecture in the U.S." He chuckled, "It didn't exactly start a trend, though. Between land acquisition, demolition fees, and legal costs, they spent about ten million bucks to build a one million dollar project." He smiled at Bill, "I still think it's a nice place. Your friends are lucky to live there."

Bill smiled to himself and said reflectively, "And I bet they don't know any of that story." He smiled at his father, "Anyhow, I have a date. Two dates, actually, but let's not talk about the second one. Just please tell me you're not working nights on October twenty-fourth."

"Don't worry, Bill. I won't be on nights again except to fill in."

Bill was about to say something, but the phone rang and he hurried to pick it up. "Hello?"

"Billy," a sweet voice said. "This is Romi. Are you busy?"

"Romi ... hi!" Billy said, taking the phone into the kitchen for privacy. He found some humor inside himself and asked, "Are you testing the truthfulness of this number?"

Romi laughed easily, and they talked for an hour, until someone on Romi's end made her put an end to the call.

Billy had one more mission after the call. Romi's friend, Necia, hadn't been asked to the dance, and Romi knew that Billy was friends with Huck, who Necia thought was nice, and Romi wondered if Billy knew if Huck had a date for the dance, or if he was going with anybody, or if he even went to dances, and if he did go and he didn't have anyone for this particular dance, did Billy think he might invite Necia.

Billy had promised to find out, and he still had homework, so he went to his room. His father had gone to bed by then, and he had no idea where his brother was. He did his homework as carefully as ever, then decided by the clock that is was too late to call Huck, so he went to bed. He fell asleep to visions of Romi's pretty face, with his own face joined to it at the lips.

The next morning, while they waited for the school bus, Aaron had Billy read his Euripides report. Billy studied it like nothing at all had happened the night before, then pointed out a punctuation error before handing it back. "This is good, Castle. You should write more often, you're getting better every day."

Aaron knew better than to argue, and when the bus came Billy said, "I have to sit with Huck, okay?"

Huck liked to sit up front, and he was in a window seat beside a smaller kid Bill didn't know. Bill snagged Aaron's wrist and held him there while he confronted the kid beside Huck. "Sorry, pal, but this is my seat." He tugged the boy to his feet and indicated Aaron. "I have business, so let Aaron find you a place to sit, okay?"

The kid left nervously, and Aaron was just as nervous, but Billy wouldn't worry about what happened in his wake until later.

"Huck, how goes, man?" he asked as he sat in the seat.

Huck was preoccupied by something he was reading, but he smiled at Bill, mumbling, "It goes. How 'bout yourself?"

Bill asked, "Do you know a girl named Necia? Don't answer that! Back up here. Are you doing the Halloween dance?"

Huck looked, and he did a double take. "Dance? Me?" He huffed up, "Don't talk like that, white boy."

Bill laughed. "I asked about a girl. Do you know Necia? I know who she is and she's got ... never mind."

Huck chortled, "I don't think there's two girls named Necia. The one I know is seriously rude."

"Rude?" Bill asked, surprised by the term.

"Well, outspoken, then," Huck said. "You say one thing wrong anywhere near that girl ... one thing ... and you're in for a verbal that won't stop until day turns to night."

"You don't like her?" Billy asked, worried.

"I didn't say that," Huck said stiffly. "I like her just fine. She daunts me is all."

Bill laughed through his nose, "She daunts you? Is that really a verb?"

"Damn straight it's a verb," Huck laughed. "You should know it, too, because you run around daunting half the people in your path. But Necia? She is the undisputed queen of the daunt!"

"Then you do like her?" Billy asked hopefully.

Huck turned to face Bill and asked, "What is with you? Why do I gotta always like somebody because you do? I mean, I get on with Aaron now, isn't that good enough?" He grinned, "You come along and drag a perfectly nice, quiet guy from that seat, and you take his place to upset my morning? What is this?"

Billy laughed, "Okay, here it is, my friend. Necia likes you." Huck's face jerked back from the window to look at Billy, who said, "She does. And seeing as how I ... moi ... am taking Romi to the Halloween dance, I think you might ask Necia, and we could have a nice fivesome."

Huck's lips started moving before any sound came out, then he said blankly, "Fivesome. That's you and Romi and me and Necia?"

"And Jim."


"Uh-huh," Bill mumbled, and he looked to see if he could read Huck's mind, and decided that Huck was doing the same thing. "Jim Andreas, okay? He comes with Romi."

"Like a package deal?" Huck chortled.

"Yeah, like what you said." Then Bill had a thought, "You know any tall girls? Maybe we could fix him up."

Huck elbowed Billy. "Don't go so fast. I didn't even say I was going."

"But Necia likes you," Bill whined.

"I heard you say that," Huck said. He thought for a minute, then said, "I'll talk to her, okay? But if she starts yelling at me in public, that's the end, alright? And I haven't taken Political Correctness yet, so don't get your hopes up."

Bill smiled to himself. Huck was never this willing, so he must have liked Necia from a distance already.

It was another few minutes before the bus pulled up in front of the school, which was located on the southern border of the town. Billy, Aaron and Huck lived near the northwest corner, so they had the longest ride of all the students. When the bus did pull to the curb, Bill and Huck were the first ones off. Huck said goodbye to Billy and hurried inside, and Bill waited for Aaron.

He'd waited for Aaron, or Aaron waited for him, since they first became friends in first grade. It was what they did, and they continued when the reason they started doing it came up lacking. At fifteen, Bill still had protective feelings for his best friend, but by then a lot of other people did, too. Aaron was no longer frail, either. Although he was no fighter, he was capable of pushing someone off of himself and taking off in a new direction. It was rare that anyone tried anything to begin with. Aaron was well known and generally well-liked, even if he had some mannerisms that stereotyped him as a gay kid. He had multiple artistic talents with which he entertained people, an engaging personality, a sometimes silly sense of humor, and a marvelously gentle manner with those around him.

Aaron also had a big, big brother who had big, athletic friends. Aaron's lucky touch was that the big guys actually liked him, and their proximity to him, their like for him, worked better than a defensive line. At Riverton High School at least, it was okay for any guy or girl to associate openly with gay students, and pretty much everyone did.

Pretty much.

It took getting used to. It was still the beginning of a new school year. That meant new students in all grades, as well as an all-new Freshman Class, and they brought all their own prejudices with them. After Aaron and Billy walked into the building, Bill slapped Aaron gently on the shoulder and said, "I want to find Romi, okay?"

"Sure," Aaron said. "I'll see you in second period."

Bill trotted away, and Aaron turned into the nearest lavatory to check himself in a mirror. He walked up to the row of sinks with the long mirror behind them, glanced at his reflection, then turned the cold water tap on at the basin he was in front of and rinsed off his hands. When he looked up he saw two more faces in the mirror; those of boys behind him. Aaron didn't know them, so he nodded at their reflection and turned to get a paper towel from the dispenser.

"Yo, look!" one said, a heavy-set teenager with freckles, wearing a plaid shirt. He snickered to his friend and said solemnly, "This could be a religious moment, Georgie." When Aaron turned to him he said, "Don't look at me, fairy. I'm ..."

Aaron said, "Ugly," and tried to push his way between them, but the one who'd spoken closed the gap. Aaron looked quickly at the other boy, who was solid looking, but less sure of himself. "Excuse me," Aaron said, to no avail. There was no opening, but he didn't back up either, even though he was getting nervous. When the others didn't budge he smiled, "I said excuse me." He looked up and smiled, "I have class to get to?"

There was still no movement, and Aaron physically pushed his way between the two boys, which seemed to surprise them. He kept heading toward the door, and when he pulled it open he heard the first boy's voice saying, "Don't think it's that easy, you little creep."

Aaron turned around and calmly asked, "What's the problem?" even though he was feeling anything but calm inside.

The one called George looked at his friend and said harshly, "Don't start, Jason. The kid didn't do anything." He looked at Aaron and said, without a smile, "You have a nice day, okay? Get lost!"

Aaron nodded briefly in relief, then hurried on his way. He was trembling a little from adrenaline, but encounters like that one weren't new to him, and he thought he'd handled himself as well as he could. He'd point the two offenders out to Justin or one of his friends, who would explain to them that gays weren't fair game for abuse at Riverton High School. The school system had strong anti-harassment policies in place. Aaron's brother and his friends had their own policy, and their tolerance level was less-than-zero.

Aaron saw Huck Onwauzer ahead of him and called, "Hey, Huck! Wait up!"

Huck turned and smiled while he waited for Aaron to reach him. "I'm glad I saw you," Huck said when Aaron was close.

"What's up?" Aaron asked with a hesitant smile. He wasn't accustomed to Huck being glad to see him. It felt good that he did, because Huck was also a good friend of Billy O'Shea, but Huck hadn't come easily to terms with Aaron's being gay.

Huck dropped a big hand gently on Aaron's shoulder and they started down the hall to their home room class. "I need some words, Castle. Billy wants me ... I mean, I want ... um ... do you know Necia Carter?"

Aaron cringed at the name. "Oh, I know Necia. What? You're not going to feed me to her, are you?"

Huck laughed out loud. "No, no. Today it will be me trying not to be lunch. What I need from you is words." He looked at Aaron and admitted, "I think I want to be closer to her ... you know, get to know her."

"You have a sudden death wish?" Aaron laughed.

"I guess," Huck said. "Just tell me how you'd approach that girl ... without a gun in your hand."

Aaron snickered, amused that a guy as big as Huck was intimidated by a girl, even though the adjective 'mere' would never find its way into a description of Necia Carter. "I guess you could show up in an armored car. You're really sweet on her?"

Huck coughed, "I didn't say I was sweet on her. I just want to ask her to a dance."

"You dance?" Aaron asked innocently enough.

Huck said gruffly, "I'm black, Aaron. Of course I dance. I can even carry a tune; it comes with the territory."

Aaron said wistfully, "Evan taught me how to dance." He glanced at Huck and didn't wait for a comment. "I think with Necia you shouldn't just ask. You should build up to it somehow."

"Small talk?" Huck asked.

"'Fraid so."

"Damn! That's what I was afraid of." He patted Aaron's shoulder and said, "Listen, you don't mind if I ask for a second opinion, do you?" which made Aaron laugh.

Even so, at noon Huck waited outside the doors to the lunchroom, his big arms crossed and his attention on the swarms of hungry students. He finally saw Necia approaching, and took a couple of steps to put himself right in her path. She was with three other girls, and when they were right up to him he said, "Yo, Necia!"

She gave him a look and said, "Don't you ever 'yo' me, Clarence Onwauzer." She managed to keep her companions going while she stayed behind, and she glared at Huck. Then she looked down almost shyly, and when she turned her eyes back to Huck they were friendly. "Hello, Huck. Were you waiting for me?"

Huck smiled, "Yes I was, Necia, and hello yourself. Will you sit with me at lunch?"

Necia finally smiled. "I'd like that. Let's find a table alone."

* * * * * * *

Billy had found Romi just before lunch, and despite invitations to sit with others, they found a spot outside where they could eat alone together. Billy felt that he was becoming more shy with Romi every time he was near her. The truth was that Romi fascinated him. He barely knew her, but he already was aware of her wealth of different smiles; seemingly a smile for any and every occasion. And her hands. Romi had small hands with slender fingers. Her nails were short and unadorned, and Bill found himself absently watching those hands while Romi tried to cut the rind on the lime she'd brought from home with the plastic knife the cafeteria supplied.

When the knife broke, a new smile appeared on Romi's face. "Oops." She looked apologetically at Bill, then at the undamaged lime, and yet another new smile formed. "I should have cut this at home." She looked earnestly into Bill's eyes and asked, "Do you think ...?"

Bill took the lime, looked at it, and asked, "Are you going to use all of it?"

Romi smiled yet one more new smile and sat back. "No. Half was for you," and her smile transformed one more time into one of hopeful expectation..

"I was hoping you'd say that," Bill said, as he bit the lime in half, making a face when the sharp tang hit his tongue. He held Romi's half out to her and said, "Bon apetit!"

Romi took the piece of lime apprehensively, looked it over, and laughed quietly. Then she concentrated on squeezing lime juice onto her salad and her veal. Bill asked, "Lime on everything?"

"Almost." She smiled up at Billy and said, "Not on chocolate cake or anything, but wherever you might use salt, then the lime does as well, and it's much healthier."

"On a cheeseburger?" Billy asked, and Romi nodded.

While Bill was cautiously putting lime juice on his sandwich, Romi said, "It's very good on the fritas." She caught Bill's questioning look and said, "French fries. Oh, I forgot. Freedom fries!"

"Please," Bill said dryly. Then he smiled at Romi. "Not everyone buys into that line of crap. That has to be one of the lamest things our government ever did. I mean, what's next? The freedom carve or the freedom kiss?" His ears blushed a little, but he went on. "I don't know that much, but I don't think it's right for our congressmen to make fun of a whole other country because they don't agree with what we're doing in Iraq."

Romi smiled mysteriously and said softly, "Mexico has politics, too. Let's not talk about it. Your politicians yell and lie just like ours do, but at least your ruling party can't jail their opponents for gaining favor."

Bill blinked, interested, "They do that in Mexico?"

Romi chewed her salad, looking at Bill. "Our President does. In most ways, we have the same freedoms as you do, but they find laws that nobody living has ever heard of, and they use them to put the opposition in prison. Then, just like here, the President vacations on his ranch and disclaims any knowledge of what's going on. There are important things on his mind."

"Like lunch?" Billy asked, hoping to lighten the mood.

Romi laughed happily, "Yes, like lunch. Do you like the lime?"

Billy looked at what he was eating, tasted the flavor in his mouth, and was mildly surprised. "It's good!" he said. He ate a fry, then a big bite of his burger. "I told Huck that he might want to say hello to Necia."


Billy indicated with a nod, and said, "Over there." Romi looked, only to see Huck and Necia trying to share a tiny bench in the shade. They both seemed concerned, then finally Necia took the bench while Huck sat cross-legged on the pavement in front of her.

Romi looked at Billy and asked, "You know Huck very well, don't you?"

Bill smiled wistfully, "Like a brother."

"And Aaron?" Romi asked, sounding almost suspicious.

"My best friend," Billy said with his mouth full.

Romi ate a little, then asked, "Isn't Aaron gay?"

Bill looked at her, amused. "You noticed?"

Romi stared at Bill, expressionless, and finally said, "Yes, I've noticed. How would I not notice?" Bill concentrated on his food, and Romi finally said, "Tell me how I should take this. In Mexico, we hear that the Norteamericanos hate gays. That's not true?"

Billy put his sandwich down, picked up his napkin, and wiped his lips. "Do you want it to be true?" he asked incredulously. "Listen, Romi. I can't speak for everyone, but your perception is pretty wrong. Lots of people think they should hate gays, or have this perception that they should hate gays, but Aaron is like Sara Lee. Once people get to know him, nobody doesn't like him."

Romi stared, letting the English go round-and-round in her head until it made sense, then she smiled. "Nobody doesn't like him. I like that. Who is Sara Lee?"

Bill smirked, "America's favorite baker lady. Their ads play with words: Everybody doesn't like something, but nobody doesn't like Sara Lee."

Romi stared again while she sorted out the words, then she giggled and reached out to touch the back of Billy's hand. "Oh, that's wonderful! I can't wait to tell my family."

Bill looked at Romi's hand on his, and he instinctively put his other hand over it, trapping Romi's fingers there gently. He smiled at her. He had never felt so comfortable with a girl in his life, and this was Romi, who was the prettiest he'd ever encountered. His eyes caught Romi's and they looked at each other for what seemed a long time. Bill said, almost absently, "You know, Romi, I really like you." Her eyes widened a bit and he went on, "I do. I am usually so nervous around girls. Like I start showing off and making a jerk of myself." He smiled, "With you, I'm just me. I don't have to do handstands or back flips." He looked at Romi curiously, "Am I wrong, or do you just see me as Bill O'Shea, kind of an all-purpose nice guy?"

Romi's hand was already between both of Billy's, so she put her other hand on top of them all and looked Billy O'Shea in the eye.

"All-purpose is another American term, isn't it? Don't answer, because I know what you mean." She sat back for a second and shook her hair out of her eyes. "I think," she said hesitantly, her eyes gleaming, "that you are a genuinely nice person, not all-purpose." She smiled, "Let me practice a little English. You are not, William O'Shea, some sort of generic person. You are special, and that isn't just my own opinion. Everywhere .. everyone ... Bill O'Shea? It's special, special, special." She grinned a brand new grin and said, "Nobody doesn't like Bill O'Shea."

Bill felt a flush of confidence and asked, "What's not to like? I guess ... I guess it's how I make myself taller." He looked down and his voice softened, "I'm kind of deprived in that department." Then he brightened and looked back at Romi. "Wait. You're saying you like me?"

Romi smiled smugly and replied, "I said nobody doesn't." She looked demurely at her hands, then lifted her eyes back to Billy's face. "I'm sorry, that's half an answer. I do like you, Billy. I like you very much."

Bill beamed, ready to reply, and just then Aaron approached them in a hurry. "There you are!" He stopped in his tracks. Noticing the expressions on both of their faces, he blushed and said, "Uh-oh. It's my timing, right? I mean wrong. I missed the good part and now I'm interrupting?"

Billy laughed, "No, have a seat before we get carried away here."

Romi giggled and Bill looked at Aaron. "What's up?"

Aaron blurted, "I want to ask Evan to the dance. That's a good idea, isn't it?"

"Like a date?" Billy asked, his eyes going wide.

"Who is Evan?" Romi asked.

"We've been out before," Aaron stated. Then he looked at Romi and added, "My friend." He looked hopefully at Bill. "Should I?"

Bill looked at Aaron for a moment, then said, "Go for it, Aar." His eyes narrowed, "You're thinking ahead, aren't you? This is kind of ground-breaking, don't you think?"

"Excuse me," Romi said. "I don't understand."

Bill looked at her, then at Aaron, and said, "Um, I'll explain later, okay?"

Romi's eyes went wide and she said, emphatically, "No, that is not okay. Tell me who is this girl, Evan? What kind of name is that?"

Aaron stared, Billy stared, and they both burst out laughing at the same time. Aaron looked at Billy, who finally quieted down enough to say, "You don't get it, Romi." Then he thought and added, "Um, you know about gay, right? I mean, you were just asking me, so you know what it is?"

Romi was glowering, and it was immediately clear to Bill that she did not understand. He glanced at Aaron and asked, "I don't suppose you want to take a crack at this?"

Aaron dumbly shook his head no, adding, "I should probably sit somewhere else, huh?"

Billy gave him a look that said, 'don't you dare', but he gave it up. "Yeah, leave us alone, but don't go too far."

Aaron picked up his tray and found a seat at another table, where he'd be out of earshot. Bill leaned closer to Romi and said, "Gay refers to homosexuality. That's what we call homosexuals here, is gays. Please say you understand?"

"I do," Romi said. "You already told me that Aaron is gay." Her eyes ran over to to where Aaron was sitting, and others were with him. She looked back at Bill and said, "There are gays in Mexico. There are even places for them."

Bill inhaled, "Places for them? Now I don't follow."

Romi chose her words. "Places. Like special places where they go, so they're not with others." She saw Billy's expression of horror and added, "Not bad places," she said with some humor. "These are cafes and bars and dance clubs."

Bill looked at Romi and didn't detect any negativity, so he asked, "Do you have personal feelings about gays? Homosexuals?"

Romi looked back at him, hesitating, then she said nervously, "I'm Catholic. I get, ah ... no consistent story. The Pope is against it, and Church doctrine is against it, but our own priest always said it's part of the human condition. He says homosexuals are born that way, and it's not a deficit." She smiled blandly, "We are all God's children."

"And?" Bill prodded.

"And that's what I think," Romi said. Her smile brightened, "In the cities the church rules. Well, almost. It's a very Catholic country. But in the provinces, the church isn't entirely Catholic. There will be a priest at one end preaching to the devout, while drunken peasants inhabit the opposite end, making their own vows to the old gods." She shrugged her shoulders happily, "It's all very quaint, and quite amusing."

Billy stared. "Really?" He smiled, "I like to hear you talk. I like the way you talk."

Romi picked up her fork and said, "Let's eat. If I speak oddly, it's because I'm always trying to listen to myself and translate back and forth."

Billy smiled warmly, "You're not odd. Not even a little bit." He took a chance, "Aaron is my best friend. I know you like him as a person, and I think you'll like Evan, too. I guess my question is this. Would it bother you seeing two guys together? Not just together like buddies. They might hold hands, dance together ... even kiss each other."

He ate some food so Romi could think before she responded, and she started eating, too. Bill kept glancing at her, and she had a thoughtful look on her face.

Romi finally said, "I don't know." Her words became hesitant. "I haven't ... actually ... uh, I haven't really ... seen any of these things. I suppose ... I don't know. I mean, I think if I saw it ... from a distance at least, that's when I'd make up my mind. I just don't know. I'm sorry." She looked at Bill hopefully. "This would be a dance, though, no? In a big room with many other people?"

Bill said flatly, "Yes. And it's for Halloween, too, so a lot of people will be in costumes." He thought for a moment and added, "I somehow can't picture Evan in a costume. Aaron's an actor, so he'll probably dress up." He snickered, "If we dress up, too, then you can make-believe anything you want." He leaned close and said in a low voice, "You can be what you want, and you can see what you want."

Romi put her elbow on the table and leaned her forehead into her right hand. She looked at Bill and smiled. "What if I want to be a skeleton with a princess gown?"

Billy stared at her, then grinned. "That's good! I can be a devil with a light-up halo!"

Romi frowned, and Bill muttered, "I could come as a bum, too."

"No, no, a spirit is good," Romi said. "Just don't be Satan. Be a volcano god or something."

"Um, what's a volcano god look like?"

Romi shrugged, and Bill looked over to where Aaron was sitting. "Hey, Aaron!" he called. "Can you make me into a volcano god?"

Aaron stared, stupidly at first, then he smiled and nodded.

That night, Aaron called Evan. He was supposed to call anyhow, but now he wanted to invite him to a dance. Evan hadn't answered his calls once himself, so Aaron was surprised when he did. "Evan?" he asked excitedly.

"Aaron! Hi," was his response. Evan's voice became excited, "I can invite you over, so can you come this weekend? I'm like crazy without you."

"I'm pretty sure," Aaron said. "Want me to ask?"

"Don't bother," Evan said. "I know it's okay, because my parents already met yours. If my dad says it's okay, then it's not a question anymore." His voice lowered, "I ... I miss you, Aar. All the time."

Aaron's eyes teared right up, and he choked out, "Me, too. But, um, this is right, isn't it? You belong where you are, and I belong here." He tried to sound reassuring, "We'll see each other. My mom and dad really like your parents, just the same as they liked you. I don't see your side, so you have to tell me."

Evan said, "My parents liked yours, too. We can see each other, whatever that means." He sighed audibly, "I don't know, Aaron, I really don't. I've been telling my friends that I'm gay, and it's very weird. They don't believe me, then they say fucking prove it, and I don't know."

Aaron offered cheerfully, "I could help you prove it," but it fell on deaf ears.

Evan said, "You know, it was easier there in Riverton. At least when I was with you, people saw me as gay, knew me as gay, and if there was a problem then I knew what it was. It's weird trying to tell people who had no clue. It's like ... I don't know ... it's probably like I'm a sniper, shooting people from a distance. They don't expect it, they don't see it in my past, and they don't want to believe it. Help me, Aaron!"

"How? You want me to make you queerer looking?"

Evan hesitated, then laughed and said, "Just make me look queer. Or not! It's been too weird trying to convince people, but I can't change who I am."

Aaron said, "It'll come, believe me. You surprised me too, you know. I mean, when I first saw you, when we talked, you made me think more of my brother than anything else. If there was a lineup to pick the gay guy, I wouldn't have figured you until you were the last man standing. If your friends don't believe it, I sure don't blame them."

They talked until Aaron's parents yelled for him to go to bed, then they whispered for another half hour, until they were too tired to go on. It had been an emotional conversation for both of them, but terrifically satisfying for Aaron. He had called not knowing if there still was a relationship, and his fears were basically set aside, at least for the time being. Evan's return had gone far better than Evan expected, and his prior fears were all that Aaron had to go on earlier. Evan's brothers were being cool about Evan being gay. His parents were trying. Evan's biggest problem was that his mother didn't believe a word of it, and he worried that she was in denial. His father had been moody and distant for a few days, but at least he didn't try to deny Evan's big, new truth.

It was to Evan's and Aaron's surprise that both of Evan's parents would welcome Aaron into their home, and that they had sought the advise and counsel of Aaron's own parents. They'd already met, and Aaron's mother described Evan's folks as 'wonderful people'. After he said goodbye to Evan, he stayed awake in bed for another hour wondering about everything.

Aaron had no real idea of how Evan lived. He didn't know his family's financial circumstances, what their home was like, if they were rich, poor, or something in-between. He knew nothing about them, but he knew Evan, and Evan wasn't a product of spontaneous combustion. What Aaron knew about Evan was what Evan had told him, and that wasn't much. The rest Aaron himself had deduced.

As he faded off into sleep, Aaron thought about Evan and what they meant to each other. Aaron's initial adoration of Evan as some sort of God-like figure had faded quickly after they first met. They had both come to the conclusion that their meeting was totally unlikely, and thus driven from somewhere above, but that was hard to rationalize, or even talk about. Instead, both boys put those thoughts in a quiet place in their minds, and gleefully pursued the reality of their relationship instead of pondering how it came about.

That was the fun part. They learned to love and be loved, and they worked on building their own little world. In Riverton where Aaron lived, their being together didn't seem like a big deal most of the time. Long before Evan came into his life, Aaron was known as gay. For him to turn up with a boyfriend wasn't far-fetched, and nobody knew Evan, so he was able to simply abandon his closeted past. Aaron knew from talking to Evan just how surprised he'd been by the levels of acceptance they found. Now Evan had to start over on his own turf, and he basically had to do it on his own. His plan wasn't to come out to everyone; just to the people who made up his circle of friends.

Aaron couldn't wait patiently for Friday, so he talked to Evan every night. Evan sounded upbeat about how things were going, but Aaron was cautious. It wasn't that he didn't believe what Evan told him, but rather that he suspected Evan was the type of person who could find something good in a train wreck. His eternal optimism was one of the things that most enchanted Aaron about Evan, but Evan was good with his deadpan delivery, and without that face right in front of him, Aaron didn't know what to think or believe.

Friday did finally come, and Aaron's brother took him to Evan's house straight from school. As close as the two towns were, neither Aaron nor Justin had ever been to Mt. Harman, and even with their father's good directions, they promptly got lost.

They missed their turn off the main road, and they realized that they'd missed it, so took the next turn expecting a parallel street. After a frustrating half hour, they turned onto Evan's street. Just being there in that neighborhood, with its substantial homes, big lots, and a leafy aura of well-being answered most of Aaron's questions about Evan's lifestyle. It wasn't exactly millionaire's row, but it was very nice indeed; the kind of place where doctors, lawyers and Indian chiefs would live.

Evan's own house was impressive from the street. There were multiple levels that seemed to climb the hilly street. There was a wide driveway that led to a two-car garage on the left, steps up to an inset entryway where antique-looking bricks surrounded a formidable wooden door, that was itself surrounded by small panes of crinkly glass. The next level up had shuttered windows right at ground level, and above them was a bay window that looked about fifteen feet wide. The roofline, both front and sides, had broad eaves that lent a sense of continuity and class to the whole structure.

"Wow," Justin said. "Not too shabby."

Aaron stared for a moment, taking it in, then he asked his brother, "Are you coming in?" hoping for a yes.

"Just to use the bathroom," Justin said. He opened his door and got out, and Aaron did the same. They walked up to the front door and pressed the bell, then waited.

In a minute, the door opened. The boy standing there wasn't Evan; he was younger. Evan had teased Aaron over the phone about how he'd lose Aaron in an instant if he met Bruce, and this had to be Bruce. Aaron smiled, but not the smile of someone meeting a new person for the first time. It was more like the smile he'd find when seeing a work of art that particularly struck his fancy.

Bruce was smaller than Evan, but only in a younger kind of way, not like he was done growing. His brown hair and eyebrows were several shades darker than Evan's, and he had the same deep-set, liquid brown eyes as Evan's, but with much longer lashes. Aaron registered everything as perfect about Bruce, from his overall shape and stature to his face, and especially that face.

Bruce smiled himself, revealing near-perfect teeth, and said, "You must be Aaron. I'm Bruce. Come on in; Evan's right up the street."

The only problem Aaron could see with that greeting was that Bruce had been addressing Justin, who set things straight. He grinned at Bruce, pointed at Aaron, and said, "That's Aaron. I'm his brother, Justin."

"Oh," Bruce shrugged, taking a closer look at Aaron. "Sorry about that. Come on in anyhow. I'll call Evan." He looked past the two of them and said, "I won't call Evan, because here he is."

Aaron turned and saw Evan just coming into the yard, charging at them at a dead run. "Aaron!" he managed before he got to the steps. He stopped and looked, and Aaron saw a lot of things pass across Evan's face before he spoke again. "God, it's good to see you, Aar! Come inside! I want to show you my room. I want to show you my ..." he looked between Bruce and Justin warily and finished, "I want to show you my kitchen, too." He made a pushing motion with his hands, "Come on, come on. There's no loitering allowed around here, somebody'll call the cops."

Aaron and Justin laughed nervously while Bruce backed up to let them in. As soon as they were inside the entryway, politeness took over and Evan asked, "Anyone need the bathroom? There's one right here," he added, pointing to a door. Behind it was a tiny room with a toilet and a small vanity with a wash basin. It constituted the 'half-bath' of the three-and-a-half bathrooms in the house. Evan felt claustrophobic in there, but Justin volunteered that he had to go, and as soon as the door closed behind him Evan gave Bruce a look. The younger boy was confused for a second, then he got it and hurried off.

Aaron looked at Evan, and Evan looked back longingly, and they came together in a gentle embrace, chins on each other's shoulder. Aaron mumbled, "Oh, Evan," and sighed.

Evan held on, increasing his grip. Aaron's slim body felt incredibly good to him, especially right then because of all the uncertainty in their recent past. But now he was home in his own house, hugging Aaron in the front hall, and it felt more than right.

They heard the toilet flush, and when Justin opened the door they hadn't moved. Justin smiled at the familiar scene and said, "Well, I gotta go now." He pointed a finger absently at Evan and added, "Take care of him, man," then he smiled at Aaron. "You be good, too. You know how to do it, Aaron. Sing a little song, tell a little joke, do your Joan Crawford and Robin Williams bits, and you'll have them in the palm of your hand. He opened his arms a little, and Aaron disengaged from Evan to give his brother a hug.

"Thank you," Aaron said simply. "Have a good ride back."

Justin snickered, "I don't know if that's possible." He held a hand out to Evan and said, "You look good, Ev. I guess things here weren't what you thought?"

Evan blushed and hung his head a little, then looked back up at Justin. "No, not like I thought at all." He looked at Justin and a small smile appeared on his face. He pointed his right finger at his head and said, "You know, if I wasn't messed up in here, I'd have never met Aaron. I don't know if there's a universal truth in all this, but I'd rather be a little off in the head and have Aaron, than to be perfect and grow up to be ... what? What's the opposite of an old maid?"

Nobody answered, so Evan turned his full attention to Justin. "I love you, man," he said, hugging Aaron's brother. "Now, get going."

Justin gave Evan a hesitant and questioning glance. He understood, though, and Evan and Aaron said their goodbyes while they walked to Justin's car with him, then they stood there waving while he drove off. Evan looked at Aaron with his eyebrows arched, a smile forming on his face. He said sincerely, "I ... I ... Aaron, it's so good to see you. I ... I can't stand out here with you like this." His smile turned into something like an evil grin, and he said, "You've been here long enough. It's time you met my bedroom."

"It's waiting for me?" Aaron asked, turning back toward the house.

"Since the beginning of time," Evan said. "Well, for two weeks, anyhow."

Evan hurried ahead of Aaron, picked up his bag on the way, and led him up to his room, which was cleaner than ever. Evan had been polishing it all week to keep his mind off Aaron.

Aaron tried to look around the house on the way, but all he got were brief impressions, and they were all positive. His own parents kept a nice house, and Evan's folks seemed to have very similar tastes. It made him feel at home there. He started looking around Evan's room as soon as they walked in. It was much neater than his own, but quite plain. There was a calendar pinned up over a desk, which held the monitor, keyboard and mouse for a computer. There was a poster of Derek Jeter pinned up on one wall, a shelf with some model cars on another. Nothing was out of place, although Evan assured Aaron that it wasn't the norm.

Evan went to the desk and wrote something on a sheet of paper, then put tape on the page and hung it on the outside of his door. It read, 'Do Not Disturb. Do Not Knock. I have a gun.'

Aaron laughed, and Evan shut the door and pushed the lock button before turning a hungry look to Aaron. Then he leered and asked, "Wanna play a game?"

It was over an hour later when Aaron asked idly, "Do you think your family is ready for me? I mean, I can act differently if you want."

Evan started giggling, which wasn't what Aaron expected, and he said. "They're ready, Aar. You just be you. I held a ... um ... class last night." He giggled some more. "They know all about you. Do what Justin said. Be yourself; make them laugh, sing a song. There's nothing not to like." Evan prayed that he was right. He'd always been embarrassed by the questions his parents asked his new friends, but the friends never were, so it was the asking that bothered Evan, not the questions themselves. In any event, nobody in his family would knowingly hurt or embarrass someone, let alone in their own home.

At that moment, the phone rang and Evan picked it up. It was his brother on the other end, whispering, "Mom's pulling in, Ev. I thought you'd want to know."

Bruce's room had a window over the driveway, so he usually knew these things first. Evan hung up without thanking him, and said to Aaron, "My mother's home. It's best we get decent."

Aaron smiled, then looked worried. "Will she know what we've been doing?"

Evan looked worriedly around, then at Aaron. He grinned, "Not if we put our clothes on." He picked Aaron's underpants up off the floor to toss them to him, then held back to look at the waistband. "New ones, huh? I thought Haynes ruled," he said before handing them to Aaron.

Aaron shrugged as he pulled them on, "Jockeys were on sale. I think they fit better anyhow." He stood up and did a slow turn for Evan, asking "What do you think?"

Evan said, sounding disappointed, "I don't think you should wear those things around me, is what I think." There was something about the sight of Aaron in his white briefs that turned Evan on almost as much as Aaron out of his briefs. "Put your pants on before you ruin my mother's last good illusion of me."

Aaron sighed, "You're bad sometimes. I'm worried about me."

Evan pulled his own underwear on, then stood and touched Aaron's shoulder. "They're gonna love you, Aaron. I promise."

Dressed, they checked each other out and passed muster. Then they headed downstairs, where they found Evan's mother at the stove in the kitchen. Evan made some noise when they approached, because she was easily startled.

She turned just as they walked in, smiled at Evan, then looked at Aaron with surprise all over her face. "Oh my!" The surprised look became a surprised smile. "Aaron! You look just exactly like your father!" She closed the distance between them with two quick steps and held her hand out. "Welcome. Welcome to our home, Aaron. I feel like I know you already," she said with a broad smile. "I understand that you have many talents, and I hope one of them is for eating ham. It's Evan's favorite food, so I'm baking one for the occasion."

Aaron smiled. He liked Evan's mother already, and he was really pleased with her warm welcome. He said, "I'm really happy to be here. Um, my father said I should ask about your rules." He gave Evan a quick glance and mumbled, "Sorry."

Evan's mother turned back to her cooking, saying, "Oh, Evan knows the rules." She turned back to Aaron and said, "We try to organize ourselves around behaviors, not rules." She smiled and touched his shoulder, "Behave yourself, and do it quietly. That's our rule."

Evan protested, "Mom!"

She relented, "Oh, alright. How's this one? No eating in the living room."

Evan gave Aaron a poke and said, "Agree to that one. There's nothing to do in the living room." He lost his concentration and grinned at his mother. "Ham?" He looked back at Aaron and said, "She said ham, right?" Back to his mother, "Mashed potatoes? Fried carrots?"

Evan's mother smiled and nodded, and Evan nudged Aaron, saying, "Let's go run for ten miles. You want an appetite for this meal." He grinned at the reluctant Aaron and said, "It's worth the pain, man. There is absolutely nothing on this planet like my mother's ham." He glanced at his mother, and it seemed that she approved of his advertising.

Aaron still balked, and Evan said, "We can just walk, then. You gotta meet Chris anyhow."

Aaron's eyebrows went up, and Mrs. Smiley said, "Ask Chris to come for dinner, Evan. He should meet Aaron, and have some time to get to know him."

Evan shrugged, "I'll ask. Come on, Aar."

On his hurried way out, Aaron turned to Evan's mother and said, "Nice to meet you."

Once outside he asked Evan, "Why'd you hurry me like that? Your mother is cute."

Evan smiled, "Cute?"

Aaron said, "Well, yeah. I kind of pictured her being taller, and maybe looking more like you. She's cute, though. And nice. Very, very nice," he added almost absently.

"Only you, Aaron," Evan said. "Heh, I guess my mother is cute, or could be if you're a stranger." He grinned and bopped Aaron's back. "She's formidable, man. You think cute at the risk of a train wreck."

"Okay," Aaron said. "Let's change the subject. Your little brother is gorgeous! I mean, how do you stand it?"

Evan said, "How do you stand it, Aaron? If anybody's gorgeous it's your brother."

Aaron made a face, "Eww."

"Exactly," Evan smiled. "I have to warn you about Chris, though. It's unfortunate, but he looks like he was in that train wreck. He's getting better. I mean, some of the boils and cysts are drying up. Do you know what a carbunkle is?"

Aaron warily said, "No."

"You'll know in a minute," Evan said. "You'll recognize a carbunkle when you see it, but don't mention them. They kind of embarrass Chris."

They walked, and Aaron asked, "Isn't Chris your best friend? I know you said he wasn't too pretty, but you never mentioned boils and carbunkles. There's no ... ah ... health hazard, is there?"

Evan kept a straight face, "Not really. Not if you've had all your shots. Just be sure to stand a little off to one side if you're going to say something funny. He shoots these projectile boogers out his nose when he laughs hard, and they sting like a BB." He pointed, "That's the house, the nice one up there."

They got to the driveway and Aaron stopped to appreciate the house Chris lived in. From the street you had to imagine the house, but the lot was very wide with lots of decorative trees, and that made the broad, low-slung house look like it grew where it was rather than being built. It was a striking home, even from halfway up the drive.

When Aaron followed Evan up the driveway, they found a man washing a car. "Hey, Mr. Humphrey," Evan said cheerily. "Where's Chris?"

"Hi, Ev. I think he's downstairs. I know he's here because we just had a driving lesson." He looked expectantly at Aaron, and Evan remembered his manners.

"Oh. This is my friend, Aaron Castle. This is Mr. Humphrey."

Mr. Humphrey smiled at Aaron and said, "Hi, Aaron. It's nice to have a face to put with all the virtues Evan extols us with. I can't wait to see the sun and the moon shine brighter."

Aaron blushed, and Evan protested while Mr. Humphrey shielded his eyes and said, "Oh, God! It's happening already."

He laughed after the boys as they went inside through the garage. Aaron laughed when they got in the house and Evan yelled, "I'm home, honey!"

"Down here," they heard, and Aaron followed Evan down a hall to a broad set of stairs that led down. About three steps from the bottom, Evan stumbled and went tumbling onto the floor below. A voice called, "What happened," then a blond boy rushed into the picture, and he stumbled on the carpet and went sprawling right across Evan.

Aaron rushed down to see if anyone was hurt, and even though he was only steps away, the pile that made up Chris and Evan was already giggling with two voices. Chris rolled off of Evan and stayed there, flat on his back and his head to the stairs, while he grinned up at Aaron. "You're the boyfriend?" he asked. "Why are you upside-down?"

Aaron looked at Chris in stunned surprise. That was only partly because of his antics, and mostly because Evan's supposedly 'ugly' best friend was anything but ugly. On the contrary. His teeth were straight and white, not yellow with big gaps, nor crooked like Evan had described. Aaron doubted that the skin on the face he was looking at ever had a single zit, much less boils that leaked puss all over the place. The nose wasn't huge and bent, nor was anything leaking from it. And the hair that Evan had described as 'the tendrils of a kitchen mop' was a nice medium-blond, and only a little messed up from fooling around.

Evan hopped to his feet and stood next to Aaron, holding a hand out to Chris, who ignored it and got to his feet on his own. He held his own hand out to Aaron, grinning beautifully. "Don't mind us, Aaron. We are crazy people, but don't worry. We only hurt each other and other people, not little dogs or flowers or anything." His eyebrows went up, "Zounds! Where are my manners? I'm supposed to challenge you to a duel before I slay you, so choose your weapon." He took a step back.

Aaron played along and said, "State your grievance, please."

Chris smirked and said, "You have stolen the heart of my ... um ... my beloved. My best friend. My pal here. Smiley. Do you dare deny this?"

Aaron looked at Evan, lust in his eyes, then turned back to Chris. "No denial. I choose humor as a weapon, but no tickling."

Chris laughed, and Aaron said, "Made you laugh. I win. Come on, Evan, let's get laid or something."

Chris laughed out loud, and said, "I like him, Ev! You really have met your match."

Evan smiled, and he smiled during the entire weekend as he watched Aaron befriend his friends and family. His prior experiences with Aaron were on Aaron's own turf, and with people he already knew. Evan knew that Aaron had a lot of friends, and some fairly unlikely friends, but he'd never witnessed those friendships being born. Watching Aaron, Evan thought he was like a cute puppy who'd learned some tricks to entertain people. It went deeper than that, Evan knew, but people meeting Aaron for the first time might raise a skeptical eyebrow. Within a half-hour, they'd be either laughing with Aaron or applauding one of his talents, and Evan had an entire new portfolio of warm and fuzzy feelings for the boy he loved.

Aaron was impressed himself, by the sincerity and general good humor of Evan's own friends. He'd been the one on display since he met Evan, and he reveled as he added dimension after dimension to his knowledge of Evan's past, and his love only deepened.

The ham dinner on Friday, Aaron agreed, was one of the best meals he ever ate. When he accepted Evan's offer of a 'nice, fat ham sandwich' for lunch on Saturday, he laughed foolishly when Evan brought him two slices of rye bread with an inch-thick slab of ham between them.

The family ate out that night, at an Italian place with good garlic bread and giant bowls of mussels. Aaron and Evan kissed and hugged in private, did sexual things in private. They held hands in front of people that first night, after the ham dinner, when they excused themselves to head up to bed. There was a new and indiscernible dent in the dining room ceiling from a champagne cork that night, and Evan's father claimed he could see it, and he labeled it, 'Aaron - first visit' as he stood on a chair. That whole ceiling charmed Aaron; the family events all writ up there around their specific dents. He thought it was the kind of thing you might set to music.

On Sunday, Evan kissed Aaron in front of his family. It was just a kiss, and not romantic, but they did it. "For effect," Evan said, but it was more than for effect. It was Evan's declaration that he'd been saying he was gay, and now there was evidence. Proof, even. Straight boys might bring Aaron home, and many did, but only another gay boy would hold his hand, let Aaron sit on his lap. Most of all, only gays kissed like that. It wasn't a thing on the cheek like Italians and Greeks might do, but a kiss on the lips that was followed by yearning smiles.

Learning smiles is more like it. The Smiley family was seeing gay love demonstrated for the first time, and by one of their own.

Evan's mother never ascribed that kiss to her son being gay. She liked Aaron as a person from the start, and thought he might be as misguided as her own son with gay ideas. Aaron did act gay, she thought, but Evan never had, and still didn't. Evan had been talking up a storm to her, and to anyone who would listen, about his supposed 'gayness' since he came home.

She was his mother, and she didn't buy it at all. Yet she could recognize the mutual fondness between Aaron and Evan. She wasn't ready yet to relate it to the feelings she had for her husband for all those years.

Feelings that were stronger than ever.

Feelings that only grew over time.