Steve Castle had his wife and son in the car, and they were headed to Mt. Harman for dinner with their new friends, the Smileys. The ride was the same as usual, which meant big trucks in front to block the view, and a red light about once every half-mile.

When they were close to town, and just when the traffic eased up, his wife's cell phone rang. It was sitting on the console between the front seats, and she picked it up. Steve heard her voice go up when she cried, "What?" and then he paid attention.

"When did this ... I mean, where are you?" Pause. "We'll find it. Oh, God!" A brief pause, then "No, no, we're almost there. I'll let you go. Okay."

She looked in the back seat at her son, Aaron, shock showing on her face. "Evan's in the hospital! There's been an accident!"

Aaron sat up straight, a sinking feeling in his stomach. "What happened?" he asked in panic.

"I don't know," his mother said, and looked anxiously at her husband. "Do you know where the Memorial hospital is, Steve?" she asked with a nervous quiver in her voice.

Steve looked ahead and said, "No, but there's a sign. It can't be far. Did they say anything? Is it serious?"

His wife shook her head, then realized she had to speak. "No. I mean he didn't know. That was Evan's brother, Alton, in his car on the way there."

Steve sighed, not noticing how tight his grip on the wheel had become. His wife shrunk into her seat, trying not to imagine things beyond what she knew.

Aaron curled up in the back seat. He was too upset for rational thought, but bad things spun through his mind. Like, what kind of accident? Was Evan hit by a car? Did he fall and break a bone? Was it from sports? Whatever it was, it had to be serious if he was in a hospital and, with no information, all Aaron could do was worry.

Steve found the hospital, then the parking area, and while he was pulling into the garage the phone rang again.

"We're here now," his wife said. "I see. What? Yes, yes, we'll be there in a minute. Aaron is right here."

"What happened?" Aaron cried from the back seat.

His mother let out a long breath and said, "Evan's not in danger, Aaron. He was attacked, and that's all I know."

"Attacked?" Aaron asked in a panic. "Oh, man." He said that weakly, then his anger rose, and every dirty word he knew floated through his head. "Shit, fuck, piss, damn, fucking jerk, asshole!" He thought them all, but held his voice and said nothing.

They hurried to the well-marked Emergency entrance, and a question to the attendant there brought out a woman in business clothes. She introduced herself quickly as the police liaison, then hurried them down a hallway. She walked with Aaron, behind the parents. "Your friend will be okay. Somebody tried hard, but they had the wrong weapon."

"Weapon?" Aaron asked, with a new fear in his heart, new tears in his eyes. "There was a weapon?" His fear was now panic. "Is he shot?"

The woman slowed her steps and said, "I'm sorry. I thought you knew more." She patted Aaron's shoulder and said, "Evan wasn't shot, and he's not in danger. He was beaten, though, and he looks it, so prepare yourselves. He has puncture wounds, too, and a lot of them, but they aren't deep. I'm sure they hurt, but his life isn't at risk, not at all." They walked a few more steps, and she stopped them, indicating a door on the left. "He's in here, and his family is with him." She patted Aaron's shoulder again, "Godspeed. Your friend is in good hands. I'm sure he'll be fine." She took a step away, then stopped again and added, "I'll be here if you need someone. The police will give me an update after they speak with Evan."

Aaron was too broken up to say anything, but he managed a nod before following his parents through the door. The room they went into was large, well lit, and a bit noisy. Evan's parents were there with their sons, Bruce and Alton. A lot of other people were there, too, and Aaron couldn't really see Evan, though he got a glimpse of him there, flat on his stomach, undressed from the waist up and talking to a man.

Aaron pushed forward over his parents' protests until he was at Evan's side, and there he could see some of the damage. Evan's forehead, the tip of his nose, and the right side of his face were all red and covered in some goop. Those marks looked like scrapes and bruises to Aaron, and they hadn't been bandaged.

Evan's torso was exposed, and when Aaron looked he let out a gasp. His boyfriend's shoulders were covered in gauze with blood leaking through, and there were lines where blood had run down his back and sides. Aaron's heart broke when he saw that: not once, but again and again.

There was a man there beside Evan, wearing the pale green of someone from the hospital, and he was kneeling down, a hand touching Evan's hair. He was talking to Evan, who seemed responsive, but Aaron couldn't hear the words. Then the man started to stand, patting Evan's hair, and Aaron heard him say, "That's gonna hurt for a few days. You should feel better in a week, and like new in two. Okay?"

Evan smiled up at him weakly and croaked, "Okay." Then Aaron strode up and Evan smiled. "Aaron!"

"Who did this?" Aaron asked, almost demanded.

"I don't know," Evan sighed. He smiled weakly at Aaron and added, "When you find out, sock 'em in the head for me, okay?"

Aaron took Evan's hand and stared at his bruised face while he wondered all kinds of things. He managed a smile, "I'll hit him, Ev. I promise. I'll stay with you, too, until you're better." He waited for Evan's smile, which appeared as if on cue.

Evan's injuries weren't very serious, but the attack on him was, and that night Aaron found a new sense of inner strength. He had grown up as the 'sissy', as the 'little brother', the boy who thrived under the protection of others. He never felt like a sissy, but he had those mannerisms so he didn't often get to argue the point. The rest was true enough. His brother was protective of him, and his brother's friends were as well.

That night, consciously, Aaron put on a new hat. Evan was hurt, and it was apparent that he was in real danger. Aaron wasn't big, nor was he particularly strong or mean. Still, from the little anyone knew, the attack on Evan had been homophobic, a hate crime, and Aaron felt the same obligation to stand with Evan as his own family felt towards Aaron. Two are always stronger than one, so even though Aaron had no taste for violence, he knew that when push came to shove, he'd do what he had to.

It was doubly painful to Aaron that Evan's shoulders had been disfigured. If there was one feature of Evan's that defined him to Aaron, it was those shoulders: broad and strong looking, yet soft and comfortable when Evan relaxed to let Aaron lean into him. Now they were bloody, full of holes, and black-and-blue all over, and Aaron hated whoever caused that harm. It was incomprehensible.

Aaron stayed with Evan, and more troubles ensued the next day. Aaron still stayed with Evan after that second attack, but it took his first real argument of his life with his parents before they allowed it.

"Aaron," his father had said, "You have to stay away from Evan for a few days, or at least until they catch whoever is threatening him. I know how you feel, and I don't want to do this. It's horrible that Evan is being threatened, but if you're there, then you will be, too."

Aaron suddenly had tears in his eyes. "I can't see Evan? Oh, God, say you don't mean that! I love him, Dad. I have to be there, especially now." Tears ran from Aaron's eyes, but his voice was strong. "Evan needs me there, Dad. He needs me!"

"Aaron ... " his father started to say, then the phone rang.

He stood and picked up the kitchen wall phone, and Aaron knew right away it was Evan calling. He saw the pain in his father's face as he explained that he was keeping Aaron away from him, and Aaron's face collapsed into a cry. His father handed him the phone, and Aaron cried while Evan cried, and few words were exchanged.

His mother was there by then, and she felt torn. "Steve," she said quietly to her husband. "Maybe this isn't right."

Steve looked at Aaron, at his son's anguish, then back at his wife. "It's too dangerous," he said.

His wife took a deep breath, then let it out. "It's dangerous," she lowered her voice to a whisper. "Dangerous, but do you want Aaron to feel helpless? Especially with Evan?"

"No," Steve croaked after thinking about it. "No, you're right." He smiled at his wife, albeit sadly, and he added, "You're exactly right."

He turned to Aaron, who was still in tears, and realized just how much bigger Aaron had become since the last time he noticed. His son was minimally accustomed to persecution, and a cautious boy as a result. For Aaron to think he should be looking after someone else suddenly seemed like a big step up to his father, and he abruptly changed his mind. Aaron was almost a man, and there was no better way for him to start thinking like a man than to step into a potentially dangerous situation; one where he could be protective and face Evan's danger as his own.

Steve watched as his wife took the phone from Aaron and told Evan that they were on the way, and Aaron could stay with him overnight. Then he left his gaze on Aaron to find his good feeling again. That always came, too.

Aaron had taken some getting used to as a young child. He was always bright, but he seemed terribly unhappy after he entered school. He was fine in kindergarten; enthusiastic about meeting other kids and about learning things. Then in first grade, he seemed to come home crying as often as not, and he wouldn't say why.

He was being picked on: bullied, they later found out, and one of the bullies was his own brother, Justin. Justin had been, and still was, a gratifying first son to his parents. He was healthy, bright, good-looking, friendly, and sure to go far. Back then though, when Aaron was in first grade, Justin was in third.

When Aaron stopped coming in crying, it was Justin's turn, and he'd have bruises where he hurt that looked like he'd been fighting. It turned out that Billy O'Shea, a boy Aaron's age who lived two doors up the street, was the kid punching out Justin, and he did it because Justin was hurting Aaron, and in the process abetting the kids who called Aaron a sissy.

It wasn't complicated to sort out at the time, and neither the O'Sheas nor the Castles tried to pass blame. It wasn't much to worry about, just little boys trying to define themselves and define justice as they understood it. The Castles let Justin know they were disappointed, and things changed after that.

That's when Aaron Castle blossomed into the funny and multi-talented boy that he was. And by the time Aaron was seven, his parents were reasonably certain that he was different from most boys in one other small way. Aaron liked girls, and at that point in his life most of his friends were little girls. It was boys that Aaron seemed to obsess over more and more, though, and given other factors, Aaron's own parents worried that he might be gay.

It was a worry, too, and it had become a certainty long before Aaron met Evan, but still caused worry. In a lot of ways, Aaron was easy. His possible gayness had been apparent from an early age, and his parents had long considered that possibility. Before Aaron was having any sexual thoughts of his own, they'd consulted books, family members, and anywhere else they could think of to help them figure things out.

When Aaron was old enough, they had to rethink a lot, and the first thing was that there was no 'it' they were dealing with. Their son was gay, and even if he wasn't, people would think he was. To their credit, and Aaron's benefit, they stopped thinking of gay as an 'it' or even a condition. It was just a fact of life, an adjective that they rarely used. He was a boy who liked other boys, nothing more or less than that.

Aaron was a wonderful son, a beautiful child, a learner and an achiever, and they were proud of him on that basis. Now, seeing his son's adamancy to support Evan, Steve was reminded about just how strong his son was becoming. Aaron was gay for sure, but he was a Castle man in every way that mattered. He was strong of mind, resolute, and as honest as the day was long.

Steve looked at Aaron and said, "Get your things together. I'll take you."

The look of love on Aaron's face was his reward, then Aaron raced away to get what he needed. Steve looked at his wife and said, "Thanks. This is the right thing, isn't it?"

His wife came close and kissed his cheek. "It's right, Steve. It's right. Our Aaron is all grown up. If he wants to be with Evan, then so be it."

Steve said, "You're right." He relaxed, "Heh, call Evan back and be a hero; tell him we're on the way. I'll bring Aaron."

He drove Aaron in silence most of the way, then felt compelled to say something. "Listen, Aar. Please believe that I trust you. I admire you, too. I don't know the risk here, or if there even is a real risk."

Aaron looked at him for a moment, then asked, "What's happening, Dad? I mean, why Evan? He'd never hurt anybody."

Steve sighed, "I know he wouldn't, Aaron. Look at it this way. It's not likely that anyone even knows where Evan is right now, but we don't know that for sure. He's safe at Harlan's, and you are too. I'm sorry I upset you earlier."

Aaron smiled at his father, and Steve continued, "You've turned into a young man almost overnight, and you are really giving us a sense of pride."

Aaron loved compliments, and this one was very different than what he was accustomed to. Aaron's father saw the man emerging in him, and liked what he saw. That was one thing Aaron had wondered about for a long time, whether people would ever see him as a 'real' man, or if he was fated to be one of Schwarzenegger's 'girly men'. He smiled at his father and said, "Thanks."

Steve didn't respond right away, then he said, "Don't thank me for being proud of you, Aaron. You earn our pride, every bit of it, and it's your gift to us. Now we see your courage in a new way, and of all your talents and traits, your courage ... personal courage, is the thing easiest to admire." That was the truth. Aaron had some effeminate characteristics, but he was no shrinking violet.

They pulled into the driveway at the Blaine's house, and after leaving Aaron off, Steve felt fine on the way back home. He'd known Harlan Blaine since Harlan was a kid starting out, and he thought that Aaron and Evan were just as safe there as at home. Harlan wouldn't let bad things happen.

Neither would Aaron, and the next few days were, in his own mind, the finest of his life. For that's where Aaron first felt that he was Evan's equal; that he was as capable of looking after Evan as Evan was of him. Nothing to the contrary had ever been said by Evan, but Aaron was accustomed to being the protected one. No more. His new feelings were all based on subtleties, and they meant more to him that way.

He could sense Evan's appreciation when Aaron did something for him that would have caused pain for Evan to attempt himself, and he sensed it again whenever he dressed Evan's wounds, when he reminded him to take his pain pills, and a dozen other little things.

Aaron still had school, so it was an unsettling week for both Evan and him. It culminated in extreme violence when Aaron was away with his own family for Thanksgiving, while the worst things happened in back in Evan's own home town. They both watched it on television. When it was all over and Evan went back home, Aaron felt himself and Evan to be on a totally equal footing. They both knew it because they both said it. Their love was on a new level; deeper and richer for having shared and survived such a harrowing time

When Evan left for home and Aaron was back with his own family, he managed some quiet time, and sat in a fat chair in the den, where he picked up the book, 'Holes'. He had read it a few times already, and almost chose something else instead, but he was in the mood for something familiar and friendly.

He had always enjoyed the story of Stanley Yelnats, a good boy convicted of a crime he didn't commit, and his misadventures in a camp-style detention center. Stanley was real to Aaron the way his best friends were real, and the way Evan was real. Not saints by any stretch of the imagination, but people who did good things because they had good hearts.

Aaron knew that he, in other circumstances, would be looked down on, teased, even tormented. He knew that boys like him were tormented in a lot of places, but he wasn't bothered often, and not very seriously even when someone did try.

Protective armor. That's what Aaron had, and now Evan did, too. After the attacks on him, people gathered around, and they stayed gathered. Just like they did for Aaron. Aaron thought sadly that his and Evan's looks had something to do with that; maybe even a lot. And he worried for the kids like him who didn't have much going for them. The ones who weren't good looking, or were overweight, or not too bright, or through some combination didn't have a lot of hope. Then again, straight people who shared those traits faced pretty much the same things.

His consolation for his thoughts was that politics seemed to provide an avenue to success for people who lacked good social traits in most respects. The ugly, overweight, dishonest, not-too-bright people, people with especially bad hair, seemed to find the home they sought in government. Lately, Aaron thought, it helped a political career to be a bit hateful, too, especially about things like gays and abortion.

Aaron Castle managed, always, to hold his thoughts to a higher plane. If politicians were just criminals in waiting, and religious liars would get their due, Aaron held the peculiar view that good people would indeed join Jesus in the afterlife. That's what Jesus said in the Bible. The Christian one, which is the New Testament. Aaron knew that book.

Like his brother before him, Aaron had been sent to Bible school for two summers. The school was run by a Lutheran church, which wasn't his religion. Aaron had loved the school, which was taught not by ministers, but by older students from high school and college. The message they taught was that Jesus loved. Period. He loved everyone, though he made a point over and over that he especially loved the less fortunate, the poor, the different people, as well as the misguided.

The kids who taught that program lived their belief, too. They raised money for local causes, hit the streets to meet homeless people and advise them about available programs, and volunteered at the local soup kitchens.

Justin never joined in to help the helpless, nor did Aaron, but they both learned from their experiences at Bible school. Aaron learned that Jesus loved him, even as people who claimed to be 'Christians' ran around calling him an abomination.

Whatever went on inside the twisted minds of many so-called 'religious' people, Aaron thought he understood the true meaning of Christianity. The meaning he learned at Bible school was that Jesus loved, and that good Christians loved, too. Everybody. The rich, the famous, the beautiful people, and also the destitute and diseased, the toothless and filthy, the poorest and least educated. Especially them, for they most needed that love.

The knowledge Aaron gained at that Bible school, which he attended when he was nine and ten, led his own thinking ever since.

He wasn't a political being at fifteen, but when he heard the 'God' arguments espoused by politicians, who called other politicians 'Godless', he thought it was surely the other way around.

Or maybe it was the difference between 'liberals' and 'conservatives'. Some of the so-called and self-proclaimed conservatives claimed that they 'walked with Jesus', and they 'talked with God', but Aaron didn't buy it, not one bit. He thought it was the absolute height of hypocrisy to claim a belief in Jesus, and at the same time to push the pot away from the poor and tell them to fend for themselves.

What would Jesus do? That was what the politicians asked publicly, and they did the opposite time and again. When it came to politics, to the spending of public money, the 'Jesus' people became anything but. The poor became 'lechers and freeloaders'.

Those who chose to end an unwanted pregnancy became 'murderers', and gay people looking for basic human rights suddenly had an 'agenda'. Men like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who never contributed a single concrete thing to society, were suddenly proclaiming a majority, even while their parishes made up an already pathetic, and rapidly shrinking, number of believers. They were smooth talkers; snake oil salesmen who appealed solely to people's baser instincts, and they had the gall to do it in the name of 'love', and to drag the name of Jesus down into their hateful midst.

Aaron wasn't political though, even if he did have beliefs. He knew that he should get more involved, and maybe someday he would, but at fifteen he thought his voice meant little if anything, and he spent his energy learning, and let his innate creativity lead the way.

He knew how to enjoy himself, and his creative streak was a mile wide. Apart from his presentation skills as an actor and a singer, he liked to write stories, poetry and songs. He had an inventive sense of humor, too, and that single trait was the one that most caused his bond with Evan Smiley, because Evan was another natural comedian, and they made each other laugh with things that few others would even understand, much less see the humor in.

When Aaron was first looking after Evan at Harlan's house, a time in their lives when humor wasn't exactly flowing around them, they found their own. Aaron, looking for a toilet, discovered a hot tub as well. He started filling it and went back to wake Evan, who followed him sleepily across the hall, then woke up more when he saw the big tub, which was steaming by then.

Aaron climbed in while Evan used the facilities, then Aaron had to get out to help Evan get his tee shirt off. When they settled into the tub, Aaron could tell that it felt really good to Evan, who sunk down a bit at a time until his injured shoulders were fully engulfed in the bubbling water.

Evan sighed, "Ahh, that feels good. Oh."

Aaron loved Evan's eyes all the time, but especially at moments like that, when Evan found a special level of comfort. Then those eyes sparkled, revealing the intelligence behind them, as well as the sense of fun and mischief that was Evan's true nature. Aaron recognized the want and need in Evan's eyes too, and with the deep tub, the best he could do was use his hand.

That worked well, probably aided by the warm, bubbling water, and Evan had to duck his head underwater a few times to silence his excitement. It wasn't long before he let out a long shudder, then a squeal, and pushed Aaron's hand away gently. "Aaron," he gasped, "Do you know any Latin?"

"Not really," Aaron said in surprise. "A few words, I guess."

"Well, veni," Evan said, then commenced to giggle so much that his convulsions splashed water out of the tub.

It took Aaron a moment to figure it out, then he too started giggling, and said, "Vidi. Vidi!" and that's all it took to set the stage for a fun day together. There was no humor inherent in Evan's injuries or the situation he was in, so they injected some. It was private and nobody else had to understand, but Evan and Aaron had a new touch word, and it was the kind of thing that could set them off laughing for the rest of their natural lives.

Aaron had taken Evan to his school's Halloween dance, and they had a good time there. They wore costumes and went as a chimney sweeps. The costumes were asexual in nature and somewhat masked the fact that two boys were in them. People knew anyhow, but funnier electric pumpkin-head costumes won the prizes. After the voting, Aaron and Evan were themselves, and were treated like any other couple, which pleased them immensely. Especially Evan, for at the time he wasn't out to any but to his own family and personal friends at home, and he left the dance with a new and good feeling about being out as gay. He was with Aaron, and any inhibitions he felt were based on his personal modesty around new people. There was no drama at all, not even when they danced together for the first time in public.

It was important to Aaron as well, to know that he could show up at a school dance with another boy and not raise too many eyebrows. He thought it was good that only a few people knew Evan from the summer before.

The presence of a new kid ... any new kid ... created a certain level of curiosity among those there, but that same curiosity would have existed if Aaron had brought some unknown girl. It was about Evan, a stranger, and people had to go with the assumption that Evan was gay. He was, after all, at the dance with Aaron Castle, and they danced as often as any couple there.

Actually, the couple that people were watching most had come as a threesome; Bill O'Shea, Jim Andreas, and Romi Vizcarrando-Rosa, who had rapidly become the cause of many a special dream among the school's male population. Romi wasn't a big girl, but she had a presence that turned heads, and she exuded an innocent type of sexuality that melted one heart after another. People were accustomed to seeing Romi with Jim Andreas, who was kind of a tall and likeable nerd, and therefore an unlikely match, but it soon became apparent that Bill O'Shea was her date for the evening. Romi and Jim were dressed as skeletons, each with a jack-o-lantern under one arm. Bill was Aaron's version of a volcano god, with a painted-on face that was almost feline. He had a string of battery-operated Christmas lights bunched up under his shirt, the bulbs all orange, red, and yellow, and he had a little button that he could press to make them go on, and when he pressed harder the bulbs brightened even more. The finishing touch was a little pouch of talcum powder under his collar, connected to a squeeze bulb. That would cause puffs of 'smoke' to emerge suddenly around his head when he squeezed the bulb.

Aaron had warned Evan that Billy might not spend much time with them at the dance, and Billy had told Evan the same thing. Romi was Mexican, and had a strict Catholic upbringing. As such, her views about gays were basically her church's views. Bill said that was because she had no prior exposure to gays, and he didn't think his first date, and Romi's first high-school dance, was the best place for her to gain that exposure.

"She's not anti-gay, Ev," he explained earlier. "She doesn't know ... she's ... naive, I guess." Bill smiled at Evan, "It's not a dinner-dance anyhow, so it's not like we even get to pick who to sit with."

Evan smiled at Billy and said, "I'm not worried, so don't you. I don't know what I'll do if the whole school comes down on us, but I don't think that'll happen." He drew a deep breath, "Aaron says Romi is really hot, so you do what you have to. Don't think you're offending me if your date doesn't like gays. There's no ... " Evan waved his hand as he searched for words, "There's no relevance."

Billy looked at Evan, then nodded, and said quietly, "Romi's no hard-core bigot, Ev. She just doesn't know; she has no experience. She likes Aaron. I mean, she likes Aaron a lot, and she knows he's gay." Bill bit his lower lip while he thought, and added, "It's abstract to her without another guy there." He smiled, "Aaron has his ... his traits, but Romi likes him. I don't know if it's because of, in addition to, or despite the way he is, but Aaron entertains Romi just like he does you and me and the man in the moon."

"You're saying?" Evan asked, bemused.

Bill sighed, "I'm saying that Romi Rosa doesn't have any aversion to Aaron because he's gay in the abstract. I just don't know how she'll react to seeing him be gay, vis-a-vis bringing you to a dance as his date."

Evan grinned. "Ooh! Vis-a-vis! Parlez-vous fancais?"

"Oui," Bill said, startled into a smile. "Un peu."

"Je ne savais pas çela," Evan said. "J'espères que ton espagnol est aussi bon."

"Pas aussi bien," Billy said. "Pourquoi parles-tu en français maintenant?"

"C'est toi qui a commencé!" Evan laughed.

Bill looked indignant, and said, "Oh. I'll stop it, then. I just don't want you to think you're being scorned or snubbed or ignored. I'll play it by ear, but if Romi starts to climb a tree or something, we'll just get out of your way, okay?"

Evan nodded. "I understand," then he looked at his friend. "You really like her, huh?"

Bill nodded, fiddled with his fingers, then looked Evan in the eye. "I really do." Then he snickered, "Heh, my father thinks I have an Oedipus complex. He says Romi is a lot like my mother when they first met." He looked up, "I don't see it, but he's the guy who knew my mother back then." Bill put his hands between his knees and looked at them. "I do see the traits. My mother was intelligent in ways that most people aren't, like she understood what was happening in heads other than her own. Romi's kind of like that, I think. She's like very perceptive, and kind with her perceptions, too."

Evan smiled and said, "Aaron told me she's a fox."

Bill chuckled, "Aaron's gay. What does he know?"

"She's not pretty?"

Bill said, almost as a sigh, "Oh, she's pretty. She's very pretty. I'd say she's beautiful. Did you ever hear the term 'cute as a button'? My father said Romi is as cute as a button, and I think it's a compliment. I just don't know what it means. You'll see, though. She's pretty through and through." He pointed at his own head and added, "She has a lot upstairs, too. She's really bright, and there's something else ..."

Evan waited until Billy looked at him, then he smiled a sweet, patient smile. Billy snickered, "I'll stop pretty soon. Anyhow, you're getting the deal of the week. You asked a ten-cent question and I'm giving you the full, two-dollar response."

Evan laughed, "You were saying there's something else?"

Bill nodded and looked at the floor. "Yeah, and I don't have the best word for it. Romi has this sense of ... grace, I guess." He thought for a second and said, "Bad word, it implies too much. She's graceful and all, but gracious is what I was getting at. Romi has this warmth ... this friendly warmth about her, and if she's going to have a bad word to say to someone, it will be to their face and in private." Billy looked back up and smiled, "I don't know, she's all class, Ev. I just really like that girl. It's all good so far."

Evan smiled and said, "I'm glad for you, then." He joked, "If anyone can get her to look kindly on my delicate condition, it's you."

Billy snorted, "Yeah, right!" His voice took on a falsetto, "Ooh, I'm Evan. I'm tiny! The man you see before you is only a projection. I'm really a little four-foot-nine girly-boy with a truly delicate condition." He slapped his knee and his laughter roared.

Evan laughed out loud, too, then said, "It's all an illusion!" He made believe he had a microphone and was speaking into it. "Billy, who you just heard, isn't five-six, but rather five-sixteen, and ... and ... he can fly! That's right folks, you heard it here first!" He smirked at Bill, "When O'Shea lights a fart in Newark, the next thing you know he's landing in Anaheim! It's amazing!"

When Bill stopped laughing, he sputtered, "You're amazing, Grins. Where do you come up with that stuff?"

Evan shrugged, "I don't know. Scary, huh?"

Bill chuckled, "Really Scary."

"Aaron's worse, you know. Or maybe it's better?" Evan suggested.

Bill nodded, serious now. "You and Aaron are good for each other, you know? Well, that's dumb because I know you know." He drew a deep breath, "I don't know how to say this, Ev. I've been friends with Aaron for something like ten years, and he's always been this shy kid, almost timid." He looked at Evan and and smirked, "Except on stage. Aaron's never been bashful about performing, but still ... you came along, and suddenly Aaron's practically beating his chest, like now he's the real Aaron Castle, and the shy little guy never existed." He beamed at Evan's confusion and said, "It's beautiful, Ev. Now Aaron goes, 'I'm gay, man! Queer!"

Evan giggled nervously and Billy continued. "Don't think anything bad, Ev. Aaron's my friend, my best friend, and you've had him on a high since you met. That's really a first, man, and I owe you."

Evan smiled, "You don't owe me, Bill. Aaron's not the only one who's happy."

Billy looked, then smiled. "I'm glad you said that, you know it? I can see how you feel, but it still kind of stuns me." He looked around, then back at Evan. "I think Aaron has importance, Ev. Does that sound stupid? I mean it. That makes you cool for giving him confidence. I just think that if one of us is going to change the world in any way that's real, that someone will be Aaron."

That thought surprised Evan, and he had to think about it, and decided to leave things as Bill stated them. They were all still young, and most of life's experiences still lay before them. Evan's friends were generally bright people who would no doubt succeed in life, but success came in a lot of ways. Of everyone he knew, Aaron certainly had the potential for greatness, and he definitely had the talent and skills to make himself noticed.

Did Aaron have the drive? Evan didn't know, but Aaron was always full of surprises. He thought that if Aaron wanted something badly enough he'd try his best to get it, but he hadn't seen any particular need to succeed. Not yet. Evan loved Aaron, and he was his friend as well as his boyfriend, but Billy was Aaron's best friend, and it was only natural that Bill would know him better, at least until Evan knew him longer.

In the meantime, Bill's outlook was important, and Evan liked the words. He hoped Bill had it right. If Aaron did become famous, Evan thought he'd do well with it. Aaron wasn't the type to go around getting drunk and busting up hotel rooms. He wouldn't bop busboys on the head, and he wouldn't stiff cab drivers. On the contrary, Aaron would be thrilled if someone wanted his autograph, or wanted to take a picture with him. It might get old at some point, but one thing Evan couldn't picture at all was Aaron being rude to someone for liking him, even if it wasn't convenient at the particular moment.

Evan said out loud, but to himself, "Aaron doesn't know rude."

"Pardon?" Billy said.

Evan seemed a little startled that Bill was still there, and hedged, "Oh! Um, I guess I was thinking out loud. I meant that I never saw Aaron be rude. Not once. Not to anybody." He snickered to Bill, "I don't think he has it in him."

Bill laughed. "He called me a cheapskate once. I guess that's about the worst of it."

"He called you cheap?" Evan asked, surprised.

Bill said evenly, "Oh, I am cheap, at least when I can be." He turned to Evan, "It's not that I don't want to spend money, it's just that since my mom died, there's less to start with. Even with insurance, there's a fortune in med bills to catch up with, two college funds, and all the everyday stuff." He shrugged, "It's not like we're paupers, but there's all this debt that comes when somebody is really sick, and there's more when they die. It just doesn't stop. Even the newspaper charged us to print an obituary." He gestured with his hand, "That's our life right now. We're paying for losing our mother ... my dad's wife. People are nice and all, but to them it's business."

Evan looked at Bill, not knowing what to say. He finally came up with, "Yeah, business. I guess it sucks, but ..."

"I know," Bill said. "Heh, there's a cost for everything. It would be nice if you didn't have to face it when you just lost somebody so important."

Bill looked suddenly vulnerable, so Evan edged closer and put a hand on his shoulder. "Listen, Bill. I don't know what you went through because I haven't, but I can sympathize." He rubbed Bill's shoulder gently, "It must suck. First Devon, then your mom."

Bill nodded, and they spent a good five minutes without saying anything at all. Then Bill said absently, "There are groups, you know. All kinds of them. Support groups. Do-gooders, money raisers, they're all over the place." He looked right at Evan and said, "They all try, I think, but they can hurt, too."

Evan gave Bill a curious look, so Bill went on. "Look at MADD ... Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. Sounds good, no? It probably is, too, until you have my mother. She was the mother of a drunk driver. She wasn't responsible for the booze itself, because Devon got that from his own house. It was my mother's car though, and Dean got the keys from the peg they were always on. Everything Dean and Dev did was illegal that night, but where are the groups telling people to guard their keys and hide their booze? MADD goes after the driving laws, and the legal limits. I'm not saying they shouldn't, but not all people get killed by drunks leaving bars."

Evan nodded in commiseration, but he didn't have anything useful to add, so he left it to Billy, who said, "There's nobody that I know of telling people to hide their car keys and lock up their liquor. Why not? They do it with guns now, and if you have a loose gun in a house with kids, you can go to jail for it. It's just ..." Bill sighed, "It happens too often, Ev. Accidental shootings, underage car crashes, kids getting smashed on free booze." He smiled sadly at Evan. "It's because it's fun. I don't know about guns, yet I have Dean for a bad example with the car. Still, people leave their car keys out everywhere, and houses where people drink have booze out, too. It's not illegal yet, but I don't know ..."

Billy let the thought go, and Evan picked it up. "I don't know either, Bill. They pass laws to protect people from themselves, like seatbelt ones, but who pays attention to them? I wear a belt without thinking, but I was brought up to wear a belt. I wear it in every car I get in, even if we're just sitting in the driveway. I don't really do it because it's the law, though. It's because I was indoctrinated that way." He snickered, "Heh, I don't even feel right in a car until I have the belt on. Yet I know people who swear they won't use one."

He looked at Bill, "I don't know about you, but their arguments are pretty pathetic. Yes, probably one person in a hundred billion dies because he's in a seat belt, but the numbers way favor the other side."

Bill said, slyly, "Maybe they should legislate intelligence, no? A test for everything, and everything requires proof of competence. It probably can't happen because that would mean legislators would have to pass a test, but it's a nice thought."

"Competence?" Evan laughed. "I'd like to see that. I can be good at this and that, but I can't be good at other things. Well, maybe I could, but I'm good at baseball because I like it. I don't even know polo, except there's horses in it."

"Me either," Bill admitted.

Evan grinned, "My brother likes fuzzy logic, and I like fuzzy things, like Teddy bears and Aaron's hair."

Billy started, "Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear."

Evan joined, and they said in unison, "Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair."

Billy finished, "So, wuzzy he fuzzy?" and they both laughed.

Evan said, "You may not know this, but there was a story about Fuzzy Wuzzy. He was kind of a war criminal. Read your Kipling"

Bill laughed and said, "No shit? Keep that one to yourself, okay, Smiley?"

Evan giggled, and the serious mood dissolved into snickers and giggles. Evan and Bill had met over a mis-thrown football, and a friendship bloomed right away. They found that they could have intelligent talks without either of them feeling a need to explain much, and they could have fun together, too. And they'd learned a lot about each other; so if Billy had a shot with a girl who was a little phobic, Evan was perfectly willing to stay out of their way. He was going to the dance with Aaron, anyhow, and nobody could predict with accuracy what would happen with that, so he had a more pressing concern all his own.

Evan still liked the way he could talk with Billy. They were both serious as students, both athletic, both readers, and they shared some viewpoints They didn't get all heated up when their opinions diverged, but rather took the opportunity to listen to another point of view, and learn from it.

* * * * * * * *

Clarence Henry Onwauzer was a big boy. On his fifteenth birthday he was five-foot-ten and close to one hundred-eighty pounds. He was built, too, with broad shoulders and powerful arms and legs. He was athletic, and had two letters under his belt already from his freshman year, for wrestling and baseball. At a glance, anyone would be forgiven for assuming that Clarence was just another jock, because he looked the part, and had some of the swagger that came with being young, healthy and athletic.

His name was Clarence, but his family called him Henry, and his friends called him Huck. As people got to know Huck, they soon realized that, in addition to his athleticism, he was generally a quiet and studious person. Huck was a reader who devoured anything on a printed page. He liked science fiction, biographies, and history both as fiction and as fact. He loved reading about exploration and discovery -  on land, at sea, in laboratories, and in space. He read the columnists in the paper, and the letters to the editor. If he was sitting on the toilet and nothing was handier, he'd read the wrapper on the toilet roll.

He had a healthy interest in the opposite sex, though he hadn't dated seriously before he asked Necia Carter to the Halloween dance at school. Huck thought Necia was pretty, even if she was a bit overweight. She intimidated him, too, but she intimidated a lot of people.

Necia was formidable in the classroom; always prepared with the required work, always ready to debate, and especially ready to push teachers to their limits of knowledge with her questions. What Huck both feared and admired about Necia was that she didn't let anyone in that school get in her way. She was demanding rather than pushy, and when she was denied something that even she could admit was extreme, she took the denial with humor and a mixture of belligerence and grace.

The night of the dance, Huck's father brought them.  Huck had to meet Necia's parents, who she had carefully created an aura of strict authority around. They couldn't decide on costumes, so they planned to go in regular school clothes. As much as Huck thought it was funny, he didn't even relay Billy's suggestion that they go naked, with Huck on roller skates as Necia's pull-toy. Huck recommended that Billy try that himself, but he wasn't personally that anxious to die painfully at fifteen.

Huck thought he'd go in his regular school clothes, but his father nixed that idea. "Henry, you're going to this man's house to take his daughter out of an evening. Do you actually think he'll let her go if he sees your underpants?" He rolled his eyes, "It's not just the label, either. I think ... I really think ... that for a first date you should dress up." He winked at Huck, "Put on your suit pants and a flashy shirt. You have dress shoes; shine 'em up! This is your first date, boy, so try to please that girl."

Huck looked at himself in the hall mirror, and asked, "What's wrong with how I look now? Necia won't even know me if I show up in Sunday clothes!"

Mr. Onwauzer walked over to Huck and said, "That's the idea, son. That's the idea. You go looking like you're trying to impress, and you will impress. Now, go put on something decent." He smiled at Huck and nudged him toward his bedroom.

Huck thought it over, and decided it wouldn't hurt. He got out his black suit pants with the pleated front, then a shirt he'd received for his last birthday, which was still in the wrapper. The shirt was unused because he'd saved it for an occasion, and his father was right. This was an occasion; his first real date, although he'd flirted with several other girls, and even made out a little with a few.

His father waited in the car while Huck went to Necia's door. They were in the left half of a duplex that looked kept up, at least in the dark. He rang the bell, then straightened up and tried to smile while he waited. The door opened a little, and he heard a female voice say, "Damn! Get away, dog! This ain't your lady friend!"

The door opened, and Huck found himself face to face with a woman who could only be Necia's mother. Her eyebrows went up, then she squinted at him before asking, "Are you Clarence?"

Huck didn't like when people called him that, but he said, "Yes. Yes, ma'am, I am. That's me. Clarence Henry Onwauzer. My family calls me Henry, and everyone else calls me Huck."

He still hadn't been invited in, but he was holding the outer door open, and Necia's mother leaned closer, giving him a long look, then she looked down the length of his body to his feet, then back at his face. Her smile then was pure sunshine. "Come in, Huck!" She stood back from the door and said, "I guess I'm part of everybody, so I'll call you Huck."

As Huck entered the hall, Mrs. Carter said to a young boy there, "Andy, go tell Necia her date is here." The boy looked at Huck in awe, and ran when his mother snapped, "Right now!"

She turned back to Huck and smiled, "Come in, child, it's chilly out." Then she saw Huck with sweat beading on his brow and asked, "Has it warmed back up? Follow me. I'll show you where you can wash up." She called out in a general direction, "Robert? Where are you? Huck is here to pick up Necia."

She steered Huck to a door and said, "In there," and that's where Huck found a half bath; just a sink and a toilet. He smiled at the mirror and thought that Necia's mother was easy to like. He splashed some cold water on his face, then dried off with a hand towel. When he looked in the wall mirror, he got a glimpse of himself that made him smile. His father had been right. He even looked good to himself in that shirt. It had a big collar, and was mostly white with wide, silvery stripes, and each stripe was accented on one side with shiny thread.

Huck posed for a moment, then went back out, where he met both Necia and her father. The father's scrutiny was quick but noticeable, but the man wasn't all that formidable looking. He was tall and lanky, had an easy smile, and there wasn't a gun in sight. He smiled, "So, you be the famous Huckleberry Finn. Welcome, boy." He smiled even more, "You know, when I heard your name I thought you'd be one more of those gang-bangin', ass-baring boys from around here." He nodded his head in apparent approval then looked at Necia, "Not bad, girl." He held his hand out to Huck and said, "Now show me you have some manners and shake hands."

Huck took a quick glance at Necia, whose expression was thankfully neutral, and took the man's hand, surprised by his strong grip. "I'm pleased to meet you," he said.

Necia's father said, "Let me get my camera. You two will look really fine together."

"Daddy!" Necia complained, but he was already gone. She looked at Huck and made a face, but his smile brought out her own. "Hi, Huck," she said in a quiet voice, but not shyly.

"Necia. You look ... nice. Real nice." Huck was impressed. Necia always wore nice things, but he'd never seen her in a dress before.

Necia smiled, and Huck kept looking. He really wanted to examine her appearance, but not by being too obvious. He figured he'd have to spend time away from her to get the long view he yearned for, but didn't want to be rude.

"Okay, I'll just take a minute of your time," Mr. Carter's voice boomed when he appeared with his little point-and-shoot camera. "Necia, baby, why don't you stand by the front window? I'll get a picture, then you can go dance the night away."

Huck and Necia posed. They stood in front of the window, side by side, then Necia's father wanted a picture of them in a chair; Necia in the seat and Huck on an arm, and that was the picture Huck wanted a copy of.

As promised, after the picture was taken Necia's father sent them on their way, with only a mild admonishment to Huck to "Take care of my girl." Then Huck walked Necia out, and down the short walk to his father's car. His father was leaning against the car, and when he noticed them coming he stood up straight, then saw Necia's family in the doorway and waved to them.

Then he took a look at Necia and smiled, because he knew his advice to his son had been good. Clarence looked fine the way he was dressed, and the girl had dressed up, too. He beamed and held out his hand to Necia, saying "I am so happy to meet you. And I must say, you're lovely."

Huck groaned, "Cut it out, Dad. She's my date, not somebody buying a car."

Necia giggled, and Huck's father turned an evil eye toward his son, then smiled. "I know she is. She is lovely, and that's all I said." He saw no change in Huck's expression, and said, "Just get in the car."

Huck and Necia sat in the back seat, on opposite sides because his father told them to buckle up their belts and neither wanted the middle. It wasn't far, and when they were getting out at the school, Huck told his father he'd call when they needed a ride home, then led Necia into the building. Huck's art teacher, Mr. Nevalowski, was at a card table collecting tickets, and he looked Huck up and down while he approached. He stood when they reached him, and smiled, "Mr Onwauaer. You're looking fine tonight." He looked at Necia, still smiling, "And Necia," then he squinted a little, "No wars tonight, alright?" He smiled, "This is what we in the profession call a party. It should be fun, so I wish you a fun time."

Necia did a little curtsey, thinking Nevalowski was misinformed about her, but she pulled out a smile for him, and that seemed to settle things.

They weren't the only ones there who'd dressed up rather than wear costumes, nor were there only two groups in attendance. There were a large number of people in their regular street clothes, and the Goths wore what qualified as costumes every day.

The dance was good: good DJ, tasty drinks, and people in a good mood, which meant no fights. Huck felt a little funny when he saw Aaron dancing with Evan, but when someone else made a negative comment, he said, "Shut up. Think what you want man, but those are my friends."

That was the end of the matter. Huck had laughed loudly when he saw Billy as the Volcano God, and he knew full well that Aaron was responsible for that particular costume. That didn't make it good, and he kidded Bill, "Man, I didn't expect no volcano god to have a blue face and whiskers."

Billy eyed him and said, "My face is only half blue," then his chest lit up and smoke erupted around his head.

Huck watched, amazed, and said, "Hey, I was just kidding. You make a good volcano god, real good."

Bill laughed and turned to dance with his date, and Necia said to Huck, "I like Billy. He is as real as you can get. There's nothing between him and anyone else."

Huck smiled at her. "And me?"

She just lifted her eyebrows and smiled. "Romi, too," she said, changing the subject. "She's such a sweet innocent."

Huck looked at Bill dancing with Romi and said, "Yeah." He looked at Necia, "How 'bout we dance, too? I like this song."

With that they were off, both good dancers despite their size. Huck had learned from his mother and Necia from her father. Together they tried a lot of things, and nailed most of them. Hip hop ruled the music to start with, but when the DJ played some rock, then something slow, they were both into it, and dancing closer to each other by the moment.

When they stopped to cool off, Aaron and Evan were right in front of them, living it up to an ancient Little Richard song. Necia noticed that Huck's eyes narrowed, and she asked, "Problem?"

Huck watched his friends dance for a few seconds more, then shook his head, "No. No, not really. I was just thinking that it's not a problem." He looked at Necia, "It used to be, but I was thinking other things then." He smiled, "Aaron's okay, and Evan is a real trip. I don't know, last year this would have bothered me. Right now, I just think they're the best dancers out there."

Necia grinned, "We could correct that." She put her drink down and held her hand out to Huck. "Shall we?"

* * * * * * * *

A month later, Billy O'Shea got double bad news.

Romi called him up the Saturday before Thanksgiving and said that her family was going to Mexico for the Christmas holiday, and that when they came back it wouldn't be to Riverton.

"What? Billy cried. What's going on?"

"Our new house is almost ready, and they can have it liveable by then. Our landlord here is eager, because someone important wants to rent this place. I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, but we have to move to the new ranch way ahead of schedule."

"I don't even know where it is," Billy complained. "I know you said across the river, but how will I see you? I'm ... I'm ... I don't know what to say here. This is right away?"

Romi felt terrible, but Bill's reaction was what she expected. "No," she said softly, "Not right now, but after we get back on the new year."

Bill sighed, "You have to change schools?"

"Yes, that's what they say. I don't like it either, but it's best for our family."

Bill was silent long enough that Romi asked, "Billy?"

"Sorry. I'm still here, but this is such ... I mean ... jeez, I don't know what I mean."

"I do," Romi said softly. "Billy, if it helps, I really care for you. This has to happen. It was our plan when we came to El Norte, and it's just been sped up some. I'm not leaving you like some romance novel. I'm not leaving you at all."

Bill heard despair in Romi's voice, and it hurt him. "I understand, Romi. I'm upset, but it's with the situation. I won't have my license for months. I won't have any way to see you at all."

Romi said, "I know. We will have business here sometimes, and I can see you then. In the meantime, we'll have to see each other as much as we can." Her voice got softer, gentler, "I wish now that I hadn't been such a Dear Prudence," a term that made Billy smile. "I think I would like to kiss you, to sit close with you."

Billy's feelings boiled to the surface, bringing a yearning to his consciousness that he'd been happy to suppress while yielding to Romi's strict Catholic upbringing. He always thought the time would come, and now it had just slipped away. He grimaced, "What are you doing now? Can I come over, or can we meet somewhere?"

Romi said, "Come here for dinner, then we can walk somewhere." She sighed, "We're all a little upset, Billy, but this means opportunity for us, and we really have to take advantage." A smile entered her voice, "Come at five o'clock. No, come at three o'clock, then we can take a walk before dinner too. Please don't be upset with me."

"I'm not upset with you," Bill said after a pause. "If I start walking now, I could take you to lunch, and we could have the whole afternoon together."

Romi smiled and teased, "Haven't you left yet?"

Billy chuckled and said, "I'm on my way."

* * * * * * * *

Billy managed to get a ride from his father. After Romi's call, he'd taken a second shower and changed out of the jeans and sweatshirt he'd been wearing. He put on dressier jeans, ones that weren't his baggy norm, and a flannel shirt that he knew Romi liked. He took more care with his appearance than normal, and approached Romi's door wearing his new winter jacket, purchased just the weekend before. It was appropriate because, though the temperature wasn't freezing, it was a blustery day just the same. The few leaves that still clung to trees were being torn off by the gusty wind, then driven far from their birthplace to their final resting place atop distant leaves they'd not known before.

It seemed to Billy like the first wintry weekend, and actually felt and looked like it might snow at any minute. Snow wasn't on his mind right then. Romi was, and the door opened almost immediately on his knock, revealing Diego.

He looked at Billy and said, "Defend me from this." He looked quickly around and said, "Come inside." Billy did, and Diego said, "Tell me that I have to move!"

Billy stared, then said half-facetiously, "You have to move."

Diego threw up his hands. "I don't mean that. Tell me I don't have to move. Tell me that if I do move, I can finish out school here." He was agitated, and an agitated Diego always amused Billy. His eyes implored Billy's. "Is it really a law that I have to go to school right exactly where I live? Why can't I live there and come to school here? Huh? Is that a big deal? I just changed school to come here, now I have to go there." He kicked at the leg of a chair, "I don't like it!"

Mrs. Viscarrondo-Rosa appeared and said, "Hush, Diego," then she smiled at Billy. "Forgive him, Bill. Please. He's taking turns with Romi to determine who is the most injured party." Diego kicked the chair again, and she said, "Stop that. The chair has done nothing to you, and that's enough of your tantrum."

Diego scowled, then turned and disappeared so fast that Billy almost missed his departure. He turned to Romi's mother and said, "I'm here to see Romi. She's upset too, so I'm taking her to lunch."

Delfina smiled at Billy and said, "I know, Bill, and you're upset, too. Jim is upset, Necia is upset. Romi and Diego have both made fast friends here, but this residence was always intended as temporary." She smiled sadly, "We'll have our own home soon, and progress on the ranch is well ahead of our plans. Our destination ... our destiny really, is in Rocky Bend." She saw Billy's smile fade and went to him, touching both of his cheeks gently. "Listen, son. I see the affection you and Romi have for each other, and we will do nothing to keep you apart. You'll be driving soon, you told me yourself. In the meantime, if I have to, I will personally drive Romi back here, or even pick you up to visit." Billy gave her a surprised smile, and she added, "Let me find Romi for you. She has learned the telephone quite well, and doesn't know you're here."

Billy took his jacket off as she left, and in just a few seconds Romi was there, looking very sexy to Billy. She had on faded jeans that were snug, and a shirt with the tails out, tied just over her belly button. Billy looked, then he looked up to Romi's face and saw her concern. He smiled, "I like."

Romi smiled back, then hurried over to him and gave him a quick hug at the waist. They looked at each other, almost nose to nose, and Romi's eagerness made Billy feel better. He leaned in and kissed her, then pulled back quickly, only to see here coming back for another, and this time it was one with hope written all over it.

Billy had made out with several girls before he knew Romi, even extended make out sessions, and he always left them feeling horny as hell. It was different with Romi, because his feelings for her were real, where with other girls it had been mostly hormonal. Romi had come to live in Billy's head, and even though the sight of her stirred his loins, his attraction to her went well beyond the physical and sexual.

Their friendship had evolved so naturally since they first met. For both of them. There was some awkwardness and miscommunication at first, but they got past that, and soon felt comfortable as friends. There was desire growing within each of them, and there was a real sexual element to it, but Romi still seemed different to Billy. Their comfort level seemed high to Billy, for one thing. Whatever they did together seemed to happen the way it should, and that hadn't been his experience with other girls.

Romi felt much the same. She liked the antic Billy and the way he teased and prodded other people, but she had immediately picked up on his soft side, and realized that his teasing wasn't geared toward humiliation, but rather it was his way of teaching. He had a reputation as a tough guy that went back to first grade, but the reputation was enough, and Bill generally stayed out of the fray. Nobody had a doubt that he could take care of himself, so tough guys avoided him rather than try their luck. Romi didn't think they were afraid of Bill, but they certainly showed respect.

What Romi admired most about Bill was his quick wit and his sense of humor; his playful spirit. She had watched him charm her own family, and he could get them roaring with laughter with his twisted histories.

The first time he stayed for dinner, the conversation had been light throughout the meal, and as Bill sipped his coffee while waiting for dessert, he asked, "I'm just wondering, but how did you end up out here instead of California or somewhere in the West?" The question was directed to Elian, Romi's father.

Elian replied, "It was a combination of economics and chance, really. Have you been to California?"

Billy said, "No, but I know a lot about it."

Elian's eyebrows lifted, "For instance?"

Billy looked a little startled, "You want my history of California?"

"Please," Elian said, and Billy's face lit up.

"Okay," he said, "but this can get long."

Elian nodded, so Bill started. "Well, like the rest of the U.S., California used to be part of Africa, or maybe Europe, but this huge continent fell apart so now it's here, and not there anymore. The earliest inhabitants were fossils, but they were soon joined by dinosaurs, then people started to come. They didn't have transportation, so they walked over from Asia and became Indians. They had the place to themselves for about ten thousand years and had, you know, their own civilization and everything."

The family was already chuckling, and Billy continued eagerly. "Things were happening in the rest of the world. Marco Polo went to Asia, but when he learned that a lot of the people from there had walked on over to California, he went back to Italy to tell everyone. That started things in motion, and I don't suppose I have to tell you what happened in fourteen-ninety-two." He looked around, "After Colombus, who was Italian but worked for Spain, this whole part of the world became New Spain. When the Pope in Rome learned what was here, he sent this family named Gari to civilize the natives, and give them religion. The father of the clan was named Misan, and the whole clan used his name, Misan Gari." He looked up and smirked, "That was later shortened."

Romi saw her father and mother with red faces from their laughter, and nobody else was far behind. "Shortened to what?" she managed to gasp.

Billy ignored her and instead said, "After that, California languished, forgotten until gold was discovered, and gold gave them a reason to settle San Francisco, which became a hot spot overnight. Then it was flattened by an earthquake, and the artsy types moved south to create Los Angeles out of the desert. Since there was no way to make a living there, honestly or otherwise, they decided to use the good light to make movies, and I can tell you, they did a blockbuster job in that endeavor.  Still, it was a small town. They were invaded by Oklahoma in the nineteen-thirties, and they suddenly had a majority non-Asian, non-prospector, and non-missionary population. Nothing really happened until the fifties, though, when the theme song from a television show mesmerized the rest of the country. After that, it was watch out, here we come!"

Romi's mother had tears in her eyes, and held up her hand, "Stop it! Please!"

Billy said, "I can't stop yet, I'm almost there." He eyed the family seeking permission, then continued, "After that, California became a magnet for all kinds of people. Starlets, artists, farmers, winemakers, surfers, prophets ... right on down to Latino street gangs ... they poured in by the millions. Asians came by the more millions, trying to regain their foothold. But it's the Mexicans, the original sovereigns, who have found prominence. He looked at Elian and said softly, "That's what led me to ask why you're here, and not there."

Elian was recovering from laughing, and not ready to form words, so Billy added, "Don't get me wrong, I prefer you here." He smiled at Romi and lowered his voice, "I'm glad you're here." She pulled her knees close together with her hands, leaned toward Billy a little, and returned his smile.

Elian said, "Heh, I like your sense of humor, Bill. As funny as that was, it was also an accurate history, even if somewhat incomplete." His smile of appreciation was wide and genuine. Then he became more serious. "To answer your question is really quite simple. We had people looking in many areas for some kind of opportunity, and we found it here, just across the river. My boys have acquired a good stable of horses for our own use, and we are getting inquiries every day from potential boarders. We can get excellent tack to sell from Mexico, and we'll have both a riding school and trail rides." He smiled at Evan, "Quite honestly, we have found the Northeast to be friendlier to horses and this kind of enterprise than the western states."

Billy raised his eyebrows and said, "I hope it works out. I know I'll be coming for lessons. I've only been on pony rides at fairs ... led around by the nose, but even that was fun." He smiled in embarrassment, "At least I think it was fun."

Everyone had chuckled then, when the departure of the  Mexican family was still off in the future.

Now it was nigh, and Elian and his wife joined Bill and Romi in the front room. 

After some small talk, Elian said, "The time has come for all of us to earn a living." He smiled at Bill, then at his daughter. He stood, "That's enough. You two tend to your own matters now. He smiled at Billy, "I believe the coming months will be very busy for our family. Take today to make your own peace with the situation. Go somewhere and enjoy yourselves."

Billy wasn’t pleased.  Still, as gentle as Elian’s words had been, they were still clear, and Bill had to accept a new truth. He looked at Romi and suggested, "Let's go to lunch. I know the perfect place.

He was thinking of an Italian restaurant not far from there, a checkered tablecloth kind of place, where the food was both good and inexpensive. It might or might not be busy on a Saturday afternoon, but this might also be their last chance at the luxury of time to wait. Romi got up, they got their coats and almost made it out the door. Diego was standing there in his usual challenging stance.

"Where are you going?" he demanded.

"To lunch," Romi replied.

Diego said, "Wait. I'm going with you."

Billy looked at Romi, who looked at Diego and said, "No you're not! Billy is taking me to lunch." She glanced at Bill, then looked back at Diego. "This is our time, our private time together." She looked at Billy and said, "Let's go. Diego will be begging his ancestors for lessons in manners!"

Billy looked at an indignant Diego and shrugged. "Well, I'll see you."

They turned to leave, and Diego remained silent, then shrugged his shoulders and gave up. He already knew proper manners, he just tried to get away with not using them all the time. He could get away with rude and blunt behavior on the streets, but not in his own home, and he was too young to recognize the irony of that.

Billy and Romi had just turned into the chill wind outside, and headed down the alley to the street, and Bill said, "I really like Diego, you know. You don't have to be hard on him for my benefit."

Romi took Bill's arm and said, "It's for his benefit, not yours. My brother has to learn to live for himself ... within himself." She slowed, and Bill looked at her. She smiled and said, "Diego has many talents. He has yet to learn tact."

Bill chuckled. "I know. The first thing he said to me was that you're chaste, and gonna stay that way!"

They walked on, into the cold wind, and Romi said, "He has that part right."