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"Nice shoes." The contemptuous note in the kid's voice as he said the words was as unmistakable as the smirk on his face.

The new kid, and the recipient of the insult, was short with dark hair and a darker glare. Unfortunately, he was also the owner of a pair of horrendously ugly, second-hand brown loafers, the kind with a penny in the slit on the top of the shoe. They weren't his first choice in footwear. However, Thoreau Preparatory High School required loafers with the school uniform and these had been the only ones the Salvation Army had carried in his size. He hated having small feet. "At least I'll grow out of 'em, it probably sucks to be stuck with that for a face your whole life."

The kid whose face had just been insulted was on the new kid in seconds. Him, and a whole group of his friends.

The new kid was mildly surprised when only seconds later he was able to emerge from his pile of assailants virtually unscathed. The reason was standing across from him, almost six feet tall. It said, "Get the fuck outta here, McAndrew, and take your own lame-ass version of the mod squad with you, okay?"

When his orders had been carried out, the new kid's rescuer held out his hand. "Hey, I'm Joey, you must be the new guy."

"They don't get many new people in here after the first day of ninth grade, do they?" The new kid had been getting looks that ranged from excited to suspicious all day. He took Joey's hand. "I'm Chris, thanks for the rescue."

"Oh, not a problem. McAndrew's an asshole, and his dad works for mine, so it's kinda fun to put him in his place every once in awhile." Joey turned and started walking the direction that Chris had been heading in when he had gotten interrupted. "On your way to lunch?"

Chris nodded. "Yeah, and I think that may be the one building I can actually find."

Thoreau was a four year boarding school for boys from ninth to twelfth grade situated in Northeastern Massachusetts. It was made up of five buildings, plus the dormitories. The tuition was extravagant, so the majority of boys who attended were children of parents who made upwards of half a million a year.

Chris was the oldest child of a single mom who'd had him when she was sixteen. The two of them lived with his four younger sisters in a trailer park outside of Pittsburgh. He'd gotten into the school on a full academic scholarship that he'd applied for without his mother's knowledge. He hadn't wanted to disappoint her if it hadn't worked out. As it was, he wasn't sure who had been more surprised by the letter of congratulations. There were only two scholarships given out per year, and they were usually awarded to freshman. Chris was a junior, but one of the awardees had been kicked out early that year on account of his drug habit. The scholarship had hastily been re-opened to applicants who were willing to change schools in the middle of first semester.

It was Chris's first time away from home. The scholarship included airfare to and from the school -- he wouldn't have been able to get there otherwise -- and two days before had been his first time on a plane. He'd have stabbed himself before admitting it, but between the homesickness and the reception he'd gotten from most of the guys, he was about three seconds from crying.

Joey clapped a large hand over Chris's shoulder, "Wanna join me for lunch?"

Chris hoped he didn't look as grateful as he felt. "That'd be great."

*

The food at Thoreau was just barely a step above inedible, but there was lots of it and someone else was paying, so Chris wasn't about to complain. When they had gotten their food, Joey led them to a table in the corner where three other guys were already seated. Two of the guys had their noses buried in books. The third looked up at the approaching company and said loudly, "About fucking time, Fatone, where the hell have you been?"

Joey set his tray down and gave a noogie to the boy with curly hair that looked like it needed to have been cut weeks before. "Hey, Ju. Lance, Jace, look up for a minute." The blond looked up, the brunet's head stayed down. Joey put a hand underneath his chin, "Hey Space Cadet."

The brunette smiled, his eyes scrunching up behind the wire-frame reading glasses he had on. "Hi Joey, you just get here?"

Joey shook his head fondly. "JC, Lance, Justin," Joey pointed at each of the guys as he said their names, "this is Chris."

Lance nodded politely. "Nice to meet you."

JC held out his hand and when Chris grasped it in return, he pulled Chris down into a seat. "Welcome to Thoreau."

Justin eyed him for a moment. "You're the new kid, right? The Parker guy?"

The Jenson Parker Grant was the name of the scholarship Chris was on. "That's me. Only, um, Kirkpatrick, not Parker."

"That's cool, dude. You must be like a rocket scientist or something. Lance says he's not smart enough to get that, and he's really fucking smart."

Chris picked up his piece of pizza. "Maybe I'm just lucky."

JC, who unlike Lance had not returned to his book, looked at Chris somewhat enigmatically. "Being lucky is not needing the scholarship to go here."

Justin laughed. "Jace is getting all deep on us."

Chris looked across at JC and wondered just how spacey the kid really was.

*

Chris spent the next week getting the scoop on each of his new friends, either from themselves or from one of the others.

Joey was a third generation immigrant. His grandfather had taught himself English, worked his way through law school during the Depression and started a small firm that now spanned several continents. His father, Joseph Anthony Fatone, Sr., had taken over upon the old man's retirement. Joey, as he told Chris with deceptively blank eyes, was "damn well expected to follow in those footsteps."

JC was a genuine math geek who could probably make numbers come to life and run around a room if he wanted to. He didn't say much until he was sure of the person he was talking to, and when he did speak, it came out incoherent a large part of the time. He and Joey had met in choir, something they both loved. Chris got the sense that Joey was something of a protective force in JC's life. In fact, if Chris understood correctly, Joey played an older brother role in all of the relationships within the group.

Lance was ten times as book smart as anyone Chris had ever met and, surprisingly, had the common sense to match. Like JC he was quiet most of the time, but he tended to make rather dry observations about life when everyone was least expecting it.

Justin was the only freshman in the group, JC being a senior and Lance and Joey both juniors. He had known and worshipped Joey since they were both in diapers. Justin liked sports more than he liked school, which was a severe disappointment to both his parents. He spent a lot of time pretending that didn't matter to him.

Best of all, the four of them were all seemingly oblivious to the fact that, for them, money actually did grow on trees.

Chris made himself a regular at their lunch table from there on out. A month after Chris had gotten there, he got fed up with his roommate and requested a room transfer. Joey pointed out that his parents were paying for a rather unnecessary super-single for him. Chris was moved in within days.

*

Chris taped the picture set that he and Kate had gone out and gotten in the photo booth at the local Wal-Mart before he had left to the wall above his desk. He stepped back to survey his work and held back a sigh. Joey's side of the room was much more colorful, filled with posters of musical groups he liked, postcards from places he or people he knew had been and tickets to concerts he'd gone to and basketball games Justin and he had attended together. There were also pictures of him with family, friends who had graduated and people who Chris had seen walking down the halls.

Chris had pinned up the few pictures he had of his sisters, mother and grandparents. He put up the art work Taylor had sent him two weeks before that she had made in arts and crafts period. Taylor was very proud of every product that had come out of her kindergarten career. So was Chris. He had run off a few picture of favorite musicians and stars from the printer in the library and tacked those up alongside the other stuff. Other than that, his walls were depressingly white.

This, in and of itself, did not bother Chris. Rather, the obvious comparison of Joey's wall was what was getting to him. It reminded him of something he'd been meaning to say to Joey ever since the other boy had pulled strings and gotten him moved into his own room. Chris leaned on the hand that was resting on the wall above the picture of him and his mother. Without looking at Joey he said, "I don't need your protection."

Joey looked up from his PC. "Uh, okay."

"I just wanted that to be clear. Like, it was really great of you to haul McAndrew off me and get me this room, but I can take care of myself. Trust me, I've been doing it longer than anyone here. They have courses in self-care 101 where I come from."

Joey pushed back from the desk to get a better view of Chris. "I don't doubt it."

"It's nothing personal, I've just kinda noticed the way you are with the other guys, the way they tend to look up to you and need you and shit, and really, I like you and all, you're great, but, uh, I'm not really into owing people."

Joey blinked slowly. "Justin, JC and Lance don’t owe me. I'm not really sure where you picked up that idea, but it's wrong. And maybe I'm the one who needs you."

"Sorry?" Chris's hand slid down the wall and he readjusted his position quickly so as not to slide with it.

"I'm flunking physics."

"That's not good." Chris had the feeling that was probably an idiotic thing to say, but he wasn't precisely sure where the conversation was going just yet and didn't have anything better for Joey.

"No, not good at all, really. My dad'll kill me if I drop below a B average. I will literally never leave my room at home again. They'll probably put a dumbwaiter in just so that I can't even have human contact when my meals are brought to me."

"Oh." Chris swallowed. "You want me to help?"

"I'd ask Lance, he was in the class last year, but the kid isn't worth anything as a tutor. He tells you how things work in the most complicated way possible and then gets all frustrated when you don't get it right off."

"How do you know I'll be any better?"

"I don't, but I'm hoping you are. Your sentences aren't constructed largely of three syllable words, which is as good a start as any, I suppose."

Chris smirked.

"So." Joey fidgeted with the hole in the knee of his jeans. "Will you help me?"

"What the hell. I owe you that much." Chris's expression was only mildly ironic.

Joey threw a pen at him.

*

JC showed up at their door with a gift the second time he visited after Chris had moved in. He held it shyly out to Chris who was studying on his bunk. Chris looked up. "For me, Jace?"

JC bit his lip in order to unsuccessfully hide a smile. "Yup."

"What for?" Chris wasn't usually big on accepting random gifts -- they usually equated to charity -- but JC had the same look on his face as Taylor when she had won her class's spelling bee. It was hard to refuse something from anybody that unabashedly sweet.

Chris slid a finger under the tape holding together the impromptu wrapping paper -- fashioned out of the Arts section of the Sunday New York Times, which Lance had a subscription to and shared with all of them. The wrapping came off easily to reveal a 12x16 painting. Chris had seen JC's stuff before, and this was obviously one of his. JC was good. Everybody expected him not to be very artistic, being that he was very logical and math-oriented in most his classes. His intellectual abilities only seemed to heighten his creative ones, though. Chris whistled, impressed. "That's…wow. You really wanna give this to me?"

JC ignored the question. "That's where I'm from. Those mountains are like an hour from my house. Me and my ex-girlfriend used to go there when we-" JC blushed, "wanted to get away. It's special, that spot."

"And you made it for me?"

"Um, no offense Chris, but your walls are kinda boring." JC's eyes flickered away from Chris's gaze.

"Have a certain place you want me to hang it?"

*

Chris had known he was gay since he was twelve and threw a boner while taking down Alex Forster during a particularly vicious game of street hockey. He'd worried about it until he'd done what he did with all his problems and gone to his mom. She had looked at him, thoroughly unimpressed by the confession and said, "Well, women'll treat you better, but I've known that for years and still can’t bring myself around to wanting to sleep with one."

And really, that was that.

Which meant that he wasn't at all surprised when he had his first erotic dream about Joey. Annoyed and a little bit pissed off with himself, but not surprised. Joey was his type -- big, with kind eyes and a smile that fit his face perfectly. Or maybe, Chris mused, it was that his type was Joey.

Chris was pretty sure the cold taps on Thoreau's showers were seeing more action than they had in decades.

*

Joey was approaching the physics midterm with a terror that could only be paralleled by that of a falsely accused witch about to be burned at the stake. Chris had tried everything to make studying more fun, from borrowing JC's set of finger paints and dipping Joey's fingers in the jars, guiding them over paper to make big colorful equations and diagrams, to smuggling in four pints of Ben & Jerry's From Russia With Buzz, which kept both of them up and peeing for three nights straight. Joey was still a wreck.

Chris was about to try figuring out where to procure some pot within the black hole everyone referred to as Thoreau Preparatory High School when Joey took charge of matters himself.

Which is how Chris found himself, rather unexpectedly, being pushed into the back of his dormitory chair, kissed rather vigorously. With tongue. By his roommate.

He wasn't complaining.

They were happily exploring each other's throats with their tongues until Chris's chair toppled back and both of them were carried by the momentum. It all ended with Chris on his back, still in the chair, Joey awkwardly balanced on top of him. Chris took a few seconds to catch his breath. "Ow."

Joey grunted in agreement.

"You, uh." Chris wondered if this was the time to be tactful, because regardless of the fact that Joey was laying on top of Chris, the larger boy was studiously avoiding all eye contact. "Feel better?"

Joey climbed off of Chris, attempting to have as little physical contact while doing so as humanly possible. "You okay?"

"Dude, I've done worse to myself walking down the street." Chris wasn't happy with the new weirdness that seemed to have come between them. It was why he hadn't just told Joey he wanted to fuck like monkeys in heat in the first place.

"Um, okay. Well, physics. Y'know, just trying to prove a point, because, laws of gravity and all, F = G x quantity M1 - M2 over distance squared."

While that wasn't the most romantic thing Chris had ever had said to him after a make out session, he figured it was a good sign when Joey passed the exam two days later.

*

The scholarship didn't pay for Chris to go home over winter break, so he was stuck at Thoreau with about three other kids whose parents were off in Paraguay and other odd places doing things that Chris could only conceive of doing if someone had way too much time and money on their hands.

JC sent him postcards from the DC suburb in Virginia where he lived. It amused Chris that JC actually went in to tourist traps and bought the cards to send to him, not to mention took the time to write them when he could more than afford the ten cents a minute to call Chris. That was JC, though, and Chris couldn't wait to get his mail each day.

Lance was an online addict. Him and Joey instant messaged from rooms that were down the hall from each other when at school. Chris got roughly two emails from Lance a day. Lance was bored in Mississippi, with his sister -- and sole companion at home -- having gotten married and moved out of the house the year before. He spent a lot of time listening to Do-It-Yourself-Japanese tapes. His latest goal was to speak and write Japanese fluently in half the time experts said a student of the language needed for true mastery.

Justin had a cell phone plan that got more use than the average household line in a family of four teenage girls. He informed Chris that he had bought stock in Sprint for this reason. Chris suspected Justin's parents had bought the stock and then the phone.

From Joey, there was sheer radio silence. Through careful investigation consisting of a whole bunch of coming out and asking the other guys, "Heard from Joey?" Chris was able to figure out that he was the only one being ignored.

Four packages came for Chris in the days before Christmas. Lance had sent him a pen set that Chris could only conjecture, from all the little gadgets attached, was probably meant to help save the world in some way. JC got him a Discman and Volume I of the Beatle's Greatest Hits to start his collection off. Justin was in on JC's gift and sent Chris a boxed set of Dylan's albums.

Joey sent him a Steelers football jersey, number twelve, signed by Terry Bradshaw. There was no card with it. Chris wondered if this was how you bought someone an apology.

*

Chris sweet-talked the secretary in the main office into letting him use her phone to call home on Christmas. She gave him the key so that he could let himself in early that morning and talk with his mom and sisters.

Taylor answered on the second ring with a rather boisterous, "Hello!"

"Hi, Tay. Merry Christmas."

"Chris! ChrisChrisChr-"

Chris heard her repetitive shouting of his name continue as the phone was taken away from her. Another female voice spoke into his ear, "That you, hon?"

"Yeah, mom, Tay's not yelling my name into some random stranger's ear."

"Merry Christmas, kid."

"Same to you."

"I was gonna call, but presents for the girls kinda finished me off this year."

"No big. Thanks for the card. I put it up on my wall. I really miss you guys."

"We really miss you too. Emily had a choir concert at the church last night, she kept saying how she wished you could've been there."

"I watched 'It's a Wonderful Life' on Joey's TV." Chris had written his mom letters about Joey, so she was aware of everything right past the kissing.

"How's Joey, have you heard from him?"

"Not exactly."

"Care to explain 'exactly'?" Chris's mom's voice was tight.

"He sent me a gift, for Christmas, y'know."

"Uh huh."

"He just, um. No talking, really. Nothing since he decided kissing me might be a nice stress reliever."

"Chris. I mean this in the nicest way possible. Men are retarded when it comes to communicating."

"That's inspiring."

"You live with him, kid. When he gets back, sit him down, bar the door and do a little impromptu ass-kicking if you need to. He'll talk. You just have to be persuasive in these kinds of situations."

"Okay."

"Okay. I love you. Wanna talk to Kate?"

*

Joey showed up late in the afternoon on the very last day of break with a tan that was almost enough to convince Chris to abandon his mission of discussion and lick Joey from top to bottom. "Are the Virgin Islands nice?"

Joey stared at Chris while standing, stuck in the doorway, looking every inch a large deer caught in the headlights of a Hummer. "Huh?"

"Justin said you guys were vacationing out there, which the new skin tone proves, and I've never been, so-"

"You aren't mad?"

"I'm pissed. This is my attempt at being civilized before I kick your ass around the room six or seven times."

"Oh."

"Look, we have to live in this room together for another semester, because I'm not moving again, so we might as well talk. I'd like to remind you, though, before there are any 'dirty fags' or other such lovely nicknames thrown around, that you're the one who started it."

"Dude, Chris, it's not like that."

"No?"

"No." Joey moved to sit down across from the bunk where Chris was sitting. "Fuck no, not at all. I'm sorry you thought that. I'm…I'm sorry about everything."

Things were silent for a bit before Chris shook his head. "I'm gonna need more than that."

"It's like…y'know how I had to get a good grade in physics and I'm going to be the next senior partner of my dad's firm?"

Chris nodded.

"That's kind of the way I'm going to get married to some nice Catholic girl and produce mounds of robust Catholic grandchildren."

"Wow. Um, what happens if you're impotent?"

Joey looked mildly horrified at the thought. Chris laughed. "Just kidding. Seriously, though, I don't get what that has to do with us."

"Chris, my parents think I'm straight."

"Obviously. But your parents are like four states away."

"You're not some secret I have to keep, Chris. You're too…just, no."

"Oh." Chris smiled slowly, catching on. "Holy shit, Joey, chivalry isn't dead."

"Fuck you."

"No, no, I mean, that's really sweet of you, but um, unnecessary."

"I said no, Chris."

"We're in the middle of butt fuck Massachusetts, where else are you gonna get some?" Chris threw out his hands, exasperated.

"Why don't you let me worry about that?" Joey snapped.

Chris's eyes got a shade darker at the sharpness of Joey's voice. All he said though, was, "All right. Sure, Joey. You do that."

*

Lunch period the day that classes started was the first time the five guys all got a chance to see each other. Lance was the most talkative Chris had ever seen him, beyond excitement to have people to talk with again. This meant that he said something roughly every ten minutes. For the most part, he listened and smiled. The book he had brought with him didn't even get a glance.

Justin did most of the talking for everyone at the table, with Joey being somewhat tense and Chris not having much news to relay. JC was subdued. Chris didn't exactly notice this fact until well into lunch, since JC could be about two inches from mute when he chose to be, but today it wasn't just silence that was a factor. He was skinnier than last time Chris had seen him, more drawn in on himself.

Chris didn't think too much of it until Justin started getting touchy feely, patting all of them on the back, reaching out for high-fives, little testosterone-affirming touches to reassure himself that he was back with his friends. That was fine with everyone until Justin squeezed JC's shoulder and JC choked on a small sound of distress. All of them heard it. Justin pulled his hand back in shock. "Holy shit, JC, what did I-"

"'S'not your fault, J." JC was taking quick breaths, trying to calm down.

Lance's eyes narrowed. Of all of them, Lance was closest to JC. "Did he hit you again?"

JC's head was down, his eyes focused on his lap. He didn't respond. Lance tried again, "Jace, did that son-of-a-bitch hit you?"

"Don't insult my grandma," JC mumbled, refusing to lift his head. "I told him I didn't want to go to Dartmouth." Dartmouth was JC's father's alma mater.

Justin looked like he was about to say something, but Lance cut him off. "How bad?"

"Bruised my collarbone, stomach hurts. Nothing big. I told him right before I left, so that he couldn't freak out about it the whole time."

"You should've waited until you got back. There's such a thing as phones for a reason, JC." This from Joey, who had his 'I'm acting deceptively calm' face on.

JC brought his face up to look at Joey. "I thought…I dunno what I thought. I just. I hate phones, you know that. They seem tricky. Like nothing you say sounds the same at the other end. I was afraid he'd talk me into it, maybe, I guess." JC shrugged and then winced at the action. "When he's hitting me, I'm still set in my resolve. It takes him being logical to change my mind. I'm always safe from that when we're in the same room."

Justin whispered, "I'm sorry I hurt you."

"It's really okay. Contrary to popular opinion, I'm not made of blown glass." JC smiled for Justin's benefit and then turned the smile to Lance. Lance smiled back, but it was shaded, knowing. Joey reached out to ruffle Lance's hair, grinning mischievously at JC.

Chris watched the whole thing silently. Between Joey and JC, Chris was beginning to sense that money really might be the root of all evils.

*

It was close to three weeks into second semester that Joey started staying out all night at random intervals. He usually had the grace to mumble something about the library the next morning to Chris while he was in the room grabbing his towel and shower kit. Chris in turn nodded and pretended to believe Joey's excuse. Until Justin started ribbing Joey at the lunch table about Doug Shriever having been late to biology that morning. Or Sammy Townley having an ill-concealed hickey. Or Conner Kincaid having the same scent…uh, cologne as Joey at basketball practice.

Chris had long since figured out that Thoreau had a system of situational homosexuality well in place. Even kids who kept their participation in the system quiet were still in it. Kids who actually were gay could slip easily under the radar of just being horny. Justin's reaction was no clue as to whether the kid knew Joey's secret or not. Chris wasn't going to be the one to tell him.

Joey smiled at Justin, looking suitably satisfied with himself. Justin got up from the table, still laughing, to get himself seconds. Chris met Joey's glance as it swept back to the table from following Justin. What had looked like satisfaction a moment before had a striking resemblance to defeat.

*

JC and Lance's room had too much color and a level of organization that Martha Stewart herself would have had a hard time accomplishing. Chris was always afraid to enter, worried that he might mess up the direction of the carpet threading, or something equally punishment-worthy. Due to this he rarely came over, but JC had extended an invitation with all the flexibility of a sheet of granite, so Chris had come.

JC was at his desk, scratching away at an equation when Chris knocked. "Door's open, c'mon in."

Chris stepped inside, not moving until JC smiled up at him and motioned to the chair at Lance's desk. He sat down quickly, using the most direct path to the chair. "Lance not here?"

"He watches 'Alias' in the science lab with all the other geeks on Sunday nights." The science lab, for some reason that had yet to be explained, had a large projection screen.

"Ah."

JC stopped what he was doing to look at Chris. "Does Joey being gay freak you out?"

"Wha- what?" Chris blinked. That hadn't been what he was expecting.

"See, you're more perceptive than Justin and you live with Joey. Between the two, you've gotta have figured out he gets more out of the system than most guys here."

"No, I. Yes, I know Joey's gay. I didn't know you did."

JC laughed softly. "I've known him for three years Chris. I've slept with him on and off for two of them."

Oh. Of course. "Why'd you stop? I mean, you’re about as presentable as they come." JC's father was one of the top men in American banking.

"I don't understand. Presentable?"

"We hooked up, Jace. Kind of, anyway. He kissed me and then realized he was kissing white trash from not-quite Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."

"Oh no. Shit, Chris. Lance and me, I think we got it wrong."

"What does Lance have to do with anything?"

"We thought that you and Joey were avoiding each other because you were homophobic."

"No, I try to avoid self-hatred as often as humanly possible."

"Then…oh." JC frowned.

"Why did you guys break it off?" Chris was determined to focus on one train of thought.

"Joey sleeps around with straight guys because it will never go anywhere."

"That's not an answer JC."

"No, Chris. It is. You're just so set on thinking that Joey's obsessed with your pedigree that you won't consider the fact that he won't be with you precisely because he wants to be so very much." JC's eyes were pained.

"Were you guys…in love?"

"Well, no. Not exactly. But the possibility was there."

"Then he's… I mean, he knows that he's never going to fall for a woman, right? He doesn't seem to be in denial."

"He's not. Joey's just so afraid of disappointing people. His mom's really religious, and it's all scary to him."

"I. This doesn't change things for me." Chris tucked himself into a ball. "I still want him."

JC picked up his pencil and drummed it rhythmically across the desk. "Tell me if you need help."

*

Justin was important to Chris's self-admittedly poorly formed plans. Chris challenged him to a game of one-on-one Wednesday after classes. Justin looked doubtful but agreed, not wanting to hurt Chris's feelings. The younger boy stopped holding himself back about three minutes into the match, recognizing that Chris's size did nothing to inhibit his speed or reflexes.

Justin won, but not without a fight. By the end, he was looking at his opponent with a whole new level of respect. He threw Chris one of the water bottles on the table by the court. Chris chugged for a second before bringing his head up to look at Justin. "You've met Joey's parents, right?"

"Practically grew up at his house -- my dad was his dad's best friend in college, they were each other's best men, you get the picture."

Chris did.

"Why, Chris?"

Chris took a breath and hoped he wouldn't get caught in his own lie. "Oh, well, Joey offered a while back that if I ever wanted to go home with him for a break or something, I'd be welcome, and I was considering-"

"Man, Phyllis'd love it. You'll waddle outta there, I'm warning you. Joe's pretty easy to get along with, stay away from politics and everything's cool."

"And Joey gets along with them, like, I wouldn't be walking into any nuclear battlefields without knowing it, right?"

"They worship Joey. Like, they love Steve and Janine, but Joey's their golden child. He gets all nervous about disappointing them with his grades and all and talks all about how they'd ground him forever, but honestly, ever since we were little, I was always convinced that Joey could commit murder and they'd forgive him for it."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah, but they're his parents, and Joey isn't one to take advantage of people, so he doesn’t really see it."

Chris hoped that Justin's read on the Fatones was as accurate as his one on Joey.

*

Chris blew the captain of the football team and put a little extra effort into making sure word would get back to Joey. The tactic worked in more ways than Chris had expected it to, and suddenly, he was one of the most popular guys at Thoreau.

The senior class president caught Chris in the hallway soon after that on his way to fifth period. "You as good as the rumors?"

All it took was a well-placed look of contempt on Chris's part and he had himself a "date." It wasn't the last. Word of worthwhile technique spread fast.

About two weeks after the whole chain of events had begun, Chris came back to the room late one evening. He actually had been in the library studying for most of the night, but wasn't surprised when Joey gave the air a loud sniff. "What, none of the golden boys were free tonight?"

Had the only note in Joey's voice been nastiness, Chris would have shrugged and come back with a snappy retort. There was something else there, though. Something Chris had been aiming for. Jealousy. "Chris Treadmont asked, but I said I couldn't handle someone calling out their own name while orgasming."

"Are you trying to make sure that Thoreau's lack of women won't mean we don't have a school slut?"

"If I had to do that, I'm sure I could, but the position was already filled when I got here." Chris locked eyes with Joey.

"At least with me they don't talk behind my back about whether I'm building up my reputation in order to start a side-business, earn a little spending cash." Joey glared right back.

"Thanks for telling me. I'll, uh, try and see if I can clear up the record." Chris grabbed the book closest to him and walked out the door.

Joey caught up with Chris a few moments later in the floor lounge. He lingered in the doorway, looking almost shy for a few seconds before holding his hand out in front of himself. "Um. Trade you my physics book for your Iliad."

Chris held out the item in question. Joey took it, but didn't trade. Chris rolled his eyes. "Christ, Joey, if you're that mad I'll stay out here all night, but when I say I can't afford to flunk classics, I mean it in the 'no amount of sucking people off will pay my tuition' kind of way."

Joey hurriedly handed him back the book. "No, no. I just wanted…I'm sorry." He had barely said the words before he was out of the room and down the hall.

Chris bit his lip, but refused to look at the retreating boy. He opened to the section he had been reading. Achilles was talking with Patroclus. Chris closed the book and brought it up to bang softly against his forehead. "That's great."

*

Joey came back at four in the morning, after discovering that Chris had made good on his promise to stay in the lounge. He brought a bottle of water and a blanket with him. He was in the process of tucking a very tightly curled up Chris into the blanket when Chris woke with a start. "Holy-" he put a hand to his chest, trying to calm his breathing, "fuck, Joey."

"Sorry, didn't mean to scare you."

"No, it's-" Chris frowned and then realized what was different. "Thanks for the blanket."

"I brought water too, if you want."

Chris nodded. "What time is it?"

"Little after four, you should go back to sleep."

"What the fuck are you still doing up?" Chris took a large sip before offering the bottle to Joey.

Joey took a sip more out of the desire to stall than to quench any thirst. "Just couldn't sleep."

Chris took the bottle back, brushing Joey's hand with his.

Joey ran that same hand through his hair. "I don't… I don't think of you like that, and I shouldn't have said it."

"Dude, we've established that you don't think I'm white trash, okay? Do you want me to pat you on the back, or something?"

"No. Of course not. I-"

"What?" Chris was tired, in more ways than one.

He came wide awake a moment later, when Joey's mouth was on his and the whole thing was like déjà vu, only displaced onto the lounge. Chris was in a much sturdier chair this time, though, and things were heading distinctly past first base when Joey broke away.

Chris was mad. "Fuck you, okay? Go have your little crisis with someone else."

Joey dropped down so that rather than being above Chris, he was slightly lower than him, kneeling in between Chris's thighs. "Please, Chris. I want…I shouldn't ask, because it's not fair to you. I still have to do all the things I said I would do, but, I want-" Joey wrapped one arm around Chris's hips and pulled the smaller boy closer to him. "This."

Chris, who had lived in a car at certain times in his life and didn't much believe in the permanence of anything, smiled at that and wiggled even closer to Joey. "Good for me."

*

Chris was pretty sure Lance had been the first one to notice, but it was JC who asked Chris, "So, you tamed the wild Joey-beast?"

Chris tilted his head to the side. "For the moment."

Justin was, unsurprisingly, the last to figure it out. Joey had mentioned being worried about the kid's reaction. He could remember a time when Justin followed him around, unwilling to be any further than the length of Joey's shadow from his own local hero.

Joey and Chris couldn't openly indulge in displays of affection anyway, so it took awhile for Justin to catch on. He might not have if he hadn't stopped by unexpectedly one weekend to get Joey's advice on talking with his parents about a summer camp he wanted to attend. His parents were insisting on a language program over basketball camp.

Justin knocked before opening the door, so when his head peered into the room, Joey and Chris had managed to make it all of five inches from each other. The whole scene was pretty incriminating. Justin's eyes widened and he didn't move. Joey regained the presence of mind to pull Justin all the way in the room and shut the door.

Justin stuttered. "Y-y-you know the way the system works. No roommates. That's bad for… Shit, this is what Jace was trying to tell me without saying anything, wasn't it?"

Chris pulled out a chair. "Wanna sit down?"

Justin took him up on the offer. After an extended period of uncomfortable silence, Justin spoke softly. "Did you think I'd be disappointed? I mean, you know I'm not homophobic. Or did you think it'd be okay for Britney because she was a girl but not you? I don't get it, Joey."

Chris had been told this story. Britney had been to Justin growing up as Justin still was to Joey. The two had dated for a bit before she'd told Justin that the male sex just really wasn't her type. Justin had gone to Joey to find out if he'd turned her gay. Joey had assured him otherwise.

Joey pressed his fingers against the sinus pressure points on the sides of his forehead. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you, J. I figured you'd find out."

"That's not the point, Joey." Justin scowled.

"The thing is that this is just-"

"Not exactly a permanent situation." Chris finished for his boyfriend, whose floundering over this particular topic was making Chris a bit nauseated.

"What does that mean?" Justin was still scowling, now he just wasn't quite sure who to direct it at.

"You know I can’t tell my mom about this J, it'd fucking kill her. Italian Catholic, remember?"

Justin got up from the chair and walked to the door. He made the cursory observation, "You're stupid," to Joey, and left.

*

Justin had the ability to stay mad for all of about three seconds, so regardless of the fact that his opinions on the subject of Joey's closeted state seemed to remain the same, the two of them were back to their regularly scheduled relationship within a few days.

A week later, Joey called Chris from home while on spring break. "How's Thoreau?"

"Fucking dead, man. Like, even more so than winter time."

"I miss you."

"Me too, man. How's home?"

"Same as always. My mom's planning some huge college trip for this summer. Ten colleges in eleven days."

"See, that's the advantage of being poor. You go wherever they say they'll pay for you and fuck if you like the tree species littering the grounds."

"Yeah, well." There was a quick pause and Joey drew in a breath. "The thing is, one of the colleges is Penn and I asked my mom and she said we could take a few days to hang in Pittsburgh if I wanted and I could spend time with you and I'd really like that, but I thought it'd be best if I asked first. So, um, what d'ya think?"

"I think you should breathe."

"Chris."

"Joey."

"I'm serious."

"I know, I just, well, we hadn't really discussed this summer and-"

"You don't want to keep going? I mean, I thought-"

"The problem is that you haven't said what you're thinking."

"Well neither have you."

"You're the one whose parents aren’t in the know."

"Oh. I was…of course I wanted to stay together over the summer. I mean, we already signed up to room together again next year. I…look, just tell me I can visit my boyfriend while I'm right in the state where he lives."

"Okay, alright, there's um, not much to see near my place."

"There's you."

"Fucking sap."

Joey made loud kissing noises over the phone.

*

Joey was generally pretty good about keeping secrets, but Chris could tell that he was planning something. School was in its last week and Joey definitely had something other than finals on his mind.

Chris didn't have time to worry about it too much between having a 4.0 GPA to maintain and the fact that both Lance and JC were having silent nervous breakdowns over JC's impending graduation. JC had worn his father down in the end and was heading off to MIT in the fall, which meant two things. The first was that he could double major in mathematics and music composition. The second was that he would only be about an hour away by car. Nonetheless, seeing as how neither Lance nor JC had a car, that hour might as well have been a transcontinental flight.

Lance, predictably, was pretending like he had several hours more of studying per day than he actually did and hiding out in the library all night. JC was ignoring his finals, which really couldn't affect him much at this point anyway, in favor of the art studio or the piano in the first floor lounge.

Joey finally latched himself onto the rather subdued JC and went to work on cheering him up. Which meant that Chris was in charge of Lance, since Justin was sweet but kind of useless when it came to Lance. Chris didn't think he could do much better, but he figured just having someone to study next to that wasn't JC was probably reassuring to Lance, so Chris spent a lot of time cracking books open wherever Lance saw fit to hide himself.

It was days past when Chris had given up on Lance saying anything to him about the whole situation that Lance looked up from his book on AP Biology and came up with, "He's the only person in the world who can tell me I'm studying too much without pissing me off or write me a song without making me feel like a girl and I've forgotten how to think without knowing he's somewhere nearby."

Chris had gone from assuming that Lance was asexual to JC-sexual somewhere between the time JC had admitted to sleeping with Joey and now, so he wasn't really taken aback by these revelations. "He's as freaked out about it as you are."

"I know."

"What are you gonna do?"

Lance turned his face slightly, but Chris recognized the look of a Lance who had Plans. "Fuck him into next week and hope that it leaves a lasting impression when he's out meeting all those older college men and women."

Chris kicked Lance's shin lightly. "It's always the quiet ones, man."

*

Joey's secret, as it turned out, was an off-campus date. Chris had been off-campus a few times throughout the year, but not having a car, his options were limited and to really get away was a treat, even if they were both leaving for home the following day.

Joey had gone all out, driving the hour into Boston, where they had dinner reservations at a seafood place that Chris refused to go to the bathroom in for fear of getting lost. He asked the waiter if he could keep the bib. The waiter's reaction had both of them crying with laughter long after they got out of the restaurant.

Chris nearly peed himself when they arrived at the hockey rink, and Joey produced two tickets for the playoffs. "Holy mother of Christ, you asshole, playoff tickets? Those things are worth more than all my possessions put together!"

Chris knew that Joey didn't much like hockey, but he loved crowds and enthusiasm. In the moments before he got too caught up to care, Chris hoped that would be enough to keep Joey engaged.

After the game, when they were walking to the car, Chris was trying his best for manly calm. He settled for commenting, "The refs were on crack, but fuck, cool."

"So, you liked it?"

"Um, no, Joey. What do you think?" The amount of sarcasm in Chris's voice could have sunk an aircraft carrier.

"Well, you didn't say."

Chris looked over at Joey, who was unlocking the doors to the car. "Joey. Tonight was…something I'd never done before."

"I don't want you to thank me, I want you to tell me you liked going out with me. I want you to pretend like you enjoy doing things with me."

"What the fuck? I loved it, you know that! You know me! Is this what we're gonna do for our last night together?"

Joey, who had been trying to get out of his parking space at the same time as everybody else in the parking lot, gave up and turned off the engine. "No." He ran both hands through his hair, a gesture of frustration. "No, it's just, sometimes I can feel the defensive wall you've put up. It’s so fucking large I'm almost afraid I'll reach out to touch you and I'll bounce back, repelled by it."

Chris sighed. He unbuckled his seatbelt and took the risk of stretching himself out in order to kiss Joey in the middle of a parking lot of hockey fans. The kiss was deep, intense. "You, tonight, us. This is everything I've ever bothered to want in my really really preposterous imaginings. Let me be defensive, you don’t have to worry that I'm gonna turn away from you."

Joey drove the entirety of the way back to Thoreau with one hand in Chris's.

*

Chris loved being home, even if home meant a crowded trailer with no air-conditioning in the middle of hundred degree heat waves with ninety percent humidity. It also meant his mom and Kate, Molly, Emily and Taylor.

Thoreau's college counselor had gotten him a summer job at a local law firm that paid over minimum wage and would allow him to work forty hours a week, occasionally even booking some overtime. Most of the money went toward household expenses and his college savings, but he put some aside for himself. This meant that he could afford one 60 minute phone card every two weeks, which allowed him to talk to Joey for half an hour a week on his dime. Joey called at least twice a week.

Joey was good on the phone, he could be amusing or engaging without much thought and he didn't get freaked out when the line lapsed into the rhythmic silences of phone conversations. It wasn't until they were talking that Chris felt stifled in Pittsburgh. He missed Joey.

Joey evidently felt the same way, because he took the risk of locking his door and attempting to have phone sex with Chris late one night. Chris couldn't be convinced that he sounded sexy ever, though, let alone through the distortion of fiber-optic cables, so they declared that experience a fun experiment and let it go at that.

One night, Joey recounted something a reporter had said on ESPN earlier that day. Chris played with the phone cord on his end of the line. "Dude, you don't like ESPN."

"Yeah, there wasn't much on."

"You have what, like a bajillion and forty two channels?"

"You like ESPN."

"So?"

"It feels like you're here when I watch it."

Chris let the cord fall from his fingers. "So, what where you saying 'bout the Knicks?"

*

Joey and his mom arrived in Pittsburgh on a Tuesday evening and Joey called from the hotel, almost too excited to speak, "We’re here, man. Fuck, it's hot."

"Don't swear in front of your mom."

"She's in the bathroom."

"Oh."

"You have to work tomorrow, right?"

"Absolutely. My boss is right in the middle of litigation for one of his biggest clients."

"Dinner then. Five-thirty. Near where you work."

"Nope. My mom wants to meet you, we can't spring for any of those places. Sorry Fatone, you're gonna have to settle for something a little less ritzy."

Joey hesitated. "My mom said she wanted to treat."

"Unacceptable."

"Chris, I'm serious. She'll be really insulted."

"So will my mom and I."

"Is your mom there?"

Chris looked over to where Beverly was balancing her checkbook at the kitchen table. "Yeah."

"Give her to me."

"Um, no."

"If you don't, I'm gonna start yelling obscenities and get myself grounded so that I can't come see you tom-"

"Hello?" Beverly spoke sharply into the phone, startled at having it thrust into her hand.

There was mumbling on the other line, low and insistent. Beverly rested her head on the hand that wasn't holding the phone. "That's very nice, but unnecessary, I assure you."

More urgent words from Joey's side and Beverly sighed. "Alright, okay. I understand." Pause. "No, that's very sweet. Thank you."

Joey said something else. Beverly smiled. "Can't wait to meet you either, sweetie. G'night."

Beverly threw the phone back at Chris. "He's a dangerous one."

Chris fumbled with the phone until the chord was untangled and placed it back in the cradle. "You think?"

"The persuasive ones always are."

*

Joey's mom smiled a lot and laughed like she meant it. Chris determined that Joey had inherited large portions of his good nature from her. He liked her immediately.

Beverly and Phyllis got along from the start, forming an alliance that seemed to depend mostly on their ability to say embarrassing things about their sons at the most unexpected of moments. Joey and Chris only put up token resistance, assured of each other's loyalty and too happy about the easy friendship of the two women to protest.

Joey left at one point to go to the bathroom and Chris felt the first stirrings of fear, left by himself to fend off the matriarchal stronghold. Phyllis gave him an assessing look. "Tell me how it is, Chris, that my son wasn't willing to give up his space to room with Justin, whom he's known his whole life, but you show up, and the next thing I know, I'm paying half of what I was before in room and board."

Chris wondered what it was exactly that Phyllis was looking for him to say, but all he did was answer, "I'm one of his strays. I'm sure you know of his predisposition toward saving those less fortunate." The corner of Chris's mouth quirked slightly.

Joey came back to the table, sliding in fluidly next to his mom. "Did I miss anything?" He looked at Chris with mock concern, "You okay?"

Chris snickered.

Later, as they were leaving, Phyllis kissed Chris gently on the cheek. "It was good meeting you."

Chris nodded. "You as well, ma'am."

"Good to know I can trust you with him all year. He's a handful sometimes." Her tone was knowing and fond all at once.

In the car on the way home, Beverly waited patiently for a red light to change and told Chris, "Your boyfriend doesn't know the first thing about his mother."

Chris had never known his mom to be wrong.

*

Fall semester began the day after Labor Day. Chris arrived the Saturday before. Joey was supposed to get there on Sunday, so Chris was surprised to find his dorm room open upon arrival.

He lugged his suitcase into the room, and without further thought to the boxes Joey still had lining the hallway walls, Chris kicked the door shut. He pushed at Joey until the taller boy was sitting on the lower bunk. Joey laughed. "Surprise."

Chris kissed him, exerting enough pressure that Joey fell onto his back, Chris on top of him. Joey broke free for a minute. "You know if we do this on an unmade bed, you're claiming that bed."

Chris was not intimidated by his threats.

When Chris had finished ravishing his roommate, the two boys moved the rest of the boxes in from the hall and set to making up the room. The boundaries of what side belonged to whom were a lot less defined than they had been the year before, with Joey sticking his vintage "The Who" poster amidst Chris's printouts and Chris mounting JC's painting among all of Joey's postcards.

In spite of his threat, Joey took the lower bunk, since Chris had taken it the year before and Joey was compulsively fair about things. That night, they discovered it didn't much matter, when Chris crawled down from his bunk and pressed himself tightly against Joey's chest. "You mind? I hate sleeping by myself, too used to the girls being right by me."

"You did it almost all of last year." Joey's voice was thick with the heat of early-fall Massachusetts and the nearness of Chris's body.

"I do a lot things I don't like." Chris's tongue snuck out to lick quickly along the contour of Joey's throat.

Joey, despite his attempts not to, mewled. "Uh, you can stay. I don't mind."

*

Justin came back from camp with a whole new level of "Supah-stah" stamped across his forehead. Lance acted like he was regretting having passed up a single, but Chris and Joey both suspected that he enjoyed having someone around to distract him from the fact that his room wasn't occupied by JC anymore. Luckily, along with the attitude, Justin had gone and gotten himself a girlfriend who had been a counselor for the younger kids at the camp he'd been attending. This meant that Lance, Joey and Chris had extensive teasing rights. His ego was back where everyone needed it to be for sanity's sake within two weeks.

Around the same time that Justin began to be a much more compatible roommate for Lance, JC had left home for orientation and was calling Lance every night. The calls had varied from outright panic to near-manic happiness with each night. Lance had just started taking opinion polls on whether he should talk to JC about getting medicated when classes started and things calmed down a bit for both of them. Justin was surprisingly supportive in a quiet way throughout the whole thing. Chris considered the fact that a good dose of maturity may have been ushered in with the attitude and the girlfriend.

Joey, meanwhile, having passed physics, was now busy attempting to survive AP Economics. Chris was enlisted in his capacity as a tutor again, which was awkward, because Chris had never taken Econ, and so his ability to help depended largely on that of his ability to understand what the book was trying to say.

Chris went out for the football team and made it. He suspected this was mostly due to the fact that their team was ranked consistently in the lowest three of their division, but he liked the game and didn't much care who won. It was a big time commitment, though, and between that, his studies, Joey and the other guys, Chris was getting, on average, approximately four hours of sleep a night.

He fell asleep at his desk around ten o'clock the night before a midterm. He woke in the morning in his boxers and tucked under the covers to the feeling of Joey kissing his forehead. He blinked a few times before panicking. "Oh fuck, what time is it?"

Joey pushed him back down from having sprung upward. "It’s six, relax, you have an hour."

"Oh." Chris closed his eyes for a minute. "I'm totally unprepared."

"You'll do fine, genius. Better than you would've without the sleep." Joey swept the hair back from Chris's forehead, smiling down fondly.

"Thanks for putting me to bed."

"My pleasure." Joey hooked his hands underneath Chris's arms and hauled him up into a sitting position. "Listen, I uh, enlisted Justin and Lance to help out so that we could take a shower together."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, they said they'd take posts at the sinks and toilets and ward off any potential other showerers."

Chris looked amused. "Ah."

"Interested?"

Chris motioned eloquently at the shape of his boxers.

*

Chris knew he was in trouble the night Joey waited for him to crawl down into the lower bunk and levered himself on top of Chris, so that Chris was effectively trapped. "Yes?"

Joey dove in for a kiss, but it wasn't to initiate anything. It was to taste Chris, test out the lay of the land. "It's just that, Thoreau is really no place to be for Christmas."

"Oh, you'd be amazed. It's so quiet. You can pretend you got your wish for peace on earth and good will toward men."

Joey's grin was quick, the flash of teeth just enough to let Chris know he'd appreciated the joke. "I bet. My house doesn't really offer that kind of atmosphere, but I'd love it if you'd be willing to come with me anyway."

"I can't afford it, babe. If I could, no offense, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I'd already be booked on a flight back to Pittsburgh."

"I'm not stupid. I asked for a cash advance on next month's allowance, this would be my present to you."

"Tell me you did not say the words, 'Mom, Dad, can I have a cash advance on my allowance for next month?'"

"No, I said, 'uh, I've got a lot of gift buying to do, mind if I get two months in one go?'"

"Oh, okay." Chris had a vocabulary roughly the size of New York's population. He was very insistent about word choice. "I dunno, Joey."

"Chris, please, it's my gift to me too."

Chris shook his head slightly and said, too softly to be heard, "Dangerous."

"What?"

Chris raised his head to steal back the kiss Joey had taken at the beginning of the conversation. "Nothing. If it’s that important to you, you can have me for the holidays."

Joey let out a quiet whoop of victory.

*

Joey's apartment was huge, but far from sterile, so Chris was able to settle in with relatively few problems. Phyllis's taste in décor ran more Southern-style Homes and Gardens than New York Cosmopolitan. At times, the homemade knit throws and window flora clashed with the Renaissance paintings that were Joe Sr.'s passion, but it was just evidence of a marriage partnership between two wildly different people who had learned to compromise.

Phyllis was thrilled to see Chris again and expressed her joy by spending the first three days in the kitchen, conjuring up enough food to solve world hunger. Joe quizzed Chris about where he was looking to attend college and what his life aspirations were. Upon Chris's honest, "I'm holding out for scholarships, sir," and "I suppose I'll figure something out for myself when I get to college. Public Relations seems like it might be fun, but who knows?" Joe had grunted his approval and told Joey, "Smart, this kid."

Joey parroted his father's grunt. "The smartest."

Steve was old enough to be in high school, but he had chosen to stay in New York. Chris understood implicitly that this had made the Fatones less than ecstatic, but they had accepted the choice nonetheless. Janine was home from Bryn Mawr. She had given up shaving her legs, but not bras, because, as she patiently explained to Chris, "Ow."

Chris just nodded sagely. Janine was an instant fan.

Christmas itself was hectic. Chris hadn't realized the apartment could get that full, but as it turned out, the Fatones had enough family to violate the fire code and then some.

Joey woke Chris up Christmas morning, after most of the family had left and slightly before anyone who had stayed was awake yet. Chris blinked groggily at the clock. Five thirty am. "Happy Birthday, Jesus."

Joey chuckled softly. His breath was minty fresh. "Indeed." He said the word into Chris's mouth.

Chris pulled back. "Joey, I know Thoreau has thin walls, but the consequences of getting caught by a classmate aren't quite the same as getting caught by your parents."

"My door's locked. I just wanna make out. That's all. Not very loud."

"Do you honestly think your parents won't know the look of a 'recently-kissed-Joey'?"

"Maybe it's the time of morning, but I can’t bring myself to care."

"Let me care for you."

"Nope, but you can brush your teeth for me."

Chris took that option, hoping Joey would have come to his senses by the time he came back. He hadn't. Joey reached his hand out to Chris who took it, letting himself be pulled into and on top of his boyfriend.

Joey wrapped one arm around Chris's back for support and placed one large hand on the back of Chris's head, stroking softly. "Chris, it's…I-"

Whatever Joey was going to say got lost as Chris moved into kissing him. Chris was counting on Joey forgetting what he had been going to say in the kiss. Joey did.

*

Chris had set aside ten dollars a week from his paycheck for himself that summer. The rest had gone straight to his mom's account, but five dollars of the ten went toward his own expenses, phone card or otherwise. The other five had been set aside to get Joey a present for his eighteenth birthday.

Joey, who was the romantic in the relationship, had already celebrated Chris's birthday earlier that year with an elaborate seduction plan that included illegally procured tequila, coconut scented sun-tanning oil and large pictures of rolling waves. At Chris's pleased but mildly confused, "Um, this is nice," Joey had blushed. "You said you had always wanted to go to a beach. It's the middle of the term, man, this was the best I could do."

In light of this, Chris was two steps from freaking out. In a moment of panic he dropped by Lance and Justin's room on the way home from the library a week and a half before Joey's birthday. Justin opened the door, bemused by Chris's pushing straight past him and into the room, "Okay, you have to help, because I'm the world's worst boyfriend and I have no idea what to get him for his birthday."

Chris became aware of the fact that Lance was mumbling his exact words into the phone over on his bed. Lance glanced up. "JC says hi, and to tell you that you're a dip who worries to much about stupid materialistic issues, but that if you're really stuck on getting him a gift, Joey has a thing for chocolate-covered gummy bears."

"Tell JC that's rich coming from someone who bought his boyfriend the palm pilot he'd been dying for on his seventeenth birthday."

Lance did not relay the message.

Justin tugged at one of his curls. "Lance wrote out a wish list. JC chose that and then programmed a full year of messages from himself. They pop up every morning when Lance turns it on to see what he has to do that day."

"Oh." Chris felt like banging his head against the nearest available surface. "Of course."

"Just, Joey's not that hard to please. You could stick a nightlight in the wall and give him a strip show and he'd probably consider it his best birthday ever."

"You make him sound like a Neanderthal."

"No, just all stupid over you."

"Well, thanks."

"You know what I mean." Justin could affect the exasperation of a five year old like few people Chris knew.

"Look, I didn't save my pennies to shake my ass for him. He can see that on a pretty regular basis."

"How much do you have?" This from Lance, who had hung up sometime in the last few minutes.

"Little over sixty dollars."

Lance picked the phone back up and dialed a number. He waited patiently as it rang. "Hey, Stace?"

He smiled at whatever his sister's answer was. "Yep, I need a favor."

*

Chris had been making friends with the kitchen and janitorial staff since the day he'd arrived at Thoreau. He had a deep belief that it was the people who were never noticed who could grant a person the biggest favor in his time of need. In this instance, it paid off and Chris got his request to borrow a corner of the kitchen for half the day on the Sunday preceding Joey's birthday.

On the 28th of January, Chris kidnapped Joey after his last class. It was snowing outside; it seemed like it had been since they'd gotten back from break. Chris took advantage of the snow on that day, using it as an excuse for Joey to slack off. They threw snowballs at each other between making deranged snow angels for over an hour. When neither of them could feel their fingers or lower legs, Chris made Joey follow him. They ended up in the break room for the kitchen staff. It looked considerably classier than usual with a table cloth that Chris had borrowed from the head cook, who considered all the students her errant children, and a couple of unscented candles that were gifts of Ken, the closeted dishwasher. There was a full table set, or as full as Chris could accomplish with the place settings that were provided by Thoreau's cafeteria.

None of this was meant to be that impressive, just enough to make Joey feel that thought had been expended for him. It was dinner that was the important aspect. Chris served up the manicotti with the same expression that Joey had seen him wear before his BC Calculus exam the year before. Joey pulled Chris into his lap. "This is my favorite."

"I know, you practically slobbered on your mom when she made it for you." Chris kicked at the floor a bit. "Mine's not gonna be hers."

Joey placed a kiss near Chris's ear. "I didn't know you cooked."

"Mom worked two jobs most of my life. The girls were too young to get near a stove."

"No, I mean, cooked. Making boxed products to survive is one thing, cooking is another."

"Not really, recipes can be found everywhere and cooking is only knowing how to follow directions. Plus, I didn't want the girls to die of MSG poisoning or something equally nasty."

Joey reached over Chris to cut a chunk out of the manicotti. He brought the bite to his mouth without any of it falling on his captive. "Mmm. Now you're really not going anywhere. This is all for me."

Chris leaned in closer, grinning into Joey's neck. Never before had he been so glad that he'd cared about his family's nutrition habits.

*

Joey insisted that they eat Chris's misshapen but tasty tiramisu with one fork. He also insisted that he be the one in charge of that fork. Chris protested weakly before obeying Joey's commands to open his mouth.

Chris let Joey help clean up afterwards, because Joey said something about just wanting to spend the time with Chris, and he couldn't come up with any valid counter-arguments for that. They got back to the room relatively late in the evening. Chris slid up behind Joey, pulling Joey's shirt over his head and off, placing a small kiss on the edge of Joey's left shoulder blade before pressing himself up against the wide back. "Happy birthday, sexy."

Joey turned around, wrapping his arms around Chris's waist and leaning down to kiss him a couple of times. "It's been perfect, babe. Thanks."

Chris nibbled at the corner of Joey's mouth for a moment. "There's, uh, something else."

Joey brought one hand up to rub at the back of Chris's neck. "Yeah?"

Chris extracted himself from Joey's grasp and walked to his desk. He pulled a small, wrapped box out of the main drawer. He returned and held it out to Joey, his expression uncertain.

Joey took the box. There was a card on top. He opened it first. Chris's handwriting was large and well-defined on the side of the card with no message.

"Hey you. If I say this out loud to you I'm going to fuck it up, so you're just going to have to burn the evidence later, k? Stacey Bass and her husband made this. Evidently they've got a side business in new age jewelry. Stacey wouldn't make the bracelet unless I told her about us, what we we're like, stuff like that. She says that the clear stone is Moonstone, it's for lovers, to accentuate passion. The golden brown stone is Cat's-Eye. It's supposed to help with confidence, willpower and clear-thinking. I told her I thought they would probably cancel each other out, but she just laughed at me. She did an amazing job though, it's beautiful. I don't know how she knew what would look perfect on you, but I opened the box and knew you were supposed to wear it. This isn't about commitment or anything that you can't do. It's about me wanting to give you something that nobody else will ever be able to. I'm not all inspired and creative about us most of the time, but I am in love with you. Whatever else these stones contain, they definitely carry that in them. Chris."

Joey looked up at Chris, breathing shallowly. One look into Chris's eyes, dark and forcefully nonchalant, convinced Joey to open the box without saying anything. Inside, soft brown leather extended on either side from four spherical stones, the clear, crystal-like ones alternating with yellow-gold orbs. It was simple and arresting all at once.

Chris's body was so tense that Joey was afraid to touch him. Joey extended the bracelet. "Will you put it on me?"

Chris took it without touching Joey. He knotted it securely. Joey ran the fingers of his other hand lightly over the stones. "It's amazing. You're amazing."

Chris gave a laugh that should have made everything seem casual and safe again, but instead just felt awkward. Joey took the risk of reaching out to him, removing Chris's shirt and biting gently at the meaty part of Chris's shoulder. Chris groaned softly.

Joey took his time with Chris, not allowing anything to be rushed or out of his control. He didn’t waste a single opportunity to whisper, "Fucking amazing," in Chris's ear the entire time.

*

JC visited during his spring break, which was a couple of weeks previous to Thoreau's. Lance waited patiently for all of six minutes for JC to say hi to everyone before dragging him back to the room. Chris and Joey took pity on Justin and allowed him to sleep in their top bunk for the week.

After a couple of days, JC showed up in Chris and Joey's room in the early evening. Chris let him in. JC hugged him tightly. Chris let himself be hugged. "So, you got free of the evil Lance. Did he forget to lock the door?"

JC rolled his eyes. "Give me some credit. If I'd wanted to get away, I would've."

Joey came up from the side of JC, reaching out to tickle behind his left ear. That was the secret spot that Joey had discovered by pure dumb luck once, trying to torture a confession from JC about the missing oranges that Joey's mom had sent him. Joey had felt bad later when it turned out that JC had taken them in order to have fresh-squeezed orange juice at the breakfast picnic he had planned for everyone to celebrate the coming of outdoor weather, but not bad enough to conveniently forget JC's weakness. Chris watched JC collapse onto the floor.

After a few more seconds, Chris wrenched Joey away from JC, leaving him to recover. When he could breathe somewhat normally again, JC glared up at Joey. "You're a bad, bad man."

Joey picked JC up off the floor. "Hasn't been the same here without you. Ditch MIT. Stay here and be Lance's love-slave. You know you want to."

"Indeed, but it probably wouldn't have the same effect on resumes." JC took the chair at Chris's desk as his own. "Tell me things."

Chris smiled affectionately. "What things?"

"You things."

"Joey got into Columbia." Columbia was where two generations of Fatones had graduated from, with honors.

"Joey!" JC was the equivalent of everyone's inner squeal. Chris had no doubt that JC's high-pitched whir of excitement was somewhere in the neighborhood of how Joey had felt upon receiving the acceptance. Instead he had just tapped on Chris's shoulder, shown him the letter and spent a long time having self-congratulatory sex.

JC settled back down after a bit and turned his eyes to Chris. "And you?"

"Decent offers from John Hopkins, Yale and Berkeley. Nothing I can afford to take yet, though, so I'm holding out."

"That's my boy." JC's expression conveyed the sense that he had actually had some part in Chris's decision to make colleges come to him. Really, it had been Chris's mom and his reassessing their financial situation and the realization that they could no more pay the difference being asked than buy a small island. JC cocked his head. "Lance got into MIT."

"Yeah," Joey and Chris grinned at each other. "We know." They had all seen more emotion out of Lance on the day he had gotten his acceptance letter than at any time previous in their friendships. For Joey, that was almost four years of time.

"I can’t wait, I miss him so badly. I'm out there, y'know? He could be too, if he wanted to and we wouldn't have to worry about holding hands at the dinner table and stuff. It's…college is so different. Nothing you do has anything to do with who you are at home. And Boston's perfect. I think I'm gonna stay there, maybe. I have an internship for the summer, so I don't have to go home."

Chris blinked at the flood of information. "Wow, JC."

"Yeah, I know." JC played with one of his belt loops. "Thanks for taking care of Lance."

Chris frowned a bit. "Um, we haven't really-"

"You haven't really allowed him to think that things weren't going to be okay. Which he would, if you weren't around to tell him differently. And they totally are, because nobody even compares to him. I'm…he's totally the love of my life."

JC's honesty could be as painful as it was beautiful. Joey nodded at him. "Well, we wouldn’t want to be the ones to blame for just sitting back and watching that go to hell."

*

Chris had the feeling, when JC managed to corner him alone after classes the next day, that JC had been planning to do so for awhile. Chris's last class was nowhere near Lance's. Chris measured his step to JC's. "What's up?"

"Lance told me that you and Joey were still playing games, but I thought it was just him being a pessimist."

"Playing games?"

"You're in love with him."

"He knows that. No games."

"He loves you."

"Distinctly possible and completely irrelevant."

"Were either of you listening to a word I said about college?"

"JC, I'm out to everyone who matters, so college doesn’t mean a fucking thing to me one way or another. It means a degree, which I will in turn use to gain another degree until I can make enough money for my mom to live happily in a two-story home with a porch and three cats. Joey, on the other hand, is only out to four people who matter. While you and I will use college as two distinctly different methods of escape, to Joey, college is just a link in the chain of fate that evidently controls his life. Joey doesn't have to think about what he'll do after college or even after grad school. He'll never throw off his family like you'll do with yours, which, honestly, I'm glad for, because I really like Joe and Phyllis and it would break their hearts. Unfortunately, he'll also never be honest with them. So what is college? Another four years for me to spend pining before I get my ass dumped for some pretty little catholic girl? No thanks. A year and a half has been a long enough time for me to be stupid."

"I came out to my parents."

Chris stopped in his tracks, nearly tripping from the loss of momentum. "Are you insane?"

"Over the phone. But I didn’t relent, I'm still a dues paying homosexual."

"Fuck, JC, I don't get it."

"MIT has a fund for kids who get disowned when they come out to their parents, to help them complete college. I thought I'd risk it."

"Did they…are you-"

"My mom told my father to shut the fuck up when he said I wasn't his son. Evidently those words were the stupidest thing she'd ever heard come out of his mouth, or so she said. She wasn't happy, it probably won’t get brought up ever again, but I'm still a Chasez, I guess. I hope he didn't hit her over it."

"Why'd you do it?"

"Because I like being out. I love it. So people are mean sometimes, yeah. But I get to tell myself it's because they're blind and missing out and I'm not. I'm sleeping with the most beautiful, most brilliant person in my life, that is not missing out. Missing out was not getting to show him off. I can do that now. It makes me happy. I want that happiness all the time, not just on the campus of MIT, so I said, 'mom, dad, I'm not really into girls.' And the world didn't fall apart."

"You're not Joey."

"No, I'm not. But everyone wants to be happy, Chris. Everyone."

*

"I wanna give you your graduation present early." Lance said this to Chris in Japanese before looking up from his text book into Chris's severely confused expression. He repeated himself in English.

"Mm." Chris didn't bother to pretend he wasn't suspicious. "Why is that?"

"Because Joey and I wanna take a senior spring break trip and neither of us will do it without you."

Chris counted to ten in his head. "Extravagant."

"Yes and no. Oceanside, California. Joey's family has a place out there. Just the three of us for the week, but really, I'm paying for airfare, a taxi ride and groceries. Maybe some entertainment costs."

"Is it near the beach?"

"There's a gate in the back of the house that opens onto the sand."

"Y'know, if this is your way of saying that you want a piece of ass in JC's absence-"

Lance's gummy eraser hit Chris in the forehead. "Just trying to give you a week of happily ever after, Chris. Don't be a dick."

"Sorry." Chris nailed Lance's ear with the eraser. "Arigatou."

*

The house had Mexican tiles on the roof, a bird feeder in the front entrance and a bathtub with spa jets. Joey and Chris took the master bedroom. Lance set his stuff in the room that was normally Joey's.

Chris didn't waste time exploring the house. He had barely thrown off his back pack when he was peeling his shoes and socks off before unlocking the door to the back porch. Within seconds he had unlatched the gate and was running in the sand, toward the water.

Joey laughed at him from the porch, yelling, "You're gonna burn yourself, freak!"

Chris started to feel the heat of the sand halfway to the water, he picked up his pace, muttering a small, "Ow," each time the bottom of his foot hit the sand. Joey went back inside momentarily to the cabinet where his family stored their flip flops. He stuck his father's on his feet and let his own dangle from his fingers, a present for Chris.

Chris was concentrating on throwing himself against the waves, unconcerned by the fact that he was still fully clothed. "Get your ass out here, Joseph! This is fucking amaz-"

The last word was lost as the wave he had pitted himself against swelled up and over him. He emerged with a grin and headed to where Joey was standing, amused at Chris's antics. Chris ran up to Joey to steal the flip flops from him. With a quick glance around the beach, Chris angled up to plant a kiss on Joey's lips. He was gone before Joey could reach out to reciprocate.

Joey licked the salt away from his lips, letting the taste settle onto his tongue.

*

As it turned out, even Chris's exuberance over being right next to the ocean couldn't outstrip the fact that Lance evidently had fish genes somewhere in his family tree. He had brought printouts of nearby organizations that rented boats, water-skis, jet-skis and pretty much any other water-fun apparatus that had ever been invented. Joey, who was at best clumsy when it came to land-sports, could control water-skis like a champ and Chris felt like a tool by the third time he landed in the water, twenty feet behind the boat, face down. He was having too much fun to care, though, and Joey didn’t seem to think any less of him.

Joey didn't care much for the jet-ski, so Chris spent most of the two hours that Lance had rented one for clinging close to Lance, yelling as the boy in charge banked right and left with all the finesse of a drunken New York cab driver.

Joey and Lance took turns teaching Chris everything a person needed to know about sailing a boat. The guy they were renting it from was actually in control, but he let Joey and Lance take turns at the helm, as evidently they had both taken sailing lessons since being expunged from the womb.

Chris had volunteered to cook in the evenings, seeing as how both Lance and Joey had kitchen aptitude levels of three-year olds. When he wasn't feeling up to making something, they ordered out.

Joey rented "From Here to Eternity" so that Chris could understand how making out on a beach should really be done. Chris, dutiful as always, did not let him down.

On the fourth night there, Chris woke up when it was still dark out to the sound of the waves hitting the sand. Squinting across to where Joey was sleeping, he read the LED numbers that seemed to hover in the dark. 5:23 am.

Chris padded barefoot through the house and out the backdoor, not bothering with shoes. The sand would be cool by that time of morning. He walked out to where the water could just barely reach his toes. It tickled, fast and cold against the calluses on his feet.

The night was clear and Chris was too busy studying the dark side of the moon to hear Joey come up from behind him. The hand on his shoulder made him start. "Holy… Jesus, Joey. Warn a guy."

Joey wrapped his arms around Chris's waist and rested his chin against the shorter boy's shoulder. "Sorry."

"'S okay."

"Pretty sky, huh?"

"It never looks like this in Pittsburgh. Too much crap in the air from the factories."

"I live in New York, Chris."

"Different kind of pollution."

Joey leaned down to kiss the back of Chris's neck. "I want to stay here with you."

Chris stiffened slightly in Joey's hold. "No you don't."

Joey stood up and turned Chris around to face him, sand spraying up to hit both of them along the lower legs. "Yes, I do."

"Joey." Chris wrenched free of Joey's grip and walked a few feet down the beach. Joey followed. Chris ran a hand through his hair and started again. "Joey, I've met your parents, okay? They adore you, they'd walk through fire for you. If you'd flunked physics they'd have yelled at you for a few hours and then asked if you thought a tutor would help. Remember that Sunday your mom and I went to church together? I'm Lutheran, man, I only went because she asked me. Know what I found out? Your mom attends a queer friendly Catholic church. Now, New York or no, there aren't that many of those in existence, so something tells me that this has not somehow escaped your notice, you're just so damn fucking afraid of being a disappointment that you're not even paying attention to what exactly a disappointment would be. Have you parents disowned Janine because she's majoring in polysci and wants to become a lobbyist for leftist causes? That would be a no. Did they do much more than frown at Steve for an extended period of time when he realized that school wasn't really his strong point and he'd rather stay at home than be sent off? Again, no. I can't figure you out. What I have figured out, is that you don’t want to stay with me enough to actually face your parents and your fears. That's okay, I knew that going in, but I hate being lied to, Joey. So don't and we'll be fine."

Joey was crying. He wasn't making any noise, but Chris could see the tracks left by the tears in the clearness of the night. Chris felt like crying himself, but instead took Joey's hand, bringing the palm to his face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean all that. I know you're just working with what you've got. We all are."

Joey took a step forward, kissing Chris harshly, but not in a way that was meant to be punishing. When Joey walked away, it was Chris who was left with the taste of salt on the tip of his tongue.

*

Chris walked into the kitchen the next morning to find Lance creating designs by way of fastidiously transporting soggy Cheerios from his bowl and placing them in designated spots on his napkin. "Uh, Lance?"

Lance looked up, not a hint of recognition that what he was doing might look odd reflecting in his eyes. "What'd you say to Joey?"

Chris went to go get himself a bowl. "Some things I shouldn't have, we have a long history of that, the two of us. Did he do something rash?"

The last part was said melodramatically. Lance wasn't supposed to respond, "Kinda."

Chris fumbled frantically as the bowl slipped from his fingers. He rescued it and set it safely on the counter. "Oh shit, Lance, what'd he do?"

"Told his dad he was going to Tisch."

"He got into Tisch? He didn't say anything."

"To anyone, actually. I wouldn't have known if I hadn't been eavesdropping. I think he figured that if he was going to Columbia, he might as well let everyone think it was where he really wanted to go."

"Ok, wait." Chris put a hand to his forehead. "Shit. He told his dad… Do you know where he is?"

Lance motioned with his head toward the porch. Chris smiled tightly and started in that direction.

Joey was curled in on himself, watching the identical twins from next door attempt to build a severely lopsided sandcastle. He didn't look up as Chris opened and shut the sliding door. Chris sat down next to him but not touching him. "Congratulations on Tisch. I didn't know. That's big stuff, babe."

"I got the letter a week after the one from Columbia. The sex? That was excitement from Tisch."

"How'd, um…how'd your dad-"

"Surprisingly well. He said a lot of stuff about starving artists and stupid kids before admitting that he was really proud of me for getting into the program, but, we ended on a high note, so there you go."

"So what's… Why are you…?" Chris gave up trying to form intelligent sentences. He let one hand make its way over the curve of Joey's spine.

"He sounded…" Joey leaned over so that his head was resting in Chris's lap, "amused."

Chris deepened the intensity of his stroking, massaging the muscles underneath his hand.

"Like it was something he'd known all along, something he was waiting for me to figure out." Joey was quiet for a minute. "He said he'd tell mom if I wanted him to, but that I should myself, that she was gonna be so proud, she'd be bragging to everyone in church about her soon-to-be famous son."

Chris didn't really think that a new set of expectations was what Joey needed right at that moment, but he stayed silent.

"You were right. About me not understanding them. I don't. I mean, I've been told my whole life that I was the oldest boy and that meant certain things. But it turns out they were lying, I guess."

"Not lying, they just grew into their priorities as you grew into yours. My mom claims that the day you stop becoming someone else is the day you begin to suck. Your parents don’t suck."

"Nope."

"You okay?"

"You're right here. How else would I be?"

*

The letter that Chris had taken to praying for at regular intervals came one Thursday toward the end of April. He hadn't really expected it to come, so his reaction sounded something like, "Holy fuck! Holy-" before his old AP Biology teacher looked at him in consternation. "Sorry, Doc." He wasn't sorry enough not to tear off down the hall once he was out the door of the mailroom.

He found Lance studying on the bleachers, pretending to pay attention to Justin's basketball practice. Joey wouldn't be out of play rehearsal for at least a few hours, and they were in the last two weeks, so even that wasn't guaranteed. Chris needed to tell someone that very moment.

Lance felt the energy radiating off Chris from across the gym. "We told you to lay off the sugar."

"Shut up, Bass, I have news."

It took less than a second for a grin to light up Lance's face. "Wait, what time is it?"

Chris checked the clock on the wall. "Three after five."

"Can I call JC? He'd totally wanna hear this."

"You just wanna use your speaker phone."

Lance's parents had gotten him a cell phone with every option ever available in the history of wireless technology included. He loved playing around with it. "Uh huh. Give me two seconds."

True to his word, JC's voice filtered somewhat grainily over the sound of boys trying to clobber each other in order to throw a ball through a net, "'Lo?"

"Hey sexy."

"Oh, hi! I didn't expect you to call 'till later."

"I wasn't going to, but Chris has got news for us. What's up?" Lance looked at Chris as he asked the question.

Chris opened up a piece of paper that was folded evenly into three parts. He read from it. "Dear Mr. Kirkpatrick: We at Yale University are pleased to inform you that your application for the Byron Scholarship Award has been accepted!" Chris bounced while sitting down a little bit. "Full ride, guys! I can go to college, Yale! I can go to Yale! Holy fuck!"

By this time it wasn't apparent if Chris was actually being louder than JC, since the phone had to be inhibiting some of JC's sound from reaching them. Justin, who had caught an earful of the excitement from down where the team was taking five sprinted up the bleachers. "Dude! Yale?"

"I got the scholarship! I'm set."

Suddenly Chris was in the air. He had a feeling he would have been twirling if Justin had had the room to maneuver on the bleachers. "That rocks, Chris." Justin set him down less-than-cautiously and Lance reached out to steady him.

Chris was too giddy to do anything other than smile idiotically at both of them.

*

Joey found out when he got back to the room that night. He had made it all of a half step inside when he had an armful of Chris crowing, "Yale is mine!"

When Chris had calmed down enough to actually explain what had happened, Joey listened and then his eyes lit up. "Chris. Oh, this is-" Joey broke off to kiss Chris for several minutes. "Two hours tops, Chris, that's all."

Chris screwed up his face. "Huh?"

"From NYU to Yale, it's like two hours by bus. Probably less by car."

Chris drew back slightly. "Um, yeah."

"No, Chris, it’s not like that. I'm insanely happy for you, I mean, Yale, for free, damn. But we could do that, I mean, we could-"

"Why would we want to?"

"Well," Joey cracked his knuckles. Chris winced at the sound. "I mean, why wouldn't-"

Chris stood up. "Tell me when you come up with a real reason."

*

Phyllis and Joe Sr. visited Thoreau the weekend that Joey's play went up. He was a senior and they had yet to see him in a production, so they had marked the weekend on their calendars and bought tickets to each of the performances.

They had asked to take Chris, Lance and Justin out to dinner with Joey the first night they were there. The boys had all learned better than to refuse real food when it was offered. The place the Fatones had chosen was cozier than Chris had expected from his last two experiences dining out with the members of that family. It served Ethiopian food, which Chris had never eaten, but Justin seemed equally lost, so that made him feel better.

The Fatones engaged Lance and Justin in small talk about college and summer plans for the first hour. Chris prayed desperately that they hadn't noticed how strained things were between him and Joey. He knew Lance and Justin had laid bets on how long it took the parental units to figure out something was up.

As it turned out, the point was moot. Justin had just finished talking about the teaching position he'd gotten at the basketball camp and his reunion with Shay -- the wonder-chick he'd been dating for almost a year -- when Joey announced, "Mom, Dad, I'm sorry to do this to you in the middle of a restaurant, I didn't mean for it to happen this way. But I want all my friends here, and they are."

"Joey?" Phyllis looked slightly alarmed, and like she was trying to conceal that. "Something wrong?'

"Not exactly, just a little nervous here."

"About?" This from Joe, who sounded apprehensive.

"About telling you something really important about me."

"Joey, this might not be the best-"

"Chris." Joey grasped Chris's hand beneath the table, squeezing once. His eyes had never left where his parents were sitting. "Chris got into Yale two weeks ago, full scholarship."

Murmurs of congratulations came across the table. Joey drew a deep breath. "Yale is only about two hours from NYU, which is important to me, because it means that it would be feasible to stay with my boyfriend and the guy I've been in love with for almost a year now during college. But Chris deserves someone who's willing to be proud of the fact that he's dating him, and if I want to stay with him, I have to try and be that person."

Chris was relatively sure that everyone at the table had ceased to breathe. "I realize that this is a bad time, but um, Joey?"

Joey lifted their hands so that they rested atop the table. "Yeah?"

"I meant I needed you to tell me you loved me, not come out to your parents."

The laugh that responded to Chris's statement was decidedly feminine. Chris looked over to Phyllis in shock. "Mrs. Fatone?"

She shook her head slightly. "Just, I knew Joey would find himself someone with spunk. I almost had it right when I singled out Tessa Falconetti. Almost."

"I didn't do this to upset you." Joey was trying not to panic in the wake of his mother's flippancy and his father's non-reaction.

"Do you-" Joe was playing with his napkin. "Does this mean you won’t want children?"

"No." Chris actually answered that without thinking, biting his lip when he realized what he had done. Joe was looking straight at him by that point, though, so Chris finished, "Joey's gonna be a great dad someday. He loves kids."

Joey added, "We both do."

"Should we have done something differently?"

Joey bit his lip. "No, dad, of course not. You guys were perfect."

"Beverly knows, doesn't she?"

Chris nodded in response to Phyllis.

Phyllis pinned Joey with a glare. "How come she could be told and not me, Joseph? You think I moved to a liberal church because I liked the service better? My family had been at our old church since we came to America. I left because I felt strongly about not being around close-minded people."

"I know, mom, I know, I was just worried." Joey paused. "You did try and get me to date Tessa, I thought you'd be hurt or mad if I wasn't normal."

"I'm hurt and mad that you obviously think I'm heartless and a bad mother."

"Mom."

"It wasn't like that Mrs. Fatone." Chris spoke softly, as if afraid of his own voice. "Joey worries a lot about disappointing you and your husband."

Joe put a hand on his wife's thigh soothingly. "We're glad you told us."

Dinner was a very silent meal.

*

Joe bought brownies from the concession stand that the thespian's club had thrown together to raise money at intermission. He held one out to Chris silently. Chris took it. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Chris nibbled at his brownie.

"Do you love my son?"

Chris nodded his head. "Yes, sir."

"And this…this isn't just something you two are playing at? An experiment?"

"We've been dating since late January of last year."

"I see."

The brownie was sharp in Chris's throat. "What you think of him is everything to Joey."

The older man laughed, but it was cut off, painful.

"I'm serious. Joey's not ashamed of me, he never has been. If that had been the case, we would never have gotten together. But he's been so intent on giving you what he thought you wanted, what you probably do want. That's why it took so long for him to tell you."

"I…don't know my son."

"Why'd you come up to see Joey this weekend?"

Joe's eyebrows furrowed. "He's talented, I wanted to see him act."

"Is Tisch a good place for Joey to go to school?"

"He'll love it there."

"What's Joey's favorite dessert?"

"The Spumoni we get at that hole-in-the-wall in Brooklyn."

Chris hoped his expression was adequately conveying his point.

Joe reached out hesitantly to tousle Chris's hair. The gesture became more confident when Chris didn't pull away. "You're pretty smart."

"I get that."

*

Joey had handed the bouquet that his mom had brought off to Chris, who had gone back to the room and stuck it in the biggest water glass he could find while Joey was busy schmoozing. Joey didn't get back until almost an hour later. Chris was studying when the door opened. He sashayed to the door and pulled Joey in. "You gonna take me to the Oscars when you're all big and famous, Mr. Fatone?"

Joey snorted. He broke free of Chris and went to grab his shower equipment. "I'm gonna go hose myself down, I'm nasty. Thanks for taking care of the flowers."

"They're beautiful, your mom has good taste."

The bouquet was a frenzy of tropical flowers, topped by the three birds of paradise. Joey scratched gently behind his right ear, "She knows I have a thing for the wacky-colored ones."

Chris raised an eyebrow.

"When I was a kid she used to take me grocery shopping with her and we'd get flowers to use as dinner table centerpieces. I always picked out the outlandish stuff."

"Non-sequitur warning."

"Go right ahead."

"You're far and away the most incredible person I've ever met."

Joey's eyes shone.

"And things are going to be okay."

"When I come back without four layers of makeup on and distinctly more pleasant-smelling, will you, uh, repeat that?" Joey's voice dropped an octave on the last two words.

Chris turned back to the book he'd been reading when Joey came in. "I'm here to serve."

*

Phyllis had made some kind of pact with Beverly that she would take at least four rolls of film at the boys graduation, since Chris's mom couldn’t be there herself. After the fifth picture of him and Joey posing in cap and gown, Chris contorted his face beyond all possible recognition and Phyllis gave up, letting the two of them wander off with a sigh.

JC had come in as well and was having fun telling Lance about all the functions of his new digital camera. Justin finally cut in by stealing the camera from JC in order to snap candids of Lance in his gown and JC in a suit.

The actual ceremony was pretty boring but mercifully short. Chris carefully removed his tassel before throwing his cap into the air. He caught the one that came back down closest to him. He doubted it was his own.

After returning the cap and gown to where faculty members were patiently marking the names of students who had done so off a list, Chris worked his way through the crowd. Lance, Justin, JC, Lance's parents and Joey's parents had all reconvened. Joey caught up with them a minute after Chris arrived.

There was a flurry of congratulating and hand-shaking and about an hour of small talk before Chris and Joey returned to their room to pick up their bags. Joey's parents were going to drop Chris off at the airport on their way out of town.

They walked out of the front doors and to the parking lot. Chris reached out his hand to open the car door when Joey stopped him. "I might be freaking out."

"We did this last summer. No big."

"We knew we were gonna be back together in August."

"You already have tickets to come see me in October. It's not that much longer."

"What if you find someone who’s smart enough to tell you he loves you before being kicked in the ass?"

"I'll smile and tell him I have someone else's hard-won affection."

Joey's grip tightened slightly. "Hard-won, huh?"

"My momma taught me you have to work for the things you want."

"And you want me."

"What can I say? There's no accounting for some people's taste." Chris wrenched the car door open and climbed in the back seat.


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Skin by egelantier, photo by microbophile