Chapter Eleven

The alarm clock shows the time to be four forty-seven am. An odd feeling creeps over me as I realize I'm now twenty-two. Birthdays always bring about peculiar emotions, because while it feels like time is running out of control, I also feel as though I've been alive for a ridiculously long period of time.

'Stop wriggling,' Brett grumbles sleepily. 'You're waking me up.'

I poke my tongue in his ear, and laugh as he furiously swats me away.

'God you're an asshole,' he complains, groggily sitting up. 'What's the time?'

'Four forty-seven. Wait, now it's four forty-eight.'

He groans again and reaches for his cigarettes. The heavy scent of smoke fills the room as he lights up, his eyes shut and his hair tousled. It's now Friday; three days since Lee left, and we're coping a little better with our foster care experience, although I know Brett's dreading explaining to his father why it is that Lee's no longer with us.

'Aren't you going to wish me a Happy Birthday?' I inquire, jabbing his bicep. The last thing I want is for him to start thinking of anything unhappy. The only thing I want him thinking about right now is us.

'Happy Birthday,' he replies, giving me a wry grin and taking my hand in his. 'Which of your presents do you want now?'

'You got me two presents?'

Brett stubs out his cigarette. 'Not exactly. The second thing is this.'

He lunges onto me, pinning me to the swaying waterbed, his brown eyes shining in the darkness. 'You want it?'

'I want you to be a good little cocksucker,' I grin, trying to push him down.

He resists, and we end up flailing around the bed, butt naked. He wins, but by the time he has me pinned I'm cracking up laughing – not to mention horny as hell – and ready for whatever he's prepared to give.

His kisses are enough to silence my laughter, and I take his hard, muscular body into my arms, loving the feel of him. It's almost an anathema that he once shied away from sex with a man, embarrassed by his desires and what he perceived as his 'unattractive to gay men' body.

As he shifts, his erection brushes against mine and we both inhale deeply, aroused and desiring stimulation. He slips down my body, leaving a trail of kisses over my neck, chest, stomach and groin, before settling himself between my legs. Brett may not always appreciate the mouthful he receives at the end, but he's an oral boy at heart and he knows his stuff.

There's nothing like having someone who loves sucking cock pleasuring you, more so when you're in love with them and the red numbers on the alarm blur beneath my gaze as Brett works his magic, taking me closer and closer to climax.

'Brett, I'm almost there okay? If you could just….a bit….harder…yeah, like that,' I groan, running my hands through his dark hair. 'Uh-huh…oh fuck….harder…mmm…Brett, what the fuck are you doing?'

He smirks and crawls from between my legs, flopping alongside me. 'Next time, don't wake me up,' he snickers, rolling onto his side, pulling the doona over his body, and shutting his eyes.

'You can't stop there,' I yelp. 'It's my birthday!'

'And I was sleeping,' he replies smoothly. 'Good night Damon.'

'That's not a present,' I protest, stomping out of bed. 'God you're a bastard. You know I'm gonna wank, don't you? Do you hear me? I said I'm going to fucking wank if you don't finish sucking me off.'

I can hear his muffled laughter as I head to the bathroom. I regret flicking on the light almost immediately and swear at the awful combination of fluorescent glare and an evil-minded partner. Having said that, I wasn't joking when I told him I was going to jerk off if he didn't blow me off; I'm that horny and I know that if I manage to fall asleep again, my mind will just conjure up some erotic dream that will inevitably lead to a lesser-quality orgasm than I could experience whilst awake.

'You're not really wanking are you?' Brett inquires, opening the door. 'Oh…you are.'

I give him a nasty glare from my position atop the toilet seat. 'I told you I would.'

He leans against the doorway, rolling his eyes at what I'm doing. Deciding I've had enough of his nonsense, I grab the lubricant and push him into the hall, inadvertently pushing a little too hard and causing both of us to land on our butts.

'Thanks,' he offers dryly. 'Remind me not to let you walk around horny anymore.'

'I'll let you suck me off all you want,' I agree. 'And I'll even return the favour.'

This is our cue for a hug and whilst doing so, Brett allows me to position him so that we're sitting on the hallway floor, facing one another, with our legs intertwined.

I warm a little lubricant in my hands before rubbing in onto his hard-on. The way we're sitting, and the expression on his face makes me think of when I was a little kid and would do this with James. Later, when we were on the brink of puberty and we learnt more about sex, we lost our virginity together, but as children, we settled for touching each other's cocks and kissing.

'What are you smiling about?' Brett inquires, his eyes shutting and a look of contentment gracing his face.

'I was just thinking about when I was a kid, and I used to do this with James.'

'How old were you?'

'Six or seven?' I suggest. 'Yonks before we decided we wanted to put our doodles up each other's bums. Man, I remember the first time he ejaculated; it scared the shit out of us.'

Brett smiles without opening his eyes, not doing anything save enjoying the slow wank he's receiving.

'How old were you when you first ejaculated?'

Brett's eyes flutter open and he rests his gaze on his erection. 'Eleven or so. Ash had already told me about it, so it was no big deal.'

'Interesting. I can't imagine you and your brother having a discussion on masturbation.'

He grins wryly. 'My father wasn't too good with the birds and the bees. He preferred to let us learn on our own, but Jamie, and Ash and his mates, made sure I knew.'

I grin back, retracting his foreskin and smoothing my thumb over the weeping head. I was ten years old when I realised I was gay, and that playing with James' cock was practice for my adult life, not a stop-gap until I was old enough for a girlfriend. It was an unusual period for me, having the knowledge that I was different, and feeling so scared, and yet at the same time, exhilarated. Scared because I understood how odd my homosexuality was, and how badly people would react, and yet exhilarated because once I'd admitted it to myself, I was better able to indulge in my childhood fantasy world.

'Does this hurt?' I inquire, gently tugging at his foreskin.

'No,' he murmurs. 'Do you, uh, want this blowjob now?'

'No. Tell me if this starts to hurt.'

James' foreskin used to fascinate me, particularly as he grew older. Having been cut just hours after I was born, I can't recall what it was like to own the little bit of extra skin and used to fiddle with his, bemused and intrigued at how it looked. He was never keen on the attention his cock garnered, disliking the sensation of me playing with his foreskin, but Brett has never seemed too perturbed with the way I touch his cock. Frankly, I could never understand James' reticence; a hand on your hard-on is a hand on your hard-on, and so long as I was willing and horny, it wasn't ever easy for my partners to make a 'wrong' move.

'You sure you're okay with this?' I prod, lubing the underside of his foreskin and sliding it back over the glans. 'Brett?'

I'm perhaps a little anxious because of the Bad Anal Incident, but Brett gestures merely gestures for me to continue. And even though I'm 99 percent sure I'd prefer a blowjob, I carefully work his foreskin over the head of my cock. It's not as easy as it sounds, and I know, without even looking up, that Brett's wearing an expression of amusement, but it's irresistible and kind of fun, not to mention highly arousing.

It takes me a while to put Brett's and my hands in position, but eventually we're where we need to be, to perform this peculiar form of masturbation. We're slow and cautious as we wank, but the sensation is pretty hot stuff. The lead-up to orgasm is everything it should be; languorous, intimate, sensual and spine-tingling. I'm really into watching Brett during sex and our position gives me a clear view of his face and body. His dark legs contrast sharply with my own, pale, limbs, and sweat beads his brow as he concentrates on the task at hand, forming a beautiful, erotic scene.

The bubbly feeling of excitement in my stomach is transformed into the pulsing need to climax, prickly needles of lust heightening every stroke, every touch, but it's Brett that's first to lose control. Only just, though, because in the snug cacoon of delicate skin, the sudden pressure and warmth of his semen against my head is more than enough to tip me over the edge.

We thrust and squirm frantically, eyes wide, mouths gaping, cries mingling in the air, until it's…over, and the pulse of fluid beneath my skin starts to slow as the post-coital blanket of love settles upon us.

What we just did – it's not a tidy way to get yourself off. Not that I care, and after we've eased my cock free, Brett lies on his back on the floor, and I, in turn, lie on his stomach, literally gluing us together.

'I'm going to regret lying here soon,' Brett yawns, absently stroking my back. 'And we'll need to clean the floor.'

I make a noise of disgust, and rest my head on his chest. 'You have a nice orgasm face, you know? Most people look stupid, or horny, but you look like sex on legs.'

'I wasn't aware you were watching.'

'I always try and peek. It'd be nice if you screamed out my name, though.'

'You're noisy enough for both of us,' he remarks dryly, lightly slapping my butt. 'Come on, we need to have a shower and clean this up.'

It's still dark by the time we've showered and cleaned, but I don't comment when Brett leads me out the front door, neither of us dressed in anything more glam than yesterday's dirty jeans. Nobody's around, so we have the chance to kiss in open air, something we take advantage of the second we walk outside the door. When I was a kid, I always thought – hoped – that maybe by the time I was an adult, society would have changed sufficiently to not care if two men kissed in public, but unfortunately this hasn't been the case. Now, except on odd occasions, I accept this fact, even though I know I shouldn't.

'Your present's in the car,' Brett interrupts, pulling slightly away. 'Did you want it now?'

'Do bears shit in the woods?'

The worst – absolute worst – feature of our unit is the lack of connecting door between the garage and the house. Occasionally Brett and I make noises about knocking a hole in the wall and installing a door, but to date we've been more focused on repainting the interior, than adding extra conveniences. Not that we've even started the painting, though, because we'll both procrastinate ridiculously when it comes to household maintenance.

His arm's around my waist, holding me close to him, as we complete the short journey, and it's because a of our intimacy that we don't see the bundle of clothing, schoolbag and dirty blonde hair until he's almost directly in front of us.

'Lee?'

He glances up, his eyes red and his arms wrapped around his knees. 'Yeah. I want to move back in. If, um, that's okay?'

Brett and I exchange worried looks. Truly, for all the trouble Lee caused, neither of us are genuinely angry with him. Not that this means we're entirely sure how to react and I merely stand there idiotically, waiting for Brett to say something.

'Come in,' Brett sighs. 'Have a shower and breakfast, and for God's sake, say 'Happy Birthday' to Damon. He's twenty-two.'

'Happy birthday,' Lee whispers, looking a little apprehensive as he picks up his bag and follows us indoors.

'Thanks,' I smile brightly, while inside I'm both unsure and worried. 'Where's Gordon?'

'I gave him to a girl at school to look after,' he replies quickly. 'Mackenzie. She, um, agreed to mind him for a few days. I think I'd probably better pick him up, though, because she barely knows who I am. She was, uh, just the first person I saw that I kind of knew.'

'Okay.'

We don't mention my money, or the lack thereof following Monday's theft. Lee looks as nervous as I do, whereas Brett's distant, serious but not uncaring, whilst he retrieves pancakes from the fridge. He heats them in a frying pan before serving them with maple syrup – the real maple syrup, not the awful imitation syrup – and cream.

'Terry bought the syrup,' Brett remarks as he hands me my plate. 'He said it was your favourite.'

'Uh-huh.'

Lee discretely observes our conversation, scrutinizing Brett. The appraisal only serves to make my boyfriend nervous, and he wolfs down his breakfast before muttering something about going to work. Dumbstruck, I follow him to our room, wondering why it is that he's going to go to work when Lee's just rocked up, unannounced.

'Why would I stay?' he inquires tiredly, pulling on a pair of clean jeans. 'You know child welfare's only going to remove him, and I'm not going to hang around so I can be told what a pervert I am.'

Shit, he's still upset over the way everyone spoke to him on Tuesday night. 'Okay,' I agree. 'Maybe it is a good idea for you to go to work.'

'Do you want me to stay?'

I consider the question. 'No, go. But you have to give me my birthday present before you go.'

'It's not that interesting,' he mutters, slipping on a shirt. 'But I need a hand getting it out of the boot.'

'What did you get me?'

He glances over, a small, genuine, smile on his lips. 'Go and see.'

I take the keys from his hand and race out of the unit, utterly perplexed. There's very little I want or need that I don't already have, but even on the 'wish' list, there was nothing that was particularly large or heavy.

Opening the roller door and car boot, I find my present. I am now the proud owner of a very swish, stainless steel, barbecue. Granted, it may not sound like much of a present, but there is nothing quite like the humble barbie and I doubt Brett could have bought me a better gift.

'Okay present?'

'It rocks,' I grin, leaning over and kissing his cheek. 'Have I ever told you how much I love you?'

He grins and we pull it out of the boot, placing it on the side of the garage. I'm going to need to organize a barbecue, just so I can show off my present, not to mention the fact that unlike the vast majority of men, I can actually cook steak and sausages on a barbie without burning them.

'I've got to be going,' Brett remarks, tugging me towards the back of the garage, alongside the driver's side door. 'Kiss?'

Sometimes I have a little trouble letting go of him in the morning. It's simply that I want to, I don't know, spend the day with him, rather than go to Uni, whilst he goes to work. Some days it's really more than I can bear to say good-bye and I've been worse since he was in the accident. Today I know I'm being petulant, holding him firmly against me and forcing him into a series of long, deep kisses, but I don't want to go back inside. I don't want to have to call Fiona, and explain, and I don't want Lee to be told he can't stay, even though deep inside of me, I understand his chances of living with us are basically zip to nil. After Tuesday night, no welfare or social worker in their right mind would allow achild to stay with us.

'I've got to go,' Brett murmurs eventually, pushing something into my hand. 'Give me a call if you need any help with Lee.'

'What's this?' I ask, looking at the dirty envelope he's given me.

'The remainder of your money,' Brett replies, getting into the car. 'Four hundred and fifty-seven dollars.'

I stare at him in shock. 'You're kidding?'

'Nope,' Brett confirms. 'And I've told Lee if he wants to move back in, and child welfare allows it, he'll be giving you half his pocket money till the rest is repaid.'

'You bastard.'

'Nope,' Brett shakes his head, backing out of the garage. 'I'm the nicest fucking moron in this world. What other idiot would allow a kid who showed the cops a fucking kink tape to move back in with him? My father would have beaten the fucking living shit out of me if I'd pulled a stunt like that.'

I'll admit, he has a point. And when it's all said and done, I wouldn't have even thought of getting the money out of Lee, or making him admit to the theft. I would have simply left it, too uncomfortable to deal with the conversation.

I want to laugh aloud. I'd always thought of Brett as my lover, my boyfriend, my insecure partner, who grouched and sulked and threw temper tantrums in between working and studying. I never saw in him the ability to be a good guardian, to cope with such an awkward conversation. It's a peculiar realisation, but it's also nice, and I walk back inside, drinking in Lee's apprehensive expression and remembering what I was like as a fourteen year old. A monster. A terror. And I probably would have snooped if I were in Lee's position, and if I'd seen a tape like ours, I probably would have assumed it was the real deal.

'I guess I'd better call Fiona,' I suggest.

'Yeah,' Lee agrees wholeheartedly. 'I kind of ran away from another foster family a few hours ago. I think you'd better call them, too.'

I sigh and light a cigarette as I dial, wondering who the hell ever had a twenty-second birthday this bizarre.

Chapter Twelve

With Lee looking like death warmed up, and Fiona, Roger, a psychologist and yet another welfare worker due to arrive early afternoon, University is a no-go. Not that it matters much; it was just a tutorial for an exam worth twenty percent of my grade. I'm a realistic person; I know that with epilepsy as bad as mine I'm unlikely to every find and keep a job, so I don't exactly work my butt off in order to maintain excellent grades.

'Lee? Do you want to have a shower and a sleep before everyone arrives?'

'Do you mind?'

'Not at all.'

He nods and stands up, piling up the dirty plates. 'I'm really sorry Damon. I never meant to get you in trouble.'

'You should probably say that to Brett, not me,' I reply awkwardly, reaching for my cigarettes. 'And Mitch. They're pretty humiliated.'

'Yeah, I know. I am too.'

I take the plates from him and gesture for him to have a shower. I'd like to clean up a bit before everyone arrives, and prepare myself for Fiona's attitude. I'll be the first to admit I'm terrible with character judgement, but her reaction to the video really horrified me. The expression on her face, and her blatant disgust, hurt.

The morning passes uneventfully. Lee heads straight from the shower to bed, and I don't hear any noise whatsoever coming from his room, so I'm assuming he's gone directly to sleep. I feel bad for him, in a way. This isn't to say I'm not angry, nor disappointed, because I am. I expected better of him, but perhaps I expected a little too much. No, that isn't correct, perhaps I desired a little too much.

Lee's still sleeping when Fiona, Roger, Antoinette the psychologist and Sunil, the third social worker, arrive.

'Should I wake him up?'

'Please,' Sunil replies. 'And if you could get your partner?'

'He's at work.'

The four exchange pointed looks.

'Why?' Antoinette inquires bluntly.

'Because we thought you were just coming to pick up Lee,' I reply weakly.

'We're actually here to determine whether remaining with you is in Lee's best interests,' Antoinette replies. 'What we need to do is weigh up the psychological benefits of this household against the effect your lifestyle will have.'

'He already knows we're gay.' I have a habit of referring to bisexual men as 'gay'; 'bisexual' tends to make people think 'promiscuous'.

'I'm talking about the S&M,' Antoinette replies dryly.

'That's not really our lifestyle,' I explain, gesturing for everyone to come in. 'Kind of a...thing we used to do when we were younger.'

'I see.'

Nobody really wants to discuss my sex life and the topic is quickly dismissed and Lee's presence requested. The poor kid, he comes out of his room half-asleep, dressed in crumpled shorts, and is immediately inundated with the questions of three social workers and a psychologist. They all want a few minutes privacy with him so they can 'discuss' his situation, and after much thinly disguised bickering, Antoinette gets first whack.

Within a few hours, Lee and I become utterly fed up with the amount of crap that three social workers and a psychologist can argue about. We're 'counselled', given stupid little 'bonding tasks' to do together and basically treated like children.

When Brett comes home from work, he's given the third degree. He's not appreciative, and I don't really blame him; either Lee's going to stay, or he's not, and I can't fathom why it is they now feel the need to play twenty questions with him.

Eventually, though, it's over.

Lee is staying.


I'm restless, and unable to sleep, despite our early start this morning. I know why it is I can't sleep; my mother didn't call.

I miss her. I want her to miss me, too, and be interested enough to check up on me every now and then, just to see if I'm alive. It's not that I expect her to care, but I'd appreciate it all the same. I guess it all stems back to her belief that I seduced her husband, thus 'wrecking' her life, but often I wonder how deeply she believes that it I seduced Michael.

Brett notices my twisting and turning, and pulls me into his chest, kissing the top of my head. 'Love you.'

'I love you too.'

Despite his attempts to comfort, I'm still restless. 'Brett? If your mum didn't call you on your birthday, would you be upset?'

His grip tightens. 'Yeah. Is that what's bothering you?'

I nod my head. 'You know what I want to ask her? I want to ask who she believes, Michael or me.'

'Oh, hon,' he sighs. 'I'm so sorry.'

I'm sorry too. I hate that I still think about the events of my youth; of having my stepfather flaunt his power by gaining sexual favours, and when the truth was inevitably revealed, having the blame placed solely on my shoulders. To my mother, I was a seducer, to the police, the same. After all, I was cruising the beats, having sex with older, married men, so why wouldn't I be interested in my stepfather? I wanted to scream with frustration, because my homosexuality was to Michael something to be taken advantage of, and to the world at large, an explanation as to why I'd sleep with my stepfather. It was as though the option to choose my own sexual partners was an anathema. By virtue of my sexuality, I was a slut, a whore, a piece of meat.

'Brett?' My hands move over his hips, ghosting over his flaccid penis, fondling him until he's hard. I want sex. I want him to make love to me, so that I can remind myself that these days, my body belongs only to me, and I'm not too damaged to enjoy the combination of love and sex.

'Horny?'

'Yeah. Fuck me.'

He snorts, playing at sincere cheerfulness. 'Don't you want me to finally finish that blowjob?'

I don't think even the most tender and emotional lovemaking could compare to having him try and turn my misery, my melancholy, into joy. Seriously, at times like these, I love my boyfriend more than words could ever express.

'Depends,' I reply softly, trying to force the misery from my mind. 'Are you going to be a good little cocksucker this time?'

'I'll suck your dick with such skill you won't ever want to leave the bedroom. Deal?'

Deal.


'Goodness Damon, when was the last time you cleaned this oven?'

'Goodness Terry, I have no idea.'

He flicks me with a chux for daring to mock him, before diving into the oven with some caustic smelling cleaner.

Unbeknownst to me, Brett had organised a barbecue for Saturday evening. Kind of a surprise thing, so I could get presents from my friends, whilst christening my new barbie. Terry has kindly come around early to help me 'prepare' whilst Brett has taken Lee to see his mother, whose currently residing in a correctional institution, awaiting trial for God-knows-what. Because Terry is something of a clean freak, I know that the bits of our home that Brett and I normally ignore – like the oven, and area behind the fridge - are going to be spotlessly clean by the time everyone arrives.

I wash the steel racks and trays as Terry cleans the oven, wondering how long it will take the oven to become dirty again. Probably two days. Frankly, I don't even know why anyone needs to clean their oven; any bacteria would be killed every time you turned it on, and it's hardly as though your food touches the sides of the oven, anyway.

Following oven cleaning, we spend an hour making twenty gazillion types of salad, defrosting meat and ensuring 'everything's ready'.

'Now once we…'

'…No,' I interrupt. 'No. There's going to be maybe ten people here, we don't need to do anymore. Sit outside with me and smoke.'

'How many people did Brett invite?'

'I'm not sure. It doesn't matter, most won't show up.'

Famous last words, as the saying goes. Soon after Terry finishes his cigarette, he leaves for home to have a shower and get 'dressed'. There's no need for him to 'get dressed' for a flipping barbecue, but he returns two hours later – dressed in tight, black, three quarter length shorts and a matching, tight, black, singlet – with Jamie and two of their friends, one of whom is in drag.

I felt like pointing out that in Australia, in suburban backyards, when a barbecue is taking place, dressing for a night out (or, in Henry/Henrietta's case, in the clothing of the opposite gender) is a little...odd. I don't, however, because admittedly they do all look very nice. Drag queens may never have been on my preferred sex-partners' list, but there's something fascinating about them all the same.

'Your new neighbours are assholes,' Craig, whom I assume to be Henrietta's partner, remarks.

'The ones moving in down the end?' We live in a block of forty units; neighbours come and go fairly rapidly.

'That would be them,' Craig confirms. 'They asked us if we were 'poofters'.'

I cringe. 'Sorry.'

'It's fine,' Terry replies, flicking his hand in the air. 'I said 'Yes, and I have Aiiiiiids'.'

The way he simultaneously drawls and lisps makes us crack up laughing.

'And I offered to show them my dick,' Henrietta remarks, hitching up his skirt. 'They just looked disgusted.'

That only makes us laugh harder. I guess it's one of those things you have to hear firsthand to realise how amusing it is. A lot of our neighbours make Brett and I look refined, and that's saying a lot.

Lee gives the newcomers a bemused look, before returning to his pre-dinner snack. His visit with his mother progressed without incident, although Brett remarked Lee seemed a little upset when he had to leave. My curiosity as to what it was she did to land herself in jail has thus increased, but I'm remembering Lee's right to privacy and keeping my mouth shut.

A lot of people arrive within the next hour; Ash and his family, Brett's mother, Brian and Leanne, James, Mitch and Evan, and lastly, Eleanor, Kevin and Ryan. To put it into selfish terms, I get a hell of a lot of presents, and I love presents. We sit outside, having pre-barbie drinks and nibblies, whilst everyone gets acquainted. Lexis is frantic with excitement, there are beers in just about everyone's hands and the noise level is not inconsiderable.

We're a bit of an odd assembly, although everyone seems to be getting along without incident. There are little 'groups' - Ash and Helen, James and Mitch, and Eleanor and Kevin are doing the 'young parent' talk,Brett's fatherand Leanne are talking to Craig about fence installation or something similarly uninteresting, Jamie, Terry, Lee and Brett are sitting together, and lastly, I locate Henrietta and Shelley, Brett's mother, deep in appears to be fine, but with Shelley being a kind of old-fashioned, rather naive woman, I wander over to make sure she and Henry/Henrietta are comfortable together.

'Hello,' I greet, pulling up a chair.

'Hello darling,' comes Shell's reply as the pair turn to face me. 'Did you know Henrietta's a nurse?'

It strikes me that Shell may know that Henrietta's a nurse, but she may not realise that Henrietta's really a man. This could be awkward.

'No, I've only just met him, uh, I mean 'her', tonight.'

'I'm a clinic nurse,' Henrietta adds helpfully. 'STD's mainly.'

Shelley is a short, petite woman, the type that has not only a very proper style of dress, but old-fashioned morals and a dislike of talking about 'private matters' in public, so Henrietta's clarification makes me wince. Having said that, Shelley is also a nurse, although she works in geriatrics, so the clarification may not be as impolite to Shelley as it sounds to me.

'I, uh, see,' I remark.

'I think it's lovely,' Shelley remarks brightly. 'Why don't more men study nursing?'

I heave a sigh of relief, glad that she's released Henrietta is a man in a dress, not a woman in a dress. It's stupid how you have to worry about these things, but life being what it is, you do, and sometimes I feel a bit guilty about shocking the older generation with the truth of today's youth.

Besides, Shelley took so long to accept Brett's relationship with me, that I don't want anything to wreck our still-fledgling friendship. She's slowly coming to accept me as Brett's partner, and I'll admit that I probably don't appreciate how much of an effort she's putting in. Coming here, alone, tonight, couldn't have been easy, and I'm grateful that she's found someone to talk to.

'Damon,' Shelley remarks, not waiting for an answer to her question. 'I don't mean to pry, but is Leanne pregnant?'

Leanne is in her mid-forties, and Brian's fifty, so one would hope the answer was 'no', but on closer inspection, I understand what Shelley's talking about. Leanne used to be one of those scrawny old birds in tight clothes, and somehow I've missed the transition from micro minis and heels to loose linen shirts and pants, not to mention the weight gain.

'I'd say she's five or six months gone,' Henrietta murmurs. 'Although it's two years since I've had anything to do with midwifery.'

'I haven't heard anything,' I admit weakly. 'But I don't think Brett's going to be happy.'

'Hmm,' Shelley agrees sympathetically. 'Ashley said he was terribly upset when his father remarried. Maybe you should have a little talk to him so by the time it becomes obvious, he's a little better prepared to speak to Brian about it? This child's going to be his brother or sister and by the time he's a teenager, I daresay Brian and Leanne are going to have to rely on you boys and Ashley and Helen to help them out.'

I find the whole situation rather disturbing, but Ricky approaches his Nanna, seeking attention, before I can continue with my questioning. It's rather unfathomable that Brett may have a brother or sister, and instead of dwelling on the matter, I find my way over to where Lee, Terry, Jamie and Brett are sitting, plastering a fake smile to my face.

'Brett, remind me to have a talk to you about something later, okay hon?' I request lightly, sitting in between him and Terry.

'Uh-huh,' he agrees blankly, his face white.

That's when I realise that all four of my table mates are all wearing shocked expressions. I didn't hear any yelling, or arguments, and not one of them appears angry or defensive, which makes me rather anxious.

'Guys? What is it?' I ask nervously. 'Is something wrong?'

'No,' Brett remarks hoarsely. 'Nothing's wrong, per se….'

'But?'

We're interrupted by someone knocking on the front door. Loudly.

'I'll go and get it,' Lee offers, hurriedly racing from the table to the front door.

Our heads swing around and we watch him converse with a short, shadowy figure at the front door. I'm just wondering what the hell is going on, why Jamie and Terry and Brett and Lee looked so shocked, and whether I've done something wrong or not.

'That was my Mackenzie,' Lee remarks hollowly, heading back outside. 'She bought Gordon back. I think I'm going to…um…clean his water or something.'

He heads inside, picking up Gordon's bowl from the kitchen table, and walking down the hallway.

'Is there something wrong with him?' I ask worriedly, climbing out of my seat. 'Maybe I should go and ask him if he's alright.'

After this week's events, there's no way I'm going to risk leaving Lee to 'sort things out on his own', without first determining whether or not he'd prefer, or needs, to speak to Brett or I.

'Don't,' Terry orders, grabbing my arm. 'Damon, you never asked Lee about his family, did you?'

'No,' I reply, my heart racing. 'He didn't want us to know anything. Terry? Brett? Do you guys know anything?'

I glance around, drinking in the utter shock that's splayed across everyone's faces, whilst around us, adults and children are laughing and talking and starting to make noises about getting this 'barbie started'.

Terry smiles weakly. 'Ask Ashley to start this barbecue. I think we should go and have a talk.'

'I think that's a good idea,' I admit, glancing over at Brett. 'I think I need to tell Brett something, too.'

Chapter Thirteen

Terry used to have this friend, a little gay kid called Victor. They met at a party or something, Terry and Jamie, and Victor and his boyfriend, Michael.

Terry's always been one to stand up for gay rights; he volunteers, he donates, he's been to the Mardi Gras more than once, and he's not shy on the topic of his homosexuality, so it wasn't really a big surprise to me that he took Victor under his wing. Victor was sixteen when they first met, and having recently kicked out of his mother's home, was living with his twenty-two year old boyfriend. Victor's relationship with Michael was good, but there were problems with Victor's family, namely his mother's refusal to accept his sexuality.

Terry and Vic became fairly close; Victor used to visit him once a week, minimum, and the friendship was quite strong. Unfortunately for Victor, his relationship with his family disintegrated after he moved in with Michael. After one, unsuccessful, suicide attempt, he moved back in with his mother and twenty million siblings, and started seeing his boyfriend on a secret, casual sex only, basis. During this period, Michael found a more permanent partner, although from what I heard, he was really onlywaiting for Victor to tell his mother to shove her homophobia, and move back in with him.

That never happened. As Terry advised, when I saw him in hospital, Victor's mother lost her temper one night and shook her youngest child, a retarded daughter whom Victor was especially close to, to death. For Victor, it was the last straw. He committed suicide, leaving in his wake a mass of devastation.

It's a horrible story, not one I like to think about, perhaps because I feel so guilty about always having the strength to keep on pushing on when life kicks me down. No matter what life throws at me, I have this desire to get up and keep fighting, and after my heart heals, I always thank the heavens for giving me this strength. So many fucking awesome things have occurred in my life, small, joyous things, like meeting Brett and having James and Terry as friends, that I can't fathom why anyone could allow themselves to be overwhelmed, yet nor can I help but pity those who don't have that inner strength.

'Anyway,' Terry gesticulates sombrely, when we're in the confines of my room and he's reminded me of Victor. 'You knew Vic pretty well.'

'I really don't see what this has to do with Lee,' I reply, feeling incredibly foolish.

'Damon,' Terry sighs. 'Lee. Is. Vic's. Brother.'

'You're kidding?'

Terry gives me a poisonous look. 'No, unfortunately not. Obviously Victor spoke about us a little more than I thought, because it took Lee maybe five minutes to realise who Jamie and I were.'

I stare at the floor in shock. 'Holy shit. Man, no wonder he's so messed up. Maybe I should go and speak to him.'

'Or maybe you shouldn't,' Jamie speaks, his voice clear and firm. 'Maybe Brett should knock on his door and tell him to come out when and if he's ready. Then we can all go back out there and pretend nothings wrong, because for Christ's sake, I'm really fucking sick of explaining things to every nosey fucker who thinks they have a right to know.'

I'm not stupid enough to miss the double meaning, nor am I fortunate enough to escape Jamie's cold stare. He's pissed with me. I want to cringe, and apologise, although I doubt an apology's going to be good enough for Jamie, because once upon a time, we were fairly friendly with one another. If Brett was studying, and Terry was out of town, Jamie would take me out to the clubs and watch over me if I drank too much. We were never friends, I'd never go so far as to say that, but we had a congenial enough relationship.

'I'll go and check up on him,' Brett agrees slowly. 'And get this barbie started.'

I go to stand up, but Terry pushes me back down. 'Stay. You need to talk.'

It's a set-up. They haven't even asked me what it was I needed to tell them, they merely explain Lee's background and rush out, whilst my emotions are scattered all over the place, leaving me to make amends with Jamie. As Terry closes the door behind him, I miserably reach for my cigarettes, offering Jamie the pack.

'Thanks,' he nods, accepting and lighting a cigarette. 'Uh...this isn't too subtle, eh mate?'

'Not really,' I admit. 'Jamie, I know I... Well, I never meant for you to find out.'

He shrugs nonchalantly. 'No, you only wanted him to leave me. Or whatever. I don't know what the fuck you wanted.'

'I wanted you to prove you loved him,' I confess weakly. 'I wanted to make sure he was going to be alright with you, and, you know, that you really loved him. It's like...I'd never date a woman. Never. I couldn't do it, so it's, uh, I don't see how...'

Jamie sighs and draws deeply on his cigarette. He doesn't reply immediately, instead shaking his head, as though trying to decide how best to tell me I'm an ignorant fool.

'If you met the right woman you would. You might not realise that now, but if you were out there, and she came along...' he trails off, snapping his fingers and giving me a wry grin. 'You would.'

'I don't think so.' I don't appreciate people telling me I could be straight if only I met the 'right woman'. I'm twenty-two years old and know damn well who I am and which gender turns me on, not to mention that Jamie's comments aren't what I'd class as conducive to the homosexual rights movement.

Jamie's grin fades. 'I'm not going to argue with you. It's a pointless fight; you're with Brett and there's no way in hell he'd leave you.'

'He'd better not,' I agree lightly, deciding to ignore Jamie's misguided beliefs. 'And I'm not here to fight either. I'm sorry that...um, I doubted you. I guess you and Terry are old enough to chose your own lifestyles.'

'I'm also big enough to beat the fucking crap out of you if you stress him out again,' Jamie finishes. 'I don't need him sick.'

That would make two of us. Terry's hospitalisation was not only unexpected, but terrifying, and somewhere deep inside of me, I understand that Jamie's only got Terry's interests at heart. It's my own problem that I failed to understand that, but in choosing not to try to understand, I've unfortunately become the sort of person I always abhorred; a bigot.

'We used to get on pretty well,' I remark, remembering the days before my doubts about Jamie and Terry's relationship grew out of control.

'Yeah,' Jamie replies, a second, small, grin on his face. 'And I'm going to pretend nothing's changed, too, because Terry and I just bought a new house. We're going to need all the help to move that we can get.'


'Although it's probably the most disturbing thought I've ever had,' Brett starts, pausing to yawn. 'I could swear Leanne's pregnant.'

I smile weakly at him. 'Your mother agrees.'

'Jesus.' Brett buries his face in the pillow in a show of resignation. 'Jesus.'

It's hard not to laugh. It's three in the morning and I'm exhausted, both mentally and physically, and Brett's realisation that in a few months he's probably going to have a new brother or sister is hilarious.

The night wasn't too bad; Lee only managed half an hour in his room before Ricky - Ashley's son - went to 'find' him. It was definitely a great move of Ricky's, because Lee's terrific with kids. He ended up with Ricky on one side of him, and Jamie and Mitch's son Evan on the other, and the trio spent the evening playing Trouble. Not that Evan understood how the game worked, but I'm yet to meet a toddler that didn't like bashing things. Regardless, Lee didn't have too much time to feel isolated and lonely, and even though I know he's going to need to work through whatever emotions the meeting with his deceased brother's friends evoked, I think he needed the temporary distraction.

'My mum's gone clubbing with a cross-dressing nurse and my father's going to be a father,' Brett groans, propping himself up on his elbows. 'And you laugh.'

'Sorry,' I snort, absolutely cracking up. 'Your mum used to be so homophobic. It's kind of funny to think of her at The Beat.'

Brett laughs quietly, admitting the hilarity of the situation. 'She wasn't homophobic. She just thinks it's wrong.'

'Ah, but it's not wrong when the cross-dressing homosexual is a nurse?' I inquire.

Brett frowns, becoming serious. 'Maybe her going with Henrietta's a good thing. Maybe she won't get all funny again if she knows someone gay who isn't a family member. It's more...lifelike.'

A snort escapes my nose. 'How the hell can she not have met any gay people? I know straight people.'

We crack up laughing, which is sort of a hint that perhaps we've had too much to drink tonight. It was hard not too, because everyone bought alcohol, and it was my birthday celebration, not to mention the twenty million little and gigantic issues and problems that either arose, were resolved, or made themselves apparent during the night.

'You're a dickhead,' Brett pants, trying to stop laughing. 'God, I'm tired. Stop making me laugh and go to sleep.'

'Could I get some loving first?'

Brett whacks me and crawls under the doona, bunching up his body and squeezing his eyes shut. Indignant, I whack him back. He hits me. I hit him again.

We don't end up going to sleep till five-thirty. I don't mind, it was a fairly good night, all things considered. For the first time all week, I feel at peace with life.

Chapter Fourteen

'You know how you said there can't possibly be a drug that makes you feel as good as getting rid of Evan for a day?'

James snorts with laughter. 'Yeah. I stand by that, too.'

'That's how I feel about Lee spending the night with his sister,' I sigh, reaching across the patio table for my cigarettes. 'I'm so tired.'

Something peculiar happened to the past four weeks; they've gone. I'm not even sure where, all I know is that one day it was my birthday and then time blurred into one, horrible, exhausted mess of Lee and exams and Brett having the bright idea to spend every Saturday morning working in a dodgy little workshop as a boilermaker, so that he can 'keep his skills up to date'.

'I thought you were helping Jamie and Terry move tomorrow?' James asks, stuffing half a biscuit into his son's mouth.

I glare at him. 'Yes. Yes, I am. What the hell happened to my life? I used to have sex James, good sex. Now it's been so long, I'm almost a virgin again. Really, we tried last night after we took Lee to see his family and I swear the moment – the very moment – it started being really good, Lee knocked on the door. 'Lexis pissed on the couch' he says. Like I give a shit. The bloody dog could piss all over the fucking lounge, I don't care, I just want sex.'

'Wan set!' Evan agrees cheerfully. 'Wan sets, wan sets, wan set!'

James and I exchange pained looks. Evan's habit of repeating adults is becoming increasingly unnerving, and it's a worry to know that soon we'll have to censor our conversation.

'So, um...' I trail off. 'How's Mitch? Still seeing Veronica?'

James nods, plucking the cigarette I was just about to light, from my hands, and putting Evan down on the ground. He adjusts his son's hat and hands him a ball, whilst wiping the biscuit and saliva mess from his chin. We watch Evan toddle around the courtyard, chasing the ball, for a few minutes, before James continues.

'I packed my stuff on Monday night.' Seeing me glance up in horror, he waves my concern aside with a wry smile. 'It was only a threat. I told him that I was moving in with my mum and I wasn't going to go near him again unless he swore to wear a condom whenever he had sex with her…'

'…holdup,' I interrupt. 'He wasn't using a rubber?'

'Nope,' James confirms with a shake of his head, moving his chair back and resting his legs on the patio table. 'Why wear a condom when some slut's going to let you dump a batch of baby batter straight into her pussy?'

'Ugh. What did he say to that?'

'Want to guess?'

''Yes'?'

James laughs hollowly. 'He said 'you had sex with my sister'. I was like 'yes, to make Evan, moron'. And I mean, have you ever tried to have sex with your boyfriend's sister? It took me forever to come, and Hailey's pretty well stacked, so you'd think it would've taken me ten seconds to blow my load.'

The fascination my friends have for breasts is both disturbing and amusing. Even more disturbing than this fact, though, is Mitch's reaction to James' demand.

'Do you think he has a problem with the way Evan was made?' I ask curiously.

'The problem's not with Evan's creation,' James sighs. 'It's with Evan. When he was a baby and living with you guys, Mitch barely spent any time with him and when he did, everyone always told him he was doing something wrong. Mitch had enough problems with...you know, the way nobody really treats him as though he's Evan's father. I think it really gets to him.'

'We treat him like he's Evan's father,' I argue, lighting my damn cigarette. 'He's just making excuses.'

'Yeah, well he still feels that way.'

James sounds a little defensive, which can probably be put down to the fact that he does have a point. It's too easy to see James as Evan's father, and Mitch as the main breadwinner, when in reality, both men are his father. Sometimes, despite our unorthodox lifestyles, it's hard to overcome everything we were taught as children and act appropriately in a non-mainstream situation.

'Anyway, I told him that I wasn't going to accept him leaving Evan and I alone while he slept around. I told him that I could deal with him seeing her, so long as he did it when Evan was with Hailey, and so long as they did it at her house only. I told him that this didn't mean I liked it, and that I reserved the right to have sex with other people, too, but he pretty much agreed on the spot.'

'So you're going to live with him having sex with another person?'

'I don't have much choice, and I'm not prepared to lose him.'

It's terrible hearing him admit he's so far in love with Mitch that he's willing to forgive such major transgressions of trust, but I'm aware my attempts to understand other people's lifestyles has, of late, been rather a poor effort and so I don't expound my feelings on the subject.

'If that's what you think is best,' I agree slowly.

James smiles sadly. 'It's the best option. The worst thing is that it isn't even my idea. I had to ask my mum.'

I choke on my cigarette smoke. 'You told your mum?'

He pulls a face. 'Yeah. Man, do you have any idea how much it sucks telling your goddamn mother that you can't satisfy your boyfriend?'

'I don't even want to think about it.'

James' face is bright red with embarrassment. 'Well, at least she gave me a solution. It would have been worse if she'd just said 'I don't know', or told me to leave him.'

'That's true.'

We sit together, watching Evan kicking the ball around, chasing after it, and periodically falling on his nappy-clad butt. He's such a beautiful kid, with soft skin and silky hair and a smile that could melt the hardest of hearts. There's both James and Mitch in him, in his looks and his personality and even the expressions he pulls when he's displeased or wheedling.

'Damon? Can you remember when we were seventeen, and I'd just broken up with Rachel, and we had sex for the first time in about a year?'

'First time you had sex in a year,' I tease. 'But yeah, I remember. You'd grown lots of pubic hair.'

James gives me a withering look. 'Thanks. What I was going to say was, do you remember when I said something, and you asked me what I'd said, and I told you it was nothing?'

Surprisingly, I do remember. 'Yes.'

'What did you think I said?'

It was one of those things that I've never forgotten. I wasn't sure how to react at the time, because James and I had already made clear to one another that our relationship would never transcend the boundaries of friends-with-benefits, yet I could have sworn he told me he loved me.

'I told you I loved you,' he smiles, flushing red again. 'I did, you know. I broke up with Rachel because I wanted to date you.'

I'm not very good at hiding my surprise. 'Really?'

'Yeah,' James laughs softly. 'I got over it though. Now the only love I have for you is the mate-y kind of love.'

We grin at each other, content in each other's company.

'Um, Evan's going over Hailey's house tomorrow,' James starts uncomfortably, breaking our happy mood. 'Mitch is going to be with Veronica. Do you think Jamie and Terry would mind if I helped them move?'

'Would they mind? Christ, they'd probably suck your dick in gratitude. The townhouse is already a fucking pigsty.'

The sorrow that clouded James' eyes is swept away, replaced by the brilliant, shining green and gold of his hazel eyes. 'I'd kill to know if Jamie sucks his dick,' he admits.

Admittedly, I know it's wrong. It's like what Lee did to Brett and I, but all the same, I can't possibly resist sharing the damn naked photo of Jamie – okay, yes, I still have the photo – with my best friend.

'I've seen pictures. In fact, I've even got a picture of him in the nude, which I flogged from Terry. Wanna see it?'

'Hell yes.'

There's nothing like perving on your boyfriend's best mate with one of your best mates.

I know, I know. I'm a bad, bad person.

'Where's Brett?'

'Working. Then taking Lee to visit his Mum.'

Jamie rolls his eyes. 'Lazy bugger.'

Jamie and Terry have helped us move no less than three times, so his eye-rolling doesn't surprise me.

'He'll be here at three,' I reply. 'And I thought you said we were only moving the small shitty stuff this morning? James has bought his car, you have your car and Terry has his. Where's the problem?

'Nothing. It's just my prerogative to whinge at will about him not showing up. It's un-Australian.'

'Hmph. And when did you visit all your locked-up rellies?'

Approximately half of Jamie's relatives seem to be incarcerated at any one time. If nothing else, this has resulted in a rather unperturbed attitude towards his relationship with Terry. Apparently, once in jail, most of his male relatives are agreeable to same gender sexual relations, although this isn't something he broadcasts to the general public, or even his friends, unless he's in trusted company and it's relevant to the topic of conversation.

'Wednesday,' he grins. 'I visited Bubbie at David Longlands. He's got a new tatt.'

'Nice. Maybe you should go visiting with Brett and Lee sometime. Lee's mum's at Brisbane Women's.'

Jamies frowns. 'I thought she'd only been charged? Why's she in the lock-up?'

'I have no idea. Lee doesn't like to talk about it.'

Terry's giving us poisonous looks for daring to talk about relatives in jail whilst his soon-to-be-ex neighbours are around. He doesn't appreciate having anyone know that his boyfriend comes from a criminal family, and I'll admit I don't really blame him. He gets enough nasty looks for just being himself, and doesn't need the 'you're gay and you're dating a criminal' disdain.

I haven't seen Jamie and Terry's new house, so I'm more than a little excited and after packing into the cars a ridiculous amount of boxes, knick knacks and the like, we finally arrive at the guys' new home.

'You're kidding?' I ask as we stand in front of a decrepit, two story Queenslander. 'You're going from your townhouse to this?'

I'd genuinely expected Jamie and Terry's new home to be a sleek, modern, house, stylistically renovated and sporting every modern convenience. Instead, it's an old house with peeling paint, no garden, sagging fences and a pile of carpet out front. It's located on a quiet street in Bardon, surrounded by overgrown mango trees and altogether, its light years from Terry's old white paint, glass and stainless steel townhouse.

'This is it,' Terry agrees cheerfully. 'Ignore the carpet out the front, we've got to take that to the dump. We had the floorboards polished on Thursday. We've still got a bit of renovating…'

'…a bit? Why the hell did you want to move here?'

They give me disappointed looks, as though unable to understand how I can fail to appreciate their 'lovely' new home.

'It's private,' Terry points out. 'And it's going to be great once we fix it up.'

'You have HIV,' I argue. 'You're not supposed to be stressing. Christ Terry, you know how you get about mess.'

'Just a bit louder Damon,' Terry retorts. 'I think there may be someone in the street who hasn't heard you.'

There must be something in me that draws me to sulky men. Terry's moodiness isn't as dramatic or frequent as Brett's, but it's definitely there, hidden behind his campy exterior. I hardly see what difference his neighbours hearing his HIV status makes, seeing there's a dirty great AIDS Council sticker on the back of his Merc, so his moodiness is obviously over my reaction to his house.

'Sorry. It's um…just not what I expected.'

'I think it's sweet,' James remarks, carefully inspecting the abode. 'I mean, it only really needs painting and the gardens to be done. If you paint, and Jamie does the gardens, it's going to look great.'

Terry looks somewhat mollified at James' response. 'I thought so too. Do you want to see inside?'

With the stairs leading to the top level, and the lower level being a large rumpus-type area, we troop upstairs for the inspection. I'll admit that from the inside, I can see the promise. The floors are clean and shiny, although still a little chemical-smelling from the recent polishing, and the walls desperately need painting, but the open-plan is nice and breezy and you can't hear neighbours or traffic or anything of the external world. The only sound that filters through the large rooms is our voices and our footsteps.

'This is going to be our room,' Terry instructs, opening the only closed door.

'Holy shit, would you look at that fucking view,' I gape. Forget everything I've said to date, the view from the master bedroom window is enough to nullify any piddling problems like house repainting, carpet removal and kitchen renovation. I didn't realize the house was on top of a hill until this moment, but obviously it is, because from the room you can see all these houses below it, all stretched out in this amazing picture-puzzle of people's lives.

'We saw it at night once,' Jamie agrees. 'Fucking mind-blowing.'

'It is,' Terry agrees. 'But we should really start bringing everything inside.'

Terry's a taskmaster and a half when he puts his mind to something. He wants everything physically moved and unpacked today, and he's determined nothing's going to stand in his way. Being rather crazy, he's started working again, at his old law firm, only in an easier, part-time position, but this means he can't do any great amount of mid-week unpacking. They're not selling the townhouse; they're going to lease it out, and have taken a mortgage on this house, which admittedly, worries me a bit. Between his lowered pay and extra expenses, not to mention house renovations, I'm not sure how Terry's going to cope financially. He's used to having a lot of money to play with.

'How much do you get paid?' I inquire as we're traveling back to the townhouse for what feels like the twenty millionth time.

'That's a very rude question.'

'Sorry. I'll tell you what Brett earns if that makes it better.'

Terry rolls his eyes. 'Thirty-five thou a year. I work twenty hours a week.'

'That's disgusting,' I snort, no longer worrying about how they're going to cope financially. 'That's over thirty dollars an hour.'

'Hmm, well we're selling the Merc,' he shrugs. 'There's no need to have two bikes and two cars. I'm going to pay off the Monaro so the only thing I have to worry about is the house. It's a thirty year mortgage, but hey, Jamie can sell the townhouse after I die, if he wants to get rid of the debt.'

I hate it when he speaks like that. It's almost as though he's willing his own death.

'Stop talking about what's going to happen in twenty years,' I reprimand. 'There may be a cure for all you know, and you and Jamie will be stuck together for ever.'

'I can think of worse fates than being stuck with Jazma.'

Jazma; interesting. 'Is that what you call him? Jazma?'

Terry mumbles confirmation, flushing slightly. It's amusing to see him blush, because he's normally so in-control and confident, but I guess he didn't intend to let his pet name for Jamie slip out. It's kind of cute, actually, and if I thought I'd get the answer, I'd inquire as to how Jamie refers to him, but I know when I'm pushing my luck with Terry.

Brett and Lee are waiting at the townhouse when arrive back, eating McDonalds and waiting to start helping us move. Lee's looking a little happier of late, now that he's settled into our house and he's coming to his last few weeks of school before summer holidays. Admittedly, it's been far from easy, and there were a few times when I thought Brett and I must be the crappiest of foster parents, but everything's starting to settle down. He talks about his brother sometimes, although not to often – more like slight references here and there – and each week he hands over fifteen dollars to me from his pocket money to repay the money he stole.

'How's your Mum?' I ask him.

'Good,' he shrugs. 'She's getting released in four weeks, but she's told me she's not going to try and get custody of me. She said she was going to plea bargain, and she gets sentenced two weeks after she gets home, but they think it'll be another suspended sentence plus counseling.'

'Oh. Jamie said it was odd that she was in jail when she hadn't been sentenced or anything.'

'Suspended sentence,' Lee replies uneasily. 'She was over at a friend's house a year ago and the house got raided. She got a four month suspended sentence. Because she… Well, that's why she had to go to jail.'

'Sorry,' I apologise. 'I didn't mean to pry.'

'It's okay,' he shrugs. 'Am I good to keep living with you anyway? You know, after she's been released?'

'I've got no problems.'

Lee smiles, looking markedly relieved. 'That's what Brett said. Anyway, I saved you my pickles from my burger if you want them.'

Terry mutters something about phantom male pregnancy's as I swallow the green circles Lee hands over. I can't help it, I really, really, really like the pickles.

My short break is interrupted, and what started off as 'small moving' is suddenly 'big stuff moving'. Brett connects a hire-trailer to his Astra and we start moving load after fucking load of whitegoods, lounge suites and tables to the new house.

The work's too hard and heavy for Terry and Lee and they end up staying at the new house, unpacking, whilst James, Jamie, Brett and I do the heavy work. Perhaps the real reason Terry and Lee are staying behind has something to do with Victor, too, because since my birthday Terry and Lee have both expressed an interest in talking to one another again. I don't mind; I know Terry's good with comforting upset people and I can see why Lee would want to get to know some of the men he heard his brother speak of.

It's dusk by the time everything has been moved, but on the bright side, Terry and Lee have almost completed the unpacking. The front yard of the house is filled with boxes, the old carpet and a miscellany of junk, but inside is clean and organized, and we're all more than ready to call it a night.

There's a back verandah, on the upper level, and from there we eat takeaway, commercialized noodle meals, whilst staring at the night sky. Beneath us, all the houses are lit up and the scene is utterly relaxing. I decide during dinner that if Brett and I ever come across copious amounts of money, this is the sort of house we'll get, although Terry gives me a wry grin as I expound on my plans.

'In another couple of months it's going to be better,' he replies, although I can tell he's pleased that I've come around and now admire his new home.

'In a couple of months, we'll have the pool,' Jamie adds, grinning wolfishly. 'It should be finished just before Christmas.'

Terry rolls his eyes, to which Jamie laughs. When I ask what's so funny – all the while envying the fact that they're going to have a pool in their backyard – Terry gestures for Jamie to explain.

'The pool's going to be half underneath the balcony,' Jamie explains, all of walking to the edge so that we can 'visualise'. 'See? Half on the ground under the balcony, the other half out in the yard. But here's the killer.'

We stare at him expectantly.

'We're gonna have a waterslide leading from the balcony, twisting around, and leading into the pool.'

The house is built on a slope, so the waterslide they plan on installing is going to really be something else. Something amazing, to be truthful. I can just imagine the pool, sitting at the edge of the lower-level granny flat, with a twisty slide leading into it, looking absolutely phenomenal.

'I want to move in,' I sulk.

'Me too.' James and Lee agree.

'Yeah, it's gonna be pretty neat,' Jamie grins. 'The way I figure it is this; I get home from work, take my steelies off at the door, strip as I'm walking through the house, grab a beer and a fag, and slide down into the pool. And that is my idea of perfection.'

For maybe the millionth time I marvel at how Terry and Jamie ended up together. But when I glance over at Terry, for the first time since I learnt of the relationship, I'm truly happy that they're together.

'Every rich fag needs a slide,' I tell him.

'That wasn't in the manual,' Terry retorts, trying not to give into his smile.

'Hmph,' Lee snorts. 'Victor said that if you're gay, the nasty way of referring to straight people is 'breeder'. Is that right?'

I don't think anyone wants to tell Lee he's right, but he doesn't seem at all put out, more just interested, so Terry confirms he's correct.

Lee nods. 'Every poor breeder needs a slide, too.'

The solemnity of his statement brings a smile to Terry's face. 'You can come over whenever you want.'

Their gazes meet. 'Really?' Lee confirms uncertainly.

'Sure.'

The happiness on Lee's face makes me feel guilty over not taking him to talk to Terry sooner. But it doesn't matter now, because I've long since come to the conclusion that regret is a waste of time.

'I'll come with you,' I add helpfully.

Chapter Fifteen

'Congratulations, Dad, for waiting twenty-five years to create your third child.'

You've got to hand it to Ashley; he can give it as good as he gets it, and the expression on his father's face is priceless.

'Bundy, Dad?' he smirks.

'Thanks.'

Neither Brett nor Ashley are happy with the fact they're soon to receive a new sibling, but they're doing a damn fine job of hiding it. I don't blame either of them for their annoyance; Ash, because of the reaction he received when he announced Helens' pregnancy, and Brett, because of the reaction we faced when we asked him to support our application to foster. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the both of Brian's sons nurse their own private pain over their father's reaction to their desires for a family of their own.

'When's the baby due?' I ask, curious.

'17th February, but they'll probably do a caesarian in January, if she doesn't go into labour sooner,' Brian replies gruffly, glancing quickly at his younger son.

'So in two months I'm going to have a brother or sister,' Brett remarks, reaching for his cigarettes. 'Why didn't you tell us?'

'Because I wanted to make sure there weren't any problems. Do you have a problem with that?'

'Only if you're going to make one,' Brett retorts. 'I don't even know why I'm surprised you didn't tell us. From when did you ever think we were worthy of knowing what our father was doing?'

I take this as my cue to leave, and join Ash in line at the bar. Leaving Brett to thrash it out with his father strikes me as by far the best option open.

'Is Brett throwing a shitfit?' Ash inquires.

'No, but I think he's going to.'

Ash sighs and as the bartender comes over, he places the order for rum and coke. I follow his gaze to the blonde bartender's butt and legs, wondering where on earth the appeal lies. Ash catches me following his line of vision and raises an eyebrow slightly, in a questioning 'what do you think of her?' manner. I roll my eyes and cock my head in the direction of a cute, male, blonde, to which Ashley pulls a face and shakes his head in friendly disgust.

Back at the table, Brett and his father seem to have settled their rift. I touch his arm for the briefest of moments, noting the resignation on his face as he looks up at me, trying to determine why it is I demanded his attention.

'So, do you know if it's a boy or a girl?' I prod, tearing my gaze away from Brett.

Brett groans. Ashley and I are puzzled.

Brian coughs, clearing his throat. 'Twins. It looks like one of each at this stage.'

So kill me, I'm excited. I can't wait to see if they'll look like Brett and Ash and Brian, and go over and visit them, and watch them grow up.

'You're shitting me?' Ash asks. 'Fuck. Did you have to have sex twice to get twins?'

Sometimes I can't tell whether Ash's taking the piss, or he genuinely believes what he's saying, but tonight – fortunately – it's obvious he's only teasing.

'He did,' Brett retorts smoothly. 'And now we know why you're yet to have twins, Ash.'

'Ouch,' Ash grins. 'At least my little tadpoles have somewhere more interesting to go than a bloke's rectum.'

'Yeah, down the fucking shower drain,' Brett snickers. 'After you've been told 'I have a headache'.'

'Don't forget 'you haven't had a shower', 'my breasts are leaking' and in the good old days 'I've got my period'.'

The two crack up laughing, adding as many rejections as they can think of. Sometimes I get rare glimpses into what Ash and Brett must be like when they're alone, and I'll admit, I'm jealous. I miss my sisters – I have two of them, Sharon and Tania – but I wouldn't say my feelings of loss are reciprocated, and regardless, our relationship was nothing like what Brett and Ash have.

'Are you two going to sit here all night and discuss all the times you were knocked back?' Brian inquires after maybe fifteen minutes of nonsense.

'Do you want to hear about all the times we weren't knocked back?' Ash retorts, draining his glass and meeting his father's eye. 'Didn't think so. But I'll spare you, 'cause Helen's gonna kick my ass if I don't get home soon.'

It can be hard not to sneak a peek at Ashley's butt. He's one of those men whose wives buy all their clothing, and I've got to hand it to Helen; she knows how to pick a damn good pair of jeans for her husband.

'I should be off,' Brian remarks, draining his drink. 'I'll see you at Christmas Brett? You coming around for lunch?'

'Yeah, sure.'

I don't even bother commenting; for the past couple of years I've spent Christmas either with Brett, or with James' family, and it's common knowledge that I'll be trailing around after Brett again this year.

'We'll bring Lee,' Brett adds. 'Is that going to be okay?'

'No problems. Just email his Christmas list through to me. Leanne and Helen will probably want to get him something.'

'Sure thing.'

Brett and I exit the pub half an hour later and head to the Hyperdome to pick up Lee. It's Thursday night – his 'family night' – and Brett, Lee and I have previously decided that it's easier for Lee if Brett and I aren't present. One of the families looking after some of his siblings is noticeably homophobic and our presence makes for an uncomfortable atmosphere. The last thing Lee needs is his few hours a week with his siblings 'spoilt' by bad relations between foster parents, so as passive as our non-attendance sounds, we've agreed it's in Lee's best interests.

It's funny how so much has changed since Lee's come into our home. Brett, who stuck to his promise, and is only taking one subject a semester, is more visible around the house, not to mention more relaxed. My University holidays have started, so the house is also cleaner, but the biggest difference is not our stress levels, or financial changes, or the fact that we don't go to the pub as frequently as we used to, but our attitudes. Whereas once I'd ignore homophobic attitudes, or, if I was feeling childish, act immaturely, I now tend to avoid people who I think may take unkindly to our relationship. I don't want Lee to see anything he doesn't need to see, and I don't want him knowing exactly how many people there are who disapprove of Brett and I and all our GLBT brethren.

'You're quiet,' Brett remarks as we find a parking space.

'I was thinking.'

'Does your brain hurt?'

'No,' I reply, not responding to the joke. 'Do you think Lee knows how homophobic people can be?'

'His mother kicked his brother out because he was gay,' Brett replies dryly. 'And he's spending the evening eating dinner with Mr and Mrs 'morality',' he gestures. 'So I'm fairly sure he has a good idea.'

'But I don't want him to know,' I argue. 'I want him to not think about it.'

Brett glances over, before resting his hand on my thigh. 'We try and avoid him seeing as much as we can,' he points out. 'Hopefully he'll learn not everybody's discriminatory.'

'Yeah, but if he sees it, then he might start thinking like that.'

'He won't,' Brett replies, patting my leg. 'He's not that stupid. Don't worry about it too much Daidee, we're keeping him away from the worst of it.'

I continue to mull over the matter after we pick up Lee, and drive home. I start panicking, wondering if we're totally screwing up Lee, and if he's going to have issues as an adult because he spent the majority of his teenage years with us. Stupid? Probably.

'So is your stepmother pregnant?' Lee inquires as we walk inside our unit.

'Unfortunately,' Brett groans.

'Cool,' Lee grins. 'Think of all the stuff you're going to be able to do with them.'

Lee, being the A-class schoolwork procrastinator that he's become, then announces he needs to finish an assignment before he goes to bed. Further investigation by Brett shows that the assignment first needs to be commenced and being an English-based project, I agree to 'help' while Brett does his own study.

There is possibly no subject more tedious than post World War Two immigration, but we wade through his library books, make bad photocopies on our crappy little multi-function machine and rue the pointlessness of the task. As we're working, I work up the courage to question Lee on how he feels about living with Brett and I. Eventually, awkwardly, I stumble over the words, and wait anxiously for his reply.

'Why wouldn't I like it here?' he asks, sounding surprised.

'A lot of people said you'd get…teased…for living with us,' I reply weakly, embarrassed.

Lee snorts and puts his pen down. 'I get teased anyway. Like I give a shit, they're just fucking wankers with nothing better to do.'

'Are you sure?'

He nods regretfully. 'Yeah. I hate it though. I want to change schools. I want to go somewhere where nobody knows my family. Trust me, living with you guys is nothing. I'd kill to get teased over living with homosexuals. Mackenzie's Dad's gay and it's like, nothing compared to what you get if your brother kills himself, and your mother's in jail for… You know what my Mum's in jail for.'

I recall Mackenzie as Gordon's minder. 'Her Dad's gay? Is he cute?'

Lee gives me a withering look. 'He's old. She's not bad though. Why do you think I gave her Gordon to look after?'

'Because she looked like a responsible person?' I grin.

'Because she looked like a hot, responsible person,' he corrects, grinning back. 'Can't you tell when a girl's good-looking? I can tell that Jamie has a wicked body and I'm straight.'

'She's fourteen,' I groan, pushing the books away. 'How can she be good-looking? She hasn't grown up.'

Lee shakes his head in disgust and we return to his assignment, not touching the subject of our living arrangements again. I'm glad I asked, just to make sure he was doing okay, although I know that I'm going to have to speak to Brett about Lee going to a new school next year.

As the printer spits out the last page of his assignment, Lee and I grin tiredly at one another in triumph. Brett's long been asleep, and it's currently one-forty am, far too late for either Lee or I.

'Thanks,' he yawns. 'Man I'm never going to put off schoolwork again.'

I don't know why he bothers lying. We both know damn well within the next week he's going to be keeping us up all night, doing yet another assignment.


Everything hurts. My brain's all fuzzy, my body's aching and I'm incredibly tired, but I know I need to clean myself off before Lee gets home. He hasn't seen me have a seizure before, by some incredible stroke of luck, and I'd rather he not come across me, lying in my own mess in the hallway, when he comes home from school.

Lexis is barking crazily – he hates seizures – and it's not until that I prop myself up against the wall that he stops yapping. He runs around me, sniffing and whining unsurely, as though to make sure I'm really alright.

''s 'kay Lexis,' I mutter, wriggling my hand against his side, showing him I'm okay. 'I'm alive.'

I struggle out of my clothes, using my already-dirty shorts to wipe up the worst of the mess on the floor. Stumbling to the laundry, I collect disinfectant wipes and clean up the rest, leaving the tiles in pristine, if damp, condition.

The simple task is a huge effort in my current state. My head's swimming in a sea of mush and if I hadn't already had a seizure, I could swear I was going to have another one. Normally, their onslaught is a surprise, by sometimes my arm starts twitching beforehand, and that's a damn good indicator of a seizure.

I all but fall into the bathtub, and realize there's no way I'm going to be able to find the strength to turn on the shower taps. We have a shower/bath combo, so instead I put the plug in and run myself a nice bath. The water's quite hot, but the moment I feel it against my skin I relax, and the aches slowly start to fade. I move only to turn off the taps when the bathtub becomes too full.

Without even realizing it, I must start to doze off, because I tiredly, contently, recognize that my eyelids are shut, and the warm water against my skin is causing all the aches to fade.

Time seems to skip a little bit – or a lot – because the next thing I know I'm in hospital, lying on my back, with Lee worriedly sitting alongside me. He's in his school uniform, which looks kind of wet, and I'm not entirely sure how it was we ended up here.

'Why am I here?' I mumble, trying to sit up, before realizing that if I thought my head hurt earlier this afternoon, I obviously didn't know what true pain felt like.

'You had a seizure in the bath,' he explains nervously. 'You didn't lock the bathroom door. I could hear something, and you weren't say anything when I called out, and Brett's car wasn't in the garage, so I know you weren't…you know, doing that.'

'You pulled me out of the bath?' I slur, wishing I could shut my eyes, and get something to take the pain away.

Lee nods. 'Yeah. I had to grab some of your hair to pull you up, cause your head was underneath the water. And I kind of dropped you when I was trying to get you out, so, um, you have stitches.'

A nurse comes in to check up on me, asking me twenty million stupid questions, telling me about the stitches I have on my left shoulderblade, and asking if I want dinner. As she's pestering me, Brett comes in and takes a seat, his face tight and concerned.

I feel like crap. Even in my foggy, had-a-seizure state, I recognize that despite everyone always hammering it into my head not to have a bath, alone, after a seizure or when I suspect I'll have one, I ran a bath anyway. Lee looked so terrified when he explained that he dropped me, and that's not fair. Adults don't like my seizures, the last thing Lee should have had to do was come in and literally save my life.

I'm so crap at this foster parenting thing. Brian's suspicions about our ability's may have been incorrect in regards to Brett, but he definitely hit the nail on the head when he told me parenting was beyond my abilities. Every time I think I've sorted Lee out, something worse happens, generally as a direct result of my actions.

My brief period of alertness is drawing to a close, and when Brett speaks, it's a struggle to comprehend the words that come out of his mouth.

'We'll let you have some sleep,' he remarks, understanding that conversation is beyond me. 'They're going to let you go home tomorrow, if you don't have any more seizures tonight.'

'Hmm. Love you.'

He kisses my forehead gently, rearranging the blankets and stroking my hair, before leaving. I'm more relieved that he's gone, and I probably would have fallen asleep, had the nurse not brought my dinner just seconds after Brett and Lee left. Instead, I eat my dinner and then fall asleep, not waking until a nurse starts pestering me, early in the morning.

I guess I expected Brett to come and pick me up around nine or ten, but instead he arrives at one o'clock, dressed in his workclothes. I'd forgotten he'd started working on Saturdays, and my guilt increases as I realise Lee must have been left alone, at home, while Brett went to work and I recovered in the relative safety of hospital.

Sometimes the amount of trouble a seizure can cause is mind-blowing. I'm so sorry for all the trouble I've caused, and repeatedly apologise to Brett and Lee, whilst thanking Lee for saving my life. It's so odd to realise you could have died, and even weirder to realise that if we hadn't fostered Lee, I probably would be dead. It's embarrassing to think he's dragged my naked, fitting, carcase out of the bathtub, but I'm not sure how to apologise without sounding perverted or stupid.

My apologies are greeted with grim silence, Lee looking uncomfortable and Brett, worried. Eventually, I settle into my car seat, half-shutting my eyes and wondering if Brett, or Terry, or James, are going to yell at me over this.

'Damon,' Brett sighs when we're halfway home. 'How many times did everyone tell you not to have a bath when you're alone? How many fucking times were you told not to do it?'

'I know,' I admit softly. 'I'm sorry.'

Brett shakes his head and shuts his eyes as we stop at a traffic light. 'You're a goddamn fucking moron. I really can't believe you've stayed alive for this long.'

He starts laughing hollowly, leaning over and petting my thigh. 'God you're a fucking idiot. I think I'm glad we can't breed. I can't imagine what sort of horrendous spawn we'd come up with.'

I try and imagine someone as careless as me, and as grumpy as Brett. It's kind of funny, and Lee makes me laugh when he asks if he thinks Brett and I would have a girl or a boy.

We start laughing and joking awkwardly, none of us wanting to spend any more time thinking about the seriousness of my seizure. I was stupid, yeah, and I guess Brett has something of a right to tell me I was stupid. It's not until he pulls me over, though, and kisses the top of my head, that I realise that despite his jokes and teasing, he's kind of upset. His heart's beating quickly and his eyes are a little red, and he whispers 'I love you,' before nudging me back to the passenger side, and taking off, as the lights turn green.

It's both unsettling and nice to realise that somebody cares so much about you staying alive, and being their partner.

'I'm really sorry,' I apologise, yet again. 'And Lee, thanks for saving my life.'

'It's fine,' they reply in weary unison.

I reach for my cigarettes, flushing red, and wondering if this is how Terry feels about Jamie. I wonder if he's scared of what Jamie will do after he dies, and how he'll cope, because looking over at Brett, I don't think my boyfriend would cope too well for my death.

'I really am sorry,' I repeat.

'Should I leave him in the bathtub next time?' Lee asks Brett.

'Please.'

Chapter Sixteen

'Too loose?'

Hamish pushes off and samples the new wheels on his skateboard.

'Nope, it's good,' he grins. 'What do I owe you?'

'A Guinness,' Paddy replies on his behalf, staring down at the fourex stubbie in his hand. 'And get the rest of us one while you're at it, because any more of this crap and I think I'll die.'

'If you're not drinking it, I'll take it, you lousy bastard,' Hamish offers. 'Otherwise, stop complaining.'

It's the first Wednesday of Lee's summer holidays and he's inside cleaning out Gordon's bowl. Paddy's a skate park mate, and with school holidays on, he's attempting to teach his younger brother, Hamish, how to skate. It's a slow, arduous process from Paddy's point of view, and his fifteen year old sibling is showing only the slightest interest.

The skateboard having been fixed, we move inside and sit at the kitchen table, watching Lee carefully scoop out Gordon's bubble nest.

'It looks like fucking spoof,' Hamish grins, peering at the bubble nest as Lee attempts to scoop out Gordon.

Lee gives our guest a small smile. 'It's his nest. He wants to make babies.'

'Don't we all,' Paddy sighs.

Lee grins and places the cup with Gordon in it, swimming around in pissy little circles, on the table. I'll give Lee this; he's pedantic about looking after his pet, and although he was initially joking when he said the fish was going to aid his mental health, I think he may have had a point. Fortunately, our newest social worker agrees, and was disproportionately happy with Lee's fish-keeping. She visited on Monday morning – unexpectedly, may I add – and went on and on and on about how wonderful it was that we'd allowed Lee to keep a pet of his own. I may have rolled my eyes at the time, but I'm glad at least one social worker thinks we're doing okay. I'm gladder still that Lee's taking care of his blinkyfish.

From his home in his fishtank, Blinky the fifth notices Gordon and starts flaring furiously. Gordon clicks onto the fact that there's another Siamese just inches away from him and returns the fury.

'Shit that's cool,' Hamish remarks, peering at our flaring fish. 'The little bastards are pissed. Are they always like that when they see each other?'

'Yep,' Lee nods. 'Gordon's a bit dumb, though. He doesn't seem to realise that Blinky doesn't like him unless Blinky starts flaring. Damon thinks he's gay.'

'Sunk to converting the fish, huh?' Paddy laughs, grinning at me. 'Aren't there enough nice men for you down at the skate park?'

I grin back. 'I don't think Brett would appreciate sharing house with anyone else at the moment.'

I'm 'kind of' out to my skate park buddies. Those who I know fairly well, and I think will react well, are told, and Paddy just happens to be one of those people. I actually really trust the guy; there's something about him that's incredibly friendly. He – and Hamish – have thick, Irish accents and think sobriety is an anathema, but they're fun to be around. Paddy's long-term unemployed, perpetually undersexed and a kick-ass skater, but I only met Hamish two days ago, and judging by the expression on Hamish's face, his brother didn't bother to disclose my sexuality.

'So where are your real parents?' Hamish asks Lee. 'Is Damon your brother?'

'That's not really any of your business,' Lee replies, trying to remain cool. 'But Damon's not my brother.'

Hamish pauses. 'Sorry.'

'It's okay.'

I realise Lee genuinely doesn't give a shit whether Hamish likes him or not. It's so peculiar to see a fourteen year old so uncaring about how he's viewed socially and I'm not sure whether to be worried, or proud of him. Even more peculiar, is Hamish's next question.

'I'm going rock-climbing on Friday. Want to come?'

Lee frowns. 'Damon can't drive and Brett's going to be at work.'

'I'm catching the bus,' Hamish shrugs diplomatically. 'Come on, you know you want go.'

Lee looks to me for approval. I shrug.

'Cool,' Lee grins.


My hair feels all grimy and dry from the bleach that's currently transforming it from matt brown to yellow-white. Already the purple bleaching lotion is eating into the strands, clinging to now-brassy hair. I've never been a blonde before. Lee's hair is white-blonde and Hamish's is yellowy-orange, none of us looking better for the change but not one of us caring.

Okay, maybe that's a lie. My stomach is churning, filled with butterflies, as I wonder how Brett's going to react to my new hairdo. As a teenager, sex ed teachers always hammer it into your head that it's who you are, not what you look like, that should be important to your partner, but I think people also need to be reminded that your partner has to look at you, and you at them, for a good portion of each day.

'You're scared,' Hamish teases me in his thick, Irish accent. 'Oooh, what will Brett say?'

'Shut-up,' I mutter, checking the clock, wondering how much longer I need to keep the bleach in. 'If you had a girlfriend, you wouldn't be laughing so hard.'

Lee smiles. 'We have the power of majority on our side,' he reminds me. 'Two against one.'

I groan, and head to the shower, the thick, overwhelming desire to turn back the hands of time and regain my natural hair colour, almost overwhelming. My hair is crisp and dry beneath my touch, but no sooner am I out of the shower, with damaged wet hair dripping down my neck, than Lee squeezes bright red dye into my hair.

'Thanks,' I mutter.

'Don't be grumpy,' he chastises. 'You're not old enough to be grumpy. I mean, you listen to old school music, and you wear dorky clothes, but you're not over the hill.'

I forget sometimes, that to a fourteen year old, twenty-two sounds like an awful lot of numbers. Lee and Hamish laughed at me today, for mentioning that I remember when Kurt Cobain died; they find it hilarious that I can reminisce about someone, whereas I find it bloody peculiar that they listen to Nirvana, amongst other bands whose names are new and unknown to me.

Deciding that I was in trouble of being 'boring' old, Lee and Hamish convinced me to dye my hair with them. They'd stumbled upon the idea while they were rock-climbing, and after they arrived back at my unit, we went off to the chemist for bleach and vibrant, fudge hair dyes. I chose red, Hamish, blue and Lee, green. In other words, we look like a bunch of parrots, out of place and easily distinguishable from everyone else. I'm not sure what Lee and Hamish have to go back to school, but with school resuming in over four week's time, I have a little time up my sleeve to think of a way to return Lee's hair to his natural, dirty blonde.

'So Brett's old enough to be grumpy?' I ponder aloud.

'Yep,' Lee agrees. 'Isn't it weird being with someone that old?'

'He's twenty-five,' I point out dryly.

'Old,' Hamish and Lee agree aloud.

I roll my eyes as Hamish saunters back to the bathroom, to wash the excess blue dye from his hair. Even if I do find him to be slightly annoying, I'm glad he and Lee appear to be developing a friendship. There was always that concern, playing in the back of my mind, that Lee didn't appear to have any friends. He's quite close to his siblings, particularly Charlene, and he calls her frequently - two or three times a week is not unusual - but there's a difference between a sister and a best mate.

There's no hot water left by the time it's my turn to wash out the red hair dye, but the weather's so hot the cold water is almost a relief. My image, however, is a shock that no water - no matter how cold - could ever match. The red is almost fluorescent, and I really, really, don't want to know what Brett, James and Terry are going to say.

'Damon?'

'Brett?'

'Yeah, can I come in?'

Following my seizure in the bathtub, Brett removed the locks from the bathroom and bedroom doors, leaving in their place the dorky sort of 'room busy' cards that you see in hotels. It's embarrassing beyond all belief, but he and Lee only looked at me like I was a fool when I protested.

'Okay,' I agree. 'But don't freak out.'

Brett doesn't freak out; he laughs. I put his humour down to the fact that he doesn't have to return to TAFE for five weeks - a few days after Lee has to return to school - but it makes me concerned that perhaps I look ridiculous.

'No, it's fine,' he disagrees, when I voice my concerns. 'But go and get dressed, hey? Remember? We need to take Lee to the orthodontist.'

'Oh yeah,' I agree, wincing. 'The orthodontist.'

'You forgot to tell him about it, didn't you?'

'Maybe,' I admit. 'I'll go and tell him now.'

Lee doesn't take kindly to the news. Braces will make him look 'stupid', they'll ruin his chances with the girls and besides, he 'doesn't need' them. I disagree. His teeth are just a smidgen too bad to leave as is, and having them fixed now means that by sixteen, he should be braces-free with straight teeth.

'Brett's teeth are worse,' Lee sulks. 'Why doesn't he get his teeth fixed?'

'This has nothing to do with my teeth,' Brett interrupts. 'Get dressed and dry your hair. We'll drop Hamish off at his house on the way.'

'No,' Lee argues, giving Brett a filthy look. 'I'm not going. God, I'm telling you that you don't need to spend the money, you should be happy.'

'Lee, get dressed. Now. This conversation is over,' Brett demands.

Lee throws Brett one last, resentful glare before heading off to his room to get dressed. I have honestly no idea why Lee's so adamant he doesn't need braces; if I had teeth like his or Brett, the moment I had the money to spare, I'd be at the dentist having them whitened and straightened.

Fifteen minutes later, we're in the Astra, driving Hamish home. He and Lee are already planning what they're going to be doing next week, with Lee pointedly ignoring Brett. It's amusing the way Lee appears to have picked up Brett's manner of sulking; ignoring their antagoniser, making pissy comments, and giving dirty looks to express their disapproval. Brett isn't amused, he's annoyed, and the moment Hamish is out of the car, he turns to glare at Lee.

'Don't fucking look at me like that,' Lee whinges, crossing his arms over his chest. 'Your teeth are worse than mine and you don't have braces.'

Brett flushes slightly. 'If you want a girlfriend, you have a better chance with staight teeth, than with crooked ones.'

'You have a boyfriend and your teeth are shit.'

'This isn't about me. I'm twenty-five, you're fourteen. I'm old enough to make my own decisions, you are not.'

'God, you're such a bastard,' Lee spits. 'Why are you being like this?'

'Brett, just drive,' I interrupt, realising that the argument between he and Lee is anything but productive. Normally the two get on quite well, with Lee treating Brett as something of a parental figure, but they've had one or two nasty spats. Clashes of the ego, I guess, because now that Lee's settling in, his 'true self' is starting to be revealed, and he just happens to have a personality that's not entirely unlike Brett's. They're both fantastic to be around so long as thing's are going their way, but the moment they're forced into a corner, or made to do something they don't like, they throw disgustingly childish tantrums.

I'm hoping Lee will grow out of his behaviour, but everyone seems to be of the opinion that things will only get worse before they get any better. Personally, I believe I reached the pinnacle of my shitty teenager behaviour at thirteen, but James' mum swears that James and I were worst at sixteen. Terry agrees, giving numerous examples of what he got up to and at what age. This isn't what I'd call great news.

At the orthodontist, Lee continues throwing Brett dark looks, before slouching into a waiting room chair and choosing to ignore us. His newly green hair, and my red hair, makes everyone stare, and Brett becomes annoyed, hissing at Lee to sit up and stop acting like a brat.

'Is this better Dad?'

Brett shakes his head and picks up a women's magazine, deciding that there's no point starting a very public fight.

'Lee Grieves?' the receptionist calls. 'Dr Johnson is ready to see you.'

Brett and I stand up. Lee remains in his seat.

'Get up,' Brett order.

Lee throws him the bird. 'Get fucked.'

The silence in the waiting room is palpable. It's obvious by the 'you shitty father' looks Brett's receiving that most people assume he's Lee's father - who else would take him to an orthodontist? - and they're all waiting for Brett to do something about his badly behaved child.

'Lee, for Christ's sake,' Brett swears. 'If you want to see Hamish next week, you're going to get up now, go in there, and open your mouth for the orthodontist.'

Lee stands up, slouching after us and flopping insolently into the dentist's chair. He glares his way through most of the inspection, his posture defiant and his eyebrows knitted together. Nearer the end, when he learns that he only needs to keep the braces on for a year, and that he can have the clear kind, he loosens up a little, even giving a small smile when the dentist teases him about his reluctance to have braces.

'Brett didn't have to get braces,' Lee tells her, cocking his head in my boyfriend's direction.

'He should have his teeth corrected,' Dr Johnson replies, turning to stare at Brett. 'It's never too late. I could do an initial check-up now, if none are you are going anywhere?'

Cut to half an hour later. Lee's no longer sulking, although Brett is. Within two weeks, they'll both have two rows of metal on their teeth and although I'm ecstatic that Brett will soon have nice, straight teeth, Brett is unimpressed.

'Suck shit,' Lee grins, apparently no longer concerned about his upcoming dental work. 'You're going to get teased worse than me.'

Chapter Seventeen

'Santa's been,' Lee half-sings from outside our bedroom door, trying not to sound too excited.

Brett groans and buries himself underneath the doona. He doesn't give a damn about 'Santa' at this time of morning, and as 'this time' is six am, I understand his sentiments entirely. Our holidays to date have involved not emerging from bed prior to ten in the morning, days filled with swimming and movies and skating, and late nights spent watching new release DVD's. Getting up at this ridiculous hour in the morning is almost an anathema.

'What time did we have to be at your Dad's house?' I mumble, snuggling into Brett's warm, sleepy, form.

He groans again and pushes the doona back, realising that even if he doesn't want to wake up now, he's going to have to. 'Nine,' he grunts. 'Fuck.'

Lee isn't anywhere near as lazy as Brett and I. It's not unusual for Hamish to show up at our house at eight or nine in the morning, and the two will play Playstation games until Brett and I emerge from our bedroom to eat breakfast and take the two of them with us to wherever it is we're going. I'm glad the guys seem to be developing a good friendship, although there have been a few times where I've wondered why it is Lee and Hamish can't go over to Hamish's house for the day.

Brett rolls out of bed, landing on his butt, before pulling himself to his feet and rubbing his eyes. 'Okay, hang on a sec,' he tells Lee. 'I'm going to need to make some coffee first.'

Lee makes an impatient, irritated noise, which makes me laugh. He already knows that's he's getting a bike - one he chose - from Brett and I, but with so many siblings, plus presents from Jamie and Terry, and James and Mitch, and Eleanor and Kevin, there's a lot under the tree for him. Austin sent up fifty dollars and a Christmas card, and he'll be getting more presents from Brett's family, so I guess to someone like Lee, the day is pretty interesting.

The water in the kettle is boiling, courtesy of Lee, when we walk into the kitchen and we make coffees and take them, and our cigarettes, outside so that we can wake up a little. Lee sits opposite us, tapping his fingers against the table and pointedly staring into our eyes. When his tapping gets louder and more insistent, Brett leans across the table and smacks his fingers, crushing them agains the table.

'Fine,' Lee smirks, standing up and going inside. He returns within minutes, dropping something into our mugs of coffee before we have a chance to react.

'Ice?' Brett identifies. 'You put ice in my coffee? God you're a little shit.'

'A little shit who told your father you'd be at his house by nine,' Lee points out. 'And I want to open my presents before we go.'

I pluck Brett's cigarette from his fingers and stub it, and mine, out. 'He has a point.'

Ten minutes later I'm glaring at the first pair of cheap, satin boxers I've owned since I was sixteen. They're bright, dark purple and have two peanuts playing golf, and a large 'Nuts about Golf' announcement on them.

'You've really got to stop going to the bathroom in your jocks,' Lee chastises firmly. 'You nearly burnt Hamish's eyes a few days ago.'

'Thanks,' I reply, embarrassed that I've embarrassed Lee. Normally I pull on a pair of shorts when I exit our bedroom, but it was only a two metre journey from bedroom to bathroom and I would have thought that it wouldn't have unduly bothered anyone.

'You're not as bad as Hamish's Dad,' Lee shrugs diplomatically. 'He wears a singlet and jocks out in the morning and he tucks his singlet into his jocks. Gross,' he finishes with a shudder.

Brett and I exchange amused glances. Lee must have spent exactly one morning over at Hamish's, so it's probably not in our best interests - hey, we want to get rid of the pair every now and then -to learn that Hamish's father has such unsavoury habits, but it's a relief to know that we're not the grossest.


The room is a mess of wrapping paper when the presents have been opened, but there's one last gift to be given. Lee returns to his room to collect his present to Brett; a cute blue and purple female Siamese fighter fish.

'Aren't you excited,' Lee grins at him. 'Now you have a fish, too.'

'Thrilled to bits,' Brett replies dryly.

Brett's happy, though, I know he is. A fourteen year old slob whose every second work is a curse may not have been what he thought he wanted, but I'm fairly sure he wouldn't give Lee up for all the cute, newborn babies in the world.

The remainder of Christmas Day progressed without a fuss. Lee called his siblings and father before we headed off to Brian and Leanne's, and in the evening he received a call from his mum. On Boxing Day, Brett and I took Lee to visit his mother, Lindsay, who appeared to be more or less resigned to the fact that her eldest living son is living with two men. As we were about to leave, she asked for a few minutes alone with me, which was suprising - most 'adults' prefer to deal with Brett - and I hesitantly sat down again whilst Lee and Brett went out to the car.

'I'm leaving jail for good in a few weeks,' she informed. 'I've plea bargained, and I won't be returning, but I've done a Life Plan with my counsellor and we've agreed Lee should probably stay with you. I'm going to try and get custody of the youngest children, but the other three, and Lee, will stay in foster care until I'm back on my feet.'

She looked so sad I could do nothing but nod my head stupidly.

'I may not agree with your sexuality,' she continued, frowning. 'But you can give Lee things that I can't, and if he's happy, that's good enough. After this, I'm never going to mention right or wrong with sexuality, because I've already killed one child doing that,' she paused, before adding,'I'd appreciate it if you could take Lee to see his old Mum sometimes.'

'I think he'd want to,' I pointed out uncomfortably. 'Uh, where do you live?'

'I don't know yet,' she replied, her manner suddenly brusque. 'I'll let you know. You should go now.'

As I left, I wanted to go back and tell her Brett and I couldn't give Lee anything that special. We don't have a lot of money, and I, at least, am a pretty crappy parent. We fight two or three times a weekwith Lee; Brett sulks, Lee sulks, I escape to the skatepark, and we rarely apologise, instead, slowly returning to 'normality' until the next time Lee forgets to take in the washing, or let Lexis out in the morning or just clashes with Brett, seemingly 'for the hell of it'. I felt so bad, almost as though I'd stolen her child.


'You didn't,' Jamie shrugs, as I explain my mixed emotions to he and Terry. 'I went to foster care for six months when my Mum went to jail. I hated it, but I had good foster parents, and when us kids were given back to my Mum, she'd finally got her shit together.'

'Yeah, but you went back to your Mum,' I argue. 'Lee isn't. He's staying with us.'

'So? Don't stress,' Jamie demands, taking a long swallow of beer. 'It's probably easier for her not to have twenty million kids living with her. Besides, if she thought she could look after him better than you could, she'd be fighting tooth and nail to get him back.'

Terry pats my leg and annouces he's returning to the swimming pool. My gaze follows him as he saunters to the pool where Brett, Lee and Hamish are currently timing each other racing down Jamie's new waterslide. Jamie and Terry's pool is really something else, and were it not for much prodding from Brett and I, Lee and Hamish would probably live in it.

The whole house now looks terrific, and I'll confess a touch of envy. That said, my home is still my home, and I kind of like the clutter and mess. Nobody in our house is terminally ill and it's impossible to feel lonely when there's either somebody around, or a mess to be cleaned, or, more frequently, a combination of the two.

'Damon,' Terry calls. 'Jamie. Are you two coming in?'

'Yeah,' I call, walking over to the pool and jumping in.

It's New Year's Eve and none of us are going anywhere until New Year's Day, having decided that the drunken idiocy of the general public is going to be too much to bear. James arrives in the afternoon with Evan in his arms. Mitch has to work the graveyard shift on one of the busiest nights of the year, and James would rather avoid thinking about the possible situations his partner may be finding himself in.

Their relationship is a little better now that the 'ground rules' of Mitch's sexual activity with Veronica have been spelled out, and James is a little calmer, if not entirely happy with the situation. James doesn't sleep around, he doesn't want to, and he never called Warren, the man he picked up the night Brett and I took him out clubbing.

We're eating dessert, and watching Lee, Hamish and Brett in the pool, when Jamie raises a question that has perhaps been playing on my mind for the past few days.

'Am I just a stupid straight man, or does Hamish have something for Brett?' he asks, narrowing his eyes and critically inspecting the trio.

James, Jamie, Terry and I watch as Hamish pushes the boundaries of friendly behaviour. I'll admit, Hamish touches Brett a lot, hangs around him, sits closest to him, and even bought him a Christmas present, but I kind of just thought I was reading too much into his behaviour. I thought I was being stupid and looking at life from a homosexual viewpoint, and imbueing innocent gestures with qualities they didn't ever possess.

'I'm going to second that,' James admits.

'I'll third it,' Terry shrugs. 'So what? Now you know why Hamish initiated the friendship, but if they're friends beyond the fact that Hamish wanted to acquaint himself with a few queers, who cares? As for lusting after Brett, it's almost a right of passage to have a crush on at least one unobtainable adult.'

'Yeah, but if I was Lee I'd feel pretty used when I found out,' I argue, worried. I don't want Lee to know, for the first time in my life I want someone to remain firmly in the closet. 'Lee's always going on about one girl or the other, and Hamish is obviously only pretending to be interested, too. What if Lee ends up thinking he's been played?'

Jamie laughs. 'When I first met Brett, I was doing my second run as a Year One student, and he'd just started school. He started crying when his Mum left, so at lunchtime, I teased him. He teased me for being poor, so I hit him. The teacher made us spend a week as friends. Trust me, if we could get over that, Lee can get over Hamish.'

James, Terry and I take a look at Brett, in all his adult masculinity, and try and imagine him as an inconsolable five year old. We crack up laughing, drawing puzzled glances from Brett, Hamish and Lee.

'It's nothing,' Terry calls out to them.

The second the trio have returned to their games, Terry sighs. 'He'll be fine, Damon. It's Hamish that's going to have problems, not Lee.'

'I know,' I admit. 'But it's Lee that I worry about.'

James gives me a wry grin of understanding. 'Your not a crappy a parent as you think you are, Damon.'

Chapter Eighteen

Brett and Ashley's brother and sister arrive into the world six weeks early, impossibly tiny and each weighing little more than a kilo. They're born on the fourth day of the new year, fourteen days prior to Brett's twenty-sixth birthday, but there's little joy in their arrival. Everyone's stressed, waiting to see how the babies will cope with their premature birth, and it's not until they're a week old that Lee and I actually have a chance to meet Rita and Mark. By then, they're 'in the clear', and we're allowed to hold them for a few minutes.

Admittedly, Brett and Ashley still aren't thrilled at their father's new children and on one visiting day, whilst sitting in the canteen together, the two start pondering exactly how their father and Leanne are going to raise these two children. Their father will be seventy-one, and their mother, sixty-five, when they're eighteen and neither think the situation is particularly fair to the children. Two days later, Leanne brings Helen to tears when the latter tried to help the former with breastfeeding. Leanne didn't appreciate Helen's input, Helen - who apparently had done nothing more than adjust Rita's position in her mother's arms - started crying, and Brian just about bit Ash's head off, telling him to 'fuck off and take his interfering wife with him'.

There were apologies the next day, but the event made me wonder when it was that Ash or Brett were going to really snap at their father over something he'd said or done. Ashley's by far the calmer when it comes their dad, but when Brian made Helen cry, I truly thought he was going to deck him.

'Earth to Damon,' Hamish grins, waving his hand in front of my face. 'People are going to be here soon. Don't you want to start making dinner?'

It's the night of Brett's birthday dinner and Lee, Hamish and Helen have kindly agreed to assist me with the cooking. I guess that sitting at the kitchen table, staring into space, whilst Helen gives Ash his temporary marching orders, isn't conducive to producing a meal for twelve people so I push the chair back and stand up.

'...and remember to hang out the washing,' Helen requests, kissing her husband. 'And don't come back until I call you. I don't want to see you again.'

'You want me,' Ash replies confidently. 'If you didn't have me, you wouldn't...'

Lee snickers as Ashley tries to think of some reason why his presence is so important.

'...you wouldn't have anyone to make babies with,' Ash finishes with a grin. 'No one good-looking, anyway.'

Lee snorts. 'Hamish or I could make babies with her.'

We laugh, although Lee's comments draw to mind Hamish's rather obvious crush on Brett. How it is Lee's failed to notice his friend's lust eludes me, but it appears he's completely oblivious.

Helen finishes kissing Ashley good-bye, leaving him to take care of Ricky, and placing the ever-placid Ally on a rug on the floor. I like Helen; were I forced to stay with a woman, rather than a man, she'd be the one I'd pick, no questions asked. She's on the shy side when she's away from Ash, or in unfamiliar company, and even if she is a little on the dumb side, she's nice to be around.

'Hello? Are we going to get started?' Hamish demands, plonking several kilos of undefrosted chicken fillets on the counter. 'Jesus, it's the bloody house of procrastination here.'

'Maybe we should move the painting stuff first,' Helen suggests, eyeing off a two foot canvas with a half-completed naked woman painted on it.

'That would be Lee's,' I explain.

'It's the closest he's going to get to a naked woman for at least ten years,' Hamish adds helpfully.

'It's very good,' Helen admits. 'I'd kill to be able to paint that well.'

Lee gives her a grateful smile as he starts putting his stuff away. I didn't realise he was such a good artist - at least, by fourteen year old standards - until he used his 'Christmas money' to buy acrylics, paper and a canvas. He draws and paints women, and it appears that he prefers them to be naked. Brett and I have chosen not to comment on the subject of his paintings, although I did make Jamie take back the stack of soft-core porn he tried to give Lee, so that he could have 'inspiration'. Jamie may have a lot of porn - at least, according to Terry and Brett, he does - but seriously, Lee's fourteen and if he's anything like what I was like at fourteen, he doesn't need any assistance in imagining people naked.

Hamish and Lee put together a supermarket sponge cake, ice it and decorate with a ridiculous amount of sparkling cachous, whilst Helen and I peel twenty million potatoes and coat three kilos of chicken in seasoning mix. Brett's currently with Jamie, visiting Jamie's creepy bikie cousins, and we're expecting Ashley and Ricky, Brian and Leanne (Rita and Mark are still in hospital), James, Mitch and Evan, and Terry to arrive shortly. Kevin and Eleanor are away on holidays, so they won't be coming, but I'm glad everyone's agreed to help celebrate Brett's birthday. Sometimes he become a little too serious and despite his almost-fanatical studying, I know the only reason he works so hard is to ensure that he takes care of Lee and I to the best of his abilities.

Dinner is made, and proceeds, without any undue fuss; Brett gets a lot of gift vouchers, because nobody's quite sure what he wants, the fried chicken and mashed potatoes are eaten, and the cake Hamish and Lee made is retrieved and placed in front of Brett. I almost - almost - feel sorry for Brett, because he looks so embarrassed to be at the centre of so much fuss, but I don't, because he happens to look pretty darn cute when he's blushing. But it's not Brett's 'stop looking at me' embarrassment that makes the cake cutting noticeable. Actually, Hamish does a pretty good job of drawing attention away from my boyfriend, when Brian laughingly tells him he'd better move away from Brett, or he's going to be the closest male - and thus, the recipient of the ritual kiss - when Brett cuts the cake.

'I'm not scared,' Hamish retorts. 'He can kiss me all he wants.'

There's a lilt in his voice, one that's noticeable even through his Irish accent, and as I quickly scan the table, I see a flicker of recognition on Ashley's face. Brett's oblivious, laughing at Hamish's comment, and although Lee appeared - if only a splitsecond - perplexed, he's amused, too.

Brett cuts the cake, and Hamish, being in the closest proximity, gets kissed on the top of his blue-haired head. Ashley watches the process intently, making me realise that Brett's brother isn't as stupid as his family makes out.

After the cake is eaten, and we're outside having a cigarette, Ash asks if he can have a word with me. Ignoring everyone's puzzled stares, we walk inside, into Brett's and my bedroom, and shut the door.

'Damon, I don't mean for this to offend you,' Ash starts earnestly. 'And if you don't want to answer, or think it's none of my business...'

'...just ask,' I interrupt, not wanting the whole 'I-don't-want-to-offend-you-because-you're-gay-and-everyone-knows-you-queers-need-to-be-treated-with-white-cotton-gloves' routine.

Ash pauses. 'Is Hamish bisexual or gay? And does he...you know,' he gesticulates. '...have something for my brother?'

'I couldn't tell you for sure,' I admit. 'But my guess is 'yes' and 'definitely'.'

'Shit,' Ashley swears, sitting down on our waterbed. He bites his bottom lip, before flopping onto his back and giving me a wry grin. 'Sorry, I love this bed.'

'I've had sex in it,' I tease lightly. 'Disgusted?'

'I am when I remember the person you're having sex with is my brother,' Ash agrees. He pauses, shudders, and shifts a little so he's only lying on 'my' half of the bed. 'But, uh, I think we need to talk about Hamish. Hamish and Brett. And Hamish liking Brett, because that's not a good thing. Brett's going to freak out if he thinks it could be taken that he's...aware...of what Hamish is thinking.'

Oh fuck. I entirely forgot about that; I just assumed that everyone would see that Brett didn't realise Hamish had the hots for him. This isn't good. It definitely, definitely isn't good.

'Damon?' Ash continues cautiously, sitting up. 'Brett told me about the tape, you know, the uh...'

I nod, wincing, embarrassed that Ash knows some of the stuff his brother's been up to, and wanting to drop the topic as soon as possible.

' I really think you need to do something about Hamish,' Ashley finishes in a rush. 'And it'll probably be better coming from you or Lee than anyone else. If a social worker comes over and sees, and thinks he's encouraging a fifteen year old, then all hell's going to break loose.'

I groan. He's right, and I know it, but I'm also patently aware that I'm going to need to share the news with Brett. I don't want to be the one to tell everyone, I really don't. He's going to be so unhappy and I don't want to ruin his birthday festivities, even if the news is rather important.

'Everyone will be going home soon,' Ash points out. 'I could stay back with you, if you want. I'll drop Helen and the kids off now, and then...we can break the news to Lee and Brett.'

Already the 'talk' is going badly. It's Friday, and nobody really has anything important to do tomorrow, thus Jamie and Terry have hung around to 'have a few drinks'. Hamish, thankfully, has gone home, but I don't want to raise the subject of his crush, not with so many people around, because I know how sensitive Brett is to criticism. And if I tell him he's been blind to the obvious, and Ash, Jamie and Terry concur, he's going to take that as definite criticism.

I excuse myself from the table, walking down the hallway to Lee's room.

'Lee? If you're not doing anything, can I speak to you for a second?'

'Yeah, come in.'

Opening the door and flicking on the light, I offer thanks to the Gods that he wasn't jerking off. After he moved in, we were given an old desk and chair for his room, and I sit on the chair, chewing on my bottom lip and trying to figure out the best way to commence my talk. Lee looks a little perplexed, with his green hair all messed up and dark smudges under his eyes.

'Is there a reason you're waking me up?' he asks, revealing his new, clear, braces.

'Umm...,' I wince, squirming uneasily in the hard, wooden chair. 'Okay, this is the deal; sometimes people start off doing things for their own, selfish, reasons, but as time progresses, they realise that they actually like what they're doing.'

Lee gives me a blank look. 'Are you drunk?'

'No,' I snap, irritated with myself. 'Do I look drunk?'

'You sound it,' he grins, shrugging.

'I'm not.' I frown. 'I'll try again. You know how sometimes people find a new friend, because they think the friend can give them something, or do something for them?'

'Uh-huh.'

'Well, if they're friends for other reasons, like because they like each other, does one of the people's initial, selfish, reasons, matter?'

Lee gives me a wary look. 'Are you trying to say you fostered me because of bad motives?'

I give up. 'No, don't worry about it. It wasn't that important, anyway. Goodnight.'

'Goodnight,' he replies, sounding puzzled.

Outside, Brett, Ash, Jamie and Terry are halfway to inebriation and looking anything but serious. With a sigh, I realise that I can't possibly have my 'talk' with Brett tonight. Grabbing a beer, I sit down with them and try and look interested. Ash gives me a quick, questioning look, but when I shake my head to signify that no, I didn't explain the 'Hamish' situation to Lee, he merely shrugs and returns to the conversation.

Lee wanders out a few minutes later, obviously unable to go back to sleep now that I've woken him up. He pointedly stares at my beer, as though confirming that I must be drunk, before collecting a can of Coke and waiting to see if the conversation's going to be interesting.

'We should go out,' Terry suggests, looking around at us. 'Down to the Valley or something.'

I protest, not wanting to take Lee out at 'this time of night', nor wanting him to encounter anyone drugged or drunk. I can't help it; I want to keep him safe, and I don't think tramping around the Valley is either appropriate or safe for a fourteen year old. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person who feels this is a bad idea. Within minutes Ash is calling Helen to tell him he won't be home till tomorrow morning, and Terry's raiding our wardrobe, trying to find something for Ash - who had Ally throw up on him earlier in the night, leaving a spew-coloured stain on his shirt - to wear.

'Terry,' I plead, watching him rifle through our wardrobe. 'Are you sure this is appropriate for Lee?'

Terry pauses, turning to meet my gaze. 'You can't keep himwrapped in cotton wool.'

'I'm not,' I argue. 'I just want him to be safe.'

'What on earth is going to threaten his safety?' Terry retorts. 'For heaven's sake Damon, you're the last person I'd expect to be protesting.'

'I just don't like it.'

Terry hugs me, wrapping his skinny arms around my shoulders and patting my hair. I give in. I know I'm not going to win this argument; hell, even Brett seems happy with the idea.

Ninety minutes later we're sitting at a cafe, drinking coffee and smoking like dragons. I'm starting to relax as I realise that maybe I was being a little paranoid about Lee's safety, whilst Lee himself drinks Coke spiders and laughes at a guy who's eyeing up Ashley. We all crack up laughing when the guy leaves the cafe, dropping a business card in front of Ash on the way out.

'Why would I need a dentist?' Ashley asks, looking confused. 'Maybe he wanted you to have this, Brett?'

That's Ashley's doughiness in a nutshell. Jamie's mobile phone rings, and he heads outside to answer it, whilst the rest of us try to stop laughing long enough to explain to Ash the reason he has the business card, with a private mobile number kindly inked in on the bottom. Ashley's fascinated with the fact that he's been hit on, and asks us what one does after they've been given the number of someone they haven't even spoken to. Lee finds the subject hysterical, and he's actually crying laughing as Terry and Ashley discuss the matter.

Lee has a great laugh, the sort that makes you smile just hearing it. People around us are looking at him and smiling at his cackling and Terry pauses in his discussion to give Lee a wistful look.

'You laugh like your brother did,' he remarks.

Lee's laughter dies. 'Yeah,' he agrees quietly. 'Everyone used to say that.'

My heart sinks. I don't know why Terry said that; normally he's extremely tactful and polite, and yet he's made what I see as a huge faux pas. We're all silent, carefully waiting for Lee's next reaction, hoping that he won't get upset, and that Terry won't push the topic if Lee wants to drop it.

'He was a lot of fun, when he took his medication,' Lee continues with a weak smile. 'I went to this cafe with him once; someone asked if he was my boyfriend. Victor said 'yes', just for the laughs.'

'That sounds like Vic,' Terry agrees, ashing his cigarette. 'He was a terror at times; he was always teasing Mikey.'

'I only saw Mikey a few times. I never saw Vic tease him, but I knew he did, because Vic told me,' Lee replies, half-grinning at Terry. 'I'd like to meet Mike, properly that is, one day.'

Terry pauses. 'That may not be such a good idea, at least not yet. Give it time.'

Frankly, I see no reason at all why Terry didn't offer to take Lee to meet Mike. From what I saw of him, Mike was anything but intimidating and I can't imagine him not wanting to meet Lee.

As I'm about to comment, Jamie comes back inside and tells us we need to go. Somebody's vandalised his Monaro - whilst it was parked in the carparks at our unit - and the police want him to return and answer some questions.

It's odd, how much can happen on one night. We pay our bill and catch a maxi-cab home; Ash, Lee, Brett and Terry talking, Jamie glaring out the taxi window and me, thinking about Hamish and his crush on Brett. I feel terrible about Jamie's car, but there's no point worrying until we see how bad it is. The car's fitted with twenty million alarms, and each goddamn car part is coded so that stolen parts can be traced, so I really don't expect the damage to be anything worse than maybe a smashed window.

Arriving back at our units, we find two police taking notes, and a group of our neighbours curiously peeking out from behind curtains and pretending to collect their mail - yes, at three o'clock in the morning, they're pretending to 'collect their mail' - wanting to see what the fuss is about.

We approach the Monaro, noting the smashed windows and opened passenger door. Brett and I exchange glances, concerned that Jamie's car has been fucked with, and guilty because we both know that if we didn't live in this area, and Jamie hadn't parked his car here, this never would have happened.

A police officer solemnly leads us to the front of the car.

It's there we see that someone's used paint stripper to write the word 'FAG' on the front bonnet.