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Not Always Easy

by Kit

Chapter 21 - Troubled Friendships

On the way home from the GLYG meeting, James and Mike were engaged in animated conversation in the back of the car. I remained silent, concentrating on driving and wondering why seeing Rob with Tony had disturbed me so much. Whenever I glanced across at Dan, he was looking back at me with a questioning expression, and I could tell he could sense my mood, even though he didn't know its cause. Despite his obvious curiosity and concern, he didn't question me, and I guessed that he must have decided to hold back his questions until we were alone together.

"Well, what d'ya think of GLYG?" Dan asked Mike and James as we neared home.

"Interesting," James replied first.

"Not as boring as staying home on my own," Mike added, "but it wouldn't have been any fun without you guys."

"So you wouldn't go again?" Dan asked.

"Nah," Mike responded. "I'm glad I went with you, just to see what it was like, but you'd have to give me a good reason to go again."

"I might go again," James added tentatively after giving it some thought, "but I wouldn't want to go on my own."

When we got to my house it was only a little after ten o'clock, so we all went inside for drinks, which in my case meant a nice strong mug of tea to calm my feelings of unease. I wasn't exactly ecstatic when my parents almost rushed out of the living room to greet us, and even less happy when they joined us in the kitchen, stating that they wanted to 'debrief' us. Fortunately, my parents concentrated their attentions on James, with occasional questions directed at Mike, so I was able to lurk quietly in the background.

I was mildly surprised that James didn't seem to be uncomfortable with all the questions, because I knew that if my parents had 'debriefed' me after my first visit to GLYG I would have been squirming with embarrassment. However, I couldn't help smiling to myself as it occurred to me that if they had questioned me that first time, I would certainly not have mentioned swapping phone numbers with Ben.

"So you got to meet Rob, then," Mum asked. "What did you think of him?"

I groaned inwardly as I considered the possibility that she might be indulging in some matchmaking. From the expressions on their faces, I guessed that Mike and Dan were thinking the same thing, but relief washed over me when I heard the lack of enthusiasm in James' reply.

"He seems like a nice person, I s'pose," he answered, "and it's interesting that he's Marie's brother, cos they don't seem much alike."

It was approaching eleven o'clock, and having planned to spend the night at Dan's house, I was just about to make our excuses and leave when Mr Streeter brought John home. Almost every time John visited Marie, her dad gave John a ride home, and more often than not he didn't come into the house. However, that particular night Mr Streeter, red-faced and flustered, did come inside, and after the briefest of greetings he began to interrogate me.

"Was Rob with you?" he asked.

John, looking very uncomfortable, went to stand behind where my mum was sitting, as if he was seeking a place that might be safe from Mr Streeter's bad mood.

"Yes," I replied, startled by his abruptness. "We left him at the GLYG meeting, just over an hour ago."

"Did you see who he was with?"

By now I was getting flustered myself, and I wasn't sure how to answer. I didn't want to get Rob into any trouble, and until I knew what was going on I didn't want to give away too much information. However, I didn't want to lie and could see no obvious reason for not telling the truth.

"Erm, yes. He was with a guy called Tony."

"What do you know about this Tony person?"

"Not much, we only met him tonight, er, why?" I asked, feeling a little confused.

"And you just left him there?" Mr Streeter asked, ignoring my question.

I was getting rather irritated by his attitude and all the questions, and my irritation showed in my reply.

"I offered him a ride home, but he refused, and I could hardly drag him out screaming, could I?"

My mother cleared her throat and shot me a warning glance, which I interpreted to mean that I was close to overstepping the bounds of politeness. Mr Streeter's face went redder, but then his frown faded a little as he paused and took a deep breath.

"I'm sorry, Paul. It's just that Rob phoned Marie to say he wouldn't be home tonight and that he was staying with a friend."

"Phoned Marie?" I asked, though I guessed the answer before I'd finished speaking.

"Yes, he knew that if he'd phoned me or his mum then we'd have ordered him to come home. As soon as he told Marie to pass on his message, he hung up and now it seems that his phone is switched off."

From the tone of Mr Streeter's voice, I could tell that Rob was in for a hot reception whenever he did return home, and I didn't envy him one little bit.

"You don't know where this Tony lives, do you?" Mr Streeter continued in a calmer tone.

"Sorry. No idea," I replied truthfully.

"Well, can you at least tell me what little you do know about him?"

So, between us, we told Mr Streeter everything we could remember about Tony, and the only thing I didn't mention was his uncanny resemblance to Chris. He seemed particularly concerned by the fact that Tony was somewhat older than Rob and that they'd never met before that night.

"Why don't you have a cup of tea to settle you down before you drive home?" Mum asked Mr Streeter.

"No, thanks, I'd better get home to Janet. She's really worried and on edge."

With that, he said a quick good-bye and left.

While we'd been telling Mr Streeter about Tony, I noticed that John was giving us some strange looks, and it occurred to me that he must have just realised that Mike had gone with us to the GLYG meeting. I could tell from the expression on his face and the way he was fidgeting that he was eager to ask some questions of his own, but he was clearly reluctant to do so while Mr Streeter was there.

Taking Mr Streeter's departure as our cue, Dan and I got up to go as well, but despite the fact I had no new information to give them, I had to endure more questions from my parents before we could leave. Meanwhile, John had grabbed Mike's elbow and pulled him over to the far corner of the kitchen, where they became engaged in a quiet but animated conversation. I looked at the clock and saw that it was almost eleven thirty, and wanting to escape as soon as possible, I politely interrupted the questions and turned to Dan.

"What time did you tell your parents we'd be back?" I asked, trying to sound more concerned than I really was.

"I didn't give a particular time, but they would assume it would be before midnight."

"We'd better get a move on, then," I said and began walking toward the door.

Mike and James also excused themselves and came out to the car with us to say their farewells before they set off to Mike's house. As Mike walked away, James hung back, and whispered in my ear.

"Thanks for taking me tonight," he said. "This gay stuff is even more interesting than I thought it would be!"

He gave me a quick grin, then sped off to catch up with Mike. Dan and I got into the car and fastened our seat belts in silence, but as we drew away from the kerb, he couldn't contain his curiosity any longer.

"So what's really going on, then?" he asked.

Of course I'd been expecting Dan to start asking questions, but I still hadn't decided on exactly how to respond. I wouldn't lie to him but I also didn't want to reveal what Rob had told me in confidence, so I stalled for time.

"Going on?"

"C'mon, Paul," he said and sighed. "You know exactly what I mean. You knew something was going on even before Mr Streeter turned up."

"I didn't know that Rob would do something stupid," I protested truthfully. "I was just a bit worried by the way he was behaving with Tony, considering that they'd only just met."

"Yeah, if I didn't know Rob better I would've thought it was love at first sight!" Dan laughed.

I don't think I groaned out loud, but he certainly detected something more from me than just a lack of appreciation of his humour.

"You don't think it was, do ya? I mean, love at first sight?" he asked, no longer sounding quite so amused.

"Possibly," I replied sadly.

"Well," he said brightly, "maybe that's not a bad thing. After all, I fell for you the first time I saw you, and it all turned out great."

I gripped the steering wheel tightly and stared straight ahead while I tried to decide if his comment required a response.

"But that's not why you're worried, is it?" he continued when I didn't speak.

After some thought, I decided that as long as I didn't mention Rob's real feelings for his brother, I could tell Dan about Chris without breaking any confidences.

"Did ya know Rob used to have an older brother?" I asked.

"No, but what's that got to do with..."

"Well," I interrupted him, "if you let me tell you about him, maybe you'll understand."

We arrived at Dan's house before the story was completed, so I parked the car and we remained seated, holding hands, until I finished.

"The thing is," I said, concluding the tale of Chris and his death, "Rob was very upset when his brother died, and I don't think he's recovered yet. Tony looks very like Chris might have looked if he was still alive, and I'm worried that Rob might have transferred to Tony all the affection he had for Chris."

"And Tony isn't the same person as the caring big brother that Rob remembers," Dan added, apparently reading my mind.

"Exactly," I said sadly, "and although it's unfair to judge someone too quickly, I have a feeling that Tony may not be a nice person at all."

"Funny you should say that," he replied, nodding his head slowly and squeezing my hand, "cos I felt a bit, erm, uncomfortable with him as well."

The next morning, I woke up in Dan's bed, lying on my side with him spooned against my back and his arm over my chest. Gradually, I returned to full consciousness, and taking care not to wake him, I raised my head to look at the bedside clock. It was just after ten o'clock, but I was still a little tired, not to mention sticky, from the night's sexual fun. Remembering our love making, I smiled to myself and concluded that Dan was a wonderful lover, probably because he was so incredibly sensitive to both my physical and mental states.

As I felt his gentle breath on the back of my neck, I realised that there was nowhere else in the world that I'd rather be. Of course, making love with Dan was wonderful, but sleeping with him, waking up with him, and just being with him, all made my life complete. My worries about commitment still niggled in the background, but they were puny compared with my desire to spend the rest of my life with him.

Maybe my slight stretching movements woke him, or maybe it was just his incredible sensitivity, but he began to wake up, and I felt his arm tighten against my chest. He mumbled some greeting into my shoulder blade, and as usual he woke up much faster than I did, so it wasn't long before he was gently pushing his morning stiffy against my buttocks.

"Bloody hell," I said with a chuckle. "Haven't you had enough yet?"

"Is there such a thing as enough of this?" he asked, reaching down to stroke my erection.

I turned round to face him and kissed him on the nose.

"Well, sorry I can't oblige just now," I replied. "I'm dying for a pee, and we're both badly in need of a shower."

"Mmm, now there's an idea!" he exclaimed with a grin, and pushed me out of bed.

As his parents were at work, I became very excited at the prospect of showering with him, and dragged him out of bed. Although we occasionally showered together in Dan's house when his parents were home, we were much less inhibited when we had the house to ourselves, because then we needn't worry about making a lot of noise. After we'd emptied our bladders, we got into the shower together and washed one another, as well as playing around and having an orgasm each.

By the time we were dressed and eating breakfast, it was almost noon, and as I chewed on my toast, I suddenly remembered Rob. Quickly excusing myself, I dashed upstairs to retrieve my phone from Dan's bedroom. Returning to the kitchen, I hit the speed-dial for Rob's number as I sat down.

"Um, hiya, Paul," Rob said tiredly, obviously having consulted his caller ID.

"Hi, Rob. What happened last night? What time did you get home? Have you seen your dad? He was going ballistic last night!"

"Erm, lots, about an hour ago, and no."


"Lots happened last night," he giggled. "I got home about an hour ago, and no I haven't seen my dad, but I called to see Mum at work when I was on my way home."

"You went to see your mum at work?"

"Yeah, I wanted to let her know I was okay, and I knew she wouldn't be able to yell at me so much if she was at work. And I knew Dad would be annoyed...."

"Annoyed?" I interrupted. "I think that's an understatement!"

"Well, anyway," he continued, "I wanted her to phone Dad to let him know I'm fine and to try to calm him down before I see him tonight."

"You'll be lucky," I commented. "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes tonight."

"Oh, I'm not worried," he said, his voice contradicting his words. "His bark is much worse than his bite, and he's a big softy really. And it was worth any hassle Dad might give me."

"I hope you're right. But what exactly happened last night?"

He must have detected that my curiosity was tinged with concern, because he replied in a very soothing voice.

"Don't worry Paul, I had a really good time and I'm fine, apart from being tired and a bit, erm, sore."


"Yeah," he chuckled. "I lost my virginity last night and Tony is quite a big boy, if ya know what I mean!"

"Bloody hell, Robbie, you only just met the guy!"

Somehow I wasn't very surprised, but I was a little shocked, though I tried not to let it show because I didn't want to seem like a prude or put a damper on his obvious happiness. .

"Maybe. But I love him," he replied defensively.

"I thought you said you couldn't love anybody," I challenged.

"I was wrong," he said simply and with an absolute conviction that I found inexplicably disturbing.

For a few moments I couldn't think what to say while my mind churned over the implications of what he'd just told me. I didn't really doubt that he was in love, but I wondered if it was with Tony or with something that Tony might represent.

"Erm, Rob," I said tentatively. "Does Tony remind you of anyone?"

"No, why should he?" he replied too quickly and with a harsh edge to his voice.

Had Rob been telling the truth, I'm sure he would have asked 'who?' and not 'why should he?'. So I knew immediately, both from his tone and his words, that he was lying. However, he clearly didn't want to discuss the matter further, so I went on to what I hoped was a less contentious topic.

"So tell me everything that happened after we left you last night," I said, not only out of genuine curiosity, but also to give myself more time to think.

"Okay," he said eagerly. "We went to The Castle for about an hour, and Tony bought me a couple of beers, then he invited me back to his place for coffee."

I groaned inwardly and thought of how Ben liked to invite young guys back 'for coffee'.

"His place?" I asked.

"Yeah. It's not far from our school. He lives with his parents, but he has his own little flat in an extension at the back of their house."

So you didn't see his family, then?"

"Nah. He said it would be best if they didn't see me, cos he didn't want them asking questions. They don't know he's gay and wouldn't take it well if they found out."

"And you stayed there all night?"

"Yeah. It was great. He's got a gorgeous body. And I'm not a virgin anymore!" he said proudly.

"Didn't it hurt?" I asked, voicing my own concerns about anal sex.

"At first. But he was really kind and gentle, and the second time I really enjoyed it."

"Second time! No wonder you're sore," I joked. "I hope you didn't run out of condoms!"

I was surprised and a little concerned by the length of the pause before he spoke again.

"Tony said that as we were both virgins we don't need condoms," he said eventually.

"He's really a virgin?" I asked, unable to hide my doubt.

"Yes. He said so, and he wouldn't lie to me. Are you saying he's a liar?" he said angrily.

Somehow it seemed a bit unlikely to me that someone as attractive as Tony, a university student who seemed so at ease at the GLYG meeting, should really have been an anal virgin before he met Rob. However, as I had no real evidence for my doubts, and as I was the only person Rob could confide in, I didn't want to alienate him by implying that Tony might have lied.

"Erm no," I said hesitantly "I'm not saying that. I'm just surprised, with him being so good looking."

"Yeah, he is, isn't he?" Rob said proudly and more calmly.

"And what was it like, ya know, when you took his virginity?"

"Oh, I didn't do it to him, cos he said he doesn't like anything bigger than a finger up there."

"You're sure this is love then?" I asked after an uncomfortable pause.

"Absolutely!" he enthused.

"And, erm, does he love you?"

"Well, he didn't actually say so, but I think so. He said I was a really great person and he likes me a lot. And if he doesn't love me now, I'm sure he will do soon!"

He sounded so happy and confident that I didn't want to deflate him by mentioning my doubts. Apart from anything else, even if they were both really in love, I wondered what would happen when Tony went back to university. After all, Brighton was a long way from where we lived, and it would take at least five hours to travel there by car.

"So when are you seeing him again?" I asked.

"We arranged to meet at The Castle on Friday night, and he asked if I'd spend the night with him. Now all I have to do is persuade Mum and Dad to let me."

"Good luck with that," I said doubtfully, "cos you're going to need it!"

"Oh, by the way, is Dan there with you?"

"Yeah, I'm at his house now."

"Can I speak to him, please?"

I gestured to Dan, who'd been sitting patiently listening to my half of the conversation, and passed him the phone. After a few words of greeting, Dan listened to Rob for a few seconds before he spoke again.

"Yes, I'm sure that will be fine. I'll see you on Saturday, then. Bye." Dan said, then he handed the phone back to me.

"Hi again, Robbie," I said.

"I just got Dan to hand me back so I could say 'bye'. I'm sorry, but I'm really knackered and I want to get some sleep before Dad comes home."

"No problem, cos this is costing me at peak rates," I replied and chuckled. "Have a good nap, then. Byeeee!"

I hung up, put the phone in my pocket, and looked at Dan.

"He told me a bit about last night," Dan said, reading the question in my eyes. "And he asked if he could bring Tony to the party on Saturday. As everyone is welcome to bring boyfriends, girlfriends, or whatever, of course I told him he could."

For a few minutes after that, we discussed with some concern the fact that Rob seemed to have fallen in love so quickly with someone he'd known for just a few hours. Dan also shared my doubts that Tony had been an anal virgin before meeting Rob, and we were both worried about the risks Rob had taken by having unprotected sex with someone he hardly knew. However, in view of the angry response I got from Rob when I'd expressed my doubts, we couldn't think of anything constructive to do about the situation.

That evening, Dan went with his parents to Steve's house, where their parents had arranged one of their bridge sessions, and Dan and Steve were planning to spend time together watching DVDs. I'd been invited, but I was tired, and in any case I thought it would be a good idea for the two best friends to spend some quality time together, especially as Steve would soon be going off to university. Since the start of the school holidays, Dan and I had spent most of our time with one another, and that was the first night for some time that we didn't sleep together.

James and Mike had dinner at our house, then Mike went out with Sally to see a movie, and James went to John's room so they could play computer games together. I chatted to my parents and watched TV with them for about an hour before going up to my room. As I was still tired from my exertions with Dan the previous night, I lay back on my bed and relaxed. Although I loved being with Dan and I enjoyed the company of my friends and family, it felt good to have some time to myself. Over the previous few days, I'd hardly been alone, and I'd been so busy doing things and interacting with people that I hadn't had much time to think. In the past, Mike had often told me that I spent so much time thinking about things that I never got around to doing anything, but just now I wanted time to think.

To be honest, telling myself that I needed time to think was just a way of putting off a decision I had to make. I knew that I had to decide soon, because it wasn't fair to keep Dan waiting much longer. Actually, I even knew what decision I wanted to make, and deep in my subconscious I'd already made it, but I was just working up the courage to act on it. I felt like I was a parachutist about to make my first jump; it was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but I knew that once I jumped there would be no going back.

My ruminations were interrupted by the beeping of my phone. I sighed deeply, picked it up from the bedside table, and checked the caller ID.

"Hi, Robbie."

"Hi Paul," he said, sounding dejected.


"Mum and Dad say I can't see Tony again until they've had a chance to meet him."

"Does that mean you won't be meeting him tomorrow night?"

"That's exactly what it means!" he said unhappily and petulantly.

"You're lucky they didn't ground you completely!" I said in mock amazement. "After seeing your dad last night, I thought they might lock you in your room until you were eighteen!"

"They nearly did, but I told them how much I loved Tony and that I'd run away if they tried to stop me seeing him."

The prideful tone of his voice reminded me of a spoiled child, and he seemed to be showing me a new and not very attractive side to his character. I tried to put such negative thoughts out of my mind before I replied, and I deliberately refrained from pointing out that it was only about twenty-four hours since he'd met Tony.

"So when are they meeting him?"

"Saturday night. Dan said I could bring Tony to the party, and my parents will be taking Marie and me, so they can meet him then. In fact, I just phoned him and arranged for us to pick him up in town on our way to the party, cos he doesn't have a car, and in any case, he won't know how to get there."

"How does he feel about meeting your parents?" I asked.

The question was intended lightly, almost as a 'meeting the in-laws' joke, but it must have had a deeper significance for Rob because it was several seconds before he replied.

"Well," he said hesitantly, "he wasn't very keen. Actually, he almost refused."

"Oh?" I said, unable to think of a better response.

"Yeah. He said as he's not even out to his own parents, he wasn't happy about being out to mine. But he eventually agreed when I told him they wouldn't let me see him again unless they met him."

"They won't have much chance for a private chat if they're just talking to him at the party," I pointed out.

"That's alright," he said a little smugly. "They just said they wanted to meet him, and this way they won't be able to interrogate him and put him off."

"Put him off?"

"Yeah," he said with genuine concern. "I know that compared to him I'm just a kid, but he's really important to me, so I don't want them to scare him off."

"But if he really cares for you, surely a few questions from your parents won't put him off. After all, it didn't put John off the idea of having Marie as his girlfriend."

"Well, I just don't want to risk it!" he said in a tone that put the topic beyond discussion.

To me, Rob's whole attitude seemed unreasonable, and it was certainly the opposite of my own cautious nature. After weeks with Dan, although I was now sure I wanted to make a commitment, I was still hesitating. Yet there was Rob, just twenty-four hours after a first meeting, talking about the possibility of running away from home to be with Tony.

"Presuming Tony feels the same way as you," I said, trying to inject some reality into the situation, "what happens when he goes back to Uni?"

"We can see one another at weekends," he said, clearly not having given the matter much thought.

"But Brighton's a long way from here, and travel is expensive," I said in my most patient and reasonable voice.

"We'll work something out," he said, again making it clear that he didn't intend to discuss the topic any further.

I sighed and decided not to pursue the matter. We chatted generally about the party and other things for a few minutes before we hung up, and as I lay back down and placed my hands behind my head, I began to consider the situation between Rob and Tony. I felt a little guilty that I'd been too involved with thoughts of Dan and myself to be concerned about Rob. Eventually, I decided that despite my worries about Rob, there was nothing I could do, and at least he had parents who loved and cared for him, even if they could sometimes be a little over-protective.

After that, my thoughts began to drift aimlessly, and I was almost dozing when I heard a gentle, almost timid tapping on my open door. I opened my eyes and saw James standing on the threshold, shifting his weight uncertainly from foot to foot. I hurriedly tried to put my brain into gear, just as it seemed he was about to turn away and leave.

"Hi, James," I said groggily.

"Erm, hiya, Paul. I'm sorry I woke you up," he said hesitantly. "I wanted to talk to you before I left, but it can wait until tomorrow..."

His voice trailed off, and I could tell he was anxious about something, so I sat up and tried to get myself fully awake. Then I noticed that his eyes were red, as if he'd been crying.

"S'alright, I was just resting my eyes," I said with a welcoming smile, and waved him in. "Come in and take a pew."

His expression, as well as the fact that he carefully closed the door behind him, told me that he wanted to discuss something both private and important. He sat gingerly on the edge of the other bed, and I waited patiently for him to start speaking.

"I've done it, now," he said eventually, sounding worried and upset.

"Done what?" I asked, fighting away the final traces of sleepiness.

"I told him," he said just audibly. "I told John how I feel about him."

"I thought you were going to wait and think about it some more before telling him," I said, unable to hide my surprise.

If I'd been James, my own choice would have been to wait until after they'd been on holiday together before telling John, and I wondering if James was reckless or if I was too cautious. While I waited for him to reply, I noticed his hands clasping and unclasping together on his lap and his feet shifting restlessly on the floor. Together with his unhappy expression, those observations made me feel that James' revelation had not gone as well as he might have hoped.

"I just couldn't wait," he said, clearly trying to justify what he himself now thought might not have been a wise decision. "It was either tell him or just run out of his room, and then he'd only start asking questions, anyway."

This statement left me somewhat confused, but instead of questioning him and taking the risk of interrupting his flow, I just raised an inquiring eyebrow.

"We were sitting on his bed playing our favourite racing game," he said, words pouring out rapidly, "and he was really, really close, and our legs were touching and rubbing together."

He blushed and paused to take a breath, giving me a sheepish look.

"I just couldn't concentrate on the game and kept crashing," he continued. "I tried to move away from him but ended up falling off the bed."

I couldn't suppress a slight smile, and James glared at me before he went on.

"At first John just laughed, and then when I got angry he asked me what was the matter and why I'd been behaving so weird recently..."

"Have you been behaving weird?" I interrupted, not having noticed anything strange in his recent behaviour.

"Not that I know of," he said with a frown. "Except, well, except I think I've been avoiding getting too close to him."

"Anyway, I'm sorry for interrupting. What happened next?"

"Well, I was still sitting on the floor, and he was looking down at me, but he'd stopped laughing. I got a bit scared and I was annoyed. I think I just panicked and said the first thing that came into my head."

"Which was?" I prompted after he'd remained silent for several seconds.

"I shouted at him and told him it was his fault for always getting too close to me. Then he got angry and asked if I was trying to say he was gay. So I told him that I know he's not gay and that was the problem. I told him that I loved him and that's why I got upset when he touched me."

"What did he say?" I asked, my concern for James mixed with curiosity about this drama that had been played out just a few feet away from me as I dozed.

"Nothing. He didn't get the chance, cos when he just sat staring at me I knew I was going to start crying, so I ran out and locked myself in the bathroom."

"And you've not been back to talk to him?"

"No." he said and looked down at his feet. "His door's shut, and I can't face him now, cos he probably hates me."

"I'm sure he doesn't, and it's unfair to assume what he's feeling. You need to talk to him."

"I can't!" he wailed, his voice cracking as he began to cry. "I can't face him if he hates me."

He was sobbing and looking miserable, so I got up, sat next to him, and put my arm over his shoulders. Sometimes he seemed so adult, especially with the way he'd dealt with his family problems, but as I felt him trembling, I realised that he was only just fifteen and in some ways he was still just a kid. Although I was only a couple of years older than him, those extra two years made me feel much more mature, so I slipped into my 'big brother' mode.

"Well, maybe not right now," I said gently, "but you've got to face him sometime. After all, you're family, so you can't avoid one another."

"Ha!" he exclaimed bitterly. "If John tells your mum and dad that I love him, I bet I won't be family for very long!"

I raised his chin with my hand, kissed his forehead, and looked into his grey-blue eyes, which a few months ago had seemed cold and icy, but now were soft and melting with tears.

"James, listen to me," I said firmly but gently. "There's no reason why John should tell anyone, but even if he did, you will always be family. We don't disown our own family, even if they do something really bad. And certainly not just because they love someone."

"Not even if it's John I love?"

"We all love John," I said in a feeble attempt to lighten his mood.

"You know what I mean! No one loves him like I do!" he frowned and a spark of irritation showed through his misery.

"Maybe Marie does," I said without thinking, and immediately regretted it as he pulled his face away from my hand and looked down at the floor.

"I'm sorry," I said sincerely. "I probably shouldn't have said that, but maybe it's true and maybe John feels the same for her. And maybe it's good if he does, because then he can understand better what you're feeling."

He didn't speak, and his only movement was the heaving of his shoulders as he sobbed quietly.

"Look, I know you don't love John in the same way that I do," I continued, "but I don't love him in the same way that our parents do. There are lots of different types of love, and every sort of love is precious because there's never enough of it in the world. You should know that, because you didn't get much love after your mum died."

His sobbing gradually died away, but he didn't say anything, and I couldn't think what else to say, so we both sat in silence as he gradually tilted his body and leaned into my chest. I'm not sure how long we stayed like that, but it must have been several minutes, and eventually he stopped crying. His continuing sniffles prompted me to reach across and grab some paper tissues from the bedside table. As I silently handed them to him, he looked up and gave me a wan smile before dabbing his eyes and blowing his nose.

At that point, my phone beeped, and as I'd guessed, it was Dan, who'd promised to call me when he got home.

"Hi beautiful!" I said, and blushed when I suddenly remembered James could hear me.

"Hi gorgeous!" Dan replied. "Is something wrong?"

It was disconcerting but no longer a great surprise that he could apparently read my mind, but it did seem more uncanny than usual, bearing in mind that I'd only spoken two words and he couldn't see my face or body language.

"Not wrong really. Just a sec," I said, then I turned to James. "It's Dan."

"I'd guessed that," he whispered with a wry smile.

"Would you mind if I tell him about you and John tonight?"

"Of course not. After all, he already knows how I feel about John."

So I gave Dan a brief summary of what James had just told me.

"He needs to talk to John again," Dan said.

"I already told him that, but he can't deal with it at the moment."

"Then you should talk to John, cos it's not good to leave him stewing on his own."

"Er, okay, I guess," I responded, not really relishing the prospect, but knowing that Dan was usually right about such things.

"Well, go and do it now!" Dan ordered. "And call me back later."

"Okay," I said and sighed. "Byeeee!"

After hanging up, I told James that I was going to talk to John right away, and I was a bit surprised when he said he was going home and didn't want to stay to see how things went. I suggested that he come back in the morning to settle things, and at first he seemed reluctant.

"Look, James," I pointed out, "if things aren't sorted out before dinner time tomorrow, your special celebration meal might get a bit, erm, uncomfortable."

"Oh!" he exclaimed with a stricken look. "I don't suppose..."

Maybe it was obvious or maybe Dan's and Mum's mind reading skills were rubbing off on me, but I guessed what he was going to say and interrupted him.

"Don't even suggest cancelling or postponing the dinner!" I warned him. "Lots of people are looking forward to it, and Dan's put a lot of effort into the planning and preparation."

He smiled sheepishly and stood up, then he took me by surprise when he gave me a big hug as he said goodbye. He went downstairs, and when I heard the front door close behind him, I took a deep breath and went to John's room. Although it felt like many hours since dinner, it still wasn't even eleven o'clock, so I expected John would still be awake. In any case, I'd not heard him go to the bathroom, and even if he had gone to bed, after the events of the evening I doubted that he would be sleeping.

For a few seconds I stood outside John's closed bedroom door, hesitating because I didn't know what I should say and because I didn't want to cause a confrontation if he was upset. Eventually, worried that my parents might come along and see me hovering outside his room, I gently knocked on the door. Of course, I would never invade his privacy by trying to open the door without an invitation to enter, so I just stood and waited for a few seconds.

I was sure my knocking was loud enough for him to hear me, but there was no answer, so I knocked harder. Still there was no answer, and I began to wonder if he might have gone downstairs, but then it occurred to me that his door would usually be open when he was out. My next thought was that he might be busy on the phone, and I was tempted to turn away, but decided to give it one more try.

"John, it's me," I said after knocking again.

"Okay, come in," he eventually replied, barely audibly.

As I entered the room I could see him curled up on his bed, fully clothed and with his back to me. I closed the door behind me and stood uncertainly, wondering how to begin, then I went over and sat on the edge of his bed. Feeling my weight on the bed, he turned over on his back and then sat up. Knowing him so well, his concern and unhappiness were clear, but I was relieved that he also seemed pleased to see me.

"Didn't you hear me the first time I knocked?"

My intention was to open the conversation as gently as possible, but as I thought about it, perhaps it wasn't a very sensible question.

"Erm, yeah."

"D'ya want to talk?" I asked, almost hoping he would decline.

"Don't mind," he answered with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

"So, why didn't you answer my first knock?"

Despite the fact that I knew this discussion was necessary, I always preferred to avoid difficult situations, and deep inside I still hoped that John would insist on postponing our talk. On the other hand, if this conversation could reduce the unhappiness I saw in his eyes, then I would push ahead, no matter how uncomfortable I felt.

"At first," he replied, interrupting my thoughts, "before you spoke, I thought it might be James."

"He went home a few minutes ago. Didn't you hear the front door?"

"I wasn't sure."

"And why would you not answer if you thought it was James?"

Of course I was pretty sure of the answer to my question, but it seemed like a good way of getting to the point of our little talk.

"Oh, c'mon, Paul!" he said, flashing me a look of irritation. "I know he went to your room after he came out of the bathroom. So you must know what happened, and I bet you knew about... about how he felt, even before tonight."

"Ya mean how he feels about you?"

Although I knew exactly what John had meant, I still asked the question, not only to get it out in the open but also to give myself a little more time to think. He blushed, which was unusual for him, and answered my question with a just a brief affirmative nod. While I was still working out how to follow up on that, he interrupted my thoughts.

"How long have you known?" he asked with a combination of anger and accusation.

"A couple of days after he moved in here," I replied quietly.

"And you never told me!" he hissed. "Didn't you think I had the right to know?"

I knew that his anger wasn't really directed at me and that it probably wasn't even real anger. He was unhappy and upset, and he was in a situation that he didn't know how to deal with, so his emotions were just confused and not really under his control. I reached out to rest my hand on his lower arm, and was relieved when he didn't pull away.

"Whether or not you had a right to know," I said soothingly, "I didn't have the right to tell you."

He gnawed on his lower lip, and I could see the hurt in his eyes, but I didn't continue until he gave me a questioning look to indicate that he wanted me to clarify my last statement.

"You know that when he came here he was very vulnerable and insecure and that I was the only one he felt he could confide in. He trusted me with a very sensitive secret, and if I'd told you then I would've betrayed that trust. And then he would be left with no one he could confide in. D'ya realise how lonely and isolated that would have made him feel? He had enough loneliness and isolation after his mum died..."

"But I bet you told Dan!" he interrupted, less angry now, but still hurt.

"Only because James said I could," I said calmly and patiently.

We sat in silence while he digested my words, and I was pleased to see that his expression began to soften until most of the anger was gone.

"He was crying, wasn't he?" he said, trying to hide his emotions.

"Yes," I replied sadly. "He was very upset."

"He was upset!" he said, emphasising the first word. "What about me?"

"Well, I know you're upset too, but you're not as vulnerable as he is..."

He started to interrupt me, but I raised my hand to stop him.

"You've had the security of your family all your life," I continued, "but he's only just joined us. You're secure in your sexuality and you've got a girlfriend, but he doesn't have anyone like that. You've got loads of friends, and even another best friend in Alex, but James only has us, and if we reject him then he has no one."

"But we won't reject him!" he said with great conviction.

"He thinks you may already have."

"What?" he exclaimed indignantly. "I didn't reject him, he just ran out."

I raised a questioning eyebrow, and he must have seen doubt on my face, because he immediately began speaking again.

"Of course, I don't feel that way about him, so I guess that means I'm rejecting his feelings, but I didn't reject him," he said firmly, emphasising the last word.

"Maybe he was scared by the way you reacted when he told you he loved you," I suggested.

That was the first time either of us had mentioned the word 'love', and I noticed him flinch when he heard it.

"React?" he asked in disbelief. "He took me by surprise, and I don't think I had time to react at all before he just ran out."

"Then later he saw your door was shut," I pointed out gently, "and you just admitted that you didn't answer me at first because you thought it might be him. That seems a bit like rejection to me."

"It wasn't!" he protested. "I just need time to think and get things sorted out."

"I know," I said sympathetically, "but just imagine how that might seem to James after he made the mistake of telling you..."

"It wasn't a mistake!"

"He got annoyed and frustrated, and he never meant to tell you like that."

"No!" he said, sounding a little frustrated himself. "Well, maybe it was a mistake to tell me the way he did, but what I mean is that it wasn't a mistake for him to tell me, and maybe he should've told me sooner."

Not knowing what to say, I just shrugged and sighed. We both sat in silence for a couple of minutes until eventually John spoke again.

"Now I don't know what to do," he said unhappily.

"Do?" I asked, a little surprised.

"Yeah," he said, giving me a nervous look. "I'm not sure what to do when I see him. Ya see, I feel, erm, uncomfortable."

"Oh, for goodness sake, John! You're not worried he's going to molest you, are ya?"

"Course not!" he said irritably. "I just feel... I don't know... a bit guilty."

"Guilty?" I echoed.

As the word escaped my lips, I realised that I'd developed a bad habit of doing a parrot impression whenever I was at a loss for something better to say.

"Maybe if we hadn't, ya know, messed about before his mum died..."

"John," I interrupted in frustration, "we've discussed this before."

"Oh, I know we didn't do anything wrong," he said hurriedly. Then, with an irritated expression, he continued, "And if you'd just let me finish what I was trying to say, you'd know that I was just wondering if that gave him hope I was gay, too. But the main reason I feel uncomfortable is that I know I can't return his feelings, and I don't want to hurt him."

"I'm sure he already knows that," I said gently.

"Yeah, but I know it must be hurting him. Before you came in, I was wondering how I'd feel if Marie just wanted to be friends."

"You love Marie?" I asked without thinking.

"Erm, yeah," he said shyly, looking at his hands. "Well, I think so. I've never felt like this before."

I don't know why, but I was a little surprised and almost shocked that my little brother might be in love. Suddenly, I had a brief insight into what it was like to be the parent of an adolescent child who was swiftly becoming an adult. As these thoughts passed rapidly through my mind, I saw John blushing for the second time that night, and probably for only the third time that month.

"Anyway, I know I'd feel awful if she wasn't interested," he continued, breaking into my train of thought.

"But you'd still want to be friends with her?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said confidently, but then he became less sure as he continued. "Well, probably..."

"Well, James still wants to be your friend, but he thinks you might hate him."

"Hate him?" he responded in genuine surprise. "I don't hate him. He means almost as much to me as you do, and I love you... but not, ya know, like the way you love Dan."

He grinned sheepishly, and we both blushed when he said that. I almost gave him a brotherly hug, but the men in our family rarely showed physical affection to one another, and even the word 'love' wasn't used often, so I held myself back. In any case, as we were discussing James' unrequited love, it didn't seem to be an appropriate time to break with the family tradition of male reserve.

"So why didn't you want to talk to him tonight?" I asked, breaking a silence that had become a little tense.

"Like I said, I just felt uncomfortable," he replied, looking up into my eyes and seeming to plead for my understanding. "I know he must be hurting, and I hate the idea that it's because of me. He already avoids getting close, and now maybe he won't like being around me at all."

"Yes, he's hurting," I said quietly, and squeezed his arm. "But you already know that it's not your fault. It's just the way things are. He was hurt when his mum died, but it wasn't her fault. Sometimes life can be shitty, and all you can do is make the best of things."

"Still," he said sadly, "things aren't the same between me and James now. Even before tonight he was already avoiding being close to me, and now we both feel uncomfortable."

For the first time, I began to be seriously concerned that the close and special friendship between James and John might really have been damaged. However, I vowed to myself that I'd do everything in my power to fix things, and I certainly wasn't going to give up that night without a fight.

"Look, John, even if you aren't still best friends, James is now a part of our family, just like Mike is, and we've all got to get along. And not just get along, cos although we don't often say it, we love one another and look out for one another. So I love James like another brother, and I hope that you do, too, no matter how uncomfortable you feel at the moment."

He looked back down at his hands, which were clasped tightly together, and we both sat in silence, lost in our own thoughts.

"I do love him like a brother," he said eventually, almost to himself, "and that's why I hate to see him hurt just cos he's near me and I can't be what he wants."

"D'ya think he'd hurt less if he can't be with you?"

"I dunno, what do you think?" he said, looking up at me.

"I don't really know, either, but I suspect that he'd rather be your friend than stay away from you. But whatever we think, isn't it better for us to let James decide what will or won't be best for him?"

He frowned, and then he nodded. As I looked at him, the image of a young adult with a girlfriend blended with another image of an uncertain boy trying to deal with the complications of an adult world. I shook my head to clear my confusion, then sighed and began to wonder if I wasn't getting out of my depth.

"What I do know," I continued, "is that James wants to stay friends. And you want to stay friends as well, don't you?"

"Yes! Course I do. I want us to stay best friends," he said, almost as if I'd insulted him. More quietly and less confidently, he added, "but it may not be so easy."

"Well, easy or not, it must be possible, because you both want the same thing. And, in your own ways, you both care about one another."

"So what do we do?" he asked, falling back further into his 'little brother mode'.

"First, you need to trust one another."

As I paused to decide how to explain what I meant, he just gave me a questioning look, and eventually I gathered my thoughts together sufficiently to carry on.

"You need to trust him to be able to deal with his feelings and trust him not do anything, erm, inappropriate. And he needs to trust you not to deliberately hurt him," I said. After pausing to take a deep breath, I continued, "Above all, you mustn't tell anyone his secret, you mustn't use it against him, and you have to try to behave towards him just as you've always done."

He seemed to be drinking in every word, and I suddenly felt very embarrassed. He also looked slightly puzzled, so I wondered how much he understood of what I was trying to say. To be honest, I wondered if I really understood what I was trying to say.

"If you do trust one another," I continued earnestly, "then just get on with your friendship, and hopefully James will fall in love with someone else, just as I'm sure you would do if you and Marie ever broke up. But before you can get on with your friendship you have to talk to him, if only to make it clear that you don't hate him and that you still want to be best friends."

"Well, it's too late tonight," he said, looking at the clock, which showed that it was almost midnight.

"True," I agreed. "But I'm sure he'll be round in the morning, and you can talk as soon as he arrives."

He gave me a wan smile, and as I stood up, I did something I'd not done for ages and ages; I ruffled his hair. At first he frowned in annoyance, then he grinned and hit me with his pillow, whereupon I said 'goodnight' and fled the room. Although it was late, I knew Dan would be waiting to hear from me, so I phoned him as soon as I returned to my room. When he'd heard the report of my talk with John, he seemed reasonably satisfied and gave me a brief rundown of his own evening at Steve's house, then he added something that intrigued me.

"Have your parents mentioned anything about tomorrow night?"

"Erm, no," I said uncertainly. "Not that I remember. What sort of thing do you mean?"

"Well, I'm not sure exactly, but when I went in to see if they wanted me to get them a drink, Mum was talking Steve's parents, and as soon as she noticed me she stopped talking. All I managed to hear before she went quiet was something about tomorrow night and your parents."

"Maybe she was just telling them about the celebration dinner," I suggested, my interest beginning to fade.

"Nah, I don't think so, cos they already talked about that, and the way Mum stopped talking as soon as she saw me made me think she was trying to keep something secret."

Knowing how sensitive Dan was to other people's emotions and how often he was correct about such things, my interest revived again. My mum and Dan's mum had become quite close friends over the past few months, so it wouldn't surprise me if they had plotted something together. I began to rack my brains for any clues that my own parents might have let slip, but nothing came to mind.

"Afraid I haven't heard my parents mention anything about tomorrow night," I said thoughtfully, "at least nothing that might be secret."

"Oh well," he sighed and sounded a little disappointed, "I s'pose we'll find out tomorrow, anyway."

"Speaking of tomorrow," I said and yawned, "it's well after midnight, so it's really today now. And as there's a lot to do, especially for you as our head chef, I think we'd better get some sleep."

"I know, but I hate saying goodbye to you, even if it is only on the phone."

"Yeah, I feel the same, but I'll be coming over to see you before lunch tomorrow, and that's less than twelve hours from now, so I guess we'll survive," I said, trying to lighten his mood.

The next morning, as usual, I was still half asleep during breakfast, and when I saw John getting ready to go out, I knew I should say something to him, but at first I couldn't remember what or why. As the effects of my second mug of tea hit my brain, I suddenly remembered that I'd told James and John that they had to talk things out that morning.

"Where are you going?" I asked, my morning mood making me sound grumpier than I intended.

"I arranged to meet Marie for lunch, then we're going to go into town," he replied, more defensively than would normally be expected for such a statement.

"What time are you meeting?"

"One o'clock."

"But it's not even ten yet," I said with a frown; "so why do you look as if you are just about to leave?"

"Don't want to be late, do I?" he said, smiling sheepishly and not sounding at all convincing.

"Don't tell me you've forgotten James is coming over to talk to you," I said, trying not to sound as if I was accusing him.

"Okay, I won't tell you that," he said with a small cheeky grin.

"C'mon, John," I said in my most soothing tones. "It won't be all that bad. He's still the same James, and the sooner you get talking the easier it will be."

"I s'pose," he replied, not sounding very convinced.

He sat down opposite me at the kitchen table before he spoke again.

"But what shall I say?" he asked anxiously.

"You didn't have difficulty talking to him yesterday," I pointed out in my 'big brother being reasonable' mode.

"That was before I knew how he felt..."

"Exactly!" I interrupted. "He's felt the same way about you for ages, maybe even before his mum died, so the only difference between then and now is that you know about it. In other words, all your difficulties are just in your mind."

"What?" he said, sounding annoyed.

"I don't mean you're just imagining problems," I said soothingly. "I mean that your problems are caused by a change in your point of view. James is the same person with the same feelings as yesterday, and the only thing that's changed is your attitude, now you know how he feels. Well, if your attitude to him has changed once, surely it can change back again."

"Yes, but what can I say to him today?" he asked, looking frustrated and emphasising the last word.

I sighed, realising that either he hadn't understood my argument or that he was still doubtful about it. There seemed no point in going over the same ground again, so I just answered his question as simply as possible.

"Just tell him you don't hate him and that you're still best friends. And make sure he believes you."

We sat in silence for a couple of minutes, then engaged in a bit of idle chat, but he soon got restless and went up to his room. As I was finishing my tea, I wondered why James hadn't arrived yet, and I was just wondering if I should go over to see him when Mike arrived. Being the direct sort of person he is, we'd hardly finished our greeting when he began to interrogate me.

"So what's up with James, then?"


When I'm taken by surprise, doing a parrot impersonation may make me sound stupid, but at least it buys me a little time to think. Mike, who knew me so well, realised immediately what I was doing, but obviously took pity on me and decided to play along.

"He's usually as happy as I am to come over to your house, but when I asked if he was coming with me just now, he made some lame excuse about tidying his room."

"John and James had a bit of a disagreement last night," I said, trying not to give too much away, "and I think they're both a bit embarrassed about it."

"Oh!" he replied, obviously surprised. "I thought they hardly ever argued. What was it about?"

"Personal stuff," I said. Then, seeing his disappointed expression, I added, "You know that if it was my secret then I'd tell you, but it's personal between them, so I can't say anything."

He nodded his head, and I was relieved when he gave me an understanding smile.

"Anyway," I continued as I stood up, "they need to talk it out today, preferably before John goes out to meet Marie for lunch."

Mike accompanied me back to his house, where we found James watching TV in the living room. After a little persuasion, which stopped just short of physical force, we got him to return with us to my house, where I verbally pushed him upstairs toward John's room. Having done all I could, I rewarded myself with another mug of tea and sat chatting with Mike, who'd helped himself to some orange juice from the fridge.

I had planned on going to Dan's house for lunch, then helping him with shopping and food preparations for the big dinner that evening, but I didn't want to leave until I had at least an indication that John and James had sorted themselves out. Mike told me he didn't have any plans for the day, so when I invited him to join Dan and me for the afternoon, he readily accepted. As John was going out with Marie, and I didn't want to leave James on his own all afternoon, I decided to ask James to join us as well, so I quickly phoned Dan to make sure it was okay with him.

As noon approached and the boys had been upstairs for over an hour, I was beginning to get a little anxious, but before I decided whether or not to go and see them, they came downstairs. They seemed a little embarrassed when they smiled at Mike and me, but from their body language and the way they stood relatively close together, they still appeared to be close friends. I breathed a mental sight of relief and decided to wait and see how things developed without any more interference from me.

James agreed to spend the afternoon with us, and I gave John a ride into town on our way to Dan's house. During the drive, James and John sat together on the back seat, and from what I could tell they seemed to be back to normal. However, I thought I could detect just a little reserve and a slight lack of their usual easiness together, but maybe that was just my imagination.

After Dan provided us with a light lunch of soup and sandwiches, he put us all to work. First we went shopping for a few food items that he didn't have already, then Dan supervised us cleaning and chopping, while he took care of the more complicated and creative aspects of cookery. By the time Dan's parents arrived home, everything was ready for the final phase, which would only start once all the guests had arrived.

My parents brought Mike's mum and John with them, arriving 'at six thirty for seven' as Dan had phrased it when he'd originally invited us all. After some pre-dinner drinks, non-alcoholic for us teens and for my dad who was designated driver, we sat down to a feast which I helped Dan to serve up. We started with a salad of smoked chicken and Parma ham with fresh figs and creme fraiche, then had lamb goujons in port and rosemary sauce, with new potatoes and roast baby vegetables, and we finished off with summer pudding and ice cream.

Dan's dad chose a different wine to go with each course, and we all had at least a little taste of each. After the meal we were all so full that we could hardly stand up, so we decided to wait for a while before clearing the table. As the rest of us found comfortable places to sit in the living room, Dan's parents went to make coffee. While the coffee maker was doing its work, they returned with a tray loaded with glasses filled with champagne.

"As this is a celebratory occasion," Dan's dad said as he handed out the glasses, "I felt it wouldn't be complete without some champagne to toast our guest of honour."

I could tell by his smile that he was very pleased with himself, and more pleased than might be expected just from the production of the champagne. Also, I could see similar grins on the faces of the other adults, and I remembered Dan's idea that our parents had been plotting something for tonight. Well, I thought to myself, whatever the plot was, it appears we were about to find out.

"First," Dan's dad said once everyone had a glass, "a toast to James, to say how happy we are that he's now safe and well."

We all rose to our feet, said 'hear, hear', and took a sip of the lovely bubbly. James, clearly unused to such situations, also stood up, then he blushed as he realised that toast was in his honour.

"And another toast," my dad said before we could sit down again. "This time to welcome him into our family and say that no matter where he lives in future, he can always consider our house to be his home."

James blushed even more as we all said 'hear, hear' and took another sip of our drinks. I was made even happier when I saw a slightly tipsy John say something into James' ear and give his shoulders a squeeze. Whatever it was that John said, it must have pleased James because his smile of bemused happiness became a huge grin. After that, everyone in the room made some toast to James; Mike's mum welcomed him to her home, Mike said he was glad to have a great little brother, John said he was happy to have a best friend who was like a brother, and finally I made my contribution.

"Here's another toast to James," I said feeling very self-conscious, "to thank him for teaching me a lesson. That maintaining a friendship requires effort, and that a friendship that is neglected can wither away like an unwatered house plant."

The others drank the toast, but I noticed that I received a few strange looks and the 'hear, hear' was a bit ragged. As no one else seemed to be about to speak, and as most people's glasses were empty, I assumed that the little ceremony was finished, but my dad moved to the centre of the room.

"There's just one more thing that we had planned for tonight," he announced.

He looked around the room with a knowing smile, and I could see similar expressions on the faces of the other adults.

"Told you they were plotting something!" Dan whispered triumphantly in my ear.

"We have a couple of gifts to present to James," my dad continued, "not only to welcome him into our family, but also to celebrate his birthday which was a couple of weeks ago. So if everyone would come to the study, we can watch him open his presents."

With that, Dad and Mr Harris led off toward the study, expecting us all to follow. The rest of us stood back, waiting for James to go first, but he just looked stunned and sat down on the arm of the sofa. Realising that we weren't following, our dads turned back and looked at James. My mum moved over to put her arm over his shoulder and give him a squeeze.

"Are you okay, James?" she asked, a little concerned.

"He's not had that much to drink!" Mike quipped.

Mum frowned at Mike, and John, somewhat tipsy himself, giggled.

"I'm sorry," James said, standing up and shaking his head a little. "It's just that all this doesn't seem real. I mean, just a few weeks ago I was homeless and thought everyone hated me, and now people are doing all this for me..."

His voice trailed off and he looked around with a big smile on his face, though there were some tears trickling down his cheek. Mum squeezed his shoulders again and whispered something in his ear.

"You've not even seen the presents yet, so maybe you won't even like them," my dad said, trying to make a joke, though he was clearly embarrassed by all this emotion.

"And we've not seen them yet, either!" John grinned, putting a hand on the small of James's back and gently pushing him toward the study.

In fact, James loved the presents, which we all found sitting on Mr Harris' desk, and for a couple of minutes he ran his hands over them as if to check that they were real. The first present, a mobile phone, was from Dan's family, and the other was a very nice stereo system from my parents and Mike's mum. Tears of happiness filled his eyes as he hugged us all and thanked us profusely. The hugs embarrassed my dad and Mr Harris, but I noted that John looked only mildly uncomfortable when James embraced him.

"Well, of course I 'm happy you're getting presents," I said when he thanked me, "but I honestly didn't know anything about it."

"We wanted it to be a surprise," Dad said, "so we didn't tell the kids."

"I'm not a kid!" Mike protested.

"I can keep secrets!" I said, my voice overlapping with Mike's.

"Anyway," Mum said to James, ignoring our protests, "we've already put all our numbers into your phone, so now you can talk to any of us at any time, and we don't ever want you to feel you're on your own again."

James opened up the phone and switched it on, quickly working out how to read through the list of stored numbers. I was taken by surprise when my own phone began to warble in my trouser pocket, and as James cast me a slightly embarrassed grin, I realised he was testing out the speed-dial for my number.

"I hope I don't regret the choice of the stereo," Mike's mum joked, "but I noticed when you moved in that you're the only kid I know without one in his bedroom."

For a moment, James looked taken aback, then he realised that she was only joking and returned her grin.

"I promise I won't have it on too loud," he laughed, "and I noticed there's a nice set of headphones with it, so I can take a hint!"

James put the phone into his pocket, and with a lingering look at the stereo system, he followed the rest of us back to the living room. Dan's mum and dad brought us the long-delayed coffees, and in the general buzz of conversation I managed to grab my dad's attention.

"How did you manage to keep the presents a secret?" I asked him. "Especially something as big as the stereo? And as it's less than a week since we planned this dinner, when did you get the chance to buy it?"

"It's nice to know we can still outsmart you kids," he replied with a smug smile. "And it was actually quite easy. On Sunday night your mum and I discussed with Mike's mum what we might get, then when your mum mentioned it to Dan's mum on Monday night, she offered to get the phone. So we decided to go for the stereo that Mike's mum had suggested. We met up to choose the one we wanted on Wednesday lunch time, and I picked it up on my way home from work that evening."

"Yes, but how did you keep it hidden since then?" I asked, mildly irritated by his smug grin and the fact that I'd not noticed anything.

"When I got home, I left it in the car, then brought it up here while you were all out on Wednesday night."

As Dad wandered off to get a refill of coffee, I made a mental note to add Dan's house to the list of places to be searched for my hidden presents in the run-up to Christmas.

Shortly before midnight, my parents started making preparations for going home, and as they knew I was staying with Dan overnight, they asked James if he wanted them to take his stereo with them or if I'd do it the next day. I happily offered to take it the next day, at which point Dad realised that despite all the clever planning about presents, no one had considered the details of getting people home. If I didn't drive home, then he would have to fit three adults and three teen boys into his not-so-large car.

Dan's mum came to our rescue and suggested that one of the teens stay overnight. Before anyone else could speak, an eager Mike was first to volunteer, then James asked if he could stay, too. Then John said that if there was enough space then he'd like to stay as well. Dan's mum laughed and said there was more than enough space, so Mum, Dad and Mike's mum went off home.

When Dan and I offered to clear the table and load the dishwasher, the other teens offered to help, and Dan's parents decided to go to bed. Before she went upstairs, Dan's mum said she'd get the spare beds ready and told us not to make too much noise if we decided to stay up late. As it happened, none of us wanted to stay up late, and all the unexpected guests totally depleted Dan's stock of spare toothbrushes.

Of course, I would be sleeping in Dan's room, but I carefully avoided raising the question of who would be in which of the other two bedrooms. One room had two single beds while the other had a double bed. A couple of days ago, it would have been automatically assumed that John and James would share the room with the single beds. However, after the events of the previous night, I was wondering if either of the two younger boys would make an alternative suggestion. I was relieved when, without any discussion, they both disappeared into the room with single beds.

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