Chapter Eleven

'Get in the shower,' he demands, pushing me towards the bathroom. 'C'mon Mikey, you know you want it.'

Laughing at his impetuousness, I allow him to push me in the direction of our bathroom and remove my clothing, his long, slim fingers, roughly ripping my shirt off. He stands back, intently focused on my actions as I slide his shirt off his shoulders, hearing it fall to the floor with a whisper, revealing broad shoulders and a chest with a little more dark, curly hair than was present when we first met.

He leans forward, his eyes shut, placing his lips delicately on mine. Grasping him, drawing him nearer to me, his eyes flutter open and I see in them a hint of mischievous desire. He laughs and pulls away, turning on the water, his eyes shining and a small smile playing on his lips, looking as happy and well-adjusted as he was when we first met.

'Hop in,' he requests, holding the shower curtain open.

We're grinning like crazy at each other as we shower together, Victor carefully cleaning me, dragging the washcloth over my body in careful, deliberate strokes. Shivers run down my spine at his touch, my eyes shutting and a smile crossing my lips as he hangs the towel up and eases my foreskin back. His fingers caress the head of my cock, his breath warm against my neck as he kisses my collarbone, his head bowed. Languidly, he moves one hand between my legs, cupping my sac with one finger reached back, stroking my entrance, his other arm resting around my shoulders.

Tipping his face up with my thumb, I kiss him hungrily before realising he desires slow, sensuous pleasuring. The soft click of moist kisses is almost drowned out by the rain of water around us, his hard-on nestled against my thigh. He takes his time increasing the speed and grip, one of his hands resting on my hip and his eyes occasionally flickering open, expectantly, breathlessly, taking in my reaction.

'Mmmph.'

'Oh God Mikey, I love you,' he whispers in between kisses, wrapping his arm tightly around my back and pushing me into the corner of the shower.

'I love you too,' I whimper, my hands on the back of his head, forcing him into a kiss.

His laugh is muffled, his hand sliding up and down my cock as my climax draws closer and closer. I'm shaking, barely able to remain standing, messily kissing him, when orgasm hits. I'm mumbling incoherently, something about love and lust and my need for greater stimulation, with him holding me up and pleasuring me, an expression of satisfaction resting in his smoky eyes. He allows me to slide down, dragging him onto the cold floor tiles, resting my head in the crook of his neck as the contractions subside and the last of my seed is spilled.

His hand strokes my face and he kneels between my legs. 'I love you so much,' he murmurs hoarsely, touching the palm of his hand to my chest.

I smile at him, moving his hand down to his erection. His gaze follows his hand for a few seconds, and then he glances up, eyes wide.

'Your turn.'

He smiles radiantly, shuffling closer and wrapping his arms around my shoulders, his lips pressed to the top of my head. He jerks and thrusts under my touch, arching his back and crying out as he orgasms, his breath ragged.

I hold him tightly in my arms when he's basking in the warmth of his afterglow, raking my fingers through his wet hair.

'You've lost weight,' I whisper, touching his ribs. 'You can eat, y'know?'

He shrugs, flushing a little and resting his head in the crook of my neck. 'Terry said a lot of guys like really thin guys now,' he explains. 'So....'

My stomach forms a tight knot, incredible anger towards Terry for being so open with Vic growing within me.

'I like mine happy,' I reply eventually, trying to sound light-hearted. 'It's what's inside that counts.'

Victor snorts. 'Nobody believes that shit Mike,' he argues, disentangling himself. 'Why the hell don't you just tell me what you want from me?'

'Vic....'

'Quit it Mike,' he snaps, seemingly forgetting the aura of bliss that had us safely ensconsed in her grip mere seconds before. 'I hate it when you lie to me.'

'Vic...' I start helplessly. 'I love you. Why can't you trust me?'

'Love is conditional,' he whispers sadly. 'Don't even try to tell me otherwise.'

With that, he stalks out, a towel wrapped firmly around his waist. I lean against the shower wall, my eyes closed, trying to fathom how I can prove to him that I love him and don't care what he looks like. I'm so...furious...with Terry, for bringing the external into Vic's focus, when for fuck's sake, he's a teenager, he doesn't need anyone telling him what other men might prefer at this moment in time. God knows some of them can be so fucking fickle, in the way that straight men and gay women and everyone else in this fucking world can be, but Vic has someone who loves him and more insecurity than he naturally fights against isn't needed.

'Mikey?' Vic whispers, opening the shower curtain. 'I'm sorry.'

'Hey, it's cool,' I reply, standing up. 'C'mon hon, you wanna catch some sleep? You've got school tomorrow.'

'It doesn't matter,' he grins, extending one hand towards me. 'It's gonna be Thursday, and Friday's Good Friday. I don't need to do shit, so we can sit up and watch tellie and snuggle.'

'Sounds like a plan.'

I drive home from work, looking forward to four days at home with Victor. The more I consider his moods, the more I'm starting to believe it's nothing more than a bad case of teenage hormones, and coming to grips with starting at a new school whilst trying to maintain his excellent grades. Besides, we have some time together now, to work through any rough patches and discuss anything that might be bothering him and I all but waltz through the front door, hoping against hope that Vic hasn't been called into work.

'Vic?' I call out hopefully.

It takes a few seconds for him to respond.

'Mikey?'

His voice sounds choked, croaky and faint. Nervous, I walk towards the source of his voice, our bedroom, and push the door open.

'Mikey,' he sobs, tears streaking his face as he meets my gaze. 'I'm so sorry.'

'Oh shit Vic,' I reply, something inside me breaking as I rush towards him, taking him into my arms.

His arms and chest, as well as the bedding, is covered in blood, he's naked and his breathing's shallow, although his heartbeat's rapid. There's vomit beside the bed and he's naked, drifting in and out of lucidity as I hold him, feeling his weakened body thrust forward as he wretches. His skin is clammy and he looks up at me one last time, his face crumpled, before he falls into my arms, his mouth gaping open, his eyes blank.

'Victor, goddamn you, breathe,' I scream, shaking his body. 'Fuck you Victor, breathe.'

Chapter Twelve

Victor died three times last night, and each time, they managed to bring him back. The doctors and nurses didn't tell me this until after Victor was in a stable condition, with his stomach pumped and his wrists sewn up, and for this I'm actually grateful. In some small, pathetic way, I know I would have been incapable of dealing with the news that my lover's condition was that serious, time and time again; I can only have deal with so much before cracking.

'You can see him now. He's tired, but he's stable and has been asking for you.'

I follow the nurse into the ward, half-expecting mad hatters to come jumping out at me, but find nothing but almost complete silence in the psych unit. Victor's sharing a room with three others, all of them in clear view of the nurses' station, I suppose in case they attempt to harm themselves or each other.

'Mikey?' he croaks.

I smile at him, realizing his shame and embarrassment and wanting to hug him, but not wanting to do so in front of the other patients. Thankfully, the nurse closes the curtains around us and leaves, giving Vic and I the freedom to touch. He looks so pitiful; pale skinned, exhausted, and unnaturally thin and I wonder how it was I didn't notice he'd lost so much weight.

'How do you feel?'

Vic shrugs quickly, flushing red and reaching for my hand. 'Stupid.'

'Don't,' I argue, stroking his arm. 'Uh, Vic?'

He gives me a knowing look and moves his hand away from mine. 'Okay. Um, well, Mike? Thank-you. For saving me and looking after me and…y'know…caring about me.'

'Oh no, no, no, nothing like that,' I reply, horrified that's how he's interpreted me. 'Vic, I, uh, I'm trying to say sorry. I should have realised, I mean, I did realize and I just thought it was hormones and even when Terry told me I should speak to you, I didn't, and…'

'…when did Terry tell you to speak to me?'

'Two weeks ago.'

'Oh.' Victor leans back into his pillows, biting down hard on his lower lip. 'Shit. So he knows I'm a complete psycho, right?'

'Nobody thinks that.'

Victor laughs hollowly and shakes his head. It's so unbearable to see him looking so unwell and ashamed and to understand that his condition is all my own fault. I was given so many hints, hell, I was told outright, that Victor was depressed and instead of dealing with it, I ignored it. I could have killed him, let the man I love die, but instead I've been given a second chance and I can't even figure out how to properly express myself.

We fumble through uncomfortable small talk, until a psychiatrist comes in to talk to Victor. I'm ushered out, told to go home and get some sleep, and I have to admit, sleep is becoming an increasingly tempting prospect.

'I love you,' Victor mouths anxiously.

'I love you too,' I reply, giving him a smile, albeit genuine, smile. 'Call me if you need anything.'

He gives me a full, genuine smile and my heart's a little lighter as I make my way home.

I return to the hospital at five in the afternoon, half an hour after the evening visiting hours have commenced. Expecting Victor to be alone, I'm taken aback to realise Terry's with him and my pulse skyrockets as I remember Terry's comments to Victor in regards to preferred body builds.

'Shut the curtains,' Victor requests.

Terry and I pull the curtains shut, allowing us a modicum of privacy, before Victor intimates that he wants a kiss. It's solemn affection, almost as if he's saying good-bye, and a gnawing feeling eats at the pit of my stomach.

'I should go and get something to eat,' Terry remarks, glancing down at his watch. 'You want some decent food, Vic?'

'I'd give you anything you wanted for cigarettes,' he replies hopefully. 'And maybe some Coke? And chocolate? And...'

'...point taken,' Terry interrupts, laughing. 'What if I go to Macca's?'

'You've got yourself a deal,' Vic grins, his mood notably lighter than it was seconds before.

We both watch Terry leave, Vic's cheer rapidly dissipating into earnestness. I take a seat beside him, trying to swallow the hard lump in my throat as I wait for him to speak. Even so, nothing could have prepared me for his next words.

'My Mum came,' he offers with a small smile. 'She, um, she spoke to a psychologist. You know, about me, being gay and all that, and she's agreed to let me move back home.'

I stare at him in shock. On one hand, I'm exultant that his mother came to visit, but on another, it's hardly as if her track record's the best. She threw him out, she neglected him, she's hit him at least once and now he wants to move back in with her?

'I liked living with you,' I point out.

He smiles weakly. 'I like being with you, too, Mike but.... I miss my family. I'm sorry if that's too childish, or immature, but I want to be around them. My Mum's gonna have the baby in a week or two and I want to be around for this. Besides, it's not fair to make you pay for my stuff, or....'

'.....no,' I argue, furious. 'Get real Vic. Look, I think it's great that she wants to see you, but for fuck's sake, don't move in with her. It's great living together and...'

'...no, it's not great,' he argues, sitting up, anger on his face. 'It wasn't great, okay Michael? I don't want to go to another school, I don't want to be away from my friends, and I'm sure as hell not giving up my family for you.'

He glares at me, furious and panting. I return the glare, incensed that he's just going to walk out on me, as though our relationship meant nothing to him. He means the world to me, and for fuck's sake, I'm not here to be used when it's convenient and discarded when a better offer comes along. I risked jail for him, I paid for everything he needed, and I was there when he needed someone, and now I'm finally getting the chance to see that the man I loved was putting on some sort of fucking...facade...in order to keep himself safe.

'Fuck you,' I hiss angrily. 'Screw yourself Vic. I'll ring Terry, he can come and pick up his stuff and you can go back to living your lower class bullshit excuse of a life with your whore of a mother.'

'Get out,' he yells. 'Fuck you you son of a bitch. Fuck off, okay? Get the fuck out and don't come back you goddamn pervert. Go and find yourself the child you want and fuck them.'

I literally feel as though I've been punched. Everything inside of me caves inward, and the urge to protect myself is overwhelming. I'm embarrassed, furious and most of all, I'm heartbroken.

'I don't want a child,' I mutter awkwardly, after an uncomfortable pause. 'I only wanted you. I'll, uh.... I'll go.'

'Good.'

Feeling extremely uneasy, I wrench open the curtains and stalk outside, more than aware of the looks I'm receiving from Vic's roommates and their visitors. Their expressions serve only to increase my fury, and it's an internal fight not to snap, or lean over and smash their docile, staring heads into the wall. They're just fucking fuck-up's, society's rejects and a hatred of people weak enough to give into depression, who use and abuse and walk away from their partners as though they were nothing, fills my mind.

Terry's extremely cold when he arrives to collect Vic's possessions. He doesn't offer any condolences - not that I was expecting any - and nor does he grant me anything other than the most cursory of greetings.

'That's it,' I offer shortly. 'You can go now.'

'No,' he argues. 'We need to talk.'

'I don't really have time to talk,' I retort, walking over to the front door.

Terry doesn't move a muscle. 'He's sorry. He was crying after you left, didn't even want his McDonalds.'

I sigh and give in, unable to resist hearing about Victor. Over the past twenty-four hours, my anger has faded into regret that I acted so childishly, and sorrow that I may never see him again. Neither Victor nor Terry owes me anything; I took Victor in because I loved him, and if he wanted, I know I'd allow him back into my life without a minute's hesitation. The only anger that remained was directed at Terry, and now that he seems to be willing to make peace, I know I need to accept his offer in order to maintain my sense of self-respect.

'Sit down.'

Terry sits, leaving Victor's bags lying in the middle of the floor. He gives me a wry smile and lights a cigarette, offering me his pack. Waving aside his offer, I light one of my own and wait for him to speak.

'Why so cold?' he inquires, exhaling a long stream of smoke.

I shrug helplessly. 'I could ask the same.'

Terry nods, leaning back against the couch and shutting his eyes. 'I'm angry with you. I know it's not justified, because we all knew something was wrong, but you seem like the easiest target and I have to confess that fairness isn't coming to easily to me right now.'

'Okay,' I agree. 'I can see where you're coming from. The fury's coming from my end because I think you told him too much, too soon. He's sixteen, he doesn't need to know what bastards people are capable of being.'

Terry snorts, his eyes flickering open and meeting my gaze. 'I'm not going to lie to him Michael. He's a good kid, and I suppose I saw myself as some sort of saviour, here to tell him....'

'...I know,' I concur as he trails off. 'All that shit nobody tells you when all you want are answers.'

He laughs hollowly, leaning forward to stub out his cigarette. 'Goddamn this. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Screw sexuality.'

I can't help but agree. Terry's right; we both thought we were doing the right thing by Victor, and when things went wrong we looked for someone to blame, but the target's not in sight, and I don't think we're going to either be able to find one or fully express our anger and regret.

'I daresay he wants to continue the relationship,' Terry adds eventually. 'I suspect he's simply a little wary of how his family are going to react.'

'I thought the shrink spoke to his mother?'

'Hah,' Terry retorts. 'What actually occurred was that his mother came in, screaming death to all faggots, or something equally pleasant. She was drunk, a condition that I found especially charming owing to her pregnancy, and a social worker and a psychologist took her away for a chat and a coffee. She came back repentant, saccharine sweet and told Vic that so long as he gets a job, he's welcome back home.'

'But he wants to be a pharmacist,' I comment docilely. 'Besides, he's gotta finish high school. Everyone finishes high school.'

'That's what I tried to tell him.'

I look up in surprise, amazed that Terry seems to be able to get away with being so forward with Victor. Had I even tried, I know that he would have ended up screaming down my throat, demanding I treat him like an adult.

'He was angry,' Terry admits wryly. 'Goddamn that kid. He's so...impossible to reach. It's as though he doesn't know whether to open up or run away and hide, which is probably largely due to his upbringing. I'd bet good money that he's been abused, but how do you ask? And if he confesses, how on earth is anyone supposed to respond?'

I shrug, helplessly and light another cigarette. 'Maybe no one abused him?'

Terry snorts. 'Highly unlikely, judging by the number and caliber of men that have been in between his mother's legs. And do you remember Brett? The guy who went with Vic and Jamie when they got the Monaro? Jamie says Vic wouldn't look at him, wouldn't talk to him, didn't want anything to do with him for the first fifteen minutes, which you have to admit, is odd for Vic. He's normally confident, and Brett's not at all intimidating. There must be some negative connotation going on for him, someone who looks like him who wears the same work clothes.'

'Maybe.'

'You don't want to talk about this?'

'Not particularly,' I reply. 'I, uh, I'm gonna see my brother. I was supposed to go over at lunch, but I completely forgot. He's…got quite a few things that need to be cleared up with our parents.'

Terry sighs and stands up, picking up Victor's belongings. 'Victor said he had a boyfriend. And a baby on the way.'

'Both true,' I agree regretfully. 'Not exactly a position I envy.'

'Isn't that the truth?'

As I walk Terry to his car, our conversation again turns to Victor. He agrees to tell give Vic my apologies, and tell him I'm only a phone call away, should he feel the need to talk about anything.

Watching Terry drive away, a sigh escapes my lips and I return to my unit, locking up and heading to my van. My mind keeps drifting as I drive to my parent's house, unable to concentrate on anyone or anything, as I try to amalgamate all that's occurred in the past few months. I'm not upset, simply because I can't comprehend losing Victor, and I have this feeling that we'll end up together again – our love, despite it's interference's, is just too strong to be ignored – but I am concerned for Dane.

My concern turns to sorrow as I arrive at my parent's house, to find Dane grounded and my parent's furious. They see Dane's current situation as a direct result of my sexuality and have forbidden him to see, call or in any way communicate with Brennan. They instead want him to show some responsibility for his actions and marry Kelly, whom they're yet to even meet.

'Goddamn you,' my father eventually swears. 'What the hell is wrong with you two? Why the fuck can't you remember to wrap it and put it in the right hole?'

'I don't know,' I reply, feeling like nothing more than a child. Truthfully though, why I am this way used to plague me, and I spent hours trying to analyze why it was that everybody else cared about gender. Sometimes – often – I put it down simply to so desperately wanting someone to love, and to love me, that I lost my ability to acknowledge the trivialities of what people had between their legs. Years on, I don't think this is necessarily a bad explanation, but it's not entirely accurate; there's the sexual side, the physical enjoyment that I never even wanted to think about as a teenager.

'You don't know,' he mocks. 'You don't know. Frankly Michael, sometimes I look at you two and wonder where the fuck you came from.'

'Okay,' I agree, anger biting away at me. 'Well, I'm gonna go and see Dane and then I'll go. I came over to see him, anyway.'

My father snorts and my mother sighs tiredly as I walk down the hallway to Dane's room. Dane ignores me when I knock on his door, unlocking it and letting me in only when I yell out that it's me.

He shuts the door behind me, carefully locking it and gesturing for me to sit on his bed. From his drawers he retrieves an ashtray and cigarettes, carefully lighting one whilst turning on his stereo so whatever we say can't be overheard.

'I told them,' he explains wryly. 'They reckon I can't see Brennan anymore.'

'I'm sorry,' I reply, unsure of what he wants me to say. 'Would you like me to try and convince them?'

'Nope,' he replies shortly, drawing on his cigarette. 'I'm gonna see him anyway. He told his family on Friday and they're okay with it at least, and they're gonna let me stay over whenever I want, so I don't give a fuck what Mum and Dad say.'

'What about Kelly and the baby?'

'What about them?' Dane snorts. 'I don't give a shit. She's the stupid bitch that said she was on the pill and I'm not dropping out of high school to marry her. Get fucked Mike, if she even tries to hassle me, me and Brennan will try and get custody of the baby.'

That's certainly a surprise to me. I didn't think he wanted anything to do with the baby, and although I can't imagine him as a father, I'm more alarmed that he views the child only as a bargaining tool.

'I know nobody will think we can look after it,' Dane adds, noting my expression. 'That's why we're not even gonna try unless she hassles me, y'know?'

'Do you want to see your child?'

'Yeah,' Dane admits, his blue eyes wide and earnest. 'I do. Like, me and Brennan can't exactly make one of our own, and he kinda wanted kids, but it's like…we're gonna stay together, and move out together when I finish school.'

'You've agreed on this already?' I ask doubtfully.

'I've been emailing him and shit for months,' Dane retorts. 'And I really don't give a shit what you think, Mike. You were supposed to be here for me. You said you'd come and you didn't, so it's not like I'm gonna respect someone who doesn't respect me.'

'I know, I'm sorry,' I reply. 'Dane, uh, Vic tried to kill himself on Friday. He's in the hospital, and after that, he's moving out. I, um, had to organize that sort of stuff. I'm sorry, I know I should have called.'

'Shit man,' he swears, stubbing out his smoke and lighting another. 'Fuck. He's the last person I could imagine trying to top himself.'

'Well, he did,' I confirm lightly. 'But he's alive.'

'Yeah,' Dane agrees, seemingly absorbed in the news. 'Shit. Anyway, can you take me for a drive? Please? I wanna go and see Brennan and Dad won't say jack shit if I go with you.'

'I think he will,' I argue.

Surprisingly enough, twenty minutes later, Dane and I are in my van, driving to Brennan's house. We discuss Kelly and the baby a little more, and I learn that far from trying to avoid responsibility, my younger sibling is merely scared shitless. Everyone at school now knows that he's going to be a father, most people are furious with him for cheating on Mariah, and finally, to put the icing on the cake, he came out. My blood runs cold at the thought of the reactions, but he floors me by telling me that far from being targeted, everyone's angrier over Mariah than bothered with his sexuality.

'They think I'm like, a total whore,' Dane explains bitterly. 'Y'know, and that I'm a freak. But, y'know, Shane's stood by me, and I've got you and Brennan and people can only be angry for so long. I've just gotta sit it out and in the end, it'll be sweet.'

'Are you sure?' I reply cautiously, petrified he's going to suffer the depression that plagues Vic.

'Yeah,' he nods firmly. 'And I'm gonna make Mum and Dad see that I love Bren. They're just fucked off 'cause they know they can't control me, but I'm gonna keep talking to them and going out to see him until they realize they don't have a choice.'

'They want you to marry Kelly,' I point out.

'No they don't,' Dane argues. 'Not really. And anyway, Mum said they still loved me, right before they told me not to see him. She always says that before she cracks.'

He's right, our mother does have a rather beneficial habit of giving away 'the next move' and if they do give in and let Dane have a relationship with Brennan, things might just work out for the pair. A baby's not so much a big deal, he'll be almost finished with high school by the time the child's born, and my mother's always been such a baby fanatic, I'm almost willing to bet my life on her organizing some sort of visitation rights for Dane.

'It's the house with the blue Ford in front,' Dane remarks, interrupting my thoughts. 'You wanna come in? He only lives with his Dad, brother and sister, and they're all sweet. His Dad's a sparkie, too, so you can speak to him about that.'

'Are you sure?'

'Shit yeah,' Dane grins. 'Come on. You need to drive me home afterwards, anyway.'

Rolling my eyes, I follow him inside, and am promptly introduced to Mr Gutlar - Harry, Stacey and Bryan. They're all seem like nice enough people, and Harry throws me a beer as we start a game of monopoly with them. I lose by miles, bankrupted within half an hour of the game commencing, and sit back and watch Brennan and Dane. They're mouthing a conversation, and Brennan's resting a hand on my brother's leg, underneath the table. Glancing up, they catch me watching them.

'You wanna go?' Dane asks regretfully.

'I'll come and pick you up later,' I reply, trying not to look too eager to leave. 'Give me a call when you want to be picked up.'

'Cool.'

We excuse ourselves and walk to the front door, and out to my van. As I'm about to walk away from him, he lunges forward, wrapping his arms around me and enveloping me in a hug. It takes a few seconds before I relax, and sink into his arms, both surprised and comforted by the gesture.

'It's okay,' he whispers in my ear. 'I know everyone always expects you to be responsible and shit, but it was Vic's choice not to speak to you or go to a Doctor.'

Tears sting at my eyelids – the first and only tears that I've come close to shedding over Victor's attempted suicide – and I pull away, trying to compose myself, wondering why it is that it's Dane's words that have broken me.

'You fucking never cry,' Dane remarks in surprise. 'Fuck, Mike, don't cry over this.'

He hugs me protectively, his young, hard body pressed against mine. He's shorter than me, and more physically immature than Vic, but it's a relief to be in his arms. It's okay to be weak around him, because he's Dane, and I know that unlike the way I let him down, he would never let me down.

'I love you,' he whispers. 'I always looked up to you. Always. You probably don't believe me, but until I met Brennan, I wanted to be you. Even now, like, if I could just keep Bren and you could have Vic, I'd still wanna be you.'

'You're a jackass.'

'No I'm not,' he argues. 'Everyone likes you. And you're smart, everyone likes you, and you earn lots of money.'

He's so far off target it's not funny. I've lost more friends than I've kept, my intelligence levels are mediocre at best and my wage is nothing out of the ordinary.

'He doesn't deserve you,' Dane adds, in a voice so quiet his words are almost lost to the wind. 'He never did, and he never will. He risked you going to jail and now he's leaving you. Fuck him.'

'It's okay,' I argue, disentangling myself.

'You're gonna take him back, aren't you?' Dane demands. 'Goddamn you Mike. You can do so much better.'

I wish I could argue with him, but I can't. Victor's the only person I want.

'I'm sorry,' he replies regretfully. 'You do whatever you want, okay? Because no matter what, I'll always be here for you.'

'And I'll be here for you.'

He grins and I return the smile, realizing that my little brother is no longer a child. Instead, he's become my rock, and I don't think I'm ever going to be able to adequately return the favour.

Chapter Thirteen

I can't hear anything, but I can feel a hand on my ass and tilt my head, catching sight of my molestor.

Jamie gives me a broad grin, his hand sliding around my waist and pulling me closer. He's certainly adept at flirting and I decide to play along, flinging myself into his arms, one hand resting on a sweat-sheened, naked chest.

'Is Terry going to kill me if I grope you?'

He laughs and leads me outside, digging into his pockets for a cigarette.

'Terry's in Melbourne,' he explains. 'Business. I've borrowed Damon for the night. Do you remember him?'

It takes me a second to remember the blue-eyed man I spent an hour with the night Jamie picked up his Monaro.

'I wouldn't recognize him,' I admit. 'But I think I know who you're talking about.'

Jamie nods, as though it doesn't matter whether or not I know who Damon is, as we step up to the bar, ordering drinks. I'm not sure why he approached me, or what it is he wants, but somehow I feel obligated to follow him over to the balcony and lean over the edge, staring at the stars, with him.

It's been four weeks since Victor left, four weeks since our fight, four weeks since I've spoken to, or touched, or made love with him. I miss him more than I could have imagined; every day brings some reminder of what I've lost, and my weekends drag, as Paul and Tina screw themselves stupid, and every other person I know – conveniently enough, all coupled – spend time with their loved ones. On Friday and Saturday nights I hit the clubs, looking for someone to fuck or be fucked by, anything to kill the quiet melancholy of my apartment for a few hours.

'Do you go out much?'

'Huh?' I reply. 'Um, not really. Only on the weekends, and only when I'm single.'

'You prefer the straight clubs?'

'Yeah.'

'Hmph,' he snorts, sounding amused. 'So does Brett. Doesn't like seeing men hit on his boyfriend.'

I light a cigarette and nod. 'I can appreciate that.'

Jamie smiles cryptically, as though he understands and accepts what Brett and I cannot. I vaguely wonder what goes through his mind, whether he's happy in a m/m relationship when to all intents and purposes, if he'd never met Terry, he'd be with a woman. Perhaps more cynically, I wonder whether he'd be with Terry if he wasn't HIV positive, and if knowing that eventually his lover will die gives him the freedom to accept his current relationship.

'Why do you come here?' I ask, curious. 'If you're mostly straight, why don't you go somewhere straight when Terry's away?'

Jamie grins. 'I do. The real reason I'm here is because Damon wanted to go out and his boyfriend wanted to sleep. Besides, I hate being at home by myself.'

We chatter a little more, and I start to relax, although I never realized how wound up I actually was. It's as though the conversation imbues a sense of peace. Jamie's incredibly laid-back and easygoing, and once he's started the conversation, the flirtation ceases and he instead drinks and smokes, his eyes flashing whenever he laughs.

'Maybe it was meant to end,' he finishes diplomatically, ending a conversation on Victor. 'He hasn't contacted Terry either, and Terry's…disappointed is probably the best way to describe it. He really liked that kid.'

I allow myself a small smile as I stub out my cigarette and light another. Paul's simply glad that Victor's gone and he's confessed he never really gelled with my lover, perhaps because of the latter's arrogance, so it's nice to know somebody other than me saw the good in him.

'You looking for another boyfriend?' Jamie inquires casually.

'Not really. I…'

'Girlfriend?'

'No,' I reply. 'Neither. No preferences, but no desires either.'

He nods understandingly and draws deeply on a cigarette.

'I should find Damon,' he remarks eventually. 'Make sure he's not up to trouble. But if you want a bloke, one of Terry's mates is single and looking. Give us a call if you change your mind.'

'Okay,' I agree, realizing I must smell like an ashtray by now. Besides, I'm basically commandeering Jamie when he's just hinted he wants to get away. 'I've got your number.'

I caved. The emptiness inside of me, the loneliness, the wallowing in self-pity became too great and I rang Terry. He sounded surprised – which in turn surprised me, because I thought he'd be angry or difficult – and invited me over to dinner, because apparently Joseph hates being thrown in the deep end.

This is why I'm now sitting at Terry and Jamie's townhouse, talking with Damon.

'Do you ever go out with Brett?' I inquire, unable to help myself.

He grins and nods. 'Yeah, it's just he's studying part-time at the moment and gets pissy if I interrupt too much.'

'What's he studying?'

'Engineering,' Damon grimaces. 'We used to live with friends of ours, but they had a baby and it was too hard for him to study with the baby around, so they moved out and we bought our unit.'

'Don't you get bored?'

'Mindless,' he agrees. 'I'm trying to convince him we need a pet, but he's being stubborn and resisting.'

He speaks about his home life with a lot of affection and I realize I really, really want to meet Joseph and see what he's 'suitable'. Tina's moved in with Paul, and everyone's playing happy families and actually enjoying their partners and I realize it's probably best to try and start getting over Victor. He obviously isn't going to call, and although I'm still upset, the hurt is fading.

'So what's Joseph like?' I inquire when conversation lapses.

Terry smiles broadly and throws himself into a seat. 'Took you long enough to ask. I was beginning to think you weren't interested.'

'I didn't want to sound shallow.'

I ignore the laughter, smiling myself, and waiting for Terry to give me some idea about who it is I'll be meeting.

'He's a paralegal at my office,' Terry starts. 'Now, I'll warn you that he's a little geeky…'

I look to Damon and Jamie for confirmation. They both nod their concurrence, the former looking bemused.

'…don't,' Terry pauses, hitting his lover and friend. 'Don't put him off, he's sexy geeky. All the women like him and the partners tolerate him, which is more than be said for ninety-nine percent of the employees. He has glasses, tall, average sort of build, very into RPG and the sorts, has a collection of gaming machines, collects old games and controls…'

I must look doubtful because Terry pauses and smiles encouragingly.

'I really think you'll like him. I know he's nothing like Victor, but he's twenty-four and he has a lot of trouble meeting men. He doesn't like clubs, and his last boyfriend left him after…'

I raise my eyebrows expectantly.

'Harrison didn't hit him,' Terry frowns. 'But he used to treat him like shit. Didn't like the way he dressed, acted, his job, his car, basically everything about him. Joseph's very giving…'

Cringing, I pretend to be interested as Terry gives me the sales pitch. All I can imagine is some desperate, horny geek who's unable to get a boyfriend and will quickly become one of those burdensome partners that are impossible to get rid of. I'm not as shallow as some people, whether my partner's body is shaved or hair free, skinny or a little meaty, beautiful or average doesn't bother me too much. Admittedly, I'll stay with a beautiful person with a mediocre personality a lot longer than an average looking person with an above-average personality, but I'm not too bad. Certainly, I'm not a fussy little queen who gets off on belittling others, but all the same, Joseph isn't sounding too promising and it's a struggle to look enthusiastic.

When Joseph arrives - fifteen minutes late – he utterly smashes my preconceptions. He's not horrible geeky, but nor is he really sexy geeky. Cute geeky; definitely, and I understand why the women he works with would adore him. He smiles easily, revealing fantastic teeth, perfectly shaped and white, and it's not just his mouth that smiles, but his whole face. He's one of those people that dress neither fashionably nor unfashionably, and his skin, medium brown hair and fingernails look well cared for.

Straightaway, I know that he's one of those men that never look tired, never comes into work unshaven, and whose clothing never has wrinkles. On his feet are brown leather sandals and he's dressed in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and chino's, and yet he doesn't look too upper class. I'd peg a guess that his parents have decent money, but not so much as to have turned him into a little snot.

He flushes a little as we're introduced, his palm warm and slightly sweaty, a silver watch gleaming on his wrist.

'Er, I left the wine in the car,' he confesses, pulling away from me. 'I'll be back in a sec.'

Terry, Jamie and Damon give me expectant looks the moment Joseph walks out of the townhouse.

'He seems nice,' I offer weakly.

Damon cracks up laughing, burying his face in his hands whilst struggling to compose himself as Terry flicks him with the tea towel.

'Shit, quit it you prick,' Damon retorts, his face red. 'Man, what the hell was going through your mind when you decided to set those two up?'

'They're a good match,' Terry hisses, gesturing for him to be quiet. 'What's your problem with Joseph, anyway?'

'Nothing,' Damon snorts, trying desperately not to laugh. 'But I keep remembering the time we went to that work function of yours and he farted when he stood up to get his best paralegal award.'

Jamie smiles as Damon gives into his laughter. Terry shrugs apologetically, the expression on his face confirming that he believes his current and ex boyfriend's to be more childish than he prefers.

The remainder of dinner proceeds more civilly. Joseph's hardly the man of my dreams, but that doesn't mean I'd find him impossible to love. I could definitely see myself loving him, gently arguing over the household cleaning with him, and making love to him. It would be one of those easygoing relationships, where we coexisted in peace, without any great big emotionally draining fights. In other words, if you were after a satisfying, but not enthralling, relationship, Joseph would be your man.

I understand why Damon was invited over dessert; he's good at making people relax, and Joseph settles down a bit and starts to chat with him.

'…so I want a pet and Brett refuses,' Damon sighs, reaching for his cigarettes. 'In a week or two, I'm going to take around a petition, to try and guilt him into it.'

'You could get a terrier,' Joseph suggests, his light brown eyes flickering with interest. 'My mother breeds foxies, and if you don't mind a dog without papers – she can't show it, and it has too many faults, so she's not registering it – you could have a eight week old pup next week. He isn't neutered, but he's wormed, and they're good dogs to have if you're home a lot. You're at Uni, aren't you?'

'Yep,' Damon perks up before sighing. 'But we don't have a very big courtyard, it's only around the size of a master bedroom.'

Joseph shrugs. 'You'll be fine if it's an inside and outside dog. Just take it for proper exercise every day and brush it once a week. They're pretty tough animals.'

Terry raises his eyebrows at me as Damon phones, and tries to persuade his boyfriend to accept the dog, while Joseph confirms with his mother that nobody else wants the pup. I shrug helplessly, thinking this has got to be the first and last time I'll see Joseph.

'He said it's fine,' Damon grins. 'As long as it doesn't moult much.'

'It won't shed much,' Joseph reassures him. 'Only in summer, and only a little, but I'd wait until summer hits and he's fallen in love with it to tell him.'

'Sweet,' Damon grins. 'Do you want us to pick it up?'

'Do you have a carrier?'

'Not yet,' Damon confesses, before glancing over at me slyly. 'Michael knows where I live. You can get him to drive you over, so you don't get lost. Brett and I live way out in the suburbs.'

I spend all week waiting for Vic to call. Instead, on Saturday morning, at nine-thirty on the dot, Joseph arrives on my doorstep, a silver carrier crate in his hand and within it, a tiny brown and white pup.

'This is him,' he introduces, holding the cage up. 'The as-yet-unnamed dog.'

The puppy pauses to stare, before racing to the edge of the cage and struggling to get out, tail wagging furiously. I have to admit, it's a cute little thing, and if it didn't already have a home, I'd be tempted to offer it one. As it whines and struggles to free itself from the cage, my heart twinges.

'He went to the bathroom in the bushes out front,' Joseph confesses. 'I didn't want him messing in the back of my car. He'll probably toilet train quickly, which should make things easier for them.'

'I'd forgive anything,' I admit. 'I wonder if they know how cute it is.'

'They know,' Joseph grins, gesturing for me to lock up. 'My mother visited them on Wednesday, to do her responsible dog owner spiel and show them the bitch. It's not that she doesn't trust them, it's just...'

'...she doesn't trust them,' I finish.

Joseph laughs his concurrence, ignoring the pup's whines for attention as we make our way to his car. He has a silver Pulsar, with a blanket over the back seat, and he carefully harnesses the cage, checking to ensure it won't wobble or come loose. He's so pedantic, and he looks so neat and tidy for a Saturday morning, in his neatly pressed shorts and polo shirt. If I didn't know, I'd assume he was straight - there's nothing camp in his style of dress - but he screams 'Mummy's boy' a mile off.

He drives so responsibly, following my directions and never making a wrong move. It amuses me, I suppose, to watch him, and imagine what he's like in bed. An image of him carefully removing his clothes, folding them and laying a towel on the bed comes to mind and almost immediately I feel guilty for being so presumptuous. He can't be that boring in bed, everyone has a wild side, and it's often the meekest that have the kinkiest ideas. Furthermore, I have to admit, he must be interested in some kind of relationship with me, otherwise he could have driven himself to Brett and Damon's. As it stands, Damon's organization of both of us dropping off the pup was probably the most transparent set-up in history and yet both Joseph and I accepted it without comment.

'Did Victor call?'

I pause, wrenched from my thoughts.

'No,' I reply uneasily. 'Did any hot men call you?'

'Only to tell me they didn't like the new conveyancing clerk,' Joseph laughs. 'Hardly erotic.'

We fall into uncomfortable silence. I didn't realise Terry would tell him about Victor, my teenaged lover, and the facts behind his recent departure from my life. Then again, it's not entirely unreasonable that he was alerted; obviously he has to realise that if Victor were to call, any interest in a relationship would immediately wane.

'I'm starting to get lost,' Joseph hints.

'Sorry,' I apologise, scrabbling for the refidex and checking our path. Neither of us talks as we complete the drive to Brett and Damon's unit, other than to comment on the puppy's unbelievable cuteness and how much fun his new owner's are going to have with him.

The little terrier is almost crazy with boredom by the time we arrive, yelping and pushing his cool nose against the cage, his tongue hanging out as we make our way to the unit. Seconds after we knock the door is opened and blue eyes dart down to inspect the small animal.

'We should come in,' Joseph remarks. 'Then you can shut the door, get him a drink, and let him get used to his new home.'

The front door is shut and Joseph carries the cage to the middle of the lounge, placing it on the floor as Brett stands in the kitchen, arms crossed over his chest, dressed in flannelette pajama pants and nothing else. If he wasn't already taken, and if I wasn't with a potential partner, I wouldn't mind the opportunity of checking him out, but he's taken, and Joseph's here, and I don't want to show any disrespect, so I give him a quick smile. He returns the gesture easily before turning to watch his partner with bemused interest.

'Come out little puppy,' Damon urges, prompting the now-shy puppy out. 'I'm not that ugly.'

A tiny head pokes out of the cage, glancing up at its new owner. Slowly, cautiously, he walks over and sniffs Damon, before yelping excitedly, clamping his teeth around the bottom of Damon's jeans and tugging furiously.

'Don't let him do that,' Joseph instructs, gently prying the puppy away. 'It's only cute for so long, then it becomes annoying.'

'Aw, it's okay,' Damon coos, picking up the dog. 'You come with me and say hello to Brett. He's going to give you your name.'

The puppy is christened Lexis and Joseph carefully oversees the puppy's exploration of the unit and backyard, grimacing as Lexis poops in the corner of the living room. Other than that, the dog seems delighted to be given so much room, although entirely uninterested in his new dog bed. He does, however, drag the toys out, proceeding to drag a squeaky ball around into the kitchen, endearing himself to us.

Brett makes us coffee and we sit in their courtyard, talking idly and observing Lexis.

'So, only four weeks left of boilermaking,' Brett grins. 'And then I get to be frustrated teaching little apprentices at TAFE.'

'That should be fun,' I tease him. 'Thirty sixteen year old males into your care for six months, twice a year.'

Brett shrugs diplomatically. 'If they misbehave, I'll tell them I have a boyfriend. That'll keep 'em in line.'

We laugh at the thought, lighting cigarettes as Damon throws Lexis' ball to him. The cigarette in Joseph's mouth looks elegant, and I don't recognise the brand but it looks expensive. He's light years away from this outer-surburban couple in personality and upbringing, neat and tidy and almost faultless, save for his geekiness, and seemingly endless penchant for perfection. He can talk to this couple, but inside, I wonder how he feels about giving the dog away to a couple who smoke roll-your-own cigarettes, live in a moderately trashy neighbourhood and carry the faint scent of sex.

'We should get going,' Joseph remarks eventually. 'Call me if you have any problems.'

Joseph and I head back to his Pulsar, a bottle of Bundy resting in his arms, the rum a gift from Damon. We discuss the dog, our work lives, and our upbringings as we drive home, finding common ground and perhaps intimating our desire to see each other again. After all, neither of us are swamped with offers, and despite his lack of hipness, he would definitely make a suitable partner for me, and I for him.

'Can you imagine being like those two?' Joseph asks as we pull into my driveway. 'Being so happy, while living in such a bad neighbourhood and teaching at Tafe?'

'No,' I reply honestly. 'I can't.'

I invite him in, and we fuck, orgasms mediocre, lives without meaning, the image of another man in my head as I lie with him in the aftermath.

He sighs, with something akin to resignation, and I wonder if he, too, is dreaming of a better sort of life.

Chapter Fourteen

'Would you like to come in for coffee?' Joseph inquires formally.

Even when he's asking if I want sex, he does it properly. That's not to say I don't want the sex he offers, or that I'm not curious about what his apartment looks like, and I accept the offer, following him up the clean, concrete stairs to his second level home.

It's as neat as I expected, clean and tidy without excess knick-knacks, papers and bills stuck to the fridge with magnets and decomposing fruit, left to slowly rot in a bowl by the microwave. Instead, it smells of Glen20, antiseptic and clean, with the underlying scent of garlic. The latter doesn't surprise me, because I've noticed the stale, garlicky taste he often carries, gleefully noting it as his one, real, fault.

'You don't have a dog?' I ask.

'No,' he smiles quickly. 'I don't have the time or space they deserve, and besides, I don't want anything chewing on my furniture.'

Nodding insipidly, I accept the coffee he brews and sit at the oak kitchen table. He's a nice man, and I frequently wish I'd never met Victor, so I could enjoy the relationship, let myself fall in love with him. Instead, every time the phone rings, I rush to it, expecting it to be my former lover, and every time I go to bed with Joseph, I shut my eyes and pretend its Vic. Well, Victor and a few others, engaging in acts I doubt they're perform in real life, but Joseph certainly doesn't appear in my pre-orgasm fantasies.

'Do you have anything planned for tomorrow?'

'No,' I reply, knowing what he's about to offer, and knowing that in accepting, I'll be signing into an exclusive relationship.

'You're welcome to spend the night.'

It's so perfectly scripted it's not funny.

'If you don't mind?'

'I don't mind,' he smiles quickly, brushing a loose strand of hair out of his face.

The gesture touches me, almost as though I'm realizing, for the first time, that he's a human being, with thoughts and emotions of his own, not just some gay office geek in need of a boyfriend. With shock that it's taken me so long to acknowledge any sort of respect for him, I lean over and run my fingers through his hair, our first sign of random affection.

I realize I genuinely like his smile, his honesty and even his predictability. I now know what Terry meant about him being 'giving'; not desperate, but good-hearted.

After coffee, we watch television together, his head resting on my shoulder and his eyes half-closed. Four weeks into a relationship, we're acting at long-term-partnership, each of us desiring the stability and familiarity of a life long partner to be with, and support, us.

'Are you tired?' I whisper, stroking his hair. I find that I enjoy the feel of it, smooth and soft and well-cut, falling easily through my fingers.

'I'm ready for bed,' he yawns, wriggling onto my lap and staring up at me.

Genuinely happy, I remove his glasses and lean forward, placing them on the coffee table, before moving my hand under his long-sleeved shirt. His eyes shut and he inhales and exhales deeply as I fondle his nipples, pulling his shirt up and lowering my mouth to the hard, pink nubs.

I shuffle so that I'm lying next to him, our lips meeting and my hand following the curve of his spine and coming to rest on his buttocks. He's a good kisser, a good fuck, seemingly good at everything he does, and that's bound to include relationships.

'Turn that damn thing off,' he mumbles when my mobile starts to ring.

'Sorry,' I apologise, reaching into the pocket of my discarded jeans and switching the phone off.

'Bloody mobiles,' he complains, eagerly grasping my naked form.

I make a mock move to bite his nose, smiling at his poked out tongue, before we return to our foreplay.

The sex is fantastic. Now that we know we're a couple, we're more relaxed and he cries out my name as he climaxes, both of us weak-kneed and panting in the aftermath.

'This is nice,' I admit, holding him close.

'It is,' he agrees, sighing happily.

'Mikey,' Terry greets cheerfully as I answer my mobile.

'Terry,' I mock him playfully, pulling over to the side of the road. 'What do you want? I'm not in the middle of anything right now, so you might want to call back later?'

'Hmm?'

'It wasn't you?' I reply, flushing. 'Sorry. Someone called at an…inopportune time last night.'

Terry laughs, teasing me over Joseph before asking how the relationship's going.

'Good,' I reply carefully. 'I stayed over last night.'

'Oh,' Terry replies thoughtfully. 'I'm happy for you both. I'm glad Jamie suggested it, I would never have thought of it otherwise. He's a good man, he'll keep you happy.'

'You don't need to keep selling him to me,' I laugh. 'I already like him.'

'That's good.'

'Terry? Stop talking to me like I'm a child, and tell me why you really rang.'

Terry pauses. 'Victor.'

My heart sinks. Not this. Please, please, please, not this. I like Joseph and I want to enjoy our relationship, not have Victor reappear in my life the moment I've given up hope.

'Michael?' Terry urges. 'Should I tell him you're no longer available?'

I pause, weighing up my options.

'No,' I sigh tiredly. 'I'll tell him. Is he with you now?'

'Yeah,' Terry replies softly. 'How long will you be?'

'An hour or so?'

Terry agrees, having checked with Victor that he's willing and available to meet with me.

This, of course, leaves me in one of the worst situations imaginable. All I can think is why? Why now? Why does he have to come back into my life, when I waited and waited, for almost three months for him to return and then finally decided to move on and find another?

I return home and shower, washing away the scent of Joseph. He wears Boss and the cologne has a habit of lingering, something I learnt when Dane looked and me oddly last weekend and raised an eyebrow questioningly. I half-mentioned Joseph and he half-acknowledged the explanation, obviously patient enough tow wait for the relationship to develop before asking any more questions.

Only the relationship may not develop any further. Deep in my heart, I'm pleading with unknown Gods that Victor wants to move in with me again, and recommence the relationship. As awful as it is to 'play' Joseph, I didn't ever intend to hurt his feelings and I can't deny that the love I feel for Vic is too strong to ignore.

I arrive at Terry's townhouse ninety minutes after he called, nervous and oddly happy. Victor answers the door, looking as peculiar as always, only taller and a little more filled out. He must have bleached his hair a few weeks ago, because there's a centimeter or two of dark roots, which contrast sharply with the tawny ends, the whole lot gelled into it's usual, fashionable, mess.

'Mike,' he greets solemnly.

His voice has fully broken, and he has a great voice, rich and baritone, without being pretentious. His dress style has calmed a little, and he wears dark blue jeans and a green hoody, black boots with plain black laces on his feet. His fingernails are painted black, and on his right thumb he has a silver band, which matches his silver identity-tag bracelet.

'Vic,' I reply, in shock. 'You've grown up.'

He smiles nervously and shuts the door behind him, standing alongside me on the courtyard.

'It's okay,' he advises me. 'Terry told me you were seeing someone else. What I really wanted was to say thank-you for everything. I know I need to apologise for a lot, because my behaviour was atrocious.'

'No, no, it's fine,' I reply, gesturing towards the wooden courtyard table. 'It must have been incredibly difficult, there was a lot thrown at you, and I think I needed to step back and really look at the situation.'

He nods vehemently, sitting down across from me and reaching for his cigarettes. 'I know. I really lost the plot for a while and wrong as it was, I expected you to be my everything. I can't even adequately explain it; I always thought I was too strong for that sort of nonsense, but obviously not. Everything just seemed to be crashing down around me and I wanted you to fix it.'

'I probably should have,' I admit, thinking of all the times I left him to fend for himself.

'Some of the time,' he agrees lightly. 'Mike, I'm really grateful for everything you did for me. I didn't realize how lucky I was to have you. And Terry. Jesus, when I told my shrink about you two, he was floored. He thinks you two are the bees knees.'

I blush a little, and Victor smiles, leaning over the table and meeting my gaze.

'Is he nice?' he asks softly. 'Your new boyfriend?'

'I've only just met him,' I lie uncomfortably, not wanting to give the impression that just last night I was intimating that to Joseph I wanted to further our relationship.

Vic smiles wryly. 'I miss you. I didn't think it was humanly possible to love someone so much.'

I take his hand, my heart dancing as he entwines his fingers in mine, his warm, smooth palm against mine.

'I know,' I whisper, needing to kiss him.

'Shit Mike,' he swears suddenly. 'I promised myself I wouldn't do this. I'm not going to be dating any more men, I'm not… What I'm trying to say is that I came here to thank you and Terry for everything you did. Um, maybe you should go and enjoy your new boyfriend and I'll go and…'

'…No!' I interrupt. 'Don't go, okay Vic? You can't turn around and walk out on this because of what's happened in the past. I still love you. I'll always love you. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and if you're willing…'

'…I'm not,' he replies firmly, retrieving his hand. 'I'm not willing. I love you, and I think you're a fantastic man, but I can't pay the price that comes with the relationship. I can't lose my family.'

'I thought they knew.'

'Know,' he smiles wanly. 'They know, but they can't…accept it. I've done a lot of thinking, and I didn't want to see you until I thought I was strong enough – and I'm really beginning to think I'm not – so I could get on with my life.'

'You can't marry a woman,' I argue. 'You know that's not fair. Not fair to you, and definitely not fair to her.'

'Why is it not fair?' he retorts archly. 'I can love women, just not in that way. Marriage isn't always about love, Michael, it's about compatibility.'

I stare at him in horror. He's, what, seventeen years old, and giving up on a relationship because his family still can't accept his sexuality. More devastatingly, he's giving up on love, and he's going to expect some woman to do likewise so that he can feel safe and secure.

'Okay,' I agree eventually. 'Well, I wish you good luck. With everything in life.'

'Thanks,' he nods. 'You too, right Mikey? You tell your new man to look after you, because you're pretty precious stuff.'

Smiling bitterly, I light a cigarette and stand up. 'I should be going.'

'I'll walk you to your van. I wouldn't mind seeing it one last time.'

It's a farce and we both know it. We walk to the van, and stand outside it, staring at one another stupidly. I love him, and I know that he loves me. Not even two and a half months of separation can change the way we feel about each other, remove the love and lust and longing we each feel, and slowly, we move together, our lips joining together.

My heart dances as we wrap our arms around each other, our tongues batting against each other and our cocks growing hard.

'I love you,' he whispers, melancholy. 'Could we make love? Just one last time?'

Chapter Fifteen

'Mikey,' he whispers softly, wrapping an arm around my shoulders. 'I love you.'

'I love you too,' I reply, shuffling closer to him.

We're sitting on the edge of my bed, post-coital and post-shower, towels around our waists. I'm terrified I won't be able to let him go, now that he's made love to me and showered with me and told me he still loves me.

'Lie down and snuggle with me,' he requests gently, disentangling himself and laying on the bed.

I scoot along next to him and hold him against my chest, reveling in the feel of his body alongside mine. He's fulfilled his earlier prophecy and is now taller than me, but he remains as affectionate as always and I try and comprehend why it is he doesn't want to continue our relationship. I know how difficult families can be, but by turning his back on his sexuality, he's turning his back on every man and woman who's had to make the difficult step of coming out and there's a little anger mingled with my sorrow.

'What's Joseph like?' he asks timidly.

'Shhh,' I whisper. 'Don't talk about this.'

'I want to know,' he argues. 'Do you love him?'

I consider my answer carefully. 'I haven't been with him for long. I like him, but no, I don't love him.'

'Does he love you?'

'No,' I reply with certainty. 'Vic, are you sure you don't want to give this relationship another go?'

He doesn't respond for a second, instead stroking my chest and nuzzling my neck. I stroke his hair as his face contorts and he struggles to make a decision.

'Leave it,' he whispers eventually. 'Stay with Joseph. If ever you want sex, or someone to talk to, or to anything at all, call me, but otherwise, I'm gone.'

There's a hard lump in my throat as I struggle to make sense of what he's told me. I don't want just sex, or random meetings, I want him to be my lover, my partner, the person who I spend the rest of my life with. I want to fall asleep with him in my arms, and wake up to find his soft hair tickling my nose. I want to make love to him, and come home to him and spend every waking moment in his company.

'You could tell Joseph you want an open relationship,' he suggests cautiously. 'I have Mondays and Thursdays off. I could come and visit you. I have a car - my Mum borrowed it today - so I could drive down, if you want.'

'I'd like that,' I admit, kissing his forehead. 'I don't think I could live without you.'

He smiles brilliantly, his smoky eyes alight with happiness. In that second, I feel not anger, but pity, for him. He genuinely feels trapped, and I don't doubt that if he honestly felt it were likely his family would accept his lifestyle, he would be with me.

'I love you so much,' he confesses, stroking my arm. 'God you have no idea how much I missed you.'

'I think I do,' I grin, ruffling his hair. 'Fuck, I was terrified. I didn't know whether you were alive, and how you were coping at home, and if you could go back to school…'

Victor smiles bitterly. 'No school. I got an apprenticeship, as a chef, instead. It's okay.'

My heart sinks. He was such a fantastic student, so incredibly brilliant, and if only his goddamned mother would let him, he could have gone on to achieve great things.

'You'll make a great chef,' I tell him. 'I can't imagine you being bad at anything.'

'Only at keeping my sanity,' he teases himself. 'But that's alright. I have a new little sister, Shanti, and she's putting us all to work.'

'Is she?' I ask, not really interested in the latest of his siblings. Truthfully, I can never remember their names, and nor did I make any effort to, children not being anything I ever desired.

'Yep,' he grins, before becoming solemn. 'She's retarded,' he adds uncomfortably. 'She's tiny, and her face is a little funny, but she's beautiful, anyway.'

'I'm sorry,' I offer sincerely.

'So am I,' he replies, reaching for his cigarettes. 'I keep trying to figure out why Mum had to drink when she knew she was pregnant. I mean, she says it's because I left home, but…I don't understand, you know?'

My blood runs cold at the knowledge that Vic is blaming himself for his mother's actions and moreso, at the knowledge that his mother is blaming him.

'It's not you fault,' I argue. 'C'mon Vic, you can't blame yourself.'

'I know,' he agrees. 'But I do, anyway. It's like, I look at her little face and I wonder what she should have been like. It's as if every last one of us is fucked, and if we're not, someone has to fuck our lives up for us.'

'You're not fucked up.'

'Yeah I am,' he argues wearily. 'Truly Mike, we're all screwed, but I don't want to talk about it. Anyway, I need to go. If you want, I'll come over on Monday, at five.'

'That would be nice,' I agree, drawing him into my arms.

He doesn't leave immediately, we spend another fifteen or twenty minutes kissing and simply enjoying each other's company before he finally, regretfully, asks if I can drop him off at Terry's.

I keep glancing over at him as we drive to Terry and Jamie's townhouse, amazed at how much he's matured, not just physically, but emotionally. He's the same old Vic I know and love, but with improvements, and when we kiss good-bye, it's a struggle not to physically force him to stay with me.

'I'll see you Monday,' he whispers. 'Call me if you change your mind.'

'I won't.'

Vic shrugs diplomatically. 'Joseph might not like it, and I'm not here to ruin your life. You need someone to look after you when I'm not around.'

In all honesty, I'd give up Joseph in a flash in exchange for seeing Victor for only a few hours a week. Not even my heart can make sense of why it is that I'm willing to exchange a full-time partner for just a few hours with a lover, why it is that I love Vic so much, or why it is that I've fallen harder for him than any of my previous partners. There's no logic or reason to my emotions, nothing makes sense any more, and oddly enough, I don't even care. All I want is Victor and I'll take whatever I'm given, so long as he agrees to keep seeing me.

Terry, somehow, understands my feelings, and he drops by that night, after having returned Victor to his family home. Jamie's at home, relaxing after a busy Saturday at work, and Terry and I head off to a café to discuss Victor's sudden, unexpected, reappearance into our lives.

'There's something about him, isn't there?' he muses aloud, over pasta and wine. 'He's nothing special, but then again, he is. I have this inexplicable urge to help him, but he neither wants nor acknowledges assistance. It's as if he believes he knows the right path, even when he's leading himself into misery.'

'You know he's looking for a woman?' I confirm, surprised.

Terry sighs and stabs at his ravioli viciously. 'Yes. And I hate that; I can't comprehend why he'd even attempt something so stupid. Does he honestly think that he can be a good husband whilst having a sideline lover?'

'It's not uncommon,' I point out slowly. 'Open relationships can work.'

'But it's not going to be an open relationship,' Terry argues. 'It's not at all the same. If he was genuinely in love with a woman, and still felt the overwhelming urge to sleep with other men, and both parties agreed, that's great. But he's not going to be in love with this woman, he's going to use her to attain his own ends, and I highly doubt he realizes how selfish that is.'

'Jamie fell in love with you.'

'Jamie's happy,' Terry argues. 'And we're monogamous.'

'Have you offered an open relationship?' I inquire, curious.

'Many a time,' he confirms slowly, fiddling with his napkin. 'Prior to us becoming a couple, he never…had any qualms about paying for sex. It wasn't exactly an irregular occurrence for him to visit a brothel, if you understand what I'm saying, so I thought 'why not? I already have his heart, so what do I care if he gets satisfied elsewhere?'

'And he's never taken you up?'

'Not that I know of,' Terry replies, a glimmer of satisfaction in his eyes. 'And I highly doubt it, given his inability to hold hands without cracking a stag.'

Irritated – and jealous – at Terry's obvious pride in being able to sexually satisfy his lover, I return to my meal for a few minutes, before puzzling aloud, once more, over the situation. Truthfully, though, we could discuss the situation all night and not come up with any real answers. How Victor reacts, how he views his future girlfriends, and how he'll cope with marriage are all moot points, because neither of us know exactly what goes on in my lover's head. We can't argue that he'll never learn to love her, because maybe he will. We can't tell him to come clean and open up, because even though we both know it's the 'right' thing to do in terms of gay rights, blood is thicker than water and if his family will reject him, we can't force him to come out. Jamie and Terry keep their relationship quiet, and the latter's HIV status quieter, for reasons of societal pressure, and I've always accepted this, understood that Jamie is 'straight but in love with a man'.

'I wish I could decide what I felt about this,' Terry remarks wistfully. 'I wish to God there were easy answers.'

'There never are,' I sigh. 'Unfortunately.'

Terry smiles. 'Are you angry with him?'

'Mad and sad,' I confirm. 'But sad for myself, mostly, because I want him and I know I can't have him and I hate that he's being forced into a corner.'

'I know,' Terry sighs. 'But what can you do?'

Nothing, really.

Life progresses into a steady stream of six hours a week with Victor, forty at work, and the rest spent sleeping, visiting, or being with Joseph.

In three week's, Dane will be seventeen, and it's with a shock that I realize his birthday marks my one year anniversary with Victor. Time seems to have sped by so quickly, and I can't even comprehend the occurrences of the past twelve months, because it seems that my life has totally done a one-eighty.

Dane's child is due to be born in a few weeks, Paul and Tina are organizing their wedding, my parents remain annoyed, but no longer furious, over Victor and Brennan, and Joseph – well, Joseph is as geeky as always. Two months into our relationship and he's introduced me to all of his friends, seemingly happy to ignore my twice-weekly sojourns with another man. He tells me he has no urge to sleep with other men, and we don't speak of the matter much. He's not happy knowing that he's second pick, but for reasons that elude me, he accepts it with quiet certainty.

At this very moment, Joseph and I are playing some sort of laser-force type game with his friends, replete with vests, visors and guns, chasing each other around a park. It's night time, and I'm with Joseph, both of us sweating and panting and entirely caught up in the moment when he stumbles and falls.

I kneel down beside him to ask if he's alright and he nods, pulling me to the soft, cold grass with him. The night air is harsh on my throat and I lick my lips, lusting after a glass of Coke as I sit alongside him.

He lifts our visors and smiles at me, red-faced and sweaty, imperfect. He's real, tangible, a person, a side of him I couldn't have imagined existed a few short weeks ago, but the more I see of it, the more I like him.

'I love you,' he whispers, quickly averting his gaze.

A funny feeling settles in the pit of my stomach as he speaks. I don't feel the same way, and I don't want to lie to him, but nor did I expect him to come out with any such declaration of feeling. I stare at the ground in shock, wondering how on earth I'm going to get out of this situation.

'You don't have to say anything,' he mutters, flipping his visor back over his face and standing up. 'I know you love him.'

It's the first time he's intimated any animosity towards Victor, but there's no chance to speak, even if I could come up with the right words, as he races off towards the distant, shadowy, figure of one of his geek friends.

Chapter Sixteen

'Your taste in men is declining,' Matt remarks cheerfully. 'Damn, Mikey, I'm not one to see 'having a pole up your ass' as generally being a bad thing, but in Joseph's case, it definitely is.'

'Thanks,' I reply dryly, not as embarrassed of Joseph as I thought I would be.

'I'm serious,' Matt argues, becoming somber. 'Vic started off sweet, then he started losing it. Then, for reasons that I really don't understand, you take up with Father Joseph.'

'No, not Father Joseph,' Paul argues, a small smile on his face. 'An affair with a priest would be interesting.'

As Paul speaks, I cease considering Joseph and Victor and instead worry a little, on Paul's behalf. He hasn't yet told Tina he's bisexual, can't find the words, and has sworn his family and friends to secrecy. They're due to get married in December, and it worries me that he's going to spend the rest of his life with a woman that he doesn't know whether or not he can trust with the truth.

Matt, Jacob and Paul discuss priests and nuns and good Catholic schoolboys until Joseph returns from his outing to the Chinese takeaway down the road, and then we eat, my boyfriend meticulously chewing his food, Matt struggling not to laugh. I want to kick Matt, and Jacob, and Paul. Truthfully, I want to hang them over the fucking balcony railing until they stop taking the piss out of my geeky partner. God alone knows I hurt him enough, I don't need my friends adding insult to injury.

Their goddamned insensitivity pisses me off, and suddenly I don't care that Paul's too chicken shit to come out to his girlfriend, or that he and Matt and Jacob think Joseph's a pathetic loser, I simply want them all out of my apartment before Joseph realizes their feelings towards him.

I veritably boot them out after lunch, and Joseph and I lie all over each other on the couch, watching DVD's. He's a little quieter than usual for the first half an hour or so, I suspect mulling over everyone's reactions, before he loosens up, snuggling into my chest. It's two weeks since I failed to return his declaration of love, and he hasn't uttered a word about his feelings since. His geekiness doesn't really bother me any more, and I've noticed an inclination to be very protective of him, making me at once the cause of his pain and the comforter. It's a strange relationship, but my whole life, of late, has been more than a little unusual.

We start to kiss, ignoring the movie and concentrating on each other, his hands slipping around my back. His body twists and squirms against mine, increasingly desperate, in rhythm with my own lust, when his mobile rings.

'Do you someone's spying on us?' he whispers between kisses. 'This is the fourth time we've been interrupted by a mobile.'

'Ignore it,' I whisper, nipping his neck. 'If you answer that, I'm gonna suck you so hard it'll break off.'

He grins and pushes me down by way of an answer, whilst reaching for his phone. The moment he realizes who the caller is, he pushes me away and sits up, reaching for his pants as he converses with the person on the other end. Disappointed, I help him with his clothing, resisting the temptation to keep his dick hard during the conversation. Instead, I sit directly in front of him, butt naked and jerking off, amused at his futile attempts to ignore my actions.

'…do you want me to come over?' he asks the caller.

Inwardly groaning, I stop beating off as it becomes obvious my afternoon with Joseph is about to be interrupted.

Joseph smiles apologetically as he ends the call. 'That's Terry. He took a file home and can't figure out what's going on, so I'm going to go over and explain. It's a little difficult to explain over the phone.'

'You want to finish this first?' I inquire, pulling him onto my lap. 'Christ you're hot when you're horny. It's almost as if you stop being….'

'A nerd?' Joseph suggests dryly as I trail off.

Guilty, I shake my head and bury my face in his neck, wishing I were imbued with a little more decorum.

He sighs and stands up, reaching for his shirt and heading to the bathroom. The water's running and it's obvious he's brushing his teeth, and probably his hair at the same time. It's odd to think of Terry as being his senior, when to me, Terry's an acquaintance and nothing else but I restrain from telling him that he looks fine, and instead ask if I can go with him.

'It's not very interesting,' he replies, bemused. 'Do you really want to spend half an hour listening to the trivialities of company law?'

'Nope,' I reply, my hands roaming over his butt. 'I just need to ensure you're going to come back.'

He smiles at me, neatening my hair and giving me the sort of loving look I definitely don't deserve. I want his body, and his companionship, but the last thing I want is his love, and my guilt levels skyrocket at his expression.

'We should get going,' he whispers, kissing me. 'Before you get me started again.'

'Really?' I grin, pushing my guilt aside. 'I can't imagine you being late in order to stay here and have your wicked way with me. You're too perfect for that sort of thing.'

'I don't like to be late,' he protests laughingly. 'It's rude.'

'Rude, schmude,' I retort, poking his chest and racing out the door. 'Kiss my butt nerd boy.'

He doesn't chase me. Instead, he waits until we're both in his car and ready to go before he leans over and squeezes my thigh, not moving too high up my leg, not displaying any affection that may be overseen by people alongside us. It ruins my playfulness and during the drive to Terry's, I consider the differences between Victor and Joseph. Joseph's so boring in comparison, although sometimes, when he's with his friends, he can be fun. Normally, though, I can't reveal that side of his personality without external influence, which bothers me. Even Terry can get him to lighten up, whereas Joseph rarely lets his guard down around me, as though he finds it necessary that we be quiet and calm around one another.

Terry looks surprised to see me but fails to comment as he leads us into his study, where bits of paper and files are scattered everywhere. He and Joseph get straight to work, and I slide into boredom, utterly uninterested in the conversation.

'Jamie's home,' Terry remarks absently as someone opens the front door and bounds up the stairs. 'Let's hope he and his coworkers have learned that throwing manure at one another at the end of the day really isn't that funny.'

Joseph's face contorts with disgust, whereas I can see the amusement in throwing decomposing moo poo at your workmates. Terry obviously sides with Joseph, because he gives me a wry grin and shakes his head in bemusement as the door is flung open.

'Shit sorry,' Victor apologies hurriedly, backing out. 'I didn't know you'd have people over.'

'It's fine,' Terry replies easily, his voice unnaturally pleasant. 'Busy day at work?'

'Yeah,' Victor agrees, acknowledging Joseph with a smile. 'Umm…'

Terry gives me a pointed, questioning look, obviously resigned to the awful situation unfolding. Both Joseph and Victor's gazes are trained on me expectantly, neither having any idea who the other is. I shrug helplessly and leave Terry to do the introductions.

'Vic, this is Joseph,' he starts calmly. 'Joseph, Victor.'

The pair are less than two meters apart and Joseph automatically offers his hand. Victor steps forward and shakes it, both men visibly shocked and uncertain of how to proceed. They're basically polar opposites; one teenaged and uneducated, although with breathtaking intelligence he draws on when necessary, and an eclectic sense of dress, the other, older, educated, paraprofessional, with money and a reserved style that encompasses not only his dress but his personality.

'You're not what I expected,' Victor remarks slowly.

Joseph smiles quickly. 'Neither are you.'

Victor returns the smile nervously as Jamie's Monaro pulls up out front.

'Jamie's home,' Terry announces inanely.

'I'll go and see him,' Victor replies, meeting my gaze. 'I only came over to give him his birthday present. I have to be back to work in an hour.'

We all stare at his houndstooth trousers and black steel caps, evidence of his trade. It's so ridiculous, the way we're behaving, each one of us entirely out of our comfort zone and wishing this meeting had never taken place.

'Um, bye,' he adds, his gaze darting from Joseph's to my face one last time.

The moment he's gone it's as though we want to forget what just happened and Joseph and Terry pick up their files and I return to flicking through an old edition of TV Week. Truthfully, I think we could have all gone without ever thinking of the matter again, but when Jamie comes in, he's wearing a hard expression and completely ignores me, smiling quickly at Joseph before kissing the top of Terry's head.

'Are you still working on that?' Jamie whispers, standing behind, and fiddling with, his lover's hair. 'Do you want any help?'

Terry shakes his head, his eyes shut and his face tilted up to his boyfriend. 'No. Did Vic leave?'

We fall silent as Vic's old car splutters into life, directly on cue. Terry sighs and his eyes flutter open.

'Take Mike and watch tellie or something,' he suggests. 'He's fidgeting, and annoying us.'

Jamie and I take the hint and go downstairs and into the courtyard. Joseph may have come over 'to explain' but obviously he's now preparing to help Terry and that means Jamie and I have to amuse ourselves. With no idea of how long they're going to be, I start to tap my fingers against the armrest uncomfortably, aware of Jamie's hostility.

'How was work?' I ask.

'Okay,' Jamie replies, twisting a stubbie out of a six pack and throwing it my way.

My gaze drifts around the courtyard, which is a gorgeous mess of vines and flowers, with soft thick grass beneath our feet. It looks a lot wilder than your normal garden, but it's not ramshackle, instead it's the sort of garden you'd try to replicate, if only you knew how. I've never really sat in the courtyard and appreciated it before, although judging by Jamie's relaxed pose this is a favourite spot of his.

'You really scored the nice garden,' I remark, eyeing off the neighbour's plains of manicured, boring grass spotted with palm trees and run of the mill stone fountains.

'Hmph,' Jamie grunts. 'We did it up when I moved in.'

He says 'we' when I'm willing to bet the answer is 'I', because I know he works in a nursery and Terry's the last man I can expect willingly getting his hands dirty. Jamie piques my interest in that he's so different from Terry, so working class, yet seems perfectly content as is. The only thing that sets him apart from his peers is his Monaro, yet even that can hardly have been Terry's first pick of a car for his partner; a Beemer or Benz would have been infinitely more suitable.

'What are you going to do about Joseph and Vic?' he inquires after a hiatus.

'I'm not sure,' I admit, fiddling with my fourex. 'What would you do?'

Jamie shrugs and lights a cigarette, staring at a purple-flowered vine. 'I'm not you.'

'But if you were?' I ask, unable to contain my curiosity.

He mulls over the answer, smoking thoughtfully. 'I'd leave Vic,' he admits. 'I'd probably take Joseph, if I were inclined towards men, because at seventeen, Vic shouldn't be letting his family walk all over him. He should be standing up by now and telling them how it is. Joseph's stable, too, you could kick back and settle down with him.'

His reply surprises me; I didn't think he'd be the type to become irritated at a persons' weakness. Truthfully, I thought he'd understand and comfort, but obviously he's a little harder than I first imagined.

'I hate being jerked around,' Jamie adds, with a grin. 'But if Joseph's willing to lose you for a few hours a week, good on him. Just try and do a better job of keeping them apart, in future.'

'Trust me, they'll never see each other again if I can help it,' I reply sincerely.

Jamie snorts his agreeance. 'You're gonna have to give Joseph some pretty good oral tonight.'

'I'm aware of that,' I admit dryly, draining my bitter.

Jamie relaxes, hostility seemingly gone and we drink a little more, talking about work and life and other inane subjects until he glances down at his watch and remarks he should probably start making tea.

'You and Joseph should head off,' he adds, as something of an afterthought.

'Are they finished?'

Jamie shrugs and heads upstairs, returning a few minutes later with my boyfriend.

'They're finished,' he explains. 'They'd moved onto something non-urgent that can wait until Monday.'

Joseph looks a little tired and as we leave, I rub the small of his back affectionately, smiling as he leans into me. I'm not sure how to explain Victor, but Joseph asks no questions other than politely inquiring if I was bored, and apologizing for the delay.

We order pizza for dinner and sit on the couch, eating in silence, before settling in for a night of quiet television. This is what we do in such a young relationship; stay home and watch television, before going to bed, making love and falling asleep.

Remembering Jamie's hint that I needed to apologise to my boyfriend, I stand up and strip off, requesting he do the same.

'I need to have a shower,' he smiles quickly.

'I'll come with you.'

I bath with him, Victor style, lathering his body and wiping away the suds, tracing the smooth, hard contours of his chest, arms, stomach, legs, buttocks. He's a little shorter than me, and he smiles up at me, flashing his brilliant teeth, his eyes shining.

'You're clean,' I hint. 'And I know you're horny. C'mon, get out of here and dry off.'

He grins and dries off, wrapping the towel around his waist and sitting on top of the toilet as he watches me wash my hair.

Afterwards, we go to bed and I suck him off, once, twice, three times, before he pulls me up alongside him and kisses me, his tongue probing my mouth, tasting himself until he's hard again, and I fuck him, his stomach pressed against the sheets. I lie on his back for a while, stroking his sweaty skin and fiddling with his hair, wondering what it is he sees in me, when he must know that even now, when I'm in bed with him, I'm thinking of Victor.

He entwines his fingers in mine, not making any effort to move me, not complaining about my weight on his back, or the fact that I'm going to need to stay hard, or risk the condom sliding off when I eventually withdraw. Instead, he shuts his eyes, his face peaceful.

'Are you okay?' I whisper, nuzzling his neck.

'Uh-huh,' he replies, squirming away from me. 'That tickles.'

Determined to make him loosen up, I nuzzle, nip, bite and lick his neck, laughing as he thrusts desperately, trying to make me let go. He's breathless, laughing and abusing me, demanding I get off his back and fight fairly. I withdraw with a wet plop and he bursts into laughter, reaching for the wipes and grabbing a fistful. We clean off hurriedly, throwing everything to the floor and returning to our play until we're both exhausted.

Joseph snuggles into my arms, his head on the pillow, facing me. I don't hold him, or kiss him, or make love with him to show love, instead I do it to make him feel better, and to appease my guilt about leading him on, but this doesn't mean I don't necessarily enjoy our time together. He's sweet, caring, and so cute in his geeky style that it's impossible not to feel something for him, and for the millionth time I regret the mess I've made of my love life.

'Michael?' he whispers, caressing my face. 'Um, I know you probably don't want to talk about this, but…now that Victor's seen me, it's probably changed things in his eyes. If he wants to…try again with you, can you please let me know? I'd rather you didn't ignore me if he wants…I think you understand what I'm saying.'

He shrugs diplomatically as he finishes, waiting earnestly for my response.

'He won't be coming back,' I reply, holding him tightly. 'He's never coming back.'

'Oh,' he replies, unable to hide the relief in his voice. 'Well, all the same, do you still want to keep seeing me?'

I look away, unsure of how I should answer. If I were a good person, I'd say 'no, go and find someone who loves you, because you truly deserve it', and although I'd be hurting him, in the long run I'd be doing him a favour. But in telling him to go, I'm dooming myself to loneliness, and I need someone, I can't settle for just six hours a week with someone when I'm being offered an alternative.

'Yes,' I reply slowly, knowing I have, without doubt, committed myself. 'But do you want to stay?'

'Yes,' he nods anxiously, staring down at the doona. 'You're the best boyfriend I've had, and trust me, I know I'm not going to find anyone as good as you. If that means ignoring Victor, I can do that. He doesn't seem to bad, anyway.'

'He isn't,' I agree, stroking his arm. 'He doesn't want to interfere, and he's not coming back, so don't think we're going to be running off and leaving you. I mean, hey, I'd be pretty cut if you left me.'

'Would you?'

'Yep,' I grin, although inside, I know the only reason I'd miss Joseph, was because he was willing to be with me, not because he's special or I love him. Not that Joseph will ever know this, and after he falls asleep in my arms, I lie awake hoping against hope that now that he's seen my boyfriend, Victor will decide to give our relationship a second chance.

Chapter Seventeen

Victor arrives early on Monday, still wearing his work clothes and with dark shadows under his eyes. He's brought with him cannelloni and wine, but I'm too nervous about his reaction to Joseph to be interested in dinner.

'I missed you,' he mumbles, throwing himself into my arms. 'Fuck I love you Mikey.'

'Love you too,' I reply, pulling his head down so I can kiss him. I could have sworn males were supposed to have stopped growing by seventeen, but Vic's hit 6'2 and it looks like he's still got more in him. He's not so skinny as he was at the time of his suicide attempt, but he's still too thin for his height, and it gives him a gangly, bambi-like look.

'Hmph,' he grins, pulling back and smiling down at me. 'Man I'm growing a lot, huh? I used to come up to your eyebrows and now I'm taller than you.'

'How did you know what I was thinking?' I inquire, surprised.

'I'm just special.'

'Are you just?' I tease, taking the cannelloni and wine to the fridge. 'Special enough to have a shower with me?'

Victor grins, and for no reason other than to be stubborn, runs a bath instead. Fitting us both in is a difficult, but my sideline lover manoeuvres me in between his long, thin, legs and rests my head against his chest. He releases a melancholy sounding sigh and I tilt my head back, noting his small smile.

'I was remembering when you were all mine,' he explains softly. 'And nobody else could hug you, or fuck you, or kiss you.'

I wrap his arms around me and whisper, hopefully, that I'm still available if he wants me. My heart sinks when he declines my offer, although I'm not terribly surprised.

'Besides, he loves you,' Vic adds softly. 'I could tell by the way he looked at you, as if you'd broken his heart. Has he told you he loves you?'

I can't lie. 'Yes.'

'Shit,' Vic swears, squashing me against his chest. 'I wanted you to say 'no'.'

'I didn't say it back,' I point out hurriedly.

Victor pauses. 'Why not?'

'Because I love you.'

He pauses again, slowly leaning down and kissing the top of my head. I know he's pleased, but more than that, I'd bet good money he's remembering the fun times we had together.

'I didn't mean to barge in,' he remarks eventually. 'I rang Jamie earlier and he said Terry must be in the study, and to go in and drag him out. Otherwise I never would have entered without knocking.'

'It's fine,' I sigh, bitter. 'What did you think of him? You were always asking about him, and now you've met him.'

'He seems nice,' Vic replies quickly. 'Very cute, although he wasn't at all what I expected. He's so…um, don't take this the wrong way, Mike…nerdy.'

'Everyone says that,' I reply, flushing a little.

Victor sighs and reaches for a cloth, slowly dragging it across my chest. He makes me sit up properly and he cleans me, washes my hair and rubs my back. As I'm returning the favour, he uncertainly asks about sex with Joseph.

'Kind of like sex,' I suggest vaguely. 'You know how it's done.'

Victor frowns. 'No, I want to know if he's good, what he's got down his pants, how often you do it, that sort of thing.'

As much as I love Victor, I hardly think this is appropriate conversation and I tell him as such.

'Fine,' he retorts grumpily. 'Don't get all hissy about it, how big his dick is isn't that important.'

'Then why did you ask?' I snap back, losing my temper. 'Come on Victor, get with it. You know I love you, you know I want you and you come around and fuck with me, acting as though nothing's…'

'…I don't fuck with you,' he bites, clambering out of the bath. 'I offer you SEX Mike, a quick goddamned fuck when you want it, and it's you that's reading everything else into it.'

'Then stop fucking telling me you love me,' I retort, standing up and glaring at him.

There must be something in my tone of voice, because he freezes, staring at me while I try and put into words the way I feel.

'Stop it,' I repeat, knowing I'm close to losing control of my emotions. 'I love you. Even when I'm with Joseph, I think of you, and wish it were you that I was with. Vic…'

He swallows visibly and reaches out, touching my face. 'I'm sorry.'

'Not as sorry as I am,' I laugh weakly, stepping out of the tub and reaching for two towels. Handing one to Vic, I continue. 'Sometimes I hate you. I want all of this mess to go away and…I don't know. I don't know anything, anymore.'

Victor stares down at the dirty tiles of the bathroom floor wordlessly. Eventually he shrugs helplessly and meets my gaze. 'You don't know how much I want to be with you.'

'Then be with me,' I plead. 'Come on Vic, your family can't stay angry forever. Please, just give it a year and then if it's still bad for you, I'll let you go and I'll never say another word.'

He nods slowly. 'You're going to leave me if I don't stay with you full-time, aren't you?'

'Yes,' I reply confidently, although I'm not entirely sure I'm telling the truth.

'Okay,' Victor agrees slowly. 'If I can live with you, and if you get rid of Joseph, I'll move in on Thursday.'

'Next week Thursday,' I correct. 'I'll break up with Joseph tonight, and you could go home and make sure this is what you really want.'

'Okay,' he agrees, kissing me. 'I love you.'

'I love you too.'

He leaves soon after, promising to give me a definite answer on Thursday. In turn, I remind myself of the awful deed that lies ahead of me; breaking up with Joseph. After dressing, I get in the van and drive to his house, oddly nervous of showing up unannounced. We've always scheduled 'appointments', we never just shown up on each other's doorstep, and I know from past experiences that not all new partners are fond of their girl/boyfriend arriving without warning.

Joseph, however, isn't all upset. He's only just arrived home from work and his jacket is flung over the kitchen table, his shirtsleeves are rolled up and he's in the middle of an online conversation with one of his friends. Barefoot, with slightly messy hair and a gin and tonic resting beside the keyboard, he looks too happy to be dumped.

So I'm a chicken shit. I simply can't ruin his good mood, or ignore the way he tilts his face up for a kiss, or pours me a drink of my own. It's only as we're eating dinner that I realize he must assume that I've broken up with Victor, and my assumption is confirmed post-sex, when my head's resting on his chest and he asks if Victor broke off the relationship.

'No,' I reply. 'Sssh, don't talk.'

He doesn't talk, he simply sighs resignedly and rests his hand on my back. And as bad a person as it makes me, I tell myself that once I know Victor's definitely going to stay with me, then I'll dump Joseph.

So little is my guilt that we fall asleep together, not waking until the next morning, when the sharp buzz of his alarm reminds me that I'm not at my own house.

He brings me coffee and lends me jeans and a shirt, both items new and unworn, inadvertently bought in a size too large for him. He smiles at me as I inspect my image in the mirror, his arms around my waist and his chin resting on my shoulder as he stands behind me.

'You don't look half as nerdish as I do,' he remarks, with a laugh.

That's because I'm not a nerd, I'm a huge, insensitive bastard.

'…birthday to yooooouuuuu,' we trail of, watching Dane roll his eyes and blow out his candles.

'Give me the knife,' he demands tiredly, although we all know him well enough to know he's happy. He has no reason not to be happy, because he was right; if he kept forcing our parents to see that he and Brennan were in love, they'd eventually cave in. And they have caved, and Brennan – or Bren as Dane refers to him – is here today, the pair of them looking entirely content. I don't think my father's particularly thrilled but he looks as though he's given up, can't be bothered fighting for heterosexuality any more.

'Here,' Dane offers, handing me a slab of cake. 'Seeing as your new boyfriend smells so good, you can have a big piece.'

Dane's yet to meet Joseph, although he's intimated on more than one occasion that he wouldn't mind doing so. He and Bren always remark that my mystery lover leaves me smelling extremely fuckable, and when I tried to dissuade them by telling them that he was quite geeky, it only piqued their interest.

'Well enjoy the smell because the relationship's on its last legs,' I reply easily, ignoring Dane's enraged glare and my parent's expressionless faces.

'You can't leave him for Victor,' Dane guesses, dismayed, as he hands around the last of the slices. 'Come on Mike, Vic's just trouble. Besides, I thought you liked Joseph?'

I glare at him dangerously, not wishing to discuss the matter in front of his boyfriend and our parents. I have slice of malteser cheesecake in front of me and there's no way I'm letting it be ruined by a debate on Victor.

After cake and before presents, Dane, Brennan and I go outside to smoke.

'Kelly's gonna be induced on Friday if the baby isn't born by then,' Dane remarks. 'She's gonna be bottle feeding, and Mum's arranged for me to have him from Friday night to midday Sunday. Pretty sweet, huh?'

'You're going to be spending every weekend looking after a baby,' I reply, wondering where the benefit is. 'What sort of life are you going to have?'

'The sort of life people have if they have a baby,' Brennan argues. 'Dane's gonna be moving in with us when he finishes high school, and we're just going to do what straight people with a baby do; work and look after it and take it to the park and stuff.'

'I think you have a rather glamorous expectation of parenthood,' I reply, thinking back to Missy, daughter of Sandra, one of my old 'friends' who has somehow slipped out of my life.

'We've already been to parenting classes,' Dane argues. 'So don't start preaching Mike, because you can't even get your shit together enough to tell Vic to fuck off.'

'Because I'm not telling him to fuck off,' I retort, annoyed. 'He's considering moving back in.'

Dane and Brennan exchange pointed looks, and I wonder how much discussion my relationships have earned. Truthfully, I don't even want to think about my relationships, because Vic rang on Thursday to advise he was 'still thinking' and Joseph and I spent Friday night and Saturday together, buying Dane's present together and talking about our families. I know Joseph's hurt that I didn't ask him to come to Dane's birthday lunch, but our relationship is still new enough for the hurt to be minimal; after all, my brother's party involves meeting my parents and three months its rather soon for a new lover to be introduced to a man's parents.

'That's the worst thing I can think of,' Dane remarks, irritably. 'Good little Vic, playing my brother for the millionth time. Vic can do whatever the fuck he wants and Mike will forgive him because he feels guilty about taking a piece of virgin ass.'

'It has nothing to do with that,' I spit, throwing away my cigarette. 'Dane, for the love of God, shut the fuck up and keep your nose out of my business.'

'I would if you could manage it yourself,' he yells as I head back inside. 'He's an asshole Mike.'

My father gives me a pointed look as I sit myself down on the couch. My mother's in the kitchen, washing up, and I consider myself safe from prodding questions, knowing his dislike of my homosexual relationships.

'Michael,' he sighs heavily, turning to face me. 'As much as I consider you a grown man, capable of making your own decisions, I'd appreciate it if you could enlighten us to your current relationship status.'

Explaining to my father that I have a boyfriend I'm semi-interested in, and a lover I'm very interested in, isn't my idea of a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Knowing his homophobia, and knowing that he won't understand, I try and maintain a casual tone as I explain.

'I'm kind of seeing this guy, Joseph,' I reply, turning my gaze to the television. 'I still see Vic around, though.'

'In what capacity do you see Victor?' he inquires, his gaze burning into the side of my head.

Sighing, I turn to face him again. 'He comes over once or twice a week.'

The expression on his face is one of abject disgust. 'So you have a boyfriend and you're using Vic for a quick fuck, or you're waiting for Victor to come back and using Joseph as a stop-gap?'

Put like that, I sound as insensitive as I am.

'The latter,' I confess weakly.

'Fantastic,' he retorts sarcastically. 'Absolutely bloody fantastic Michael.'

Feeling as small as an ant, I glance at the clock, waiting for the afternoon to be over. There's enough confusion inside of me as it is, and I don't need people commenting on my life whenever they feel the urge. Within the next week or two, my love life will be sorted out, and I'll either have Victor or Joseph and there'll be no more sideline lovers, there'll be nothing left to pick at.

Dane and Brennan come in, the former shaking his head at me before opening his presents. My parents moved to Brisbane from Sydney when I was a toddler, and present time is a big deal with us; it's when we receive gifts from all our interstate relatives, and we have a lot of relatives.

He accepts our gifts graciously, staring at me in disbelief when he opens the present Joseph and I chose for him.

'You got me a lava lamp?' he asks, bursting into laughter. 'And the Guinness book of records? And a Sooty video?'

He cracks up laughing as he digs through the smaller presents, while I watch him, grateful that he had the strength to sort out his situation and be courageous enough to come out. I may be six years his senior, and my life is a smaller mess than his was, and yet still I can't do what he did.

He's been rewarded for his bravery, too. A few weeks ago he mentioned that everyone had settled down at school, and Mariah has started speaking to him again, and overall, he's relieved that the worst is over, whereas I'm still dodging every blow that comes my way, and dragging everyone's feelings through the mud as I do so.

'It's all the presents you wanted as a child but didn't get,' I explain.

'Yeah, I realised that,' Dane grins, meeting my gaze. 'That's one hell of a sweet present Mike.'

Nearly five weeks since Victor said he'd make a decision about moving in, I'm still waiting for an answer. I daresay he's waiting for me to forget, and over time, I've realised I'm not willing to let him go, even if he won't stay with me permanently.

Joseph knows nothing of the situation. As far as he's concerned, life is moving along without incident, although he never mentions love or any sense of permanency to our relationship. It pains me to be with him sometimes, knowing how he feels and knowing that I'm acting terribly. The problem is, that even when people are telling me I'm being a bastard, I justify my actions to myself and move on, pushing them out of my life until I feel they'll agree with me.

For this reason, I haven't gone and seen Dane's child, a little boy that Kelly named Cameron. My family have called and invited my over, insisting that I should come and meet the little boy, but I've refused the two invitations offered under the pretext of having more pressing matters to attend to. Nobody I know – and even I, myself – can fathom why it is I don't go and see this newborn baby, but there's something inside of me, making the forty-five minute drive impossible.

On Friday night, Joseph comes over directly from work. We've now got enough of our clothing at each other's houses not to need to bring clean clothes with us every time and regardless, our sizes aren't different enough for us to be unable to find something to wear in each other's closets. He takes off his jacket and loosens his tie, kicking off his shoes and peeling back hole-free black socks.

'Good day at work?' I inquire politely.

He makes a face and kisses me, pulling my body against his. He feels so pristine in my arms, his shirt unwrinkled and crisp, and his slacks perfectly fitting and made of good quality material. Feeling like a slob alongside him, in my Can't Tear 'Em pants and cotton shirt, I get a good feel of him, smiling at his reaction.

His brown eyes flutter shut behind his glasses and he runs his hand over my torso, working his way down to my ass.

'Mmm, why are you so happy?' I inquire laughingly, pulling away.

He grins, flushing red and pushing his glasses back up. 'Can you remember Atari?'

'Whoa,' I grin, holding my hands up and backing away. 'No gaming system conversations.'

'Yes, sir,' he teases, tucking his shirt back in and trying to discreetly readjust his erection. 'Do you want me to make dinner? I think I promised you I would.'

I've entirely forgotten about our conversation last week where he swore he'd make me the best hamburgers in existence. It's just another reminder that he thinks about the relationship more than I, and I vindicate my guilt with the thought that once Vic gives me an answer, I'll do something about my current situation. Besides, it's looking likely that Victor won't move in, and if Victor doesn't move in, and Joseph continues to be happy with an open relationship, I'll probably learn to be a little more thoughtful and offer to cook Joseph dinner and humour gaming console conversations.

The hamburgers, if nothing else, do turn out to be pretty special. We're sitting at the kitchen table, gorging ourselves, when someone knocks at the door. Excusing myself – because Joseph's one of those people around whom I feel the need to use my manners – I get up and answer the door.

'Hello,' Dane greets coldly. 'Seeing as I couldn't tell if you were being a prick, or genuinely busy, I figured I'd give you the benefit of the doubt and save your time by coming around.'

In his arms is a tiny infant, with wispy blonde hair and fair skin. A tiny arm rests over the top of the blue shawl in which he's wrapped and his dark blue eyes are trained on his father's printed tee shirt.

'This is Cameron,' Dane introduces, walking inside, Brennan following him silently, as I gesture for them to come in. 'He's four weeks old.'

'He's, um, nice,' I reply weakly. 'Did you want to sit down?'

Dane shakes his head, eyebrows furrowing as he notices, and critically inspects, Joseph.

'Sorry,' my brother apologises. 'I'm pissed with my selfish bastard of a brother.'

'Oh,' Joseph replies uneasily. 'I should be going, anyway. It was nice to meet you.'

'Don't go,' Dane argues quickly. 'I know who you are, and besides, having witnesses around will probably stop me from killing Mike.'

Joseph looks to me for guidance. I've avoided taking him to meet my family, and in turn refused his hesitant invitation last week to join him at his cousin's wedding, so I don't blame him for being uncertain.

'This is Dane,' I introduce. 'And this is Brennan. My grotty little shit of a brother and his boyfriend. The baby is Cameron, Dane's son. Dane, Brennan, this is Joseph.'

Dane's eyes reveal a glimmer of satisfaction, and I realize instantaneously that he approves of my boyfriend.

'It's nice to finally meet you,' Dane remarks, glancing down as Cameron starts to fuss. 'Anyway, I think Cameron's hungry, so sit down and talk to us while we feed him.'

Cameron's fussing turns into screams as his formula is prepared and warmed. Only when the silicone teat is in his mouth does he quiet down, and then he returns to being a gorgeous example of a newborn. It's strange to think of this child as being Dane's son, when my brother only turned seventeen a few weeks ago, but the more I look at the baby, the less my heart pains.

'Here,' Dane offers after a few minutes of silence, where none of us did anything but stare at his son. 'Hold him Mike. It might make you into a nicer person.'

'That won't ever happen,' I argue with a wry grin, waving aside his offer. 'I'll be right.'

Dane scowls, sitting next to me and handing over his son, carefully positioning his son. Cameron wails during the first second the bottle is out of his mouth, milk dribbling over his chin, his body incredibly light and frail in my arms. He has the tiniest fingers, the smallest, cutest nose and the most adorable whisps of hair. He carries the scent of a baby; milk and powder and moisturizer and he totally entrances me.

'Pretty spesh, huh?' Dane whispers, stroking his child's arm. 'He makes me wanna have more of them.'

I laugh and glance up, smiling at Joseph. He smiles back, stroking Cameron's soft blonde hair and moving closer.

'Now,' Dane remarks, arms crossed and an interrogative expression on his face, 'apologise.'

I sigh, not wanting to let go of my nephew. 'I'm sorry.'

'Thank-you,' Dane replies superiorly. 'Now I'm happy. What do you think of your nephew?'

'He's pretty cute,' I admit.

Dane grins, loosening up. 'Joseph?'

'Tiny,' Joseph agrees with an awkward laugh. 'But utterly irresistible.'

Dane grins and leans over his son, watching him suck on his bottle. 'In a few year's time, he's gonna drive you crazy Joseph.'

Joseph smiles quickly, while I mentally plan on the best way to kill my brother for intimating to Joseph that they expect him to be around for the long run. Unfortunately there's not much I can do about the matter with a baby in my hands, and Joseph sitting next to me, and Brennan laying protectively all over my brother.

As Cameron slowly falls asleep, my fury grows. Dane had no right to say something like that to Joseph, absolutely no right at all.

Chapter Eighteen

Monday afternoon finds me edgy and anxious as I wait for Vic to arrive. By nine-thirty he's neither called, nor arrived, and I have a shower and go to bed, frustrated.

Somewhat amazingly, I'm almost asleep when I hear someone knock at the door. Petrified that Vic's been in an accident, I race to the door in my pajama pants, flinging it open to find not some stern-faced boy in blue, but rather my lover, Victor.

'Sorry,' he apologies, scooting inside. 'I had some things to take care of. I didn't realize I was going to be this long.'

'No worries,' I reply, my irritation obvious.

Victor pauses, holding me still, my face in his hands. 'Shh Mike,' he whispers. 'We haven't had a good fuck together in ages. Let's make love and talk about happier things.'

'I'm good with that,' I agree, tugging on his arm. 'To bed we go.'

He sits on the edge of my bed, carefully removing his boots, jeans and tight black shirt, and piling them neatly on the floor. Vic's grinning as he turns around, crawling over the bed to where I'm lying, and flopping next to me. I reach out and lightly stroke his stomach, laughing as he tries to ignore the fact that he's ticklish. Unable to resist his breathless laughter, I stroke and kiss and breathe on his torso, hips, neck, ears, thighs, until tears are streaming down his cheeks and his body's helpless against the assault.

'Fun?' I ask.

Panting, he nods, wrenching me down for a kiss. He tastes so damn good, and it's so fucking beautiful to see him happy for once. Always, always we're miserable, never enjoying how great we are together and how much fun we can have.

'I love you,' he whispers as his arms wrap around my back.

'I love you too,' I reply, kissing his sticky lips. It's been a while since I've seen him in make-up, but tonight he's wearing not only the lip gloss, but kohl around his eyes, and mascara on his eyelashes, the same as when I first laid eyes upon him.

We make love slowly, his body arching towards mine as he approaches climax, his hair damp with sweat. As he shuts his eyes, trying to hold back orgasm, I lose control, mindlessly crying out his name. Vic grins and maintains eye contact as we work together to bring him to orgasm, both of us smiling stupidly as he comes.

He seems reluctant to let me go, demanding kisses and hugs while I try to withdraw, his hands roaming over my face and neck, his fingers tangling through my hair.

'You want to have a shower with me?' I whisper.

'Yeah,' he replies, relaxing his grip. 'That'd be nice.'

With the water running around us, I take the cloth and soap and gently clean him. He laughs when I have to stand on my toes to reach his face, calling me shorty and ruffling my wet hair, and in return, I tug on his chest hair until he cries mercy.

'I have no idea why I love you so much,' I remark, kissing his nipples. 'You're my love and that's it, really.'

'You don't need me,' he replies, taking the cloth from my hands. 'Turn around.'

'No,' I argue, holding him still. 'It's your choice to go, if you want, but you need to get it through your head that I feel this way about you.'

He hesitates, realising that I'm not joking, but absolutely serious. This sort of talk scares me, reminds me of what he was like before his suicide attempt, and the last thing I want is for him to slip into depression's grip once more.

'Vic,' I plead, pulling him closer. 'C'mon hon, I've never felt this way about someone before. You've got to realise how special you are.'

The words sound cheesey and cliche, even though I mean them in their deepest, truest sense. Rather than quibble, Vic bites his bottom lip before kissing my forehead, whispering he loves me, and turning me around. He takes his time lathering his body, his slim fingers trailing down my back, his hands ghosting over my ribs and eventually settling on my hips. Leaning back into him, we kiss, his face wet with tears.

He starts to sob as I take him into my arms, dragging us to the shower floor. His behaviour scares me; I'm post-coital with the urge to protect my lover and the knowledge of his unhappiness is devastating. Neither of us speaks as he calms down, wrapping my arms around him and exhaling deeply.

'I love you,' I whisper, kissing his ear. 'Always and forever, Vic.'

'Always and forever,' he repeats, entwining his fingers with mine. 'I guess I know that you love me.'

'Guess?' I tease, biting at his neck. 'You better know by now.'

Vic smiles, reaching back and patting my head. 'Okay, I know. Does that make you happy?'

'Yep.'

Victor says his good-byes half an hour later, having spent most of that previous half-hour hugging and kissing. The level of affection is unusual for him, but it's impossible to resist his touch and almost impossible to let him go. Just before he leaves, he hands me a thick envelope, requesting I take it to his sister, Charlene, tomorrow. He earnestly explains that this is incredibly important and I have to meet her at a particular park at five-thirty.

'Promise,' he requests seriously.

'Sure,' I reply, puzzled. 'I love you.'

'Love you too,' he whispers, enclosing me in his arms. 'I love you Mike, don't ever forget that.'

Charlene's a little taller than I remembered, but there's no mistaking her; she has Victor's dark hair and grey-green eyes, although her face is more delicate, more beautiful, than her elder brother's.

'Vic said I had to open it with you,' she explains awkwardly, sitting across from me at a park bench.

'Then open it,' I reply, oddly excited, handing over the envelope and wondering what Vic's up to.

Charlene carefully tears open the manila envelope, pulling from it a sheet of paper and several other envelopes, all neatly numbered. Scanning the sheet of paper, she reads aloud the directions. Victor's requesting she and I travel to a deserted track of bushland, before opening the envelope numbered '1'. We're then to follow the directions contained in that envelope, before opening the next, and so on, until we've reached the end.

'Fair enough,' I shrug. 'Come on then.'

Charlene looks a little nervous as we make our way to the bushland, and when I ask her what's wrong, she swallows hard, fiddling with her skirt.

'There's a lot of bad things happening at our house,' she whispers eventually, white-faced. 'I know Vic thinks I have a big mouth, but something...'

She trails off, starting to cry. 'Just keep driving,' she requests, sounding like a carbon-copy of her brother. 'Please, Mike, please don't smile, this isn't good, it really isn't.'

Terrified, I continue driving, my humour gone as my mind mulls over all the possible, horrible, things that I might encounter. With Victor's depression and the memory of how I found him that awful night six months ago, naked and bleeding and sick, plaguing me, I ignore the speed limits, race through amber lights and swear angrily at slower drivers. Adrenalin is coursing through my veins as we arrive at the bushland, and Charlene tears open envelope '1', stuffing the other three under her arm.

She scans the note, grabbing my arm and racing to the left, our feet pounding along a dirt path. Long grass surrounds the red-dirty path, which itself is lumpy and spotted with rocks. Around us, magpies screech and paperbarks, gums and other native trees prosper in the unhindered wildness, but we're in no mood to appreciate the beauty and it's not until we reach a dilapidated house that we pause, Charlene tearing open envelope number two.

'This way,' she instructs, grabbing my arm and racing around the house, running through scrub, each of us occasionally tripping on the rough, bush path.

'Where are you going?' I ask, panting.

'There's an old playground,' she replies, gasping for her breath, not slowing down. 'We used to come here, Vic and Lee and I. It was our secret place.'

Her words send a chill down my spine, despite the sweat dripping liberally off my body. We must have been running for ten minutes, over rough and rocky ground, and the pace is incredibly difficult to keep up for someone as unfit as me.

As we approach the playground, Charlene's pace slows to a jog, and she's silently crying as she tears open the second last envelope.

'There,' she whispers, pointing to an old, abandoned, home made wooden playhouse, it's white paint peeling off. It's eerily silent, the only sound the leaves crunching underfoot as we slowly approach the toy house, which must only be four square metres in size. Time seems to have slowed, and the last ten metres of the journey taking an inordinately long time, and my hands are shaking as I push open the splintered door.

'Vic,' Charlene whispers, falling to her knees. 'Vic. Victor, you goddamned bastard. I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, you goddamned son of a fucking bitch.'

She keeps screaming, yelling abuse at her brother's corpse, until I push her away, ducking under the low doorway and grasping his body, careful not to touch his slashed wrists. As I start to move him, I catch sight of a tiny figure and I step back, dropping my lover, terrified, until my eyes acclimatise to the gloom and I recognise the tiny corpse as that of a young baby.

I'm running on autopilot, my mouth dry, as I carefully pick up my lover and take his lifeless form outside, Charlene falling over it, her hands on his limp shoulders, demanding that he come back.

My heart is closed to her grief as I duck under the low doorway and retrieve the infant, it's cold flesh chilling me to the core. It's not warm, like Victor, it's body is cold, almost as though it's been frozen, and as I carry it outside, Charlene glances up, white-faced, with her mouth gaping.

'Shanti,' she whispers. 'Oh my God. Not her, too. She was given up for adoption.'

I nearly lose my grip on the dead child as I struggle to catch Charlene as she faints, breathing but not conscious, incapable of dealing with the macabre vision. My hands shaking, I do the one last thing required before I call for help; I open the last envelope.

'I'm sorry'

Chapter Nineteen

The remainder of the evening passed in a blur. Night fell, the police and ambulance came, followed by social workers. Charlene was literally pried from her brother, and the moment she let go, the paramedics took him away. It remains one of my deepest regrets that I didn't get to kiss him good-bye, that I simply stood around, smoking, emotionless, until the officials arrived.

I had no one to call, so I went with the police obediently, answering their questions, ignoring their barbs and insinuations, and sticking to my story, which was, in fact, the truth. I think they wanted someone to blame, more so for Shanti's death than for Vic's, if their continual 'suggestions' that I killed her in order to 'free' Vic from the household are anything to go by.

Joseph came around the next day, expecting sex, not realizing that my lover had killed himself the day prior, and I lost it, screaming at him that he was nothing, that I'd used him, and that he should fuck off and find another loser to date. He was trying not to cry when he left, unable to comprehend what he'd done to deserve my wrath, but I was too incensed to explain. In hindsight, I don't care much for my actions that afternoon, but I'm not surprised I reacted that way. Victor was everything to me; he was the only person I'd ever truly wanted, the only person who'd been able to wrap me around their little thumb.

I didn't go to work, having rung and explained briefly, emotionlessly, that someone close to me had committed suicide. Not wanting to ask questions, my boss immediately told me to take two weeks off. Maybe wandering around the empty house dwelling on my loss wasn't the best of ideas, but on Monday, when I was bored and desperate to do something I went out and collected a week's worth of mail from my letterbox. Among the bills, pamphlets and assorted paraphernalia that letterboxes accumulate was a letter from Victor. In that second, my heart rose, and I thought 'maybe there's some mistake, and he's really out there, alive, somehow'.

My hopes were dashed when I tore it open and realised it was written on the day of his suicide. Furious with him for 'tricking' me, I stuffed the letter back inside the envelope and carried it inside. There, I made a cup of coffee, locked the doors, and lit a cigarette before carefully smoothing out the paper and reading his last message.

Dear Mike

Firstly, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for using you and Charlene to find me, I'm sorry for messing up your life, and most of all, I'm sorry we don't have the chance to live together again.

More than anything else, I want you to know that this is not your fault, and that what you gave me was happiness, and a chance to fall in love. I would have probably chosen to end my life regardless of whether or not I had a boyfriend, especially given events of late.

I know you don't understand my family, and sometimes, neither do I. Well, exchange 'family' with 'mum' and you know what I'm talking about. I don't know why it was she couldn't let me see you, when you were making me so happy, but even that's not the sole reason I've done this.

I guess so much in my life is wrong, and it's unfixable, which makes it worse. All I wanted was to finish high school, go to Uni, find a nice man, and have my mother act like a fucking adult for once in her life. So much for wishes, but I think it would have been okay, other than Shanti. I guess you found her too, and I know you need an explanation. The police will, too, so give them this letter if you need to.

After I saw you last Thursday, I went back home. My mother's current partner, Joey, is around at the moment, and he had one of his usual shit fits over me being a faggot, abandoning my mother when she needed me, and not being a ' real man'. Ignoring him is the best way to deal with it, so I went to go to bed, only he followed me, dragging me out to the kitchen. I think my mother was asleep at the time, although to be honest, I'm not really sure where she was.

He unlocked – because he thinks we're stealing food – and opened the chest freezer, and pulled out a bundle of newspaper. He gave it to me and told me to guess what was inside. I didn't need to guess; I could tell by the feel, and I tore the paper away to see Shanti. She was already dead, although her body was still warm and I could tell she hadn't been in the freezer for more than maybe an hour.

The thing with Shanti is that she was almost my child, not my mothers. I used to look after her whenever I was home, get up for her in the night, and bathe her. I know that she had pretty big problems, and this is the reason I never told you the truth about my working hours. On Monday and Thursday I actually go to work, it's just I work from five am to four pm, and afterwards, come and visit you. My real days off are Tuesday and Wednesday, but I couldn't come and visit you, because I needed to help out, and help Shanti with the exercises she was doing to help her develop more normally. So, as you can imagine, to know that she'd been killed was more than a little devastating.

I think I would have lost it, but Joey took her back off me, and wrapped her up, before quickly locking the freezer. I'm not sure why I didn't make a move to stop him; I guess I was just in shock.

'Your mother did it,' Joey said, with this fucking great smirk on his face. 'And if you tell anyone, we'll blame it on you.'

I knew he'd do this, and I knew I'd be the one found guilty, because I was the one who looked after her. I was the one who took her to the hospital and doctors, I took her out for drives in the car, and I kind of treated her like she was my daughter, not my sister. I know that's stupid, but I think because I wanted my mother – or my father, wherever he is now – to love me, I thought I could maybe give Shanti something like that.

I spent a few days trying to decide what to do. In the end, I realised that I really didn't want to live any more. Everything was fucked up, and every time I tried to be happy, I was really only fucking everyone around. I was never a good enough son, brother, surrogate father, or lover.

This isn't a pity party or anything, Mike, I'm honestly doing what I feel is right. Don't feel bad, or like this is your fault, because it isn't. I made this choice, based on what I believe is right, and although it's really hard to leave everyone, especially you and Charlene, I feel more at peace.

I think I've said everything I needed to say, except THANK-YOU. Thank-you for being my friend and my boyfriend, my lover and the love of my life. Thank-you for everything you've done, all the hugs and kisses, and all the conversations and love-making, because you truly were the best fucking boyfriend in the world.

And if you ever see him, I'd also like you to say thank-you to Terry, for all that he did.

Well, I guess that wraps it up. I hope you're not too disappointed in me, and that you know how special you are.

Loving you always,

Vic

Devastated, I read and re-read his last note, wishing that there was some way I could bring him, and Shanti, back. But with my devastation was fury, and I took the letter to the local library, running off twenty copies before returning home.

Placing the original on my bedside table, I take several copies to the local police station. They leave me to wait for an hour before calling me in and all but interviewing me. When they ask for the original, I refuse, and when they advise they'll get a search warrant if I don't give it to them, I explain I no longer have it.

'Then we're getting a warrant,' the sergeant snaps.

'No,' I reply quickly, desperately trying to find some way to erase my stupid mistake of ever having come here. 'I'll give it to you, but you have to give it back afterwards. It's the last thing I have from him.'

The cop sighs heavily. 'I'll see what I can do.'

Loathing the feeling that they're doing me a favour, rather than the other way around, I don't bother handing over the letter until the next morning. Even then, I reiterate my request that it be returned.

'It's unlikely it will be,' the woman who takes it remarks. 'If it's evidence, we'll keep it on file.'

Furious, I stalk out, not giving a shit about anyone or anything. I don't understand why this has to happen, why people feel they can take everything away from me, as though I have utterly no rights or feelings.

Over the next few weeks, everyone visits, always asking me how I'm coping, but it's hard to accept their sympathy, knowing that the real victim here isn't me, it's Victor. Still, I accept their condolences, pretending that everything's okay, even when it isn't. I receive a summons to attend the trial of Victor's mother and give evidence, but the thought of reliving how I found Victor, covered in blood, clad only in a pair of denim, knee length shorts, with his baby sister alongside him, repulses me. He was the goddamned love of my life, not the provider of material evidence, and I'm furious with their callousness.

Eventually, I know that time will heal my wounds and life will move on, but for now it's so hard. So hard to live without him, so hard not to have Mondays and Thursdays together, so hard to know that all of us, through our actions, have contributed to his death. Everyone expected him to be a goddamned adult when he was still a kid, assuming because he seemed to be coping, he was. Even when he was drowning, we left him to sort out his life, always, always thinking of ourselves. I stew on this, thinking up alternative endings, praying and hoping that I'll wake up one morning, and he'll be beside me, with a great cheesey grin on his face, telling me it's all some great big joke.

But there's no joke. Victor's dead, and no matter how hard I wish, I'll never be able to bring him back. He was my lover, my friend, and the one whom all other men and women will be compared to. He was, my lover, Victor.