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Chapter 1
Light trickled into the modest studio apartment from a lone window, whatever light could make its way in from the brick alley outside. Two pairs of legs tangled together under a pilling fleece blanket and faded striped sheets, in a bed meant for one on a practical metal frame. Sean Goodin, a junior in college, lay propped up on a couple pillows, gently running his hand through Benito's soft hair, pressed against his bare chest. They had met earlier that day at the cafe, their usual place on Wednesdays after Sean had gotten off work and Ben had a break from his shift. It hadn't taken long before they realized neither of them wanted to stay at the cafe, and immediately headed back to Ben's place. He felt Ben's breath as he dozed softly, and Sean murmured a few notes.

"I’m in love 눈에 콩깍지 씌었어..."

He glanced down at the grin that formed on his lover's face. He continued with his voice in full bloom, meandering like a ribbon of silk along the notes of the song.

"Baby, baby, 지금처럼만 아름다워 줄래 넌, 시간이 지나도 내가 설렐 수 있게, woah..."

Benito opened an eye. Sean continued the verse.

"Baby, Baby, 넌 시들지 마...Hello? Moshi moshi?" Sean answered his phone as it rang.

"Hello, Mr. Goodin?" He heard Mr. Kouyama's voice on the other end.

"Yeah," he said with a yawn.

"I apologize, did I wake you?"

Sean shifted under Ben's weight and rolled toward the side of the bed. "No, I just woke up from my afternoon nap. What's up?"

"Benito's birthday is on Saturday."

Sean paused as Ben placed a kiss on his shoulder. "Okay."

"He probably won't make a big deal about it, but we thought you should know."

"Yeah, okay." Benito gave another kiss to his neck and wrapped his arm around Sean's waist.

There was a short silence on the other end. "Thank you for being a good friend to our son."

Ben was kissing his cheek now, moving a hand up his chest. "Yeah...no problem. Take care." He hung up before anything could make Mr. Kouyama suspect something was up.

Sean turned toward Ben, embracing him in a long, passionate kiss.

"How old are you turning?" Sean asked when they were finally apart.

"What?" Ben asked, confused.

"It's your birthday on Saturday."

Benito rolled onto his back. "I'm turning eighteen. Why?"

Sean's eye's widened. "You're only seventeen?"

Ben nodded.

Sean stood up. "Maybe Adam was right, maybe I shouldn't date someone so young."

"What are you so worried about?" Benito said, looking up at the ceiling. "I can take care of myself."

Sean rubbed his face, then pulled his hand away. "You're just a kid, Ben. No wonder you've got parents calling, worrying about you."

Ben sat up. "Parents? My parents don't call me. At least, not since I started ignoring their calls."

Sean folded his arms. "You know, I figured, 'he's cut contact with them, he's trying to make a living for himself, they don't understand him.' I get it!" He threw his arms up. "But what are they calling me for, asking me to watch over you, like I ain't got my own shit to do."

"They called you?" Benito was fully awake now.

Sean rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah. Once a while ago, and then just now." He remembered the first awkward phonecall that had taken place about a month ago. Mr. Kouyama called, saying he was Benito's dad, asking if Sean was friends with his son. He rushes into things without thinking. His mother and I worry about him. At first, Sean was angry. He wanted to confront Ben the next day, ask him why the hell his parents called him. But after some careful thought, he calmed down and decided to let it go.

"What?!" Ben's mind started running circles, trying to put together what had been said.

"Don't worry, I haven't told him anything, your dad. He thinks we're just friends. He saw my name mentioned on your blog and called me." Sean moved into the kitchen area. "Do you have any instant coffee?" He opened up a cupboard. "Ah, nevermind."

Benito thought back to their relationship. It had started when they met at one of his magic gigs at the university, and later when Sean ran into him at the arcade where he worked. Soon, Sean would stop by the arcade multiple times per week, if anything just to see him. They started hanging out at the cafe, working on their blogs together. He thought he was good at hiding his affections for Sean, except for a few times when he got a little too close. It happened once when he was working at a haunted house on Halloween night, and Sean happened to take a job there doing special effects makeup. He had come back to the dressing room on his break when he saw Sean drop a makeup brush, intended or not, and he went to pick it up. Their hands touched, and he looked up to see Sean's face there in front of his, so close to a kiss, it was almost an eternity he looked into his eyes. Immediately afterwards, he felt embarrassed and fled, while Sean said nothing, didn't even move. Then there was the time on Christmas Eve, where he visited Sean at school. They were throwing snowballs when Sean tripped and rolled down a hill. Ben chased after him, slipped and ended up on top of him. He lingered like that just barely too long, lost in the moment, and then quickly backed away. What was I thinking, he thought. People could have seen us. For a while they would pretend that nothing happened. They were back to being friends. Then, one day at the arcade, there was a pipe burst, and Ben suggested they go to his apartment. He remembered how Sean mentioned he was doing a good job of keeping it up for what it was. Sean leaned against its lone window, the afternoon light playing with his hair and touching his shoulders. The image of him was burned into Ben's mind. He had then told Sean he should probably change out of his work clothes, but no sooner had he touched the bathroom doorknob when he felt a hand on his shoulder. When he turned around, Sean was there again, their eyes locked in contact. "What are you doing?" he remembered asking. "I don't know, you tell me," Sean had replied, before leaning in to kiss him. Suddenly they were making out, which turned into a glorious series of intimate moments that would continue over the course of the next few months. When he was with Sean, he felt like he could finally be himself, in a way.

"Hey, Sean?"

"Mmmhmm?" Sean had just finished boiling water, and poured it into a mug with the packet of instant coffee. "Do you want some?" Sean asked.

"No, thanks."

He watched as Sean sat down at the foot of the bed, took a sip.

"Are you out? To your parents, I mean."

Sean sipped some more on his coffee. "Not really, although they probably have their suspicions. Adam knows, obviously; we've been friends for so long. And he could certainly tell when he met you."

A brief panic crossed Ben's face. "He could tell that I'm gay?"

"No," Sean said, playfully tilting his head and breathing a smile. "He could tell that I like you."

Ben looked away, blushing. "I don't think I could ever tell my parents."

Sean took a sip of his coffee. "You ran away."

"Yeah." Ben sighed. "My parents were always pretty busy, splitting time between their sake brewery in Japan and the vineyard in Italy. So they sent me to boarding school. And I always got bullied, partly because, well, this, and also because they knew I'm smarter than them. Dad would find out about it and have me switch schools. He never found out why, though."

"It's hard," Sean said, leaning back. "You can't know for sure how they'd react, or if it would be better with them knowing."
Ben nodded. For a while, they just sat there, Benito with his arms folded on his knees, lost in thought, and Sean sipping his coffee. After some time, Ben asked, "Why are you drinking coffee this late, anyway?"

Sean gave a sly smile. "I have a paper due tomorrow."

***

Benito woke up on sheets that smelled delightfully like Sean. The curtains were closed, so the dorm room was still dark despite the morning light outside. Last night he asked to come over, even if Sean had to work on his paper the rest of the night. Sean wasn't one to argue. They sat together on the bus ride over, their fingertips subtely interlocking together and letting go again. They shared a cup of ramen, and Ben retired to Sean's bed while Sean contined to work at his desk under lamplight.
Speaking of which, where was Sean? Ben felt he had shifted to the side of the bed, so it's possible Sean had been there next to him. He turned and looked up, feeling a sense of calm seeing Sean buttoning up a shirt, and then flipping through a packet of pages before putting it in his backpack.

"Hey," Ben said.

"I don't get why these professors want us to hand in hard copies when we could just turn them in online," Sean said, before finally looking up. "Good morning."

"So you got it done," Ben said, stretching his arms over his head. He wasn't wearing anything but a pair of boxers--Sean's, in fact; not that he knew.

"It didn't take me too long." Sean pulled upen a dresser drawer, and began searching for a pair of matching socks. "I finished around one. The coffee kept me up for
another hour, though."

"Yeah, it's pretty strong" Ben rolled onto his back. "I guess I should have warned you."

Sean finished putting on his tennis shoes. "Alright, see ya later. Let yourself out." He slung his backpack over one shoulder.

"What, no goodbye kiss?" Ben teased.

Sean rolled his eyes, a smirk on his face. He reached for Ben's hand and kissed his courteously kissed his knuckles. Ben gave a laugh. Sean waved before walking toward the door, but when he opened it, he was surprised to see Adam standing in the hallway.

"Hey man, can I borrow your deodorant? I lost mine again." Adam didn't even wait for Sean to answer before he stepped into the room. "Also, I'm about to drive to the
store, if you need anything."

Sean watched him as he automatically made his way to the dresser and opened the top drawer, his back to Benito. He pulled out the stick of deodorant.

"Nah, I'm good," Sean said, watching Ben panic for a few seconds before quickly striking a seductive pose.

Adam lifted up his shirt as he applied deodorant to his armpit. "Hey, have you done the essay for Couvalt's class? I'm trying to figure out what playwright to--"
He froze mid sentence, one arm still holding his shirt up, his jaw hanging open slightly when he saw Benito in Sean's bed, mostly naked and smiling apologetically.
Finally, Adam turned to Sean and said, "Sorry, I didn't know you had company over."

Sean stepped forward. "Adam, you remember Benito; I think you've met before."

"Yeah," Adam said, now as calm as he was earlier. He looked back at Ben. "How's it going?"

"Good," Ben said curtly.

Adam turned back to Sean. "So about the paper--"

"You know it's due today, right?" Sean said, folding his arms.

"Not in my section," Adam said, tossing the stick of deodorant back in the drawer and shoving it closed. "He forgot to post the assignment online, so he changed the due date to Monday."

"Damn. I wish I was in that section."

"Yeah, well he added that we need another source," Adam said. "So it's not that much of an improvement."

Sean nodded. "Can we talk about this later? I have to get to class."

Adam checked his phone. "Oh, right. Well, catch ya later." He turned around. "Good to see you, Benito." He left.

Sean and Ben gave each other one look and both burst out laughing.

"Well that's Adam," Sean said.

Ben chuckled as he reached for his phone. "Oh, damn, is it nine already?" He sat up and swung his feet over the floor.

"Yeah, why? Are you late for your shift?"

"Not yet, but I will be." He rummaged through his jeans pockets and cursed. "I think I left my bus pass at home. Remember, last night you paid my fare?"

"Oh, yeah," Sean said. For a second, his face was lost in thought, and then he swiftly opened the door and shouted down the hallway. "Hey Adam!"
Ben heard a faint voice echo from down the hallway. Sean made a signal for Adam to come over.

"What's up?" Adam said, standing in the doorway once again.

"Adam, my dear friend," Sean said, putting a hand on his shoulder. "My best friend. My greatest friend."

"What do you want?" Adam said, folding his arms with a slight grin.

"If you're going out, would you mind dropping Ben off at work? It's not too far into town. The arcade, I think we went there once?"

Adam glanced behind Sean at Benito, who blinked through the head hole of the shirt he was pulling on.

"Yeah, okay."

"I'll be out in a sec, just give me a minute," Ben said.

Adam gave Sean a look, and left for the parking lot. Sean turned to Ben, who was quickly putting on his jeans.

"Hey, are those my boxers?"

Benito grinned.

"When did that happen?" Sean asked, bewildered, as Ben gave him a kiss on the cheek.

"You know a magician never shares his tricks."

***

Benito always felt like the immature one in the relationship, yet here he was in a car with his older boyfriend's mature friend, who was currently singing passionately over a Justin Bieber song on the radio. They reached a stoplight, and while Adam had the brakes on, he began a drum solo on the steering wheel.

"I won't let goooooooo! I'll be your liiiiiiiiiiiiiife liiiiiiiiiiine, toniiiiiiight...."

Benito rested his arm on the passenger side window. Finally, the light passed, and the song ended; they were moving again. The radio announcer's voice came on.

"You're listening to Steel City Hot 105.9, next up is the hit song off Adam Eaton's new album, Island Heart..."

Suddenly Adam became silent as the first few chords played, and he reached to change the station. The next few stations he found were all on commercial break, so he turned it off. The car ride was awkward before, but this point the awkward had reached full tangibility.

"So," Adam began. "Sean said you're a magician?"

Ben sat up. "I do a couple gigs here and there. I'm not really making much off it right now, hence the job at the arcade." He slipped a hand in his pocket.

"That's cool," Adam said. He looked at the street ahead. "Is the turn here?"

"Yeah, you can just let me off at the curb."

Adam pulled over in front of the VG Zone and put the car in park. "Here you are."

"Thanks for the ride," Ben said, about to get out when he heard the engine shut off. Adam was looking more serious now, sighing briefly as he gazed out upon the passing traffic.

"You really like him?"

Ben cocked his head slightly. "Yeah. What do you mean?"

Adam turned his head to sincerely look him in the eye. "He's had his heart broken before. You think he's strong, and he is. I don't want to see him hurt again."

Ben furrowed his brow. "That's not going to happen."

Adam's expression lightened. "Good."

"You have my word," Ben said, outstretching his palm. In it was a piece of paper the size of a sticky note.

Adam picked it up and turned it over. "It's blank."

He looked at Benito, who was motioning with his eyes to put it back, and no sooner had Adam put the white square of paper in his palm, Benito's other hand swept over it in a fluid motion, and the paper had disappeared. Adam watched in amazement as Ben's hands swept over one another, finally revealing the paper, now perfectly folded into a crane nestled in his palm. He held it out to Adam.

"Dang, you are smooth!" Adam said, taking the bird.

Benito gave a cool, satisfied grin and got out of the car. "See you around, Adam."

"Later!" Adam called. Ben waved once as he drove away.

Once returned to the stale smelling air and flickering fluorescent lights of the arcade's employee break room, Ben pulled his work clothes out of his locker. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic card. A Hawaii State Driver's license, with the name "Eaton, Adam" printed under the picture. He looked it over again, and pulled out his own wallet, where he tucked the card for safekeeping.

***

A soft rain hit the window of Benito's apartment as he aimlessly scrolled on reddit. He checked the clock in the corner of his computer screen; it was past eleven at night. He checked his phone. No new messages since the one Sean had sent this afternoon, wishing him a happy birthday. He closed his laptop and buried his head in his elbows on top of the cheap card table that served as his kitchen table. He shut his eyes, his mind turning to darkness, an empty blackness with a hollow knocking sound. The sound got louder and he looked up, suddenly.

"Ben!" It was Sean's voice.

Benito jumped up and nearly tripped over himself trying to answer the door, and when he did, Sean was indeed standing in the hallway with a tray of cupcakes.

"Don't even pretend like you're not still up," Sean said with a smirk.

"What's all this?" Ben said, his eyes filled with a child-like wonder.

"There's a baking club at my school, so I figured I'd check it out. I had some help, otherwise I would have been completely lost." He set the cupcakes on the table. "I
brought my laptop; we can watch a movie or something. I torrented some Studio Ghibli films. Also, I got you something." He reached into his backpack and pulled out a palm-sized gift, wrapped in newspaper comics.

"You didn't have to," Ben said, blushing.

"But I did. That's what makes it a gift," Sean said, holding it out.

Ben tore the paper away to reveal a black deck of cards.

"These are cool," he said. "Thanks." He threw his arms around Sean. He breathed into the shoulder of Sean's jacket, and Sean ran a hand through his hair. He pulled away slowly, his eyes slowly matching his, his lips locking his. His hands running up and down his back.

"Happy Birthday," Sean whispered into his ear.

***

It was around noon when Sean woke up, staring at the ceiling of Ben's apartment. Ben had woken him up earlier, saying he had another shift at the arcade, and left Sean to enjoy some precious hours of sleep. He could still hear rain outside, which was comforting, in a way. There was nothing he had to do and nowhere he had to be. He almost didn't want to answer when his phone buzzed, but on the last ring he decided to at least check the caller ID.
It was Steel City PD.

The phone nearly slipped out of his hand, but he managed to answer in time. "Hello?"

"Sean?"

His face contorted with confusion as he recognized the voice. "Adam?"

"Yeah, it's me." He could hear a faint sigh of desperation on the other end. "I'm at a police station. I need you to come get me out."

"Christ, what happened?" Sean asked, rubbing his face.

"I don't know. I don't really remember." There was a silence. "Can you go into my room real quick and see if my phone and wallet are there?"

Sean put his feet on the floor, accidentally stepping on his laptop in the process. He gently kicked it aside and buried his face in his hands. "I can't. I'm not at the dorms right now."

"Really? I would have thought you'd be working on homework already. Shit." He groaned. "I forgot I have that paper for Couvalt's class."

Sean blinked. "I would say your priority for now is getting out of jail. Okay, I'll go to your room, get your phone, your wallet, and come downtown--"

"No, it's not downtown." He was silent again. This was probably the least talkative Sean had ever seen him. "I'm in Grenvile."

"What?!" Sean exclaimed. "That's gotta be, like, 40 minutes away!"

"Yeah," Adam said. "I'm really sorry."

Sean pressed a hand to his forehead. "It's fine. But shouldn't you call John? It's going to be hard for me to bail you out when I have no car and no money. It'll take time for me to get there by bus, and should I even ask how much bail is?"

"It's a lot," Adam said apologetically. "And I can't call John. You're my one phonecall."

"Okay, I'll call him--"

"No!"

Sean was surprised by the sudden outburst. He patiently waited for Adam to explain.

"I don't want him to know. He kind of....we were at a party last night. The album is finished, so we were celebrating. He told me I was too drunk to drive home, but I did it anyway and got pulled over. I'm already on his bad side, and if he finds out about this...Sean, I need you to come get me."

Sean glanced down at his hand to see a few bits of frosting that he had wiped off of his face. There was still some on his cheek, left over from where Benito had been licking it off last night. "Okay, I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, man. Really, thanks. I owe you." Adam sounded relieved.

"Sure thing," Sean said, and he hung up. He listened to the rain outside, then stood to turn on the lights. He looked around for something to eat, but he figured there wasn't going to be anything other than leftover cupcakes, so he resigned to taking a shower.

The warm water felt good against his back as his mind wandered, occasionally crossing paths with the task at hand, which he both wanted to address and ignore. All
last summer when Adam was on tour, Sean remembered him being almost religious in the fact he never accepted a drink. The afterparties were almost every night, but at some point Adam would find him and say he was ready to go back to the hotel. Adam could be the life of the party, but he cared about his music, too. Drinking and show business aren't always a good combination.

He turned off the water and grabbed a towel to pat his hair dry. He wrapped it around his waist and wiped a circle of fog off from the mirror. Leaning in towards his reflection, he ran his fingers through his hair. He checked the drawers below the sink, looking for a comb. There was a jumble of various hair products: gels, bleach, green dye that he had to dig through before he found a worn plastic comb sticking to the bottom. He rinsed it clean from any excess residue and combed his hair, making it neat and then running his fingers through it again to make it look messy. He tossed the comb back in the drawer, and returned to looking at his muscles, frowning as he flexed his bicep. Suddenly he heard the sound of the door unlocking in the other room.

He stepped out into the room, and Ben was there, shaking the rain off his hoodie. He froze when he saw Sean. "I was hoping you'd still be here."

"Hey, kid," Sean said, picking his shirt up off the floor. "Shouldn't you be at work?"

"I got someone to cover my shift," Ben said, sitting down at the kitchen with Sean's state of undress in full view. "I thought we could hang out."

Sean smiled. "I have some errands to run."

"Then I'll come with you," Ben said, picking up a cupcake and taking a bite. "What's first on the agenda?"

"Adam," Sean said, pulling a shirt over his head.

"Oh," Ben said. "What about him?"

"We're bailing him out of jail."

***

"It's just down this hallway," Sean said, as he and Ben walked towards Adam's room. "Either he left the key in the door like he sometimes does or there's going to be awkward conversation with the RA."

They reached the door to Adam's room, which had a picture of Squirtle taped to it, along with a strip of construction paper with the block letters "Adam" written on it
in black marker.

"You guys must really like pokemon, huh," Ben said.

"Damn it, the key's gone." Sean looked up. "Oh, the RAs do that. I think our floor's theme is water-type."

Ben remembered the Magicarp that was on the door of Sean's room.

Sean was craning his neck to look at the door further down the hall. "It looks like Alvin is out, so we have to try our luck with the RA on duty." He pulled out his phone
and started dialing a number. In the meantime, Ben tried the doorknob. "Hello, yeah I'm in building--" Sean stopped midsentence as the door swung open and Ben looked up at him. "Nevermind."

Adam's room was typical for a college student in his junior year, with a desk covered in books and old papers, and the floor littered with clothes. On the walls he had tacked up some band posters, and a nice set of stereo equipment lined the far wall. Ben walked in, taking in his surroundings as Sean immediately started digging through piles of clothes.

"Do you want to help me look?" Sean asked quietly.

"Oh," Ben said, "Sure."

They spent about twenty minutes turning over the place, until they reached the conclusion that there was no wallet or phone to be found. Sean tried calling it, and they listened for a faint buzzing noise, but there was none. Then Sean asked if Ben was hungry, and now they were eating pizza in the dining hall.

"Yeah, it's kind of a problem," Sean said, chewing on a mouthful of pizza. "John knows where they went last night, but Adam doesn't want him to know about it."

"You can probably ask him without telling him," Ben said. He held out his hand. "Let me text him."
Sean hesitated, and then handed over his phone. "Sure."

"Okay," Ben said, looking at the past text conversation. It was something about doing set makeup. "You said he produces music with Adam?"
"Yeah," Sean said.

Ben thought for a minute, and then typed something in the chat box. "How about this?" He held out the phone to Sean, and pointed to the send button.

Sean read it carefully. "Hey, heard you and Adam were at a party last night, where at? Jealous I wasn't invited lol." He looked up at Ben. "'lol'? Really?"

Ben nodded. "It keeps the mood light."

Sean shrugged as he hit send. He waited a few seconds. "Oh! He's responding."

As he watched the screen with anticipation, Ben stood up and sat on his side of the table, leaning over his shoulder. Finally, a response.

"We were just over at club luna. I thought he told you. Pretty crazy night haha" Three dots appeared again. "Did he make it home okay? He had quite a bit to drink"

"Uhh..." Sean glanced sideways at Ben before typing "Yes."

"Gimme that," Ben said, taking the phone. He changed Sean's answer to "Yep but he's kinda hungover haha"

John responded back. "Good to hear. See u tomoro"

"Great," Sean said. "Now we have to find this club."

Ben smirked. "I think we make a good team, detective."

Sean raised his eyebrows suggestively before taking another bite of pizza.

***

It was pouring rain as Lloyd pulled up to the back entrance of Club Luna, where a couple of kids were huddled by the back door, keeping out of the rain. When he saw Lloyd, Sean let go of Ben and reluctantly put his hands in his own pockets, which felt strange, so after a few seconds of figeting, he settled on folding his arms.

"Hey, I heard you need to get into a club in the middle of a Sunday," Lloyd said as he approached them. "You called the right part-owner."

"What's up, Lloyd," Sean said. "Thanks for coming."

"No problem," Lloyd said, moving past them to unlock the door. "The cleaning staff has a lost and found that they might have put it in, whatever you're looking for." He walked in and turned on the lights. He looked at Ben. "Who's your friend?"

"Benito," Ben said, sticking his hand out.

"He's with me today," Sean said.

"Lloyd." He shook Ben's hand. "Alright, I'll go check the lost and found."

"We're looking for a wallet, and the phone is an iPhone 7 with a blue case," Sean said. "Actually I'll call it."

Lloyd disappeared behind the bar while Sean punched a number into his phone. He was surprised when someone answered.

"Hello? Bill's Pizza Palace?"

"What?" Sean said in confusion, until it dawned on him that the voice was Lloyd's. "Very funny."

"I do my best," Lloyd said, returning with Adam's phone in hand. He gave it to Sean. "Although, there weren't any wallets back there."

"So what, you think it's not here?" Sean asked.

"It could still be around, and the cleaning staff just missed it," Lloyd said, frowning.

"You think so?" Sean said. He knelt down on the floor to look under a booth. Seeing nothing, he swiveled his neck to look under the other seat, eyes scanning the darkness. He pulled out a light on his phone. "I think that's it." He reached in for the object, and then stood up and brushed the dust off his sleeves.

"Are you sure?" Lloyd asked.

Sean opened the wallet to see Adam's driver's license showing through the interior window pane. "Yep." He looked up. "Hey Ben! Where'd he go?"

Ben came into the room from the back corner. "I was in the bathroom," he said.

"Ben, get a load of this old picture of Adam. He still has braces," Sean said with a laugh.

"That's funny," Ben said, leaning in for a closer look.

"Well, we should probably be going," Sean said. "Thanks, Lloyd; I owe you."

"Anytime," Lloyd said.

"Hey, wait," Sean said suddenly. "Do you you have a minute? I forgot I was going to ask you for some production advice." He turned to Ben. "Ben, Lloyd's the producer I was telling you about."

Lloyd turned to face them. "I'm all ears."

"Oh, great!" Ben said, shifting into business mode. "I do some work as a magician; there's an upcoming site that wants to feature me as one of their main artists.

They're funding me, but I have no idea where I'd get cast or crew or anything."

"Hmm," Lloyd said, leaning on a cocktail table. "That is a conundrum. My best advice is to find people in a similar situation. Students in filmmaking. Or the drama department at school. They'll have knowledge and training, although their experience will probably be lacking. But they're willing to learn, and a paying gig like this is always appreciated."

"That's a good idea," said Benito.

"I'm sure there's some people at my school that could help you," Sean added.

"Excellent!" Lloyd said. "You two are going to do beautifully well."

Sean nodded politely, not sure what Lloyd meant, exactly.

Benito stepped forward. "Thank you for your advice, sir. We'll do our best!"

"Yeah thanks, Lloyd," Sean said. "I guess we'll be going now."

"Let me show you out!" Lloyd said. He lead them to the back door again and locked it behind them. "I'll see you later, Sean, and best of luck to you." He waved to them
both as he got in his car and drove away.

"How are we going to get to the station?" Ben asked.

"I don't know," Sean said, thumbing through Adam's wallet and pulling out a credit card. "It looks like Adam's going to call us a cab."

***

The cab pulled up and they hurried out from the side of the building to get out of the rain.

"Can you get to the Grenville police station?" Sean asked as Benito slid into the backseat next to him. The driver nodded and pulled away from the curb.
Ben idly watched the rainy buildings pass by his window for a few minutes, and then looked over to Sean, who was scrolling through the notifications on Adam's phone.

"What's all that?" Ben asked.

"I think he's got a bunch of girls texting him." Sean smirked. "'Call me again sometime, xoxo'? There might be some nudes, even."

Ben gave a laugh. "Why don't they text you like that?" he teased.

"I don't know," Sean said as Ben pulled his shoulders closer. "I think they know I'm seeing someone."

Their lips locked and suddenly they were making out in the back of a cab. The driver glanced in the rearview mirror and then rolled his eyes before returning his attention to the road.

***

Adam sullenly rested on a bench behind the bars of his jail cell. He was lucky it had been a slow night, and the police decided to give him his own cell, with his VIP status. He had been sitting there for what felt like days, until finally Officer Briggs returned with a ring of keys at hand.

"Your friends finally came for you," She said, rolling open the cell door. "Hold out your wrists."

Adam sighed as the officer cuffed him. He stood and followed her down the hallway. His eyes glanced up at a corner security mirror, where he saw a deeply colored bruise across his nose. From then on, his eyes remained trained on the floor until he heard a familiar voice.

"Adam?"

He looked up and felt some relief to see Sean, and then those feelings became mixed when he saw Ben with him.

"What the fuck happened?" Sean said. "You didn't hit anyone while you were driving, did you--"

"No," Adam said. "They said I fell when I got out of the car."

"What? Why didn't you take him to the hospital?" Sean called to the officer, who ignored him as she finished filling out some paperwork.

"Sean, it's fine. It's just a bruise."

Sean grew quiet. "Fine, but it'll be harder for you to keep secret," he mumbled.

"Okay," said Officer Briggs, breaking up the awkward silence, "Since this is a first time offense, we're letting you off with a warning, although your license is suspended for thirty days and you'll have to appear in court. The impound lot will mail you instructions on how to retrieve your vehicle." She took the handcuffs off of him.

"How is that just a warning?" Ben pointed out, but immediately closed his mouth when Adam glared at him.

"Well, I hope you kids have learned something. Maybe next time you'll think twice before you drink, much less get behind the wheel of a car." The officer returned to sit down at her desk.

Adam didn't say anything, just stared at the floor.

"Let's get just out of here," Sean said.

***

Ben mindlessly shuffled a deck of cars as he sat in his usual spot at Cafe Diem. He pulled out his phone and scrolled through his recently taken photos, and his finger
rested on the one he had taken of Adam's license. The bells on the front door chimed, and he glanced up. Quickly, he stashed his phone in his pocket as Sean passed the line at the counter and hastily made his way to sit down.

"Sorry I'm late, I had to go with Adam to the doctor," Sean said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head slightly. "He had his face x-rayed."

"Oh, is it bad?" Ben asked, leaning in with his elbows on the table.

"He'll be fine. It's next week's press event he's worried about."

Ben shuffled the cards again, letting the cards fall together in a fluid motion between his palms. "At least he has a professional make up artist to cover it up." He peeked up at Sean through his lashes.

"I have my work cut out for me," Sean said with a laugh. "Although it's funny, working on Vice these days, I'm usually painting bruises and scars onto people's faces, not trying to hide ones that are already there."

"Is that where you've been? Working on that show?" Ben said. "I was wondering why you didn't come to the arcade."

"Yeah," Sean said, slouching back in his chair. "I've been trying to stay on John and Lloyd's good side until this whole thing blows over."

"But you'll have time for the showcase this weekend?" Ben asked, his eyes full of anticipation.

"Yeah," Sean said. "Why wouldn't I?"

"No reason," Ben said with some relief in his voice. "Alright, let's get to work."

"Okay," Sean said, pulling his laptop out from his backpack. "Did you get my email to the drama department?"

"Yeah, I saw that," Ben said, his fingers interlacing. "A handful people already contacted me, saying they can do Saturday. Thanks, by the way."

Sean glanced up from behind his laptop and gave a nod. "That's good. Now you just have to get them to show up."

***

The weather was a perfectly sunny day as Sean made his way onto the university's quad. He saw a crowd of students idling and talking amongst themselves, and he made his way through them to find Ben, who was fidgeting with his hands a little.

"Sean!" he said, "You're here."

"Yep," Sean said, setting down his bag. "Are you nervous?"

"Not really. Excited, mostly" Ben looked around the area. "Is your cameraman still coming?"

"She texted me this morning. She's on her way." Sean pulled out a set of brushes.

"Great," Ben said. "You're not going to do too much with the makeup, are you?"

"I'm thinking just a throwback to your zombie look, but with more blood." Sean grinned at Ben's sudden look of panic. "Just a touch-up for the camera. Take a seat."

He looked around. "That bench over there."

"Sure, sure." Ben hurried to sit down. "I was just re-thinking that last trick. The card should appear under my hand, not over it..."

"You're the artist. I would say to go with your gut," Sean said, gently tilting Ben's chin towards him. "Look up."

"Sean, always the professional," Ben mumbled.

Sean dabbed at Ben's face with a sponge. "Professionally a gay piece of trash," he said under his breath. Ben spit out laughing. "You have to stay still," Sean said, trying to hold in his own laughter.

Ben flashed a smile. "You do such a good job blending into the crowd, but you somehow still manage to distract me."

Sean playfully hit his nose with the powder brush, but his face dropped its youthful demeanor when he looked up. "Hi, Rachel."

"'Morning, kiddos. Ready to get this thing rolling?" She had some equipment under her arm.

"Almost," Ben said, turning to see her. He stood up. "I'm Benito, nice to meet you."

"So you're the star," she said, shaking his hand. She turned to Sean. "Do you have a crew for me to work with?"

"Yeah." Sean stepped up on the bench. "Hey everyone, thanks for coming. If you're from the filmmaker's club, can you raise your hand?"

A few students clustered to one side, mostly dressed in black, raised their hands.

"Great, this is Rachel," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "I'm going to need you to follow her. Everyone else, please stand in the holding area over there." He
looked around at the students, who were clutching pieces of paper. "If you have your release forms, I'll take them."

He hopped down from the bench and started taking the forms. Rachel waved to the film students and began to get them organized.

"Sean, this is impressive," Ben said.

"It's nothing really. Thanks," he said, the last student handed him her form. "You're the impressive one."

Ben put his hands in his pockets. "Well, whichever way it goes, I'm still thankful for your help."

Rachel called from her post. "We're ready to go!"

"I'll go get the first batch of actors, then," Sean said, closing his kit. He put a hand on Ben's shoulder before walking over to the holding area. "Alright, Everyone in group A, follow me."

***

The sun was setting as Ben lay next to Sean on his dorm bed, checking his phone while Sean did some reading for class.

"You were great today," Ben said, looking over his shoulder.

Sean smiled into his book. "I told you, you were the star. I just stood by the sidelines."

"But it was more than that." Ben rolled towards him. "The way you knew how to shoot the scene so it looked right. I don't know what would have happened if you weren't there."

"I think you still would have won everyone over with your charm," Sean said, setting his book aside.

"Charm can only get you so far," Ben said, leaning into Sean's lips. They kissed for a moment, until finally Ben pulled away.

"I forgot, I wanted you to show you the pictures they're going to put on the website." He pulled out his phone. "There," Ben said, handing it to Sean.

Sean scrolled through the first couple of pictures of Ben wearing a suit and holding a few playing cards jauntily.

He laughed. "I was afraid these would look like dorky senior photos, but they actually look...really nice," Sean said.

Ben watched as he flipped through a couple more, but nearly jumped when he reached the end of the photos. He snatched the phone out of Sean's hands.

"Well that's enough," he said, laughing nervously.

"No, what was that last one?" Sean said, his face growing more serious.

"Oh that? It was nothing, really." Ben glanced away. "Just some medication I'm taking. It's not important."

Sean was speechless, mouth hanging open as his eyes retrained on Ben's. "My name was right there."

Ben stifled another laugh. "Really? No, it was definitely mine." After a few more seconds of silence he leaned into kiss Sean again, but was pushed away.

"You know," Sean said, his brow furrowed, "I should be concerned that you have a picture of my anxiety meds on your phone, but now you're lying to my face?"

Ben grabbed his arm. "I can explain. I--"

"No," Sean said, brushing him off. He stood up, walking absently to the opposite corner of the room. "The other day, I thought I misplaced them, but...you took them?" He turned around to glare at Ben.

"Sean, stop, I...I put them back, okay?" Ben said, throwing his arms up. "No harm done."

"You can't do that!" Sean yelled back. "Fuck." He put a hand to his face. "I'm so stupid, the wallet."

"What wallet?" Ben said, before darting his eyes away once more.

"You think I'm so dumb, like I'll just play along." Sean rubbed his forehead. "Adam's wallet! You took it and then you planted it in that club, and I didn't even suspect a
thing! Do you know how much trouble he's in?"

"He was already in trouble, and I didn't steal it!" Ben argued.

"Oh, you didn't steal it?" Sean said, incredulous.

"I didn't!" Ben yelled. He lowered his voice. "Just the license."

"You've got to be kidding me--"

"--But I put it right back! And in the end, it didn't matter anyway, because he still left it at--"

"GET OUT!"

Ben sat there, stunned at Sean's sudden outburst. He swallowed, and then opened his mouth to speak again.

"Sean, let's at least talk about--"

"No! Get your shit, I want you gone."

Ben sighed. "Fine." He stood up and grabbed his jacket. Sean watched as he put it on and walked to the front door. As soon as he touched the knob, though, he turned
around.

"I just wanted to know more about you. You don't tell me anything."

"What are you talking about?" Sean folded his arms.

Ben shook his head. "I don't even know where you're from, originally."

"Hawaii, one of the smaller islands." Sean's voice was low. "I told you that."

"No you didn't," Ben said. "And you didn't tell me that your best friend is Adam Eaton, like the Adam Eaton."

"I would have told you if you'd asked," Sean said. They were standing two feet apart in the doorway.

"No, you don't tell me anything. I don't even know where you work. You never talk about it."

"Oh, like I can trust you after what you've just done," Sean said. "And it's not like you tell me about your life."

"I've told you everything!" Ben said, throwing his hands up. "My parents, where I was born, how I went to all those boarding schools, what more do you need to know?!"

"It doesn't matter, because you don't need to know those things about me," Sean said, his face burning with anger.

"Why shouldn't I know about you, now that we're together," Ben said. "If you can't tell me about your life, than who am I to you?"

"I don't know," Sean said, shaking his head. "You're just...you're just some guy I'm fucking."

The moment he said that, they both could feel the air grow cold.

Ben glanced away bitterly. His earnest eyes returned to Sean's face. "You're right, I guess I should go."

He turned towards the door again, and Sean watched him go without either saying a word.

*

Chapter Text

Sean awoke in his room alone, as usual, to his third alarm. He rolled over at the sound of rain pouring outside and let it lull him back into peaceful sleep. Again, his eyes drifted open, and he lazily reached for his phone to check the time.

Shit.

He sat up and started dialing Adam. "Come on, come on," he said to himself, and then shut his eyes tightly when the call went to voicemail. He wiped his hands over his face, sighing and then pulled back the covers and jumped out of bed to throw on a shirt and jeans. Within a few minutes he was knocking on Adam's door.

"Adam? Adam!"

He waited for a minute, but he heard no movement inside. Turning the keys in the door, he let himself in to find Adam fully passed out on the bed.

"Adam," he said, shaking his arm slightly, "You have to get up. You have that thing, remember? I overslept."

Adam shook his arm off and rolled over. "Class isn't for another hour."

"No, the album signing, remember? You're supposed to be there by nine."

"Oh." He looked up at the ceiling. "I'll be out in a minute."

"No, you have to come over to my room so I can do your make up."

 

"Make up? I look fine."

Sean grabbed his arm and pulled him out of bed until he was standing in front of his closet mirror. The bridge of his nose had an irregular yellow-green spot where
he had bruised it a week ago.

"Fuck, okay, I'll be over in a bit. I just have to take a shower."

Sean just nodded and turned to leave.

Twenty minutes later, Sean heard a knock on the door of his room and opened the door to see Adam, fully dressed and composed, in complete contrast to earlier.

"Okay, have a seat," Sean said, gesturing to his desk chair.

"Thanks, for doing this," Adam said as Sean moved aside some empty beer bottles that were sitting on his desk so he could open up his make up case. "I didn't know
you drank."

"I do, occasionally," Sean said. He began to apply a thick layer of concealer onto Adam's nose.

Neither said anything as Sean finished his face. The rain continued to pour outside.

"Okay," Sean said, putting his brushes away. "Do you have your keys? I can drive."

"No," Adam said, standing up and pulling a jacket sleeve onto his arm. "I don't have it back yet."

Sean looked at him questioningly, and then glanced away with disinterest. "Oh."

***

When the bus pulled up to the stop, Adam got on and paid with change. Sean followed him, holding an umbrella which he mostly had so Adam wouldn't get wet. He
swiped his pass and they took a seat near the back.

"This is the first time I really have to talk to the fans like...face to face," Adam said, leaning against the window. "What if I say something stupid?"

"You won't," Sean said, leaning back in his seat. "And if you're nervous, you don't look it."

"I would hope you'd say that, you did my face," Adam joked. Sean gave a laugh.

Adam sighed. "I guess I should be honest with you; my parents called yesterday. They got my court summons in the mail, and also a letter from the impound lot
where they took my car. Who knew they were going to send it all the way to Hawaii."

"Really?" said Sean. "How did it make it there so fast?"

Adam shrugged. "They were pretty mad at me. My mom gave me a whole speech. They threatened to cancel my tour and everything. They can't, though. I have a
contract."

"Shit, man, that's rough."

"Yeah," Adam said, leaning against the window again. "Anyway, what's new with you? How's it going with that guy...," he paused as he tried to remember the name,
"...that guy."

Sean looked down at his feet. "It's over."

"Oh. Sorry about that," said Adam. "I heard some yelling in the dorm the other night. I probably shouldn't have asked."

Sean gave a humorless smile. "It's fine. He was too young, anyway."

"Don't say I didn't warn you," Adam said with a laugh.

Sean nodded. The bus lurched forward and the announcer called out the next stop. "That's it," he said, looking to Adam expectantly.

Adam blinked, his face in a daze.

"The cord," Sean said, pointing to the rope on the side of the window.

Adam pulled it, and a light went on at the front of the bus. A sense of relief washed over him. "Now I just have to handle about a hundred screaming fans."

Sean laughed and put a hand on his shoulder. They stood as the bus approached its next stop.

***

As they walked in through the back entrance of the book store, John was there to greet them, although a touch less composed as usual.

"Where the hell were you? Ah, nevermind. At least now I can tell them it's not cancelled." John folded his arms.

Sean looked around the shop, which was empty except for staff and security personel. An excited hum of fans could be heard outside the front doors.

John glanced down at their feet, which were soaked with rain. "Did you walk?"

"We took the bus," Adam said.

John rubbed his forehead. He opened his mouth, but Sean stepped in.

"Adam's car is in the shop."

"Why didn't you call me?" John checked his phone, and angrily shoved it back in his pocket. "And anyway, why are you here?"

Sean shrugged. "Moral support."

"Alright, well," John said. "Adam, you're at that table. Stay behind that table and you shouldn't be able to screw it up."

Adam just nodded and walked to his post. A security guard stood behind him, and John signalled for the doors to be opened. A crowd of mostly screaming girls
flooded into the store. Immediately, Adam was his sparkling, personable self, smiling and waving to the fans as they lined up to meet him. Sean stayed off to the side with John, watching the commotion from a distance.

"Are you sure you can handle the crowds?" John asked him, lowering his voice to a less intimidating tone.

"It's easier when I'm not the center of attention," Sean said, leaning against the wall with his arms folded.

John slipped his hands into his pockets. "I see."

They stood for a moment and watched Adam, who appeared to be doing pretty well. He was chatting and laughing comfortably with each of the fans as they
approached.

"You seem like you're pretty good at handling him," John said.

Sean looked up, surprised. "You mean Adam?"

"You get him to show up where he needs to be, and when he's not doing what he needs to, you know how to talk to him."

"I guess so," Sean said, frowning. He could have also added how he handled Adam's incident a week ago, but it seemed John still didn't know about it, which was
probably for the best. "We've just been friends a long time."

"True, but if you were his manager, you could get paid to do that," John pointed out. "Are you planning on going on his summer tour?"

"No," Sean said, shifting his stance. "I think I'm going to stay in town, freelance for a bit. I guess it's not too late to sign up for summer classes."

Suddenly, he heard a high-pitched scream from the back of the room, and a coconut sailed through the air, nearly smacking Adam in the face. The voice of a girl
could be heard from the back.

"Your music is garbage, and you suck!"

John immediately flagged security, and in no time, guards had removed the girl from the store.

Sean swallowed, his muscles tensing as he considered stepping in, but then he relaxed against the wall again, and looked to John, blinking slightly, but otherwise
calmly returning to the conversation. "Yeah."

He overheard Adam handling the situation, mentioning something about "I'm glad that wasn't a pineapple." The crowd erupted into a warming laughter.

John returned his hands to his pockets. "I can see why you'd want to stay in the city," he said, glancing at Sean out of the corner of his eye. "You probably don't want
to leave your girlfriend."

Sean didn't look at him, just let out a sigh of laughter.

***

A couple of brooms clanged as they fell to the floor of the maintenance closet, having been pushed over by a frantic intimacy grab between two parties.

Sean felt the wall against his back as John staggered towards him, hungrily running his hand through the hair on the back of Sean's head. Sean moved his hands up
John's back, feeling the smoothness of his sportcoat, finally latching his arms around John's shoulders, while John began to trail kisses down the side of his neck. Sean grabbed his face and kissed him again, causing John to step back and hurriedly take of his jacket.

"This is it," John breathed, unbuttoning a sleeve. Sean stood back, watching with his heartrate increasing in anticipation.

With his sleeves rolled up, John stepped towards him again, grabbing the edges of Sean's shirt and pulling it over his head with little resistance. His hands moved
towards Sean's belt, and then he froze.

"What," Sean murmured, his face following John's.

John looked away and sighed, his eyes returning to Sean's with apology. "I'm too old for you."

"Yeah, you're old," Sean said with a laugh. He slung an arm around John's neck. "You're, like, forty."

"Is that what you think?" John said, his face filled with genuine surprise.

"What, so now you're going to say my age is at least half your age plus seven?" Sean said, tilting his head.

The corner of John's mouth showed a smile, and their lips met once more. With one hand, John expertly undid Sean's belt buckle, and plunged a hand down, causing
Sean to gasp. Sean closed his eyes, and suddenly he had his hands on John's shoulder's, firmly pushing him away.

"I shouldn't be doing this. I just got out of a relationship."

"You're right," John said.

"And what if any of the cast and crew on Vice found out? We'd just be some point of gossip."

"True," John said.

"And whoever uses this closet will probably need to get in at some point."

John just stared back at him, a sort of glimmer in his eye. Suddenly, their arms were around each other again, laying lips on each other like it was the last hope either
of them had.

In his pocket, Sean's phone rang.

"Leave it," John said as he exhaled between kisses.

"It's probably Adam," Sean moaned.

"I can give you a ride home," John offered.

"He doesn't have a car."

John looked him in the eyes and sighed.

"You can take both of us," Sean said, arms still draping from John's shoulders. He gave a clever grin. "Then you have to come visit my room, and--"

"Nonsense, we'll go back to my place." John took his hands.

"You explain that to Adam," Sean whispered.

John gave a laugh. He put on his finest acting voice. "'Sean, would you mind coming with me to the studio for a minute? I have some work I'd like you to look over.'"

Sean gave him a sympathetic look, but his phone buzzed again. He pulled it out to check the text.

"Shit, he's going to come looking for us." Sean glanced around at the floor for his shirt. John bent down and handed it to him. Quickly, and without speaking they
returned to the states of dress they had previously been in.

John reached for the handle of the door, and turned to glance Sean up and down. "Raincheck?"

Sean didn't have to say anything. They exited the storeroom like nothing had happened.

***

"And...cut!" Lloyd said as the crew finished its last taping of the day. "That's a wrap!"

Celina, leaning over a police desk and sternly looking her character's fellow officer in the face, relaxed her posture and gave her co-star a handshake and a pat on the
back.

"Good job, you were great," she said, smiling brightly.

"You, too, Celina," the actor said, waving his wrist. "Brilliant as always."

"Well, thank you," she said as someone from wardrobe took her jacket and held out her dressing robe for her to put it on. She turned around and Sean was there with wipes to take her makeup off. "Thank you, dear."

When her face was mostly powder-free, she waved and headed for her trailer. Sean felt a tap on his shoulder and turned his head to see no one. After turning all the
way around, he saw it was Lloyd, who was cracking up with laughter.

"I didn't think you'd fall for that," Lloyd said, pretending to clutch his side.

Sean nodded in agreement. "What's up?"

"What are you doing now?"

"Uh...going home," Sean replied.

"Aww, sounds nice. Meatloaf from the student cafeteria, don't miss those days," Lloyd joked. "John and I are getting pho; why don't you come along? I'm buying."

Sean wondered if it was John who had suggested Lloyd invite him in the first place. He shrugged. "Sure."

When Sean and Lloyd arrived at Pho24, John was already sitting at a table. He gave them a wave and they approached him, Lloyd sitting next to him and Sean across from Lloyd. A waitress came by to take Sean's order, of course already knowing Lloyd's from his frequent patronage.

"So," said Lloyd, almost giddy on the edge of his seat. "I can't hold it in anymore. I heard."

Sean smiled but furrowed his brow, not sure what Lloyd was talking about. John seemed to know, though.

"You heard?"

Lloyd was full of joy. "Yes! Vice/Versus has been nominated for best drama!"

"Excellent!" John cheered.

"AND," Lloyd added, turning to Sean, "best make up!"

John gave a Sean a smug grin. "Congratulations."

Sean didn't know what to say. "I...seriously?"

Lloyd nodded. "The ceremony's in several weeks. Work hard, and I think you'll have a good shot."

John sighed. "I just hope the show's chances are as good."

"We'll just have to do our best," Lloyd said, putting a hand on John's shoulder. He looked up as the soup arrived. "Oh goodie!"

Sean watched the bowl of pho as it was set in front of him, and he immediately added a good amount of sriracha. After stirring it gently with his spoon, he leaned over
and carefully took a sip of broth. He looked up at Lloyd, who was already shoving noodles into his mouth. John was exhibiting more grace.

"Sean," John said, politely setting down his utensils. "Do you think you'll do summer school this year?"

"I'd prefer not to," Sean said, swirling the noodles in his bowl with a pair of chopsticks. He had been avoiding spending time on campus ever since earlier that week, after the near disaster of running into Benito, who was there doing one of his shows.

"Oh!" Lloyd said, swallowing a mouthful of noodles. "John suggested I offer you a full time position over the summer. I have an opening for a production assistant and I can't think of anyone better for the job. What do you say?"

"What?" Sean said, a couple of noodles hanging out of his mouth. "That'd be..." He slurped them up. "That'd be great, actually!"

"Perfect!" Lloyd tipped his bowl to drink the rest of the broth. "Okay," he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. "Let me go up to pay before I forget. Before I accidently
let either of you get it," he added jokingly.

John watched Lloyd until he was a safe distance away, and then scooted his chair towards Sean.

"I'll keep you locked in my trailer if I have to," he said, leaning over, his voice low. "I intend to pick up where we left off."

Sean blushed. "That was a mistake."

"I don't regret suggesting you for the job," John said. "You'll do quite well overseeing the production for--"

"You know what I'm talking about," Sean hissed.

John donned a more innocent look. "In the moment it didn't seem like a mistake, and by the way your face is turning red, I'd say--"

"Stop it!" Sean said, putting his spoon down. He glanced around, breathing a sigh of relief when it seemed he hadn't captured the attentions of the other patrons.

"Look, I'm taking this job to get away from something, not to create more problems. If that's the only reason you suggested me--"

"It's not." As soon as he said it, however, John put his elbows on the table, and buried his face in his hands. He sighed, and finally he sat up straight, looking more somber. "Sean, I'm afraid I should apologize. I've been terribly unprofessional." He glanced up to see Lloyd was still nowhere in sight, having gone to the men's room after paying at the counter. He lowered his voice and looked Sean in the eyes. "I've been lonely for a long time. You sort of...caught me off guard." He looked away.

"But it's not your fault!" he added, snapping his head back. "The blame is entirely on me."

Sean nodded once, and then returned to eating his soup. Luckily, it wasn't long until Lloyd came back.

"Hey," Lloyd said, looking from one to the other, "Who died?"

***

Sean returned home after a long day of lectures. He threw his backpack on the floor and crashed on the bed, resting for a few minutes before dragging himself over to his desk chair to pull out his books and study. Normally, he would go to work, like he did most days, plunging himself into taking care of whatever was needed on set, but he needed to catch up on his studies, so here he was. It was also nice to take a break from running into John, because of whom he had been making an effort to perfect his poker face and remain as professional around him as possible. It surprised him, then, when his phone buzzed on the edge of his desk, and he saw it was John calling.

He answered it tentatively. "Hello?"

"Sean?" John sounded relieved. "I was afraid you've been avoiding me."

He waited for Sean to anwer, but he didn't, so John continued. "Anyway, I just wanted to say that I've been thinking, and although we may have gotten off to a rocky
start, I'd like to date you proper."

"Oh," Sean said, glad that John couldn't see his eyes fluttering over the phone. "How did you reach that conclusion?"

"Well, I must say that you really have me impressed. I know a lot of relationships between people of our...attraction usually end as nothing more than physical
intimacy, and I fear if that were to happen between us, I would be throwing away something much greater."

Sean straightened in his chair. "Okay."

John swallowed. "It wasn't an easy decision for me to make; this is actually only the second time I've dated for non-work purposes."

Sean nodded, and then realized he was talking on the phone. "Y-yes, I understand."

"You do?" John's voice sounded hopeful. "Well, then, I hope you'll take me up on my offer. I'd like to take you to dinner."

"I...okay," Sean said without thinking.

"I understand if you think it's inappropriate, and--" John stopped himself mid-sentence. "Did you just say...is that a yes?"

Sean tried to act casual, even though he felt himself shaking slightly. "Sure. I mean, if that's what you--you brought it up."

"Yes," John said with a laugh. "I was thinking Friday at L'Angleterre? The hotel? Just the restauraunt, obviously, I mean we wouldn't..."

"No, of course not," Sean said. "L'Angleterre? Isn't it kind of fancy? All I have are jeans."

"I'll have it taken care of," John said in a reassuring tone. "Shall I make a reservation for seven?"

"Sounds great," Sean heard himself say. "See you then."

"Perfect," said John. "I look forward to it."

"Wait!"

There was a delay, as if John had almost hung up. "Hello?"

"You said Friday?" Sean was holding the phone with both hands.

"Yes, is that a problem?"

"Well, um," he said, his mind racing. "I forgot I have something on Friday."

"I see," John said calmly. "Would Thursday work?"

Sean closed his eyes. "Thursday would be great."

"Well, then, I look forward to Thursday. Goodbye, Sean."

"Goodbye," Sean repeated, and let out a sigh of relief as soon as he had hung up. He looked at his calendar tacked up above his desk and flipped a page back to
where he had penciled in several Friday nights that Benito had him assist at his weekly hotel job. Sean sat back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. He had somehow managed to avoid a disaster. Now all he had to do was meet John there at seven.

Shit. He had to meet John.

He had pulled out his math textbook, but he stood up, knowing there was no way he could focus on his studies for the rest of the night.

***

Sean arrived slightly early and hung around the entrance for a few minutes. After pacing enough, he greeted the doorman and entered into the lobby.

The minute he stepped in, he was greeted by a woman in a crisp uniform.

"Excuse me," she said. "Are you Mr. Sean Goodin?"

He stuttered as he was caught off guard. "I-I am."

"Mr. Brandon has asked us to prepare something for you, if you would follow me."

Sean nodded hesitantly. She smiled and led him to one of the hotel's back rooms. On a small table sat a large box with Hugo Boss on the lid in gold letters.

"With his complements," said the woman. "I'll leave you alone."

He waited for her to close the door before taking the lid off the box, folding back the tissue paper to reveal a handsome suit. He pulled it out of the box with care,
feeling the exquisite fabric, unsure if he'd ever touched something so expensive in his entire life.

"Christ," he muttered under his breath.

Reluctantly, he put it on. It fit him perfectly. He was just straightening his tie when there was a knock on the door.

"Sean? The staff have informed me you've arrived." It was John's voice.

"Just a minute," Sean called. He looked himself over in a mirror that stood in the corner. He run a hand through his hair, feeling it didn't match the polish of the suit.
Finally, he opened the door and stepped out into the light.

John was, of course, dressed smartly in a suit of his own. He gave Sean a cool smile. "I see the suit is to your liking."

Sean, speechless, just gave a slow nod.

"If you'll accompany me to the ballroom," John said, holding out his elbow.

Sean blinked, but didn't move.

"Oh," John said despondently. "Once again, I've embarrassed myself by being too forward. I'll be good, I promise."

Settling on clasping his hands behind his back, Sean stepped forward. "Let's go."

When they entered, Sean looked around the ballroom to see if he recognized any of the diners, but they were mostly older, definitely no one he knew. A violinist
played in the corner.

As soon as they reached the table, John pulled out a chair for Sean to sit down.

"I hope you don't mind," John said as he took his seat across the table. "I took the liberty of ordering ahead."

No sooner had Sean looked up and the waiter was there with a tray of piping hot dishes.

"What is it?" Sean asked as a plate was placed in front of him.

"Duck a l'orange." John placed a napkin on his own lap. "It's quite good."

Sean picked up a fork and knife and cut off a piece. Surprise crossed his face when he tasted it. "This is amazing!"

"Excellent," said John with a sense of satisfaction. For a moment, they sat and ate in silence.

"I'm glad you like the suit. It fits you perfectly," John said, as the waiter arrived with a bottle of wine. "Thank you."

"It's too nice for me to accept," Sean said. He glanced away, finally leaning in slightly and lowering his voice. "How did you know my measurements?"

"I have my sources," John said, pouring himself a glass of red wine. "Would you like some?"

Sean noticed the empty wine glass to the right of his plate. "Sure," he said, holding it out.

John poured him a modest amount, and watched him try to take a gulp. He set the glass down, coughing, as John chuckled to himself.

"You might want to start with a very light sip."

Sean looked at him, and then gingerly put the glass to his lips, tilting it slightly until he could taste the wine. After taking another sip, he frowned slightly, nodding in
agreement. "Not bad."

"I imagine you didn't have wine at your 21st birthday party," John jested, taking a sip of his own wine.

"No," said Sean, remembering back to that night. Trying not to remember, actually; he'd spent it with Ben. "I think I just stayed in."

"Is that right?" John said.

"Yeah," Sean said, taking another bite of duck. "What was yours like? Or I guess it's different in the UK," he said, trying to shift the attention away from himself.

"It is," said John. He looked pensive. "Although I seem to remember my first night out with my mates after I turned eighteen."

"I wish I could have been there to see that," Sean laughed. "The nineties?"

"Don't remind me," John said. He thought back. It was the summer of '99, he and the lads were out at some club, moshing to that chirpy vengaboys song that was
playing all the time. The air was sweaty and smelled of smoke. Simon tapped him on the shoulder.

"Weren't you supposed to get drinks?" John said, his voice straining over the music.

"I was, but I ran into some girls over at the bar." He leaned into John's ear and grinned. "Wait 'til you see the tits on this one."

"Alright," said Mark, nearly tripping as he put a hand on Simon's shoulder. "Should we head over, then?"

"Lead the way," said John, and that was how he ended up sitting with a girl on his lap with her arms around him, kissing the side of his cheek as he sat there,
unresponsive. He leaned away from her to take a sip from his pint of lager when he felt a tug at his elbow.

"Just one moment," he told the girl on his lap as Simon pulled him away to the bar.

"What' you doing, man?" Simon said, a bit of anger in his tone.

"What?" said John, oblivious to what was going on.

"You've been acting like a fucking prude all night. You see that?" He pointed across the bar where a young girl in a think layer of makeup gave a cutesy wave to them.

"That's Stacey, and I'm trying to get her to come home with me, if you don't mind, but she's not going to come along if her friend Sarah wants to go home."

John looked back at the girl he had been sitting with. She was sitting alone, looking somewhat dejected.

"What's your problem, man?" Simon said. "I thought you said you were into her."

"Of course I'm into her," John said, rolling his eyes in a reassuring manner. "I don't know, I just..."

He looked at Simon, the outline of his pale face caught between the dark shadows and the bright neon lights of the club. His t-shirt fit just a bit too tight. A couple
strands of his dark brown hair were pasted to his glistening forehead.

Simon continued. "Then go tell her that--"

He suddenly became silent as John leaned in and kissed him. After a minute, he pulled away from the shock of it, his eyes laced with confusion. He looked over at the
girl sitting at the bar, who was looking less amicable, standing up to leave.

"Stacey, wait!" He threw his arms up, chasing after her. "It's not what it looks like!"

As he walked towards her, he turned back to John. "Thanks, man," he called. "She probably thinks I have AIDS or something. Stacey..."

John remained motionless as Simon disappeared into the crowd. The sounds of the music and the crowd remained, pulsating in his ears. His thoughts becamed
drowned out in the noise of people talking, and he found himself in a ballroom sitting across from a young man in a suit, who was focused on finishing his duck a l'orange.

"So, you did enjoy the meal," John said, back to his usual self.

"What? Oh," Sean said, looking up from his empty plate. "It was really good."

John smiled. "I suppose I shouldn't ask where you were in the summer of '99."

"Probably not," Sean said with devilish grin. He sat back in his chair. "I would have been...riding around on the tricycle I got for my fourth birthday?"

"Oh, God," John said, covering his face with one hand to hide his laughter.

Sean laughed along, glancing up at him shyly when the air grew quiet again. "I'm just wondering, why me?"

"What do you mean?" John asked, setting down his glass of wine. "Although, it may have been presumptuous of me to think you'd want me after we've worked
together all this time without incident."

Sean shook his head. "Are you kidding? You're, like, some famous TV star who's got, like, a million fans, or whatever; of course I've been ignoring my feelings for you
ever since we've met! You'd think I'd focus instead on pining after someone even remotely obtainable."

John's voice grew quiet. "Lloyd did say you were dating someone younger."

Sean exhaled softly. "I don't want to talk about it. Is that what you do? Talk to Lloyd about everything?"

John glanced away for a moment, his gaze serious. "I suppose I should mention that we used to date."

Sean's eyes widened. "You and Lloyd?"

John nodded. Upon seeing his look beginning to turn to anger, he added, "But we broke up! That was a long time ago, and now we are definitely just friends."

"Oh," Sean said, his voice calmed. "I'm just surprised you would still work together."

"Yes, but that's the business," John said with a sigh. "I'm sure it's not too different from your relationship with Adam."

"I guess so," Sean said, resting his hands on the table. He sat pensively for a moment, and finally, his expression lightened. "L'Angleterre...is that French for
something?"

"I believe it means 'England,'" John answered.

"I thought people say in England, the food's bad," Sean said. They both laughed.

***

"You know, when I first met Celina she accused me of using doing her makeup as a stepping stone to become an actor." Sean was sitting in the passenger's seat of
John's car as they drove to the university.

"Really," John said with a laugh. "I suppose she can be territorial at times."

"Yeah, well, I think she finally let go of that idea after seeing a couple of my freakouts. Like after almost fainting from two people talking to me at once, I'm about to
step onstage in front of a hundred people," Sean said, sharing his laughter.

"I'm an actor, and even I'm terrified of it," John said. "I had no idea Knight was going to be such a success."

"I will say," Sean added, "My RA had a showing of the first season the other night, and I stopped in to watch for a while."

"Oh, God," John said rubbing his face. "What did you think?"

"I think you were...charming," Sean concluded. "Kind of in contrast to you in real life."

"Do you want, I can pull over and throw you out on the curb," John teased as Sean laughed harder. He sighed. "I cringe every time I watch it."

"It takes a long time as an artist before you can look back at your work with admiration," Sean said. "And then you look back on it with longing."

John was silent as he pulled up outside of Sean's dorm. It was dark outside except for a few lampposts, and the area was quiet. John pulled into a parking spot and
turned off the engine.

John turned to him. "Where did that come from?"

Sean shrugged. "I don't know."

John leaned back with his elbow on the car window. "Somehow you're the one giving me advice," he mused.

"It's not advice, really," said Sean. "It's just how I see it."

"Well, I should let you go," John said, sitting up. "I suppose it would be indecorous for me to walk you in."

Sean looked around outside. They were alone. "I guess no one would notice if two guys sat next to each other in the backseat of a car."

John raised his eyebrows before a smile formed on his face. "Sean, you're full of surprises."

They both got out of the car and entered separately into the backseat. As John closed his side door, Sean giving him looks.

"Just sit down," he said, patting the spot right next to him.

Sean pressed himself right against John's side, and John found himself putting his arm around the kid, feeling comfort at the warmth of his body.

"Your hair smells really nice," said John.

Sean gave a non-chalant shrug. "I condition. And I wouldn't have thought you would wear cologne just for me."

"Maybe you've just never gotten close enough to notice it," John contended.

"You're forgetting I do your make up," Sean said. He closed his eyes.

John sat there as he listened to Sean's breath next to his.

"Sean?" His voice was soft.

"Hmm?"

"I told you about how I went out with some friends after I turned eighteen." He felt Sean nod and continued. "Well, I seem to remember that night ended when I ended
up kissing one of my friends who was very obviously straight."

Sean pulled away from him slightly and their eyes met. "Aw, man, we've all been there. Crushing on straight guys is the worst."

John felt him against his side again and this time, he pulled Sean closer until he felt his hair against his neck.

"I know you probably think that's the way it is between me and Adam," Sean murmured. "But it's not. It never has been. I mean, we grew up together, but lately we're
both so busy we don't even hang out." His voice trailed off. "Maybe that's why he's been getting into trouble."

"Trouble, what do you mean?"

Sean tensed up, and then sighed. "Shit. I wasn't supposed to say anything."

John opened his mouth to speak, but decided to let it go.

"He didn't want you to be mad at him."

John glanced out the window at the quiet sidewalk. "As his producer, it's my job to deal with his problems, not judge him."

"Either way, I know it affects you." Sean still had his eyes closed. "You didn't hear this from me, but that night you took him out partying, and knew he shouldn't drive
home? He tried to drive home, and he got pulled over. His car's not 'in the shop,' they took it. And his liscense."

John furrowed his brow, taking in what Sean had told him. "How long did he think he could keep that from me?"

Sean gave a shrug. "It's worked so far. And he'll get them back." His voice was barely audible. "Eventually."

John ran his fingers through Sean's hair. "You didn't have to tell me, so thanks."

A tiny smile found its way onto Sean's face.

He heard Sean's voice again. "What are you thinking about right now?"

"I'm thinking I shouldn't have gone for a whole bottle of wine. I think I drank most of it."

Sean let out a laugh. For a while, they just sat there in the darkness, soaking in each other's company.

***

A warm light danced on Sean's face as he stirred from sleep, smelling like cologne. He could hear birds chirping outside his window. Slowly, he opened his eyes and
saw the interior of a car. His state became more awake with the realization of where he was, and the faint whisper of someone else breathing against him.
With caution, he removed himself from John's embrace. He slid to the other end of the backseat and opened the door, watching to see that John had not stirred. He stepped out onto the pavement and quietly closed the door. He looked around the area, which was still relatively quiet apart from the odd student walking in the distance. He leaned into the car window, and John was still asleep, his neck bent backwards in an awkward position and his mouth hanging open slightly.
When Sean reached his room on the second floor of the dormitory, he went to the window to peek through the blinds down at the parking lot. The car was still there. He looked at his alarm clock: almost 8 a.m., soon students would be passing through the area on their way to class. Pacing around, he pulled out his phone and called John's number, listening to it ring as he walked opened the door to his room and peered down the hallway.

"Hey, Sean," said Alvin as he walked by.

Sean nodded, and upon seeing Alvin walk towards the stairs, he quickly hung up. "Alvin!"

"Yes?" Alvin said, spinning around to face him. "How are you this fine day?" His brow furrowed. "Are you dressed up for something?"

Sean hesitated, looking down at his slept-in ensemble. "Yeah, I guess I am. Why not?" He saw Alvin's expression ease. "What are you up to?"
"Just going to class. I like to get there early and go over my notes."

"Wow," Sean said respectfully. "That sounds pretty responsible. I was just wondering if you could help me with this problem on my homework for Calc III? It's due today, and I keep getting the wrong answer."

Alvin put his hands together. "That sounds like a task worthy of my attention."

"Okay, thanks," Sean said, and Alvin followed him into his room as he took out his laptop and pulled up the course website.

"See here, it's this integral. I used the U substitution but I can't get the inside part to match up." He passed Alvin his notes.

"Which problem is it?" Alvin asked.

"5a."

While Alvin looked over the problem, Sean walked over to the window and checked the parking lot to see that John's car was backing out of its spot and driving away. He breathed a sigh of relief.

"You can't use U substitution on this problem," Alvin said, pointing to the problem with an air of confidence.

"Oh," Sean said, kneeling next to him. "Then how are you supposed to integrate it?"

"Look at all the exponents." Alvin pointed to the equation. "They're all odd. And the limits go from negative one to positive one."

Sean looked up at him with a blank face. "So?"

"Do you remember what odd functions look like? Imagine x cubed. What does it look like from negative to positive?"

Sean thought to himself and then drew a squiggle in the air with his finger.

"That's right!" Alvin said enthusiastically. "So if the function is negative on one side and positive on the other side, what happens if you integrate over those portions
equally?"

Sean squinted. "They...cancel out?"

"Yep! So this is also an odd function, what do you think the answer should be if we integrate?"

"Zero," Sean whispered. He cleared his throat and raised his voice. "It's zero?"

Alvin gave a smug, satisfied smile. "Correct."

"Oh," said Sean. "I feel really dumb now."

"It just takes practice," Alvin said, swiveling around in his desk chair. "Did you have any other questions?"

"Yeah, actually, I was wondering about the next problem--" Sean was interrupted by a call to his phone, which he had set on the corner of his desk as usual.

Alvin glanced at the picture of John that flashed across the screen. "Is that..."

"Just my friend," Sean said, snatching the phone away. "Do you mind? I kind of need to take this."

"Not at all. I should probably get going to class, anyway," said Alvin, slinging his backpack over his shoulder.

"Thanks for the help," Sean said as he left the room, closing the door behind him. Sean turned away and answered his phone. "Hello?"

"I didn't know when I was going to see you again."

"Don't worry." Sean rolled his eyes. "I have to come to the set today so I can put that stupid scar on your face."

"Oh, good. I was worried it was going to be that other artist who comes in sometimes. I don't like her. Well, she's not you."

"Okay, you know what, I'll call you this weekend, and we can hang out," Sean said, lying down on his bed. "If you're not too busy."

"Sean, how could I possibly be too busy to spend time with you?"

Sean exhaled a smile. "Stop."

"I don't think I can. I've been quite taken with you."

Sean lay silent for a moment.

"So," John said, and Sean could hear some static on the other end of either him breathing or shifting around. "You want to hang out; what did you have in mind?"

"Jesus, you know how to talk," Sean said under his breath. "Are you going to ask what I'm wearing, too?"

"You know I'm dying to know," John said before they both laughed. "I hope you know to have that suit dry cleaned."

"Yes, mom," Sean said sarcastically. "I'm gay; I'm not completely useless."

He could hear the breathy laughter from the other end. "I've said it before, Sean, but you never cease to amaze me."

"You know, in ancient Rome, actors weren't allowed to vote."

"Don't you trust me?" John teased. "Do you need me to take you to dinner again?"

Sean wrapped the cord from the window blinds around his finger. "How about the movies?"

"Perfect. We should go during the week when it's less crowded."

A sense of calm washed over Sean. "That sounds nice."

"Monday? I could call Lloyd, tell him I'm sick."

"You? Call in sick?" Sean laughed.

"You're right, what am I saying? We can go after, you take the bus and I'll go by car to avoid suspicion." He paused, lowering his voice. "You see what you've done to
me?"

Sean flicked at the window blinds. "I don't know what you're talking about. I'll see you Monday."

"Until then."

Sean hung up, and smile crossed over his face. He stretched out his arms to rest behind his head, looking up at the ceiling.

Shit. He closed his eyes. Time to get ready for class.

***

"Cut!"

As soon as Lloyd called the scene, Sean rushed in to begin touching up John's makeup. True to his reputation as an actor, John had managed to remain completely
professional over the past couple days whenever Sean worked with him. Sean was keeping cool as well, patiently waiting on the cast with no preference.
John bowed his head and waited for Sean to start his work. Suddenly, Sean felt his lungs tighten. A look of panic made its way across his face.

Somehow, John knew something was wrong. "Are you alright?"
Sean took a deep breath and shook his head. He tried to speak, but no words came out. Instinctively he turned and ran towards the makeup trailer. Once inside, he slammed the door and sat down on the floor, clutching his knees.

Sean counted his breaths, willing them to slow down, but his body refused to listen to him. He heard a soft knock on the door.

"Go away," Sean called. "I'm fine."

"Sean?"

The door opened slowly and Rachel entered. She let out a gasp upon seeing Sean. Almost immediately she sat down next to him and put a hand on his shoulder.

"What's wrong?" Her face showed concern.

"Nothing." Sean stared at the floor.

"It doesn't look like nothing."

Sean sighed. "I just had another panic attack. I get them sometimes when I'm in crowds, or...I don't know what happened."

"I'm so sorry," said Rachel.

Sean felt his breathing slow slightly. He buried his face in his hands. "I really messed up. Everyone's probably furious."

"Of course not," Rachel said reassuringly. "They're all worried about you. And as for putting filming on hold, this is nothing. I've seen some over-the-top diva
actresses. Actors too. I once saw a lead actress halt filming for half a day because catering used iceberg lettuce instead of romaine."

Sean managed a nervous laugh.

Rachel smiled. "Crowds, huh? You seemed fine when we were filming that gig. The one at your school..." She dropped the subject when she saw Sean's face go pale.
"Nevermind. But if there's anything that can help you get back out there--"

"I'm fine," Sean said. He took a deep breath. "I'm fine." He stood up.

Rachel stared at him blankly. "Okay, great. Let's get back to work."

***

John was checking in phone in the movie theater lobby, trying to avoid attention by standing close to the wall by the trash cans. He was wearing his incognito look, slightly dressed down with glasses. When he saw Sean walked in, he froze, hesitant to approach him, but Sean made eye contact and began swiftly walking towards him.

"I wasn't sure you were going to--" John stopped mid sentence as Sean hugged him. After a few seconds, he wrapped his arms around Sean. They stayed like that,
silent, for about a minute until a couple more patrons walked into the lobby and they parted, looking away like nothing had happened.

Sean scratched the back of his neck. "I don't know what happened earlier. There wasn't a crowd or strangers or anything; I don't know what triggered it."
"That's strange," said John. "I hope you don't feel the need to apologize; it was really no trouble at all."
Sean just nodded.

John took a deep breath, glancing around the lobby. "What film would you like to see? I haven't looked at what's playing."

"Anything's fine."

John said nothing, but Sean followed him to the ticket booth. He kept a small distance as John walked up to the counter and bought two tickets to whatever arty film was playing. They walked into the theater and hiked up to the back row to sit down.

Sean pulled up his sweatshirt hood and slid down in his chair. He looked around the mostly empty theater. Ads were playing on the screen.

"You didn't just meet me here for a handjob," Sean said, more as a fact than a question.

"I've told you, I want to date you proper."

Sean peeked at him sideways, and then returned to watching the screen. "Proper. Last time you didn't even kiss me goodnight."

John smirked. "I didn't know you were so hurt by it. And I would say we both got more than we asked for that evening."

"Shh, it's starting."

John looked up at the screen, which had finished showing trailers and now showed an artsy shot of a girl riding on a bicycle through a small town. Opening credits
faded in and out at the bottom, and soft piano music played in the background. By the time the title of the film appeared over the middle of the shot, neither were paying attention. The two men already had their arms around each other, lips meeting, Sean's hood falling back as he climbed over the armrest to straddle John's lap, John's glasses falling askew as he pulled Sean toward him.

***

"I don't get the point of that film. Why was there that dog at the end?" Sean asked as John drove them down a quiet city street.

"I think it was something about the girl's innocence before the death of her mother? I'm not entirely sure." John slowed the car to make a turn.

"Maybe the ushers know after watching it several times a day." Sean couldn't help but give a careless smile. "They probably see a lot going on."

"Well," John said, "If they thought I was there as your chaperone at the beginning of the film, I'm sure they didn't think that at the end."

Sean looked out the window as they reached the edge of campus. John pulled over.

"Are you sure you can't take me up to my dorm?" Sean said, tilting his head playfully.

John breathed a smile. "I'm not falling for your charms again, Sean."

Sean gave a laugh. He sat quietly for a moment. "I thought you might come after me when I had my panic attack."

"You know I can't be open with you," John said with a sigh. "I have my career, and the world is less than perfect."

"I know," Sean said, respectfully. He dug his hands into his sweatshirt pocket. "What I mean is, I was anxious that you might. Then my attack could have gotten worse."

A look of guilt crossed John's face. He opened his mouth as if to reassure Sean that he had nothing to worry about, but John held back.

Sean opened the door of the car and stepped out. "Call me," he said, before shutting it and walking away into the night.

***

Sean threw his backpack on the floor collapsed on his bed after returning from class. Sighing heavily, he rolled over into his pillow, thinking about how he still had to go to work. No sooner had he closed his eyes did he hear a strange ringing noise.

He sat up and glanced around the room, seeing a phone ringing, attached to the wall. A land line. Brow furrowed, he reached over and picked it up.

"Hello?"

A man's voice responded, carrying a deep southern drawl. "Ah, yeah, I'm lookin for a, um....Sean Goodin?"

Sean burst out laughing. "Are you on drugs?"

John continued his fake accent. "Well sir, I've got a delivery here, says it's urgent, and the fine folk here at the front desk are tellin' me--"

"Yeah, I'll be out in a second," Sean said before hanging up the phone and rolling over in his bed with laughter.

Sean sauntered down the stairs and made his way outside, looking around, but no one was in sight.

"Trying to blow my cover?" he heard a voice whisper behind him.

Turning around to see John, he let out a yelp and started laughing again.

John folded his arms. "How did you know it was me?"

Sean grinned, putting on an overly southern accent. "'Ahve gat a duhlayverree heeyar...' So you thought you'd pop by, innit?" he said, his voice changing to an unconvincing cockney effect.

John rolled his eyes with a grin. "They said I wasn't allowed inside the residence hall, but they let me give your room a ring. The filming schedule's been shifted around, so we won't be needed today."

Sean raised his eyebrows. "You could have just called me."

John shrugged casually. "I was hoping to have your company for the rest of the day."

"Oh you were hoping," Sean said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Did you have something in mind?"

"I was thinking a brief sojourn in the coffee shop would be appropriate."

Sean looked away. "What day is it?" he muttered to himself, before looking John in the eyes and firmly answering, "Sure, let's go."

***

At Cafe Diem, John purchased two hot teas and sat down at a table across from Sean.

"Mighty kind of ya," Sean said, taking one of the teacups.

"Will you not let that go?" John pleaded.

Sean rested his elbow on the back of his chair and took a sip of tea. "Absolutely not."

John sulked a bit. "This is what I get for dating a four-year-old."

"Your decision," Sean shrugged. "So what's going on today? What's the deal with shooting?"

"Oh," John said, mixing a packet of sugar with his tea. "Lloyd's been called away for a last minute meeting."

"Figures."

John looked around the cafe. Most of its patrons were students on their laptops, surrounded by open textbooks and empty coffee cups.

He turned to Sean. "I thought this would be a bit more romantic, but this place seems more like a noisy library."

"True," Sean said, sipping his tea.

"So..." John said, trying to find a topic that wasn't work-related. "How are your classes?"

"Fine. I should be able to scrape by on my upcoming finals. I have a quiz tomorrow I need to study for."

"I see," John said, feeling like he had somehow intruded. "What have you been studying?"

Sean set his teacup down. "There was a discussion in my math class that two parallel lines never intersect. Any two lines that don't have the same slope, at least if this
is two dimensional we're talking about, they have to intersect somewhere." He sighed. "Look, I can tell you don't want to hear about this."
John frowned. "That's not true."

Sean looked up at him, and his eyes stared blankly at a point on the table as he continued to talk in a dull monotone like he was describing the weather. "Two lines always intersect if they're not parallel. So imagine two lines that have different slopes, and we rotate one of them around a point that's not on the first line, that is, they won't end up on top of one another; we rotate it until the slopes are roughly equal, and the point of intersection travels farther and farther away from the origin." He slowly moved his hands to illustrate what he was describing. "So we have two lines with slopes that are infinitely close to the same value, and they intersect at a point infinitely far from the origin. Therefore, two parallel lines do intersect; they have to intersect at infinity."

At this point, his attention returned to the current setting and he glanced up at John with self awareness. Then, he took another sip of tea.

"We didn't learn any of that in acting school," John said. "What are you going to do with that information?"

"Fuck if I know," said Sean. "At this point, I probably don't even need to be in school. I have enough experience to keep working in make up."

John nodded, and for a moment they just sat and sipped their tea.

"You know," Sean said, leaning in towards the table. "If you want to meet somewhere more romantic, you could take me to a bar, buy me a drink."

John shifted in his seat. "Romantic? Depressing, more like. Have you seen the people who hang around American bars?"

"Come on," Sean said, a smile stretching across his lips. "Two strangers, running into each other in some chance encounter."

"Really," John said, sitting up. "How would that happen?"

"I don't know," Sean said, frowning. "It's a Friday night. Somewhere lively, but not too crowded. You're there, sitting by yourself when I walk in, just some kid. I pretend
to look around like I'm lost. Then I see you, and I walk towards you, thinking I must know you, you look familiar."
John rested his chin on his wrist. "I imagine that if you came to me and asked if we knew each other, and even though we're strangers I would go along with it because you've captured my interest."

"I'll say I don't know how to order, what do you think is good here..."

"I'll flag down the barman for a couple of gin and tonics."

"I'll say thanks, ask what is it that you do."

"I'll say I dabble in the movie business, nothing too impressive. So far."

"And I'll say that's interesting, I've done some work in films. Make up, believe it or not."

"And I'll say, how fascinating, tell me more. I imagine we'll talk for some time, slowly getting to know each other."

"I'll say I don't usually share this much, but I feel some sort of connection with you, stranger."

"I'll say you've had a bit to drink, maybe it's not safe for you to go home by yourself. Maybe I can give you a ride. Or better yet, just come stay at my place."

"And I'll answer, why not."

John leaned across the table. "I'll ask, what are you thinking about?"

Sean smelled the sweat in the air, the ambient noise of conversation bouncing off the walls, the dim lights illuminating the stranger's features, Sean set his empty
glass down on the bar, sent John a lazy grin. "I think I failed my math quiz."

***

Chapter Text

It was strangely quiet when Sean awoke. As he stirred, he felt the soft cotton of a white duvet cover, fresh linen sheets. Light filtered in through sheer white curtains. He sat up against the headboard of the bed, an artfully shaped, ebony stained piece of wood, and realized he was wearing navy colored silk pajamas. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and his bare feet touched a plush rug, with dark hardwood floorboards running underneath.

Sean stood up and walked towards the door, which opened into a dim hallway, a staircase leading off the middle of its length. He walked past a few closed doors and reached the wooden steps, but his interest was caught by the light peeking through a door, left ajar at the far end of the hallway. Silently, he made his way towards it,
sneaking a glance into the room. He could see a bed, unmade and empty. Listening carefully, he could hear no movement. Slowly, he let the door swing open.

The master bedroom was in a modern fashion, similar to the room he was in earlier. Generous skylights sloped over a king sized bed. Sliding glass doors led out onto a small balcony, which overlooked a hillside, and the center of the city in the distance. Sean stepped toward the bed. A few books were stacked on the nightstand, novels it seemed. A door off the side of the room led to a spacious bathroom, finished with white and gray marble. He stood in front of the mirror, double sinks with modern fixtures. The shower looked complicated, with a hi-tech series of shower heads and panels behind glass pane. A door from the bathroom led into a walk-in closet, which was well organized with custom cabinets. He looked at the color arranged rack of ties, fedoras which sat high on a shelf. Sean chuckled to himself. He would have to convince John to get rid of those.

As he descended the stairs into the main area of the house, he heard John talking to someone. Sean stepped into the kitchen, and he could see the he was sitting at the counter, already dressed, and was on the phone talking. A woman in uniform moved about the kitchen preparing a breakfast.

"No, I can't come over until later....You can drop them off, but I have company over..." John looked up to see Sean at the foot of the staircase. He returned to his phone
conversation. "What? No, it's my, er, nephew....His mum dropped him off whilst she's visiting friends in town...Yes, well, tell her I said hi...Alright then. Bye."

Sean leaned over the counter with a sly smile as John hung up. "I'm what now?"

"Good morning, I didn't expect you to be up for at least another hour," John said, sipping his tea. "Coffee?"

"Sure," Sean said, sitting with some space between them.

John stood up and went to make a cup from the cappuccino machine. He returned and handed the cup to Sean before picking up his tablet from the counter and
flipping through the daily news.

"Thanks," Sean said. He took a sip through the thick foam on top of the coffee drink and was surprised to find the taste to be quite smooth.

"Are you hungry? Senja can make you an omelette."

"Um," Sean looked over at the chef, who stopped cutting vegetables to hear his answer. He turned back to John. "I'll have whatever you're having." She nodded and continued working.

"I don't want to alarm you," John said, eyes still skimming some article, "but you may want to get dressed soon. Someone's coming over."

"Yeah, who was that?" Sean asked.

"My old boss." John set his tablet down. "And since we're on the subject, he didn't ask 'do you have someone over,' or even 'do you have a girl over,' but 'how many girls do you have over,' so unless you'd like to be the one to explain to him, then--"

"Don't worry," Sean said reassuringly. "Uncle John. Unk. Can I call you unk?" Seeing John's expression of discomfort, he waved a hand. "I'll just stay quiet."

"He shouldn't be here long, anyway," John said with relief. "He's just dropping off some scripts for a film he wants me to be in."

"Wow, must be some big producer," Sean said, drinking his coffee. "I don't even know what to wear."

"I happen to have some clothes of yours still, from when we went to dinner. A week ago? Anyway, I had them laundered, and I meant to return them, but never did."

"Oh." Sean was taken aback by the thought.

"I take it you didn't find the bathroom upstairs. It's the second door on the left." John had gone back to reading the news.

Sean sat there silently, his eyes wandering about the room. At some point, he stood up and went back upstairs.

***

When he came back down, fully dressed with damp hair, John stood up from a table that was set for two, a full breakfast prepared. The chef was setting a plate of
cooked sausage by a vase of fresh flowers.

"Come sit," said John.

Sean walked slowly towards him. As he approached, John's face retained its calm composure, but he heard him utter, "You smell quite nice," and they embraced.

Slowly pulling away, their eyes met, a gesture that was followed by a quiet kiss.

Sean's eyes fell away again. "Come sit," John repeated. Out of the corner of his eyes, Sean saw the chef hang up her apron in the kitchen and leave the room.

The dining table was much grander than was necessary for two people, and it sat surrounded on three sides by spacious windows that overlooked a serene city
landscape. John pulled out one of the chairs, and Sean had learned to take this as a prompt to sit down. John sat across the corner from him and began serving
himself a few pieces of bacon.

Sean looked around the various dishes on the table, and blinked. "What is any of this? There's like, beans? This is like, tomato? What is this?"

"You said, and I quote, 'I'll have what he's having,' so a traditional English breakfast is what you'll get, and I won't have you complaining," John scoffed.

"Uncle..." Sean said, throwing his head back in mock protest.

Regardless of what food there was, Sean was still hungry, so he began to fill his plate. He had to admit, it did smell delicious.

"I trust you slept well," John said, taking a bite of fried egg.

Sean shrugged. "I guess so. I don't really remember what happened last night."

"I seem to remember you were fading when we got home." John paused. "You kept mumbling something about how your dad shattered his kneecap."

Sean spoke with a mouthful of toast. "Why would I be talking about that?"

"I think it was after I told you the story about the time that I had to perform a scene with a shattered kneecap."

Sean frowned. "I don't remember that."

John took a sip of coffee. "Is there anything you would like to do today?"

"I usually sleep on the weekends," Sean said. "Or do homework."

"I suppose you're right," John said, a sound of resignation in his voice. "I should let you go, then."

"No, please, I need a reason to put off studying for my finals next week," Sean said, stretching his arms over the table and laying his head down.

"You can stay, then," John said with a laugh. He furrowed his brow and looked away. "I don't mind you staying, that's what I meant."

Sean felt the quietness of the atmosphere. His gazed drifted upwards to the chandelier hanging above the table. "Your house is really...nice," he managed.

John smiled, a fork dangling in his hand as he rested his elbow on the table. "Since you're the artist out of the two of us, I'm flattered you like the decor."

"We could go to a museum," Sean suggested. "See some art."

"Oh?" John said. "So sophisticated for a college student."

"You could say I was inspired," Sean said, leaning with his elbow on the back of the chair.

A subtle hint of amusement crossed John's face. Just then, the doorbell rang.

John jumped up and made a few steps towards the door, but arrested his movement when he heard the front door open. Sean sat up and turned his head to see a middle aged man in a Hawaiian shirt enter the room.

"I hope you don't mind I just let myself in," he said in a gravelly voice, removing his designer sunglasses and hanging them on his shirt collar. He walked towards the table. "Are we having fry up? I want some!" He took a piece of bacon and started munching on it with delight. He faced Sean. "Is this your nephew?"

John cleared his throat. "Joe, this is my nephew, Sean."

Sean waved a hand. "Hi."

"Hi nephew," Joe said in a friendly tone. He turned his attention back to John. "I have the scripts for you," he said, holding up a thickly bound stack of papers, and, as

Sean noticed, an impressive timepiece on his wrist. "I've got some great writers on it. Just wait until you read scene three," he said, cracking a laugh.
John's face was calm. "Yes, I'm sure it's--"

"Come take a look at it!" Joe said, moving to the living room. "You're going to be great for this part."

John's mouth hung open as he watched Joe sit down on the couch. "Actually, I've got to get going. Sean's only in town for a couple days, so I have to take him to the art museum--'

"Oh, perfect!" Joe said, sprawling a hairy arm over the back of the couch. "I'm friends with the owner. I can get us in for free!"

John took a step forward. "I appreciate the gesture, but it's not necessary."

"Nah." Joe waved a hand. "It's no trouble at all. Actually, I know the artist of their new exhibit's in town. Hell, I could probably give her a call. She loves to talk about her work."

Sean was stunned with amazement. "What!?"

John quickly looked back and forth between them, his eyes blinking rapidly.

"Yeah," Joe continued. "I think it's revival abstract expressionism. You know what? I'll give her a call." He pulled out his phone and dialed a number. His face creased with a smile as he heard an answer. "Julia, darling, I heard your exhibit's up. I've got some friends in town; you think you could give us a tour?"

John reluctantly looked to Sean, who was now clutching the back of his chair in excitement.

"Fine," John said to him with a sigh. "Finish eating, and I'll get my keys."

***

"You see, it follows the nature of formalism, where the placing of the colors in each brush stroke are arranged to bring about a feeling, an 'aesthetic emotion,' in
Greenberg terminology. Yet with the figures and letters portrayed in the plane, the work is itself a reference to this type of critique, and by including references to the outside world, the theory of formalism is deconstructed..."

The woman stopped, swaying her stance slightly as she passed a large work. The three men of varying ages followed her, crowding around the painting. Sean examined the work with great interest, John with a hint of skepticism, and Joe was straggling behind them, checking texts on his phone. Around them echoed ambient noise of the museum's visitors.

"There's this weird kind of dimensional thing going on," Sean said. "You can't really tell if its trying to show a 2D or 3D scene, or just something abstract."
Julia adjusted the red frames of her glasses. "Exactly. The painting is reduced to itself."

"I'm a real fan of this one," Joe said, slipping his phone into his back pocket. "The look on the guy's face to the right? Classic."

Sean looked around the room. "Do have any more work like this? The rest of the stuff here is mostly just abstract."

Julia smiled. "They didn't make it into the exhibit. The museum curators thought of this piece as more of a novelty." She folded her arms, the cool silver metal of her bracelet reflecting against her soft white cotton shirt. "But I have a couple pieces at my studio, if you want to come by. It's just a few blocks away."

"Julia!" Joe pointed at her. "What a great idea! We can pick up some wine on the way." He turned to elbow John in the side. "What do you say?"

John slipped his hands into his pockets and shrugged loosely. "I'll have to move the car."

"So it's settled then!" Joe clapped his hands.

"We can go out the back exit, and it will be faster." Julia sighed. "The steps they have leading up to the front are pleasing to the eye but...too long."

"Lead the way, m'dear," Joe said, and he followed her out of the room.

Sean began to leave, but he turned to see John sporting a look of ambivalence.

"Hey," Sean said softly. "Is everything okay?"

John took a deep breath. "Of course. I just...hadn't been expecting to spend the day this way."

Sean placed a hand on John's arm. No one in the gallery seemed to notice they were there. Finally, John looked up.

"We should get going after them," he said. Sean nodded.

***

Julia unlocked the door to a high rise industrial loft and flicked on the lights. Joe followed her into the open plan kitchen and set a bottle of wine down on the island, along with a few packages of assorted cheese and crackers. Sean followed John's lead and sat down on a barstool on the other side of the island.

"Nice place," Joe said, looking at the sunset view out the spacious windows. "Corkscrew?"

She handed the tool to him, and then pulled some wine glasses down from a hanging rack as he opened the bottle. Joe then began to pour a couple glasses, held one out to John. "It's cabernet."

"Thank you," John said, taking the glass with both hands.

Joe poured another glass, looking up at Sean. "How old are you?"

John looked to Sean with vague interest.

"I can have some," Sean said with a hint of shyness, blinking slightly.

Joe frowned and nodded, pouring half a glass and handing it to him. Sean took it and sipped it slightly without incident.

"John, you've got to try this brie," Joe said, opening the plastic packaging with a knife. "I think it's almost as good as France."

"You know, we almost filmed there for an Episode of Knight," John said, taking a sip of wine.

Julia tapped on Sean's shoulder. "If you want to see those works I mentioned earlier," she said, gesturing toward the other side of the room with a wineglass in her hand.

"Sure," he said. Sean swiveled around in his seat and followed her to the corner that displayed several works in progress, a white tarp covering the floor.

"This one's still drying," she said, carefully picking one canvas off its easel and setting it on the floor against the wall. "It's this one."

Sean's eyes followed the painting as she stood it on the easel before him. His gaze traced the swirls of both like and contrasting colors that melted into an idyllic garden scene. "How do you get the paint to do that texture?"

"It takes several layers to dry and chip away and repaint."

"So much dedication," Sean said, studying the work closely.

Julia stepped back, studying him. "What is it that you do?"

"I'm a make up artist," Sean said, shrugging. "TV and film, mostly."

"Really." She rested her hand on her elbow as she took a sip of wine. "Did you go to school for that?"

"Well, I'm in school now. But no, my mom taught me." Sean squat down to look at another painting on the floor.

"That one's a rework of the piece I have hanging in the kitchen." She nodded her head backwards.

"I must have missed it," he said, standing up slowly. "That color is so...unique."

When they returned to the kitchen, John was in a heated discussion with the producer.

"The point is that I'm having trouble finding roles other than the archetype from Knight Errant! I've been very clear that I don't want any more of these to keep digging my reputation into a rut," John said, firmly placing his glass down on the table.

"That's the point of this role, it's a complete reimagining of the knight figure as a well rounded character with multiple sides!" Joe's face was turning red. "And if you don't want it, I'll have no problem finding someone else to do it."

"Is that so," John said, throwing up a hand. "You're saying me being in that role isn't the selling point of the whole film?!"

"I'll have you know, my director has Kit Harington on speed-dial!"

"Oh! You've got Kit Harington on speed-dial? Like Kit-bloody-Harington hasn't got anything better to do than work on your rubbish film!"

"You haven't even read the scripts!"

"Excuse me for wondering what good the scripts are going to do if the premise is shit!"

At this point they were both standing. Joe raised a hand.

"Just--"

"No," John said. "I don't want to hear any more of this." His face fell away, and soon he was walking out of the room.

Joe followed after him. "John, come on..."

Sean watched silently until the two of them were gone.

Julia turned towards him. "I have some pieces upstairs that you might want to see."

Sean's mouth hung open slightly, but finally he turned his attention back to her and nodded.

Stairs led up to a mezzanine overlooking the rest of the loft. A mattress scattered with blankets lay askew in the far corner, and a series of paintings crowded around the edges where wood floors met exposed brick walls, underneath where the ceiling began to vault over the space.

"There," Julia said, pointing to one piece that portrayed a lone figure.

Sean examined it more closely. "You didn't have any nudes in the exhibit at the museum."

"They're too personal to me," Julia said.

He looked along the row, noticing the majority of the abstract paintings had naked women subtly depicted among the thick brushstrokes.

"Personal? What do you mean?" Sean said. He felt the older woman take his hand.

"I am inspired by the female form." She brought his fingers to the top button of her blouse. "As are you."

Sean felt his hand drop to his side as soon as she let go. "I mean, not really," he said, furrowing his brow.

Julia looked away, clutching her forehead. "Nevermind. I think I've had too much wine."

"Why?" Sean asked casually. Suddenly, he started to piece together in his head what had just happened. "Oh," he said, feeling his face blush.

"I think there was a misunderstanding between us," said Julia, but she watched Sean look away and move more hastily down the stairs. She called after him. "You're just a frightened little boy. You don't know what you want."

Sean shook his head as he reach the bottom of the stairs. He heard the front door open, and looked to see Joe returning alone.

"I need to go back to John's," Sean told him.

Joe sighed, wiping a hand across his face. "Fine, I can drive you."

***

The car ride was mostly silent as Joe drove Sean through the city. As they reached the highway onramp to go out into the country, Joe turned off into a side street and pulled over.

Sean sat still for a moment, trying to map out how to get to John's house. "Wasn't that the turn--"

"I can't," Joe said, his face in his hands. He took a deep breath and stared down the dark street. "I can't keep hiding it," he said to himself, almost a whisper. He rested his hands against the wheel and rose his voice. "Look, I'll just call you a cab."

Sean calmly turned towards him. "What's going on?"

"You know him, right? Has he ever..." He buried his face again. "What am I saying; this doesn't make any sense."

"What doesn't make any sense?" Sean felt the words fall from his mouth without thinking.

Joe sighed. "I've been in love with him since the day I met him."

After a long silence hung in the air, Joe spoke again. "I know he isn't gay; he's been dating that co-star of his. Celine, or whatever her name is. And the age gap, I'm almost ten years older than him." He sighed. "I don't know why I thought I would even have a chance with him."

Sean watched him as he neared tears, unsure what to say.

"I can't go back there, I just can't." He took a deep breath and sat up. "I'll call a cab and wait with you until it comes, and you can go back to your uncle's."

A bitter taste stained Sean's mouth. He shut his eyes, and opened them with a sigh of his own. "John's not my uncle."

"Then why are you staying with him?" Joe tried to find the dots to connect. "He said you're mom's in town...of course."

Sean nodded.

"It would make sense he would keep it a secret, having a son your age."

Sean nodded.

The older man gave a kindly smile. "Let me just call a cab."

Sean didn't move as he pulled out a phone. Then suddenly, he was hurrying to release his seatbelt and then jumped out of the car.
"Hey!" Joe called, stepping out of the driver's side, but Sean was already hastily moving up the street, checking his own phone for the nearest bus stop. He reached the cross street and spotted a bus approaching the end of the street, and broke into a sprint.

"Sean!" Joe caught his breath as he saw Sean step onto the bus. The doors closed and it lurched as it pulled away.

He stood up, cursing into the evening air. He pulled out his phone and dialed John. The tone rang several times, and he was close to panicking when John finally picked up.

"I swear if this is about that film--"

"I lost Sean." Joe felt his own heart sink.

"Lost him? What do you--"

"I was about to call him a cab to go back to your place, and then he just ran and got on some bus. I lost him."

"Oh." Joe heard a change in the tone of his voice. "He's a smart kid. Don't worry about him."

Joe pressed his teeth together. "You can't just treat him like that."

"He'll be fine. He know's what he's doing."

"No, he needs to go back to his mom." Joe closed his eyes. "Okay, I know it's not my place to say."

He heard John sigh on the other end. "He'll be fine," he repeated in a reassuring tone.

Joe clutched the phone to the side of his face as a few people passed him by on the street. "John."

"What's the problem?"

Joe closed his eyes, trying to calm himself. "John, I'm in love with you."

There was a silence on the other end. Finally, the man spoke. "Is that what you told Sean?"

"What? Oh," he said, his eyes glancing down with some disappointment. "Yes."

"For fuck's sake..." John's voice trailed off for a moment, and then returned in full anger. "Next time, let me handle it."

"John?" He heard the line deaden as John hung up.

***

Sean's phone rang as sat by the window on the bus. He lifted it to see John's photo displayed on the screen, but his attention was thrown to the front of the bus as it
made another stop and a few people stepped on. He watched them, trying to discern their faces, and then breathing a sigh of relief when he saw no one he knew.

"Hey, Sean?"

He jumped a few inches before turning around to see Alvin sitting in the seat behind him. "Oh, hi."

Alvin leaned toward him slightly. "Are you okay?"

Sean sat back in his seat, trying to appear more relaxed. "Yeah, I'm fine. What are you up to?"

"Just heading back after an afternoon of Zombie Hunter III at the arcade," Alvin said, looking satisfied. "Now I've gotta go back and study."

"Same." Sean swung his leg idly under the seat.

"Although, I might head down to the dining hall to get some dinner," Alvin pondered. "Have you eaten?"

Sean thought back to what he had that day. Breakfast...wine. "Nope."

***

Alvin and Sean sat down across from each other at a table in the dining hall. Sean took a bite of pepperoni pizza while Alvin cut his slice with a knife and fork. At first, Sean watched this with critique and then returned to apathy before he could comment on it.

"So," Alvin said. "Have you seen any movies lately?"

"Not really." Sean drank from a can of soda.

"I heard they're filming a new witch series movie with Celina in it, Night Witches or something."

"Oh, they're done filming," Sean said nonchalantly. "She left the set of Vice/Versus to go do it, but she returned a couple weeks ago."

"Interesting." Alvin sliced another bite of pizza. "What's it like to work with all those great actors?"

Sean shrugged. "I don't really think about it. That's just how it is."

Alvin shifted in his chair. "Don't you work with John Brandon? They probably don't let ordinary people near him."

"Not really." Sean's gaze remained on the edge of the table, where he picked at the peeling laminate edge.

Alvin continued. "It's just that after seeing him in Knight Errant, it's just bizarre to see him play the evil character on a crime show. It's like he's a completely different person."

Sean thought back to what Joe had said earlier. It makes sense he would keep it a secret, having a son your age. Did he really think that was possible? Maybe he thought Sean was younger than he really was? He did ask him if he could have wine. And he didn't think John was gay? He was just dating Celina for the press, as far as Sean knew. And he and Lloyd used to date. But he said that was over. But did John also have feelings for Joe? I hadn't been expecting to spend the day this way. And that argument over at what's-her-name's, and that was something else he wanted to forget...

"Sean? Sean!"

"What?" Sean said, looking up.

"I'm sorry, I get kind of carried away when I fanboy sometimes," Alvin said with a nervous laugh. "What were we talking about earlier?"

Sean stood up. "I don't have time to talk; I should really go focus on studying for my finals."

"That's understandable," said Alvin. His cheerful demeanor had not lessened. "See ya around?"

"Yeah, sure," Sean said, turning towards the door without waving goodbye.

***

The alarm on his phone rang for the fifth time and Sean immediately silenced it without thought. He rolled onto his back, lazily looking up at the ceiling of his dorm
room. Slowly, he pulled himself up on his elbow to check the time, and nearly fell out of bed upon seeing his final had already started.

***

The bell rang and students around him began to put their pencils down, a chatter murmuring through the lecture hall as they stood up to turn in their tests. Sean dropped his packet at the front table and yawned on his way out the door, stopped by Adam grabbing his elbow.

"Hey, man, what did you think of that final?"

"I don't know," Sean said, rubbing his face. "It was okay."

"Yeah, I saw you walk in, like, thirty minutes late," Adam said, folding his arms. "I'm pretty sure I failed. What was with that last question?"

"The last question was bullshit," Sean agreed.

"Yeah," Adam said with a laugh. "Well, that was my last final. How about you? Do you still have that...calc three or whatever?"

"No, it was yesterday." Sean grimaced. "That one I definitely failed. They didn't give us enough time."

"That's how it always is," Adam groaned. "Anyway, we should hang out sometime before I go on tour."

"Oh, right," Sean said, surprised that he had forgotten. "Sure, just send me a text."

"Alright. Well, see ya," Adam said, clapping a hand on his shoulder and waving goodbye as he walked away.

Sean stepped outside onto the steps of the building and pulled out his phone. He dialed John.

"Sean! It's been...a while since I've heard from you. What's up?"

"Not much," Sean said, kicking a pebble along the ground with his foot. "I just got out of my last final."

"Oh, how was that?"

Sean was silent for a moment, trying to figure out a response, but John answered for him.

"You know what, forget it. Why don't you come over?"

"Okay..." Sean felt himself say. "I mean, yeah, that'd be great."

"Why don't you stop by the studio later? I'm working until six, but later we can get take out and watch a movie."

"Alright. See you."

"Goodbye, Sean."

Sean hung up and breathed a content sigh. He started walking towards his dorm; looking forward to a nap.

***

As John and Lloyd exited the studio building, he spotted Sean sitting on the curb, checking his phone. Before he could say something, Lloyd was already calling out to
him.

"Hey, Sean! What's going on with you?"

Sean looked up and pulled himself to his feet. "Not much. What's going on with you?"

"Same as always, working on Vice." Lloyd smiled as he approached him, and John followed in his usual composed demeanor. "What are you doing here?"

"Just waiting for someone." Sean looked down the road as though he were watching for a car to pull up.

"Cool, cool. Well, we've been missing you on set," Lloyd said, playfully elbowing him in the side. "You'll be back next week?"

"Yeah, I just got out of finals."

"Awesome. Well, see you around." Lloyd said, giving a wave before walking away.

John also waved and followed Lloyd, resuming their previous conversation. "I think on Monday we should redo the voiceover for the cave scene..."
Sean watched them for a minute before returning to acting inconspicuous. It wasn't long before John pulled up in his car. Sean picked his backpack up off the curb and pulled on the door handle to the back seat, but it was locked. John pressed a button on the console and the lock clicked upwards. Sean swung the door open and threw his backpack on the floor of the car before slamming the door shut and jumping in the front passenger seat.

"It's been long enough," John muttered, pulling away from the curb and beginning to accelerate the car.

Sean folded his arms and looked out the window in a sort of pout. "I don't even get a hug."

Suddenly the tires screeched as John slowed the car to a halt and pulled over again. John unbuckled his seatbelt as Sean jumped towards him and grabbed his shoulders. They kissed hurriedly and hungrily. Over time, their movements slowed until they were locked in a tender embrace.
John pulled away. "We should go before someone sees."

"Yeah," Sean said, running a hand through his own hair as he sat back in his seat. He looked out the window to see there was no one around, and the car slowly pulled away.

***

John flicked on the lights as he entered the spacious entryway to his house. He set his keys and the sack of takeout containers on the credenza by the wall, and began to take off his shoes.

"Honestly, it was one of the weirder conversations I've had," Sean said, laughing as he closed the door behind him.

"I can imagine," John said with a smile breaking across his face. "What was it that he told you, again?"

"Something about how he thought it was more plausible for me to be your son than for us to be fucking." Sean tossed his backpack on the floor of the front closet.

"And right after he declared his love for me? I wish I could have seen that..." John's breath became more noticeable as he pulled Sean's wrist toward him. The kiss was simple and soft. He opened his eyes to see Sean's, deep brown, staring into him.

Sean's voice was a low whisper. "So why aren't we fucking?"

***

Two hot, sweaty bodies lay pressed against each other as they caught their breaths. Apart from them, the living room was silent.
Sean muttered something under his breath. "Phad thai...cold."

John rolled onto the other end of the couch, throwing his head back with laughter. "Is food all you care about?"

"No?" Sean said, eyes closed as a serene smile passed over his face.

"We could still watch a movie," John said, standing up. He picked his pants up off the floor and began putting them on.

"John..." Sean teased. "Do you really have to do that?"

John immediately dropped his pants and crawled back onto the couch, before placing a hand on Sean's chin, followed by a kiss.

Sean smiled. "Better."

John hopped over the back of the couch. "I must be getting younger because I don't remember this being acceptable."

"Young is a relative term," Sean said as he reached for the remote.

***

Sean woke up to light shining in through a skylight. The sheets smelled delightfully of the previous night's activities, and he could hear the shower running in the other room. He stretched his arms out over the generous king sized bed and rolled onto his stomach, and lifted his head to look out past the balcony, where the landscape was bathed in sunlight.

As he heard the shower shut off in the adjacent bathroom, Sean sat up on his elbows. "John."

"What is it?" The voice echoed from the bathroom walls.

"Did you take a shower without me?"

John stepped into the room with a towel around his waist. "Such a tragedy, I know." He kissed Sean on the forehead. "You don't have to be in until this afternoon,
unlike me."

Sean fell back on his pillow. "Tell Lloyd you're sick."

John's face broke into a smile. "He's smarter than you think," he said before he disappeared back into the bathroom.

Sean lay back, staring at the ceiling. Finally, John returned fully dressed, buttoning one of his sleeves. He froze when his gaze caught sight of Sean again.

"You can just stay like that for the rest of the day, I wouldn't mind..."

"Oh you wouldn't, would you?" Sean said, sitting up to clasp his arms around Johns neck, breathing a smile at his lips.

John kissed him for a single, passionate second, and then took his hands and gently pushed him back into bed. "Goodbye."

Sean rolled onto his side as he watched John leave. "What am I gonna eat?"

John gave a laugh and rolled his eyes. "You know where everything is."

***

"Alright everybody, break for lunch! We'll resume with the night scene at one." Lloyd called as the scene ended. Members of the crew began to disperse and talk amongst themselves. Sean followed Celina into the makeup trailer, where John was waiting for his scar to be removed.

"Oh, you should do him first," Celina said, waving a hand. "John, I'm sure you're busy."

"Actually, not today." John said, swiveling in his chair slightly. "Go ahead."

"If you say so," Celina said with a shrug, and she sat down for Sean to remove her makeup.

Sean took a damp cloth and began to wipe the sides of her face.

"I hope we don't have to do any more of these action sequences. They're so intense." Celina said.

Sean nodded, letting her continue.

"I always get tired after a few takes. But John over there," she gave a laugh. "He seems like he could keep filming no matter what the scene."

"You're giving me too much credit," John said.

"Nonsense," Celina flicked her wrist again. "John, what time do you want to pick me up tomorrow?"

Somehow a mild shock crossed his face. "Tomorrow? Right, the awards show. How about six?"

"Sounds divine," she said, standing up as Sean finished removing the makeup from her face. She placed a hand on the back of her chair and gave John a wave. "See
you then."

As she was about to leave, she flashed a smile at Sean. "You're coming too?"

Sean's mouth opened, but no words came out.

John folded his arms. "I think Sean's jealous that you're going with someone else."

Celina cupped her mouth with her hand. "Really?" She looked back at Sean, who was blushing slightly. "No. Aw," she gushed, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Aren't
you sweet. But you know how these publicity stunts are. Well, I've gotta go." She gave an apologetic smile and left.

Sean approached John and began to lift the plastic scar from his face. "I can't believe you."

John gave a laugh. "I couldn't resist." He looked down as Sean wiped a cloth over his forehead. "When do you want to meet in the south lot?"

"Actually," Sean said with a sigh, "I have to go home after we shoot the next scene. I've been wearing the same couple of clothes for a few days now and I think rest of the cast is starting to get suspicious. And I have some chores to do."

"Do what you must," John said, his face suddenly becoming serious, embodying the noble spirit of the knight errant.

The two of them looked at each other until they both cracked up with laughter.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Sean said reassuringly. "Along with your date."

"Yes, well, in any case, the red carpet won't be too long. See you then."

Sean rinsed his hands in the sink and shook the water off. "I look forward to it."

***

The sun was setting as Sean unlocked the door to his bedroom. He set his makeup kit on his desk and sat down to check the messages on his phone. Just then, he
received a call from his parents.

"Hello?"

"Sean! It's your parents!"

"Dad, I know it's you," Sean said with a laugh. "What's going on?"

"What's going on? We heard that--"

His mom cut in on another line. "--We heard that you've been nominated for a Golden Television! We're so proud of you, and we wanted to wish you luck!"

Sean sat back in his chair. "Thanks, mom. Dad."

"Oh, and there was something else!" his dad added.

"Yeah?"

"What are your plans for the summer? Are you going to kick back and relax?"

"Yep." Sean realized what he had said and corrected himself. "Not quite. I'm going to be working on Vice/Versus full time."

"Congratulations!" his mom's voice rang. "You've done great work on it already. Like I said, we're very proud of you."

"Anyway," his dad cut in. "We're sure you're busy, so we won't keep you."

"Okay," Sean said. "Bye--"

"Wait." His dad's voice changed tone. "Working full time, this doesn't have anything to do with that actor, does it?"

"What actor?"

Sean heard his parents talking to each other in the background. Finally, his dad returned to the phone.

"Someone named John Brandon contacted us, saying he's interested in dating you."

After some silence on Sean's end, his mom cut in. "He seems nice. Maybe you should bring him over sometime, so we can meet him."

Sean closed his eyes, trying to process what had been said. "Wait, when did he talk to you?"

"It was some time ago. I don't know why we didn't tell you about it sooner." There was a pause in her voice. "Sean, we want you to know it's okay if you're interested in
men."

His dad was silent on the other line.

Sean was silent for a long time.

"Sean?" his mom called. "Are you there?"

"Yeah, mom." His voice was shaking, though he tried to keep it under control. "Anyway. I gotta go."

"Okay, sweetie," his mom said. "Take care, and good luck tomorrow!"

"Bye." He hung up, and he felt a strange ringing noise in his ears. He sat down on the floor, not knowing what else to do in the moment.

***

Sean woke up at noon, pulled himself out of bed and ate dry cereal. He dragged himself into the shower and felt the water run over him for some time until he realized his hands were pruning and he should probably get out. He put his sweats and flip flops back on and threw his towel over his shoulder, and as he walked out of the floor's bathroom he felt his phone buzz.

It was a text from John: "Are you going to come by work today? I have a surprise for you."

A series of thoughts raced through his head as he kept walking, past his room, not noticing he was headed right down the stairs.

"Ow," he mumbled, holding his hand to his head as he lay on the mid-floor landing. He looked up to see a figure standing over him; upon closer inspection it was Adam.

"Hey," Adam said calmly. "Do you still want to hang out?"

***

The sun was setting as Sean and Adam sat at a picnic table outside a fast food joint. Beyond a chain link fence and a worn-down looking neighborhood, the hill offered some view of the city.

"Thanks for coming out here with me," Adam said, taking a bite of his sandwich. "I didn't know they had a Kona Burger in Steel City."

"Yeah, it's just like old times." Sean said, eating a fry. "Although you'll probably get to go when you visit there on tour."

"I doubt it." Adam looked away with a kind of sigh. "We're always on a tight schedule with CD signings and all that stuff."

"That's lame." Sean slurped his milkshake.

"Hey," Adam said, "don't you have some awards show thing to go to?"

"Not really," Sean said with a shrug. "It's more for celebrities. They don't need me there. There's plenty of other people that want to pretend like they're famous."

"For real," Adam said, nodding. "All those people think fame is everything. I don't need to be famous. I just want to get a kona burger and a milkshake and some fries, man."

They both laughed to themselves.

"Hey, so if you're not doing anything after this," said Adam, "Do you want to go for a drive in the country? It kinda clears the head."

"Sure, why not," said Sean. "I still can't believe you got your car back."

"Yeah, my parents weren't too happy about it, but it all worked out."

***

Sean looked out the window as Adam drove into the foothills behind the city.

"I've never really been out here before," he said, looking out the window. The sky was mostly dark.

"I come out here sometimes late at night." Adam swerved along the country path. "Like I said, it clears my head."

Sean pulled out his phone, which had been buzzing for some time. He read through the series of notifications, texts from all different members of the cast and crew, his parents, congratulating him on his award. Texts from both Lloyd and John telling him to come by Club Luna for the afterparty. A missed call from John. Suddenly
he felt his body hit the side of the car.

"Woah."

He looked up to see Adam was racing along the curvy mountain road. The needle on the mile gage was slowly gaining.

"Hey, don't you think you're going kind of fast?"

"Shut up, Sean."

Sean was taken aback by the complete change in Adam's demeanor. No longer sporting a mirthful grin, his eyes were serious and cold.

"Adam, slow down." Sean sat in futility as his friend refused to listen. "It's not safe."

"Nothing's safe."

Sean hesitated. "What do you mean?"

"There's nothing safe that's worth doing. You always play it safe, Sean. There's no point."

He made another turn, throwing Sean towards the center console.

"Adam."

Adam pulled onto a straight stretch of road and hit the gas. As the dial neared 100, his knuckles became white around the steering wheel.

"Come on, Adam; you don't have to do this." Sean felt his voice shaking.

Adam said nothing, just stared onto the road ahead.

"How about...there's an afterparty for the awards show. We can go, it's at Club Luna, you remember that place?"

Sean felt a shift as the car began to slow. Finally Adam pulled off onto a dirt road and turned off the engine. In the dark, Sean could hear him breathing.

"Okay." Adam rubbed his face. "That's the one downtown, right?"

Sean nodded. "It just started."

Adam leaned over the steering wheel and rested for a minute. Then, he sat up and turned on the engine, backed the car out onto the main road to go back into town.
Sean said nothing, but felt a sigh of relief as Adam kept the car at a normal speed. Soon, city lights were reflecting on the car's windows again.
They parked on the street several blocks away, and as they approached the club, they saw that the line of people waiting stretched around the block. Everyone was dressed in tuxedos and fashionable dresses, in comparison to Sean, who was still wearing black sweats and flip flops, and Adam, who was in a t-shirt and jeans. Sean stepped into the end of the line, but Adam shook his head.

"We're not going to get in this way. Let's go to the front."

At the entrance to the club, a bouncer stood outside the door as crowds and music playing could be heard inside.

"Hi," Sean said, reluctantly approaching him. "My name's Sean Goodin. I should be on the list?"

"Nope," the bouncer said without flinching.

"Actually, Lloyd invited me, he's part owner. Are you sure--"

"Look, kid." The man folded his arms in a stern pose. "I don't have time to listen to your problems. Get your friend, get on your tricycle, and pedal home."
Sean stepped away and turned to Adam. "What am I supposed to do?"

"I don't know," Adam said, craning his neck to try to see inside. "You could try calling--"

"Oh my god, is that Adam Eaton?"

Sean looked up to see a few people's attention suddenly focused on them after a young woman had recognized Adam. Adam stepped in front of him and waved in his well-developed, effortless style as the people cheered. A few girls started screaming his name in excitement. The bouncer's stance changed.

"You're Adam Eaton?" he asked in surprise.

"Yep," Adam said modestly.

"My daughter's a huge fan. Would you mind me getting your autograph for her?"

"No problem," Adam said, flashing a smile. "What's her name?"

"Eloise. She just started middle school." The bouncer took out a notepad and a pen, and Adam took it.

"Alright, well tell Eloise I said hello," Adam said as he signed his name in a flourish, along with a few words. "There you go."

"Thanks," said the bouncer, tucking the notepad into the inside of his jacket. "You can go in. Sorry about earlier."

He stepped aside and Adam walked to the door, and turned back at Sean who had stood frozen for the past several minutes. "Sean, come on!"

Sean looked up and quickly followed behind him.

"It's a good thing you brought me along," Adam said as they navigated the crowd. "Let's go up to the VIP room."

"There's a VIP room?" Sean said, half in a daze. The crowd began to overwhelm him.

Adam grabbed his arm. "You'll be fine, just stick with me."

He pulled Sean towards the other end of the room. Sean looked around, scanning faces to see if there was anyone he recognized, but there was too much commotion. Neon lights strobing in the dim setting over people talking, drinking, swaying to the music. They reached a door that led up a quieter staircase to a dim room upstairs with people mingling at a bar and on couches.

"I'll go get you something to drink," Adam said, placing a hand on Sean's shoulder before walking away.

Sean nodded, watching him disappear into the crowd. Suddenly, he felt a panic; even in the less intimidating atmosphere of the VIP room, he felt anxious at the
thought of being left alone. Just then, he felt someone grab his other arm and drag him back into the hallway and into another room. John shut the door before throwing his arms around Sean and pulling him close. Sean stayed still, their eyes meeting when John finally pulled away.

"Didn't you hear?" John said with a grin. "You won. We won." He leaned in and kissed Sean, and pulled away again when Sean didn't react. "What's wrong?"
Sean blinked. He hung his head, rubbing his eyes, and then took a deep breath as he returned his attention to John. "Um--"

"The crowds, of course!" John looked thoughtful. "God, when I invited you here, I didn't even think...do you need to sit down? I can get you a glass of water."

"No, I'm fine," Sean said, waving a hand. His brow furrowed as he contemplated what he was about to say. "Did you call my parents?"

"What?" John gave a laugh. "Why would I do that?"

"They called me," Sean said, his tone more serious. "They said you told them you wanted to date me."

"That's ridiculous," John chuckled to himself. He leaned against the wall behind him, entertaining the thought, but suddenly, his expression changed in realization.

"Oh. I think I did email them once."

Sean was horrified. "How did you even get their email address?"

"I'm know, I'm sorry." John sighed. "Lloyd has it all on file. It was wrong of me to even look it up."

"Then why did you do it?"

John swallowed. "I wanted it to be proper."

"Proper?" Sean threw a hand up before rubbing his forehead. "Was it your plan for them to call me and ask if I'm interested in men?"

"You're not out to them?" John asked incredulously. "How have you gotten this far?"

"What, do I need to call your parents? Ask them if you're gay?" Sean pointed at him, and he grabbed Sean's wrist and pulled it aside.

"They know," said John. "Can we drop the subject? I've already acknowledged that it was a mistake on my part."

Sean let out a sigh. "Whatever. I'm gonna go find Adam and see if he can take me home."

He tried to walk out of the room, but John grabbed his shoulders.

"You brought Adam here?"

"Yeah, it's kind of a...story," Sean shrugged. "Why?"

"He has a flight very early tomorrow morning." John rubbed his face. "Where is he?"

"I don't know. Last I saw he was in the VIP room."

"Christ...now I have to go find him." John sighed. He glanced down at Sean's flip flops. "Can you at least promise to call me this weekend?"

Sean folded his arms, and his expression did not lighten. Finally he nodded.

John looked relieved. "Again, I'm really sorry. I have to fix this." Without further distraction, he left the room.

Once Sean returned to the VIP room, there was no sight of either John or Adam. He sat down at the bar and pulled out his phone. Adam hadn't texted him.

"Hey, Sean!"

He turned to see Lloyd standing next to him, looking as cheerful as ever. He sat down next to Sean and called the bartender over.

"Can I get a couple of IPAs over here? Thanks," he said, before returning his attention to Sean. "How's my award-winning makeup artist?"

"I think my ride just left without me," Sean said, picking up the glass of beer the bartender had set in front of him.

"And who's that?" Lloyd asked, leaning in towards the bar.

Sean took another gulp of beer. "Adam Eaton."

"Ha!" Lloyd took a drink of his own. "You missed him. He came in, tried to make out with a soccer player's trophy wife, and got dragged outside."

"I wish I could have seen that," Sean laughed. "Wait, really?"

"Yep." Lloyd frowned. "I guess all famous pop stars eventually reach that point."

Sean shook his head slightly. "He was different growing up."

Lloyd's face changed as he made the connection. "Oh, I didn't realize you were friends."

"Yeah, um," Sean contemplated how much information to share. "We go to school together."

"Sorry about what I said earlier," Lloyd said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I'm sure he's just going through a phase."

Sean gave a shrug. "It's beyond anything I can do to help him at this point."

"That's some philosophy to have," Lloyd said with a laugh.

***

"And you're how old?" Lloyd joked before taking another sip of beer. "I can see what he sees in you."

"Who, Adam? We're just friends," Sean said, setting his glass down.

"No," Lloyd smiled down into his glass. He trained his eyes on Sean again. "How are things with John?"

"What do you mean?" Sean glanced at him with caution.

"You know what I mean." Lloyd leaned towards him. "I've seen the way he looks at you. I know that look." He watched Sean's oblivious reaction. "Don't tell me you don't see it. Oh," he said, wiping a hand across his face. "Damn, you're straight?"

Sean coughed on the gulp he had just taken. "What? No, I'm gay."

"Okay, so I'm not crazy," Lloyd said, smiling with relief. "I just wanted to give you some advice, in case he does ask you out."

Sean raised his eyebrows. "Okay?"

"We used to date," Lloyd said.

Sean blinked. "How was that?"

"It was way back in college." Lloyd waved a hand. "We shared a flat together." He took a deep breath and leaned in toward Sean again. "John's a great guy. But when it comes to relationships, he's a very distant person."

"What do you mean?" Sean took another gulp of beer.

"I mean, sure he'll be the perfect gentleman, never forget a birthday, and always hold your hand." Lloyd furrowed his brow. "But there's always this sense of distance, like there's always something else going on in his mind. He'll care for you. He may even come to love you. But acting will always come first. Its like..." He paused. "It's like he's married to his work. His passion for acting overwhelms everything else."

Sean nodded out of politeness.

Lloyd put a hand on Sean's shoulder. "You're a wonderful guy, Sean. But if he ever asks you out, you need to know."

"Really?" Sean said. "You don't think he'd care about the age difference?"

"Oh, no," Lloyd said, swatting the air in front of him. "Well, it's unconventional, but John is unconventional. I know John, he tends to be attracted to anyone he finds
creatively stimulating. Nothing else really affects his choices at all." Lloyd let out a harsh laugh. "Lucky for me, or this ugly mug wouldn't have stood a chance with him."

Sean turned his head sharply. "Are you saying I'm ugly?"

"I'm saying the opposite. I'm saying I'm ugly."

"You said John would date someone ugly, as long as they have a sparkling personality or whatever." Sean loudly set his empty glass down on the table. "You're saying
that since he's dating me, I must be ugly."

"Sean, that's not what I meant." Lloyd said, laying a hand on his shoulder again.

Sean threw his arm off. "You'll use any excuse to say I'm not good enough for him."

Lloyd looked confused. "Wait, did he actually ask you out?"

"I want to go home." Sean rested his head in his hands on the edge of the bar.

"I'll call you a cab," Lloyd said, pulling out his phone. "Where do you live?"

"Just tell them to drop me off at John's house." Sean mumbled.

Lloyd frowned. "Okay, we'll both go."

Chapter Text

The cab pulled up outside of John's house in the dark. Lloyd paid and thanked the driver as Sean stepped out and made his way up the front steps.

"Hey," Lloyd said, watching Sean unlock the front door. "You have a key to John's place?"

Sean said nothing, just walked inside. Lloyd followed him as he walked to the kitchen, perfectly navigating his way in the dark. He opened the catering-grade refrigerator and pulled out a carton of orange juice.

Lloyd turned on the lights to see Sean drinking from the carton. "Hey, do you really think John wants you drinking his orange juice?"

Sean drank another gulp, an orange streak falling down the side of his face. Lloyd took the carton from him, after a brief struggle, and noticed a sticky note on its side with Sean's name written on it.

"How many times have you been over here?"

Sean didn't answer him, just walked past him towards the stairs.

Lloyd put the carton back in the fridge and hurried after him. "Have you been living here?"

Sean walked into the master bedroom, around the bed, and collapsed on top of it. He stayed there for a few seconds before crawling towards the near side and patting his hands around on the floor.

"What are you doing?" Lloyd demanded, having turned on the lights. He watched as Sean held up the end of a cellphone charger and pulled out his phone from his pocket and plugged it in. Sean then stood up on the other side of the bed, pulled off his sweats to reveal an old t-shirt and boxers, and lifted the covers to climb into bed.

Lloyd stood with his mouth agape, unsure what to do next.

Sean lay on his stomach with his head pressed into the pillow. He lifted himself and rested again with his head turned toward Lloyd, eyes closed.

"How did he hurt you?" Sean murmured.

"I don't know," Lloyd said. He sat down at the foot of the bed. "I was finishing my last year in the UK when I got a job offer to direct Double Agent back in the states. And then John landed Knight Errant. And then we just...split up. It's like he never even cared about me."

"He took the lead in your show." Sean's voice was barely audible.

"Only because I begged him to. Remember? You were there."

There was no answer. Lloyd looked over to see Sean was fast asleep. Just then, he heard movement downstairs, the sound of the front door closing. A wave of panic
set in, and he stood up as he heard footsteps coming up the stairs.

Upon seeing the light on in his bedroom, John called from the bedroom. "Hello?"

He entered the room and was surprised to see Lloyd.

"How long have you been together?" Lloyd blurted out without any careful consideration.

"I--" John swallowed and regained his composure. "We can talk about it later."

"I thought we were friends. I thought you could tell me anything."

John sighed. "Lloyd, you need to leave."

"Why can't you trust me?" Lloyd stepped towards him, pressing a finger to his chest. "You don't think anything you do affects me."

"You're drunk, mate," John said, tiredly pressing him away. "Let's get you home."

He walked his friend downstairs, and as he was putting on his jacket, he saw Lloyd fall onto the couch. John contemplated the effort it would take to get him up, and
returned his jacket to the coat closet.

Once he was back upstairs, John undressed and climbed into bed next to Sean. He rolled onto his side, facing away from him, and turned out the light by his bed. He
closed his eyes in the darkness, and soon he felt an arm wrapping around him, Sean's breath behind his ear. He felt suddenly calm, and eventually drifted to sleep.

***

John woke up to the sound of his phone ringing. Outside, the sky was overcast, and he felt Sean let go of him as he leaned to pick it up and answer it.

"This is John," he said.

"Hey, it's Adam. I just got checked in at the hotel in Honolulu, just calling to let you know."

"Brilliant," John said. "Thanks for letting me know."

"Okay. Bye."

"Bye." John hung up, setting it on the nightstand next to Sean's. He stretched his arms and yawned, before glancing over at Sean. "Are you still--"

"Yes, I'm still mad at you," Sean said, lying on his back with his eyes closed, massaging his temples.

Suddenly, a phone started buzzing on the table next to John. Adam's name flashed on the screen. For a moment, John stared at it, confused until he realized it was Sean's phone. He quickly unplugged it from the charger and handed it to Sean. "It's for you."

Sean groaned quietly before answering. "Hello?"

"Hey, Sean, it's Adam."

Sean sat up slowly. "Hey...Adam. What's up?"

"Just got to Honolulu. Hey, I'm sorry if I kind of ditched you last night. Something came up, and...I'm sorry if left you stranded or anything."

"No, it's okay," Sean said. "I got...home safe."

"Okay, good." Adam's voice hesitated. "Sean?"

"Yeah?"

"Thanks for hanging out with me yesterday. I kind of had some stuff going on."

"No problem," Sean said, yawning. "Anytime."

"Yeah..."

There was some silence between them.

"So," Sean began. "Are you going to see your parents and all that?"

"Yeah, I'm supposed to see them tomorrow. For now I'm going to try to get some sleep though."

"Yeah? Sounds like a good idea."

"Yeah," Adam said with a tired laugh. "Okay, well, talk to you later."

"Sure. Good luck on your tour."

"Thanks. Bye."

"Bye." Sean tossed his phone onto the foot of the bed and fell back onto his pillow.

"Oh, you made it home, I see," John said, sounding very pleased with himself as he rested his head on his elbow, facing towards Sean.

"Shhh," Sean mumbled. "My head hurts."

John laughed. "Breakfast will be ready soon." He leaned in to give Sean a kiss on the forehead before hopping out of bed and putting on a robe.

***

"Good morning, Senja," John said as he came down the stairs into the kitchen.

"Good morning, Mr. Brandon," said the chef. "The croissants should be ready in a half hour."

"Thank you, Senja," he said, pouring himself a cup of tea. He took the cup and saucer and walked into the living room, where Lloyd was just waking up. He sat down in
an armchair and put his feet up.

"Is there a reason you brought me here?" Lloyd said, sitting up and rubbing his face.

John sipped on his tea. "You and Sean were here when I got home."

"Oh, God, now I remember." Lloyd rested his elbows on his knees, running his hands over his head before looking up at John. "I'll just get out of here, stay out of your way."

"You're not in anyone's way," said John. "And to be honest, Sean won't be coming down for a while. We had a bit of a row."

"What, just now?" Lloyd said, suddenly more awake.

"Last night," John said, glaring at him before taking another sip of tea.

Lloyd sank back into the couch. "Oh, right. Sorry." He scratched the back of his head. "It's just...how long have you been dating?"

"About a month." John set his teacup down in his lap. "I suppose it hasn't been right for me to keep secrets from you. Well, you understand why. I didn't want it to
interfere with production. And neither did Sean."

"Always keeping it professional," Lloyd said with a humorless laugh. He shook his head. "And that time he was outside waiting for someone, he was really waiting for you?"

John glanced away with a sigh. "Yes, actually."

"I guess it's none of my business, so I'll stop asking about it." Lloyd said. He glanced John over. His friend was looking rather disheveled with uncombed hair and a loose robe thrown over his clothes, his face lost in thought. "You're actually barefoot?" Lloyd remarked.

"I guess I am," John said, glancing out the window. "I feel like going for a walk later."

"You? Making spontaneous decisions? Going outside? You're actually in a good mood for once?" Lloyd folded his arms. "He took your side of the bed."

"He did?" John looked up. His brow furrowed. "I suppose he did," he said with a shrug.

"Who are you?" Lloyd shook his head in amazement.

"I know," John said, smiling to himself.

Lloyd was silent for a moment. "A walk? It's not even sunny out."

"That's why England never really suited you," John remarked. They both chuckled.

***

Sean turned off the water in the bathroom sink as he finished washing his hands. He pressed his palms into the edge of the counter, and slowly looked up at his reflection. Running the tap again, he splashed his face with a handful of water and wiped his hands dry on his shirt. In the other room, he heard a phone buzzing.

He walked into the bedroom to see his phone lighting up the covers at the end of the bed, and upon closer inspection, the caller was "Otosan." Sean clenched his fists and stepped away from the bed, then suddenly threw his palm to his forehead, glanced around the room, and answered it.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Goodin."

Sean felt his whole body stiffen. "Yeah."

"How is Benito doing?"

He climbed onto the bed and sat down, leaning back against the headboard. "I don't know. I haven't talked to him."

"Can you please tell him he can come stay at our vineyard in Orvieto for the summer?" There was a pause in his voice. "Excuse me, you said you haven't talked to him?"

Sean sighed. "Look, based on how he was the last time I talked to him, I don't think he has any reason to do whatever it is you want him to do."

"I understand he's been...difficult." Kouyama's voice showed restraint. "But I hope you'll let him know he is always welcome to come home. His mother and I are concerned that we didn't recieve an invitation to his graduation ceremony."

"What? Uh..." Sean quickly corrected himself. "Right, graduation."

"Yes, he's attending St. Matthew's Preparatory School on a full-ride scholarship. I assumed that as his friend, you would be aware of it."

"Yeah, I know." Sean wasn't sure how much his voice gave away. "I'm a student, too."

"Of course. I should have guessed you are classmates. You will tell him?"

Sean closed his eyes tightly. "I can't make any promises. I've been busy. Like I said, I haven't talked to him in awhile."

"Well, I hope you will consider talking to him."

"Sure." Sean looked up as John entered the room with a tray of breakfast food and coffee.

"I'm glad you can be a friend to our son."

"I'm not really his friend," Sean said, watching as John set the tray on the foot of the bed.

Kouyama sighed. "It was always hard for Benito to make friends at school. I would ask that you at least treat him with kindness."

"Whatever." Sean said in a resigned tone. "I've gotta go."

"Very well. Goodbye, Mr. Goodin."

Sean hung up and rested his wrist on his knee, the phone still dangling from his hand.

"Who were you talking to?" John asked, sitting next to him.

"Someone with some real problems." Sean said, taking a deep breath. He looked up at John. "Promise me you won't call my parents, and I won't call yours."

John breathed a laugh. "I promise."

Sean leaned toward him and they kissed briefly, and then John threw his arms around him and pulled him into a tight embrace, which Sean reciprocated by nuzzling the back of Johns neck with the side of his head.

"I'll find a way to make it up to you," John said. He felt Sean nod.

As soon as they pulled away, Sean stood up. He pulled his shirt off as he walked towards the bathroom.

"Where are you going?" John called after him.

"Come in here."

John jumped at the sound of the shower turning on, practically running to lock the bedroom door. He nearly tripped as he ran into the bathroom while simultaneously
taking off his shorts.

"Did you lock the door?" Sean's voice echoed from the steam inside the shower door.

"Lloyd's still downstairs," John's voice echoed as he joined him.

"Kind of rude you just left him." Sean's nose touched his as he put his arms around John's neck, water running down the back of his neck.

John just smiled, and with a free hand he reached for the bottle that wasn't shampoo.

***

The wind blew freely through the low brush as John and Sean slowly made their way along the walking path. Below the cliff face, ocean waves sounded. John walked with one hand clasped in Sean's in the younger man's sweatshirt pocket. As usual, Sean was wearing his beloved sweatshirt, but John had found some jeans for him to borrow. Cuffed at the ankle, as Sean was not quite as tall. With his other hand, Sean scrolled through pages on his phone.

"Do you have to do that always?" John pleaded teasingly.

"I have to check twitter," Sean said without looking up. After a few seconds, he switched the screen off and slipped the phone into his back pocket. "It's a generational difference. You wouldn't understand," he said, tilting his head with a matching degree of playfulness.

"You didn't give me much time to finish the chapter I was on," John said, looking out over the open area. "You finished that whole breakfast in a matter of seconds. Inhaled it, practically."

"It was good," Sean said, looking wistful.

John gave a laugh, letting the sound of the wind blowing wash over their conversation. "I was worried yesterday, when you didn't come to the Golden Televisions. But last night, when I got home, you were there."

"Yeah..." Sean scratched the back of his neck. "I got that call from my parents. And then Adam wanted to hang out."

"Yes," John concluded. "It seems your friendship with him will always last."

"I guess so," said Sean. "Things are so different now from when we were growing up in Hawaii."

"I don't know if I've asked you, where in Hawaii?" John said, turning his head towards Sean and against the wind.

"One of the smaller islands. We ended up in a theater group together when we were kids. It was pretty chill, not a lot of responsibilities."

"I bet that's changed," John quipped.

Sean gave a laugh. "For sure. What about you? You grew up in London?"

"I went to school in London. I grew up in a rural town a bit further south. Most people would say it was a bit boring to live there. Quiet, for sure."

Sean stood still, shivering in the wind slightly. "One thing about growing up in Hawaii was I never knew what it was like to be cold."

John pulled him into an embrace. "We should go home and get you some tea."

Sean closed his eyes as he lay his head on John's shoulder.

***

"Do you think Lloyd will still be there?" Sean joked as they approached the car.

"He seemed eager to leave, so no." John smirked, and they both laughed as the gravel road made crunching sounds under their feet.

The hands they had clasped together started to swing, but as Sean looked over at the pickup truck a few yards away, his arm stiffened.

Where a short girl was sitting on the edge of the truck bed so her taller girlfriend could make out with her, the two of them looked up in shock.

"Sean?" Nicole said in surprise as she hopped off the bed of the truck, her long golden locks pulled into a ponytail.

Sean and John mutually let go of each other's hands. "Hey," Sean said back to her. He looked to the other girl, realizing she was also familiar. "Weren't you in my calc--"

"Sean," Nicole said, approaching him and pulling him to the side. "It's not what it looks like." She glanced around anxiously. "Okay, it is. But please don't tell Matty. Or my mom."

"Matthew, your...boyfriend?" Sean slowly put together what he remembered from the last time he saw her.

"What? Oh..." She made an apologetic smile. "He's my brother. I just tell people he's my boyfriend so they'll leave him alone."

"Okay," Sean said, still confused.

John stepped closer to Sean. "Perhaps it's not my place, but I don't think any of us has a reason to share what we saw."

"You..." Nicole said, her voice trailing off as she tried to place him. "You look familiar."

"Yeah, doesn't he look kind of like the guy on that medieval show? Knight something?" said her girlfriend, appearing beside her.

Nicole's face showed realization. "Oh! You're the actor who's dating Celina Harroway! I've seen you on Vice/Versus," she added with a polite smile.

John's face went blank, and Sean threw his head back with with laughter.

"Oh my god," he said. "John, we've found some girls who aren't obsessed with you."

John broke into laughter, shaking his head. Nicole's girlfriend started chuckling.

"What?" Nicole said, smiling.

"Nicki, you can be kind of slow sometimes," the other girl said, taking both her hands.

"What do you mean?" Her face showed more confusion.

"Nicole," Sean said, looking her straight in the eyes. "John's not dating Celina."

Nicole looked to John. "You're not?"

John took one of Sean's hands and they interlocked fingers. He let Sean gently pull his arm over Sean's shoulders.

Nicole's jaw fell open. "Oh," she said, breaking into laughter, finally. "I should have guessed. You guys are really cute together."

John dropped his head, trying to hide his smile. Sean was touched.

"We should invite them over!" he said, looking over his shoulder at John.

"Yeah?" John said, his eyes matching Seans. He glanced over at the two girls. "Why not?"

"Do you have a kitchen?" the taller girl asked. "We were going to make sushi."

"Sushi?" John said, his interest drawn by the idea of cooking. "I've heard about it, but never got to try making it. Oh," he said, covering his eyes with one hand. "And yes, I do have a kitchen."

Nicole looked ecstatic. "We were going to--I thought I was going to have to wait until my mom and Matty went on vacation, and then pretend to be sick so I could stay home, but this is better!"

"We could just go to that Asian supermarket on 3rd and get all the supplies right now," Sean said.

"Sure," John said. Sean reached up and ruffled his hair with his fingers, causing John to swat his arm away. "Hey," he said, laughing.

"Shall we go, then?" said Nicole's girlfriend.

"Sorry, I didn't catch your names," John said.

"Oh!" Sean said. "John, this is Nicole, and...what was your name?"

"Jaime. I remember you were in my class, but what's your name again?"

"It's Sean."

"Right, okay," said Jaime. "Do you want to get in your car, and we'll follow you?" She pointed her thumb to Nicole at her side.

"Alright, then," said John. He turned to Sean. "You might have to give me directions--"

"Yeah, let's go," Sean said, pulling him towards the car.

John waved to the girls, who laughed and waved back.

***

Sean stepped out of the car after they pulled up outside the Asian foods market, the store's neon sign glowing in the darkening sky. The pickup truck pulled into an adjacent parting lot, and Nicole nearly leapt out as soon as Jaime turned off the engine.

"This is so exciting!" she said, almost stumbling into Sean. "What all do we need?"

Jaime shut the driver's side door. "It depends on the filling, so we can go with whatever people want. And we need stuff to make the sushi rice. Do you have rice already?"

"I don't think so," said Sean. He looked to John, who was quietly along for the ride. "Please don't tell me you don't have a rice cooker."

John looked guilty. "I think I do?"

Sean shook his head slowly, looking back at Jaime. "You see what I have to put up with?"

Jaime laughed.

John leaned in and pecked him on the cheek. "All better?"

"You're forgiven," Sean said, hiding a smile.

Once inside, they headed to the seafood aisle.

"I take back what I said earlier about girls being obsessed with him," Sean said, swinging a grocery basket in one arm. "Really, I think Alvin's just as bad."

"Did you have him as a TA, too?" Jaime said in realization. "Once he went on for, like, twenty minutes about how plotting normal vectors is like some scene in Moonlight Avenger."

Sean gave a laugh and nodded. "I had him as a TA last year. Now he's my RA."

"Really? What's that like?"

Sean rolled his eyes. "He sends out emails, like, every other day."

"Sounds accurate." She stopped in front of the seafood case. "What kind of fish should we get?"

"Tuna? I think that's pretty standard."

Jaime knelt down to look at the prices. "I was thinking of getting salmon, Nikki really likes it."

Sean gave a shrug. "Why not both?" He held out the basket.

Jaime frowned before nodding and picking two packages to put inside.

Meanwhile, John and Nicole stood across the aisle.

John looked around at some of the items on the shelves and casually slipped his hands in his pockets. "So, you're a model?"

"Yeah. My mom owns midnight cosmetics, so naturally I started my modelling career as soon as I could walk." Nicole playfully flipped back a loose strand of hair.

"Although now she's trying to get us into acting, which my brother isn't really having the best time with."

"It's not for everyone," said John. "After I got my start as an actor, I had a producer who tried to get me into singing, and even before I finished lessons, it was very clear how that was going to work."

Nicole looked surprised. "Were you that bad?"

John shook his head. "I was told I sounded like a dying cat."

"Really?" Nicole covered her mouth. "You can stick to acting, and I'll stick to modelling," she concluded.

John gave a laugh. "That's a good idea. Although my brief foray into singing did get me into producing music, which I still do."

"Oh!" Nicole said, her mind formulating an idea. "So even if you're not the center of it, you could still learn the business? I've always wondered about doing my own make-up line."

She looked to John expectantly but his face was blank. "You probably know better than me. Or you could ask Sean." He looked over to Sean with a sense of endearing respect. "What he does is beyond me, but he does it."

"Yeah, okay," said Nicole. "Thanks!"

John stood still, looking over at Sean and Jaime. "Are we supposed to be helping or something?"

"I think we'll be okay," Nicole said with a smile. "Oh! I know what kind of rice to get."

"Do you?" John said, somewhat intrigued. "Lead the way."

Nicole took his arm, and they walked to the corner of the store with piles of bags of rice.

***

The timer beeped and Jaime took the rice out of the rice cooker and scooped it into a bowl.

"It smells good!" said Nicole. They were all gathered around the kitchen counter at John's house.

Jaime handed the bowl to Sean, who had a vinegar mixture ready to mix in. Instead, he took the rice scoop and immediately fed a huge spoonful into his mouth.

"Hey!" said Jaime.

"I have to make sure it's okay to eat," Sean said with his mouth full of rice. While he wasn't looking, John swiped the rice scoop out of his hand, and Nicole started laughing.

Jaime took the bowl back and poured in the mixture. She handed the bowl to John this time. "Stir that until it cools."

"I can do that," John said, rinsing off the scoop.

"Okay, where's the knife..." Jaime picked up an avocado and began expertly cutting it open, removing the pit. Nicole watched with fascination. She was more surprised when Jaime set the knife in front of her. "You can do the cucumber."

"Me?" Nicole glanced at her as she Jaime took her hand.

"Hold it like this," Jaime said, fashioning her hand around the handle of the knife and beginning to remove the seeds.

"Okay," Nicole said, carefully following her instructions. Once she was finished, she looked up and blushed, but then she saw that John was too busy trying to keep Sean out of the rice bowl for either of them to notice. Nicole looked over at Jaime who was watching her with a smile, and they both burst out laughing.

***

The group of four sat down around the dinner table, and Nicole set the large plate of sushi down in the middle with care. John set to opening a bottle of wine and Sean opened a package of wooden chopsticks and began handing them out to Jaime and Nicole. He hesitated before handing a pair to John.

"What?" John asked before taking them.

"I'm trying to remember the last time we had pho, if you used a fork."

"I probably did, but I know how to.." John stopped midsentence as his fingers fumbled around the chopsticks, dropping one of them on his plate. He stared at it for a second before calmly picking it up and arranging the utensils in his hand. "Look, it's fine."

Sean gave a satisfied smile, tilting his head. "Just pass me the wine."

John sighed, handing the bottle over. He was having a hard time keeping a straight face.

"Thank you," Nicole said as Jaime handed her her plate, served with an array of each type of roll. She turned to the boys across the table. "So, where did you two meet?"

Sean took a sip of wine and looked to John.

"I'm his friend's music producer and tour manager. And then an old friend of mine, he's a director, somehow got us working on the same show."

"Wow," said Jaime.

"We met at the mall," Nicole chimed in.

"Were you wearing that elf costume?" Sean joked before putting a large roll of sushi in his mouth.

"Yes, actually," Nicole said. She looked to Jaime, who started laughing quietly. "She somehow recognized me from my recent ad campaign, and I was just getting off my shift, so we got coffee together."

"That's cute," Sean said, shifting his posture forward.

"I'm sure you have a cute story of how you met," said Nicole, one hand interlocking with Jaime's under the table.

"Well..." John's voice trailed off.

Sean gave a laugh. "We almost hooked up in a janitor's closet."

"Oh," Nicole said, and her face fell a split second before regaining her cheerful demeanor.

Sean elbowed John in the side. "Or remember when we fell asleep together in the back of your car?"

John looked pensive. "Is that what happened?"

"It was after our first date." Sean's jaw dropped slightly as the realization hit him. "Did I never tell you what happened? We fell asleep in the back of your car together, and then the next morning I woke up and kind of....freaked out and ran off."

John laughed to himself, glancing downward. "I just remember wondering why I was in the backseat of a car parked outside your dorm at 9 a.m."

"What?" Sean was silent for a moment. "I'm sorry."

John put a hand on Sean's arm and rubbed it gently. Sean stood up and walked behind John's chair, put his arms around John's neck.

"Aw!" Nicole gushed.

***

"That was nice," John said later after the girls had left. He was lying on the couch with his head on Sean's lap with one hand circling the rim of a wine glass on the floor.

"Yeah?" Sean said, running a hand through John's hair.

John's stomach rose and fell as he took a breath. "I was thinking, I want to take you out again. Like on our first date."

Sean smiled. "I won't leave you this time when we fall asleep in the back of your car."

John let out a laugh. "It'll be more than falling asleep together this time, I hope."

Sean laughed. "You're so needy."

John's voice was a low mumble. "I can pick you up, and we arrive at L'Angleterre looking like fashionable acquaintances, leave looking like lovers. Or we leave looking
the same, but we both know it's more than that." He paused as Sean brushed a few hairs off his forehead and leaned down to kiss it.

"That would mean I have to leave you and go back to my dorm first."

"Missing you only makes me want you more," John said, glancing up at him. "When you were gone yesterday, I didn't know what to do with myself."

Sean tilted his head. "You're right, that was only yesterday."

"You should have seen my speech at the Golden Televisions. It was quite awkward, my mind was in so many places at once."

Sean chuckled. "I'm sure it was perfect."

"And when they called your name for best makeup, and you weren't there...we all clapped for you; I think the camera even zoomed in on your empty seat..."

"I don't even understand why I won."

"You're so talented and you don't even see it."

John had rolled over onto his knees and crawled up on top of Sean. For a few seconds they just felt each others' breaths.

Finally, in a quiet voice, Sean said, "This is like that scene from Vice."

John changed his expression. "How long must we dance like this, Katerina?"

Sean broke into laughter. "That American accent," he choked.

"What? You don't think it's good?" John said, an apologetic smile forming on his face as Sean started slipping from underneath him.

"Sure," Sean said, wiping away tears. "It's just not you."

John fell back on the couch and laughed, himself. "You're right about that."

***

Lloyd stood at the back entrance to the set when John's car pulled up to its designated spot, and he and Sean stepped out, each carrying coffee cups from Cafe Diem.
John's button-up shirt and sportcoat looked hastily thrown on, and Sean was hiding a morning face under sunglasses and a jacket hood.

"Aw, look at you lovebirds," Lloyd said teasingly.

"Yes, this is punishment for not telling you," John said, rolling his eyes.

"Good morning!" Lloyd said enthusiastically as Sean passed him by without making eye contact. "Kids these days. How was your weekend?" he said as John approached him.

"Lloyd, mate," John said, tiredly putting a hand on his shoulder. "What happened in drunk confidence should remain--"

"In drunk confidence," Lloyd finished. "I gotcha. But you've gotta at least let me have some fun with it."

"You have exactly thirty seconds," John said flatly.

Lloyd flashed a childish grin. "John has a boyfriend," he said, poking him in the shoulder. "Okay, I'm done."

John narrowed his eyes and took a sip from what was likely tea. "Good. See you on set."

Rachel greeted Sean as he approached the makeup trailer.

"Hey, there you are. Everyone was looking for you at the awards on Friday."

Sean took of his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes with his wrist. "Yeah, I wasn't feeling well."

"That's too bad."

Celina spun around in her chair when Sean stepped into the makeup trailer. "Sean! Congratulations!"

"Thanks," Sean said, barely looking up as he opened up the makeup kit. "Let's get to work."

"Hey," she said as he approached her. He paused as she looked him in the eye. "I know you feel bad about missing the awards, but you need to learn to put your work first. Your work will always shine through, and you should have been there when they called your name out."

Sean blinked. "Okay."

"Good," Celina said, clasping her hands together. "Let's get to work." She closed her eyes as Sean began to apply foundation. He was blending the side of her face when she added, "I hope you can set aside your feelings for me so we can continue our professional relationship."

Sean nearly dropped his brush. "My what?"

"You don't have to pretend," Celina said, piercing him with serious eyes. "I know that's why you didn't come to the Golden Televisions."

Sean stood with his jaw slightly ajar, unsure of how to answer.

Just then, John entered the trailer. "Good morning," he said before planting a kiss on Sean's cheek and then sitting down in one of the other chairs.

"Oh, we're being open about it now?" Sean said, turning his head toward John, who gave him a satisfied smile before slinking back in his chair to read his script. Sean turned back to Celina with a cutesy smile. "We're being open about it now."

John threw his head back. "Can't you do me first?"

"Wait your turn, bitch!" Sean said, calmly applying foundation to the other side of Celina's face. "Okay, I'm going to need you to stay still because I can't do your eyeliner with your lids fluttering like that."

Celina grimaced but held her tongue. John laughed quietly to himself.

***

Sean kicked a tuft of grass on the sidewalk with his dress shoe as he waited. The sky was a golden hue, and he turned to the reflection of the windows of cafe diem behind him to see the appearance he had carefully prepared, spent a decent amount of time combing his hair and dressing in something dressy, but not too dressy. He settled with a sportcoat over a t-shirt and cropped pants. Now he was here at the designated time and place, watching for the familiar car to show up. He heard faint motor sounds in the distance and looked away as the foreign sedan passed by him. Behind him, the bells on the door to the cafe sounded.

"Hey, Sean!"

Sean turned to see Alvin, clutching a backpack over his shoulder as he left the building.

"Hey," said Sean. "Studying on a Friday?"

"Not anymore!" Alvin said with a smile. "I think I'm going to go home and rest, by which I mean stay up late re-watching the 4th season of Knight Errant."

"Oh," Sean said, raising his eyebrows. "You have fun, then."

"I will, indeed," Alvin replied. "Good day, sir Sean," he said, mock bowing before turning to leave down the street.

Sean felt a buzz in his pocket and pulled out his phone. It was a text from John: "Come around the corner."

Looking around suspiciously, he walked around the corner of the building where it merged onto a lesser street and saw a limousine parked at the curb. The window of the backseat passenger door rolled down, and John leaned out, resting his elbow on the outside of the door and a smirk on his face.

"A limo? Really?" Sean said, folding his arms.

"Just get in," John said, and Sean didn't need to be told twice, although he did roll his eyes before stepping into the luxurious interior of the vehicle. John signaled to the driver and Sean rolled up the window as the car began to roll away.

Sean looked around and found his seatbelt, grabbed it, and was about to fasten it, but John's hands clasped around his, and it took all of a milisecond of eye contact for his arms to grab around John's neck, pulling him towards Sean. John fell on top of him as they kissed, leaning against the car door. The limo pulled to a stop at the intersection, and the world stopped as they shared the moment.

"Hey, is that....John Brandon?!"

John looked up and Sean followed his gaze, his face still close to John's breath. The window had rolled down and Alvin was standing outside on the sidewalk, his jaw hanging open. He recognized Sean, but by then he was already fully in shock, incapable of moving.

John looked on, caught between his feelings in the moment and his instinct to fix the situation. Meanwhile, Sean looked down, hands fumbling around the door panels, finding the button which controlled the door window, the button which his weight was pressed against. He jammed his palm against it, and the window slowly rolled up as the intersection turned green and the limo began to roll away.

"Wait, Sean!" Alvin's voice called in the distance before the window closed completely.

Sean closed his eyes.

"Did you know him?" John asked.

Sean felt his phone buzz in his pocket. He pulled it out to see Alvin was calling. "Nope."

"Go on, I won't keep you."

Making a gesture with one hand, Sean answered the phone and put it on speaker. "Hello?"

John listened intently.

"Sean! Is it--were you just--did I just see you in a limo with the John Brandon of Knight Errant?"

Sean shook his head mock-incredulously. "Wha, who?"

John elbowed him in the side, trying to contain his own laughter.

"You don't know?!" Alvin exclaimed. "How do you not know who he is? The star actor Knight in Knight Errant and his equally superb role as Vice in Vice/Versus? I'm not going to question your dating choices, but really..." his voice trailed off for a moment, and then quickly resumed its heightened tone. "Wait, don't you work on Vice/Versus?!"

"Uh...yeah," Sean said, his tone indifferent. John threw his head back and covered his eyes with his hands.

"Wait a minute, is he there with you?" Alvin sounded less convinced this time.

Sean's eyes met John's, briefly. "Yeah?"

"What? Really?! Can I talk to him?"

"Uh..." Sean's voice undulated as he glanced at John again.

"What am I saying, I can't talk to him, I'd probably just make an idiot of myself."

"Yeah, probably." Sean cleared his throat. "No, you're alright, Alvin. Go home and have a nice weekend."

"Okay. Bye, Sean."

"Bye." Sean hung up and gave John a smug grin.

"Do you have to play games with him like that?" John chided teasingly.

"I play games with everyone."

"How cruel," John said, wrapping an arm around Sean's shoulders and pulling him close.

Sean glanced at him sideways with a grin. He looked downwards, lost in thought. Finally, he sat up and pressed into John's side. "So when are we going to get to the restaurant? I'm starving."

John laughed at that.

***

As they entered the ballroom, the hostess led them to their table and handed them each a menu. John thanked her and ordered a bottle of wine.

"Ooh, I get to order this time," Sean said, opening his menu. "If I can read French."

"Si vous voulez, je peux vous aider," John said in a flowery voice, putting his acting talent to work. He added, "Mon petit chou," and Sean laughed.

"I have no idea what you just said." Sean rested one arm on the back of his chair. "On a scale from one to ten, how inappropriate?"
"I just called you a cabbage," John said, returning to his usual tone. "What French food have you had before?"

"Uh..." Sean trailed, a few laughs bubbling into his speech. "French dip?"

"French dip?" John searched his knowledge. "What's that?"

"The sandwich?" Sean waited for him to respond. "It's like a roast beef sandwich you dip in beef juice. It's pretty good."

"That does sound good. Huh." John sat back. "I'll have to try it sometime. But for now, I could suggest you order beef borguignon if you want something...vaguely
similar," he said.

"Okay, good, because I can't read this," Sean said, setting the menu down.

John smiled.

"Are you ready to order?" The waiter said. "What would you like?"

John turned to him, glancing up from the menu in his hand. "Je voudrais le coq au vin, s'il vous plait, et le boeuf bourguignon pour lui."

"Tres bien," the waiter said, taking the menus before leaving the table.

"Impressive," Sean said. "Although, wait until we go get Korean sometime, and you'll be all 'sundubujjigae what's that?'"

"Soon do...what?" John said, his smile breaking into laughter.

Sean sat up straight and imitated John's confident style. "아줌마. 김치 순두부찌개 학개 추세요. 감사합니다."

John gave a laugh. "Alright, you got me there. But if there's any kind food you like, I want to try it."

"Whatever's good," Sean said, "as long as you're sitting there across from me."

John's face showed mild protest as the comment caught him off guard. His expression warmed, however, as Sean began laughing. He hid his reddening face in his hand, which made him flinched when he touched his own nose. "Ow."

"What's up?" Sean asked.

"Oh, it's the spirit gum from the scar makeup. My skin is still tender there."

Sean tilted his head slightly. "You're an adult. You can handle it."

There was silence between them for a moment, before they both broke into laughter.

"What's that supposed to mean?" John said, his eyes darting away.

Sean just shook his head.

***

"I do get fanmail; I just never read it," John said, setting down his empty wine glass. Their plates had been taken away and now they were set with the task of finishing the bottle. "These people, the person they see me as is just a patchwork of what they've seen me do on TV."

Sean nodded.

"They think I'm this great sort of person, when in reality, I'm just the person who read about those qualities in a script and set to portraying them." His thoughts trailed off as Sean listened, carefully.

Sean leaned forward, resting his chin on his knuckles. "Do you think there's fanfiction written about you?"

John began to laugh, and Sean followed. "That's something I definitely don't read, if it's out there."

Sean folded his arms and looked down in thought. "Now I kind of want to look it up, see if it's accurate..." He looked up to see a look of horror frozen on John's face. "I'm kidding!" Sean said, reaching for his hand across the table.

"Thank Christ," John said with a breath of relief. He squeezed Sean's hand.

Suddenly, they both let go and looked away from each other as the waiter passed by them with a plate of food on the way to the next table over. Once he was gone, their eyes met once more, and they shared an intimate laughter.

"We have to finish this wine," Sean said quietly as he poured himself another glass.

"Please," John said, holding his own glass out, and Sean poured him the rest of the bottle's contents.

Sean set the bottle down at the edge of the table, but his grip on the glass slipped for a few seconds when he heard a familiar voice not to far away. He caught the bottle and set it down again, smiling at John before changing his attention towards the sound.

"If it's okay...let's have a look at this dessert menu here."

Panic crossed Sean's mind as he spotted the green-haired boy just a few tables over, performing the usual make-the-dessert-appear trick. What was he doing here? It was...it was Friday, his usual time for gigs at the hotel.

"Fuck," Sean whispered under his breath.

"What was that?" John asked.

"Oh, um," Sean tried to focus as he could hear Benito talking in the distance. "Sorry, I have to go to the bathroom."

"Of course." John stood as Sean left the table.

Swiftly, Sean walked towards the exit. Before he left out the door, he quickly glanced back at Benito, who was still behaving as though he hadn't seen him.

***

Sean caught his breath, leaning over the sink. He splashed his face with water and shook his hands dry, realizing how his palms had begun to sweat. In his jacket pocket, his phone buzzed. He pulled it out to see a text from John, "you okay?" from ten minutes ago. Another just now, read "I'll be in the lobby." He set his phone on the counter and hung his head. After a few deep breaths, he slipped it back into his pocket and stepped outside.

John was checking his phone when Sean spotted him. Sean quickly approached him.

"Hey, sorry about that," Sean said.

"No worries. We can just go whenever you're ready."

Sean nodded, and they walked outside.

John pulled out his phone. "I'll call the driver, and--"

The screeching of car brakes sounded from down the street, followed by a thud. Passerbys were alerted of the accident, but Sean immediately ran to the scene without thinking.

"Ach," Ben grimmaced in pain.

Sean knelt beside him and examined his injured arm. Nearby, the vehicle's driver stepped out of the car and walked towards them.

"Hey man, I'm really sorry, I didn't see you coming around the corner there, I'm--"

"Shut up!" Sean snapped at him. "Someone call an ambulance!"

Ben had his eyes shut. "Sean, I--"

"I know," Sean said.

Ben dug his fingers into Sean's shoulder and nodded. Sean knelt there, breathing, his vision suddenly overcome by flashing lights and his ears with the sound of sirens. More and more strangers rushed to the scene. The deafening white noise in the back of Sean's mind grew louder, and it wasn't long before everything went black.

***

Chapter Text

"Oh. It's you. What do you want?"

"I should ask you the same thing. Maybe you should start with how you know him."

"Sean? I hate to break it to you, but I'm his boyfriend. Well, we got into an argument a while ago, and I haven't talked to him in a while. But that doesn't change anything."

"I...see."

"Look, I know you work with him, but you're not needed here. You should just go."

"John..." Sean murmured as he opened his eyes, but the fluorescent lights above him were too harsh. He rubbed his eyes as he slowly sat forward. As he took in his surroundings, he could see that seated in a chair next to his hospital bed was Benito, who was dressed in his normal clothes apart from a cast on his arm. In the doorway to the room stood John, dressed casually with his fake glasses that he used to take away from his identity. Both he and Benito showed surprise at his being awake.

"Those stupid glasses," was all Sean could say as John stepped towards him. Lazily, he pulled them off John's nose as John leaned in to embrace him. Sean closed his eyes as he breathed into John's shoulder. His hospital gown wrinkled as he wrapped his arms tightly around John, and they stayed like that for a few moments until they finally pulled away.

"What happened?" Sean asked.

"You had another panic attack." John sat on the edge of his bed.

"Okay," Sean said, staring into his eyes, and then glancing over at Benito. "Why is he here?"

"You don't remember?" Benito asked, incredulous. He stood up and moved towards the bed. "I was hit by a car, and then you ran to help me. Then you started yelling at everyone, mainly the driver. It took a while for the EMT staff to calm you down."

Sean glanced down, then back at John. "What about you?"

"I called the ambulance." John sighed. "It's a long story about how they finally let me in to see you. I was afraid I'd have to pretend to be your uncle again."

Sean breathed a laugh. "What a fucking disaster," he said, continuing to chuckle between words.

John began to laugh along. Benito watched their exchanged with growing distress, until Sean turned to him.

"And you, how did you get hit by a car and only break your arm?"

Benito rolled his eyes. "I was leaning down to pick up a card I dropped. And by the way, having only one hand is going to get in the way of my magic. The majority of my tricks aren't an option anymore! The doctor said it'll be healed in a few months, but that's months without any work or money for food. What am I supposed to do?!"

"I know you're against this option," Sean conceded, "but have you thought about calling your parents?"

Benito pursed his lips.

"Oh, I get it," Sean said, folding his arms. "You're too cool to spend the summer at your parents' vineyard in Italy."

"Sean," John interrupted. "Would you like to introduce me?"

"Right." Sean adjusted his posture to sit up straight. "John, this is Benito. We used to date." He turned to Benito. "And your parents called me again. They want to know why they didn't get invited to your graduation at a school on the other side of the country."

Benito grimaced, as though the physical pain he had experienced earlier had manifested itself again. He looked to John, and then back to Sean before closing his eyes, exhaling deeply. "I forgot about that."

Sean nodded slowly. "Do you want to explain?"

"Fine," Benito said with a sigh. He sat down into the chair by the wall. "It's a long story."

"Okay," Sean said. "Go on."

Benito glared at John. "Does he have to be here?"

"Yes." Sean glanced at him. "But he's not listening."

John took the cue to shift his weight away from Sean and pulled out his phone to check his email.

"Okay," Benito continued. "My parents don't know I'm in Steel City. We were close when I was little, but as I got older they did everything they could to get rid of me.
They sent me to boarding school, and you know how that went. I got transferred around a lot; this year I was supposed to go to another school, but on the flight over, I just got off at my first layover, which was here. I unenrolled from school and faked a letter to my parents about how I got a full-ride scholarship, so they wouldn't need to send tuition. I guess now I need to fake a graduation letter, too..."

Sean was silent as he listened to Benito's story. When he finished, Sean said nothing, not even the smallest sign of acknowledgement.

Ben sat back and looked away, his face turning read. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," he said, his arm lifting tensely. "We were supposed to stay together, so when I finally came out to them, I just..." he sighed out of frustration. "I wanted them to see how happy I was, and then they'd just accept it, like if I could just prove to them...I don't know."

Sean nodded once, and then glanced down at his hands, which fidgeted together. "John outed me to my parents."

"I thought I wasn't part of this conversation," John said, twisting around to face him.

"You weren't supposed to be listening," Sean said, folding his arms.

John lost his balance and fell onto the bed on his stomach. He pressed himself up on his elbows. "Do you want to talk about it? You know I'm sorry."

"I know you didn't mean to," Sean said, his tone apologetic.

"By the way," John said, sitting normally again, "The hospital asked me yesterday if I knew your next of kin, so I gave them your parents' number, and they asked me if I wanted to call them and I told them no. I imagine the hospital called them."

"Oh good," Sean said with a sigh of relief. "Thank you."

John gave a hopeful smile and took Sean's hand. Sean squeezed it affectionately.

"Hey," Ben interjected, "have you forgotten how I just told you my entire life story?"

"Here's what we're going to do," Sean said. "You're going to go meet your parents in Italy, and we're going to figure out the best way for you to come out to them."

"I want to go to Italy," John said, now lying on his back, still holding onto Sean's wrist. He kissed it. "I have a friend who I've been meaning to visit."

"Okay, we're all going to go to Italy," Sean continued, "We're going to help you come out to your parents, find you a nice Italian boyfriend, and spend the summer drinking limoncello by the ocean. It's going to be great."

"Fine," Ben said, pulling out his phone.

"But first, I need to call my parents and tell them I'm okay," Sean said. "Where's my phone?"

"I don't know," said Ben. "I think it might have gotten left behind at the hotel."

Just then, a buzzing noise sounded from Ben's back pocket. He looked to Sean blankly, and then to the phone he had in his hand.

"You have two cellphones?" John asked doubtfully.

"Okay, fine, I took your phone," Ben said, handing Sean's phone back to him. "I just saw how many messages you were getting, and..."

Sean scrolled through the notifications, a slew of texts from John saying where he was and asking if Sean was okay. "Benito!" Sean scolded.

"Sorry!"

Sean checked the nearest text, which was from his parents. He opened the contact and called them. The call went to voicemail. "Hi, dad. Just to let you know, I'm in the hospital. I had another panic attack, but I'm okay. Love you, bye," he said, hanging up. He looked to John and shrugged.

"Shouldn't you let the doctor or someone know you're awake?" John asked.

"Yeah, probably," Sean said. He sounded the buzzer on the panel by his bed. "Nurse!"

Footsteps sounded outside the door. "How are you two doing--" the nurse froze when she saw John on the bed. She turned to Benito. "You told me he was your boyfriend! That's the only reason I even let you in to see him, after you told me that whole cute story."

"What story?" Sean said, running a hand through John's hair.

"Really?" The nurse complained to Ben. "You lied about how he's all you have left after you ran away from your parents?"

Ben blushed and dropped his gaze to the floor. "I wasn't lying about that."

"Nevermind," said the nurse, turning to Sean. "I'll send in Dr. Wells."

***

"Filming for Vice should be done mid July, and all the jobs I've been offered don't start for a few months, at least."

The three of them sat in a booth at a diner: Sean drinking coffee, John with cheap black tea, and Benito with a chocolate milkshake.

"That gives me a month until I have to start school," Sean said, turning to Benito. "What do you think? Is Italy happening?"

Ben rested his free arm on the table, drumming his fingers against it. "I don't know. I have a lot of explaining to do to my parents."

"When are you going to call them?" Sean asked.

There was a silence as John sipped on his tea, watching. Ben said nothing.

"I could call them," Sean said. "I could tell them you're here to talk, but if at any point you don't want to, you can hand the phone back to me and I can politely tell them to fuck off."

Ben sipped from his milkshake. "That might work."

"Yeah?" Sean said.

Benito nodded, slowly looking up at him.

"Okay, then." Sean took out his phone and started dialing.

A look of terror crossed Ben's face. "Wait!"

Sean froze, glancing up at him.

"I"m not ready to come out to them," Ben explained.

"Woah, woah," Sean said, shaking his hand. John also shifted his posture. "You don't have to come out to them. Just talk."

Ben took a deep breath and nodded. "Yeah, okay."

"Okay," Sean said, dialing the number. "Oh!" he said as another call came up. He answered it. "Hello?"

Ben sat back in his chair, feeling both anxious and relieved.

"Hi Mom. Dad." Sean flashed John a surprised look. "Yeah, I'm okay. They ran some tests on me, everything's normal....No, it was just another panic attack....I told you, I'm fine....Yeah, thanks...I know, I ended up not going....Yeah," Sean chuckled, "Yeah, he is....Okay, I will....love you too. Bye."

He hung up and sat quietly.

John put a hand on his arm. "Was that your mum?"

"Yeah." Sean turned to him with a grin. Leaning into John's ear, he said quietly, "They saw you on TV at the awards and think you're very handsome." John laughed softly.

On the other side of the table, Ben silently observed.

"Okay, that was my parents, now for yours," Sean said, calmly putting the number in again.

Ben watched in anticipation, unable to bring himself to call it off.

"Hi, it's Sean. Is this a good time?" He paused, patiently waiting for Kouyama to respond.

Ben grimaced slightly, realizing his dad was probably too busy for some kid to just call him up without warning. He prepared himself for Sean to hang up, surprised when he didn't.

"Yeah, I'm his friend," Sean continued. "Actually, he's here, if you want to talk to him."

Benito sat up, inching towards the edge of his seat. Sean nodded once before handing him the phone. He took it tentatively, and held it up to his ear. "Hello?"
"Son?

Ben closed his eyes. "Hi, Dad."

"Good evening."

Ben glanced out the window. Cars passed by in the bright sunlight. "It's afternoon here."

There was a silence on the other end. He waited for his dad to return to whatever normalcy that was assumed with the call's purpose. And he did.

"How is school? Is your semester almost over?"

"Yeah, about that..." Ben trailed off, looking up at Sean, who was listening with a polite intentness. John noticed the spot of his attention, and also shifted his gaze to Ben.

"We thought we would have received word of your graduation," he heard Kouyama say. "You will graduate, won't you?"

"Dad," Ben sighed. "I'm in Steel City."

"Steel City? Shouldn't you be at school--"

"School? You mean the one I unenrolled from?! I've been here since August," Ben said, sitting up with anger.

"What on earth are you talking about? They waived your tuition."

"And you were stupid enough to believe that, too." Ben said, bitterly glancing down at his cast.

Again, Kouyama was silent. Finally, the reaction that he expected: "How dare you throw everything away that your mother and I have worked to give you?!"

"Yeah, you just want to send me away again, is that it?"

"Benito, surely you must understand--"

"You don't care about me at all!"

"Who do you think is paying for you to go to school in the first place?!"

Sean held a hand out across the table. "You can give it back if you want," he said gently.

Ben just glared at his hand and glanced away. "I'm talking now, so what do you want?"

He heard his father sigh. "Did you run away with your friend from school? Sean?"

Ben grimaced. "What? Dad, no."

Kouyama continued. "I know he's a makeup artist for that show, I even had my assistant watch the awards show where he won some award, and she said he wasn't
there, and I said good because he and my son are at school on the other side of the country."

"What?"

"Is this about your magic again, trying to become famous? You know how your mother and I agree that's no career for you--"

"Sean's a university student," Ben explained. "And I was doing really well as a magician! At least until..." He trailed off, unsure how much to disclose. "Let's just say you'll get a bill in the mail from the hospital."

"What happened? Did you get in a fight again?"

"No!" Ben looked down at the table. The waiter had returned with two plates, setting chicken strips in front of him, and a sandwich in front of John, which Sean immediately picked up one half. "I was hit by a car."

"You were--" There was a pause. In the background, he could hear a voice say, "Dear, why are you still up? Are the investors calling again?"

"Is that mom?" Ben interjected.

His father didn't hear him as he pulled away from the phone. "It's Benito." Without any further explanation, he returned to the conversation. "You need to be more careful."

Ben closed his eyes in frustration. "Right. Someone hit me with their car and I'm the one who needs to be careful."

"If you had gone to school like you were supposed to, instead of running away, then--"

"And I'm fine, thanks for asking," Ben cut in.

"Good. Let it be a lesson to you."

Ben glanced over to the other side of the table, where Sean and his partner were no longer paying him attention, John holding out a fry for Sean to bite off, them both
laughing as they became aware of how dumb it must have looked.

Kouyama continued to lecture him. "Your mother had to pull some strings to get you into that school, so it's going to be very difficult for them to accept you again.
And then you'll have to complete your degree a year later than everyone else, which won't bode well for your college applications."

"Dad," Ben said. "I'm gay."

His father didn't hear him as he continued to speak. "And I hope, then, we will get you on track towards a suitable career, and...what did you just say?"

Ben took a deep breath. Sean and John were both watching him now.

"I'm gay."

After a pause in his voice, Kouyama resumed his commanding tone. "I should have known. This Sean person, he's your--"

"We're just friends."

He could hear breaks in his father's voice. "Well, son, it is very late, and I must go."

"Whatever. Bye."

Ben set the phone down on the table and pushed it towards Sean. Sean and his partner sat silently in shock as Ben unceremoniously started munching on his chicken strips.

"Wow," Sean said. "Do you want to talk about that?"

Ben didn't look up, just shrugged. "There's nothing to say, really."

From then on, he said nothing, and Sean didn't bother him. After they finished eating, he climbed into the backseat of John's fancy car and patiently waited for Sean to direct them to Ben's apartment. He gave one wave as they drove away and climbed up the stairs to the quiet hallway where he unlocked his door and sat down on his bed, sitting in silence before finally pulling his laptop onto his knees and browsing for a long time. The night grew dark and he was laying in bed, about to doze off when his phone rang.

He reached for it with his good arm, and saw it was his dad.

"What do you want?" he answered.

There was a pause before his father answered. "Benito?"

"Yeah?"

The man's voice shook slightly as he spoke. "Please come home."

Ben bit his lip, and he found himself nodding. "Okay."

***

Sean stretched his arms as he and John stepped outside the airport in Rome. The summer sky was bright and sunny, and he welcomed a warm breeze through his
shorts and t-shirt.

"Okay, I'll look for you. Grazie." John hung up his cellphone and touched Sean's shoulder. "The cab will be here in a few minutes."

Sean set his dufflebag on the ground. He watched as cabs passed by, people passing along the sidewalk. John was checking his phone. "What's up?" Sean asked.

"Oh, it's Guenevive."

"What does she say?" Sean leaned over his shoulder.

"She's ready for our arrival," John said, slipping his phone back into his pocket. He glanced up at Sean's curious eyes. "Also, she has another guest over."

"Another guest over? Are we going to have to share the couch?" Sean said with a laugh.

"No," John smiled. "It's not like that."

A cab pulled up and the driver leaned out. "Brandon?"

John waved before picking up Sean's bag to put in the trunk.

***

Sean dropped his bag on the floor of the hotel room and crashed on the bed.

"Ah, goodnight," he mumbled, fully aware of the midday light peeking in through the curtains.

John fell down on his back next to him. "I could do for a nap." He closed his eyes.

Sean propped himself up on his elbows and leaned to kiss John on the cheek. With his eyes still closed, John gave a smile.

"What do you want to do tomorrow?" John whispered, slowly opening his eyes, wrapping his arms around Sean.

"I want to do what you want to do," Sean said, pushing a strand of hair to the side of John's forehead.

"Well," John said, pausing to gently kiss Sean's hand. "I want to go to the Trevi fountain...and the Colosseum...and the Pantheon..."

"Isn't that in Athens?"

John rolled his eyes. "I know you're playing dumb," he said, and Sean laughed.

"What else do you need to see?" Sean asked in a low voice.

"I don't know, what did you have in mind?" John responded as Sean shifted on top of him, reaching a hand downwards, finally falling back onto John's chest.
John lie still, listening to his breath. After a few minutes, he inquired, "Did you just take it out and stop to fall asleep?"

"No," Sean mumbled against his chest.

"I can feel it against my leg," John contended, and he felt Sean's breathy laughter. "Come on," John said, slowly rolling Sean's body off of him. He sat up and began unlacing Sean's shoes, removing his socks. He pulled off his shorts, and as soon as he pulled Sean's t-shirt over his head, Sean had his arms around him again, kissing him with passion. John hurried to unbutton his own shirt, one of Sean's hands already at the button on his shorts. The afternoon heat would soon take over.
When Sean woke up from his nap, he felt his face against the warmth of John's bare chest. The sky outside was now golden, and the window was open so that sounds from the streets below echoed off the aging walls. He felt John gently run his fingers through his hair, and their eyes met.

"Did you sleep well?" John said softly.

Sean yawned and stretched his arms. "We should order room service."

"I believe the best thing to do here is find an outdoor cafe."

"But that would require getting up," Sean said, rolling over. "And putting on clothes."

John grabbed his arm and kissed his knuckles.

"Fine," Sean said, pulling the covers aside. He dropped his feet onto the floor. "Ooh," he said, feeling something angular under his feet. He picked up John's disguise glasses and threw them in John's direction. John shielded his face with a laugh.

***

"We could have stayed at the Vatican museum longer had you been able to keep a straight face around all those statues," John said, turning the rental car up a steep country road. The afternoon sun bathed the surrounding vineyards in golden light.

Sean laughed, leaning his head back against the seat. "You know you were thinking the same thing."

John's calm composure broke with laughter. "Shut up, we're here."

Sean looked out the window to see an old stuccoed building, and a stylishly dressed woman appearing at the front door.

"That's her," said John. "I should go say hello."

"Cool, I'll grab your suitcase," Sean said, unfastening his seat belt.

John stepped out onto the cobblestone pavement and walked towards Guenevive with his arms out. "Darling!"

"John!" she called, approaching him for a quick hug and a friendly kiss on each ear. "How was the trip up?"

"Simply marvelous," he said, lifting up his sunglasses. He looked back at Sean, who was pulling a suitcase and dufflebag out of the trunk. "This is Sean."

Sean looked up and waved.

"Nice to meet you," Guenevive called. "You can just leave those in the entryway." She turned her attention back to John. "We've just been having some cabernet out in
the back with some cheeses I picked up from the market this morning. I can't believe you made it without getting lost, most people do."

John slipped his hands into his pockets. "I almost missed the turn, but here I am. How's your mother these days?"

Sean stepped past them as they conversed and made his way into the house. He entered the old building and set John's suitcase by the wall along with his dufflebag. He looked up at the large chandelier hanging from the ceiling, a collage of different colored panes of glass angled in different directions.

"Hey, it's you," said a voice.

Sean looked across the room to see a middle aged man appearing from the back door. "Oh, hey, Joe," he said.

"You look well," Joe said, approaching him with a smile. "Is John around?"

"Yeah, he's just outside..." Sean looked out the window and saw John and Guenevive were still chatting. "Yeah."

"Great. You know, your room's just down the hall, if you want me to show you."

Sean blinked, his mouth hung slightly open. "Sure."

He picked up the dufflebag and suitcase handle as Joe motioned towards the hallway. They reached the end and Joe held a hand towards the small room. Sean entered the room and set down his bag on the lone twin bed.

"John's upstairs next to me," Joe explained.

Sean nodded once, unsure what to say.

"How's school going?" Joe said with a smile, trying to make conversation.

"Fine," Sean answered. "Class doesn't start for another month."

"Oh, nice." Joe nodded, looking around the room. "Is that his suitcase? I can take it--"

"No, I got it," Sean said, picking it up and trailing it down the hallway.

"It's the second door on the right," Joe called after him.

Sean kept walking without looking back, picking up the bag until he was upstairs in the guest room. He set the suitcase by the door and stepped out onto the balcony on the other side of the double bed. He looked down and saw John wave up to him. He lifted a hand and stayed still as John disappeared into the front of the villa. He turned his head to see the balcony wrapped around to a sliding glass door leading into the next room.

"Sean!"

He turned his head to see John step into the room.

"Hey," Sean said, stepping out of the sun into the room.

"This is nice," John said, looking around. He placed a hand on Sean's arm. "Do you want to come downstairs?"

Sean let out a laugh. "You and your love for wine."

John smiled, pulling Sean's arms around him. "You know there's something I love more."

"Stop," Sean said, playfully rolling his eyes. He closed them as John placed a gentle kiss on his forehead.

"Let's go," John whispered.

***

Sean woke up and scratched his head as the cracked ceiling above him came into focus. He autonomously reached to his lover's half of the bed and felt a wall. Sitting up, he saw he was alone in the twin bed of his guest room, although his clothes were missing. Running his hands over his face he thought back to the night before. Wine and conversation. He threw on some jeans and a T-shirt and yawned as he walked into the living room.

"Sean!" Joe greeted him. "I think John wanted to take you to the market. We just ate breakfast."

"Oh," Sean said, turning as Joe passed him and sat on the couch. "Breakfast?"

"I'm not sure there's anything leftover. Sorry, kid," Joe chuckled. "But there's milk and cereal somewhere in the kitchen."

"Okay, thanks," Sean said. He looked out the windows onto the back porch, but John was nowhere to be seen. He nodded at Joe once before heading to the kitchen to go through the cupboards. As soon as he put the milk back in the refrigerator and picked up his bowl, he heard John's voice at the foot of the stairs.

"Oh, Sean, you're up." John wiped his hair dry with a towel as he stepped into the room. "Guenevive left me with a shopping list for dinner, if you'll join me for a trip into town."

Sean swallowed the mouthful of cereal he was eating. "Sure."

"Brilliant." John hung the towel around his neck. "She has a couple bicycles we can borrow."

"Actually, would you mind driving?" Joe chimed in. "Hills don't agree with me."

"I didn't know you wanted to go," John said.

Joe looked from him to Sean and back. "Oh, I don't need to. I could just stay here. I understand if you want some bonding time."

John looked to Sean, who said nothing as he stood motionless, holding his bowl of cereal. John walked to him and set a hand on his shoulder. "I'll meet you outside," John said, before leaving the room. Joe looked to Sean and smiled kindly.

***

The sun shined overhead as Sean walked through the open air market, following John, who seemed to actually know what he was doing.

"Grazie mille, ciao," John said, as he waved to the old woman who had just sold him some tomatoes.

Sean blinked under his sunglasses as John approached him. "I think that's everything we need. Is there anything else you wanted, or shall we head back?"
Sean gave a noncommital shrug as he took the bag of produce from John.

"We can take a different route," John pointed out. "I think the one along the road has a bit of traffic."

Sean gave a nod, and followed John through narrow cobblestone streets to an old country road. Seeing no one was around, they clasped hands and walked more slowly.

"I trust Italy is treating you well," John remarked.

"Yeah, it's so..." Sean trailed off as he gazed across the valley to the serene town. "Beautiful."

"I know," John said, his mouth breathing a smile. "I'm glad we could share it together."

Sean glanced down at the gravel path. When he looked up again, he froze.

"What's wrong?" John asked, before glancing to the pond in front of them, just off the path. "Oh, no, no Sean..."

It was too late. The groceries were already on the ground as Sean began sprinting towards the body of water with a childish grin on his face. He pulled off his shirt and kicked off his shoes and jeans, leaving a trail of clothing as he ran.

John jogged after him. "Wait!" he called, lifting his arms in defense as Sean made a cannonball, sending a splash of water his direction. "Is this really necessary?"
"I'm an island kid, remember?" Sean said, back paddling with a grin on his face. "Why don't you jump in?"

John folded his arms and tilted his head with a smile. "I have to get these groceries back to my friend," he chided teasingly.

"Okay, you be responsible, and I'll chill for a while," Sean said, floating on his back with ease.

John rolled his eyes with a smile before picking up the bag of groceries and leaving.

Sean stayed there, watching the branches of trees pass overhead. He flipped onto his stomach and bust out a few laps. It felt good to get out the abundance of energy he had constantly brewing inside of him. He ducked under and checked how long he could hold his breath, almost a minute. He came up again, and the shadows had shifted with the late afternoon sun. Quickly, he pulled himself up on the grassy bank and found his clothes. Once dressed, he made his way up the hill to the villa.

The warm aroma of cooking overwhelmed his senses as he entered the house, and he found Guenevive working in the kitchen.

"Sean! Can you chop vegetables? Come here."

She barely looked up as she gave the command, but Sean stepped up to the counter and took the knife from her outstretched hand.

"Finely dice that," she said, placing an onion on the cutting board in front of him. "You know how to do it? Cut down, and then across."

Sean nodded, working as instructed. "What are you making?"

"Just a sauce. I finally decided to use the pasta maker I bought after taking a class several years ago." She gestured to the freshly made pasta lying on racks, ready to be cooked.

"Nice." Sean said, returning to his onion. "So, you're a fashion designer?"

"That sounded sincere." Guenevive gave a refined laugh as she laid the first batch of pasta into a pot of boiling water. "But yes, I come here mainly for inspiration for my spring collection. You'll see my studio in the west wing is filled with sketches."

"West wing?" Sean looked out the spacious living room windows at a building stretching to the west. "That's part of your house, too?"

"So it would seem," Guenevive said, lifting an eyebrow at his remark. "You're in school, still?"

"Yeah," Sean said, pushing chopped onions into a bowl. "But I also work as a makeup artist. Mainly on John's show."

"Oh, I see, he hired you?" Guenevive rinsed her hands off under the tap.

"Actually, no...his friend Lloyd produces it. He emailed me last year before he could convince John to take the lead."

Guenevive folded her arms. "Lloyd, that name sounds familiar."

Sean looked up as she gave him an expectant look. "They went to college together?" She showed no response, so he added, "They dated for a time," and she made the face of realization before returning to the task of heating tomatoes on the stove. She added in the onions, along with a complicated blend of spices.

"Can you get that?" she asked, and Sean looked up to see the pasta was boiling over.

"Oh, right," he said, hurrying to take the pot off the heat.

"I think it's ready," said Guenevive, pointing to a strainer in the sink.

Sean nodded, and poured the boiling water into the strainer before rinsing the pasta with cold water.

"Thanks, I'll take it," she said, holding out her hand for Sean to hand her the dish.

Once the pasta and sauce were combined, the woman took a plate from the cupboard and served a portion. She handed it to Sean, who stared at her, dumbfounded.

"That's for you," she said pointedly.

"Oh--thank you," he said. He moved to sit down at one of the place settings on the dining table.

Guenevive took a wine glass down from a hanging rack. "Would you like some Bordeaux?"

"Um...no thank you," he called back.

She poured herself a glass and came to the table with her own plate, a smaller portion than his own.

"So, how did you get into the makeup industry?" Guenevive asked, sipping on her glass of wine.

Sean looked up and swallowed his mouthful of pasta. "My mom taught me. I've worked on a couple films, and also some freelancing."

"How interesting," Guenevive said, taking a dainty bite of pasta. "Where did you grow up?"

"Hawaii. And then I go to school in Steel City."

"What made you choose Steel City?"

"Me and my friend Adam both got in." Sean slurped up a string of pasta before whiping his mouth with a napkin. "I guess Steel City is just a useful place to be."

"And John was staying there?" Guenevive asked nonchalantly.

"Well, he was Adam's music producer." Sean set his fork down on the empty plate before him. "Where is John, by the way?"

Guenevive suddenly adopted a kind expression. "I think he's not feeling well."

"Oh." Sean pushed his chair away from the table. "I should go check up on him."

"I don't think he wants to see you," Guenevive said.

Sean sat back in his chair. "He doesn't want to see his boyfriend?"

Guenevive coughed on the wine she had been drinking. "What?"

Sean folded his arms. "I don't know what he told you, why he brought me here."

Guenevive took another sip of wine. "In that case, you might want to go check up on him."

Sean furrowed his brow. "What do you mean?"

The woman shrugged, and he stood up quickly. He ran upstairs to the hallway outside of John's room, his eyes widening as he heard noises coming from inside. He silently tried the handle, which was locked. Nervously running a hand through his hair, he remembered Joe's room next door, which he entered. The balcony door was open, and his senses heightened as he stepped outside. Slowly, he stepped towards the other open sliding glass door as the scene came into view.
The two naked bodies lay on top of each other, grunting as one pressed into the other. On the bottom, John moved his face to the other side, eyes closed, mouth hanging open in want. The pair lay breathing for a moment before John opened his eyes, lazily focusing on the figure standing before him.

"Christ."

"What's up?" Joe said, following John's gaze, freezing as he saw Sean. "Oh, shit..."

The three of them stayed frozen in the silence until finally, Joe got up and grabbed a sheet to hold up to his waist. "Sean, look--"

Sean felt a hand push him aside as Guenevive stepped into the room. As John slowly sat up, she quickly reached out and slapped him across the face.

"You lied to me," she said as John clutched his face.

Joe kept his attention aimed at Sean. "Look, I'm sorry you had to see your father like this--"

"Father?" Guenevive cried in disbelief. "You both said he was your nephew, not your boyfriend?! I should have known, he looks nothing like you..."

"What are you talking about?" Joe argued. "John, I thought you said he was your son through a girlfriend you had in highschool."

"I didn't say that; you did," John contended. "Wait!"

Sean had already made his way into the hallway. He quickly shuffled down his feet down the staircase and made for his room to throw his bag over his shoulder.

John watched silently from the balcony as the young man jumped on a bicycle and sped into the distance.

***

Chapter Text

It was dark as Sean approached the villa. Setting the bicycle by the wall, he pulled out his phone and confirmed the address. Peering in through the front window, he saw the inside was completely dark. He reached for the doorbell, but stopped himself. He backed away from the building, looking through the second story windows, walking around the corner. In the single lit window, he saw a figure sitting alone.

He picked up a stone and threw it. Seeing the lack of response, he threw a couple more until the young man approached the window and opened it, looking out into the night.

"Hey," Sean called. "Can I come in?"

"Who's there?"

"It's me!"

"Sean?" Benito held up his desk lamp and illuminated Sean in the distance, who shielded his eyes from the brightness. "Shit! Okay, uh, toss me your bag?" He held out his arms, one of which still had a cast.

Sean threw the dufflebag up to him, and Ben barely caught it, pulling it up with his good arm.

"I think I can climb up," Sean said, grabbing on to the adjacent wall. The old stones made for easy footing. Once he neared the windowsill, Ben held out a hand and helped pull him in.

"What are you doing here?" Ben asked as Sean stood up in the dim light of the bedroom. "I thought you weren't coming until next week."

Sean shook his head. "It's a long story."

Ben tilted his head. "Have you been crying?"

"No," Sean said, turning away to rub one eye.

"You can talk to me," Ben said, before immediately retracting his words, eyes fluttering. "I mean, don't worry about it."

"I told him," Sean began with a tense voice, hands gripping the worn back of the wooden desk chair, "Why do I care so much about someone that hurt me?"

Benito scratched the back of his own neck. "Yeah, I--"

"I should have been saying that about him."

Ben blinked. After some time, he managed to say, "I'm sorry."

Sean just nodded. Reluctantly, Ben approached him and slowly wrapped his arms around him. Sean reciprocated, and for a moment, they shared the embrace.

"No offence," Ben said, "but you smell like a swamp."

"Oh," Sean said, his voice losing its tenseness. "I went swimming earlier. I guess I could take a shower."

"Yeah, if...you want to," Ben said, keeping his distance after their brief physical contact. "The bathroom's just down the hall."

Again, Sean just nodded, throwing his bag over one shoulder as he wordlessly left the room.

After some time, Sean returned with wet hair, wearing a different t-shirt and sweats.

"This is actually two beds," Ben explained, pointing to the double bed in the corner of the room. "I pushed them together after my dad realized it was a bad idea to try to invite over friends from school. I can pull them apart, or sleep on the floor--"

"It's fine," Sean said, collapsing on one side of the bed. He crawled under the covers and rolled to face the wall.

Ben watched him with uncertainty. He slowly got into bed on the other side, turning to face away from him. "Goodnight, then," he said before reaching to switch off the desk lamp.

He heard no answer as the room was enveloped in darkness.

***

Ben awoke in the soft morning light peeking in through his window. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, wondering if the last night had been a dream, but glancing over his shoulder he saw Sean, peacefully asleep on the other side of the bed. He nearly jumped as Sean began to stir, rolling onto his back and resting his arms on his stomach.

Suddenly, a noise sounded from his desk. He reached for the phone as it buzzed. He turned to Sean. "Your phone is ringing."

"It's not mine," Sean murmured with his eyes closed.

Ben looked at the screen. "Gue-neveveh?"

"Leave it."

Ben shrugged and set it on the windowsill. Less than a minute later, it began ringing again. Ben looked to Sean again, who held out one hand.

"Hello?" Sean said after Ben handed him the phone.

"I don't see it anywhere, you might as well give up." Guenevive's voice changed tone as she realized Sean was on the other end. "Oh! Hello?"

"Hi, Guenevive," Sean said, rubbing his face with one hand.

"Hi," she said, before pulling away from the phone. "No, John, it's not under the couch; Sean has it." Another pause before she returned to his attention. "Do you want to speak with him?"

"Not really," Sean said, looking up at the cracked plaster on the ceiling.

There was a shuffling sound before he heard John's voice. "Hello? Sean?"

At first Sean didn't respond, trying to quiet the storm emotions that began to resurface.

"Hello?" John repeated.

"Yes?" Sean felt his mouth twitching.

"Sean! Where are you?"

Sean glanced at Benito, who quickly looked away, acting like he wasn't listening in on the conversation. "I'm with a friend."

"Oh, good," John said with a breath of relief. "Just text Guenevive the address and I'll come by later."

"That would be too convenient," Sean said flatly. "No."

"What?" John said. "Look, Sean, I'm really sorry about what happened. I have no excuses."

Sean was silent for a moment, processing the situation. "Whatever."

"Okay, then. So will you--"

"Goodbye, John," Sean said in a low voice.

"Okay, erm, goodb--"

Sean hung up and dropped his arms to his sides. "I was too cheap to get the international phone plan."

"What did he do, exactly?" Ben asked, turning towards Sean and resting his head on one elbow.

"I don't want to talk about it." Sean sighed. "I'll tell you later."

Ben looked puzzled. "Okay," he conceded.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. "Benito, breakfast," a woman's voice called.

"Coming!" Ben called back. He lowered his voice to speak to Sean. "Do you want me to bring you anything?"

Sean blinked. "You don't want me to meet your parents."

"What? No, I didn't know if you wanted to meet them." Ben stood up and pulled a sweatshirt off the floor to throw on.

Sean sat up slowly and stretched. "Why, do you think they'll throw me out?"

Ben shrugged. "Honestly, I have no idea what they'll do."

***

As Ben gingerly made his way downstairs, Sean trailing behind him apprehensively, he saw his parents seated at the dining table. His father, as usual, sat at the head of the table, with his wife to his right. A plate of fresh bread sat out.

"Benito!" his father said, setting down his cup of coffee. "Nice to see you on time for breakfast, for once."

"Hi, dad," said Ben, acting more shy than Sean had ever known him as he approached the table. "This is Sean..."

He looked back to see Sean had stopped following him halfway across the room, where he had stopped to stand in awe of the grand space. Ben grabbed his elbow and he shuffled his feet as Ben steered him towards the table. "This is Sean."

Sean waved.

"He got in late last night, and I didn't want to wake you," Ben explained.

Ben's mother turned to the woman standing behind her. "Sofia, get another place setting."

His father took a sip of coffee. "So this is your boyfriend?"

"Dad!" Ben said, throwing his arms down as he walked to the place setting at his father's left and sat down.

"We're just friends," Sean clarified, sitting down in the chair next to Ben. A woman reached around him and set down a plate and silverware.

"He says that about literally every guy I talk to now," Ben said, rolling his eyes.

"That's because one day, it's going to be true," his father said, a satisfied smile forming on his face. "So, Sean Goodin..."

Sean glanced up at him, his head tilted downwards slightly, obviously still tired.

"It's good to finally meet you in person, the mysterious friend of our son who never shows his face, not even at the awards show where he won."

"Oh, yeah," Sean said, scratching the back of his neck. "I was kind of busy."

Kouyama looked surprised. "Busy?"

"Yeah, um, I was with my friend Adam."

"Adam?" Ben said, tearing off a piece of bread and shoving it in his mouth. "Shit! How is he?"

"Benito, language," his mother interrupted. Ben looked down in guilt.

"He's good," Sean said. "He's on tour right now."

"Nice," said Ben.

"Sean," Ben's mother interjected. "Do you want to call you parents to let them know you're here?"

"No thanks, Mrs...."

"Contarelli. I kept my name," the woman explained. "But please, call me Vittoria."

Sean nodded. "Um, I already texted them."

"That's good," Kouyama added. "But would you care to explain why you're here almost a week earlier than Benito said you would be?"

"Yeah, uh..." Sean grew silent as he tried to come up with a reasonable explanation.

"That's it," Ben said, standing up. "No more questions, breakfast over. Come on, Sean." He turned and started walking towards the back door.

Sean stood up. He gave Ben's parents an apologetic shrug and grabbed a roll before following him.

***

"Really, though, why are you here?" Ben asked as they walked along a row of grape vines in the vineyard.

Sean spit out the seed from the grape he was chewing. "Like I said, it's a long story."

"Well, you'll want to get your story straight before lunch," Ben said, "because they're gonna ask you again."

"Fine," Sean said, rolling his eyes. "You really don't want to hear it, though. It starts with me ditching a week of work to come here with John and ends with me walking in on him being fucked by a 44 year old man."

"What?" Ben spat, laughing. "Like figuratively fucked, like he screwed him over, or--"

"Like on-the-bed, dick-in-ass fucking," Sean said, eyes straining.

"And you never saw it coming?" Ben asked. Sean shook his head. "Damn."

"I guess all the red flags were there," Sean said as he lie in the grass. They had reached the bottom of the hill by a small stream.

"What do you mean?" Ben said, swinging on a swing that hung from the thick branches of a tree.

"Well, I met the guy a few months ago. He said he was in love with John, but I wrote that off because they argued every time they were together." Sean sighed. "I'm just realizing that was the sign there was something between them."

"Ooh," Ben grimaced, as the swing pulled his weight forward.

"And then we were supposed to stay with his friend Guenevive, right?"

"Right," Ben repeated.

"Like I was supposed to meet him a week later because I told Lloyd I could help with the final edits, but I was like fuck it I'll go with you. And he treated it like it was great, like we'll spend a day in Rome together. But it wasn't until we got to the Rome airport that he's like 'oh, Guenevive has another guest over,' acting like that was news to him." Sean grabbed a few blades of grass and twisted them around his finger. "It was even more weird when I showed up and Joe's all, 'this is your room,' on a different floor from where John's staying right next to him."

"And this was yesterday?"

"Two days ago."

"Still," Ben said. "You didn't notice anything was off?"

"Shut up," Sean said, waving an arm dismissively. "So I guess we were drinking a lot last night, since I think I remember hooking up with John, but I woke up in my own bed alone. And later that day was when I helped Guenevive cook dinner, and that was when I'm like 'Where's John?' and she tells me, and I quote, 'he's not feeling well.'"

Ben laughed. "Right."

"And that's when it happened." Sean kicked a small stone with the heel of his foot. "Completely ridiculous. Joe's all 'John it's your son'--"

"Wait, what?!"

"Yeah, that's another story," Sean said with a sigh. "Chalk it up to a misunderstanding that I thought was completely harmless."

"Wow..." Ben said dragging his feet along the ground as his weight moved backwards. "What a fucking joke."

"Yeah," Sean mused. He sat up on his elbows and squinted. "Anyway, what happened after you came out to your dad? You didn't tell me anything."

"Oh." Ben said, his voice dropping its usual mirth. "I think we should probably head back."

"That was nice," Sean said, as he fell face forward onto Benito's bed upstairs.

"Yeah," Ben said, crashing next to him. "The new chef we hired is really good. Wait until you try my mom's cooking, though."

Sean reached for John's phone, which was lying on the floor as it charged by the far wall. The screen lit up with notifications.

"What is it?" Ben asked.

"Missed calls from Adam." Sean unplugged the phone and rolled onto his back as he redialed.

Ben listened as the conversation.

"Hey, Adam. No, this is Sean...what?...Okay, when's the next one?...Uh-huh....Isn't there a train?...Well, fuck the CD signing...Okay, call if you need anything...No, not my phone, call John's phone...Okay, talk to you later. Bye."

Sean sighed as he let the phone drop onto the bed.

"What was that about?" Ben wondered aloud.

"He overslept and missed his flight." Sean rubbed his eyes. "I guess I'm his tour manager now."

Ben pulled a pillow up to his neck and buried the side of his face in it. "Why do you have to take care of his reputation?"

"What?" Sean said softly. "Adam's my friend."

"No," Ben murmured. "John."

Sean's eyes widened. He stared up at the ceiling in the late afternoon heat as the room fell silent. Suddenly, the phone rang again.

"Hello?"

Ben closed his eyes as Sean took the phonecall.

"Uh...yes, I'm his assistant. I'm sorry, sir, but Mr. Brandon is no longer available for that role..."

Ben sat up with interest.

"...Yes, he's decided to go in a different direction...He's very busy, and he doesn't have time to talk right now, can I leave a message?...Good day, sir."

Sean hung up and took a deep breath. His eyes met Ben's and they both broke out laughing.

"Who was that?" Ben asked.

"Some assistant director on some film John was really excited to be cast in. Until now, at least."

"Is that how it works, being famous?" Ben said, folding his arms. "Directors just call you whenever like you're friends?"

"I guess so," Sean mused. "Although in some cases they are friends."

Ben shifted his weight forward. "Like, how many people like that are in his contacts?"

Sean frowned, pulling the phone towards him and scrolling through the contact list. When he saw one that caught his eye, he laughed to himself before showing Ben.

Ben started laughing uncontrollably. "Mum? Okay, you have to call that one."

"What? No..." Sean said, trying to hide a smile.

"Yeah? Didn't you say he outed you to your parents?" Ben argued. "Now's your chance to exact revenge!"

"What would I even say?" Sean said, rolling onto his back.

Ben shrugged, but then his eyes lit up with an idea. "Tell her he's sleeping with that director!"

"He said his parents know he's gay, but not that he ever told them in person." Sean took a deep breath. "Anyway, I'm not sure I should cross that line."

"You're right." Ben sighed. "I never told you what happened after I came out to my parents."

Sean propped himself up on his elbows. "Yeah? What happened?"

"Well, for one, I saw my dad cry. I didn't think he was even capable of crying. He even came to greet me at the airport instead of just sending a driver."

Sean gave a nod. "How thoughtful."

"Yeah." Ben stared up at the ceiling. "He and my mom gave me a whole speech about they're so sorry they didn't see it, and how they love me for who I am. Then this whole thing where they made me take the GED and dad's going to pull a bunch of strings with his connections to get me into university in the fall."

"Wow," Sean said. "Somehow their expectations of you remain the same."

"I know, right."

They sat there in silence, an afternoon breeze wafting in through the open window.

Sean turned to Ben. "So when are we going to go out and find you an Italian boyfriend?"

Ben laughed. "I thought you were joking when you said that earlier, but at this point? Why not?"

"Wait, really?" Sean said, taken aback by his response.

Ben closed his eyes with a smile. "We leave at midnight."

***

"This is it," Ben said as the uber pulled up to a club on the outskirts of the city. The boys got out and followed the end of the line to get in, which stretched around the block. The faint sound of dance music could be heard pulsating from inside the building.

"How long do we have to wait?" Sean asked.

Ben shrugged. "15-20 minutes. A half hour. Longer. Does it matter?"

Sean pulled out his phone just as it began to ring. As he began to chuckle, Ben started to get an idea.

"Another director?"

"Do you want to get it?" Sean said, showing him the screen. "I think he'll recognize my voice."

"What are friends for," Ben said, gladly taking the phone. "Hello, John Brandon's office."

Sean smirked at the remark.

"John! How's Italy?" Lloyd's voice hesitated on the other end. "Wait, who is this?"

"This is his assistant," Ben said in an official tone. "He's not available at the moment, may I take a message?"

"What?! You're telling me he changed numbers and gave his old number to his assistant?"

"Yes, unfortunately, he's been getting several unsavory calls lately, so some screening was deemed necessary. Debt collectors and such." Ben covered the mouthpiece as Sean laughed in the background.

Lloyd was speechless. "Either this is a prank or you're the worst assistant I've ever heard of."

"I don't get paid much," Ben explained.

"Wait, don't you sound kind of familiar..."

Ben cut him off. "I've been a couple commercials. Just trying to make it big, man."

"No, no. I know you. You're Sean's friend, the magician?"

Ben pulled away from the phone. "Fuck, he's onto me," he told Sean. "You take it."

"Really?" Sean said in surprise. "Fine." He took the phone from Ben gave a laugh. "What gave it away?"

"What gave away the fact that John doesn't have an office with EDM playing in the background? The kid's smooth, I'll give him that. So is John there?"

"Ooh, sorry," Sean said, feigning pity. "I've been kind of avoiding him since yesterday."

"What? What's going on over there? You're still in Italy, right?"

"Yeah," Sean said in an airy tone. "I'm in Rome, hanging with Ben."

"Ben? Weren't you on a trip with John?"

"I was...but then Joe happened." Sean kicked a rock with his shoe.

"Joe? Joe Cavenaugh?"

"Uh, I don't know his last name," Sean conceded.

"I bet it's him. Let me guess, he just showed up and John acted like it's no big deal but really he doesn't want to admit there's something between them."

Sean's eyes widened. "Yes, actually."

"Oh. Oh!" The sound of a hand slapping against a table could be heard in the background. "That makes perfect sense."

"Yeah," Sean said, his face contorted. "How do you even know him?"

"I don't know if I told you the story about how John and I broke up," Lloyd began.

"I think you did, but I may have been very drunk," Sean said. "Go on."

"We were living together for a while, but over time, we started to drift apart, him coming home later, saying he's too busy with work stuff, and eventually I just broke up with him when I thought he was too married to his work. We went our separate ways, I planned to move out and go back to the states, and then two days later, I ran into him in a restaurant bathroom. With Joe."

"Oh, gross," Sean said.

"Yeah, one of the nights I'd like to forget. But anyway, why is Ben there with you?"

"Because," Sean explained. "We came to visit him. Doesn't John tell you anything?"

"I guess not."

"That's 'cause John's a huge bitch."

Lloyd and Ben both broke into laughter.

"So," Sean said, stepping forward as the line in front of them moved. "How's the wrap up for Vice?"

"It's fine," Lloyd said with a sigh. "We're still working on editing in post. The set just got boxed up this morning and they're taking the rest away this afternoon."

"It's so sad it didn't get renewed," Sean lamented.

"I know," Lloyd agreed. "But hey, it's not too late to audition for the reality singing competition that's taking its place."

"Yeah?" Sean laughed. "I've got to get in on that."

"Then good luck," Lloyd joked. "Well, if you see John, don't have him give me a call."

"Don't worry, I won't," Sean said with a smile. "I feel like we're in some club together now."

"The John's Scorned Lovers club? Sounds about right."

"Well, I've gotta go," Sean said, seeing they were close to the front of the line. "Take it easy."

"Same for you. Talk to you later, Sean."

Sean hung up and stuck his tongue out at Benito.

"I thought I did a good job faking that call," Ben said, folding his arms.

"You did," Sean said. "Maybe next time, it won't be John's ex and closest friend."

"Ex? They used to date?" Ben asked, eyes widening.

"I've probably said too much. Let's just go," Sean said, grabbing Ben's arm as the bouncer waved them through the door.

The dark room was crowded with people, with a DJ set up behind a table at the far end of the room.

Sean spotted the bar. "I'll go get drinks," he said to Ben, raising his voice over the music and sound of people talking.

Ben waved him goodbye and found himself in the middle of the floor. Looking around his eyes met with a guy about his age, who appeared to be checking him out.

He blinked, about to give a wave when a girl pushed past him as it dawned on him that she was the object of interest, a conclusion supported by the fact that she began grinding on the guy in question.

"Sean," Ben said as he found him at the bar, grabbing his elbow.

"What?" Sean turned his head, but in that moment, another guy called out to him. Sean looked his direction as he began speaking angrily in Italian, waving his arms.

"What's going on?" Sean said with an air of authority.

Ben glanced at the guy. His hair was slicked back, a dress shirt with the top buttons loose and shirt tails tucked into slacks. Ben turned to Sean. "I think he said you were looking at his girl."

"What?" Sean looked to the girl sitting at the bar next to him, looking up with mild interest. He turned his attention back to her supposed boyfriend. "I wasn't looking at your girl; I was trying to get the bartenders attention. Calm down, man."

The man switched to fluid English with an accent. "You Americans are so full of yourselves, you think I don't see you checking her out?"

Sean stared at him for a moment his jaw slightly hung, finally responding with "I'm gay."

As the man remained silent, unchanged in his expression, Sean turned to the bar and made eye contact with the bartender.

"Oh thank God, can we get a couple shots?" The bartender nodded and Sean turned back to Ben. "I'm ready to not be sober."

The man took one more look at him and left. The girl next to Sean stood up and made a face like she smelled something ill and followed him. Sean turned back to Ben and smiled as two shots were set on the counter beside him.

Ben picked one up. "After you."

***

Sean was lurched awake as he felt himself thrown forward. Immediately, his field of vision was flooded with intense sunlight, and covered his eyes with his hands, his eyes squinting hard.

"Si, a sinistra," he heard Ben's voice in the seat next to him.

Once his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw the car pull onto a road off the freeway and up a winding road that became narrower as it reached the edge of town. The driver slowed to a complete stop and turned to Ben, speaking and waving his arms.

"E tutto? E tutto." Ben turned to Sean and shook his arm. "Sean, wake up."

Sean blinked and rubbed a hand across his face, inhaling sharply.

"Let's go," Ben said, nodding towards the side of the road. He exited the car and Sean followed him, watching lazily as he waved the driver goodbye.

"This isn't your house," Sean said, rubbing one eye.

"I wanted to get food," Ben said, continuing to walk up the cobblestone street.

Sean stood still, vacantly at the ground as his mind worked to piece together the moment. He walked to catch up with Ben.

"So," Ben began. "What exactly do you remember from last night?"

Sean searched his memory. "We were at a club...a guy with a spiderweb neck tattoo?"

"Yes," Ben said with a laugh, resting on his face a childlike smirk. "You were about to go home with him."

Sean grimaced. "No?"

Ben nodded, his voice drawing out a "Yeah." He gave another laugh. "Don't worry, I pulled you away soon enough for you to throw up on his shoes."

"Oh good," Sean said, the corners of his mouth hinting at a smile as Ben continued to laugh.

"I'm surprised you made it through those crowds." Ben said. "At least one of us had a relatively successful evening."

"Aw, don't say that," Sean said. "We'll find you someone. Someone good."

"Forget it," Ben said, his youthful mirth faded from his disposition. "I don't think I could even make it to whatever base is throwing up on his shoes."

Sean looked down at the ground. After a few minutes of climbing the hill, he said, "How much longer do we have to walk?"

"It's not too far. And didn't you bike for like four hours in the middle of the night to get here from John's friend's house?"

"I guess, but I didn't really have any other option."

Ben rolled his eyes. "Here, it's right around the corner, keep your pants on."

"No promises," Sean said as Ben opened the door to the convenience store. Bells clinked on the door handle as Sean followed him inside.

Ben's eyes scanned the shelves before he grabbed some candy and chips.

"Do you parents even know we left?" Sean wondered, rubbing his tired eyes.

"I don't know, maybe," Ben said with a shrug. "You'd think they'd be more restrictive after what happened last time, but they've been pretty chill."

"Is that everything?" The cashier asked as he set the items on the counter.

"No, that's it, thanks," Ben said, handing a him a card.

Sean looked at the youngish man--his hair was loose dark curls, swept up to the side, a tuft of chest hair peeking through a polo shirt.

"Did you see that?" Sean said once they were outside again.

"See what?" Ben asked casually.

"He was totally checking you out," Sean said, glancing back through the front window, trying not to draw any attention.

Ben shot a glance back at the cashier and immediately looked away, blinking quickly. "Oh, him."

Sean's face was struck with amazement. "You like him."

"No," Ben argued, "He's just, he works there." He waved a hand dismissively.

"Why don't you talk to him?" Sean glanced back at the window, and his face fell. "Nevermind, I think his girlfriend just showed up."

"Oh, that's not his girlfriend; they're just friends," Ben said, barely looking back at all. Upon seeing Sean's prying expression, he added, "I've heard them talking sometimes."

"Dude," Sean said. "You have to talk to him."

"No, I go in there all the time. It'd be weird."

"Then I'll talk to him."

"No," Ben repeated. "You don't have to do that."

Sean nodded, slowly backing towards the shop entrance. Ben watched him, unable to move.

The two attendants were talking behind the counter as Sean approached them.

"Hey, there," Sean called.

"Hey," the guy said, looking up for a brief moment.

Sean walked over and pressed a hand on the counter, leaning forward slightly. "I'm just going to be honest here, my friend thinks you're real cute."

The kid's mouth hung open slightly, and his female friend said something to him in Italian. He answered her, and soon she turned to face Sean with a big smile.

"Your friend thinks I'm cute?"

Sean blinked, keeping a friendly disposition. "No...you," he said, making eye contact with her friend.

"What do you mean?" he asked. "Your...friend?"

"Yeah, that's him there," Sean said, nodding his head towards the window. Across the street, Ben quickly looked away and pretended like he had no interest in their conversation.

A brief panic flashed in the cashier's eyes, and he turned to the girl and started whispering something. She snapped back at him, gesturing with her hands as she talked. Sean watched their interaction for a minute, with the guy continuously glancing up at him as he spoke. Finally, the girl turned to him.

"So," she said, "Antonio will go on a date with your friend."

"Okay," Sean said.

"...if you agree to go on a date with me," she continued.

"Oh, um," Sean said, watching as her eyes never left his face.

"It would be, as you say, a double date?" She smiled.

"Well, actually..." Sean began to say, but he glanced out the window. Ben was kicking a pebble around with his foot as he licked cheese powder from his fingers from the bag of chips he was eating. Sean turned to face the girl, the height difference between them made apparent. "Sure."

"Yes?" Her eyes sparked with interest.

"Yeah, I'll go out with you," Sean concluded.

"Good. My name is Gina. And you are?" She held out her wrist.

"Sean," he said. He looked down at her hand and shook it awkwardly.

Gina appeared to take no offence. "My father owns a restaurant. I'll see you there tonight at seven." She turned to leave out the back door. "And Sean?"
"Yeah?"

"Tell your friend to be on time. Antonio doesn't like it when people are late."

Antonio turned to Sean and a brief silence passed between them. "Don't worry about her," he said.
Sean gave a yawn. "At least she doesn't have any creepy neck tattoos," he said, rubbing his face.
"She doesn't...what?" Antonio repeated.

"Nevermind," Sean said, shaking his head. "See you later." He gave a casual wave before leaving out the front door.

"What happened in there?" Ben asked, approaching him in anticipation.

"I'll tell you in a minute, let's just go."

"Oh no, something bad happened," Ben said, running to catch up with him as he continued up the hill. "Is he...what did you say to him?"

"Nothing really," Sean said, resting his hands in his pockets as he walked. "I just...told him you think he's cute, and now you have a date with him at seven."

"What?" Ben playfully swiped at Sean's elbow. "Stop bullshitting me, what really happened?"

"That is what really happened."

"What?!" Ben's mouth fell open and he froze before bounding forward to keep pace with Sean's even steps. "Really?"

Sean breathed a smile.

"With him?" Ben was still in shock.

Sean raised his eyebrows and nodded.

"Oh my god." Ben froze once again, a hand clasped over his mouth. "I've gotta figure out what to wear."

***

"I have that shirt," Sean said, lying on the bed while Ben tried on clothes in his room.

"This one?" Ben held up a button up shirt from his closet.

Sean squinted as he rested the side of his head on his elbow. "Is that my shirt?"

"I think my mom got it for me," Ben said.

"Really?" Sean said, incredulously turning up the palm of his hand as he spoke. "Your mom goes to H&M and buys you clothes?"

Ben started unbuttoning it. "Yeah, I'm used to wearing school uniforms, so she went out and got some stuff before I moved back in. See, the tags are still on it."

Seeing the physical evidence, Sean frowned before rolling onto his back. "I guess that's why it's one of the few shirts in here that's not on the floor."

"I would have cleaned up a little if I knew I had company," Ben said. He finished putting on the shirt and checked his closet mirror. "I think this is okay. Thoughts?"
Sean sat up on his elbows. "Do they even wear plaid in this country?"

"Ahh, you're right," Ben said, throwing his head back.

Sean kicked one leg up and crossed it over the other, gaze staring up at the ceiling. "I think as long as you wear anything other than that fuckin...polyester arcade polo, he's gonna love you."

"Don't discredit the polyester," Ben said, pointing at him. "Don't forget that day the arcade flooded."

"Oh, I seem to remember you changed out of that shirt first, because let me tell you for a fact that nothing was gonna happen while you were in that shirt." Sean heard a phone buzz from the floor and rolled over to reach it from its charger.

"True," Ben conceded, "but you're not the one going on the date."

Sean inhaled sharply, twisting his neck to shoot Ben a guilty look. "Actually..."

Ben dropped his arms to his sides. "What, do you need to chaperone?"

Sean twisted over himself to stand up. "It's a double date."

"A double date?" Ben said with a laugh. "Who's the lucky guy?"

Sean leafed through some clothes hung in the back of Ben's closet. "Her name's Gina."

"Gina," Ben repeated in amusement, folding his arms as he leaned against the closet wall. "Wow."

"Yes," Sean said, pulling out a shirt to examine it, then immediately placing it back on the rack. "We're living in particularly trying times."

Sean pulled out a short-sleeved button up with an understated print. "Try this one."

"If you say so," Ben said, wriggling out of the shirt he was wearing.

As he finished buttoning up the second shirt, Sean reached to cuff the sleeves. Ben stepped in front of the mirror, and his face lit up. "Hey."

Sean stepped beside him, finishing the last button on a similar long sleeved shirt in a darker color. Together, their stylings were adjacent, but not overly matching.

"Ya done good," Ben said, turning to Sean, who was already beginning to take his shirt off again. "What?"

"I don't want it to get all sweaty," Sean said with a shrug.

"Aw, you want to look nice for your date with a girl," Ben teased.

"Shut up," Sean said bashfully.

"You do have a point, though." Ben started undoing the buttons on his own shirt.

Sean reached around on the floor for the shirt he'd left, and instead picked up a familiar T-shirt with Steel City U's logo, and he held it up to Ben expectantly.

"Okay, maybe that one is yours."

"Why do you still have this?" Sean chided.

"Why did you leave it on the floor of my apartment?" Ben countered, swiping it out of his hands and defiantly pulling it on.

Sean locked eyes with him, Ben flashing a devilish grin. Quickly, Sean patted around on the floor and grabbed the first thing he found, one of Ben's tank tops, and put
it on.

Ben burst into laughter. "I guess we're even," he said, and Sean smiled.

On the edge of the bed, John's phone buzzed again.

"What is it this time?" Ben said, falling down on the bed and reaching for it. "Emails from some producer?"

Sean crawled under the covers beside him and dove one side of his face into a pillow. "If he left any more voicemails, remind me to ignore them."

"There's one from Adam," Ben remarked. He was silent for a moment as he listened to the message. "He made it to his gig in Spain."

"Fantastic," Sean mumbled.

Resting his cast on his stomach, Ben scrolled through the list of recent emails. "This one wants him to be a guest contestant on a Kpop dance show."

"Wait, really?" Sean said, immediately sitting up to lean over his shoulder.

"I didn't know he could dance," Ben noted with sarcasm.

"Me either," Sean said with a laugh. "But feel free to tell them all about it."

"Dear producer of KPop Dance 3000," Ben began typing. "It has been my greatest dream to perform my favorite Girls Generation routines on live television..."
Sean kicked his feet with laughter. "Please send this."

"...As much as I would like to film on location, I would prefer if your entire cast and crew could travel to my place of residence, at my expense of course."

"Oh, do you need an address?" Sean grinned.

"He was dumb enough to tell you where he lives?" Ben asked in amazement.

Sean's face fell for a brief second, suddenly feeling his palms start to warm with sweat. He breathed in an easy smile, and responded, "Yeah, I know, right?"

Ben laughed. "Okay."

***

Sean felt calm as he awoke. The air smelled slightly sweet and golden rays came through the window in stripes. He felt a warm mass on his chest, softly moving in tune with his breath. Lazily, he reached for his phone to check the time.

His eyes widened. "Ben." He stroked his friend's back for a few seconds until he became aware of what he was doing, and promptly retracted his hand.

"Mmm?" Ben mumbled, his face pressed into Sean's chest.

"The date? We're supposed to be there already."

Ben took a deep breath and pulled himself off of Sean. He stumbled backwards off the bed, steadying himself on the wall.

Sean sat up, his eyes widening as he speechlessly stared at Ben.

"What?" Ben said, looking down to where Sean was staring. "Oh." Avoiding eye contact with Sean, he grabbed the pile of clothes he had left earlier. "Um, so I'll just go to the bathroom; I'll be right back."

"Okay, yeah," said Sean, also avoiding his gaze.

Ben quickly left the room. When he came back, Sean was standing fully dressed and put together.

"Ready to go?" Ben said flatly, running a hand through his hair.

Sean rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah."

Once they reached the restaurant, Sean slowly opened the front door.

"I think this is it," he said, looking around the room of empty tables and chairs.

Footsteps could be heard coming down the stairs in the back of the room. Gina appeared wearing a floral summer dress, her hair pulled back into a romantic bun.

"You came!" she said, looking delighted. She clutched the railing of the staircase and called upstairs. "Zietta!" Then, she hurriedly made her way down the stairs to meet them.

"Sorry we're late," Sean said. "Where's Antonio?"

"Oh, he's not even here yet." She leaned up to kiss him on each cheek.

Sean gave a polite smile.

Gina smiled and turned to greet Ben. Stepping away, she nodded. "You look nice." She turned back to Sean. "Doesn't he clean up well?"

Sean glanced at Ben with his eyebrows raised.

Gina gave a laugh. "If you weren't gay, I'd totally date you."

"Thanks," Ben said, glancing between her and Sean.

The awkward silence was broken as the front door opened, and the three of them turned their heads to see Antonio, who gave a shy wave as he shut the door behind him.

"Bellissimo!" Gina called as she came to hug him. She gestured to Ben. "Your date's here."

Ben stepped towards Antonio with his good arm outstretched. "Ben. Nice to meet you."

Antonio shook his hand. "Benjamin?"

Sean raised a hand. "Actually--"

"--It's Benito," Ben explained. "Though I don't really use that name around here."

Antonio smiled once, furrowing his brow.

"Oh! My aunt's here," Gina said, seeing a woman coming down the staircase with a violin. "Where should we sit? Outside? The weather is nice."

"No," Antonio and Sean said in unison.

Antonio looked down. "I mean, if it is okay to sit inside, let us...do that."

Gina made a face. "Okay, sit wherever you like, and I'll be back in a minute."

She turned and passed her aunt on the way to the kitchen. The older woman sat down in the corner of the room and began to play a slow melody.

Antonio glanced around the room. "Where would you like to sit?"

"You know what would be good," Sean said. "A rooftop terrace. Why don't they have one of those?"

"Be sure to put that in your scathing Yelp review," Ben said.

Sean laughed. Antonio blinked and smiled politely.

"I think here is fine," Ben said, pulling out a chair from a table in the middle of the room. Sean lifted an eyebrow and reluctantly sat next to him; meanwhile, Antonio
hurried to sit across from Ben.

"So, Antonio," Sean said. "Are you from here originally?"

"Yes, well, um," he swallowed, glancing at Ben. "N-nearby. Spoleto."

"That's not far," Ben remarked.

Antonio smiled and nodded energetically.

Gina returned with a tray. As she began to put down silverware, Sean stood up.

"Actually, Gina," he said, "I think you and I should sit somewhere else."

"What? Why?" Ben protested.

Sean glanced at Antonio, and then at Gina, but said nothing.

"You don't think we should all sit together?" Gina pressed.

Sean put a hand on Ben's shoulder. "Do you want to talk for a minute?"

"Yeah, sure," Ben said, staying in his seat.

"Outside, I meant."

"Oh, right." Ben stood up. He held up a hand to Antonio. "I'll be right back."

Antonio nodded again.

"What's the problem?" Ben said as soon as they were outside. "It's going fine."

"He looks terrified." Sean said, glancing in Antonio's direction. "It's like he's never been on a date before."

"He does seem kind of nervous," Ben agreed.

"I don't think he's out to anyone other than that girl."

"He agreed to go on this date," Ben said, leaning casually against the wall of the restaurant.

"You weren't there," Sean said, folding his arms. "I think she pressured him into it."

Ben sighed. "Then what are we supposed to do?"

Sean stepped up to him and put his hands on Ben's shoulders. "You, you sit with him, have a nice chat, get to know him. In the meantime," he sighed and looked away.

"You really want to sit with her?" Ben said with a smirk.

Sean stepped back to rub his own forehead. He grit his teeth before letting his arms fall to his side. "It's fine."

***

"So then I told him, 'You were supposed to get the flour or we wouldn't be in this mess,' but what are brothers for, right?"

Sean took another sip of wine and nodded. He and Gina were sitting at a table on one side of the room while Ben and Antonio sat at the other end. Sean glanced over at them, talking and laughing, exchanging a few words in Italian.

"So what about you? Do you have any brothers or sisters?"

"What?" Sean said, looking up. "Oh, no, I'm an only child."

"That's interesting," Gina said, leaning into the table. "Tell me about yourself. Where are you from?"

"Hawaii," Sean said, taking a bite of gnocchi. "But I go to school in Steel City."

"Steel City? What's that like?" Gina smiled before taking a sip of wine. "I heard there's a huge television and film industry."

"Oh yeah," Sean said, swallowing another mouthful. He laughed. "I forgot, I've done work on one show and a couple movies."

Gina gasped. "You're an actor?!"

"Make-up artist." Sean picked over his food with a fork. He tilted his head in thought. "I keep forgetting I won that award."

"What, so you work with big name actors?"

"Yeah." Sean shifted in his seat uncomfortably. "Can we talk about something else?"

"Ooh," said Gina, resting her chin on her hands in interest. "Is there some drama at work?"

Sean grimaced. "You think you want to hear about it, but really, you don't."

"Why would I not want to hear about it?" Gina laughed.

Sean just shook his head and took another sip of wine.

"You're too funny," Gina gushed. She glanced over at the other table. "You and your friend. How long have you known each other?"

Sean made a face as he pulled a hair out of his mouth. After studying it briefly, he tossed it aside. "About a year. Sorry, I don't know what that was."

"Weird." Gina said, relatively unfazed. "So, your friend?"

"Oh, um, he's a magician," Sean explained. "I ran into him when he was doing street magic outside my school."

"Street magic?" Gina looked perplexed. "What do you mean?"

"You know, like card tricks? He does it on the street and people give him money. Or he gets paid to perform at places."

"Card tricks like reading Tarot cards?" Gina asked.

"No, like sleight of hand?" Sean sat back. "Stop me if I'm explaining too much."

"No, go on," Gina said, leaning forward. "What is this 'sleight of hand'?"

Sean frowned. "Okay. You draw a card or something, and basically he gets you to pay attention to something else long enough for him to figure it out and surprise
you by knowing what card you had."

"But not real magic," Gina concluded.

"Not really." Sean paused. "Wait, what do you mean by 'real magic'?"

"Oh, nothing," Gina said. She flashed a smile. "It's interesting how your friend can make money off that."

"I don't know if he's going to keep doing it," Sean said. "If you ask me, I think he was using it as a distraction for himself from being gay. We all have those." He casually took a sip of wine and froze when he realized what he had just said.

"We all have ways to distract ourselves from the things we don't want to face?" Gina remarked. "I suppose that's true."

"Yeah," Sean said, breathing an internal sigh of relief. "Exactly."

"But why would he want to distract himself from being gay? Is there something wrong with that?" She folded her arms as her voice rose defensively. "I thought that having a gay friend would make you not homophobic, but I guess I was wrong."

Sean's mouth hung open slightly.

"Is that really how it is?" Gina continued. "Because if so, I'm not sure I can date someone like you."

Slowly processing the situation, Sean blinked. He closed his eyes and lowered his voice before he spoke again. "Gina, my friend, Ben, is gay."

"Yes," she responded. "I know that."

"...And I knew to ask out Antonio for him."

"Right," Gina said, somewhat open to following his logic.

"And I helped him pick out that outfit," Sean continued.

"Oh," Gina remarked. "Okay?"

"And we're really close after we've only known each other for a year."

"Where are you going with this?" Gina said, sounding unconvinced.

"I was there when he came out to his dad over the phone."

"Okay..."

"We used to date."

Gina shifted in her seat, lost in thought. "You mean on double dates like this?"

Sean ran both hands through his hair before letting them fall onto the table. "No."

Gina tilted her head. "I'm confused. Maybe I don't understand your English, or--"

"No, Gina, I'm gay."

The girl's eyes widened, and her body stiffened. Her mouth opened slightly as she spoke. "You're gay?"

Sean rested his head on his hand and nodded with a blank expression.

She stared blankly at the plate in front of her. Looking up again, she said, "Then why did you agree to go on this date?"

"Same as you," Sean said, his voice escalating. "To get my friend laid! I mean," he looked over at the other table, relieved that neither of the boys had noticed, "To get my friend out of his depressive episode."

"Well, you didn't need to do that," Gina said, slamming her fork down. "Because I already put Amygdala in his drink!"

Sean nodded until he realized what she had said. "Wait, you put what?"

Gina shrank back in her chair. "Nothing."

"You have to tell me," Sean prodded. "If you drugged my friend's drink, I swear--"

"Okay, okay," she said, waving a hand. "I do some mysticism in my spare time. It's basically a love potion."

"What?" Sean said, squinting. "And...it works?"

Gina rolled her eyes. "Of course it works! Are you doubting my skill?"

"Okay," Sean said, slightly calmer. "What's going to happen?"

"He'll just...become suddenly consumed with romantic feelings towards Antonio."

Sean lifted an eyebrow.

"But don't worry," Gina assured. "I didn't put that much in. Only about half of what I put in yours."

Chapter Text

Sean, who was drinking from his glass of wine, suddenly opened his mouth, and liquid messily dribbled out of his lips.

"But it's obviously not working!" Gina said, her hands splayed out in demonstration. "You should be all over me by now. It must be because you're gay or something," she added in speculation.

Sean gave a laugh. He glanced over at Ben and Antonio, who were carrying on their conversation as normal. "Is it working on Ben?"

"I wouldn't expect it to just yet," Gina reasoned. "Like I said, I only used half the Penates." She saw Sean's confused expression, and rolled her eyes. "The Penates are what determines the potency; you get it from a flower. The stamens. Stamens?" She tried out different possible English pronunciations.

"Wait, so how long would it last?" Sean said, his face growing with concern.

"Low dose, so....a couple weeks?"

Sean thought for a moment, until the expression on his face changed. "He doesn't need to be anywhere for at least a month. He'll be fine." He waved a hand.

"Good," said Gina. She sat back, and laughter began to bubble up from inside of her.

Sean looked down, shaking his head with laughter. "I thought I had been on some weird dates before..."

***

"Antonio," Ben said, leaning over his pork stew. "What do you usually do when you're not at school?"

"Usually I stay here, work in the shop," Antonio explained. "I would like to go abroad, but there is never the money."

"Mmm-hmm," Ben said, taking a bite of meat. "Where would you like to go?"

"Oh," Antonio said, leaning back to ponder the question. "I want to go to Sweden and study design. But I heard it is...really cold there."

"Yeah, it might be kind of a shock to go from here to there," Ben said with a laugh.

"I do not even have a coat," Antonio said, smiling and shaking his head.

"I don't even know where my coat is," Ben pondered. "I think it's in Japan."

Antonio frowned. "I do not know how it is like to have this problem."

"Can't relate?" Ben grinned. "Yeah, that's what it's like when your parents live in two places. And you go to school in another. Which keeps changing."

"Why do you...change so much?" Antonio asked.

"It gets pretty boring." Ben leaned back in his chair. "I finally got fed up and ran away, tried living on my own for awhile."

"Living on your own?"

"Yeah," Ben said, taking a sip of wine. "This is really good, by the way. I don't normally like wine."

"I think it is a house wine," Antonio explained. "They always have some."

"Anyway," Ben continued, "I stopped talking to my parents and got a couple of jobs and a crappy apartment, and I was scraping by for awhile."

Antonio nodded slightly and frowned. "You left your family. And you worked instead of going to school."

Ben blinked. "Yeah, why?"

Antonio put his hands down on the table. "Why would you choose to do that? You could go anywhere. Your parents could afford it, and instead you chose to leave
them and work crappy jobs and live in a crappy apartment? I have to work my job because there is nothing else I can do, and I'm lucky I I even have that job. All young people are without jobs; I have an older sister and older brother who cannot work. And you can study wherever you want?"

"I guess you can put it that way." Ben folded his arms. "Sean was the one who finally convinced me to call my parents."

"Good," said Antonio. "You should have respect for your parents."

"Well, you didn't see how they basically ignored me for most of my childhood," Ben said with a shrug.

"That does not make sense," Antonio reasoned. "You are their only son. My parents have four children, so they split their attention between the each of us."

Ben looked over to the table where Sean and Gina were sitting. The two seemed to be having a lively conversation, waving their arms and laughing. Meanwhile,

Antonio was carefully cutting his plate of meat with a knife and fork.

***

"So, you must have done this, like, several times before?" Sean asked before eating a spoonful of gelato.

"Oh yes," Gina said, smiling as she took another sip of wine. "I don't have time for all that small talk and weeks of flirting wondering if it'll go anywhere. This way I can just get right to the part where we're a cute couple and then decide if I like him. If not, it'll wear off in a month. Or if I really hate him, there's a way to reverse it, but it's a bit...involved."

"Is there more wine?" Sean asked, holding up his glass.

"Just a little," Gina said, pouring the rest of the near-empty bottle. "I would feel bad, but the potion just amplifies feelings they already have." She laughed. "You must be pretty gay if you drank the whole thing and still feel the same."

Sean's face broke into a smile. "You got me."

Gina let out a low, rolling laugh. "I'm so glad you went on this date with me. I need a new gay best friend."

"What?" Sean laughed. "What about..." he pointed his thumb towards Antonio.

Gina scrunched up her face. "It gets old, being around him. He's lived here all his life, so his viewpoint is somewhat limited. But you must have gone a lot of interesting places, seen interesting things."

Sean frowned. "I guess I've worked with a lot of interesting people. There's, like, models, and actors, and quirky directors. Musicians?" He thought for a moment. "I've done a lot."

"Oh, right, you do make up," Gina said, leaning in on one elbow. She gasped, waving her hand in realization. "Could you do me?"

Sean tilted his head in thought. "Sure."

"Really?" She moved forward in her chair, filled with excitement.

"I don't have my kit," Sean explained. "But I could look at what you have."

"Can we go now?" Gina asked.

Sean blinked innocently. "Mmm-hmm."

***

"If you will make it into college, what do you think you will study?"

Ben rested the side of his face on his good arm as he mindlessly circled the base of his wine glass with his cast hand. "I don't know."

Antonio dabbed his mouth with a napkin. "You do not know what you want to do for a living?"

Ben slid his body further onto the table. "No. I wanted to become a magician, but now..." he trailed off, eventually finishing his answer with a noncommital shrug.

"I want to do urban planning," Antonio explained. "Here in Italy, everything is very old. There is no..." He grew quiet as he searched for an appropriate term. "There is no easy way to get around."

"Uh-huh," Ben said, his gaze remaining a vacant stare.

Antonio glanced at Ben and continued. "I do not know how I will live in the city. It is so expensive."

"You could just do what Sean did," Ben said, looking up at him with his palm upwards. "Date a rich actor and move in with him."

"Do what?" Antonio set down his silverware.

"I can't believe it took me until now to figure it out," Ben muttered to himself. He sat up and faced Antonio. "It's too late to keep it a secret. Sean is also gay; he's just pretending to go on a date with Gina."

"Are you sure about that?" Antonio said, looking behind him.

Ben turned to see Gina pulling Sean's arm and leading him upstairs. He snapped his head back to Antonio, a look of panic spread across his face as he gripped the table in front of him. "Where are they going?"

"You are seriously asking me that?" Antonio said, lifting an eyebrow. "Gina has dated a lot of guys since I have known her. Some better looking than others," he added.

Ben stared blankly at the table. "I have to go after them," he said, standing up.

"I am telling you, my advice is not to do that," Antonio said in a firm tone.

Ben hesitated, glancing back at the stairs leading up to the residence. Looking up at the ceiling, he asked. "Where is her room? Do you think we would hear them?"

Antonio drank from his glass of wine and shrugged.

***

"Okay," Gina said as she opened the door to her room and turned on the lights. Sean followed her, curiously taking in the surroundings. A few posters were tacked up on the walls, comics here and there. In one corner stood a tall case of books, an ecclectic mix in multiple languages. A mess of open books, old candles, dried plants, and pottery pieces sprawled across a vanity and end table, which she pushed aside. She pulled a pile of clothes off of an armchair in the corner and dropped them onto her perfectly made bed, pink floral bedspread and matching pillows.

"Please sit down," she offered.

Sean nodded once and slowly moved to the chair.

"This is what I have," Gina said as she rifled through the contents of a drawer, pulling out products to set on the desk surface. "I usually don't wear much, but I have some for special occasions. For dates," she said, flashing a sultry smile Sean's direction.

Sean stretched his arms over his head. "I think Ben called me out once for being a make up artist who doesn't wear make up."

Gina tilted her head jokingly. "What a shame." She looked in the mirror, leaning in to study her profile, brushing a strand of hair behind her ear. "Then how did you learn to do it?"

"My mom taught me." Sean kicked his feet and stood up, stepping to Gina's side to look at all the palettes she had laid out. "Look at me?"

Gina turned to look up at him, and he gently tilted her chin up, resting his other hand on his hip in consultation.

"I like the minimal look with what you have on already, so we can work on accentuating your features," Sean said, picking up the bottle of foundation.

"Minimal?" Gina protested. "This is more than I ever put on!"

"Not for television," Sean said, gently applying foundation to her jaw. "It's different when you have all those lights on you. I'll try to keep it simple, though."

"Wait, do you ever do more than just normal...stuff?"

Sean laughed. "Yes, I do special effects."

Gina's face lit up. "Can we do that?"

"Okay," Sean said, nodding in agreement. "What are we thinking?"

"Oooh..." Gina looked in the mirror. "Can we do something pale but with contrasting blue and purple, maybe a smoky eye?"

"Yeah...kind of a ghost princess look?"

Gina excitedly pointed a finger at him. "Yes!"

Sean rubbed his palms together, eyes scanning the eyeshadows in front of him. He picked up a brush and got to work, laying down a layer of white powder, and adding deep jewel tones to Gina's eyelids and along her cheekbones, finishing with a dark lip color.

"I love it!" Gina exclaimed, looking into the mirror, turning her head to admire the work. "Thank you."

"Sean?"

Sean glanced up at the doorway to see Ben step into the room. Ben jumped back at seeing Gina's face.

"I told you, you should not go," Antonio said, stepping behind him. "Oh," he said, taken aback at Gina's new look.

"Do you like it?" Gina asked him, grinning ear to ear.

"Sean, I can't do this anymore," Ben said, stepping towards him. "You have to tell her."

"Tell me what?" Gina said innocently.

"Relax," Sean said, neatly putting away Gina's line of open cosmetics. "She knows I'm gay."

"Oh, that," said Gina, waving a hand. "Sean already told me."

"Yeah," Ben said, looking satisfied before helpfully adding, "He has a boyfriend."

"Yeah," Sean repeated, nodding. His head snapped back to Ben. "Wait, what?"

Ben furrowed his brow. "Don't you? John."

"No," Sean protested, dropping his hands to his sides. "Why do you think I biked to your house in the middle of the night?"

"You said you were just avoiding him," Ben said, throwing out his hands.

"Yeah! And I want to continue avoiding him," Sean said, "for the rest of eternity."

"Why didn't you say so?!" Ben yelled. "Have you had feelings for me this whole time, too?"

"No!" Sean defended. He immediately dropped his face into his hands. "I don't know what happened. We literally just took an eight-hour nap together."

Gina watched them from her chair, looking quite entertained. Antonio seemed less thrilled.

Sean's face turned bitter. "Why would you still have feelings for me after the way I hurt you?"

"What are you talking about?" Ben said, his face puzzled.

"The way I refused to open up to you. And then when I was with John, trying to shove it in your face." He shook his head. "For fuck's sake, I'm here trying to impress an eighteen-year-old."

"No, I fucked up," Ben countered, "You had every right to break up with me. I crossed too many lines. And instead of being happy for you in your new relationship, I had to be a complete dick about it."

Sean blinked in surprise. "I don't want you to see me with anyone else," he concluded. "I don't want to be with anyone else."

"You don't want to be with anyone else," Ben said, "but you want me to be with someone else?"

Sean swallowed uncomfortably, his arms folded. "No. I mean, you should be with who you want."

"That's a stupid question," Ben contended. "I want to be with you."

A silence permeated the air between them.

Sean opened his mouth. "Then what are we doing--"

In an instant, Ben had walked toward him to place a hand on his shoulder and his lips on his. Sean closed his eyes as the kiss deepened, his hand running through the hair on the back of Ben's head. Once they pulled away, they embraced, Ben's neck fitting into Sean's shoulder.

"I don't want to see other people. I don't want you to see other people," Sean murmured.

Ben breathed a laugh. "Not even guys with spiderweb neck tattoos?"

Sean smiled. "Don't you go throwing up on another man's shoes, now."

They both laughed. Ben pulled away, locking eyes with Sean, his arms still holding him close. Sean leaned in to kiss Ben one more time, and as he pulled away, he saw that Ben's expression had changed, his eyes glazed over with a dumb grin plastered on his face.

"Hey," Sean said, affectionately rubbing Ben's arm. "What are you thinking?"

Ben craned his neck to look back at Antonio, who seemed more interested in the situation, having seen such a public display of male affection. Ben pushed away from Sean and started walking towards him.

"Hey," Ben said. "I like your shirt."

"Umm...thank you," Antonio said, appearing as puzzled as everyone else in the room when Ben leaned in towards his neck.

"You smell good, too," Ben said, placing a hand on Antonio's shoulder. "Want to get out of here?" he voiced into his ear.

Sean staggered backwards into the armchair and fell into it. He rested his elbows on his knees and slowly buried his face in his hands.

"What is it that you are doing?" Antonio demanded, pushing Ben's hand off of him.

Gina sat quietly. "The Amygdala," she spoke, eyes wide.

"Gina!" Antonio scolded, keeping Ben at arm's length. "Che cosa hai fatto?"

"Niente!"

Sean listened as they quickly sparred in their native tongue. Meanwhile, Ben still had that stupid grin on his face, pawing affectionately at Antonio, who angrily shoved him off.

"Okay," Sean said firmly as he stood up and pulled Ben's arm to drag him away. "Babe, let's go."

"Ooh, 'babe,'" Ben giggled. "So gay, I love it. Hey, babe," he said, waving flirtily to Antonio.

"Gina, you said there was a way to reverse it," Sean said, trying his best to ignore Ben, still holding onto his arm so he wouldn't wander off.

"Yes," Gina said. "But like I said, it's kind of complicated." She stood up to pull a thick book out from the shelves, and when opened, it appeared to be a scrapbook of photocopies of old texts in some bizarre language.

"What is that?" Sean wondered aloud.

"That's the liver," Gina said, slowly turning to a page with an irregular round shape. "Good thing we don't need it for this. Such a pain. You get blood everywhere." She turned the page to a series of photographs of the strange writings etched in cloth. "Most of these are linen wrappings from mummies. It's all we have left. Here."

She pulled the book closer and carefully followed the text with her finger. Antonio stood behind her with his arms folded impatiently.

"Yeah...uh-huh," Gina said, eyes skimming the text. Finally she looked up. "It will take all night. I hope you're up for a lot of walking."

"Do I have to come?" Antonio complained.

"Both you and Ben," said Gina, closing the book and pulling a satchel off the floor to gather the necessary supplies.

"I'll go anywhere you go," Ben assured him with a dreamy smile. He took a step towards Antonio, but was stopped as Sean hooked an arm around his waist.

With his free hand, Sean reached into his own back pocket to pull out John's buzzing phone. "Adam, what's up?"

"Who is that?" Gina whispered to Ben.

Ben shrugged, smiling as he idly swayed from side to side.

"I told you, I have his phone, and I don't know where he is. I could give you some other numbers to try, maybe?"

"Alright, is everyone ready to go?" Gina said, standing up with the satchel slung over one shoulder.

"These shoes cannot get wet," Antonio protested.

"You may want to change," Gina recommended. He nodded and left the room.

"Look, Adam, I'm gonna have to call you back; I have to go do some midnight forest demon ritual shit," Sean said, shifting his weight onto one leg. "I'll text you some other numbers, and if he doesn't show up by then, give me a call...Okay, bye."

"I want to go with Antonio," Ben whined. He slipped out of Sean's arm and almost made it out the room before Sean lunged to grab him by the elbow.

"Gina, you didn't say it was going to turn him into a five-year-old," Sean said with a sigh, as Ben curiously took the phone from Sean's hands.

"The effects vary with each person, but this sort of dependence is typical," Gina admitted. "You seem to be doing a good job of looking after him, though, so keep it up." She clapped a hand on his shoulder as she glided towards the door.

Sean stood there, speechless.

"Doesn't Antonio just have the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen?" Ben said, lost in reverie.

***

"Where are we going?" Ben asked. The four of them were trekking up a hillside under a starry night sky.

"It's in a forest on the other side of this hill," Gina explained. She led the group with a flashlight in hand. "Although we'll need to come back here before sunrise. We have to watch for the first birds to fly over."

"This is kind of weird," Sean said, his arm lifting as Ben attempted to wander off, his hand gently pulling back on Ben's wrist. "Did you get all this off the internet or something?"

"It's all based on ancient pagan rituals," said Gina.

"You think she is kidding," Antonio cut in, "but part of the founding of Rome was based on bird watching."

Sean stopped, his face blank with thought.

Ben stood beside him. "He's so smart," he gushed.

Sean's eyes closed before he continued walking, pulling Ben alongside him.

"So," Gina said. "You never really told the story of how you two met. How did you start dating?" Her face pulled a wide grin.

"I don't know, Ben, do you remember?" Sean gently prodded.

"Well, me and Antonio first met at the shop. I come on Monday mornings because I know he works then."

Antonio turned his head to give an expression of mixed surprise and confusion. "You came to see me?"

"Well, duh!" Ben exclaimed, swinging Sean's arm back and forth as he walked. "I've only been crushing on you since I moved home for the summer."
Antonio almost stopped, his eyes trailing the ground as he hid the light tint on his face.

"Antonio didn't think anyone could have a crush on him," Gina joked. "Anyone who's not a girl, anyway."

"No, it is nothing, I--" Antonio scratched the back of his neck, searching for another topic. "So, how did you two meet?"

"Us two?" Ben asked.

"Remember, we were at my school," Sean said, giving his hand a squeeze.

Ben's face fell. "I don't want to say it in front of Antonio," he said, his voice full of genuine concern.

"I don't care," Antonio said flatly. "You can say anything."

Ben still hesitated.

"Go on," Sean said.

"We were on campus," Ben began, taking a deep breath to recount the story. "I was doing a show, and I had a whole crowd of people gathered around. And somehow in that large group of people, I saw Sean standing in the back, like, the most beautiful person I had ever seen. So I went out on a limb and called him forward to be a volunteer. I was so nervous the entire time."

"You were nervous?" Sean marveled. "You're never nervous."

"I guess I had enough misdirection to fool everyone. The cards were shaking in my hands."

Sean was speechless.

"And then Sean came to visit me at work all the time," Ben explained. "How do you think I got the idea?"

Antonio lifted an eyebrow.

"I still have yet to see one of these card tricks," Gina remarked. "Can you show me sometime?"

"Oh, um," Ben said, scratching the back of his neck with his cast arm. "I haven't done magic in awhile." He paused before adding, "It's kind of hard since I broke my arm."

"Yes," Antonio said with intrigue. "How, exactly, you...broke?"

"I got hit by a car," Ben responded immediately, his attention fully restored to Antonio.

Sean was silent, his eyes flicking back and forth between Ben and Antonio in the dim light.

"What happened?" Antonio wondered. "Are American drivers really so dangerous?"

"No, I was just distracted," Ben said. "I had just seen Sean on a date with his boyfriend."

"That date was a complete disaster," Sean interjected. "And I seem to remember when he came to visit me in the hospital, you told him you were my boyfriend."

"You heard that?" Ben said, his endearing smile towards Antonio falling as he suddenly felt self conscious. "I didn't know you were awake yet."

"Hearing that must have scared John at least a little, considering he watched me literally sprint to help you after the accident."

Ben shrugged. "You woke up and suddenly everything was rainbows and sunshine between you two."

Sean rubbed his face. "Yeah," he said, after a pause.

Ben stood still beside him and he followed suit. Ben placed a hand on Sean's arm. "You okay?" he said softly.

Sean closed his eyes and took a deep breath before nodding.

"Are you sure?" Ben asked. "It's only been, like, two days."

Sean could make out Ben's face in the moonlight. He was close, Sean could hear his steady breathing, a calming sound. Before he could process the range of emotions that surfaced in that moment, Ben turned away.

"Antonio, have you ever been in love?" Ben said, skipping to catch up with him.

Sean breathed a sigh, feeling the darkness wrap around him like a blanket before he got his bearings and ran to catch up with the group.

***

"This is it," Gina said as the path in the woods diverged around a large bolder. With one hand, she rummaged through her shoulder bag. "Antonio."

He took the candlestick from her upon request, holding it steady while she found a lighter.

"Okay," she breathed, lighting the candle. Sean and Ben lingered behind her as she began making motions around the flame, whispering chants in some other language. She pressed her fingertips into the bolder.

The air was silent for a moment as she stayed still.

"Did it work?" Ben wondered aloud.

"Shhh," Gina said, closing her eyes. After a few seconds, a new sound could be heard crashing quietly in the distance behind them.

Antonio turned his head. "Is that--?"

Through the trees, a black ocean threw waves upon a shore.

"I didn't think we were anywhere near the ocean," Sean remarked.

"We're not," Gina replied. "Don't tell anyone there's an ocean here; there isn't supposed to be."

She motioned for everyone to follow her towards the shore, however reluctantly.

"We have to do it again," Gina said quietly to Antonio, who nodded and held out the candle. She lit the flame, performing another series of gestures, and when she blew out the flame, a massive windstorm suddenly gathered, circling around them with the mist of the sea.

Antonio stood calmly and firmly; meanwhile, Sean and Ben held onto each other for support. Ben pointed to the horizon, where a dark figure stood on the surface of the water, slowly approaching them.

Gina smiled as the female figure came into view, a watery mirage in a long dress whose facial features somehow referenced Gina's make up, apart from the two almond-shaped eyes, empty and white, glowing faintly.

"Good evening," the spirit said, her voice sounding like bubbles on top of her serious tone. "I am the council representative to assist you today. What is your query?"
Gina stepped forward. "Amygdala reversal. I have with me the target and the affected."

"Yes, I see," the spirit said, looking from Antonio to Ben, as Ben broke his connection with Sean and threw his arms around Antonio. "One moment and I will return with a decision from the council."

The spirit faded from view, almost as though her image had blown away with the wind. Sean looked to Antonio, who made a scowl as he slowly pushed Ben off of him.

"A decision has been made," the spirit said, returning so quickly that the four of them jumped at hearing her voice. "The amygdala will be completely reversed. But we must also take custody of him."

"Custody of who?" Gina asked in surprise. "Antonio? You can't have him, I'm sorry--"

"Not him, him," the spirit said, pointing to Sean.

"That doesn't make sense," Gina argued, her tone raising. "You don't need Sean; he's not even involved in this."

As she spoke, Sean started shaking.

"What's going on--" his voice was cut off as the spirit grabbed his hand and began to pull away, the storm around them growing louder as she floated backwards, taking Sean with her.

"No, Sean!" Ben yelled, grabbing Sean's other hand to pull him to shore. Antonio put his arms around Ben's waist to anchor him to the ground as they attempted to pull Sean back. The force was too strong, and their hands let go, Sean disappearing into the distance, desperately mouthing words that he could not say.

***

Ben awoke to a bright blue sky and the sound of the ocean, the feeling of sand between his toes. He sat up and yawned, looking around the beach, shaking the sand off his cast. His eyes met Gina's, who slowly reached similar realizations. She shook Antonio's shoulder.

"Where...are we?" Antonio asked, rubbing his eyes as he sat up.

"We didn't get transported back..." Gina's voice trailed off as she became lost in thought. Her makeup was partially washed off, making her face a patchwork of different tones.

Ben tried to remember what had happened the night before: the three of them walking through the forest, coming to the beach, and then--

He felt a buzzing object in his pocket. He pulled out the cellphone and answered. "Hello?"

"Hi, Sean?"

Ben paused before responding. "Who?"

"Sean?" Adam's voice repeated.

"This is Ben," he replied.

"Oh, Ben!" Adam's voice sounded more friendly. "John said Sean might be with you. Hey, are you guys back together or something?"

Again, Ben was confused. He decided on a simple answer, "I don't know."

"Well, okay," Adam said with a laugh. "Hey. I was calling to let him know that John picked me up this morning and everything's fine, but also, my concert in Rome is tonight, and you should totally come!"

"Okay..." Ben said, looking up at Gina and Antonio, who were listening in on his half of the conversation.

"Alright then--"

"Wait!" Ben said, as his realization of the situation became apparent. But the other end of the line was dead, and, pulling the phone away from his ear, he saw the screen had turned black.

"What happened?" Gina called to him.

"Dead battery," he said, tossing the object into the sand.

"Shit," Gina said, leaning back on one arm. "As you say. And who was that, anyway?"

"Adam," Ben replied. He twisted his face in thought before answering again. "Adam Eaton."

"Adam Eaton?" Gina said, her voice dripping with irony. "Adam Eaton the pop singer?"

"Yeah." Ben stared down at his feet, trying to recall what had happened. Antonio was watching the conversation with interest, not saying a word.

"Alright, so what is pop singer Adam Eaton doing calling you?"

"It's not my phone, it's John's," Ben answered, rolling his eyes. He had to give further thought to the statement. "His tour manager?"

"Right," Gina said, pretending to follow along as though his story made sense. "So why do you have Adam Eaton's tour manager's phone?"

Ben pressed his lips together. "I don't know," he finally answered.

Gina sighed. "Could Sean have something to do with it?"

Ben furrowed his brow. "Yeah, Adam kept saying that name for some reason, like I know who that is..."

Gina stood up as her face dawned with realization. "Ben," she said, pointing to him.

"Yeah?" he looked up at her unamused.

"You know Antonio, right?" She pointed to Antonio, who glanced back at him expressionlessly.

"Yeah," Ben said.

"You don't want to, I don't know, run off and get married with him?"

Ben frowned. "I don't want to offend Antonio, if that's what he wants to do," he said, glancing at the other boy. "But if I'm being honest, we didn't hit it off so well on our date last night."

Gina and Antonio looked at each other in excitement.

"It worked!" Gina exclaimed. "The reversal was a success. But as a side effect, it seems you've lost your entire memory of Sean."

"What do you mean, I don't remember him?" Ben countered. "I don't even know who that is."

"Don't worry about it. Instead worry about how we're going to get back."

She stood up and found a stick, began quietly and thoughtfully drawing lines in the sand.

"This is dumb," Antonio said. "Are you sure you can even get us back?"

"No," Gina said. "But do you have any better ideas?"

Antonio frowned. "Hey you," he said in Ben's direction while making his way up to his feet. "There has to be some sort of town or people or something around. I'll head this way along the beach and you go that way; turn around if you find anything."

"That's unlikely," said Gina, without looking up from what she was doing. "But go ahead."

Ben nodded, standing up. "This way, you said?"

"Yes. I'll go this way." Antonio pointed down the other end of the beach.

"I'll see you later then," Ben said, and he began making his way in the opposite direction. Gina just shook her head to herself.

***

Chapter Text

Ben had been walking for some time as he stopped to rest on a rocky outcropping overlooking the water. The sun overhead signaled it was noon, and he had not seen anything to indicate that they weren't completely lost in the wilderness. He looked over the blue waves, catching his breath. Then, out of the corner of his eyes, he saw a flicker of light across the waves.

Ben shook his head in disbelief. He opened his eyes, carefully scanning the surface. He jumped when he saw it again, the outline of a head and shoulders appearing in the distance. He stood up.

"Hey!" he called.

The figure didn't notice. After another minute it disappeared beneath the waves. Ben blinked, wondering if he imagined it. No, he decided. He began taking off his clothes, stripping down to his underwear and the cast his doctor told him not to get wet. He shrugged off that advice and jumped in the water.
Ben swam out towards the horizon where he had seen the figure. With his injured arm, it took time, as he weakly dogpaddled against the rolling waves. He made it further away from shore and saw nothing. He dove below the surface to see fish staring back at him, darting around as he moved towards them, a larger one moving to hide behind a rock.

Having given up, he returned to the surface. The sky was no longer blue, but instead an eggshell pink.

Ben hurried to return to Gina and Antonio, who were gathered around a fire in the dimming light.

"Oh, there you are," Gina said, hardly looking up. "We wondered where you went."

"Yeah, I got sidetracked," Ben said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sorry."

"Antonio caught some animal in the forest, if you're hungry," Gina said, holding out a stick with something burnt on one end.

"I'm good," Ben said, holding up a hand.

"We are on an island," Antonio said, sullenly looking into the fire. "I walked around the whole beach and returned here to find Gina. I am surprised we did not see each other."

"I don't know how were going to get back to Italy," Gina said, shaking her head. "I tried every incantation that I could think of. But how was your day?"

"Nothing much. I mean, it was alright. I didn't find anything." Ben laid back in the sand and stared up at the stars.

"It sounds like we all had an exciting day," Antonio said dryly. Everyone was relatively quiet for the rest of the night.

***

Ben woke up to the red glow of sunrise, the gentle sound of waves crashing on the shore. He sat up and shook the sand from his hair. Gina and Antonio were still asleep, spread out along the beach, lying on brush from the forest. Ben stood up and walked past them, following the water.

When he reached the rocky outcropping, he looked out over the horizon, his eyes searching for anything unusual. He felt his footing slip, and as he grabbed the rock for stability, he heard a splashing noise in the water below. Quickly glancing down over the ledge, he saw a shadow move beneath the waves.

"Hello?" he called, acting on some strange idea that whatever was down there, living or inanimate, could hear him.

He undressed again, hiding his clothes behind a rock before wading out into the water, just noticing the rain droplets on his skin. As he began to swim out, he paddled with his cast arm, still able to make a decent speed. He swam further, and the rain began to fall harder, the rough waves pulling him out to sea. Soon, he stopped to tread water, and found that he couldn't see the shore from any angle. The waves became rougher, and he panicked, unsure which way to turn, and even if he knew the right direction, the water would win over with its forceful will. He felt his body being pushed and pulled, and suddenly he was being pulled under. The blackness of the water flooded his vision, and he watched his breaths float away as he struggled for air. He was sinking slowly, his limbs unable to follow his direction, and after the last vain attempt he saw the last light fade.

The light came back again, and his eyes opened slowly, adjusting to the bright rays of sun shining through parted clouds. A beautiful face hung above his, and lazily, he smiled, before beginning to cough up the water that was left in his system. He sat up and his elbows dug into the sand as he cleared his throat. His peripherals had caught the motion to his side and he froze, his gaze focusing on the iridescence of the black tail resting next to his feet. His eyes followed along the shape, seeing where scales melted into flesh. His eyes widened at the sight of the bare chested young man, sitting beside him with a calm, observant expression.

"Hi," was all Ben managed to say.

The mer blinked. The air was silent between them, apart from the sound of the wind and the waves.

"Uh..." Ben realized his mouth was hanging open. "What's your name?"

The mer closed his eyes and shook his head.

"You can't speak?" Ben concluded. He stared off into the distance, lost in thought. "You saved me."

Next to him, the mer kept his gaze upon Ben. Saying nothing. Ben was startled when their eyes met again, and he felt himself shaking. It was then he realized how
cold he felt. He folded his arms.

"This is embarrassing," he said, glancing around the beach. "I don't remember where I left my clothes."

Ben awkwardly tried to stand, but the creature placed a hand on his shoulder. Ben turned his attention to the mer, slowly returning to a seated position. "What? Where I come from, we wear clothes."

The mer simply pointed to a spot on his hip, where his wet shorts clung to his skin. When Ben didn't respond, he traced a shape in the sand.

Ben squinted. "Is that...Florida?" He swallowed, shaking nervously. "How do you know I have a birthmark there that looks like Florida? Did you...what did you do to me?!"

The mer glanced away and shook his head.

"Hey, Ben! There you are!"

Ben looked up to see Gina approaching him. As she drew nearer, she caught sight of the creature.

"Sorry," Gina said with increased attitude. "Am I interrupting something?"

Ben looked to the mer, his face flushed. "What? No, um," he said as he quickly rose to his feet. At the same time, the mer had inched closer to the water.

"Isn't that your boyfriend?" Gina pointed out.

"Boyfriend?" Ben repeated, his voice filled with confusion.

"Sean?" Gina said. "You lost all memory of him?"

"You mean that's Sean?" Ben said pointing his thumb back at the mer. Gina nodded, and as Ben turned to look at the creature again, he saw he had ridden back out to sea with the waves. "Hey, wait!"

"I guess he's gone now," Gina remarked, but Ben took off running. He made his way up the rocky outcropping and stopped to lean over the water.

"Hey!" he called again. After a moment of no answer, he reluctantly called, "Sean?"

After a few seconds a face emerged in the water below. The mer eyed him silently.

Gina appeared behind Ben, causing him to jump slightly when he took notice of her.

"We've found a way back," she explained. "But we have to go now. Antonio's still holding the door open." She glanced down at the pile clothes hidden behind a rock.

"These are yours?" She asked, picking up the damp mass and holding it out to him.

"Uh, yeah," Ben said briskly. He took them and quickly threaded an arm through the sleeve of his shirt. "But we're not taking him with us?"

Gina glanced down at the water, where Sean had quietly slipped back under the surface. "I don't think so."

Ben's face fell as he lost sight of the boy.

"Don't worry," Gina consoled him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "You'll probably see him again. Mermaids are generally resourceful creatures. Come on."

Ben nodded quietly as he finished pulling on his pants. He looked back at the empty waves before he followed Gina back to the beach.

***

It was late afternoon when Antonio, Gina, and Ben finally made it back to town. As they passed outside the shop where Antonio worked, a preteen girl came running out to meet him.

"Antonio!" she called, looking pleased with herself. She began speaking quickly, her arms folded.

"What's up?" Ben asked Gina in a hushed tone as he watched the conversation.

Gina rubbed her face. "Merda. She's saying we were gone for a couple weeks."

"A couple weeks? You mean a couple days?" Ben said, bewildered.

Gina just shook her head.

When Ben reached the front door to the villa, he reluctantly rang the doorbell. After a few minutes, the housekeeper answered.

"Oh! Benito! You're just in time for dinner. Please come in." She held the door open for him and he thanked her before making his way to the dining room.

Before he even entered, he could hear them talking.

"What if he ran off again?"

"He's been through a lot. I'm sure he's just out with his friend."

"But why would he leave his phone? We have no way to contact him--"

Both of them looked up in surprise to see him.

Ben waved awkwardly. "Hi, Mom. Dad."

Vittoria immediately came to hug him. "Where have you been?" She looked down at his clothes, which were mostly dry, but deeply soiled.

"We got lost in the woods. Me and some other kids."

His mother's eyes widened and she pulled him more tightly against her. "Dio mio."

"How irresponsible!" his father exclaimed, standing up from the table. "You told no one where you were going?"

"I'm sorry," Ben said quietly.

His mother looked him in the eyes. "And where is your friend? Sean?"

Ben's face felt confusion for a brief moment before he realized what she was talking about. "Uh, he left. He went back...to..."

"To America?" She hugged him a third time. "Don't worry, you'll see him again. Your father has some news." She looked to him with anticipation.

Kouyama looked less pleased. He sighed, setting aside the current situation. "You've been accepted into Steel City University for the fall. Of course, you will be on
academic probation and you must meet with an adviser regularly. You start next week."

"I start...I'm going back to Steel City?" It was a nice place, what he could recollect. Somehow, having lived there a whole year, he couldn't remember much.

"That is correct."

Ben felt his jaw hang open with surprise.

"Congratulations," his mother said, shaking his shoulders. "I'm so proud of you. Now, go upstairs and change before you sit down."

Ben just nodded.

Once he had changed into a clean shirt and jeans, Ben opened the door to leave his bedroom, but he heard something buzz. Lying on the covers of his bed was his phone with a call from an unknown number.

He frowned and gave a shrug before answering. "Hello?"

"Ben!" It was John's voice. "I'm so glad I found your number. Listen, have you seen Sean at all?"

Ben paused, but he reminded himself what had happened. "No."

"Really? Adam said he called you earlier, that he was with you?"

Ben glanced at the floor, where an unfamiliar dufflebag lay on the ground. "No, I was with some other people."

"Damn," John sighed. "I've got his parents calling, wondering where the hell he is, because he starts school next week, and actually he was supposed to visit them
yesterday, but I don't know where he went ever since he ran off. I called him and he said he was 'with a friend,' and I'm sure he meant you. Are you sure you haven't seen him?"

Ben pondered his options, trying to remember why he felt so negatively toward this man, when he couldn't remember anything he had done wrong. If anything, it must have had something to do with Sean.

"Hello?" John said, his voice agitated and impatient.

"I don't know what to tell you," Ben said flatly. "I haven't seen him, and I haven't even heard from him, like, text or anything in the past month."

John sighed again. "Right. Well, if you hear from him, you'll let me know?"

Ben felt numb. "Yeah."

"Okay, well, talk to you later."

Ben hung up and dropped the phone back on the bed. He knelt down by the dufflebag and began to rifle through its contents. He pulled out a shirt and held it up to his face. It smelled good. Why did it smell so good?

In the side pocket he found a passport, which added a new layer of bizarre to the situation. Despite the stiff, frontal quality of the passport photo, he still somehow recognized it was the same face as the stunningly beautiful creature he had seen, what felt like just hours ago. The name was there, Sean Goodin. Finding his phone again, he searched through his contacts and no one named Sean existed. Strange, he thought. If he really was close with this person, he would at least have his contact information, less than text him regularly. Yet in his list of recent text messages, there was no Sean. He scrolled down the list. makeupboy3000? When did he add that? He checked the messages, one from three weeks ago, "Hey I have drinks where r u." Further back from that, texts about how he and John were going to come visit Ben. At some point Ben had asked them how long they had been dating and he said "a while, like a couple months." If this was Sean, then why was he with--

"Benito! Are you coming?" It was the housekeeper, knocking on the door.

Ben set down the phone. "Coming!"

***

"So how is your school?"

"It's alright." Ben ate a spoonful of cereal as he skyped Gina from his dorm room. "One of the professors is a real prick, but the homework seems to be okay. I'm just glad to finally have my cast off. What have you been up to?"

"Oh, the usual. For me, classes don't start for a couple weeks. I'm going to miss being at home, though; all my stuff is here. I've been working on a new spell."

"Yeah?" Ben asked. "How's that?"

She scooted her chair towards the table she was sitting at. "It's based on the amygdala, but like, the friends version. I'm trying to use it on the owner of the bookshop to get him to give me a discount."

"Aw, you and your manipulating people," Ben said with a harsh laugh.

"It's not so bad," Gina contended. "It doesn't last that long, anyway. Only a couple hours."

"Do you have to put on that whole monster makeup again?"

Gina blinked. "No, Sean did that." Upon seeing Ben's blank expression, she added, "You still don't remember?"

"I don't know anything about him," Ben explained. "I have his passport. Some of his stuff." Ben scratched the back of his neck. Every article of clothing he was wearing belonged to Sean. Just a strange fascination he had, the sense of comfort he gained from it.

"Sean told me he was a professional make up artist, so I asked him if he could do me, and he agreed. Pretty nice of him."

"It has to be him, then..." Ben trailed off.

Gina spoke up. "I'm sorry?"

"I have, um, this name in my contact list that I think his him." Ben pulled out his phone. "But he just talks about dating this other guy."

Gina looked pensive. "Oh. I think he mentioned he had a boyfriend. He didn't want to talk about it. Then you said he had a boyfriend."

"So Sean had a boyfriend, but also, I'm his boyfriend?"

"That's the thing, you pointed out he had a boyfriend and he said that wasn't true. And then you guys...confessed your feelings for each other, or whatever." She waved a hand as she spoke.

Ben sat back, his jaw hung open slightly. "And you think he really meant it?"

"Yes!" Gina hissed, rolling her eyes. "He said you and him used to date." She watched his blank expression. "Last year? You met while he was going to school in Steel City."

Ben pulled out the phone and started scrolling back the list of texts. There was a period of a few months where they didn't talk, where Ben had sent a sort of check in,

"How's it going?" with no response. And then, back in April, a very bizarre conversation about meeting up for an event. Ben couldn't remember ever meeting this person, and yet, here he was having an intimate exchange of inside jokes, half sentences and words that both parties seemed to understand, pictures of memes sent.

He was the one who sent them. And Sean simply responded with a mix of letters, "asjflkjklajk."

"It was pretty obvious," Gina continued. "You two practically made out in front of us."

Ben's brow furrowed. "And...and he was a mermaid?"

"No!" Gina sighed. "He was a normal walking, talking human. Well, we can never know for sure if he was always that way."

Ben frowned. "And why was he dating that other guy--"

"Just go find him already," Gina interrupted. "Is there a beach near you? Find somewhere secluded and and bring something smelly."

"Smelly?" Ben wrinkled his nose. "Like some trash?"

"No, I mean smelly as in something he can use to track you. Like it really smells." She gasped in realization. "You said you have his old things?"

Ben lifted an eyebrow. "Yes."

"Bring that. And lemons. Mermaids love lemons. I think it's the sour taste."

"But I'm not in Italy," Ben contended. "How is he going to find me all the way over in Steel City?"

"That's what the smell is for. Go to the ocean and he'll find you."

***

The sun was setting as Ben got off the bus, a short walk to the beach. He had been to the pier just a few blocks from the arcade, but it was crowded with tourists. The place he picked was far on the outskirts of town, almost to Grenville. He walked down the boat ramp and settled on the edge of the concrete structure, dipping his feet into the water below. Apart from a few people passing by, the area was empty on a Friday night. Quiet. He pulled a bag of sour patch kids and ate a couple. The gas station he had stopped at on the way didn't have any lemons. He checked his watch. How long was this supposed to take?

"What are you doing here?"

Ben looked up the dock next to him to see an old man carrying a fishing pole and tackle box.

"Sorry, do you need me to leave?" Ben asked.

"No, the beach doesn't close until 9. But is there a reason a young man like you is sitting all alone on the dock?"

Ben closed one eye as he looked up at him, blocking the sun's glare from the water. "I go to school in town; I'm just trying to get some fresh air."

"Ah." The old man gave a nod and walked away.

The sky was turning red and a few gulls flew overhead. Ben sat there for a minute, watching the waves in silence. He pulled up the hood on Sean's sweatshirt and fell onto his back, looking up at the clear sky as his toes still kicked back and forth in the water, his feet raising and submerging themselves as some sort of baptism ritual. He closed his eyes and listened to the waves gently pushing around, crashing against the surface below him.
The next thing he knew, someone was shaking his arm. He sat up in realization of where he was, the dark night faintly illuminated by distant streetlights and floodlights stationed further up the dock.

Ben shook the hand off his arm. "Yeah, sorry, I'm going, I was just--"

A pair of deep brown eyes silently stared into him. The creature was perched on the pavement beside him, tail splashing gently in the water next to Ben's feet.
Ben blinked. "It's you, you're here, I--"

He froze as the being slowly reached across him, never breaking his gaze. Ben felt his own pulse pounding hard in his neck, feeling a cool breath against it. He heard something rustle beside him, and suddenly Sean was back to sitting next to him, munching on a handful of sour patch kids.

Ben realized he had been holding his breath, and finally breathed. He listened to the waves in the dark, a calming rhythm.

"Sean," he said. The creature tilted his head in a sort of recognition. Ben tried to focus on what he wanted to say. "I don't remember you."

The creature raised an eyebrow and continued to snack casually on the gummy candies.

"But you remember me?"

The creature locked eyes with him again, capturing his gaze instantly. He pointed to Ben's hip.

"What?" Ben said, as the realization came to him of Sean's behavior the last time they met. "My birthmark."

Sean blinked.

Ben's thoughts danced around the memory. He remembered what Gina said. Sean said you used to date. "I've only ever slept with one person." Ben rested his arms on his knees. "Never went back to that school. But what you're saying is true? We've been...together?"

Sean said nothing, but just continued to eat candy, looking out over the ocean.

"This is bizarre," Ben said, shaking his head loosely. He pulled out his phone and opened up the text chat. "This is you?" he asked, holding it out to Sean.
Sean took the device, the screen lighting up his face in the dark.

"Can you type something out?" Ben said, leaning towards him.

Sean touched the keys on the screen, leaving water droplets where his skin touched the surface. He handed it back, shaking his head.

Ben felt a shock as their hands touched; the phone clattered as it fell onto pavement. "Your hands are so cold." He took one of Sean's hands in his, cradling it as he brought it close to his chest. "Are you cold? I can give you my sweatshirt. Your sweatshirt?"

Sean smiled and shook his head.

"Right, you're a fish," Ben said, breathing a laugh. "The water's probably warm enough for you."

Sean leaned back, splashing his tail out of the water. Ben tried to be polite and not stare at his half naked body, despite their earlier conversation.

"I don't want to be--" Ben stopped mid-sentence to clear his throat. "I don't want to be rude, but you're kind of the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

Sean raised an eyebrow, glancing at Ben up and down from his leisurely position.

"Hey, who's there?"

Ben jumped, twisting his neck to see the silhouette of the old man in the distance. He heard Sean slip into the water beside him.

"Hey, wait, Sean!" Ben whispered, leaning over the water.

Sean's face emerged from the surface of the water.

"Meet me here tomorrow afternoon!" he said, and Sean simply glanced up at him before sinking back under the waves.

"What are you doing here?" The old man demanded as he approached Ben.

"Nothing," Ben said, standing up. He nervously ran a hand through his hair. "I fell asleep. I'm leaving now."

"Good," the man said. "The beach is closed."

***

"Sean!"

Ben watched the waves from the secluded corner of the dock. Despite the overcast skies, a few people were out and about, a family lowering kayaks into the waters over by the ramp. He waited what felt like a minute, his hands fidgeting anxiously. It was too long; Ben picked up his backpack and turned to walk away when suddenly, he heard a splashing sound at the edge of the water. His head snapped back to see Sean resting his elbows on the edge of the dock, looking up at him with a slight smile.

"Hey, Sean!" Ben said, rushing to kneel beside him. He looked around the area. "The coast is clear."

He held out his arm, but Sean pulled himself up alone.

"Here," Ben said, unfolding the wheelchair he had brought with him. "I borrowed it from the drama department."

Sean climbed into the wheelchair as Ben held it still. Ben set his backpack on the ground and started rummaging through it. He pulled a blanket over Sean's glistening mermaid tail.

"I have some of your old clothes," Ben said, handing him a shirt. Instead of taking it, Sean just pointed to him. Ben laughed. "Fine," he said, taking off the t-shirt he was wearing before he handed it to Sean.

He watched as Sean dressed himself, starting to look the part of quiet wheelchair kid.

"It's kind of weird," Ben noted. "It looks like we went swimming, but only you got wet--"

Just as he said those words, Sean reached out and pushed him into the water.

"Hey," Ben said with a laugh after he came up for air. "They're going to have to re-wrap my cast again."

Sean flicked some water off his tail and hit him in the face.

"Ugh," Ben said, pulling himself out of the water, unable to hide a smile.

He put on the dry clothes he had grabbed earlier while running out the door of his dorm to make the bus, one of Sean's button ups that was too big for him, some old ripped jeans.

"This is so gay," Ben said in a low voice.

Sean folded his arms, looking pleased.

"Alright, let's go." Ben began to roll the wheelchair, but Sean swatted his arms away, and began to roll the wheelchair himself.

***

"Thank you," Ben said, taking the two green tea lattes from the barista and returning to the table, where Sean looked up from his notepad. Sean carefully took the mug with a nod.

"So..." Ben said slowly as he sat down. He reached for the notebook. "Whatcha writing there?"

Sean brushed Ben's hand away and returned to his writing. After some time, he sat back and pushed it towards Ben.

Ben held the notebook up to his face and squinted. "This is just the lyrics to Hotline Bling written in a fancy script," he said, sliding it back across the table. Sean gave a shrug, sipping on his latte.

"So," Ben said, leaning back on his chair. Sean slapped a hand on the notebook and pulled it towards him before picking up a pen. "Where are you from, exactly?" Ben asked.

He watched Sean scribble something hastily on the paper, pausing part way through, lost in thought, before finishing the sentiment and sliding it towards Ben.

"You're from the sea-- well no shit," Ben said, dropping his arm to his side. Sean smirked into his latte as Ben continued to read. "But you washed ashore in Hawaii where your human parents found and raised you. So why did you come here to Steel City?"

Sean rolled his eyes, dragging the notebook towards him and writing another sentence to give to Ben.

"'You were at the beach and I found you.' You know, Gina didn't say anything about you being a smartass."

Sean grinned, and Ben burst into laughter.

"I don't know what I expected this to be like," Ben said, resting his head on his elbow as Sean finished writing a further explanation. He picked up the notebook and read further. "'I got into Steel City University and studied there for a few years while also working as a freelance makeup artist.' Really? Did you work with, like, famous people?"

Sean tilted his head in thought.

"Wait, Adam! He called and asked if we were together. He was having a concert? And something about John Brandon? I still have his phone for some reason."

Suddenly, Sean's expression changed.

"Oh." Ben rubbed his forehead. "Sorry. Gina mentioned you dated someone else, and you talked about him in some old texts."

Sean sat back in his chair, gently glancing down at the table.

Ben took a sip of tea and set his mug down. "This is just so weird because I don't know anything about you. Like what do you know about me?" He thought for a moment, remembering the incident on the beach. "You probably know a lot about me."

Sean held out a hand, and Ben gave him the notebook. He watched as Sean wrote a lengthier response, not even pausing to recollect anything he might have forgotten. When he was done, Sean handed the notebook back to Ben, who took it with care. He read the entry, detailing where he was born, where he grew up, the schools he went to, why he left, where his parents lived, when he ran away to live on his own, how he met Sean.
Ben looked up, and his voice was quieter than usual when he said, "You know everything about me."

Sean didn't look up, just nodded slightly.

Ben rubbed his temples with both hands. "I just, I don't understand why you would choose me over a movie star."

Sean wrote something in the notebook and pushed it back to Ben.

"TV star, same thing."

Sean reached towards him, and Ben held out the notebook. Sean immediately set the object aside and took Ben's hand. Their eyes met briefly before Ben looked away, eyes darting around nervously. He let go, his hand making its way back to his side. He felt a hand gently brush his knee. Ben closed his eyes as their hands found each other under the table and clasped tightly together.

With his free hand, Sean wrote something in the notebook and tore out the page to pass to Ben. He would tell him everything.

"You don't have to do that," Ben said, but Sean was already writing away on a new page.

Ben sat back, still holding onto Sean's hand. With his free hand he took a sip of tea. Sean passed him another note. It may take awhile.

"I-I can stay," Ben stammered. "It's no problem."

Sean squeezed his hand.

***

Both mugs were empty when Sean finally flipped back several pages in the notebook, satisfied that he had finished the story. He handed it back to Ben, who let go to
take it carefully with both hands.

"Wow, I--"

"Excuse me, the cafe is closing."

Ben nodded at the cafe employee. "We were just leaving." As the employee left, Ben looked at Sean and shrugged.

The sun was setting as Ben finished reading the last page. He slid on the bench towards where Sean's wheelchair was parked, overlooking the beach.

He took a deep breath, lost in thought. Finally, he turned to Sean.

"You really biked all the way to my house in the middle of the night? It's up a steep hill."

Sean's eyes met his, and he nodded slowly in response.

"And you came to help me when I was hit by that car? I don't even remember why that happened."

Sean blinked.

Ben turned toward him. "And you were there when I came out to my dad over the phone. Even if you were with John."

A gust of wind picked up and Ben clutched the notebook, shivering slightly. Sean began to gather the blanket laying on his lap, but Ben waved a hand. "I have your sweatshirt still."

Ben reached into his backpack and pulled it on. Sean took the notebook and wrote something.

"Dating John was a mistake?" Ben said, reading over Sean's shoulder. "I mean, he was an asshole to do that to you. Do you think..." Ben shifted in his seat, lost in thought. "He must have seen how much you care about me. Maybe he felt threatened."

Sean glanced at him over his shoulder.

"You know my parents don't give a shit about me." Ben sighed. "Well, they do; they're just terrible at showing it. But you do. You...you care about me."

Sean was silent as usual.

"I don't remember anyone ever caring about me like that. But if what you say is true, and if..." Ben shook his head. "I don't remember you. But I remember how I felt. Like, why was I so calm after getting hit by a car. And I remember the night you must have came to the villa because I felt so, just so..."

Ben looked up and Sean had moved onto the bench beside him. Sean reached out to touch his shoulder, but hesitated, his hand stopping less than an inch from Ben's sleeve, which was really Sean's sleeve. With his opposite hand, Ben clasped Sean's hand in his and pressed it against his shoulder. For a minute, they stayed like that, breathing in the night air. Then, Ben pulled Sean's hand around to his other shoulder, letting go to touch the back of Sean's t-shirt, which was really his t-shirt. Their eyes locked in the growing darkness, until Sean broke his gaze, fumbling around for the notebook and pen.

"What is it?" Ben asked as Sean scribbled new words onto the page. "'Can I kiss y'--are you fucking kidding me?"

Ben immediately clasped the sides of Sean's face and brought his lips to his, Sean wrapping his arms around him as he melted into the kiss, a hand running through the hair on the back of Ben's head. When he finally pulled away it was with a smile.

"Fuck."

Ben immediately jumped up. "What was that?!!"

Sean laughed. "I don't know. Is the spell broken?"

"Oh my god," Ben said in a sudden awakening. "It's you, Sean!"

Sean smiled and rolled his eyes. "Yeah?"

"No, I mean I remember you," Ben said. He grabbed Sean's shoulders. "I remember now! You were taken away when we went to the forest after that...that awful date," he concluded, his brow furrowing in disgust.

"Yeah?" Sean said with a laugh. "You didn't seem to think it was awful at the time."

"Well, you went on a fake date with Gina just so I could have that awful date."

"I know," Sean said. "Remind me not to mess with witches in the future."

Ben leaned in to kiss him again. Kneeling on the bench beside him, Ben rubbed a hand down the front of Sean's shirt, but he froze as he reached the folds of the blanket below his waist.

He glanced down in surprise. "That wasn't--"

Sean's eyes met his in panic. "It's not--"

Ben didn't have to ask what it was. Much like how Sean knew about his birthmark, Ben knew exactly what could be pushing up at the folds of the blanket.
They made eye contact, the area around them slowly getting darker.

"Maybe we should get out of here," Sean suggested.

"There's no one around," Ben said. "And I want to do it. If you want me to."
Sean nodded, intrigued.

Ben knelt down in front of him and pulled the blanket away to reveal his bare legs. He pushed them aside, glancing up at Sean, whose eyes had grown wide. A few minutes later and Ben was sitting on the sand, swallowing what fluid he had in his mouth. "Tastes like the sea," he said, breathing hard.

Sean gave a harsh laugh, wiping the sweat off his own face. "You could say that."

"You should put some pants on," Ben giggled.

"Thanks for the advice," Sean quipped. "Do you have any?"

"Just the shorts I wore earlier." Ben pulled them out of his backpack and handed them to Sean. "They're still damp."

"I think I'll live," Sean said. He pulled them up and fastened them, but when he tried to stand on his own, his knees buckled and he fell into the sand.

"Are you okay?" Ben asked, helping him up. Sean's legs were still weak, so he guided him back to the wheelchair.

"Thanks, I--"

Sean was interrupted as a bright light shone on the two of them.

"It's you again," the old man said, holding a flashlight as he approached Ben. "And who are you--do I know you?"

Sean's face contorted humorously. "I don't think so."

"Anyway, you know the drill. The beach is closed."

"Alright," Ben said, picking up his backpack. "Sorry about that. We'll leave."

He watched Sean attempt to push the wheelchair on his own, and then walked behind him to help him out of the rut dug by the wheels in the sand.

Once they were back on the street, Ben checked his phone. "We're in luck, the last bus comes in ten minutes."

"Where are we going?" Sean wondered.

"Back to school, I thought," Ben said. "Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm a student now."

"Really?" Sean said, his voice filled with surprise. "At Steel City U?"

Ben nodded. "School started this week. And weren't you supposed to go back? I remember now, John called saying your parents were worried about you."

"I guess I had no idea how long it's been," Sean said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I guess I should call them. Or not." His voice filled with anger. "They kept so much of my history from me."

Ben nodded. "You don't have to talk to them if you don't want to. But you probably will at some point."

Sean looked up at him, thinking about Ben's relationship with his parents. "Yeah, I guess so."

Ben placed his hands on Sean's shoulders and began to rub them affectionately. As soon as the hum of the bus engine could be heard in the distance, however, he let go, his hands falling to his sides.

***

As the bus stopped outside the school, the driver lowered the handicap ramp so that Sean could exit the vehicle. Ben waved to the driver in thanks when they were safely on the pavement.

Ben wheeled Sean to the entrance of his dorm. "Are you still in the same room?" he whispered to Sean.

"No, I'm supposed to move into the upperclassmen dorms," Sean responded. "Let's just go to yours."

Ben unlocked the door to his room and wheeled Sean inside.

"Sorry it's kind of a mess," he said.

Ben was right. The room was clearly still in a state of move in, with half empty boxes cluttering the floor.

"I think I'm going to shower," Ben said, pulling some clothes out of a drawer. "I still have sand in places."

"Me, too," said Sean.

Ben nodded, grabbing a towel.

Once he had wheeled Sean into the common bathroom, he parked the chair in front of one of the shower stalls. Luckily, no one else was around.

"Are you good?" he asked Sean.

"I think so," Sean said, pulling himself out of the chair. He slowly began to remove his shirt and slipped as soon as he let go of the wall. Ben lunged, catching him in
his arms. "Maybe not."

"I can help you," Ben said, setting Sean's hand firmly on his shoulder.

"Are you sure?" Sean asked.

A sly smile formed across Ben's lips. "I helped you out earlier, why not now?"

Sean rolled his eyes with a smile. "Then shut up and help me get this off."

"Okay," Ben said, his voice breaking into a low laughter. As Sean hung onto him, he pulled the t-shirt over Sean's head. "Halfway there," Ben said, casting it to the side.
Ben held Sean up as he kicked off his shorts.

"Can we close that?" Sean said, glancing up at the curtain.

"Yeah," Ben breathed, pulling off his own shirt. In a fluid motion, he tore the white sheet across the rack.

Sean began to unbutton his jeans, and then stood back as Ben pulled them off. Ben turned on the shower and suddenly jumped at the feeling of cold water, stumbling backwards into Sean, who wrapped an arm around his waist.

Ben felt calm, feeling Sean's breath on his neck as they waited for the water to warm. Then, Sean slowly turned Ben to face him, and Ben closed his eyes as the warm water ran over his shoulders. He felt Sean's hands gently massaging shampoo into his scalp. He wrapped his arms around Sean to help support his weight. Sean's foot slipped on the slick floor and he fell into Ben's chest.

"I got you," Ben whispered in his ear.

Sean laughed, pushing off of Ben's chest, which he began to lather with body wash. He lifted up one of Ben's arms and washed over the tuft of armpit hair.

"Being thorough, I see," Ben growled, but Sean shushed him.

"Other side," Sean commanded.

Ben rolled his eyes and lifted his other arm. He waited for Sean to finish, and their eyes met again. Without prompting, their lips slowly met for a brief kiss.

"My turn," Sean whispered.

Ben wrapped his hands around Sean's shoulders, and they danced around each other. The stream of water ran down Sean's neck, and Ben combed his fingers through Sean's newly dampened hair. He took the bottle of shampoo and squirted it onto the top of Sean's head.

"What are you doing?" Sean asked, grabbing his wrist.

"What, you've never done it that way?" Ben said with an apologetic smile.

"Who does it that way?" Sean said with a laugh, rinsing his hair with one hand.

"Sorry, I haven't taken showers with twenty other people, or however many you had," Ben said, pulling Sean towards him.

"I take it back." Sean said, resting his head on Ben's shoulder. "I don't want to think about sharing a shower with anyone else."

"Fine, I'll stop teasing you," Ben said, hands rubbing soap up the sides of Sean's body as Sean held onto him.

They were both silent as Ben finished washing and rinsing Sean. He shut off the water, shooting a glance at Sean just as the sound of a door opening could be heard at the other end of the room. Sean immediately wrapped his arms around Ben, pulling him back against the wall. Ben felt his breathing coincide with Sean's as they heard footsteps headed towards the stalls. They waited in silence for a few minutes until they heard the sound of flushing. The footsteps continued to the sink, and they heard the tap running. Finally, the student walked towards the door, stopping in front of one of the showers. Ben felt his heart racing as the student walked back to the bathroom door and opened it.

Suddenly, the room went dark. Ben couldn't keep quiet.

"Hey, excuse me!"

"Oh, sorry!" the student's voice echoed. He turned the lights back on, and Ben felt a wave of relief as he heard the door close.

"What was that?" Sean whispered in his ear with a laugh.

Ben turned to face him. "I don't know, I--"

He froze as Sean's gaze traced downward.

A smile made its way onto Sean's face. Ben watched as Sean knelt down slowly, Ben grabbing under his shoulders as he slipped.

"You're sure you're okay to do this," Ben said, but Sean put up a hand.

"Just don't let go," Sean said.

Ben shuddered, groaning more loudly while Sean worked some otherworldly magic. When he was finished, Ben pulled Sean up towards them so they could kiss again, and he slipped a tongue into Sean's mouth. "So that's what I taste like."

"I wonder how many times this has happened here," Sean remarked.

"Who knows," Ben said, grabbing a towel and drying Sean's hair as Sean kept his arms around him. "And you were going to set me up with someone else."

Sean laughed. "Let's get out of here."

***

Ben woke up happier than he ever remembered, an arm wrapped around Sean's waist as the lay together in his twin dorm bed, dressed in each others' old clothes.

Sean stirred, shifting onto his back. He yawned and lazily looked up at Ben. "What do you want to do today?"

Ben smiled. "Anything you want to do."

Sean stretched his arms overhead, and then relaxed with one of them behind his head. "What if I just want to lay here?"

"Then I guess I'm going to lay here with you." Ben put his arm around him and nestled his head into Sean's neck.

"Don't you have homework?" Sean said softly, combing his fingers through Ben's hair. "Actually, I probably have homework."

"Please, it's just syllabus week," Ben murmured.

"Really? I thought you said you were in Couvault's class."

"Ugh, that's right," Ben said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. "I have all that reading to do. Thanks mom." He elbowed Sean in the ribs.

"Hey," Sean said, playfully swiping at Ben. "I'm just trying to look out for you."

"What about you?" Ben said, folding his legs in a crisscross. "Don't you have to move in, find your classes and all that?"

"I've been here awhile; I know where all my classes are," Sean said with a yawn. He made a face. "All my stuff is still at John's."

Ben stuck his tongue out. "Gross. So...we're breaking into his house?"

Sean laughed. "One day after getting back together and we're already back to scheming."

"You're not just my partner," Ben said, interlacing his fingers in Sean's as Sean rolled his eyes. "You're my partner in crime."

Sean grinned. "Just hand me John's phone."

Chapter Text

"Just think about it, like the Walking Dead but set in the future?"

"No." John boredly poked at his soup with a spoon. The pho restaurant was relatively empty for a Sunday afternoon.

"C'mon," Lloyd said, waving his arms. "All that grit? It's a role you were born to play."

"Zombies have run their course as a trope." His spoon made a clinking sound as John dropped it in the bowl and sat back in his chair.

Lloyd leaned forward. "And I know a makeup artist that'd be perfect for it."

"You're forgetting he's been missing for over a month," John said, slamming his hands onto the table. He rubbed his face. "I've got his parents calling me, what the hell am I supposed to tell them?!"

Lloyd slurped up a noodle. "That's a tough one."

"And he still has my phone, which no one's heard from in that time. I need to cancel the service since I'm not going to get it back anytime soon, but there's still the
chance he might call."

"Yeah, I don't think that's going to happen," Lloyd said.
Suddenly, there was a buzzing noise on the edge of the table. Lloyd picked up his phone, raising his eyebrows at the caller idea.

"Who is it?" John inquired, but Lloyd just waved a hand.

"Hello?" Lloyd answered.

"Hi, it's Ben, uh, we've talked on several occasions?"

"Oh, hey!" Lloyd said, ignoring John's prying stare. "Of course. What's up?"

"Hey, so, uh, Sean is definitely still missing, and he definitely didn't come back to Steel City with me, but hypothetically, if he did, he would want his stuff out of John's house."

Lloyd made a face. "Ooh, sorry, can't talk right now. Can I call you back?"

He heard a voice in the background on the other end before Ben spoke. "Are you with John right now?!"

"Yeah, I'll call you back," Lloyd said in a casual tone. "Okay, bye!"

John watched him as he hung up. "Should I even ask what that was about?"

"You don't want to know," Lloyd said, returning to his soup.

"If it's more drama with the extras, I swear..." John sighed. "Whatever, I've got to take a piss."

Lloyd watched him leave before quickly gulping down the hot soup and reaching for his phone.

"Hello?" It sounded like Sean.

"John just left and you have like 10 minutes to talk. What's up?"

"Why are you even friends with him?"

Lloyd sighed. "There's only so many stars I've worked with, and Celina's off shooting the sequel to that Witch movie. But if it makes you feel better, I didn't say anything when he told me he called Ben and Ben said he never saw you. This is probably the first time he's actually been punished for the shit he's done, and it's strangely cathartic."

"Oh good," said Sean. "Do you mind keeping him busy for the next couple hours? I hate to put you on the spot, but like, I need my stuff back."

"Don't worry, I have just the thing to distract him," Lloyd said, signalling for the waiter to bring the check.

"Really? Man, I owe you one."

"Anything for a member of the club," Lloyd said with a laugh. "And you'll work on my next series?"

"Ugh, I guess..." Sean rolled his eyes with a smile.

"Fantastic. I'll talk to you later, then."

"Alright, then. Later, Lloyd."

"And Sean?" Lloyd added, attentively watching the hallway to the bathroom. "Your parents do know you're okay, right?"

"Yeah, of course, they...I'll call them soon," Sean concluded.

"Well, then, I've got to go," Lloyd said, glancing up as John appeared on the other side of the room. "We'll be in touch."

"Okay, bye" Sean said, hanging up. "We're good," he told Ben, who was sitting across from him on the park picnic table.

"Sweet, looks like Adam's here too," Ben said, glancing behind Sean.

"Hey, what's the emergency?" Adam said, walking up to them. He froze when he saw Sean. "Sean! I heard you were missing?!"

"It's a conspiracy," Sean joked, picking at some peeling paint on the table. "So, what are your plans for this afternoon?"

Adam groaned. "Please, anything but studying."

"Well, cancel that," Sean said, standing to put an arm around his neck. "We're taking a little field trip."

"Okay," Adam said with a grin. He took a step towards his car and Sean slipped down his side before he caught his friend.

"He can't stand on his own," Ben explained as Sean picked up a cane that was lying on the ground by the bench.

Adam frowned as Sean stood up, keeping a firm arm on Adam's shoulder. "Dude, what happened?"

"It's a long story, but not worth retelling," Sean said.

***

"So how was your summer?" Sean asked as Adam pulled onto the highway. Ben watched out the window of the backseat as they passed slower cars. Seated next to him were a couple empty cardboard boxes, ready for the act they were about to commit.

"Um..." Adam swerved in front of another car as he changed lanes. "The tour was good. Some of the afterparties were..." he made a whistling noise with his lips,

"Superb. Especially Rome. It's too bad you couldn't be there."

"Yeah, sucks," Sean said.

"And what about you?" Adam asked, looking at Ben in the rearview mirror. "I remember calling you; that was weird."

"Yeah, I was kind of disoriented. Me and Sean and some other kids went wandering around the Italian countryside late at night," Ben said with a laugh. "It's like one of the places where reality is shifted or something."

Sean looked back at him, flashing his eyebrows.

"I didn't know you were in Italy," Adam remarked. "You went with Sean and John?"

"Actually, they were coming to visit me. My parents have a vineyard; they live there half the year."

"Oh, wow." Adam seemed somewhat surprised.

Sean pointed out the window. "This is the exit, then just make a left."

Adam pulled off the highway, and in a few minutes, they were pulling through John's driveway.

"Okay," Sean said, unfastening his seatbelt. "We have about an hour, so let's get the stuff and leave."

Ben nodded, taking the cardboard boxes under one arm before getting out of the car and helping Sean out. Adam agreed to stay and keep a lookout. Once they reached the front door, Sean hobbled behind a potted plant and pulled out a spare key.

"Celebrities really shouldn't do stuff like that," Ben said with a critical expression.

"Actually, it's my key, but I don't know if he knows I used to leave it here," Sean said to Ben's amused laughter.

He unlocked the door and they stepped inside. Ben stared at the open space with wonder.

"Wow, I can see why you stayed with him for so long," he said, gently reaching to touch some artisan vases on the fire mantlepiece.

"Yeah, sure, I was with him just for a place to crash," Sean said, raising his eyebrows.

Ben flashed him a satisfied grin. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't mind moving in here. Compared to my old apartment, well, you remember that piece of shit."

"Aw, I thought it was cozy," Sean said, giving a sweet smile, feebly making his way towards Ben with his cane.

"Okay, Grandpa Sean," Ben said, dropping the boxes on the floor. "Where do we start? Oh..."

As he had dropped the boxes, one of them knocked something out from under the sofa. Sean's face fell as Ben picked it up.

"I take back what I said," Ben said curtly, quickly kicking the bottle of lube back under the couch.

"Yes, go ahead and judge me for my regrettable life mistakes," Sean admitted, folding his arms.

"I'm absolutely going to judge you," Ben said, mirroring Sean's pose. He smirked for a few seconds before his arms fell to his side. "No, everyone makes mistakes. C'mere."

Ben put his arms around him, and Sean buried his face in Ben's shoulder.

"So," Ben said softly, pulling away. "You tried to keep it a secret."

"Pretty much," Sean answered. "Even Lloyd took awhile to figure it out, and he saw us at work almost every day."

Ben grinned. "Because Adam was saying earlier in the car that you were just working together. Really closely, I guess."

Sean's arm fell to his side as he gave a harsh laugh. "How does he not know I'm gay by now?"

Ben snickered along with him.

"Alright," Sean said, heading towards the stairs. He stopped, however, part way through the kitchen to poke around in the fridge. His face lit up as he saw a metal tray covered in tin foil.

"What's that?" Ben asked as Sean set the pan on the counter.

"Senja's lasagne." He pulled back the tin foil to reveal the layers of meat, pasta, and cheese. "He would mind if we took this, would he?"

"Can anyone really say what he would and wouldn't mind?" Ben said in a dramatic voice, playing along. He reverted back to his regular speaking voice to add, "It can't be better than my mom's, though."

Sean laughed. "We can't all have moms like yours."

Ben smiled. "Alright, then...I've gotta get this out to the car, pronto!" He jumped over the counter island and grabbed the tray.

Sean giggled as Ben ran out of the room. "Meet me upstairs," he called.

"Okay!" Ben hollered back.

Sean shook his head, filled with a strange euphoria.

***

"Sean?"

"In here!" Sean called, tossing a shirt into a box as he sat on the floor of John's closet.

"Hello?" Ben said, his voice echoing in the bathroom.

Sean looked up to see him standing in the doorway to the walk-in closet with a bewildered expression. "Ben!"

"Oh, hey!" Ben stepped into the small room. "I changed my mind, I want to live here again."

"Don't look in the shower," Sean said, rummaging through a drawer.

"Ugh," Ben said, sitting down on the floor and scooting next to him. "Babe, I'm glad you're gay, but it's getting old to hear how gay you were with your gay ex-
boyfriend."

"He's actually bi," Sean said, lifting his eyebrows as he inspected a pair of socks and threw it in the box. "He dated a girl briefly in college before he met Lloyd."

"Aww," Ben said, tossing a rolled up tie between his hands. "Maybe he'll meet a nice girl and settle down."

"Maybe he will with Joe once they stop bitching over film roles," Sean said with a laugh, tossing a pair of socks at Ben, who shielded himself.

Suddenly, Sean's phone buzzed.

"Lloyd?" Ben said, looking at the screen.

Sean nodded, slowly answering the phone. "What's up?"

Lloyd spoke quickly. "Hey, Sean, so remember how I had the perfect way to distract John?"

"Yeah? How's that going?" Sean asked. As he held the phone to his ear, Ben listened on the other side.

"My sister teaches a French cooking class, and everything's going great until they bring out the truffles and suddenly John says he feels sick, he has to go home. I tried to talk to him, but there was nothing I could do. I called as soon as I could, but he left a half hour ago. Sorry, man."

Sean rubbed his face. "No, thanks for keeping him busy. Don't worry, we've got Adam to distract him and--"

Ben held up his phone to show Sean the recent text from Adam saying he couldn't get John to stay away from the house.

"I'm going to have to go," Sean said, and he quickly hung up. "We need to get out of here," he whispered to Ben.

Ben nodded, picking up the box of clothes. They hurriedly made their way back into John's bedroom. Sean looked around frantically, and Ben pointed to the sliding glass doors that led out onto a balcony.

Ben pulled the glass door open, and Sean hobbled onto the balcony with his makeshift umbrella cane. He leaned over the railing, judging the distance to the ground, when Ben stepped behind him and tossed the box, which landed safely in some bushes below.
Sean lifted a leg, but immediately returned to his previous position of clinging on for dear life.

"Afraid of heights?" Ben teased. He looked over the railing. "Although, I guess for a person, it is a long way down..."

They both froze as they hear the faint, distant sound of the front door opening.

John hung up his Jacket and tossed his hat aside. He kicked his shoes off and began walking up the stairs, but turned around to grab a bottle from the wine fridge, a single glass, and then go upstairs.

Once in his bedroom, he poured himself a glass and set the bottle on his nightstand. He sat down on the side of his bed and sipped on the red. It didn't take long
before he was clutching his side, choking up with hot tears. He set the glass down and laid back on the bed, rubbing his face, unable to notice a pair of eyes peeking at him through the glass.

"He's in there," Ben whispered.

"Fuck," Sean breathed. "Is it bad?"

Ben craned his neck. "He brought a bottle of wine."

Sean sighed. "That could mean anything."

"Oh, really?" Ben said with a laugh.

"Shhh," Sean said, unable to keep from chuckling.

They both froze as they heard the sound of the sliding glass door opening. John's face went blank with surprise as he saw the two kids huddled together in the corner of the balcony.

"How was your cooking class?" Ben said after a long, awkward silence.

John's jaw hung open, unable to speak. Meanwhile, Sean burst into laughter.

"Where the hell have you been?!" John demanded.

"What does it matter," Sean said, rolling his eyes. He grabbed hold of the railing, pulling himself up. When he was too weak to stand, Ben took his waist and pulled him close, linking Sean's arm around his neck.

"And you're injured?" John said, incredulous and critical. "What happened to you?"

"Actually, he doesn't have to tell you anything," Ben countered. "Why don't you leave him alone, go back to your day drinking."

John was not swayed. "Why don't you come inside and have a chat before I call the police on you for breaking and entering?"

"Oh, I broke in with my spare key?" Sean contended. "I'm sure you can't wait to tell the authorities about how your gay ex-boyfriend, excuse me, nephew broke into your house to take his stuff back."

"Son," Ben interjected.

"Son, that's right," Sean continued. "Tell the police your son broke into your house."

"Are you quite finished?" John said with an exhausted expression.

"No!" Ben said, pointing his finger. "You're an...you're an asshole."

"Thanks, babe," Sean said, and Ben flashed him a smile.

John wiped his hand down his face in resignation.

***

John set the tray of tea on the dining room table as the four of them gathered around it. Sean had invited Adam to come in, although he was preoccupied with his phone.

"Who are you texting?" Sean inquired.

"It's probably a girl," Ben said, resting his head on his hand.

"What? Oh," Adam said, finally looking up. "Yeah, it's some girls I met at a party on Friday."

"Yes, Adam's back to college as usual," John cut in. "Now could you explain where you've been since you ran off?"

"At Ben's," Sean said innocently.

John was perplexed. He turned to Ben. "I called you, and you said you hadn't seen him."

"At that point, I was telling the truth," Ben explained. Sean nodded.

"But weeks earlier, I talked to Sean and he said he was 'with a friend.' Where were you then?" John asked Sean.

"I was with Ben."

Sean's face was perfectly serene. Ben sipped quietly on his tea. John was clearly distressed.

"But how can you say you were with him if he didn't see you until--" John stopped midsentence and groaned.

"I'll tell you what it is," Sean said, interlocking his fingers as he rested them on the table. "Mermaid magic."

John's face reddened as Sean and Ben burst out laughing. He watched their merriment for two whole seconds before his patience was completely drained.

"Okay, forget it," he said, waving his hands. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Just, forget it. I'll have my assistant bring your things over to your...school or wherever."

"Wait, you have an assistant? Since when?" Sean said, stirring some sugar in his tea.

"Since I lost a twenty-one year old in the Italian countryside." John pressed the sides of his hands into the table.

"The way you say that makes it sound like I'm your assistant," Sean joked. "Maybe Ben's your assistant."

"I did almost have Lloyd thinking that," Ben said with a laugh.

John sighed. "Please tell me you've informed your parents since your return?"

"It's kind of a recent development." Sean shrugged.

"Yeah," Ben chimed in. "He just got back, like, last night."

John's expression was fully sobered. "Well, I'll let you get back to your studies. Ben," he stood up as he addressed him. "I'll let you get back to your..."

"Studies," Ben said.

"Right. I'll let you get back to your studies as well. I'll have my assistant give you a call."

Sean and Ben stood up, and John showed them to the front door, Adam trailing behind. From the front steps, Ben and Adam made their way back to the car, but Sean lingered, staring at John with his arms folded. When John finally looked him in the face, they reached an unspoken understanding, and John threw his arms around Sean, pulling him tightly into his chest. Before the feeling could be made complete, however, Sean pushed him away, a pained expression on his face as he stared at the ground.

John tried to hide his own face as he wiped a tear from his cheek. Sean began to walk away.

"I'll see you around?" John called after him.

Sean didn't look back as he stepped into the car.

"Are you okay?" Ben asked as Sean slid into the backseat next to him.

"Yeah, I think so," Sean said, lost in thought. Adam began to pull the car out of the driveway.

"Good, because I got THE LASAGNA!" Ben held up the tin-foil covered tray.

Sean's face lit up. "Shiiiit! Ben, you're the best!"

"You're damn right I am!"

Ben and Sean slapped hands, except instead of letting go, Sean brought Ben's hand to his face and kissed it. Ben blushed. He giggled and pulled Sean towards him. Sean rested his head on Ben's shoulder with his arms around him.

"Hey Adam," Sean called.

"Yeah?" Adam sounded from the front seat.

"Don't crash the car, I'm not wearing a seatbelt."

"I'll be your seatbelt," Ben said, pulling him tighter. They both began laughing. Adam kept driving.

***

"Sean," Ben whispered. They were curled up together on top of his dorm bed.

"Hmm?"

"Are you going to call your parents?"

Sean sat up slowly until he could look Ben in the eye. Outside, the sun was nearly finished setting, and the desk next to them was littered with paper plates and what was left of the lasagna.

"I know I should," Sean said, his eyes darting away. "But..."

Ben blinked, his gaze still on Sean. "You said John outed you to them."

Sean closed his eyes. "Yeah. Our relationship hasn't exactly been great since then."

"What did you tell them about Italy?" Ben wondered. "They know you went, right?"

"Yeah, yeah," Sean said. He pressed a hand to the side of his forehead. Ben's hand brushed over his as he swept back a loose strand of Sean's hair. Sean was speechless for a moment.

"Italy?" Ben reminded him.

"Oh, right. I said I was going on a trip with John." Immediately after saying, Sean closed his eyes in distress.

Ben took his hand. "So do what you did with me. Call them and if they keep asking about John, I can talk to them."

Sean gave him an apologetic look. "Yeah, um..." He sat up slowly as he grabbed his phone.

"You'll do it?" Ben said, looking hopeful.

Sean breathed a sigh, holding the phone out in front of him. He practiced the words. "Hi mom, dad. I'm here with my...friend Ben." He glanced up at Ben. "I'm sorry."

"No, don't worry about it." Ben said, placing his other hand on top of the two clasped together between them. "I wasn't ready to come out to my dad, up until the point, like, right before I did."

"I'm already out to them." Sean rubbed his own face.

"You're out to them according to John."

"No, they called me and asked me..." Sean rolled onto his stomach and picked up John's phone. He scrolled through the long list of calls from around the time he went missing.

"There was so many, I didn't bother going through them all," Ben said rolling onto his back and staring up at the ceiling. "Mostly producers. Unknown callers."

"There's a call from Joe!" Sean said, wrinkling his nose in disdain.

"Gross! Why would he call you?"

"I don't know, probably like 'Hey I'm really sorry for what happened, but there's nothing I can do about it now...would definitely do it again in the future.'" Sean rolled his eyes.

Ben snickered. "You really want to listen to it?"

Sean put the volume on speaker and played the voicemail.

"Hey, uh, Sean...I sorry about what happened. Earlier, I mean. After you left, um, John told me you guys had been dating awhile; I guess it's my fault for thinking you were...whatever. Um, look, John's been really upset ever since you left. I think he misses you. So, uh, come back when you can. Thanks, bye--"

Sean blinked as the recording cut off.

"Aw," Ben cooed, "He misses you. Don't you think you should go back--"

Ben stopped talking as he felt Sean's arms wrap around him as Sean pulled him close.

"I don't think so," Sean whispered into his ear. Ben laughed.

Keeping his arms around Ben, Sean picked up the phone and scrolled through the list of voicemails. His thumb hovered over the one from his parents.

"You can do it," Ben murmured.

Sean pressed play and the room turned silent before the recording went.

It was his dad's voice. "Hi, John. And Sean, if you're there. I'm just calling to see how your trip's going; haven't heard from you in a while. Well, give me a call. Bye."

Sean looked through the remaining voicemails. "That's the only one from him."

"Your babysitter must have called them for you," Ben remarked.

"My babysitter?" Sean made a face until he realized who Ben was talking about. "Ugh, shut up..." he groaned as Ben laughed.

"You should have seen that coming," Ben said with a grin.

"Yes," Sean sighed. "My babysitter, uncle, and dad, all because I dated a guy who was fourteen years older than me."

"Gay age gap," Ben said, shrugging as he slid down to Sean's side and looked up at him thoughtfully.

Sean placed a hand to his forehead. "I think I can call them. I can call them and tell them we broke up."

Ben gazed up at him and blinked.

Sean set down the phone on Ben's desk and crawled underneath the covers.

"Tomorrow."

***

Ben woke up to his alarm ringing. He rubbed his face as he shifted from the pair of arms wrapped around him.

"Sean," he whispered. The body next to him began to stir. "What time do you have class?"

Sean coughed.

"Are you okay?" Ben asked.

There was no answer. Finally, Sean faintly whispered. " Water."

Ben jumped out of bed and left the room. When he returned, he had a glass of water to hand to Sean.

Sean sat up slowly and drank. When he was finished, he set down the glass and looked up at Ben. "I don't have class for another couple hours. Perks of being an upperclassman."

"Ugh, so jealous," Ben said through a smile. "Have fun sleeping in, then."

Sean winked at him before crawling back under the covers. His eyes closed as Ben started getting dressed.

***

Ben sang as he walked down the hallway. "Goin' loco, down in acupo--oh, hey," he said upon unlocking his door to find Sean still in bed. "You're still here. I was wondering why you weren't answering my texts."

Sean didn't respond. Ben stepped closer and dropped his backpack on the floor. Sean was lying still in fetal position.

"Sean? Hello?"

Ben ran out of the room, and when he returned, he had a glass of water to throw on Sean's face. Sean came awake with a gasp.

"What's going on?" he coughed.

"You were in like a...catatonic state," Ben said, eyebrows lifted. "Are you okay? Should we call an ambulance?"

"No!" Sean burst. "No, I just...more water."

"Water? You need to go for a swim or something?" Ben folded his arms. "Fish--person?"

"Yeah..." Sean leaned forward. "Yeah! The gym! There's a pool at the gym," he said, his voice losing enthusiasm and becoming more pained. He pressed his hands to his forehead.

Ben looked concerned for a minute, and then his face regained his youthful demeanor. "Okay!"

***

Sean emerged from the locker room wearing swim trunks, his arm around Ben, wearing a matching suit, for support. As they passed another male student on the way to the pool, he gave them a strange look.

"Oh, I'm just helping him," Ben called to him. "No homo."

"Shut up," Sean said under his breath, and Ben chuckled.

Once they reached the edge of the pool, Sean looked down into the deep water.

"I don't know," he said apprehensively, "maybe we should go to the other--"

There was a large splash as Ben pushed him in. Ben stood at the edge of the pool, laughing to himself until his smile faded as Sean stayed sunken at the bottom like a
stone.

"Fuck," he whispered, as more time elapsed then was likely possible for a human to hold their breath. He closed his eyes in self frustration, when suddenly he was hit in the side of the face with a stream of water.

"Hey!" He looked up to see Sean, grinning back at him.

"Why don't you come in? The water's fine," he said, floating on the surface with ease.

"You scared me," Ben said, unable to keep from smiling.

"Wait, no..." Sean's expression changed. "No no no pull me out!"

Ben grabbed his arm as he pulled himself back onto the side of the pool. His eyes widened at the sight; patches of scales had begun to appear on Sean's legs.

"This is turning into a Disney movie," Ben said with disbelief.

Sean stared down at his own legs in thought. "It felt good," he concluded. "There's just too many people around."

Ben smiled mischeviously. "You know what we need to do."

Sean laid a hand on his face. "No. We can't break into the gym after hours."

"Who says we need to break in?" Ben said innocently. "We're already here."

***

"Okay, the coast is clear," Ben said, leaning out of the supply closet. "Let's move."

Sean limped after him. "I think I stubbed my toe on those weights when we had to hide from that dance teacher."

Ben turned on his heel. "Aw, want me to kiss it better?"

"Really?" Sean said skeptically. "If you want to."

Ben leaned down and cradled the foot in one hand before gently kissing the big toe. Sean watched with vague amusement.

Ben blinked. "That was weird."

"Yeah, I wouldn't do that again," Sean chimed in. They both snickered.

The pool was only lit by the lights under the surface, casting a blue glow on the rest of the indoor area. Sean held out his arms.

"Would you like to--"

In a quick, fluid motion, Ben pushed his hands firmly against Sean's back, sending him straight into the water.

"Hey," Sean laughed as he came up for air. He hurriedly swam aside as Ben ran in with a cannonball.

"Shhh," Sean said, unable to keep himself from laughing. "I don't know if there's, like, janitors in the building still."

"What, are you scared we'll get caught?" Ben said with a grin, moving towards Sean to wrap his arms around his boyfriend's neck.

"I guess this is something we couldn't do earlier," Sean said before leaning in to kiss Ben.

Ben smiled. "Have I ever told you how great it is that you came to find me?"

Sean winked. "I'd cross several oceans to find you again."

Ben sank into the water slightly, trying to hide the fact that he was blushing. He felt something brush his leg, and he jumped.

"Sorry!" Sean said, flicking his tail out of the water. "I'm not used to this confined sort of...space."

"Is this how it is now?" Ben said with amazement.

"Who knows," Sean said, floating backwards on his back, flicking his tail to stay afloat.

Ben watched him swim around, racing to one end of the pool before flipping to return to the deep end. At some point, he climbed out of the pool and sat on the edge with his feet dipping into the water. Sean appeared at the surface and rested his elbows on the pavement.

"So," Sean said, his eyes filled with a surprising amount of life, "How was school?"

"It went okay," Ben said, kicking one foot out of the water. "I had to bullshit my way through a class discussion, but I think I pulled it off."

Sean tilted his head with a grin. "If it was Couvault, then you only think you pulled it off. "

Ben kicked some waves in Sean's direction. "Shut up," he grinned. "You didn't even go to class."

"So I took a sick day," Sean said, rolling his eyes. "I know the professor; they're not going to care if I miss a few days."

"Was this what you were like in high school? Always slacking off?" Ben teased.

"No, actually..." Sean's face fell. "I was always a good kid, got good grades and everything. Never missed a class."

"So what happened?" Ben wondered.

Sean just shrugged before disappearing beneath the surface.

Ben thought back to the Sean he knew from the year before. All those late nights Sean spent finishing papers while Ben crashed in his dorm room. Here he was swimming back and forth along the lenght of the pool, entirely carefree.

***

"Fuck."

Ben paused his game to take a bite out some chicken strips, leftover from yesterday. "What?" he said, his mouth half full.

Sean rolled onto his back. "I forgot I was supposed to get my stuff from John's assistant."

Ben shrugged and returned to his game. Sean rolled off the bed and kicked on some flip flops.

Once he reached the entrance of the building, he opened the door to find a short man, eyes looking concerned through his thick rimmed glasses as he spoke on the phone.

"He's obviously not here, John; this is all just a waste of time....Yes, I did call him. Several times. And I--"

"Are you Malcom?"

He nearly dropped his phone as he looked up to see Sean.

"Nevermind, he's here. Okay, talk to you later." Malcom hung up and gave Sean a disparaging look.

Sean slipped his hands into his pockets. "Hey, so, uh, John sent you?"

"Yes, and I've been waiting almost two hours and--" he stopped himself and took a deep breath. "I have a mover with your stuff parked around the corner, if you want to show me where it goes."

"Sure," Sean said casually.

"Where is everyone?" Malcom asked as he walked into the building. "There's been hardly any traffic?"

"Oh," Sean shrugged. "They all left. There was like, a storm warning."

Malcom frowned, and then ran to catch up with Sean.

Sean led him upstairs and opened the door to the dim room, a faint blue glow radiating from the large monitor on the floor in the corner in front of the shade-drawn windows.

"Isn't it kind of dark in here?" Malcom asked, shifting behind the stack of boxes he was carrying.

"Oh, yeah, um..." Sean fumbled around until he found the lightswitch.

Malcom nearly jumped upon seeing the condition of the room. The floor was littered with dirty clothes and old takeout containers. There was a bed in the center, which was nothing more than a bare mattress topped with a few pilling fleece blankets and crumbs. Ben was propped up on a couple pillows on the floor by the far wall, playing some sort of shooter on his playstation.

"So, uh, just put those anywhere, it's fine," Sean said, lying down on the floor next to Ben.

Malcom set them down in the small space by the door and put his hands on his hips. "How can you live like this? I thought you were gay."

Sean shrugged. Beside him, Ben spoke up.

"Leave him alone. And who are you to claim to be the expert on being gay?"

Malcom took one step further into the room. "I'm gay."

Ben paused his game and glanced up. "Oh, so you're John's new boyfriend?"

"No," Malcom responded, but Sean cupped a hand over Ben's mouth.

"Shhh, be nice to him."

Ben rolled his eyes.

"Okay," Malcom said, breathing a sigh. "Let's go back down and get the rest of it."

"Nope," Sean said, his arm around Ben's neck, pulling him closer as Ben picked up the controller and started playing again. "I have a medical condition, so I can't stand for very long."

Malcom rubbed a hand across his face. "Are you kidding me?"

Sean said nothing, just stared vacantly at the screen.

***

"That's weird."

"What?" said Sean, his arms wrapped around Ben as they lie together on top of his bed.

"Everyone on reddit says this storm thing is getting serious. It already reached the coast."

"Should we be worried?" Sean mumbled, his tone flat enough to be considered irony.

Ben dropped his phone on the floor. "Probably not."

They stayed there in the dark silence, apart from the sound of wind blowing outside.

Sean awoke suddenly as he breathed cold water into his lungs. As his eyes took in what he could make out of his surroundings, he reached for Ben's hand as the boy
began to float to the surface. He pulled him towards the door, feeling around for the mechanism until he unlocked it. He swam down the hallway with Ben under his arm, finally exiting out the entrance and pulling him towards the surface. As he treaded water with his newly formed tail, he glanced around the horizon to see searchlights in the distance. He climbed onto the roof of the dormitory, pulling Ben up by his shoulders so he could lay him down and press the water out of his chest.

Ben coughed awake, his words incoherent as he bridged the gap towards consciousness. "Wha-- where are we?"

"Shh," Sean said, grabbing Ben's elbows as he ducked behind an airvent atop the building. A boat passed by, a bright artificial light flooding the area.

"Anyone there?" A voice called over a loudspeaker.

Ben rubbed his eyes as soon as they were gone. "Is this some dystopian future we've ended up in?"

"They can't see me like this," Sean said.

"So what are we gonna do?"

"I don't know."

***

The sky was an unequivocal shade of blue as Sean washed ashore with Ben alongside him.

Ben glanced around the beach, listening to the waves withdraw. "This is it?"

Sean closed his eyes and nodded.

***

"Through that gate," Sean said, pointing to the fence so that Ben could open it.

Sean wheeled himself up to the front steps, and he held the wheelchair steady as Ben pushed him up them. He rang the doorbell and stepped back behind Sean as they waited for a response. After some time, a middle-aged woman opened the door.

"Ling?" She called back into the house, her voice breaking. "Ling, come...come quick!"

She threw her arms around Sean, tears streaming from her face.

"Linda, what is it?" her husband said as he appeared in the door, but he froze when he saw his son. "Sean?"

Sean's face was turning red. A tear streaked down his face as he removed his glance to the pavement.

"Oh, Sean, sweetie, it's okay," his mother said, clutching the back of his head and pulling him towards her. When she finally pulled away, he brushed the tears from his eyes using his elbow.

Ben stepped forward and held out his hand. "Hi, I'm Ben."

"Ben? Nice to meet you," Linda said, shaking his hand. Ling nodded as Ben shook his hand.

Linda gave a few lighthearted chuckles as she wiped away her own tears. "Why don't you come inside?"

***

A warm breeze drifted in through the kitchen window as the four of them sat around the table, drinking lemonade. Linda set a plate of cookies in the center of the table and sat down. Ben eyed them with interest, glacing up at Sean.

"Go ahead," said Linda.

Sean gave a slight nod. Ben reached out and grabbed a couple.

"What are you doing here?" Ling said, his attention turned to Sean. "We were worried about you when we heard about the storm. And when John said you ran off."

"Oh, yes, John," Linda chimed in. "How is he? Is he okay, with the storm and all--"

"Mom, no, I haven't talked to him," Sean said, rubbing his face.

"Oh, sweetie, what happened?" His mother leaned into the table. "Does this have to do with your injury? I told you to be careful--"

"No, mom, it's um..." Sean took a deep breath and closed his eyes. "We flew in yesterday. I wanted to surprise you," he said flatly.

"You flew in," Linda said, crossing her arms, "With no luggage, no shoes even."

"We were robbed," Sean said without looking up. Ben watched their conversation attentively.

Linda pursed her lips. Her husband held up a hand.

"It doesn't matter how you got here," he said. "We're just glad you got home safe." He turned to Ben. "And you, you're Sean's friend...from school?"

Ben glanced back at Sean before answering, "Yeah."

Linda spoke up again, her voice filling with warmth. "Oh, that's so nice that Sean has a friend. He hasn't had many, apart from Adam, or maybe you've met Adam? Or he's probably too busy."

"I've met Adam," Ben said, his expression assuring.

"You have? That's nice." She smiled. "Speaking of Adam, have you heard from him? I hope he's okay--"

"No, mom, I haven't..." Sean closed his eyes. "I told you, I haven't talked to anyone."

"Not even John, your boyf--" she stopped herself mid-sentence, glancing at Ben.

"What?" Ben said, his face blank.

Linda pursed her lips. "You're Sean's friend, you must know he's..." She trailed off, keeping herself from saying too much.

Sean looked between them, watching their silence. "He knows I'm gay," he said pointedly.

Linda breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, good. So what happened with John? It sounded like he--"

"--We broke up," Sean said curtly.

"Oh." Linda's mouth hung open slightly, and for once she was unsure what to say. After a few moments of awkward silence, her husband spoke.

"He was too old for you," he said, setting down his glass.

A faint smile crossed Sean's face, and he nodded.

"But, I'm glad it didn't work out. You know I don't approve of that lifestyle."

Sean lifted an eyebrow to his father's stoic expression. "His lifestyle...as an actor?"

"Yes, but also this phase of yours. I was worried what would happen if you brought him home."

Sean cautiously glanced up at him. "If I brought a boy home?" Beside him, Ben was also careful not to make eye contact.

"Yes, imagine that," Ling said, almost laughing to himself. "I'm glad it's over. You need to focus on more important things like school."

Another awkward silence filled the air.

Sean rubbed his face. "I don't know what the university's going to do, with the storm and...everything."

"I'm sure you'll return to school and continue to attend classes," Ling concluded.

After some time, Sean put his hands on the table. "Well, I've been up awhile, so I'm gonna go nap." He pushed himself away and rolled into the hallway toward his room.

Sean's mother watched him, and then turned to Ben with a polite smile. "Ben, can I get you anything?"

"No, thanks." Ben stood up and followed after him.

***

Ben stared up at the ceiling of Sean's childhood bedroom as Sean ran his fingers through Ben's hair, an arm around him as they lay on top of Sean's bed. The walls were peppered with band posters, shelves with books ranging from fashion to marine biology. A chair in the corner still managed to be garnished with a few clothing items, despite Sean having lived away for some time.

"Sean?" he murmured, running a hand up Sean's chest through his shirt. They had changed into clean clothes from Sean's old wardrobe.

"Hmm?"

"How long do you think we'll be able to go without telling them?"

Sean pressed a gentle kiss into the top of Ben's head. "I don't know. At least we can say we're 'friends from school,' since we actually are going to school together. Last year when your dad called, I said I was a student and had to let him assume I meant at the school you were supposed to be at."

Ben blinked slowly. "It's just dumb that it has to be this way," he said softly.

Their intimate moment was interrupted by the sound of the door slowly opening. Quickly, Ben slipped onto the floor by the bed.

"Hey, honey," Sean's mother said, peeking in through the doorway.

Sean groaned as he rolled over and clutched his pillow to his face. "Mom, can't you knock?"

"Oh, sorry, sweetie," she said, stepping into the room. "Where's Ben?"

"Right here," Ben said, sitting up from the floor on the other side of the bed.

Linda looked sympathetic. "Oh, honey, you don't need to sleep on the floor; I can make up the couch. Or I'm sure Sean would let you have his bed." Her eyes grew wide as she immediately corrected herself. "I mean--you could have his bed and he could sleep on the couch, not that you would share--I mean, nevermind."

"It's fine, Mrs. Goodin," Ben said, folding his arms over his knees. "It's nice and cool down here."

"Oh," Linda said, somewhat amused. "I'll bring in an extra pillow and some blankets, then. And please, call me Linda."

"That'd be perfect. Thanks...Linda," he said, and she turned to leave. Less than a minute later she returned with a neatly folded stack of blankets and a pillow.

"I'll give you a holler when dinner's ready," she said with a smile.

"Thanks, mom," Sean said flatly, and she left.

"You see?" Ben whispered into his ear when she was out of range. "How are we going to keep letting things like that happen?"

Sean breathed a smile. "Do you want my bed? We're going to have to share."

Ben laughed. "Shut up, just tell me where the bathroom is."

"Second door on the right," Sean said. Ben stood up and as he took one last look at Sean before leaving the room, Sean flashed him a wink. He grinned.

Ben walked down the hallway, his smile easing off his face. He opened the door to the small bathroom, but froze when he heard Sean's parents talking in the other room.

"I'm worried about him." It was Linda's voice. "Lying about how he got here? And he's hurt, but he won't say how or why? I think I know when there's something going on with my own son."

"Well, of course there's something wrong with him; he ran off with that damn actor. It's good that he finally came to his senses."

"Oh, don't say that. He seemed like a nice man."

"Wasn't he Sean's boss? He clearly had a strong influence over Sean. Who knows if Sean really is that way, or if this man manipulated him into thinking that." Sean's father lowered his voice, but Ben could still make it out. "Who knows what kind of relationship they had, what he did to Sean, but I won't have that under my roof."
Ben quietly backed down the hallway, closing the bathroom door behind him as carefully as possible.

When he returned to Sean's room, Sean had left, but he spotted him through the window into the backyard.

"Hey!" Ben called as he opened the screen door to traverse the lawn in his bare feet as he made his way to Sean's wheelchair. "What are you up to?"

"Just getting some fresh air," Sean said softly.

Ben sat down in the grass next to him. For a few minutes, neither spoke, and they listened to the sound of birds chirping and distant ocean waves. Finally, Ben spoke up.

"Why did we come here?"

Sean gave a shrug. "It's safe."

Ben leaned back and kicked a few blades of grass with his toes. "I guess, but we could have gone anywhere and it would have been safe. We could have gone back to Italy. You know my parents would have been fine with it, for fuck's sake, they would have loved to have you over again. But your parents? You should have heard some of the things they were saying about you and John earlier--"

"It's so you don't have to take care of me," Sean said in a deep, sullen voice.

"What?" Ben said, thrown off guard as Sean interrupted him. "I don't take care of you," he reasoned.

Sean closed his eyes and gave another shrug. In that moment, Sean's mother appeared at the backdoor. "Boys, dinner's ready!" She called before disappearing back into the house.

Ben stared incredulously at Sean as Sean continued to sit quietly.

"So what's gonna happen," Ben said, "After the storm blows over? You're just gonna stay here while I go back to school? I can stay here with you!"

"You should go back to school," Sean said flatly. "After everything your parents went through to get you there. And you saw how my parents reacted. You don't want to stay here."

"Then why did you bring me here?"

Sean didn't answer.

Ben knelt beside him and took one of Sean's hands in his. "I can't leave you. You saved my life twice."

Sean anxiously glanced back at the back door. His mother had gone into the other room. His eyes met Ben's again, and he pressed a kiss into Ben's knuckles.

"We should go inside," he murmured, and he turned his chair around and started wheeling towards the door.

***

"Is this a letterman jacket? I didn't know you did sports in highschool," Ben said, pulling a jacket off a hook on the back of Sean's bedroom door.

"I didn't," Sean said tossing a wad of paper into a trash can on the far side of the room. "They let everyone have those. Or everyone in drama club had to get one so we'd all match for the yearbook photo. I have a matching class ring, too."

"Really?" Ben said with an amused laugh. He pulled on the jacket, and then took one of Sean's old baseball caps and put it on backwards. "How's this?"

Sean looked up and laughed. "You look rad." He folded a piece into a paper airplane and let it fly, hitting the wall before landing on the floor next to the bin.

"Do you think we can go?" Ben asked.

Sean gave a shrug. Ben opened the door slightly and peeked out.

"The coast is clear," Ben whispered as he leaned into the hallway. The light seeping under Sean's parents' bedroom door had gone out.

Sean nodded and wheeled himself out to the back door. Ben stealthily held it open, and gently closed it as soon as they were both outside in the cool night air.

"I know just where to go," Sean said, wheeling into the back alley as Ben held the gate open. "Follow me."

When they made it to the beach, Sean began to undress, pulling off his t-shirt. Ben looked around.

"You think no one's going to see?" Ben folded his arms, looking down the stretch of open beach. "I thought you meant somewhere more secluded." Sean stood up from his wheelchair and limped towards the water. His face showed pain with each step.

"There's no guarantee," Sean said, slipping off his shorts. "But I've come here many times. Most people leave it alone because of the sharks."

"Sharks?" Ben said with an incredulous laugh. "You're joking."

Sean just smiled. He stood up, fully nude, and limped towards the waves. A brief look of pain crossed his face with every step.

"Are you okay?" Ben said, stepping towards him with concern. "Let me--"

Sean fell forward into the water before Ben could grab him. Ben watched wordlessly as the waves whisked him away. "Hey, Sean!" he called after him.

For a brief moment the night air was quiet. Then, his lover's voice rang back in response. "What's up?"

In the moonlight, Ben could see Sean's head peeking above the waves in the distance, a flash of something unhuman beneath the water.

"Nothing to say?" Sean teased.

Ben stepped towards him, a wave brushing past his ankles. Suddenly he turned skipped through the wet sand towards Sean's belongings, where he quickly abandoned the clothes he was wearing. He ran back out to sea, chasing the tide, until he felt a sturdy hand grab his wrist before the waves could push him back to shore.

He gasped for air as his face submerged. The sea lay before him, dark and foreboding. "Sean?" he called, and he felt a hand touch his own, interlacing its fingers in his and spinning him around and pulling his arm over a set of broad shoulders, a pair of eyes staring into him. He smiled at seeing Sean, but as he was consumed in the moment, he felt himself sink in the water. Sean wrapped an arm around his waist to keep him afloat, and he felt the side of Sean's body pressed against him, smooth like silk.

"Can you keep my grades afloat while you're at it?" Ben said with a sly smile .

"Shut up," Sean laughed, dipping his elbow into the water to splash Ben's face. "Now hold on."

Ben tightly constricted his arms around Sean and felt the waves wash over him as Sean dove forward, quickly resubmerging in a new location. Sean pulled himself on top of a smooth boulder, perched at the mouth of a tall grotto.

Ben looked up in awe. "I always forget how beautiful you are," he said as Sean pulled him up by the hand.

"I could say the same about you," Sean said with a smile.

Ben covered his face to hide his reddening complexion, coupled with unrestrained laughter. Sean leaned towards him, and their eyes locked, glimmers of light in the dark. Their lips met, and as Ben leaned back on his elbows, he felt Sean's hand slide slowly down his chest.

He laughed as he broke the kiss. "I didn't realize this relationship was all about sex."

Sean stopped. "You don't want it, I'll--"

"Oh, I want it, that's for sure," Ben said with a sly smile. He grabbed Sean's hand and pulled it lower.

Suddenly, both froze as they heard voices echoing in the distance. A dim light came to illuminate the walls of the cave, and Sean and Ben shrank onto the sloping side of the boulder to stay out of sight.

Ben peeked over the rocky outcropping and saw the intruders, a boy and girl about their ages. The girl led the boy by the hand, both of them giggling as she set down her flashlight and began to take off her bathing suit. Ben quickly ducked back behind the rock. Meanwhile, panic flashed on Sean's face, and he silently slipped back into the water.

"Wait, Sean!" Ben called before he could stop himself. He instantly covered his mouth in regret while his voice echoed off the cave walls.

"Hey, who's there?" a male voice called out.

Ben stayed still as the flashlight scanned the area. Suddenly, it flashed in his eyes, and he lifted his arm to shield himself.

The light immediately scattered as the boy dropped the flashlight. "Cynthia, no, I'm sorry, I can't do this."

Ben heard his footsteps as he hastily left the area. Meanwhile the girl clutched a beach towel to her chest as she called after him.

"Robbie! Robbie, wait!"

In a hurried movement, she grabbed the flashlight and pointed it at Ben. "Come out here, whoever you are!"

"It's not what it looks like," Ben called back as he stood up, quickly hiding his privates with his hands.

The girl screamed in response. "You pervert! You think you can come here and spy on me?"

"I don't even know who you are," Ben countered. He slowly made his way down the outcropping and onto solid ground. He looked away shyly when he added, "I'm also here with someone."

The girl frowned as she finished tucking her towel neatly around her. "Really? Then where is she?"

"Who?" Ben said in a voice of confusion. The realization hit him before she could answer.

"Uh, the girl you're sleeping with?" She folded her arms.

Ben scratched the back of his head. "Right."

"So?" The girl looked impatient. "She--"

"--got scared and ran away?" Sean said, sticking his head above the water and resting his elbows on the rocks.

The girl's eyes were wide with realization. "Sean?"

"Hi, Cynthia," he said calmly.

Ben frowned. "You guys know each other?"

"Highschool," Sean explained briefly before turning his attention back to Cynthia. "So, you and Robbie, huh?"

"Not anymore, no thanks to this asshole," she said, glaring at Ben as she ran her fingers through her long black hair. "And that girl, wherever she went."

Ben put a hand to his forehead and laughed to himself, a laugh echoed by Sean in the water.

Cynthia looked from one to the other until she closed her eyes in realization. "Oh. Sean's the girl."

Sean and Ben laughed harder. Ben took a few steps before dropping into the water with a splash and placing his arms around Sean and a kiss on his cheek.
Sean glanced up at her with a satisfied grin. Cynthia rolled her eyes.

"I can't believe he away like that," she lamented. She looked to the two boys pointedly. "You know he's never going to text me again."

"Sounds like a bottom," Ben mumbled under his breath. Sean elbowed him in the side.

"Don't worry, he'll come around," Sean said, speaking over Ben's comment. "Hey, we should catch up sometime, though."

"Why not right now?" Cynthia suggested. "Kona Burger's just up the road."

Sean turned to Ben. "What do you want to do?" he asked in a soft, low voice.

Ben gave a shrug. "Sure."

"We have to get our clothes first," Sean told Cynthia.

"Sure, let me help you look for them--"

"--On Mai Tai beach," Sean explained.

"Mai Tai?! That's miles from here," Cynthia said, incredulous. "You swam all the way from there?"

Sean was silent.

"Details," Ben said, waving a hand.

"We'll meet you there," Sean concluded.

Cynthia wasn't entirely convinced. "Uh, okay, see you there." And somehow she picked up her flip flops and left.

Once she was gone, Ben turned to Sean. "That was some coinci--"

"--I sucked his dick in tenth grade," Sean said flatly.

"Cool, good to know," Ben said, somewhat hesitantly.

Sean closed his eyes and opened them before taking the sides of Ben's face in his hands. "I'm sorry. I didn't want things to be awkward."

"They were always going to be awkward," Ben assured him with a smile. He held onto Sean's shoulders and kissed his forehead.

Sean embraced him, and they shared a quiet moment. Suddenly, the water shifted around them and they were in the middle of an ocean.

"Damn it, Sean," Ben said with a laugh. Sean flicked his tail and splashed him back.

***

Sean and Ben reached the neon lights of the fast food joint, which was surprisingly active for a late night. As they entered, Cynthia waved to them from a booth by the window, another girl sitting opposite her. When the other girl turned to see Sean, her jaw dropped.

"Look who I ran into!" Cynthia cheerfully remarked. She had thrown a dress over her bathing suit, her hair woven into a braid resting over her shoulder.

"Sean, hi, it's been awhile since I've...seen you," the other girl said with a friendly smile. "How...how are you?"

"Good, how about you?" Sean said, looking quite emotionless.

She smiled. "I'm good. Um," she cleared her throat through an awkward silence, "isn't that your jacket?"

She pointed to Ben, who was still wearing Sean's letterman. Sean's name was clearly embroidered on front.

"Uh-huh," Sean said, hardly interested. He turned to Ben. "Hey, did you want to get food?"

"Fuck yes," Ben said, turning to walk towards the counter. Once they were in line to order (and out of earshot), he put a hand on Sean's shoulder. "I think she likes you."

"What?" Sean was taken aback. Ben motioned with his eyes back to the table where Cynthia and the other girl were sitting. The other girl was also anxiously peeking back at them, quickly turning around and acting like she wasn't looking. "You mean Penny?"

Ben laughed. "Babe, you're so smart, but you're kind of oblivious sometimes."

Sean's mouth hung open slightly.

"What?" Ben said, glancing up at him in amusement.

"I love it when you call me 'Babe,'" Sean said in a low voice.

Ben smiled wider. "Babe..." he said a second time. "What do you want to do?"

Sean blinked slowly. Without thinking, he felt the words escape his lips. "I want to kiss you."

Ben leaned in and touched his lips to Sean's. As Sean returned the kiss, he clutched the sides of Ben's arms, pulling him close as Ben wrapped his arms around his waist.

"They're all staring at us," Ben said with a smirk after they pulled away.

Sean said nothing as he took in the moment.

"Hello?"

Sean stepped back as he re-entered reality. The cashier's face was deadpan. "I can help you if you're ready."

"Um, yeah," Sean said. Ben still had a hand on Sean's arm when he clutched his stomach with laughter.

When they returned to the table with a tray of food, Penny hastily stood up. She smiled awkwardly.

"I've got to go. It was nice to see you again, Sean."

"See you, Penny," Sean said politely. As soon as she left, he carelessly slid into the booth where she had been sitting. He rested his arm on the back of the booth, leaving room for Ben to slide in next to him.

"That wasn't nice," Cynthia chided.

"So?" said Sean, eating a fry. "That's what you get when you crush on a guy who's gay. Oh," he said, looking up at Cynthia. "I mean, nevermind."

"What?" Cynthia prodded.

"He could be bi," Ben pointed out, dunking a chicken nugget in barbecue sauce.

"That's true," Sean conceded.

"Who?"

Sean and Ben looked up at her with earnestness.

Cynthia sighed. "Honestly, I can't hang out with you two when I don't know what you're talking about half the time."

"Robbie," Sean stated.

"Robbie, what about him? You think he's gay, what, just because you're gay and you can tell if someone's gay?" She folded her arms skeptically until the realization hit
her. "What, did you see him do something?"

She watched their silent expressions and added, "Or do I want to know?"

"No," they answered simultaneously. "Probably not," Ben added. Sean shook his head.

Cynthia sat up straight, her brow furrowed. "Okay. I guess at least, thanks for letting me know."

"How did you two get together in the first place?" Sean wondered. "I mean, it might say something about how he thinks of you."

She sat back in thought. "Well, we met up last summer, when I was home for break. Now I'm taking a semester off to do independent study. Really, I just don't have the money to go back to school. So I've been working at my dad's store and doing all the stuff online."

"I was going to say," Sean piped in. "Weren't you supposed to be at Easton State going to school?

"Oh, Easton City," Ben said, "I was supposed to go to school there."

"Really?" said Cynthia.

"But I ran away. And then I met you," he said, giving Sean a sweet look.

Sean smiled and leaned towards Ben with his arm around him. Then, suddenly he snatched his arm back along with a chicken nugget that he had stolen while Ben was distracted.

"Hey!" Ben said as he watched Sean snack on his food.

"I learned from the best," Sean said with a grin.

Ben rolled his eyes. "I'm flattered. Though you should know I haven't stolen anything since the time."

"Did you steal from John?" Sean asked with interest.

Ben opened his mouth to speak, but took a breath instead. "No."

Sean closed his eyes and slowly shook his head. "Missed opportunities."

Ben tilted his head with a mischievous grin. "I stole you."

A smile grew on Sean's face that turned into laughter.

"Anyway," Cynthia cut in, "Robbie dropped out a year ago; he's been trying to go full time with his music."

"His music?" Ben questioned.

"Yeah, he does, like electronic music. He's pretty good. So we ran into each other and started flirting, started going on some late night walks..."

"Flirting, like flirting how?" Sean wondered.

Cynthia twisted the end of her braid around her fingertips. "He ran into me at the store, and then he started texting me, and then I started going over to his house to listen to his music."

"Hmm," said Sean, leaning back in his seat, his arm still around Ben. "Sounds serious."

"Yeah..." Cynthia said pensively. "I don't know what happened earlier. It's like he's never been with a girl before."

Sean gave a shrug. "So talk to him."

"Yeah, I guess so." Cynthia folded her arms. "So why are you here? Where did you go to school again.."

"Steel City U," Sean answered, eating another fry. "Everyone evacuated for the storm."

"Oh, right, I heard about that. You just came home?" Cynthia turned to Ben. "And you go there too?" He nodded. "Where are you from?"

"I mostly grew up in Japan and Italy. And around the US."

Cynthia looked perplexed. "Okay?"

"But you've never been to Hawaii before?" Sean asked him. Ben shook his head.

"I guess you've had the island experience," Cynthia said with a laugh. "Skinny dipping and Kona Burger, what's next on the agenda?"

"There is no agenda," Ben said, stretching his arms up. He hooked one arm around Sean's next. "I'm up for anything."

Cynthia flipped her braid back. "Hey, actually, Robbie's doing a show on Friday at the community center, if you want to come. If it's not weird," she added, glancing from one to the other.

Ben looked to Sean expectantly.

"I don't think it will," Sean reasoned. "Do you think it's going to be weird for you? I mean, after him turning you down earlier..."

Cynthia tilted her head in thought. "Yeah, I guess so...but I kind of have to," she concluded. "I already promised I'd help set up and everything."

"Well shit," said Sean, "We gotta help you get laid."

"Yeah," Ben chimed in. "Sean can do your makeup."

"Yes!" Sean said with gasp. "Let me do your makeup."

"I don't know," Cynthia said with hesitation. "I guess I'm free tomorrow?"

"Sure, we can come over to your house, and I'll do a practice on you, well, I don't really need a practice run, but you can see what it looks like."

"You should help her pick out a outfit," Ben said, placing a hand on Sean's arm.

"That too," Sean said with a nod.

Ben laughed. "Remember, like when we went on that terrible fucking double date."

Sean broke into laughter. "That was fucking terrible."

"I haven't talked to her in awhile," Ben remarked.

"How have you talked to her more than I have, I was the one who went on a fake real date with her," Sean complained.

"I had to talk to her when you went AWOL," Ben said, his tone apologetic.

"AWOL? When I was a whale?"

"Yeah," Ben said with a smile. "When you were a whale."

They stared at each other for a good period of time, temporarily lost in each other's presence.

Sean looked up at Cynthia. "Sorry, did you want to hang out tomorrow?"

Cynthia blinked. "Yeah, just send me a text. I should be free in like, the afternoon."

"Okay," Sean said definitively. "Wait, I don't have my phone."

"Uh, how about three?" Cynthia suggested.

"Perfect," said Sean. "Anyway, we should probably go. My parents don't know we're gone."

"Yeah, we probably should," Ben said, before licking the leftover grease from his fingertips. He stood up and held out his hand. "It was nice to meet you."

"Yeah," Cynthia said, shaking his hand. "I hope we can just, like, set aside what happened earlier."

"What?" Oh yeah," Ben said with a laugh.

"He already forgot about it," Sean said, putting a hand on Ben's shoulder.

"I didn't forget; I'm not rude like you are, Sean," Ben said, interlacing his fingers in Sean's.

Sean gasped. "I can't believe you'd speak to me like this," he said, feigning offense.

Ben laughed. They waved to Cynthia before stumbling out of the restaurant, making their way back to Sean's parents' house, still holding hands, their steps nearly in skips.

Chapter Text

"Good morning, sweetie, breakfast is ready--" Linda froze as she opened the door to Sean's room and found it empty.

***

Mr. Richards was leaving his house in the morning when his peripherals caught something on his front porch. He turned to see two college-age boys curled up on the porch swing, fast asleep. He looked to his car for a few seconds before setting down his bag and gathering his energy to deal with the task at hand.

"Hey!" he called.

 

Neither woke. He slowly inched forward and shook one of them on the shoulder.

"Hey," he said, as they slowly began to stir, one of them sitting up and rubbing his eyes, the other shifting to face away from him, returning to sleep. "Can I help you?"

The awoken one slowly looked at him and then turned to the other, shaking him by the shoulder. "Hey, Sean, wake up."

"Mmm," Sean mumbled, shrugging him off.

"Sean," Ben repeated. "You said this was your friend's house."

Sean turned to look at him with a furrowed brow. "It's not?" His eyes focused on Mr. Richards, and he raised his head. "Isn't this where Adam lives?"

"Eaton?" the man answered. "The Eatons live across the street there."

Sean drew his gaze to where he was pointing and recognized the residence he had visited countless times during his childhood. "Oh. Sorry Mr. Richards," he said, resting his feet on the ground and rubbing his tired face in his hands.

"Sean," the man respectfully greeted him.

Ben glanced from one to the other with mild confusion.

"Ben, this my highschool government teacher," Sean explained, still groggy. He looked up at Mr. Richards. "This is...Ben."

"Hi," Ben said with a wave.

Mr. Richards nodded. "You do know the Eatons are out of town?"

"Oh." Sean glanced down, lost in thought. When he made eye contact again, he was more lucid. "Sorry, I know it looks like we're homeless, but really, we're not. It's
just, there was a storm that flooded the place we were staying in, and my parents aren't really...supportive of us, so...Look, I'm sorry to bother you. We'll leave."

The man raised an eyebrow. "Okay, then." He stayed in place as Sean and Ben slowly stood up off of the wobbling porch swing.

Sean tilted his head. "Don't you have to take your kid to school or something?"

Richards winced, otherwise not moving a muscle. "My wife and I divorced last year."

"Oh," Sean said, glancing away. "Sorry to hear about that."

"Yeah, well," the man swallowed uncomfortably. "It is what it is."

Sean and Ben turned to leave, taking a step off the front porch.

"My first class isn't for another hour, if you want to come inside and chat."

Sean looked back at him. "Um, sure."

As they followed him inside, Ben looked to Sean and emphatically mouthed the words, "Did you suck his dick?!"

Sean rolled his eyes and mouthed the word, "No."

Ben smirked, saying nothing for Richards to hear.

***

Ben took a cup of coffee from Mr. Richards and immediately spooned several lumps of sugar into it. "Thanks, mister..."

"You can just call me Paul," the man said as he sat down across from them at the kitchen table.

"You were going to go to school even though you don't have class?" Sean wondered aloud.

"I have some news quizzes to grade," Richards said, taking a sip of coffee.

"I don't miss those," Sean said, leaning back in his chair.

"It's important to pay attention to the news," Richards admonished.

"Is it?" Sean said flatly. "It's kind of depressing."

The house was oddly quiet, showing no signs that he lived alone apart from any immediate presence of family members; the fridge still covered in drawings and test
scores, shelves of family photos, entertaining china that probably hadn't been used in some time. Sean glanced at a photo of Richards kneeling next to a young boy dressed in athletic gear and holding a bat.

"He turned twelve this year. He's in Nebraska with his mother."

Ben made a face. "Nebraska? Who would live there?"

"She moved to be with her family," Richards explained.

Sean frowned. "Her family? She had another family she didn't tell you about?"

Ben laughed. "Sean."

Richards set down his coffee cup. "Her parents. Her sister lives in the area, too."

Sean hung his head. "Right. I'm not awake yet."

"I guess it's not entirely unlikely," the man said with a humorless laugh. "Anyway, what have you been up to since graduation? You mentioned the tsunami from the
earthquake; you go to school on the west coast?"

"Steel City U," Sean said, taking a sip of coffee. "Visual design. I have one year left. Though, Ben here just started." He smiled and playfully gave Ben's shoulder a push.

"Hey," he said, pushing Sean's arm off. He looked to Richards with a more serious expression. "I don't know what I want to do yet."

"Few people do," Richards pointed out. "I studied philosophy and ended up in education."

Ben gave a quiet laugh. "I should go back to being a magician full time." He looked up to see Sean's interested expression. "I meant that as a joke."

"Whatever you want to do," Sean said with clear assurance. "If you really wanted to, I could talk to Lloyd, get you a spot on television."

Ben tilted his head to Sean with a smile. "Wow, you'd do that for me? I was really kidding, though. I've realized now that it was mostly a distraction."

Sean's face twisted with confusion until he suddenly grasped the realization. "Oh."

Richards did not look like he understood. "Well," he said, "I would suggest a major that translates into a job."

"You probably don't even need to finish school," Ben told Sean. "Lloyd has you working on all his shows."

"True," Sean said. "I might have to do that if I can't graduate because my grades, I mean, the storm pushed me back."

Richards considered their conversation. "So, you evacuated from school and came home to your parents, who completely rejected the two of you?"

"More or less," said Sean. He and Ben exchanged glances. "Not outright rejection, but like, we don't feel safe staying there."

"Ben, where are your parents?" Richards asked.

"They're in Italy," Ben stated.

The man frowned. "They went on vacation without you?"

"Basically," Ben said, rolling his eyes. "They just live there part of the year."

"I see," said Richards. He turned to Sean. "You've been in touch with Jim and Darlene?"

"Just with Adam," Sean explained. He was pensive. "Actually, I haven't talked to him since. Could I borrow your phone?"

"I thought you kids were practically glued to your phones these days," said Richards, looking partly amused.

"We lost them in the flood," Sean explained.

Richards furrowed his brow. "When did you get here?"

"Yesterday," Sean answered.

"I didn't think there were any flights leaving Steel City since they closed the airport for the natural disaster warning," Richards contended.

"We swam here," Ben explained.

The man let out a harsh laugh. "If you say so."

"I hope Adam's doing okay. God, I'm such a shitty friend," Sean said, turning to Ben and rubbing his eyes. Ben placed a hand on his arm.

Richards watched them silently. After some time, he spoke up. "If you need to use a phone to call him, go ahead, it's there," he said, gesturing to the landline on the counter. He stood up. "Anyway, I should be going. See yourselves out, and if you need anything else...just ask."

Ben's mouth fell open slightly. "Really? Thanks, Mr.--"

"Richards," the man said. "And don't worry about it."

They watched as he picked up his bag and left out the front door.

"What was all that about? Were you close with him in highschool? Friendly, I mean," Ben remarked.

"Not really. I was in his class. That's all." Sean stared into his cup of coffee.

"Is it too early to call Adam? He doesn't seem like the person to be up at 9am," said Ben.

"It's three hours later there..." Sean said, doing the math in his head. "So probably."

They both laughed.

"Alright." Sean picked up the phone and began dialing.

"You know his number," Ben remarked.

"We've been friends for a long time," Sean explained, holding the old device up to his ear. After some time, he heard the robotic voice of Adam's voicemail. After the beep, he spoke up. "Hey, Adam, it's Sean. Just calling to make sure you're okay, um give me a call back. Bye." By the time he put down the phone, his hand was shaking slightly.

"He didn't answer?" Ben said. Sean shook his head, and without further prompting, Ben wrapped his arms around him. They sat there for a minute, holding each other, until suddenly, the phone rang. Sean immediately answered.

"Hello?"

"Sean?"

"Adam!" Sean answered back, feeling a huge relief at hearing his friend's voice. "What's going on?"

"Right now? Not a whole lot. Sorry I didn't answer earlier; I thought it might be your parents asking where you were."

"No, it's just me," Sean said with an uneasy laugh. "I'm in our hometown. And Ben's here," he added, glancing at the boy who was quietly sitting next to him.

"Ben's there with you? In Hawaii?"

"Yeah, actually, this is weird; let me put you on speaker." Sean pressed a button and set the phone down on the kitchen table. "Hello?"

"Hello?" Adam echoed. "Sean?"

"Yeah, I'm here with Ben," Sean answered.

"Hello," Ben chimed in.

"Oh, Ben, hi!" said Adam. "You guys are in Hawaii together?"

"Yeah," Sean answered.

"With your parents?"

"Yeah," Sean repeated.

"Really? And they know you're, like, together?"

"Uh..." Sean's voice trailed off.

Ben leaned in to speak. "We're kind of hiding from them so they don't find out."

Adam burst out laughing, and Sean couldn't help but laugh along.

"Well, good luck with that," Adam said. "I hope they don't disown you or anything."

"Here's to hoping," Sean added, flashing the whites of his eyes. "So where are you right now? What happened with the storm?"

"I'm at John's house. He has me staying here with a couple people."

Sean raised an eyebrow. "You're at John's house?"

"Yeah, he wanted to put me in a hotel, but there was a lot of confusion with booking and everything and the roads closed, he just gave up and now I'm here. Tell you
the truth, I think he just wants to keep a close eye on me."

"That's lame," Sean said. "How did you even end up there?"

"See, that's the thing," Adam explained. "His assistant showed up at my dorm late at night when everyone was supposed to be evacuating, and apparently had strict
instructions to get me but not look for you or anyone else. I tried your phone afterwards, but there was no answer. He's serious about forgetting you."

Sean's face contorted with disdain. "What an asshole."

"You've got that right," Adam agreed. "Anyway, I've been staying here with him and his assistant and also some director."

"Wait, who?" Sean interjected. "Gross, Joe's there?"

"Uh, he's tall and skinny, red ponytail?"

"Oh," Sean said with a sigh of relief. "You mean Lloyd."

"Yeah, that guy," said Adam. "He and John are always arguing. They're like an old married couple."

"Sounds like them," Sean concluded.

"Ugh, I can hear them now--"

Adam was cut off by muted voices in the background. One of them said something. "What?" Adam responded. "Oh, it's Sean. He and Ben are at his parents' house."

Lloyd's voice escalated to an audible range. "Oh, once again Sean can take care of himself, no thanks to you."

"What do I look like?! His mum?"

Sean and Ben laughed at John's voice in the background.

"Anyway," Adam said, returning to the phone. "Other than that, it's really boring here. The power was out for a while and there's no wifi."

"Such a tragedy. Hang in there," said Sean.

"Thanks, man," Adam replied. "But on the bright side, did you hear? The university's, like, cancelling the semester or something. I'm pretty stoked, my grades weren't
so hot starting off."

"Wait, really?" Ben said, his face lighting up.

"Yeah, something about they can't continue operations with the natural disaster and everything."

"I didn't know they could do that," Ben remarked.

"Apparently, so for now I'll just be chilling out here."

Sean leaned in. "You're going to be there awhile, do you have food and everything?"

"Yeah, there's enough to last. We have enough wine, for sure. Every night John finds a new bottle for us to go through. You know wine comes in pink?"

Sean laughed. "You mean rose'?"

"That's just rose but more French," Adam pointed out.

"It's rose but more conceited asshole," Sean retorted.

Adam laughed. "Well, it was good to hear from you. Good luck with your parents and all that."

"Thanks," Sean said. "Good luck surviving the apocalypse with a couple of gay queens in their mid-life crises."

"I'll try," Adam chuckled. "Talk to you later, Sean. You too, Ben."

"Nice talking to you," Ben chimed in.

"Okay, later," Adam said, and he hung up.

Sean and Ben stared at each other. Ben's face broke into a smile. Sean's response was delayed.

"You hear that?" Ben said, pulling Sean towards him. "Everything's okay."

Sean warmed at his touch, nodding slowly as he ran his fingers through the hair on the back of Ben's head.

Ben cupped Sean's drooping chin in his hand. "Babe, you should really get some rest."

Sean shot a sideways glance and gave a lazy half smile. "You think so?"

"C'mere," Ben said, pulling him out of his chair. Sean tripped and fell just enough for Ben to catch him. Taking Sean's arm over his shoulders, he led him to the couch.

Sean slowly lied down, and Ben pulled a blanket over him.

"This is what I mean, you taking care of me," Sean said, his eyes closed as he laid one arm on he outside of the blanket, the other resting underneath his pillow.

"It's nothing," said Ben. He brushed a strand of hair out of Sean's eyes.

"What are we going to do," Sean murmured. "Go swimming every night?"

"We'll figure something out," Ben whispered. "You're pretty smart, Babe."

Sean flashed a grin, opening one eye.

Ben moved Sean's feet aside as he sat down in a curled up position at the other end of the couch. "I wonder what it's like to have parents who are divorced." He
laughed to himself. "Or to get a divorce."

Sean was quiet.

Ben kicked him gently. "Hey, Sean."

He watched as Sean stayed still apart from the rise and fall of breath in his chest.

When Sean woke, he looked around the dim room and slowly recognized his surroundings.

"Wake up," he said, shaking Ben's arm. "It's three."

Ben yawned. "So?"

"We were supposed to go to Cynthia's. And Roberts could be home any minute."

"Right." Ben jumped up.

When they reached Cynthia's house, Ben rang the doorbell. When Cynthia opened the door, she glanced down at Sean in his wheelchair.

"What happened to you?"

"He has a medical condition that selectively restricts mobility," Ben explained without a second thought.

"Oh, okay?" Cynthia said with a puzzled look. She held open the door. "Come in."

"This is cute," Ben said when they entered her room. Christmas lights lined the ceiling. A bed dressed in a disheveled but clean white duvet backed up against a floor-length canvas print of a forest landscape.

"Thanks," Cynthia said as she thumbed through hangers in her closet. "I'm thinking these are my options."

She pulled three dresses and laid them out on the bed.

"I think it's obvious," said Sean, grinning up at Ben.

"Me, too," Ben said. "That one."

Sean frowned as Ben pointed to the dress with a bold colorblock print in bright colors. "No, it's that one," he said, pointing to the understated black dress with ruffles.

Cynthia made a face. "Actually, I was thinking of going with the other one," she said, referring to the third dress, a red halter top.

Sean and Ben looked at each other and started laughing.

"That's a good one," Sean said. Ben nodded.

"Okay, that's settled," Cynthia said, taking a deep breath as she returned the dresses to her closet. "What were you thinking for makeup?"

Sean looked pensive. "Uhh, I don't have my kit with me. Let me see what you have."

"What I have? Good question." Cynthia pulled open a drawer and began rifling through it, pulling out palettes to set on her desk. "Okay," she said, sitting down in her desk chair.

Sean pulled himself up onto the desk so he could get a good angle on her face. He set to work applying foundation, a few touches from the most neutral palette he could find.

"Didn't your mom teach you makeup?"

"Yeah, she used to do it professionally," Sean said, running a pencil along her lower lid. "Look up."

"You learned makeup, and she didn't know you're gay?" Cynthia pointed out.

"Who says she didn't," Sean responded in a neutral tone. He kept working without expanding in detail. "There," he said when he was finished, and she turned towards the mirror.

"Wow, it looks good. Like I'm not even wearing makeup."

"I just highlighted the features you already have," Sean said with a shrug.

Cynthia sat back in her chair. "How do you still know how to do it?" she wondered.

"Oh, I still work as a professional makeup artist--"

"An AWARD winning makeup artist," Ben chimed in. "You should be paying him," he joked.

"Shh," Sean waved a hand. "It's just a free consult for a friend."

"Oh, I didn't realize," Cynthia apologized. "It is for a good cause, though."

"You're right," Sean said. "We have to help you win back your man."

"Or at least make him jealous when all the other guys are flirting with you," Ben added.

"Oh, I see," Cynthia said with a nod. "In that case, we need to go bold. Could we do like, a smokey eye?"

"Ooh," Ben said with interest.

Sean picked up a separate palette with deeper hues. After a few minutes, he hung back and let Cynthia admire the work.

"Damn," she said.

"Are you ready to star in a girl band?" Sean joked.

"Damn," said Ben. "Can you do me next?"

"Okay, Panic," Sean said with a laugh. He pulled Ben's wrist as Ben approached him, and he cupped his chin, reaching for Cynthia's eyeliner. "Close your eyes."

When he was finished, Ben gasped at the mirror in delight.

"I love it," he said. "It reminds me of when you used to do makeup for my shows."

Sean smiled. "I forgot."

Ben laughed. "Forgot you used to do my makeup?"

Sean lowered his voice. "I forgot how hot it looks on you."

Ben stepped closer and wrapped his arms around Sean's waist. "Babe," he said, the words barely escaping his lips before Sean leaned in to kiss him. It was slow and passionate, Ben's hands constricting around Sean as Sean's hands remained pressed against the edge of the desk.

"Hey, guys?" Cynthia said, waving her hands to the side of their faces as they slowly withdrew, still keeping an intense eye contact, grins gracing each of their faces.

"What, Cynthia?" Sean said without breaking his gaze with Ben.

"This isn't going to work. I have to help him set up, remember? So I'll show up before anyone else and I'll have sweated all of this off by the time the show starts."

Sean looked at her and frowned. "You need to get waterproof."

"I know," Ben said excitedly. "You need a dramatic entrance."

Sean laughed. "I think it'll be dramatic enough if you just show up during the show all dressed up."

Ben considered it before nodding in agreement.

"And you'll do my makeup again?" Cynthia asked. Sean nodded.

Ben grinned. "You'll do my makeup again--"

"Shh," Sean said with a laugh, placing a thumb across Ben's lips. They stared at each other in silence again.

"Well, I really owe you," Cynthia said, lying back on her bed. "I thought this music thing was going to be a mess."

"It'll be fine," Sean said reassuringly. His arm hung around Ben's neck.

"I don't know," Cynthia said with a sigh. "He's not really expanding his scene by just playing to the town."

"What he should do is contact Adam and ask to produce a track. That's how music people make it big these days."

Cynthia tilted her head as she stared up at her bedroom ceiling. "That's right, you and Adam were friends, weren't you." Suddenly, she lifted her head up. "You and Adam, you weren't..."

Sean shook his head.

"He's like, obscenely straight," Ben clarified. Sean pulled him closer to kiss the side of his forehead.

Suddenly, there was a knock on the door.

"Come in!" Cynthia called. A middle aged man peeked in through the ajar door.

"Oh, you have company over," he said nonchalantly. "Cynthia, I need you to help me with a customer."

She lifted her head. "Get mom to do it."

"She went out." He gave her an apologetic look. "Please?"

Cynthia sighed and pulled herself up. "Okay, I'll be out in a minute."

The man left, and she looked to Sean and Ben. "Sorry, I have to go."

"No worries," said Sean. "See you Friday?"

"So, tomorrow?" Cynthia said with a slight smile as she opened the door to her room.

"Oh." Sean paused in thought.

Ben dropped his head and laughed. "Is that what day it is?"

Cynthia motioned towards the hallway with a cool wave. "See you around."

"Okay," Sean said, rolling his eyes as he dropped into his wheelchair.

Cynthia said nothing, just smiled as they left the room.

***

"Do you think Cynthia and her boyfriend will actually get back together?" Ben wondered aloud. They were strolling down the candy aisle at a gas station. Ben grabbed
some redvines off the shelf. "I think you would be the best one to know," he pointed out.

"Umm..."Sean folded his arms in thought as he looked up at Ben. "Honestly I have no idea. I didn't even know him all that well."

"Yeah?" Ben said, a grin forming on his face. "You 'didn't know him all that well'?"

"Shut up," Sean said, elbowing him in the side. "We were in one algebra class together, and later I ran into him at a house party. That's all."

"If you say so," Ben said with a laugh. He placed the redvines on the counter along with a bag of doritos. "Just those."

"It's $2.86," the clerk said in a flat, apathetic voice.

Ben reached into his pocket and his face fell. Frantically, he patted down his shorts.

"What's wrong?" Sean asked.

"My wallet, it's..." Ben froze as he was unable to find it. He looked around the store.

Sean blinked. "Don't worry, I'll get it." He calmly pulled out his own wallet and paid while Ben continued to fret.

"What a good friend," the cashier stoically remarked.

Ben's worry vanished for a brief moment. "He is a good friend," he told the clerk.

"Where do you think you had it last?" Sean asked once they were outside.

"I don't know, I had it last night, and then I took it out while we were at that teacher's house--"

"What?" Sean said as Ben paused in realization. Sean lifted an eyebrow. "Do we have to go back to that poor loser's house?"

Ben bit his lip and nodded.

"Ugh," Sean said, turning his wheelchair. "Let's go."

When they reached his front porch, Ben rang the doorbell.

"I bet he doesn't answer," said Sean.

Less than a minute passed before Richards opened the door.

"Let me grab my wallet, I didn't realize you'd be here so early--"

The man froze when he looked up and saw the two kids.

"Hi," Ben said, breaking the awkward silence. "Did I leave my wallet here earlier?"

"I didn't see one," said Richards. "Where would you have left it?"

"I think in the living room?"

Richards closed his eyes. "Okay, come in and take a look."

"Thank you sir," Ben said with relief as he entered the home. "Hold these?" he said, handing his chips and candy to Sean, who nodded and set them in his lap.

Richards watched Sean roll in afterwards. "What happened to you?" he asked with a hint of sarcasm.

"Medical condition," Sean said curtly.

"And what are you answering the door for?" Ben called from the living room. "Did you order a stripper?"

Richards hit a hand to his own face and just shook his head.

"Here it is," Ben said, picking it up from where it had been lying on the floor by one end of the couch.

Sean came closer to him. "How did it get there?" he murmured just loud enough for only Ben to hear.

"I was counting it and then set it down and fell asleep," he answered in a rushed tone. Sean glanced at him with skepticism. "Honest," Ben said.

Sean sighed and folded his arms. "You know this looks exactly like what happened last time."

Ben grimaced with an uncomfortable guilt. "You're right, I guess it does."

Sean raised his eyebrows.

Ben looked away, avoiding eye contact. "I was so stupid. I don't know why... but I would have no reason to do that here. Anyways, I have it, let's just go."

Sean placed a hand on Ben's wrist. As Ben's eyes slowly met his, Sean pulled him in and wrapped his arms around his neck. Ben pressed his chin into Sean's shoulder.

Finally, Ben pulled away and climbed off of him.

"Let's go," Sean said, placing a hand on his arm. He looked around. "Hey, Mr. Richards?"

Ben craned his neck until he saw a figure in the kitchen. "Hey," he called, entering the room to see the man hunched over a glass of wine, his eyes closed in distress.
"Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he said, rubbing his eyes. "I mean, I'll be fine. Did you find your...phone or whatever?"

Sean wheeled into the kitchen, spying the bottle of wine. "Are you going to drink that all by yourself?"

Richards just stared at a spot on the table.

Suddenly, the door rang, and someone could be heard pounding on the door. "Pizza!" the delivery woman called from the other side.

Ben perked up. "Are you going to eat that all by yourself?!"

Richards turned his head. A couple tears were falling down his cheeks.

"At least let me answer the door so you don't have to," Ben said.

The man pursed his lips for a moment, and then pulled out his wallet and handed Ben a twenty.

Ben took it and disappeared into the foyer. Sean wheeled closer to the table and rested his elbows on it. Neither of them said anything until Ben returned.

"Ooh, this smells good," Ben said, setting the box down on the table, along with a small pile of change. He looked to Richards. "I mean, I hope you enjoy it."

Richards sighed. "Go ahead, you can have a piece."

"Are you sure?" Ben asked with concern.

"Yes," Richards said, sitting back in his chair with a deep breath. "I think I've put you through enough trouble."

"I'll share my Doritos with you," Ben offered.

Sean held the bag out to Richards, who reluctantly took a chip.

"Thanks," he said. "Plates are in the cupboard there."

"So," Sean said, munching on a couple chips. "Is there a reason you're indulging on this...Thursday night?" he said, pausing to remember the day of the week. He frowned. "Sorry, Mr. Richards, I didn't mean to pry."

"No," Richards said, putting up a hand. "Actually, I just got out of a difficult phone conversation. And it's okay, you can call me Paul."

"Paul," Sean repeated.

Paul nodded. "You can have some too, if you want."

"Oh, uh, thanks," Sean said. Ben looked over at them from the cabinet and grabbed three plates.

Paul took a sip of wine. He glanced up as he noticed Sean watching him. "Sorry, would you--do you drink?" he asked.

Ben sat next to Sean and took a piece of pizza. Once the cheese was contained on the plate, he took a bite out. "It reminds him of his ex," Ben said through his
mouthful.

"No, I'm fine, I can have some," Sean protested.

Paul blinked at him before giving a shrug and pouring him a glass.

"Thanks," Sean said, taking the glass as Paul handed to him. "And thanks," he said to Ben, who handed him a plate with a piece of pizza. "Do you drink wine?"

"I've had it at my parents house a few times. It's alright."

Sean held out his glass, motioning for Ben to take a sip. Once Ben tasted the red, he frowned.

"You don't like it," Sean said in a soft, low voice, a smile curling on one corner of his lips.

"Are you kidding?" Ben said with a laugh. "If you're getting drunk, then so am I."

Sean smiled and looked to Paul. "You heard him, we'll need another glass."

"I guess I can spare another poor decision," Paul said, handing him the bottle. Ben brought down another wine glass from the cupboard and Sean poured him an
amount similar to his own.

"Thanks, Babe," said Ben. He raised the glass. "Cheers."

The three of them clinked glasses and took a sip.

"Did you have other plans for the evening?" Sean said, setting down his glass to dig into his slice of pizza.

"Actually there's a game on I was going to watch," Paul explained. "I've been watching some players in the NFL--Or do you watch football?"

Ben nearly choked on his wine. "You're asking us gays?" He turned to Sean. "Or what about you, do you watch football?"

Sean raised his eyebrows. "Is Lady Gaga doing halftime?"

The two of them snickered with laughter.

Paul dropped his chin and breathed a smile. "Well, I think it started a few minutes ago. I'll put it on if you don't mind." He stood up.

"No, I want to see this thing people are always talking about," Ben said, following him into the living room.

"What, your parents didn't stay up until whatever early af in the morning to watch the superbowl?" Sean wheeled into the room after them.

"I was always at school," Ben explained. "And everyone went home to watch the superbowl. I was invited over a couple times, but I didn't really pay attention."

Sean moved to the sofa and rested one leg along the length of the couch. Ben quickly fell down into his lap, and Sean hooked an arm around his shoulders without
hesitation.

"And one of those times," Ben continued, "I really didn't pay attention."

Sean breathed a laugh. "Robbie?"

"No." Ben smiled and lowered his voice. "It was more than a quick Robbie."

Sean laughed. "I should have known."

"His sister found us and it was over," Ben said with a sigh. "He avoided me for the rest of the school year."

"Aww." Sean lifted Ben's hand and kissed his knuckles. He glanced up at Paul, who was watching their conversation.

"Did you catch any of that?" Ben asked somewhat apologetically.

Paul raised an eyebrow. "You're forgetting I'm a highschool teacher."

Ben rolled his eyes and took a sip of wine. "So this is the game?" he said, watching the players assemble on the screen.

"It's the pre-season, so they're trying out their new players. The Falcons have some up and coming players this year."

"Are they cute?" Sean asked with a deadpan stare. His composure broke as Ben elbowed him in the ribs.

The players kicked off the ball, and the three of them were silent as they watched the game.

"Oh," Paul said in dismay as one of the players tackled another.

"Wait, so what's going on now?" Ben asked.

Paul's eyes were glued to the screen. "He shouldn't have passed it then. Now they're going to start from the 50 yard line."

They watched as the players hiked the ball and started running around the field.

"This is beyond me," Sean said, taking a sip of wine. Ben shushed him.

After a few minutes, the network went to commercial, and Paul put the TV on mute.

"That number 28 there, he's new and he has this special way of maneuvering around the field. It's funny because he's so short, only 5'10."

Ben nodded, more out of politeness than understanding.

Paul looked back at the screen, which was displaying a commercial for car insurance.

Sean touched Ben's shoulder. "I don't understand," he said in a soft voice, "it was just his sister?"

"Yeah, but it was more than that," Ben explained. "He was like, his family's star child, lacrosse player, whatever. He didn't want anyone to know; he was worried he wouldn't get his scholarship. Well, he didn't want anyone to know about him, he told everyone about me. Spread rumors, I mean. And then everyone knew, and they wrote 'faggot' on the door to my room and put dead rats in my gym bag and everything. My dad got a call, and he just arranged to have me switch schools again. And then I ran away. And then I met you," he said, tilting his back to look at Sean.

"Wait, so how long were you there for?" Sean inquired.

"A year," Ben answered, drinking the rest of the contents in his wine glass.

"So this lacrosse player," Sean reasoned, "he sees this new kid doing magic tricks in the hallways, you were doing magic then, right?"

"Yeah," Ben nodded.

"So he sees the new kid and just goes, 'ooh a snack'? That's bullshit."

Ben laughed. "Sean, you always know exactly how to put it."

Sean smiled. He glanced up at the TV, which was turned off. "What happened to the game?" he asked Paul, who was trying to seem like he wasn't listening in on their conversation.

"Um," Paul cleared his throat. "It's just, I always watch it with my son on Thanksgiving, and I was just on the phone arguing with my wife for two hours because she doesn't want him to come this year."

"What's the custody arrangement?" Sean asked.

"Legal custody is one thing, but courtesy and coordination is another," Paul said with a sigh. "She said she's willing to trade Christmas, but I doubt she's going to keep that promise."

Sean was silent for some time. "I'm sorry," he said.

"Sorry?" Ben said, slamming his glass down on the coffee table. "Sean, are you hearing this shit? This kid, what's his name?"

"Christopher," Paul answered.

"Christopher," Ben repeated. "This kid has his parents actually fighting over who gets to spend time with him?! What the fuck! My parents missed everything! They missed...they missed everything," he said, rubbing his eyes as tears began to form.

"I know," Sean said. With both hands, he wiped away loose strands of hair as he clutched the sides of Ben's head and leaned down to gently kiss his forehead. "They missed out on you being gay, and on you doing good in school..."

"Yeah," Ben agreed. "They never put my tests up on the fridge or any of that shit." He wiped a tear from his eye and his finger turned black. "Oh," he said.

"I told Cynthia she needs waterproof," Sean said under his breath.

Ben breathed a few laughs through his pained expression. He rolled over and pressed his face into Sean's chest as Sean pulled him closer.

Sean held him for a minute, dipping his chin into Ben's hair. Paul stood up and left the room. Finally, Ben gazed up into Sean's eyes, the black makeup streaming down his face.

"It's ruined, isn't it," he murmured.

Sean took a deep breath, brushing a thumb over Ben's cheek to brush away the marks. "I can't fix everything," he said, "but I can fix this."

"What do you need?" Ben asked.

"Just a couple paper towels, some of them damp."

Ben nodded and stood up. When he returned, he sat down on the couch again, facing Sean, who sat up to address the task. He took the paper cloth and carefully wiped the rest of the makeup from Ben's face, patting it dry when he was finished.

"There," he said.

Ben blinked, sharing an otherworldly gaze with him for the shortest period of time until they were interrupted.

"Did your dad ever play catch with you?" Paul said, entering the room with a football in hand.

"What? No," Ben said, turning towards him with intrigue.

Paul grinned with excitement. "Sean?"

"Nope." He leaned back on the couch. "Although my mom taught me makeup."

"C'mon, let's go out to the backyard," Paul said.

Ben's face lit up. "Right now?"

Paul shrugged. "I don't think any of us are particularly sober, but why not?"

***

Sean watched from the back porch as Paul explained to Ben how to throw the football.

"You want to grip it towards the end like that, and then when you throw it, you want it to give it a spin like that."

Ben nodded, taking the ball. Paul walked to the other end of the yard, still visible from the porchlights.

"Okay, go ahead."

As Ben threw the ball, it slipped in his hand, causing it to cartwheel through the air before bouncing off the ground a few feet in front of Paul.

"It was a good try, now try giving it a good grip," Paul said, retrieving it. He lifted his arm and demonstrated the throw.

Ben scrambled to catch it as it reached him. "Alright," he said, placing his fingers along the laces as Paul showed him. He threw the ball, and it barreled off to the side.

"That was better," Paul commended. "You just have to watch your aim." He retrieved the football. "Watch where you're elbow's leading when you throw it, that's where you want it to go."

He threw it back to Ben, who caught it with growing ease. "Okay, here we go," Ben said, holding the football in both hands. He pulled back and threw the ball, causing it to arc gracefully towards his teacher.

"I did it? I did it!" Ben exclaimed.

"Woo! Go Ben!" Sean called from the porch.

"Looks like you have a cheerleader," Paul said.

Ben turned to see Sean pumping his fist in the air. Ben smiled back at him.

"Are you ready?" Paul asked, holding up the ball.

Ben nodded.

Paul threw the ball and Ben caught it. Sean cheered again.

"Hey Sean," Ben said, looking back at him. "Watch!"

Ben lifted his arm to throw the ball, and then, moving his arm as though he was going to throw it, faked out, ultimately tossing it underarm towards Sean.

"Augh!" Sean batted it out of the air in self defence. "Fuck!"

"Oh," Paul said, dropping his arms when he realized the ball wasn't coming towards him.

Ben laughed. "Gotcha." He stumbled up the porch steps and threw his arms around Sean.

"Shut up," Sean said, laughing along.

Paul stepped towards them and picked up the ball, unable to hide the smile on his face.

"Hey, dad," Ben said, throwing a punch into Paul's arm. "You're my dad now."

"Oh, I am, am I?" Paul said with a laugh.

"Yeah," Ben said, leaning onto the porch railing. "Can you be my dad?"

Paul rubbed his face, chuckling softly. "Sure."

"Yeah?" Ben said, his eyes filled with excitement.

"Yeah. I'll be your dad."

"Okay," Ben said, clasping his hands behind his back. "Well, then I have to tell you something."

Paul laughed, shaking his head. "Really? What's that."

Ben's face fell into a serious expression. "I'm gay."

Paul's mouth fell open as he felt a loss for words.

Ben exchanged glances with Sean and laughter bubbled out of them.

Paul closed his eyes and joined in. "Okay, I guess you're gay."

"Excuse me," Sean said, rolling towards him. "Mr. Richards, sir?"

"What is it, Sean?" Paul said, rolling his eyes with a tired smile.

"I'm in love with your son," Sean said, his expression serious, a grin forming with the growing sound of Ben's laughter. "I'm going to ask him to marry me."

"You're going to what now?" Ben said, clutching his side with laughter.

"Ben." Sean grabbed his boyfriend's hand and climbed out of his chair onto his knees. "Will you ma--shut up," he said, unable to quell Ben's giddy, drunken laughter.

Ben shook his head biting his tongue. He took a deep breath and squeezed Sean's hand. With a big grin on his face, he looked Sean in the eyes. "What were you going to say?"

"I--" Sean cracked up with laughter, unable to keep a straight face.

"What?" Ben said, his voice soft.

Sean laughed. "I don't have a ring."

"You don't?" Ben swiveled his head towards Paul. "Dad, what are we gonna do?"

Paul rolled his eyes. Without thinking twice, he pulled the band off his own finger and extended it to Sean.

"Are you serious," Sean said, his voice barely audible beneath the laughter. He reached out and grabbed it, presenting it to Ben with both hands. "Ben," he said.

"Yes?" Ben smiled at him expectantly.

"Will you marry me?"

Ben keeled over, paralyzed with laughter. He grabbed Sean's hand for support, and they both fell onto the porch's wooden planks, chipping with paint.

"Fuck, I'm sorry," Ben said, rubbing the side of his face as he blushed. "Yes. Yes I'll marry you."

As Ben had both his hands clasped onto Sean's wrist, Sean took his free hand and lifted Ben's right hand gently to slide the band onto his finger. Then he brought Ben's hand to his lips and kissed it. With the ring on his finger, Ben caressed the side of Sean's face.

"What is it?" Sean asked.

"You look so handsome in the moonlight."

Sean smiled. "Ben."

"Yeah?"

"I think you might be gay."

Keeping their eyes on each other, they broke into laughter once more. Ben gave Sean's hand a squeeze and they gazed at each other in silence.

"Hey, Dad," Ben said, looking up to see Paul wiping a tear away. "Hey, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." Paul sat down on the porch steps. He sighed. "I got served with divorce papers on this porch."

"Aww," Ben said in a long stroke of sympathy. "It's okay."

He placed a hand on Paul's shoulder. Paul glanced at the ring on his finger and then down at the grass. "Yeah. Yeah it is."

Sean clasped Ben's other hand and nodded. Ben placed his right hand on top of Sean's, and the three of them sat there on the porch, staring into the darkness for a long time.

***

Ben woke up with warm arms wrapped around him as clutched the edge of a spaceship-print comforter with a hand that sported a glimmering gold band. He slowly propped himself up and looked around the child's room, squinting as sunlight hit his face and he felt his boyfriend stir beside him.

"Ugh, what time is it?" Sean said, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

Ben looked at the clock. "It's almost ten." He rolled towards Sean. "You okay?"

"I'd be better if we hadn't opened another bottle of wine," said Sean, clutching his forehead.

"So you remember last night," Ben said, more as a statement than question. He ran his fingers through his own hair.

Sean gently stopped his hand and held it out in front of them, exposing the ring. Ben looked at it and swallowed.

"We should give this back," he said, slipping it off his finger. Sean let go of his hand and nodded.

Ben pulled back the covers and stood up. "Do you think Paul's still around?"

"He probably went to school already," Sean said, sitting up briefly and then falling back onto the pillow in exhaustion.

"Wait here," said Ben. He left the room and returned with the wheelchair. Sean opened an eye and closed it, nodding as he held out his arms so Ben could help him into his primary mode of transport.

In the kitchen, a few boxes of cereal were lined up on the counter.

"It's weird how seriously he took this 'dad' thing," Ben said, pulling down a bowl from the cupboard and grabbing one of the more sugar laden varieties.

"I think it's more that he let us into his home and stopped giving a fuck to question it," Sean said. He rolled to the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of milk.

"What kind do you want?" Ben asked, placing his hand on one of the cereal boxes.

"That one."

"This one?" Ben asked, picking up the one he had his hand on.

Sean nodded. Ben brought the bowls to the table and handed him a spoon, which he took wordlessly before pouring milk in the cereal and passing the carton to Ben. For a few minutes, they sat and ate in silence.

"Where should we leave this?" Ben said through a mouthful. He pulled the ring out of his pocket.

"Maybe just on the table," Sean said. "With a note."

Ben nodded, swallowing the cereal. He stood up and returned to the table with a pen and paper. After some time of staring at the blank page, he pushed it towards Sean. "You write it."

Sean took the pen and thought for a brief moment before scribbling a note on the piece of paper. When he was finished, he pushed it back to Ben.

"'Thanks for letting us crash. Good luck with everything.'" Ben sat up. "It's nice."

Sean nodded, poking at his cereal with a spoon.

***

Ben quietly opened the door to the home and cautiously looked around the living room. "I don't think they're home," he said, turning to Sean.

"They should both be at work, but..." Sean sighed. "You never know."

Ben made his way to Sean's room as Sean slowly followed on wheels.

"It'll be good to finally put on some clean clothes," Ben called from Sean's closet. "How about this?"

As Sean entered the room, he saw Ben hold up one of his shirts. "It's a good color on you," he said quietly.

"It's whatever we're wearing to this party with Cynthia and her bae," Ben said, leaving the shirt on the bed as he continued to flip through the hangers. "Should we match? Actually, you decide, I'll be in the shower."

Ben stopped to kiss the top of Sean's head on his way out of the room.

Sean sat alone, lost in thought as he heard the sound of running water across the hall. When he finally made his way into the bathroom with a pile of clothes on his lap, he was surprised to see Ben standing next to a bathtub full of warm water, an expectant grin on his face.

"Weren't you going to take a shower?" Sean asked, setting the clothes on the counter by the sink.

"It's for you," Ben said.

Sean seemed confused. "Okay."

"Here." Ben helped him take his shirt off.

Sean followed along, undressing completely and lifting himself into the tub. As soon as the water touched his skin, he felt a new energy surfacing from within him as he felt his body transform into his true self.

"Ben!" he said, looking up. "You're a genius!"

"Yeah?" Ben blinked as the smile grew on his face.

"So are you going to get in?" Sean teased, suddenly flirtatious.

Ben let out a harsh laugh before quickly shutting the door and undressing. He stepped into the tub and sat down facing opposite Sean. Sean lifted his tail, pouring a stream of water onto Ben as Ben shielded his face with laughter.

"Always showing off," Ben said, rolling his eyes.

"Okay, do that with yours," said Sean, glancing beneath the water.

"Shut up," Ben said with a grin, looking away as he blushed.

Sean looked to the side. He took a bottle of shampoo. "Come here, I'll wash your hair."

Ben crawled around so he was seated next to Sean, causing the water to slosh around. "Oops," he said as some splashed out onto the floor.

"It's no big deal," said Sean, squirting shampoo into his hand. "It's just water."

Ben closed his eyes as Sean began to massage his scalp. "That feels good."

Sean cupped his hands and poured water to rinse. Small streams of soap ran down Ben's shoulders and back. Ben turned around, using both his hands to rub shampoo into Sean's hair. He reached for handfuls of water as Sean had done, but Sean slipped under the surface and lie there for a minute, Ben waiting in anticipation. At some point Ben back paddled towards the end of the tub as Sean's fluid body circled around, finally submerging head first and pressing him against the tile. Ben's eyes studied his with interest.

"Sean," Ben whispered, and that was all Sean needed to lean another inch and kiss Ben. After a long, hungry moment, Sean pulled away, and they shared a gaze once more.

"I can't imagine life without you," Ben murmured.

Sean blinked. Slowly, he shifted his boy under the water until he was seated next to Ben again, their sides pressed together in the close quarters. "You're asking if I meant what I said last night?"

Ben took one of Sean's hands and gently played with it until their fingers were interlocked. "What happened last night, you were drunk, I was drunk, I get it. But honestly, I can't imagine it any other way."

Sean stroked the back of Ben's hand with his thumb. "We've been through so much."

Ben nodded.

After a minute, Sean let go of Ben's hand and rested his own out the edge of the tub. "You're eighteen," he said.

"You're twenty one," said Ben, folding his arms. He and Sean exchanged glances. Ben shook his head. "I know it's such a young and stupid kind of idea."

Sean gave a humourless laugh. "True. But the thing that's young and stupid about it is that I can't imagine life without you, either."

Ben turned to him, his eyes filling with light. He placed a hand on Sean's shoulder and opened his mouth to speak, but just as he did that, they both froze at the sound of the front door opening from the opposite side of the house.

Quietly, Sean wrapped his arms around Ben, pulling him close as they listened to footsteps walking about the house, finally approaching the hallway outside of the door.

They heard Sean's mothers voice. "What is all this water doing--" There was a pause. Suddenly, the anxious tone in her voice grew exponentially. "Sean? Honey, is that you in there?"

Upon hearing the sound of the doorknob turning, Sean called out. "Don't come in!"

She swung the door open part way before closing it, leaving a crack with enough room that she could talk to him, but couldn't see inside. "What's going on in there, Honey, are you okay?"

Ben and Sean shot each other an amused glance. "Yeah, Mom," said Sean.

"I thought--sorry, I watched this show on Netflix, and--"

"Ugh, Mom," Sean said, rolling his eyes. "Don't watch that stuff."

"You're right," she laughed to herself nervously. "I really shouldn't."

There was another awkward silence.

"Sean, sweetie, can we talk?"

Sean gently kissed the top of Ben's head. "In a few minutes?" he called back.

"Okay," said Mrs. Goodin. "Take your time, I just have to be back at work in an hour."

"Okay, Mom," Sean called back. He waited for the sound of the door shutting, and closed his eyes in relief.

"She seems nice," Ben said, quietly enough so Sean's mom wouldn't hear. "She cares about you."

Sean gazed at him silently and gave a shrug.

Linda was in the kitchen heating up some leftovers when Ben came in. "Hey, Mrs. Goodin," he said, leaning against the frame of the door.

"Oh, hey, Ben," she said, looking up. "I didn't know you were here. Is that...one of Sean's shirts?"

Ben looked down at the shirt he was wearing, the one Sean had complemented earlier. "Yeah, my suitcase got lost on the way over here. Sean's been letting me borrow stuff."

"Well, that was nice of him." The microwave beeped and she pulled out her plate of food.

"Yeah, it is," Ben said, a smile gracing his face. "Anyway, he has something he wants you to see."
Linda looked up from her plate. "He does? Where is he?"

"Just in the bathroom."

Linda nodded. Without further prompting, she walked straight for the hallway.

"Sean?" she called as she peeked into the open door to the bathroom. Stepping inside, she gasped as she caught sight of him. She backed against the counter, her mouth hanging open. To the side, Ben stood silently in the doorway. Sean was laying in the tub, the end of his tail resting above the surface of the water. He shifted uncomfortably, splashing water onto the floor, incandescent sparks of light slipping off of his scales.

Chapter Text

"Sean," his mother said, kneeling next to him. Tears began to fall from her eyes. "I knew this day would come, but I thought we would have more time."

"Mom," Sean said, breathing calmly, "What are you talking about?"

"You fully transformed," Linda said, wiping tears from her eyes. "You have to go back to the sea."

"What? No I don't," Sean argued.

"Sean," she said again, clearly under distress. "I know you don't want to go. I don't want to go either. But you have to go back. You can't live up here like this." She gave a laugh. "What, are you going to go around in a wheelchair and cover it up?"

"We've done it before," Ben interrupted.

Linda was speechless as she was caught off guard.

"Look, Mom, it's only temporary," said Sean. He reached to drain the tub. As the water level went down, the full length of his tail became visible. As a few more minutes passed, his face fell as the scales remained.

His mother looked sorrowful. "Sweetie," she said, "It was always meant to be. We just thought it would be another ten years before this happened. They told us they would come back for you."

"Who? The merfolk?"

Linda nodded. "Your real parents. We kept in touch with them since then."

"What?" Sean said, entirely shocked. He exchanged glances with Ben. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"You were never supposed to know. We wanted you to live a normal childhood," Linda explained.

"No, I mean, I went to CDC." said Sean. "Wouldn't they have recognized me?"

"They kept in touch with us, not you," said Linda.

"For fuck's sake," said Sean, rubbing his forehead.

"Watch your language," his mother admonished.

"What's CDC?" Ben interrupted.

"Challenger Deep City," Sean explained. "So the mermaid capitol is in the Mariana Trench, pretty much everyone lives there." He turned to his mother, shaking his head. "I don't understand. How do you even know who they are? My identification records said you found me abandoned on the beach!"

"Those records are false. We made a deal with them to take care of you until you came of age."

Sean was silent for a moment, digging his face into his hands. "What happened?" he said, his voice shaking.

His mother put a hand on his arm, rubbing it in consolation. "We can talk about it more when your father gets home. But for now, I need to finish my lunch and go back to work."

She patted him on the shoulder, stood up, and left the room. Ben waited until she was out of earshot to help Sean out of the tub and into his wheelchair. "What a bunch of bullshit."

Sean rested his head in his hand. "What are we supposed to do? I was supposed to help Cynthia with her thing."

Ben laughed. "Sean, you always have to put other people first."

Sean just rubbed his face in distress, glanced at Ben through one eye.

"Oh!" Ben said in realization. "We should talk to Gina."

***

As soon as Sean's mom had left, Ben sat down at the desk in the living room where Sean's dad left his laptop. As Sean rolled up beside him, wearing a t-shirt for video conference purposes, Ben powered on the machine.

"I don't know the password," Sean said abruptly.

Ben's hands hovered over the keyboard. "What's your mom's birthday?"

"May 6th, 1968," said Sean. "Why?"

Ben typed in the numbers and the computer began to load the desktop. He flashed Sean a smug grin.

"How do you know my parents better than I do?" Sean said with a laugh, playfully hitting Ben in the side.

Ben logged into his Skype account. "Let's see if she's online."

Sean frowned. "What time is it there?"

Ben pulled up another window and googled "current time italy."

"It's 2am," he said. "Oh, look, she is online."

"Really?" Sean said in surprise. "Okay, so should we message her?"

Ben had already called her. A video feed popped up and they saw her blurry image against the dim walls of her bedroom.

"Hey, Ben, what's up?" she said with a wave.

"Not much," Ben answered in a upbeat, melodic tone. "Sean wants to know what you're doing up at 2am."

"Oh, Sean's there?" Her face lit up. Sean leaned into the picture and waved awkwardly. "Hi, Sean! I was just up reading some old texts. And scrolling on Tumblr."

"Sounds like it," Ben said with a laugh.

"Wait, so where are you?" Gina said, squinting at her screen. "Are you still in Steel City?"

"No, we're at Sean's house in Hawaii. There was a Tsunami and an earthquake or something...anyway, Sean swam us here."

"So Sean just brought you to his house and you met his parents? That sounds awkward."

Ben laughed. "Oh my god, it's been so awkward," he said, rolling his eyes.

Gina laughed at his response. "That's amazing that you trust him so much. You must really like him," she remarked.

Ben blushed a little. "Yeah," he said, glancing sideways at Sean.

Sean laughed, his own face gaining some color. "She's right; if you didn't follow me everywhere, you wouldn't be getting into so much trouble."

"Trouble? You remember where I was before you found me a year ago?"

As they spoke, their hands grasped each other's on top of the desk. Gina's jaw dropped.

"Sean?"

"What?" he looked up to see her eyes widen.

"You can talk!"

Sean frowned and nodded as though this were common knowledge.

"Oh, right!" Ben said suddenly. "I forgot I haven't been keeping you updated. Sorry about that."

"Why? What's different?" Gina tilted her head.

"I did what you suggested and found Sean, and then we were able to break the spell or whatever, he got legs and a voice again and I got my memory back."

"Oh, wow," Gina said, sitting back in her chair. "I didn't even know that was possible! What I meant earlier was I thought you were brave to go with Sean even though
he couldn't talk to you and you didn't remember who he was."

"Oh," Ben said, furrowing his brow. His eyes shyly looked up at Sean. "I would have followed you anyway."

"Shut up," Sean said, putting his arms around him as Ben laughed. He hugged him tightly for a moment before letting go.

Gina was lost in thought. "You probably could still talk as a mermaid, but from my understanding it's more of a brain wavelength undetectable to humans."

"Oh, yeah, that was the worst," Sean complained. "They were always doing that telepathy thing."

"Oh, you met them?" Gina said, suddenly leaning in with interest. "What happened?"

"Yeah, you didn't tell me what happened," Ben said.

Sean looked guilty. "I should have told you. I just...I don't like to think about it."

"Why don't you like to--" Ben stopped himself. He remembered back to the night on the beach when Sean was pulled away from him. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."

"It's okay, you should know," Sean said, staring down at his hands, twitching his thumb in restless thought. "I'm not entirely sure what happened, but this is what happened as far as I understand.

"That night the mer authorities pulled me away was because they recognized I was one of them, but didn't have any documentation. I was escorted to downtown CDC so they could check my image and fingerprints. I should mention, they needed a translator to explain this to me, for a time I didn't understand their weird mind language. I still don't completely understand it. The city's kind of a creepy place, really dark, even with the deflectors to keep light contained in it. That's how humans look into the trench and can't see anything. Anyway, they looked up my records, and my status was listed as abandonment, like I was born to unknown parents, fingerprints taken, and then left on a beach somewhere. Once they figured that out, the authorities let me go. I think they just wanted to make sure I wasn't a fugitive. I had the option to stay in CDC, but you can imagine I wanted to get the hell out of there. And I missed Ben," he added, squeezing Ben's hand.

Ben flashed a smile, but not enough to cover his shock. "That sounds...unreal."

"Fascinating," said Gina. "I would think they would be based on a coral reef somewhere."

Sean thought about it. "You'd think so, but they try to limit their contact with humans. Doing all that memory erasure is costly to the state."

Ben raised his eyebrows. "Is that all it was when they took my memory? A cost to the state?"

"No, it cost them much more than that," Sean said, pulling Ben's arms to his shoulders. "It didn't even work."

Ben's elbows dropped against Sean's chest as he breathed a laugh.

"Speaking of which," Gina cut in, "how did you get your memory back?"

"Oh," Ben said, turning his head back to the screen. "I don't know, I just..." His eyes met Sean's once again.

Sean finished his thought. "I asked you to kiss me."

"You asked me to kiss you," Ben repeated. "And then..."

Their eyes grabbed onto each other's energy, pulling them together until their lips met. For a moment, they breathed each other in, Ben's hands feeling an electric shock as they pressed into Sean. He felt a smile forming on Sean's lips, and when he pulled away, their eyes remained locked. He blinked, his own teeth showing in a wide grin, and his hands fell to Sean's waist. He let out a yelp.

"What's wrong?" Sean said with a serious expression, grabbing Ben's shoulders. He followed Ben's gaze down to his hips where he was sitting half naked in a wheelchair.

"I'll get you some clothes," Ben said, immediately standing up. "Gina, you're going to have to wait for a moment."

"Why? What happened--" she said as Ben turned the laptop around to face the wall.

"We're having some technical difficulties," Sean explained as Ben ran out of the room.

"Technical difficulties, huh?" Gina said, laughing. "Or a wardrobe malfunction?"

"Well the good news is I have legs again," Sean said. "Thanks," he said as Ben returned with some jeans and boxer briefs.

"Can you stand?" Ben asked as he helped him up.

"I'm good," Sean said, holding up his hand. He dressed briefly and sat back down, the wheelchair rolling backwards under his weight, causing him to slide out of it and land on his back on the floor. He breathed laughter.

"Are you okay?" Ben said, putting his hand to his own forehead and laughing along. He extended his arm and pulled Sean up, followed by Sean sitting down in his chair. "Hey!"

"Shh, we can share," Sean said, pulling Ben onto his lap. For another minute, they shared a fit of laughter.

"What's going on over there?" Gina piped in.

Ben turned the laptop around. "Aaaand we're back."

"I see that," Gina said, leaning into her elbows with interest.

"Anyway, so that's what happened," Ben said, finishing the story. "We kissed and everything went back to normal, and we went back to school, and then there was an
earthquake and now we're here."

"Fantastic," said Gina. "I'm glad everything worked out for you two, after all that we went through." She frowned. "I don't think Antonio will ever forgive me, though."

"Oh, how is he?" Ben asked.

"He's good, he finished working at the shop and went back to school in the city."

"Aw, that's nice," Ben remarked. "I hope everything works out for him, and whatever that was he was planning to do."

"I'll tell him you said hi," said Gina.

"Say hi from me, too," said Sean, "Although I never really talked to him."

"I'll tell him the other gays said hi," Gina smiled.

"Okay, it was good to talk to you," Ben said with a laugh.

"Good to talk to you, too. I should probably sleep now."

"Go get some sleep," Sean jokingly admonished.

"I'll try. Ciao!"

"Ciao!" Sean repeated as Ben gave a quick "Bye!" and Gina ended the call.

Ben and Sean looked at each other.

"I thought you were going to say Ciao, so that's what I said," Sean said as they broke out laughing.

"Babe, you know great minds think alike." Ben interlaced his fingers behind Sean's neck. He pressed his nose against Sean's. "I feel like we should celebrate."

"You want to celebrate?" Sean said with a grin. "Here or on the couch?"

Ben jumped up and walked over to the couch, where he flopped onto his back, laughter still bubbling out of him. Sean crawled on top of him, staring down at him with anticipation, when suddenly, they heard the sound of a key in the door. In less than a split second, Ben was sitting upright on the couch, and Sean seated next to him with his arms sprawled over the back, his feet gripping the floor.

Sean's mother burst into the room. "Sean, I called your father and told him what happened, so we decided to contact your birth parents."

"You're going to contact my birth parents?" Sean said, glancing briefly at Ben before keeping his gaze on Linda.

"No," she said, grabbing her purse. "I already talked to them. They want to meet you in an hour. Ben, I can drive you to the airport."

"But Mom," Sean said, getting up off the couch, "I got my legs back; the problem's solved!"

"It doesn't matter. Your parents wanted us to bring you back as soon as you began to transform. Say goodbye to your friend, and tell him to pack his things, so he can go home."

"What?" Sean exchanged a look of panic with Ben.

"What?" Ben said, standing up next to Sean. "I can't leave!"

"I'm sorry, dear," Linda said, folding her arms. "This is a family affair."

"Ben is family," Sean said firmly, placing a hand on his boyfriend's shoulder.

Linda blinked in surprise. "Are you sure you want to come, Ben? We have to take a boat out to the middle of the ocean."

"Well, yeah," Ben said with a shrug. "At least so I can say goodbye."

"Hmm," Linda paused to think. "Did they say we couldn't bring anyone else? Ah, well, it's too late. Let's go."

"Now?" said Sean. "I thought we had to wait for Dad."

"He's going to meet us at the docks. Get your shoes on, I'll be in the car." And with that, she left.

Ben turned to him. "You know you don't have to go through with this, right? They can't just make you go with them."

"I know that," Sean said with a sigh. "But if those are my real parents...shouldn't I at least know who they are?"

***

Ben watched the shore disappear from the back of the motorboat as he, Sean, and his human parents sped out towards the ocean. Ling watched the coordinates on his navigation system.

"A few more miles due north," he told his wife. She nodded and turned the wheel of the boat to straighten its trajectory.

Ben clutched the straps of his life vest and turned to face Sean. "What are we looking for?" he called over the sound of the motor.

"No idea," Sean called back. His parents were also dressed in life vests, but he didn't seem to need one. "Mom, where are we going?"

"The meeting point," she called back from the driver's seat, as though that didn't need an explanation.

"There!" Ling called, pointing ahead at what seemed to be a completely open sea.

Sean and Ben watched as Linda turned off the engines. The boat kept most of its speed as it sailed ahead. After coasting for a hundred yards, the boat was almost still, when suddenly it jerked them back as though it hit something.

"We're here!" Linda called, jumping out of the boat onto an invisible platform.

As she began to tie it up, the dock slowly faded into view. A massive stone structure stretched into the water before them, symbols etched into the surface, and in the center, a large square of water, a staircase leading into its depths.

"Wow," Ben said, jumping off the boat onto the structure. Sean stepped onto it after him.

"We're here, so where are they?" Ling said, tying up the other side of the boat. He looked around and folded his arms in disappointment.

"What about...do you see that?" Linda asked, pointing into the pool of water, where a faint blue light glimmered in its depths.

"What is that?" Ben asked.

"Bioluminescence," Sean softly said to himself. He turned to his mother. "Did they really plan on waiting all this time before meeting me for the first time?"

"Yes, it's all explained into the contract," said Linda.

"Contract? What contract?'

To his surprise, she opened up her purse and pulled out the laminated copy.

"We couldn't speak directly to them, so they drew up this contract. But you can speak to them, right, Honey? I told them you could be our translator."

"What? Ugh," Sean said, clutching his forehead. "Okay, I guess I can translate. But how did you even contact them in the first place?"

Linda placed a hand on his arm. "Sweetie, before you were born, your father and I were having fertility problems. That's why we found Clarissa and Kyle, your father and I felt taking care of you for the first part of your life would be a good compromise."

Sean looked at her, completely baffled. "I meant how did you contact them if you couldn't talk to them?"

"Oh," said Linda. "We saw their post on Craigslist."

"There they are!" called Ling.

At the far edge of the pool, two heads appeared above the surface. They slowly approached, a barechested merman and a merwoman with long straight hair, seemingly gliding while hovering in the water. Sean heard their conversation when they came close.

"What is this? Who are all these people? Where's Sean?"

"Maybe he's in the water. Do you see him anywhere?"

The two mers began to twist their necks around, searching for their son.

"I'm Sean," Sean said, raising his arm.

"That can't be him, he has legs," the merman complained.

"It is me," Sean protested.

"Sean, what's going on?" asked Linda. "Can you understand them?"

"They don't believe it's me," Sean told her.

Linda nodded and turned to the couple, raising her voice as she spoke. "This is your son, Sean." She looked to Sean expectantly. "Go on, show them."

"Can you stop looking at me first?" Sean said defensively.

"Okay, honey," said Linda. She put a hand on Ling's shoulder and moved to face away from Sean. "Let's give him some privacy."

Surprisingly enough, the mers also followed the instructions. Sean looked to Ben reluctantly. Ben frowned and held up his palms in the universal symbol of "I don't know."

Sean removed his shirt and held it out to Ben. He undressed and slipped into the water. It was seconds before his tail was fully formed. "Okay, I'm ready."

His mer-parents immediatley spun around and greeted him.

"Oh, Sean!" said the merman, putting his arms around him. "Good to meet you. I'm Kyle, in essence, your father. This is Clarissa, your birth mother."

Sean didn't notice as the merwoman dove under the water and appeared behind him. "He has good bones," she remarked.

"What do you mean 'in essence'?" Sean wondered. "You're not my birth father?"

Linda cut in. "Sean, you're only biologically related to Marissa. Before you were born, we gave Kyle and Marissa a sample of your father's sperm. It's true that you're half human," she explained.

"What?" Sean said, looking at his human father in puzzlement. Ling watched the interaction as though it were a normal family gathering.

"Around the time you were born, there were a lot of things going on politically," Sean's mer-father explained. "We had been following much research on mer-human offspring development, and we decided it would be safer to have a human child who could live away from us for a short time."

Sean's face twisted further. "And twenty years is a short time?"

"What's going on?" Ben wondered. "Sean, are they talking to you?"

"Mermaids live longer than humans," Kyle explained. "We expected you to mature closer to age thirty or fourty, at which point your tail would have developed normally."

"Yes, why have you matured early?" Clarissa inquired, swimming around to his front. "Haven't you had no contact with mermaids since your birth?"

"No, I got picked up by the MPD a few months ago."

"The MPD? Ah, they must have recognized you and taken you to immigration for questioning," Clarissa concluded. "This is fascinating, that level of contact somehow expedited the maturation process. I'll have to tell my colleagues about this."

"This is fantastic," Kyle said, putting his arm around Sean's shoulders. "I'm so glad you can come with us. We'll get you enrolled at school right away, maybe what you've learned can transfer already. What exactly is your professional field, again?"

"Um," Sean mumbled. "I do makeup?"

"Makeup?" said Kyle, furrowing his brow as though he had heard of the concept, but it was still foreign to him. "Well, we'll get you into a respectable field."

"I'll give you some of my papers to read," Clarissa cut in. "Maybe you'll find an interest and take after me!"

"Uh, okay?" said Sean, trying to be accommodating.

"Although..." Kyle swam back, cupping his chin in thought. "Your mer form isn't stable, is that correct? You were a human earlier."

"Yeah, I kind of switch back and forth," Sean explained. He watched with caution as his mer-mother approached him.

"Switching forms? That's not good. You haven't been seduced by any humans, have you?"

"I haven't been..." Sean repeated the question and grew silent.

Clarissa folded her arms. "You have, haven't you."

"Who is she?" Kyle interrogated. "Whoever it is, she's not worth giving up your future."

"Actually," said Sean, nervously fidgeting with his hands. "He's a guy."

"It doesn't matter," said Clarissa. "You're not dating a human, and that's how it's going to be."

Sean was taken aback. When he finally realized what she was saying, he became defensive. "What do you mean? "What's wrong with dating a human?"

"I don't know why you would," said Kyle. "They're disgusting."

Sean looked up at Ben, then back at his parents, who were blissfully unaware of the conversation.

"All that physical contact," Kyle continued. "That's what separates them from us civilized mer."

Sean closed his eyes and dove beneath the surface. When he reemerged, he rested his elbows on the stone ledge where Ben was standing.

"What's going on? What have they been saying?" Ben asked, kneeling beside him.

Sean lowered his voice as he spoke to Ben. "They're saying I can't date you because you're a human, and it's your fault I can't commit to a mermaid form."

Ben laughed. "What? I definitely didn't catch that part of the conversation."

Sean snickered. He motioned for Ben to hold out his hand, and he took it in his own before bringing his lips to Ben's knuckles. Behind him, his mer parents sounded in disapproval.

"I hope you're done saying goodbye so we can return to CDC already," Kyle said, closing his eyes as though trying to forget what he had just seen.

"No," said Sean, turning to face him. "Ben and I are together, and there's nothing you can do to change that."

"Sean, be reasonable," his mer-mother pleaded. "There are so many respectable merboys out there. You can't actually choose to be with a human?"

"Sure I can!" Sean protested.

"Even if you choose to be with him, dare I say it," said Kyle, shaking his head, "he can't accompany you to your new life in CDC. Why would you give all that up?"

"Ben is my boyfriend!" Sean said, hearing his voice ring out much louder than he anticipated. He breathed for a moment in the silence around him. He glanced back at Ben briefly before turning to his mer-parents and stating, "I don't care what you think, we're staying together."

"Sean!" Ben called, his excitement overpowering the horrified reactions of both Sean's sets of parents. He backed up on the dock and took off sprinting, finally jumping into a cannonball position and landing next to Sean with a splash that pushed him and everyone away. As the lifejacket pulled his head above the surface, he gasped for air.

Sean darted towards him, moving his hands to the sides of Ben's face. "Are you okay?" he asked as Ben coughed up water.

"Are you kidding?" Ben said.

Sean laughed, and without another word, he pulled Ben towards him, their lips meeting in a passionate display of affection.

"Ugh, I can't believe you'd do this!"

"How could you!"

Sean pulled away with a smile. "They think it's disgusting," he whispered to Ben.

Ben glanced over at Sean's mer-parents, who were scowling and averting their eyes. He laughed.

"That's it, Clarissa," said the merman. "I don't see how we can take this any further."

"You're right," she agreed. "It is indeed unfortunate, but he clearly can't be changed. I think we should just leave him."

"Yes," said Kyle, "But can we really? The MPD won't question it?"

"His records have no mention of us. In fact, it may be better if we just pretend this never happened."

"You're right. Well, Sean," Kyle said, looking to Sean, who still had his arms around Ben as they bobbed in the water together. "It was...interesting to meet you. I hope we never see each other again."

"Goodbye," said Clarissa, and with that, they both dove beneath the surface and disappeared.

"Now what's going on?" Ben asked.

"They aren't taking me with them," Sean told him. "I would rather be with you."

Sean and Ben exchanged warm smiles. Slowly, they turned their attention to Sean's human parents, who were watching the incident in shock.

"This is going to be a long boat ride," said Ben.

***

Ben held Sean's hand as they sat in the boat and approached the shore as the sky became tinted with the golden light of sunset.

As the motor turned off and the boat drifted into the harbor, Linda stood and faced them. "You could have told us, we wouldn't have treated you any differently."

Sean glanced at his father, who pursed his lips.

"Right, Ling?" Linda said, nodding towards her husband.

He folded his arms and turned away, refusing to speak.

"Oh, he'll come around," Linda told them, her expression apologetic.

Sean stood up without speaking and hopped onto the dock as the boat approached it. He knelt down and steadied the side with one hand and held the other out to Ben. Ben took his hand, and he helped him onto the dry surface, both of them staggering as the dock swayed. Sean helped Ben out of his life jacket and pulled him close, and Ben realized how much he had been shivering.

"We need to get you some dry clothes," Sean said, his chin resting on Ben's shoulder.

"Are we still going to go to the dance...music...thing?"

Sean gazed into his eyes. "What? Oh, right." He looked into the boat, where his mother was trying to talk with his father. "Hey mom! Ben and I are going to be late for something!"

She looked up at him, and back to her husband. She glanced around nervously. "Take my car," she said, tossing him her keys.

Sean caught them in a fluid motion, but stood still in shock.

"Thanks, Mrs. Goodin," Ben called to her.

Again, she smiled apologetically, while Ben gently pressed on Sean's arm until he could move again.

***

The street was dim as Sean pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine. They could hear the ambient music drifting over from the community center, just a few blocks away.

Ben turned to face him under the dim light of the street. "I can't believe you just stood up to them like that."

Sean stared into the darkness ahead of him. "They were strangers. It was nothing."

"But you did that in front of your parents, too. I mean, the ones you grew up with. I don't think I've ever seen you stand up to them."

"I guess I learned that from you." Sean looked over at him, tilting his head slightly.

"Sean." Ben sat back in his seat. "Running away from someone isn't the same as standing up to them."

"True, but..." Sean leaned his elbow on the car window in thought. "My whole life I always knew what my parents wanted and that's what I did. Like my mom wanted me to go to drama club, and I went to drama club. And she wanted me to make friends with boys, so I made friends with Adam. And she wanted me to learn makeup, so I learned makeup. And she wanted me to go to Steel City U, so I went to Steel City U. Like," he breathed a humorless laugh and shook his head. "I was the perfect kid. And it doesn't seem like it now, but she also had, like, a constant list of girls I should date. And I dated some of them. Penny, if you remember her."

"Wait, if you dated Penny, then why didn't you tell me?"

Sean sighed. He closed his eyes, a pained expression on his face. "I'm sorry. It's just...so fucking embarrassing."

Ben glanced at him in the dark, eyebrows realized with concern, for once unsure what to say.

Sean rubbed his eyes with one hand. "We should go," he said, unfastening his seatbelt and opening the car door.

Ben followed him onto the driveway. "But Sean," he said over the hood of the car, "I don't get it, like, compared to your dad? She seemed so supportive."

Sean froze for a minute, then continued walking towards the house. Ben followed him.

"She acts supportive but it's all a front," Sean said from the foot of his bed as Ben was changing out of his wet clothes. "Really, she's in pain and she won't let me forget that it's my fault."

"Why? What did she say to you?" Ben stepped out of his jeans and held up his hands as Sean threw him a towel.

"Well," Sean said, leaning back on the bed, "i said I didn't take my phone on that trip to Italy because I didn't want to spend money on the international data plan. But also...I couldn't stand talking to her anymore."

"What do you mean?" Ben said, looking up as he pulled on one of Sean's shirts.

Sean swallowed uncomfortably. "We used to be really close. I used to call her every week in college. I was isolated. Don't you get it? I dated a thirty five year old, then you...my friends consist of Adam, who I've known since elementary school, and maybe my Calc TA?"

"I still don't get it," said Ben. "How would talking to her keep you from making friends?"

"Ben, she had me convinced I wasn't gay!"

Ben nearly fell over as he pulled on one leg of Sean's jeans. "What?" he said with a laugh. "How would you not know you were gay?"

Sean leaned forward, his face in his hands. "I know. And you know Robbie? That was...a whole story."

"Yeah? How did it happen?" Ben asked, looking up at him from the floor where he continued to pull on his pants.

Sean laughed to himself. "So I was taking Penny to prom..."

Ben burst into laughter, literally rolling on the floor. "Are you kidding me?"

"I wish I was, I really do," Sean said, one hand pushing the hair off his forehead. "So, me, her, her friend Sarah, and Sarah's date Robbie all got dinner at her parents' house beforehand. Anyway, Robbie disappeared, and I went to go look for him, and I found him smoking in the backyard behind the shed. So I asked him how's it going, and I got him to admit he was nervous about being with a girl, what if she doesn't like his dick. So I said let me see. And if he were completely straight, he wouldn't have done what he did next."

Ben rested his head back in his elbow, quite amused. "He took it out?!"

"No, he couldn't get his pants undone, and asked me to help him."

Ben laughed. "Excuse me, what?"

"Oh, it was a total ploy," Sean explained. "And suddenly I forgot I was straight and didn't need to be asked, just took it out and knelt down."

"Wow," said Ben, unable to keep in laughter. "So did you go to the dance still?"

"Oh, we went, alright," Sean said with a laugh. "It was super awkward, but we went with our straight girl dates. I think I still have the tux, actually."

"No," Ben said, incredulous. He jumped off the floor and began digging through Sean's closet. Finally, he pulled out the worn suit. He chuckled to himself. "I'm wondering what this would look like on you," he said, holding it up to Sean.

"Don't get any ideas," Sean said, lifting an eyebrow, still flashing his usual grin.

Ben pulled a different shirt out from the closet and studied it carefully. After consideration, he took of the shirt he was wearing and tried on the other. He looked at himself in the mirror, and ultimately removed the second shirt. He turned to Sean.

"Which of these shirts do you like best?"

"That one," Sean said, pointing.

Ben looked down at his bare chest and closed his eyes with laughter. "No, I mean which shirt."

"That one," Sean insisted.

Ben rolled his eyes. "Babe, you're making it real hard to make a decision." His eyes widened as he heard the sound of a zipper being undone. "Whatcha...whatcha doing there?"

Sean didn't break eye contact as he slowly unzipped his pants.

Ben laughed. "Babe. Your parents could be home at any time."

Sean leaned back onto one hand. "Just come over here," he murmured in a low voice.

It was lightning speed that Ben shut and locked the door and hurried towards him, rushing to remove the pants he had just spent a decent amount of time putting on.

Later, Sean and Ben were lying in Sean's childhood bed, their naked bodies pressed against each other, Sean running a hand through Ben's hair. Ben closed his eyes, listening to Sean's heartbeat. They stayed like that for some time.

Ben rolled off of Sean and stood up.

Sean kept his hand interlocked in Ben's, giving his arm a tug. "Aw, why do you have to leave?"

"I have to pee," Ben said, breathing a few laughs.

Sean let go. "Fine."

He watched as Ben pulled on some shorts and a T-shirt. "Just to go to the bathroom?"

"Your mom and your friends have a habit of walking in on us. I'm not making the same mistake again," Ben said. He leaned down to kiss Sean on the forehead. He was surprised as Sean sat up and kissed him on the lips.

"Hurry back," Sean said, falling back onto his pillow as Ben stood still, blushing slightly.

When Ben came out of the bathroom, he heard the front door open. He stepped from the hallway into the living room and saw Sean's mom.

"Oh, hey, Ben, I thought you and Sean had somewhere to go," she said as she took off her shoes by the door.

"Um yeah, we'll leave soon," Ben said, acting as casual as possible.

"Oh, where is he?" she asked, looking up at him.

"He's just taking a nap," Ben said. "Where's Ling?"

"He just left to go out with his friends. They get drinks every Friday." She set her purse on the counter.

"Nice," Ben said, rubbing the back of his neck.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Linda quickly answered it.

"Hi," said Cynthia. She was standing on the porch in her dress, her hair done in soft ringlets, her hands fidgeting in a way that made apparent her anxiety. "Is Sean here?"

"I think so," said Linda, stepping back to look at Ben.

"Oh, Ben!" Cynthia said with some relief. She stepped past Linda and walked up to him. "I didn't know what to do after you guys didn't show up. It's just starting."

"Oh, yeah, I'll go get Sean," Ben said, pointing his thumb over his shoulder.

"Okay, let's go," said Cynthia, stepping towards the hallway.

Ben grabbed her arm and she stood still. "I'll go get Sean," he repeated.

Cynthia's brow furrowed, but she nodded.

When Ben entered Sean's room, he was snoring softly. Ben sat down next to him and gently shook his shoulder.

"What?" Sean mumbled, his eyes still closed.

"I can't believe you fell asleep so fast." Ben lied down beside him. "There's a girl here who needs you to do her makeup."

"Tell her I'm busy," said Sean.

He stayed still, softly dozing, and when he finally opened his eyes, he saw Ben's staring into him.

"Hey," Ben said.

Sean grinned. "What?"

Ben blinked. "I just like lookin' at you."

Sean gave a chuckle. He pushed Ben away as he sat up. "You can look at me some other time; we've got work to do."

"Aw," Ben protested as Sean put on some jeans and a T-shirt.

"C'mon, we can't keep her waiting," Sean teased as he swung open the door. Ben rolled his eyes and jumped up from the bed.

"Hi, Cynthia," Sean said as he entered the living room.

Cynthia looked to Sean's mother with a forced smile and turned back to Sean. "Can we go?" she asked in a hushed tone.

Sean looked at her with a calm expression. "Step into my office."

Once they were in his room, Cynthia shut the door behind her.

"Thank God," she said. "Your mom was starting to ask me questions. 'You were friends with Sean in highschool? How do you know Ben?'" she said in a mocking tone.

"She just found out we're dating," Sean said flatly. He motioned to his desk chair. "Come sit down."

"What? She just found out?" Cynthia said, sitting down and rummaging through her bag. "Haven't you been staying here for like, days?"

"I was just Sean's 'friend' from college," Ben said, making airquotes around the word "friend."

Cythnia gave a harsh laugh. "I don't know how you could have pulled that off."

Sean took out a brush and palette, and shrugged. "People believe what they want to believe." He tilted her head with his hand. "Look up."

"I'm just gonna get changed," Ben said behind her.

Cynthia turned her head slightly before Sean stopped her.

"Don't look," he admonished. He began to work on her face, but stopped to admire Ben as he took his shirt off.

Cynthia saw the exaggerated "ooh" of Sean's facial expression and nearly turned to look again.

"Stay still," Sean said with a grin.

"Ugh," said Cynthia, rolling her eyes. "You guys are really gay, aren't you."

Sean blinked. "What a stupid fucking question."

Ben gave a harsh laugh. Cynthia grimaced.

Sean continued to apply foundation to Cynthia's face. "Are you ready to see him?" he asked, his tone softer.

"I guess," said Cynthia. "I mean, I already saw him earlier, when he was setting up. It was...awkward?"

"I bet," said Sean. "What'd he do?"

"I don't know, just...a quick 'hi' and then he went back to messing with some cords."

"What kind of 'hi' are we talking?" said Ben, standing where she couldn't see him in his boxer shorts. Sean's, to be exact. "Like an 'I know what happened and I'm sorry' hi, or a 'leave me alone' kind of hi?"

"Ummm, like the first one?" Cynthia said with a shrug.

"Oh, good," Sean said in a more hopeful tone. "Sounds like you still have a chance with him."

"I hope you're right," said Cynthia, her eyes widening.

"Almost done," Sean murmured, and for a few minutes she silently waited for him to finish. Ben, on the other hand, came and wrapped his arms around Sean's waist. Sean nudged him away with his elbow. "Babe, I'm working."

"Aww, then when can we make out?" Ben said, leaning against Sean's dresser with a grin.

"Later," said Sean, carefully drawing a line on Cynthia's eyebrow.

Ben folded his arms. "When's later?"

Sean turned around and pressed him against the dresser. "Now."

Ben grinned as Sean leaned in for a kiss, sweet and simple. He backed away and they matched eyes before he slowly turned to face Cynthia again.

"You're done, you can go take a look," he said, pointing to the mirror on the wall by his closet.

"Oh!" She stood up and turned to look in the mirror, tilting her head to see the look from different angles. "I look...really good," she admitted. "Thanks, Sean. Sean?"

She turned to see Sean and Ben engaged in another drawn-out display of affection.

As Sean pulled away, Ben smiled and tilted his head. "C'mon, don't you want to go to this concert?"

"Ugh, do we have to?" Sean moaned. Despite his protest, he spun around and slipped on his shoes.

Ben stepped forward and put one elbow around Sean's neck.

"Let's go," Sean told Cynthia.

***

The three of them stepped into the community center and saw the crowd formed around the stage at the far end. Robbie was standing at a table with his laptop and digs, playing dance music for the crowd to move to.

"Hey, is that food?" Ben said, his eyes widening at the table off to the side of the room where some vendors were selling . He tugged on Sean's arm. "Babe, we gotta go!"

"Shit, what am I gonna do?" Cynthia said, her face turning pale. "Do I just...go up there?"

"Yeah. Just go wow him," Sean said without hesitation.

"You say that like you're telling me to go to the store and pick up some milk," Cynthia breaking a nervous laugh. "Is it really that simple?"

"Yeah," Ben chimed in, clinging to Sean's arm. "Sean, I haven't eaten like all day."

"Fine," Sean said, rolling his eyes with a grin. "Good luck, Cynthia."

Ben flashed her a wave as he pulled Sean away.

Cynthia walked to the edge of the crowd, looking up at him, his body nodding with the pulsing beat of the music. She skirted around it, finally making her way towards the edge of the stage, watching him from the side.

The crowed was in moderate spirits, people swaying along. Robbie made an effortless switch to the next song, and the crowd started to warm to the quicker beat. She watched some guys pumping their fists in the air, girls jumping along. Cynthia closed her eyes and soaked it in. Suddenly, the beat changed, and concordant sounds played as he switched on the microphone at the wrong time.

"Uh...sorry, folks," his voice echoed over the loudspeakers as he switched to a remix of a Rihanna song, but the volume was off, and it could barely be heard. A chatter began growing in the crowd as people talked over the music in confusion. Finally, Robbie threw his hands up, and the music stopped.

The angry voices in the crowd grew louder in the silence. Cynthia stepped up the stairs, her ankles wobbling slightly in her heels.

"What's going on?" she said when she approached Robbie.

"Oh, hey, um, I don't know," he said, only briefly glancing up at her before returning to checking the connections on his laptop. "I think the sound's cut off."

He tried tapping on the microphone, and the crowd cried in response to the discordant sounds.

"Hey," Cynthia said, taking it from him. She stepped in front and the crowd grew quiet. A spotlight in the back focused on her. Without hesitating any further, she continued to sing where the song left off. "You got me like oh...don't stop loving me...don't quit loving me...just start loving me..."

She glanced out in the crowd. A few people started cheering, some of the boys in the front looking captivated by her.

She closed her eyes and threw out her voice, singing the rest of the song. "Baby I'm fist fighting with fire, Just to get close to you...I run for miles just to get a taste...must be love on the brain."

Just as she had sung the last note, the beat started up again. She looked to Robbie, who gave her the thumbs up as he continued spinning the rest of the song. The crowd cheered. As the melody carried into the next verse, she continued to sing.

As the song finished, the crowd erupted into applause. Cynthia curtsied and stepped offstage.

"We're going to take a brief intermission, be back in ten," Robbie announced before he left the set to approach her.

"Robbie," she said, her eyes opening with joy. "I just went up there, and decided to sing!"

"You were great!" he said, his hands clutching the sides of her arms.

He pulled her into a close hug, and when he backed away, their eyes met. Cynthia leaned in ever so slightly, her lips parting. Robbie stared back, a soft smile on his face as he leaned in for a passive kiss. As the flame of the moment began to fade, Cynthia looked away. She immediately spotted Ben walking up to them.

"Hey, Ben," she said, running a strand of hair behind her ear with her fingers. "What's up?"

"Have you seen Sean? I lost him after we went to get tamales." He took a look at Robbie. "Hi."

Robbie looked perplexed. "Do I know you?"

"Uh," Ben scratched the back of his neck. "I just have one of those faces."

Robbie continued to stare at him for a moment, but then just nodded and looked away. Suddenly, his face turned pale with fright as he looked behind Cynthia.

"Are you okay?" Cynthia asked. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

"No, uh," he stuttered, looking at the floor, "I've got to go. Tell everyone I'll...I'll be back..."

"Hey!" she said as he nearly pushed her on his way out of the room. She turned to Ben. "What was that about?"

She was surprised to see Ben wasn't paying attention. Turning her neck, she saw Sean approach them, fully dressed in his highschool prom tux, a satisfied half-smile on his face.

"Sean, what are you wearing?" Ben laughed, grabbing Sean's arm. "You look...kinda hot," he said, grinning.

"Just kind of hot," Sean said, rolling his eyes.

"No, really," Ben said. "You know I never got to do that stuff in high school."

"So will you dance with me?" Sean asked, holding out his hand.

Ben took his hand and wrapped the other around his waist. He dropped his chin onto Sean's shoulder and they swayed gently together.

"There isn't even music playing," Sean mumbled.

"So?" Ben joked. He glanced at the far side of the room, and suddenly tensed up.

"What's wrong?" Sean murmured in his ear.

"Don't look now, but your parents are here."

Sean immediately let go of him and spun around. "Fuck, really?"

"I said don't look," Ben said with a laugh.

Sean squinted at the couple who was now making their way towards the crowd, looking around for familiar faces.

Ben put a hand on Sean's sleeve. "It's okay. We don't have to act like we're a couple in front of them if you don't want to."

Sean looked to him, his jaw hung slightly hung open. He regained his composure and smiled, taking Ben's hand.

"Wait, where are we going?" Ben said as Sean pulled him towards the stage. He didn't protest as Sean led him in front of the crowd. Robbie was still absent, and the crowd paid little attention in the brief intermission.

"What are you--" Ben watched as Sean knelt down in front of him. His face turned red as Sean pulled out a ring from his pocket and presented it to him.

Sean looked up to him, eyes earnest, a slight smirk on his face.

Ben breathed a laugh. He knew exactly what was going on. "What are you doing," he said.

"Being young and stupid," Sean quipped. He grabbed Ben's hand. "I love you so much. I want to be with you for--" He stopped and swallowed, realizing how nervous he was.

Ben knelt down and threw his arms around Sean. After a tender moment, he pulled away and held Sean's face in his hands. "I love you, Sean."

"Yeah?" Sean uttered, his mouth still hanging open.

"I want to spend the rest of my life with you."

Sean's eyes locked on Ben's, and he leaned in for a deep and passionate kiss.

When they finally pulled away, the crowd was cheering. Sean hadn't noticed how quiet it had been earlier. He looked out over the crowd, seeing many faces he recognized: old classmates from school, neighbors, teachers. They slowly stood up, and Ben took the ring from Sean's hand.

"Wait, let me," Sean said under breaths of laughter. Ben held his hand as Sean slid the ring onto his finger.

Ben held up his hand to look at it, and then threw his arms around Sean once again. Sean pulled him close as the crowd continued to applaud.

When they finally made their way off the stage, hands clasped together, the audience went back to chatting amongst themselves. Robbie was waiting off to the side.

"Hey, Sean," he said, sounding, for the most part, nonchalant. "Long time no see."

"Yeah, man," Sean said in an equally casual tone. "How have you been?"

"Good." Robbie nodded cordially. He turned to Ben. "Hi, I'm Robbie."

"I know," Ben said with a grin. "Nice to meet you, though. I'm Ben." He let go of Sean's hand briefly enough to shake hands with Robbie.

"So, Robbie," Sean said, Ben's hand returning to his, "How's Cynthia? I heard you're dating."

"Oh," Robbie said, his tone shifting. "We just broke up."

"Aw, shit," Sean said, effecting sympathy. "Sorry, man."

Robbie shrugged. "It is what it is. Hey, um, I'm gonna go back up and play some more songs. Do you have any requests?"

Sean looked to Ben. Ben laughed. "I bet Sean wants you to play some Island Heart."

"Shut up," Sean said, snickering as his face reddened.

"I actually have a remix of one of his more recent songs," said Robbie. "It's one of my favorites."

"Go ahead," Sean said, making a gesture.

"Alright," Robbie said. "It was good to see you. You too," he told Ben. He gave a wave and headed back towards the stage.

Ben watched him go, and then turned to Sean. "He seems nice."

Sean frowned and nodded. "Can we go to the back, now?"

Ben laughed. "Had enough of the spotlight?"

"I think enough to last a few years," Sean said, breathing a sigh.

"A few years?" Ben said in surprise. "What about our wedding? I have to invite all our families, friends...all your exes, John..."

"No," Sean said firmly. Ben's eyes twinkled as he gently pulled Sean's hand up to kiss it.

Once they reached the back of the room, a young woman came running towards them.

"Oh my god!" Cynthia said, reaching to hug both of them. "You guys are really engaged?"

Sean and Ben looked to each other, breaking into smiles.

"Ooh, can I see the ring?" Cynthia asked eagerly.

Ben held his hand out. "It's Sean's class ring."

"I needed something short notice," Sean explained. "I'll get you something nicer."

"Okay, but I'm keeping this forever," Ben said as Cynthia examined the ring. "Don't forget I need to get one for you, too." He pulled his hand away from her and placed it on the side of Sean's face. Cynthia watched as they shared another brief kiss.

"Aww," Cynthia cooed when they finished. "Okay, so after my impromptu solo, this woman came up to me. Turns out she's a talent scout, here on vacation. She wants to hook me up to produce a single!"

"Oh my god, congratulations!" Sean said. He gave her a hug.

"And it's thanks in part to you, of course," Cynthia beamed. "You too, Ben."

"That's great!" Ben said. "I'm so happy for you." He held out his arms, and they briefly hugged each other.

"Thanks," said Cynthia. She lowered her voice. "You know what the woman said? She said she was going to get me a producer better than this 'amateur.'" She pointed a thumb back at Robbie.

Sean and Ben both smirked.

"Well, I wish you the best," Sean said, putting an arm on her shoulder.

"Thank you," She beamed. "And I wish the best for you two. Ooh, can I come to the wedding?"

"Well, duh!" Ben said with a laugh.

"You can be a bridesmaid," Sean said. "Do they have those at gay weddings?"

Ben wrapped an arm around Sean's waist. "We can do whatever we want."

Cynthia gave a laugh. "Okay, then."

"Okay," Sean said as Ben rested his head on Sean's shoulder.

"Goodbye," Cynthia said in a melodic voice, before giving a wave and heading back towards the stage.

Sean and Ben stayed behind, arms wrapped around each other, swaying to rhythmic samples of Adam's voice.

THE END

Chapter Text

It was a cool Sunday afternoon in September as Ben sat in the study, tucking a card into an envelope and sealing it closed. The desk was lined with several family pictures, one of the two of them on their wedding day, dressed in full tuxes and bowties with flowers pinned into the lapels, holding hands and smiling at each other tenderly. Fifteen years had since passed. The room was lined with bookshelves. Two matching diplomas hung on the wall. Outside, the sun illuminated the fire-colored leaves of the oaks lining the backyard. Ben took a pen and scribbled an address on the back of the envelope. Looking around for a postage stamp, he pulled open several drawers and dug through them to find an old roll of stamps. Underneath them, he was surprised to find a palm-sized box. He set it on the desk and finished dressing the envelope, when suddenly a young boy ran into the room.

"Daddy! Daddy!"

"Oliver!" Ben spun around in his chair and stood to pick up his son. "What's going on?"

"I don' know," said Oliver, clinging onto Ben's shoulder. "Are we gonna eat soon? I'm hungy."

"You're hungry?" Ben repeated in a playful voice. "But we still have to make dinner!"

"When are we gonna make dinner?" Oliver whined.

"I don't know," said Ben, "Where's your sister?"

"Watching TV," Oliver answered.

"And where's your Papa?" Ben asked.

Oliver shrugged.

"Hmm," Ben said. He set Oliver down. "How about you go find Wani, and I'll go find your Papa."

"I know where he is," Oliver laughed. "He's in my room."

"Can you go get him?"

Oliver nodded and ran out of the room.

***

When Ben stepped into the master bathroom, he saw his husband lying in the tub, his head resting against the edge as he dozed softly. His arm hung over the side, where a novel lay upside-down and half open on the tile floor. Ben knelt down beside him and gently shook his shoulder.

"Babe, wake up."

Sean lifted his head, inhaling sharply as his eyes blinked. He looked up at Ben. "Hey."

Ben leaned in, and they shared a quick kiss.

"Guess what I found, it's the deck of cards you got me for my birthday all those years ago," Ben said, holding up the small box.

"Oh hey," Sean said, taking them with a smile. He examined them, thoughtfully stroking his bearded chin. "I remember these."

While Sean handed them back to his husband, his tail subconsiously flicked above the surface of the water, sending a handful of droplets to the floor.

"Watch it," Ben said with a laugh, playfully holding up his hands to shield himself.

"Sorry! I wasn't paying attention!" Sean said, putting a hand on his shoulder. They glanced at each other for a brief moment before breaking into laughter.

"What time is it?" Sean said, wiping a tear from his eye. "When did Nicole and Jaime say they were coming over with the twins? Six?"

"I think it was 6:30. Or maybe you're right," Ben frowned. "They're coming over at some time."

"Papa!"

Both turned their heads to see Oliver standing in the doorway, a plush crocodile dangling from one of his hands.

"Oliver," Ben said in a more serious tone, his hands on his hips. "You know this part of the house is dads-only."

Sean placed an hand on his husband's arm.

"I just wanted to see Papa's tail," said Oliver, his hands behind his back.

Ben looked to Sean.

"It's okay," said Sean. "Come here, Oliver."

Oliver dropped the plush toy and ran to the edge of the tub, standing on his toes as he peered over at Sean's tail. He nearly fell into the water before Ben grabbed him.

"Up we go," Ben said, heaving as he picked the child up under his arms. He held him steady as Oliver had the chance to touch the smooth black scales.

A lengthy "Woah!" escaped Oliver's mouth.

Sean laughed.

"Will I get one?" Oliver asked, looking up at Ben in wonder.

Ben saw his hopeful expression and glanced at Sean apologetically. "I'm afraid not, sweetie."

"Aw!" Oliver cried. "Why not?"

"I know, it's disappointing," Sean said. He brushed the hair off Oliver's forehead and gently kissed it. He held Oliver's chin with his hand when he said, "Now your sister, that's another story."

Oliver's eyes were wide as Ben set him down on the tile.

"Can you go get ready for dinner?" Ben asked him, kneeling with his hands on his knees.

Oliver immediately grabbed his crocodile and ran out the room. "Maya! Papa says you're going to turn into a tuna!" his voice echoed from the hall.

"I regret making that joke the first time we tried to explain it to him," Sean said, his hand rubbing his eyes. "We can never go back to that sushi place."

Ben just laughed. "What do you mean? It's so funny every time he says it!"

Sean gently punched him in the arm. "Just shut up and get the door," he said with a grin.

***

When Sean walked into the kitchen, he saw his husband, covered in flour, teaching his daughter how to make pasta from scratch. As soon as she saw him, she hurried towards him in excitement.

"Papa! Look what me and daddy made!" She held out her hands.

"Very nice," Sean said, laying a hand on her shoulder. Maya beamed up at him.

He stepped towards Ben and wrapped his arms around his waist from behind.

"Hey, Babe," Ben said, glancing over his shoulder with a smile. They kissed briefly.

"Gross," Maya said, her face showing disgust.

"Maya was just telling me how the boys at her school have cooties," Ben explained.

"Cooties?" Sean said, folding his arms. "You might think that now, but one day, that's going to change. Or maybe it won't."

"Nope," Maya said as she climbed onto a barstool opposite the counter.

"No?" Ben said, amused. "What makes you so sure about that?"

Maya rested her chin and elbows on the counter. "Boys are gross. One time, I saw Jeffrey pick his nose and eat it after."

"Ew," Sean said, making a face. Ben laughed and grabbed him by the arm.

"Are you okay, Sean? I think you've seen me do that once or twice."

"No," Sean said, looking appalled. He leaned towards Maya. "Listen, if you ever see your dad doing that, I need you to tell me. I'm going to lay down the law in this house!"

Maya giggled.

"Doing what? This?" Ben said, defiantly reaching his finger toward his nose.

"Ew!" Maya called out. Ben stopped and laughed.

Sean grinned and rolled his eyes. "Maya, someday you'll learn to overlook the flaws of people you love."

"I have flaws?" Ben asked facetiously.

"Of course not!" Sean assured him. He turned to Maya and shook his head ominously.

She laughed as her face grew blank. "Do I have flaws?"

Sean and Ben both looked to her seriously. Immediately, they rushed to her side.

"You're absolutely perfect," Sean said, giving her arm a squeeze.

Ben picked her up in his arms. "Don't you forget it," he said as he grunted under her weight. She giggled.

***

The pasta was almost done when the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it!" Maya called from the living room before opening the door. As soon as she saw Nicole and her daughter, she stepped aside and regally gestured into the house. "Enter."

"Hi Maya," Nicole said, waving cordially. "Wow," she said, as Sean approached her. "You have a concierge."

"Good to see you," Sean said, giving her a hug. He knelt down and smiled at her daughter. "Nina, have you gotten taller?"

"You said that last week," Nina protested, unable to hide a smile.

"Are you sure? I could have sworn you grew a little," he said, mussing up the hair on her head with one hand.

"Jaime should be here in a minute with Sabrina," Nicole explained. "She left her favorite sweater at home."

"Who? Jaime did?" Sean said.

Nicole laughed. "It's good she didn't hear you."

"What didn't Mommy hear?" Nina asked. Nicole squeezed her hand.

"It'll be a few minutes, but do you want to come in? Ben just opened a bottle of Riesling."

"Oh, that would be perfect!" Nicole said, taking off her jacket.

Maya held out her arms. "May I take your coat?"

"So polite," Nicole remarked as she handed her jacket to Maya.

"She's trying to get us to raise her allowance," Sean explained. "Let's wait to see your next report card, Squirt."

"Aww, that's not until next week," Maya complained before turning around and running upstairs.

"Good things come to those who wait!" Sean called afterward.

Nicole laughed. Sean smiled and shook his head.

***

As the evening passed by, Ben sat on the couch with a glass of wine and Sean's head in his lap, as Nicole and Jaime sat together on the other end of the sectional, the sound of kid footprints pattering around upstairs.

"Did you hear John Brandon got charged for embezzlement and fraud? 30 years," Jaime said, drinking from a beer bottle.

"Did he? I haven't talked to him in awhile," said Sean, as Ben ran a hand through his hair.

"It's probably for the best you haven't," Ben remarked.

Sean laughed, gently tugging on Ben's hand. "I'm so glad I haven't."

"That dinner with him seems so long ago," Nicole pondered. "Speaking of dinner, what are you doing for Thanks giving? I think we're just staying in town. My brother will be home from shooting his show by then, and you know my mom always wants to see the kids."

"As long as I only have to put up with her for a weekend," Jaime said, resting her elbow on Nicole's shoulder. Nicole gave a soft laugh.

"I don't think we have any plans yet," said Sean. He looked up at Ben. "Your parents still want us to come for Christmas."

"You talked to them?" Ben wondered.

"They called sometime last week, in the morning right after you left for work."

"Oh, okay," Ben said. He ran a hand through Sean's hair. "I'm excited. It's going to be Oliver's first time to Japan, and last time, Maya was so little..."

"The twins haven't been on a plane yet," Jaime remarked. "I think we'll give them a few years before that happens."

"That's understandable," said Sean. "Wait until they're out of carseats."

"What about...isn't your anniversary coming up?" Nicole chimed in.

Ben and Sean looked at each other and laughed.

"Right," Ben said with a grin.

"How long has it been? Eleven years?" Sean asked, glancing up at his husband.

"Yeah, I think it has." Ben rubbed his face. "We were together for awhile before then, too."

"Really?" Nicole asked. "When did you propose?"

"Sean proposed," Ben explained.

"It was right after that tsunami," said Sean. "We hadn't even been dating that long."

"I remember now," said Ben. "We took some time apart to sort our lives out, but we just ended up back together again."

Sean closed his eyes and smiled.

"What are you thinking?" Ben asked in a soft tone.

"Every morning I wake up and think I'm the luckiest man in the world."

"That's not true," Ben protested.

Sean slowly sat up. "Why not?"

"Because I'm the luckiest--" Ben was cut off as his husband leaned in and silenced him with a kiss.

Jaime and Nicole laughed. Jaime clasped Nicole's hand and gave it a squeeze, until they locked eyes and slowly kissed. When they pulled away, Sean and Ben were clapping.

"I'm so happy," said Nicole. Jaime leaned her elbow on the sofa next to her, sleepily yawning. "We have four beautiful children between the four of us. I couldn't have imagined anything like this would have happened to me."

A sweet silence was shared between them. Suddenly, Oliver came running in.

"Papa! Daddy! We're playing barbershop and Sabrina let me hold her hair," he said, proudly holding out the lock.

Ben's hand went to his face in dismay. "That's...nice, dear."

"That's our cue," Sean said, pulling himself up off the couch. "C'mon, Oliver, let's go see."

As Oliver excitedly ran out of the room, the four adults looked to each other, exchanging grins and moans.

Outside, another leaf fell from the trees as the changing of seasons continued to take place.