A Charmed Life

by Geron Kees

The Charm of Being A Pig

© 2018 Geron Kees All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction and depicts sexual situations between minors. All characters and situations are imaginary. No real people were harmed in the creation of this presentation. Please observe the laws of your jurisdiction with regards to reading this material.

If you are not 18, you shouldn't be reading this at all. Go find a boyfriend and talk stuff over with him.

Morning comes late to the woods. The hours just after sunrise are attended by a sort of twilight at ground level, an almost ethereal pause between the two realms of light and darkness, and a time in which the world of sleep and the world of wakening briefly coexist as companions. Only when the sun finally rises high enough for its light to filter more directly down among the whispering treetops are the lingering shadows put to rest. During that slow fade of night, the creatures that love the after-hours end their songs and their wanderings and retire to their secret places to await its next return. The changing of the guard brings forth new life; more active, more vocal, their voices differing from those of the night mostly in the statements that they make.

To Jesse Cole, the creatures that lived in the dark had always seemed such cautious things, hesitantly calling lonely questions from their hidden places, as if they feared that very same solitude that brought them security. Feared it even more than the possible company that might arrive from the darkness should they call too invitingly. Their voices were like pleas for solace, plying the night with an age-old request for companionship: are you there? are you there?

The creatures of the daytime were bolder, more outgoing, and the sounds they made seemed much the opposite of their nighttime brethren, inviting company much more openly, and in almost taunting fashion: here I am! here I am! Daytime was shared with a certain glee by the creatures that moved about its spacious bounds. With horizons as far as the eye could see and dangers announcing themselves well ahead of time, the world of light was a more sociable place, as extroverted in its worldview as the night was secretive in its own.

This early twilight, after the dawn but before the new day fully arrived, was a special time, where the last calls of the night blended with the first new voices of the day. To hear crickets still chirping among the downed branches and their coverings of dessicated leaves, even while the just awakened birds stirred and gave voice in their nests high above, and the squirrels chattered to each other, planning their mornings, was something that Jesse loved to share. These were his woods, his fine and private place, where the world spoke and Jesse listened, and his heart was in full agreement with what he heard all around him.

He stood upon the roof of the fort - his most private place of all - and let his eyes move through the tangle of underbrush that covered the ground everywhere save for the three paths that connected his special hideaway with the other important places in the world he thought of as home. The path back up to his own house; the path to Marty's house at the top of the opposite hill; and the path to the creek, where he and Marty had passed many a warm summer afternoon, swimming in the quiet pool behind the dam that made it.

He tilted his head, absorbing the sounds, and let his eyelids sag so that the image of the world around him arrived through his eyelashes, much softened, and become almost dreamlike in quality. Jesse could sense the great expanse of forest, stretching away for miles in every direction, spotted only here and there with the presence of human beings and their things. For all its size and the abundance of life within, the woods seemed somehow so empty. Jesse could imagine mile after mile of gently waving treetops beneath which no human had walked within his lifetime. The distant cry of an owl who-ing seemed only to accent this wonderful isolation, a sense of the world that Jesse loved. Here was his place, shared only with those with whom he wished to share it.

He had only just arrived at the fort, ready to start his morning early, because this was the very last one of summer vacation, and school would be starting the next day. All about him, the woods sparkled with the early magic of a late summer day in the making. A warm breeze stirred the trees, the sun playing among the branches above, creating gentle, flickering assaults on the dimmer world below.

Summer had almost run its course, and what a summer it had been. In every boy's life there is at least one summer that will stand above all the rest in the years to come, and Jesse Cole felt that this had been that summer for him. It had started off hard, with the loss of a friend, a best friend. But after that loss had come someone new, a someone that had changed Jesse's life forever.


A sandy-haired cutie with sparkly blue eyes and a mischievous grin, he had proved himself to be the perfect counterpoint to Jesse's quiet, somewhat introverted nature. Marty was outgoing, vocal, and prone to experimentation, and he had drawn Jesse out of his shell to meet him at a halfway point, one they could happily share, even as Jesse had served to rein in some of Marty's more outrageous character traits.

Jesse's mom had termed Marty a rascal. That his parents had accepted him as Jesse's boyfriend after learning that they were gay had made Jesse's world complete, and the summer had progressed within an almost deliriously happy envelope that Jesse would never forget. This was the summer of his making as a person, the time when he had finally come into his own. No more secrets, no more hiding away the thoughts that had become the basis for his new way of life.

And no more concealing the way he felt about Marty, whom Jesse loved with all of his might, and who loved Jesse back with a spirit that made each day never-too-soon to begin. Every day was one to remember, when it was spent with Marty.

So...where was this boy, now that the morning was here? They were up earlier than usual, and had spoken just a short time ago on the phone. Marty had promised to beat him down to the fort, and be waiting anxiously for Jesse to arrive. Jesse had showered and dressed, and even combed his hair, and eaten in a blaze of haste, and then hurried down to the fort, thinking he had been keeping Marty waiting...only to find that Marty wasn't there yet.

And now Jesse stood on the roof of the fort and peered up the path towards Marty's house, wondering. Where the heck was that boy? Jesse pulled out his cell again and looked at the time. Here they were, the last day of summer vacation before school started, and it was going on seven o'clock, and no Marty!

"Where the heck are you?" Jesse repeated aloud, giving a big sigh.

"Well, if you weren't standing outside on the roof, you'd see me," came a voice, from inside the fort.

Jesse gaped in surprise, and looked down at the tar paper-covered plywood beneath his feet. What! The first thing he had done was to poke his head inside the fort to see if Marty was there, although seeing the big vent flap still down had pretty much told him he wasn't. Opening the window was the first thing either of them did after entering, to let in the light of day and the fresh air needed to offset the smell of old wood that pervaded the place.

Jesse sat down on the edge of the roof, swung his legs over, and jumped to the ground. He went around to the door of the fort and bent low and pushed his way inside.

And stopped dead in his tracks.

Even with the morning light streaming in through the door behind him, it was still gloomy inside the fort, and Jesse had to squint to make out the scene before him. Marty lay on his side on the cot, his head propped up on one arm, his clothing scattered all over the floor of the fort. A rather prominent boner stood up in his crotch, the beautiful head of which was pointed right at Jesse. Jesse felt a stir in his midsection as his own pecker immediately took notice.

Marty was grinning at the expression on Jesse's face, his eyes bright and affectionate even in the dim light. But he immediately covered his glee with a frown. "Oh, there you are, doctor. Say, I have this problem." He waved a hand at his stiff pecker, and shook his head. "Will you look at that thing? Something's wrong, I think."

Jesse suppressed a grin. He moved closer, stepped out of his flip flops and put one foot on the edge of the cot, heaved himself upwards, pushed out the vent flap, and pulled out the prop to hold it in place. Then he dropped back to the floorboards, and adopted a professional manner as he bent down to inspect the waiting organ in the fresh new light. "Oh, dear. You're just in time, sir. It looks like a bad case of penis erectus. Perhaps the worst case I have ever seen."

Marty looked suitably horrified. "I hope it's not fatal!"

Jesse shook his head slowly. "No. But if it's not handled soon, it may stay that way, and you'll be deformed."

"Oh. Can you handle it?" Marty looked expectant, trying not to smile, and it was all Jesse could do not to laugh.

"Oh, I would love to handle it. But there is actually a better way to deal with this problem." Jesse frowned and nodded, as if deciding to perform brain surgery or something equally important. "It needs to be drained so that the swelling will go down."

Marty's tongue fell out. "Ooh! I mean...what is the procedure for that?"

Jesse got down on his knees and put one hand on Marty's thigh, and leaned in closer to inspect his pecker. As always, just being close to it made Jesse's heart pound and his breath get short. "Um...well, one takes the affected organ and places it in a warm, wet place, and rubs it down. Nature kinda takes its course from there."

Marty took his free hand and pushed his fingers gently through Jesse's hair, returning it to its naturally wild state. "Well, would you mind performing the procedure?"

Jesse sighed, and briefly smiled at his boyfriend. "I thought you'd never ask!"

He leaned forward, gently pushing Marty over onto his back, and climbed onto the cot and settled himself between Marty's legs. Then he took that beautiful pecker into his mouth and went to work on it, closing his eyes, moving his tongue slowly, savoring the moment.

Marty sighed, and kept his fingers moving slowly in Jesse's hair as he worked. Jesse could hear the sound of Marty breathing; fast little pants that made Jesse even more excited. An electric tingle coursed throughout his body, and his own pecker pressed painfully against the thin mattress beneath him.

Jesse drew back slowly, and let Marty's pecker pop out of his mouth. Marty gave a little gasp at that, and grinned at him. Jesse immediately dropped his head again, and laid his face in the little valley between the base of Marty's dick and the top of his thigh, and gave the warm skin there a careful little kiss. He closed his eyes and brought up a hand and rubbed Marty's pecker against his cheek, causing Marty's body to jump in response. He giggled, and Jesse smiled as he turned his head and kissed the softness of his boyfriend's nutsack. "Mmm. Something smells awful good!"

Jesse sighed. His nose was full of the warm, musky, pleasant smell of Marty's skin. He kissed his way back up the shaft of Marty's dick and went back down on it, this time intending to go until the end.

It wasn't that long in coming. Although both of them had played with ways to extend the length of time it took to get to orgasm, they had also agreed that such things had their place, and need not be utilized in the play they often engaged in several times a day. It was the more serious love-making that they wanted to extend, and make last.

Marty gasped, and his hips slowly rose beneath Jesse, as Marty clenched his butt muscles, trying to extend the moment of joy. But he could only stop time for a moment, and suddenly gave a small groan, and Jesse felt Marty's spunk as it squirted out on his tongue, warm and spicy. He gently squeezed the head of Marty's pecker between his tongue and the roof of his mouth, and Marty's body flexed and he gasped and his fingers grabbed at Jesse's hair.

"Oh, shit!"

Jesse swallowed, and grinned, and waited a moment longer until his boyfriend was done pumping. He backed off, took his fingers and gently squeezed out the last droplets of spunk, and licked them away, enjoying the taco taste of it, which only Marty seemed able to provide. Then he cleaned up, and pressed Marty's pecker to his lips and kissed it. "I think you're cured, sir."

Marty laughed as Jesse crawled up over him and laid down on top of him, and dropped his face to kiss him. Marty immediately placed both hands on the small of Jesse's back, pushed them up under his tee-shirt, and gently rubbed them over the flesh he found there. Jesse smiled at the touch, lowered his cheek against Marty's, and closed his eyes. "I love you."

"I love you, too," Marty said softly. He pushed his cheek against Jesse's and sighed."Heck of a start to the morning."

Jesse lifted his head and grinned down at the other boy. "I've just decided I want to become a doctor."

"Let me guess...a pecker doctor?"

Jesse laughed. "You guess good, for a city boy."

"I'm not such a city boy anymore," Marty returned. "Someone's changed me."


"Uh huh. I wouldn't want to leave these woods now, not for anything." Marty sighed. "Mostly because you're here. But I kinda like these squirrels and birds and weeds and things now, too."

Jesse kissed Marty, and dropped his cheek back against the other boy's, and rubbed them together gently. "We gotta go to school tomorrow. Are you ready?"

"Nope. I'm not big on school. Let's not go."

Jesse bounced his head upwards, his eyes widening. "We can't do that!"

Marty grinned, stuck his tongue out, and tasted the tip of Jesse's chin. "Mmm. Yeah, I know we can't. I just wanted to make you jump."

Jesse shook his head, smiling down at the other boy. "Hey. How did you get in here without me seeing you?"

"It was magic. You don't believe in magic?"

"Not that kind." Jesse nodded. "You did something sneaky, I'm just not sure what."

Marty played at looking hurt. "Sneaky? Me?"

"Yes, you. You're crazy enough to do anything." Jesse turned his head and made a big deal of inspecting the floorboards beside the cot.

Marty followed his gaze, and frowned. "What are you looking for?"

"The tunnel. You dug a tunnel to get in here, didn't you?"

Marty squeezed his eyes shut and laughed, and Jesse grinned at how cute it was, and kissed him again. "Okay, it wasn't a tunnel. How'd you do it?"

Marty sighed, and gazed fondly up at him. "I figured you'd be watching the path to my house for me. So I walked down the street around to your house and came down your own path. You were standing on the roof looking up my house, just like I thought. I walked right up --"

"You sneaked right up," Jesse corrected, nodding.

"-- to the fort and put my back to the wall and went around to the door and went inside. The overhang of the roof kept you from seeing me. Then I got undressed and laid down, and the rest is history."

Jesse grinned again. "It's not all history yet." He wiggled his hips, pressing his stiff pecker against Marty's thigh.

Marty looked surprised, and then pleased. "What's that?"

"Another case of penis erectus, I think."

"Oh, well, I've just myself learned how to cure this awful thing. I can fix you right up."

Jesse raised himself up to let Marty pull his tee-shirt off. Marty tossed it to the floor, wrapped his arms around Jesse, drew him back down, and squeezed their bare torsos together. Then he sighed into Jesse's ear. "I love to hold you," he said softly. "There nothing else like it."

Jesse could only agree. Feeling the warmth of Marty's skin against his own was about as satisfying a thing as there was to experience. He never got enough of it, never felt it get old. Each touch was like the first one, full of energy and magic, as their nervous systems exchanged messages of extreme satisfaction.

He let Marty work his shorts and underwear down, and then kicked them off, and gently rubbed his pecker against Marty's, which gained an immediate new life from the experience.

Marty suddenly grinned up at him. "I pooped this morning, and washed my butt hole really good in the shower. You can stick that thing in me, if you want."

Jesse felt surprise. "You don't want to save that for later?"

"What later? We can do it again later." Marty laughed. "There's no rule that says it's just once a day, Jesse."

Jesse gaped a moment, and then forced his face into a smile. "I think you convinced me." He looked around, and then bent over and peered along the rail of the cot. "We got any K-Y out here?"

Marty rolled to one side and let Jesse slide off him, and then rolled back and groped around down behind the cot, and produced a small spray bottle. "We got this. It's better."

Jesse peered at the label. "Slippery Delight." He laughed. "Where did you get that stuff?"

Marty grinned. "I got Parker to order it online for me. I tell you, Jesse, gettin' stuff online is like magic. All you need is a credit card and you can buy anything."

Jesse nodded approvingly. "I don't suppose you brought The Great Purple Pecker with you?"

Marty winced. "No. Parker had it last night, and she was still asleep when I came out." He shrugged. "She has Buzzy, too. Sorry."

Buzzy, the Butt Buddy, was their vibrator. It was fun to use as a prelude to more serious things, but they mainly used it when they were having a really lengthy play time. That didn't matter just now. Jesse was already equipped with all he needed to have fun. Marty saw that in Jesse's eyes, and laughed. "You don't need those toys, anyway. Just use that penis erectus thing you got, and we'll both be happy."

He handed Jesse the bottle, and rolled onto his belly and drew one leg up. "The door's open."

Jesse laid down against Marty's backside, threw a leg over him, and gently rubbed his pecker in Marty's butt crack. The head of his dick tingled pleasantly at the friction, and Jesse smiled. He pushed his face into the hair at the back of Marty's neck, where it was getting long now, and kissed him, and slid his hand up and down the warmth of Marty's ribs. Marty responded by slowly wiggling his hips side-to-side, and then thrusting gently backwards against Jesse's pecker.

Jesse brought up the bottle, and leaned back and squirted some of the stuff onto his forefinger. He held it near his nose, and sniffed. "Smells like flowers or something." He laughed. "Your butt is going to smell like flowers."

Marty grunted. "Better 'n smelling like crap." He thrust backwards again, and Jesse took the hint.

He laid back against Marty, and took his coated finger and gently rubbed it over Marty's pucker. Marty sighed and hummed his pleasure at the touch, and Jesse smiled. He rubbed gently, pressing a little harder, until the tip of his finger began to slide inside. Then he withdrew it, sprayed more flower goop on his finger, and went back to rubbing Marty's pucker. Marty arched his back slightly, pressing the back of his head against Jesse's lips. Jesse inhaled the sweet scent of his boyfriend's hair and skin, and felt his heart rate pick up another couple of notches.

He pressed a little harder, and his finger slid into Marty's pucker. Jesse slowly pushed it deep within, right up to his last knuckle, and then started sliding it gently in and out. Marty's hips quickly developed a small accompanying rhythm, thrusting gently backwards as Jesse pushed his finger inside, and then drawing forward as Jesse pulled his finger back.

Jesse closed his eyes and kissed Marty's hair and let his finger loosen things up. Not that Marty was resisting at all. They had both developed the ability to relax, and welcome the other inside. Jesse could still remember the somewhat painful first time, and smiled now as he realized how easy it had become for them to enjoy doing this thing.

It's 'cause we want it, he knew. And 'cause we love it.

He withdrew his finger, and rolled back a bit and took the bottle of spray stuff and squirted a mist onto his pecker, and used his hand to spread it around liberally. It was some slippery shit, too, he could feel, probably even better than the K-Y.

He reached past Marty and set the bottle on the edge of the cot's frame, and laid back against his boyfriend's warm skin. Taking his pecker in hand, he rubbed the head of it against Marty's pucker, felt the slippery lack of friction, like a welcome mat laid at the door. "Knock, knock."

"Come in!" Marty's voice was high-pitched, like a girl's, and Jesse laughed. He kissed the side of Marty's neck, moving the head of his pecker around in a small circle against Marty's pucker. Finally, he settled it against the middle, and slowly pressed against Marty's back. Marty pushed back, gently, and Jesse was amazed at how easily he slid within. Marty grunted, and Jesse felt his boyfriend's body relax against him.

Jesse put a hand on Marty's hip and gently drew it back as he slowly thrust forward, and Marty gave a pleased little squeak and helped to push back. They immediately moved into a slow and familiar rhythm, working together, and Jesse closed his eyes and pushed his face against Marty's shoulder, and kissed as he let his hand slide up and down Marty's hip. Their rhythm was as one, something they knew now, their timing having become perfect through experience.

Jesse was aware of the sounds of the world outside, but just barely. They drifted in through the fog of his pleasure, and of his love for the boy he was with. Marty made little, agreeable sounds of his own as they moved back and forth, transmitting to Jesse his enjoyment at what they were doing together. Jesse rubbed him and kissed him, wanting in some way to be even closer than he already was, knowing that was impossible, but wishing for it still.

Jesse was not of a mind to prolong anything. The desperate feeling of pleasure in his middle grew quickly, a jubilant dance of nerve endings that almost taunted him with the pending explosion soon to come. It built and expanded, making him sure he was nearly there, yet kept on building and luring him on, until it was something grand beyond any expectation.

And then he was there.

Jesse's entire body shuddered, and his pecker spasmed within the tight confines of Marty's butt. Jesse gasped and squeezed his boyfriend tightly to him, and Marty grabbed Jesse's hand and squeezed it back, as they briefly rocked together, huffing and gasping at the shared experience.

Finally, Jesse sagged back, and Marty laughed. "Holy shit, Jesse, I could taste that one in the back of my throat!"

Jesse smiled, feeling sated, and breathless, and happy. "You were awesome."

"Shee-it. You did all the work. I was just along for the ride. But it was a pretty good ride, I gotta say."

A strange thought came to Jesse then. "I can't imagine always doing that with a rubber."

Marty turned his head and glanced back at him. "Why would you want to do that? We don't have anything. You've never been with anyone but me, and I've never been with anyone but you and Keith, and Keith was never with anyone but me."

Jesse laughed at the revolutions in that statement. "I know. It's just...everyone seems to use one."

Marty gently wiggled his butt, and Jesse's pecker, already shrinking after its climax, slowly worked back and popped out. Marty flipped around to face him. "Everybody online uses one, because they all fuck everything that moves, Jesse. It's the only way to be safe, for them." He pulled Jesse closer, and kissed him. "We don't have anything to give each other." He laughed then. "'Cept some love."

Jesse nodded. "I know. You don't hear me asking to use one. I was just saying I can't imagine having to use one."

They had played with rubbers in the past, and found that different ones changed the feel of their sex. None provided quite the delight of going without.

Marty sighed. "I'd use one, though, if that's what made you happy."

"I'm not worried," Jesse returned. "I read up on this shit online even before I met you." He smiled. "Back when I was dreaming of me 'n Nate doin' it together. If you've never been with anyone, it's hard to get anything. And you can't give what you don't got."

Marty's blue eyes watched him fondly. "I'd do anything for you, Jesse."

That felt good to hear. "Kiss me?"

Marty sighed pleasantly, happily; nodded, and pushed his face forward. Jesse met him halfway, and gave as good as he got.

Better, actually.

They went swimming in the creek afterwards, to wash off the sex and to let the cool waters relax them. It was already stacking up to be a hot day, though not sticky like it had been earlier in the summer. This part of the state usually enjoyed low humidity during the summers, and the brief bout of moist weather in the first month of the season had left Jesse without any desire for more of the same. Even what was 'hot' was subjective; Jesse still remembered the heat of the summer days in San Diego, where he and Marty had journeyed on vacation with Jesse's folks. Ninety-degrees was unusual for upstate New York, and Jesse was happy for that fact. Even the pleasant world of his woods got uncomfortable when the weather got hot and sultry.

Marty gave a brief shake of his head as he stood in the deepest spot in the swimming hole, and rolled his eyes at Jesse. "Man, it's always so cold in here for the first minute, right after we get in."

Jesse made his way over to his boyfriend, and wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close. "That better?"


Jesse grinned, and pushed his face to Marty's, and went to work trying to push Marty's tongue down his throat with his own. Marty fought valiantly, but then began to laugh. Jesse pulled back and grinned at him. "What?"

"You're a monster kisser." Marty's eyes showed delight with the idea. "And a heart thief, too."

Jesse sighed. "I need to get as many kisses in as I can before school starts. We'll be spending a lot of days together now where we can't kiss."

Marty's eyebrows knitted together in a frown. "Who said we can't kiss?"

For second Jesse was dumbfounded. "We'll be at school, dummy. We can't kiss in front of everybody."

Marty cocked his head at him. "Are you embarrassed to be my boyfriend?"

Jesse immediately felt aghast at the idea. "No!"

"Well, then, screw what everybody else thinks." Marty shook his head. "I love you, Jesse. I told my folks I was gay so I wouldn't have to hide the way I felt any more. So I sure don't care what a buncha pussies at school think about it."

Somehow, the idea of coming out at school had not occurred to Jesse. This year would be their last at the middle school, which was known territory, and heretofore comfortable territory, as well. Jesse had grown up with most of the kids there, and he didn't know how he felt about letting everyone know he liked boys.

He licked his lips nervously. "I guess I hadn't thought about telling everyone, Marty. I'll have to get used to the idea."

Marty tilted his head forward so that their foreheads touched. "We don't have to go around telling people, Jesse. I just don't want to hide, not any more. Okay? I see you in the hall and I wanna kiss you, I'm gonna do it."

Jesse looked into Marty's eyes, and saw that he meant every word of it. He smiled. "Okay. That's the way it'll be, then."

Marty watched him a moment, and then nodded. "I guess it's okay to be quiet about it, at least at the start. So maybe we shouldn't kiss in front of everybody at first."

Jesse smiled, understanding that Marty was seeing his nervousness at the idea of immediate openness, and wanting to put him at ease. "I just don't want to start right off arguin' with people the first day of school, Marty."

"I'm not gonna argue with anybody. I don't have to explain shit, and I'm not gonna do it. If I have to tell people to mind their own business, I will."

"Yeah." Jesse frowned. "I'm mostly worried about people I know. The ones I don't know can kiss my ass."

Marty gave him a squeeze. "Nobody kisses your ass but me."

"You know what I mean."

Marty nodded. "Yeah, I do. You watch your temper, too. Someone says something stupid to either one of us, I don't want you sluggin' 'em and gettin' yourself in trouble."

Jesse smiled. "Temper? Me?"

"Yes, you!" Marty laughed. "You've scared me, a couple of times. I wouldn't want to have to fight you."

"You never will," Jesse said, quietly. "I would never hurt you, Marty."

Marty nodded at him, and laid his forehead back against Jesse's. "We'll be okay. Nobody at school will do jack to us. We're the big kids this year, right?"

Jesse smiled. "Right."

Marty's eyes twinkled with humor. "Now, next year, when we hit high school, we'll be runnin' from those two-hundred pound football jocks. So we need to enjoy this year."

Jesse played along, looking gloomily serious. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure I can outrun some guy that weighs that much. If I can't, I'll just do the ol' up and over."

Marty nodded. "Yup. The ol' up and over." He frowned then. "Uh...what's that, exactly?"

"Well, just when the guy is about to grab you, you spin around and run up his front, kick him in the head, and then run down his back. Works every time."

"Yeah? I'd like to see that. Well, only if we have to, that is."

"I'll only do it if I have to," Jesse agreed. He sighed then. "For real, I'll be okay as long as no one puts their hands on me, Marty. Or you. That happens, I ain't promisin' nothin'!"

Marty watched him quietly a moment before nodding. "Okay. I just don't want you hittin' anybody first."

Jesse considered that. His dad had taught him the same thing: never be the aggressor. But he had also taught him to stand up for himself, and to stand up for those that couldn't protect themselves. Jesse had a curious dislike for bullies of all types, and a need to let them know when they were across the line. It was simply his nature. If that meant a good wallop, either given or received, he didn't have a problem with it.

"Okay. I won't hit anyone first."

Marty watched him a little longer, and then smiled. "Good. You get suspended, and I have to go to school by myself, I'll be pissed."

Jesse gave a little smile, and followed up with a kiss. This time, Marty put up an awesome fight, and Jesse was again impressed at how wonderful a kisser his boyfriend was becoming. They battled gently for several minutes, until both of them were laughing.

"Man, you're gettin' good! " Jesse offered, shaking his head. He leaned closer, and touched his nose to Marty's. "And I love how you always taste like apples."

"That's my breakfast. I always eat a couple in the morning."

"Well, I like it."

Marty gently rubbed his nose against Jesse's. "You always taste good, too. Minty."

"Toothpaste. It's not as good as apples."

"Well, I like it. Reminds me of the candy dish at my grandmother's house."

All the talk of food was having an effect on Jesse. He tilted his head back and looked up into the trees. "Must be after nine o'clock now. I'm a little hungry. How about you?"

Marty looked surprised at the change of subject. "You didn't eat before you came out?"

"Yeah, I did. But I was in such a hurry to get to the fort that I didn't even taste it...whatever it was." Jesse grinned. "I don't even have a memory to fill me up."

Marty rolled his eyes. "But you did eat, even if you don't remember what it was. So you shouldn't be hungry already."

Jesse gave a little pout. "Well...we've been workin' out some."

Marty pressed his lips to Jesse's a last time, and then pulled back, smiling. "You're a nut. But...we got some little donuts in our kitchen." He licked his lips. "Perfect for a snack."

He turned towards the bank of the creek, pulling Jesse with him. Jesse grinned, drew up his legs and wrapped them around Marty's upper thighs, and let him do the work of making motion. Marty gave a little laugh, but kept at it, until they stopped by the edge of the water.

"I think you'll have to let go. I know I can't climb out with you wrapped around me like this."

Jesse, who had a semi boner again, flexed his hips gently, rubbing it against Marty's abdomen. "Let me get one more feel." He closed his eyes, rubbed a little harder, savoring the sensation of his pecker moving against the soft, wet warmth of Marty's skin. Then he sighed, and released his legs, landing on his feet on the gooey bottom of the creek.

Marty was all smiles as he watched him. "Was it good?"

"Hell, yeah. I don't rub my pecker against just anybody."

Jesse put a hand on the flattened grasses at the edge of the water, turned, gave a little push upwards with his legs, and spun to sit on the bank. Marty hopped up next to him, and they both waved their legs in the water a moment, rinsing the creek bottom off their feet.

Marty got up first, heading for where their clothing was spread out on the stump seat. Jesse followed, admiring the view. Marty had a great butt, and Jesse never tired of looking at it.

They sat on the edge of the stump seat, and let the warm breeze dry them. Jesse looked up into the moving branches filled with sparkles of sunlight, and sighed. "I'm gonna miss all this. This...summer."

Marty nodded slowly. He raised an arm and dropped it on Jesse's shoulders, and gave him a fond squeeze. "I'll never forget it. Best summer of my life."

Jesse grinned at him, then leaned over and kissed Marty's cheek. "It'll still be fun, spending fall with you. And winter." He pressed his lips closer to Marty's ear. "Ever fuck a snowman?"

Marty gave a short bark of a laugh, and then tilted his head back and laughed harder. Jesse grinned at him, waiting until he'd had his fun.

"Are you kidding me?" Marty finally said, turning blue eyes filled with smiles at him.

"Nope. When you build him, you make him bent over, is all. And you make a hole where his butt would be, and then you eat a banana."

Marty blinked. "A...what? Eat a banana?"

Jesse grinned. "Yep. And then you take the peel and put it in the microwave and make it nice and warm, and then you go out to the snowman and stick the peel in his butt hole. And then you unzip your fly, and you --"

Marty reached out and stopped him. "Wait." He sighed, and shook his head. "I thought I was the crazy one."

"You are." Jesse smiled. "You don't gotta be crazy to like snowmen."

Marty's sister was sitting in the kitchen when they came in through the garage, a bowl of cereal on the table before her, and her phone laid on the tabletop next to her. She was reading something online, but smiled when she saw Jesse. "Hi, guys. What'cha been up to?"

Her eyes suggested that she knew, but that she wasn't saying. As Jesse came closer, she took a few sniffs of the air, and then nodded. "Been swimming, I see. That creek water has a certain smell to it."

Jesse frowned. "Do I stink?" He lifted an arm and sniffed his wrist. He was so used to the way the creek smelled that he never thought of it any more.

"No. It's not a bad stink. It just smells like..." She frowned. "Like outside. Like the woods, or something. I don't know exactly." She gave him a smile. "But it's not bad."

Marty had gone to the counter, and now returned with a white bag full of mini-donuts, each frosted with chocolate. He withdrew one from the bag and popped it into his mouth, and handed the bag to Jesse.

"It's a pretty day out," Marty said, around the donut. "You ought to do something with it, sis. Tomorrow's school, after all."

"I am. I'm going to walk up to Kim's house, and we're going to figure out what to wear tomorrow."

That's right, Jesse realized. Kim would be off to high school this year, and no longer riding the bus with him. She was a grade ahead of him, and two grades behind Parker, although their age difference was only slightly more than a year. Just one of those instances where birthdays had caused a unique separation, with Parker having started school early because of her birthday, and Kim starting a little later, due to hers.

"I'm glad you and Kim hit it off so well," he said. "You won't dump her when you make new friends at school, I hope."

Parker looked surprised by the idea. "Are you kidding? I wouldn't do that."

Jesse grinned. "Just checking."

The girl frowned at him, and then smiled. She looked around the kitchen quickly, and then leaned closer. "You guys go swimming naked?"

"Is there any other way?" Marty asked, his eyes landing briefly on Jesse's. Careful.

Parker sat back and sighed, and let her eyes rove briefly over Jesse's body. "Just wish you were older, is all."

Jesse shrugged. "I'd still be with Marty, if we were older. That's just the way it is."

Parker pouted. "Yeah, yeah." Her gaze turned to Marty. "Lucky little shit."

Jesse and Marty both laughed. There was no real meanness in Parker's words, and she grinned to show that fact, too.

"You're gonna meet some big, hunky guy in school this year, and he'll fall all over you," Jesse predicted.

Marty laughed, and leaned closer to his sister. "Hope so," he whispered. "Then you won't have to think about stealing your little brother's boyfriend."

Jesse laughed, and Parker's face reddened ever so slightly. But she just raised her spoon and took a mouthful of cereal, before nodding. "That would be nice."

Marty's eyes touched Jesse's again, and Jesse could see the mischief in their depths.

"So...Parker," Marty went on. "You got our binoculars, by any chance?"

The binoculars case was where Jesse and Marty kept The Great Purple Pecker and Buzzy, the Butt Buddy, in addition to the bottles of lube and cleaner for both of them. It was much easier to transport those items inside the case, than to carry them about openly. Jesse had already imagined having to explain to someone they chanced to meet in the woods why he was carrying a big, purple, latex penis around with him. Concealing that and the vibrator in the fairly mundane looking case seemed a wise enough precaution.

Parker grinned. "I'm done with them, actually. All cleaned up and ready to go." She turned the smile on Jesse. "I so love bird watching."

That was their code for using the toys, and Jesse grinned. "Depends on whose bird you're watching, I guess."

Parker laughed, but nodded. "I put the case back in your room," she said to Marty.

Marty turned to Jesse. "Wanna watch some birds later?"


Parker sighed, eying Jesse a last time before going back to her cereal. That Marty's sister liked him he knew, but that nothing could ever come of it, he knew even better. She was three years older, and a girl. The three years thing he could probably have dealt with, but that she was a girl was a stumbling block he couldn't quite get past. Still...

It had been fun playing with her. Parker was surprisingly sexy, in her own girlish way, and Jesse had enjoyed the brief play they had shared together. He had come to like her a lot. But Marty was Jesse's love, and nothing would ever distract him from that. Certainly, not a girl!

Marty seemed to sense Jesse's thoughts, and gave him an approving grin. "Wanna go up and talk to Marvin?"

Jesse scratched his head, picturing the iguana in his mind. He never had been able to understand how Marty could get so attached to such a thing. But then, he wasn't Marty. The iguana was not very interesting, unable to even keep both eyes focused on the same thing. When Jesse looked at the creature, one eye seemed to examine him in the same detached fashion that a killer whale with a full stomach might examine a passing seal. Food...but for later.

"Has he learned any new tricks since that least time I saw him?"

Parker laughed. "What tricks? He eats, and then he eats more. That's all he does. Well, and run around and get into things."

Marty made a face. "He's more interesting than that. You just don't know him."

Parker rolled her eyes. "I do know him. He was in my room earlier, chasing his shadow across the carpet. He's not even smart enough to know that shadows have no nutritional value."

Marty opened his mouth to counter that, but suddenly paused, his eyes widening. "He was out of his terrarium?"

"I just said so, didn't I?" Parker gave him an evil grin. "Last time I saw him, he was heading for mom's room."

Marty tossed Jesse a panicked grimace, and started for the front of the house. "Come on, Jesse. We'd better --"

Too late. There was a crash of some kind from upstairs, followed by a startled wail, and then the sound of running feet. "Oh, yuck! You disgusting...Marty! Martin Anderson!"

Jesse and Marty both gaped, and then they went running for the steps.

"There, there," Marty crooned, holding Marvin against his chest and stroking the creature's back. "Daddy's here now. Did that big, mean mommy creature scare you?" He dropped his face and kissed the iguana's head, and Jesse just shook his own in response. "I don't believe you kiss that thing."

Marty looked at him, and Jesse actually saw the patience come into his gaze. Doubtless, Marty was used to defending Marvin's right to be there in the house. "He's alive, Jesse. He shares things with me. And he's territorial. There hasn't been a spider in this room since I moved in." He stroked the iguana, and smiled down at him. "He looks out for me. I look out for him."

Jesse's eyes briefly scanned the floor. He remembered the last time he'd walked out of his bathroom, wrapped in a towel, only to find some huge field spider staring him down from the carpet in the middle of the room. They were everywhere in the woods, and he and Marty were always collecting them and tossing them out of the fort.

How something that big got into the house was a mystery, because there were screens on all the windows and the doors were never left open. But get in they did, and even though they were harmless, it wasn't like you just walked over and picked them up and threw them out a window. They were big, for one thing, and hairy, and...well, they didn't just run, sometimes they hopped. They were drawn to motion, and too stupid, apparently, to understand that something the size of a spider skyscraper, that moved, probably wasn't edible. Or good company.

The thing was, field spiders could be so unnerving in the way the came at you in those bounding little hops...well, most people tended to give ground and go for the rolled up newspaper.

Marvin, apparently, considered such things as delicacies, and Marty had been forced to forego the pleasure of finding anything else unexpectedly living in his bedroom.

Jesse reached out carefully and gave Marvin a stroke along his side. The iguana eyed him, flicking his tongue out, and the creature's tail gave a couple of side-to-side jerks.

"What's that mean?"

Marty grinned. "He likes you."

Jesse laughed. "You can tell that, huh?"

"Sure. An iguana doesn't like you, you'll know. They whip you with their tails, or bite you." Marty dropped his face again and gave the creature another kiss. The eyeball that Jesse could see turned upward to watch Marty, and the tongue flicked out again.

Marty sighed, and carried Marvin over to the big fish tank that was the lizard's home, and placed him on the branch inside. Marvin immediately made himself comfortable as Marty pulled up the wire panel that enclosed the top of the tank, and pushed it down and tapped the corners into place. He'd had trouble in the past with the little soldered joints at the corners breaking, leaving the top loose enough that Marvin could push his way out. But after a recent escape and exploration of the upstairs on Marvin's part, Marty's dad had resoldered the joints, and if Marvin got out now it was because Marty forgot to put the lid on the tank, or forgot to push it down tight.

Which he still managed to do, despite the repercussions.

"Your mom doesn't like him," Jesse stated, without meaning any harm.

"Nah. Parker isn't crazy about him, either." Marty grinned at the lizard, and then at Jesse. "Hell, Marvin's still young. The older he gets, the bigger he'll get. He'll be three feet long when he's grown up." He looked at the open door to his room, and leaned closer to Jesse and lowered his voice. "You think my mom is scared of him now, wait until he's fully grown. She'll be breaking windows with her hollering."

"That's mean," Jesse said, but couldn't help grinning at the idea.

"Hey, it keeps my mom and Parker out of my room," Marty stated, matter-of-factly. "A guy's gotta have his privacy, Jesse. Marvin guards mine."

They spent the rest of the morning laying around on Marty's bed, watching movies and looking at stuff online on Marty's laptop. Their objective seemed to be to just have a relaxed day, in preparation for the start of school in the morning. It seemed to work, in that the day moved along quickly.

But that's the way it always was, when you were having a good time with someone special. But even so, Jesse was aware that they were killing time, waiting. And Jesse realized now that he was a little nervous about the first day of school. His mind had been working in the background on how the other kids might react to learning that he and Marty were boyfriends. Jesse wasn't worried about violence - he could hold his own there. But...while never the most popular guy in school, he had always felt at ease with his status as accepted, and to suddenly find himself on the outside looking in was not a pleasant prospect.

He kept looking at Marty, smiling when the other boy smiled, seeing the sparkles in his eyes when he laughed, and the affection that was so obviously directed at Jesse. After a while he started to feel more peaceful, as the realization settled in that nothing that could happen at school would matter all that much to their lives here. Being with Marty was the important thing, and nothing could take away from that.

"What time does the bus get here?" Marty asked, when the conversation had gotten around to that subject.

"About seven-thirty. We gotta go up to the end of the road, by Kim's house. It doesn't come down here."

Marty shrugged indifferently at the three-minute walk. "So you can come here and get me, and we'll walk up together?"

Jesse grinned. "Works for me. I'll be here about a quarter after."

Marty nodded, then gave a little sigh. "First day in a new school. Makes me a little nervous."

"Just be yourself. Who won't like that?"

Marty laughed. "That easy, huh?"

"Call 'em like I see 'em."

Marty sighed, and smiled at him. "I'll be okay, long as I'm with you."

They had gone in for Orientation Day several weeks earlier and selected their class schedules. They had managed to get four of their seven classes together, no small feat in the chaos that had been going on that day. Marty had been shocked at the size of the school. James H. Schmitz Middle School was tiny compared to the school he had gone to before they had moved upstate, with only three hundred and eighty-three students in all four grades.

"That's it?" he'd said, looking astonished, at hearing the number.

"It's the sticks, dummy," Jesse had said, smiling. "More squirrels here than kids."

"More nuts, too," Marty had said, pecking him fondly on the cheek.

After English, Math, Social Studies, Science, and Physical Education, there had remained two slots that were considered elective for eighth grade. Jesse's counselor had stressed the need for Jesse to continue the Spanish class he had begun in sixth grade in order to make his Checkpoint A objective, and Jesse had done that. Marty was taking French, after what he had started the years before. That left one class for each of them unfilled, and they had wanted to get one where they could be together.

Both had completed the technology course the year before, with no follow-up offered for eighth graders. The Art class that had been required for them in seventh grade was an optional class for eighth graders, and an expansion on the subject that offered an introduction to computer graphical art skills, photography, multimedia, and dramatic presentation of art. Marty had looked at the class curriculum doubtfully, but Jesse had pointed out that the alternatives were a music class, Family and Consumer Science, or the extension of the Health class for eighth graders, none of which appealed to them more. Neither boy was particularly musical, and the health class was only ten weeks and would necessitate a move to one of the other short electives thereafter. The Art class ran the whole year, and if they could get it the same period, it would guarantee them some more time together all year long.

They were early enough to manage that, and so now had schedules, more than half of which they could do together.

"I suppose I can stand you that much," Marty had said, his eyes twinkling.

Around two pm they went down for lunch. Parker had gone up to Kim's, and Marty's mom was still a little annoyed at finding Marvin in her bedroom.

"Keep that thing in its cage, Marty. I am not kidding you. If I see Marvin in my room again, we are going to have to do something."

Marty looked pained at that. "Mom. He's harmless. He doesn't know that getting out is a bad thing. He can't help his natural urges to check things out."

"And he can do that, as long as it's not my bedroom or bathroom."

Marty nodded, but Jesse could see the pain he was having at the idea of perhaps having to get rid of Marvin.

His mom saw it, too. She sighed, even as she laid plates on the table with the chicken and cheese sandwiches she had made for them. "I don't want you to have to get rid of your pet, Marty. I just do not want him running loose." She looked at Jesse then. "Does that seem too much to ask to you, Jesse? Isn't that a fair request?"

Jesse hated to be put on the spot like that. But he could only side with Marty on the subject. "Well...Marvin's an animal. He doesn't know he's scaring you. He's just curious about his world. It's just a little creepy, the way he looks, but he's pretty harmless. If he comes down to see you, you should just herd him out and close the door. That's what my mom would do."

That much was true. Jesse's mom loved animals, and was even sympathetic towards the ugly and scary ones. But the big thing was that she was not scared of them just based on looks.

Mrs. Anderson frowned at him, perhaps not expecting that particular answer. Jesse smiled at her. "When you see him in your room, and yell and jump, what does he do?"

Her eyes narrowed just a bit as she considered that. "Well...he usually runs out in the hallway."

Jesse nodded. "That's 'cause he's more afraid of you, than you are of him."

The frown worked back and forth on Mrs. Anderson's face a moment longer. But then she rolled her eyes briefly, and smiled. "So you're saying I am overreacting?"

"Maybe. Maybe a little. Marvin's cool. And with him in the house, you'll never have spiders."

Mrs. Anderson opened her mouth to make a sharp reply, but closed it again and looked surprised. "Spiders?"

Jesse grinned. "Uh huh. Field spiders. And Wolf spiders." He spread his fingers to somewhere between two and three inches in breadth. "About this big. They're furry, and they jump at you."

Marty's mom's jaw dropped. "In the house?"

Marty's face worked hard not to grin. Jesse nodded solemnly. "Uh huh. I don't know how they get inside, but they do. I get 'em in my bedroom now and then, and my mom uses a broom to shoo them out the kitchen door when they're downstairs." He shrugged. "It's the woods. There's lots of stuff like that here."

Mrs. Anderson's eyes briefly scanned her kitchen floor.

"You won't get 'em here, probably," Jesse went on. "At least, not upstairs. Marvin will hunt them down and eat them."

Mrs. Anderson looked at Marty, who nodded. "Yup. Haven't had any spiders in my room at all."

The woman closed her eyes, and a small smile spread across her face. "I'm not getting a snow job here, am I?"

She opened her eyes and looked at Jesse. He shook his head. "Nope. Believe me, you'll see some spiders eventually." An idea struck him then. "If you look carefully in the garage, you'd probably find one now, because you guys leave the door up. They can get in the house when you open the inside door to bring in groceries, or whatever."

Marty's mom looked skeptical. "Let's just check that."

She went to the door into the garage, opened it, and peered inside. Marty grinned at Jesse, and both boys put down their sandwiches and followed.

"I don't see anything," Mrs. Anderson said, sounding like she thought they had put something over on her.

Marty laughed. "It won't be standing there holding a sign saying, 'here I am!', mom. We gotta look around a little."

"I'm game. Come on."

Jesse sighed, hoping that he would be proven out. He was always seeing the big spiders in his own garage, and they didn't even leave the door up.

Marty took the lead, and they walked around Mrs. Anderson's SUV and along one side wall. Marty moved a couple of boxes of garden tools, but there was nothing behind them. Next he rolled out his dad's tool chest, but the floor behind was also clear. There were bags of mulch standing up along the wall next to the tool chest, neatly arranged in a line, and Marty grabbed the top of one and pulled it out from the wall.

It could not have been staged better. A wolf spider - a particularly large and hairy one - rocketed out of the space behind, making for the open garage door and the outside world.

Mrs. Anderson gave a little shriek and jumped backwards, her hand coming up to cover her mouth. Marty gave a surprised laugh, and even Jesse was amazed.

Mrs. Anderson turned and headed back to the kitchen. Marty pushed the bag of mulch back into its slot, and the boys followed her inside. Mrs. Anderson scanned the floor before closing the door, just to assure herself that nothing was sneaking inside with them.

"Ugh." Marty's mom went to the sink, took a clean glass out of the rack next to it, and filled it with water. Then she drank it down, and set the glass on the counter. Jesse and Marty had resumed their seats at the table, watching Mrs. Anderson quietly.

Finally, she looked at Marty. "Marvin can stay. I still want you to try to keep him in your room; but, if he gets out..." She shuddered. "He's much better to have around than a spider."

She 'ughed' again, and left the kitchen.

Jesse smiled, and picked up his sandwich. But he didn't get it to his mouth before Marty reached out and stopped his arm. The other boy leaned close, and smiled into Jesse's eyes. "I sure love you. Marvin loves you, too."

Marty leaned still closer, and gave him a quick kiss. Jesse grinned, and kissed back.

"I didn't mean to gross out your mom. Marvin really will keep those spiders down wherever he moves around."

Marty shook his head. "Iguanas are vegetarians, Jesse. Herbivores. I don't think Marvin will eat a spider."

Jesse stared. "What?"

Marty nodded. "You didn't know. I could have said something, but...Marvin won't hurt my mom. She's just scared of him because she thinks he's ugly. But he's cool."

Jesse looked at the doorway Marty's mom had exited through. "We faked her out?" He turned and looked at Marty. "You said there hadn't been a spider in your room because of Marvin."

"I haven't seen any spiders in my room, is what I said. That's true. I had a cricket, once. Marvin will chase bugs, but he won't eat them. He usually steps on them." Marty shook his head. "Just having him there probably keeps the spiders away. They don't know they won't get eaten, because Marvin's not part of the food chain around here they would recognize. He's just a big, scary dinosaur to little bugs."

Jesse sighed. "Oh."

Marty took a bite of his sandwich. "Look at it this way, Jesse. Marvin will chase bugs, even if he won't eat them. It's like he knows they don't belong in the house. So he is doing a job...sort of."

Jesse took a bite of his own sandwich, and nodded.

Marty watched him a moment, seeing that Jesse wasn't quite happy with the way things had turned out.

"I know what you need."

Jesse eyed him suspiciously. "What?"

"You need some bird watching. Take your mind off other stuff."

Jesse brightened at that. "Okay."

That evening, Jesse was just off the phone from talking to Marty when he heard a soft rap at his door. He looked up, to find his dad standing there.

Jesse grinned. "You can come in. I was just talking to Marty."

His dad came and sat on the end of Jesse's bed, and smiled. "And how is our Marty?"

"He's okay. A little nervous about starting in a new school tomorrow."

His dad gave a little nod. "Been there myself. It will help that you guys share some classes."

"Uh huh. I'll look out for him."

"Good." His dad laid a hand down on the mattress. "Um...Jesse, have you guys decided how you are going to...present yourselves, at school?"

Jesse was surprised, but smiled at the way his dad said that. "You mean are we gonna hold hands in the hallway?"

His dad gave a little laugh. "Yes, that's what I meant."

"We decided just to be ourselves. But we're gonna take it easy, at least at first. Is that okay?"

"Yes." His dad nodded. "It's fine. Your mom and I were just wondering what to expect. We plan to support whatever decision you and Marty make." He smiled. "Marty's dad said the same thing." Jesse's dad and Marty's dad carpooled to work together.

"Really?" Jesse knew that Marty's dad kind of floated back and forth in how he felt about his son's sexuality. "That's cool."

Jesse's dad leaned forward. "Marty's parents love him. Make no mistake about that."

Jesse felt an inclination to tear up come over him, but resisted it. He nodded, and compressed his lips together. "I'm glad."

His dad got up and moved closer, sitting down by Jesse and putting a hand on his shoulder. "You need anything, your mom and I are here. Okay?"

Jesse nodded, and leaned forward, and his dad hugged him. Jesse squeezed the man hard, unable not to.

When they drew apart, his dad smiled down at him. "Everything will work out. You'll see."

Jesse realized then that his dad seemed to be seeing the same nervousness in Jesse that Jesse had been seeing in Marty. Except Jesse's nerves were for a different reason. Marty was a little worried about starting in a new school, with new people. And Jesse was worried about starting in an old school, with old people. People he knew, and people who thought they knew him.

Only they hadn't known him, not completely. And now, they would.

Jesse nodded. "I am a little nervous, I guess."

"Only natural." His dad put a hand in Jesse's hair, and gave him a fond rub. "And it's okay to be. Just remember what I told you about thinking with your fists."

Jesse smiled then. "People that think with their fists don't have a brain in their hand."

Mr. Cole laughed. "Right." He gave Jesse another pat, and then nodded. "I love you."

Jesse leaned forward, and hugged his dad again. "I love you, too, dad."

The man got up, and smiled at him again. "I'll see you in the morning before you go. Get a good night's sleep, okay?"

"I will. Night, dad."

"Night, Jess." His father turned to go, but then looked back. His eyes held a touch of humor in them. "I think your mom will be in to see you before she goes to bed."

Jesse could only smile.

"You look awesome," Marty said, staring at Jesse. "Holy crap, you dress up nice, Jesse. I've only seen you in shorts and shit all summer." Marty grinned. "You wear those jeans damn well."

Jesse grinned. The jeans were faded, with lighter spots at the knees, around the pockets, and on the seat. They were snug, but not skin tight. He had looked at himself in the mirror on the back of his bathroom door and decided that they actually looked sexy on him. He had on above them a dark gray tee-shirt that showed just enough of his physique to also be sexy, and his black Nike's on his feet.

Marty also had on decent jeans, less faded, maybe less accented. But they also looked good on him. The green tee-shirt he wore had the head of a snake on the front, with the long body of the snake wrapped twice around the shirt. Underneath the head, in small black letters, was the caption, "My snake is longer than your snake..." Jesse grinned at that, and Marty turned to show him the back of the shirt. The tail of the snake was there, with a rattle, which looked to be in motion. Underneath that was the rest of the caption, in the same small letters: "...and his nuts rattle."

Jesse laughed, and shook his head. "You're crazy. I'll bet your mom stops you from wearing that."

"Bet she doesn't," Marty said, picking up his backpack from the floor and sliding into it. He showed his back then, and the rattle and the words were covered.

Jesse grabbed up his own pack and put it on. Both his and Marty's packs were light right now, containing only a few composition books and some pens and pencils. Once their textbooks were issued, it would be a different matter altogether.

Jesse looked at his watch, which he hadn't worn for much of the summer, and nodded. "We need to roll. I don't wanna miss the bus the first day."

They hustled down the steps to the first floor, and went into the kitchen, where Marty's mom was sitting at the table, sipping coffee. She smiled at them as they came in. "Well, don't you two look great." She peered at Marty's tee-shirt, rolled her eyes a bit, but didn't say anything about it.

"You have money?" she asked Marty.

"Yup. Ten bucks. I won't need even that."

She nodded. "Bring a lunch menu home, if you can get one. I want to see those prices this year. It they are more outrageous than last year, you may be bagging it."

Marty grinned. "Okay. The food in the cafeteria usually isn't that good, anyway."

Jesse tilted his head towards the door, and Marty nodded. "Gotta run, mom, or we'll miss the bus."

Mrs. Anderson waved a hand. "Go. Have a good day. I'll see you this afternoon."

They went out through the garage and headed down the driveway to the street.

"Told ya she wouldn't say anything," Marty said.

Jesse just laughed. "She didn't see the back of the shirt, either."

They jogged up the road, and saw a few other kids waiting at the street sign near Kim's house. All but one were much younger than them - fifth and sixth graders, of a different social standing, and kind of beneath their notice. Somebody's mom was also there, watching the gabbling kids with a faintly sleepy expression. The other kid present was Andrea Savin, a grade behind Jesse. She smiled at him, and eyed Marty.

"HI, Andrea. This is Marty. He moved into Nate's old house."

The girl immediately pouted. "I miss Nate. He was sweet."

Jesse had to agree with that, but didn't say so out loud. Instead he just nodded, and he and Marty turned to look up the street.

"Wonder how Parker is doing?" Jesse asked. The highschoolers rode the same bus that they did, but on an earlier cycle. The bus dropped them off at the high school and then retraced its route to pick up the middleschoolers. After this run, it would come back a third time to get the gradeschoolers.

Marty laughed. "She'll own that school by the end of the day. The principal will be after her to give him his office back."

Jesse grinned, feeling much the same way about Marty. Parker was a lot like her brother, and not just in looks.

"That's good. I figured she'd be cool."

They stood and talked for a few minutes, until they heard the bus coming. Jesse shaded his eyes to look at it, trying to see if Mrs. Johnson was still driving it. The woman was pretty old, like fifty, and Jesse had wondered if she might retire after last year.

Guess not. The bus pulled up, and the side door opened, and Mrs. Johnson grinned out at them. "All aboard!" She gave a little wave to the mom, who looked relieved to be able to transfer responsibility for the noisy group.

Jesse and Marty herded the crowd to the door. They let the little kids get on first, and then Andrea, and Jesse and Marty came last.

"Who's this one, Jesse?" Mrs. Johnson asked, as the door closed behind them.

"Marty Anderson. He moved into Nate Peak's house. Nate's gone."

Marty smiled, and gave a little wave. "Hi."

"Hi, Marty. Nice to meet you." The driver gave a little shrug, and waved a hand towards the back of the bus. "Well, they come and they go. Sit, and we'll be on our way."

The bus wasn't even a third full. Jesse led Marty back and they found an empty seat, and Jesse let Marty slide in and take the window so he could see out.

"Not many kids on the bus," Marty noted, as Mrs. Johnson backed up and turned the bus around.

"We'll only pick up maybe ten more," Jesse returned. "The bus is usually a little more than half full."

Marty laughed. "Damn hick sticks." He pushed his shoulder gently against Jesse's, and Jesse just smiled.

They stopped three more times, picking up three or four kids at each stop. On the last one, two boys their own age got on, spied Jesse, and immediately came back towards them.

They were both brown haired, and, Jesse thought, both cute. Brian Finn had green eyes and smiled a lot, and Nick Hamer had brown eyes, and didn't. The two boys had met two years before, when Nick had moved into the house next to Brian's, and they had become best friends. Jesse liked both of them, and he and Nate had always sat with them on the bus and hung around with them at school. Jesse had expected to see them over the summer, as they didn't live that far away, if you came along the bike path through the woods. But apparently, Brian and Nick had been busy with their summer, just as Jesse had been busy with his own.

"Hey, Jesse, what's up?" Brian reached over and gave Jesse a pat on the shoulder as he and Nick slid into the seat in front of them.

"Not much. How was your summer?"

Nick gave a little whistle. "Awesome." His eyes immediately moved to Marty. "Who you got with you?"

Jesse introduced everybody. Marty smiled and bumped fists with the two, and looked pleased to know other guys their own age.

"Great shirt," Nick said, admiringly, and Marty hitched himself around so that the others could see the back. They laughed, and Jesse felt happy that Marty was so at ease now.

"So Nate's gone, huh?" Brian looked somehow sympathetic. "That kinda sucks. He was cool."

Jesse nodded. "Got Marty now, though. He's crazy, but good company."

Brian and Nick both laughed again, and Marty looked pleased at the odd compliment.

They took turns briefly recounting their summers as the bus made its way along the blacktop road. Traffic was light, but then, it always was, this far out.

"San Diego, no shit?" Brian asked, when Jesse got to the vacation his family had taken. "Is that near Disneyland?"

Jesse frowned. "Disney's in Anaheim. I think my dad said it was like ninety minutes to get there from where we were."

"What's in San Diego, then?" Nick asked.

Jesse recounted their visit to Sea World, and the fun they'd had exploring the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier from World War Two, that was now a museum there.

Nick looked impressed. "Fighter planes? For real?"

"For real," Jesse agreed. "They had planes covering like forty years that the ship was in service."

"Man." Nick frowned at Brian, and then let loose a rare smile. "We had fun, though, even without fighter planes, didn't we?"

Jesse blinked, and then smiled at Brian. We?

A satisfied expression crossed Brian's face, and he nodded. "Yeah. Nick went with us on vacation this time. It was really fun."

Marty leaned forward. "Hey. I went with Jesse and his folks, too."

Brian smiled then, and looked approving. "Wow, that's really cool."

"We had a great time, especially on the beach," Jesse added, grinning at Marty.

Nick looked at Brian. "We had fun on the beach, too."

For just a moment everyone was quiet, smiling, and remembering the good times they had had.

"And now...back to school," Brian suddenly said, letting his chin drop onto his chest, as if the party was suddenly over.

Everyone laughed.

"Last year at Schmitz," Jesse reminded. "Better enjoy it while it lasts."

"Yeah, that's true," Nick agreed. "Four years to work your way to the top, and then you gotta do it all over."

Marty grinned. "But for now..." He gave a little whistle and rolled his eyes. "We get to be the big dogs this year."

They discussed their schedules, and found they had several classes together. That was bound to happen, given the small size of the school. They agreed to sit together in shared classes, and to meet in the cafeteria for lunch, to compare notes on how the day was going.

Marty was his good old, slightly wild self, and had the other boys laughing a lot. By the time they arrived at the school, Marty was an accepted member of the group, just as Nate had been before him.

Jesse would have been surprised if it had been any other way.

"Science is concerned with facts," Mr. Blaisdell told them, scanning the room as he walked slowly back and forth behind his desk. Lab table might have been a better description, for the desk was more like a counter with a black top, and when the teacher sat behind it, it was upon a tall metal stool. His briefcase and several notebooks stood in a neat group on one end of the desk, and two equal stacks of textbooks - arranged just as neatly - stood at the other end.

Jesse and Marty watched the man move slowly back and forth, as did the other students. Jesse was already hoping this was not going to be the way it always was, with the teacher endlessly cycling from one end of his desk to the other as he spoke. Mr. Blaisdell was obviously a guy who liked to move about as he was thinking; but the extremely regular cycles of this particular movement were just a little annoying. As he reached his briefcase, he would momentarily lay a hand atop it, and do the same with the textbooks at the other end. So far, at just the third period class, Jesse was not finding that his schedule was going to be all that exciting this year.

The teacher nodded at them. "One must learn to evaluate the reasoning in arguments in which fact and opinion are intermingled, or when conclusions do not follow logically from the evidence given. At the same time, the importance of imagination cannot be overlooked, because it requires creative thinking to develop descriptions, models, explanations, and predictions based on the evidence at hand."

Mr. Blaisdell paused, and smiled out at them. "Everybody got that?"

The kids just kind of looked at each other, and then nodded. Mr. Blaisdell frowned, and then rubbed his chin. "Anyone care to simplify my statements?"

When no one responded, he waved a hand at the group. Jesse felt it coming, somehow, and so was not surprised when the man's finger pointed at him. "You. Would you stand up, please? What's your name?"

Jesse groaned inwardly, but pushed himself erect behind the long table that served as a desk there. "Jesse Cole." He immediately felt the battery of eyes upon him as the kids around him took his measure. Beside him, Marty gave a little cough of support, while Brian and Nick, at the table in front of them, turned to gaze sympathetically at him.

Mr. Blasidell smiled. "Nice to have you in my class, Jesse. Now...would you care to restate what I just said, in simpler terms?"

Jesse ground his teeth together a moment, thinking that if the man had wanted things simplified, he could have done that from the get-go. But...not a good idea to start the school year with a teacher pissed at him. So he thought a moment, and then nodded. "You're saying to check your facts to make sure they are facts, and then present them to other people in a way that makes them easy to get...to understand."

The teacher raised his eyebrows. "Well...that is part of it, yes. Anything else?"

Jesse thought again. "Well...you also said that using a little imagination goes a long way in helping to present your ideas."

Mr. Blaisdell smiled. "Yes. Thank you, Jesse. You can sit down."

Jesse resumed his seat, grateful to have everyone's eyes go forward again. Mr. Blaisdell continued to smile at Jesse a moment, and then nodded to the classroom.

"Each year when I begin this class with a new group, I make this little speech. This will be the first time for it in my new position here at this school, but, I assure you, not the last time I utter it, for it needs to be said. Everything I told you earlier to was technically correct, but it was also not particularly clear. Or maybe not to anyone at your grade level, anyway." He sighed. "I don't want to be unclear with you, okay?"

For a moment the class looked confused, and Jesse was feeling a little of that himself.

The teacher laughed. "Science is already technical enough without us needing to use overly technical language to describe it. Yes, technical terms are important and necessary to the understanding of science. But the discussion of science, and the learning of science, need not be overly technical in language or ideas." He frowned. "I just mean that, the easier I make this for all of you to get --" he tossed a smile at Jesse again "-- the more fun you will have learning, and the more you will learn. Okay?"

Jesse was aware of the smiles that bloomed around the room, and that the general level of tension they all felt at starting in with a new teacher had relaxed.

Mr. Blaisdell looked pleased. "Great." His eyes came back to Jesse. "Having picked on you once, Jesse, I'm going to do it again. Would you and your friend there mind coming up here and handing out the textbooks?"

Jesse was startled to realize that the man meant Marty by 'your friend'. Marty, beside him, was already getting to his feet, a big grin on his face. "Come on, friend."

Jesse laughed and got to his feet, and the two of them went forward and each took a stack of the heavy books off the desk. They split then, with Marty going to the back of the room and walking down the last row, while Jesse walked down the near one, pausing at each kid so that they could grab a book. The stacks got lighter very quickly as they moved along the rows, and each boy was eventually left with a single book in hand, which was to be his own.

Mr. Blaisdell, obviously, could count. A good sign, in a science teacher.

They took their seats again, and Mr. Blaisdell arranged himself on his stool, laid his elbows on the desktop, and made himself comfortable. "That's better. Now...about your text book. It is a part of the curriculum and we have to use it. It's actually a good book, so that's a point in our favor. But we will be using other things to assist us in learning, and I want to stress to all of you that anything you can think of that strikes you as a good way to share ideas will be welcome. Let's just discuss it first, to make sure its acceptable."

He smiled around at them, and then waved a hand over his shoulder. A pull-down screen hung on the wall behind him. "I have an LED projector, and a laptop, and we have an Internet connection here. There are a lot of resources online that I have found interesting, and we'll be using some of them in our studies. Most of these are open, and I will make available the addresses of these sites as we go along, so that you can access them from home. You may find that a fifty-minute class is not long enough to read or see everything that interests you."

Jesse realized that he was hunched forward on the tabletop, and smiled, and sat back more comfortably. His opinion had done a pretty quick turnabout now. So far this promised to be one of the more interesting classes he'd attended thus far.

"The first things we will talk about today are the methods of science," Mr. Blaisdell went on. "The steps we need to take in investigating facts and ideas, the scientific laws and theories we will need to learn and understand so that we can do the investigating properly, and the international system of units we will need to know in order to measure and record and describe the facts we do learn. I want to talk about things in this class more than just lay them out on a sheet of paper. One of the things that puts many people off science and technology is that they have trouble understanding what they see and hear. As far as I am concerned, as a teacher, that means that whoever presented that knowledge didn't do their job."

Jesse liked science and technology, and liked to learn about them. He understood only too well that some subjects were really technical, and he had read things online that made no sense to him, whatsoever. He did understand that that was because the things he was seeing were aimed at people with a lot more knowledge in place than he had himself. But...how did they get that knowledge in the first place?

Learning could be easy, or it could be hard. A lot of that was in the language used to define things, and Jesse was getting now that Mr. Blaisdell wanted them to understand ideas first, and then learn to properly describe them later. That worked for Jesse, and it felt good to realize on the very first day that he had a class he was going to enjoy coming to each day.

Not all of them would be that way, surely.

At lunch, Jesse and Marty shared a table with Brian and Nick. Spaghetti and meatballs were on the menu, and the glob of matter laid upon their trays was at least the right color. It turned out not to taste bad, either, although Jesse smiled at the thought that presentation was important in a lot more fields than just science.

Speaking of which: "I like Mr. Blaisdell," Jesse said, stabbing a meatball with his fork. Or a reasonable facsimile of a meatball, anyway. "I thought he was gonna be a knucklehead at first, but he turned out to be pretty cool."

"Yeah, he's okay," Brian agreed. "Never know what you're gonna get with a new teacher. He seems a lot easier to get along with than Mrs. Snarpy was."

"Who was that?" Marty asked, grinning at the name.

"She taught this science class here last year. She was kinda weird."

Jesse made a rude noise. "What she was was crazy." He nodded at Marty. "She yelled. You could hear her all up and down the hall, sometimes."

Marty looked from one boy to another. "You mean, like a mad yell?"

Brian shook his head. "No...not really. She would just raise her voice a little, to make sure you heard, and then keep on going." He frowned. "It was just kinda creepy."

Jesse rolled his eyes. "It was more than creepy. It was bizarre." He turned his head to look at Marty. "When she left at the end of last year, they burned out her room, bolted the door, and hung a cross on it."

Marty's eyes crinkled up and he laughed, and Jesse smiled at how cute it was. Marty bumped him with his elbow. "You're kidding, right?"

Jesse nodded. "Yeah. She had the same room Mr. Blaisdell has now." He sighed. "But I'm really glad we don't have her this year."

Marty scratched his cheek absently. "I think I'm gonna like this science class, too. My Social Studies class looks like it might be a sleeper, though. Mr. Hannigan seems like he can barely stay awake himself."

"My French class is gonna be a bitch," Nick said, around a mouthful of the orange goo. "I had Mr. Bisson last year, and he wasn't too bad. I got Mrs. Kenworthy this year, and she wants to say everything in French, like we should already understand it or something."

Brian laughed. "This is your third year of French, isn't it? You should understand some of it."

Nick looked morose. "I haven't even thought about French all summer. I can't help it if it isn't sticking."

"Use it or lose it," Marty said. "I'm taking French, too, and I have Mrs. Kenworthy sixth period. I hope I can remember enough from last year to at least get along."

"You guys shoulda took Spanish," Jesse informed. "At least there's some words there that resemble English."

"Stupid French," Nick bemoaned. "Why couldn't they learn some damn English over there?"

Everyone laughed.

Marty put on a grin. "Just remember: 'J'ai des boules bleues, et je ne peux pas penser'. When Mrs. Kenworthy asks you why you can't remember your French, say that."

Nick eyed him suspiciously. "What the heck does that mean?"

"It means, 'I have blue balls, and I cannot think'."

Nick coughed, and nearly spit out his mouthful of spaghetti. Jesse and Brian both slapped the tabletop and laughed hard, while Marty grinned ear-to-ear.

"You're a dingus," Nick said, offering a smile. "Only a crazy fucker like you would say that to a teacher."

Marty laughed. "I wasn't planning to use it myself."

Nick shook his head, but leaned forward on the tabletop. "Tell that to me again. I want to memorize it."

Marty's eyes danced merrily to Jesse's before returning to examine the other boy. "I thought you weren't gonna use it?"

"Not on the teacher, no. But it's too good to pass up."

Marty grinned, and repeated the phrase several times, until Nick seemed to have it. Marty looked pleased then. "Now, you know some French."

They talked until the clock informed them that the bell was about to ring, and got up then and put their trays in the rack by the door.

"We all have gym seventh period, don't we?" Jesse asked then. "We can hang out some more then."

The idea of the four of them hanging out together this year was a pleasant one to Jesse. He and Nate had enjoyed the company of the other boys the previous year, and now, with the addition of Marty, it seemed like it was going to be even more fun. Briefly, he pictured Nate's face in his mind, and sighed. He missed Nate. But to wish him back at the expense of losing Marty was unthinkable. He thought he had loved Nate. He knew he loved Marty.

The next two periods, Jesse would be on his own. He patted Marty on the back as they went to go separate ways outside the cafeteria doors. "See you in gym."

Marty grinned. "I can hardly wait!"

Jesse's fifth period was math, a subject he didn't mind, and was reasonably good at, but was scarcely in love with. Mrs. Milanese made it pleasant enough, displaying a sense of humor that Jesse found lightened the mood of things considerably. Another class that would at least be painless, he decided.

His sixth period was Spanish class. Jesse did not feel he was particularly good with languages, having enough trouble with the one he was born with. But he was game, and looked at most things he had to do - and especially the ones he didn't really want to do - as challenges. So he had been paying attention for two years, and as he started his third one he felt he could at least find his way around if he was stranded in a place like Mexico. He smiled to himself at that thought, remembering his trip to San Diego, where is dad had admonished Jesse and Marty not to go over the border into Tiajuana.

"They wouldn't understand you and Marty," his dad had kidded. "And they'd be afraid. I don't want to have to come and bail you two out of jail!"

Jesse took a seat and sat back in his chair. He looked around, and nodded at a few kids he knew. In one back corner, Angelica Bremmerman was holding court, dressed in her expensive jeans and flicking her blonde curls all over the place. Her mouth went a mile a minute - mostly about herself.

She had the same small crowd of girls about her she'd entertained the year before, all kids Jesse defined as 'wannabes', but none of whom seemed to know exactly what it was they wanted to become. Barbara Kitchner was the only one of them that Jesse kind of liked, because she seemed to be there with Angie to laugh at her and criticize what she said, which Angie, strangely, seemed to enjoy. The two of them went back and forth sometimes with excessive vigor, and Jesse and Nate and Brian and Nick had used to sit at lunch the year before and listen to the crazy conversations they had at the next table, and laugh about them.

Jesse knew from previous years many of the other students now finding seats, although there were a few he didn't recognize at all, and figured for 'new kids'. He simply nodded or waved at the ones he knew who looked his way, already knowing how Mrs. Franchone felt about kids socializing in class, or calling across the classroom.

One guy especially caught his eye, a boy with dark hair and bright eyes, who was looking about the room with the air of someone new. He was lean and appealing, and he moved well, qualities that Jesse had been born to appreciate. The boy spotted the empty seat in front of Jesse and made for it, sitting down just as the bell rang.

Mrs. Franchone went and looked out into the hallway, and then closed the classroom door. Woe be to any kid that was late to her class. She returned to her desk and stood behind it, looking about pointedly, which was a bid for silence that Jesse knew had better not be ignored for long.

The class did quiet then, fortunately. Mrs. Franchone introduced herself, saying she knew some of the students in the room, but not others. She said she hoped that everyone would have a pleasant year.

"Now, then, I know summer vacation is a busy time for families, and that the last thing any of you were thinking about was Spanish. So let's take a moment to see what you can recall. I will say a sentence in Ingles, and randomly call upon each of you to restate the sentence in Espanol. Okay?"

There was a general murmur of agreement from the students, none of which sounded enthusiastic to Jesse.

Mrs. Franchone smiled, and pointed at a girl in the first row. "My mother asked me about my day."

The girl - someone Jesse did not know - licked her lips and frowned. "Mi madre...me...preguntó...sobre mi dia."

Mrs. Franchone smiled. "Not bad." She pointed at Davey Osborne, a guy Jesse had known since first grade. "My books are very heavy to carry."

Davey looked briefly unhappy, but then screwed up his face in such a way that Jesse had to smile. Davey was another cutie, no doubt about it.

"Uh...Mi libros...son muy pesados de llevar."

"Almost," Mrs. Franchone said. "Think about that again, and pay attention to your plural markings."

Davey frowned. "Oh...it should be 'mis', not 'mi'. Mis libros...because I have more than one book....son muy pesados de llevar."


The teacher worked her way around the room and eventually got to Jesse. "I have to go to the store to buy eggs."

Jesse nodded, trying to jog open that part of his memory that contained what he knew of Spanish. "Uh...Tengo que...ir a la tienda...a comprar heuvas."

The boy in front of Jesse started laughing, and turned around. "You just said you had to buy fish eggs."

Jesse, put on the spot, shrugged. "Eggs are eggs."

Mrs. Franchone frowned. "Not in this case, Jesse. Think about what you said, with attention to the gender."

"Oh. You mean the eggs? It should be huevos, I guess."

The kid in front of Jesse laughed again, and Jesse felt a flash of irritation. "You want to do this?"

The boy smirked at him. "At least I know the difference between chicken eggs and caviar."

"Excuse me," Mrs. Franchone said then. "Who are you again?"

The new boy turned around, looking suddenly attentive. "David Gallegos."

"Well, David Gallegos, since you want to participate so keenly, how about this next one for you?" A distinct note of displeasure was evident in the teacher's voice. Mrs. Franchone hated class disruptions, and Jesse tried hard not to grin. The new boy caught that, and looked briefly annoyed.

Mrs. Franchone walked over and smiled a little ferociously at the new kid. "Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country."

Jesse gave a little sigh at that. Holy crap!

But David simply nodded. "Ahora es el momento de que todos los hombres buenos vengan en ayuda de su país."

Jesse blinked into the silence that filled the room after that. The new kid spoke the language like he'd been born to it!

Mrs. Franchone saw that, too. "You're bilingual."

"My dad was born in Spain, but he's lived here since he was a teenager."

The teacher nodded. "So you've grown up in a bilingual household?"

"You could say that." The new boy looked smug.

Mrs. Franchone looked irritated. "Can you tell me why you are taking Spanish if you already speak the language?"

Jesse had to admit, the new guy seemed less than intimidated by Mrs. Franchone's look of displeasure.

"I have to take a second language," he said. "No one said it had to be one I didn't already know."

Mrs. Franchone's frown deepened. "And you think this is a wise use of your time? You could be learning another language instead."

"Two's enough for any guy," David countered, although he said it quite respectfully. "I don't make the rules, I just have to go by them. My counselor said I needed a language besides English, and I'm taking one."

"Who is your counselor?"

"Mr. Edelston."

"And he knows you are taking a language you already know?"

David nodded. "Yes. He said I couldn't know everything about Spanish any more than he could know everything about English, and he was sure you could teach me something."

"I may do just that," Mrs. Franchone said, with the air of a promise that David did not fail to pick up on. He frowned as she turned away from him, and tossed Jesse a nasty look, as if this was somehow all his fault. Jesse just gave a little hiss of air, rolled his eyes, and ignored the other guy completely. So much for being cute.

The rest of the class went smoothly enough, with Jesse and David pointedly ignoring each other. Jesse vowed to sit away from this jerk the next day, so he wouldn't have to put up with the guy's airs.

The bell finally rang and Jesse gathered his things and left the room. He'd be seeing Marty again, and the prospect made him smile. Amazing how a little bit of boyfriend could brighten the day!

As he passed David, the boy was getting up, too, and looked at Jesse as if he wanted to say something. Jesse just pushed on by, ignoring him. He didn't have time for troublemakers.

Jesse went to the end of the hall and descended the steps. He was almost to the bottom when he sensed someone just behind him. He turned just as David gave him a fierce push. Jesse scrambled for balance, his backpack dropping to the steps. He manged to grab the handrail, and stayed on his feet.

David's face was angry. "You got me in trouble with that dumbass teacher!"

Jesse couldn't believe it. "I didn't do anything! You stuck your nose in where it didn't belong, and got yourself in trouble."

David grabbed one of Jesse's wrists and tried to yank him closer. Instead of pulling back, Jesse went with it, surging forward. David stepped back suddenly, unprepared for the move, tripped on a step, and sat down hard. Jesse jerked his wrist free and stepped back. "Touch me again and see what happens!"

He heard running feet on the steps, and Marty appeared, his eyes wide with concern. Brian and Nick were right behind him. "What's goin' on?" Marty demanded, coming to a stop beside Jesse. "I could hear you upstairs."

David stared up at the sudden circle of faces around him, an anxious look appearing on his face for the first time. Other students, going both up and down the stairs, were stopping to watch the altercation.

"This asshole nearly pushed me down the steps." Jesse could feel the heat of anger in his face.

"I did not!" David looked panicked now. "We're at the bottom. How could I push you down?"

Jesse blinked at that, turned and saw that only three steps remained to the hallway below. "Well, he pushed me, anyway."

Marty shook his head. "Why?"

"He got me in trouble!" David accused.

Jesse felt his face warm again, and leaned forward...but Marty put out a hand and stopped him. "Don't, Jesse."

The touch of Marty's hand brought clarity to Jesse's mind. He looked up at his boyfriend, saw the concern in his eyes, the worry just behind that. He nodded, forced himself to relax. Marty gave his arm a fond squeeze. "What happened?"

Jesse quickly recounted the incident in the classroom, while Marty frowned at the boy sitting on the steps. Finally, he just shrugged. "Sounds to me like you screwed yourself, buddy."

David looked from one face to another, and then at the students paused on the steps around them. Most were younger kids, their eyes wide at the possibility of violence.

Marty gave a little sigh, and leaned at the nearest ones. "Don't you people have somewhere to be?"

The flow immediately started moving again.

Marty retrieved Jesse's backpack and handed it to him. "Come on. We have to get to gym."

Brian spoke for the first time. "That's it?" His expression was one of surprise.

"You hurt?" Marty asked Jesse.

"No. Just mad."

Marty grinned. "Mad enough to be late to gym?"

Jesse looked at David one more time, and shook his head. "I guess not."

Marty turned back to Brian and Nick. "You guys coming?"

Nick gave a quick nod, and kind of leaned against Brian to get him moving. Brian gave David a last look, and then let himself be pushed along.

As they moved away from the steps, Marty threw an arm around Jesse's shoulders. "Leave you alone for five minutes, and you're ready to beat the snot out of someone," he whispered.

Jesse felt a warm feeling come over him, a good feeling. Marty could relax him like no other. "I wasn't gonna fight unless he grabbed me again."

Brian and Nick came alongside of them. "That dude is following us," Brian whispered.

Marty stopped suddenly and turned back towards David. "This thing's over, man. Right?"

David looked unhappy. "I have gym now, too. I gotta go this way."

"Oh." Marty resumed chaperoning Jesse along, and Jesse grinned at his boyfriend's sudden silence. "Think I'm gonna belt him one in gym?" Jesse whispered.

"Not if you're smart," Marty said, a grin suddenly covering his face. "And you are smart, last time I looked."

Jesse just sighed, and let himself be taken to gym class.

"Hold that rope steady, Taylor!" Coach Breen called, as Jesse pulled himself upwards. It was hand over hand, no legs - a particularly demanding way to climb a rope. Jesse felt his arms and chest respond by flexing mightily as he drew himself upwards, his legs outthrust, slightly spread, his shoulders and torso carrying his weight.

Laying on his back at the bottom, the end of the rope wrapped once around an arm as he steadied it with both hands, another boy nodded to the coach and added some body weight to his anchoring position.

On a rope nearby, another boy was climbing, using the same method. He was six feet lower than Jesse, and losing ground as Jesse pulled himself upwards with a powerful rhythm that stretched his muscles to the limit.

Jesse's speed increased slightly as the rope steadied, and he soon reached the big metal loop that secured the rope, twenty-two feet up. He gave it a quick smack with one hand and started back down again. He passed the other kid six feet into his descent, still going up, and knew he had this one in the bag easily. He reached the bottom of the rope, stepped lightly over Ben Taylor, and then leaned forward and put his hands on his knees and closed his eyes a moment, searching for breath.

Marty, who was standing nearby, danced over and patted Jesse on the back. "That was awesome, Jesse," he whispered, the delight plain in his voice. "And sexy."

Jesse straightened and opened his eyes, grinning. "Yeah?"

Marty's eyes sparkled. "Fuckin' right."

Nearby, Coach Breen was still looking at the stopwatch in his left hand. The watch in his right hand was still going, as the other boy finished up his descent. Coach Breen's eyes came up, and he smiled at Jesse. "Not bad, Cole. Not bad at all."

Jesse grinned, and Marty laughed.

"Knew all that tree climbing you do would come in handy someday," Brian said, grinning, as he and Nick came closer. They had been standing with Marty, but had waited to see the other climber finish before joining them.

"You do that like a monkey," Nick said, shaking his head in wonder. "Your arms must be strong as shit."

"Country boy," Marty deadpanned. "Choppin' logs, chasin' down deer, fightin' with squirrels over their nut stashes."

Everyone laughed, and Jesse felt his face get slightly warm. "You just don't know hustle when you see it."

Marty leaned forward, and dropped his voice even lower. "Know it when I feel it, though."

Jesse grinned at him. For a brief moment, their faces hovered almost too closely together, and it was all that Jesse could do not to kiss his boyfriend.

"Don't kiss him here," Brian suddenly said, causing Jesse and Marty both to turn their heads. It took Jesse a second to realize that the other boy was kidding, but Jesse's natural urge to play got to his mouth before his caution. "Why not?"

Brian rolled his eyes. "It's gym class, dude. We only do manly-man shit here, you know?" He laughed. "You guys wanna kiss, do it in art class!"

Nick squeezed his eyes shut and slapped his knee, and did a quick spin in-place before returning his gaze to them.

Marty grinned. "You're funny. I suppose art class is where you kiss Nicky?"

Brian gaped just a second before he laughed again. "Nope. We do that in the privacy of our own homes."

Nick gave a surprised laugh, and gave Brian a half-hearted shove to the upper arm. "Hey. That's not funny."

Marty looked at Jesse a moment, offering a look that said go with me, Jesse!

"Well, Jesse and I kiss wherever we please. Don't we, Jesse?"

Jesse nodded. "Yup."

Brian stared at them a moment, trying to see if they were kidding, but evidently couldn't decide. "Really?"

"Would it bother you if it was true?" Marty asked.

Brian frowned, and looked over at Nick, who just shrugged. "I don't care," Nick said. But Jesse did not fail to note the look of interest the other boy wore.

Brian grinned then. "I think you're both full of shit. I've known Jesse too long to think he might be gay."

Jesse felt his bravado come up at that. "Yeah? Maybe I'm bi." He looked over at Marty. "He's pretty cute. Hard to resist that face."

Brian looked like he was loving the conversation. "You're crazy. You guys aren't humpin' each other. I've seen gay guys before, and you're not it."

In a way, that pleased Jesse to hear. At least he and Marty weren't obvious. But in some other way, it kind of bothered him. I've seen gay guys before, and you're not it.

Jesse frowned. "Would you stop hangin' out with us if you found out we were boyfriends?"

Brian's eyebrows jumped at that; but then he frowned. His eyes went from Jesse's to Marty's, and back again. "No." He grinned then. "I'm with Nick. I wouldn't care one bit."

Marty reached over and gave Jesse's shoulder a gentle shove, and the two boys grinned at each other.

Brian leaned closer then, and lowered his voice. "So...are ya?"

"Are we what?" Jesse asked, sweetly.

Brian rolled his eyes, and leaned closer. "Gay," he whispered.

Jesse grinned. "I'm not tellin'."

Brian huffed in astonishment, and then laughed. His eyes moved to Marty. "What about you?"

Marty looked innocent. "Me? I don't know what you mean."

Brian stepped back then, shaking his head, thinking he'd been had. "You guys suck, you know that?"

Jesse and Marty both laughed.


All four boys turned to look at Coach Breen. Another pair of boys had been going up and down the ropes while Jesse and his friends had been talking, and Jesse hadn't really been paying attention. But now the coach was looking directly at Marty. "Come on, you're up." He turned around, scanned the circle of boys, pointed at someone else. "Gallegos? You're up."

Marty gave Jesse a look, and headed over to the rope. Jesse followed, and Brian and Nick fell into step with him.

Ben Taylor was standing now, and rubbing at his forearm. "My arm's gettin' tired, Coach. Can someone else anchor for a turn?"

Coach Breen nodded. "Sure." He looked about, but Jesse saw an opportunity, and immediately stepped forward. "I'll do it." The instructor's eyes found him, and he nodded, and waved a hand in a be my guest motion. Jesse grinned, and followed Marty over to the rope. "Just don't fall on me," Jesse whispered.

Marty grinned. "If I do, I'll make sure it's face down."

The other climber was David Gallegos, the boy from Jesse's Spanish class. He avoided Jesse's eyes as he went to the other rope, where Sean Petersen was anchor. He looked unhappy, and Jesse briefly sighed. Your own fault, buddy, he thought.

Jesse laid down beneath the rope, wrapped it once around one arm and held on mightily with both hands as Marty straddled him and grabbed hold of the rope. Jesse stared upwards, and tried hard not to grin. Just as he had suspected! He could see up one leg of Marty's shorts, and spied the little blue briefs his boyfriend was wearing beneath. Mmm!

Marty looked down at him, saw the smile, and may have suspected something was up. But he just grinned, got a good grip, and looked over at the coach.

The man held up his two stopwatches and nodded. "On your mark...get set...go!"

Marty and David both leaped upwards. Jesse watched as Marty yanked himself skyward, and then looked over at the other rope, where David seemed to be at least keeping pace with him. It was hard to tell from flat on his back who was ahead.

Marty seemed to be moving pretty darn good to Jesse. In no time, it seemed, he reached the mount ring, slapped it with his hand, and started rapidly downward. Jesse's eyes bounced to to the other rope just as David slapped the ring and started down. Marty was ahead!

Marty came down fast, obviously aware that David was on the way back down, too. Jesse watched him come, unable not to smile at the sight of Marty's beautiful body twisting in the air above him. Marty looked down as he neared the floor, swung his legs, and his feet came down on either side of Jesse's head. Jesse's eyes whipped to the other rope then, and David touched down only a moment later. Marty had the better time!

Jesse released the rope and bounded to his feet. Marty was all smiles, and Jesse pounded him on the back and wrestled him around, and did everything but hug him. Marty laughed and smiled, his eyes bright with sparkles, and Jesse wanted so badly to kiss him that it hurt.

Brian and Nick bounded up, and also clapped Marty on the back.

Barely, Jesse was aware of movement out of the side of his eye, and turned his head to look. David Gallegos was walking away from them, his head hung down. The other boy reached the bleachers and turned and sat down, and put his chin in his hands. The look on this face was somehow so miserable that Jesse was captured by it, and could not look away.

Coach Breen finished writing times on his clipboard, and waved a hand at the boys, who had dispersed into little groups and were talking and laughing. "Everybody hang tight a minute while I run to the office. Sanborn?"

One of the bigger boys turned his head and offered an inquiring look. He was one of the boys who had already volunteered to check equipment at the end of each class, and Jesse had put him on the jock list in his mind, although he liked the guy so far and he seemed pretty cool.

"Yeah, coach?"

"You're in charge until I get back. These guys get out of line, feel free to break some heads."

The man grinned at everyone, just to let them know he wasn't totally serious, and went off towards the gym office at a jog. Sanborn grinned after him a moment, and then went right back to chattering away with his buddies, oblivious to what everyone else was doing. That raised him up a notch in Jesse's estimation: doesn't let power go to his head.

Jesse's eyes went back to David Gallegos. He was all by himself over there, the aloneness draped about him like a dark cloak. Jesse tried to put himself in the place of a new kid, on his first day at school. What would that be like? How would he act? Not like an asshole, that's for sure.

His eyes went to Marty. Marty was a new kid, but he had Jesse with him, and had already been introduced to Jesse's friends. Marty was all smiles, and Jesse could see the happiness within him. He was already a part of something, his future no longer uncertain.

Jesse let his eyes go back to David, who now looked oblivious to what was going on around him. He seemed to be thinking hard, as if he had lost something, but it was as if he didn't know what. The look on the other boy's face was so compelling that something inside Jesse reverberated to it, the sound and the feel an echo that he felt all the way down to his soul.

He tapped Marty on the arm. "Be right back."

Marty nodded, still talking to Brian and Nick; but Jesse was aware that his boyfriend's eyes followed him as he walked across the floor towards the bleachers.

David was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he seemed not to see Jesse walk up, becoming aware of him only as Jesse sat down next to him. David's head came up out of his hands, and he turned eyes filled with surprise at the new arrival.

"So," Jesse said, quietly. "Your first day. How do you like the school?"

David gave his head a little shake. "Huh?"

Jesse smiled, and waved a hand vaguely about them. "It's your first day in a new school. What do you think?"

David watched him, as if unable to believe this was happening.

Jesse looked around, and nodded. "This is my fourth year here. It's been okay. This year looks like a good one, too, so far."

David gave a slow nod. "Oh."

Jesse turned to look at him. "You gave Marty a run for his money on the ropes. Pretty good. I figure your time was in the top five or six, at least."

David licked his lips. "Yeah? He's pretty fast. So are you."

Jesse smiled again. "We live in the woods. No fun to have trees everywhere if you don't climb a few every now and then."

David looked as if he wasn't sure if Jesse was serious or not, and Jesse bit at his own lip a second. "Sorry about what happened in Spanish class. Mrs. Franchone can be kind of a bitch."

David looked like he was trying to scowl, but he just wound up looking embarrassed instead. "I...I didn't mean to act like such a dick. I don't know why I did that." He swallowed, and briefly frowned. But his eyes were firmly on Jesse's. "I'm sorry, man."

Jesse tossed one shoulder, having already imagined the difficulty of being a new kid in a strange school. "As long as it doesn't get to be a habit, it's okay. Everyone messes up now and then."

David watched him another moment, and then a smile forced its way onto his face. "I'll try to watch that."

Jesse nodded. "You really speak Spanish? I mean, like a native?"

David offered a brief return nod. "I speak Castillian Spanish, like my dad. Spanish is different, depending on where you go. The language they speak in Spain can be pretty different than what they speak in Mexico, or Central America, or other places."

"That's like English here. My mom's cousin lives in Georgia, and we went there one summer to see her. Those people speak crazy English there."

David looked like he was relaxing now. "It's pretty much the same with Spanish. Words that are okay to use in Spain are cuss words in Honduras."

Jesse raised one eyebrow, and then smiled. "You'd be a good guy to know. I could always use a little help with the language."

A pleased expression came onto David's face. "I wouldn't mind that."

Jesse stuck out his fist. "I'm Jesse."

"David. What's up?"

"Not much. Just gettin' along, I guess." Jesse waved a hand at Marty and the others, who were now watching Jesse in silence. "Wanna come meet the guys?"

David's eyes followed the gesture, and he frowned. "I kinda met them already." He shook his head. "I don't think they like me."

Jesse stood up, and reached down and put a hand gently on David's shoulder. "We'll do it different this time."

David looked up at him, and Jesse simply looked back. The other boy gave a small shake of his head, but stood up. "Okay."

They headed back to the others. "Did you go to school anywhere around here before?" Jesse asked.

"No. We just moved here from San Diego. I've never been in the east at all."

Jesse stopped, and so did David. "Really?" Jesse asked, amazed. "Small world."

"What's that mean?" David wondered.

Jesse just nodded. "We got time. We'll talk about it." He grinned. "You'll laugh."

David looked pleased somehow, and they resumed walking.

The other boys watched them come. Brian looked plainly skeptical about what he was seeing, though Nick looked at least neutral. But Marty wore a little smile, and when Jesse saw it, he smiled back.

"Hey, you guys," Jesse said, as he and David drew up. "This is David."

Brian looked at Nick, who just shrugged. "Seriously?" Brian asked, giving Jesse the eye.

Jesse laughed. "I think so." He looked at David. "It is David, right?"

David blinked at him, and nodded.

Jesse looked pointedly at Brian. "Yep. Seriously."

Marty came forward and stuck out a fist. "Hey, what's up?"

David traded bumps with him, looking still like he couldn't quite believe what was happening.

Marty turned to the other boys and pointed. "This is Brian, and that's Nick. They always look that way, so don't worry."

When Brian simply stared at David, Nick pushed past him and stuck out a fist. "Hey, man. What's up?"

David smiled, and nodded. "I don't really know yet."

Everyone turned to look at Brian, whose eyes did a brief dance as he checked out the expressions on everyone's faces. He sighed then, and shrugged as if it was all too much for him to grasp, and stuck out a fist. "Hey."

Jesse was aware of Marty watching him, and turned to look at his boyfriend. Marty smiled, and his eyes sent across a very plain I love you.

Jesse nodded at him, and looked around at the others. "David's from San Diego."

Marty's smile changed to an astonished look, and he laughed. "You're kiddin'!"

Even Brian and Nick looked interested.

David scanned the faces around him. "Is there something about San Diego I don't know?"

"Nope." Jesse shook his head. "Me and Marty'll tell you about it later."

"I heard it's a cool place," Nick volunteered. He let loose a smile. "I heard the beaches are really nice."

David took a breath, let it out, and somehow seemed to relax. "Yeah. It was pretty cool, I thought. Sure not like here."

"Here's cool, too," Marty said, grinning at Jesse.

"Yup," Jesse agreed.

David looked at Jesse, and nodded. "Yeah. I'm starting to like it pretty much."

"It gets better," Marty assured him. "You'll see."

The bus ride home was pleasant. Jesse felt somehow very at ease, very relaxed. That he had pushed himself to make peace with David filled him with satisfaction. In just the remaining time they had spent together in gym class, he had seen that it had been the right thing to do. The boy had turned out to be okay, once they had started to know him. David's relief that his misconduct had not yielded a permanent dislike for him among Jesse and his friends was apparent.

That he simply might have been anxious, and trying too hard to fit into his new life at a new school seemed the correct appraisal. Jesse felt he would not have acted the same way in David's place, but he also understood that how people acted when their nerves were on edge was not always a good indicator of how they were normally. He could still remember his fight with Marty not long after they had met, the result of the newness of their relationship, and the nervousness each of them had felt at where that relationship was so quickly heading.

Giving David a second chance had been the right thing to do. The boy had much to offer, and his pleasure at finding friendship his very first day had made him almost giddy by the time that the five of them had exited the school to board their buses for home. David rode the bus parked right next to theirs, which meant he didn't live that far away from Jesse and Marty, and offered up the possibility that their new friendship might not be confined to school hours.

"You ride 112?" Jesse had asked, when David had seemed to be going their way. "We all ride 343."

David had offered a blank look. "Does that mean something?"

"Your bus runs to the other side of the ridge from us. You might be close enough to walk over to our street."

David had looked delighted at the idea. "That would be cool."

As they had left him, David had looked like he wanted to say more to Jesse. Jesse had just nodded, and smiled, and said he'd see the other boy the next day. The smile that David had returned had been all the satisfaction that Jesse needed.

And now, the ride home.

Marty seemed pleased with Jesse's response to David, too. Marty was leaned up against Jesse, a warm reminder that love was never far away. In Jesse's mellow mood he wanted to be close to Marty, wanted to touch him. While Marty and the others chattered away, Jesse mostly smiled and nodded, and didn't say much. The first day at school had turned out okay.

Marty seemed aware of Jesse's slight distance, and at one point grasped his hand and squeezed it. "You okay?"

"Yup. Just thinking."

Jesse raised his eyes, saw Brian and Nick watching them. Marty's hand squeezed tighter.

"You weren't kidding, earlier," Brian said quietly then. "Were you?"

Jesse knew immediately what the other boy meant. "Nope."

Marty nodded. "You guys okay with us?"

"Yes." Brian didn't even think about it. "It ain't like me and Nick have girls yet. I mean...we're still wanking together."

Nick took a great breath, looking stunned. Brian leaned against him, and shook his head. "They don't care, Nick."

Nick swallowed, but nodded.

Jesse grinned then. So Brian and Nick were wank buddies. So what? Jesse and Nate had been wank buddies. Just because the two of them had begun to grow closer didn't mean the same thing would happen with Brian and Nick.

"Don't be embarrassed," Jesse said to Nick. "Shit, everybody does it."

Brian laughed then, and gave Nick a gentle bump with his shoulder. "Told ya."

"But we're not gay," Nick whispered back.

"You can't have everything," Marty said, grinning.

Brian laughed, and Nick tried hard not to smile. "We're not," he repeated.

"You don't have to be," Marty said. "Guys have been fooling around together since they first realized they had dicks. Most of them grow up to have wives and kids." He grinned at Jesse then. "It's just the lucky ones that get to keep their boyfriends."

Jesse couldn't take Marty's smile any longer. He leaned over and pressed his lips against it, and Marty immediately turned the smile into a kiss back.

They heard a squeak, and then some laughter, and looked up. A couple of fifth graders were peering at them over the back of a seat several rows up on the other side of the bus. Their eyes were astonished, and full of merriment.

"Don't make me come over there," Jesse said, smiling at them and pointing. "Now turn around and mind your own business."

The kids - two boys - did that, but their giggles still reached Jesse's ears. He sighed, feeling he would probably be hearing more of that from this day on.

Brian nodded. "We got your back." He looked at Nick. "Don't we?"

Nick nodded. "Yeah." He frowned. "Are you guys gonna be kissing at school?"

Jesse and Marty both laughed.

"We'll keep it on the down-low," Marty said. "Only when absolutely necessary."

Nick almost smiled. "Fair enough."

Jesse sighed, closed his eyes, and settled himself against Marty. The motion of the bus was somehow relaxing, and Jesse felt the last of his anxieties - at least for the present - slipping away.

The world had its moments. Sometimes, it could be a terrible place, frightening and pitiless, full of people that only wished to hurt. And sometimes, it was the most satisfying place there could be, full of love, and friendship, and all the things that made it worth experiencing.

Like now.

David came to realize that Jesse and Marty were together before the first week of school was out. People notice stuff, even casual stuff, and Jesse and Marty were mostly being themselves, although they had decided that keeping things quiet was probably in their best interests, at least until people got used to the idea that they were together. So they had resisted being too obvious about anything in front of others at school, though they had decided that the bus ride coming and going was fair game.

David was still testing the waters of his new life, but Jesse and the others had agreed that they liked him and that it was nice to have him as part of their group. David seemed to return the sentiment, happy to have found company along this new path he was traveling. At first he was mostly quiet, listening to the things that his new friends traded back and forth, though he would always laugh at the funny stuff, and occasionally inject something of his own if he felt the timing was right. He loosened up pretty quickly, though, and soon was as much a part of every conversation as any of them.

If David's bus got to school first, he would sit on a bench outside and wait for the other bus to arrive. If Jesse's bus arrived first, he and Marty and Brian and Nick would sit and wait for David. The five of them found something special about being together, and like any other found gold, had come to hold it tightly in hand.

So Jesse noticed immediately when David seemed too quiet one day at lunch. His normally bright expression seemed clouded, as if he was looking at something that was looking back at him just a little too fiercely for comfort. Jesse watched him a while, and then finally put down his spoon and leaned closer. "You okay?"

David's eyes came up, and he looked surprised...and then, amazingly, guilty. "Yeah. I guess."

Jesse plainly heard a no, despite what the other boy had said. He watched David a moment, until David suddenly looked away. "Stop starin' at me like that."

There was an immediate silence at the table.

David heard that, and he immediately brought his eyes back to Jesse's. "I'm sorry." There was some sort of plea in those words, but Jesse had no idea what it was.

He nodded. "There's nothing to be sorry about. I just wondered what was bothering you."

David's eyes went to Marty, who smiled at him; touched upon Brian's and then Nick's gaze; and then returned to Jesse. "I..." David swallowed, looking very uncomfortable. "You know Max Dumfrey?"

Jesse immediately nodded. "Yeah. Why?"

David looked miserable then. "He said...he said you and Marty were fags."

Brian immediately sat up tall and swung his head around the cafeteria, looking, until his eyes settled on a far table. "There he is. Sitting with Carter and Billy, like always."

Jesse looked at Marty, who frowned. Marty leaned forward on the tabletop and looked pointedly at David. "You mean gay. We don't use that other word around here."

"Oh. Sorry."

"He just came out and said that to you?" Jesse asked, a little amazed at the idea. Max Dumfrey was a loudmouth, but he and Jesse had always been cool.

"He didn't say it to me, exactly," David returned. "But he said it around me, like he wanted me to hear it." His eyebrows came together anxiously. "Is it true?"

Marty nodded. "Yes. Jesse is my boyfriend."

David looked at Jesse. "Really?"

Jesse nodded. "Yup."

David looked at Nick, and then Brian. "And you guys knew?"

"Sure," Brian said, like he heard these sort of things every day of the week. "What difference does that make?"

Nick nodded. "Ain't our business what our friends do when they're in private."

David looked surprised, and actually gave out a little laugh. "It's true," he repeated. He sighed. "Oh, god, I'm so glad."

It was Jesse's turn to be surprised. "You're glad?"

David took a finger and rubbed at his ear. "Yeah. If it wasn't true, then Max was fucking with me. I don't know him. Why would he fuck with me?"

Marty produced a small smile. "It is true, and he was fucking with you."

David smiled back. "Yeah, I know. But it's different if it's true. If it wasn't true, he would be fucking with me about my friends for no reason, meaning he was looking for trouble. I've met plenty of guys before who say stupid shit just to start something, and then want to hit you if you say anything about it."

Jesse had to laugh at that. "Max isn't a bully. He's just a little bit of a jerk." He nodded, letting his eyes briefly settle on the boy at the far table, who failed to notice the examination. "He never did know when to keep his mouth shut."

Marty sighed. "So people are seeing it, even if we're being cool about it."

Brian hooted at that. "Yeah, you're being cool. You aren't kissing in the hallway, but the way you guys look at each other and clown around together, it's kinda hard to miss."

Jesse shrugged. "Too bad." He looked at Marty. "I don't care what any of these people think. Do you?"

"Not really. I just want to be cool with people. They can think whatever they want, just as long as they don't get in my face about it."

"Max is not over here running his mouth, I notice," Nick said.

"That's 'cause Jesse can kick his ass, and he knows it," Brian told him.

Jesse propped his chin on a hand and smiled at David. "How do you feel about it? Me 'n Marty, I mean?"

David shrugged. "Well...it isn't that big of a deal where I'm from. I knew a few gay guys and girls in my school back home." He frowned, and looked like he was really weighing the idea seriously for the first time. "I...I don't think it really bothers me." He grinned then, as if a little surprised at his own opinion. "We're friends, right? So it's no big deal."

"You're not worried about hanging out with us then?" Marty asked. "What people will think?"

"Nope. Nobody picks my friends for me, but me." There was an assurance to that statement that Jesse found appealing. David laughed softly. "You two are okay, even if you are a little funny." At the looks of surprise he got at that, he laughed again. "That's what my dad calls it."

That didn't sound good to Jesse. "You don't have parents that will go nuts and make you stop hangin' with us if they find out?"

David considered that. "Nah, I don't think they'll say anything about it. Even when my dad says it that way, he smiles. It's not mean; it's just the word he uses for it." His smile returned. "It's not like I'm gonna turn gay just because I hang around with you."

Marty grinned. "You never know. We could get lucky."

Everyone laughed, and David rolled his eyes. "I do know. I like girls. You can't just suddenly start likin' boys instead."

"I agree," Marty said, nodding. "You are what you are. No completely straight guy is gonna be attracted to other guys." He looked over at Brian. "Right?"

Brian's eyes widened, and Nick gave a little snicker. But Brian just grinned, and nodded. "Right."

David sighed, and settled back in his chair. "I was nervous about asking you guys. I'm glad that's over."

Jesse nodded at that, having a sudden bout of insight. "You were wonderin' before Max said something?"

David rolled his eyes. "Kinda. You and Marty seem so...I don't even know the word I need."

"Crazy in-love?" Brian supplied, drily.

David gave a surprised laugh, but he nodded.

"It really doesn't bother you?" Jesse asked again.

"I said so, didn't I? I just was afraid that Max had more in mind. Like he would say something stupid while we were all together, and then we'd have to deal with it in front of everyone. I thought we might be fightin' with him or something." He shook his head. "My dad would be mad at me about that."

"You'd fight for us?" Jesse asked, surprised.

"Shit, yeah. You're my friends."

Marty sighed dreamily. "Oh, David. I could just kiss you."

Brian and Nick laughed, and Jesse grinned.

David's face reddened, and he tried hard not to laugh. "Yeah, don't do that. I don't wanna be fightin' with you, either."

Despite claiming not to care what was said about them, Jesse was mildly anxious over the thing with Max and David. But nothing more ever came of it. He and Marty were aware of people watching them now and then, and smiling or laughing; but no one ever said a word to them, and Jesse did not find people avoiding him or Marty. Marty was so outgoing and friendly that half the girls in school were taken with him pretty quickly, and there seemed to be no shortage of girls that liked to talk to Jesse, too. He and Marty took it all in stride, and maybe because they never made a big deal out of anything, no one else did, either. Soon the kids found other things to focus on, and Jesse and Marty became old news. Even Max Dumfrey went back to saying hi as they passed in the hallway, and that was like having the door to his worries shut again for Jesse.

Being liked apparently counted for a lot, and Jesse and Marty seemed to have made a nice impression on a lot of people. They both were funny, and smart, and treated people pretty decently. It's hard to go hating on someone you like, even if you disagree with something about them. There's a funny system of weights and measures that people go by in appraising others, and Jesse was coming to understand that what you weighed in like in people's minds usually outweighed the things they were less thrilled about in your make up. All people really wanted was to feel comfortable with you, and liking you pretty much sealed the deal on that one.

By the start of October, Jesse felt like the year was shaking out nicely. He liked most of his classes, and the ones he didn't really like, he could tolerate. So far, his two favorite classes had turned out to be Science and Art. Mr. Blaisdell had lived up to his promise to teach rather than require, and Jesse had come to love the lively discussions the man encouraged in his classroom.

Jesse's Art Class teacher, Mrs. Jellicoe, was an oddball, with lots of long, graying, brunette hair, that kind of went with the flow of the air currents in the room. She wore little rectangular wire-rimmed glasses, and weird-looking outfits with lots of beads and bangles. When she moved about the classroom she tended to jingle, and Marty had started calling her Tinkerbell in private. On a PTA night, Jesse's dad took one look at her and simply smiled, and whispered to Jesse's mom that the hippie movement wasn't quite dead yet, after all.

For Jessie, his two favorite teachers had become central to his enjoyment of his eighth grade year, and the fact that Social Studies class was kind of a snoozer, and Spanish class a little like the Inquisition, and Math class a little trickier than he'd expected, simply didn't matter.

Gym, also, had become pretty pleasant, mostly due to to the fact that their entire group shared the class. Jesse and Marty had gotten pretty tight with Brian and Nick, and the inclusion of David had brought a kind of interesting influence to their perceptions of the world. Growing up in California was something like growing up on Mars, apparently, except that in California you could breathe, and the nights were not so cold that your feet would freeze to the ground.

Jesse and Marty both remembered the slightly different way the guys they had met on their trip to San Diego saw the world. California wasn't the other side of the moon, but it was the other side of the country, and apparently far enough removed from upstate New York that the pictures of life there took on their own unique colors of reality. David's ideas on how things worked were just different enough from what Jesse and Marty and the others knew to often draw smiles, and that the new boy was just as amazed at how life often worked in upstate New York, a source of pleasure to them all. There is nothing like seeing the world anew through someone else's eyes.

Despite her age and somewhat odd appearance, Mrs. Jellicoe was a beast with computers, and the introduction they were receiving to graphics design was absolutely enthralling. This was what Jesse's mom did with her computer, and that she was simply awesome at it was a fact that Jesse was coming to appreciate. The software used to create things was tricky, and there was simply a lot of talent needed to get what you were imagining onto the screen. But the course was a blast, and Jesse's mom was delighted that he was intererested, and was more than willing to show both Jesse and Marty a few tricks of the trade.

It was Jesse and his friends, enthusiastically recounting to Mr. Blaisdell some of what they were doing in Art Class, that inspired the science teacher to talk to Mrs Jellicoe, and the two teachers to decide to combine some aspects of their courses so that the students could gain a better understanding of how art and science were each important to the other. Mr. Blaisdell called it STEM to STEAM, after a way of educational thinking that was apparently going on elsewhere in the country.

On Wednesdays, Mr. Blaisdell's science classes and Mrs. Jellicoe's Art classes would meet each period together in the school's large multi-purpose room, which contained more than enough seating and workspace for them all. The two teachers would then share the head of the room, working together almost as if they had been built that way from the ground up. One of the perks of this new combination was that David now was able to share an additional class with them, at least on Wednesdays. Once again, the school's small size was able to work in their favor.

"Art and science have been partners since the beginning of the race," Mr. Blaisdell told them one rainy morning, while Mrs. Jellicoe set up the LED projector so that they could watch a film Mr. Blaisdell had brought in on his laptop. "Some of history's greatest thinkers have been equally at home with art and science. Leonardo Da Vinci used his artistic talent to record his thoughts on science, as well as to leave behind such truly artistic works as the Mona Lisa."

He smiled, obviously enjoying himself. "Such transdisciplinary thinkers have left a great mark on our history. And the interesting thing is, this sort of mind used to be much more the norm than it is now. At one time, art and science were automatically a part of the same classical education. Only in recent years have we come down to teaching them separately." He nodded at the assembled group of students. "This experiment at recombination has so far been working very well, and Mrs. Cannon, our principal, has given the go-ahead to let it continue for the rest of the year."

There was some moderate clapping, and a great many pleased looks cast about. Jesse himself was delighted. He couldn't ever remember school being this much fun!

Mrs. Jellicoe got the technology going, and they watched a short film on famous scientists, with the accomplishments of each one described, and their associations with the arts defined.

Jesse knew who Albert Einstein was - the name of the great scientist was often mangled purposely by Marty when he was poking fun at Jesse's brighter moments - and Jesse knew what Relativity was, even if he didn't understand it completely.

He did not know that Einstein had played both the violin and the piano, and that when he was up against the wall in some mathematical equation and could proceed no further, he would lose himself in music until the equation solved itself inside his head. Many great scientists had a strong artistic side, and the notion of the film was that truly creative thinking required both sides of the brain to have a say in the process.

"What you are able to visualize is extended by understanding both the scientific and the artistic principles," Mrs. Jellicoe said, at the conclusion of the film. "Our imaginations draw pictures according to the rules we know when used for both science and art, and the ability to flaunt those rules somewhat - stretch them in new directions - is what leads to both great science and great art."

Jesse was fascinated by the new ideas. Apparently, so were many of the other kids, if the excited talking that sprang up then was any indicator.

Mr. Blaisdell held up his hands for silence, and then grinned around at the students when he got it. "In keeping with the idea of blending art with science, Mrs. Jellicoe and I have come up with an idea to let you express yourselves in this area."

All eyes went forward.

"That's right." The art teacher looked about as pleased as Jesse had ever seen her. "What we propose is that each of you pick a subject to create a presentation about. You can pick a subject in the sciences, or you can pick one in the arts. But your objective will be to examine your subject for any ideas you can see within it that tends to bridge the two areas of thought - art, and science - and then create a presentation for your fellow students. Once everyone has completed their projects, we'll put on a little show, which all of you can enjoy."

A girl raised her hand - Amanda Pickering, a girl from his Social Studies class that Jesse liked. "We can pick any subject we want?" she asked, when Mrs. Jellicoe acknowledged her.

The teacher nodded. "You can. But you must look at your subject from both an artistic and a scientific aspect."

"What does that mean, exactly?" a boy asked.

Mr. Blasidell pointed a finger at the crowd. "You can pick a subject that would seem to traditionally be a science-based one, like engineering, and narrow that down to a particular. Architecture is a very high-profile engineering profession in our society today. An architect needs to be proficient in mathematics, and understand science concepts like thrust, mass, tension, loading, balance, and what have you." He grinned. "At the same time, the architects among us that are most appreciated are those with a distinct flair for artistic design. The only thing better than a well-engineered building is one that is well-engineered and beautiful as well."

"Or," Mrs. Jellicoe went on, " you could pick a subject that most people would see as art. Painting, say, or even graphic design, as we have been doing in class. Any form of art that takes an inner vision and transfers it to a medium that others can share in. It can be visual, like painting, or aural, like music. In each there is also science, though most artists don't view it as such. But each medium has its own particular technology. For instance, many painters mix types, oil over acrylics, say, or pastels, crayons, and painting sticks in the same work. Each of these items has requirements and procedures to make them work together, and an artist learning how to create needs to have more than just an idea of the image they want to wind up with."

Another hand went up. "You mean a painter has to know chemistry?"

Mrs. Jellicoe smiled. "Maybe not as far as knowing the formulas for the paints they use, but they do need to know the rules for their use. For instance, every painter should know never to apply a faster-drying paint over a slower-drying paint. Encaustic paints that incorporate wax set up quickly, but they take years to cure properly. Applying oils over them is a no-no. Wax paints that are covered don't cure properly and can crack and flake off, and that means that any paint applied over them will come away as well. So an artist needs to understand the rules of procedure just as Mr. Blaisdell's architect needs to know what materials are right for the structure he envisions."

Jesse had an idea, and raised his hand. "Can we work together?"

"Yes. That is even encouraged." Mrs. Jellicoe smiled. "The more ideas that you all share in, the more fun this project will be." The room immediately filled with an excited chatter at her answer.

Jesse looked at Marty, who immediately grinned. "We can work together."

"What about us?" Brian said, from the row in front of them.

"You're in," Jesse said, smiling. He turned to David, whose eyes immediately widened. "Me, too?"

Marty reached past Jesse and gave David a little push. "You need to ask?"

Jesse nodded. "All five of us. This is gonna be cool as shit."

"We need to brainstorm," Nick said. "What are we gonna do?"

"Yeah, we need to talk," Brian agreed.

"We need to get together on this." Marty gave Jesse a nudge. "Sleepover!"

Jesse laughed. "Yeah, the fort."

"What's the fort?" David asked.

"Is it big enough?" Brian wondered.

"It's gettin' chilly at night," Nick reminded.

"Sleeping bags," Jesse stated.

"What's the fort?" David repeated.

Jesse just grinned, as the two teachers gazed about with satisfaction at the hubbub they had created.

David set his sleeping bag on the ground, and put his hands on his hips, staring at the fort in wonder. "Looks like a hillbilly hotel," he said, grinning.

The afternoon sun was bright and pure as it sifted down among the trees, painting the leaf-strewn ground in autumn colors. Overhead, the multi-hued canopy vibrated in a gentle breeze, and a rain of rust and gold leaves spiraled downward to add to the slowly accumulating ground cover.

Summer was dying, a thought that always gave Jesse some pause for thought. His woods were a summer place, born anew each spring and growing thick in the warmth of that special time. Autumn was a reminder that nothing lasts forever, as the leafy trees enjoyed a brief, colorful period of intense beauty before withering away to barren branches. Winter sucked the life out of the woods, put them to sleep, waiting. It was kind of a sad time of year, an indoor time, mostly; and Jesse was not a fan of winter for that reason. Only the mix of evergreens among the leafy trees kept things bearable at all, just one in five trees, maybe, and tending to cluster in little enclaves surrounded by their dormant peers. Watchmen, standing guard among the sleeping horde.

But, winter was not here, not just yet. There was still life in these woods, still adventure waiting.

The five of them wore light jackets there beneath the trees, where the still-warm afternoon sun did not quite reach. Jesse had checked the weather for the coming night, and it was going to be chilly, but well within the range of their sleeping bags to provide comfort. Jesse and Nate had slept out in the fort on much colder nights than this one would be.

Jesse laughed, and gave David a little push. "Smile when you say that."

David offered a large, toothy grin. "Looks like a hillbilly hotel," he repeated, through clenched teeth.

"Hey, it's got all the comforts of home," Marty explained. "Jesse and me were here earlier, getting set up. There's a laptop for movies, and a cooler with drinks and munchies. And we covered the floor with a big, padded comforter for you guys to roll out your bags on." He grinned. "Sorry, but there's only room for two in the cot."

Brian's eyebrows went up at that. "You two are sleeping in the same sleeping bag?"

"Sure," Jesse returned. "Best way in the world to keep warm."

David pursed his lips at that. "Uh...you guys won't be fooling around in front of us, will you?"

Jesse and Marty grinned at each other, but Jesse shook his head. "Nah. You're our guests. That wouldn't be cool, to put you guys on the spot like that."

Marty nodded. "Yeah. If we wanna kiss, we'll pull the covers over our heads."

Brian looked at Nick and grinned, and Nick just kind of gave his head a wide-eyed shake at the new things he was hearing.

Jesse hadn't failed to notice the glee that Brian displayed at the relationship Jesse had with Marty. He did not sense at all that Brian was gay, but he did sense an unusual tolerance for it, and maybe even an attraction to it, in a way that Jesse had seen in other guys in the past. That the lines between straight and gay were a little blurry at times was something that Jesse was coming to understand. There seemed to be an awful lot of guys that liked to play, and play with just about anyone that was willing to play back.

Nick was less sure of it all, but seemed also not to mind that much that he was going to be sleeping in a big wooden box with two guys that liked to snuggle together and kiss each other. It could be hard to tell what the boy was thinking at times, because he tended not to show a lot on his face. The way he had reacted when Brian had let out that he and Nick were wanking together had prompted Jesse to feel that Nick was a little concerned about how his own sexuality was shaking out. That he enjoyed doing things with Brian was probably a source of worry for him. Jesse understood that all too well, having wrestled with his own fears over doing things with Nate. It's a little hard to realize that you are leaning towards liking something that many people frown upon deeply.

David seemed to be taking it all as a good sport, but it did seem clear to Jesse by now that he was pretty firmly entrenched in the other camp. His tolerance was good, and he placed his friendship with Jesse and Marty above any worries over their conduct together. But it also seemed clear that there was a line that David would not cross, and Jesse felt it important not to paint one on the ground anywhere near him. He and Marty had discussed the others, and decided to be on their best behavior for the sleepover.

They would just have to have their fun at some other time!

Brian and Nick had been to the fort before, but it was all new to David. He circled the little structure, inspecting the exterior, offered a grin, and nodded. "It's pretty cool. Can I see the inside?"

They went in through the front door, and the three visitors were not long in giving the set up inside the fort their stamp of approval. Brian was all smiles, and whispered a few things into Nick's ear while Jesse and Marty were showing David the movies they had on Jesse's laptop. Jesse caught it out of the corner of his eye, and smiled inwardly at how Nick looked embarrassed, but smiled anyway. That he and Brian were close was pretty obvious, and it was something that Jesse understood all too well. Best friends really are the best friends you'll ever have.

They sat then, Jesse and Marty on the edge of the cot, and the other boys atop their sleeping bags, their backs against an inner wall. Jesse handed out drinks, and everyone looked pleased to be right where they were.

"So, anyone got any ideas for a science project?" Jesse asked, taking a sip of his apple juice. "I'm gonna say right now that building our own nuclear device is out."

Marty nodded, keeping a straight face. "Yeah. The army said the Russians got scared that New York was gonna declare war on 'em, after the last one we built."

"Yup." Jesse couldn't help grinning, just a little. "And we're all outta plutonium, anyway."

Brian rolled his eyes, but looked delighted. "You guys are stupid."

David shook his head and looked at the other two boys. "Is it always like this?"

"Pretty much," Nick said. "You poke one of 'em, the other jumps."

Jesse and Marty both laughed at that. "We think a lot alike," Marty said.

Brian nodded. "You mean that both you guys have brain cells twisted in the same direction."

Jesse grinned. "I can go with that."

"So what are we gonna do?" Marty asked. "We need something all five of us can do, and something that will be fun to present."

David frowned. "Well, maybe the first thing we should decide is if we are gonna do an art project, or a science project."

"Oh, I vote for a science project," Nick said right away. "I'm not good at art."

"Me, either," Brian agreed. "I don't know anything about painting and stuff."

Jesse shrugged. "I don't either. I could ask my mom for an art idea, but...if we think science would be better, let's go that way."

"Works for me," David said.

Marty gave a pleased clap of his hands. "Great. Now we just need to know what kind of science we want to do."

David looked around at everyone, and then shrugged. "We're all pretty cool with computers. Maybe something there?"

"That's a good idea," Nick agreed.

"It's too good," Brian said immediately. "Everybody's gonna think of that one."

"Oh, yeah...that's true." David frowned. "Well, what other science stuff does everybody like?"

"I like biology," Marty said, giving Jesse a nudge with his elbow.

Jesse grinned, and nudged Marty back. "Be good."

David smiled at them. "Yeah. Save the biology for another time, Marty."

Marty just shrugged. "Biology is important. We wouldn't be here without it."

"That's true," Brian decided. "It's also cool that people have learned to have fun with it."

Nick snorted, and bumped his shoulder. "You be good, too."

"Well," Jesse began, seeing a need to move them onward, "it's Saturday, and we'll be here the rest of the day and all night. We have time to think of stuff." He looked at Marty. "If you really want to do something with biology, there's a lot there. We just need to get some ideas..." He snapped his fingers. "Hey...hold on a second."

He slid forward and opened the lid of the laptop, turning it so that the back of the machine faced his house. "We're pretty far from the router for the wi-fi to work, but sometimes it does. My dad put a range extender on it so my mom could use her laptop out in her garden." He grinned. "She likes to look up flowers and junk when she's doing her spring planting."

He brought up Google and saw he had a connection. "Aw, man, great. Now...let's see..."

He ran a search on 'science project ideas for teens', and got a page full of stuff. He selected one and brought up the site. "Wow. There's all kinds of ideas here."

Marty hunched forward, leaning against Jesse, and peered at the screen. "Earth-related projects; Space-related projects; Projects about forces of nature; Projects with mammals, reptiles, or insects; Projects involving plants; Psychological projects --" he winked at Brian "-- and Environmentally green projects." He grinned. "Wow. That's really cool."

Nick waved a hand. "What are the space projects?"

Jesse scratched an eyebrow as he read: "There's stuff on the solar system, like why the planets move like they do, and what keeps 'em there. Stuff on their moons, and how they got there, and why they do the stuff they do." He grinned. "Moons are cool."

"We have one of our own," Nick said. "It might be fun to do something about the moon."

"I wouldn't mind that," Marty agreed. "There's been a lot of art stuff done about the moon. People kinda see it as special, and not just in a science way."

Jesse nodded. "Maybe. There's also stuff here on life in other places, including some of those other moons." He looked up at the others. "And stuff on stars and galaxies, and those kind of things, too."

David glanced up at the roof above their heads and smiled. "That's one idea I like already. What else is there?"

"Earth stuff," Marty said, taking a turn at reading. "Like acid rain, and greenhouse gases, and why there are clouds in the sky. Pretty much how everything on the planet works."

Brian frowned. "What about that force of nature project? Is that like lightning?"

"Yup. And hurricanes and tornadoes, and earthquakes, and volcanoes, and other things like that."

"I like that kind of stuff." Brian smiled. "You guys see that movie, Twister?"

David nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah. Remember when they went in that barn to hide from the twister, and it was full of all those blades and saws and sharp shit?" He laughed. "The lady said, 'Ohmigod, who are these people?', like the jigsaw killer guy from Saw lived there, or something."

Jesse grinned at the delight in David's eyes. "And another horror fan is born."

"Shit, yeah." David grinned at Jesse. "I love scary stuff. Don't you?"

Jesse had to admit that he did. "Yup. But we can't do a project about killing people, I don't think."

David's grin only grew. "I bet we'd get an 'A' on it. Nobody else is gonna think about that. And Forensics is a real science, too."

"What is that?" Nick asked.

"It's like studying how crimes are committed, and things like that. You know, like how blood spatters in certain patterns and tells the investigators how close the killer was, and even how he swung the axe."

Marty laughed. "The axe?"

"Well, it could have been a chainsaw, too." David's eyes were full of humor. "I'm not really particular."

Everybody laughed.

"Maybe we should stay away from killers for this project," Jesse suggested. "All five of us got to present it, remember? I don't wanna be the guy that has to pick who we use the axe on."

David gave a little sigh. "I just think scary stuff is fun, Jesse. I don't want to do it myself."

"Good thing," Marty said, trying not to smile. "'Cause you'd only be able to demonstrate that project one time before they locked you up."

Nick gave a little shudder. "Yeah, let's see what else there is. I don't wanna do anything with sharp stuff, okay?"

"Volcanoes are cool," Brian said then. "I've read about them. There's this one in Italy that buried two whole cities once."

Jesse squinted, remembering. "Pompeii, and, uh..."

"Herculaneum," Brian supplied. "The place was named after Hercules."

"Buried 'em...with people there?" Nick asked, looking a little horrified.

"Yup. Buried 'em in hot lava and ash. In a lot of places the ash turned to stone, and when people came along a long time later and busted 'em open, the shape of the dead people was still inside."

"No bodies, though," Marty said. "I read about that, too. They squirted some kind of stuff into the holes, um, like plaster, and when it hardened they had replicas of the people like they were when they died."

Brian nodded. "Yeah. I saw pictures of that on Smart Site. The plaster people were laying there, just like the real ones did."

"That's awful," Nick said, shaking his head. "That's a terrible way to die."

Marty shrugged. "There aren't too many good ones, that I can think of."

Nick was quiet a moment before shaking his head. "I don't want to do a project on those people, anyway. That's too sad." Brian sighed, and Nick shook his head more emphatically. "I don't like to see people get hurt."

Brian suddenly nodded, and put a hand on Nick's arm. "We won't, okay?"

Jesse smiled. "How 'bout animals? We got a reptile right here we can show off."

Marty turned to look at him. "You don't have to get nasty." He frowned then, but Jesse didn't miss the humor in his boyfriend's eyes. "I've been called worse, I guess," Marty finished, sighing dramatically.

Jesse leaned hard against him and smiled into his eyes. "Not you, dummy. I meant Marvin."

"Who's Marvin?" David asked.

"My iguana," Marty said, grinning. "He's good people."

"You got an iguana?" David asked, looking amazed. "Aren't they poisonous, or something?"

Marty laughed. "I think you're thinking of Gila Monsters."

David blinked, and then frowned. "Oh. Maybe."

Marty shook his head at Jesse. "Marvin's stage shy. I don't want to take him to school. He'd be scared."

Jesse took a moment to get his mind around the idea that Marvin could be scared of anything. But...the lizard did run when Marty's mom screamed...so, maybe. And Marty did know his pet best.

"I didn't think of that," Jesse confessed. "We wouldn't want to give Marvin a complex, or anything."

Marty tried hard not to laugh. "Yeah. Besides, Mr. Blaisdell might wanna dissect him, or somethin'."

"Yuck," Nick said. "We dissected those frogs in biology class last year. That was just gross."

Brian shrugged. "It wasn't so bad. Kinda neat to see what's inside of something."

Nick shook his head. "All those frogs get killed and cut open, and then thrown in the trash, just so a buncha kids can see what their goobers look like."

David squeezed his eyes shut and laughed. "What the hell are goobers?"

Nick couldn't help smiling, himself. "You know...their organs." The smile turned to a frown. "I don't want to see all that stuff."

"We got stuff like that inside us," Marty said, patiently. "That's why we cut open the frogs. To get an idea of what it's like inside a body."

Jesse gave a little sigh, and leaned harder against Marty. "The outside of a body is a lot better looking."

Marty turned his head and grinned. "I know." For a moment their faces hovered close together. Jesse wanted to kiss Marty so much...but they had promised to be good.

"Oh, go ahead," Brian said then, grinning. "You're among friends."

Nick gave a little nod. "A kiss is okay."

David grinned, and covered his eyes with his hand. "Don't let me stop you."

Marty looked happy, and turned back to Jesse and leaned closer. Jesse puckered up and kissed as sweetly as he could, feeling deprived at so long a period since the last kiss.

Even so, they kept it short. Jesse rubbed his face gently against Marty's a moment longer, and then they pulled apart.

Jesse looked at Brian, and could see that the other boy approved somehow. Even Nick looked a little enchanted.

"Okay, I peeked," David admitted. "That's the first time I've ever seen one guy kiss another one, except on TV."

Jesse nodded. "Gross you out?"

David briefly bit at his lip. "Nah. It's okay. I can tell you guys are really into each other."

Marty pretended to look astonished. "I didn't know it showed!"

"Shit," Brian said, rolling his eyes. "Gimme a break."

"I wonder what causes that?" Nick asked. "I mean, isn't it amazing that some guys like girls, and other ones like guys?"

Jesse looked briefly at Marty, not sure he wanted to get into a discussion on this particular topic. "Well...you can't help who you like, I don't think. I mean..." He looked at Marty for support.

"It just happens," Marty said, matter-of-factly. "You get to a certain point, and you just know who you like."

"What if you don't know?" Brian said then. "What if you like some guys and some girls?"

"Then you're bi," Jesse said. He had to smile at that. "Best of both worlds, I hear."

Brian frowned. "So...you just know?"

"Yup." Marty nodded. "You get to a point where, one day, you look at some guy --" he winked at Jesse --" or some girl, and it's like you never saw them before. There's something special about them...something new. You smile when they do, because you can't help it." He sighed. "You get so you love to see them smile. And you start wondering what they look like...under their clothes, and maybe what it would be like to be close to them." He nodded. "Kiss them. And touch them."

"I've felt that way about girls," David said. "But never guys."

"It's the same," Jesse said. "Exactly the same. Just, for you it's girls. For us..." He looked at Marty. "...it isn't." He and Marty smiled at each other.

Brian was watching them with a frown. "That's really wild," he said quietly, when Jesse looked at him.

"Just the way it is," Jesse told him.

Jesse's cell phone chose that moment to ring. He leaned back and fished it out of the pocket of his sweatpants, maybe just a little glad for the interruption. "Hello?"

"Jesse? It's mom."

"Hi, mom."

"Honey, dad's back from the store with the food. Do you guys want to come up to the house and pick what you want to eat?"

"Food's here," Jesse said, grinning at the others. "Sure, mom. We'll be up in a few minutes."

"Okay. See you then. Bye."

"Bye, mom." Jesse stuck the phone back into his pants. "Cook out time, gentlemen."

"I'm hungry," David said, getting up from his sleeping bag and rubbing his hands together.

For just a moment, Brian looked like he wanted to say more. But Nick gave him a little push, and they grinned at each other, and then both started laughing, and got to their feet.

Jesse was relieved. He really didn't want to talk about his sexuality just now.

Marty put a hand in the small of Jesse's back and gave him a quick but fond rub as they got to their feet. "Hungry?"

Jesse smiled at him, and thought he could see more in his boyfriend's eyes than just some wondering about food. Understanding, maybe?

"Yup. You?"

Marty laughed. "Aren't I always?"

Jesse just grinned and nodded, as the five of them made their way from the fort.

"Hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken wings." Jesse's dad said, as the boys crowded around the table in Jesse's backyard. "I'm going to mix and match, and you all can have whatever you want. But it will be easier and faster if you decide on what you want for the first round."

David looked at the monster ballpark franks and the over-sized buns, his eyes bright. "Wow. I haven't seen a hot dog like that since Petco Park."

"What's that?" Nick asked, his own eyes roving over the selections.

"That's where the Padres play," David told him. "That's my team."

"Gonna be a Yankees fan now?" Jesse asked, grinning.

David gave a slight curl to his lip. "Not just yet. I don't have to live near the Padres to still root for 'em."

Everyone laughed.

"That's loyalty for you," Mr. Cole said, approvingly. "I admire a man that sticks with his team."

David grinned. "The Yankees are okay. But they win too much as it is, without me along for the ride."

Mrs. Cole brought out a stack of plates and set them on the table. She waved a hand at the cooler there, and announced that drinks were available. Marty went and got a ginger ale, and brought Jesse an iced tea.

Mr. Cole checked the gas grill, and pronounced it ready to go. The boys made their selections, and the meats went onto the grill. Jesse then led the others to the table, and they all took seats.

"You got a great backyard," David said, smiling up at the deep blue sky visible overhead. That patch of sky was circled by treetops, in every shade of red and gold. Just enough of the forest had been removed from this spot to build a house and place a little grass around it. The rest of the property was as virgin as when the Native Americans had roamed it two centuries before.

"Your house looked cool," Jesse offered, taking a sip of his drink. Jesse's mom had driven Jesse and Marty around earlier to collect all the boys. "From what I could see of it, anyway," he added, grinning.

It had been a colonial, slightly older than Jesse's house, and not quite as large. But it sat among the trees, separated from its neighbors on either side by small patches of wood, and looking quite comfortable with its place in the world.

David sighed, and smiled. "I really love it. My parents do, too. We were near the beach in California, and there just weren't many trees, so this is all new for me." He shrugged his shoulders. "Our backyard isn't this good, though. You walk out to the very back, and there's a barb-wire fence, and a big field on the other side."

Jesse nodded. "Yeah. That's Mr. Devlin's property. You're on the other end of it from us."

"He has cows?" David asked.

"Yup. They're cool, though. And Mr. Devlin doesn't mind you cutting through his property, either. Me and Marty do it all the time." Jesse turned his gaze on his boyfriend then, and grinned. "You just gotta watch out for cowpies."

Marty rolled his eyes, and laughed. "Yeah. They're everywhere."

Jesse made an effort not to laugh. "Well...some people just find 'em better than others." He looked thoughtfully at David then. "Any easy way to get past that fence?"

David nodded. "Yeah. There's a creek that runs down one side of our lot. The fence goes over it, and the creek runs through onto that guy's property. I can scrunch down by the edge of the creek and walk right under the fence."

Jesse snapped his fingers. "Oh, I know right where that is. That creek runs down the hill there and into a pond. If you come through the fence and turn right and just walk along the fence, eventually you come to where the fence goes into some woods. You turn left there and walk along the edge of the trees until you get to a path. Take that and you'll get to the creek where we got our swimming hole. The fort's not far, and you can come right up to the back of our house."

David grinned. "Cool. How long would it take me?"

Marty frowned. "It's not real close. I bet that would take you twenty minutes to walk here."

"I could ride my bike," David said. "I could probably get to your house in ten minutes then."

Jesse had to agree. "You just gotta be careful riding in the cow field, 'cause some spots are soft and your tires can sink in." He laughed. "I've come to a pretty quick stop more 'n once."

Marty pointed a finger at David. "We'll show you the path where it comes into the woods, and the creek where we swim. Then you can get here easy."

David looked pleased at the idea. "Great. There aren't any guys our age on my street. Just six houses, and all the kids are little or in high school."

Brian nodded then. "Me 'n Nick can ride our bikes up the bike path to get here. It's about ten minutes for us, too."

Jesse nodded, envisioning where the bike path went past the cul-de-sac at the end of their street. It was a narrow blacktop trail, and ran for several miles, linking the backsides of several widely-separated neighborhoods.

Mr. Cole, who had been tending the grill and not really paying attention to the boys, suddenly looked up. "Jesse's mom and I ride our bikes past your street all the time. You and Nick live by the little rec center on Pine Lake Road, right?"

Brian nodded. "Down at the end. Nick and me shoot baskets at the rec center all the time."

"It's pretty there," Mrs. Cole said, smiling. "I love all these little bitty neighborhoods around here, tucked away in the woods."

Mr. Cole nodded, and then turned and smiled at Jesse. "Make any headway on the science project?"

Jesse grimaced. "Well...we know we want to do a science project, and not an art project, anyway."

"And what's the matter with art?" Mrs. Cole said, putting her hands on her hips. "You like it well enough when I do it."

"That's 'cause you're good at it, mom," Jesse pointed out. "We aren't."

She smiled at him. "As you explained it to me, you have to look at whatever project you do both from the viewpoint of art and science, correct?"


"Well, then, does it really matter whether you do an art or a science project, if you have to present both sides of the subject?"

"We're more comfortable with science, mom," Jesse explained.

His mom nodded. "Oh. That's all you needed to say." She smiled. "I get it. I am just a little partial to art, I guess."

"You actually do both art and science in what you do, Mrs. Cole," Marty suddenly said. "You do artwork on a computer. So you're actually using science to create art."

Jesse's mom looked surprised, but then pleased. "That's a very good observation, Marty. I had to learn how to use that design software, and it was a bit of a learning curve, too. Not everyone that uses that software gets the results I do, either. It's a very creative process, and very individual."

Jesse already knew his mom was good. He turned to Marty and nodded. "You should see the one she's doing now for the museum. It has the moon in the sky above the land, and it's really cool looking."

"Hard to get the moonlight texture just right, too," Mrs. Cole said, frowning. "I'm still playing with that."

"We thought about doing some kind of project about the moon," Brian offered. "Lots of songs have been written about the moon, and there's a lot of art that has the moon in it." He grinned. "The moon makes people think about stuff, for some reason."

Mrs. Cole gave a wistful little sigh. "Well, the moon is beautiful, for one thing. And it's sort of comforting, to have it there." She shrugged. "It's nice to look up and know that we're...not alone."

Mr. Cole smiled. "Good thing we're not pigs, then."

Jesse's mom laughed, and shook her head at her husband. "What on earth brought that up?"

Mr. Cole flipped the burgers over and rolled the hotdogs, and grinned at his wife. "I was just reading the other day that pigs cannot look up. The way their necks are made, they cannot tilt their heads back far enough to see the sky overhead."

Jesse gaped a little. "You mean pigs don't know the moon is there?"

Mr. Cole briefly stuck out his bottom lip. "Oh, I'm sure they do. Remember, pigs have their eyes to each side of their heads. If they're laying down on their side they could see the moon, and even standing they can certainly look upwards enough to see the horizon. So they would be aware of moonrise at night, certainly. They simply can't look directly overhead, and so would not see the moon once it had risen into the sky."

"Wow," said Marty. He gave Jesse a thoughtful look. "Suppose humans had never been able to see the sky? Where would we be now?"

"Like Flatland," Jesse suddenly said, looking at his dad. "No up." Jesse grinned, remembering his dad reading the story to him when he was younger.

"What the heck is that?" Marty asked, laughing.

"It's a world in two dimensions," Mr. Cole said. "One with length and width, but no height. A man named Edwin Abbot wrote about it as a satire in the 1880's."

"It was kinda funny, what I got of it," Jesse admitted. "Not that I got a lot of it."

Mr. Cole smiled. "It was a period piece, son." He pointed his metal flipper at Jesse. "If I remember correctly, I was reading that story, and you came along and asked me to read it to you."

"I was just a little kid," Jesse returned, laughing. "And it was a pretty nutty story." He looked at Marty again. "Everybody's a line or a square or something. Then this guy called A Sphere arrived in flatland, and he was three-dimensional. But the line and square people could just see him as a circle, because they had no up or down. It caused all kinds of trouble."

"He was just a cross-section to the locals," Mr. Cole said, smiling. "They couldn't see him for who he really was."

"Is that possible?" David asked. "How could people exist with no height?"

"They couldn't," Mr. Cole agreed. "At least, not under the rules of science that we understand." He laughed. "I think it was Stephen Hawking that pointed out that completely two-dimensional creatures would be unable to digest their own food."

"What if they just absorbed it?" Marty asked. "Like if the flat world was a liquid, and when the people moved through it, they absorbed food through their skin or something?"

Mr. Cole gave Marty an approving look. "That's a thoughtful question. But in order to have a liquid to move through, you would need a third dimension. And basically, at least with the science we know, living things could not exist with no height. Even a plane only one atom thick would have three-dimensional properties." He smiled. "Mr. Abbot was making a commentary on the society of his times, rather than an observation of true science."

Marty shook his head. "No up. Wow. I can't imagine what the world would be like if there was no up."

"I can't imagine what the world would be like if there was an up, and we just couldn't see it," Nick said. "We wouldn't know there was a sun, a moon, or stars, or planets, or anything higher than our own heads. It would just get light in the morning and dark at night, and we wouldn't know why."

Jesse and Marty looked at each other, and Jesse smiled. "That would make a cool project. Imagining what it would be like if we couldn't look up. That really would affect both art and science a lot."

Marty grinned. "I like it."

David laughed. "We could imagine what it would be like if pigs were the smartest species on the planet, instead of humans. One thing pigs probably wouldn't have is rocket science."

"They wouldn't have airplanes, either," Brian said. "Or balloons, or even fireworks. Nothing that went up."

"I don't know about that," Mr. Cole said. "They'd be aware of the sky, even if they couldn't look directly overhead."

"It's something to think about," Jesse mused.

"What's the art angle, then?" Brian asked.

Mrs. Cole gave another little gasp, this one more serious. "Oh, my, it would be huge. I mean, if you can't really look up, there would be no art about the sky. No stories about it, no music about it. No dreams about it.The sky has influenced the imaginations of people for thousands of years. Even the question of life itself asks if there are others like us, somewhere across the sky."

Marty frowned. "We'd have to do it from the viewpoint of not being able to look up at all, or it wouldn't really work. I mean, if people knew the sky was there, they could still imagine all that stuff about it."

David nodded. "Well, let's imagine we're pigs, with even stiffer necks, and subtract all the art and science things that have to do with up. Then we present it as what we'd be missing if we just couldn't tilt our heads back and see the sky."

"I think it's a wonderful idea," Mrs. Cole said.

"I like it, too," Jesse's dad admitted. "I don't know that it wouldn't be a very challenging project, though. The more I think about how many things have to do with up, the more it kind of boggles the mind."

Marty nodded, and cocked his head at Jesse. "You wanna?"

"I already said I liked it." He looked at the other boys. "What do you guys think?"

"I say do it," Brian said. "It'll be cool."

"I like it," David agreed. "I think it will be hard, though."

"Yeah." Nick nodded. "We really need to sit down and talk about this, I think. I don't even know where to start."

Marty grinned. "You start at the beginning, of course. With Ugh, the caveman."

"Or Oink, the pigman," Jesse said, smiling.

Marty looked thoughtful. "You mean, really do it from the viewpoint of intelligent pigs?"

Jesse laughed. "I was kidding around, Marty."

But Marty continued to look interested in the idea. "Maybe you were. But...you might just have something there we can use."

David shook his head, and grinned at Brian and Nick. "Uh oh. Here we go."

"Food's ready," Mr. Cole called then, smiling at Jesse. Jesse grinned back, feeling a small excitement at the new idea.

Flatland, huh? No up? What would the world look like from the perspective of pig people that simply couldn't look skyward?

Jesse looked at Marty and made a small oinking sound. Marty grinned, and oinked back. In a moment, all the boys were oinking, while the two adults gazed at each other and tried not to laugh.

"It's pretty chilly already," David said, as the five of them walked back to the fort.

Jesse's lantern swung back and forth as they moved, causing the sphere of light it gave out to dance across the ground around them. "It's only supposed to go down into the high fifties. We'll be fine in our sleeping bags."

"Well, some people will be warmer than others," Brian said, a trace of humor in his voice.

"Hey, nobody's stopping you from snuggling up with Nick," Marty returned boldly, causing Jesse to grin.

Nick released an uncharacteristic giggle, and gave Brian a push. "Stop messin' around."

"I was just playin'."

"Well, stop it."

Brian gave a laugh. "Aw, you wouldn't snuggle with me even if I asked you."

When Nick didn't immediately answer, everyone turned to look at him. Nick had his head down, as if thinking; but the sudden silence caused him to look up at the others. "What?"

"You didn't hear what Brian said?" Jesse asked.

"Yeah, I did. I was thinkin' about it."

Marty started laughing, and Jesse was right behind him.

Nick immediately stopped walking, and the others stopped, too. "What?" Nick demanded. "Getting together to stay warm isn't sex, you know."

"So you're sayin' you would snuggle with Brian, if he asked you?" Marty questioned.

No one looked more surprised than Brian, who simply watched his best friend with obvious interest.

Nick licked his lips and looked around at the other boys, his expression now a little worried. "Well...what if I would? I like to be warm, too."

Brian simply gaped. "Really?"

Marty grinned, and put his arm around Jesse's waist. "Well, well, well."

Brian moved closer to Nick. "You'd sleep in my sleeping bag with me?"

Nick looked a little defiant then. "If we needed to stay warm, I would." He looked around at the others. "What? I'm not gay."

"We don't think you are," Marty said, quietly. "You or Brian. But you guys are best friends, and that means somethin'. Doesn't it?"

Nick nodded. "Yeah. It does."

Brian suddenly smiled. "Means a lot to me, too."

David laughed good-naturedly. "God. I'm gonna be the only one sleeping alone tonight."

Nick gave a little huff. "I didn't say I was gonna sleep with Brian tonight. I just said I would if I needed to stay warm."

Jesse decided that this moment needed to be wound down. He started moving again, pulling Marty along with him. "It doesn't matter, Nick. Relax."

David followed right along, but Nick hung back a moment. Brian put an arm around his best friend's shoulders and urged him into movement. "Come on, Nick. It's okay."

They moved on. Jesse already knew that the other two boys were close. It didn't take a brain to see that. Best friends often shared a link that bordered on a sort of love. Or maybe it was love. He glanced at Marty. Certainly, it could easily become love.

Sex was different. But even if it happened, so what? The number of people in life that you would love enough to have sex with was probably pretty small. It seemed only reasonable not to waste them when they did show up.

Marty gave him a squeeze as they walked along, and Jesse smiled. Yeah. Never waste the good stuff.

They reached the fort, and piled inside and closed the door. Jesse set the lantern on the crate table and he and Marty sat on the cot. The other boys arrayed themselves on their rolled up sleeping bags, and leaned back against the wall.

They started to warm immediately. When they had built the fort, Jesse and Nate had gone to great lengths to fill all the cracks between the wood in the floor and walls, and even the vent flap had weatherstripping around it. The fort was far from airtight; but the rate of exchange with the outside air was slow enough to retain some heat, and the bodies of five guys put out more than enough warmth to take the chill off the night.

"So we're kind of decided on what we want to do?" Jesse asked, opening the cooler and digging out drinks for everyone. He then grabbed up a big bag of Doritos and carefully popped the top of it open.

"Yeah," Marty said. "I think looking at what the world would be like if we couldn't look up is a great idea."

"What about the pig part?" David asked, opening his apple juice.

"I like that, too," Marty said. He grinned. "Even have some ideas about that already."

Something in the way Marty said that made Jesse look at him. "What kind of ideas?"

Marty shook his head, but his blue eyes twinkled even in the subdued light. "I'll let you know after I think about it some more. Gimme some Doritos, please."

Jesse rolled his eyes, but couldn't help smiling as he handed the bag over.

"Should we be worried?" David asked, grinning at Jesse over his bottle.

"A little," Jesse admitted. "But I'm willing to wait and see."

Marty just laughed.

"I can't imagine living in two dimensions," Nick decided. "I don't know how we're gonna do this."

Jesse shook his head. "Well, you're right, we can't even really imagine two-dimensions, so we're gonna do it in three dimensions, but just like we can't look up. The whole point will be to look at how different art and science would be if we just plain couldn't look up at the sky."

Nick immediately looked relieved. "Oh. That's a lot better." He cast a glance up at the ceiling of the fort, and then shook his head. "I'm just realizing how much I love the sky. I sure would miss it, if I couldn't see it."

Brian nodded. "You and me, both. Shit, the first thing I do every day when I walk outside is check out the sky to see what's happening. You can tell what the day is gonna be like, pretty much, just by looking at the clouds and stuff."

David waved a hand in agreement. "Yeah. And usually it's pretty enough that you take your time about looking at it, too."

"We're gonna have to start with making lists of everything we do that has to do with looking up in the sky," Nick suggested.

"That's good," Marty agreed. "We can all work on them in our spare time, and then we can get together again and start comparing lists."

"So how are we gonna present this?" David asked. "Are we just gonna write something together, and then get up and read it in front of the class?"

Marty grinned. "Well...I was kinda thinkin' we'd put on a little show or something. Remember, we're gonna pretend to be pigs and act like we can't see the sky."

Brian gave a little hoot. "We're really gonna act like pigs? You mean dress up like 'em, or something?" He gave Nick a little poke with his elbow. "Can you see us as pigs?"

Nick laughed. "Maybe. It might be fun."

Jesse shook his head, but couldn't help smiling. Nick had always been pretty conservative, and that he seemed willing to step out a little now impressed Jesse as funny. What was up with that?

"So we're gonna dress up like pigs," Jesse said. He looked at Marty. "That's just kind of a gimmick, right? Real pigs at least know the sky is there."

"Yeah. We just want to get the idea over to other people what it might be like if we couldn't see the sky. If we start by explaining that pigs really can't look up, we'll get them to think about what it would be like if they couldn't look up."

Jesse nodded. "That might work out okay. I don't know about the costumes, though. Maybe we can look online or something."

"I have an idea about that," Marty said. "Let's just wait on the costume part while I do some checking."

"I think he wants to put on a little play," Brian guessed. He smiled at Nick, his eyes widening a little at the idea. "Hey, we could even sing. Nick's a badass singer."

Nick looked surprised, and then embarrassed. "I can sing a little, I guess."

"Shit." Brian put an arm around Nick's shoulders and gave him a squeeze. "You're a beast. You're a whole lot better than me, anyway."

"I sang for a while in the church choir at home," David offered. "I mean, I can carry a tune, anyway."

"What was that like?" Jesse asked.

David made a face. "Oh, it was okay. My mom got me into it. She loves to sing, and she sang in the adult choir. She said I should try it, too, because I have her ability with high notes."

Jesse grinned, finding something a little sexy about a guy that could sing at all, let alone one that could hit the high notes. "Marty can sing some, too."

"So can you," Marty said immediately. "At least, I'm pretty sure that was you singing with me at the swimming hole."

Brian grinned, looking delighted at that. "Oh, yeah? You guys sing naked, huh?"

Marty's eyes twinkled. "Turns you on a little, huh?"

Brian just grinned. "I'm not sayin' nuthin!"

Everyone laughed.

"You guys sure are pretty easy about sex," David decided then. "A lot of guys I knew at home were a little embarrassed to talk about it."

Marty grinned. "Serious business? You guys didn't talk about sex in California? The guys me 'n Jesse knew there sure did."

"No, we talked about it. " David shrugged. "But it was more like...kidding around. Talking with you guys is more serious. Like you get things about sex that a lot of guys don't."

"A lot of guys our age don't know where they are with it, is why," Jesse pointed out. "Me an' Marty have seen a lot of that. Some guys are scared of what they feel about sex."

David seemed to consider that a moment. "Well, I'm not scared of sex, I don't think. I'm not really worried about it, either. I already know I like girls." He grinned. "Seen one naked already, too."

Brian immediately looked interested. "Really? You mean...like in person?"

Everyone laughed.

"Yeah, in person," David said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. "Carly Canamire. " David leaned forward and lowered his voice, like someone else might hear. "In our garage back home in San Diego." He grinned. "My parents were in the house, too."

"You're nuts!" Nick said, aghast at the idea. "What if you'd got caught?"

"We didn't," David assured. "My mom and dad never came to the garage unless they're going out somewhere. Besides, we were pretty careful."

Brian tilted his head forward, interest etched on his features. "You saw her pussy?"

"Stuck my finger in it," David said, looking smug.

Jesse and Marty both laughed when Brian gaped at that.

David grinned. "You like girls, Brian?"

Brian blinked. 'Well...yeah. Why would you even ask that?" He suddenly looked embarrassed, and disengaged himself from Nick and sat forward.

David saw that, and tried to backpedal. "Oh...no reason."

Brian shook his head. "No...really. Why would you ask?"

David looked at Jesse and Marty, then at Nick, and then back to Brian. "Well...just the way you act with Nick. Like...like you love him or something." David gave a little shrug. "It reminds me of the way Jesse and Marty are, when they're together."

Brian looked over at Nick, who smiled, despite looking embarrassed himself.

"Well...I do love Nick. He's my best buddy."

David's eyes widened. "Yeah. But...I meant...like...more."

Brian licked his lips, and nodded. "Oh." He shook his head. "We're not gay." He sat back against the wall again.

David nodded. "I was just wondering, a little."

Nick leaned over against Brian, and Brian raised his arm again and circled it around his friend's shoulders. David watched that, frowning.

Brian grinned. "Nick and I both like girls. But we like each other, too."

David scratched his neck, looking uncertain. "You guys do anything together?"

Marty laughed, and reached over and gave David a poke. "What's it to you what they do?"

Now David looked embarrassed. "I was just...I'm just wondering."

Nick gave a little sigh. "We jerk each other off. But that's all."

Brian looked surprised at his friend's frank admission, but then gave a little laugh. "Yup. That's all."

"Oh." David nodded. "That's not so much."

Brian suddenly leaned forward again and eyed David. "Ever had a guy feel your dick?"

David looked surprised. "Well..."

Marty clapped his hands together gleefully. "That sounds like a 'yes'!"

Jesse had to agree. It was written plainly in David's expression. But...so what? Most guys had their first experiences with their friends. Their male friends. From what Jesse had seen and read, that was pretty normal.

David grinned, a sudden boldness taking hold of him. "Okay, yeah. My friend Bobby and I used to jerk each other."

Brian sat back, looking satisfied. "Well? Me 'n Nick are no different."

"Hmm." David nodded. "You seem really interested in what Jesse and Marty do, too."

"Hey," Nick said suddenly, looking annoyed. "Come on, lay off, man."

"It's all right," Brian said. He shrugged. "I'm curious about what they do, yeah. So what? I just think sex is cool. All of it. And, they're my friends. I really like seeing them happy like they are."

A look of surprise crossed David's face. He looked at Jesse and Marty, and then slowly smiled. "Yeah. Okay, I guess I get that."

Brian gave David a sweet smile. "Unless you want me to be gay, for some reason."

Jesse and Marty both laughed, and Nick grinned.

David held up his hands. "No, no, that's okay." He gave his head a couple of quick nods. "I guess I'm a little curious, too."

"You wanna see our dicks?" Marty asked, smiling.

Jesse squeezed his eyes shut and laughed.

"Uh, no, thanks," David said, trying not to laugh himself.

"I wouldn't mind it," Brian said, grinning. Nick immediately started laughing, and leaned harder against his friend.

"I think it's time for a movie," Jesse said, shaking his head.

"I'll go for that," Marty agreed. He got up and pushed the crate table back against a wall and opened the laptop. "What'll it be?"

They talked about that, and Jesse was aware of a new feeling of relaxation among them. Like they had all tested the waters of their friendship a little, and found them to be warm and pleasant.

Nothing like swimming with friends, Jesse always did say.

The night moved onward quickly. The sci fi movie they watched was fast and entertaining, and the bag of Doritos was demolished among hoots and calls at the action on the screen. The boys were all wound up after it was over, grinning and laughing, and Jesse loved to see everyone having such a good time.

"Man, it would be cool to do shit like that!" Brian said, putting his hands out in front of himself and tracing back and forth as if manning an imaginary space cannon. "I can imagine flying around and shooting up the place like they do."

"There's that sky thing again," Marty pointed out. "No sky, no sci fi. At least, no outer space stuff."

Brian looked aghast at the idea. "Oh, man. I'd miss my space shit." He nodded, looking enthusiastic all over again. "This is gonna be a cool project. I want to make sure I mention there'd be no good science fiction if we couldn't look up, okay?"

Marty nodded. "Everyone will get their say. We'll write a good script with everybody's ideas in it, and then we'll perform it."

"You say we'll perform it, like it is gonna be a play or something." Brian looked at Nick. "Doesn't it sound that way to you?" Nick immediately nodded.

"Well...maybe not a play," Marty said. He grinned. "Not exactly, anyway. More like...stand up comedy. And maybe some songs."

Jesse shook his head. "I hope you know what you're getting us into."

Marty grinned. "Don't I always?"

"No!" everyone chorused, and then everyone laughed.

Marty sighed. "You guys can always say no to any idea I have. And, you have to make sure you put your ideas in, too. There's five of us doing this. I want to make sure there's five viewpoints here, too."

Jesse sighed, leaned forward, and pecked Marty on the lips.

Brian started whistling, and David rolled his eyes. Nick just grinned some more. But, then, he'd been doing much more of that lately.

Marty pulled out his phone and checked the time. "It's almost midnight. That was a long-ass movie." He grinned at Jesse. "I'm a little tired. Like, maybe it's bedtime."

Jesse sighed. "I'm ready any time."

David pointed a finger at them. "Hey! Remember your promise. We're not an audience."

Brian snorted. "Speak for yourself! This could be better than the movie!"

Nick erupted into laughter, and immediately threw himself at Brian, wrestling him off his sleeping bag and to the floor of the fort. They twisted and turned, laughing and carrying on, while Jesse and Marty grinned at them.

David sighed. "This is gonna be a long night, I think."

Marty laughed. "Aw, you're just jealous that you're here by yourself. You wish you had your girlfriend, Carmine San Diego, with you, is all."

David looked surprised, and then started laughing. "Carly Canamire!"

"Whatever." Marty just grinned. Jesse sighed, and tightened his arm around his boyfriend.

It was going to be a long night, Jesse thought.

And, it was going to be a good one.

For some reason, the first light of the day always seemed to pry Jesse's eyes open. He blinked, feeling the warmth of Marty's slow and steady breathing against his face. It was too early to get up, he knew. Usually, the light that seeped beneath his eyelids and signaled the approach of day was just enough to cause a momentary bout of consciousness, after which Jesse would slip back into a contented sleep. In his own bedroom he would usually turn over, away from the window, lest the slow death of darkness prod him into enough wakefulness that he could not go back to sleep at all. And who wanted to get up before six o'clock on a school morning?

But, this time was different. Marty was right there in front of him, his face mere inches away as he slept. That was more than Jesse could ignore. He pushed his head forward and gently nuzzled his face against Marty's, kissed his lips, breathed deeply of the musky scent of his skin. Jesse closed his eyes, savoring the moment.

He slept again, a short time, or maybe a longer one. It was hard to tell, in the soft light of early morning, where time itself had not fully awakened.

Marty moved against him, gave out a soft sigh, and Jesse felt the gentlest of kisses deposited upon his lips.

Jesse smiled. "I'm awake," he whispered, and then kissed back.

There is kissing, and there is kissing. Sometimes it was a battle, and they would go at it until they were laughing and grinning at each other like fools. And other times, it was like...this. Soft and slow, and sweet beyond all measuring. A gentle touch of tongue and lips, a transfer of love and affection.

At times like this Jesse felt that life was superb beyond all measure. Few things could enter this especially blissful world to trouble it. Marty was all there was, the face of the universe, its heart and its soul combined.

"Love you," came the soft whisper.

Jesse nodded, rubbed his nose against Marty's. "Love you, too."

Somewhere behind Marty, down on the floor, a slow rumble escaped from a sleeping bag as one of the guys farted. It was an amazingly incongruous sound, one that immediately broke the bubble of intense togetherness they had been sharing, and allowed the world to rush back in with them. Jesse and Marty both started laughing, pushing their faces together, trying with all their might not to make a sound that might awaken the others. It was amazingly hard, and both of them made little snorts and gurgles as their chests heaved and their bellies bounced together. Jesse couldn't stop laughing, mostly because Marty so obviously couldn't stop, either.

Finally, Jesse gulped and concentrated, and got himself under control, and as his laughter slowed, and finally subsided into a silent giggle, Marty was able to get control, too. They finally opened their eyes and grinned at each other...and immediately started laughing again.

But this round lacked the energy of the first one, and in just a moment they were back to smiling at each each other, and trying to catch their breaths.

Jesse lifted his head and looked over Marty, trying in the dim light to see if they had wakened the others. On the floor, David was on his back, just his head protruding from his sleeping bag, his eyes closed, looking peaceful and serene in sleep. Jesse smiled at how cute he was, and slid his eyes over to where Brian and Nick were sleeping next to each other...

"Aw...look," he breathed, giving Marty a gentle nudge.

Marty carefully turned over, and Jesse slid an arm under his head and drew the boy back against him as Marty resettled himself on the mattress. Jesse raised his head, and peered over Marty's shoulder, grinning at the scene below.

Brian and Nick were each still in their own bags. Nick was facing them, his face looking relaxed and somehow happy in sleep. Brian had snuggled up against Nick's back, his face in Nick's hair, and thrown an arm over his friend. Nick had one arm out of the bag, and had Brian's hand pressed against his chest.

It was a very revealing scene, in which the boy's closeness was on display. Jesse really didn't think that Brian and Nick were gay, but he did understand that the two had a great affection for each other, and a need for each other, that Jesse understood only too well. Sometimes a person can come into your life and take such a central place in it that you just know you would feel lost without them. Even if Marty and he were not lovers, Jesse would feel a closeness to and a need for Marty in his life that was beyond simple friendship. Together they made one mind. It was a worn cliche, but it was also a solid truth. There are such things as soulmates.

Marty carefully turned over again to face Jesse, and pulled him closer. "We didn't see that, okay?" he whispered. "Don't mention it to them, Jesse."

Jesse frowned, but then nodded. He understood. What moved between Brian and Nick was personal, as treasured a thing as what moved between Jesse and Marty. It was not something to be defended or explained. It simply was.

Jesse sighed. It was still very early, really too early to start the day. He smiled at Marty, kissed him, and touched their foreheads together. "I say we go back to sleep for a little."

Marty kissed him back, and nodded, and they both closed their eyes.

"I'm afraid the file system doesn't categorize books by altitude, Jesse," Mrs. Besper said, frowning at him. "You'll need to be a little more specific." The librarian's eyes moved slowly back and forth between Jesse and Marty. "Is this for one of these art and science projects that everyone seems to be working on?"

"Yeah," Marty agreed. He leaned closer to the desk, and lowered his voice to almost a whisper. "We don't want the other kids to steal our idea. We just need to find all the things that have to do with up."

A trace of humor touched the woman's lips, and her eyes smiled at them through her glasses. "I see." She leaned a little closer, and lowered her voice, too. "Maybe you need to make a list of subjects that are in the sky - starting with the sky, itself. Everything in our system has tags that relate to the subject matter, and if you run a list of, um, sky-related tags, you'll get exactly the books you're looking for."

"We've been working on lists all week," Jesse supplied. He couldn't resist giving Marty a nudge. "We need everyone's papers."

Marty nodded. "As soon as David gets here, we can do that." David's art class had yet to show in the library, having a longer walk to make from the other wing than Mr. Blaisdell's science class, which was just down the hall. Both classes had library this period, in order to be able to research their projects. Much of what everyone was doing was being researched online, but in the end there was seldom anything quite as valuable as a good book to help focus one's thoughts.

Nick arrived at the counter then, and smiled at the librarian. "Hi, Mrs. Besper."

"Hi, Nick. Are you with these two?"

Nick nodded. "Yeah. I just wanted to tell them we got a table over by the reference section." He looked at Jesse and Marty. "Brian's holding it down. This place is gonna be full when the other class gets here."

"Okay," Marty said. "You guys get your lists ready, and when David gets here we'll sort everything out, and then come back and ask Mrs. Besper to run a search for us." He looked up at the librarian and smiled. "If that's okay with you."

Jesse tried not to grin. Marty was awfully charming when he wanted to be, and few people seemed able to resist him. That it was a genuine charm and not a put on was clear to most adults, and that sat well with them, and made them want to help. That they could catch a small glimpse of the devilishness that often lurked behind Marty's charm seemed especially effective with members of the female sex. Even Jesse's mom, whom Jesse considered no-nonsense when it came to most things, had been taken with Marty's slightly unkempt side.

Mrs. Besper actually smiled now. "You're new, aren't you? I don't know you."

"I'm Marty Anderson," Marty said, sticking out his hand. "I love books, so you'll probably be seeing a lot of me."

The librarian nodded as she gave Marty's hand a little shake. "Well, it's always nice to meet a fellow book lover. We'll be glad to have you visit us"

"It'll be twice today," Jesse said. "We'll be back when we have art class."

A lot of the students were in the same boat, having elected to take art in addition to their regular classes, and so would have two bites at the apple on each Wednesday that the teachers brought them to the library. Those that only had Mr. Blaisdell's science class were being given lunchtime library passes, and Mrs. Besper had gone to the extraordinary length of allowing them to eat sandwiches in the library while they did their research. In this way it was hoped that everyone would have enough access to study materials to complete their projects.

"That gives you time to get your request ready," Mrs. Besper returned. "The better it is the first time, the broader your results will be." She reached behind the counter and produced a form, which she handed to Marty. "Once you have your tags ready, come back to the desk and I'll run your materials search."

"Thanks!" Jesse grabbed Marty's upper arm and turned him around, and grinned at Nick. "Come on, let's go."

Nick led them back to the table where Brian sat, and where David was just sitting down. A stream of art class kids was coming through door into the library, and Mrs. Jellicoe was standing with Mr. Blaisdell, talking. The two of them seemed very pleased with the slightly chaotic atmosphere they had wrought within the normally quiet library.

Jesse patted David on the shoulder as he went by him, and he and Marty took seats next to each other. "Everybody got their lists ready?" Jesse asked.

Folders were opened and papers withdrawn. They started comparing lists, for the first time really discussing all the things they had been thinking about for some time. There was a lot that was in common, and Jesse supposed that was only normal. If you point ten people at the sky and ask them what it makes them think of, most will mention clouds and birds and airplanes. The moon and the stars are synonymous with the sky at night, and every summer sprinkle that has produced a rainbow has become someone's memory.

And, of course, there was blue, blue, blue. The atmosphere scattered wavelengths that the human eye saw as blue, resulting in a sky that was, most days, too deep and too beautiful for words.

And, beyond the atmosphere, across distances simply unimaginable to humans, were all the wondrous things that have speckled the night since long before our species first gazed upwards; things that radiate and things that reflect, and others that show no face to us at all, and have to be viewed with gadgets that see heat or x-rays. Jesse had looked at the moon through his dad's binoculars, and had a general appreciation for the awesomeness of the night sky. That it was, for most human intents and purposes, boundless, only increased his respect for its existence. It's damn hard to look into the face of forever and not be pretty impressed.

What was surprising were all the things that were individual on each list, revealing pathways of thinking that were just amazing to consider. Jesse smiled as they pored over the lists, laughing at Nick's mention of 'no Dorothy and over the rainbow', and David's 'no wish upon a star'. Marty pointed out the magic of rain, which, if we had no idea where it came from, would truly be a mystical thing to experience. "It would really make the phrase, 'It's wet out today' kind of different, huh?" Marty decided, merrily.

Brian had listed how different the world would be without air transport of all kinds, and Jesse imagined taking trains to every part of the connected landscape, and great ships to parts of the world separated by oceans. It had once been that way, but not in Jesse's lifetime, and to have never passed such an era would have resulted in a much larger world than humans had today.

The lack of satellites would mostly affect communications, as because no one would know how weather came about in the first place, there would be no need to want to watch it forming from above. It became hard to imagine which technologies might still exist and which might not, because some - while in some way based on a knowledge of the sky - might still come into being without it. Need inspired imagination, and imagination often acted just as reliably in the absence of true knowledge.

Jesse, forever in love with his woods, had wondered what humans might think about trees, being only able to see where they sprang from the ground, and not what happened as they traveled upwards. Treetops rustling in the breezes would be heard, but the sound would just be one more of the many mysterious ones out and about in the world, generated by yet another thing that humans were unable to view.

After about twenty minutes of interested conversation and laughter, the five of them slowly grew quieter as they sat and considered the idea they had chosen for their project. Finally, Jesse sighed, and looked around the table at the others. "My dad was right when he said this would be a challenge. You just start thinking about one thing, and another twenty immediately come to mind."

David nodded. "Yeah. And there's a lot of stuff, we just can't say whether we'd still have or not. People have already discovered an awful lot of stuff they can't see directly." He grinned then, as the idea cavorted through his mind. "We're a lot smarter than is good for us, sometimes."

Brian laughed. "I'll say. A lot of science we have today that isn't directly related to the sky now kind of started that way. Like nuclear energy. Would we still have what we have, if we didn't know about the sky?"

Nick looked at him and frowned. "That was discovered on the ground. Fermi did that at the University of Chicago, in 1939. First controlled chain reaction."

"I know." Brian smiled. "But what got that science really going was World War Two, when everyone was trying to make an atomic bomb. And that was dropped from an airplane. Where would that science be if there had been no easy way to use that bomb? No one would have thought it was so great a weapon if you had to put it in the back of a truck and deliver it yourself. So would we still have chased the science around as much? Would it have been a lot longer until we got it so we could use it to create electricity?"

"Or would we not have bothered at all?" Jesse nodded emphatically. "That's what I mean. Everything is related to everything else. I don't think we can even imagine how different it could be if we had never looked up into the sky."

"Are you saying we can't do this?" Marty asked, the beginnings of disappointment already tugging at his features.

"No. I'm just saying we can't get it all. Not even a really good chunk of it - at least not in the time allowed, and in any way we could present it all to the class. So we need to just sort of jump around, and...maybe skim the top layers of stuff. Even then, there could still be an awful lot."

Brian and Nick both laughed, and David nodded. "I sure agree with that!"

Marty squinted a moment, and then also nodded. "Well, I was kinda considering an overview of the whole thing. We don't want to just stand there and deliver some boring lecture, right?"

"We're dressing up as pigs, last time I heard," David reminded.

"Yup." Jesse grinned at Marty. "I'm kinda lookin' forward to that part, actually. I know you've been dreaming up some crazy thing for us to do."

Marty couldn't help grinning back. "I have a few ideas."

Everyone laughed at that.

"Well, let's just pick our favorite ones, then," Jesse went on. "We're gonna make jokes, or rhymes, or something like that, about it all, right?"

"And songs?" Nick asked, looking at Brian, who immediately grinned and bobbed his head.

"Yeah. Definitely, some songs."

"Maybe one song," Jesse suggested. "We only get ten minutes to present our stuff."

"Some rhymes, and a few jokes, and a song." David nodded. "It'll be like watching Jimmy Fallon."

Jesse grimaced. "I hope it'll be better than that!"

Marty scratched his jaw. "This is what I had in mind from the start."

"Then we're good," Jesse said. "So, when do we start writing this stuff?"

"Is right now too soon?" Marty's eyes were sparkly-bright, and Jesse sighed softly.

David pulled a sheaf of lined paper from his folder and laid it out on the table. "I'm ready."

Everyone pulled out paper and pens then, and Jesse smiled at the excited looks everyone was wearing. He looked at Marty. "What's first?"

Marty smiled back. "You already said where we should start. With Oink, the pig caveman."

Jesse gave out a surprised little laugh, and rolled his eyes."I was kidding, dum dum."

Marty nodded. "Well, I wasn't. I don't mean really use a caveman, but we have to start with a pig's view."

Jesse shook his head, as another round of oinking sprang up at the table.

The world as seen by pigs? For real? Jesse was hoping now he wasn't going to regret that little idea.

They had been given two months to work on their projects. The boys met whenever they could, the world-with-no-up having taken over their thinking and their free time. Jesse was enjoying himself immensely, and knew that the others were, too. The creativity they were all discovering within themselves was both astonishing and delightful, and only served to cement the bonds that had been building since the first day of school. As their friendship deepened, their willingness to perform together increased, and they put their heads together and created some pieces for their presentation that sometimes had them laughing. There were other moments that Jesse would always remember as special in some way; moments that allowed him to briefly peek through an unguarded window into the wonderful and normally private worlds that existed within his friend's heads.

As they wrote, and practiced, and rewrote, Jesse's own satisfaction grew, and he became convinced that this was going to be a good presentation to the class. Only the final planning for the costumes was up in the air, while everyone waited for Marty to reveal what he had come up with. Even Jesse didn't have a clue on what Marty was planning.

The year edged into winter. The leaves fell, and the woods faded away to a stark landscape of barren trunks and limbs thrusting upward from a sea of red and gold rapidly fading to brown. The clusters of evergreens provided some relief from the monotonous lack of color, but Jesse experienced a mild funk over the change as the weather grew too cold for the fort to be a comfortable hangout.

Marty not only sensed Jesse's mood, but shared it. He missed the swimming hole as well, and the carefree days cavorting about the wilderness in little or no clothing, something he had come to enjoy quite a lot, especially as Jesse was in the same state of undress. The freedom they had enjoyed to be one with the world seemed to have been lost. Now, when they wanted to share an intimate moment, it had to be in one or the other house, which just did not have the magic or the peace that sharing closeness in the fort or the woods provided.

There was a portion of Jesse's heart that was uncivilized, in a gentle and abiding way. It craved simplicity, and peace, and the freedom to relax and enjoy intimacy without oversight and rules. His woods in summer offered him just that freedom of heart and mind, and the loss of that special place to the cold winds of winter brought Jesse down. Being with Marty was always special, and even the change of seasons could not steal that feeling away. But the moments where they actually found themselves alone together and able to be free were becoming special, something not to be missed when the opportunity arose.

So, one Saturday late in November, when Jesse parent's went into town for the day, Marty was at the door even as the Cole's SUV disappeared up the street. Jesse ushered him in, grinning, already thrilled at the prospect of a day alone with Marty. Marty seemed equally pleased, and quickly removed his coat and placed the bag he was carrying on the floor, so that he could come into Jesse's waiting arms.

They hugged, doing a little dance in-place as they laughed and squeezed each other, and traded a few pleasant kisses before Jesse stepped back and looked his boyfriend up and down appreciatively. "My, how you've grown!"

Marty laughed, his eyes sparkling, and gave Jesse a little push. "It does feel like a long time since we've been alone together, doesn't it?"

"Three whole days since I've taken a quick shower with you." Jesse offered a little pout to show how he felt about it. "I miss getting wet with you."

Marty leaned forward, pressing his forehead against Jesse's. "I'm up for that. How long will your folks be gone?"

"Until this evening." Jesse looked over at the kitchen clock, and sighed. "At least ten whole hours." He swung his head back, and suddenly focused on the bag beside Marty's feet. "What's that?"

Marty grinned. "Well, our project is due next week. We've got most of the stuff written, and we've been practicing it...so I thought it was time to break out the costumes I thought of."

Jesse stepped back, his interest immediately piqued. "Yeah? Can I see...?" He bent and reached for the bag, but Marty bent just then and stopped him.

"Wait a minute." When Jesse looked up at him, Marty was all grins. "I thought I'd put one on later and model it for you."

Jesse immediately straightened, smiling. "Yeah?" But then a suspicion hit him. "This isn't going to make us look silly, is it?" Marty had not given a single clue about his ideas for their costumes, avoiding curious questions about them from all the guys; and now that he wanted to show Jesse the costume without the other boys present, it didn't seem quite right. "If I'm gonna look silly, I'm not gonna wear it."

"Um, not silly, no." Marty was trying hard now to contain himself. "You'll see. Trust me, okay?"

Marty's eyes simply begged for Jesse to be patient; and so Jesse sighed, and nodded. "Okay. Can't get worried until I see what you've got."

Marty nodded, and took Jesse back into his embrace. "Wanna go up to your room?"

"Hell, yeah. Get your stuff and come on."

They climbed the steps to Jesse's bedroom, entered, and closed the door. Even though the house was empty, Jesse locked the door, just to add that final feeling of security. Even if his parents came home early, they would not come up and enter his room without knocking. But...better safe than sorry. His parents knew that he and Marty were having sex, and it was a topic that his mom and dad kind of danced around without ever talking about. Jesse was reasonably certain that they weren't really thinking of anything more than oral sex, and he had not said or done anything to make them consider that he and Marty were doing more. Talking about his sex life with his parents was not something that Jesse wanted to tackle. He'd let them know he understood safe procedures, and they trusted him enough to expect that he meant it.

What Marty's parents thought was anybody's guess. Marty was even more reluctant to discuss things of that sort with his folks than Jesse was with his. Only a few comments made by Parker, Marty's sister, suggested that Marty's parents were aware that he and Jesse might be doing more together than kissing. That both sets of parents were trusting them was thrilling enough that neither boy wanted to do anything stupid that might screw that up. So Jesse had resolved to curb some of Marty's more outlandish ideas, and so far they had been doing very well.

Marty put his arms around Jesse and kissed him. "Boy, you smell good. But I still think you need a shower."

Jesse grinned and grabbed the front of his sweats and waved the crotch back and forth. "I do feel a little sticky for some reason."

And the fact was, just the idea of getting under the water with Marty was making his dick hard. They went to the bed and started undressing each other, grinning the whole time, until they stood again in each other's arms, but this time with only the warmth of bare skin between them. Jesse closed his eyes and raised a leg and gently rubbed his pecker against Marty's, and then circled the leg behind his boyfriend and pulled their bodies more tightly together. Marty grinned at that, and tightened his grip about Jesse's midriff and pulled them together with equal force.

Jesse stuck his tongue out, and Marty tried to suck it out of his head, causing both boys to laugh.

"Man, I'm horny," Jesse said, grinning, and gave a little flex of his crotch against Marty. "We don't get enough time like this together, since it got cold."

"I know." Marty nodded, and gave Jesse a little push towards the bathroom. Jesse dropped his leg, and the two of them headed for the shower.

Jesse left the bathroom door wide open. His bedroom door was locked, but there was some kind of extra thrill to the idea of letting what they were doing together free exit out of the smallness of the bathroom. With the door open it was less like they were hiding what they were doing, and Jesse looked forward to the day when they would not have to hide anything at all. Despite their promise to each other before school started to just be themselves, they had found it more sensible and just easier to keep their relationship from being too obvious while among their schoolmates. The other couples at school that Jesse and Marty felt were gay pretty much did the same thing, their affection for each other always obvious to Jesse's eyes, but their physical attraction kept less conspicuous, and therefore less subject to the notice of those that might want to say something about it.

Jesse had reasoned to himself that this was a commonsense approach to being different, although it still irked him at times that he could not just openly hold and kiss Marty whenever he felt like it. Well, he could, if he really wanted to, so it was not like he and Marty were not free to be lovers. But while to act openly would enhance their freedom momentarily, it would detract from it in the long run, he thought. People will get along with others being different a lot easier when their faces aren't rubbed in those differences too startlingly. Jesse knew that they had given some ground here, but the end result was that he and Marty were enjoying school together, and that was what really mattered just now.

The water was summer-warm, and being wet together, something they both loved. They held each other beneath the stream and just stood there a while, swaying gently in each other's arms. Jesse simply closed his eyes and enjoyed the touch of Marty, the feeling of his warmth and life against his own skin. Wonders often come in the simplest of packages, so basic in nature that you did not even need to see them to revel in their magic. He ran his hands gently up Marty's back while pulling him close, and then let his hands slide back down and over the upper curves of Marty's butt.

He sighed. "Great buns."

Marty laughed, and kissed his cheek, and then dropped his hands and squeezed Jesse's own rear end. "You got that right."

They squeezed each other's backsides playfully for a minute, smiling; and then Jesse pulled back and looked into Marty's sparkly eyes. "What do you feel like?"

Marty grinned. "Washing up, and then you get in your bed, and I'll get into the costume."

Jesse was surprised. "You don't wanna do anything while we're in here?"

Marty sighed, put his cheek against Jesse's, and whispered into his ear: "You ever undress a pig?"

Jesse laughed, and shook his head. "Not lately."

Marty pulled back and grinned at him. "Then I think it's time."

"You mean to tell me you're gonna get dressed up as a pig, and then you're gonna get in bed with me, and I'm gonna undress you again? And that's supposed to be fun?"

"Well...think about that. And, you haven't seen me as a pig yet, either."

Jesse considered how much fun it was just to undress Marty normally, and decided that he might have something there. He laughed, and kissed his boyfriend. "It doesn't matter. The bed's fine. Every time I have you in my bed, I get to go to sleep that night and remember what we did. Sure makes my bed special!"

They took turns washing each other, using soap and their hands, rubbing the suds all over each other slowly, and then rubbing it off again under the spray. Jesse actually preferred the way that Marty smelled normally, without all the perfumey crap that soap left behind; but he also knew that perfumes were temporary, while the way that Marty smelled on his own would quickly return to be savored.

Jesse gave a slight shudder as Marty washed his pecker, his body always willing to be thrilled by the touch. Next came his butt, and It was all Jesse could do to remain patient until it was done, and his turn came to wash Marty. Marty was equally delighted by the touch, smiling and laughing throughout, and they finally emerged from the water feeling warm and relaxed, and toweled each other dry.

"You have more hair on your head that doesn't know what to do with itself than any guy I ever met," Marty kidded, as he tried to run a brush through Jesse's damp mop. Jesse just grinned, used to the way his hair found it's own space in life. It usually looked quite good wild, displaying just enough curly discipline to seem almost deliberately styled into a faux disarray.

When it came Jesse's turn to tame Marty's hair, he brushed it carefully, and grinned at how the back in the middle hung down well below collar-length now. "You have enough here for a little ponytail now," Jesse said, hopefully. He had been trying to get Marty to wear his hair that way for some time now.

"I did say I would do that for you," Marty agreed. "Got anything you can tie it with?"

Jesse laughed delightedly. "Stay right here!"

He bounded into his bedroom, opened the door to the hallway, and raced down to his parent's room. On his mom's dresser was a little tray with all sorts of feminine doodads in it. Jesse pawed through it and found a tiny elastic band, and turned and ran back to the bathroom. "Turn around!"

Marty did as instructed, and Jesse gathered the still damp strands into a tail, and carefully worked the elastic band up over them. Then he stepped back, smiling, and sighed. "Sexy."

Marty turned, grinning, and came and took Jesse into his arms. "If that's what you want, that's what you get."

"I do want."

"Then you should be happy."

Jesse nodded, and gave Marty a fierce hug. "I am."

They stood together in silence, each holding onto the other. Jesse could feel the moment. Each new tile like this one that was laid into the mosaic of his memories would one day come together into a picture that was his life. That picture was still new, with most of it yet to be filled in. He only hoped that Marty would be there at some future time to help him lay the final pieces into place.

He sighed, and squeezed his boyfriend against him. Jesse couldn't imagine life without Marty.

"Stop that," Marty said softly.

Jesse took a breath, and let it back out slowly. "What?"

"Worrying. I can tell when you do it. So stop."

Jesse forced a smile. "I was just thinking...about us."

"I know." Marty hugged him again. "I know, Jesse."

Jesse sighed, realizing he'd put a little kink in the fun. He turned his lips against Marty's ear and made a little snuffling sound, followed by a very distinct oink.

Marty pulled back and grinned at him. "You ready?"

"As much as I'll ever be."

Marty pushed Jesse out of the bathroom and over to the end of the bed, and sat him on the end of it. "No peeking. I'll call out to you when I'm ready, and you have to promise to close your eyes until I say open them."

Jesse nodded. "I won't cheat." He grinned. "I can't wait to see this."

Marty grabbed up the bag he'd brought and went into the bathroom and pushed the door to the jamb. "I found all this stuff online," he called, and Jesse could hear him moving around, and the rattling of the bag.

Jesse frowned. "You paid for it yourself? Do we owe you for our stuff?"

"We'll worry about that later," Marty called back. "When my mom's credit card bill comes in."

Jesse rolled his eyes, but had to laugh. "I smell Parker's assistance in all this."

"I think she was around, a little." Jesse could sense the smile that Marty was wearing at that statement. Parker was allowed to use her mom's credit card online to buy clothing, and her assistance had been instrumental in the past in securing some of the things the boys wanted or needed for, um, relaxation.

"Almost ready," Marty called. "Close your eyes."

Jesse squeezed them shut, and nodded. "Okay."

He heard movement, and the little squeak of the bathroom door being opened, and then he could sense Marty come to stand a few feet away from him, and heard the bag set down on the carpet. Jesse grinned, feeling the anticipation now.

Marty gave a nervous little sigh. "Okay. You can look."

Jesse opened his eyes.

His jaw dropped so fast it startled him. That was followed by an immediate sense of amazement, and that was followed by an immediate sense of extreme horniness.

"Holy shit!" Jesse breathed, getting to his feet.

Marty stood before him, his eyes bright with amusement. All he had on was a pair of little pink boxer briefs, which hugged the curves of his hips and left not a whole lot to the imagination. Atop his head, a pinkish pair of what were obviously pig ears stood upright, secured in place by a nearly invisible elastic string under his chin. Marty's cute nose was covered by a soft latex pig snout, again held in place by an elastic string, which slightly dimpled his cheeks on its way around his head, but was otherwise almost invisible.

Marty grinned at the expression on Jesse's face, and turned to show off his butt, which was almost as fine in the boxer briefs as it was in the flesh. "You like?"

Jesse simply gaped and shook his head, his first rush of surprise and lust suddenly tempered by the realization that Marty meant for all five of them to wear this...this...little bit of nothing, in front of all the kids at school. Jesse cocked his head to one side. "Are you kidding?"

A brief flash of disappointment crossed Marty's face, and Jesse's heart immediately thump-thumped inside his chest in empathetic response. "You're not kidding," he breathed. "Oh my god."

He grinned then, walking around his boyfriend and inspecting all the good stuff so obviously on display. "Marty, if anyone had any doubts before that we were gay, they won't have them after they see this!"

Marty laughed. "Do you mean that in a good way, or a bad way?"

"Does it matter?" Jesse hooted, and grabbed his boyfriend, spun him around, and then wrapped him in his arms. "You're the best looking pig I've ever seen." Jesse kissed him, pushing the flexible pig nose flat against Marty's face, and inhaling the sexy smell of his skin. "You sure don't smell like a pig."

"Does that mean you'll do it?"

Jesse sighed, and shook his head. "I'm not the one you gotta worry about, Marty. You gotta convince the others, first."

Marty bit at his lip, his eyes searching Jesse's for support. "That's why I wanted you to see it first. Will you help me?"

Jesse stared a moment, and then scratched his head. "Why...this? Why not something more, um --" he laughed --"I was gonna say covering." He shook his head. "Why do you want to show so much?"

Marty sighed. "Is it so much? It's kinda like wearing a Speedo at the beach."

"We don't wear Speedos at the beach! And it's underwear, Marty, not a bathing suit." Jesse rolled his eyes in amazement. "And this is gonna be at school, and in front of a mess of people!"

Marty gave a soft sigh. "I always wanted to wear a Speedo at the beach." He suddenly blinked. "Oh!" He bent, reached into the bag at his feet, and then stood erect again. "There's this, too."

Jesse peered at the container in Marty's hand. "What is it?"

"It's skin toner. You can tint your skin with it." Marty's grin returned. "It's pink."

Jesse gaped all over again, his imagination more than up to envisioning the five of them standing before the science class and the art class and both teachers, dressed in pink boxer briefs, pig ears and snouts, and with their skin dyed pink. For a moment he was just aghast at the idea...and then...and then...he couldn't help laughing. Jesse just couldn't believe it. All this time, he and the other guys had been wondering what Marty had in mind for their costumes. Jesse was willing to bet that none of the others had come anywhere close to envisioning this!

Marty pouted at him, and the look on his face was so sweetly pleading behind the pig snout that Jesse just couldn't say no. He thought about the other boys, and their reaction to seeing this, and laughed again. "Well...Brian might actually like this. You know how kinky he's been acting lately." Jesse nodded, the idea growing in his mind. "And if Brian says yes, he can help us convince Nick."

"What about David?"

Jesse gave a small grunt. "I have a feeling he might be the hard one."

Marty suddenly smiled, and leaned closer. "Speaking of hard..." He pulled Jesse closer, and Jesse suddenly felt the sweet prod of Marty's stiff pecker against his thigh. Mmm! Jesse's dick was already mostly hard from just being alone with Marty; but now, seeing him in this crazy get-up, and sensing his boyfriend's arousal, Jesse's pecker nearly jumped fully erect, unrestrained as it was by any clothing.

"You are one sexy pig," he breathed. "Ooh, man." Jesse gently rubbed himself, and then rubbed his pecker against Marty's boxer briefs. "Wanna?"

"Think you can stand getting in bed with a pig?" Marty's eyes sparkled with mischief now.

"Absofuckinglutely. This way to the sty." Jesse took Marty's hand and started leading him around to the side of the bed.

"Wait." Marty suddenly pulled up. "I need something in my bag."

"You don't need your clothes," Jesse protested. "I'm taking you out of them, anyway."

Marty grinned, and gently pried Jesse's fingers loose. "I don't want my clothes. Trust me." He freed himself, and pointed at Jesse. "Stay right there."

Jesse sighed, and watched in silence as Marty turned and went back to his bag. He bent over it slowly, and gave his butt a little shake while peering back at Jesse. Jesse burst into laughter, and Marty grinned at him, looking somehow very cute behind the pig snout. Jesse's heart thumped again in his chest, and his pecker was now so hard that it hurt. His boyfriend's butt was gloriously beautiful through the thin pink material of the boxer briefs. Jesse gave out a little huff of air, smiling in appreciation. Butts were way too beautiful to waste just sitting on them!

Marty continued to grin at him, and reached down into the bag. There was a small click, and then a familiar humm.

Jesse felt a small thrill come over him. "Is that Buzzy?"

Marty's grin expanded, and he nodded. He straightened, revealing the vibrator in his hand. "Buzzy's hungry for some butt."

Jesse laughed. "Yours, or mine?"

Marty held the vibrator up to his ear and flicked the switch. The penis-shaped toy gave another fierce humm, and Marty nodded his head. "Uh huh. I understand, Buzzy." His eyes sparkled as he turned his grin back on Jesse. "Buzzy says he's really hungry today. He said he'd take both butts, if it was okay with you."

"Yeah, it's okay with me." Jesse held up his hand and crooked a finger at Marty. "Here, piggy, piggy, piggy."

Marty grinned, and strolled leisurely over, Buzzy held out before him. Jesse grabbed him as he came near and pulled him close, squatted slightly, and thrust the head of his pecker between Marty's legs and pushed the whole shaft in underneath is boyfriend's balls. Marty gave a little gasp as his own pecker, standing up against his abdomen inside the pink boxer shorts, was pressed firmly against Jesse's body.

Jesse kissed him, again pressing the pig snout flat against Marty's nose. They both closed their eyes and rubbed their faces together, until Marty gave a huff and pulled slightly back, his eyes looking just slightly amazed. "Damn, Jesse," he whispered. "You've got my heart going like crazy."

"Me, too," Jesse whispered back. "Wanna lay down?"


Jesse drew gently back and turned, taking Marty's free hand and pulling him towards the bed. They swarmed into it and lay down together, and Jesse rolled onto his back and let Marty climb aboard. Marty looked down at him, his eyes moving about as he examined Jesse's face, and a slow grin spread beneath the pig snout. "You're beautiful," Marty whispered.

Jesse grinned. "You mean handsome, right?" But he raised his head and kissed Marty's chin, and then reached up and carefully pulled off the pig snout. Marty laughed as the elastic cord crawled up through his hair in the back and then popped off over his head.

"We don't need this," Jesse said quietly, tossing the snout to the other side of the bed. Then he slid his hands slowly down Marty's back until he encountered the waistband of the pink boxer briefs, and stuck his thumbs beneath it. "Or this."

Marty raised himself, and Jesse pushed the waistband down as far as he could, feeling his fingers slide up over the curves of Marty's butt. He could go no further after that, pinned to the mattress as he was by his boyfriend's weight. "A little help."

Marty laughed, and thrust his chest down against Jesse's as he lifted his butt into the air and pushed the underwear down as far as he was able. Then his hips wiggled, and then his legs, as he worked the boxer briefs downward. Finally, Jesse felt one of Marty's feet move, and the boxer briefs sailed over to land next to the pig snout.

"What about the ears?" Marty whispered.

Jesse laughed. "I like them. We'll leave 'em where they are."

Marty rubbed his pecker against Jesse's, thrusting gently downward with his hips, and Jesse closed his eyes and gasped. "Damn, Marty."

"I love the way that feels," Marty said softly, giving him a quick kiss. "All of your skin touching all of mine." He lifted one shoulder and reached back behind him, and then there was a small click, and Buzzy hummed into action. Marty slid the vibrator down between his legs, underneath his balls, and the tip touched Jesse's balls and made him jump. Marty grinned, and pushed Buzzy down a little further, until both of them were enjoying the sensation.

Jesse closed his eyes and rubbed his cheek against Marty's. "I just love you."

Marty turned his head and pressed his lips against Jesse's cheek. "I know. I feel it every second I'm with you. I hope you feel it coming back from me."

"I do." Jesse nodded. He sighed. "I definitely do."

They lay quietly, gently rubbing their crotches together while Buzzy did his job. Jesse inhaled the musky scent of Marty's skin, wondering how someone could smell so good. And, maybe, wondering about other things, too.

It was funny that Marty wanted to dress the way he did for their school project. It was provocative, and...daring was the word that came to mind. But what exactly was it that Marty was daring...or maybe more importantly, who was he daring? That this was not just a case of Marty's slightly bent sense of humor acting out seemed a possibility to Jesse now. Marty was making a statement of some kind here, either consciously or not.

"What are you up to?" he asked, keeping his voice soft. "Why do you want us to dress like this?"

Marty raised his head and smiled down at him. "Because it'll be fun. And, it'll be sexy, and...people will remember it." He touched the tip of his nose to Jesse's. "And because no matter what we do after this, it will seem small in comparison."


"Uh huh. If we do this thing just shit-loose crazy, everybody will be used to the idea that we're nuts."

Jesse grinned. "I know you're nuts. I didn't know I was."

"You are." For a tiny moment, doubt crawled across Marty's face. "You're with me, aren't you?"

Jesse stared, shock shooting throughout his body. "You think I'm nuts because I'm with you?"

Marty compressed his lips together, and then averted his eyes. "You could be with anyone you wanted, Jesse."

"I am with who I want to be with," Jesse said, giving Marty a firm squeeze. "Now, you stop it."

Marty's blue eyes came back to touch Jesse's. "Stop what?"

"Worrying about stuff. I can tell when you do it, too."

Marty watched him quietly for a moment, and then slowly smiled. "Yeah. I guess I just can't believe how great everything is. I'm...I'm happier than I've ever been in my whole life."

"Me, too," Jesse said firmly. "So just get used to the idea that I'm staying with you."

"So I guess you're gonna stand up in front of a bunch of people with me, dressed as a pig, right?" Jesse couldn't help laughing at the the look in Marty's sparkly eyes.

"Yeah, I'll do it. Just as long as everyone agrees. But I'm not gonna lean on any of the guys to do this with us, okay? It's scary enough if you want to do it. I'm not making anybody do it that doesn't want to."

"Okay." Marty sighed, and dropped his cheek back against Jesse's.

They were nuts for doing this. But the more he thought about it, the more Jesse grew to like the idea. The five of them standing there, nearly naked, in those crazy outfits and with their skin made piggy-pink, singing and telling jokes...it was actually kind of thrilling to consider. It certainly was stepping outside all the safe places Jesse liked to live in normally.

And if they did this, it would probably be something to remember forever. One way or the other!

Now, if they could just get the others to agree...

Marty reached back and gave Buzzy a gentle twist, and Jesse's thoughts slid away from the the project and anything to do with it, and refocused on the boy pressed against him. He raised his head and kissed underneath Marty's chin and then down his throat, and Marty closed his eyes and sighed.

"There's slippery stuff in the drawer of my nightstand," Jesse said softly. "It'll make it easier for you to get Buzzy in my butt."

Marty opened his eyes and grinned down at him. "Twist my arm." He immediately slid off Jesse and over to the nightstand, and opened the top drawer to look inside. Jesse laughed and rolled over onto his belly, grabbed the two pillows, turned them long, and put one on top of the other. Then he crawled atop them, so that his pecker just hung down at the end of them.

Marty turned and saw him, and laughed. He held up the bottle of lube, and waved it at Jesse. "Is this what you want?"


Marty gave a delighted yip and scrambled around behind Jesse, pulled his legs apart, and settled onto his knees between them. "I know this stuff is all clean back here, because I washed it myself in the shower."

"Uh huh. I'm empty, too."

Marty sighed. The bed bounced as he got down on his chest again and worked himself forward, and then his lips touched down on Jesse's taint and delivered several invigorating kisses, followed by a warm, wet tongue massage. Jesse laughed, and tried not to squirm. "That tickles, a little."

"No shit." The humor was apparent in Marty's voice. But this time, when his lips returned, the kisses were warm and gentle. They tracked up and down each cheek, and then into Jesse's buttcrack. Marty placed his hands on the outside of Jesse's thighs, just at the top, and made himself comfortable. He pressed his nose down into the crack, and Jesse felt the wet warmth of his boyfriend's tongue as it moved slowly back and forth.

Jesse gasped at the tongue-tip found his butt hole, and gently lapped at the edges. "Mmm," Marty purred. "I smell pucker."

And then the tongue slid to the center, and Jesse closed his eyes and tilted his head back as Marty massaged him there. That went on for a timeless period, one where Jesse's mind was blank, and all he knew was that wonderful touch against his private spot. But finally Marty drew back, allowing a brief rush of seemingly cool air to touch the wet skin he left behind.

There was the faint snap of a cap being opened, and then Marty was spreading Jesse's buns and squirting a mist of lube against his pucker. Jesse heard another pump of the bottle, and then the touch of Marty's fingertip against his pucker. It circled slowly, pushing gently against the center, and then slowly slid inside. Jesse relaxed as the finger moved slowly in and out, feeling wonderful.

After a good minute of relaxing massage, the finger withdrew. Jesse heard another pump of the bottle, and then Buzzy's voice as the vibrator hummed into life. There was a cold touch against Jesse's pucker, and then a crawling sensation, which slowly worked up inside of him. Jesse tossed his head back and grinned fiercely at the ceiling as Marty worked Buzzy against his button, the warming vibration causing all sorts of things inside Jesse's rear to come wide awake in surprise.

Marty laughed at Jesse's reaction, and Jesse laughed in response to Marty's laugh. Buzzy worked slowly in and out while Marty rubbed Jesse's butt with his hand, and Jesse couldn't help but to flex his thighs at the feelings going on in an area that usually was notable for its boring lack of input into his daily life.

Finally, Buzzy worked back and out, leaving a pleasant tingle in all of Jesse's hindparts. The vibrator was silenced, and the bed bounced again as Marty got to his knees. Jesse heard another pump of the lube bottle, and a moment later something warm and soft and very slick pushed against the center of his pucker. He closed his eyes as Marty rubbed the head of his pecker back and forth against Jesse's pucker, and then in a slow circle, which grew smaller and smaller. Jesse sighed, and relaxed.

There was a brief feeling of pressure, and then a slow, tingly sensation, and then Marty was up in him. He laid his palms against Jesse's buns, drew slowly and carefully back, and then came forward again. The motion repeated, a little faster, and then became rhythmic, and Jesse gave out little puffs of excited breath as the tip of Marty's pecker found Jesse's button on each inward thrust.

"Oh, oh, oh..." Jesse didn't even realize he was making the sounds, so lost was he in the feeling of what was happening to him. It was amazingly satisfying in a way he had come to enjoy, if not totally understand; the latter because he knew that he was using his butt for something it really wasn't designed for, but which it seemed to enjoy immensely despite there being no section for the experience in its user's manual.

Jesse had learned that time stopped counting when they were doing this thing - it stopped for both of them. The experience was joint, but it was also an individual one, felt completely differently by each participant. Jesse loved being on both ends of this thing they had come to enjoy doing together.

Marty began to gasp with each thrust inwards, and Jesse felt his boyfriend's fingers tensing against his butt cheeks. And then Marty gave out a grunt, and rocked back and forth, and Jesse knew that he was squirting his spunk up inside Jesse's butt. It lasted for maybe five seconds - maybe not even that. But it felt longer, and Jesse grinned as Marty gave a final gasp and relaxed against him.

"That was awesome, Jesse."

"I kinda liked it, too."

They both laughed. Marty gave Jesse's butt cheeks a fond massage, and then a very gentle slap, wiggled himself, and drew slowly back. His pecker popped out of Jesse's butt, and again a cool draft touched the wet skin of Jesse' pucker.

"I'm glad you don't leak," Marty said, walking on his knees backwards from between Jesse's legs. "Just don't fart when you turn over." He grabbed Jesse's feet and twisted his legs, and Jesse helped by rolling over in the direction indicated. He flopped off the pillows onto the mattress. Once over onto his back, Jesse grinned up at his boyfriend, and raised and spread his arms. "Aren't you even gonna kiss me after all that?"

Marty grinned, and surged forward, but lay down very gently atop Jesse, compressing the mattress beneath them, and lowered his face to kissing range. Jesse wrapped his arms around Marty, allowed himself to be kissed, and then sighed. "I got your spunk up my butt," he whispered.

He felt Marty smile against his cheek. "I can't think of any other place I'd rather leave it. Except maybe your mouth."

"Mmm. Next time."

They rubbed each other, and kissed, and just enjoyed the touch of their bodies together. Finally, Jesse sighed. "I guess I'd better clean up Buzzy. He has a date with your butt next."

Marty shook his head. "Nah. I already spunked. I'm just gonna suck your dick now, okay?"

Jesse faked a frown. "Well...okay."

Marty laughed, and raised up, and smiled down at Jesse. "After I suck on your tits, and stick my tongue in your belly button, and kiss you all over, and lick your balls, and..."

A tingly sensation coursed throughout Jesse's body, and he drew in a deep, anticipatory breath. "I said okay!"

Marty's eyes sparkled as he kissed Jesse one more time, and then went to work.

"No. No damn way!"

Nick stood with his arms crossed, looking just a little horrified at what he saw. The five boys stood on the sun-dappled carpet in Marty's bedroom, with Jesse and Marty positioned side-by-side just outside the bathroom door, and the other three boys facing them. The bedroom door was locked, and the only other observer was Marvin the iguana, who looked singularly unimpressed by the small drama now unfolding before his eyes.

Which was: Jesse and Marty, in full pig gear. They had gotten the project group together, and then Jesse and Marty had gone into the bathroom and shut the door, and changed into the costumes. This was Jesse's first time in-gear, and he had marveled at the way he looked, there in the full-length mirror attached to the wall. He was just...sexy. Every bit as sexy and appealing as Marty looked in his outfit. Jesse was surprised at how their appearances appealed so strongly to the gay in him - they both looked good enough to eat!

But Nick, at least, seemed not to share that outlook.

"That's just your first impression," Marty said, trying not to laugh. "Now tell me what you really think!"

Nick gaped at him, and then turned to Brian. "Do you believe this? They want us to wear --"

But then he stopped, his eyes widening at the look on Brian's face.

Brian's eyes were traveling slowly up and down Jesse's and Marty's bodies, just drinking in their appearance. But at the sudden silence, he blinked, and turned to look at his friend. "What?"

Nick shook his head. "You don't think it's awful?"

Brian frowned, and gently bit at his lip. "No. Um...I kinda like it."

David grinned, and then laughed. "There's a surprise!"

Nick sputtered. "Are you kidding? We can't get up in front of everybody dressed like that!"

Brian frowned again, and then slowly walked around Jesse and Marty, examining them. Then he went back to stand next to Nick. "It's not so bad."

Nick shook his head. He looked frantically about the room a moment, as if someone might overhear him, and then leaned closer to his best friend. "They're almost naked!"

Brian actually grinned. "No, they're not. I think they look pretty damn hot."

David bent over and slapped his knees, and laughed. "I thought you had some gay in you."

Brian grinned back at him. "I don't wanna suck 'em off or anything. But they are just...cute as shit."

Jesse and Marty both laughed. They had been discussing what might happen all morning, before the other guys arrived just after lunch, and had agreed that Brian would be the easy one to convince. Brian was just too obviously enthralled by sex in general, and Jesse's and Marty's relationship in particular, not to see the appeal of it all.

"Yeah, you're gay," David said, coming over and placing a hand on Brian's shoulder. "It's okay. We won't tell anyone."

Brian turned his head and narrowed his eyes. "You don't think they look good that way? Not at all?"

David's eyes bounced over to Jesse and Marty, and briefly traveled over their bodies. He frowned, but then sighed. "I think the girls will love 'em, if that's what you're asking."

"That's not what I'm asking," Brian said, shaking off David's hand. "I'm asking you if you don't think that these two look pretty sexy that way?"

David's smile vanished. "I'm not gay."

"I'm not, either," Brian said, leaning forward emphatically. "But they're still sexy-looking as shit."

David frowned, and looked at Jesse and Marty again. Jesse could almost see the little tornado of thoughts going on behind David's eyes as they examined, first him, and then Marty. David's frown turned to a slightly worried look, and then slowly morphed into one of resignation. "Yeah, okay."

Brian laughed. "Okay...what?"

David closed one eye and glared at him with the other one. "They're sexy, okay?"

Brian grinned, and turned to Nick. "Don't you think they are, too?"

Nick looked frightened, and Jesse's heart went out to him. "Leave him alone, Brian. If he doesn't want to do this, we'll think of something else for him."

But Brian moved closer to Nick, and bumped his shoulder against his best friend's. "I know you'd look pretty hot dressed like that."

Nick turned to look at him. "But...you can see so much." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I can see where their dicks are, Brian."

Brian shrugged. "So? You've got a great dick. I've seen it --" he grinned --"and touched it." He leaned closer to Nick. "Show that thing off a little."

Nick looked surprised; and then, somehow, a smile emerged. "I couldn't do that."

"Yes, you could." Brian sighed. "I love you, Nick. You're the best buddy I ever had. But...you worry about too many things you don't need to worry about." He waved a hand at Jesse and Marty. "You'd look every bit as good as they do, dressed that way."

Nick's eyes traveled back to examine Jesse and Marty. "Me?"

"Uh huh. You."

Nick licked his lips, and then offered Brian a quick smile. And then he walked slowly around Jesse and Marty and looked at them more closely. "God. You can see their butts plain as day!"

Brian smiled. "So? You got a great butt, too."

Jesse and Marty looked at each other, trying not to grin. Brian had always stated clearly that he was not gay, and Jesse had believed him. But...could you love another guy and not be gay? It certainly sounded to Jesse like Brian had something special going for Nick. And - just as clearly - it seemed that Brian's affection was in some way returned by the other boy.

Being gay meant being attracted to one's own gender. But...what about the one-offs - the instances where two people of the same sex fell into a kind of love and desire situation for each other, but where those emotions and attractions did not extend to others of the same sex? And, in fact, where it seemed clear that both participants in the relationship also were obviously attracted to members of the opposite sex?

Brian clearly was attracted in many ways to the relationship that Jesse and Marty had together, but it always went back to how he felt about Nick. And Nick, while also showing an interest in what Jesse and Marty did together, was obviously uncomfortable expressing that interest with anyone save Brian. That this whole thing was especially puzzling to Nick was clear - and that Brian was intent on helping him through it, just as plain.

Jesse didn't know what made him speak then. "I think you'd look pretty hot, Nick."

Marty gave a surprised laugh, and his eyes crinkled at Jesse just for a second before he looked back at Nick. "Yeah. Me, too."

Another smile tugged at Nick's lips. "You got our stuff in the bathroom, too?"

Marty nodded. "Yup. The underwear isn't all the same brand, because I couldn't find five pairs of those boxer briefs in pink that were all the same. But they're all the same size, and look pretty close."

Nick looked back at Brian. "I guess we should at least try them on."

Brian grinned, and surged forward, throwing an arm over Nick's shoulders in passing and urging him along to the bathroom. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder before closing the door. "Back in a flash, with the cash!"

Marty leaned his shoulder against Jesse's and laughed as Brian pushed the bathroom door shut.

"I don't believe this," David said, shaking his head.

"Why not?" Marty said. He gave Jesse a gentle prod with his elbow. "David would look hot as shit in pink, don't you think?"

Jesse grinned. "I'd want him, that's for sure."

David grinned. "Either of you so much as touch my butt, I'll nail ya."

Jesse and Marty both laughed. "Not us," Jesse said. "The girls at school will all keel over when they see you."

David gave a little nod. "I already thought of that. I wouldn't mind showing off a little me to Siri Boland. She's already been giving me the eye."

"Well, now she can give your junk the eye," Marty said. "And your butt, and the rest of you, too."

David held up a hand. "I don't need to be convinced. This is no worse than wearing a little bathing suit. I've never done that, but it doesn't scare me."

"So you're in?" Marty asked.

"Well...I wanna see how Brian and Nick look, first. But...yeah...probably."

The bathroom door opened then, and Brian and Nick came out. Jesse stared a moment, and then grinned. Brian was lean and hot-looking, and wore a delighted little grin that made Jesse want to laugh. Nick was thinner, but just as appealing, and the expression of thrilled, almost-fear he wore so endearing that Jesse could have hugged him. The two were certainly sexy enough, and Jesse just couldn't help noticing that their peckers looked mildly stiffened by the experience. Mmm.

"Fuckin' right," Marty said, grinning. "Did you look at yourselves in the bathroom mirror?"

Nick gave a little nod. "Yeah."


Brian laughed, and Nick smiled.

"We look pretty good, don't we, Nick?" Brian said, putting an arm around his friend's shoulders.

Nick looked like he just didn't know how to act. "We're hot," he breathed, making everyone laugh.

"I gotta agree," Jesse said.

All at the same time, everyone turned to look at David, who blinked and looked surprised. "What?"

"You gettin' dressed?" Jesse asked.

David laughed. "You mean undressed, don't you?"

"Whatever," Marty added. "Are ya?"

David sighed. "Yeah. I'll be back in a second."

"Can we come in and watch?" Marty called, as David was about to shut the door.

David peeked through the crack, grinning. "Some other time." He closed the door.

Marty and Jesse both turned back to look at Brian and Nick. "You guys look great," Jesse said, and meant every word of it.

Brian laughed. "So do you."

"We all do," Marty decided. He smiled at Nick. "How do you feel?'

Nick returned the smile, and looked radiant. "I feel...good."

Marty nodded. "You keep that feeling, too, okay? There's bound to be some dickhead at the show that says something stupid, so you just ignore anything, okay? You look great. Nothing anybody says matters."

Nick nodded. "Except for you guys."

"And we all think you look great," Brian said, giving Nick's arm a fond squeeze.

The bathroom door opened then, and David came out. He had his arms turned inward, his wrists against his hips, which he gyrated as he strode out among them. Brian immediately whistled, and Jesse and Marty both laughed. Nick looked delighted, and gave a little clap of his hands.

David stopped, turned his head at them, brought one shoulder up against his chin, and favored them with a look of faux disdain. "Well? What is everybody looking at?"

Jesse poked Marty with his elbow, and Marty followed as Jesse walked slowly around David. "Well...hi, cutie. What brings you into this neck of the woods?"

David blinked his eyes cattily. "I heard there was a show going on here. I want to audition for the part of the crazy guy."

Everyone laughed.

Marty stepped closer, but David gave no ground, and Marty rubbed right up against him. "Mmm. You can have any part I have, honey."

Jesse, playing along, rubbed against David from the other side. "Yeah. You sure fill that little pink thing nice, baby."

David's face reddened, but he obviously did not plan to back down. "Don't I have to audition?"

Brian came up behind him, and gently laid his chin on David's shoulder. "You just did, sweetie."

David actually jumped, and gave a nervous laugh. "I have a strange feeling about this."

Nick peered around Jesse, and pointed. "That's because you're getting a boner."

Jesse looked down, and it was true. And not just David. Everyone was showing now, including Jesse. They all kind of examined each other curiously, and Jesse was amused at how uniform they all were. A half-inch or so in difference here and there was simply not discernible behind the rapidly expanding pink fabric of the boxer shorts.

Brian came around front now, unwilling to touch against David's backside with a hard dick. "Sorry."

David nodded. "It's okay. Um...wow." He smiled a little uneasily. "I sure don't know why it's doing that." He indicated his pecker, which was now standing tall.

Marty nudged him with his shoulder. "It doesn't mean you're gay, okay?" He smiled around at everyone. "I mean, we're almost naked, and we're wearing pig ears and noses. That's just kind of, um --"

"Stimulating," Jesse supplied, grinning.

"Being with guys doesn't usually give me a boner," David pointed out.

"What about your friend?" Jesse asked. "The one you used to jerk with? You had to have a boner then."

David frowned, and then nodded. "Yeah. We used to play with each other's dicks to get them like that, though."

Marty laughed. "Bet it didn't take much playing, did it?"

David grinned. "No."

Nick suddenly gasped. "What are we gonna do if we all get hard at the performance?"

Brian put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed him. "We won't. If you can get hard in front of Mrs. Jellicoe, you're a better man than me."

Jesse hooted, and Marty squeezed his eyes shut momentarily and laughed.

"Amen, brother," David said. "I like her, but she doesn't do anything for me." He grinned. "Now, Siri Boland..."

Jesse sighed. "Well, we're all in costume. That wasn't that hard, was it?" He grinned at the joke, poor as it was.

David sighed. "It's not so bad. I think I can do this."

Jesse looked at Nick, who nodded. "Yeah. I can do it."

He moved his eyes to Brian.

"Hell, yeah! This is gonna be a blast." He leaned his shoulder against Nick. "I can't wait to see you sing in that outfit."

Nick grinned, and Jesse smiled.

Marty came over and leaned against Jesse's shoulder. "Told ya it would work."

Jesse blinked at him, and just shook his head. Marty laughed, and bent closer and pecked Jesse on the cheek. "Love you."

Jesse sighed, and pecked him back. "Love you, too."

He turned to look at the others, who were watching them with smiles.

What a bunch of lunatics they were, doing this. Jesse only hoped it would all work out.

Marty, watching him, reached over and squeezed his hand. "It'll be okay."

Jesse just smiled, both at Marty's positive outlook on everything, and for the fact that, once again, his boyfriend was reading his mind.

Mr. Blaisdell raised his hands at the start of combined class on Wednesday, and waved his fingers, as if that would magically summon quiet. Surprisingly, it did just that, as the excited conversations quickly ended, and all eyes turned forward. Mrs. Jellicoe seemed to find that humorous, somehow, and smiled at the science teacher, who simply shrugged, and grinned at the class.

"As you know, your art-slash-science projects come due this Friday, and presentations will begin next Monday. Mrs. Jellicoe and I were figuring the time we will be needing here, and we have decided that it will take a good part of next week, if not all of it, for all of you to present your projects to the combined classes. Mrs. Cannon has given permission for the art and science class to combine every day next week, and has made this room available to us to do so."

"Each of you will have up to ten minutes time to make your presentations," Mrs. Jellicoe went on smoothly. "Some of you who are working singly will not need that much time, and some of you working in groups may need a little more. We have decided that we'll just let things run until everyone is done. As this project is going to have some impact on your semester grade, we want to ensure that everyone gets to present their projects in full."

A girl in the front row raised her hand. "Is there going to be an order we go in, or something?"

"Good question," Mrs. Jellicoe answered. "We think it will be better for everyone if each of you knows when they will be expected to give their presentations. So Mr. Blaisdell and I have created a sort of program for the week, which is posted there on the bulletin board." She waved her hand at the cork board beside the classroom door. "At the end of class, please take a moment on your way out to see where you are on the list, so that you can be prepared."

A boy at the end of Jesse's row - Donnie Will - raised his hand. "My partner, Adam Penner, is out sick right now. I think he'll be back by Monday, but If he's not better in time for our presentation, what do I do?"

Mr. Blaisdell nodded. "If he's not back when your slot comes up, we'll just bump you guys back on the list. As I recall, you and Adam are later in the week, anyway, so maybe he'll be back by then. Just keep me apprised of your situation, okay?"

Donnie looked happy, and nodded. "Okay. Thanks."

Mr. Blaisdell let his eyes sweep over the class a moment. "I have to say I am a little excited about this. The sysnopses of your projects have been wonderfully stimulating. I have seen some very creative ideas here. So I think everyone is going to have a lot of fun, as well as learn some things." He smiled. "You can't do better than that."

Jesse frowned. They had had to submit their project ideas at the start for approval, and as far as Jesse knew, no one's ideas had been vetoed. But they had not been required to explain in detail exactly how they planned to present those ideas, and Jesse was still a little nervous about how the teachers would receive their own project, as presented. He looked at Marty, whose eyebrows raised slightly in a questioning manner, and then raised his hand. Might as well get this over with now.

"Yes, Jesse?" Mr. Blaisdell smiled at him, and Jesse felt again that the man liked him. Jesse loved to get into the free-for-all discussions the class sometimes had, and his occasionally wild imagination had coughed up a few ideas and observations that had seemed to strike the science teacher well.

"Um...I just wanted to ask again if there are any restrictions on how we present our projects."

Mr. Blaisdell momentarily pursed his lips. "We've been over this, Jesse." But then a decided halo of humor circled the man's face. "Is there something about your presentation you are concerned about?"

When Jesse didn't answer immediately, Mr. Blaisdell leaned forward. "It's safe, isn't it?"


"No explosives, poisonous gases, or fire?"

Jesse had to grin, just a bit. "No, sir. We're not doing anything like that."

Mrs. Jellicoe waved a hand. "Well, something seems to be worrying you. Is your project to be presented as a scientific experiment, or are you leaning towards an artistic interpretation?"

Jesse tried not to laugh outright. "Oh, it's definitely artistic. It's...well, it's kind of like a little play."

Mrs. Jellicoe looked delighted. "That's fine. You are allowed to present your project in just about any way you see fit."

Marty, who had been listening quietly, raised his hand now. "We'll be wearing costumes."

Some of the kids laughed at that.

Mrs. Jellicoe gave a little laugh herself, and looked even happier. "That's wonderful."

Marty nodded. "You haven't seen 'em yet."

The art teacher smiled at the science teacher, and both of them adopted expressions that said very plainly that there was just nothing on this earth about a costume that could faze either one of them.

"That's fine, guys. Just do your best, okay? That's all we ask."

Jesse looked at Marty and grinned, and Marty's eyes sparkled with silent laughter as he grinned back.

"Okay," Jesse said then. "Just so you know."

Mrs. Jellicoe nodded, and her eyes swept over the class. "Anyone else have any concerns?"

Someone else raised a hand, but Jesse had stopped paying attention. Marty had reached over beneath the table and grasped his hand, and was giving it a very affectionate squeeze. On his other side, David gave him a gentle poke with his elbow, and grinned when Jesse turned to look. The excitement in the other boy's eyes was plain, and Jesse had to smile inwardly at how solidly everyone in their group had come to stand behind their project now that they had committed to doing it a little...differently.

In the row ahead, Brian and Nick both turned, and added their grins to the mix. Marty squeezed his hand again, and Jesse just sighed. For some reason, he felt very good, a tingle of anticipation coursing throughout his body.

Hopefully, he would still feel the same way a week from now.

Jesse, Marty, Brian, Nick, and David stood behind the long screen that had been set up near the windows of the big multi-purpose room. It was a partition, actually, designed to separate elements of a classroom so that work groups could focus without bothering each other, and was every bit of six feet tall. But for their purposes, it was 'off stage', and kept them out of sight of the seated audience until they were ready to make their presentation. The concealed space was both a staging area, where the next projecteers got ready while the current project was being presented, and stowage for the many props the kids were using in their presentations. A long table stood behind the screen, out of sight of the rows of tables where the student watchers sat, which was covered with the many items to be used in the student project presentations. Jesse's group had only one prop: a stuffed pig, borrowed from Parker, Marty's sister. It was cute, and soft, and it stood on the table, it's little piggy eyes seeming almost to be watching as the boys fidgeted nervously.

They were all dressed in sweats, which covered their pink boxer briefs from the eyes of the current presenters, Allyson Shaugnessy and Robin Rafeteri, who were talking animatedly about the science relating to clay formation. Or, rather, Allyson was talking the science. Robin had a lab stool set before her, upon which she was busy creating a pretty good vase out of clay, turning it this way and that on a little turntable that sat atop the stool. It was kind of neat the way the vase took shape under Robin's hands while Allyson calmly talked about erosion and weathering, marine sediments, and soil horizons. It was an interesting presentation, if a little dry, but Jesse could already see that it was not going to last for a full ten minutes.

He gave a little, quiet sigh, and turned to Marty. His boyfriend's face was slightly pink, and underneath his sweats, so was his body. All of them were like that, having applied the skin tint at Jesse's house that morning before leaving. The others had biked over early to prepare for the day, and ridden as a group to school on Mrs. Johnson's bus, chattering away nervously about the coming day.

Mrs. Johnson had stared, wide-eyed, at them as they boarded. But she'd just smiled to herself, shaken her head, and waved them towards the seats, closed the door, and urged the bus onward. School bus drivers are a rare breed, akin to secret agents or soldiers in their abilities to remain silent in the face of all adversity and strangeness. The other kids on the bus had stared at them, and a couple had pointed at their coloration. But, interestingly, no one had actually asked them about it until after they had arrived at school. The first person to take official note of their change in skin tone had been Mrs. LeFevre, their homeroom teacher, who had looked up at them from her desk as they had entered her room. Her eyes had inspected them briefly, and then dropped back to the book she was reading...and then jumped upwards again.

"Wait a second...Jesse?"


Mrs. LeFevre had smiled then. "Jesse, are you and your friends pinker than normal today?"

Jesse had laughed. "Uh huh. It's part of our project for art and science."

Everyone in the school knew by now about the special projects being done in the combined classes being taught by Mrs. Jellicoe and Mr. Blaisdell, and Mrs. LeFevre had just nodded. "Oh. It's very becoming."

Marty had smiled and shaken his head. "Don't get used to it, okay? It's just for today."

Mrs. LeFevre's eyes had smiled back, but she had just nodded, and gone back to her book.

The next two periods had been interesting, as their friends asked what the change in color was about. All five boys had managed to say nothing, other than that is was for their science project, and so the cat was still in the bag as they stood there behind the screen, waiting on their turn to make their presentation.

"I'm nervous," Nick admitted in a whisper, looking at Brian for support.

Brian smiled, and nodded, and put a hand on Nick's arm. "Me, too. But you ain't got nothin' to worry about. You're gonna be great."

Jesse had to agree with that. All of them could sing presentably; but to the great surprise of the others, Brian had been absolutely correct when he had said that Nick could sing. Nick had, in fact, an angelic treble voice, a soprano with just the first hints of the deepening that was coming with age; but a voice that just stopped Jesse's heart as he listened. It was so obvious that Nick loved to sing, and that he had considerable talent for it, that it made Jesse shiver to hear him. Marty, too, had simply gaped the first time that Nick had practiced his solo song.

"Oh, my god. This is gonna be awesome!"

Yes. If nothing else, Jesse was certain that Nick would go over big with the audience.

"Better get our shoes off," Brian said, watching Allyson and Robin. It looked like the vase was nearly done, which was a good indicator that the presentation was nearly over, too. How much can be said about clay formation, anyway?

They bent down, untied their shoes and pulled them off, and then their socks. Jesse grimaced as his bare feet touched the cold tiled floor. Beyond the window a gray winter day brooded over a land still surprisingly green for this late in the year. The school was circled by evergreens, from among which poked the more barren forms of deciduous trees, and the grass had not yet turned the dormant shade of brown it wore in the coldest months of the year. So it looked less than uncomfortable outside the window, with only the floor to suggest that that was mostly an illusion.

They dug their noses and ears out of their pockets and laid them on the table. As soon as Allyson and Robin finished and pulled their stuff aside, the boys would quickly shed their sweats, don their ears and noses, and be ready to go.

Marty looked about the group, smiling at each boy in turn. "We're gonna be good, so relax. We've practiced everything, we know it by heart, and we can do this." He stuck his hand out, with his fingers splayed, and Jesse immediately laid his hand atop it. David followed, and then Nick, and then Brian. They grasped each other, and shook the combined hands up and down.

Robin and Allyson were done.

"That was an interesting presentation, girls," Mrs. Jellicoe said, and Jesse could hear the smile in her voice. "Thank you."

The girls grinned, and they each grabbed one side of the stool and lugged it out of sight.

"Now," Jesse said, and began to strip down. It took just seconds to pull off the sweat pants and then shrug out of the sweat shirts. Jesse grabbed his pig snout and ears and quickly pulled them on, while the others followed suit. They inspected each other, arranged each other's ears and noses a bit, and then everyone grinned.

Mr. Blaisdell's voice came to them then: "Uh...next we have a presentation from the largest group to do a project together: Jesse Cole, Marty Anderson, David Gallegos, Nick Hamer, and Brian Finn. Their project is titled, 'What's Up, Pig?'. Guys? You ready?"

Marty patted Jesse on the shoulder. Jesse took a big breath, and strode out from behind the screen, turned towards the audience, and stopped. He was aware of jaws dropping and eyes widening everywhere, most prominent among them those of Mr. Blaisdell and Mrs. Jellicoe; and then the crowd laughed as one.

Jesse held up his hands for quiet, which came surprisingly quickly, and then tilted his head back and looked at the ceiling.

"Little birdie in the sky,
dropped a poopie in my eye,
I didn't scream, I didn't cry,
I just wish that pigs could fly!"

The crowd roared in disbelief, which only grew as the other four boys emerged and arrayed themselves behind Jesse. There were several catcalls of, "oh, baby!", and "take it off!", and Jesse was sure that at least one of them came from the several girls who had stood and were now grinning and clapping.

Jesse waved his hands again, trying to get order, and Mr. Blaisdell also stood and waved his in support. The assembled students continued to laugh and call, but the volume quickly subsided to something more bearable. Jesse was pleased to sense that, while the audience was laughing at the way they appeared, there seemed nothing mean-spirited about it at all. Rather, everyone looked like they were having fun.

He smiled at them. "We live on a very human planet. As the dominant species, and one that has created a technology that can now look at nature more closely than ever before, we have gone from adapting ourselves to this world, to adapting it to our own needs. Our ability to look around us, and beneath us, and - most importantly - above us, has revolutionized our science and our art, and pushed our imaginations to the very edge of the universe."

Jesse stepped back with the others, and Marty took his place.

"But what if this wasn't so? One of the things our kind has done since we first walked the earth is to stand outside and gaze at the sky. Gaze at the sky, and wonder." Marty cocked his head at the crowd, and let his expression grow serious. "There was the sun, that lit the world so brightly that we could not look directly at it, and which trekked slowly across the sky each day and then disappeared. But...disappeared where? And while the sun was there, we could see other wonders above us. A sky so blue it thrilled the heart, and which was often filled with wispy white things that danced across the sky with a life of their own. What were clouds? Where did they come from, and where did they go? And then there was the night sky, a true mystery beyond our comprehension. As we looked up, the moon and the stars looked back at us. We gave them names, and we saw familiar things in their groupings. But...what were they really? Why were they there, and how did they come to be?"

Marty stepped back, and David took his place front and center. A couple of girls waved, but David was too focused to do more than grin at them.

"By looking up, and wondering, we fueled our imagination, and our dreams. The earth itself climbed to the very clouds, as mountain ranges crossed our horizons, and we thought those places perhaps the homes of the gods, because we equated height with the mystery of the sky, and with far away and amazing places we could only imagine." David waved a hand towards the ceiling. "And in that far place above us, we could see the birds that traveled among the clouds on wings, and we wondered how they came to be so different from us, and why they had the gift of the sky, and not us. We envied them, and so we strove to copy their wondrous ability. The human mind went to work, to learn the secret of what they did, and to give that magic to our own machines. We solved the mystery of flight, and made it our own."

David stepped back, and Nick came forward. Lisa Loftin immediately clapped, but quieted as Mr. Blaisdell looked over at her.

"But...what would the world be like, if we had never looked up at the sky?" Nick swallowed, obviously nervous, but plunged on. "For us humans, all we need to do is tilt our heads back, and there it is." He leaned forward then, and lowered his voice. "But what if we weren't able to do that?"

He let the question hang a moment, and then straightened. "Most of the animals that live on the earth can see the sky. But there is one species that has a hard time of it." He smiled then, and spread his hands, and used them to indicate himself and the other boys. "Pigs. Pigs have their eyes on the sides of their heads, and the way their necks are constructed and the way their muscles work, they just can't tilt their heads back to look upwards into the sky."

The kids in the audience looked about at each other a moment, as if this was some momentous revelation - or absolutely absurd fact - and it was all that Jesse could do not to laugh at the reaction.

Nick nodded, his confidence bolstered by the response. "Oh, they know the sky is there. They can see the horizon, and the edges of the sky. They just can't look straight up."

He stepped back, and Brian took his spot. The same girls smiled again, and a couple of them waved.

Brian grinned a moment, and then obviously made an effort to focus. "That fact got us thinking about the importance of 'up'. Humans have spent a great deal of time and a great deal of energy looking 'up'. Our artists have painted 'up', and our authors have imagined it and put it into words, and our scientists have theorized about what it is and what it means. Because 'up' is also outward, away, a place that exists beyond the world we know, it is endlessly fascinating, to both the artist and the scientist in each of us." He shook his head. "If we couldn't see 'up', if we didn't know it was there, all the world would be a mystery, because everything down here, on the ground, touches and is linked to the sky overhead." He looked back over his shoulder at the guys. "So we decided to do a little thinking about what it would be like if pigs suddenly became the dominant species, and how the world might be to them, if only they couldn't look...up."

Brian stepped back next to Nick, and the boys all looked at each other. They had written their piece as a rapid-fire dialog, and now they launched into it.

"No up!" Marty called. "No up?"

"What's up?" David asked.

"I don't know," Jesse called, and snuffled like a pig.

"Let me look," Nick said, and peered intently at the ground, his eyes sweeping over the floor tiles. "I don't see it."

"It's not there!"

"It's gone! Is this a joke?"

"Joke?" Brian suddenly grinned, and poked Nick with his elbow. "Did you hear the one about Chicken Little?"

"No, and neither did you!"

"I think I'm missing something!" Marty wailed.

"It's because you can't get up in the morning!"

"So you'll never move up in the world!"

"Then I can only have low expectations?"

"Yes. It's all downhill from here! Really!"

"But I wanted to rise to the occasion!"

"Well, you've started on the ground floor, and there's nowhere to go!"

"There's so many things now that I'll never know!"

"Not just you...we're all gonna be slow!"

"We won't have the benefits that science is giving."

"Yeah...what will Neil Armstrong do for a living?"

"Where does the sun go after dawn?"

"What's that wet stuff all over my lawn?"

"I'll never be able to wish upon a star!"

"Or even dream about something so far!"

"I won't ever see the sun's golden fire!"

"The man in the moon will have to retire!"

"No faces in the clouds..."

"Clouds? What are clouds?"

"They used to use them to hold up parachute shrouds!"

"No balloons at the fair."

"Nothing at all in the air."

"No airlines to fly."

"No carry-on luggage to buy."

"And no Ferris wheels or roller coasters to try."

"Ships at sea would be really hard to skipper."

"There'd be no sextants, and no Big Dipper!'

"No stories about aliens, or voyages to Mars."

"That means no more episodes of Disney's Star Wars!"

"What are treetops?"

"What are belly flops? No high dives!"

"Did you hear the one about Ben Franklin and the kite?"

"No. He stayed home and played rummy that night!"

"Getting to grandma's would be just a guess."

"I'd get lost on the way, without GPS!"

"No Lucky Lindie, no lost Amelia."

"I'll bet rush hour is something to kill ya!"

"'Cause everybody goes everywhere, all on the ground!"

"Mr. Boeing pilots a Ford to get 'round."

"One good thing: no air wars to fight!"

"And no missiles in flight, so no cold war in sight."

"Yeah, but all at the expense of van Gogh's Starry Night!"

"No baseballs to pitch, no fly balls to catch."

"No basketballs, footballs, or old mitts to patch."

"Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth..."

"No, you didn't!"

"Poetry and literature are all at eye-level!"

"That's because the world just exists at sea-level!"

"Don Quixote would just have to tilt at the ground."

"The Raven would just have to walk about town."

"No bell towers to toll!"

"No magic carpets to roll!"

"Did you hear the one about the..."

Chorus: "No! And neither did you!"

"How would we deal with those big forest fires?"

"And tripping on all of those telephone wires?"

"There'd be no overnight mail sent, I guess."

"And Santa would have to use pony express!"

"Buildings would be crowded, and really a bore."

"No elevators needed, no second or third floor."

"Innovation would slow to the merest of trickles..."

"The Wright Brothers would still be building bicycles!"

"Everything higher than the top of my head..."

"Would be lost quite forever, just as if it were dead."

"Advancing our science, our philosophies, our laws..."

"Would be something quite different, almost a lost cause."

"What would we wonder? What would give us our ahhs?"

"Do you think there'd be a Dorothy, or a Wizard of Oz?"

"No flying farmhouse to take her that far!"

"She'd have to get there by bus or by car!"

Nick gasped. "No wicked witch of the west?"

"Well, if she had a broom, she'd be pushing it, at best!"

Nick sighed. "So many lost things, and our options so few! What's a poor, stunted piglet to do?"

Brian laughed. "Take a trip, that's what." He leaned over, reached behind the screen, and reappeared with the stuffed pig, which he handed to Nick. "Imagination is all that is left!"

Nick clutched the pig to his chest, and looked sorrowful. "Oh, Toto, what are we gonna do? Someone took our up!"

He stepped forward then, and Jesse and Marty placed their hands on one of his shoulders, and Brian and David placed their hands on the other. Nick stared at the floor, petting the stuffed pig. And then he started to sing:

"Somewhere under the rainbow,
not too high,
there's a place that I've dreamed of,
far from the old pig sty."

Jesse looked at the astonishment on the faces in the crowd as Nick captured them with his voice.

"Somewhere under the rainbow,
piglets cry,
because, dreams that they dream of,
don't have a place called sky.

Jesse and the others started to hum the song's tune as Nick continued onward:

"Someday I wish that I could see,
beyond the base of all the trees, around me,
to where clouds and merry wind can play,
and while away the sunny day,

"Somewhere under the rainbow,
dreams still try,
to go over the rainbow,
pigs really want to fly.

And then all five of them sang:

"If other creatures all can see...
then why, oh why, can't we?"

As they went quiet, Jesse was aware of the silence in the room, the mix of simply stunned expressions and absolute glee on the faces before them. But then...people smiled, and people laughed, and people stood up and clapped. Mr. Blaisdell raised his hands high to clap, and Mrs.Jellicoe clutched her hands together and beamed at them.

Girls whispered together and smiled behind their hands, their eyes shining at the boys; and the guys out there all seemed to be grinning and carrying on together...but there seemed to be nothing evil about any of it. No one called anything smart, and no one made any trouble at all.

Nick grinned, almost helplessly, and Brian squeezed his shoulder. "You were great," he whispered.

The boys formed a line again, put their arms over each other's shoulders, and bowed as one to the assembly. Then they straightened, stood looking out at the audience a moment more, and then turned and went back behind the screen.

The fallout from their presentation was minimal. They had to endure breakouts of oinking and pig snuffling in the halls as they moved about for the next several days, and girls in every class watched them, or cornered them to talk to them. They enjoyed the attention, at first, and by the time that it got to be tedious, it also started to wear off. Kids have too much new input on a daily basis to remain focused on any one of them for very long.

But there were some pluses, too, that proved thrilling for some of them.

Siri Boland, much to David's delight, started talking to him, and finally asked him out. She was dark-haired and cute, with deep, sleepy green eyes that always seemed to be laughing. David took her to a movie, and walked around smiling and dreamy-eyed himself for the next week after. He and Siri became friends, and then it seemed like they became more. She started sitting with them at lunch, and the other guys liked her, and welcomed her. She was bright, and funny, and a nice addition to the table.

And it wasn't long after that that both Brian and Nick also had company at lunch: Patty Nury and Lisa Loftin, both nice girls, both obviously interested. Nick, especially, seemed enthralled by the attention, and smiled so often now that the others got used to seeing the sun in his face each morning. He and Brian were both quite happy.

Jesse and Marty had each received attention from girls, too. But that they were together was generally known now. It didn't stop girls from wanting to talk to them, and be friends; but it did stop them from giving chase. The lunch table was only big enough for eight people to sit, and it was full now. But people stopped to talk all during lunch, and that they had somehow become kind of popular was not lost on them.

Even slightly knuckleheaded guys like Max Dumfrey treated them well. Max carried on with the oinking and snuffling longer than anyone else; but that he was enjoying being a small part of a larger phenomenon was evident. Jesse and Marty would just grin at him, and shake their heads when he walked by oinking, and Max seemed to revel in that. There were still those that seemed uninterested in them, and purposely distant - the disapprovers. Maybe even gay bashers, in another time and place. But that they were neither vocal nor physical about their disapproval was all that Jesse and Marty cared about. A tacit disapproval is no harder to deal with, really, than no disapproval at all.

The fifth graders that rode their bus also seemed to eye them with a bit of reverence, daring being the equivalent of a form of heroism in their eyes. Jesse and Marty and the others had dared to step up in public and do a slightly crazy thing, but one that had turned out well. Marty had been right in his view that anything they did later would be lost in the glow of their brief bout of fame.

The culmination of it all came one day, at 'their' table in the lunchroom. The bell signaling the end of lunch period sounded. David grabbed his tray and started to get up, but Siri reached out and hauled him back...and kissed him. Patty and Lisa each turned to an astounded Brian and Nick, and leaned over and kissed them, too. That the girls had planned this together was immediately apparent to Jesse, who laughed, and turned to Marty...

...who leaned forward and kissed him!

Jesse froze, shocked down to his socks; but then he simply was unable not to kiss back. He pressed his face against Marty's and kissed hard, and then drew back and kissed his cheek.

"I don't believe you did that," Jesse whispered.

"It was long overdue," Marty said quietly, getting up with the others.

Jesse sighed. His eyes flicked about them, but no one seemed overly interested in what they were doing. He pushed his chair back and grabbed his tray, and he and Marty went with the others towards the double doors back into the hallway.

Jesse put his tray in the rack, and turned around just as Marty put his in. "You're spending the night at my house Friday night."

Marty's eyes sparkled, but he simply nodded. "Okay."

They reached the hallway, and Jesse put out a hand and grabbed Marty's, and squeezed it. "See you at gym."

Marty nodded, and then they went their separate ways.

Christmas was just weeks away now. Friday it snowed, and covered the world in white, and hung icicles from the branches of the trees. That evening the sky cleared and the moon came out, and turned the woods behind Jesse's house into a wonderland that sparkled and glowed in the soft light from above. It was a rare touch of beauty on the silent winter woods.

Jesse felt a need to be outside, and Marty just sighed and went out with him. He was used to Jesse's need for the woods, even when they seemed not to particularly need him. So they bundled up, and went out into the backyard.

They cleared the snow off the big outdoor sofa on the patio behind Jesse's house, until it was a barren wooden frame. Its cushions had been stowed away for the winter, and the seating without them was hard and spare. Jesse and Marty didn't care. They'd brought out a sleeping bag, and now stepped into it together, drew its softness up around them, and sat down. They snuggled together, and examined the crystalline expanse about them, the slumbering woods reborn in glass-like splendor.

"It's pretty," Jesse said, sighing. "Almost as pretty as it is in the summer."

"Yup. I never thought I would fall in love with a buncha trees."

Jesse nodded, his eyes roaming among the frost-covered forms around them. "It's a special place, Marty."

"I know. I feel it now." Marty gave a little sigh. "It's our place."

"Uh huh." Once, the woods had belonged to Jesse alone. People came into his place, sometimes even special people; but none had ever stayed. Not until now, anyway. Now he shared his woods with another, and loved the fact that he did.

"It is pretty," Jesse restated, but then sighed. "But I can't wait until it's green again."

Marty simply nodded, and pulled him closer.

The world was amazingly silent, a silence that only a coating of snow can bring to the land. There wasn't a flicker of breeze, no movement of anything, anywhere. The world was striking in its stillness, in the brief holding of its breath. Jesse looked up at the moon, its nearly full face rimmed with a halo from the ice crystals suspended high in the air. It looked almost like a negative from an old film photo, the likes of which Jesse had seen in his grandfather's things in the city. A shadow, the backside of what was real.

"I'm glad we have an up, Marty. I'm glad we have a sky we can see."

"Oh, me, too. Doing that project really made me appreciate how much we need an up." Marty sighed, and snuggled against Jesse. "That moon is awesome."

Jesse looked at it, and nodded. "What are we doing for Christmas?"

If Marty was surprised by the change in direction, he didn't show it. "Whatever you want. We're gonna have some company for dinner, but I'll have time to see you." He turned his lips to Jesse's ear. "I have a nice Christmas present for you."

Jesse grinned. "I can't wait."

"Are you guys having company?"

Jesse nodded. "Yeah. My grandparents will be here. And my uncle Brian, too."

Marty turned to look at him. "The gay one?"

"Yup. I'm going to tell him about us."

"I'd like to meet him."

"You can come over and do that," Jesse agreed. He smiled. "He'll like you, I'm sure."

Marty seemed pleased to hear that. He laughed. "I wonder if everyone named Brian is gay?"

Jesse tsked, and gave Marty's arm a playful swat. "Brian Finn isn't gay. He just loves Nick. But I believe him now when he says he likes girls."

"He sure likes Patty, anyway. And Nick sure likes Lisa. So...maybe they aren't gay." Marty sighed. "Too bad. It would've been nice to have gay friends."

"David's in love with Siri," Jesse said then. "I can see it in his eyes when he looks at her."

"Oh, so you know love when you see it, do ya?" Marty's eyes sparkled merrily in the moonlight.

Jesse smiled into those eyes. "Yes."

They smiled at each other a moment, and then Marty sighed. "So...I guess it's just you and me holding down the gay fort, for now."

They both looked over at the snow-covered path that led down through the trees to their own fort, and Jesse sighed. There were worse missions in life to be saddled with.

Marty rubbed his cheek against Jesse's. "You notice they're spending more and more time with the girls, and less time hanging out with us?"

"Yup." Jesse nodded. "Doesn't surprise me at all." He ran his hand gently over Marty's.

"Girlfriends," Marty said, a little wonderingly, like he couldn't really understand the concept. But then he laughed. "You think it's really love?"

"Doesn't matter what I think," Jesse returned. He smiled. "Just matters what they think. They're happy, and that makes me happy."

Marty was quiet a moment, and then nodded. "Yeah. Me, too. The girls all look the same, so I think it is love." He turned his head, and his eyes looked questioning. "Think it'll last?"

Jesse sighed. "If they want it to."

Marty pressed his face against Jesse's cheek, and closed his eyes. "I love you. And I want it to last."

Jesse closed his own eyes, feeling every bit of the affection being directed at him. "I love you, too. And it will last."

Marty snuggled closer, and they leaned their heads together. Jesse turned his, and quickly kissed Marty's cheek. Marty turned his own head, and their lips met in the stillness.

"I'm gonna hold you all night long," Marty promised, in a whisper. "Ya heart thief."

Jesse nodded, already looking forward to having Marty in his bed. "I think I can do that."


This story is part of the 2018 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Fine Young Animals". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 19 April to 10 May 2018 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2018 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - Fine Young Animals

The Charm of Being A Pig

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