Leopard Hunt – Chapter 1

Wednesday 31st December, 2014

Neil Rosewood lay on Liam’s bed, his head resting against his boyfriend’s chest. In a few hours, the year would be over and 2015 would begin. A few days after that, he and Liam, along with their friend Clarissa, would be moving to Sydney. It was a gamble, as university offers had not been sent out yet, but all three had done sufficiently well with their Year 12 exams that they were confident they would be accepted as students by the University of Sydney.

In Neil’s case, he didn’t have a lot of choice. After becoming estranged from his parents early in the year he had almost given up on getting a degree. He thought he would need to find a job instead so he could maintain a roof over his head. It was through new friends he had made around that time that he received an offer of free accommodation in Sydney while he studied. With the issue of a place to live resolved, Neil was hoping to study for a Bachelor of Engineering degree, though he was undecided as to which specialty.

Liam had applied for engineering so he could study with Neil, but he was realistic enough about his Year 12 results he thought that was a long shot. To try to ensure they would be at the university together, Liam had also applied for other degrees with lower entry requirements, with his preference being a position in either the Bachelor of Education or Bachelor of Social Work courses.

Their friend Clarissa, who was also moving to Sydney with them, was keeping her fingers crossed for the university’s Economics course. Given how well she had done in her exams, Neil was confident she would get what she wanted.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of the year about to end and how the three of them came to all apply to the University of Sydney, Neil sighed.

“What’s wrong?” Liam Bellweather asked in a soft tone.

“Just thinking.” Neil could feel the resulting soft chuckle through Liam’s chest. “What are you laughing at?”

Liam didn’t answer directly, but Neil didn’t expect him to. Both of them knew Neil had a tendency to overthink things. “What was it about this time?” Liam asked.

“It’s been a crazy year. Twelve months ago, I would never have expected things to end up the way they have.” Neil lifted himself up onto an elbow so he could smile down at Liam. “I certainly would never have expected to be here with you. You were one of the last people I would’ve dreamed of having as a boyfriend.”

Liam flinched at the reminder. “Yeah… But it all worked out in the end.” He reached out and pulled Neil towards him.

“So far.” Neil let himself be held. Being in Liam’s arms was comforting, something else his one-year-younger self would never have believed. “But we’ve got more change ahead. Moving to Sydney’s a little scary.”

While Liam and Clarissa were joining him in Sydney, Neil wouldn’t be living with them. Deon, Clarissa’s boyfriend, had arranged for him to live with Deon’s father, while Liam and Clarissa would be sharing a unit not too far away. Deon was already living in Sydney with a host family organised by the AFL football team that had drafted him just over a month earlier, but Neil knew Deon’s longer-term plan was to have a place of his own in the harbour city.

“I know. We’ll have Clarissa and Deon with us, but I’m going to miss the rest of my friends, especially Doug.” Liam momentarily tightened his grip on Neil. “He’s come a long way towards accepting our relationship over the last few months. He’ll never say it, but I think he’ll miss you, too.”

Neil didn’t reply. Liam and Doug had bullied Neil for five years, ever since they had started school at the Ringwood East Secondary College. It was only after Easter in their final year that Liam had discovered Neil was gay, and that had changed everything. It had been a traumatic time because it was also around then that Neil had been forced to run away from home after being hit by his father for the ‘crime’ of having a gay friend. He hadn’t wanted to wait to find out what would happen when his parents learnt that he, too, was gay.

Given his home situation, Neil had been close to becoming homeless. The one thing that had saved him was the welcoming friendship of the Lilydale Leopards football players. One of the teams in the semi-professional Victorian Football League, the Lilydale Leopards was at the time the home of the only openly gay football player at the VFL level or above. Neil had gone to Lilydale to seek out Jim Henderson but met Todd Underwood first. That was the event that, in hindsight, had turned his life around.

Through Todd, Neil was introduced to Jim and the other players. Deon Bradshaw had been one of those players. It was Deon’s father, Sam, and his life partner, Marcus, who had offered Neil a place to stay in Sydney while he studied for an engineering degree. That had been well before the Australian Football League draft that resulted in Deon becoming part of the Greater Western Sydney Giants Football Club.

Neil’s musings were interrupted by a knock on Liam’s bedroom door. “Boys?”

“Come in, Dad,” Liam said without letting go of Neil.

Bruce Bellweather entered and then smiled at the two guys snuggled together on top of the bed. “Neil, Todd’s here to see you.”

Neil frowned as he sat up. “Did he say what it was about?” He was going to be seeing Todd at the New Year’s Eve party later that night, and he was worried something had gone wrong.

“He said he had a favour to ask.” Bruce grinned. “He also said not to rush.”

Neil exchanged glances with Liam. His boyfriend also seemed uncertain, but unlike Neil, he didn’t appear worried. “We’ll be right there.”

After Liam’s father left the room, Neil bit his lower lip. “What do you think it’s about?”

Liam gave Neil a squeeze of reassurance. “He’s here to ask for a favour. It’s probably asking us to babysit Sean and Becky so he and Lorraine can go out for the night.”

Neil shook his head. “That can’t be it. He knows we’re all going to the party tonight.”

“Then maybe it’s for tomorrow night.” Liam rose, pulling Neil with him. “But there’s no need to speculate since we can go find out. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”

Intellectually, Neil agreed with his boyfriend, but emotionally he wasn’t as secure. The rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows he’d experienced throughout the past year hadn’t left him unscathed. He was already uneasy about leaving the emotional security he experienced with the Lilydale Leopards, and more change wasn’t something he wanted.

A couple of minutes later, Neil found himself being enveloped by Todd’s arms, which, combined with the smile he’d received as he entered the living room, was exactly the tonic he needed.

“Liam’s dad said you wanted a favour,” Neil said as soon as the tall football player released him.

Todd grinned. “I do, but you need to keep it quiet, at least for now.” He waved a hand towards the couch. “Sit down, and I’ll explain.”

Neil and Liam sat side by side, Liam taking Neil’s hand in the process. Todd dropped his muscular body into the seat opposite.

“I’ve been speaking privately to Becky over the last few days, and she’s come around. She now believes I’m not going to leave her mum, and she’s beginning to think I really do intend to marry Lorraine. So, I’ve been doing some forward planning. Once we have Becky’s approval, Lorraine and I want to get married sooner rather than later, but we also want everyone there for the wedding. Since you two are heading to Sydney in a few days, I wanted to let you know ahead of time so you can plan on coming back to Melbourne for the wedding.”

“We’ll be there,” Liam said before Neil could respond. “Just let us know when.” He grinned at Neil. “One way or another, we’ll be there, even if it’s just for the day. We’ll find a way.”

Neil gave Liam a quick kiss as a thank you for the immediate and enthusiastic acceptance. Liam knew Todd meant a lot to Neil, and missing Todd’s wedding was not something Neil wanted to happen. The event had been on the horizon for months, with only the initial disapproval of Becky—Lorraine’s eleven-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage—holding things up.

“Thank you! I really appreciate it.” Todd grinned. “I’ve been checking the AFL fixture as well as the Sydney University calendar, and I’ve found a date I think everyone, or almost everyone, can make.”

He leant forward. “The weekend starting the 13th of June is a split round in the AFL, with Carlton, Hawthorn, and the Western Bulldogs all having byes. That hopefully means Jim, Ty, Dave, Paul, and Peter will all be free. Deon’s the only ex-Leopard who’ll be playing that weekend, and GWS play on the Sunday in Melbourne, so I’m crossing my fingers he’ll be here, too. The Leopards also play that Sunday, which leaves the Saturday free for everyone. We haven’t told anyone else yet, but Lorraine and I have selected that Saturday for our wedding.

“I’ve also checked your university’s website and that’s the weekend before your first-semester exams start. You’ll have the week beforehand free, which is important.” Todd took a deep breath and locked eyes with Neil. “The reason it’s important is because I’d like you to be my groomsman. What do you say?”

Neil’s jaw dropped as he stared back at Todd. After a moment, he managed to recover enough to squeak out a one-word question. “Me?”

Todd gave him a broad smile. “Yes, you.” He chuckled. “I’ve got two reasons. The minor reason is that if I don’t fill up the wedding party quickly, Ollie’s going to want to be in it. He’s one of my best friends, but he’s also a lot to handle. He’ll also want to organise the buck’s night, and that’s something I’m trying to avoid, though I may not have a choice since my best man doesn’t live in Melbourne. We both know Ollie’s great value, but I want to keep the wedding and buck’s night sane.”

Neil and Liam both chuckled. Oliver Bellesonci had been one of Neil’s housemates when Neil was living with Todd. A loyal friend, Oliver was also well known for his sexually explicit nature. It was the general opinion of Oliver’s teammates that he got more exercise with his girlfriend than he did on the football oval…and he was by no means lazy when playing.

Todd grinned. “But the main reason is simple. Lorraine and I have agreed to keep the wedding party small, which means just a best man and a groomsman. I’m going to ask my big brother to be my best man, and I thought it only appropriate that I ask my little brother to be the groomsman.” He raised an eyebrow. “What do you say?”

Neil wiped a hand across his eyes to try to clear his suddenly blurry vision. Todd had told him earlier in the year that he considered Neil to be the younger brother he never had, but Neil hadn’t realised how serious he had been. Asking him to be part of Todd’s wedding was more than Neil ever expected.

“Well?” Todd asked, a nervous expression appearing on his face.

“Yes!” Neil grinned. “Yes, yes, yes!”

“Thank you!” Todd’s gaze flicked to Liam and then back to Neil. “Can I ask you two to keep this a secret for now? I don’t want the word to get out until I’ve everything organised.”

“Sure.” Liam glanced towards the door to the kitchen to where his father stood. “Dad, I know it’s early, but is there any chance of opening a bottle of champagne?”

Bruce Bellweather chuckled. “Under the circumstances, I think it’s appropriate.” He nodded to Todd. “Congratulations.”

Todd demurred. “I haven’t proposed to Lorraine yet. She might say no.”

Neil scoffed. “Yeah, right.” He knew Lorraine loved Todd as much as Todd loved her. They had been ready to get married for months. Neil knew it wouldn’t be long before the engagement became official.

* * *

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

Oliver Bellesconi looked over his shoulder and grinned at his newest housemate. “If you want to make yourself useful, you can find the plastic cups. Roscoe bought them before Christmas, but I don’t know where he’s hidden them.”

Ben Driscoll grinned back. “A challenging job, but I think I can do it. Any suggestions on where to start looking?”

Oliver turned his attention back to the marinade he was making for the chicken wings. He was about halfway through preparing finger food for that night’s New Year’s Eve party. “No idea. You can try texting him in case he remembers.” Ben was still a mystery to not only Oliver, but to most of the Leopards. Oliver knew a lot of the team would be using the party as a means to get to know him.

Ben had driven up in an older model Ford Falcon with New South Wales registration plates a few days after Christmas. He had brought four suitcases with him and not much else. All Oliver knew about him, despite sharing a house for the last three days, was he was from Sydney, he had been trained in the Sydney Swans academy for young football players, and that he had sent the Leopards a DVD with a selection of the games in which he’d played, along with a request to join the club. While the other new players had joined in with the early training sessions before Christmas, Ben had still been in Sydney. With the chaos of the holiday season, over half the team still hadn’t met him.

“Let’s see if I can find them without bothering him.” Ben started working his way through the kitchen cupboards.

“If you see some extra mixing bowls on your search, let me know. I’m about to run out.” Oliver glared around the kitchen. “I still don’t know where everything is. At my old place, I had everything organised, but this place is a shambles.”

Ben paused and gave Oliver a quizzical look. “You haven’t been here long?”

“Nope. I moved in two weeks ago. With all the new players coming in to replace the ones we lost, the club rearranged all the housing. They like to make sure all the rookies have an older player to mentor them while they settle in. In a normal year, it wouldn’t be much of a disruption, but with five new players, everything got changed around.” He flicked Ben a broad smile. “We had four new players at the end of last year because a number of players quit, but I was lucky that time and didn’t have to move. This year I drew the short straw.”

“Who was staying here before?”

Oliver chuckled. “If you’re hoping to get drafted at the end of next year, this is the lucky house. Deon, Ty, and Jim were living here along with Ryan. Ryan’s moved into my old place while Charlie and I got moved here.”

“And you’re mentoring Roscoe while Charlie mentors me.” Ben grinned as he pulled out some plastic bowls. “Is this what you need?”

“They’ll do. Thanks!” Oliver glanced at them and realised they would need a rinse before he used them. “Can you give them a quick wash and dry? They’re a bit dusty.”

“Not a problem.” Ben headed to the sink. “Who were you assigned to mentor last year?”

“No one. I don’t think the club was game to assign me to anyone.” Oliver chuckled. “Which was probably wise. I was only nineteen at the time and not very responsible.”

“Charlie’s only nineteen.” Ben glanced across. “I take it he’s responsible?”

Oliver snorted. “Charlie’s overly responsible at times, but that can be good. I think they picked him for you because neither of you are from Melbourne.”

“He told me. He’s from Echuca originally.” Ben chuckled. “Though there’s a bit of a difference between Sydney and a small, Victorian country town.”

“True, but he still remembers not knowing anyone and struggling to learn what to do.”

“If that’s the reason why Charlie was assigned to mentor me, what’s the reason you were assigned to Roscoe?” Ben glanced across with a cheeky grin as he turned on the hot water tap. “Is it because he doesn’t need someone who’s responsible?”

Oliver laughed. “No, it’s simpler than that. I’m the only one available who has experience in living with a young gay guy.” It had been a surprise to Oliver when he was told he’d be mentoring Ross Munroe, but the young forward was already known to him from the weeks Ross had been training with the Leopards prior to the AFL draft. Ross wasn’t a stranger to Oliver or the club.

“You don’t mean Jim Henderson, do you?”

“No way! Jim’s two years older than me.” Oliver shook his head as he chuckled. Ben’s tentative guess wasn’t a bad one since Jim Henderson had been the only openly gay football player in the VFL. “No, it was another guy, Neil Rosewood. He’ll be here tonight, in fact.”

“That name sounds familiar, but I thought I knew the names of all the players.”

“He’s not a player. He was one of our runners last season, and he lived most of the year with me, Todd, and Paul. He moved out a few weeks ago, and he’s off to Sydney next week.”

“Is he the guy who was hit by his father?” Ben turned off the tap and started to wash the bowls. “There was a current-affairs report on him around May, I think.”

“That’s him.” Oliver paused and momentarily lowered his head as he remembered the night Neil had shown up at their front door. “He was a mess emotionally when we took him in, but he ended up being a core part of the team. We all took a lot of inspiration from Neil.”

“What sort of inspiration?”

“He had to overcome a lot in a short space of time, but in the end he was still standing on his feet. He’d been living with homophobic parents, effectively lost his home, came out on national TV, and—” Oliver clamped his mouth shut. There were some things that shouldn’t be shared without Neil’s permission. “Anyway, he showed us hurdles can be overcome, that we should never give up. That inspiration took us to the grand final and the premiership.”

Oliver realised the room was too quiet. He glanced over and saw that Ben was simply standing at the kitchen sink, staring into nothing. “Ben?”

Ben gave himself a small shake. He tried to smile at Oliver, but he wasn’t very successful. “You don’t have a problem mentoring and living with a gay guy?”

“Not at all.” Oliver narrowed his eyes. Ben hadn’t shown any sign of homophobia when he’d initially been told Ross was gay, but he wondered if there were still some reservations that would need addressing. “Do you?”

Ben ignored the question. “What about living with two gay guys?”

Oliver stared, not sure if Ben was telling him what he thought he’d heard.

Ben looked away. “I was offered a place with the Sydney Swans seconds, but I turned it down. I didn’t ask to join the Leopards because you guys won the premiership and had five players drafted into the AFL, although that’s what I told my parents. I asked to join the Leopards because I knew you won’t turn on me.”

“The Swans wouldn’t, either.” Oliver was confident making that statement. He only knew one of the Sydney players personally, but he had heard enough through Jim to know there was a lot of anti-homophobia support within that AFL club.

“It’s not them that I’m worried about.” He lowered his head. “My family’s virulently anti-gay. They’d kill me if they knew. That’s why I couldn’t stay in Sydney.” His body started to shake.

Oliver abandoned the food he was preparing and rushed over to pull his larger housemate into an embrace. He now understood why Ben had been so guarded in the three days since he’d arrived in Melbourne.

* * *

Late that night, Neil Rosewood was at the side of the crowded room when he felt an arm being slipped around his waist. He glanced across and then smiled as his boyfriend gave him a nudge before handing him a beer.

“Stop thinking and enjoy the party. It’s the end of the year and the start of a new one!” Liam leant over and gave Neil a quick kiss. “Don’t look so unhappy.”

“I didn’t realise it was going to be a going-away party. I’m not sure that’s something to celebrate.”

Ty Flanders and his girlfriend, Karen, were passing as Neil made his comment. He stopped and gave Neil a mock frown. “No, it’s not, but that’s not what the party is about. It’s about celebrating the year that’s been and looking forward to the year ahead. You had a lot to do with the success of the year, and we all want to wish you and Liam all the best for the year ahead.” He grinned. “It’s also a good excuse for everyone—well, most of us—to get together. Now that some of us are no longer playing for the Leopards, we’re not seeing each other as much as we used to.”

Karen sniffed before giving Neil a wink. “Ty, you just like parties. It’s got nothing to do with seeing your old teammates again.”

Ty looked shocked. “Me? Like parties?” He shook his head to dismiss the idea. “No, I hate them. All these empty calories I have to train off,” he said, holding up his half-empty bottle of water. “It’s just a chore I don’t need.”

Neil and Liam both grinned. After being disappointed when he was overlooked in the Australian Football League’s 2013 draft, Ty wasn’t taking any chances. He’d been given a second chance when the Carlton Football Club had selected him in the 2014 draft at the end of November after his successful year with the Leopards. Ty was finally part of the elite of Australian Rules Football, and he took seriously what he ate and drank.

“Yeah, right.” Karen gave him a kiss on the cheek. “It’s not like you’re not going to see Neil and Liam again soon. I know you’ve already got at least one trip booked and others planned.”

Ty shrugged. “The other trips are dependent on whether or not I’m playing. The only firm trip is at the start of March when Dad and I are flying up for Mardi Gras.” ‘Dad’ was the nickname Ty had given his then-Leopards teammate Jim Henderson, Australia’s highest-profile active gay sportsman.

“Mardi Gras?” Liam asked a second before Neil could ask the same question.

Ty chuckled as he scanned the room for his good friend and mentor, Jim Henderson. “I still haven’t told him, but it’s all organised with the club. We’re not playing that weekend, and since Dad is almost certainly going to be invited, I’m making sure he goes.” His brow wrinkled. “That reminds me, I need to check if anyone else wants to fly up for the weekend.” He glanced around the room. “I suspect anyone who can afford it will want to go up and march with him, too.”

Neil nodded slowly to himself. An invitation to march in the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras was obvious in hindsight. “Why haven’t you told him?”

Ty grinned. “Because you know how he’s going to react. He’s going to throw a hissy fit and say he doesn’t want to be a gay footballer. He just wants to play football.”

Karen rolled her eyes. “Jim doesn’t throw hissy fits. The only person I know who throws—”

“I think that’s enough,” Ty said quickly as he put a hand over Karen’s mouth.  He grinned at Neil and Liam. “Getting back to the original topic, besides celebrating the year, this party is a thank you to you, Neil, for being part of the Leopard family. Like Deon before you, you’re moving up north, but we’re telling you that you’re not forgotten, and you never will be. Unfortunately, Carlton isn’t scheduled to play in Sydney until the end of May, but if I’m in the team then, you can be sure I’ll be dropping in to say hello.”

“Any word on that?” Liam asked.

Ty shrugged while avoiding eye contact. “It’s too early to say. Training kicks off again this week after slacking off over the Christmas/New Year break. So much can happen between now and May; it’s not worth trying to predict if I’ll be on the team.”

“However, according to Jim, it’s looking promising.” Karen paused and then beckoned to someone. “You can ask him yourself, if you like.”

The four were joined by Jim, his boyfriend Tony Hills, and Clarissa Hargraves, the school friend who was also heading to Sydney with Neil and Liam to join Deon, her boyfriend. Deon had flown up to Sydney a few weeks earlier after being drafted during the AFL’s national draft at the end of November.

“G’day, Dad!” Ty grinned at Jim. “Are you still heading to Tony’s place after the party, or do I need to buy earplugs?”

Jim rolled his eyes. “Brat.” He grinned at Neil and Liam. “Do you two need rescuing? The brat’s not trying to convince you to stay in Melbourne, I hope.”

Clarissa linked her arm with Neil. “If he is, let me know. I’m not driving to Sydney by myself.”

Neil chuckled. “The brat’s fine. He was starting to become shy and humble, so we thought we’d ask you what’s going on.”

Jim’s head snapped around, and he narrowed his eyes at Ty. “Brat?” he asked in a stern tone.

“It’s okay, Jim,” Karen said. “We were just discussing if Ty is likely to be playing for Carlton’s senior team when they go to Sydney in May.”

“There’s too much that can happen between now and then,” Ty said firmly. “I don’t know if I’ll have made the team by then, let alone if I’ll be fit to play.”

Jim’s expression softened. “The brat’s right. It’s too far in the future. However, the way things are going, if he’s fit to play, he’ll be playing. It’s only been a month, and he’s already impressed the coaches. I expect he’ll be playing with the seniors in the preseason, and hopefully he’ll start the season on the field.”

“Dad!” Ty shuddered. “Don’t jinx me.”

Jim rested a hand on Ty’s shoulder for a moment. “Relax, brat. It’s okay to admit you’re doing well. You don’t have unrealistic expectations, so don’t worry about it.”

“Keep that smile on your face, Jim,” Karen said with a smirk, “because Ty has something he needs to tell you.”

Jim and Ty both turned to stare at her. “I do?” Ty asked.

“Mardi Gras,” was all Karen said, but that was enough for Ty to wince and then paste a very fake-looking smile on his face.

“Dad…” Ty started before pausing, apparently unsure how to continue.

When Tony started to snicker, Jim turned to his boyfriend. “Do you know what it’s about?”

“No, but I can guess.” Tony raised an eyebrow at Ty. “Are you starting the discussion, or has a decision already been made.”

“It’s all organised.” Ty grinned. “Now, I can leave you to tell Dad, while Karen and I go talk to a few people. Bye for now!”

He started to move away, only to have his arm grabbed by Jim. “What’s all organised?”

Clarissa whispered to Neil. “Do you have any popcorn? This looks like it’s about to get interesting.”

Ty shrugged while avoiding eye contact with Jim. “You and me—and Tony, too, if he’s keen. Karen can’t make it, unfortunately, but the two of us are trying to organise something for when she’s not studying and I don’t have any football commitments. At the moment, we’re thinking of June, but—”

Jim interrupted him. “Brat, you’re not making any sense.”

Ty straightened and tried to look innocent. “I’m making perfect sense. You and me, and possibly Tony, are going up to Sydney in March to see Neil, Liam, Clarissa and that loser, Deon. I’ve already okayed it with the club since that weekend we don’t have any games.”

Clarissa slipped away from Neil and Liam and punched Ty in the arm while she gave him the look of death. “What did you say about my boyfriend?”

Ty rubbed his bicep. “He plays for Greater Western Sydney and not Carlton. That automatically makes him a loser.” Ty skipped away from the petite brunette who looked like she was going to swing again. “He’s still a good guy, though. He’s a Leopard, after all.”

Clarissa jabbed a finger in Ty’s direction. “Don’t forget Sydney’s only an hour away by plane. If you badmouth Deon again, I’m on the next flight back to sort you out.”

Ty held up both hands in surrender. “Okay!” He glanced at Karen. “Aren’t you going to protect me?”

Karen snorted. “Clarissa’s a friend of mine, too. If you want to put your foot in your mouth, don’t look to me to rescue you.”

Ty looked at Karen, Clarissa, and finally Jim. “Dad, I think I’m surrounded. Help?”

Jim chuckled. “You’re a big boy, brat. I’m sure you can manage. Now, getting back to what we were talking about earlier, which weekend were you looking at us going to Sydney? Tony and I may already have plans.”

“March 7th.” Ty tensed, as if he expected Jim to explode.

Jim stared for a moment and then turned to Tony. “Do we have anything on that weekend?”

“We do now.” Tony chuckled. “You don’t recognise the date, do you?”

“No, why?”

“You missed Karen’s clue. That’s the night of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade.”

Jim’s face went blank. He then turned to Ty as an expression of horror spread across his face. “You didn’t…”

“The club thought it was a good idea. You know you’re going to be invited, so we’ve planned ahead. We don’t have any games that weekend, so you’re free to get your picture in all the papers. Again.” By the time Ty finished, he was grinning broadly.

Jim buried his head in his hands. “No…”

Liam, Neil and Clarissa laughed. “I’m sure Deon will march with you, too,” Clarissa said. “In fact, I’ll make sure he does.”

“I’m glad you’re on board with this, Clarissa, because we need a favour,” Ty said.

Clarissa fixed him with a steely gaze. “Another favour? I’m already telling Deon to march with Jim.”

“Er…yes.” Ty looked sheepish. “Besides Mardi Gras, there’s also a World Cup cricket match on the same weekend. That means, unless you’re a millionaire, there’s no free hotel rooms anyway in Sydney, at least not anywhere liveable. If Deon finds a place to stay by then, we’ll crash with him, but if he hasn’t, we’re hoping to stay with you and Liam.”

Clarissa glanced at Liam who shrugged. “Okay, Ty, but you owe me. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to collect.”

Ty gave her an uncertain look before turning to Neil and Liam. “Should I be worried?”

Neil grinned. “Only if you badmouth Deon again.”

Ty considered it for a moment and then grinned. “Life’s not supposed to be boring.” He wrapped an arm around Karen’s waist. “Thanks, Clarissa, but I think it’s time to mingle. There are a lot of people I want to catch up with, and I want to meet the new players.” He winked at Neil. “I want to see what the new Leopards are like. Dad will be playing against them at some point, and he may need a few tips. He’s getting old, you know.”

“I’m still young enough to run you into the ground, brat.” Jim grinned. “But it doesn’t hurt to check out the competition.”

“Does Tony know you’re going to be checking out other guys?” Ty asked as he flicked Jim’s boyfriend a grin.

Tony laughed. “You walked into that one, Jim. Come on, it’s time to move before you give Ty any more leading lines.” He lifted a hand to signal goodbye to Neil and Liam. “If we don’t see you beforehand, have a safe trip to Sydney!” Tony, Jim, Ty, and Karen said a few more words of luck and best wishes before leaving to join the other groups in the room.

“It’s time I saw a few people, too,” Clarissa said before giving Neil and Liam quick pecks on the cheek. “Don’t get into any trouble while I’m gone.”

The two guys grinned at each other before Liam slipped his arm around Neil and returned his attention to his future flatmate. “We’ll try our best, but no promises,” Liam told Clarissa as he held Neil tight.

* * *

Up in Sydney, Deon Bradshaw and Kevin Scanlan were among the large collection of revellers along the harbourfront in the Rock’s district between the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Unlike almost everyone else in the area waiting for the midnight fireworks, they were drinking water. Neither wanted to risk getting drunk and becoming involved in something stupid. As young AFL players—Deon about to start his first season with Greater Western Sydney and Kevin his second with the Sydney Swans—their clubs had made it clear to them that if their names or faces appeared in the newspapers because of an incident, they could expect disciplinary action. Alcohol wasn’t prohibited, but drinking in moderation had been emphasised. Both guys decided abstinence was the best option for the night. Being a typical, warm summer night, overindulging in alcoholic drinks would be too easy to do.

Kevin leant over and spoke directly into Deon’s ear. “Missing Clarissa?”

“Very much.” Deon smiled and lifted his water bottle in a salute. “But thanks for the company.” He looked past Kevin to Daphne Silverton, Kevin’s girlfriend. “Especially to you and your family.”

Daphne, a tall but plain looking young woman, smiled back. “Kevin organised it. He didn’t want you spending New Year’s by yourself. My brother and sister invited themselves along. I think they just want to be able to boast about spending time with a couple of professional sportsmen.” She rolled her eyes. “And now they’ve disappeared.”

Deon chuckled. “I wasn’t going to be alone. If I hadn’t accepted your invite, I would’ve headed out with some of my teammates. But this is better than some bar or party.”

Kevin grinned. “This is a party. A street party.” He gave Daphne a quick kiss before continuing the conversation with Deon. “I had a similar invite, but we decided to skip it.” He chuckled. “I remember what last year was like with my teammates, and it got a little rowdy. Luckily, it was at a private club, but I didn’t want to inflict that on Daphne tonight.” He waved a hand at the crowd around them. “This is better.”

“It sure is.” It was easier for Deon to spend New Year’s Eve without Clarissa by being with Kevin, even if Daphne’s presence kept reminding him of being away from his own girlfriend. If he had been with his new teammates, he wouldn’t have the emotional support Kevin was able to give him. It had only been a month since he had moved to Sydney, and while he was beginning to form friendships within his club, none of those relationships were at the level of comfort he had with Kevin, his old junior football teammate.

Angelina, Daphne’s sister, appeared from out of the crowd and approached Daphne, a tipsy smile on her face, and a muscular and bare-chested young man on her arm. A polo shirt was hanging from the back of the young man’s khaki shorts, and an elaborate abstract tattoo decorated his right chest and shoulder. Angelina pushed a set of keys into Daphne’s hand. “Here, take these. Leo and I are going back to his place after the fireworks, so you can have the apartment.” She winked at Kevin. “You two can celebrate the New Year like we’re going to.”

Daphne hesitated. “Are you sure?” She glanced at Leo before returning her attention to her big sister. “Is this what you really want?”

Angelina started a passionate kiss with Leo. Several seconds later, they separated, though they kept an arm around each other’s waist. “Yep, I’m sure. We’re going to have fun. You kids go off and do the same.” She lifted a hand in farewell. “See you tomorrow…or maybe the day after!”

“Just a sec,” Kevin said quickly. He moved over and pushed his face close to Leo’s. “You look after her, okay?”

Leo scowled for a moment before nodding. “I will. You don’t have to worry.” The look he gave Angelina was soft and gentle. “I’m going to take real good care of her.”

Kevin stepped back and smiled. “In that case, have fun.”

As Daphne’s sister and Leo disappeared into the crowd, Daphne slipped her arm around Kevin’s. “Thank you.”

“She’s not drunk, but she’s heading that way. I don’t want her to regret things tomorrow morning. I was only doing what your brother would’ve done.” Kevin looked around. “I wonder where he’s gone.”

Deon had spotted Daphne’s big brother disappearing earlier. “Last I saw him, he was with a mixed group around his own age. I think he’s hoping he’ll get lucky, too.” The smile on his face flickered for a moment as he realised he was going to be the third wheel for the night. Everyone else had paired off.

Kevin must have sensed Deon’s thoughts as he immediately draped an arm across Deon’s shoulders. “Then it’s just the three of us through to midnight. Don’t worry, we’re not going to abandon you.”

“You know you and Daphne can head off early if you want. I can make my own way back.”

“Nonsense! We brought my car to make travelling easy. We’ll drive you back to your host family; don’t worry about that.”

Deon was going to argue, but he could tell Kevin wasn’t going to budge. Life would be easier once his own car was in Sydney, but with the initial rush to join his new club after the draft, Deon had left it back in Melbourne. After giving the logistics some thought, he had his car keys sent to Clarissa and suggested she drive it up to Sydney when she was ready to move into her new unit. He knew he would have to get the car re-registered, and it would need a new roadworthy inspection for it to satisfy the New South Wales requirements for registration, but that was a small price to pay for the flexibility of having his own means of transport. “Thanks, Kev.”

Daphne, on the other side of Kevin to Deon, smiled. “I’m counting down the days until Clarissa gets here, too. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she and the guys get into Sydney Uni.”

“Me, too.” Deon cocked his head as he looked at Daphne. “Do you regret taking a gap year?”

Daphne shook her head and tightened her grip on Kevin. “Absolutely not. I needed the break. I wasn’t ready to start my science degree this time last year, but now I am. Having Clarissa and the other two guys at uni with me is just an added bonus.”

Kevin grinned at her. “And I’ll be dropping in as much as I can.” He smirked at Deon. “Our training grounds are close to the uni. A pity yours are so far away.”

Deon chuckled as he conceded the point. As a professional football player, he would only have one day off a week, so his times with his girlfriend would be largely limited to nights. Between training, games, team meetings, social-outreach programmes, and other mandatory club activities, most of his days were already fully booked. Kevin was in a similar situation, but the Sydney Swans trained at the SCG, which was walking distance to the university. Whenever Kevin had an hour or more free in the day, he would be able to go see Daphne, assuming she wasn’t in a lecture or lab.

“Are you ready for house-hunting next Tuesday?” Deon asked to change the topic to something more important.

“Definitely!” Kevin gave Daphne a quick kiss before returning his attention to Deon. “I’ve searched online and found a couple of places that look promising.”

“Don’t get your hopes up too high, guys,” Daphne said. “Decent places within your budget aren’t easy to find, and they tend to disappear fast. Liam and Clarissa were lucky with the place they found. They were in the right place at the right time. Their unit had only been on the market for less than a day before Liam snapped it up.”

Deon shrugged. “We’re not in any serious rush. Kev and I have host families to stay with, so we can take our time looking for a place to share.”

“I’m just warning you. You’re going to need a bit of luck if you’re going to find the right place.”

Kevin nodded to signal his agreement with Daphne. “And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to take too long to find somewhere.” He grinned. “Daphne and I can’t keep borrowing her sister’s apartment for some quality private time.”

Deon chuckled. Kevin and Daphne had been going out for less than two months, but he already knew the two had a solid physical as well as emotional relationship. His own relationship with Clarissa wasn’t as far along, but he respected Clarissa’s desire to wait. For the right girl, he was willing to hold off.

* * *

It was the early hours of New Year’s Day when a nude Kevin cuddled up against an equally nude Daphne. “Do you think we should tell Deon?” he asked as he slipped a hand between her legs and started to stroke gently.

She sighed. “I was thinking about it earlier. Once you and he are sharing a house, he’s going to find out, and it might be better if he knew beforehand. I’m just not sure…”

“I know.” He gave her a soft peck on the cheek. “I’m sure he’ll be okay with it, but it’s really none of his business. It’s just that sooner or later the word will get out, and the more friends we have in our corner, the better.”

Daphne grabbed Kevin’s errant hand and pulled it up to her abdomen. “I can’t think while you’re doing that.” She grinned and gave him a quick kiss. “And twice is enough for now. We can go again after we’ve had a sleep.”

“Sorry,” Kevin said, though he wasn’t sorry at all. “You just do something to me. I can’t resist you.”

Daphne rolled over so they were face to face. “I still don’t understand what you see in me, but I know you do. If you think you need to tell Deon—or anyone else for that matter—then do it. Too many people already know.”

“And that’s the only reason I suggested it. I think Neil, Liam, and Clarissa should be told, too, so if you see someone from your old school at uni, you’ll have support. I won’t say anything just yet, but if the opportunity arises, I think we should let them know.”

Daphne sighed again. “I know, but it’s hard. It should be no one’s business but ours. I don’t like being pressured to say anything, and there’s also the impact on you. What will happen to you and your career once the truth becomes public?”

Kevin gave her a soft kiss. “Whatever happens, happens. A few key people at the club already know, and I’ve been told a press release has already been drafted and securely stored away, ready if needed. I’m not ashamed of you, Daphne, and I never will be. I agree that it’s none of anyone else’s business, but I don’t care if the world knows. I love you, all of you,” he added, returning his hand for a moment to its previous spot between her legs. “If the word gets out that I’m dating someone who’s transgender, I don’t care. For your sake, I hope it doesn’t, but don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” He pulled her into a loving embrace. “As long as I have you, I’m happy.”


Copyright Notice - Copyright © May 2018 by Graeme. Graeme.

The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.

Disclaimer: Some public figures have been included in this story for effect. This is fiction, and the words and actions of those characters are mine and not those of the real person. All other individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.

Dedicated to the memory of MikeL who passed away in late 2016. Mike was one of my beta-readers for the earlier books, helping to turn my original drafts into a quality product. He is sorely missed.

I would like to thank C James for the advice he gave on early versions, rec for editing this story for me, and a special thank you to Tom and ricky for that crucial final review before publication.