Nineteen hours after Sydney celebrated the New Year, it was time for Los Angeles to do the same. Mason was with his friends from school at a party as they waited for midnight to approach. The majority of attendees were Hispanic, with most of the rest being African American. Mason was one of the handful that belonged to both groups, though given some of the pairings that were occurring that night, it was likely there would be more in the next generation.
“Yo, dude,” Mason said as he approached Jeremy, one of the few white kids at the party. “It’s good to see you face to face again.”
The two dapped fists. “Too true, man. Skype is fine, but it’s not the same. Welcome back. How was Arizona?”
Mason snorted. “Grandma’s been making me cook. She said I’m going to be looking after myself soon, so I need to learn how. Apparently, she doesn’t believe in takeout.”
“Hey, there’s nothing wrong with home-cooked meals.” Jeremy grinned. “It could be worse. She may’ve made you learn to clean the bathroom.” He paused and took in Mason’s pained expression. He chuckled. “Then again…”
“Don’t talk about it.” Mason shuddered. “I’m thinking of telling Dad I’m going to hire a housekeeper when I’m down under. There are some things a man shouldn’t need to do.”
“Watch it, Mason, that sounds sexist.” Jeremy winked. “Next, you’ll be saying there are jobs fit only for us poor, downtrodden white folks.”
Mason chuckled. “Okay, I’ll take it back. Let’s say instead that hopefully I’ll be studying hard and won’t have time for housecleaning.” He raised an eyebrow. “Do you think my dad will buy it?”
“He might, but I don’t think so. He’s usually one step ahead of you.”
“Yeah, I know.” Mason sighed. “Which is how I ended up at Grandma’s in the first place.”
Jeremy cocked his head. “Are you back for a while, or are you going to D.C. to be with your mom?”
Mason made a face and turned to look over the crowd. “No. Mom and Dad never suggested it, so I get the impression they don’t want me there. I’m staying here until I fly out.”
“Home alone?” Jeremy waggled his eyebrows. “Does that mean nonstop partying—horizontal or otherwise—since the folks will be gone?”
“You wish.” Mason grinned. “I wish, too, but no. I’ve been told I have to keep a low profile. I had to argue for ages simply to get permission to come here tonight. Officially, I’m flying back to Arizona in a couple of days, but unofficially Dad’s staying with me at home until I leave for Sydney.”
“Do you have a date yet?”
“Not quite, but it won’t be long. I was offered a place in the engineering school three weeks ago, so as soon as my student visa is approved I’m off. That should be anytime now, though I don’t know how much the holiday season is screwing up the processing.”
Jeremy frowned. “I thought you weren’t leaving until February.”
“I wasn’t, but my dad wants to head to D.C. to be with Mom, I don’t want to be in Arizona anymore, and I’m having trouble finding somewhere permanent to live over the net, so we decided I should leave as soon as all the paperwork is done. Mom and Dad don’t seem to care about how much it’ll cost, so I’m heading off as soon as I can, and I’ll have a couple of months to find somewhere to live and to get settled.”
Jeremy glanced around and then lowered his voice. “Planning on some boyfriend-hunting before school starts?”
Mason also checked to make sure no one could overhear them. “Maybe. At a minimum, finding myself a fuck buddy or two for that horizontal partying you mentioned. I’ve already looked up the details of Sydney’s gay district. We’ll see how it goes.” He scowled into the distance for a moment before smiling. “One thing I promise you, I’m not hiding who I am while I’m there.”
Jeremy slapped him on the back. “Good for you!” He grinned as he raised his voice back to a normal conversational volume. “I was thinking about your trip the other day, and I realised that you’ll be able to use your fake ID to do whatever you want because there’s no way anyone there will be able to check it out.”
“I’m not taking it.” Mason grinned when Jeremy reacted with surprise. “For starters, it’s too dangerous. My real date of birth is on my passport, and if they ever crosscheck the two, I’ll be in big trouble. I might even get kicked out of the country, and I don’t want that to happen. But there’s an even better reason for me to leave my fake ID at home.”
Jeremy waited, and then gave Mason a mock scowl. “And that is…?”
Mason chuckled. “It’s because I won’t need it. The legal age for practically everything in Australia is eighteen. I’ll be able to buy drinks and go to clubs using my passport or driver’s license as ID.”
“Man, you get all the breaks!” Jeremy raised an eyebrow in a hopeful manner. “Any room in your suitcase for an extra person? I’ll go on a diet if I have to.”
Jeremy shrugged. “It was worth a try.” He cocked his head. “So, your plans while at college will be studying, drinking, and sex. Did you find anything else to do?”
“Is there anything else worth doing?” Mason winked before continuing in a more serious tone. “Actually, I may have found something. I’ve been checking out the social groups on the university website. They sound like high-school clubs, and they cover a lot of areas. Most don’t interest me, but there’s one sports club that sounds interesting. It may be a little weird, but it could be a lot of fun, too.”
“What is it?”
Mason grinned. “Quidditch.”
Jeremy stared for a moment and then laughed. “Yeah, man. As if.”
“I’m serious.” Mason pulled out his phone and brought up a website. “The University of Sydney has a Quidditch team. Have a look.”
Mason chuckled at the wide-eyed look that appeared on his friend’s face. He knew Jeremy was a Harry Potter fan, and that’s what originally led him to check out the Quidditch-team details. “I did some more checking, and there are Quidditch teams here in L.A, too.” He took his phone back for a moment and then brought up a new page. “The Los Angeles Gambits play USC on the 17th. If I’m still around, what do you think about the two of us heading off to watch the game?”
“Fuck, yeah! And if you’re not around, I’ll go by myself.” Jeremy checked out a few pages on the new website Mason had provided before handing back the phone. “I didn’t realise Quidditch was a real sport, let alone that so many people play it. I’ll have to text Marcy and let her know that UCLA has a team. She’ll want to check it out. Maybe even see if she can join.” He smiled at Mason. “It looks weird and a little gay, but it could be fun. At worst, it’ll be an interesting way to waste a couple of hours on a Saturday.”
“That’s what I thought, too.”
“Are you seriously thinking of playing?”
Mason considered it for a moment and then shook his head. “Not really. I only brought it up because I knew you’d be interested. There’s a pickup basketball team that’s more my thing. I’d like to play some sports while I’m there, even if it’s just to keep fit. It’ll also be a good way to make new friends.”
Jeremy’s smile faded as he gave Mason’s arm a light punch. “I know I’ll be thousands of miles away, but I’ll still be your friend. I hope you have a great time, man, but if you need me, you can talk to me on Skype whenever you want.”
Mason grabbed Jeremy for a short hug. “Thanks.” He let go and smiled. “Just don’t try Skyping me in the mornings.”
Jeremy frowned and then grinned. “You’re planning on getting a lot of late-night action?” He thrust his hips forward a couple of times in a mimed sex act.
Mason chuckled. “I hope, but that’s not the reason. There’s five-to-seven hours’ difference in time, depending on the time of year. Your ten in the morning will be either five or three in the morning the next day for me. Five during winter and three during summer.” He grinned. “And if I get lucky, there’s no way I’m getting out of bed at that time of the night to answer your call.”
“I hear you, man.” Jeremy’s brow wrinkled. “Why the different times for different seasons?”
“Daylight savings. When we go on, they go off, for a net, two-hour shift. I had to sit down and work it out the other day so I could tell the ‘rents. I don’t want them calling me at odd hours, either.”
“Don’t worry about me. Call me at any time. If I’m with someone, you can watch.” Jeremy winked. “Though I know which one of us you’ll be keeping your eye on.”
Mason playfully pushed him away. “Dude, that’s gross!” His grin slipped away, and he sighed. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too. It’s been tough enough these last few months, but it’ll be worse knowing you’re half the world away.” Jeremy jabbed a finger at Mason. “Don’t forget to stay in touch! Marcy and the others want to know what’s happening, too.”
Mason grabbed Jeremy in a bear hug to keep from having to voice his feelings. He hoped no one at the party could see his quivering lips and the threatening tears.
“Have you heard from Robbie?” Jeremy asked after Mason let him go.
“Not since that last call. After he was discharged from the hospital, he’s gone into hiding. He told me he was heading north, but I haven’t heard anything since.” Mason screwed up his face for a moment. “He said he didn’t want to be found and I shouldn’t expect to hear from him again.”
Mason didn’t respond. He and Robbie had never been in love, but they had been comfortable with each other. Robbie had been more than a fuck buddy but less than a boyfriend. It was going to take time for Mason to find someone to fill the role Robbie had in his life.
* * *
It was mid-morning on Sunday, January 4th when the call came in. Clarissa, Neil, and Liam were in Deon’s car as they drove up the Hume Freeway on their way from Melbourne to Sydney. Following them were Liam’s parents and brother along with the rest of the luggage and other items Clarissa’s and Liam’s mothers had deemed necessary for the move.
“November Kilo Bravo calling Lima Juliet Bravo. Come in Lima Juliet Bravo!”
A red-faced Liam grabbed the walkie-talkie. “Noel, cut it out! It was funny the first few times, but it’s already getting old.”
Liam’s younger brother had the bright idea of using walkie-talkies to communicate between the two vehicles that would be heading north—instead of using their phones. After a short discussion, it had been decided Liam’s parents and brother would be in the Bellweather’s SUV, while Liam, Neil, and Clarissa would be in Deon’s car. Liam and Clarissa would take turns driving, with a changeover every couple of hours.
Then Noel suggested using the phonetic alphabet as call signs, based on each person’s initials. Liam had thought it was a great idea until he realised his middle initial was J.
Clarissa, who was the current driver, snickered. “You tell him, Juliet.”
“Lima Juliet Bravo, Dad said you’re driving too fast. We’ve got the trailer, remember, and can’t keep up with you if you’re speeding. Over.”
Liam grinned. “Roger that, November Kilo Bravo. I’ll let Charlie Papa Hotel know. Over and out.” He released the talk button. “Oh, Clarissa,” he said in a lilting tone. “Noel said you need to slow down.”
She glared up at the rear-view mirror to where Liam and Neil were sitting in the back seat. “Neil, hit him for me.”
Neil chuckled. “I’ll go one better.” He grabbed Liam and pulled him in for a kiss.
“Hey, I know you’re Romeo, but there’s a lady present.” Clarissa smirked. “Save it for tonight when we’re in Sydney.”
“Hey, I can’t help it. It must be fate,” Neil said. “I’m November Sierra Romeo and he’s Lima Juliet Bravo.” He winked at Liam. “I think it would’ve been better if Liam’s middle name was something like Roger so we could both be Romeos. We don’t really need any Juliets in this relationship.”
Clarissa chuckled. “Would either Romeo or Juliet please check with the other vehicle as to the next stop? I think it should be Benalla, so Liam can take over the driving, and I can separate you two before you do something that’ll get us all arrested.”
Liam laughed before using the walkie-talkie. He knew it was going to be a long day, but he was happy. They were on their way, and Neil was by his side. That was all he wanted.
* * *
“Is that the last one?” Deon asked as he pushed the long cardboard box into the back of the van his father had hired for the day.
“The last for this trip. We’ll need to make another one later, but you can get started on putting everything together while Marcus and I bring the next set of boxes.” Sam grinned at his son. “It’ll be good to be able to walk around our apartment again instead of having the space filled with all this stuff.”
Deon bit his lower lip. “It was okay, though, wasn’t it? You said you wouldn’t mind…”
“It’s fine, Deon. It’s just that when we said we’d store the furniture that Liam and Clarissa had bought for their unit, we didn’t expect quite this much.”
Marcus grinned as he closed the back of the van. “When everything showed up on Friday, I started to wonder if your girlfriend had bought out the store.”
“It wasn’t that much. They got most of it second-hand and only bought a few things new.” Deon cocked his head. “Actually, I was surprised there wasn’t more. I can’t believe this stuff has enough for two bedrooms as well as a sofa-bed. Clarissa told me there’s only a few items they’ll be shopping for once they get here; they’ve already organised most of what they want.”
Sam chuckled. “This isn’t everything. After I picked up the key from the real-estate agent yesterday, Marcus and I shifted most of the smaller items. They’re already in the unit, some of them waiting to be unpacked and put together.”
Deon winced. “Sorry. I would’ve helped you, but the club had us back in training immediately after New Year’s, and I haven’t been free until now.”
“Don’t worry about it. We both knew that, which is why we moved what we could and left the bigger stuff for when you could help.” Sam smiled and then raised an eyebrow at his partner. When Marcus nodded and went back inside, Sam headed to the driver’s door. “Let’s go and start setting everything up.”
It wasn’t a long drive to the townhouse-style unit where Clarissa and Liam would be living. That didn’t surprise Deon since the location close to his father’s place had been a major consideration when Liam had been house hunting. It was only after the AFL draft that Clarissa had decided she was taking the second bedroom.
As Sam parked the van, Deon had his first look at where his girlfriend would be living. From the outside, and based on the neighbouring houses, it appeared to be someone had converted a long, thin block into a set of four, two-story units facing a concrete driveway and narrow garden that ran to the back of the block. The unit Liam was renting was the second from the front.
Deon frowned at the For Sale sign outside the front of the property. “I hope the owner hasn’t decided to sell their unit.” He knew the apartment wasn’t originally expected to be rented, but with the owner’s son and daughter both deciding on an extended overseas trip, he was leasing out the unit until they returned. It had only been on the market for less than a day when Liam had snapped it up.
Sam smiled. “He hasn’t. That sign’s for the three-bedroom unit at the back of the block.” He grinned at Deon. “We had the same worry yesterday when we came by, so we rang the agent.”
Deon shrugged before opening the back of the van. “I hope for Liam’s sake whoever moves into that place doesn’t turn out to be homophobic. That’ll make things painful for him and Neil.”
“Yeah…” Sam scowled for a moment before smiling again. “I’ll open Liam’s unit, and then I’ll be back to help. You work out what we’re taking in first.”
It was thirty minutes later before everything was in the apartment and placed in the appropriate rooms. At least, Deon hoped they were in the right rooms; all he had to go on was the list Clarissa had emailed to him after she’d ordered everything.
“How about a short break before we head back and get the last load?” Sam asked.
“Sounds good to me.” Deon glanced around the room that was empty except for the pile of boxes. “I hope Clarissa’s happy here. I just can’t visualise what this place would look like with furniture.”
“She saw it when Neil and Liam came up last year looking for a place to say, so I suppose she’s got some idea of what she wants.” Sam grinned. “I’m getting the impression Liam hasn’t had a lot of input into what’s going to happen.”
Deon grinned back. “Not a lot, but Neil told me he’s not fussy. Also, both Neil and Liam trust Clarissa’s judgement, which is why she picked out the bedroom furniture for Liam, and all he had to do was pay for it.”
“Didn’t they used to go out?”
“For over a year, I think.” Deon shrugged. “They didn’t break up until he came out early last year. From what I’ve been told, things were frosty for a while, but everything went back to normal when Liam started dating Neil.”
There was silence for a couple of seconds before Sam spoke, his voice barely above a whisper. “Things were frosty between us, too, after I came out to your mum.”
Deon’s head snapped around. He stared at his father for a moment, taking in the pained expression and slightly bowed head. Not wanting to waste time, he stepped forward and embraced Sam. “Things are good now, though. I’m glad you’re my dad.”
It had taken a few months, but Deon no longer held any resentment for the way his father had walked out on his family almost ten years prior to move to Sydney to be with Marcus. Deon had been nine at the time, and the dramas of the marriage breakup had affected him deeply. He’d held onto his anger for a long time before he let Sam back into his life.
When Deon let go, Sam took a half-step back, smiled, and wiped a hand across his eyes. “Let’s go back and get the rest of the stuff.” He waved a hand at the boxes in the room. “Then we can get started putting it all together so it’ll be ready when Clarissa and Liam arrive.”
Deon nodded. There was still a lot of work to be done, but he was happy he’d be doing that work with both Sam and Marcus. Being drafted by Greater Western Sydney was giving him time to rebuild his relationship with his father, and he wasn’t wasting that opportunity.
* * *
Oliver’s housemate,Charlie McDonald, smiled as he waved a hand towards the kitchen table while heading to the kettle. “Do you want a coffee?”
Dave Islington shook his head. “I’m still avoiding caffeine. The doctor told me I don’t need to, but I’m not taking any chance. One episode was enough.”
Charlie flinched. “Sorry.” He hadn’t realised the automatic polite offer would remind Dave of the psychotic episode he’d experienced early the previous year.
“It’s okay.” Dave gave Charlie a relaxed smile. “I’m a lot better now. The doc says I can drop back to one appointment every two weeks until the season starts, and they can see how I handle the stress.”
“You’re looking a lot better, too. You didn’t smile very much last year.” Charlie hesitated as he tossed up on whether to ask why Dave, now player for one of the top AFL clubs, had come to visit or to wait until he brought it up himself. Taking his normal cautious approach, he decided to let Dave take the lead in the conversation.
“I didn’t have a lot to smile about.” Dave’s eyes lost focus as his face dropped into an emotionless mask. “That happens when you discover you’re crazy.”
“You’re not crazy!” Charlie knew he was scowling, though he was uncertain as to how much he could push Dave. Dave would take more from him than anyone else, but there was still a line Charlie knew he couldn’t cross. “You were hurt. Everyone understands that.”
Dave snorted, a smile playing on his lips again. “Use whatever words you want, Charlie. I know the truth. I’m crazy…but I’m getting better.” He glanced around. “Where’s everyone else?”
“Ollie’s gone somewhere with Helena, and I sent Ben and Roscoe out with a shopping list. They should be back soon.”
“Things are still going strong between Ollie and Helena then?”
Charlie grinned. “They are. I’m glad I took Todd’s advice and picked the bedroom as far from Ollie’s as possible. Roscoe’s already started to complain about the noise at night. I think Ben’s annoyed, too, but he’s too polite to say anything.”
“What about you and Stacey? Are you keeping Roscoe up, too?” Dave smiled. “You can tell me to mind my own business, if you prefer.”
Charlie dropped his gaze. “If you don’t mind,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“I’m only teasing, Charlie.” Dave sighed before changing the topic. “Tell me about Ben. I assume he’s one of the new guys.”
Charlie spent the next ten minutes telling Dave about how Ben had applied to join the Leopards from Sydney, how he’d been with the Sydney Swans Academy but hadn’t been drafted. Rather than staying with the Swans and playing in their seconds team, he moved down to Melbourne to play in the VFL instead. The only piece of information he left off was the fact that Ben’s gay. Ben had told a few of the players at the New Year’s Eve party, but he wasn’t being open about his sexuality.
He was finishing up when Ben and Ross arrived, laden with plastic bags full of groceries. Ross gave their guest a tentative smile. “Dave, it’s good to see you again.”
“It’s good to see you, too.” Dave grinned. “I’ve heard a rumour you’re going to be playing in both the VFL and TAC Cup this year. I hope you haven’t bitten off too much.”
Ross grinned back as he dumped the shopping onto the kitchen bench. “I hope so, too. Julie’s told me that if I’m not up to it, she’ll have me running laps until I am.”
Dave laughed. “That’s Julie. She was tough when she was just an assistant coach. She must be worse now she’s your head coach.” He stood up and stretched out a hand towards Ben. “Hi, I’m Dave.”
Ben’s expression was serious as they shook. “I know. Dave Islington, drafted by Hawthorn in the second round of the rookie draft. You were considered to be one of the best midfielders in last year’s VFL.”
Dave raised an eyebrow. “Where did you hear that?”
A slight smile played at the corner of Ben’s mouth. “From your ex-teammates. They’ve all got a lot of good things to say about you.”
It was Dave’s turn to put on a serious expression. “Do you know?” He glanced at Ross. “What about you?”
Ben’s brow wrinkled. “What do you mean?”
When Ross shrugged, Dave turned to his old housemate. “Charlie?”
Charlie gnawed at his lower lip as he looked at the other guys before returning his attention to Dave. “Ross knows, Ben doesn’t.”
“Know what?” Ben asked.
Dave’s gaze flicked to Ben for a moment before looking at Charlie. “Not about my mental health issues. About why.”
Ross spoke first. “No one’s said anything. All I know is that something happened to you. I don’t know what. It’s been made clear to me that I don’t need to know.”
“Do you want us to leave so you can talk to Charlie?” Ben asked.
Dave screwed up his face before sighing. He fixed Ben with a steely gaze that made the younger man rock back. “You’re a Leopard now. Do you understand what that means?”
Ben nodded slowly. “We’re family. We’re there for each other. We trust each other. I can trust the Leopards with my life.” He glanced at Charlie and then Ross. “Like the fact that I’m gay. I haven’t told them all yet, but I’m getting there. Slowly. If the word got back to my family, it could ruin me, but I trust the Leopards. They won’t let me down.”
Charlie blinked. While Ben had told his housemates after only a few days, he hadn’t expected Ben to say anything to Dave.
“Why are you telling me?” Dave asked. “I’m no longer a Leopard.”
Ben gave him a lopsided smile. “You can’t fool me. I’ve only been with the club for just over a week, but even I know that’s not true. You’re still a Leopard, as are Jim, Ty, Paul, and Deon. You may not play for the club, but you’re still family.”
Dave stared for a moment and then nodded once. “Thanks.” He turned back to Charlie. “Can I have a word in private?”
“We can use my room while the guys put away the shopping.” Charlie would normally have smiled at Ben and Ross when he said that, but he sensed Dave wanted to talk about something serious.
A minute later, Dave was sitting on Charlie’s computer-desk chair while Charlie sat on the edge of the bed. Dave screwed up his face. “They’ve set a date for the court case.”
Charlie grimaced. “I supposed it had to happen. When is it?”
“The trial starts January 27th. They’re expecting it to go for at least a week, possibly more.”
“You have to be there the whole time?”
“No. The prosecutor is going to try to have my testimony as early as possible. The club has told me they’ll let the press know I’m going to be there just before I show up.”
“Why the hell are they going to do that?”
Dave didn’t meet Charlie’s outraged gaze. “They said that while the press are good about not publishing the names of those in… sexual abuse cases…they may slip if they’re caught by surprise.”
Charlie spotted the hesitation before Dave mentioned the abuse. It was a sign of progress that he was able to say that much. Previously, he would allude to it without saying it outright.
“The club said it’s likely the press will report that a current AFL player is one of the bastard’s victims, but if they’re warned, they won’t even mention the name of the club. That’s the best I can hope for.”
Charlie shuddered. He knew what would happen if Dave’s name was leaked. The trial of a junior-football coach for molesting players under his charge was going to be newsworthy by itself. Having an AFL player testifying would raise its profile to that of a major case. “Do you think that’ll work?”
Dave shrugged, his head still bowed. “I don’t know. The guys at the club have assured me the media will play ball, that they won’t mention my name, but it only takes one…” He started to shake. “Someone outside of the media may put two and two together and work it out. Everyone knows I have mental-health issues. They may guess why.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I need my friends, Charlie. I need them to be ready to help me if I need it.” He looked up, his face distraught. “The Hawks are supporting me, but as Ben said, the Leopards are my family. I’m going to need people to support me when the court case starts.”
Charlie nodded while maintaining eye contact with Dave. “I’ll let them know. We’ll be there for you.” He hesitated. “What about the new guys? Roscoe probably has some idea of what’s going on, but Ben and the other guys don’t. What should I say?”
“Tell them, Charlie. Tell them the truth before they hear any lies about what happened.”
“Are you sure?”
“Tell them!” Dave’s face contorted with a mixture of anger and frustration. His shoulders then slumped, and his voice dropped to a whisper. “Please tell them. I can’t do it.”
Charlie nodded again. Despite this not being the first time he’d seen Dave in this state, it still shook him to his core to see his friend, his former teammate, a strong and aggressive football player, reduced to a shivering wreck all because of something that had been done to him when he was eleven years old.
* * *
Clarissa checked the text message she’d received. “I’ve got some bad news, Liam.”
Liam didn’t shift his eyes from the road. It was mid-afternoon and the strain of the long-day drive from Melbourne was beginning to take its toll despite the regular driver rotation. “What is it?”
“My bed’s been put together, but when they unpacked the boxes, one of the parts for yours was faulty. Deon said he’s already contacted the store and they’ll send out a replacement box sometime this week.”
Liam grimaced. “Did they say when?”
“Deon didn’t tell me, but I’m sure they’ll tell us which day it’ll be once they know.” She smirked at Neil who was sitting with her in the back seat; the front passenger seat was occupied by one of her boxes from home. “I’m sure you and Neil can find something to do to pass the time on whatever the day is that you wait for them to show up.”
Neil’s face was red. “It doesn’t sound like that much of a big deal, Liam. You can put the mattress on the floor and sleep there until the bed’s ready.”
“We can sleep there until the bed’s ready.” Liam chuckled as he glanced at his boyfriend via the rear-view mirror. “We’ve got almost two months until uni starts, so I’m expecting you to be around a lot of the time.”
“You’re definitely welcome to stay nights,” Clarissa said, smiling at Neil. “Just remember there’s someone else who’ll be sleeping in the house, and she’s of the female persuasion, so keep the noise down, and don’t wander around the house naked.”
“The same goes for you, Clarissa,” Liam said. “You’re not living alone, either.”
“And what do you think I’ll be doing to make noise? Deon will not be staying nights.”
Liam’s teasing tone disappeared. “You’re still waiting until you’re married? I thought that now that you’ve an AFL player on the leash, you’d…” His voice drifted off.
There was a silence for a couple of seconds before Clarissa responded. “Deon knows I want to wait. He’s accepted that. When it’s time, I’ll let him stay…assuming he’s the one, of course.”
“But, why?” Neil screwed up his face and quickly continued. “Forget it. It’s none of my business.”
Clarissa smiled as she reached out and put a hand on Neil’s shoulder. “It’s okay. Deon and I haven’t been going out for very long, and I’m not sleeping with someone until I’m sure they’re the person I’m going to marry. It’s still early days for us, and Deon knows the score.” She winked. “After all, I wasted almost two years of my life with some creep who turned out to be gay, and—”
“Love you, too,” Liam, the creep in question, interjected.
“—and that’s why I’m not going to rush into anything. While I’m following Deon to Sydney, like Liam’s following you, Neil, there’s still a lot of uncertainty regarding our futures. Deon may crash out as an AFL player, we may find out the stress of playing national football is too much for our relationship, or he may be traded to another club before I finish my degree. Until I finish uni and until we know where Deon’s headed with his career, we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“Deon’s loyal.” Neil was emphatic. “He won’t let you down.”
“His last girlfriend broke up with him because he couldn’t balance football and a relationship,” Clarissa said softly. She turned her head to stare out of the window at the countryside through which they were driving. “I’m not going to be jealous about being put behind a game in his priority list, but unless he shows that I’ve got a reasonable place in that list, things may not work out.”
It was Neil’s turn to reach out to touch her. “Just tell him if there’s a problem. He really cares for you. The fact he’s at the unit putting together furniture on a Sunday afternoon so it’ll be ready for when we arrive, says something.”
“Yes, it does. Thanks, Neil.” She gave the driver a mock glare. “As for you, Liam. You look after this guy. He’s been through too much over this last year for you to fuck him around.”
There was no hesitation with Liam’s response. “I know. Like Deon, I’m loyal, too. I’m with Neil for as long as he’ll have me.”
* * *
Deon, Sam, and Marcus were sitting on the newly put-together sofa-bed while they waited for Liam, Neil, Clarissa and Liam’s family to arrive.
Marcus patted the sofa. “I’ve been meaning to ask. Is this just in case they have visitors, or do they plan on people sleeping over?”
“A bit of both.” Deon blushed. “Clarissa and I are taking things slowly. If I stay the night, this will be where I’ll be sleeping. It may also be used if Liam or Clarissa have friends come up from Melbourne for a visit.”
“And how often do you intend to stay the night?” Marcus smiled to indicate he was only teasing.
“Not as often as I’d like. I’ve got a lot of early starts with the club at the moment as we get ready for the start of the pre-season, so I need to be home with the Kennedy’s,” Deon said, referring to the host family he was currently living with.
“Do you and Kevin still plan on finding a place for yourselves?” Sam asked.
“Definitely.” Deon grinned at his father. “I’ve had a year of looking after myself, and while the Kennedy’s are great, they’re just a little controlling. They don’t mean it,” he quickly added, “but I feel uncomfortable whenever I mess up their plans because I didn’t do what they expected. I’d like to be back in control of my own life, even if I’m still being dictated by the club.”
“It’s not quite the same for him because he’s never lived by himself, but he wants somewhere with less restrictions. He and Daphne are really hitting it off, but his host family won’t allow her to stay the night. He’d like somewhere they can spend some time together without worrying about being interrupted.”
“Do you think it’ll work out? Both of you have demanding jobs…and for opposing football teams. If Kevin’s never been responsible for things like shopping, cooking, and cleaning, you may have problems.”
Deon shrugged. “We’ll work it out. He knows what you’re saying, and he’s told me he’ll do his part. Indeed, he thought I might have the worst of it since I’m a first-year player and he’s starting his second year. The pressure from our clubs will be higher for me than they will be for him, or at least that’s what he expects. We’re not going into this with our eyes closed.” He grinned. “We’re also not rushing. We’re not getting a lot of time to go house-hunting at the moment, and that’s not going to change, especially with the AFL Players’ Association induction camp back in Melbourne next week.”
“What’s this induction camp about?” Marcus asked. “You haven’t mentioned it before.”
“Haven’t I?” Deon frowned in thought. “Maybe I haven’t. It’s a two-day camp for new players. It covers things like how to handle social media, financial planning, planning for our careers after the AFL, et cetera. Kevin did it last year and told me there’ll be a lot of useful stuff for me to know. It’s run by the Players’ Association, not the AFL itself, so it focuses on what we need as players to be successful and warns us of the pitfalls we can encounter.”
The three continued to chat about Deon’s new career as a professional footballer and what that meant when the doorbell rang. “They’re here!” Deon leapt to his feet.
When he opened the front door, it wasn’t who he expected. “Kev? Daphne?” Deon smiled and stepped back to allow the couple to enter. “What are you doing here?”
“I asked Liam to let me know when they were getting close. We’re here to say hello and give them a couple of housewarming gifts.” Daphne was holding a shopping bag, while Kev was carrying six pizza boxes. “We also brought dinner. Liam texted their order about half an hour ago.”
“We were going to order something once they arrived.” Deon leant over to give Daphne a kiss on the cheek.
“Typical GWS Giant. Always behind the play.” Kevin grinned to indicate he wasn’t serious with his comment about Deon’s football club. “They’ve had a long drive, and they’re not going to want to wait for something to eat.”
“I’m surprised Clarissa didn’t tell me what they were doing.”
Kevin chuckled. “She’s driving the last section, so she can’t text.” He placed the pizzas on the coffee table Deon had put together earlier. “Sam, Marcus, it’s good to see you again.”
“You, too,” Sam said as he rose. “Sit down. The sofa’s more comfortable than the kitchen chairs.”
“What did you bring them?” Marcus asked Daphne as he, too, stood and offered his seat.
She smiled as she and Kevin sat down. “Something my brother suggested. It was the best gift he received when he moved into his own place. Power boards and extension cords. Power points are never where you really need them, and there’s not usually enough where you want them.”
Deon laughed. “Too true. I remember when I moved into the house with Jim, Ty, and Ryan back in Melbourne. One of the first things I had to do was go buy a power board so I could get everything in my bedroom plugged in. There was only one double-socket power point near where I had set up my desk.”
“Speaking of Jim and Ty,” Kevin said. “Liam told me they’re looking for a place to stay for Mardi Gras.”
Deon nodded. “They’re hoping we’ll have our own place by then and they can stay with us.” He grinned. “Otherwise, the brat will probably talk Liam into letting them stay here.”
“Hey, we can’t have that.” Kevin cocked his head. “We both have Tuesday off. How about spending some time house-hunting?”
“Sounds good to me.”
“What about Mardi Gras? Are you going to march in the parade? I’ve already told the Swans I’ll be marching, and I’ve started to ask around if any of the other players will join me.”
“I’ll be there to not only support Jim but also my dad.” Deon turned and smiled at Sam. “I’d like it if you and Marcus will march alongside me, Dad, though I’ll understand if it’s too much for someone of your advanced age.”
“Why you...” Sam gave Deon a mock glare before breaking into a grin. “I’d be proud to march with you.”
* * *
Later that night, after Sam and Marcus had returned to their apartment, Deon had taken his car and driven back to the host family he was living with, Kevin had taken Daphne home, and Liam’s parents and brother had checked into the hotel they’d booked for the week, Liam and Neil snuggled up together on the mattress in Liam’s room. Several open boxes with the parts for his bed were against one wall, while the chest of drawers he’d purchased stood against another. One suitcase had been opened, but Liam had decided that sorting out the rest of his belongings could wait until the next day. Once that was done, the plan was to head to the apartment Sam and Marcus owned to settle Neil into their spare room.
“It’s sort of strange, being here,” Neil said as he rested his head on Liam’s bare chest. “It’s a new start, but it also feels like it’s no big deal because it’s not the first time I’ve had to move.”
Liam used the arm that was around Neil’s back to give his boyfriend a reassuring squeeze. “For you, no, but it’s the first time for me. Even for you, this isn’t as stressful as the last time.”
“Yes and no. I don’t have the worries I had with my parents back then, but it keeps hitting me that I don’t know many people here. I’ve got you…” Neil paused to give Liam a quick kiss. “…and Clarissa, but the only other person I really know is Deon. Sam and Marcus are great—I still can’t get over the fact they’re giving me a place to stay for the next four years—but I still don’t really know them; I only had the occasional weekend when they were down from Sydney. The same goes for Daphne and Kev.”
“You’ll get to know all of them better, and you’ll make new friends, too. We both will. We’re here for the long haul, Neil. As you said, it’s a new start. That can be scary—I’m a little scared, too—but as long as we’ve got each other, I don’t care.”
Neil sighed. “Yeah… I hope I don’t embarrass Deon and Kev.”
“You mean at the housewarming party they suggested?” Liam chuckled. “You’ll be fine. That’s two weeks away, and you’ll have a chance to meet some of their teammates that they’ll be inviting before then, anyway. Don’t forget, you were part of last year’s VFL premiership winning team. You’ll have things to talk to them about.”
“But I’m not a player! I was only a runner. You can talk football more than I can.”
“You weren’t only a runner. You were much more to the team than that, and you know things that other people don’t know. I’m sure the guys will be interested in the Leopards; Deon and you are the only ones around here who can talk about them with confidence. You’ll be fine.”
Neil looked up into Liam’s eyes. Liam could see the fear Neil was experiencing, but he could also sense the trust Neil had in him. It was that trust that help Liam push his own worries to the back of his mind. As he had told Neil, as long as they had each other, he was sure they would not only survive, but thrive.
* * *
It was just after seven on Monday morning when Mason stepped out of the customs area at Sydney airport. He was in a slightly better mood than when he had boarded the Qantas jet on Saturday night, partly because he had been unable to sustain his anger for the entire fifteen-hour flight. He still resented his father’s high-handed actions in scheduling a flight the day after he had received his student visa, but he no longer felt like disowning his family. His father had spun it as giving him more time in Australia and had suggested after settling in that he should go visit other parts of the country before college starts, but Mason knew his father just wanted to get rid of him.
The other reason for not being in as sour a mood as when the flight started was that he discovered that since his father had booked him on Australian airline, Australian laws applied when it came to drinking once they were in the air. The business-class cabin staff hadn’t allowed him to get drunk, but since he had been polite whenever he spoke to them, they hadn’t been too harsh in restricting his alcohol consumption during the flight. They’d supplied him with a few drinks after take-off, which, given that it was after midnight according to his body clock when he finished, allowed him to nap for a few hours. He then had a steady but slow supply of beers until they landed. He was definitely tipsy, something the Australian customs officer who checked his passport and visa had commented on with some amusement—but he wasn’t drunk.
Dragging his suitcase behind him and with his backpack over his shoulder, he strolled past the crowd of strangers waiting anxiously for friends and family. His father had told him that he’d booked a limousine to take him to his hotel.
He didn’t have to go far before he saw a Middle Eastern gentleman in a dark suit holding his phone in front of him. The display showed the name MASON RIVERS in a large font. Mason hesitated a moment—the driver’s race wasn’t what he expected to see in Australia—and then approached. “Hi, I’m Mason.”
The man smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Rivers. My name is Tareq, and I am your driver for today.” He gestured towards Mason’s bags. “Would you like a hand with your luggage?”
“Thanks.” After handing the suitcase over while keeping the backpack, Mason followed the driver out of the building. “Did you say you’re my driver for the day?” He paused to use his phone to take a couple of quick selfies as he had promised to let Jeremy know when he had arrived. Mason planned on sending the pictures once he was in the car.
Tareq gave him another grin. “That is correct. After you have checked into the hotel, I’ll drive you to wherever you want to go.”
Mason had been given a set of chores to do that day—opening an Australian bank account and signing up for phone service with a local provider being at the top of the list—and it was definitely convenient to have someone drive him. What annoyed Mason was not knowing that this would be the case.
“Okay,” Mason said, trying to make sure he didn’t take his annoyance out on the innocent. He knew he would have to concentrate to avoid lashing out at someone who didn’t deserve it. He was tired, not quite drunk, and still feeling resentment at the situation. It was also possible his father had told him about the driver, but it may have been at the stage of their conversation where Mason had stopped listening. “Where are you from, Tareq? I was expecting an Australian accent.”
“My family and I moved here from Jordan three years ago. My son is already developing an accent, but it is taking longer for me. Old dogs and new tricks, as they say.”
Mason laughed. Tareq’s good humour and seemingly unlimited supply of broad smiles appeared to be the antidote he needed. He could already feel himself relaxing.
* * *
It was around that same time that Abraham Rivers entered the secure apartment he and his wife were renting in Washington DC. For him, it was a late Sunday afternoon, not early Monday morning. He found his wife at the dining table with a large collection of documents scattered across the surface.
Juanita Rivers abandoned her work as soon as she saw him and quickly found herself wrapped in his arms. “I’m glad you’re here.”
He kissed her thoroughly and then nodded to the table. “Homework?”
She chuckled. “And this is only the start. There’s a number of pieces of legislation that I need to understand quickly if I’m to do my job.” She eased back but kept one hand in his. “A good flight?”
“I’m here in one piece, and I’m not late. That makes it a good flight.” He checked his phone and grimaced. “Mason’s flight landed about an hour ago. Has he sent you a text?”
“Not yet.” Juanita sighed. “I still think we should’ve told him.”
Abraham shook his head. “He didn’t need to know. I’d prefer for him to be angry at me because I threw him out of the country than for him to worry. He’s safe where he is, and hopefully he has no reason to come home.”
“He’s still my little boy.” Juanita sat back down at the table but didn’t reach for any of the documents. “How sure are you that he was in danger?”
“After that New Year’s Eve party Mason went to, the police told me one of their informants said someone had been asking about him, and our security team spotted a suspicious vehicle near our place that was registered to a member of the gang that shot Robbie Wilson. It may all be innocent, but I wasn’t going to take chances with Mason’s life.”
“We could’ve explained it to him.”
“And he may have told us that we’re overreacting, that he’d be fine having a farewell party with his friends like he wanted. No, he’s better off being mad at me. He’ll get over that, but I wouldn’t have gotten over him being shot. I made my decision, and I don’t regret it.” Abraham gave his wife a wry smile. “I suspect he’s going to abuse his Amex card between now and when school starts as a form of protest, but I can live with that. I told him to see some of the country while he has the chance.”
Juanita smiled back, though with a worried edge. “He’ll probably book a room at a five-star resort before he discovers that there’ll be no one his own age at places like that.” The smile faded, and the worry took over. “He’s alone in a strange place, a strange country, and he’s not on speaking terms with us. I hope he makes some friends soon.”
Abraham rested his hand on her shoulder. “He will. I’m sure of it.”
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.
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.