Wu crossed his arms and stared at his friend lying on the living-room couch. “Are you going to come with us and apologise for yesterday?”
Ross didn’t meet Wu’s or Lauren’s eyes. “I’ve got nothing to apologise for. I’ve decided to watch the grand final from here, where I can concentrate on the match without other people distracting me.” He waved a hand dismissively without looking at them. “I hope you have fun.”
“You’re making a big mistake, Roscoe.” Wu stood there for a few more seconds before taking Lauren’s hand. “Let’s go.”
A couple of minutes later, Ross’s shoulders slumped, and the anguish he felt appeared on his face. He hadn’t liked being so cold to his best friend, but he couldn’t take the risk of going to the Lilydale Leopards’ celebration. He’d burnt his bridges when he ran out of the cafe the day before, and trying to rebuild them would risk revealing his secret. He could’ve coped if it had just been Jim Henderson, but when a large contingent showed up from what he knew was a gay-and-lesbian radio station, he was afraid that someone would realise he’s gay. He didn’t know if gaydar was real or not—he could never work out if someone he met was gay—but he couldn’t take the chance. The more gay guys there, the bigger the risk. He was just glad Wu hadn’t realised that Ross had already guessed that the newcomers were gay before Wu had asked. He couldn’t tell him that he listened to Pride FM regularly.
If he had Jim’s phone number, he’d try explaining the situation. If there was one person he might trust with the truth, it would be Jim Henderson. However, he only had Ty’s number, and he didn’t believe that Ty would be inclined to be sympathetic. Ross knew from a magazine article earlier in the year how close Ty and Jim were, and he suspected Ty wouldn’t have been impressed by his leaving so abruptly.
If Wu and Lauren weren’t going to Lilydale, Ross might have tried to slip out quietly and try to find a chance to speak privately with Jim, but that wasn’t an option, either. Instead, Ross had to live with what he’d done. He had been looking forward to the opportunity that Deon and Ty had given him, but he knew he’d blown it. He would have to continue to prepare for the combine by himself.
As he lay there with the grand final still a couple of hours away, his mind drifted to the party that was planned for that night. Ross had told Wu on Friday as they travelled home on the train that he had changed his mind and wasn’t going to go. In Ross’s mind, the risks were too high. Warring against that was the chance for his first sexual experience in over two years. Ross didn’t know what to do and whether his impulsive decision to avoid it was the right one.
Given his actions the previous day, he knew that if he went to the party Wu would expect him to avoid Stuart. That wasn’t what Ross wanted to do, though even there, he was torn. Instead, he wondered if his best friend would believe him if he said he would spend time with Stuart just to prove that he wasn’t homophobic. There was going to be tension between him and Stuart, and if Ross managed it right, Wu might think that was because Ross was trying to control disgust rather than lust and fear. Lust for what he and Stuart could get up to and fear at being caught.
Could he balance the conflicting emotions? Ross didn’t know. He picked up his phone and stared at it. A simple text message to Wu was all that was needed to open up some exciting opportunities.... But was that what he really wanted?
* * *
When Neil and Liam arrived at the train station, each carrying a small bag, they were surprised to find not only Doug, whom they expected, but also Steven Anderson. Steven was one of the guys from school who had been at the VFL grand final the week before. Neil viewed him warily. While Steven had never directly bullied him, he was still one of the myriad of people at school who had, over the previous five years, made Neil the punchline in too many off-colour jokes. Neil didn’t know why he was there or what to expect.
“Stevo, good to see you. Are you heading off to Lilydale, too?” Liam asked as they shook hands.
“Yep!” Steven smiled past Liam to Neil. “Hi, Neil. How’s things?”
Neil hesitated before responding. That was the most Steven had said to him in months. The only other time that year they’d spoken was when he was the subject of a national current-affairs program. “Pretty good.”
Doug snorted. “He spent last night at Liam’s place. Of course things are pretty good.” He stared at Neil for a moment and then nodded his head once, an almost-smile on his face.
Neil wasn’t sure what Doug’s expression meant, but since he wasn’t putting him down, Neil decided to ignore it. “It was easier to stay there after work.”
“Yeah, right.” Doug snorted. “As if there wasn’t any other reason.” He grinned at Liam. “You’re looking happy.”
“Where do you work?” Steven asked Neil. He gave Neil and Liam a critical look before grinning. “The matching Leopard jackets suit you two.”
“Thanks,” Liam said. “We thought we should dress the part since we’re celebrating the Leopards win last weekend.” He smiled and nudged Neil, tilting his head slightly in Steven’s direction.
Neil swallowed once before responding. “Thanks, Steven. I work in Richmond at a radio station. Usually on Thursday and Friday nights, but I put in more hours during the school holidays.”
“Cool! Which station is it, and are you ever on the air?”
Neil glanced at Liam and received an encouraging smile. “Pride FM, and I’ve been on a few times, but that was mainly back in May when...you know.”
“Ah...” Steven looked embarrassed. “Yeah, sorry to bring that up. At least you had somewhere to go after your old man hit you. Is that when you started hanging out with the Leopards?”
“A bit before that, but the Leopards really looked after me when everything went to pieces.”
Liam and Doug were having their own conversation, so Neil was left talking with Steven for the next few minutes while they waited for the train to arrive. He was cautious with his answers to Steven’s questions because he couldn’t work out why Steven was being nice to him. After years of ridicule or being ignored, it didn’t make sense. Eventually, Neil tried to address his concern.
“Why do you want to know all of this? You’ve never been interested before.”
Steven ran a hand through his hair as he glanced over at Liam and Doug. “Well...a couple of reasons.” He looked back and gave Neil a sheepish smile. “You’re Liam’s boyfriend, and he’s a mate of mine. I thought it was about time I got to know you. Also, you surprised me on Sunday when I saw you out on the oval with the players. I’ll admit I was a little jealous when you were in the middle of the celebrations and I was stuck up in the stands. Doug told me that there was more to you than what we’ve seen at school, so I thought it was about time I found out for myself.”
“Doug said that?” Neil had trouble believing that.
“I said what?” Doug asked, breaking off the chat he was having with Liam.
“That there’s more to Four-Dork...sorry...Neil than meets the eye.” Steven tilted his head towards Liam as he gave him a wry smile. “And that you saw it first.”
Liam grinned as he slipped an arm around Neil’s waist. “I did, but I wasn’t first. The guys at the Lilydale Leopards saw it well before me. Right, Neil?”
Neil dropped his gaze to the platform floor and nodded.
“Hey, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Liam gave him a gentle squeeze. “You’re a great guy, Neil. Don’t hide yourself away.”
* * *
“Wow, I didn’t expect this many people,” Wu said as he paused at the edge of the Lilydale Leopards football oval. While not densely packed, the field was full of people, many wearing the Leopard colours of brown and black. A large projector screen was located at the south end not far from the grandstand, a number of food stalls were positioned along the eastern side, and a couple of jumping castles were in heavy use at the northern end of the oval.
“Are you sure you still want to apologise on Roscoe’s behalf? He made it pretty clear he felt he had nothing to apologise for,” Lauren said.
“I don’t get him.” Wu grimaced. “What he did yesterday, what he said this morning—that’s not him. I know him. He’s not like that. All I can think of is that he’s stressing out so much about the draft and next weekend’s combine that he’s going slightly mental.” He looked at his girlfriend. “Do you think that could be it?”
“Hey, you know him better than I do. I thought he was gay, not homophobic.” Lauren sighed as she wrapped an arm around Wu. “He’s certainly acting odd, so your guess is as good as any.”
“Then let’s see if we can find someone who was there so I can apologise on his behalf. Maybe Roscoe will go back to normal after he’s finished the AFL testing next weekend. At least, I hope he will.” Wu screwed up his face. “Assuming he doesn’t go completely mental at the party tonight.”
“Are you sure he’s not going to change his mind again? Yesterday, he said he wasn’t going. This morning, he didn’t say anything about it, and then you got that text message while we were on the train. What’s going on with him?”
Wu shrugged. “I really don’t know. He said he’d promised to be the designated driver and that he wanted the two of us to enjoy it and not worry about drinking. He also said he needed to relax, and the party might help. It certainly sounds like he’s stressing out, and maybe that’s all it is. If so, the party will hopefully help.”
“Unless Stuart freaks him out.” Lauren sighed. “Oh, well. Nothing we can do about it now except keep an eye on him, unless he changes his mind again.”
The two wandered slowly through the crowd. It was several minutes before Lauren pointed towards a moderate-sized group, where most of the guys were wearing Leopards tops. Lauren and Wu had already seen enough to know that the clothing that the guys were wearing was different from the fan apparel worn by most of the supporters. “Isn’t that two of the guys from the Monday newspaper?”
“Where?” Wu peered in the direction that Lauren indicated and then smiled. “And Jim Henderson is with them. Let’s see if he’ll let me apologise.”
Wu and Lauren were soon at the edge of the group. Wu couldn’t help noticing that one of the two guys Lauren had spotted—the one wearing a Leopards top—had his arm around the waist of another guy who was also wearing similar gear. It was obvious that the two were a couple. Jim Henderson also had his arm around a broad-shouldered blond guy, but none of the rest appeared to be gay.
“...had a great time, though I’m still pissed off that no one bothered to tell us that Kevin was a bloody AFL player.” The second guy from Monday’s newspaper photo glared at the first. “Are you sure Clarissa didn’t say something, Liam?”
Liam shrugged. “She didn’t, at least not when I was paying attention. She might’ve said something while I was looking at Neil,” he said while smiling at the guy he was holding, “but if so, I didn’t hear it. Sorry, Doug.”
“If you want to see Kevin again,” Neil said to Doug, “I think he’ll be here at the club most days this week. He’s going to help Deon get ready for the draft combine next weekend. Is that right, Jim?”
Jim nodded. “It’ll be Deon’s second time, so hopefully he’ll be better prepared. He knows what he has to do, and it’s just a case of putting in the hard work.” Jim caught sight of Wu and, after a moment of surprise, smiled. “G’day, I didn’t expect to see you here today.”
Wu grinned at the welcome. He had been afraid he was going to receive a cold reception. “My girlfriend and I thought we’d come to see what was going on. You guys played well last Saturday.”
“You were there?” Jim asked.
“No, but Roscoe and I spent a few hours during the week watching and re-watching the recorded game.”
“Why?” Doug asked. “It was a great match, but it was much better live. Why would you want to watch it again?”
“Roscoe called it checking out the competition.” Wu gave Jim an apologetic smile. “He knows he’s up against Deon Bradshaw for a spot in the AFL draft, but he thinks Deon’s a better forward than he is.”
“There’s more than one forward position open,” the guy next to Jim said. “There’s no reason both of them can’t be drafted.” He smiled. “I’m Tony, by the way. And you are...?”
Everyone introduced themselves. Besides Jim, Tony, Doug, Liam, and Neil, the other people in the group were Steve, a school friend of Liam’s and Doug’s; Paul, another Leopards player; Teresa, who Wu suspected was Paul’s girlfriend, though she wasn’t introduced as such; Julie, one of the assistant coaches, and Julie’s boyfriend, Aaron.
“Is Roscoe here, too?” Jim asked once the introductions were finished.
“No, he’s staying at home. He said he wanted to be able to concentrate on the grand final with no one else around.” Wu grimaced for a moment. “Sorry about yesterday. I don’t know what came over him. He’s not normally like that.”
Julie frowned. “What happened?”
“Nothing much.” Jim shrugged before giving Wu a questioning look. “If it’s not a rude question, how many openly gay guys are there at your school?”
“Only a handful. We don’t really know them; they’ve got a different circle of friends from us. Why?”
“Because I suspect that was the first time he’d encountered a number of gay guys all at once.” Jim smiled at Julie. “He panicked and left almost straightaway. The brat wanted to storm off after him, but I got him calmed down. The brat had invited him to train with Deon to help the two of them get ready for next Saturday since Roscoe and Deon are both forwards, but I don’t think he’s going to follow up on it.”
Julie pinched her lips. “What’s Roscoe’s full name, and which TAC Cup team did he play for?”
“Ross Munroe, and the Eastern Ranges,” Wu said. “Why?”
“Hmm...” Julie nodded her head slowly. “A good player, tall, though inconsistent. Sometimes he was aggressive, and other times he didn’t look like he was putting in the effort required. When he was on his game, he was impressive, but too many times he looked flat.”
Paul stared at her. “How the hell do you know that?”
Julie laughed. “Peter had me and Will checking out some of the TAC Cup matches. He wanted us to look at potential draftees just in case we need more players next year. One of the games I watched was the Eastern Ranges and Geelong Falcons game back in July.” She frowned and looked out over the crowd, though it didn’t look as if she found what she was seeking. “I wonder if he knew by then that he’d be leaving at the end of the season. Will told me that Peter usually did the scouting.”
“You’re thinking of him as a possible Leopards player for next year?” Neil asked.
Julie shrugged. “Not my call, but Peter had given me a long list of players to check out. Ross was just one of them.” She snorted. “We don’t know who is going to be picked by an AFL club and who isn’t. We have to know who’s got potential so we can try to scoop up anyone who doesn’t get drafted. That’s how we got Deon and the brat last year, though that was before my time with the club.” She smiled. “Those two turned out pretty well.”
Paul and Jim laughed. “They certainly did,” Paul said.
“Do you think Roscoe has potential?” Wu asked Julie. The opportunity to speak to someone who seemed to know what was required was too good to let slip.
Julie hesitated. “He’s got potential. I don’t know if he’s willing to apply himself enough to take it to the next level, though. He didn’t show it in the game I watched, but maybe he was having a bad day.”
“He can do it. He can be very determined when he’s got a target in sight.” Wu was staunch in the defence of his friend.
Julie smiled. “In that case, I wish him all the best for next weekend.”
“Do you think it’ll help if he trains with Deon?” Jim asked her.
Wu held his breath, and Lauren’s grasp on his hand tightened as they both waited for Julie’s answer.
“It might.” Julie pinched her lips as she thought. “Usually, a defender would be better to train with a forward so they’re both using the skills they’ll be using in a game, but the combine isn’t going to be testing that. It’ll be more general skills, like kicking, handballing, agility, jumping, speed, and endurance. As such, Deon and Ross would be able to compare and compete against each other and maybe inspire each other to greater heights.” She grinned. “Hopefully, and literally when it comes to the jumping parts.”
“Then I think I should have a word with the brat. He was adamant that he didn’t want Ross training here, but if it’ll help Deon, I think he should reconsider.” Jim turned to Wu. “Do you think Ross will still be interested in training with Deon and a few of the other guys?”
Wu hardened his expression. “I’ll talk him into it if he doesn’t want to. If it’ll be good for Deon, it’ll be good for Roscoe, too.” He smiled. “Thanks. This is what I was hoping for, but I didn’t think you’d go for it.”
Jim shrugged. “I don’t have a problem. It’s the brat I’m going to have to convince, and that isn’t going to be easy.”
Tony put a hand on Jim’s arm. “Leave him to me. I know how to get him to change his mind.”
* * *
“Neil, Liam, just the two I was looking for.” Oliver grinned as he and Helena joined the two guys in the line for some snack food.
“G’day, Ollie, Helena.” Neil left Liam to give Oliver’s girlfriend a kiss on the cheek. “How have you been?”
“We’re good,” Oliver said. “I’m just checking that everything’s still on for tonight.”
Liam smiled. “Yeah, I’m looking forward to it. Neil’s told me all about your cooking.”
Helena chuckled. “That’s not all he’s good at. Did he tell you about the after-dinner activities?”
“No, no, and no!” Oliver gave Helena a mock scowl. “They’ll have their room, and we’ll have ours.”
“But Ollie, you were talking about a foursome...”
Neil laughed. “Ollie mentioned it to me, too.”
Oliver raised a warning finger as he scowled at Neil. “And I told you that we’re not doing it.”
Helena gave Oliver a kiss on the cheek. “What if I...” She whispered something in his ear.
Oliver growled through gritted teeth. “No! I know you’re only teasing, but there are some things I won’t do.”
“Well in that case...” Helena released the arm she had around Oliver’s waist and stepped forward. “Liam, are your two friends from school here today? The ones who tried to pick me up at Easter?”
“Hey!” Oliver’s jaw dropped. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Helena winked at Liam and Neil before turning back to Oliver. “I thought they might be interested in some fun times.”
Oliver’s shoulders slumped. “If you really want to...”
“Ollie, there’s only one person I’m looking for in my bed.” She moved back and gave him a kiss on the lips. “But since you now seem to want a foursome...”
“I don’t!” Oliver blushed as Helena chuckled, and then he pulled her closer for another, longer kiss.
Liam and Neil were about to slip away and leave the other two alone when Helena pulled her lips away from her boyfriend’s. “Don’t go!”
“We thought you might prefer to be by yourselves,” Neil said, his face red.
“We will be later, but I was asking about Liam’s two friends from school. Doug and Rod, is that right?” Helena asked as she gave Liam a quizzical look.
“Doug’s here, but Rod didn’t come.” Liam’s brow wrinkled. “Why?”
Oliver had a frown on his face, but he didn’t say anything. His arm around Helena did tighten in an almost possessive way, though.
Helena giggled as she gave Oliver a quick peck on the cheek. “Neil, have those two been treating you well at school?”
“Rod...” Neil glanced at Liam as he remembered that his boyfriend didn’t know what Rod had done in the lead up to Liam’s birthday. Neil had almost broken up with Liam as a result until Doug sorted Rod out and told Neil to get back together with Liam. “He’s not been around a lot. Doug’s been good. He and Steven caught the train here with us.”
“Hmm...” Helena cocked her head. “Is Steven single?”
“Where’s this going?” Oliver asked, a nervous expression on his face.
Helena smiled. “When I first met them and they found out I was with you, Doug and Rod asked if I had a twin sister. I told them I had a younger sister and a couple of cousins, all about our age. They’re here today, and if the boys had been good, I was going to introduce them.”
Oliver’s expression immediately relaxed into a broad grin. “In that case, why don’t we see if we can find them?” He looked back at Neil and Liam. “While I remember, where are your bags?”
“They’re in the locker room. I put them in Todd’s locker; he said I could.”
“Okay. Make sure we don’t forget them when it’s time to leave. I’ll be taking you guys back to our place after we finish here.”
Helena nodded. “And after dinner, we’ll have a foursome.”
“No, we won’t!”
Liam, Neil, and Helena all laughed.
* * *
“Are you still organising for this Ross guy to train with Deon?” Tony asked as he waited with Ty and Karen by the temporary stage that had been set up. Eric, the club president, was addressing the crowd prior to the team being presented. After that, the big-screen projector would be turned on to broadcast the start of the AFL grand final.
“Fuck no!” Ty scowled. “After the way he walked out on Dad, I’m not wasting any more of my time on him.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “So...walking out when you meet someone who’s gay justifies not having anything to do with you?”
Ty glanced at Karen before he answered, but she seemed as perplexed by Tony’s comment as he was. “Sure, why not? If he’s going to disrespect Dad, why would I want to know him?”
“Do you remember when I first told the team I’m gay? I’ll give you a hint; one of the players walked away without speaking.” Tony cocked his head. “From what Jim’s told me, Ross did better than that. He at least made up a flimsy excuse in an attempt to be not completely rude. Unlike someone I could name.”
“Who are you talking about?” It was six months since Tony had started working for the Leopards, and Ty didn’t immediately remember the event. “The only people I can think of who had a problem initially were...” Ty blanched. “Oh, shit.”
Karen put a hand on Ty’s bicep. “What is it?”
Ty scowled at Tony. “But that was different! Deon had a reason for walking away.”
“I know, but he still walked away without speaking. Maybe Ross has a reason, too?” Tony gave Karen an apologetic smile. “It was just after training. I’d been introduced to the team, and in the clubroom afterwards I made a point of telling the guys I’m gay. Deon walked off, and a few other guys, including Ty, didn’t look happy.” He returned his attention to Ty. “Think back. What would you have done if a large bunch of gay guys had approached you at that time? Would you have stayed and had a few drinks with them, or would you have walked away as soon as you could?”
“Fuck you, Tony!” Ty spun on his heels and glared out at the waiting crowd. He grunted once and then turned back. “Okay, I’ll give him a second chance, but I’m warning you,” he held up his right hand, with the thumb and forefinger close together, “you’re this close to getting the nickname of Dad 2. He’s the one who’s supposed to be telling me to lift my game, not you.”
Tony chuckled. “I’d take it as a compliment if you did, but I’d prefer it if you didn’t.”
Ty snorted, and a wry smile appeared on his face. “There’s only one Dad. You’re generally not as annoying as he is, so I think you’re safe.” He scowled. “But Ross is only getting one more chance. If he fucks up this one, I’m not having anything more to do with him.”
* * *
Ty came off the stage at the end of the presentations and then grinned as he saw who was waiting next to Karen. “Alex!”
The two young men gave each other a bear hug. When they separated, Ty left an arm across Alex’s shoulders. “G’day, Ethan. How are things?”
Ethan chuckled and smiled at Karen. “Well, that settles where we are in the brat’s priority list. Alex first, me second, and he hasn’t even said hi to you, yet.”
“Hey, I said hi, and more, to her earlier.” Ty shrugged. “Anyway, Dad’s number one, Karen’s two, and I can be persuaded to put you and Alex somewhere in the top ten.” He paused. “Maybe top twenty.”
Alex gave him an elbow. “Only top twenty? I thought we were better friends than that.”
“And I’m not number one?” Karen asked as she crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow.
“The top twenty includes the top ten, so you’re still in with a chance.” Ty released Alex and moved over to slip an arm around Karen. “How about equal first? You and Dad are important to me in different ways. It’s hard to compare.”
Karen laughed. “I’m teasing. Jim and I aren’t in a competition.”
Ty gave her a quick kiss before turning back to Alex and Ethan. “What brings you two out here?”
“Tony mentioned something about free food...”
Ty laughed. “Unfortunately, only for the players and staff, and not everything is free for us, either.”
“Damn.” Alex didn’t seem upset. “Getting us out here on false pretences; there should be a law against that.” He grinned. “But since we’re here, how about we do some planning on how to make Jim’s and Tony’s life a misery?”
“Sounds good to me!” Ty grinned back. “Any ideas?”
Karen sighed. “Ty, how about leaving them alone for once? Remember, you can’t outrun Jim at the moment.”
Ethan glanced down at Ty’s legs. “How’s the knee?”
“Getting there. I’m hoping I can do some light jogging this coming week, but that will be up to Jackie. She’s warned me that if I don’t do things right, I’ll be at risk of having my kneecap dislocated again in the future.”
“None of us wants that to happen.” Ethan turned to Karen. “Since it’s useless to try to get these two guys to organise anything, are you and Ty free for dinner next Saturday? Alex and I were thinking of going out and then heading on to some of the nightclubs.”
Karen raised an eyebrow at Ty and received a grin in response. She turned back to Ethan. “Sounds like a plan, then. I haven’t been to a nightclub for over a year, since I was working most weekend nights until the middle of this year. I have, however, heard stories from the guys as to what Ty’s like at one, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it for myself.”
Ty shrugged nonchalantly. “I haven’t been nightclubbing since the two of us started going out, either. It’ll be a nice change.”
Alex rubbed his hands. “Then it’s settled. Dinner and clubbing next Saturday night.”
* * *
Ross was startled when his phone rang. He didn’t think anyone would be calling, as it was in the middle of the AFL grand final. Ross was taking advantage of the half-time break to grab a light snack. When he saw the name of the caller, he hesitated before accepting the call. “Hello?”
“G’day, Roscoe. How are you enjoying the match so far?”
“It’s great, Ty, though a bit one-sided. I was hoping for a closer match.”
Ty chuckled. “Yeah. I’m not game to ring Kev or Deon at the moment as I’m sure they’ll both be depressed. The Swans will need a miracle to pull off a win from here.”
Hawthorn had dominated the first half and had more than doubled Sydney’s score, leading by forty-two points.
“Yeah, I know. Still, it’s good to watch.”
“True. Anyway, why I’m ringing is because Wu said you couldn’t make it out here to Lilydale today, so I thought I’d give you a call to organise training for Monday. We want you and Deon to be at your peak for next Saturday’s combine.”
Ross blinked. “I thought...”
Ty continued without waiting for Ross to finish his sentence. “It’s a pity you had to rush off yesterday, but I know that these things happen. Any chance you could be here at the club by 8 a.m.?”
“Er...sure.” Ross’s mind was spinning. “I can be there earlier, if you want. I’m usually up early to go for a run.”
“Skip the run and you can do it with Deon when you get here. Dad, Kev and Dave will be running, too.” Ty’s tone hardened. “You don’t have a problem running with Jim, do you?”
“No,” Ross answered quickly, though he knew his voice betrayed his nervousness. The fact that Ty didn’t mention the other guys running made it blatant what Ty was asking. “Not at all.”
“Great!” Ty’s voice had reverted to the earlier light-hearted tone. “I’ll see you then. Enjoy the rest of the match.”
“Yeah, you, too. Thanks, Ty.”
“Oh, before I go, you need to know. I’m the brat, not Ty. If you use the wrong name, I may not answer.” Ty’s cheerful voice told Ross that, for reasons he couldn’t work out, Ty had forgiven him for his behaviour the day before, though Ross knew he was still on probation.
“Okay, brat. I’ll see you on Monday.”
* * *
“Kevin’s going to be really disappointed,” Liam said as he and Neil carried their bags towards Oliver’s car.
“Yeah, I know. The game was really one-sided; the Swans never had a chance.”
Liam smiled. “Apart from that, did you have a good time today?”
“I did.” Neil grinned while his face went red. “I don’t think I’ve been more embarrassed, though. The brat really didn’t need to make me go up on that stage and give a speech.”
“Hey, you’re the team mascot. It might’ve been unofficial, but all the players agreed.”
“But did I really need to say anything?” Neil shook his head. “I can’t even remember what I said. I don’t think I said anything stupid, but...”
Liam laughed. “No, it was great. You got in a dig at Ty for making you get up there, and then you just thanked everyone.” The smile on his face slid away. “Then you told them that if it wasn’t for the Leopards, you mightn’t’ve been standing there. That they supported you when you needed it and that you’ll do whatever it takes to support them. You finished up by hoping that everyone there today would continue to support them, too.”
Neil stopped walking. “I said that?”
Liam dropped the bag he was carrying and pulled Neil in for a hug. “You did, and I’m never going to forget my part in what happened. I’m here for you, too, Neil, because I owe you so much. I can’t imagine I’ll ever pay you back.”
Neil rested his head on Liam’s shoulder for a moment and then pulled back just enough so he could look Liam in the eye. “As long as you’re here for me, I’m happy. You don’t need to do more than that.”
Liam decided not to reply with words. Instead, he leant forward and placed his lips on Neil’s. The kiss started soft and gentle but soon became much more passionate. Only when the two were jostled did they let go of each other.
“Who...” Liam glared around and then grinned. “G’day, Ollie. I take it we’re holding you up?”
“A little.” Oliver chuckled. “You can resume your activities when we get home.”
Liam turned to Neil, who was frowning at another couple across the car park who were also engaged in a passionate kiss. Liam smiled. “It must be contagious.”
“That’s Evelyn.” Neil’s tone was flat.
“Are you sure?” Liam stared in the same direction. He could only see the back of the girl’s head, but it was possible it was their school friend. “Maybe it’s just someone who looks like her.”
“No, it’s definitely her.” Neil looked at Liam. “But that’s definitely not Kevin.”
* * *
Jim glanced in the rear-view mirror. “Okay, brat, what were you and Alex planning?”
In the back seat of Jim’s car, Ty turned his attention away from Karen and tried to look innocent. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Don’t give me that. I saw you, Alex, and Ethan with your heads together today, and then you turned and smirked in my direction. You’re up to something.”
“It’s not that big a deal.” Ty smiled at Karen for a moment before looking to the front. “We were just working out how we’re going to get all of Tony’s stuff into your room at the house next weekend.”
“Hey, what?” Tony twisted around in the passenger-side front seat and frowned. “I’m not moving in.” He glanced across at Jim. “At least, not yet.”
“Alex said that he’s had enough of you always being absent. If you and Dad don’t go out with him and Ethan next Saturday, he’s kicking all your stuff out of the apartment.” Ty shrugged. “Since I know you’ll be too busy, that means...”
Tony sighed and then gave Jim a wry smile. “I think we’re being blackmailed. I wouldn’t assume Alex is bluffing. This is the sort of thing that would appeal to his warped sense of humour.”
“Hey!” Ty put on a mock frown. “I like his sense of humour.”
Jim snorted. “That’s because yours is the same.” His gaze flicked to the side before returning his attention to the road. “Tony?”
“It wouldn’t hurt us to go out with them.” Tony chuckled. “Alex is pretty good at guilt trips.”
“Great!” Ty pulled out his phone. “I’ll let him know. And to make sure you don’t chicken out, Karen and I will be there, too, so we can take one car.”
Tony and Jim both groaned. Jim shook his head. “Brat, we’d like to enjoy the evening. You and Alex, together...that’s not my idea of fun.”
Ty knew that Jim was teasing, but he was prepared. “But it’s our idea of fun, and that’s all that’s important.” He finished sending the text message and then grinned. “All done. We’ll wait to see how Deon does at the combine, and then we’ll all go out for dinner.”
“We’ll ask him, though he may want to go out with Clarissa instead.” Ty pointed at the two guys in the front of the car. “But you two are locked in. Don’t try to get out of this.”
* * *
Liam pushed his chair back and stretched out with a satisfied smile. “Thanks, Ollie. That was a great dinner.”
“My pleasure. Did you guys want a nightcap before Helena and I retire for the night?” Oliver grinned at his girlfriend. “I still have one small bottle of port from my eighteenth that I’ve got stashed away for a special occasion. Tonight seems like the right time to bring it out.”
“You don’t have to–” Liam started to say, only to be interrupted by Helena.
“That’s a great idea!” Her grin slipped as she stared at Neil. “Are you okay?”
Neil grimaced and then waved a hand. “I’m fine. I’m still bothered by Evelyn, that’s all. I can’t help worrying that someone is going to get hurt.”
Helena reached over and rested a hand on Neil’s arm, while on the other side, Liam slipped his hand into Neil’s and gave him a reassuring squeeze.
“I told you before, but I’ll say it again. Both Evelyn and Kevin know what sort of relationship they’ve got.” She smiled at Oliver. “A no-strings, short-term, mutual-enjoyment relationship. Just like Ollie and me.”
Neil snorted, and a half-smile appeared on his face. “No strings? Short term? How long have you two been going out, and who met whose mother earlier this week?”
Helena laughed as she moved back and entangled her arms around one of Oliver’s. “Just over six months, and, as I predicted, Mum loves Ollie. Of course he cheated by bringing a plate of home-baked goodies as a present, which immediately put Mum in a good mood.” She kissed Oliver on the cheek before turning back to Neil with a slightly more serious expression. “But what we had at the start is what Evelyn and Kevin have at the moment. They both know that in a week’s time, Evelyn, like you two, will be back at school getting ready for final exams. A few weeks later, Kevin will be back in Sydney to start his pre-season training. They know that nothing serious is going to happen, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they told each other that they didn’t need to be exclusive. Don’t worry about Evelyn or Kevin. They’ll be fine.”
“Time to get that port.” Oliver stood and then hesitated. He looked down at Neil and Liam. “Are you two still set on going to Sydney next year?”
“Unless I get a better offer.” Neil tightened his grip on Liam’s hand. “I need somewhere to stay if I’m going to go to university, and Sam and Marcus said I could live with them.”
“I’ve already started looking at options for myself, too,” Liam said. “Mum and Dad will help out with the costs, but it’s still going to be tight.” He smiled at Neil. “But I’m following Neil, no matter where he goes.”
“Have you thought about moving in together?” Helena asked.
Liam grimaced. “Can’t afford it. I’m assuming I’ll be able to get some share accommodation that caters for students, because there’s no way I can afford a place of my own. But we can’t afford a place for two, either, not unless Neil gets himself a decent job, and we don’t want that. I want him to be able to concentrate on his studies.”
“Take a single room and share it,” Helena suggested.
Liam shook his head. “Even if we’re sharing a bedroom, we’ll need space for studying. A place where other people will allow us to share a room without paying any extra rent while giving us living space... I may find such a place, but I’ve stopped looking. We’ve decided we’re not going to live together, not yet.”
“We could make it work if we had to,” Neil added. “We’ve discussed it, but we’ve both decided I’d be stupid to turn down free accommodation just to live with Liam.” He dropped his gaze to the tabletop. “We did talk about it, though. A lot.”
Liam leant over and gave Neil a kiss on the cheek. “My boyfriend’s the smart one. We haven’t been going out long enough to make a commitment to live together for the next four years. If Neil moved in, he’d be dependent on me. If the worst happened and we broke up, I could move back home to Melbourne. He couldn’t. He’d be left stranded and potentially without a place to stay if he didn’t get someone in quickly to help pay the rent.”
Oliver frowned and shook his head. “You’re thinking about this wrong if you’re going in thinking you might break up. You’re together for the long haul, right?”
“We are.” Liam brought their clasped hands up and put them on the table. “But Neil and I have a history that’s not perfect. We want to be together, but I’d be a rotten boyfriend if I didn’t try to take care of Neil, and that includes planning for the worst.”
Neil looked up. His eyes were moist. “We want this to work. We desperately want this to work. But we need to do this right. We’re not going to force things by living together too soon.”
Oliver and Helena exchanged glances. Oliver smiled back at the two guys. “In that case, I’ll go get that port. We need to make a toast to the future of two very sensible guys.”
“And then we can have a foursome,” Helena said with a smile.
* * *
Wu held up his car keys. “Okay, Roscoe. Here you are. Look after them.”
Ross smiled as he took the keys and put them in his pants pocket. “Don’t get too plastered, because if you throw up, it’s your car.”
“A light buzz is all I’m after.” Wu took Lauren’s hand. “Come on, let’s go party.”
Wu took in the two-storey brick residence as they approached. There were three cars in the driveway and maybe a dozen more on the street. Wu had parked a short walk away because there was nowhere nearer. It was only ten, but the party was obviously already in full swing. A handful of people could be seen smoking on the small, upper-story, outside balcony that also doubled as the cover for the front entrance. The deep-bass throbbing of the music could be felt in the air when they were still a couple of houses away.
“Nice place,” Ross said. “I hope it doesn’t get trashed.”
“My cousin said there’s been a few parties here already this year, and it’s all been fine,” Lauren said. “Either Stuart has very relaxed parents or he’s got a great clean-up crew lined up for tomorrow.”
The front door was ajar, and the three simply entered and took a look around. Wu was a little surprised that there wasn’t someone there to ensure that only invited guests showed up, but maybe Stuart kept his party details from becoming too public.
The foyer opened up into a large open-plan space to the right. There was no second floor in that area; a high ceiling made the space seem more capacious than it was. Not far from where they stood, a staircase led up to a balcony that stretched both the length and depth of the room below. A corridor and a couple of rooms on the upper storey were occupied by numerous people, and Wu expected that there would be more out of sight.
Down below, there were roughly thirty people in the open-plan space, about half of them dancing to the music, as well as another dozen in the tiled dining area beyond. Most of the party-goers ignored the new arrivals, but one muscular guy grinned and stepped forward with an outstretched hand. “Roscoe! You’re even bigger than I recalled. Do you remember me? Stuart Trent? We played each other a couple of years ago.”
“Hi, Stuart,” Ross mumbled, clearly uncomfortable as he shook hands in an abrupt manner. “Yeah, I remember you.”
Stuart frowned for a moment before the smile appeared and he turned to the other two. “Hi, I’m Stuart. There’s beer, water, and soft drinks in the kitchen,” he waved a hand in the direction of the dining area, “and toilets are located down the corridors on both the ground and upper floors. The only rooms off limits are my parents’ bedroom and the store room, but there are signs on both to let people know.” He winked. “Assuming some drunk hasn’t ripped them off, of course. If you need anything, just let me know.”
“Thanks, Stuart. We should be fine.” Wu gave the room another quick scan. “It looks like a great party. Are you expecting any more people?”
“Yeah, but not too many. The house can’t handle more than sixty or seventy without spilling out into the backyard, and tonight isn’t going to be warm enough for many people to want to do that.” Stuart started to turn away and then stopped. “That reminds me; no smoking in the house. Use either the back yard or the outside balcony on the upper floor,” he said, pointing above their heads.
“Thanks, but none of us are smokers.”
“In that case, I’ll let you mingle.” Stuart put a hand on Ross’s arm but pulled away when Ross flinched. “Can we catch up later, Roscoe? I’ve been told that you’re a good chance to get into the AFL, and I’d like to hear more about what’s been going on.”
“Yeah, sure,” Ross said in an obviously non-enthusiastic, though not rude, manner. “Maybe somewhere with less noise so we can hear each other without yelling.”
“Great! I’ll see you around.”
Once Stuart was gone, Ross turned to Wu and Lauren. “I’m going to go for a wander. Come and find me when you’re ready to leave.”
Wu frowned at his friend’s back as Ross moved through the crowd. “I don’t think he wants to be here.”
“He seemed fine up until we arrived. Do you suppose he knows that Stuart’s gay and that’s why he’s so uncomfortable?”
“It’s on Stuart’s Facebook page, so if Roscoe checked him out like I did during the week, then, yeah, he’ll know.”
Lauren sighed. “Okay, I’ll concede. You’re right and I’m wrong. Roscoe isn’t gay.”
Wu pulled her in for a hug. “It’s not a contest. I wouldn’t care if he was, but he’s not, and that’s all there is to it.” He gave her a quick kiss. “Now let’s get something to drink and have some fun.”
As they walked towards the kitchen, Lauren gave Wu a quizzical look. “Have you told Roscoe what that coach said this afternoon about him? About her view on his abilities?”
“No, and I’m not going to.” Wu grimaced. “If he was acting like he normally does, I would, but at the moment I’m not sure he’d react the right way.” When Lauren stared in surprise, he continued. “She wasn’t positive. He’s stressing out about next weekend, and I think the idea that a VFL coach—she’s not even an AFL coach—doesn’t think he tries hard enough…well, I think that might break him.” He sighed. “I’d love to think it’d fire him up, and previously that’s what I would’ve expected to happen, but the way he’s acting at the moment...” Wu shook his head.
Wu was worried for his friend. He knew Ross’s dreams were to play in the AFL. Wu was afraid of what would happen if he didn’t make it.
* * *
“Roscoe! I’ve been looking all over the house for you.” Stuart Trent smiled as he joined Ross in the shadows of the old oak tree in the corner of the garden.
“Hi, Stuart.” Ross’s voice was soft, barely audible over the sounds of the party. Nerves had gotten the better of him earlier, and he had spent most of his time trying to avoid Stuart. He hadn’t wanted to take the risk of outing himself in front of others, especially Wu and Lauren, who always seemed to be not too far from him. That fear had overwhelmed any desire for sex, but the two were now semi-private, and that desire was fighting hard.
“You wanted some time by yourself, or were you waiting for someone? Me, maybe?” Stuart asked with a hopeful tone.
Ross hesitated. He had initially slipped outside to get away from everyone, but he was no longer sure if being alone was what he wanted. “I’m not out. No one knows apart from you.”
“I understand.” Stuart rested a hand on Ross’s arm, and when there was no response except a slight stiffening, he slid it up to Ross’s shoulder and then down his back. “I still remember that night, even though it was more than two years ago.”
“Yeah, me, too.” Ross trembled as Stuart’s hand slowly ran up and down the muscles of Ross’s back. His fears were losing their battle.
“I wouldn’t mind repeating that night.” Stuart’s voice was soft and gentle. “Maybe more than once.”
“I’d...I’d like that.” Ross swallowed. He was afraid but also eager.
“My parents will be out all day next Saturday. How about you spend the day with me?”
“I can’t.” Ross stiffened and then forced himself to relax when Stuart’s other hand started to stroke his chest. “That’s when I’ve got my combine.”
The hands that were distracting and disturbing Ross stopped. “What do you mean?” There was a note of suspicion in Stuart’s voice. “I checked online. The AFL combine finishes on Friday.”
“That’s the national combine. I didn’t get invited to that one.” Ross couldn’t keep the disappointment out of his tone. “I only got invited to the state combine, which is next Saturday.”
“Oh.” Stuart’s hands resumed their tantalising dance over Ross’s body. “What about that night? Maybe we could go out for dinner or something and then maybe find a place where we can be private for a couple of hours?”
“I can’t be seen. No one must know.”
The hand on Ross’s back reached up to his neck and gently pulled his head down. Their lips met, and Ross felt his fears rising. He didn’t stop the kiss, but he knew the shadows would only mask, not hide, what was occurring. After a few seconds of torn indecision, Ross pulled back. “I can’t get caught. If I do, it might mean the end of my chances to get into the AFL.”
The hand on Ross’s back slid down and rested on the back of his pants. It gave a gentle squeeze.
“Don’t worry, I won’t do that to you. I know of a place, small and discreet. Not a lot of people go there, and the bouncer warns everyone that it’s for gays only. We can go there, and you can be yourself. It’ll be our first date.”
Ross felt, rather than saw, Stuart’s smile. “Yeah, our first. My last boyfriend cheated on me, which is why I broke up with him a couple of months ago. You won’t do that to me. I’m the only one who knows you’re gay, and I’m happy to keep it that way. I won’t out you.”
The hand on the back of Ross’s pants gave another squeeze. “You’ll be my boyfriend, won’t you? You don’t have anyone else, and you don’t want anyone else to know. I can make you really happy, Roscoe. I’ll keep your secret, and you can be my lover.”
Ross thought he detected a note of steel in that last statement. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that there was an implied threat that if he didn’t do what Stuart wanted, his secret wouldn’t be safe. He couldn’t take the risk.
“Okay, Stuart, but no one can find out!”
Stuart pulled Ross’s head down for another kiss. This one was stronger, more aggressive. It felt to Ross as if Stuart was claiming him as a prize, something that made Ross even more concerned. When he heard the door to the house opening, he jerked away, separating himself from Stuart.
Stuart reached out, but Ross shuffled away.
“It’s okay, Roscoe. I’ll look after you. Trust me.” With that, Stuart slipped away to say hello to the two guys who had stepped outside for a smoke.
Ross waited in the shadows. He didn’t know if he could trust Stuart, but he didn’t have a choice. He also couldn’t help a sense of anticipation for when he and Stuart would have some private time together. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time.
Despite that, there was an undercurrent of fear. Not a fear of being outed, but something worse. He couldn’t help a sense of dread that he was getting himself into a whole lot of trouble.