Neil and Liam were smiling and holding hands as they entered the kitchen. Both were in the Brandon Street house’s usual weekend-morning dress code of T-shirts and underwear.
Paul glanced across at them before returning his attention to the stove. “Morning, guys.”
Liam grinned. “G’day, Paul. See, Neil, I told you I could smell pancakes.”
“Okay, I didn’t believe you, but you were right.” Neil gave Liam a quick kiss before turning to Paul. “The others are still in bed?”
“Ollie and Helena are, but Roscoe was up around two hours ago to go for a run. The brat tried to get me to join them, but I didn’t get home until almost one, and there was no way I was going to get up again at seven. Maybe during the season, but not today.”
Liam stepped up next to Paul and peered at what he was cooking. “Any chance of a pancake or two?”
Paul chuckled. “There are some already in the oven. I promised the runners I’d have breakfast ready for them.” He glanced at the clock. “They should be coming in any time now.”
“Do you think we should wait?” Neil asked.
Liam’s stomach rumbled. “If we have to...”
“Start,” Paul said. “We don’t know when they’ll be here, so there’s no point in starving to death.”
Liam shook his head. “We’ll wait a bit.” He headed to the refrigerator. “I’ll just have an orange juice for now.” He glanced at Neil and Paul. “Do you guys want one, too?”
When both guys said yes, Liam proceeded to pour out three glasses.
While he was doing that, Neil spoke to Paul. “What did you think of Ross?”
“A nice guy. A bit quiet at times, but then so is Charlie. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“He stayed in your room last night. Were there any problems?”
Paul turned his attention away from the stovetop for a moment and gave Neil a quizzical look. “No. Why would there be?”
“No reason,” Neil said quickly. “It’s just...”
Paul flicked Neil a smile as he continued cooking. “My only problems were making sure I didn’t step on him when I went to bed last night and then putting up with the brat showing up before seven to get Roscoe up for a run.”
“Did you have the sense last night that there was anything...unusual...about him?”
“I didn’t have a lot to do with him. I headed off to work soon after I was introduced, and the next time I spoke to him was this morning as he was getting ready for a run.” Paul frowned. “Did something happen at the party after I left?”
Liam snorted. “You could say that.” His head turned and stared towards the front of the house. “I think I heard someone outside.”
“Can you go check?” Paul asked. “If it’s them, I’ll start getting everything ready.” He glanced at Neil. “Do you want to fill me in on what occurred?”
Neil was describing Stuart being thrown out of the house by Dave when Liam returned.
“They said they’ll be about twenty minutes. They want to cool down and then have a quick shower.”
“Who’s staying?” Paul asked. “The brat wasn’t sure when they headed off.”
“Jim, Ty, and Ross. Charlie and Dave kept running to their place.”
Paul nodded. “That means six for breakfast. Eight if Ollie and Helena get out of bed.”
Neil chuckled. “Liam, we’ll set the table for eight. Ollie and Helena will be out for something to eat, and then they’ll head back to bed.” He smirked. “To relax,” he added, putting as much sarcasm into the two words as he could.
“You’re the one who told me that sex is relaxing,” Oliver said as he entered the kitchen. He grinned at Neil. “And you were right.”
“Perfect timing,” Paul said. He smiled past his housemate. “Morning, Helena.”
Helena was dressed, as usual on a weekend morning, in one of Todd’s old T-shirts that she wore as a nightgown. “Hi, everyone.” She put on a mock frown. “I’m already missing Todd. He was the only one of you who was reliably topless at breakfast.”
Neil sighed. “I’m missing him, too.” He stiffened. “Not for the same reasons, of course!” Neil glanced at Liam who put a hand on his T-shirt and raised an eyebrow. Neil smiled at Helena. “But if it makes you feel better...” He and Liam stripped off their tops, leaving them in just their underpants.
Helena laughed and turned to Oliver with a look of expectation.
“Only because I don’t want you being distracted,” Oliver said as he stripped off his own top. “Even if those two are unavailable.”
“Don’t look at me!” Paul said when the other four turned their heads in his direction. “I’m cooking, and I’m not an exhibitionist.”
“I didn’t think Neil was, either,” Helena said, “but he played along.” She pouted. “Can’t you please make this poor little girl happy?”
Paul smiled and shook his head. “Sorry. Making you happy is Ollie’s job, not mine.”
“It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it,” Oliver said as he slipped a hand around Helena’s waist before leaning in and giving her a kiss.
* * *
“Thanks for the breakfast,” Ross said after finishing another mouthful. “It’s a lot more than I expected.” He carefully avoided looking at the half-naked guys sitting around the table.
He and Jim had been surprised when they’d entered the house to find Oliver, Neil, and Liam in only their underwear. Ty had taken it in his stride, and when the three had joined the others after their showers, he too was only in his briefs. Jim and Ross were the only two wearing pants, and were, along with Paul and Helena, the only people wearing shirts.
“You burnt off a lot of calories this morning,” Ty said. “Speaking of which, Dave and I were discussing things this morning on the run, and we’ve got an idea. Training for a couple of hours in the morning is probably out for you during the week, right?”
“Yeah...” Ross made a face. “If we started early enough it could work out, and I usually go for a run first thing in the morning anyway, but throw in the travel time between my place and Lilydale and we’d need to start around six if I’m to get back in time to get ready for school.”
“That’s what we thought, but what about immediately after school? Someone can pick you up as you get out, and then you can train for a couple of hours with Charlie before we take you home again. You’ll be back around six for dinner and then that weird stuff you do. What was it called again?” Ty tapped his lips a couple of times and then grinned. “That’s right...studying! How does that sound. School,” Ty made as if he was going throw up, “train,” he gave Ross two thumbs up, “dinner,” he licked his lips, “and then studying.” He shuddered.
Ross chuckled. “I think that’s doable, especially since it’s only for a week. If it gets too much for me, I can let you know.”
Jim interrupted. “Charlie has schoolwork and studying to do, too, so it won’t be every day. I know he has classes on Tuesday and, I think, Thursday afternoons, but I’m not sure about the rest of the week.”
“I’m pretty sure he finishes uni early on the other days,” Oliver said. “He organised that so he’d always be back in time for training during the season.”
Ty shrugged. “Regardless, we’ll get it sorted out. I’ll ring you later with the details once we find out when Charlie’s free. In the meantime, eat up. A big breakfast is a must, especially when it’s one made by the big wuss who didn’t want to come running with us.” He grinned at Paul.
“I’ll run later. There’s no reason you had to start at the crack of dawn.” Paul poked a fork in Ty’s direction. “And if you keep complaining, next time I’ll get Neil to cook for you.”
“Hey!” Neil’s indignant expression was ruined by the smile on his face. “My cooking’s just fine. You’re the only one who ever complains about it.”
Ross smiled as he ate another forkful of bacon, maple syrup, and pancake. The camaraderie between the guys was the same that he had seen between Ty, Deon, and Kevin in the week leading up to the combine. Dave was the only Leopard that didn’t seem to share that spirit, but, based on the previous night’s events, even Dave seemed to be part of the larger group.
Ross dropped his head as he reluctantly recalled what had happened at the party. He knew things would not be the same with too many people knowing the truth.
“What’s wrong, Roscoe?” Helena asked.
Ross looked up to find everyone staring at him. “What?”
“You didn’t look like you were enjoying yourself. Is it something you can talk to us about?” She waved a hand at the others at the table. “You’re with friends. You can trust us.”
Ross closed his eyes for a moment as he struggled to make a decision. He quickly came to the conclusion that it was too late, and the decision had been made for him the previous night. “You all know, don’t you?”
Ty answered first. “We may or may not know what you’re talking about, but no one will say anything unless you want us to.”
Ross looked at Neil and Liam first. “I’m sorry, guys. I didn’t treat you nicely when we first met. It was nothing to do with you; I was scared.”
Liam smiled encouragingly while Neil stared back with little expression. “Scared because we’re gay or scared for another reason?” Neil asked.
“For another reason.” Ross took a deep breath. “I thought you might realise that I’m...that is...”
Jim held up a hand. “You don’t have to tell us, Roscoe.”
“I’m with Jim,” Helena said as she rested a hand on Ross’s arm. “Whatever it is that you’re struggling to say, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t change who you are or why you’re here. You’re a friend, Roscoe. Just be yourself and don’t try to be a label.”
Ross looked at Neil who gave him a small smile and a nod of the head. “Been there, done that. You don’t have to say anything, Ross.”
“My friends call me Roscoe.” Ross mentally crossed his fingers that he was forgiven for his earlier behaviour.
Neil’s smile broadened. “Roscoe it is, then.” He cocked his head. “Can we assume that Stuart is no longer a friend?”
Ross grimaced at the reminder. “I...”
Ty leant forward. “Roscoe, if he’s smart, he’ll take last night’s lessons to heart, and he won’t bother you again. If he does, don’t hesitate to call me. What he was doing was illegal as well as an arsehole thing to do. We’re on your side, mate. We’ll make sure he backs off.”
Ross looked around the table and saw no one who was surprised by Ty’s comment. That told him that they all knew and that there were probably a lot of other people who had been at the party who also knew. His secret was truly out.
* * *
After dropping Ross at his home, Ty started the drive back to Lilydale. “What do you think is going to happen now?”
“Fucked if I know.” Jim sighed. “I hope things stay quiet for his sake. I was three years older than he is when the media spotlight fell on me. If I had been outed to the same degree when I was eighteen...” He shuddered.
“Would it really be that bad for him?”
“Brat, you were there when I came out. Do you really want him to go through that?”
“But that was all positive! Everyone cheered you on and told you how great it was that you’d come out. Wouldn’t they do that for Roscoe, too?”
Jim didn’t reply immediately. After almost half a minute, he grimaced. “Publicly, he’ll get a lot of support. Privately...I don’t know. If he were already drafted, that would be one thing. Before the draft, it may have no impact or it may be negative. Only the AFL clubs know, and they don’t tell us how they pick their players.”
Ty scowled. “Tell me about it.”
“Brat, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, you were right.” Ty sighed as he indicated for a turn and waited for a break in the traffic. “We don’t know how they make their draft selections, so anything out of the ordinary could be a factor. Being openly gay is something they couldn’t ignore.”
“And an out AFL player is going to be subject to a lot of pressure. Homophobic fans are going to rant regardless, and the media are going to watch everything he does. He’ll have no privacy. Since Ross is single, any guy he’s seen with will prompt speculation as to whether that guy is his boyfriend. It’ll be hell.”
“Do you think that’s what was driving that arsehole? The glory of having an AFL player as a boyfriend? Or maybe the celebrity status of being the second publicly known boyfriend of an AFL player?”
Jim stared. “Second? Who’s the first?”
Ty grinned as he took advantage of a break in traffic to enter the main road. “Tony, of course. He’ll handle it well. Much better than that arsehole.”
“Brat...” Jim shook his head. “Anyway, take whatever I experienced and multiply it by at least ten, and that’s what Roscoe would experience if he was outed. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think he’s got the self-confidence to face that. I didn’t at the outset, either, but I had Tony.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Ty sighed. “He’s a nice guy, now that I know the truth about what was going on, but I think he’d break if he was put under that pressure. AFL players need to be able to handle pressure, but not like that and not as soon as they’re drafted.”
“All we can do is keep our fingers crossed. Julie indicated after the combine that he did reasonably well, and Deon’s said the same. But I’m pretty sure the combine isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of how the clubs pick their players.”
“It’s not. At last year’s combine there were guys on crutches who went on to be drafted.” Ty snorted. “Maybe I should’ve broken my leg beforehand.” He grimaced. “Enough of that. Is there anything else we can do for Roscoe?”
“Just be there for him when he needs us.”
“How about we have him over to our place a few times between now and then? A bit like Todd did for Neil earlier this year.”
Jim shook his head. “He’s got his VCE exams coming up. We can’t afford to distract him too much, especially since we’re already intending to grab him immediately after school for training. Maybe once or twice after this week, but not regularly.”
Ty’s brow wrinkled as he thought. “There’s no rush. I’ll ring him tomorrow night to check on him and see if anyone’s causing trouble. Until then, we wait.”
* * *
Monday morning, Ross frowned as he stepped through the school gate. He glanced around before pulling out his phone and sending Wu a text message asking where he was. The frown deepened when the reply came back. Ross followed up with a text to Lauren, who told him where they could be found.
A few minutes later, Ross marched up to the bench outside the school library. “Wu!”
Wu looked up. “Oh, hi.” He immediately turned his attention back to the book he was reading.
Ross turned to Lauren who was seated next to Wu. “What’s going on?”
Wu spoke without lifting his head. “I could ask you the same question.”
Ross glanced at Lauren who gave him an apologetic half-smile and a shrug. He then studied Wu, who seemed to be struggling with something. “I sent you a text asking where you were, and you replied with ‘why did I care?’ Now you act like you don’t know me.” Ross felt a chill as a thought crossed his mind. He was sure that Wu wasn’t homophobic, but maybe he had found out the truth and was pissed off that Ross hadn’t told him.
“Maybe I don’t.” Wu put the book down and stared up at Ross with a mixture of disgust and hurt. “I thought we were friends. I thought we were best friends.”
“We are. You’ve been my best friend for years!”
“Then why the fuck did you lie to me about what you were doing on the weekend? We went around to keep you company on Saturday night only to find that you were off with your new best friends in Lilydale.” Wu’s anger changed to anguish. “Why didn’t you tell me? Your mum told us that you’d organised it on Thursday, but you never said a thing. You said you’d be studying, but you lied. You lied to me! Why?”
Ross stood there, his mind numb. “I...” He pulled a face and dropped his head before turning so he wasn’t looking at the pain in his friend’s face. “I’ll explain, but not now. Not here.” Ross knew it was time to be honest. The Leopards knew, so why shouldn’t Wu? “I’ll tell you tonight. I promise.”
“Is that to give you time to come up with a convincing lie?”
Ross flinched. “No.”
“Then why can’t you tell me now?”
“It’s private. I don’t want to do this where someone could wander past and overhear.” Ross looked back and tried to will his best friend to believe him. “I’ll tell you the truth. All the truth.”
“You could’ve told me the truth last week. Why now? Is it because you’ve been caught lying?”
Ross grimaced. “Please, Wu. I’m sorry, I really am, but I couldn’t tell you before. Yes, something’s changed, but it’s not you finding out. I wish I could’ve been honest with you before now, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.”
Wu stared back, his eyes narrowed, his lips pinched in a firm line, and his arms crossed. Ross met that gaze with as much honesty as he could muster. He knew their friendship was on the line.
“Tonight,” Wu finally said. He jabbed a finger in Ross’s direction. “You’d better be convincing, because if I think you’re lying to me again...”
Ross gulped at the unspoken threat. He nodded. “Tonight. Do you want to come to my place for dinner?” It was only as he made the offer that he realised he needed to tell his mother, too. He had faith that she would handle it fine, but the thought still scared him. He couldn’t tell Wu and not her. It wouldn’t feel right.
“I’ll let you know.” Wu’s scowl and words told Ross that he was very much on probation. Normally, Wu would have accepted without hesitation.
Wu stood up and held out a hand to Lauren. “Come on. It’s almost time for school to start. Let’s get going.”
Ross was painfully aware that Wu was not including him in that invitation. Lauren’s look of sympathy helped, but Ross knew he could only blame himself.
* * *
“Got a minute?” Lee asked.
Peter didn’t mind the interruption. One look at the Bulldog trainer told him that he was about to hear some good news. “Sure. What’s up?”
Lee grabbed a nearby chair and rolled it over next to Peter. “We’ve finally gotten back at those Greater Western Sydney bastards for trying to poach our captain. They must be shitting bricks at the moment.”
Peter smiled at the enthusiasm. “Details? Remember, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Tom Boyd’s told them that he wants to be traded to us. We’re pushing for a straight trade of Tom for Ryan, though if we can squeeze something else out of them, we’ll do that, too.”
“Boyd?” Peter blinked. The last thing he expected was for the previous year’s number-one draft pick to request a trade to the Western Bulldogs. Indeed, he couldn’t remember of any cases where a first-year player had requested a trade.
“Yep!” Lee grinned with glee. “That will show those bastards that they shouldn’t’ve tried to sneak around our backs and steal Ryan.”
“Why is he asking to leave GWS?”
Lee shrugged. “He’s unhappy there and wants to come back home. Look at all the other players leaving them as soon as their contracts are up. He’s not like most new recruits in that he’s got a reputation already. Everyone knows how good he is; that’s why he was number one last year. We’ve been talking to his management company about a possible move for quite awhile now.”
Peter diplomatically declined to comment on the hypocrisy of earlier decrying Greater Western Sydney’s secret discussions with Ryan Griffen’s management company while doing the same with Tom Boyd’s. “Are GWS going to let him go?”
“They will, even if they’re not saying so at the moment.” Lee snorted. “They’re not particularly original. They’re saying exactly the same things that our president said about Ryan; that they’re not going to let him go and that they require that he play out the remaining year on his contract.”
“So both clubs are trying to stare each other down.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” Lee smiled. “They can have Ryan, but we want Tom in return. We lose one of our most experienced players, but we’ll gain a top-notch, up-and-coming youngster in return. It looks like a good deal to me.”
“I heard that one of their other key players is having a knee reconstruction, so if they lose Boyd they’re going to be short of tall forwards. They might not let him go because of that.”
Lee shrugged. “Not our problem. They can always try to pick up a replacement through a trade or the draft. There are a number of capable forwards available if they’re interested.”
“Good enough to replace last year’s number-one draft pick?” Peter asked in a sarcastic tone.
Lee laughed. “As I said, that’s not our problem.” He grinned at Peter. “I’m looking forward to working with Tom. A big, fast player like him is going to make a huge difference.”
Peter kept his thoughts to himself. He didn’t share his friend’s confidence that the trade would go through nor in the potential impact on the team. He had seen too many examples of promising youngsters who weren’t able to deliver for one reason or another.
* * *
“Okay, Roscoe, it’s the end of school. Why don’t you start talking?” Wu gave Ross a hard stare.
Ross winced. “I said tonight. I’ve...got something else to do now.”
“Really? Something more important than talking to someone you claim is your best friend?”
Ross winced at the rebuke. “I’ve got some training to do. It’ll only be for a couple of hours. I’ll be home again a bit after six. I’ll see you then.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? The combine’s been and gone. Why do you need to keep training?”
Ross knew what he was about to say would fuel Wu’s suspicions, but the truth was going to be obvious. “Some of the guys at the Lilydale Leopards have asked me to train with them. One of them has some testing with an AFL club coming up this weekend, and they want me to help him get ready.”
“The Leopards.” Wu’s head dropped. “The guys that you were with last weekend rather than spend time with me.”
Ross cringed at the hurt tone. “I didn’t know that you were going to come around to see me!”
“No, because you were too dishonest to tell me the truth!”
Ross glanced around and saw a number of fellow students staring in their direction. He made an effort to lower his voice. “As I said, Wu, I’ll explain everything tonight. Please...let it wait until then.”
“Fine!” Wu almost spat the word. “I’ll see you tonight. You’d better have a good explanation, Ross, because at the moment I don’t think...” He growled and cut off what he was going to say. “This is your last chance, Roscoe.”
Ross nodded, knowing it to be true. In a couple of hours, he would be changing more of his world with no way back. He watched Wu storm off and then headed to where Deon was standing next to his car.
The two shook hands. “G’day, mate. Thanks for doing this. We all really appreciate it.”
Ross shrugged. “You guys helped me out when we had our combine. It’s the least I can do. I’d like to do more, but...”
Deon chuckled as he climbed into the car. As Ross settled into the passenger side seat, Deon continued the conversation. “We know you’ve got exams coming up, so we appreciate that you’re taking a couple of hours out to help. We all want Charlie to do well.”
“I owe you guys a lot,” Ross said as he put on his seatbelt. “If you weren’t coming to pick me up, I wouldn’t be able to do this, but I’m glad we sorted out how I could help.” He smiled, though with an edge, given that he knew what else he’d be going through that night. “To be honest, some hard work in the gym may be just what I need to clear my mind for the rest of the night.”
“I think we can promise that.” Deon chuckled. “Dave’s going to be there, and he’s going to push Charlie as hard as he can. Julie’s tough, but I think Dave is tougher when it comes to someone you don’t want to disappoint.”
Ross smiled but didn’t respond. His mind was still on the upcoming drama later that night.
“Did you hear the latest from the AFL?” Deon asked as soon as they were on their way.
“No? What’s happened?”
“Tom Boyd’s asked to be traded to the Bulldogs. If that happens, that’s going to leave an opening for a replacement.” Deon flicked a smile in Ross’s direction before returning his attention to the road. “Can you think of any promising, young, tall forward that might be picked to fill that gap?”
A smile appeared and then disappeared from Ross’s face. “Several, actually, and they’re all probably ahead of me in the club’s draftee list. There’s no way I could be considered to be a replacement for him!”
“Hey, have confidence! Don’t be surprised if GWS contact you, because they probably didn’t think they needed a new forward anytime soon and will be scrambling to catch up.”
“What about you? You should be higher up on their list than me. They spoke to you at the combine, didn’t they? They didn’t speak to me.”
“Yeah, but I think they were looking at one of the supporting forward roles for me, not that of a key forward. You’re a lot closer to Tom Boyd’s height, and that will be the deciding factor. They need someone tall to replace him, and that could be you. You also have the better pace and endurance, something which is supposed to be one of Tom’s strong points. Once he’s gone, they’ll want someone similar, and that could be you.” Deon grinned. “Wouldn’t that be cool? The two of us in the same club!”
Ross shook his head. “I can’t see how they can let him go. They’ve already lost a couple of players, and the reports I’ve seen indicate they’re going to lose more. If they let a player go after only one year, they’ll run the risk of all of their new players leaving as soon as they can.” Ross stared out the side window of Deon’s car. “I get that a lot of players want to go home because they don’t know anyone in Sydney, but if Greater Western Sydney lets Tom Boyd get away with this, they’re opening up the floodgates for more. It’ll destroy the club. They just don’t have the history and tradition to keep players there. As it is, they’re losing players as soon as their contracts are up. They’ll lose more if they set a precedent to allow someone to leave after only one year.”
Greater Western Sydney was one of two expansion clubs added to the AFL’s competition a few years before. The Gold Coast Suns joined the competition in 2011 and GWS in 2012. While GWS had re-signed a number of players after their initial two-year contracts, there were others who had refused and were looking to play elsewhere.
“Would you want to leave after a year with an AFL club?” Deon asked.
Ross’s reply was firm. “No. If I get drafted, I’ll stick with whoever picks me. I know I’ll have to fight hard to make the senior team of any club, so I can’t afford to make waves by asking to be traded. I’m no Tom Boyd. I don’t have the reputation that makes the other clubs want me like they want him.” Ross made a face before continuing. “But if I didn’t know anyone, I can imagine how tough it might be and how homesick a player could get.”
Deon frowned as he continued to drive. “You’ve already met Kevin, so you’ll know someone in Sydney. Plus, Sydney has a big gay community.” When Ross stiffened, Deon quickly continued. “Not that that’s important. Anyway, we’re thinking of having a small party for Kevin before he heads back for his pre-season. How would you like to come so you can get to know him a bit better? Just in case you end up in Sydney, too.”
Ross sat there for a moment, more stunned at the suggestion than wondering whether to accept. “Do you really mean that?”
“Sure! I think you and Kevin would get along great. He’ll give you hell if you end up at GWS, but that’s because you’ll be playing for his team’s crosstown rival. If you get to know him beforehand, he’ll be a great friend.” Deon smiled. “In fact, why don’t I see if he’s free this coming weekend? I’ll be at the Leopards’ awards night on Saturday, but there’s no reason you and he can’t go out and have a drink or two.”
“If he doesn’t mind...”
“I’ll talk to him.” Deon grinned. “You can talk about footy and Sydney and maybe see what else you have in common.”
Ross’s mind went off on a tangent. He hesitated and then decided Deon already knew about him. What wasn’t clear was if Deon was suggesting something about Kevin. “Does he have a girlfriend?”
“Not at the moment. Why?” Deon’s head then jerked around to stare at Ross before returning to the road in front of them. “I wasn’t trying to...that is...” Deon screwed up his face. “Sorry if I’ve confused you. He’s not gay, but he’s definitely gay-friendly. You can trust him.”
Ross chuckled, more at himself than anything else. “Thanks. When you said you wanted to see if we had things in common, I thought...”
Deon laughed, also in a self-deprecating way. “Yeah, and I wasn’t thinking when I said that. I mean finding common grounds to be friends. That’s all. Sorry.”
“That’s okay.” Ross fell silent. He wondered if he should out himself to Kevin and then immediately rejected the idea. If he ended up in Sydney—Ross thought it was a long shot because he didn’t believe Greater Western Sydney would let Tom Boyd go— it wouldn’t hurt to have a friend there, but there was no need for Kevin to know everything.
The danger with telling Kevin was that he might be the one more person who let the news slip, ruining his chances to get into the AFL in the first place. He was already committed to telling Wu and his mother. Did he want anyone else to know, too? He mentally shook his head. He couldn’t afford the risk. Too many people already knew.
* * *
Ivy Munroe chuckled as Wu scarfed down the Chicken Tikka Masala that she had made. “There’s more if you want, Wu.”
“Definitely!” Wu grinned at Ross’s mother. “My dad doesn’t like Indian, so we never have this at home.”
“What you do get to eat is great, though,” Ross said. “I always enjoy going to your place for dinner.”
Ross caught the look that Wu shot him, but wasn’t sure how to interpret it. Ross suspected that it was a silent, and-if-you-ever-want-another-invitation-you’re-going-to-have-to-explain-yourself statement. He took a deep breath.
“Mum, Wu, there’s something I need to tell you.” Ross found himself hesitating after that introduction. He had intended to get everything off his chest at once, but when it came time, his fears made him pause.
“What is it, Ross?” his mother asked.
Wu stayed quiet, but his focus had shifted from his food to Ross.
Ross took another deep breath and dropped his gaze to his dinner. He couldn’t look his mother and best friend in the eye.
“There have been some things going on that I haven’t told either of you about. Someone’s been blackmailing me.”
“What?” Wu’s fork went flying as he reacted to Ross’s statement. The three stared in the direction of the errant piece of cutlery before Wu turned his attention back to Ross. “Who and how?”
“Do we need to go to the police?” Ivy asked as she reached over to put her hand on Ross’s.
“No, we don’t. It’s all been taken care of...I think.” Ross tried to give Wu an apologetic look. “That’s what I was doing on the weekend. Some of the guys from the Lilydale Leopards found out, and they came up with a plan to get the blackmailer to back off. We think it’s worked, but we’re going to have to wait and see.”
Wu’s brow was wrinkled. “Back up and start from the beginning. I’ve got a ton of questions, but it’ll be easier if you just explained, and then we ask any questions.”
Ross nodded, though he was still terrified. “Do you remember the party we went to a few weeks ago at that friend of Lauren’s cousin’s place? Stuart was his name.”
“Yeah, I do. He said he used to play football against you a few years ago.” Wu opened his mouth to say something more but closed it again without speaking.
“Mum, Stuart’s gay. He effectively told me that unless I agree to be his boyfriend, he’ll ruin my chances of getting into the AFL.”
“He what?” Wu’s jaw dropped.
“How is he going to ruin things for you?” Ivy asked. “Is it drugs? Did you use drugs and he found out about it?”
“No!” Ross scowled. “I’ll never use performance-enhancing drugs. That would ruin my career faster than anything else.”
Ross looked at his mother, then Wu, and then down at the food that he no longer felt like eating. “Stuart knew something about me from when we’d played against each other a bit before I turned sixteen. After that match, when I pretty much made it look like he wasn’t even on the same oval as me, I wanted to make it up to him. He suggested something, and I foolishly agreed. That’s how he’s blackmailing me.”
There was silence for a moment before Wu spoke in a gentler tone than he’d used previously. “Is it relevant what he’s blackmailing you with? It sounds like you don’t want to tell us.”
“I don’t, but yes, it’s relevant.” Ross screwed up his courage. “We fooled around. We...had sex.”
When no one said anything, Ross looked up. His mother’s expression was one of concern, tinged with what seemed to Ross to be pride. When she caught his eye, she smiled. “I’m sorry you had to go through this, but I’m glad you finally told me.”
“Not about Stuart, no, but I’ve suspected for some time that you’re not interested in girls.”
Ross felt a wave of relief knowing his mother didn’t mind. He had been almost sure beforehand, but there had still been that fear that he was wrong. He was happy that he wasn’t. The smile on his face faded as he realised there was someone else in the room who hadn’t responded. With a great deal of trepidation, Ross turned to look at his best friend.
Wu was frowning, though Ross felt it was more in thought than in anger or disgust. Ross waited.
“I don’t get it,” Wu eventually said. “I get that you’re gay—which is a total surprise to me, even though Lauren told me she thought you were—but what exactly was Stuart blackmailing you with? Does he have pictures or something?”
“No, nothing like that.” Ross pushed aside his own questions that arose from Wu’s comment about Lauren. “He was going to out me if I didn’t do what he wanted.”
Ross sighed. “There are no out AFL players. There are certainly no out AFL draft prospects, at least not any that the clubs are taking seriously. If I were outed, I don’t know if that would stuff up my chances of getting drafted or not. I couldn’t take the risk. I had to stay hidden.” He caught Wu’s eye. “I still have to stay hidden. Being out may not make any difference, but it might. I know I’m not up near the top of any of the clubs’ lists, so I can’t take any chances. I have to keep this a secret.”
Wu nodded slowly. “And where do the Leopards come into the picture?”
Ross could feel the tension leaving his mind and body as he explained about the date that Stuart had made him go on after the combine, how he’d met Jim and Ty at the nightclub, and what had occurred at the party on Saturday night.
“So, they all know?” Wu asked.
“I think so, but they’re not saying anything. If Sunday morning was any indication, they’ll talk around it without explicitly stating it. Some of the team may not have worked it out, but I think most will have figured it out from Stuart’s behaviour.”
“Ross, there’s something I’ve noticed,” Ivy said, joining back into the conversation for the first time since Wu had started questioning Ross. “It’s up to you, but I can’t help notice that you’re also talking around it and never actually stating it. Is that what you want?”
Ross thought back over the conversation and realised what his mother was saying. Some of the tension returned, but he pushed that aside. He owed it to the two people in front of him to make a declaration.
“No, Mum. I’ll say it.” He took a deep breath. “Mum, Wu...I’m gay.”
The smiles from his mother and best friend were all he needed. He was still scared that Stuart would do something, but the two most important people in his life knew and supported him. That was enough for now.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Tom Boyd trade proposal made quite a few headlines when it happened. Here’s an AFL website article that talked about it.