Neil’s smile as he stepped out of the train to greet his boyfriend quickly changed to a grimace. “Shit, it’s cold!”
Liam chuckled as he took off his jacket and draped it over Neil’s shoulders. “Here, this will hopefully keep you warm. You should’ve brought something to wear over the top of your footy jumper.”
“I didn’t expect it to be this chilly. We’re halfway through spring, after all.” Neil frowned at the goosebumps appearing on Liam’s now-bare arms. “What about you?”
Liam shrugged. “I’ve spent years playing footy in the middle of winter. A little cold won’t hurt me, and if needed, we can do a powerwalk to school to keep warm.”
“That might be a good idea.” Neil said as he slipped on the jacket. “Ollie asked me if I wanted a pair of tracksuit pants, but foolishly I said no. I didn’t realise how cold my legs would get wearing only shorts.” He tilted his head towards the railway-station exit. “Let’s get moving.”
The two strode off at a much quicker pace than their normal leisurely stroll. Nothing was said for the first few minutes as they tried to get warm.
Liam was the first to break the silence. “I hope Clarissa remembers Deon’s jumper. I’m going to look out of place otherwise.”
“She said she would, and I don’t think she’ll forget. Deon was supposed to drop it around last night.”
“He could’ve dropped it around to your place, but I suppose that wouldn’t’ve given him an excuse to see her.” Both guys grinned. “Do we have a backup plan?” Liam asked.
“I’ve got the phone numbers of all the Leopards. One of them should be able to drop off a top.” Neil chuckled. “You’d better hope Zach’s not the only one free. His jumper would look like a dress on you.”
“That’d be true for more than just Zach. Paul, Todd, Roger...they’re all big guys. If Clarissa’s forgotten, I’m going to be pissed off. ” Liam shrugged. “Well, it won’t be the end of the world.”
The two were nearing the school when Neil spotted two young men that he recognised—and not with pleasure. Rather than risk a confrontation, he crossed the road early and headed to the teachers’ car-park entrance.
“Why are we going this way?” Liam asked.
“Do you remember the guys who yelled abuse at us as we walked home last Friday?”
“Yeah...” Liam glanced back across the road to the students in question. “We can take them if they try anything.”
“I’d prefer not to, especially on our last day.”
“Okay, if that’s what you want.” Liam smiled. “They don’t know how lucky they are. Who are they, anyway? They look vaguely familiar and not just from last week.”
“You don’t remember them?” Neil scowled. “It was back in June, not long after we became a couple. There were some guys who yelled abuse at us for holding hands at lunchtime.”
Liam frowned. “Didn’t Doug make them back down? And weren’t there more of them?”
“He did, but you were the one who faced them first; Doug just supported you. And, yes, there were more, but only one of them wanted to make a fight of it.” Neil waved a hand in the direction of the two bullies who were now scowling in their direction. “That’s him. It looks like he’s still harbouring a grudge.”
“He didn’t try anything last Friday. That tells me that as long as we’re together, all he’ll do is yell abuse. I can live with that.”
“I hope you’re right.” Neil scanned the area to make sure there were no teachers around before beckoning Liam on. “Let’s go.”
A few minutes later they were back around the front of the school and had met up with Clarissa. She didn’t question why they had approached her from an unusual direction but jumped straight into other matters.
“Ty thought his jumper would fit you better since he’s a little shorter than Deon,” Clarissa said as she pulled out the number 17 top from the shopping bag she was carrying. “Deon and he also provided some accessories for you to wear.”
Liam paused in stripping off his shirt. “Accessories?”
Clarissa grinned and waved a hand. “Get changed first. Otherwise, you don’t get them.”
Liam quickly removed his shirt and pulled on the jumper that Neil was holding for him. “I think this will be enough. We don’t need anything else.”
“I disagree, and since I’m a girl, you’re going to bow to my superior fashion sense and do what I tell you.”
Liam and Neil both grinned. “Yeah, right,” Liam said.
Clarissa reached into the “So you don’t want Deon’s and Ty’s premiership medals to wear?” She pulled out two identical medals and let them dangle from the blue ribbons.
Liam’s jaw dropped, and Neil blinked. “Their premiership medals?” Neil turned to Liam. “The Leopards did win, and we’re wearing Leopard uniforms...”
Liam nodded, and gave Clarissa a wry smile. “Okay, you’re right. Yes, we’ll wear them.”
“Good, because there’s one more,” she said as she handed over the medals. “Ty said that while he thinks it belongs with his jumper, he’s fine if Neil wants to wear it.” She reached in to the bag and pulled out yet another medal, this one smaller and on a darker ribbon.
Neil gasped. “Ty’s Norm Goss Medal!” He turned to Liam. “You wear it. Ty’s right; it belongs with his top.”
Liam appeared stunned. “He wants me to wear it? Wow!” He reached for the medal in an almost reverent manner. “This is...” He smiled as he shook his head in disbelief.
Neil gave Clarissa a kiss on the cheek while Liam slipped on the second medal. “Thank you. You, Deon, and Ty have made this day something special.”
* * *
Ross entered his homegroup room with Wu and Lauren. Wu was dressed in the Richmond colours of black and yellow, while Lauren was wearing a navy-blue Carlton top.
“Okay, Roscoe, this is your first team for the day,” Wu said as he waved a hand at the room that had been decorated in black and white. “We all know you’re a Collingwood supporter, so we thought we’d start off with the worst team in the competition.”
While most of the students laughed and jeered, Ross snorted and gave his best friend a mock glare. “You’re just jealous. The Magpies are the best team, and everyone who’s smart knows it.”
“Anyone dumb enough to barrack for Collingwood won’t know what being smart means.” Wu grinned.
“Enough of that.” Kathy, one of the girls who had at various times over the previous two years tried to get Ross to date her, approached with a pair of shorts and a football jumper. “It’s time to see how good you’ll look as a Collingwood player, Roscoe.” She smiled with more than a hint of a leer.
Ross looked around, even though he knew what the answer was going to be. “Where can I get changed?”
Kathy pointed to the front of the room where the teacher usually lectured. “There will do.”
“Really, you expect me to get undressed in front of everyone?” Ross took the football gear while pretending to be shocked. He’d known this was the way it was going to be when the idea was first discussed.
“Why not?” Kathy grinned. “We all know football players like to show off their bodies.”
Ross gave her a wry smile. “Well, if that’s the way it has to be...” He moved over to the front of the class, took off his jacket and then pulled his polo shirt over his head. He ignored the whistles from a number of girls, including Kathy, at his revealed upper body and pulled on the Collingwood top. He wished he was pulling it on for real, but he knew his chance of being drafted by his favourite team was slim. He then kicked off the shoes he was wearing, turned his back to his classmates, and dropped his tracksuit pants.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” Kathy sounded disappointed. “Who said you could wear Speedos?”
Ross grinned over his shoulder as he pulled on the black shorts with the Collingwood Football Club logo. “What did you expect me to be wearing?”
“Some of us had fantasies...” Kathy stepped forward and gave Ross a kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for being a good sport, and we all hope you do well at the draft.”
“Thanks, Kathy.” Ross turned his attention from her to the class. He swallowed once while keeping a broad grin on his face, hoping his embarrassment wasn’t obvious to everyone. Most of the girls had their phones out and were taking pictures.
It was only as they finished that he spotted Andrew McCann, one of the classmates that he had never had much to do with, surreptitiously putting away his phone. There had been no flash from that direction, so either he didn’t snap any photos or he had taken a video. Ross felt his face go red at the idea that Andrew had filmed him getting changed.
Ross resolved to keep a wary eye out during the day. He didn’t intend to do anything with the information he had gathered, but it had suddenly occurred to him that he had a chance to learn if any of his classmates might be gay.
Mr. Broadford, their homegroup teacher, arrived at that point. He scowled at the decorations and at Ross standing at the front of the class. “If you had to turn my classroom into an AFL locker room, couldn’t you have at least picked a team I like?” He then grinned. “Best of luck for next month, Ross.”
* * *
“Anything interesting happening?” Peter asked Lee as the two enjoyed a mid-morning coffee break.
“Not a lot. Jason’s glad that the trade period is over, but now he’s got to make some decisions. We need to cull some players from the list if we’re going to select the draftees we want.” Lee shrugged. “This is what gives list managers grey hairs. Those that still have hair, at least.”
Peter grimaced. “I’m so glad I’m not in his shoes. Working out who to cut...” He shook his head in sympathy. “It’d be nice if we had preseason tryouts like they have in the NFL in America, but we don’t have that luxury. Their draft is merely an invite to the tryouts while ours is putting players directly into the final list. That means we’ve got to cut players before the draft, not afterwards.”
“Yeah, I know.” Lee sighed. “And complicating everything is the fact that we don’t have a senior coach to provide input. Jason has to make the calls on who to cull himself. He’s getting info from the other coaches, trainers, and medical staff, but none of them are in a position to make recommendations. He has to make the decisions based on what they tell him.”
“Any idea of who will go?”
“Absolutely none, and this is one area where I don’t want to speculate. The guys have put in a lot of effort all year. I don’t want to even try to name anyone who hasn’t worked hard enough or who we don’t think will last another season. I have to report what they’ve done and not done, but I’m not saying if any of them should be cut.”
“Fair enough.” Peter pulled a face. “I had to cut one guy last year, but good riddance to him. A few others left of their own accord, but while I was coaching the Leopards, I tried to keep the team together as much as possible from season to season.”
“That’s a luxury we can’t afford. The AFL is a cutthroat business, and we can’t afford to carry people who are unable to do the job.”
The two stayed silent for a minute, sipping their coffees, before Peter spoke again. “What’s your opinion on our final draft picks?”
Lee shrugged. “Would you believe I don’t have one?” When Peter gave him a hard stare, Lee grinned. “We don’t have any first round picks, unlike those bastards at GWS who have three. Indeed, between them and Melbourne, they’ve got five of the top seven picks. But I’m not worried. We should do okay with our second-round picks—two early and one late—and our two early-third-round picks. It’s a pretty even draft field so there are going to be quality players available even that late.”
Peter screwed up his face. “I hope that’s good enough...”
Lee narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure I can say...” Peter thought for a moment and then decided he could share part of the truth. “I’m trying to get Jason to pick up one of the Leopards, but I’m not sure which other teams are interested in him. He still might be around at the start of the second round, but I don’t know.”
Lee shook his head. “Deon Bradshaw is good, but he’s not a first-round pick. If he were taller it would be different, but as it stands, yeah, he’s probably a second-round selection. I don’t know if he’ll be at the top of Jason’s list, though, not after picking up Tom Boyd. We don’t really need another forward just yet.”
Peter stayed quiet. He suspected Carlton was chasing Ty, but he wasn’t sure. He kept his mental fingers crossed that the brat would still be around when it came to the Bulldogs’ first pick. He could see a bright future for Ty with the Bulldogs...if they were able to draft him.
* * *
Liam glanced past Neil and down the hallway as the two left their second-last class before lunch. “Do you mind if I catch up with you? I want a quick word with Doug.” He gave Neil a hesitant smile. “That’s okay, isn’t it?”
Neil grinned. “Yeah, of course it is. He’s your best friend.” He gave Liam a gentle push. “Go!”
Neil didn’t think that he and Doug would ever be comfortable with each other, but Liam was important to both of them. Neil would never forget the years of bullying that Doug had led, but for Liam’s sake, he put up with Doug. Doug had made it clear more than once that he thought Liam could do better, but he didn’t interfere. Indeed, there were times when Doug had helped to protect Neil, though Doug would make it clear that it wasn’t for Neil’s sake.
Neil wandered towards his next class. It felt strange doing so on the last day of formal schooling. Nothing new was being taught; it was all either revision, advice on how to handle the exams, or simply a long extended farewell from the teacher.
Because of his introspection, Neil didn’t become aware of the danger until he was shoved up against the side wall.
“Look who we’ve got here, boys? It’s the faggot, Four-Dork.”
Neil recognised the student as one of the bullies he had seen before school. This time he was accompanied by three other guys. “Leave me alone.” Neil mentally cringed at the slight quaver in his voice, but he quickly schooled his expression into one of firm neutrality.
“If that’s what you want, but only after you’ve given me that medal you’re wearing.” The bully sneered as he brought his face close to Neil’s. “I’ve heard it’s a genuine premiership medal. I want it.”
Neil’s jaw dropped from the shock request, and then his mouth shut and his eyes narrowed. His hand came up and clasped the medal. He steeled himself as he did what he thought Ty and Todd would want him to do. “No. You’re not getting it, so why don’t you just go away?”
“I’m going to get what I want, whether you like it or not.” The bully glanced down both directions of the hallway, and Neil reflexively did the same. There were no teachers in sight. A number of students glanced at them as they passed but most ignored what was happening.
Neil opened his mouth to raise his voice, but he was too late. A fist to his stomach had him doubled over. He felt his hand being pried open, and then the ribbon being lifted over his head. He started to lift his head, only to encounter a knee to his groin. Neil fell to the ground. By the time he pulled himself together and sat up, the bully and his friends were long gone.
“Neil?” The initial tone of surprise from Liam was quickly replaced by panic. “Neil! Are you okay?” Liam knelt next to his boyfriend and helped him to his feet. “What happened?”
“They took the medal...” Neil still felt woozy. “It was that guy from this morning...”
“Who?” Doug said, surprising Neil who hadn’t seen him standing behind Liam.
“I don’t know his name.” Neil glanced at Liam, who shook his head to indicate he didn’t know, either.
“You need to go to the office,” Liam said. “We need to get that medal back.”
“It’ll be a waste of time.” Neil scowled and then winced as the pain hit him again. “He’ll have hidden it and won’t have it on him when the teachers check.”
Doug shrugged. “He might be stupid, but Neil’s right. It’s not going to work.” He stared at Neil for a moment longer. “But do it anyway. You might be lucky.” He turned to Liam. “Let me know how it works out.”
* * *
“Where are we going now?” Ross asked as Wu dragged him towards one of the classrooms. “It’s lunchtime!”
“And you’ve got six teams to get through during the break.” Wu grinned. “Don’t worry, food’s been supplied. You can eat between uniform changes.”
Ross chuckled. He had expected the girls—who seemed to be the main ones interested—would have lost interest after the first four times, but it seemed that they were still keen to see him in the different AFL team outfits. Even a few of the guys had gotten involved, though Andrew was still the only one Ross suspected of having ulterior motives. The other guys wanted pictures of Ross in the colours of their favourite teams; most of them had made comments about hoping it would be that particular team to draft him.
One of the girls had organised pizzas, which guaranteed a large audience for Ross to do his strip-and-dress act. Having already done so seven times—once for his homegroup, four times for the four periods before lunch, and twice during the recess break—he was becoming blasé. That changed when, after he had turned his back on his classmates and dropped his shorts, one of the girls reached over and pinched his bum.
“Hey!” Ross turned halfway around before he realised that he only had his Speedos on. He was in the room decorated in the Brisbane Lions colours and had been about to pull on the maroon shorts when he had been interrupted.
“Stop being so shy,” the girl said with a grin. “You’re going to be popular next year, Roscoe, so it’s time to get used to the attention.”
Ross flinched and put his back to everyone again. “We don’t know that. I might not get drafted.” He reached for the shorts, only to have his bum slapped.
“Of course you’ll get drafted! We’ve seen you play; you’re great!”
Ross turned around. “Please...? There are a lot of guys in the draft. Less than a hundred will be drafted, and I know there are a lot of players who are better than me. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but I’m not going in with expectations that I’m a certainty.” He paused and noticed that the girls didn’t appear to be listening or meeting his eyes. It was only when he heard one of the guys snickering that he remembered that he was standing there without any pants. Blushing, he grabbed the shorts and pulled them on quickly. As he straightened, he happened to make eye contact with Andrew, who was holding his phone in a way that it was obvious—to Ross, at least— that he was filming Ross.
A look of terror appeared on Andrew’s face. Before Ross could react, Andrew spun away, tripping over his feet in the process. He caught himself by putting a hand on one of the classroom desks, but his actions had made him the focus of everyone’s attention.
“You okay there?” Kathy asked him.
“I’m...I’m fine. I...I’ve got to go.”
Ross started to put up a hand to stop him, but he didn’t follow through. There wasn’t much he could say to Andrew without outing himself. He did make a promise to himself to try to counter any rumours he might hear. Ross knew too well the fear that Andrew was probably feeling.
* * *
Clarissa rose to her feet and rushed over to Neil and Liam. “Where have you been?” She had been waiting for over ten minutes, with a steadily increasing level of worry, especially after being told that Neil hadn’t been in his last class before lunch.
“We’ve been in the principal’s office.” Liam kicked a stone on the ground. “A fucking waste of time that was.”
The three headed back to join Evelyn, Mary, and Steven.
“What happened?” Clarissa frowned as she noticed what was missing. “And why aren’t you wearing the medals?”
Neil winced. “Mine was stolen. Liam’s left his with the office for safekeeping.”
“Stolen!” Clarissa stopped and grabbed Neil’s arm as they reached their friends. “When?”
“What’s been stolen?” Steven asked.
Neil and Liam filled their friends in on what had happened. “That’s why we weren’t in our last class. We had to ID the guy—Josh Flemington—and then wait while they searched his bag and his locker.” Neil dropped his head. “They believed me when I told them what happened, but there’s no proof and no medal.” He looked up at Clarissa. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry about?” Clarissa scowled. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was this Josh guy.”
“I lost one of the guys’ medals. If I hadn’t worn it, they’d still have it.”
“It’s not your fault.” Liam gave Neil a squeeze of reassurance.
“That doesn’t get the medal back.” Neil looked away. “One of the guys doesn’t have a medal anymore, all because of me.”
Clarissa crossed her arms. “If you’re going to look at it like that, it’s my fault, too.”
Neil’s head snapped around. “Wait, what? You didn’t lose the medal. I did!”
“No, you didn’t!” Clarissa narrowed her eyes. “It was taken from you. I’m the one who gave it to you in the first place and insisted you wear it. If you’re going to be stupid about this, then I’m to blame, too.” She cocked her head. “And since Ty was the one who suggested the idea in the first place, that makes him also responsible. Is that what you want? To tell Ty that because he and Deon gave me the medals, it’s their fault that they’ve been stolen?”
“No, of course not!” Neil glared at her. “Stop twisting things around! I’m the one who lost the medal. Not you. Not them.”
“Not you, either!” Clarissa threw up her hands. “I give up. Liam, take him away and do something to make him forget about this. I’m going to see what I can find out.”
She watched as Liam led Neil towards the trees bordering the school football oval for what she hoped was an extended and uninterrupted period of making out. She then turned to the others. “Okay, what can we do?”
Steven punched his left hand. “Do you want me to gather the guys who were at the grand final? I think they’ll all be as pissed off as I am. The Leopards worked hard for those medals. I’m not going to let some fucker walk off with one just because he wanted it.”
Clarissa frowned and then grimaced. “While I don’t technically approve of what you’re suggesting, go ahead. Just don’t get anyone into trouble.”
Steven gave her an evil grin. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I was just suggesting that a dozen or so footballers go have a friendly chat with someone, that’s all.” He winked before walking off.
* * *
It was near the end of lunchtime. Ross glanced around to make sure there was no one else in earshot. “Wu, Lauren, I need you to do something for me.”
“Sure. What is it?” Wu gave his friend a quizzical look.
“I need you to find Andrew McCann and tell him that everything’s okay. That he doesn’t have to worry.”
“Andrew?” Lauren glanced around. “Do you know where he ran off to earlier?”
“No, but I know why.” Ross stopped speaking as he noticed a couple of his classmates approaching. He stepped away from Wu and Lauren and let the newcomers take a selfie with him in the North Melbourne football uniform. Once they were done, he returned. “Can you go find him? Please?”
“What’s going on, Roscoe?” Wu asked as he slung his schoolbag over one shoulder.
Ross lowered his voice. “Andrew probably thinks I’m about to out him. Tell him I’m not going to say a word.”
Wu’s eyes widened. “Is he...?”
Ross checked to make sure there was no one else around. “He’s been filming me getting changed into the uniforms. He knows I caught him doing it, and he’s probably petrified I’m going to tell everyone. Tell him it’s okay; I won’t do that.”
“Can we —”
Ross interrupted Wu, knowing what he was going to ask. “No! I...” He ran a hand through his hair as he looked around the room to avoid Wu’s and Lauren’s gaze. “I want to think about this more. I’m not ready...”
Lauren put a hand on Ross’s arm. “We’ll find him and let him know, and we won’t tell him more than he needs to know.”
Ross smiled at her. “Thanks.”
Andrew was an okay-looking guy, but Ross wasn’t attracted to him. The two of them had very little in common apart from school. Ross didn’t even feel the need to have him as a gay friend. Indeed, after Stuart, he was as wary of other gay guys as he was of being outed. He wanted Andrew to know he would keep Andrew’s secret, but he didn’t want things to go further than that. At least, not yet.
Ross knew Wu and Lauren well enough to know that the two would befriend Andrew and would start to push the two of them together. He accepted that and was prepared to offer Andrew his limited support, but nothing more. Ross’s immediate focus was on other things.
That didn’t stop a nagging feeling from rising at the back of his mind. Ross didn’t want to admit that he was jealous of the relationships that Jim, Tony, Neil, and Liam possessed. He wanted a boyfriend, too.
* * *
“Sorry, guys.” Steven’s head was hung low. “No luck in getting that medal back.”
“What do you mean?” Liam asked as he gave Steven a quizzical look.
“Me and some of the guys from the footy team asked around. We found the guy who took it, but we weren’t able to persuade him to give it back.” Steven grimaced. “If anything, we may have made things worse. He knew we couldn’t do anything, not where the teachers could see, and he made sure we weren’t in a position to drag him off somewhere private. I’ve heard he’s been boasting about standing up to us and how next year, when he’s in Year 12, he’s going to be the guy in charge.”
“Thanks, Steven.” Neil sighed. “At least you tried. I’ve already told Ty that the medal is gone. He took it better than I expected.”
“What did he say?”
Neil’s lips quirked up into a momentary half-smile. “That they’ll just have to win another one next year. No big deal...at least according to him.”
Liam chuckled, though his heart wasn’t really in it. “That sounds like the brat.” He pulled Neil into an embrace. “These things happen, Neil. It’s a fucking shitty thing, but it’s not the end of the world.”
* * *
Deon chuckled as he stepped away from his car. “You know that Kevin’s going to kill you, don’t you?”
Ross smiled as he glanced down at the Hawthorn Football Club gear he was wearing. “Sorry, but I told you that my classmates were making me wear the outfits of all the teams today. Hawthorn was the last one, and the girls who bought the uniform said I could keep it. I didn’t want to keep you waiting, especially since I was held up saying goodbye to everyone, so I raced out without getting changed.”
“Did you have a good last day?” Deon asked as the two climbed into his car.
“Pretty good. There was one interesting event.” Ross glanced around, even though he knew there was no chance anyone could overhear them. “I found out one of my classmates is gay. He kept taking pictures of me until he realised I’d seen him.”
“No!” Ross grimaced. “Sorry, but I’m not ready. After Stuart, I’m not keen on getting involved with anyone. Not now.”
“Fair enough. Stuart was a creep.” Deon waited until he had pulled out of the school car park before continuing. “What happened after you knew what he was doing?”
“I’d spotted him at the start of the day, but it was at lunchtime that he realised I knew. He panicked and ran off.”
Deon grinned. “Running off seems to be a common reaction, from what I’ve heard recently. I’ve been told Jim ran off the first time Tony recognised him, and you ran off when Jim and Ty met you at that nightclub. Now this guy’s done the same.”
“Fight or flight. When you can’t bluster your way out of the situation, running seems like a decent second choice, at least at the time.” Ross blinked as he realised he wasn’t being defensive. He hadn’t reacted to Deon’s indirect reference to him being gay as anything other than a comment. Ross frowned as he wondered if that meant he was more likely to accidentally out himself. Was he becoming too relaxed with people knowing?
“Did he calm down afterwards?”
“I couldn’t go after him, but I had Wu and Lauren track him down and tell him everything was okay.” Ross sighed. “That didn’t go well, either.”
Deon took his attention off his driving for a moment. “What happened?”
“Wu told him that I wasn’t going to tell anyone, and Andrew immediately looked horrified. Wu told me his exact words were ‘He told you!’ Before Wu could say anything more, Andrew disappeared again.” Ross slumped in the seat. “Lauren got Andrew’s number from a mutual friend, and I’ve sent him a text to say I’m sorry and that he’s got nothing to fear, but I don’t expect to hear back.” Ross turned his head to stare out the side window. “I know I wouldn’t reply if I were in his shoes.”
There was silence for a couple of minutes as Deon concentrated on navigating through the traffic, and Ross wondered if he should change his mind and tell Andrew the truth. Andrew didn’t appear to be what he wanted as a boyfriend, but he might be surprised. He didn’t know him well enough to be sure, but that was also an argument for not saying anything. He’d been blackmailed once; he didn’t want that to happen again.
“I know you and Kevin are going out tomorrow night,” Deon said, “but if you’ve got time in the afternoon, would you like to meet my dad? He’ll understand better than me exactly what you’re going through.”
Ross stared. “Why would he?”
Deon flicked him a wry smile. “Because he’s gay. He hid it for a long time before it got too much for him. He and Marcus now live in Sydney. If you end up there after the draft, they’ll be two more people you’ll know.”
“You’re joking, right?”
Deon shook his head. “I hated him for a long time, but I’m over that. I now look forward to the times like this weekend, when my dad and Marcus come down here to visit. I’ve even gone up to stay with them once. I’m still learning a lot, but I know I’m never really going to understand what it’s like to be hiding who you are.”
Ross considered the offer. “I’ll be studying tomorrow, but if you want to bring them around to my place, I could probably do with the break. Now that my mum knows, I won’t have to find an excuse to talk to them. Thanks, Deon.”
“I’ll send them a text once we get to Lilydale so they’ll receive it before they get on the plane. If they’ve already made other plans, I’ll let you know.” Deon grinned as he glanced at Ross. “That’s assuming that you survive training tonight, of course.”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Deon waved at hand at the Hawthorn uniform Ross was wearing. “Kevin’s going to want to kill you. Since the Swans lost the grand final to the Hawks, he hates them with a passion. This will be a good test to see if you’re faster than he is.”
Ross laughed. “I’ll get changed as soon as we arrive.”
* * *
Later that night, Ross took a break from his studying to stare at his phone. After a couple of minutes of silent debate, he took a deep breath and rang Andrew. He wasn’t surprised when the call went through to voicemail.
“Hi, Andrew. It’s Roscoe. Look, I’m sorry if I scared you today, but everything’s cool. I’ve been training with Jim Henderson recently. You know, the gay VFL footballer. He’s a great bloke. I told him today that I thought one of my classmates might be gay but in the closet, and he told me that all I should be doing is offering my support—that I need to let my classmate take the next steps.
“Call me back when you get a chance.”
Ross still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He knew he couldn’t afford to out himself, but he felt he had to keep the door open, just in case this was his chance for a decent boyfriend.
It was almost forty minutes later that his phone rang. One glance at the caller ID had Ross’s heart racing. He wiped his hands on his pants before answering. “G’day, Andrew.”
“Please don’t tell anyone!”
“Hey, it’s okay. I won’t. I only told Wu and Lauren because I was worried about you. I didn’t tell Jim who it was, just that it was a classmate.”
“You’re not going to say anything?”
Ross knew precisely what Andrew was going through. “Not a word, but if you want me to give you Jim’s number, he said I could.”
“I...” There was a short pause. “No. I can’t take the risk. I’ve got no reason to have his number.”
“Do your parents know?” The silence in response to that question gave Ross the answer. “One of the other guys I met during the school holidays while I was training with the Lilydale Leopards was Neil Rosewood. He’s the guy who was on TV back in May when he ran away after his father hit him.”
“Then you understand why no one must know!”
“I do, but I also found out that Neil survived what happened back then because he had friends who knew. Friends who gave him a place to stay when he needed it. Have you got a pen and paper?”
“Yeah...” The tone was uncertain.
“I’ll give you my address. If you need a place to stay in an emergency, you can come here.”
“You’ll let a faggot live in your house?”
Ross winced at the self-disgust he heard. “I’ll let a classmate who needs help live in my house. My mum will, too. I hope you never need to do that, but the offer is there, just in case.”
There was a long silence before Andrew responded. “Thanks, Roscoe. This...this means a lot to me.”
As Ross passed on his address and other contact details, he couldn’t help but react to the relief and wonder in Andrew’s voice. His internal debate about whether it was okay to come out to one more person was rekindled. He resisted the temptation, but it was a tough fight. It was only the allure of the AFL that kept him quiet. He knew he couldn’t take the risk of being outed before the draft.
* * *
“Cool party.” Oliver glanced around Steven’s home. “Don’t forget you can drink as much as you want, because I’m driving.”
Neil smiled, though he had no intention of getting drunk. It was the first time he’d been invited to a party with anyone from school, and he didn’t want to make a fool of himself.
“Neil, enjoy yourself.” Helena gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Ollie and I are going to see if we can find my cousin, and then we’ll be back.”
Oliver glanced at his girlfriend as she led him away. “We don’t really need to find Toula. I’m sure she’s fine wherever she is.”
Neil missed the response, but he had something else on his mind. He’d just seen Ty walk through the door. He immediately dropped his head.
“Hey...” Liam gave him a nudge. “Don’t be like that. We’re here to have a good time.”
“I know, but...”
“Neil!” Ty’s bright greeting was followed by Neil being grabbed in a bear hug. “It’s good to see you, mate.”
“Hi, Ty.” Neil’s voice was soft.
“I see...” Ty’s tone went cold. “Okay, what have I done now?”
“What?” Neil lifted his head to see Ty giving him a hard stare. “I lost your medal, Ty. I’m sorry.”
Ty scowled and then looked at Liam. “Will you please tell your boyfriend that I’m not Ty. I’m the brat, and I don’t like my friends calling me by the wrong name.” He gave Neil a warm smile. “And I told you earlier, it’s only a medal. It’s not that important. The Leopards will just have to win another one next year. No big deal.”
Ty held up his hand. “Friendships are more important, Neil. Okay, if it makes you happy, I’m disappointed and upset. But that’s because you were hurt, not because the medal was stolen. And for the record—since there’s no way to tell them apart—it was Deon’s medal that was taken.” He winked. “I’m just letting him keep the other one because he cries like a baby if he doesn’t get what he wants.” Ty grinned.
Neil tried to smile, but he couldn’t. “Sorry.”
Ty rolled his eyes. “Liam, I think you’ve got a great boyfriend, but sometimes...”
Liam chuckled as he put an arm around Neil’s waist and pulled him close. “Leave him alone, brat. Yes, he’s taking this harder than he should, but that’s because he cares. If he didn’t care, he wouldn’t be the guy I love.”
Ty stared back for a moment and then nodded. “True. However, this is a party, and that means having fun. No more talk about medals, okay? I want to hear about fun stuff.” Ty held up a finger in warning. “And if I hear one word about school or exams, you’re both being thrown in the pool.”
“I didn’t think Stevo had a pool,” Liam said
“If he doesn’t I’ll find one to throw you both in. Got it?” Ty grinned.
Liam chuckled. “Yeah, got it.”
Over the next twenty minutes, Neil slowly relaxed. A number of his classmates were ignoring him, but that was what he expected. A few, mainly girls, came up to talk to him, but even there Neil could tell it was more because of the company he was keeping than any interest they had in him. Besides Oliver and Ty, the other Leopards who had shown up were Deon, Jarrod, and Zach. Jarrod and Ty were the only ones who had arrived without a date, but those two were enough to attract the attention of a number of Neil’s female classmates, even though Jarrod showed a definite preference for the company of Mary, and Ty had made it clear that he already had a girlfriend. A few of the school’s football players also introduced themselves, congratulating the guys on their grand-final win the month before. While Neil wasn’t the centre of attention of the expanded group, he wasn’t being snubbed, either.
“Where the fuck is he?” Liam muttered as he scanned the room.
“Doug. He said he was coming, but he hasn’t shown up.” Liam pulled out his phone. “I’ll send him a text.”
Neil tried to hide his sudden anxiety, but it was quickly apparent he wasn’t successful.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Liam asked as he put his phone back in his pocket.
Neil flinched. “You don’t usually have me and Doug around at the same time.”
“I know you two don’t get along, but it should be fine here. You don’t have to say anything to each other if you don’t want. There are plenty of other people you can talk to instead.” Liam smiled. He started to lean in to give Neil a kiss but stopped and glanced around warily.
Neil gave a nervous chuckle. “Yeah, me, too. We’re getting better at doing things like kissing in public, but this feels different. I don’t think most of the people here have seen us do anything like that.”
Liam hesitated and then raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t we show them? We’ve only got exams to go, and then we’re not going to see most of them for years.”
Neil gnawed on his lower lip and then nodded. He leant forward and was met halfway by Liam’s lips. Neil had originally intended the kiss to be a small, almost chaste one, but Liam had other ideas and Neil’s resistance was momentary. They only stopped when they were jostled.
“Get a room!” Oliver grinned. “Oh, wait, you’ve already got a room for later tonight. Okay, how about waiting until you get home before you two start having sex?”
Neil knew his face was red. Liam’s was, too, but both guys were smiling. Neil glanced around. The Leopards all wore grins, as did their girlfriends. A couple of their classmates seemed amused, but there were also some who were scowling.
“Now, now, Ollie, don’t be jealous.” Helena snuggled up with her boyfriend. “You know they weren’t doing anything we haven’t done in public.”
“I know, but it’s the other things we’ve done in public places that I don’t want to see them doing.” Oliver gave Helena a quick peck on the lips. He smiled at Neil and Liam. “And for the record, here’s how you’re supposed to kiss.” He then demonstrated with his arms wrapped around Helena and her arms drifting up under the back of his shirt.
Zach shook his head. “You’re doing it all wrong, Ollie. It works like this...” He lifted up Angela, his girlfriend, who wrapped her legs around his waist while holding onto the back of his neck. They then started a long and passionate kiss.
Liam chuckled. “I think we’ve started something, Neil.” His eyes widened and his smile broadened as he peered past Neil. “Doug!”
Neil turned around and then took a half step away so he was to the side and slightly behind Liam. He was therefore surprised when Doug merely nodded at Liam and stopped in front of him. “I’ve got something for you.”
Neil was wary. While he thought that Doug was unlikely to do anything because of Liam, he couldn’t relax. He had too long a history with Doug to be complacent.
“Here.” Doug grabbed Neil’s hand and pushed something into it.
Neil yanked his hand free, almost dropping what Doug had forced onto him. If it weren’t for the ribbon getting caught on one of his fingers, it would have dropped onto the floor.
“Ty’s premiership medal!” Neil clenched his hand, not wanting to take any chances on losing it again.
Liam stared at the prize and then grinned at Doug. “How did you get it?”
Doug shrugged. “I asked nicely.”
“Stevo and the others tried that at school. He just laughed in their faces.”
“Amateurs.” Doug grinned. “I heard about what they did, and I’m not surprised it didn’t work. They tried to intimidate the guy, and he called their bluff. They need to learn to appeal to someone’s best interests. That’s what I did. I explained the situation calmly and rationally and then asked for the medal. After the fourth explanation, he decided that he didn’t really want the medal anymore. He picked himself up off the ground and gave it back.”
Liam chuckled. “As long as you don’t get in trouble for your ‘calm’ explanation, then thanks, mate. I don’t know what we’d do without you.”
Neil smiled though the reference to casual violence disturbed him. “Yeah, thanks, Doug. I really appreciate this.”
Doug’s face flipped into an immediate scowl. “I didn’t do it for you.”
Neil flinched at the all-too-familiar rebuke, but Liam grabbed Doug’s arm. “Doug, enough! You don’t have to get defensive every time you do something right. You don’t have to pretend that you were doing it for me, instead.”
Doug stared back, almost expressionless. “I didn’t do it for you, either.” He pulled his arm out of Liam’s grip and turned away.
Doug glanced back over his shoulder. His face was contorted as if he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel. After a moment he shrugged and walked away without saying anything. Liam went to follow, but Neil stopped him.
“Let him go.”Liam gave Neil a puzzled look, but Neil didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt that Doug wanted to be left alone. That feeling was reinforced a minute later when they saw Doug leaving the party.