“You wanted me?” Julie asked as she stepped into Henry’s office.
“Thanks for dropping in. I’m reviewing your notes from the combines you attended, and I wanted to understand one of them. You said...” Henry shuffled through the papers on his desk to find the one he was interested in. “...that Bradley Wilcox is homophobic and we would need to be careful if we decide to recruit him.” Henry looked up. “What happened for you to say that?”
“Can I have a look?” Julie asked as she sat in the chair opposite Henry. When he handed over the paper, Julie scanned it quickly. “This was from the state combine. Bradley made a comment at lunch about how being gay would be a career killer for anyone who wanted to play football. Several other participants shouted him down, but I took a note of the comment.”
“You don’t think it’s an automatic veto? We’ve got Jim on the team, after all.”
Julie shook her head. “I know kids of his age. They’ll sometimes say what they think their peers want to hear. That’s a negative because he’s old enough to think for himself, but I wouldn’t want to ignore him just from the one comment. If he ends up being someone we’re considering, we should talk to him and ask him how he’d feel about playing with Dad. If he knows up front that he’ll be playing with a gay teammate, he might change his tune. If that change is genuine, he’s a decent player and worth trying to recruit.”
Henry nodded slowly. “What if Jim gets drafted?”
Julie grinned. “Firstly, get used to calling him ‘Dad’. Everyone else will, and you’ll be expected to follow suit.” The grin faded. “It makes no difference if he’s gone. He’ll always be a Leopard, and the other guys won’t accept anyone disparaging him. Anyone we recruit will be expected to fall into line because we’re a team and a family. Family doesn’t turn on one another just because one of the family members is away.”
Henry smiled. “And that’s what sold me on the Leopards. I wouldn’t have taken this job if I didn’t understand and appreciate what that means.”
“Do you have any regrets?”
“None.” Henry shrugged. “It’s a step down, but we wanted to return to Melbourne for personal reasons. My wife’s parents are getting to the age where they need people around to help them out, and that’s going to fall predominantly on my wife and me. That’s why I applied for the head-coach position in the first place.”
“But this isn’t really what you were after.”
“No, but Deidre and I discussed it after the Leopards awards night. We’ve never felt more welcome, even by people who wanted you as head coach. No one was negative, and all the players were keen to get to know me. Deidre wasn’t ignored, either. The next morning we made a decision. If I got the job, we were happy. If you got the job, well...” Henry shrugged. “That would leave a vacancy for an assistant coach. It wasn’t what I was originally looking for, but I knew it was something I could do—and that I’d be happy doing it. It’s a significant pay cut from what I was on, but money was never the driver for the move.”
Julie grinned. “I think you shocked everyone when you told the board that since you didn’t get the job as head coach, you were willing to step into the new assistant-coach vacancy instead. I certainly didn’t expect it, and I don’t think anyone else did, either.”
“You were always up front that you’d be happy to work under me if I was the board’s selection. After meeting the players and support staff, I knew I could do the same. Deidre didn’t hesitate when I suggested it to her. While I may have only officially become a Leopard at the start of this week, we joined the Leopard family that Saturday night three weeks ago.”
“Thanks, Henry. Any word on your mother-in-law's surgery?”
“The hip replacement's been scheduled for the end of the month. That gives us plenty of time to have the house ready for her when she gets out of hospital.” Henry smiled. “The timing has worked out well, apart from her coming home so close to Christmas. The draft will be over, and we'll have picked the new players before I have to concentrate on helping Deidre with her mum.”
“I hope the surgery goes well. If you need an extra week or two off, don't hesitate to ask. In the meantime, I’m going to rely on your experience when it comes to selecting new players.”
“Thanks, but I think you’ll be fine. You’ve got youth and enthusiasm, which, as the board told me, fits well with a young team. You also seem to be a good judge of character. I’m here to support you and give you the benefit of my experience.” Henry gave her a half smile. “I don’t think it’ll take you long to pick things up. Now, Miss Senior Coach, can I get back to work?”
Julie laughed as she stood up. “Thanks, Henry. If you’ve got any more questions about those notes, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll admit that some of them are a bit cryptic. Will and I had to write them quickly because there was so much going on at the time.”
Henry watched Julie leave the office and then returned to his task of reviewing the notes on the possible new Leopards. They were still weeks away from knowing who was leaving and who would be available to be recruited, but Julie wanted Henry’s and Will’s input on who they should approach.
* * *
Warwick waited anxiously in the airport lounge for the passengers to disembark from the Virgin Australia flight from Sydney. He had spent a significant amount of money on a gamble, and he hoped it was going to pay off.
As the passengers started to appear, Warwick held up his homemade sign. It was several minutes before he was approached by a tall, young, though fairly plain-looking, woman. “Warwick?”
Warwick smiled. “Hi, Daphne. I’m glad you agreed to take time off to fly down here. Did you bring much luggage?”
“Just the one bag. It’s only for a couple of nights.” She hesitated before continuing in an uncertain tone. “Geraldine said I would be staying at your place.”
“That’s right. You’ve got the bedroom, and I’ll be sleeping on the couch.” Warwick caught her wary eye. “Geraldine did tell you that I’m gay, I hope.”
“She did.” There was another pause. “She told me that this Kevin guy is a good friend of yours.”
Warwick chuckled as the two strolled towards the baggage-collection area on the ground floor of Terminal T3. “He is. Believe me when I say that I don’t normally set up blind dates like this, but I want Kevin to be happy. I discussed it with Geraldine, and she thought you and he would be a good fit.”
“Does he know...?” Daphne blushed.
“Not yet. In fact, he doesn’t know I’ve invited you to go out with us tonight. But he was good with Geraldine, and I’m sure he’ll be good with you.” Warwick shrugged. “Whether you two hit it off remains to be seen, but he won’t freak out as long as it’s not a surprise.”
“You could’ve introduced us over the Internet. It would have saved you the cost of the airfare.”
“I know, but I believe in face-to-face meetings. The Internet is fine afterwards, but online doesn’t give the same sense of a person as real life.”
“I hope you know that I’m not really comfortable with this. If Geraldine hadn’t expressed her absolute faith in both you and Kevin...”
Warwick gave her a soft smile. “To be honest, I’m amazed you agreed. I think you’re being very brave. I was prepared to fly up to Sydney one weekend to introduce you to Kevin after he returns home, but he starts his pre-season training next week, and I don’t know how much time he would have free.”
“You said in your email that he’s looking for a girlfriend. Is someone like me really what he wants?”
Warwick knew he had to be honest. “I don’t know, but he’s indicated to me that he’s comfortable with the idea. Indeed, he seemed keen. All I can do is introduce you two. What happens after that...?” Warwick shrugged.
“Why are you doing this? Is he really that good a friend?”
Warwick hedged with a partial truth. “Yes, he is. He’s told me he’s going to try to find me a boyfriend, and I thought I would try to return the favour. After he said he would date Geraldine if their personalities had clicked and if she lived in Sydney, I spoke to her and she suggested you.”
Warwick didn’t say that he needed Kevin to be partnered. He was afraid that Ross might be a rebound relationship since he still had feelings for his AFL-playing friend. Warwick was attracted to Ross, but he didn’t know how much of that was because he knew he couldn’t have Kevin. The next few weeks would determine if he and Ross had a future. Kevin was about to return to Sydney and effectively move out of his life. Warwick wasn’t looking forward to that, even though it would leave the field clear for him to concentrate on Ross.
* * *
Ross was at the kitchen table reviewing his accounting textbook and notes when Wu walked through the door.
“How did it go?” Ross asked.
Wu slumped into the chair next to his best friend. “Two exams on the same day is fucking draining. But it means I’ve only got two more, and then I’ll be done.” He rolled his eyes. “But why did they have to schedule Indonesian as a Second Language on the final day? I’ve got my second maths exam on Monday, and then I’ve got a week-and-a-half before my last one.”
Ross chuckled. “I don’t know why you’re stressed. You know you’ll be fine. Your family’s Malaysian, and you’ve told me there’s not that much difference between Malay and Indonesian.”
“Yeah, but it’s the differences that have me worried. I have to pronounce words differently from what I’m used to, and it’ll be easy in the exam to slip up and use the wrong form. The same goes for the written portion, though that one should be easier since I don’t read a lot of Malay.” Wu nodded towards the books on the table. “Your last exam?”
“Yep. Monday lunchtime, and then I’m done.”
“Lucky bastard. Anyway, it’s time for you to take a break, because I need to relax and forget about schoolwork for a couple of hours.”
“Sure. I’m pretty confident I know this stuff, but checking it again never hurts.” Ross closed his books and pushed them to one side. “Do you want to play some video games?”
“Later. For now, I want to hear about your plans for the weekend.” Wu leant forward and rested his elbows on the table. “When do I get to meet this guy of yours?”
Ross hesitated and then forced himself to relax. He was getting better at dealing with gay references, but he still had an instinctive negative response at times. “He’s going to take me to Kevin’s going-away party tomorrow night. We haven’t sorted out the details yet. I could ask him if he could be here for at least part of the afternoon.”
“Sounds like a plan. I think your mum would like to meet him, too.” Wu cocked his head. “What about your date tonight?”
“It’s not really a date. We’re still getting to know each other.”
“And what do you think a date is supposed to be?” Wu grinned. “Where are you going?”
“Kevin’s picking me up at four, and we’re going to Lilydale for some training. We’re having our shower there and then going straight to dinner. Warwick’s meeting us at the restaurant.” Ross grinned. “He’s bringing a girl.”
“Hey, what?” Wu frowned. “I thought he was trying to date you. Is this some sort of ménage à trois thing?”
Ross chuckled. “Nope. The girl’s a blind date for Kevin. He doesn’t know about it yet.”
Wu shook his head. “Those things never work out. Take my advice and warn him ahead of time.”
“I’ll be letting him know that Warwick is bringing a friend on the way to training. We were waiting for confirmation that she was showing up before we said anything. Warwick picked her up from the airport a couple of hours ago.”
“She lives in Sydney.” Ross shrugged. “There’s no point setting Kevin up on a date with someone from Melbourne when he has to fly home on Sunday. This way, if things work out, they can hopefully sit next to each other on the flight back to Sydney. Warwick got the details of Kevin’s flights last week before he organised this.”
“This is sounding overly complicated. Why go to this much trouble when Kevin could meet this girl in Sydney when he’s back?”
“Warwick’s the matchmaker, not me. I’m letting him run with it.” Ross shrugged. “He feels he owes Kevin, and this is how he’s trying to repay him.”
“Okay, back to Warwick. You’re going on a double date—sort of—with him tonight and then to Kevin’s farewell party tomorrow. What about Sunday?”
“Studying.” Ross glanced at his books. “I don’t want to stuff up my last exam because I’ve partied too much. Mum’s comfortable with my current plans, but she told me that I shouldn’t take this one lightly. It all counts toward whether I qualify for university.” Ross made a face. “Which will be important if I don’t get drafted.”
“Didn’t you say you’ll probably be going to uni even if you do get drafted?”
“Kevin and Deon have both told me that the AFL clubs will encourage me to keep up my schooling. I suspect I’ll have to go part-time, but they want to make sure I have qualifications for when I’m no longer playing.” Ross dropped his head. “Assuming that I even make it onto a team.”
Wu grinned. “Don’t stress about it. You’ve got more important things to worry about in the short term.”
Ross nodded. “Like an exam.”
Wu rolled his eyes. “No, like a boyfriend.” He gave Ross an intense stare. “You’ve been more relaxed over these last three weeks than you were before. So far, this Warwick guy has been good for you. I hope he works out, Roscoe. It looks like he’s what you need. Don’t let him get away.”
* * *
“Welcome to Ignition Bar and Grill.” The young man smiled at Ross and Kevin. “Do you have a reservation?”
“Yes. It’ll be under the name of Warwick Sampson,” Kevin said.
“Ah, yes. Here we are.” The maître d’ looked up from the book. “We have you at a corner table for privacy, but if you’d like to be moved elsewhere, we can do that instead.”
“No, a corner table’s fine.” Kevin turned to Ross as they were led to the back corner of the restaurant. “Remember, I’m the designated driver tonight, so feel free to drink as much as you want.” He grinned. “It’ll be different tomorrow night when I intend to get drunk, but I have to watch my skinfolds. I can’t afford to show up to training next week with too much body fat. One night of drinking and fat food is all I can afford.”
“I understand.” Ross smiled. “I’ve never had a problem with keeping my skinfolds down, but one of my teammates in the Eastern Ranges was always in trouble. He’d get them down, but they’d keep creeping up again.”
“It sounds like you’re lucky,” Kevin said as he sat down.
Ross shrugged as the maître d’ returned to the front desk. “I don’t go overboard with the eating, anyway, but yeah, it looks like I’m blessed with a fortunate metabolism.” He glanced down at his body. “The only problem is that I also have trouble putting on muscle. I’ve been this thin for years.”
“Wiry is good, but you’re going to need your strength to make sure the defenders don’t push you out of position.”
“I know.” Ross sighed. “I think that’s one of my negatives when it comes to being drafted.”
“Hey, enough of that! We’re here as a group of friends...or at least that was the original intention.” Kevin gave Ross a mock glare. “I didn’t know until a few hours ago that it was also going to be a blind date.”
Ross chuckled but was saved from responding by the arrival of their waiter.
“G’day, guys. No funny stuff or I’ll have to throw you out. Now, would you like anything to drink while you wait for the others to show up?”
Kevin and Ross both blinked. “Paul?”
Paul Crowman grinned. “No, this isn’t a coincidence. Warwick asked Tony for some suggestions, and I was told that this restaurant was picked so I’d be your waiter for the night.” He nodded to Ross. “I was told that privacy and discretion were important, so don’t worry. I promise I won’t notice anything I’m not supposed to.”
“But how...?” Ross glanced at Kevin. “Did you do this?”
Kevin shook his head. “Warwick organised everything. He used to work with Tony; I know that much.” He looked up at Paul. “What do you mean about privacy and discretion? What do you think is going to happen?”
Paul suddenly looked uneasy. “Nothing much, but as an AFL player, you don’t want too much attention. And while I remember, the chef has served AFL players before in our Hawthorn restaurant, so don’t be afraid to specify particular dietary requirements. He understands you’ve got to watch what you eat.”
Ross swallowed as he realised what had happened. Paul clearly knew that he and Warwick were starting to date; he had told Jim the week before, and Jim had obviously passed on the information to his boyfriend, Tony. Unfortunately, Ross had never told Kevin, and it seemed that Warwick hadn’t, either. He grimaced as he knew it was time to tell.
“Thanks, Paul.” Ross smiled up at the tall Leopard before turning to Kevin. “Kev, there’s something you should know. Tonight’s a double date. You and Daphne...” He screwed up his face as well as his courage and lowered his voice as he spoke the next part. “...and me and Warwick.”
“What?” Kevin’s jaw dropped. “Are you...?”
Ross nodded his head, not meeting Kevin’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I’ve been hiding it for so long, but things are getting out of control with people knowing.” He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked up at Paul’s encouraging smile. He nodded his thanks and then turned his attention back to Kevin. “Warwick worked it out that first night the three of us were together. This will be our third date.”
“But you...” Kevin shook his head as if to clear it. “At training, you always...” He glanced up at Paul. “And you know...”
Paul flicked Ross a look of uncertainty. Ross smiled, though his stomach was churning. “Thanks, Paul. Can we have some water to start? We’ll wait for the others before we order drinks.”
“Sure, Ross.” He hesitated and glanced at Kevin again before leaving.
“Sorry, Kev, but I wasn’t ready to tell everyone. I’m trying not to out myself, not before the draft. I don’t want to risk stuffing up my chances.”
Kevin stared for a few seconds. “Who else knows?”
“Most of the Leopards, actually. I needed their help.”
“With what?” Kevin’s expression was caught between disappointment and disbelief.
“Someone was trying to blackmail me.” Ross stared down at the tabletop and started to fidget with the cutlery. “He knew, and he threatened to out me if I didn’t do what he wanted. The Leopards got him to back off.”
“Does Deon know?”
Ross nodded, not lifting his head.
“And no one thought to tell me?”
Ross looked up at the indignant tone. “I’m still having trouble telling anyone, but so many people know now that I keep finding I need to tell more, like now. I’m trying to keep it hidden until the draft. After then...” Ross grimaced. “I don’t know.”
“Does this girl that Warwick’s bringing know?” Kevin’s angry expression morphed into a half-smile. “I need to know if I’m allowed to rip into Warwick for not saying something.”
“What are you ripping into me for?” Warwick asked as he stepped up to the table. He smiled. “I hope you haven’t been waiting long. Ross, Kevin, this is Daphne. Daphne, these are my good friends Ross and Kevin.”
Kevin rose to his feet, a smile on his face as he held out a hand to Daphne. “Pleased to meet you. I understand you flew down from Sydney today.” He grinned. “It’s a long way to go for a blind date.”
“It is.” She smiled back as they shook. “Warwick and Geraldine organised everything. Geraldine’s the one who convinced me to give this a go.”
Kevin stiffened, and his eyes widened. “Geraldine?” His gaze flicked to Warwick and then back to Daphne before his grin returned. “Here, take the seat next to me.” He held her chair out for her and helped her be seated before returning to his own chair. “How do you know Geraldine?”
“We’re both members of an online forum. We’ve also visited each other a couple of times, but most of our contact is over the Internet. She’s one of my closest friends. We’ve both been through similar things.”
“Does that mean that you’re...?” He cut himself off with a quick glance at Ross. He then laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Warwick asked from where he was seated next to Ross. Under the cover of the table, he took Ross’s hand.
“You know how you overheard me talking to Roscoe about ripping into you when you arrived?” When Warwick nodded, Kevin grinned. “It was about keeping secrets, but I’ve just realised that there are some secrets that aren’t our place to tell.” He smiled at each of the other three people at the table. “I think tonight will go a lot better if we share some things so there’s no awkwardness. I’ll start.” He turned to Daphne. “My name is Kevin Scanlan. I play football for the Sydney Swans, though so far I’ve only played two games with the senior team. Next year will be my second season with the club, and I’m desperately hoping that they’ll be impressed enough that they’ll offer me a new contract, because my current one runs out at the end of 2015. On a more personal note, while I’m officially straight, I’ve been curious about some things since an incident at the start of the year with a transgender girl. I like girls, but I also like some other stuff, too. That’s where I am at the moment.” He raised an eyebrow.
Daphne’s tentative smile kept appearing and disappearing. “You seem to already know about me...”
“I’m guessing, given Geraldine’s involvement. But I’m pretty sure Roscoe has no idea what we’re talking about.” Kevin gave her an encouraging smile. “You don’t have to say anything, but he’s the only one who doesn’t know.”
Daphne stared at him for a moment longer and then gave him a small nod. She turned to Ross. “I’m Daphne Silverton, and I’m transgender. I’ve been taking hormones now for almost three years and been living as a woman for six. My family all accept me for who I am, but finding guys who will understand...” she turned to Kevin. “...is hard.” Kevin responded with a smile as he took her hand and brought it up to his lips.
Ross gaped. The lighting in the restaurant was low, but when he examined her more closely, he could see a few masculine traits. But if he hadn’t been told, he would never have picked it. She seemed like an average young woman around the same age as the rest of them.
Kevin grinned. “I think you’re next, Roscoe.”
Roscoe glanced around the room to make sure no one was in earshot. “I’m Ross Munroe, but my friends call me Roscoe. I’m hoping I’ll be drafted later this month so that, like Kevin, I’ll be playing in the AFL. My big secret is that I’m...” He paused and looked at Warwick who squeezed his hand encouragingly. Ross took a breath. “I’m gay.” He squeezed Warwick’s hand back as he continued to stare into Warwick’s eyes. “And I’m hoping Warwick will be my boyfriend.”
Warwick smiled, though with an expression of surprise. “I thought we were already dating.”
“Yeah, but we’ve never said it.” Ross shuddered. “I know I’m going to be outed. Too many people know for it to remain a secret. When it happens, if I’m in the AFL, I’m going to need someone to stand by me.” He gave Warwick a hesitant smile. “Someone like you.”
“I’d kiss you, but we’re in public.” Warwick grinned before turning to Kevin and Daphne. “I’m Warwick Sampson, and I’m gay. I also don’t have any secrets to tell.”
“Apart from the fact that you’ve been dating Roscoe and didn’t tell me.” Kevin grinned. “But you’re forgiven. I’ve realised that wasn’t your secret to tell.”
“No, it wasn’t. But since he wants to know...yes, I’ll be his boyfriend.”
Ross felt as if something in his mind had shifted. All his hopes and fears were still there, but there was something else as well. As Paul approached to hand out the menus and to take their drink orders, Ross could feel a warm tingle emanating from the palm that was clasped by Warwick. It felt strange but good.
* * *
The next morning, Kevin, Ross, and twelve Leopards were running drills on the oval in Lilydale when a fit-looking man in his thirties stepped onto the field and approached them. While the others continued their drills, Ty, Ross, Kevin, and Deon stopped when it was apparent that he was headed their way.
“Anyone know who he is?” Ty asked while the newcomer was still out of earshot. When the others indicated they didn’t, Ty nodded. “Okay, let’s see what he wants.” He stepped forward to intercept the interloper. “Hi, can we help you?”
“G’day, I’m Trevor Boss from the Brisbane Lions. I’ve heard that you guys have been training regularly over the last few weeks, and I wanted to ask about why you’re doing this so much. I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, not really.” Ty glanced at the others, who shrugged. “We all want to stay fit for when the pre-season starts, so we’ve been meeting up informally to keep our skills up. It’s all unofficial, and no one is required to be here.” Ty grinned as he glanced back over his shoulder at the other Leopards. “Though the numbers keep increasing.”
“It’s barely nine o’clock, and I can tell you’ve been working out for some time.” Trevor raised an eyebrow in question.
Ty shrugged. “It’s going to be a hot day, so we wanted to get the exercise out of the way before it gets too warm. Also, a lot of us have other things to do, so the earlier we start the earlier we finish.”
Trevor looked past Ty to Deon. “Aren’t you afraid of overdoing it? Training without supervision has its risks. We’ve had a few youngsters at the club who have picked up injuries before the pre-season by trying to do too much.”
Deon shrugged, but before he could say anything Ty turned to the grandstand where there was a small collection of women, mainly girlfriends and partners, watching. He whistled loudly. “Hey, Mum! There’s someone here who needs to speak to you.”
Deon looked shocked. “You’ve done it now, brat. You know she doesn’t like you to call her that.”
Ty shrugged. “It’ll get her here faster. I’ll pay the price afterwards.”
“What are you talking about?” Trevor’s puzzled gaze was flicking between the two.
“You’re about to find out,” Ty said before turning to the woman who had jogged up. “G’day, Julie. This is Trevor Boss from the Brisbane Lions. He wanted to know why we’re training without supervision.”
Julie glared at Ty who seemed unfazed. “Brat, you’ve been warned about calling me that.”
“I know, and I’m only using it on special occasions, but I think you need to speak to this guy.”
Julie scowled at Ty for a moment longer and then stuck out a hand to the stranger. “Hi, I’m Julie Crowman.”
Trevor blanched. “The new coach? Oh, sorry. I didn’t realise you were here. I didn’t see anyone...” His voice faded.
Ty narrowed his eyes. “You mean you didn’t see any male coaches and therefore assumed there were no coaches. Welcome to the Leopards. We do things differently.” He looked at Julie. “We’ll get back to work. Let me know what my punishment is when you get a chance.”
“Wait!” Trevor held out an arm as if to stop them. “I still want to understand what’s going on. Why are so many players training,” his eyes flicked over Kevin and Ross, “including an AFL player and a student waiting for the draft, when they should be on a break?”
“It’s really quite simple,” Ty said, though he kept glancing at Julie as if for approval. “Kevin wanted to maintain his fitness levels before his pre-season training starts next week. Deon, Ross, and a few of the other guys want to be ready in case they get drafted. The rest of us want to start off the next VFL season with a bang because we want another premiership. We all understand that means work. We’ve started.” Ty waved a hand in Julie’s direction. “Julie’s here to make sure we don’t try to do too much.”
“That’s enough, brat.” Julie tilted her head. “Get going, and I’ll look after things from here.”
Ross glanced over his shoulder as they resumed their drill. The Brisbane representative had seemed more interested in Deon than himself, but he caught Trevor looking in his direction. He didn’t want to think about what that meant.
* * *
“Mum, Wu, Lauren, this is my boyfriend, Warwick.” Ross grinned nervously. “Warwick, this is my mum and my best friends.”
“Hello, Mrs. Munroe. I’m pleased to finally meet you.” Warwick smiled at Wu and Lauren, even though internally he was petrified. He didn’t find meeting a boyfriend’s family for the first time easy. “Ross has told me a lot about you two. I’m guessing you’re here to give me the third degree.”
Wu cocked his head. “Possibly, but I’ll let Ross’s mum go first. If there’s anything left after she’s finished with you, I’ll go next.” He turned to Ross’s mother. “By the way, where do you keep the mop, and do you have anything for getting out bloodstains?”
Ivy Munroe chuckled as she waved Warwick towards the lounge-room chairs. “Take a seat, Warwick. Don’t listen to Wu. He’s overly protective of Ross, but he means well.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Munroe. Ross did warn me that Wu might be a little aggressive.”
“Me? Aggressive? Ross is the one who likes to hit speedballs and punching bags. I’m a kitten in comparison.”
“Complete with claws,” Ivy said dryly. She chuckled when Wu pretended to be offended. “And please, call me Ivy.”
“Thank you, Ivy.” Warwick sat down on the couch. Ross sat next to him, and they immediately held hands. Warwick wasn’t sure who was taking the most comfort from the contact, him or Ross, but he didn’t care. He needed the tactile reassurance that Ross was giving him, and he suspected Ross needed the same.
“Ross tells me that you’ve been going out for three weeks now.”
Warwick nodded. “That’s right. We’ve had three dates so far, not counting when we met, which wasn’t really a date.” He smiled. “Last night was when we officially decided to be boyfriends.”
“Is he your first?”
“Mum!” Ross looked horrified. “You can’t ask him that!”
Warwick knew that Ross needed honesty more than anything else. While he would have preferred to have told him in private, he didn’t have any secrets. “I’ve had two boyfriends before. One was when I was sixteen, and we went out for eighteen months. The second was when I was nineteen, but that didn’t last.” Warwick shuddered at the memory. “He was abusive. I got out of that relationship as quick as I could.”
“Can I ask how old you are?”
Warwick smiled. “Twenty. I turn twenty-one in January.”
Ivy smiled back. “Last question from me. Ross has said you work at a radio station, but what exactly do you do there?”
“I’m a sound technician at Pride FM. At the moment, I’m working day shifts, but at some stage I’ll need to take a turn doing the night shift.” He caught Ross’s eyes. “When that happens, it’ll be tough on my social life, but it’s usually only for three months. A few people are permanent on that shift, but for most of us, they try to cycle us through the shift as infrequently as possible.”
Ivy raised an eyebrow at Wu and Lauren. “Any questions?”
“Just one.” Wu leant forward, a frown on his face. “Ross isn’t out. What are you going to do to protect him?”
Warwick grimaced. “That’s a tough one. I’m doing my best to avoid showing signs of affection in public, but it’s challenging. Last night at dinner, there were several times when I wanted to kiss him, but I couldn’t. I’m doing my best, but I can’t promise I won’t slip up.”
Ross gave him a wan smile. “Yeah, I know. I wanted to kiss you, too, but...” He shrugged and then turned to Wu. “I’m holding off until the draft. Once that happens...I’ll look at things again.” He dropped his head. “I keep finding people I have to tell. I told another two people last night. Sooner or later, the news will get out. I want it to take as long as possible, but too many people already know. I’m not going to be able to keep it a secret forever.”
Warwick let go of Ross’s hand and quickly moved to put his arm around Ross instead. He held him close. Warwick cared for Ross and wanted to help him with his coming out, but he still didn’t know if his affection would grow or wither. He liked Ross and would like to see them together for the long term, but he still felt more for Kevin than he did for the guy next to him. He desperately wanted that to change.
* * *
Ross was ashamed to realise that there was someone missing, and he had only just noticed. “Where’s Daphne?”
Warwick chuckled as he pulled onto the main road that would take them to Lilydale for the party. “Kevin’s bringing her. He picked her up from my place at lunchtime. The two were going to spend the afternoon getting to know each other better before getting ready for tonight. Since I’m the designated driver, I’ll be taking them home tonight after I drop you off.”
“They’re both staying at your place?”
Warwick shrugged. “I don’t know. If they are, it’ll mean I’ll be sleeping on the couch.” He flicked Ross a grin. “I’ve only got a one-bedroom apartment, so they’ll get my bed if that’s what they want.”
Ross shuddered. “Isn’t that a bit gross? Letting someone else have sex in your bed?”
“Who says they’ll be having sex?” Warwick asked. “They might, but they might not. I can see it going either way. Kevin’s looking for a relationship, and sex this early may mess that up. If Daphne wants it, he’ll probably say yes, but I don’t think he’ll put any pressure on her or even suggest it.”
That hit too close to home for Ross. “Is that why you haven’t tried anything with me?”
Warwick screwed up his face. “Mainly. This is all still new to you, Roscoe. I don’t want to fuck things up by getting physical too early. When you’re ready—really ready—then yes, we’ll make love. If things work out between us, I want us to remember our first time together as something special.”
“Yeah, I suppose.” Ross looked out the side window. “I’m not exactly experienced.”
“That doesn’t matter. When the time is right...” Warwick gave Ross a soft smile.
Ross smiled back at the guy driving. He couldn’t help contrasting the feeling of comfort he was developing with Warwick to the sensation of dread he’d had with Stuart. He still had a way to go before he would be completely relaxed with having a boyfriend, but the way Warwick was letting their relationship evolve slowly was exactly what Ross needed.
“How do you want to play things tonight?” Warwick asked as he continued to drive towards Deon’s house, where the party was being held.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve told me that you’re out to most of the Leopards. Are we going to be just friends, or will we be a couple?”
“I don’t know.” Ross screwed up his face. “Let’s see who’s there before we make any decisions.”
“Okay. We’ll do whatever you want.”
Ross stared at Warwick for a moment. “This is hard for you, isn’t it? Pretending to be straight?”
Warwick chuckled. “I’m not going to pretend to be straight. The only question is whether we let people know we’re together. That’s your call. I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Not being able to hold hands. Not being able to kiss...” Ross sighed and stared out the side window. “I thought things would get easier, but it’s still a struggle.” A surge of anger swept through him. “Fuck it! They all know, anyway. We’re a couple.” He immediately started to backtrack. “I’m not sure about being blatant, but I want us to be together tonight. If we get chances, I want us to take them.” He turned to look at Warwick. “Does that sound okay?”
Warwick flicked him a smile before returning his attention to the road. “Whatever you want.”
“I’m sounding like an immature idiot, aren’t I?”
Warwick laughed. “No, you’re not.” His expression went serious as he reached out to pat Ross’s leg. “You’re someone who’s in the middle of the confusion that happens when you’re edging your way out of the closet. You can’t jump out, but at the moment you probably feel that someone is trying to close that damned door, and you’re stuck in the middle getting hit. You’re half in, half out, and that’s not a comfortable place to be.”
“Yeah.... Thanks for being here for me. It really helps.” Ross rested his hand on top of Warwick’s until Warwick needed two hands for his driving.
* * *
Kevin had his left arm around Daphne’s waist, a beer in his right hand, and a grin painted on his face. They’d had a great afternoon wandering the streets of Melbourne, not with any particular goal in mind, but simply as a way of getting to know each other as well as showing Daphne parts of the city in which he grew up. Now that they were at the party, he had been introducing her to everyone.
“How did you two meet?” Deon asked.
Kevin chuckled. “Warwick set me up on a blind date. I didn’t even know about it until a few hours beforehand.”
“You’re a friend of Warwick’s then,” Clarissa said to Daphne.
“A friend of a friend.” She shrugged sheepishly. “Since I was coming down to Melbourne this weekend to see my friend, she and Warwick decided to set me up.” It was the white lie that she and Kevin had worked out to explain what she was doing in Melbourne. They had texted Warwick earlier to let him know. “So far, it’s working out fine.”
“Did you know he played in the AFL before you met him?” Deon asked.
“No. He only told me that last night.” She grinned at Kevin. “I can see myself getting a lot of grief from my family. We’re all rugby fans, and the AFL is that inferior southern import. Kevin’s not going to get any respect from them.”
“Another one!” Deon rolled his eyes in an exaggerated manner before smiling. “My dad’s partner is also a rugby fan. When I was up there earlier this year, they made me attend a match. At least I got to see the Swans play earlier that day. That’s how I caught up with Kevin; he’d been injured in a training accident and had gone to the SCG to see the senior team play. His host family and my dad’s partner are members, so we met up in the members stand.”
“That was a good day.” Kevin took another sip of his beer before nodding towards Deon. “While at the time I was pissed off for not being able to play, renewing our friendship has more than made up for that disappointment. In a roundabout and very convoluted way, that incident led to me meeting this wonderful girl.” He gave her a squeeze.
“How’s that?” Daphne looked puzzled.
Kevin chuckled. “Because I reconnected with him that day, I found out he was playing for the Leopards. I started to follow how he was going, and when they made the VFL grand final, I asked if he could get me tickets. Since he was playing, obviously, he asked me to sit with Clarissa,” he nodded his head towards Deon’s girlfriend, “who introduced me to her classmates. There was a scuffle at the half-time break when two of those classmates stepped in to protect a gay couple who were being harassed. I got involved, and that made the papers. To try to minimise the fallout, my agent had me do some radio interviews at Pride FM, where one of the guys involved in the incident worked. While there, Warwick, who also works at that radio station, asked me for my autograph, and I found out he’s a Swans fan, and he’d been to my debut match. That started a friendship that led to him introducing you to me.
“So you see, if I hadn’t met Deon that day, none of this would’ve happened and I wouldn’t have met you.” Kevin grinned at Deon. “It’s all his fault.”
Deon blinked. “That actually almost made sense.” He pointed to the bottle in Kevin’s hand. “You obviously haven’t been drinking enough. Finish that, and I’ll get you another one.”
Kevin laughed. He sculled the rest of his beer and handed Deon the empty bottle. “Thanks, mate.”
“What do you do for a living?” Clarissa asked Daphne as Deon headed to the kitchen.
“I’m taking a gap year before I start a science degree at the University of Sydney. I didn’t want to go straight from secondary school to university, and my parents needed help in their shop, so...” She shrugged.
“Most people use a gap year to go travelling.”
“I know, but for me it was more a case of being a little burnt out from school. I needed a break, but I’m now looking forward to next year. A year off has done me a world of good.”
Clarissa looked thoughtful. “I wonder if Neil and Liam have applied for Sydney uni. They’re planning on doing engineering. At least Neil is, and I think Liam is following suit if his marks are good enough.”
“They’ve got a good engineering faculty. I’ve got a friend who goes there.” Daphne smiled. “Where in Sydney do Liam and Neil live?”
“They live here in Melbourne, but they’re moving to Sydney next year.” Clarissa held up a hand. “It’s a long story.” She looked around. “I’ll make sure I introduce you before the night’s over.”
“If you don’t, I will.” Kevin smiled past Clarissa as Deon approached carrying two more beers. “You’re a lifesaver. I was about to die from dehydration!”
* * *
Neil smiled at Ross and Warwick. “Can I ask if you two...?” He left the question non-specific.
Warwick looked at Ross to answer. Ross screwed up his face and then put on a shy smile. He nodded.
“Congratulations,” Liam said as he slipped an arm around Neil’s waist. “Is this public knowledge?”
“No!” Ross glanced around before lowering his voice. “I’m still not out. I’m trying to wait until the draft before too many more people find out.”
Liam smiled. “I think most people here tonight will have you two figured, but not many will say anything. My boyfriend,” he gave Neil a sardonic look that was spoilt by the upward twist on his lips, “is one of the exceptions.”
“Hey, I thought I should check. I don’t like making assumptions about people.” Neil accepted the kiss of apology from Liam before he turned to Ross and shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t mind you guys knowing.”
Neil grinned at Warwick. “I know I’m not allowed to say anything, but this certainly proves the rumours at work were wrong.”
Warwick chuckled. “Yeah, it does.”
“What rumours?” Ross asked.
“The rumour mill has me and Kevin dating.” Warwick shrugged. “We’d been spending a fair amount of time together, and people saw us.”
Ross looked skittish. “Does this mean I shouldn’t be seen with you?”
“Only around work,” Neil said. “It was because he and Kevin have been seen having lunch a few times plus drinks at one of the nearby pubs after work. If you don’t go to those places, you should be fine.”
Warwick nodded. “Neil’s right. As long as we’re careful, no one will know.”
Ross dropped his head. “Except everyone here tonight, Wu, Lauren, my mum, Kevin, Daphne, Paul...” He sighed.
Warwick put a hand on Ross’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay. It’s tough right now, but this won’t last. Be patient.”
“He’s right,” Liam said. “We can’t promise everything will work out perfectly, but Neil and I are fine, Jim and Tony are fine, and you two will be fine.” He grinned. “Even Sam and Marcus are fine, and they’re a lot older than we are.”
Ross grimaced as he looked up. “Actually, they’re the ones who warned me that things mightn’t be fine. It’s okay for them now, but they said that being out in the AFL today would be like it was for gays back in the 80s. Marcus was out but struggled at times. Sam stayed hidden for as long as he could.”
“When did they tell you that?” Neil asked.
“About three weeks ago. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, and I think they’re right. The AFL commission may make noises that it’s okay to be gay, but too many fans are of the mindset that gays should be neither seen nor heard. A gay AFL player is going to experience what it was like to be out in the 80s. Most people may not say much, some will be uncomfortable and walk away without saying anything, and others will yell abuse. A few will get physical.” Ross looked at Warwick. “And because so many people already know, I don’t think I’ll be able to hide. Sometimes I feel like withdrawing my draft nomination. I don’t think I could cope with what would happen afterwards.”
“Hey, don’t do that!” Liam waved at hand between himself and Neil. “We’ll stand by you. If you end up in Sydney, we’ll be there for you. Kevin will, too.”
Ross’s smile of thanks was weak. He looked at Warwick. “But you won’t be there.”
Warwick grimaced. “I’ve looked at the job market in Sydney, and I’d struggle to find a job. I might get lucky, but I could easily end up unemployed for a long period of time. I’ll stand with you, too, but I hope you get drafted to a club in Melbourne. You’ll have a lot more support here than you would up there.”
“And it’ll be even worse if I end up in Queensland, South Australia, or Western Australia. In those states I’ll be all alone.” Ross’s eyes became unfocused as he stared at something that the others couldn’t see. “That’ll destroy me.” He started to shake.
Warwick gathered Ross into his arms, while Neil and Liam exchanged looks of helplessness. None of them had any real answer to Ross’s fears.