Tuesday, November 30, 2010

~1~

It was ten-thirty on a sunny September morning, and Danny Vandervere — beautiful, athletic, popular, and sixteen years old — was perched on the edge of an old maple desk, leaning back on his hands with his jeans bunched around his knees, getting a blowjob from Mr. Janacek, his second-period Senior Calculus teacher; the man was doing a very workmanlike job of fellating Danny's obscenely large cock, and Danny was enjoying the ministrations, but his mind was wandering.

Non-reciprocal sex just wasn't Danny's style, and he found it a little frustrating that Mr. Janacek would not allow himself to be touched; Danny wasn't even allowed to play with the teacher's hair or rest a hand on his head — the man had brushed his hand away when he tried. Just sitting there getting sucked off was nice, but it wasn't really sex, and there was absolutely nothing in this world that Danny loved more than sex — full-contact, total-involvement, mind-blowing coitus. A non-reciprocal blowjob just wasn't fully engaging, so Danny's mind suffered the intrusion of plans, ideas, and worries that had nothing to do with what was going on with his body.

The worry that Danny was working over that particular morning was his motivation in seducing his teacher: it had occurred to him, when Mr. Janacek went for his fly with a tortured sigh, that he might have had a mercenary motive when he delivered his most effective smoldering look and leaned against the desk in a steamy crotch-forward posture while asking a seemingly innocent question about antiderivatives; after all, calculus was one of his weakest subjects, and the other teacher with whom Danny was having an affair taught his other weak subject, chemistry.

Though Danny wanted to believe that he'd responded to Mr. Janacek's furtive but unmistakable glances in order to spread happiness by giving of his body to just about anyone who wanted it (and with his extraordinary beauty, his curling black hair and clear pink-and-white skin, his big gray eyes and ripe red mouth, his tall muscular body and massive cock, an awful lot of people did want it) the fact remained that Ms. Fenniman had neglected to mark the three incorrect answers on his chemistry quiz the day after he'd given her three orgasms in the back-seat of her Impala during lunch hour. If Mr. Janacek was similarly grateful for the use of Danny's body, his beloved 4.0 grade-point average would be a good deal safer.

Still, it wasn't as though Danny couldn't have brought up his grades in the traditional manner of hard work and extra-credit assignments, he had a genius IQ and perfect grades came easily to him; but ever since discovering sex early the previous summer, first being seduced by a young woman staying at the lakefront resort near his family's home, and then seducing an older man at the same resort a week later, fucking had pushed all of his other pastimes into the background.

He figured he'd racked up a couple hundred conquests since June, which was rather a feat considering that he lived in a tiny California mountain town with a population of just under five thousand (though a trip to San Francisco to buy his school clothes had bumped the numbers up quite a bit). And all that intercourse took up most of the time he'd once spent on studies, sports, and music.

So, Danny decided as the orgasm mounted in his loins and he made some warning noises at Mr. Janacek's bobbing head, it was simply a coincidence that it was his calculus teacher, rather than his English teacher or history teacher, who was giving him a blowjob that fine sunny morning; and he resolved to redouble his efforts to master calculus so that he wouldn't need any displays of gratitude in order to keep his GPA up.

*****

One might be inclined to look askance at a forty-three-year-old teacher having sex with a sixteen-year-old student; but one must bear in mind that Danny Vandervere is something of a special case.

For one thing, he doesn't look sixteen: although he still has the clear skin and beardless chin of a child, his face is fully formed, with an elegant but decidedly manly bone-structure; his body is almost completely hairless, but it's a well-developed man's body, perfectly proportioned with broad shoulders and narrow hips, slender but rich with muscle; and the poise and confidence with which he moves and speaks belong to a much older person. It is difficult to think of him as anything other than an adult.

For another thing, he is something of a local celebrity: Danny's great-great-great-grandfather built the town of Vandervere, California in 1880, as well as the Royal Vandervere Paper Mill, the town's only large-scale employer. The town and the mill, as well as the surrounding million acres of tree-covered mountains that lie between Redding and Eureka in the Coastal Range, belong entirely to the Vandervere family, held and maintained by the venerable and incalculably wealthy Vandervere Trust.

Being a Vandervere in Vandervere CA is a little like being a ruling lord in feudal Europe: the family owns everything in sight, not just the mill and the land but all of the commercial and rental property in town, as well as the bank that holds the mortgages on all the properties they don’t own; and they are not absentee landlords, they live right there in the town and are involved in every aspect of political, commercial, and philanthropic life in Vandervere and surrounding Ternion County — Danny’s uncle Charles runs the mill and all of its subsidiaries, his father Taylor has been the mayor for four consecutive six-year terms, his great-uncle Marcus was mayor for nine terms before that, his cousin Augustus is the County Commissioner, and his Aunt Claudia is the president of the School Board.

As a result, Danny grew up in an atmosphere of almost groveling deference and profound respect from the townspeople; and though he was not as arrogant or demanding as the majority of his aristocratic clan, people tended to not think of him as a human being — and certainly not as a child — but rather as a prince or even a demigod, something quite different and set apart from themselves.

And then there is his beauty, breathtaking and flawless, which can batter down anybody's defenses with a soft look and a slow smile. His eyes are huge and slightly slanted like a fawn's, the soft warm gray of wood-smoke tinged with violet and flecked with gold, framed by impossibly long black lashes and exquisitely arched brows; his skin is as luminous and smooth as an infant's, his downy cheeks bear a hot strawberry blush, and his opulently carved lips are a luscious cherry-red; his thick ebony hair is soft and glossy, worn in a cherubic halo of loose curls, his teeth are even and white, his nose is perfectly straight and perfectly centered.

It's not just his face, either: everything about him, from his long-fingered hands to his elegantly attenuated feet, from the sound of his deep rich voice to the woodsy smell of his sweat, is beautiful. His personality is open and sunny, unfailingly kind and honorable; and though he sometimes catches himself manipulating people with his looks and his charm, he does his best to counteract this flaw in his character with generosity and good intentions.

*****

Danny was casting around in his mind as he buttoned up his fly, trying to think of a way to make amends to Mr. Janacek for manipulating him into sex; the teacher was clearly not happy about what had happened, now seated at his desk with his head in his hands, his fingers clutching painfully at his thinning brown-gray hair; Danny was accustomed to a display of at least satisfaction from his partners after having sex, if not actual glee, and the teacher's obviously miserable reaction was jarring.

"Are you OK?" Danny asked solicitously, laying a hand on his teacher's shoulder.

"I shouldn't have done that," Mr. Janacek replied in a strangled, desperate voice, shrugging Danny's hand off his shoulder.

"But I wanted you to," Danny replied, meaning to take responsibility for the act, though the teacher thought he meant that his wanting something was more than enough reason enough for it to happen.

"Nevertheless," Mr. Janacek's voice hardened and he straightened up in his chair, "You're my student, and you're a minor: what I just did was immoral and illegal, whether you wanted it or not."

"Oh, pish," the boy replied lightly, dismissing such picayune concerns with an impatient shrug.

"Did you say 'pish'?" the teacher looked at the boy incredulously and laughed.

"Yes, I did," Danny giggled, "Sorry, I've been reading a lot of English novels lately."

"You're a strange kid, Danny Vandervere," Mr. Janacek finally looked Danny in the eye, shaking his head in wonder, the desperation and shame leaving his voice.

"I'm really not a kid anymore," Danny said with an authority that very few sixteen-year-olds could carry off, "I am perfectly capable of making decisions about my own body, and with whom I wish to share it."

"But still," Mr. Janacek protested, though without much conviction; Danny could tell the man's sense of moral shame was dissipating in the face of his calm poise.

"And speaking of which," Danny said in a sultry tone as he sank gracefully to his knees in front of the teacher and laid his hands on the man's thighs, "I'd really like to share more with you."

"Oh, Danny," Mr. Janacek moaned with a mixture of sadness and lust, "No."

"Please?" Danny begged prettily, casting his eyes up at the man from under his lashes and wetting his voluptuous mouth with an agile tongue.

The teacher hesitated, his moral nature struggling mightily with his animal nature, his reason melting away in the heat of the boy's dazzling beauty; Danny took that hesitation as assent and dived into the man's crotch, deftly unzipping his pants and fishing his cock out of the opening. It was small and uncircumcised, which Danny found adorable, it fit so comfortably into his mouth and required so little effort to tease into erection.

It was over all too quickly, though; Danny tried to draw it out to give his teacher as much pleasure as he could, but after a scant three minutes Mr. Janacek let out a stifled cry and grabbed spastically at Danny's hair, trying to pull the boy's head away from his lap so as not to come in his mouth. Instead, he splattered semen all over the boy's face and neck, as well as his own brown argyle sweater-vest.

"Such a pretty mess," Danny smiled mischievously up at his teacher, opalescent semen dripping from his scarlet lips onto the floor.

Mr. Janacek wondered if the boy knew he was quoting a song from the teacher's own youth in the long-ago 80s as he reached into his desk-drawer for a box of tissues (the brand manufactured by Royal Vandervere Mills) and set about wiping the boy's face and his own sweater, which he planned to take off and hide in his briefcase.

"Are you OK, now?" Danny asked as he helped Mr. Janacek tidy up.

"Letting you do that didn't help matters any," the teacher replied with regret, but not with the desolate tone with which he'd lashed himself earlier.

"You mustn't feel guilty about giving in to me," Danny reasoned, leaning down to plant a kiss on the man's forehead, "I always get what I want."

"I just wish you wanted things that boys your age are supposed to want. And tell me, did you really need help with antiderivatives, or was that a ploy?"

"It was partly a ploy," Danny admitted with a laugh, "But I really could use some help with them."

Back on familiar ground with calculus, Mr. Janacek visibly relaxed, and Danny listened carefully as the teacher explained the concept of antiderivatives in greater detail than he had in class. When he'd finished, Mr. Janacek was pleased to see that Danny understood and had assimilated the information in his remarkable brain; there is nothing so satisfying to a teacher as seeing ideas take root in their students.

~2~

Since his encounter with Mr. Janacek had taken longer than Danny anticipated, he'd overrun morning break and was now almost ten minutes late for French class. But being a Vandervere meant not having to face consequences for such minor infractions; besides which, he was already fairly fluent in French due to growing up with a French nanny, as well as having private tutoring in French literature the previous year; he was only taking the class because it was a college requirement that he needed on his transcript, and an easy A on his crowded academic schedule. Danny put his books away in his locker and went along to the restroom to primp his hair and enjoy his own reflection for a while.

The teacher's frenzied grasping hadn't done too much damage to Danny's carefully tousled curls, they only needed a little pulling, pinching, and patting to return them to their rightful places; standing back from the full-length mirror in the boy's room, he closely examined his clothes, rebuttoning the fly of his jeans when he noticed he'd missed a button earlier.

Stepping back even further, he took in his overall appearance, and tried out a few nonchalant poses to enjoy the effect. His clothes were not in the usual teenage fashion, the deep aubergine polo shirt and artfully faded blue-gray jeans being a good deal more form-fitting than what was worn by his peers, most of whom preferred to wallow in oversized layers of t-shirts and hoodies with sagging khakis or wide stiff jeans that completely disguised their bodies; he also eschewed the puffy athletic shoes and flat sneakers that other boys wore in favor of stack-heeled motorcycle boots that made his buttocks stand out and gave his walk an eye-catching swagger: Danny was intensely proud of his body, and loved the effect he had on people by showing it to its best advantage.

Danny's style of dress had caused something of a stir among the more fashion-conscious boys when he adopted it for his Senior year, and they aped his tighter clothes to the best of their abilities — though most had to resort to vintage shops and the internet for pre-millennium 501s and Izods where Danny's lavish allowance from the Vandervere Trust enabled him to wear Gianfranco Ferre and Ralph Lauren Purple Label; and they all pulled back from the blatant display of cock and ass, pecs and thighs that were Danny's whole reason for dressing as he did.

Satisfied with his beauty, Danny left the restroom and ambled down the broad silent corridor to the library, where he pulled a new copy of The New Yorker off the Periodicals rack and fell into a comfortable chair with his feet up on the table to while away the remaining third-period hour.

He was watched but not challenged by the librarian, Mr. D'Arby, who was completely in love with Danny; and though Danny was usually happy to return such adoration with sex, he found the librarian dreadfully repellent: he thought Mr. D'Arby looked like an inflated frog, obese and lipless and pop-eyed; the thought of the man touching him with those short sausage-like fingers or pressing that soft spherical body against his made him shiver with revulsion.

Still, he was nice to the man, and flirted with him outrageously whenever he checked out books (which was two or three times a week, as Danny was a voracious reader), earning the man's undying loyalty and affection.

It was affection that Danny craved above all else, the need that drove his prodigious sexuality; and even before he became sexually active, he was fully engaged in getting people to love him. As a child he had gone out of his way to charm people, to study what it was that made them respond with fond smiles and then give it to them; he watched his father charm people when he wanted something, and replicated that charm, watched his other relatives treating people with disdain and did the exact opposite.

The charm came quite naturally to him: his openness and his sweet disposition, his amazingly retentive memory and his interest in the details of people's lives, were as much a part of him as his beauty; and like his beauty, he cultivated his charm assiduously and displayed it ostentatiously, using it to get the affection he needed. He could never get enough of it, and during his short life had exercised his charm to such an extent that the entire town loved him.

The exception to this rule, and the obvious genesis of this insatiable need, was his own family: his parents, his brothers, his aunt and uncle and cousins all despised him, had done so almost since his birth; he had nearly killed his mother in childbirth, earning both parents' animosity; and from the very beginning he was so clearly different from the rest of his family — his curling black hair and huge bottomless gray eyes, his inhuman prettiness and precocious intelligence, his gentleness and sweetness. In a clan of handsome blond WASPs, conventional and average in every aspect but their autocratic sense of entitlement, Danny was the ugly duckling, suffering the cruelty and isolation of a pariah.

But like most young men, he was blissfully ignorant of what made him tick; he was aware that he used his beauty and charm to manipulate people and to make them love him; but he had no idea why he was compelled to do so — nor did he really care. He just knew that he was happy, that he loved his life and the pleasures it gave him.

Danny put away his magazine and headed for the gymnasium before the bell rang, and was already undressed and standing naked at his locker when the rest of the fourth-period boys came pouring noisily into the locker room. Some of the boys wondered how he could be so comfortable, naked in a room full of clothed people; others shook their heads at his blatant exhibitionism; most wished they looked like him, quite a few wished they could touch him; a select few already had, and Danny was engaged in picking out those he would approach next — part of the reason he flaunted himself in the locker room was to gauge reactions and catch those flashes of lust that indicated the kind of interest he craved. All of the boys looked at his oversized genitals, some with disgust and most with envy, but there was a certain look that came into a boy's eyes when they were lit with desire, and Danny was constantly on the hunt for that look.

He had marked down a chubby blond boy, a trumpeter in the marching band, as his next quarry by the time he was dressed in his tight white t-shirt and baggy blue jersey shorts (though he liked to show off his body, he did not wish to appear out of control, and he frequently got erections during gym class that he didn't want everyone to see); he called out a greeting to the boy, whose name he remembered was Derrick, and reveled in the confused blush that mantled the blond's smoothly rounded cheeks.

"You goin' after that fat nerd, Vandervere?" Henry Ahern, Danny's wrestling partner and frequent fuck-buddy, fell into step beside him as they made their way out of the locker room.

"He's not a fat nerd," Danny defended his prospective conquest, "I think he's cute."

"Well, you think I'm cute," Henry elbowed him in the ribs, "So what does that say about me?"

"You're cute in a different way," Danny explained seriously, "He's like a cherub in a Bavarian church-painting, you're like a sexy woodland animal."

"You're weird," the other boy laughed as he positioned himself far enough away from Danny that they wouldn't hit each-other during calisthenics. He was a good deal shorter than Danny, compact and burly, the star wrestler of the varsity team; his short tufty hair and small deep-set eyes were russet-brown, his skin translucent and liberally scattered with russet freckles; his thick and muscular little body was furred with fine russet hair, even on his back and flanks, he was intensely proud of the dense russet bristles on his blunt and muscular face, and sometimes sported creative little beards or goatees that he always shaved off before a match.

And like most of the boys Danny pursued, Henry was enslaved to Danny's body but found his mind an alien and disquieting territory — his wide-ranging tastes in people, his arcane quotations from books and movies nobody'd ever heard of, the weird classical and jazz and old rock music he played in his car — like their elders, Danny's classmates loved him but did not think of him as being one of themselves... he was an Other.

But all Danny knew was that people loved him, he never really sensed his separateness, or rather didn't think of it as something that should or could be different. Nor was he aware that this separateness was what made his sexual conquests so successful: boys could give in to his desires without thinking it changed them or made them gay, they were simply paying due tribute to the dazzling deity who took such unaccountable interest in them.

The plump and bashful Derrick, for example, was flustered and flattered to discover that Danny was stealing peeks at him all through calisthenics, and kept glancing meaningfully at him as he went jogging around the indoor track; the blond boy never once questioned whether or not he would do whatever Danny asked of him — it was a question of when and how, rather than if or why — and it wouldn't mean coming out or being an outcast, wasn't the same as pursuing a relationship with a real person.

The Vandervere High athletics department was run in an unstructured "holistic" plan where students could choose to take part in any number of athletic activities at the same time: starting with group calisthenics, the students gravitated toward whatever activity most interested them; since Danny was on two different varsity teams (cross-country and fencing) and interested in wrestling and swimming as well, there was always some speculation among the fourth-period class as to which group he might join. There was a sigh of disappointment when it became clear Danny was going to practice track rather than a team sport, as his natural grace and good-natured sportsmanship, and more importantly his example of encouraging poorer players rather than insulting them as jocks usually did, made any game more fun.

By the end of gym class, Danny had run two and a half miles and envisioned a breathtaking array of erotic tableaux with Derrick, and was horny enough to consider inviting the boy to his car for lunch; he decided, however, that Derrick wasn't ready yet for a gymnastic half-hour in the back of Danny's huge black two-door Ford Explorer (his sixteenth birthday present from his parents, though he wanted and had lobbied hard for a small red roadster); he would have to be cajoled a bit, brought out of himself, to overcome the natural shyness and awkwardness that made him a band-geek rather than a popular kid.

There was also Henry, a reliable standby, with his filthy mind and thick knobby little cock always up and ready to go; and a couple of other boys Danny had been playing with over the six weeks since school started. But in the end, he decided to just masturbate quickly in the toilet stall before showering and heading off to the cafeteria to eat.

Vandervere High is a rather posh establishment for a small-town public school. Since the terms of the Vandervere Trust require the Vanderveres themselves to attend public school in Vandervere, the family was interested in keeping the academic and extracurricular standards at a level worthy of their own children; and as a result, Vandervere High was considered the equal to any East-Coast prep-school, and its graduates had their choice of colleges.

The facilities are lavish, as well: two gymnasiums with their own swimming-pools so boys and girls wouldn't be distracted by coed exercise, as well as tennis and squash courts, riding-stables, and a nine-hole golf course; large and well-lit classrooms with expensive audio/video equipment and brand-new books; separate state-of-the-art auditoriums for music and theatre, a library of a half-million volumes, and an elegant full-service cafeteria that rivaled the best restaurants in town.

When Danny came away from the counter with a salad of baby greens with chicken, walnuts, and apples in a raspberry vinaigrette and a large bottle of Italian mineral water, he scanned the bright noisy lunchroom for a table to grace with his presence; he thought about settling in with the band geeks, but some instinct told him Derrick would freak if he moved too fast; he then considered joining Henry among the jocks, but was in no mood to have his salad teased by devoted burger-eaters; he'd be seeing the performing-arts crowd later, and the math-and-chess-club clique was already enrapt in a bizarre role-playing card game that Danny had never understood.

After some consideration, he decided on the core group of Populars, which centered on his ex-girlfriend Sandra Bettancourt, a beautiful and curvaceous blonde with a winning personality and a cool manipulative streak that Danny enjoyed watching (so long as he wasn't the one being manipulated). He'd dated Sandra early the previous year, comfortably unaware that everyone but him was already having sex, and quite ready to believe that Sandra was a virgin and saving herself for marriage; much later, he discovered she was the designated slut of her summer-camp, a secret life she led when she was away from Vandervere.

Despite her feline cruelty at the time of their breakup, Danny still enjoyed her social circle on occasion, loftily amused by their cattiness and backstabbing since it could never touch him — he was a Vandervere, a universally-beloved Vandervere at that, and nobody dared. He sat down at the head of their table in the center of the room, where they could best see and be seen, and responded happily to their fulsome compliments on the color of his shirt and his performance at a recent varsity fencing match.

"Danny, sweetie," Sandra cooed at him and pressed her huge left breast against his arm, "Have you met my cousin Eric? He just moved here from San Diego."

"Hi, Eric!" Danny leaned around Sandra and extended his hand to the newcomer, a slim and very pretty sharp-featured blond boy who looked enough like Sandra to be her fraternal twin, "Welcome to Vandervere. How are you liking it so far?"

"It's OK," Eric replied with an almost-unnoticed sneer tainting his otherwise pleasant voice, letting his hand lie limply in Danny's grip, "Very pretty."

"It must seem awfully small after a big city," Danny smiled, noting immediately from his sibilant speech and airy gestures that the boy was gay — nobody else in the school was so obviously and typically gay, and Danny was excited to meet someone with whom he wouldn't have to play coy little word-games about sexual orientations and identities.

"Well, San Diego isn't all that big," Eric sneered openly this time, and Danny felt the tiniest shiver of revulsion as he looked into the boy's pale green eyes, somehow empty and hungry at the same time.

"I hope I'm not being rude, but why did you move in the middle of September?" Danny wondered, pulling away from the boy just a bit and trying to figure out where that shiver came from, "It must be difficult getting into the swim of a new school six weeks into the semester."

"I'm sure nobody would mind you being rude," Eric answered somewhat equivocally, leaving Danny in doubt as to whether he'd been rude or not, "But Mumsie thought I was getting into too much trouble with my friends at school, and packed me off to my uncle in the country to keep me pure."

"How much trouble can you get into before Homecoming?" one of the girls asked, impressed by this glamorous boy and his tantalizing dark past.

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Eric drawled feyly and aimed a lewd wink at Danny.

"Eric, you're terrible!" Sandra giggled and swatted playfully at her cousin, who rolled his eyes eloquently; the subject shifted to the limited but fully enjoyable social outlets for teenagers in "downtown Vandervere" (meaning the four streets that enclose the Town Square, one of which was not surprisingly named Main Street) and Eric put on a mildly interested expression as he took it all in, though he never had his eyes off of Danny for more than a second, regardless of who was speaking.

"It was nice meeting you," Danny said enthusiastically, though not entirely truthfully, when the bell rang to signal the end of lunch and five minutes' warning before fifth period.

"Chahmed, Ah'm shewah," Eric joked with a stagy Southern accent and gave Danny another limp, damp handshake in parting. The newcomer was painfully smitten with Danny, and covered his sudden obsession with a show of snide humor that his old friends in San Diego thought was a scream but which didn't seem to be going over so well with these mountain yokels.

Danny didn't give very much more thought to Eric as he hastened to his locker to retrieve his English and chemistry textbooks and his notebooks. The new boy fascinated and repelled him at once, and Danny was put in mind of the slender lime-green snake his brother used to have as a pet, which produced the same contrary reactions in him.

But there were so many other fish to fry, such as a Byronically handsome boy in English class who Danny was zeroing in on with subtle observations about homoerotic undertones in Oliver Twist, the book they were reading at the moment. And then in chemistry class, trying hard to concentrate on Ms. Fenniman's lecture while remembering her with her dark hair plastered to her narrow elegant face, riding him like a bucking horse and yelling obscenities with an abandon that stood at odds with the prim white blouse and gray skirt she wore in class while speaking of bases and acids in her crisp Bostonian voice.

Since it was Thursday, Danny had Drama Club after class, where he got to giggle and whisper with Jeremy Sinclair, the boy he thought of as his official "boyfriend," though nobody appeared to know about them and they hadn't even had sex — like Danny's girlfriends of the previous year, Jeremy seemed fearful and hesitant to take that step, worried that Danny would no longer take him seriously as a love-interest if they gave in to their base lusts.

And since Danny was by no means sexually frustrated, he accepted Jeremy's strictures, and contented himself with looking at the boy — he was quite the prettiest boy in school, after Danny himself, with his fashionable mop of floppy brown hair and beseeching puppy-brown eyes, his soft pink mouth and flawless peaches-and-cream skin. He was almost as tall as Danny, as slender and graceful as a reed, with a wonderfully expressive way of talking with his hands that Danny could watch for hours without getting bored. He was an actor, and quite a good one, though he was a little too retiring when it came to going after roles, so always ended up playing second lead.

Danny's second girlfriend of the previous year and the star of the drama club, Felicia Goode, came sailing over to where he sat with Jeremy, bestowing theatrical air-kisses on him while giving Jeremy a sidelong glance of suspicion; Felicia had tried to get Danny to join the club all through Junior year and was mystified when he suddenly turned up at the beginning of Senior year; but Danny had read enough over the summer to realize that drama clubs were the usual refuge of boys who liked boys, and he wanted to find as many such boys as he could.

Felicia wasn't as beautiful as she was arresting, tall and skinny with a Barrymore profile and great masses of curly chestnut hair (which she secretly treated with henna), but amazingly graceful and commanding in her movements and speech. Danny enjoyed watching her as much as he enjoyed watching Jeremy; in fact, he frequently got the two of them confused in his memory, they were so much alike in their personalities, and used almost identical rationalizations when insisting on keeping their relations with Danny chaste.

"People! People! Please settle down and pay attention," the drama teacher, Mr. Oland, clapped his hands over his head and bellowed at the assembled teenagers. He was a thick and florid man with a curly fringe of white hair around a massive square face, given to baggy sweaters and floppy scarves and a fake English accent, as gay as a paper hat in the Quentin Crisp manner; Danny was considering pursuing the man, but worried about causing trouble with the teacher's well-known longtime partner, who also taught at Vandervere High: Mr. Cartwright, the wood- and metal-shop instructor.

The two dozen students drifted toward the front of the theatre and grouped themselves into a loose semicircle around the teacher, the stage-crew types standing idly in the rear while the actors moved to the front displaying practiced looks of avid interest that they didn't really feel: they all knew that this was the announcement of the Fall Play, and knew that it was going to be Shakespeare this year; they were only mildly curious which play was going to be put on and which roles they would pursue.

"My dears," Mr. Oland orated grandly, "It is time to announce the decision of the Performing Arts Council, which as you know consists of myself, Mrs. Greenwood the orchestral music teacher, Mr. Stockman the president of the PTA, and Mrs. Vandervere the president of the School Board, regarding the Fall Play. This year, we will be putting on the classic and crowd-pleasing Romeo and Juliet. Mrs. Vandervere was particularly insistent that we do this year's Shakespeare in the historical manner, agreeing to pay for the authentic Elizabethan costumes herself."

This caused a susurration of excitement: when Mrs. Charles Vandervere (née Claudia Bremerhaven of the Philadelphia Bremerhavens), wife of the president of Royal Vandervere Mills and Danny's aunt, interested herself in the school play, the production values were high and the costumes fabulous, bankrolled by the Vandervere fortune... there would be a token fundraising drive by the students, most likely a chocolate sale, to pay for the sets and programs, but Claudia Vandervere would spend thousands on tailor-made wardrobe that the student actors would be allowed to keep if they pleased her sufficiently with their performance.

The students broke into groups after this, the actors wondering which roles they should try for and the crew wondering if the scrims would be painted or built. Danny didn't really care one way or the other, knowing that the only reason Aunt Claudia was interesting herself was because there was a Vandervere in the drama club; though she had no interest whatever in Danny, she was very interested in the Vandervere name appearing in the best possible setting.

"Danny? A word?" Mr. Oland approached Danny and gestured for him to move away from the other students for a private chat, "I know that when you joined our little club this year, it was with the understanding that you would be studying the backstage aspects of the drama."

"I'm very interested in set-design," Danny agreed.

"And you will be very good at it, I'm sure," the older man assured him, "But I wonder if you would indulge me and apply your talents on the stage as well as behind it?"

"What do you mean?" Danny asked suspiciously, not liking where this was going, "You know I'm an execrable actor, Mr. Oland."

"Oh, not execrable! Perhaps you are rather unskilled in portraying emotions that you don't feel, and your reading could use some polish, but you have many talents that I believe would be a valuable contribution to our little play."

"Such as?" Danny eyed the man askance.

"I was thinking particularly of your fencing skills: you are an accomplished swordsman, one of our varsity team's best fencers? And we mustn't discount your looks, you have a grace and elegance that would be an ornament to the stage."

"But Mr. Oland, I have absolutely no desire to act, and certainly not in something as challenging as Romeo and Juliet. I particularly wanted not to act when I joined the Drama Club."

"Oh, dear," the teacher sighed, sagging like a deflated balloon, "I didn't want to say this to you directly, but your aunt intimated to me that I would be foolish not to cast you in our production. She was somewhat insistent on that point."

"And Aunt Claudia will pull the funding for the costumes if I refuse," Danny said sadly, knowing that he was going to lose this battle: he would happily defy his aunt, but he couldn't let her snatch the expensive production from his classmates.

"She didn't say so, dear boy," the man tried to soothe Danny's obviously hurt feelings, though he didn't understand why it hurt him to have his aunt in his corner to such an extent — didn't understand that it was the Vandervere name, rather than Danny himself, she was boosting.

"What exactly did you have in mind?" Danny squared his shoulders like Sydney Carton at the tumbrel.

"I was thinking the role of Tybalt," Mr. Oland pitched the idea with enthusiasm, "Not a lot of lines, and not a lot of emotional range, but lots and lots of swordplay. You can coach our Mercutio and Romeo in the art better than anyone else in the production."

"Of course, I will, Mr. Oland," Danny relented with a rueful smile, thinking the role of Tybalt wouldn't be too bad: he was supposed to be arrogant and rather wooden, which Danny could do fairly easily, and spent most of his time onstage just standing around grandly. He could simply memorize Michael York in the Zeffirelli film, "But I must insist on being allowed to audition for the role. I would prefer to avoid any appearance of favoritism because of my name."

"Of course, dear boy, of course!" the teacher was immensely relieved, "Though I doubt you'll have much competition; most of the boys go for Romeo or Mercutio, the romantic and the comedic, one usually has to stick an also-ran into the Tybalt role. Thank you, Danny."

Danny walked back to his original seat and was soon joined by Jeremy, who was excitedly debating whether to try out for Romeo or Mercutio. He nattered on for several minutes before noticing that Danny was sitting glum and silent with his arms crossed over his chest.

"Which do you think I should try out for?" Jeremy asked, cocking his head to one side.

"That would depend," Danny smiled at him, the adorably cocked head lifting his spirits, "on whether you want to kill me or be killed by me."

"How so?"

"Please don't tell anybody about this," Danny whispered confidentially, "But Mr. Oland wants me to play Tybalt. And if I don't, my Aunt Claudia might renege on her promise to pay for the costumes."

"But that's great!" Jeremy enthused, "I wish I had an aunt who would guarantee me a role."

"Your talent guarantees you a role, Jeremy," Danny told him earnestly, "But everyone knows I couldn't act my way out of a wet paper bag, and that I'll be playing Tybalt because I'm a Vandervere."

"Wet paper bag," Jeremy snickered at the phrase, "But I can coach you, nobody will care that you got the role because of your name, once you show them you really can act."

"We'll be coaching each-other, then," Danny smiled fondly at Jeremy and stroked the back of his hand, "I'm to teach Mercutio and Romeo how to fence for the sword-fight scenes."

"That'll be fun," Jeremy said with a certain lack of enthusiasm; he was not an athlete and found strenuous physical activity boring, "So, which role do you think I should audition for?"

"You'd be wonderful in either," Danny said thoughtfully, "but I think I'd rather see you as Mercutio. He's not onstage as much, but he's so different from your own personality; Romeo wouldn't be enough of a stretch. And you'd have to kiss Felicia, which I don't think you'd like."

"Is she that bad of a kisser?" Jeremy looked alarmed.

"No, she's a fantastic kisser. She might turn you straight, and then what would I do?" Danny poked him playfully under the ribs where he was ticklish.

"Stop, someone will see!" he whispered, giggling.

"So what if they see?" Danny was often mystified by Jeremy's unwillingness to be public about their relationship. But Danny was a Vandervere, and had never been teased or bullied by a classmate in his entire life, so had little understanding of the risk most gay kids run by being obvious in high school.

"People! People!" Mr. Oland drew the club's attention again, this time to lead them in a discussion of lighting techniques, giving them examples of different moods, different colors for different actors, and how to use the light-board. Though the actors would prefer to just act, and the crew would prefer to just deal with the stage, Mr. Oland believed that any denizen of the theatre should know about every aspect of a dramatic production: actors must know about stagecraft and crew should know how to act. Danny of course preferred the technical lectures, and was always embarrassed when he had to take part in dramatic exercises and improvisations; Jeremy found the discussion of lights pointless and tuned out, spending the whole hour thinking over what Danny had told him about playing Mercutio.

~3~

As usual after Drama Club, Jeremy and Danny spent the afternoon together, ostensibly to study but mostly just to be together for a little while without their peers watching them. Jeremy's parents were very strict about their son's time and didn't like for him to go out after school; if it was anybody less than Danny Vandervere asking permission for Jeremy to stay out late on a Thursday afternoon, they would have refused — but one doesn't refuse a Vandervere. So awed were they by a Vandervere taking interest in their son, they probably would have even approved of them dating.

Vandervere High School, a grand belle-époque brick edifice with a complex of newer wings and annexes sprouting from its back like a squid's tentacles, sits on the edge of the old town, at the intersection of three main roads: Pine Street, which bisects the old town through the square; Lake Road, which leads not very surprisingly to Lake Augusta, a man-made body of water created by damming the Augusta River for electricity, which was surrounded by recreational facilities and a resort hotel, and on the western shore of which Danny's family home stood; and Watertown Road, which led to the Vandervere Mills' spring-water bottling plant and a subdivision of homes that had been built in the eighties to accommodate the new plant's employees.

There was an electric streetcar system that ran along these roads, connecting the old town to the subdivisions and the mills and plants, built in the 30s and maintained as a free service by the Vandervere Trust; but Danny and Jeremy walked, since Pine Street was only a little over a mile long, and their destination was at the other end from the high school: the original Vandervere mansion, a monstrous Gothic-and-gingerbread fantasia bristling with turrets and dormers, gables and cupolas and oriels, in which dwelt Miss Mathilda, Miss Myrtle, and Miss Maude Vandervere, collectively know as the Aunt Ems.

These three unmarried and slightly eccentric old ladies, the sisters of Danny's grandfather, were the only Vanderveres who actually loved Danny; they had taken him under their collective wing when he was twelve, overseeing his education as a "gentleman" by hiring extra tutors as well as music and dance instructors for him, teaching him etiquette and poise along with the more ceremonious social skills — Danny was probably the only sixteen-year-old in the county, perhaps even the state, who could bone a fish at table, dance every dance at a cotillion, and play a skillful game of bridge.

Danny had been going to the Aunt Ems' every day after school since the sixth grade, and though he never slept there, he had his own room in the mansion. He always met the mannish eldest sister Mathilda at the Town Library on the square, where she served as head librarian, curator, and official town historian; he walked with her the rest of the way up Pine Street to meet the younger two sisters, Myrtle and Maude, identical twins who still shared the same room at the age of eighty; high tea was then served in the shadow-cluttered music room by Oscar, a creaking butler so old he referred to himself as "colored."

After tea, Danny was taught piano and voice and dance under the eyes of the Aunt Ems, then retired with whatever academic tutor he was working under at the time to a dark-paneled study filled with the taxidermied remains of now-endangered or -extinct animals slain by his ancestors before the first World War; on Saturdays, he came into town with Mrs. Espinosa, his family's housekeeper, to do the marketing, and spent the rest of the day with the Aunt Ems learning directly from them about family history, table-setting, flower-arranging, appreciating opera, and the various philanthropic duties that fell to the rich in service of the poor.

Then at six o'clock, Oscar would drive Danny back to his parents' house in the Aunt Ems' bulbous old Cadillac limousine, not speaking one word the entire way until he opened the door to the car and said "Good evening, Master Marcus."

All of the Aunt Ems called him Marcus, which was in fact his name: Marcus Daniel Vandervere IV, though the rest of the family called him Marc-Daniel since the name Marcus had seemed too grandiose for a little boy; and he preferred to call himself Danny because he said the name Marc-Daniel sounded "like a Pekinese coughing"; but Marcus Daniel Vandervere II was the Aunt Ems' father, and in the grand tradition of elderly maiden ladies they worshiped and venerated their father, so they considered the name Marcus a compliment of the highest order.

Danny was devoted to the Aunt Ems, and they were the only feature of his day that he would not give up for his sexual pursuits. He did, however, start bringing friends with him on his after-school visits, and the Aunt Ems were not always enchanted with Danny's varied fuck-buddies; but they were especially fond of the pretty, gentle Jeremy, and Aunt Mathilda lit up when she saw him accompanying Danny into the library.

"Ah, Mr. Sinclair, how delightful," Aunt Mathilda said in her oddly brusque voice, which made even the frothiest pleasantries sound like the bark of a drill-sergeant; she was dressed in one of her typical suits, the heathered blue herringbone jacket cut and draped exactly like a man's suit and worn with a white shirt and a silk necktie, but with a three-quarter-length skirt instead of pants; her shoes were similarly ambiguous, highly-polished masculine wingtips with a curvaceous two-inch heel. She wore her thick iron-gray hair parted on one side and brilliantined, but with a heavy bun of coiled braids nestled at the nape.

"Miss Vandervere," Jeremy responded gallantly, shaking her hand gently and bowing ever-so-slightly, as Danny had taught him.

"I have heard, Marcus," Aunt Mathilda said to Danny as she settled her hat — a man's gray felt fedora with a small curled pink feather and antique marcasite brooch on the band — and picked up her briefcase-like handbag, "that your Aunt Claudia has wedged her unfortunate nose into the Fall Play this year."

"Yes, ma'am; she's offered to pay for the costumes," Danny replied, taking his great-aunt's gloved hand and tucking it into the crook of his elbow as they descended the library steps and continued up Pine Street.

"Claudia doesn't 'offer' to do anything, Marcus," Aunt Mathilda sniffed contemptuously, "She blackmails people into falling in line with her wishes by making a pretense of some minor concession. What does she want in exchange for the costumes?"

"She wants me to be given a role in the play," Danny responded miserably.

"Danny — Marcus I mean — is going to play Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet!" Jeremy told her excitedly, still thinking this role was a signal honor.

"How times do change," Mathilda chuckled mirthlessly, "When Maude wished to appear in the school play as Lily Miller in Ah, Wilderness!, our sister-in-law — your grandmother, Marcus, who was just as much a blue-nose busybody as Claudia — made such a stink you'd have thought Maude was proposing to appear nude in public."

"Aunt Claudia seems to think that if a Vandervere is on the program, it must be in the cast rather than the crew," Danny snorted, "I wanted to do set design and construction, not to act."

"I'm sure you'll be a credit to the name whichever you do," Aunt Mathilda assured him, "Are they doing the sword-fighting on stage in this production? That is a talent you legitimately possess and of which you are rightly proud."

"Mr. Oland asked me to coach the other actors in fencing," Danny told her, "Which I am perfectly happy to do. But I am not an actor, it's not something I'm good at."

"Marcus, you are good at so many things," Aunt Mathilda's voice took on the dangerous softness that signaled her expectation that one take her next words to heart, "You have so many talents; almost everything you've undertaken has come easily to you. I think you should embrace this challenge and meet it head-on; it will be character-building to work hard at something that doesn't come easily."

"Why is it," Danny wondered in a stagy voice to show that he was joking, "that everything which builds character is either tedious or embarrassing?"

Aunt Mathilda and Jeremy laughed obligingly as they ascended the stairs onto the mansion's front porch and the ancient Oscar opened the front door to them.

"Good afternoon Miss Mathilda, Master Marcus, Master Jeremy," Oscar croaked in a voice that had once been an impressive basso profundo and now sounded like granite pebbles rattling around in a wooden box. He was well over ninety, possibly approaching a hundred, but refused to retire; the Aunt Ems had grown up with him in their home, first as the gardener's boy, then as a driver, then as their butler, and were loath to part with him — so since he was remarkably healthy for his age and had all his mental faculties, nobody wanted to force him out of work.

Aunt Myrtle and Aunt Maude were already ensconced in the music room, seated in matching balloon-back chairs with a tea-table groaning under the weight of cookies, petits-fours, scones with Devonshire cream, deviled eggs, and a glittering Edwardian garland-style tea service of over a dozen pieces. They remained seated as Danny and Jeremy kissed their hands, fluttering their lace handkerchiefs and fussing with their matching chiffon afternoon dresses, Myrtle in pale green and Maude in pale peach, as the boys complimented their appearance and Mathilda helped herself to black coffee and a plain butter cookie.

After putting away two cups of Earl Gray, a scone, and four deviled eggs, Danny went to the piano and played some Chopin etudes, then inveigled Jeremy into singing some respectable old show-tunes to Danny's accompaniment; at first Jeremy was too shy to sing to the old ladies, but Aunt Mathilda tartly pointed out to him that an actor cannot afford to be shy under any circumstances.

With tea over with, Danny and Jeremy went up to Danny's room to study; but they did no studying that afternoon: as soon as the door closed behind him, Danny pulled Jeremy into a long and intensively seductive kiss that eventually led to some hot and heavy making-out on the bed.

"Wait, stop," Jeremy gasped out after a while, putting his hand against Danny's mouth and arching his pelvis back and away from Danny's frighteningly huge erection. He had an infallible sense for when he was just about to give in and start pulling off his and Danny's clothes, and was absolutely terrified of going past that moment.

"Mmmph," Danny's protest was muffled against Jeremy's hand, but he acquiesced to the other boy's request and rolled off of him, though he kept his arms wrapped around Jeremy's narrow chest.

"I'm not ready," Jeremy said for perhaps the fifteenth time; every time they started kissing, they would get more and more involved until Jeremy's internal alarm went off; and every time he said he wasn't ready, in exactly the same tone and tempo, as if he were parroting back something he'd memorized.

"It's OK," Danny said for the fifteenth time, relaxing against the boy and letting his breathing return to normal, "I don't want to push you. But I want you to know I'll still love you either way."

"Do you really love me?" Jeremy turned his head and looked Danny in the eye.

"I really do love you," Danny equivocated: he wasn't in love with Jeremy, but he did feel a certain kind of love for him — the same kind of love he felt for his horse, and for Henry, and for chocolate pudding.

"Do you see other people?" Jeremy asked suddenly after a long companionable silence.

"Where did that come from?" Danny stalled.

"I see how people look at you," Jeremy was no longer looking into Danny's eyes, but rather at some point between his lip and his chin, "You can get anyone you want. And I see you looking at them, and I wonder if you are getting them."

"I'm not dating anyone else," Danny said carefully, choosing his words with legalistic precision. He never told any of his partners about any of his other partners, partly due to a code of honor which forbade kissing and telling, but also from a desire to not be seen by one and all as a ravening slut.

Jeremy gave him a long, searching look, kissed him lightly on the mouth, and extricated himself from Danny's embrace, saying, "This is such a beautiful room."

It was a beautiful room, octagonal since it was situated in one of the house's two towers, the one at the front overlooking the cul-de-sac around the grandiose fountain at the end of Pine Street. It had four tall Italianate arched windows heavily draped in pale lettuce-green damask, a coved ceiling centering a bronze chandelier crawling with Chinese dragons, and a pale green-veined white marble fireplace fitted with a beautifully ornate bronze Franklin stove; the walls were covered with silvery-green silk patterned with linden leaves above the carved green-gray pickled pine wainscoting, hung with lithographs of botanical illustrations in ornate silver-gilt frames, and the glossy hardwood floor was mostly covered with a circular Chinese rug featuring white flowers scattered on a grass-green background.

The furniture, as in almost every other room of the house, was original: heavy, masculine Renaissance Revival pieces chosen by Danny's great-great-great-grandmother in 1880 when the house was built, upholstered in new but historically authentic cut velvets and embroidered satins in shades of pale green and silvery gray; the bed was regal and surmounted by a high half-tester draped in the same damask as the windows; there were gorgeous and valuable knick-knacks scattered liberally over every surface, ticking bronze clocks and gem-inlaid boxes, photographs and watercolor miniatures in intricate silver frames, little green Sèvres vases filled with fresh flowers and carved jade bowls on rosewood stands.

There was electricity, of course, all of the old gas fixtures and table lamps had been wired at the turn of the 20th century, and the wiring was updated in the twenties and again in the sixties; a heavy 1930s Bakelite telephone with a rotary dial stood on the table by the bed, and there was an electric button by the fireplace to summon servants; Danny had brought in a CD player that was hidden from view in the tall secretary desk, which also housed a laptop computer and a cell-phone charger; but at first glance the room had not changed much in the hundred and twenty-three years since it had been decorated as the principle man's guest bedroom.

"Isn't it?" Danny agreed, wondering what had brought on the non-sequitur, "I feel very honored the Aunt Ems gave it to me, it's one of the most important rooms. Three governors and five senators have slept here."

"That must have been quite a party!" Jeremy joked.

"Not all at once, smarty-pants," Danny reached out and grabbed Jeremy by the waist, tickling him until he fell in a helpless heap on the floor. And once incapacitated, Danny lay down on him and started kissing him again, taking turns between sucking on his mouth and gnawing on his neck just below the collar of his shirt, making him squirm and moan.

Before Jeremy had a chance to tell Danny to stop, they were interrupted by Oscar knocking quietly on the door to tell them that it was almost six o'clock and the car would be brought around to take them both home. Danny thanked Oscar without opening the door, and he and Jeremy spent a few moments straightening their clothes and quietly exchanging ideas about weekend plans; they headed down the operatically grand mahogany staircase, with its deep red Persian runner and tall stained-glass bay window at the half-landing, into the dark and strangely creepy front hall and onto the front porch. The Aunt Ems had already retired to their rooms to dress for dinner, so Danny didn't say goodbye to them, nor was he expected to; he and Jeremy slid into the back seat of the old Cadillac and waited for Oscar to shuffle around to the front and start the car.

They rode in silence all the way to Jeremy's house, which was just off the Lake Road in one of the older subdivisions; his parents, who both worked at Vandervere Mills in managerial capacities, lived in a rambling mock-Tudor with stone chimneys and climbing roses, built in the mid-twenties, a really charming house that suited their very charming son.

When Oscar opened the door for Jeremy, Danny leaned over to give him a parting kiss, but Jeremy shied away from him with frantic glances at the elderly butler.

"Do you mind if I kiss Jeremy good-bye, Oscar?" Danny asked the old man, grabbing Jeremy by the arm so he couldn't get away.

"It's not my place to mind, Master Marcus," Oscar said, but smiled warmly as he said it, letting Jeremy know that he approved of them. Jeremy looked at the servant warily, but allowed Danny to kiss him passionately yet briefly before he scooted out of the car and scampered up the fieldstone walk to his parents' door.

Danny sat smiling in the back of the car for the rest of the drive, unaccountably pleased to have made a public display, however small and forgiving the audience, of his relationship with Jeremy. The thing he most missed about dating girls was the openness of it, the social acceptance of the couple, the ability to be affectionate with someone in front of others.

With boys, everything was clandestine and secretive, and while this allowed him a level of promiscuity that he wouldn't be able to manage in a public sphere, he chafed at the restrictions on his actions — he wanted to hold Jeremy on his lap in the lunchroom as he'd been able to do with Sandra and Felicia the previous year, to kiss him in the hallways whenever he liked, to lay claim to the boy in front of the whole school.

"I hope I didn't embarrass you earlier, Oscar," Danny said as he slid out of the car in the high-school parking lot, where he would get in his own car and drive the rest of the way home, "With that display."

"Not at all, Master Marcus," the old butler smiled at him, his tiny black eyes dancing in their nests of wrinkles, "I am a Fellow Traveler, as we used to say in my day."

"Well, wonders never cease!" Danny grinned at the old man; he wanted to hug him, but didn't think that would be allowed, "Thank you, Oscar."

"Good evening, Master Marcus," the old man bowed and shuffled back to the front of the car.

It never ceased to amaze him, how many gay men there were in Vandervere; he had once thought himself alone in the world, the only gay boy in town. It's one of the reasons he'd started dating girls, he'd been lonely and completely ignorant of the existence of others like himself.

It also amazed him that the instrument of introducing him to this hidden world was a girl, the young woman who took his virginity in June. Her name was Natalie, she was nineteen years old and a sophomore in college, visiting from Portland with her father; and since her father was gay, two of her high-school boyfriends had turned out to be gay, and a number of her best friends were gay, she pegged him pretty quickly — though he enjoyed sex with women, he vastly preferred males, and Natalie could tell that just by the way he looked at her. Afterward, she was an absolute fountain of information, ideas, slang, and code-words that opened up a whole new world right in his own backyard.

The most important thing Natalie taught him was how to identify The Look, that easy-to-miss collection of physical clues that let Danny know when someone desired him. That once piece of knowledge was the source of Danny's greatest happiness: knowing that he was wanted by an awful lot of people. He no longer felt lonely, no longer a bird in a gilded cage: he could connect to people.

~4~

As cages go, the Lake House is fairly nicely gilded. It's a long, narrow structure, rustically elegant in the Arts & Crafts manner, with wide eaves and screened sleeping porches, small diamond-paned windows and fieldstone chimneys, vine-covered pergolas and portes-cochères, covered in old pine shingles and roofed with tin plating, in the joins of which grasses and wildflowers grew.

Danny's bedroom was at the narrow end of the attic floor, as far from everyone else as one could get and still be indoors; but it was large and airy, with a south-facing sleeping porch and deep dormer windows on either side overlooking the woods and the lake, huge slope-roofed closets and its own large white-tiled bathroom; it was sparely furnished, little more than a spindle-turned oak suite with double bed, desk, chair, and bureau, but there were window-seats built into the dormers, where Danny liked to lounge and read, four built-in bookcases, and a tiny brick fireplace.

Danny paused in his bedroom to take off his boots and his belt, then emptied his pockets into the big shallow bowl on his chest of drawers before heading into the bathroom and turning on the water; while waiting for the hot water to make it to the attic from the cellar, Danny stripped out of his clothes, dropping the jeans and shirt into the colors' hamper and thoughtfully rinsing out his white boxer-briefs before stuffing them and the white boot-socks into the whites' hamper, so as to not let the 'protein stains' (as the housekeeper euphemized them) set into the fabric.

The moment he stepped out of his shorts, his freed cock rose swiftly to full mast, demanding the orgasm that had been teasing it since Danny had started making out with Jeremy that afternoon; Danny gazed down at it lovingly and gave it a couple of slow soft strokes, then stepped over to the full-length mirror behind the door to enjoy the sight of it from the front.

His cock filled him with wonder every time he saw it, he could spend hours just looking at it and petting it; and knowing that it was so much bigger than everyone else's — indeed he had only seen one so far that was bigger — gave him a thrill of pride that custom could not stale. He turned sideways and leaned back from his pelvis to make it look even bigger in the mirror; staring intently at himself, he stroked himself to orgasm just as the steam from the shower began to obscure his reflection.

He didn't need much washing, since he hadn't done anything more strenuous than masturbate since his shower after gym class, so he was back out in his bedroom within a few minutes, toweling off and singing softly in Italian. He stepped into a fresh pair of boxer-briefs from the top drawer, then tan socks from the second drawer, a starched white dress-shirt from the third, and a pair of fresh tan khakis from the fourth: he was a very orderly boy and actually got a little thrill out of organizing things.

Then he stepped over to one of the closets, buttoning his cuffs as he went, and chose a cordovan leather belt and a pair of cordovan penny-loafers; next came a blue-and-red paisley necktie that he arranged in a half-Windsor under his button-down collar, finished off with a summer-weight navy blazer.

Stepping back to the dresser, Danny picked up a pair of old-fashioned silver boar-bristle brushes and started taming his damp curls into a respectable cap of flat glossy waves, the ends curling about his ears and fluffing out at the nape. He went back into the bathroom to hang up his towel and check his outfit in the mirror on the door, deciding that he looked as boring and invisible as it was possible for him to look.

Running down the back stairs into the kitchen, Danny greeted the two maids, Rosa and Maria, who were busy carting serving dishes out of the cupboards, before stopping to get a hug from the housekeeper, Mrs. Espinosa.

"You look so handsome, mijo," the squat little woman said fondly, reaching up to pinch his cheek and then his nose. She was a full foot shorter than Danny, but rather a bit wider; she wasn't fat so much as she was thick and sturdy, like a totem figure carved from a tree-stump. Her face was square and strong-boned, her hair coarse and coal-black, arranged in a braided coronet on top of her head.

"What are you serving tonight, Tia?" Danny always called the housekeeper 'Aunt' in affection, which incensed his parents but paid due honor to one of the only people in the house who truly loved him; if it weren't for Mrs. Espinosa and Mademoiselle Marnie, his nanny, Danny would probably not have survived his childhood with any sense self-worth intact.

"We have shrimp-stuffed avocadoes to start," the housekeeper told him, turning back to her stove and stirring one pot while sprinkling herbs into another, "coq au vin over wild rice with asparagus vinaigrette, and a lemon trifle with cashew cookies."

"Ooh, I can't wait!" Danny enthused; Mrs. Espinosa's cooking was adventurous without being challenging, always delicious but within the bounds of a WASP palate. Danny's mother thought black pepper was 'spicy' and his father wouldn't touch anything he couldn't recognize at first glance. When the elder Vanderveres were away from home, though, Mrs. Espinosa got really creative and tried out dishes on Danny and the other servants, crazy nouvelle cuisine combinations or imaginative variations on her native Colombian fare.

"You will wait, mijo," the housekeeper smiled up at him, crinkling her tiny black eyes with pleasure, "You're such a good boy. Now go help the girls set the table, and there are some fresh flowers in the pantry, you can make a nice centerpiece, I know you like that."

"Gracias, Tia!" Danny gave her a peck on the cheek and went into the pantry to find the flowers. He was delighted to discover a whole bucket full of alstromeira and miniature hydrangeas in shades of russet, gold, and pink. Danny ran into the dining-room to retrieve an antique hammered-silver bowl inset with cabochon agates from the sideboard, then filled it with water in the pantry and placed a chunk of green florist's foam in the bottom; within minutes he had the blooms arranged in a professional-looking fountain effect — but not too tall, since his parents didn't like their view of each-other obscured.

Settling the bowl of flowers in the very center of the table under the Tiffany floriform bronze and stained-glass chandelier, he started folding the napkins into fleurs-de-lis while chatting amiably with the maids in Spanish; they giggled delightedly at his American accent and sighed to each other over his beauty while they laid the plates, glasses, and silverware on the table, measuring the placements with little folding rulers as they'd been taught by Mrs. Espinosa.

With the table finished and twenty minutes left before dinner would be served at 7:30, Danny had no other option than to go face his parents in the living-room for a before-dinner drink. He knew that if he didn't, they'd complain at dinner, but that if he did, they'd complain about something else. It was a no-win, and he dreaded it every evening.

When Danny entered the wide, beam-ceilinged living room, his parents were already seated by the low tiled fireplace in low-slung armchairs, reading neatly folded newspapers and sipping scotch on the rocks. Danny drifted slowly into the room, straightening his jacket and his tie as he went, before stooping down to gently plant a kiss without quite touching his mother's powdered cheek.

"Good evening, Mother, good evening, Dad," Danny murmured quietly.

"Don't mumble, Marc-Daniel," Taylor Whitney Vandervere III told his son without looking up from his newspaper.

"You need a haircut," Beatrice Vandervere (née Parke of the Beacon Hill Parkes — Vanderveres were always educated on the East Coast and tended to bring home East Coast brides) said with a quick peevish glance at her son's black hair.

"Yes, ma'am," Danny replied, backing away from them and moving over to the drinks table to pour himself a glass of ginger ale. They didn't speak to him again, so he just stood silently and watched them reading, sipping his ginger ale and wondering what they were thinking.

His mother was a beautiful ice-queen, immensely polished and poised, a square elegant face with a short straight nose and prim pink mouth, hooded gray eyes and gleaming blonde hair worn in a simple bob that curled to a point under her chin; she was stylishly dressed in a simple gray cashmere tunic and chiffon skirt, her usual double strand of pearls with a diamond clasp and matching diamond earclips, a diamond tennis-bracelet next to her everyday platinum Cartier watch.

His father was a perfect match, slim and blond and chiseled, impressive in an immaculate but not flashy dark gray suit, still young-looking at fifty, perfect Hollywood casting for a charismatic politician. The two of them were so devoted to each other, and so comfortable with each other; Danny watched them together, the way they fit so seamlessly into their shared life and seemed to know what the other was thinking without speech. He wanted that for himself someday, with someone — but in the meantime, their impenetrable togetherness made him feel desolately lonely.

The dinner bell went off at exactly 7:30, as it always did, and Danny meekly trailed after his parents as they trekked down the long broad corridor that connected the many rooms of the huge house to the dining room at the opposite end. Danny stood behind his chair as Taylor held Beatrice's chair at one end of the long table and then seated himself at the other end, slipping silently into his place between them with his back to the drafty empty fireplace just as the shrimp-stuffed avocados were brought to the table and placed in front of them by the maids.

Danny's parents spoke to each other about various things that had occurred during their day apart, but in an intimate shorthand of half-finished sentences and inside references that Danny couldn't follow; instead, he focused on the food, which was amazing, and smiled at the little touches that he knew Mrs. Espinosa had added only to his portion: crushed mint and lemon in his water glass, an extra large helping of asparagus (his favorite vegetable), and a sprig of verbena garnishing his lemon trifle.

When the elder Vanderveres rose and took their coffee into the adjoining den to watch television for the evening, Danny politely excused himself from their company and headed back to the kitchen, stopping to shower Mrs. Espinosa with compliments on an amazing meal before going into the mudroom to peel off his dress jacket and tie, exchanging his penny-loafers for a pair of highly-polished English riding boots.

Exiting the house into the breezeway between the kitchen wing and the garages, Danny set off at a trot to the thick stand of imported cypresses and native pines that screened the house from the smells and noise of the stables; with an athletic spring, he leaped over the paddock fence and jogged across the vast oval expanse to where Kevin Ramirez, the groom, had Tenorino saddled up and waiting for him.

"There's my beautiful boy!" Danny crooned to the horse, which nuzzled his shoulder impatiently, reproaching him for his tardiness. Danny had been spending less time with his horse in the last few months, and the tall dapple-gray Andalusian stallion resented taking a backseat to Danny's newfound sex-life.

Tenorino had been a gift from his parents on his fourteenth birthday, chosen primarily by Aunt Mathilda, who browbeat Taylor into buying the expensive animal when Danny showed a good deal of talent for the sport of dressage on the school's horses. Taylor gave in mostly because a horse of that caliber was always a good investment, and if Danny could train it to a dressage championship, the stud fees would make a lively return on that investment.

And Danny had trained the animal well, winning every juniors-division competition he entered; and aside from the training, he went riding every day, enjoying the wonderful feel of galloping along the lakeside on the beautiful horse, his hair bouncing in the wind, his thighs pressed tight against the animal's heaving ribs.

But dressage was one of the first sacrifices Danny made to sex: though he continued training assiduously for the division championships over the summer, come the day he only placed third. This was partly due to his distraction from training; but the chief culprit was meeting the man with the dick bigger than his own, who fucked him hard in a secluded storage room just an hour before Danny and Tenorino were scheduled to perform. Sitting on a dancing horse after being rough-fucked by a giant cock was considerably more painful than he'd thought possible, and the horse reacted to his pain and the faint smell of blood — that he'd placed at all was a testament to very good training.

Losing the championship dampened Danny's passion for dressage, and his training with Tenorino dwindled into a perfunctory hour in the evening after dinner and a long midday ride on the weekends; he was no longer so emotionally devoted to his time with the animal, and the horse felt neglected and didn't perform as well.

Nevertheless, Danny kept at it, thinking that he would be able to spend more time with Tenorino and get the horse back up to scratch before the next season of championships came along in the spring — like most young men, Danny believed he had all the time in the world, and there would always be plenty of opportunity to catch up on anything he missed, later on.

When night started coming down earlier in the autumn, he'd have to confine himself to exercising the horse in the well-lit paddock; but since it was still fairly light out in mid-September, Danny took off down the lake trail, galloping all the way, singing "Non più andrai" from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at top voice as they went (this was the song Danny was planning to use in his next dressage routine and he wanted to get the horse familiar with it; and though Danny's voice wasn't quite trained to opera, he managed the aria fairly well as a ballad).

They reached the meadow that stood alongside the trail halfway between his house and the resort hotel, where he took Tenorino through a few steps of the old routine, then turned around and headed back to the stable at a comfortable canter so the horse could cool down before being curried and put into his stall.

He took his time brushing the horse down and talking to him, whispering the secrets of his day into the uncomprehending ears as he combed the animal's silvery mane into a gleaming silky curtain, lulling him into a restful state so he could be left to sleep in his stall for the night.

Danny was quite exhausted when he left the horse, slowly climbing the stairs he had previously bounded up, and collapsed into his desk chair with a weary but satisfied sigh. He needed to shower again, he smelled of his own and Tenorino's mingled sweat and the musky scents of the stables, but he wanted to complete his homework first, knowing the hot shower would make him too sleepy. So he spent the next hour working on calculus and chemistry, one after the next, knowing he could fake everything else the next day.

"You better get in bed, mijo," Mrs. Espinosa tapped on his door before entering, bearing a plate of cheese and a glass of warm milk, Danny's favorite bedtime snack; the housekeeper had been doing this ever since his nanny had been retired when he turned thirteen, visiting with a little snack before she joined her husband, the family's man-of-all-work, in their little apartment at the other end of the attic.

"I'm going, Tia," Danny answered, taking the plate and glass from her and kissing her hand affectionately, "I had a lot of homework to do, first."

"It's after ten and you smell like horse. You get a bath and get into bed right now."

"Yes, ma'am," Danny smiled happily at the retreating housekeeper, nibbling on a chunk of savory Cotswold cheddar.

Danny showered one last time, leaning against the wall under the faucet and letting the hot water soothe all the tension out of his neck and shoulders; when he felt himself starting to doze off, he got out and toweled himself as vigorously as his tired limbs would let him, and crawled warm and still slightly damp into the clean white sheets of his bed. With the lights off and his eyes closed, he masturbated again, this time slowly and pleasurably, enjoying the process instead of just trying to get off; he thought over everything that had happened that day, all the little turn-ons and pleasures, all the plans and ideas he'd hatched. He finally came with Jeremy smiling at him in his mind's eye, turned over and burrowed into his pillows with a happy grunt, and went immediately to sleep.

~5~

It was early morning on the first Saturday of October, and Danny Vandervere was out for his usual run in the woods; he was floating along a broad, gently hilly trail that meandered in scenic curves through the dense trees, humming along to the vintage disco pouring into his ears from a small iPod strapped to his upper arm, wearing nothing else but very short royal blue running shorts and high-tech running-shoes.

He loved the feeling of near-nakedness, the chilly morning air bracing on his bare skin; soon he would have to start wearing more when he ran, the mornings were becoming increasingly frigid as autumn progressed, but for now he could run naked if he wanted. He had once tried running completely naked, but the pine needles and pebbles hurt his feet and his heavy genitals slapping against his thighs were much too uncomfortable.

Danny was an incredibly graceful runner, his torso erect, his arms tucked loosely against his sides, his long legs stretching out far in front to meet the ground, kicking back with the lightness of a leaping gazelle, presenting a picture of effortless flight suitable for immortalization on a Greek vase. His hair floated around his head, his white skin glowed rosy with exertion and shimmered with perspiration, and the even sound of his deep breathing came in perfect unison with the crunch of his feet in the gravel and needles on the path.

The trail Danny used was one of three that connected the "wild" rose-garden at the edge of his family's property (climbing roses and reverted hybrids tangled around a rustic gazebo in a circular clearing studded with concrete nymphs and bronze sundials, designed and planted by Danny's great-grandfather, who had built the Lake House in 1905) to the Lake Augusta Hotel and Resort, two miles away as the crow flies; the first trail was a completely level bridle path that ran alongside the lake-shore below, by which Danny intended to return home, and the third was a narrow hiking trail that climbed up and down along a steep hillside above. There were more trails above that one, snaking through the hilly forests of the Ternion County Wilderness Area, a popular camping and picnicking site north of Lake Augusta, on the opposite side from the town.

This late in the season, Danny expected to have the trails to him; the few people who did come out usually preferred to come after noon when the sun had warmed the forest. And so there was nothing to interrupt his thoughts, or rather the meditative lack of thoughts that his morning run usually produced. Danny always welcomed an opportunity to not think, sometimes worried that his head would burst from the number and variety of thoughts that often spun through it at high speed.

Coming around one of the more acute curves, a little more than halfway along the three-mile trail, something odd on the ground caught Danny's eye. It was just beyond the curve, a strange pale pinkish-grayish-white object that had an indefinable air of not belonging to the landscape. Danny hadn't intended to veer toward it, but his curiosity led his feet without his conscious mind taking note; as he got closer to it, the odder it looked, almost like a human hand, palm up with its fingers curled.

When Danny got close enough to see that it was in fact a human hand, he was still running at full speed; he tried to stop, some atavistic impulse telling him that a human hand was something that one should avoid rather than run toward, and his foot caught on a stray root that he ordinarily would have seen and evaded if his attention hadn't been diverted.

With a painful wrench to his ankle, Danny flew several feet through the air before crashing into the ground, skinning his right shoulder and cutting his side on the gravel, his hands instinctively covering his head and receiving the full benefit of the pine-needles, pine-cones, and small rocks that would have made a mess of his beautiful face.

When the dust settled, Danny hesitantly opened his eyes, and shut them again quickly when he saw two eyes staring back at him. Swallowing a spasm of revulsion and fear, he opened his eyes again and looked at the thing in front of him: a human face, swollen and greenish-bluish-gray, its light brown eyes bulging and riddled with purple veins, a blackened swollen tongue sticking out of its gaping mouth, its thin light brown hair full of leaves and pine-needles. There were scout ants and a millipede crawling on the face, right across the bulging eyes and tongue, and Danny let out a scream of terror as he scuttled backward away from the thing, fetching up with his back against a tree four or five feet away, his feet still pushing at the ground as if trying to get even further from the corpse.

Danny continued screaming for quite some time, until his throat hurt and a rational voice in the back of his mind asked him what purpose was being served by screaming. The scream broke apart into chest-wracking sobs, the animal horror of a dead body destroying what little emotional reserve he'd ever had. But as he sobbed, his rational mind was taking in and cataloging the details.

He noticed that the body was male, around medium height, with a heavy build, front-side down on the ground; that the belt pulled tight around its neck was familiar, brown leather with Western-style tooling but a standard brass buckle; the vintage sport-shirt was also vaguely familiar, with tiny brown diamonds arranged in stripes on an off-white background; the wispy brown-gray hair was familiar, too, but not familiar enough to spark recognition; the hand that he'd seen on the path was the left hand, which bore a silver or white-gold wedding ring and a Timex digital watch on a steel link band; the arm was stretched out full-length, and must have been dislocated from its socket to lay at that angle; the right hand was clearly broken at the wrist and tucked under the body's chest.

The corpse wore crisp blue jeans that had worked down past its hips, the belt gone from the loops, with cheap white briefs showing above the pants, and clunky brown suede walking shoes; its skin was lacerated in many places, as if it had slid and tumbled down the hill for quite a distance before falling alongside the trail, the blood on the wounds was dark and still, indicating that it had been dead before it fell.

But as Danny stared, sobbing with his fist wedged into his mouth, recognition dawned: it wasn't an it, it was a he — it was Mr. Janacek! Grief joined with horror and he started crying even louder, howling rather than screaming.

Danny crossed his arms over his knees and lay his head on them, letting the grief run through his body, making all the noise he could on the assumption that nobody would hear him; he was over a mile and a half from home and from the hotel, it was not quite seven a.m. on a Saturday morning, and nothing stirred but deer, rabbits, and birds — all of which had gone quite silent when Danny screamed.

Therefore Danny was startled into a thrill of fear when he heard footsteps coming toward him; looking up from his folded arms, he saw a smallish teenage boy with a thick fall of inky black hair covering most of his face, dressed in shapeless black and dark blue clothes, an olive-drab canvas messenger bag slung over his shoulder and an expensive camera held out defensively in front of him.

"Are you OK?" the boy asked, one startling black-rimmed blue eye staring at Danny.

"No," Danny wailed, "He's dead!"

"Who is? Oh..." the boy had apparently not seen the corpse, his eyes only on Danny as he came around the bend with his camera; but he didn't seem as disturbed by it as Danny had been: instead of screaming or trying to get away from it, he approached the body and looked in its face, still holding his camera in front of him like a shield, "What happened to him?"

"I don't know," Danny sobbed, "I think he was strangled. Uphill somewhere."

"You're bleeding," the boy abandoned the corpse and came to kneel in front of Danny, finally stowing the camera away in the messenger-bag and reaching out to touch Danny's side, where a thin trickle of blood made a path from just below the lateral muscle down into the waistband of his shorts. The boy didn't actually touch him, though, seeming to think better of it before he made contact.

"Can you get help?" Danny asked, his sobbing subsiding somewhat, his attention leaving the corpse and finally starting to notice the pain he was in. He couldn't feel the cut, but his shoulder was screaming with pain and his ankle throbbed hotly, his hands stung and he was horribly cold.

"I don't have a phone," the boy admitted, "And I don't want to leave you alone with... with that. Do you think you can walk?"

Before Danny could answer, the quiet was shattered by a sudden electronic trill, loudly approximating the theme to Star Trek. Both boys jumped at the sound and stared at the corpse, whence the sound was coming.

"It's his phone," Danny breathed, oddly repulsed that a dead man would get a phone call.

"Should we answer it?" the strange boy asked, moving toward the body. Without waiting for Danny to reply, he knelt down beside the corpse and reached a little hesitantly toward its pants, then plunged his hand into the front pocket and pulled out the ringing phone; swallowing hard, he opened it and said, "H-hello?"

The caller had apparently hung up, as the boy stared at the phone, nonplussed; he looked to Danny for guidance.

"Who do you think it was?" Danny wondered, the bizarre situation beyond his grasp.

"The caller ID said 'Home,'" the boy answered quietly, "Maybe his wife?"

"Do you think we should use his phone to call for help?" Danny asked the boy, grateful that there was someone there with him.

"Here, you do it," the boy handed him the phone, a cheap little silver plastic thing with lighted buttons, "I don't know what to tell them, I don't know where we are."

"Hello?" Danny said into the phone after he'd dialed; it didn't ring, but sounded as if the call had connected anyway.

"Nine one one," a brisk woman's voice came on the staticky line, chaotic noises in the background, "What is the nature of your emergency?"

"This is Danny Vandervere," Danny said haltingly to the woman, "Is this Mariella?"

"No, sir," the voice said, "This is the cellular dispatch in Redding, not the Vandervere Police. What is the nature of your emergency?"

"There's a dead body here," Danny sobbed again, trying to keep control of his voice but failing, "It's Mr. Janacek, he's my teacher... or he was my teacher. And I'm hurt, I need help."

"Where are you, exactly, sir?" the voice asked calmly, seemingly uninterested in the dramatic news.

"I'm on the walking trail that belongs to the Lake Augusta Hotel in Vandervere, about a mile and a half from the hotel," Danny said, looking around himself to make sure of his location, "and an equal distance from my house. My parents' house, at the end of the Lake Road. I don't know the bearings, but I'm just north of the big meadow off the bridle path."

"Local police and an ambulance are on their way, sir. Do you want me to stay on the line until they arrive?"

"No, thank you," Danny said after thinking it over for a moment, "I'm not alone, there's another boy here with me, he can keep me company until they come. Thank you for your help."

"Be brave, honey, help is coming," the woman's voice dropped its bored professional tone, letting a slight southern accent creep in, before she disconnected the call.

"They're sending someone right away," Danny said, looking at the phone sadly. It was Mr. Janacek's phone, something personal and intimate belonging to a man Danny had liked, someone with whom he'd been having sex fairly regularly over the last two weeks.

Danny just about jumped out of his skin when the phone rang again, but pulled himself together enough to answer it, "Hello, who is this?" The caller hung up immediately, but the caller ID said "Home" again, so Danny hit the redial button and waited for the party to answer.

"I'm sorry to bother you," Danny said to the silent person on the other end, "But something terrible has happened. Mr. Janacek is... oh, perhaps I shouldn't tell you on the phone, and maybe I'm wrong, but I think he's dead."

There was a horrified gasp, but the person at "Home" hung up again without saying anything. Danny folded up the phone and handed it back to the strange black-haired boy.

"I know you, don't I?" Danny cocked his head, trying to remember.

"Probably not," the boy said, looking down at his own feet in beat-up Army boots.

"I know you from school," Danny decided, chasing the memory down, "You're always drawing and taking pictures, but you're not on the Yearbook Committee or in Art Club. Is your name Ashton or Ashley or something like that?"

"Just Ash," the boy said, looking at him with wonder, "I can't believe you know who I am."

"I try to know everyone," Danny shrugged, wiping his wet face reflexively with the back of his injured hand and smearing blood and dirt all over himself, "But you don't hang with a clique, so I haven't had a chance to meet you in person yet."

"Wow," the boy said simply, then returned his attention to Danny's injuries, gesturing to his skinned shoulder, "Doesn't that hurt?"

"Like fury," Danny said, sobbing again when he looked at it and saw his beautiful skin broken and seeping pus and blood, "And I think I twisted my ankle. Oh, my hands!"

"It's OK," Ash was alarmed at the sudden crying jag that shook Danny's body, "It's just abrasions, it'll heal in no time."

"But my hands," Danny groaned, gaping at the cuts and bruises on his long delicate hands, his piano-playing hands that he was so proud of.

"Here, I have some water," Ash rummaged in his bag and pulled out a plastic bottle, "Let me wash them off, you'll see it's not as bad as it looks."

"Thank you," Danny eventually coughed out, looking up into the boy's face, or what he could see of it behind that curtain of black hair, "You're being very kind."

"It's nothing," Ash replied, blushing a little.

"No, it's everything. Thank you for staying with me."

"Are you cold?" the boy wondered, shrugging out of his outermost layer of clothing, an oversized faded-black hoodie, to drape around Danny's shoulders.

"I'm freezing," Danny whispered, shivering so hard his teeth rattled against each-other, "Thank you."

"I hear people coming," Ash said after a long silent pause, then stood and turned around to yell for the approaching vehicles, "HEY! We're over here!"

~6~

Danny and Ash were quickly surrounded by flashing lights and authoritative men in uniforms hustling them up and away from the dead body. Danny was half-carried to the back of the ambulance, where two paramedics (one of whom he knew intimately) cleaned and dressed his wounds, which were minimal and less than skin deep, though they hurt incredibly and looked ghastly; they bound his swelling ankle and put a cold-pack on it, but it would have to be x-rayed at the hospital and might well be sprained. They wrapped him in a silvery padded blanket and gave him some painkillers and a warm cup of electrolyte solution to drink.

While Danny was being ministered to, Ash was being questioned by a police officer, who wanted to know why he was in the woods that morning, what exactly he saw when he came around the bend, and what he and Danny had said to each other and to the mysterious caller on the dead man's phone. The boy was calm and thoughtful, answering all of the questions clearly and succinctly; the officer wrote everything down in his little notebook, took Ash's contact information, and then walked across the path to talk to Danny.

"What's your name, son?" the officer asked Danny solicitously, his pencil poised above his pad; he was a handsome man, in his mid-thirties and fit, with neat sandy brown hair and warm hazel eyes, not quite as tall as Danny, impressive in the sharp navy-blue uniform of the Vandervere town police.

"What?" Danny goggled at the man, confused by the question.

"What's your name?" the officer repeated.

"You must be new," Danny decided, peering into the man's face.

"Yes, I joined the force a couple of weeks ago," the officer explained impatiently, "I was on the force in Yreka for ten years before I moved here. Now, what's your name?"

"I'm Danny Vandervere," he said, gazing curiously at the officer, memorizing his features.

"Oh," the officer looked up at him sharply, suddenly embarrassed, "I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you, sir."

"Don't start with that," Danny sighed wearily.

"But you're the Mayor's son, Marc-Daniel, aren't you?" the officer was puzzled by the name that differed from what he had been told.

"My family calls me that. My whole name is Marcus Daniel Vandervere, the Fourth," he smiled self-deprecatingly, "But please, call me Danny."

"OK," the man agreed, scribbling all the different names on his pad, then pulling himself back into his professional demeanor, remembering that this half-naked youth was a Vandervere and had to be treated with kid gloves, 'call me Danny' or no, "Can you tell me what happened here?"

"I don't really know, he was like that when I came," Danny said, his voice breaking a little, "I was running, and I saw a hand, and then I tripped and fell badly, next to the body. It's Mr. Janacek, he's my calculus teacher. At the high school."

"And the boy over there, how do you know him?" the officer gestured at Ash, who was standing off to one side, not allowed to leave but not being watched; he had his camera out, Danny couldn't tell if he was taking pictures or just fiddling with it, but he seemed more comfortable with it in his hands.

"I don't know him, I mean I didn't before this morning, but he goes to my school."

"Was Mr. Janacek his teacher, also?"

"I don't know," Danny shrugged, turning to look at the officer's badge, "Officer P. Kelly? What does the P stand for?"

"Pete," the officer answered in surprise.

"Not Peter?" Danny wondered, cocking his head at the officer.

"No, just Pete," Officer Kelly smiled.

"You're very handsome," Danny said wistfully.

"Huh?" the officer was startled.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Danny blushed, "I think the painkillers just kicked in."

"It's OK, Danny," the officer laughed uneasily and took a tiny step backward, then put his professional voice back on, "That's all for now, I'll ask you some more questions after you've had a chance to rest. Is there someone you'd like me to call? Should I call your Mom to meet you at the hospital?"

"My mother?" Danny scoffed, then remembered that the newcomer wouldn't know about his relationship with his family and couldn't be expected to see the ridiculousness of the suggestion, "You should probably call my father, he'd have you fired if something happened to a Vandervere and he wasn't the first to know. But before you call him, call Mrs. Espinosa, that's our housekeeper, she'll come to the hospital for me, and you can tell my father that she's coming so he won't have to worry about me. Do you have the number?"

When Officer Kelly walked away, Danny was left by himself for a few minutes as the paramedics kicked around talking to the police, chatting about the crime and speculating about what had happened. Danny felt very alone, until his eyes lit on Ash standing by himself looking slightly forlorn.

"Can Ash come with me?" Danny asked the paramedic he knew, whose name was Dirk, "To the hospital, I mean?"

"It's supposed to only be family," Dirk told him, casting a look at the other boy, "But for you, I can always make an exception."

"Thank you, Dirk, you're sweet," Danny gave the man the most charming smile he could dredge up in the circumstances, a ghost of his normal devastating smile but still fairly potent.

"Just come lay down on the gurney so we can strap you in for transport," Dirk told him gently, reaching out to stroke his cheek, "Bill will settle you in, and I'll go get your friend."

Danny kissed the palm of the man's hand and winked at him before moving back into the ambulance; Dirk glanced around quickly to see if anybody had noticed that little interplay, but everyone seemed quite focused on the dead body.

"I hope you don't mind," Danny said to Ash when they were alone in the back of the moving ambulance, "I know I'm asking a lot, but I was afraid of being alone."

"I don't mind," the boy replied simply.

"But you must have had plans for the rest of the day," Danny insisted on painting himself as selfish.

"Not at all," Ash smiled at him, "My mom wants me to clean my room, but I'd just as soon not."

"Did you leave your car somewhere?"

"I'm parked at the hotel, I'm sure my old bucket is safe there."

"I'll make sure someone takes you back," Danny promised, then was struck by an unconnected thought, "Why were you in the woods this morning?"

"It's a public place, isn't it?" the boy asked defensively.

"Oh, I didn't mean that," Danny assured him, "I'm glad you were there, I don't know what I would have done without you. I was just curious what brought you out so early in the morning."

"Taking pictures," Ash relaxed visibly, "I was trying to catch that kind of light you get early in the morning in woods, sort of green and clean, crisp and sort of ultrareal. I started off by the lake at dawn, trying to get the sunrise, but the trees were in the way, so I hiked up to the next trail. Want to see?"

"Wonderful composition," Danny said, focused on the LCD screen on the back of the camera as Ash scrolled through some of the pictures he'd taken, first at the lake and then in the woods. They were nicely composed, catching attractive lines within their frames, and had good color, but the screen was too small for Danny to make out much detail.

"It's just a hobby," Ash said quietly, but with a touch of pride, stowing the camera back in his bag, "I prefer painting, but it's hard to carry an easel and canvas around with you, so I take pictures and sketches, then work them into paintings when I get home."

"May I see your face?" Danny non-sequitured again, the emotional trauma and the pills making his mind disorderly and robbing him of his well-bred politeness.

"Why?" Ash was startled by the request.

"I don't know," Danny admitted, "I just wonder what you look like without the hair in your face."

"You don't like my hair?" the boy sounded crushed.

"I do, I just like seeing behind things. Inside houses, under clothes, behind curtains. Nosy, I guess."

"OK," the boy said after thinking a moment, then pushed his hair back with both hands and gazed at Danny. His face was quite pretty, heart-shaped with small delicate features; his eyes were a beautiful bright blue, the color of oceans on a map, thickly rimmed in smudgy black eyeliner. His small cupid's-bow mouth was also painted, but in a pale flesh-tone to make it disappear into his face, leaving the eyes the only noticeable feature. His skin was stark white, with an ivory undertone, marred by a few pimples beside his mouth and along his forehead. There was something terribly vulnerable about the face, it was a face that cried out "don't hurt me"... it was no wonder the boy chose to guard it behind that curtain of hair.

"You're so pretty," Danny sighed with a smile, causing the boy to blush furiously and drop his hair back over his face, "I'm sorry, I keep saying things that I should only be thinking. Please forgive me."

"My face is insipid," the boy corrected him bitterly, "Like some stupid Nancy Keane waif."

"Nonsense," Danny replied in surprise, then tried to lighten the mood by reaching out and grasping the boy's knee, jiggling it back and forth, "I say you're quite lovely, and I have exquisite taste. I shall not be gainsaid."

Ash laughed at that, shaking his head in disbelief at the twelve-dollar words and the grandiose tone. Their conversation was interrupted by the ambulance's arrival at the small hospital in Vandervere, another state-of-the-art facility that benefited greatly from being used by the Vandervere family: if the Vanderveres weren't in residence, it would be a standard-issue employee clinic and county hospital, not a large and expensively equipped showplace that drew talented doctors, nurses, and specialists from all over the state.

Danny was of course treated with the respect and care due a visiting head of state, called "sir" by everyone and kept informed at every step of his treatment. They gave him a set of scrubs to wear, instead of a flimsy hospital gown, and even produced a warm fuzzy bathrobe from somewhere. The doctors never talked over him, including him in their conversations, and the radiologist actually asked Danny's permission to touch his leg and position it for x-raying. There were no interminable waits for a room or a doctor or a service, Danny was hustled through the process, his wounds recleaned and redressed, his x-rays developed within minutes, and his ankle put in a padded brace and bound again.

Within thirty minutes, Danny was propped up in a bed in a private room, his ankle (which was strained rather than sprained, with a bruised ligament that would heal in a few days) propped on a towel full of ice, working his way through an immense breakfast (he hadn't eaten anything all day except an energy bar before leaving the house at dawn) that he shared with Ash.

Though Danny was still feeling dopey from the drugs and the shock, and occasionally let out little confidences and observations that he would ordinarily have kept to himself, he was feeling a good deal more lucid as he discussed art with Ash while they waited, displaying a depth of insight into the subject that surprised the other boy.

"You're different than I thought you'd be," Ash said, pulling out his big drawing pad from the depths of his messenger bag and rummaging for some pencils so he could sketch Danny.

"How did you think I'd be?" Danny wondered, slurping down a cup of diced peaches, enjoying every bite as if he'd never eaten such things before.

"I don't know," the boy shrugged as he started arranging his composition with broad strokes of a light pencil, "You're so popular, and an athlete, and rich... I guess I thought you'd be kind of self-involved and a little stupid. But you're interesting and smart and really nice. It doesn't seem quite right."

"You've described my brothers to a tee," Danny laughed, "Most of my family, in fact. I just didn't want to be like them. I can't help being a Vandervere, and I take all the popularity and privilege that comes with it; but I can choose to be nice, and to devote my intelligence to the life of the mind rather than using it to gain power over people or make more money. Not that I'd turn my nose up at power or money, mind you, those are nice, too... it's just the manner of gaining it where I have some scruples. Not many, but some. Are you drawing a picture of me?"

"You don't mind, do you?" Ash looked up from his drawing, having not really been listening as Danny spoke.

"I look such a mess," Danny objected.

"You look beautiful," Ash said simply, going back to the drawing, "I think I'll draw you as a wounded warrior, Greek or Roman or something. Saint Sebastian Tended by Irene or like that."

"Classical, neoclassical, or postmodern neoclassical?" Danny asked, trying to visualize the idea.

"I don't know, I'll see how it develops," he murmured vaguely, focused on the drawing.

"Are you feeling better?" Officer Kelly stepped into the room after knocking on the door-sill.

"Yes, thank you," Danny smiled at him.

"I have some more questions for you, if you're up for it," the officer pulled up a chair facing Danny.

"I'll try," Danny promised, "Have you found out anything about what happened to Mr. Janacek?"

"Well, yes," the officer took out his notepad and consulted some earlier pages, "It looks like the victim was not killed where you found him, we followed a trail all the way back up to the Wilderness Area, there's evidence he was killed there in one of the picnic grounds."

"Did he fall?" Danny wondered, trying to remember the landscape, whether it would be possible to get all the way down to the middle path by mere gravity; but there were so many places where a falling object would have caught and stuck, the thickness of the trees and the placement of rocks, and the intervening trails.

"No, it appears he was pushed, pulled, and in some places dragged to about ten feet uphill from where you found him, then he tumbled the rest of the way on his own."

"Why would someone do that?" Danny wondered.

"I was hoping you could tell me," Officer Kelly looked sharply at him.

"What do you mean?" Danny felt a thrill of fear at that question, though he couldn't say why.

"Who knew that you'd be running on that path this morning?" the policeman's voice took on a strange hardness, almost accusatory.

"Nobody," Danny tried to think of who knew his running routes; he never ran with anyone, and in the last few weeks hadn't encountered anyone else on that trail early in the morning, "Mrs. Espinosa knows which way I go, she insists I tell her before I go out in case I don't come back in time, she'll know where to send people to look for me. She gets worried that I might meet a bear, or break my leg, or something. She wanted me to take my phone, but where would I put it?"

"Nobody else knows when and where you go running?" the officer seemed suspicious of that explanation.

"I don't think so," Danny frowned with concentration, "I always go alone, I haven't met anybody on the trail that early in weeks; unless Mrs. Espinosa told someone where I was going, I can't think of anyone. Why?"

"Well," Officer Kelly leaned back in his chair, "I have to wonder if someone meant for you to find that body."

"Why would you think that?"

"The only two logical reasons I can think why someone would drag and push a body for almost a quarter of a mile down all of those hills and cliffs would be to either hide the body or to hide the site of the murder. But since the tracks led very clearly back to where the man was killed, and the body was left somewhere that it would be found — if not by you, then by someone from the hotel, before the day was out — then those two reasons can't stand. I can't help but think the body was put where it was for a reason, and the only reason I can think of is for you to find it."

"Oh," Danny said, trying and failing to find a flaw in the argument.

"So what I have to ask you, Danny," Officer Kelly fidgeted in his chair, clearly unwilling to ask what he needed to know next, "is if you had some kind of relationship with Mr. Janacek that somebody knew about."

"Um," Danny was stuck: he couldn't admit his relationship with Mr. Janacek, not to a policeman, and not in front of Ash; and yet, he was a fundamentally honest person and had no idea of how to go about creating a lie.

"Um, what?" the officer prompted.

"He was my teacher," Danny equivocated.

"I have a cat," Officer Kelly said, seemingly out of nowhere, "His name is Groucho. He's a hunter, he's always catching birds and mice and things. And he always brings them to me and lays them at my feet, or by the side of the bed next to my slippers."

"Oh?" Danny couldn't imagine why the policeman was suddenly talking about his cat.

"I wonder if someone was offering this kill to you, like my cat brings his kills to me."

"You think a cat killed Mr. Janacek?" Danny was confused, and the confusion was magnified by the pain-killers he'd taken.

"Think about what I said, Mr. Vandervere. If something occurs to you, some idea about a person related to you and Mr. Janacek who might do something like that, you should contact me right away."

"OK," Danny eyed the man askance.

"And you, Mr. Phillips?" Officer Kelly turned to face Ash, startling the boy considerably.

"And me what?" Ash stammered, having thought himself completely invisible in his dark corner behind his sketchpad.

"Was Mr. Janacek your teacher?"

"No, I have Ms. Cummings, third-period algebra."

"Did you know Mr. Janacek outside of school?"

"No," the boy blinked at him with his one visible eye.

"If you think of anything you haven't told me, something you forgot about, you'll let me know?"

"Of course," Ash whispered, taking the officer's business card and tucking it into his bag.

"Your housekeeper is here, Mr. Vandervere," Officer Kelly put out his hand to Danny, "She'll take you home. Thank you for your help."

"I wish I could help more," Danny said, shaking the man's hand and watching him walk out the door.

"Danny! Mijo!" Mrs. Espinosa burst noisily into the room, grabbing Danny's cheeks and kissing his forehead, "What happened?"

"I just fell down, Tia," Danny tried to calm her.

"This is more than a fall," she started examining his bandages with a critical eye, making sure they were on right.

"I was running and I caught my foot on a root, and so it was a pretty bad fall, but I'm OK," Danny assured her, "I skinned my shoulder and my hands, and I got a cut on my side, and I strained my ankle. But I'll be healed in a week. Honestly, I'm fine."

"And what am I hearing about a corpse?" she stood back and crossed her arms in a suspicious manner, as if Danny was trying to hide something from her.

"It was awful," Danny said, tears starting again in his eyes — he had managed to put that horror out of his mind; even when he was talking to the policeman, he had thought of the body as an abstract idea, not the lifeless remains of a real person he knew.

"Oh, my poor mijo," Mrs. Espinosa came back at him and threw her arms around him.

"It was my teacher, Tia. Mr. Janacek, my calculus teacher," Danny sobbed into the housekeeper's massive bosom.

"It's OK, baby, it's OK," she rubbed his back and rocked him gently, and from that position finally noticed Ash sitting there in the corner with his sketch pad, challenging him with a whispered, "Who are you?"

"That's Ash, Tia," Danny said into her shoulder, "He goes to my school. He was there, too. He's been keeping me company."

"Thank you, Ash," Mrs. Espinosa beamed at the boy, "That was nice of you."

"It's nothing," Ash blushed, hiding behind his sketch-pad.

"Are you ready to go home, mijo?" Mrs. Espinosa asked Danny when he stopped crying, "I have Mr. Harrison and your Explorer here, you can lay down in the back and keep your ankle up."

"Can we take Ash to his car, Tia?" Danny asked her, "He's parked at the resort."

"Of course, mijo! Anything you want."

With Mrs. Espinosa there to escort Danny home, the doctors and nurses came clustering around, all trying so hard to be helpful that they were getting in each other's way; they lifted him into a wheelchair and trolleyed him out to Danny's big black SUV, settling him into the back with blankets and pillows and boxes of juice. Danny was a little embarrassed by the attention, but he was gracious to everyone who helped him, thanking people by name and making eye contact and shaking hands all around.

Mrs. Espinosa sat in the back with him and had Ash sit in the front with Mr. Harrison, the family chauffeur; she held his head and stroked his hair, singing Spanish lullabies; Mr. Harrison tried to have a conversation with Ash, but the boy was so shy that he replied in terse monosyllables.

"Which car is yours, sir?" Harrison asked Ash when they pulled in to the parking lot of the Lake Augusta Hotel at the end of Dam Road, which led to the resort over the dam that created Lake Augusta from the eastern end of town.

"You can let me out here," Ash said nervously.

"I am happy to take you to your car, sir," Harrison protested, slowing to a crawl in the driveway.

"It's not necessary," Ash insisted.

"As you wish, sir," the chauffeur stopped the car and popped the locks from his control panel so Ash could get out.

"Ash?" Danny called out from the back seat, as he stepped out of the car, "Will you come over tomorrow afternoon? If you're not busy?"

"If you want," the boy paused, looking at him over the back of the seat.

"Do you know how to get there?" Danny asked, smiling up at him.

"I think so," Ash answered, though still nervously.

"Just follow the Lake Road to the end. Mrs. Espinosa will expect you."

"OK," Ash paused and looked at Danny wonderingly, "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Thank you so much, Ash, for all your help today."

"It was nothing," the boy said again, blushing, then scuttled out of the car and around the side of the hotel in the direction of the staff parking lot.

"I wonder why he wouldn't let us take him to his car?" Danny asked Mrs. Espinosa as the car started up again and pulled back onto the Dam Road to drive around the southern side of the lake.

"Maybe he's embarrassed by it, mijo," the housekeeper said reasonably, "maybe it's not as nice as your car."

"That's silly," Danny frowned, "I don't care about such things."

"I know you don't, sweet boy, but Ash doesn't know you as well as we do."

"I can change that, though, can't I?" Danny smiled at Mrs. Espinosa and kissed her hand.

~7~

When Ash arrived the next afternoon, Danny was propped up in bed, his ankle elevated on a pile of pillows, working on the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. He was wearing gray fleece lounge pants and a forest green scoop-neck t-shirt, his uninjured foot bare, the foot of his injured ankle and its brace swaddled in what looked like a hand-knitted Christmas stocking, with a bag of frozen peas lying on top of it. He was surrounded by books, mostly schoolbooks but also several volumes of epic poetry open face-down, to be dipped into at leisure.

"Ash! Thank God you've come!" Danny cried gladly when the boy crept quietly into the room, dressed in baggy blacks and blues again, carrying a tray with two glasses and a bowl filled with ice and bottled sodas, "I am dying of boredom."

"This house is so confusing, I actually got lost," Ash said with a tone of wonder, looking around the large bright room for a place to set down the tray.

"Oh, here, put that down," Danny cleared the books off his night-table, "I'd get up, but Tia won't let me. The doctor told her I was to stay off my feet for three days at least, and she has taken that to mean that I am simply not allowed to stand up or walk around for any reason. I think she's got my floor rigged with sensors, when I got up to go pee a while ago, she came roaring in here and practically carried me back to the bed."

"She gave me this and just told me to go to the top of the stairs and turn right," Ash laughed as he laid the tray on the table, then started peeling off his outer layers of clothes, laying his messenger bag, coat, hoodie, and knit cap on the small desk-chair, "but she didn't tell me to go forward to the hallway and then right. I ended up in a linen closet first try."

"I'm sorry," Danny smiled up at him ruefully, "Sunday is the maids' day off, only the live-ins are here. It's their day off, too, but Tia always comes back from mass and spends the day concocting in the kitchen. We're all usually over at The Aspens for Family Sunday, so she has the freedom to experiment."

"What are The Aspens?" Ash was looking around for a place to sit, having already filled the one chair in the room with his outerwear.

"It's my Uncle Charles's place, a few miles west of town. Do you like ginger ale?" Danny asked, prying open two of the bottles and putting ice in the glasses, "Since he's the head of the family, we're all supposed to go to his house on Sundays after church and spend the afternoon. Of course, none of us goes to church anymore, except on holidays, but the tradition stands. Oh, hey, there's an armchair in the next bedroom down the hall, why don't you drag it in here so you can sit comfortably? I'm sorry I didn't think of it before you came, I don't have visitors up here much."

"That's OK," Ash assured him, "I don't mind. How many doors down the hall? I don't want to get lost again."

"Two doors... no, wait, three doors, there's a storage room between my bathroom and the empty bedroom. Just open doors on the right and you'll find it."

A few minutes later, Ash came back dragging a heavy Mission-style oak armchair that probably weighed more than he did; Danny was impressed by his strength, though he felt horribly guilty for not getting up and helping. But Ash managed quite well on his own, putting the chair into position, getting settled into it, and taking a few gulps from his glass of ginger ale.

"Is this really your room?" Ash wondered, gazing around with curiosity.

"Of course," Danny looked at him questioningly, "Why wouldn't it be?"

"Well, it's so bare. It's not what I expected at all."

"What were you expecting?"

"Oh, I don't know," Ash hesitated, not sure if he should continue in this vein, "Big-screen TV, video games, monster stereo, posters. Rich-kid stuff. This looks like a guest room, bigger than the one down the hall but not much different."

"My brothers' rooms down on the second floor are like you say," Danny looked around his room trying to see it with a newcomer's eye, "But nobody ever gives me those kinds of things. I didn't really want them. I do have a stereo, it's in that cabinet over there, I usually keep it closed so it doesn't get dusty. And I have my laptop, and all the books I want... though I must admit, a big-screen TV would be nice. I'll remember to ask Santa."

"You don't feel like you belong here, do you?" Ash blurted an observation that had been brewing since he entered the Spartan room.

"No, I guess I don't," Danny answered slowly, letting the idea sink in, seeing for the first time the transient look of his bedroom, a room that for most people was a reflection of their true selves, "I guess I should decorate it more. There are paintings in storage I could use, and souvenirs and things I could set out instead of keeping them in boxes. But I just don't spend that much time up here. I'm outside most of the time, or at the Aunt Ems'."

"Who are the Aunt Ems?" he laughed at the strange name, which gave Danny the opportunity to entertain him with stories about his great-aunts, their personalities and his special relationship with them, telling him about the lessons he received there and the room he'd been given (though it occurred to him that his room in the Pine Street house was no more personal than the one at the Lake House, being more of a museum display than a private room).

"I hope you're hungry," Mrs. Esposito came into the room backwards, carrying two bed-trays piled high with food, stacked one on top of the other, "I made tapas today, and I got carried away with the different recipes I've found."

"But, Tia, it's your day off!" Danny protested, though he was grateful for the food, "you shouldn't be waiting on us."

"What, I should honor the Lord's Day by letting you two sit up here and starve?" the housekeeper gave Danny a sidelong look as she set both trays over Danny's lap and then carried the topmost tray over to Ash, "You're doing me a favor, eating up all this extra food. You boys tell me what you think when you're done, OK?"

"She's really nice," Ash said when Mrs. Esposito had left, picking over the pile of unfamiliar bite-sized morsels on his plate.

"She's wonderful," Danny agreed, digging into the food, "She's a mother to me."

"But you have a mother," Ash pointed out.

"Yes, but Mother doesn't like me. She still resents me for almost killing her when I was born."

"That's not your fault!" the boy was aghast.

"Yes, well," Danny shrugged, not wanting to go into it, "Tell me about your parents."

"They're divorced," Ash sniffed suspiciously at a roll of salmon and cress wrapped in transparent rice-paper, "My Dad is an accountant, he lives in Maine, I don't see him much. My mom's a veterinarian, she works for County Animal Control."

"Oh!" Danny looked up in surprise, "I've met her! Andrea Phillips, isn't it? She came out to The Aspens for the annual deer hunt in August. She's absolutely delightful."

"You hunt deer?" Ash frowned at him, unable to puzzle that piece of information into the general picture of Danny that he was forming.

"I have," Danny admitted, "I don't anymore, it always made me so sad. Deer are such beautiful creatures. I know they have to be culled, it's for their own good, and I do love venison... but to destroy a living creature, bring that wonderful gracefulness to an end, convert it into hides and meat... I just don't have it in me. Nevertheless, I have to go to the Hunt Breakfast, it's a family occasion. That's when I met your Mom, she was seated on my left and told me the most wonderful stories about family dogs forming attachments with wild animals. You used to live in Boulder, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Ash said simply, amazed that Danny would not only remember meeting his mother and the exact topic of their conversation, but even remember on which side she sat.

"I've been there, very briefly, on a trip with the cross-country team. It's really breathtaking."

"The winters are way too cold," Ash told him, "But yeah, it was nice. It's a lot like here, but with more people."

Over the next two hours, the boys got to know each other, asking each other questions and revealing things about themselves that surprised and delighted the other. It turned out that Ash was the same age as Danny, and like Danny had skipped freshman year because he was too smart; they both liked opera, though Ash wasn't as educated on the art-form as Danny and only knew a few Puccini standards and a fairly obscure French opera that he'd bought when an aria from it had been featured in one of his favorite films, The Hunger; they neither of them seemed to understand other kids their age, and enjoyed socializing with adults, though Ash never quite knew what to say to strangers and so knew no adults in Vandervere except his mother's boyfriend, a forest ranger who Danny could tell Ash didn't like but endured for his mother's sake.

Before too long, Ash had his drawing pad out again and was scribbling dozens of little character-sketches, trying to capture Danny's facial expressions, his different kinds of smiles, his little pouts of distaste, his way of playing with his hair when he was thinking; but this didn't interrupt the flow of their conversation, it just gave Ash something to do with his hands.

Mrs. Espinosa came back at 3:30 with another meal, a high tea with fried-egg sandwiches and chocolate cake, and quizzed them on the tapas, taking note of the things they liked and the things that were "too challenging to the palate" (as Danny phrased it), then left them again to their own company.

They kept on talking for another two hours, but were eventually interrupted when Danny heard his parents return from The Aspens; through the open window overlooking the entrance front of the house, he could hear his father's voice complaining about something.

Ash noticed Danny tense up at the sound of the voices, and fell silent, joining into the listening... the sound of tires on gravel, a segmented automatic garage door opening, car doors opening and closing, and a querulous male voice, too far away to make out the words but close enough to hear the irritation, answered by a quieter female voice.

"I hope I didn't park wrong," Ash said when the voices disappeared and Danny visibly relaxed, as if the string that was holding him on point had been cut, "I tried to get as close to the edge of the gravel as possible."

"Unless you left your car horizontally across the driveway, you're fine," Danny assured him, "He's just complaining because he wasn't expecting a car in the drive, and anything he's not expecting is cause for alarm."

"I should probably go," Ash said, sensing that the spell had been broken by the arrival of Danny's parents; for though Danny was no longer listening intently, he seemed a little more distant and guarded than he had been before.

"Wouldn't you like to stay for dinner?" Danny offered, "We usually just forage among the leftovers on Sunday, but I suspect Tia has more experiments to dispose of."

"No, thanks," Ash got up and started gathering his things, "My Mom will be expecting me pretty soon, we usually eat around seven and I didn't tell her I'd be gone this afternoon. Would you like me to pick up your homework for you tomorrow?"

"Oh, that's so sweet of you!" Danny was touched by the offer, "You don't have to go to all that trouble."

"It's no trouble," Ash said simply, tucking his long hair behind his ear and looking at Danny with both eyes.

"You're very kind," Danny assented quietly, aware that this gesture meant more than it seemed on the surface... he knew it meant that they were now friends, and that Ash trusted him.

"I'll see you tomorrow then," Ash shifted uncomfortably, apparently unsure if he should shake hands or hug or just wave.

"Tomorrow," Danny put out his hand, thinking that would be the easiest form; Ash had a strong grip but his hand was small and delicate — it was like holding a live bird. The other boy smiled and scuttled out of the room with his bag and jacket dragging after him.

When Mrs. Espinosa came up with Danny's dinner, she helped him into the bathroom to eliminate and wash up before eating, and promised to come back before bedtime to bathe him.

"Tia! I'm too old for you to be giving me a bath," Danny was slightly shocked by the suggestion.

"You think you can get in and out of the tub with your foot like that, and not get it wet?" she challenged him.

"It's not a cast, Tia. It's made of steel, I'm pretty sure it can take a little water. Or else I can just take it off."

"No you won't take it off, the doctor didn't say you could," Mrs. Espinosa scolded him, "I'll draw your bath and go get a bath-stool so you can keep it elevated. You can do the rest, Mister Grown-up."

"Thank you, Tia," Danny reached out and grabbed her hand, pressing it to his cheek, "Thank you for taking care of me today, I really appreciate it."

"Anything for you, my sweet boy," she leaned down and kissed him on the forehead, "Now you eat that up and I'll be back in an hour to help you with your bath."

~8~

The next day was unseasonably warm, and Danny's attic room was roasting hot by midday, so he asked Mr. Espinosa to help him onto the sleeping porch outside his room; it was essentially outdoors, open on three sides to catch the breezes coming off the lake, with transparent cotton mesh screens to keep the insects out. The handyman not only made up Danny's cot into a comfortable daybed with pillows and quilts, but he even brought up some wicker lawn furniture, chairs for visitors and tables to put his books and stereo and computer on, to turn the empty space into a nice little room.

Danny was happily ensconced on the porch near the rail, shirtless in gray-and-pink palm-patterned board shorts, looking out over the lake, sipping a lemonade and reading Persuasion; he heard someone enter his bedroom, and thinking it was Ash, called out, "I'm out here, come join me!"

"Good afternoon, Mr. Vandervere," Officer Pete Kelly stepped through the French door onto the porch, his peaked hat in his hand.

"Oh! Officer Kelly! I wasn't expecting you," Danny smiled graciously through his surprise, "May I offer you some lemonade?"

"No, thank you. How's the ankle?" the man seated himself in an armchair facing Danny.

"Much better, thank you; but Mrs. Espinosa thinks I need to keep it elevated at all times and has kept me bedridden since I came home Saturday. I'm thinking about bribing my doctor to tell her to let me get up."

"Have you given any more thought to the questions I asked you earlier? About your relationship with Mr. Janacek?"

"I want to tell you something," Danny hesitated, staring into his glass, "But I don't want it to get me into trouble, and I don't want it to prejudice you against Mr. Janacek."

"You were having an affair with him," Officer Kelly guessed what Danny wanted to say.

"How did you find out?" the boy was wide-eyed with shock.

"I didn't, I just now guessed."

"Well, how did you guess?" Danny wondered.

"I know Janacek was gay; and though it's hard to tell at your age, I think you may be gay as well," the policeman shrugged, smiling to show the boy he wasn't being judgmental, "It's the first thing that came to mind when you said you didn't want to prejudice me against Janacek. It is very easy to construct a prejudice when a grown man seduces a boy your age."

"It was I who seduced him," Danny insisted hotly.

"Why?" Officer Kelly wanted to know.

"I don't know," Danny shrugged, looking back toward the lake, "Because he was there, like Everest. I could see he was attracted to me, and I liked him, so I pursued him."

"I have a hard time believing that."

"Oh, come now, Officer," Danny looked at the man sternly, "You know perfectly well that a man like Mr. Janacek would never in his wildest dreams think he had a chance with a boy like me. I'm beautiful, much too young, and I belong to the most powerful family in town. He would never have approached me; he would have just kept gazing and fantasizing. But with my looks and my privileges, if I want something, I simply get it. That probably makes me a not-very-nice person, but I can't have you thinking ill of Mr. Janacek. He was a very sweet man and he resisted me as hard as he could, but I bulldozed right over his moral convictions just to have my own way."

"Oh, hey, don't cry," Officer Kelly started forward with alarm, looking around for a box of tissues, "I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault," Danny snuffled into a napkin he plucked from the lemonade tray, "I'm a bit of a crybaby, the waterworks come on without much prompting."

"Well, then, to return to the main point," the policeman measured his words, hoping he wouldn't set the boy off again, "Is there anyone who knew about this affair? Any of your friends, or his?"

"I never breathed a word of it to anyone until just now," Danny said after thinking it over carefully, "And I can't imagine him telling anyone, it would put him in a terribly awkward position."

"Do you have a boyfriend who might have found out?"

"I have a boyfriend," Danny said, not very pleased with the connotation, "But he doesn't know anything about the people I'm sleeping with. And if he did, he'd just break up with me. He's very sweet and gentle, he scoops up spiders on pieces of paper and carries them outside instead of squishing them; he'd never be able to strangle a man, and certainly wouldn't be able to drag a dead body through the woods. Did Mr. Janacek have a boyfriend? You say you know he was gay."

"There is a man he lived with. I don't yet know the exact nature of their relationship, but I assume they were lovers, or partners, or what-have-you. He hasn't said he knew anything about you. Nevertheless, I am looking into his whereabouts on the night in question. But in the meantime, I need to follow all leads."

"Of course,' Danny agreed, "And speaking of which, I have been thinking about the other question you asked me, if I could think of why someone would leave the body where it was... and I have a theory."

"OK, shoot."

"What if the killer was trying to drag the body into the lake, intending to send it to the bottom where it wouldn't be found for months, and then to sweep over his tracks to conceal the place the murder happened? But I interrupted him before he got all the way down the path. What if the killer was right there, where the dragging trail stopped, when I came around the bend, and he didn't get a chance to finish the job or cover his tracks? I made a lot of noise, screaming and carrying on, a herd of elephant could have been in those woods and I wouldn't have heard them."

"That's a very good theory," the officer was impressed, "It covers a lot of the factors and is wonderfully feasible. But the forensic evidence shoots it down in one: the body was there where you found it for at least three hours, the dew had settled on his back and the surrounding ground, but not underneath the body, and the weather people assure us the dew settled between three-thirty and four a.m."

"That's very inconvenient," Danny quoted from Evil Under the Sun, though the officer didn't get the reference.

"Time of death was most likely a little after midnight, and there is some evidence that the body lay in the underbrush near where he was killed for a few hours before being moved."

"That's awful," Danny shivered at the thought.

"The place where he was killed is a well-known cruising ground," Officer Kelly watched Danny closely to see if he knew what that phrase meant.

"I've heard about it," Danny admitted frankly, "from several men I know. I've never been up there, though."

"On a temperate Friday night, the place would have been jumping; whoever killed Mr. Janacek would have to hide the body immediately or it would have been discovered much earlier. Which leads me back to my theory, that someone put that body there so you would find it."

"I just honestly can't imagine why anyone would do that," Danny shook his head in disbelief, "What possible purpose would be served?"

"It might have been a warning," the officer suggested, "or, as I suggested earlier, a gift."

"Well, then, it was a failure either way. I can't take a warning when I don't know what I'm being warned against, and I am certainly not grateful for such a gift."

"Perhaps the warning is to keep it in your pants," the officer joked.

"Do you think so?" Danny didn't hear the humor in the man's voice, and took the suggestion seriously, "I hadn't thought about that. Do you think any of the other guys I've been with are in danger?"

"Oh, I don't think so," Officer Kelly tried to reassure him, though making a note of the suggestion and the reaction to consider later, "But on that topic, and please don't think this a prurient question, how many guys have you been with?"

"I can't say it out loud," Danny blushed, "You'll think I'm a horrible slut."

"Well, it's really none of my business, but I feel it's my duty as a police officer to suggest you refrain from seducing any more adults," the policeman said as gently as he could, "Stick to your own age, OK? You'll be a lot safer."

"It will break their hearts," Danny laughed ruefully, "But I think you may be right. It isn't nice to put men in such a legally perilous position. Though I think you've been here long enough now to know that my father would never allow you to prosecute someone if it meant my name being put in the record. Yet he could hurt them in other ways, so I think I should take your advice."

"That's a good lad," the officer reached over and tousled Danny's hair, a gesture he'd been resisting but couldn't hold back any longer.

The sound of several notebooks hitting the floor with a noisy crash interrupted the conversation, and Danny and Officer Kelly looked up to see Ash standing in the doorway, a look of abject horror on what was visible of his face.

"I'm sorry," he stammered after a long frozen moment, stooping to retrieve the notebooks, "I tripped on the sill."

"Ash!" Danny cried out happily, "I'm so glad to see you! You remember Officer Kelly?"

"Yes," Ash nodded, stacking the notebooks onto a wicker table by the door.

"Ash very kindly offered to pick up my homework," Danny explained to the officer, "Would you like some lemonade, Ash? Or something else to drink, or eat? We have staff today, I can ring for anything you like."

"I'm fine," Ash said, still apparently rattled.

"I wonder, Officer Kelly," Danny's face lit up with a new idea, "if Ash might have been the target, the person meant to find the body, rather than me. What do you think?"

"I understood from Mr. Phillips that his trip out to the hotel trails was unplanned, not part of his routine, and he didn't tell anyone he was going there. Isn't that right?"

"Yes," Ash whispered.

"Can you think of any reason why anyone would put a dead body in your path?"

"No," the boy's one naked eye was as wide as a saucer.

"So," Officer Kelly closed his notepad and put it away, "While I will certainly keep my mind open to the possibility, Mr. Vandervere, I have to assume you were the target, if there was a target intended, since your being on that route at that time of day is part of your weekly routine and at least one person knew you'd be there; and though that person is, generally speaking, above suspicion, there are probably more people you aren't aware of."

"What do you mean, 'generally speaking'? How could you possibly suspect Tia?" Danny frowned at the man in outrage.

"I don't, I don't," Officer Kelly put his hands out in a calming gesture, "except insofar as I have to suspect everyone at this point. For example, I'm not going to ask you this officially, Mr. Vandervere, since I value my job, but: what were you doing between eleven and four on Friday night?"

"Sleeping," Danny answered.

"Can you prove that?" the officer asked.

"Well, I can't call an eye-witness," Danny said, then thought for a moment, "But the burglar alarm would record if anybody had left the house between those hours, it's armed automatically at ten and goes off at six, one has to enter the code to go in or out when it's on. You can check the log in the main console, it's in the mud-room."

"I'll do that," Officer Kelly smiled, "Though like I said, not officially. I doubt your father would take kindly to it."

"Don't worry too much about my father, Officer," Danny smiled back, "His bark is worse than his bite, and though he has been known to ask the police to look the other way when Vanderveres misbehave, he'd never obstruct justice in something this serious."

"I hope you're right," the man shook his head, "Just having you as a witness, he's been breathing down our necks. And you, Mr. Phillips? I don't suppose you have eye-witnesses for Friday night?"

"No," Ash said after clearing his throat, "Home, asleep, alone."

"Well," the officer put on his hat and stepped toward the door, "My request still stands: if either of you think of anything, anything at all that might have a bearing on the case, please call me right away."

"God, sometimes I hate being a Vandervere," Danny spat angrily after the policeman had left, "Can you imagine? What if I had killed poor Mr. Janacek? Or if anyone in my family had? We might go Scot-free, with the police afraid to even investigate us!"

"I'm sure it's not as bad as that," Ash told him, "If he really suspected you, he'd pursue it."

"You're right, of course," Danny reached out and grabbed Ash's knee, "He does seem like an honorable man. But being a Vandervere isn't good for one's morals, I can tell you that."

"You seem to be doing OK," Ash smiled at him, pulling his sketch-pad out of his bag.

"I do things sometimes," Danny admitted sadly, "which, if looked at in a certain light, aren't very nice."

"So don't look at them in that light," the boy reasoned, "Do you mind if I do another sketch? I thought I'd try you with pastels."

"I never object to being immortalized," Danny grinned at him.

"I don't know about 'immortalized,'" Ash looked at him shyly over the edge of the pad, his hair tucked behind his ear again, "That depends on if I ever get famous."

"I'm sure you will be."

"How? You've never seen my work."

"I can tell. Oh, look, tea!"

Rosa and Maria both came out onto the porch, the former bearing a pitcher of iced tea with two glasses, the latter with a tray of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies and bunches of green grapes. They set these up on the low cocktail table in front of Danny's bed and backed away into the house, giggling like geishas the entire time.

"Do they always act like that?" Ash wondered, staring after the departing girls.

"What, the giggling? Not all the time, but whenever they're around me and nobody's there to reprimand them. They're both fatally in love with me," Danny rolled his eyes, "Rosa likes you, too."

"How do you know that?" the boy blushed.

"She said so, in between gusts of giggles. They think that since my Spanish accent is so bad — 'Sesame Street Spanish,' Tia calls it — I don't understand theirs; but I've been listening to Tia rattling on in her native tongue since I was a baby, I understand Colombian accents better than any other form of Spanish."

"Why do you call your housekeeper 'Tia'?" Ash wondered, only partly paying attention, most of his focus on the drawing in front of him.

"Because my mother would go postal if she heard me call her 'Madrecita,'" Danny laughed, "She really is like a mother to me now that my nanny is gone. But when I had them both, she seemed more like an aunt than a mother, since Mademoiselle Marnie was like a mother."

"How long did you have a nanny?"

"From birth until my thirteenth birthday."

"When is your birthday?"

"August second. When's yours?"

They went on like that for another hour and a half, an amiable back-and-forth of questions and answers, each answer spawning another question, as Ash scribbled industriously with his pad and a box of pastels, wiping the colors from his fingers onto his black t-shirt until it looked like tie-dye.

"May I see?" Danny asked politely when Ash finally put down his pencils, giving up on the drawing in the waning light as the sun disappeared behind the mountains, leaving a sort of twilight that drained all the color out of things.

"It's not that good, just a sketch," Ash hesitated, looking at the drawing critically.

"Well, I don't want to push if you don't want to show me, but I'm madly curious. I want to see how you see me."

"Okay," Ash relented and turned the pad around so Danny could see it.

"Oh, my God, Ash! It's beautiful!" Danny said truthfully; though it was very roughly drawn, and some of the proportions were slightly off, the picture was quite lovely... it was a fairly accurate likeness and showed Danny looking happy and animated in a nest of pillows.

"I can't get the line between your cheekbone and chin quite right. I made your neck too long, and your nose too short," the artist pointed out the errors as if to accuse himself.

"I'm not an artist, myself, Ash," Danny told him sternly, "but I do know art. That's a good likeness and it shows a very lively touch. It really is beautiful."

"You're just being polite," the boy protested, letting the curtain of hair fall over his face.

"Look here, Ash," Danny was slightly irritated by the boy's self-deprecation, but covered it with a light conversational tone, "I am always polite, but I am also always honest. If I thought your drawing was bad, trust me: I'd find a terribly polite way of saying so. But your drawing is very good, and I know what I'm talking about, so don't argue."

"OK, OK," Ash laughed delightedly, thrilled that Danny so adamantly liked the drawing, "You like it, it's yours."

"Really?!" Danny gasped, equally thrilled, "I can have it?"

"Of course," Ash carefully tore the page out of the spiral-bound book, then propped it in the other chair.

"Oh, Ash, thank you!" Danny reached out for the other boy's hand, and then pulled him down onto the cot, hugging him tight, "That is so sweet of you!"

"It's nothing," Ash mumbled into Danny's neck, unsure of where to put his hands.

"We need to work on your self-esteem," Danny put his hands on both sides of Ash's face and held it so he could look into the boy's eyes. Ash just stared back at him as if hypnotized, his eyes wide and his mouth slack, and Danny was overcome by how beautifully vulnerable he looked; he kissed Ash lightly on the mouth, and when the boy didn't resist, he kissed him again, this time with passion.

Ash lay paralyzed against Danny, kissing back but only weakly, his kittenish little moans muffled by Danny's questing tongue, his hands gripping Danny's bare shoulders, his feet still on the floor. Danny felt himself light up inside, felt himself harden, and was thinking about how to get Ash under him without lowering his ankle, until he tasted salt.

"What's wrong?" Danny whispered, pulling Ash's head back to look into his face.

"I don't know," Ash whispered back helplessly, tears streaming in rivers.

"You're not sorry I kissed you, are you?"

"No. No, I'm glad," Ash leaned in and kissed Danny lightly to prove it, "I've never kissed anyone before."

"I cried the first time I kissed a man," Danny told him, smiling and wiping the tear off Ash's cheek with his thumb.

"Ahem," Mrs. Espinosa coughed theatrically in the door, making Ash leap to his feet and step away from Danny, his eyes wide with terror, "I brought your dinner."

"Don't worry, Ash," Danny sat up and grabbed the boy's hand, pulling him back to the cot, "Tia knows about me. It's OK."

"Did you draw that?" the housekeeper asked as she turned to set the tray down on an ottoman and saw the drawing propped up in the chair.

"Yes, ma'am," Ash whispered, still obviously scared.

"It's very good," Mrs. Espinosa said, turning on the table lamp beside the chair, tilting her head to one side and then the other, "You've really captured his personality."

"Thank you," the boy was still whispering.

"I'll be back in forty minutes for the dishes," the housekeeper said, smiling at Ash and putting her hand on Danny's head, "I expect to find you both decent."

"Oh, my God," Ash moaned aloud when Mrs. Espinosa had left them, sagging against Danny in relief.

"I'm sorry, Ash," Danny lay his arm around Ash's shoulders and stroked his hair, "I didn't mean to embarrass you."

"I feel so exposed," Ash said after a moment's silence.

"Is that bad?" Danny wondered; as an exhibitionist, he always enjoyed feeling exposed.

"No. Just kind of scary," Ash admitted, pushing his hair back and looking Danny in the eye. "You're kind of scary. How did you know I was gay?"

"I didn't," Danny told him.

"Then why did you kiss me?"

"I wanted to. If you didn't want me to, you could have pulled away," Danny reached up and ran his finger along Ash's lower lip, "I'm glad you didn't pull away."

"I'm glad you wanted to kiss me," Ash lay down against Danny, though with his feet still on the floor, and nestled his head against Danny's shoulder.

"Do you want to eat dinner?" Danny asked after a few minutes like this, his horny mind already charging ahead to think of all the things they could do in the next thirty-five minutes besides eating.

"I think we'd better," Ash sat up and shook his head decisively, getting up from the cot and moving the tea tray off the low table to make room for the dinner tray, "I think your Tia would be mad if we didn't."

"I think you're right," Danny agreed, leaning over to pluck the silver dome from the plate nearest him, "Oh, yum, duck!"

The boys ate their dinners, talking in a desultory stop-and-start manner throughout the meal; Ash seemed shy all of a sudden, afraid to meet Danny's eye, and giving in to long thoughtful silences; but he didn't hide behind his hair again, so Danny didn't try to draw him out further. He didn't know what was going to develop with Ash, and once his cock went down and he could think with his brain, he didn't want to try to force it in any one direction or another, for fear of spoiling the easy camaraderie they'd already created.

When Mrs. Espinosa returned, exactly forty minutes later, Ash decided he should go home, and made a production of putting his things together and giving Danny the sheets of homework that had been the ostensible reason for his visit but which had been quite forgotten. When he left, promising to bring the next day's homework the following afternoon, the housekeeper walked him out and left Danny on the porch to think.

"What are your intentions with that boy?" Mrs. Espinosa asked him when she returned a short time later with a wheelchair, ready to cart him into the bathroom and then put him to bed.

"I don't know, Tia," Danny shrugged, not sure what else to tell her.

"And what about Jeremy?" the housekeeper looked a little disapproving; she'd known about Jeremy from the beginning of their relationship, but she didn't know (or Danny didn't think she knew) about his other activities. He shared his emotional experiences with her, but he was embarrassed to share his carnal experiences.

"I don't know," Danny said again, putting his good foot on the floor and his arm around her shoulders so she could hoist him into the wheelchair, "I don't think it changes anything with Jeremy."

"Well, let me tell you this, mijo," the housekeeper dumped him into the chair and wheeled him across his bedroom while he held his injured leg straight out in front of him, "If you can't say to Jeremy that you kissed Ash, then it does change things."

"'Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive,'" Danny quoted as Mrs. Espinosa settled a stool next to the filled bathtub and pulled all the soaps and shampoos Danny would need off the higher shelves so he wouldn't have to stand up.

"Just be careful, Danny," Mrs. Espinosa leaned down and looked the boy in the eye, "It's one thing to play with people's bodies, that's what boys do; but don't go playing with people's hearts. That's not how we raised you."

"Yes, Tia," Danny assented meekly, though he wasn't sure he knew which was which.

~9~

When Ash arrived at the Lake House the following afternoon, he was directed into the library on the first floor instead of Danny's room; once there, he found a sort of tea-party in progress: all three of the Aunt Ems were there, along with their butler Oscar, having decided that they couldn't do without Danny for another afternoon and so brought afternoon tea to him; Danny's mother was also there, since the Aunt Ems were senior members of the family and etiquette demanded she join them, but she mightily resented them bringing their own servant and so sat sourly in a corner disapproving of the whole thing; and Jeremy was there, seated next to Aunt Mathilda and gazing around at the room with interest.

The library is a long and relatively narrow room, with a wide, low brick fireplace at one end, lined with built-in bookcases decorated with carved poppies in an Art Nouveau Chinoiserie style; the windows were leaded diamond-panes with stained glass insets, draped in heavy brown velvet embroidered with bronze chrysanthemums, and one double French door stood open to the broad flagstone terrace that ran the length of the house; the furniture is solid and heavy, square with rounded corners, upholstered in the same embroidered velvet as the window treatments, and quietly lit with Tiffany-style stained-glass lamps all around.

Danny was at the center of the room in an armchair with his foot up on a low stool, industriously flexing his now-brace-free ankle to get the circulation going in preparation for walking on it the next day; he was dressed a little more formally than usual, in a royal blue fine-gauge cashmere sweater and tan chinos.

"Ash! Come in," Danny cried out when he spotted the newcomer standing diffidently in the doorway, an armful of books propped against his hip, "May I present my friend, Ash Phillips? This is my mother, Mrs. Taylor Vandervere, and my great-aunts Miss Mathilda, Miss Myrtle, and Miss Maude Vandervere. And I think you may already know Jeremy Sinclair from school."

"Hi," Ash responded to the barrage of greetings with a small wave of his free hand. Oscar stepped forward and indicated a free spot on the sofa next to Miss Myrtle, then brought him a cup of tea and a plate of cookies.

"Ash is a very promising artist," Danny told the assembled company, making the boy blush.

"What is your medium?" Aunt Mathilda asked seriously.

"Oils, mostly," Ash responded, "though I do a lot of sketching with pencils and pastels, and some photography as well."

"Very sound," the old lady approved, nodding sagely.

"Did I miss anything interesting at school today?" Danny asked Ash.

"No, not really," the boy shrugged, concentrating on his cookies.

"Actually," Jeremy cut in, "there was something — not interesting so much as awful. They called an assembly of the whole school this morning, and told us that one of our teachers had died. Mr. Janacek, the math teacher."

"Oh, dear," Myrtle and Maude gasped almost in unison; but there were rather fewer gasps of surprise at this information than Jeremy expected; Danny and Ash of course already knew, and Mrs. Vandervere had heard it from her husband, while Aunt Mathilda had heard it from a friend on the police force.

"Wasn't that the man whose body you found, Marc-Daniel?" Beatrice Vandervere asked, surprisingly loudly.

"Yes, Mother," Danny answered sheepishly, not wanting to talk about that horrible morning.

"You never told me," Jeremy sounded hurt and angry.

"I didn't think I was supposed to," Danny explained, looking over at his boyfriend with a look that begged forgiveness, "It's a police investigation, Officer Kelly warned me not to talk about it to anyone."

"And I seem to recall you were involved also, Mr. Phillips?" Beatrice went on blithely, sensing that she was causing trouble somewhere, and though she didn't know where or between whom she was determined to enlarge on it, "though 'Ash' isn't the name my husband mentioned, it was 'Eugene.'"

Ash's head shot up in surprise, looking at the woman as if she'd slapped him, "I go by Ash. It's a nickname."

"It's a very unusual nickname, is it short for something?" she dug the wound a little deeper.

"Ashtaroth," the boy almost whispered.

"Marc-Daniel," Beatrice laughed, turning to her son, "Isn't there an old black horse at the hotel named Ashtaroth? I seem to remember."

"Yes, ma'am," Danny replied, wishing she'd shut up but unwilling to be rude to her, "A very fine Arabian, he looks like one of the horses of the Apocalypse, but he's gentle as a lamb."

"How fitting," she gave Ash a feline smile, "I suppose you're quite gentle, too, Eugene?"

"Beatrice," Aunt Mathilda jumped into the fray, sensing the boy needed rescuing, "I seem to remember that your given name is Agnes. Pronounced with that charming Bostonian flat A."

"It's an old family name," Beatrice answered defensively.

"And quite a good one," Mathilda went on, "It's ancient Greek, and means 'chaste.' And that's as in 'untouched,' not as in 'run after.'"

"And what does 'Mathilda' mean?" Danny wondered, hoping the conversation could be routed into neutral territory.

"'Strength in battle,'" the old lady answered, an eyebrow arched triumphantly at her niece-in-law, "It's Germanic. The name 'Eugene' is also Greek, as we're on the subject, and means 'well-born' or 'noble.' And Ashtaroth, aside from being the name of a Biblical demon, means 'house of Ishtar.' Ishtar was of course a Babylonian goddess, and the Hebrews always made demons of the gods of the lands in which they were captive."

"Fascinating," Aunt Maude piped in, "What does my name mean, dear?"

"Actually, your name is a diminutive of my name," Mathilda told her sister, "And so means the same thing. Myrtle of course is named for the myrtle tree, which was sacred to Aphrodite and was therefore a popular name for prostitutes in ancient Greece."

"Mattie!" Aunt Myrtle gasped, horrified, "How could you?"

"It's just trivia, dear heart," Aunt Mathilda smiled soothingly, "It doesn't mean anything."

"But the meaning of a person's name often connotes something about a person's personality, don't you think?" Danny wondered, "Especially names one chooses oneself?"

"Perhaps, Marcus, perhaps. You for example: your front name is derived from the Roman god of war, Mars. But your middle name, which you seem to prefer, means 'God is my judge,'... make of that what you will. And your mother, who prefers to be 'Beatrice,' which means 'voyager,' is I think rather fond of travel."

"How do you know all that?" Jeremy wondered, awestruck.

"I've been sitting in a library for sixty years, my dear boy," Aunt Mathilda brushed her hand against Jeremy's smooth cheek and smiled at him, "Your name, incidentally, is an old English version of Jeremiah, which means 'God has uplifted.' Do you feel like God has uplifted you?"

"Sometimes," Jeremy admitted, looking meaningfully at Danny, "And sometimes not so much."

"We used to have a gardener named Jeremiah, didn't we Mattie?" Aunt Maude was still on names.

"But wait," Jeremy interrupted, his mind catching on something that had been said earlier and not explained, "How did you and Ash find Mr. Janacek's body?"

"It was on the path where I run," Danny explained, frowning to indicate that the subject should be dropped, "And Ash was working on his photography on the same trail."

"How did he die?" Jeremy wanted to know.

"Strangled, I think," Danny said quietly, "With a belt."

"They just said he 'passed away' at school this morning," Jeremy leaned back in the sofa and took a sip of his tea, "I suppose they couldn't say he'd been killed, it would have upset everyone too much. As it is, we have grief counselors camped out in the library if anyone wants to talk to them, and they're requiring all of Mr. Janacek's students to go."

"Have the police been there?" Ash asked.

"Not that I saw," Jeremy answered, not looking at the other boy, "But they told us he'd passed away on Friday night, so the police had all weekend investigate at the school."

"Well," Aunt Mathilda said, "I'm glad the school has responded to the tragedy so efficiently. Though I wonder why they waited until today to make the announcement."

"I would suppose they needed time to summon the grief counselors," Aunt Myrtle reasoned, "We don't keep them on staff, they had to be ordered from out of town."

"It's so silly, though," Jeremy protested, "Why should we need grief counseling? I mean, I'm sorry he's dead, but he was a teacher, none of us really knew him."

"I did," Danny said, too quietly for anyone to hear, determining to seek out one of the counselors first thing when he got to school.

Aunt Mathilda took control of the conversation at that point, sticking to the topic of the efficacy of the school's various services, soliciting the boys' opinions as students but briskly rerouting any digressions back to the central subject. Eventually the tea ran out and Oscar started packing everything back into the big wicker hampers he'd brought, and the Aunt Ems began pulling themselves together for the trip home.

Danny briefly entertained the idea of asking his mother if Ash and Jeremy could stay to dinner, but the malicious expression on her face dissuaded him from speaking. He conversed only briefly with Ash when the boy gave him his homework, thanking him profusely but not able to say anything else; nor was he able to speak to Jeremy, though he very much wanted to apologize for not telling him about finding Mr. Janacek's body. He told each of them that he'd call them later in the evening if that was alright, and saw the suspicious glances the two boys directed at each other before going their separate ways, Jeremy with the Aunt Ems and Ash to his own car.

Left alone in the library, Danny tried to come to some resolution about Ash and Jeremy: should he tell Ash about his relationship with Jeremy? Should he tell Jeremy about kissing Ash? Would either of them feel threatened by the other knowing he was gay? He realized then that he had painted himself into a corner by being a party to all this secrecy; after all, when he was dating Sandra and Felicia, everyone had known that he was taken, and there was no room for exploring other people without starting a shitstorm of gossip.

He nevertheless resolved to reform his behavior on a more honorable and honest model, backpedaling with Ash and devoting himself more assiduously to Jeremy, since that was the longer-standing relationship. He wasn't sure how, exactly, he was going to do those things, but he intended to at least try.

He did not resolve, however, to stop having sex with anyone who would let him; he convinced himself that the no-strings-attached activity had no bearing on his relations with the two friends with whom he had developed an emotional connection but hadn't had sex.

Though Danny's doctor had told him that he could and should get out of bed and not elevate his ankle anymore, he was not supposed to walk with is full weight on the injured leg, and so hobbled out of the library and up the two flights of stairs to his room with the assistance of a fabulous old silver and walnut walking-stick that had belonged to his great-grandfather; he masturbated, showered, and changed as usual, but still had dispensation from dining with his parents, so he put on a pair of dark red sweatpants and a black t-shirt instead of his usual jacket and tie, and ate his dinner on a tray at his desk, watching the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet DVD on his laptop and speaking Tybalt's lines aloud.

After dinner, he hobbled out to the stables to curry Tenorino after Kevin exercised him, singing softly to the horse as he worked, wishing he could go riding but sure it would be too much of a strain on his ankle — for though riding doesn't put one's weight on one's feet, it does require a great deal of tension in the leg, and he was afraid of doing anything that might delay having his ankle in full working order again. His body felt sluggish after four days of minimal exertion, he yearned to run and jump and work up a sweat.

Back in his room, he completed his homework quickly and did some web-surfing to pass the time until he got into bed and went to sleep. And laying there in the dark, waiting for sleep to come, he thought about Mr. Janacek: not about the corpse, but about the man, considering his odd behavior with sex (allowing sexual contact but no affectionate contact, all strictly oral but no kissing), his funny smile when he laughed, the way he lit up when he was teaching and someone would demonstrate understanding of what he was saying. It made him horribly sad that all that niceness and intelligence was gone from the world; and it made him terribly angry that some one person would purposely take all that niceness and intelligence, would callously snuff out that light.

Much to his own surprise, Danny realized that he wanted to find and punish Mr. Janacek's killer, to exact revenge for the death of a good man.

~10~

When Danny returned to school on Wednesday morning, he was greeted like a conquering war-hero, still utilizing the walking stick and enjoying the displays of sympathy it elicited. During gym, he spent his hour on the weight machines, unable yet to take part in calisthenics and definitely forbidden to run or jump. He also managed to draw Derrick, the blond trumpeter, into the laundry room for a quick but highly satisfactory tussle among the discarded towels.

He later availed himself of the grief counseling service, but didn't find it very helpful: the counselors were young and very earnest psychiatric interns doing their clinical hours; and though the young woman he ended up speaking with was very soothing, listening closely and offering fairly practical platitudes about how to adjust to the loss of a teacher, Danny did not trust her sufficiently to reveal his sexual relationship with Mr. Janacek, and so found the talk a little frustrating.

Thursday, he went without the walking stick, swam laps for gym class, and invited Tommy Williams, second-string of the gymnastics team, into the back of his Explorer for a leisurely fuck after lunch, taking so long about it that he missed chemistry class. In drama club, he rehearsed his lines with Anna MacAllan, the dumpy brunette who was playing Lady Capulet, and supervised Jeremy and Jack Butler, the handsome blond perennial lead who had not surprisingly been cast as Romeo, in their fencing practice. He and Jeremy took the streetcar to the Aunt Ems’ after that, and had their afternoon tea, making out as usual in Danny's room before being driven back by Oscar.

On Friday, the school closed to allow students and staff to attend Mr. Janacek's funeral. The majority of students simply took this as a bonus day off, but quite a few did show up at the Pine Street Episcopal Church, the oldest and largest of the town's places of worship (which includes five Protestant churches, two Catholic chapels, a synagogue, and a tiny mosque); since it is the Vanderveres' official family church, it is beautifully built of white granite in the Gothic style and richly appointed with tapestries, stained glass windows, marble statues, and mahogany pews with velvet cushions; far grander than the usual small-town church, it tended to be the venue chosen for weddings and funerals by people who did not belong to a church of their own.

Danny sat at the second row right in the gated Vandervere pew, accompanied by his Aunt Claudia, who had to be there due to her position as school-board president, and all three of the Aunt Ems — Aunt Mathilda, because she was also a member of the school board as well as the tenure committee and the library committee, and Aunt Myrtle and Aunt Maude because they attended every funeral in town, almost as a hobby.

The deceased's family in the front left row, which Danny studied closely during the service, consisted of an elderly foreign-looking woman who was probably his mother, a younger man who looked a great deal like Mr. Janacek and might be a little brother or cousin, and a handsome middle-aged ginger-blond man who Danny supposed was the teacher's partner.

The closed-casket service was very dry, the deceased completely unknown to the priest who officiated, and the eulogies were circumspect, Mr. Janacek's peers dancing around the manner of his death with euphemisms and elisions that left a very confused picture of his life. None of the family spoke, though they warmly thanked all those who did; and in the open-mic segment at the end of the service, some of Mr. Janacek's more devoted students came up to the altar and tried to say nice things before breaking down and weeping.

Danny was forced to the altar by Aunt Claudia, who felt that a Vandervere must take part in the public display, and as his student Danny was the most appropriate candidate. He had tears streaming down his face, but kept his voice even and calm, reiterating what had already been said: that Mr. Janacek was a good teacher, a man who took pride in inculcating knowledge, who took extra pains with his students, and who made learning a pleasure.

When Danny came down to greet the family, he took a good look at each of them and told them individually how sorry he was for their loss, using all the appropriate formal phrases he'd been taught by the Aunt Ems and making them sound spontaneous and natural. Mr. Janacek's mother (he could see the resemblance at once, as soon as he was in front of her) was very sweet, his younger male relative (a nephew perhaps) was surly and uncomfortable, and the supposed partner didn't meet his eye.

There was no reception afterward, nor a graveside service as Mr. Janacek was to be buried in his native Minnesota, in his family plot in a small farming town outside of Duluth. Danny greeted his fellow students and his teachers as he left with the Aunt Ems, returning with them to the Pine Street house four blocks away. After lunch, when Myrtle and Maude retired for their afternoon naps and Mathilda returned to work at the town library, Danny went into the study and settled himself at the massive baronial desk to make some phone calls.

"Hi, Ash, it's Danny," he said, connecting his first call.

"Oh, hi," the other boy responded, a little distantly.

"I didn't see you today at the funeral."

"I didn't go."

"Listen, Ash, I wanted to apologize to you for my mother's behavior the other day," Danny had been feeling guilty about that ever since Tuesday afternoon, but hadn't been able to make contact at school; he didn't know if Ash was avoiding him, or if it was just their different schedules that kept them apart.

"There's no need," Ash assured him, his voice warming, "We can't be held responsible for our parents."

"I'm glad of that," Danny laughed, relieved, "I'd have a lot to answer for. What have you been up to the last few days?"

"Oh, just stuff," Ash said vaguely, "Some painting, some drawing. Nothing much."

"I'd really love to see more of your work," Danny told him earnestly.

"Sure," the boy responded without much enthusiasm.

"Are you busy tomorrow?" Danny wondered.

"No, why?"

"Well, I was hoping you would do me a favor? I want to go pay a condolence call to Mr. Janacek's partner or housemate or whatever he is, and I was hoping you'd come with me."

"What for?" he didn't sound resistant to the idea, just curious.

"I don't know," Danny shrugged, leaning back in the tufted leather chair and looking up at the white rhinoceros head that hung over the intricately carved stone fireplace, flanked by the heads of four different varieties of gazelle, "Because you were there, you know what it was like, and you're in the investigation with me. You're the only person I can really talk to about what happened, and I need some company and support facing the people in Mr. Janacek's life."

"OK," Ash replied simply, "You want to pick me up, or should I come out to your place?"

"I'll pick you up," Danny said happily, "Maybe you'll show me your room."

"Why?" Ash seemed perplexed by the suggestion.

"You've seen mine, I want to see yours," Danny answered in a sultry voice that made the other boy laugh.

They chatted for a few more minutes about addresses and times, weather and school happenings, then Danny hung up and called Jeremy, with whom he made lovey-dovey small talk for nearly an hour, enjoying himself immensely. Once finished there, he went into the music room and attempted a difficult Rachmaninoff piece he'd been working on until tea arrived, and his Friday rolled along as it always did... change for dinner, eat with and be ignored by his parents, exercise his horse, a couple hours of reading, and so to bed.

~11~

Ash and his mother lived in the middle of a row of small brown-shingled townhouses grandly named Oakhurst Court, which was situated in the western side of the old town, replacing a much larger Victorian house that had burned down in the early 70s.

The houses were narrow but surprisingly spacious, utilitarian in design, and Ash's mother carried that through into the decor with serviceable but unexceptional modern furnishings: a beige tweed sectional sofa facing a television cabinet with a low glass coffee table in the middle and a recliner to one side completed the sunken living-room, a chrome-and-glass dining set filled the area between the living room and a high breakfast bar enclosing the kitchen. The pictures on the walls were obviously bought with the furniture from a discount store and gave no clue to the personalities that lived in the house.

Ash seemed detached from this part of the house, showing Danny around with a single wave of his arm; then they climbed a narrow flight of stairs into a wide hallway, turning back toward the front of the house into a single door plastered with various signs and stickers warning visitors to keep out.

"It's kind of a mess," Ash warned before opening the door and leading Danny into the room.

"Wow," was all Danny could say at first, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the riot of colors and shapes that jumped out at him. There was a double mattress without a frame or headboard on the floor, with tangled sheets and blankets in primary shades of red and blue strewn across it; on the opposite side stood a wooden easel with a violently colorful kind of fantasy landscape half-finished on it, surrounded by little tables and stands full of painting supplies, its edges bristling with sketches on several different kinds of paper, from watercolor bond and ruled notebook leaves to diner napkins and sticky-notes. Other furniture was lost under a drift of clothes, both clean and dirty, as well as piles of coffee-table picture books and glossy art magazines.

The walls were crowded with more paintings and finished sketches, as well as museum posters, all stuck to the walls with colored push-pins; the mirrored sliding closet doors were also covered with pictures, mostly ripped from magazines but also postcards and snapshots of friends from Colorado, all taped to the doors with colored masking tape and leaving only a small oval for reflection. Dozens of large origami animals rendered in bright Japanese paper hung by clear nylon threads from the ceiling, waving gently in the air current that came from the open door. With its single window covered by a reproduction of an illuminated parchment manuscript, it was like being inside a kaleidoscope.

"I know, it's gross," Ash said, dismally.

"Not at all, it's amazing!" Danny walked further into the room, his adjusting eyes separating the pictures on the walls for individual enjoyment, appreciating the influences of the artists chosen in the posters, and thinking of some book titles that Ash might like as gifts, "It's so personal and, well, colorful! It makes my room look like a motel."

"I'm a slob when I work," Ash stooped to pick up an armload of clothes, looked for somewhere to put it, and then piled it on top of another garment mound, "I was planning to do some laundry today, but I got involved in the painting and forgot."

"Would you like some help?" Danny offered, "I like doing laundry."

"That's OK," Ash blushed, mortified by the thought of Danny handling his dirty clothes, his smelly socks and stained underwear, "I'll do it later. Let's go."

The boys drove silently across town in Danny's SUV, listening to a Nina Simone CD, appreciating the lyrics to "I Put a Spell on You" during the short ride instead of talking.

Mr. Janacek had lived in a pretty little Victorian cottage in the northeast quarter of town, on a narrow tree-lined street of similar small cottages. It was painted white with dark blue and yellow trim, and had red and yellow roses blooming late in the unfenced front yard, a climbing rose trained up the side of the small mill-work porch, and a little yellow Volkswagen Beetle parked out front. Danny stepped up on the porch and rang the bell, Ash right behind him.

"Yes?" the handsome blond man from the funeral answered the door, looking bleary-eyed and smelling strongly of beer and coffee.

"Hello, my name is Danny Vandervere, and this is Ash Phillips. I was a student of Mr. Janacek's."

"You found his body," the man burped and narrowed his eyes at Danny.

"Um, yes sir," Danny admitted, taken aback.

"What do you want?"

"I wanted to offer my condolences, first of all. But I also wanted to talk to you about Mr. Janacek. I hope to learn more about his life."

"Hmph," the man snorted suspiciously, but stepped back from the door and gestured for them to come in.

The living room they entered was a little cramped, crowded with overstuffed traditional furniture designed for a larger room, covered in green-and-white floral chintz or rose-pink corduroy. There were watercolor garden prints on the walls and a pink-and-green imitation Persian rug on the floor, and the little brick fireplace was screened with a folding brass fan. There were china knick-knacks scattered around, mostly little dogs, and bud vases with silk flowers in them. It all looked oddly effete... not as if a woman lived there, but as if a man had tried to approximate a feminine room.

"Can I get you something to drink?" the blond man asked wearily.

"No thank you," Danny gave the man a sunny smile as he sank in among the dozen or so throw-pillows on the deep chintz sofa, "I am sorry, but I'm afraid I didn't hear your name at the funeral yesterday."

"They didn't say my name," the man said sourly, nursing a hurt, as he settled into the massive wing chair beside the fireplace, "As if after twelve years I was just a casual passerby. Fuckers. But my name is Richard Lyon. Please don't make the obvious joke."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Danny said sincerely, though Ash had no idea what the joke would have been, "And I'm sorry I brought up a painful subject. I thought since you were sitting with the family that you were an accepted part of Mr. Janacek's life."

"I was sitting at the front because I sat myself down at the front, next to Paul's son; the little shit asked me to leave, but Paul's mother, Marta, was at least decent to me."

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Lyon," Danny reached across the small space between them and grasped the man's hand consolingly, "I didn't even know Mr. Janacek had a son."

"He came out late, after going the whole 'Maybe marriage and fatherhood will straighten me out' route. His wife and son were pretty bitter about it, as usually happens, and turned their backs on him. I'm surprised that little shit came to the funeral. Marta probably made him."

"That's terrible," Danny commiserated, "Can you tell me what Mr. Janacek was really like? I'm finding I knew so little about him."

"What do you want to know?" the man looked at him strangely, cocking his head to one side, and suddenly blurted out, "You're the kid he was fucking, aren't you?"

"Um," Danny said, stunned, completely unprepared for Mr. Lyon to know about him and certainly unprepared to have his relationship with Mr. Janacek revealed to Ash.

"It's OK, I don't mind," Richard said calmly, "But the pieces just fell together with you asking what he was like. Kids don't care what their teachers are like when they're not teaching. But they care about the men they're fucking. Sometimes, anyway."

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Lyon, I didn't know you two were together, or I would never..."

"Hey, I said it's OK. Paul and I have been... had been together a long time. We had our code for extracurricular activities: no kissing, no anal, no strings. We used to sometimes go up to the cruising park together, split up for a couple of hours and then compare notes when we got home. If I'd gone with him last Friday, maybe he wouldn't be dead."

"Or maybe you'd both be," Ash pointed out reasonably.

"I hadn't thought about it that way," the man looked at Ash in surprise.

"If it's any help, he stuck to the rules with me," Danny told Richard.

"I'm sure he did. He was an honest man, if nothing else. He even confessed to me about you... oh, a couple of weeks ago. He didn't say your name, though, just that you were a student. And now I see you, I'm amazed he was able to stick to the rules at all," the man stood up and turned to leave the room, "I need another beer, I'm nursing a pretty epic hangover, 'hair of the dog' with strong black coffee. Sure you wouldn't like something?"

"Some coffee would be lovely, if it's no trouble," Danny said, and Ash assented with a nod. They both watched Richard navigate around the furniture and through a draped archway into a dining room containing a reproduction Queen Anne suite with purple-mauve paisley slipcovers on the chairs and hand-tatted lace on the table.

"I didn't want you to know about that," Danny said to Ash while they were alone, "I'm sorry."

"Why?" Ash looked at him curiously, "Are you ashamed of it?"

"Well, no," Danny said after thinking it over, "I guess I just worry about people thinking ill of me."

"Nobody could think ill of you," Ash looked very steadily and seriously at Danny, "They'd think ill of him."

"But it wasn't his fault," Danny said sadly, looking at his hands, "I seduced him."

"Oh," Ash said, then looked at his own hands until Richard came back with a tray of large coffee mugs, white with pink roses on them, and a matching creamer and sugar bowl.

"Tell me, Mr. Lyon," Danny began as the older man set the tray down on the oval marble-topped coffee table and resumed his seat, "How did you and Mr. Janacek meet?"

"Can we dispense with the 'Mister' stuff, Danny? I'm Richard, he was Paul. Otherwise it's very confusing for me."

"All right, Richard," Danny gave a naughty smile, like a child using a swear-word for the first time, "How did you and Paul meet?"

"In a bathhouse, believe it or not," the man smiled fondly at the memory and sipped his coffee, "A funny old place in Berkeley. Poor Paul was a hopeless size-queen, and, well, I have a big dick. We hit it off sexually, we started seeing each other and got to talking after sex, and found we had a lot in common. We fell in love, you could say, and moved in together, a little apartment in Noe Valley. Paul was teaching at San Francisco City College and I was working the men's accessories counter at Nieman Marcus, so it was convenient, and we had the whole gay world there at our feet."

"What brought you to Vandervere?" Danny thought their life sounded like a fairy-tale.

"Paul was recruited by Mathilda Vandervere, she read a paper he wrote about how mathematical probabilities and mystical astrology were compatible studies... it was a puff piece for a pop-sci magazine, but it made some very impressive arguments. Is Mathilda a relative of yours, Danny?"

"She's my great aunt," Danny replied proudly.

"Scary lady, but very cool to us. Anyway, the school was offering way more money than City College, and tenure, and free rent on this cottage, so we decided to take a leap and see what happened. I got a job at the Gottschalk's in Eureka, we found the cruising park and the gay bar, and we snuggled up together in rural bliss."

"That sounds wonderful," Danny sighed, tears starting to form in his eyes as he thought about this life ending in tragedy.

"I guess," Richard shrugged, "It was fun for a while, but I have to say it started to get boring after a couple of years. I'm used to cities, lots of people, and the society up here, though pretty populous for a small town, gets stale after a bit. Since the cottage was part of Paul's employment, I'm planning to move back to the city... not San Francisco, but maybe Seattle or Portland, something different."

"Can you tell me what about Paul you fell in love with?" Danny asked after a long pause.

"His kindness," Richard answered without having to think about it, "He was the kindest man I ever knew. Would give a beggar the coat off his back, if someone didn't stop him. He was always bringing home stray animals and nursing them back to health and adopting them out. Kindness is a lot rarer and more valuable in this world than anything else."

By now the man was weeping, and Danny was weeping right along with him, while Ash sat back in a corner of the sofa and looked at the both of them with consternation. Richard shared a few more memories of his lost love with the boys and then fell into a deep silence, shaking his head and sighing.

"Would you like something to remember him by?" Richard asked Danny after a while, "A souvenir or something?"

"Yes, please, if it's not any trouble."

"No trouble at all," Richard smiled a sad smile and stood up to go rummaging around in the tall secretary desk in the corner. He came back after a few minutes with a slide-rule, made of heavy white Bakelite with brass ends in a clear plastic carrying case, "This was something he had in college. He kept trying to teach me how to use it, but I never understood. I tried, too. But I don't have a math mind. I don't know if you can use it, but I think it represents him well."

"Oh, thank you," Danny took the slide-rule and gazed at it lovingly, vowing to himself that he would learn how to use it in honor of Mr. Janacek's memory; he put it in his pocket and threw his arms around the older man, hugging him tight, "Thank you so much, it has meant so much to me that you would share these things with us like this."

"Thank you for listening," Richard said, patting Danny clumsily on the back and watching Ash's face as he did so, "It was nice to have someone to talk to. But if you boys will excuse me, I think I need to get drunk right now, and I'd rather be alone to do it."

"Of course," Danny said, letting the man go and fishing in his pocket for a handkerchief and his calling card, "Thank you again for your time, and for the coffee. And please, I hope you'll keep in touch, send me a card or an email when you get where you're going."

Danny and Ash headed for the door with Richard behind them; Ash went out first, and Richard put his hand on Danny's arm to hold him back for a moment.

"That boy is in love with you," he whispered, "And I don't think you're in love with him. Unrequited love can be dangerous. Be careful of his feelings, OK?"

"Yes, sir," Danny nodded, not quite taking in what the man was saying but wanting to acknowledge it, "Thank you."

Danny caught up with Ash and opened the car door for him, getting in on the other side and driving back to Ash's house. They sat in silence again, staring forward and listening to Nina Simone crooning "Little Girl Blue," thinking their own thoughts.

"Thank you for going with me today, Ash," Danny said after he pulled to the curb and killed the engine.

"It's OK," Ash replied.

"What do you think life will be like?" Danny was worried about the future, in which losses like Richard's happened all the time, where love could become dull and then disappear, or turn in on itself and become dangerous.

"I don't know," the other boy shrugged, "But I don't think we're supposed to know, you know? Not knowing makes it an adventure."

"You're right," Danny turned his head and looked into the boy's eyes, noting that he'd kept his long fall of black hair tucked behind his ear the entire time they were together, "I hope you'll be part of my adventure, Ash. You're a good friend."

"OK," Ash looked slightly embarrassed but also pleased.

"I don't want to go home yet," Danny looked around the interior of the car as if searching for a clue, "Would you like to go for a drive?"

"Where to?" Ash wondered.

"Just driving. Let's go down to Eureka and up the Coast until we find something interesting to look at."

"Sure," Ash smiled at him.

Danny turned the car back on, exchanged sorrowful Nina Simone for ebullient Ella Fitzgerald, and headed south on Mill Road toward the highway, then west to the Pacific and an afternoon's adventure.

~12~

The following week, Danny noticed people at school acting differently; he couldn't quite put his finger on it, but there was an odd feeling in the air. He heard a lot of whispers in the hallways and the lunchroom, even in class. He wondered if it was a display of grief for their dead teacher, but he thought that unlikely — if so many people were affected by Mr. Janacek's death, there would have been a greater showing at the funeral.

It was late on Wednesday when he realized people were whispering about him. Before, when he'd walk down a hallway, people would call out greetings to him; now, though some still called out greetings, many more would turn to a neighbor and whisper something. And when he spoke to people directly, some of them seemed slightly distant — not his particular friends, but the wider circles of his acquaintances seemed to be pulling away from him.

It was on Thursday in gym that he had to admit there was something seriously wrong: nobody met his eye in the locker room, nor during gym class; and when he entered the showers, there was a mass exodus and he was suddenly alone in the room. He tried to talk to Henry, Tommy, or Derrick about what was happening, but they actively avoided him and he wasn't able to get a word alone.

Danny was completely baffled by this behavior, unable to even guess why people were suddenly avoiding him. He got dressed in a thoughtful silence in the empty locker-room, trying and failing to puzzle it out. He got in line at the cafeteria and noticed that the people in front of him put distance between themselves and him; he went to sit down, choosing the jocks' table in hopes of getting some information from his athlete friends about what was going on.

As soon as he sat down, the other boys left the table. Stupefied, Danny watched them go, one at a time but one right after the other; instinctively, he reached out and grabbed the hindmost by the arm, pulling him back to the table and standing up to tower over the boy. He'd caught Keith Potter, a fringe athlete who wasn't terribly good at anything but had managed to get onto the varsity baseball team as an outfielder.

"What's going on?" Danny demanded, staring down into the boy's pimply frightened face.

"I, uh, um," the boy stammered, terrified, his eyes darting around the room looking for rescue.

"Tell me why everyone is moving away from me," Danny demanded, a flush of anger building up in his chest and behind his eyes.

"Let me go," the boy pleaded, trying to pull his thin arm out of Danny's grip.

"TELL ME!" Danny screamed at the boy, shaking him like a rat. In his peripheral vision, he could see that the entire lunchroom had gone quiet and was watching him.

"You're a fag," Keith whispered, bracing for the blow he knew would follow.

"A what?" Danny spluttered, surprised into letting the boy go, watching him stagger away to the safety of a cluster of his baseball teammates. He looked around the room at all the faces looking back at him, guarded frightened faces, some even accusatory, some merely intrigued by the unfolding drama.

Danny stood stock still for a moment, trying to process this: the whispers he'd heard were rumors flying; and for the first time in his life, the rumors were about him. People were talking about him behind his back. He wasn't so much concerned about having his sexuality discussed, but that people would gossip about him absolutely stunned him.

Without thinking about what he was doing, Danny strode across the room on a path created by retreating students, walked up behind the podium that stood at the far end of the room for school announcements, and turned the microphone and speakers on.

"Have you people lost your mother-fucking minds?" he bellowed into the microphone, causing a scream of feedback that silenced all conversations in the room, "Have you forgotten who I am?"

Three hundred and some-odd students rolled their eyes, settling in for the famous I'm a Vandervere, you can't treat me like this speech that was heard in some variation by every student who ever went to school with a member of the Vandervere family.

"I thought you guys were my friends," Danny surprised them by taking an entirely different tack, an emotional sob in his voice, "I thought you liked me for me, not for my name. I've never traded on my name, never forced people to be nice to me because of it. I've gone out of my way to be likable and friendly to all of you. And this is how you repay me?"

Danny wiped a tear off his face and watched as a furtive sense of guilt infected his audience, and people started turning to each other as if to assure themselves that they hadn't been wrong to try and ostracize him.

"If you wanted to know if I am gay, you could have just asked me," Danny made eye contact with several of his particular friends, all of whom had the grace to lower their eyes, "That you would gossip about me behind my back... well, it hurts. But since you're so interested, yes: I am gay. I am not ashamed of it. The only reason I never said anything about it is because I didn't think it mattered. I guess I was wrong. And I am not alone in this, there are at least a dozen other boys in this school who I know for a fact are either gay or bisexual. I won't tell you who they are because I have a sense of honor, it's for them to tell you. But if you think you can ostracize me for being gay, you have another think coming."

Danny watched as the suspicious glances started, everyone wondering who else was gay, and the boys with whom Danny had already had sex were studiously avoiding being seen.

"So, I'm gay," Danny went on, "And if you are my friend, that won't matter to you. But if you are not my friend, if you can't be friends with a fag, or if you have some kind of problem with gay people in general, I have to ask you this: do you really think you can afford to have Danny Vandervere for an enemy?"

With one last sweeping glare at the assembled students, Danny turned off the microphone and stalked out of the lunchroom, intending to get in his car and leave for the day. But he was only a dozen yards down the corridor when he heard someone calling his name; turning around, he saw Jeremy running toward him.

"You're my hero," Jeremy gasped, throwing his arms around Danny's neck and kissing him passionately.

Danny leaned into the kiss, wrapping his arms around Jeremy's waist and hoisting him up onto his toes, playing for an audience that was buzzing with surprise and conjecture, but not anger or fear. They were still visible to the lunchroom, and all eyes were focused on their little romantic drama.

When they reached the point in the kiss where it would have to either end or segue into making out, Danny pulled back and looked Jeremy in the eye; the other boy's face was open and dreamy, his soft mouth wet and his big brown eyes looking up at Danny worshipfully. Danny gave him a little kiss on the nose and pulled away, putting his arm possessively around the boy's shoulders and looking around at the crowd of students watching them.

The faces looking back at him were blank and impossible to gauge. Danny decided to resume his original intention of leaving school, allowing the students to get over their surprise and spread the information around to the few people who hadn't been in the lunchroom or the hallway at the time. Pulling Jeremy along with him, he marched down the corridor and through the front doors of the school.

They walked in silence for six blocks until they came to a little coffee-house on Pine Street, halfway between the school and the town square, a popular meeting place for after-school socializing. Though they were truant, none of the staff challenged their presence, and though it was a counter-service establishment, one of the girls came to Danny's table to take his order — some perqs of being a Vandervere were useful and pleasant, and Danny tended to make use of them, though not to excess.

"I can't believe they did that to me," Danny said finally, sipping his cappuccino thoughtfully, "I can't believe I had to pull my name out on them."

"Are you OK?" Jeremy asked solicitously, "That was pretty dramatic, I've never seen you like that."

"I don't think I've ever been so angry in my life," Danny shook his head at the memory.

"It was really hot," Jeremy gave him a through-the-lashes look.

"You're so sweet," Danny smiled and took his hand, holding it on top of the table; Jeremy started to pull away with a glance at the counter servers, but remembered that the whole hiding thing was over with; he picked up Danny's hand and kissed it. Danny laughed, exhilarated by the freedom, but then sobered quickly, "I just don't understand why people were turning away from me. Is it really that big a deal?"

"That's what I was always afraid was going to happen to me," Jeremy said, shivering a little, "You never understood what I was afraid of before. I don't have the Vandervere name to protect me."

"But it just doesn't make sense, Jeremy," Danny insisted, "I've known most of these people all my life. You only came two years ago, you don't realize what it's like to have always lived here. I've been friends with some of those guys since kindergarten. I can't believe something as inconsequential as being gay would turn them against me. There has to be more to it."

"Can I ask you something?" Jeremy looked at him very seriously, "You said you know for a fact that a dozen other boys in school are gay."

"Yeah?"

"I know you said you weren't going to name names, but I'm curious how you know."

"Oh," Danny sighed sadly, "I didn't want you to know this, but I won't keep secrets anymore. I've been, well, promiscuous is probably the best word. I know they're gay, or at least bi, because I've had sex with them."

"While we've been together?" Jeremy frowned.

"Yeah," Danny admitted, "I'm sorry."

Jeremy looked at him for a long thoughtful moment, "It's OK. It's not like we have been having sex all this time. That would have made a difference."

"Well, I don't think it's going to be like that anymore," Danny leaned his head on one hand, "No boy will dare be alone in a room with me after today."

"Oh, I don't know," Jeremy reached across the table and stroked Danny's cheek, "You're pretty persuasive, gorgeous face, rockin' bod, smooth talker. It's taken all I have to resist you."

"Why do you resist me?" Danny asked, enjoying having the cards on the table like this.

"You remember that book you gave me that you liked so much? Gaudy Night? That mystery book that didn't have a murder in it?"

"Dorothy L. Sayers. It was about love, not about murder," Danny smiled at him.

"The main character said something about the lord guy she was afraid to fall in love with. Something like 'if I ever gave in to him, I'd burn up like straw and there'd be nothing left of me.'"

"I think you'll remember that she didn't burn up like straw," Danny laughed, "They lived happily ever after."

"People usually do in books."

"It happens in real life, too," Danny stroked Jeremy's soft brown hair.

"Nevertheless," Jeremy sat back and smiled mysteriously at Danny.

"You'll let me know when you are ready?"

"You will be the absolute first to know."

~13~

When Danny showed up at school the next morning, he was completely taken aback by the greeting he received: dozens of people clustered around, apologizing for their behavior and begging his forgiveness. They had reacted in that hostile manner because they'd been told Danny was lying to them, making fools of them, and laughing at them behind their backs. They were told Danny was cruel to people he perceived as gay in order to cover up his own sexuality, and that he'd raped some boys who resisted him. They were even told he already had AIDS and herpes and was infecting everyone else he could.

"But who would have told you that?" Danny wanted to know. And each and every time he asked, the answer was either Eric Bettancourt, Sandra Bettancourt, or someone who'd heard it directly from them. Before homeroom was over, Danny had the entire rumor mapped out, exactly how it had spread out from Eric and precisely which of the Populars' clique had abetted him by spreading it.

When lunchtime came, Danny boldly took his tray to the center table and placed himself at the head of the Populars. Most of them had the sense to look ashamed of themselves, but Sandra and Eric stared back at him in challenge.

"So I'm curious," Danny said between bites of shrimp fettuccine, "What did I do to turn you cunts against me?"

"How dare you use that word?" Sandra huffed, her head held high.

"Eric I kind of understand," Danny shrugged, "since I turned him down when he made a pass at me last week. He's new here, he wouldn't comprehend the risk; and he's an asshole. But you, Sandra? Why?"

"How do you think it makes me look that a boy I dated turned gay?" she insisted.

"I don't think it damages your reputation," Danny said reasonably, "In fact, it rather enhances it, that you are beautiful enough to attract the affections of a gay boy. Is that the only reason you risked social oblivion and hurting your family's business?"

"What do you mean?" Sandra looked frightened.

"It would take very little effort for me to make sure people didn't invite you to parties, or talk to you at lunch, or vote for you as prom queen. It would take little more effort to make Bettancourt's the most un-cool clothiers in Vandervere; it would take only slightly more effort than that to have someone at the Trust raise the rent on your father's store. You remember what Felicia Goode's father did to her when she insulted me and broke up with me in public last year? She was grounded for a month and lost her allowance for the rest of the year just because I might have taken revenge on him for her treatment of me. Imagine what your father would do to you if I actually did take revenge."

"You wouldn't!" she gasped, horrified.

"No, I wouldn't," Danny admitted, smiling gently, "But it must have occurred to you that I could. What made you take that chance?"

"Him," Sandra spat, turning on her cousin, "He said you'd never admit to being gay and wouldn't be able to retaliate without admitting it."

"That was very stupid," Danny said, turning to face Eric. All of the people at the table also turned toward Eric, even the kids at neighboring tables had stopped eating and talking in order to watch.

"You think you're so great," Eric stood up and stepped around his cousin to look down at Danny, a vicious snarl disfiguring his pretty face, hatred glinting in his peridot eyes, "You think you're some big-shot just because your family runs this rinky-dink little town. You think it's fine that everyone calls me "Eric the Fag" at this school, but they think you're the cat's ass because you've got a pretty face and big shoulders and the town name. Well, you're no better than me, Danny Vandervere, and now everyone knows it."

"I never heard people call you that," Danny said honestly, understanding a little bit of why the boy had attacked him, "I wouldn't have allowed it."

"Who the hell are you to allow anything?" the boy screamed hysterically, "You're a fucking slut. I know all about you from Derrick and Trent and Manuel. You see, I'm not above naming names. There's a few other names I could mention, too, like..."

"That's enough!" Danny reached out and grabbed the boy by his shirt-collar, standing up and looming over him, "You will shut up now."

"You don't scare me, faggot," Eric sneered and then spit in his face, stepping back and straightening his shirt when Danny let go of him to wipe the saliva off his cheek, "I don't give a shit what you think you can do. I don't give a shit what any of you bitches think. I don't give a shit what you think, Sandra. None of you assholes are my friends, and I will take great pleasure in telling everyone everything I know about everyone else. Fasten your seatbelts, cunts."

Eric turned and stormed out of the room with great dignity, much as Danny had stormed out the day before. But instead of whispers of surprise and conjecture, there was nothing but silence as everyone in the room watched him go.

"I'm sorry, Danny," Sandra was shaking her head sadly, "I didn't know you turned him down. He told me you let him fuck you in the ass. And that you made fun of me."

"I would never make fun of you, Sandra, you know that," Danny took her hand, "When have you ever heard me make fun of anyone?"

"I know," she wiped a stray tear from her eye, Danny couldn't tell if she was really crying or just making a show of it, "But it upset me that you'd let him fuck you."

"You make is sound like a bad thing," Danny laughed archly, swirling up some more pasta on his fork, "But I'm here to tell you, getting fucked in the ass is a lot more fun than some people seem to think."

The whole table roared with laughter and the break of tension rippled out through the rest of the room, allowing the rest of the lunch hour to pass as usual, but with more new things to discuss than had ever before happened in such a short period of time.

~14~

Three weeks later, Danny was in his room preparing for his first official date with Jeremy, the first time they were going somewhere as a couple. It was the Halloween Dance, and the costumes for Romeo and Juliet had been completed and delivered; all of the cast planned to wear their costumes to the dance in order to drum up interest in the play, which would be presented in a few weeks.

Claudia Vandervere had decided on an Elizabethan English translation of the costumes, as would have been worn by the original Globe cast, rather than Italian Renaissance costumes such as Zeffirelli had used — Claudia thought the tights and short jerkins were "indecent." And when she saw the initial sketches for the English costumes, she censored those as well, insisting that the boys not wear codpieces with their blousy trunk-hose, and the girls' bodices should be cut just below the clavicle, several inches higher than was historically accurate.

Despite these strictures, Danny looked insanely sexy in his costume. It was very dark red velvet, showing black or brown tones in certain lights; the close-fitting doublet had golden rose-shaped buttons set with glass rubies and a high collar topped by a starched white ruff, the tight sleeves were tied at the shoulder with dark-gold satin ribbons, allowing the puffy white shirt to peep through the gaps, and the cuffs were short pleated ruffles; the trunk hose fell to mid-thigh and were made of strips of velvet embroidered at the edges with gold, over a black satin lining, with black tights and tall shiny black boots over the knee.

He had a sword, a golden basket-hilt rapier in a black leather scabbard hanging on a gold-embroidered black leather belt, and a jeweled main gauche stiletto (actually a letter-opener) tucked into a sheath behind an embroidered black velvet purse hanging on his hip. He had several jeweled rings on his fingers and a heavy gold chain draped over his shoulders.

There was a matching cap with a white peacock feather in a jeweled brooch that Danny didn't want to wear, as he preferred having his hair loose, and a short black velvet cape to drape over one shoulder that would be too fussy for dancing; he'd even unbuttoned the doublet nearly to his sternum, allowing his neck to breathe easier. He didn't want to get overheated in a crowded room.

In all the years he'd been fencing, he'd never actually worn a sword, and was surprised by how difficult it was; he was finding the costume party a good opportunity to rehearse wearing the thing as he made his way through the house and down to the first floor, trying to keep it from banging on the stairs and knocking things off of tables.

On the first floor, he encountered a dozen small children in costume trooping through the foyer into the main hall, where a casual sort of haunted house had been set up, with cackling mechanical monsters and dry-ice fog, the servants dressed up as zombies serving punch and cookies to the trick-or-treaters and their attendant parents; as the guests left, Mayor and Mrs. Vandervere distributed little wrapped goodie-bags to each of the children and shook hands with each of the parents, performing their civic duty with a very graceful show of hospitality.

Danny stopped in the hall to have his costume admired by Mrs. Espinosa and the girls, then drew his sword and slashed it quasi-threateningly at a gaggle of delighted, squealing five-year-olds. He had a moment of confusion when trying to get into his car, unable to quite figure out how to get in with the sword, and eventually had to take the whole belt off and throw it in the back seat.

When he picked Jeremy up, he got out and put the belt back on to show off the ensemble to Jeremy's parents; they had accepted their son's sexuality, complete with boyfriend, quite easily, having long suspected that their son was gay and only concerned that he be happy.

Jeremy's costume, as Mercutio, was all black with flashes of white, severe and almost priestly, which made his slim body even slimmer and his softly pretty face even prettier. It was smooth wool serge with jacquard ribbon trim, but otherwise exactly like Danny's, with silver buttons and sword instead of gold, and no jewels but a silver heraldic medal on a thick Byzantine chain.

"Oh, God, you look amazing," Danny said to Jeremy, moving close and taking his hands, but not kissing him, not sure that his parents were quite ready for displays of affection yet.

"This costume is hot," Jeremy smiled up at him.

"You're telling me," Danny flashed his eyes, a roguish smirk curling his lip.

"No, I mean, I'm melting in this getup. Does it have to be wool?"

"Open your doublet a little," Danny started undoing the top few buttons, "You'll be able to breathe better. And we can take our sleeves off later, it will be cooler."

"Stop it," Jeremy whispered, grabbing Danny's hands at the third button, "Or we'll never get to the dance."

"Good night, Mr. and Mrs. Sinclair," Danny let him go and turned toward his parents, sweeping into the deep theatrical bow he was learning for Tybalt, "I'll have Jeremy home by midnight."

"You forgot the 'forsooth,'" Jeremy teased him.

"Let me take a picture of you boys," Mrs. Sinclair said, bringing up a little red digital camera and aiming at them. Danny threw his arm around Jeremy's shoulder and grinned happily as the flash went off, "That's lovely. You boys have a nice time tonight."

When they arrived at the dance, which was held in the girls' gymnasium (as most of the school dances were, since it smelled nicer than the boys' gym), they had their picture taken again, this time by the professional photographer hired for the event; standing in front of a beautifully painted graveyard backdrop, they got to pose twice, once in a formal date pose and once in costume-character, with their swords drawn and pointed at the camera.

The gym was elaborately decorated with streamers of shredded gauze, cotton-wool cobwebs in the corners, phosphorescent ghosts hanging from the ceiling, and Styrofoam gravestones and gargoyles peeping out of the dry-ice fog that obscured the floor. The lights were covered with green and purple gels, casting creepy shadows all around, and the mirror-ball that hung from the central scoreboard over the area cleared for dancing had been meticulously applied with tiny decals so it looked like glowing bats were flying around in swirling circles.

Danny and Jeremy greeted friends as they made their way through the crowded gym, and were eventually engulfed in the new clique that had gathered around Danny over the last three weeks, referred to by the other students (in tones of greatest respect) as The Gays.

Danny's outing at the hands of Eric Bettancourt, and Jeremy coming out in Danny's wake, had an unexpected after-effect: eight more boys and five girls came out in the following week, some in couples and some as singles; and though Danny had always been as socially promiscuous as he'd recently been sexually promiscuous, preferring a free-range approach to socialization instead of belonging to a single clique, he became an irresistible magnet for these newly out-and-proud kids: they clustered around him like apostles, looking to him for inspiration and leadership.

He felt socially limited by this clique, but he accepted his responsibility to it with good grace, giving his lunch hour over to it and setting precedents and policies with his behavior. There was some talk about starting an official Gay/Straight Alliance club, but so far nobody had experienced homophobia or bigotry since coming out, rendering a club meant to combat homophobia and bigotry rather redundant. There may have been homophobes and bigots at Vandervere High, but with Danny Vandervere as the figurehead of the group, they must deem it wise to keep such beliefs to themselves.

The Great Coming Out hadn't drawn everyone into the open: the Jocks, to a man, had elected to remain closeted. It was fine for a Vandervere, Henry told him, to be out and proud since the Trust would pay for the college of his choice and he didn't need scholarships; and it was almost expected for drama students and music students and liberal arts students to be gay; but being an out gay athlete could be a very expensive endeavor, considering the homophobic attitudes of many college coaches and recruiters.

Two other boys that Danny knew about from experience had also remained closeted, afraid that their fundamentalist Christian parents would find out. But Danny had instituted a strict No Outing policy on his new clique, explaining to them that coming out was a very important personal-growth experience, and to take that out of the individual's hands was vicious and hypocritical.

Eric Bettancourt was the only one who did not benefit from this new regime: he was persona non grata at lunch, in class, even at home (the Bettancourts were seriously considering sending him back to his mother or parking him on another relative); the salacious gossip he was so ready to divulge to all and sundry died on his lips, eliciting absolutely no interest from the other students. He had taken to cutting school, only showing up once or twice a week, and apparently stoned or drunk when he came. Danny had expressly forbidden anyone from actively persecuting him, but the silence with which he was greeted everywhere he went seemed just as cruel.

But Danny wasn't worried about Eric, he was having too much fun being public with Jeremy and their romance. He had even given up fucking around, partly because the secrecy that made it easy was gone, but mostly because he wanted to be celibate for Jeremy's sake (though only in the coital sense, he had no intention of giving up masturbating): if and when Jeremy was ever ready to take that step, Danny wanted it to be special for himself as well as Jeremy.

Danny and Jeremy had a wonderful time at the party, dancing until they couldn't breathe, taking off their outer sleeves so the white billowing shirts glowed in the blacklight, then taking rests on the bleachers with The Gays; and when the slow dances came on, he almost wept from the joy of slow-dancing with someone for whom he cared deeply and to whom he was physically attracted, in front of everyone, completely out in the open.

The party started winding down at eleven, the teachers and parents who attended as chaperons encouraging kids to get home before midnight — and if they didn't want to go home yet, encouraging them to stay and help clean up (which guaranteed almost all of the students would be gone by 11:30 at the latest).

Happy, sweaty, and giggling, Danny and Jeremy made their way out of the dance and headed toward Danny's car at a quarter after eleven, hoping to allow themselves some private time before Jeremy had to be home at twelve. But as they approached the car, they saw something lying on the ground in front of it, apparently a pile of dark clothing.

"What the hell?" Danny wondered, thinking someone was playing a practical joke by leaving a fake corpse in his path, and so walked up to the thing expecting something funny, or attempting to be funny; he turned on the tiny LED flashlight on his key-ring and pointed the wide beam of blue light at the pile.

"Oh, shit!" Jeremy screamed when they saw what it was.

Eric Bettancourt lay on his side, his pale green eyes open in an expression of surprise, his face paste-white and splattered with blood; there were two neat diagonal slashes on his bloody neck, one on each side like gills, severing both the carotid and the jugular. He was dressed in a black monk's robe, and a grotesque red leather mask was perched in his fair hair; Danny recognized the costume, Eric had apparently been at the party all night without anyone knowing it was him. There was a large metal box-cutter lying in his open right hand, completely coated with blood.

"Oh, my God," Danny whispered.

"Did he do that to himself?" Jeremy wondered, trying to encapsulate the horror of a dead body with logic.

"It looks like he might have," Danny was dizzy and felt like throwing up; the smell of blood was strong and nauseating, there was a huge pool of it all around Eric's body, and great splashes on the grill and headlights of Danny's Explorer. He had apparently died right there, and not very long ago; reaching out hesitantly to touch the body, selecting a dry space on the clothed arm, he discovered it was still fairly warm.

"What do we do?" Jeremy wondered, completely baffled by the novelty of the situation.

"I'll call 911," Danny responded, pulling his cell phone (which he now kept on his person at all times) from his hip-purse, fully knowledgeable of the procedure since his experience with Mr. Janacek, "and then we'd better get back into the dance and let the principal know what happened, and make sure to keep everyone out of the parking lot. The police will want a clean scene."

~15~

Danny sat by himself in a guidance counselor's office, crying quietly into a paper tissue, waiting to be interviewed by a police officer. He felt incredibly sorry for Eric: he hadn't liked the boy, didn't think anybody could really like someone so chronically unhappy and unpleasant; but for his young life to be cut short like that, to take away all his potential to grow up and improve, was just horribly sad.

And he felt guilty, wondering if Eric had committed suicide because of the ostracism that he'd attempted to inflict on Danny but ended up reaping for himself, wondering if there had been anything he might have done to make the boy's burden easier... wondering if, had he shown Eric some kindness, the boy might still be alive.

"It makes me very nervous," Officer Pete Kelly walked into the room and seated himself behind the desk across from Danny, "when a person finds two dead bodies on two separate occasions within the same month."

"I don't feel nervous so much as persecuted by Fate," Danny replied, drying his eyes and pulling himself together.

"Perhaps Fate is getting back at you for being beautiful, intelligent, and rich all at the same time."

"Don't forget 'hung,'" Danny looked at him sourly.

"More information than I needed," the officer laughed and opened his notebook, "So how did you know this victim?"

"I went to school with him, to start," Danny said with a sigh, "And he was the cousin of my friend Sandra, whom I used to date last year."

"He outed you to the whole school three weeks ago?"

"You work fast," Danny was impressed, "Yes, he did. I think he meant to revenge himself on me for turning him down for sex. But it sort of backfired on him."

"Being outed is just the sort of thing that makes people angry enough to kill," Officer Kelly suggested.

"I was angry at first," Danny admitted, "But after a while I just felt sorry for him. He didn't really have any friends, I think he was trying to make a name for himself by taking on someone essentially untouchable, David-and-Goliath style; but he ended up with everyone hating and ignoring him. It must have been hard for him, small towns aren't the best places to make social gaffes of that degree."

"You didn't want him dead, though?" the policeman persisted.

"No, not at all," Danny frowned at the man, "And I was at the dance in full view of three hundred people. I have one immediate witness for my actions between the time I left the dance and the time we found the body, and several distant witnesses. Ironclad alibi, I call it."

"Even ironclad alibis sink sometimes," Officer Kelly reminded him.

"Like the USS Monitor," Danny nodded.

"What's the USS Monitor?"

"A famous Civil War battleship. It was the type called an 'ironclad.' It sank in a storm on New Year's Eve, 1862."

"You're too smart for your own good, Danny Vandervere," the policeman looked up at him admiringly, "And you're not a suspect. Whoever killed Eric would have been covered in blood, and you don't have a drop on you. I doubt very seriously if you have a duplicate to a costume like that."

"Is it possible he killed himself?" Danny wanted to know.

"Possible, but not probable. To make two deep incisions, with no hesitation marks, one on each side, would require a strength of purpose I don't think that boy had. But it is possible that he did it himself. Forensics will have to decide."

"Poor kid," Danny pinched the bridge of his nose, willing the tears to stop.

"I expect plenty of other people might be angry enough to kill him? As you said, he made himself very unpopular with that little outing stunt. He named three other boys besides you, and threatened to name others? Would someone kill him to shut him up?"

"Possibly," Danny thought that over for a moment, "There are some people who still wish to keep their sexuality a secret. But I would think they'd have done it a lot sooner. Eric could have broadcast his knowledge from here to China in the last three weeks."

"Can you give me some names? Of the boys who might have felt threatened?"

"I'd really rather not," Danny said apologetically.

"If I insist?" the officer suggested.

"If you insist with formal questioning, at the police station with a lawyer present, then perhaps," Danny considered the man carefully.

"Which you know perfectly well I won't do, since the lawyer will probably be your father, my boss, the Mayor," Officer Kelly narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

"Well, I can't help that," Danny shrugged, "It's up to you if you think it's worth the trouble. But I'm not kissing and telling if I can avoid it."

"We're not talking about 'kiss and tell,' Danny, we're talking about investigating a possible murder. If you know of a boy who had a motive for killing Eric in order to keep his sexuality a secret, and you don't tell me who it is, you're obstructing justice."

"Well, if you put it that way," Danny relented, "But I really need your assurance that you won't tell them you know unless absolutely necessary. I mean, I promised them, and I don't break promises lightly."

"You give me a list of names, written on a piece of paper; I will see if they have alibis; and if they don't, I will ask them some very discreet questions. I won't mention your name, and I won't make it look like I'm singling them out. How's that?"

"That sounds fair," Danny reached for the notepad by the counselor's phone and took a pen from the cup on the desk. He wrote down the names of all the boys at school with whom he'd had sex but who hadn't come out in the last three weeks, "Though you realize that Eric might have made any number of enemies outside of the school. Am I going to have to snitch on every closeted man in town?"

"Let's start with these... eight boys, criminy! I didn't have eight conquests to my name until I was twenty-two... and then we'll see what comes up. I don't want you to feel like a snitch."

"So, you think I'm beautiful?" Danny went back to the beginning of the conversation to clarify a point that had intrigued him.

"Merely an aesthetic judgment, not a come-on," Officer Kelly smiled knowingly at the boy, having figured out that his insatiable need for love would make him easy to manipulate if the necessity ever arose, "I'm straight."

"You'd be surprised, Officer," Danny laughed at him, "how many of the men I've fucked have said that to me."

"To return to our last conversation," the officer closed his notebook and looked at Danny with a weary but very intent face, "What do you think of the possibility that this is another murder that has been offered very specifically to you, either as a warning or, as seems more likely in this case, a gift?"

"I don't know," Danny said tensely, "He was a declared enemy, someone killing him for my benefit makes more sense than poor Mr. Janacek, whom I liked very much. But I can't imagine why someone would do that for me."

"If someone is obsessed with you, and mentally unbalanced, it would be quite possible. That this is the second body that was placed directly in your path is very suggestive. I mean, there were a hundred cars in the lot, it seems odd that the killing would happen right in front of yours, not just nearby but immediately in your way, if you weren't the intended audience."

"Well, yes, but it seems so random. Mr. Janacek and Eric had nothing in common, my relationships with each of them were entirely different. And the modus operandi was different in both cases. I thought killers stuck to a preferred method; how often does a strangler suddenly become a slasher?"

"Not very often," Officer Kelly agreed, "but if this is a new hobby, the killer might not have settled on a preferred method yet."

"Do you think more people will be killed?" Danny was horrified by the suggestion.

"If it's the same killer, yes I do. Nobody stops at two unless they're stopped by someone or something."

"So far it's been a friend and an enemy. Who would be next?"

"I don't know, Danny," the officer stood up and laid his hand on the boy's shoulder, "But keep your eyes open, OK? I don't mean to frighten you, but it might be you next."

~16~

Eric's death had even less of an impact on the students of Vandervere High than Mr. Janacek's had: though some might have felt guilty about their treatment of Eric in the last weeks of his life, he was essentially an outsider, new to Vandervere and not well-liked; his coming and going was just a blip in the school year — a dramatic and memorable blip, but a blip nonetheless.

The administration responded anyway by bringing the grief counselors back, as well as papering the school with suicide-prevention literature; though the nature of Eric's death had not been released to the public, it was easier to think the unfortunate boy had killed himself — teenage suicide is terrible, but also fairly common, while murder was too scary to contemplate.

There was no funeral or even a memorial service, the body had been shipped back to San Diego for burial as soon as the coroner released it; the entire Bettancourt family went with it, staying away for three weeks. And when Sandra returned to school just before Thanksgiving, she was consoled and made much of for having bravely endured the death of her cousin.

Danny, however, knew that Eric had not committed suicide, since Officer Kelly told him the coroner's findings as soon as the body was released. Eric had definitely been murdered: though the second cut appeared to have been made with the boy's own hand wrapped around the box-cutter, the first cut was too deep at the initial point of incision, indicating a downward arc of the blade that could not have been self-inflicted. Someone of approximately the same height had stood directly in front of Eric and brought the blade down on his neck, left-handed, then as he lay bleeding to death made the second cut with his unresisting right hand on the blade. And since there were no defensive wounds, the killer had to be someone Eric knew and trusted.

Officer Kelly gave him this information as a warning, but Danny could not see where he could apply the knowledge — it was too vague and wide-ranging a threat. He couldn't very well walk around with a body-guard, or go into hiding, and there didn't seem any point in changing all of his routines when there was no way of knowing which part of his life contained the danger. Then the threat was forced to take a backseat to the rest of Danny's life in November, when preparations for the play went into high gear, Midterm exams loomed, and college applications started to crowd into the Seniors' consciousness.

Danny had already done his SATs, having taken the first October date available and breezed through the exams with a respectable 2206, losing most of his points in the mathematics section — which, since he intended to major in English Literature, wasn't an issue. He'd already received communications from Harvard assuring him of a legacy entrance if he chose to apply, since his brothers, his father, his uncle, in fact every male Vandervere for over a hundred years, had attended Harvard before him.

However, Danny was in semi-secret negotiations with Stanford, using the Aunt Ems' address for his applications so his father wouldn't know about it until and unless it was fait accompli. Attending a university other than Harvard would be considered base rebellion, the likes of which had not been seen by the Vandervere family since Aunt Mathilda had refused to marry back in 1941, and Danny wanted to avoid kicking that particular hornet's nest until it was absolutely necessary.

He was keeping his fingers crossed for Stanford for two reasons: first, he wanted to enter college on his own merits rather than as a legacy candidate; and second, he wanted to be near San Francisco, which he had visited the previous summer to buy his school clothes, and fell in love with its energy, its weather, and its huge gay population.

But that was still in the future, and Danny had enough in the present to keep him occupied: he was rehearsing four days a week with the drama club, constantly running his lines as Tybalt, trying to inject some kind of passion or even believability into the lines he'd memorized very easily but tended to deliver like a computerized answering machine, as well as choreographing and coaching the fencing scenes with Jeremy and Jack; at the same time, he was preparing to compete in the regional fencing championships, and had to remember, while he was working out, which moves were for show in the play and which were for serious competition; and then he had somehow got sucked into the Senior Prom Planning Committee, and was meeting with other students and faculty weekly to plan a dance that was six months away, which he didn't care about in the least, but as a Vandervere was expected to be part of.

Danny didn't get to see much of Ash in this period, though he made every effort to keep in touch with the boy by phone and at school. Ash had revealed his sexuality to various people he knew during the weeks after the Great Coming Out, but did not join Danny's new clique, preferring to spend his time alone with his art rather than gab about fashion and politics with The Gays.

Inspired by the beauty of the pastel sketch Ash had done of him (which he'd had framed and hung over the fireplace in his room) Danny had convinced Ash to take part in the school's annual Art Show in February; he'd also promised to pose for a portrait to be included in the show as soon as the play was over with and he had some time to himself. He'd gone over to Ash's house twice to help him choose which of his older works he wanted to include, and spent some time charming Ash's mother and his mother's boyfriend (an attractive but dour man with an epic 70s-style handlebar mustache).

With all this going on, there simply wasn't room in Danny's quite capacious mind to worry about the possibility that there might be a lunatic running around Vandervere killing people and dropping them in his path. And so he didn't worry about it.

The play was performed a week before school would let out for Winter Break, three consecutive performances that would allow everyone in school and their relatives to come see it; and the ticket sales were brisk, the promise of a lavish production and advance notices of successful dress-rehearsals had drummed up a much larger audience than previous years' plays had enjoyed.

Danny was too concerned with Jack's and Jeremy's fencing to worry too much about his own performance; he knew he was bad, but also knew from watching the videotape of dress rehearsal that he wasn't the worst actor on the stage, and he had enough stage presence to make up for his lack of emotional verisimilitude. He also had his lines word-perfect, which even the best actors were still skipping and stumbling over on opening night. He was used to being looked at, and had no more stage fright than he would have felt at a dressage competition or a fencing match.

He felt foolish, though, while performing in the ball scene, where all he did was whine and bitch to Lord and Lady Capulet about Romeo's presence at the ball, and that feeling of foolishness made him intensely uncomfortable — he'd never felt like he was doing something silly when performing sports, but speaking lines he didn't really understand and didn't believe in felt very silly indeed.

But when he got to the fencing scene, he felt much more comfortable. He was very proud of the choreography he'd created for the scene, first for himself and Jeremy, then for himself and Jack, and very proud of the success of his coaching the two completely inexperienced swordsmen into a very flashy and technically competent display of arms.

Jeremy's and Danny's romance made the fight between their characters rather interesting: anyone could see they were involved with each-other, even if they didn't know the boys personally; and so while hurling insults and bandying innuendo for their scene, there was a palpable subtext to their dialog that made the scene quite riveting.

When Danny drew his sword for the first time, there was a delighted gasp from the audience: the rapiers had been custom-made for the production, the triangular blades had little ball buttons at the tips and were dull at the edges, but as polished as mirrors on the faces, catching the light beautifully when the swords zinged through the air; they were also equipped with springs at the tang so the blade could retract the entire length of the pommel, making the eventual stabbings look that much more realistic.

"I am for you," Danny declaimed grandly, taking a sweeping bow with his head high and one eyebrow up, his rapier slithering in a wide X before slashing against Jeremy's.

"Gentle Mercutio," Jack pleaded, trying to get between them without touching the crossed swords, "Put up thy rapier."

"Come, sir, your passado," Jeremy insisted with a roguish grin, pushing Jack away with his elbow and shimmering his rapier against Danny's. They thrust and parried playfully as Jack went through his lines of trying to dissuade them from their fight, then eventually became more intent in the battle; since Danny had no more lines for the rest of the scene, he settled in to concentrate on the fencing.

He was shocked into momentary immobility, though, when one of his slashes produced a gaping cut in Jeremy's sleeve, drawing a thin line of blood on his arm; Jeremy was so wrapped up in his role that he kept going without even apparently noticing the cut, but Danny's mind was running into overdrive: something was terribly wrong, there was no way a buttoned rapier with dulled edges could have cut through a layer of thick wool and another layer of woven cotton to break skin... somehow or other, Danny's sword had been made extremely sharp.

It took every ounce of his fencing skill to get through the rest of the scene without touching Jeremy with the sword again, and when it came time to stab Jeremy under Jack's arm, he had to take very careful aim to get the sword in between the two of them without touching either of them.

But he did manage it, and hurried off stage while Jeremy went into his death scene, enhanced for the audience by the fact that he was actually bleeding, though on the arm and not where he had supposedly been stabbed... he was clutching a large white handkerchief over the pretended wound in his side, which slowly turned red as he squeezed the fake blood bladder hidden inside it.

The moment Danny was offstage, he examined his sword in the light: the button was gone, the tip was quite sharp, and all three of the edges had been sharpened as well; pushing the blade against the cinder-block back wall, he discovered that the spring mechanism had also been tampered with, the tang welded almost invisibly to the guard, and would no longer retract. If he had stabbed Jeremy with that sword as rehearsed, Jeremy would really be bleeding to death right now.

Thinking fast, Danny locked the deadly weapon in his dressing-room locker, grabbed another rapier out from among the props, checked to make sure it was dull and had a button, and dashed back onstage for the rest of the scene; taking every opportunity to examine Jack's sword to ensure that its button was in place, he engaged in the more prolonged match that would culminate in his own character's death and the end of his active participation in the play... the next two times he appeared onstage would be as a corpse, and that required no acting at all. He just had to be patient and lie still next to the bleeding Jeremy on the floor while Anna MacAllan screamed for justice as Lady Capulet and Todd Wilmot hemmed and hawed as the Prince, eventually making up his mind to banish Romeo and ending Act III, Scene I.

When they'd been carried offstage, Danny leapt up and ran over to Jeremy, who was accepting congratulations from the cast for a very moving death scene. His arm was still bleeding and he still hadn't noticed it.

"Jesus Christ, Jeremy, you're bleeding!" Danny whispered to him, so as not to be heard over Felicia Goode and Rosemary Jackson as Juliet and the Nurse in the next scene.

"Oh, my God," Jeremy whispered, noticing it for the first time and gazing at it in dreamy confusion, "How did that happen?"

"Somebody sharpened my sword, I cut you," Danny grabbed Jeremy's arm to look more closely at the wound, which had bled copiously but was really quite shallow. He pulled Jeremy into the dressing room and grabbed the first-aid kit, wrestling the boy out of his doublet and shirt so he could clean and bind the wound.

"Why would somebody sharpen your sword?" Jeremy asked, wide-eyed with amazement.

"I don't know," Danny lied... he knew why, it was so that Jeremy would be killed; but he didn't know who or how, so he kept that to himself so as not to scare Jeremy.

"My beautiful costume!" Jeremy moaned when he saw the cut sleeves of the doublet and the shirt.

"Your beautiful arm," Danny said, running his hand over Jeremy's incredibly smooth soft skin, momentarily distracted from his fear by all the exposed flesh... he'd never seen Jeremy unclothed before, and his torso was exquisite, completely undefined but amazingly graceful in line and with a breathtaking complexion.

"My arm will heal," Jeremy pointed out, still focused on the ruined garments until Danny reached out and ran his thumb over a large pink nipple and made the boy gasp, "Quit that, not here!"

"I'm sorry," Danny repented, though taking more opportunities to feel the boy up as he helped him back into his shirt and doublet.

"I don't understand how this happened," Jeremy said after examining the cut fabric again, noticing how clean the incision was, no loose threads or tearing... it was as if it had been sliced with a razor.

"I don't want to frighten you," Danny said, going back to his locker and getting his cell-phone out, "But I think someone tried to kill you by tampering with my rapier. I'm calling Officer Kelly, we need to have the police in on this immediately.

"Tried to kill... me?!" Jeremy gaped in disbelief, "Why?"

"I don't know, my love," Danny knelt in front of Jeremy and took both his hands, "But I swear to God, nobody will hurt you as long as I'm alive to prevent it."

"Me!" Jeremy said again, not listening, just reeling with the understanding that he'd come dangerously close to death.

"Please don't freak out, sweetheart," Danny wrapped his arms around the shaking boy.

"I'm not freaking out," he shouted, "I'm pissed off! How dare someone try to kill me?!"

Freaked out or angry, Jeremy burst into tears, and Danny was delayed in contacting the police until he could get the boy calmed down; and once that was done, he had barely enough time to call Officer Kelly, explain the situation, and get back on stage for the tomb scene, where he had to lie perfectly still under a chiffon shroud while Jack and Felicia did a very creditable job of Act V, Scene III, leaving not one dry eye in the house.

And Jeremy wasn't so undone that he couldn't take his bows and a curtain call, which got a partial standing ovation and a presentation of flowers.

~17~

"This is very serious, Danny," Officer Kelly examined the sword under strong light with heavy gloves on his hands; it had already been dusted for fingerprints, but none were found, except for Danny's on the hilt, "This sword would have killed the boy. He's damned lucky you scratched him and noticed it before you drove it in under his ribs."

"This is too close, Officer Kelly," Danny's voice quivered with outrage and fear, "I love Jeremy, I can't have him hurt. You have to find out who's doing this and stop him."

"Or her," Officer Kelly corrected automatically, his mind turning over the various avenues of investigation that the sword opened up.

"I don't think it's a her," Danny said after thinking it over for a moment, "A female wouldn't have been able to get at Mr. Janacek in the cruising park, for one thing."

"Why not? It's pretty dark up there."

"Have it your own way," Danny shrugged impatiently, "It's not really to the point, anyway. What can I do to protect the people I love from whoever is doing this?"

"Not much," Officer Kelly looked at him with concern, "I know this is hard for you, Danny, but we're doing all we can. This killer is extremely clever and very circumspect.

"Do you think it's safe to go ahead with the next two performances?" Danny wondered, sensible of how much it would hurt everyone in the play to have to cancel it after working so hard.

"Yes, actually, I do," the officer, put the sword inside a plastic bag, and then into a paper evidence bag, rolling it closed and taping it, "So far this killer has used very different methods with each murder; I don't think he or she will try the same thing again."

"Which makes it impossible to predict what will happen next, impossible to guard against it."

"Yes, there is that. But I think Jeremy's safe for the time being. But not for long. This time it's someone you are known to love... before it was someone who was your enemy, and before that someone who, though you liked him, might have been viewed as having taken advantage of you — if this person knew of your relationship with your teacher but not that you instigated it. But with Jeremy, this is someone who may be viewed as standing between you and the killer, somebody who needs to be got out of the way so as to leave open access to you."

"That's horrible," Danny's eyes filled up as he contemplated the danger Jeremy was in.

"Maybe you should distance yourself from Jeremy," Officer Kelly suggested.

"You think I should break up with him to keep him safe?" Danny was aghast.

"It might be best. In the meantime, I'll see if our forensics people can find anything useful on this sword. You never know, sometimes people will leave distinguishing marks in unexpected places, fingerprints, DNA, special tools. We might turn something up."

"I hope so," Danny looked at the bag and shivered again, thinking what could have happened.

"Hey, keep your chin up," Officer Kelly reached over and tousled Danny's hair, "It's going to be OK."

"I hope so," Danny said again, thinking about what he could say to Jeremy, how he was going to make it look like they were breaking up, publicly enough that the killer would buy it, without actually giving the boy up. It was a puzzle that was going to take every ounce of ingenuity he could scrape up.

*****

Jeremy preempted Danny, however, by breaking up with him... not quite publicly, but fairly dramatically and in front of enough people that word would get around.

"Danny, I care about you," Jeremy said in his closing argument, "But I'm not going to risk my life for you. I'm sorry, but we're through. Please don't call me, OK?"

The blow of Jeremy dumping him took all possible pleasure out of the accolades he was receiving for his performance in what had turned out to be a very good production of Romeo and Juliet. And though he didn't exactly cry himself to sleep every night, he was noticeably mopey.

Jeremy also made a show of telling everyone of his plans for Winter Break, which were to spend the entire three weeks with his grandmother in Vermont, gassing on to anyone who would listen about skiing, ice-skating, and all the wintry joys of Christmas on the East Coast (it hadn't even rained in Vandervere yet, and snow was not expected even in the highest points of the county).

The truth that Danny could see in his eyes was that he was terrified; he was going to do anything and everything he could think of to distance himself from Danny and the danger that followed him. And he wasn't, as far as Danny could tell, play-acting: this was nothing like the pretend breakup that Danny was planning, this was for real. Jeremy was cutting him off and turning away from him in earnest.

~18~

Having decided that the most appropriate response to Jeremy dumping him was to end his self-imposed celibacy, Danny's usual Saturday ride took him to the hotel across the lake, where he was determined to have sex with as many men as possible before returning home.

There weren't a lot of men there, as Lake Augusta is more of a summer concern: it seldom snowed in Vandervere and the lake never froze, the weather was usually dreary, wet and cold in winter; the cabins and most of the resort's amenities were closed for the off-season, and the hotel had shut off all but one wing; however, the stables were still fully staffed, since horses don't hibernate, the restaurant continued to run, drawing custom from the town, and the hotel's skeleton crew was, due to some rather inappropriate hiring practices, one hundred percent homophile.

Four hours later, Danny headed back to the stable, sore, sated, and happy, resolved to never go so long without sex again. He greeted David, the groom, with a brief hug and a peck on the cheek; he knew David had a serious crush on him, and had always been mystified that the young man didn't want to have sex with him. But he was beginning to understand about bodies and emotions, and how sometimes they had to be separated to keep one from getting hurt.

"Who in the world has Ashtaroth out in this weather?" Danny asked when he noticed the big black horse was not in his usual stall; horses were usually difficult to handle during rainy weather, and livery horses more so than others.

"He died a couple of months ago," David told him, helping saddle Tenorino.

"Oh, that's too bad," Danny busied himself with buckles and straps, "But he was pretty old, wasn't he?"

"Sixteen, I think, not old for a horse," David said, "He didn't die of old age. Somehow he got out of the stable one night and ate most of an oleander bush, I still can't figure out why. Had a heart attack out in the woods and died before we could track him down."

"That's awful!" Danny was horrified.

"I know. I didn't even know there were oleanders in these woods. Or that a horse would be stupid enough to eat them. I mean, Ashtaroth wasn't very clever, he was so pliable he'd eat just about anything anyone put in his mouth. But to go out on his own and eat a shrub to the stems, that probably doesn't even taste good to horses, seems weird."

"I'll talk to some people I know at Animal Control and the Forestry Service about getting the oleanders out of the woods. We have to keep those and foxgloves and rhododendrons away from the horse trails," Danny frowned in concentration, as he usually did when making a complex mental note.

"That's the thing, he wasn't anywhere near the horse trails, he'd wandered all the way up to the hiking trail."

"That's odd," Danny agreed, but then saw the time and realized he was going to be late for tea at the Aunt Ems' if he didn't get a move on, "Have a Merry Christmas, David, if I don't see you again before then."

Heading home at a brisk canter and leaving Kevin to curry Tenorino, Danny dashed into the house for a shower and change, then drove to the Aunt Ems' as fast as his Explorer would carry him. He was late for tea, and got a gentle scolding from his great-aunts; he had to tell them about Jeremy breaking up with him, and though they were very fond of the boy they decided to vilify him for Danny's sake, pointing out all of his shortcomings (most of which they had to invent, as Jeremy didn't really have any shortcomings other than those common to seventeen-year-old boys).

The Pine Street mansion was already lavishly decorated for Christmas, with three huge trees in different parts of the house (a spectacular twenty-footer in the bend of the stairs in the central hall, and twin twelve-footers in the bay window of the Gold Drawing Room at the front of the house and the round turret off the upstairs sitting-room), garlands on all the railings and wreaths on all the doors, and hundreds of seasonal figurines and ornaments scattered across every available surface. Most of this had been done by florists and decorators, as it would be too much for the octogenarian ladies of the house; but there was a smaller eight-foot sugar pine in the corner of the Red Drawing Room at the back of the house that was the sole province of the Aunt Ems themselves.

Afternoon tea had been moved to this drawing room so the Aunts could work slowly at their special tree, which had real wax candles and an eighteenth-century German carved wood angel at the top, popcorn-and-cranberry garlands, and dozens of fragile antique blown-glass and silver ornaments, each one with a story of its own. Danny helped by placing handmade red and white peppermint candy-canes on the branches, stepping back frequently to make sure they were evenly spaced.

On Sunday he returned to the hotel for a late morning's debauchery, then out to The Aspens for the weekly family dinner. The principal Vandervere mansion is a 1920s version of a southern plantation, a long buff brick neo-Colonial house with two-story fluted white Corinthian columns marching across the front and back, and outbuildings attached to the main house by curving colonnades.

It is the largest and most modern of all the Vandervere homes, and is actually the house in which the Aunt Ems grew up — though they seemed so much more in place at the Pine Street house that everyone thought they'd always lived there. It stood in the center of a huge meadow that had once been filled with a forest of aspens but was now mostly leveled and planted with rolling lawns, ruthlessly manicured rose gardens, and a spreading six-hole golf course.

Sunday dinner at The Aspens was a weekly tradition that Danny dreaded more than evening meals with his parents, as there were anywhere from eight to twelve people either criticizing him or ignoring him instead of just two. He always parked himself among the Aunt Ems for protection, but since the rest of the family also criticized or ignored those august old ladies (though they had to be more creative about it, since Aunt Mathilda was terrifying when roused), it wasn't much help.

Monday morning found him at the Grand Hotel on Vandervere Town Square, where he spent a strenuous three hours with two very nice middle-aged gentlemen, a long-devoted couple who were staying there over the holidays; he'd met them at the buffet breakfast in the big plush dining room, where he'd gone expressly in hopes of meeting someone with whom to spend the morning. Afterward he did a little Christmas shopping, then drove over to Ash's house to begin work on the portrait.

Ash had cleaned and rearranged his bedroom so that there was a bare area in which Danny could pose while Ash worked at his easel in the corner by the closet. They spent some time trying out different poses, Ash working with his digital camera and laptop to help them decide on a pose that was both artistically interesting and comfortable enough to hold for hours at a time.

By the end of the afternoon, when Danny had to return home for dinner, they'd settled on a dignified, almost monumental standing pose, his feet well apart and his torso at three-quarter profile facing left, with his right hand resting on the back of a chair and his left hand hanging loose at his side, his face turned to the right as if about to glance over his shoulder, his eyes turned back to the viewer with a light smile playing across his lips.

They dithered somewhat as to whether or not Danny should pose nude: though Danny was perfectly happy to expose himself to Ash and the rest of the world, he wondered if the painting wouldn't be censored by the Art Show committee, which would doubtless contain his prudish Aunt Claudia; Ash couldn't decide what else Danny should wear, since he didn't want the picture to be a mere modern portrait.

When Danny came the next day, he brought several different things to wear, including his Tybalt costume, his riding clothes, and his best dress suit. But after spending several hours sketching and photographing him in different combinations of costume, Ash decided that Danny would pose nude, and he'd simply paint in a fig-leaf or some gravity-defying drapery to keep the picture Rated PG.

Unfortunately, what neither of them had considered was the difference, for Danny, between being naked in a locker-room or shower and being naked in front of a single person who was staring at him intently. It turned him on, being looked at so steadily, and he wasn't able to control his body's response; for the first two hours he posed, he had an erection, and his was not the kind of erection one can overlook. Though Ash didn't say anything about it, it got to be very uncomfortable, getting hornier and hornier without any prospect of release.

When they stopped for a break, Danny dashed into the bathroom to jack off, but his cock did not go down afterward. He splashed it with cold water, filled his mind with unpleasant images, and then tried masturbating again.

Returning to Ash's room, he looked like he'd just run a marathon, his cheeks rosy and his skin glimmering with sweat; Ash exclaimed that was exactly the look he wanted to capture in the painting. So Danny figured he'd just jack off in between posing sessions, and that would be that.

But that's not how it turned out: after the third day, when Ash completed the rough sketches and had started laying out the outlines of the painting on the primed canvas, his own resolve to ignore Danny's massive hard-on started to crumble. He'd been turned on by Danny's nudity all along, but intended to channel the sexual longing he felt into the painting to make it more interesting; yet by the third day, he was so horny that he couldn't concentrate on his work properly.

Throwing his brushes down in exasperation, he stalked over to Danny, pushed him onto the bed, and went down on him like a starving man falling on a smorgasbord. And Danny, not wanting to be left out, pulled Ash's body around so he could open the boy's pants and return the favor. But even after they both came, it wasn't enough; they spent an hour or more crawling all over each other, exploring with hands and mouths and cocks, rubbing against each-other until they both came twice more; they finally lay exhausted, loosely entwined and trying to catch their breath.

"Wow," Danny finally said when he could breathe normally again.

"Yeah," Ash agreed.

"Are you OK?" Danny wanted to know, turning his head so he could see Ash's face.

"Fine," the boy said simply, "Why?"

"I don't want to spoil our friendship," Danny explained what was worrying him.

"You won't," Ash turned his own head and met Danny's eye.

With that assurance, they went back to their original positions, though Ash didn't get completely dressed, only slipping on a pair of sweatpants, not as comfortable with nudity as Danny and also needing something near his hips to wipe his hands on.

Danny got as much joy out of looking at Ash working in the loose drawstring pants as Ash got out of looking at him nude; the boy had a beautifully proportioned body, small and wiry but elegantly balanced and tautly muscular, dusted with downy dark brown hair on his chest and belly and forearms. His cock was a lot bigger than Danny had expected on someone so small, though nowhere near as big as Danny's, and it thrust out against the sweatpants and shifted enticingly while he worked.

For the following three weeks, the two boys followed that pattern: Danny would pose for a couple of hours, they'd fall on each other at the first break and spend the next couple of hours in bed, and then another two or three hours of posing; pretty much all the time he would have spent at school was spent with Ash during the Winter Break.

Ash didn't allow Danny to see the painting in progress, always working in the corner so the canvas couldn't be seen from any other part of the room; he did let Danny have one of the preliminary sketches, though, which was without additional draperies, anatomically exact and rather flattering. He couldn't hang it in his room, where anyone else could see him in all his priapic grandeur, so he had it matted in a leather folder so he could look at it in private.

Christmas came, and Danny was co-opted by his family, so he gave Ash a present on Christmas Eve day, a huge and expensive coffee-table book with gorgeous illustrations of the entire collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which embarrassed the boy because he didn't have a gift for Danny; but Danny assured him that the two drawings were more-than-generous gifts, considerably better than a mere bought book.

Christmas morning he of course spent with his parents, and his brothers Randy and Tay (Charles Randolph V and Taylor Whitney IV) came over as well, the former with his new wife, Angela. Though he didn't get along well with his family, he had put a great deal of thought into his gifts for them: a beautiful burgundy silk necktie for his father, a tiny but elaborately enameled antique blue and gold Russian egg studded with tiny rubies for his mother to hang on her charm bracelet, embossed leather desk sets for both of his brothers, blazoned with their different favored football teams' logos, and a fashionable fox-fur neck-piece with a ribbon closure for his sister-in-law; neither of his brothers nor his sister-in-law gave him a gift, and his parents presented him with an ugly and baffling futuristic wristwatch that told time with an arcane arrangement of colored dots.

He tried not to feel bad about it, knowing he could have expected no better and that the Aunt Ems would make up for it with lavish and thoughtful gifts, but he felt a little bit weepy as he sat down to Christmas breakfast with his family, listening to the men talk about the Mill and football while the women discussed television shows Danny had never seen.

The dynastic celebration was held at the Pine Street house rather than The Aspens, since the Victorian mansion was so much more picturesque and imbued with over a century of family tradition. Gifts at this gathering tended more toward envelopes than wrapped packages, checks from Uncle Charles and the other adults making donations in each other's names; Aunts Myrtle and Maude, however, gave everyone framed needlepoint ovals bearing inspirational sayings, and Mathilda gave books to everyone (mostly chosen to offend the recipient in some way); Danny received two gifts from each of them, though, ranging from cashmere sweaters to carved emerald cuff-links.

The Vandervere family gave their staff the day off for Boxing Day in the English manner, and Danny was thrilled to be included in the Espinosa family's celebration at Mrs. Espinosa's sister's house in Redding. The housekeeper had given Danny a scarf that she made herself, while Danny presented her with the newest and hottest cookbook on the bestseller lists; he also bestowed small but very pretty gold pendants on Rosa and Maria (who were Mrs. Espinosa's second cousins), and a very expensive bottle of very old Scotch to his host and hostess.

So it wasn't until the twenty-seventh that Danny was able to return to his posing with Ash. The artist had continued to work on the painting in Danny's absence, working up the background, he said, having decided that Danny would be presented standing on a cloud against a star-studded night sky with a white drapery floating in front of his groin: a triumphant god gloating over a world he'd conquered.

The rest of vacation flew by in this manner, the only change to their routine being when Danny took Ash out for dinner at the Grand Hotel on New Year's Eve and then upstairs to a room he'd rented for the night so they could carouse in privacy and luxury. But before they knew it, the picture was practically finished and school was about to start.

"Can't I see it, yet?" Danny asked, leaning over Ash and tracing a finger idly along the exquisite curve of the boy's pelvic girdle, indicating the painting with a tip of his head.

"Not until it gets accepted for the Art Show," Ash replied resolutely, "And not even then. You have to wait to see it like everyone else."

"What, I don't get special privileges?" Danny inserted his finger into Ash's navel and kissed his nipple.

"This is your special privilege," Ash licked Danny's ear.

"School starts on Monday," Danny said after a few minutes.

"So?" Ash wondered why he brought up such an odd subject at that particular moment.

"So, are we boyfriends? When school starts, what do we tell people?"

"I don't think people need to know about us," Ash said after a long pause.

"You don't want to be my boyfriend?" Danny asked, not angry, just curious.

"What, kissing in the hallways and holding hands at lunch? Don't you think you and I are past that?"

"I guess," Danny lay his head down on Ash's chest, "Do you want to see other people?"

"Not particularly," Ash answered at once, "Do you?"

"Not specifically," Danny thought about it for a moment, "But you never know."

"Come on," Ash pulled away from Danny and grabbed his sweatpants, "let me get some more work done while I have light."

~19~

The Sunday before school started back up after Winter Break, Danny came home from his afternoon at The Aspens to find Jeremy in the driveway, leaning against a tiny Honda Civic hatchback that was at least ten years old, if not more, painted a very odd shade of blue. He was grinning ear to ear with gleeful pride, as if the thing he was leaning against was a Maserati.

"I finally got my own car!" Jeremy crowed when Danny got out of his car and walked over to the Honda.

"Does it wind up, or take double-A batteries?" Danny teased him, peering into the cramped back seat.

"Don't be a dick," Jeremy punched him on the shoulder, and then hugged him tight, "I really missed you, Danny."

"I missed you, too," Danny breathed in the wonderful honey-apple scent of the boy's hair.

"Can you forgive me?" Jeremy asked, pulling back his head so he could look into Danny's eyes.

"For what?" Danny smiled, already forgiving him for whatever he wanted forgiven.

"For breaking up with you like a coward because I was scared," Jeremy answered gravely.

"Of course," Danny kissed him lightly, "Though I will probably need forgiving, too."

"Did you slut around while I was gone?" Jeremy arched an eyebrow at him.

"A little," Danny said with a naughty grin, wondering if three days of promiscuity and three weeks with one boy counted as 'slutting around,' or as a rather more serious transgression.

"I expected you would," Jeremy leaned his head against Danny's shoulder, melting against him, "But we weren't together, so it doesn't count."

While they were standing there like that, enjoying being together again, Danny's parents drove up the driveway and into the garage. They did not pause to say anything to Danny, even when they walked past him to go into the house, but he could feel their eyes on him.

"I think you just outed me to my parents," Danny laughed delightedly. He'd been wanting to tell his parents about being gay, but he wasn't in the habit of speaking unless spoken to, and they simply never spoke to him enough to give him an opening for the topic of his sexuality.

"I'm sorry, I guess?" Jeremy wasn't sure if he was supposed to be sorry or not.

"No, they need to know. I'm sure they already knew, this just confirmed it for them. I doubt they care, they never have about anything before."

"That's terrible," Jeremy frowned, unable to understand how anybody could dislike their own child the way the Vanderveres so obviously disliked Danny, and unable to understand how Danny had turned out so wonderful in spite of his horrible parents.

"We all have our crosses to bear," Danny shrugged, stepping back from Jeremy so he could look more closely at the little blue car, "And this car really is cute. Did you get it for Christmas?"

"Not exactly," Jeremy explained proudly, "I seem to have reached an age where nobody knows what to give me as a gift, so I got a lot of checks. It added up to just under a thousand, and I decided to get a car as soon as I got home. I just bought this baby from an ad in the newspaper this morning."

"That's wonderful, I'm so happy for you," Danny folded Jeremy into another hug and just stood there holding him until he felt his body revving up for the next stage of intimacy, and he had to pull away.

"Don't," Jeremy said, pulling him back and kissing him hard.

"Oh, Christ, Jeremy; you're killing me here," Danny groaned as his cock shot up to full mast and his whole body caught fire; it was going to take a major act of will to pull away next time.

"I'm ready," the boy said simply, the two words freighted with meaning.

"Are you sure?" Danny wanted to know.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Jeremy nodded seriously, fire in his eyes, "Where can we go?"

"My room, I think," Danny considered the options; his room was a little bit risky, for though his door had a lock, one never knew when Mrs. Espinosa was going to come down the hall, and the attic walls weren't thick. But Jeremy's first time should be in a bed, not in a car or any other strange place. He took the boy by the hand and led him through the breezeway to the deserted kitchen and up the backstairs, practically tiptoeing down the hall to his bedroom.

Once securely locked in, Danny felt a little awkward: the moment was so heavy with import that it felt like a solemn ritual instead of the sort of fun interlude he was used to. He covered his awkwardness by moving around the room and making it comfortable, turning down the lights, putting some Schubert chamber concertos on the stereo, and starting a small fire in the fireplace; Jeremy also moved around the room, looking at things while Danny busied himself.

"It's not what I expected," Jeremy said, glancing over the bookshelves by the window seat.

"What did you expect?" Danny wondered.

"I don't know... something darker, more decorated. When we talked on the phone, I always visualized you in a room with wood paneling and velvet curtains, Persian carpets and paintings on the walls."

"More like Pine Street? But it's a lot more decorated now than it was a few months ago," Danny walked back toward Jeremy and took him in his arms, "Someone else commented on its bareness, so I got some pictures and rugs and those armchairs out of storage."

"It's nice," Jeremy didn't want him to think he was criticizing, "It's just lighter and airier than I was visualizing. I like it."

They very slowly undressed each other, stopping to admire every part with hands and mouths as it emerged from clothing; falling on the bed and reveling in the freedom of knowing they wouldn't have to stop, that they could try out everything they'd been fantasizing about since they'd started dating in September, they allowed their passions to escalate and crest without enforcing limitations.

Jeremy did balk at the idea of being penetrated, feeling that Danny's massive member was something one had to work up to, not something one could take at the first try; and he did not wish to penetrate Danny, either, though the latter was willing and eager to be penetrated. But Danny was accustomed to such: though his first time with a man included all the major practices and a few forays into the minor arcana, he understood that a lot of boys were leery of anal sex and never pushed it on them... it wasn't the only game in town, there was plenty to do without going that route.

A couple of hours later, sated and sleepy, the boys dozed in each other's arms; Danny was reeling with a sense of completion, the anticipation of four months finally satisfied, the mystery of Jeremy's body unraveled. He was glad Jeremy had allowed him to leave the lights on, as he couldn't get enough of looking at the boy's long, slender, incredibly smooth limbs, as graceful and unmuscled as a girl's but nevertheless inescapably male, with very little body-hair and a particularly attractive cock that was as long and slim and graceful as the rest of him.

"Are you OK?" Danny asked him when he felt Jeremy stirring and pulling slowly away.

"Fantastic," Jeremy sat up and leaned over Danny, smiling beatifically down at him, "My only regret is not doing this sooner. I'm sorry I made you wait all these months."

"It was definitely worth waiting for," Danny pulled Jeremy's head down and kissed him.

"I have to go, though," Jeremy pulled away again, sliding over to the edge of the bed and sitting up, "I can't spend the night."

"I wish you could stay," Danny slid over and stood close behind him, nuzzling his neck and wrapping his arms around the boy's chest.

"Another time," Jeremy promised, slithering out of Danny's embrace and pulling on his clothes.

He and Danny chatted absently about their Christmases as they got dressed and made their way through the silent house the way they'd come, down the back-stairs and through the kitchen to the driveway.

"I'll see you in school tomorrow," Danny promised, giving Jeremy a good-night kiss at his car. He watched as Jeremy got in, started the little blue car, and drove off into the darkness. He was happy, but was wondering what to say to Ash when he saw him again.

~20~

When Danny walked into the school building, his arm around Jeremy's shoulder, he ran into Ash coming out of the administration office with a huge cardboard portfolio under his arm.

"Hi, Ash!" Danny greeted him with a sunny smile, wondering how he was going to take Jeremy's presence.

"Hey," Ash answered, his voice impossible to gauge, his face closed down behind his curtain of hair.

"You remember Jeremy?" Danny reintroduced them.

"We met at your house," Ash responded, putting out his free hand to shake.

"Hey, Ash," Jeremy smiled and shook his hand.

"Are those your submissions for the Art Show?" Danny indicated the portfolio.

"The rejects, actually," Ash looked down at the folio and shook his head, "The committee thought these were too 'disturbing.'"

"What's disturbing about them?" Jeremy wondered, hoping Ash would show them what was in the portfolio.

"Dunno," the boy shrugged.

"My Aunt Claudia is on the committee, so it could be anything," Danny said soothingly, "Complementary colors frighten her. Have you shown them the portrait?"

"Yeah, it was accepted."

"What portrait?" Jeremy asked.

"Ash painted a portrait of me for the Art Show," Danny told him simply, wondering how Jeremy would take it.

"Cool," Jeremy smiled, pushing gently at Danny's back to encourage him to end the conversation and move on.

"I'll see you guys later," Ash said, stepping past the couple and heading for the front door.

"Did it take a long time? The portrait?" Jeremy asked him when they were moving again.

"Four or five hours a day, just about every day of break," Danny answered.

"That's a lot of time alone," Jeremy looked at him sideways.

"Yeah, we got close."

"Did you fuck him?" Jeremy's voice didn't sound angry, it sounded simply curious.

"Yes," Danny said, unable to lie.

"Do you love him?"

"Yes, I think I do."

"As much as you love me?" Jeremy turned and faced him.

"Differently," Danny was a little worried by this line of questioning.

"What am I going to do with you?" Jeremy grinned indulgently, reaching up and slapping Danny lightly, wrapping his hand around Danny's chin and shaking his head back and forth.

"Whatever you want," Danny grabbed Jeremy's hand and kissed the palm.

*****

The first week of the new semester, Danny felt a little disoriented: the play was over, his relationship with Jeremy had changed, he wasn't fucking around all the time with a dozen people, but what fucking he did now was important and complicated and fraught with emotions.

He felt like he had very little control over his life, and it was scary and satisfying, terrifically interesting but also deeply unsettling. He wondered if this is what love felt like, or if it felt weird because it was just pretending to be love.

Every day was different, but also routine. He and Jeremy were together all of the time, meeting in the parking lot first thing in the morning, meeting again in between classes, having lunch together with The Gays, then tea at the Aunt Ems', quick and very quiet sex in Danny's room at the Pine Street house, and then finally separating when Oscar brought them back to their cars at the high school parking lot.

He saw Ash very seldom; he'd phoned Ash immediately when he got home on that first day after meeting him with Jeremy, but Ash had seemed completely uninterested in the news that Danny and Jeremy were together again; he seemed not only to not care but to even wish them well, which Danny hadn't been expecting after their three weeks together — though what he had been expecting, he couldn't say.

When the weekend came, Danny and Jeremy spent the time apart, though they were in frequent telephone contact; but Danny hadn't done a lick of homework all week, and felt that he and Jeremy needed to spend some time away from each other, lest every other part of their lives fall to pieces.

On Monday evening after dinner, Danny changed into his riding things and headed out to the stables as usual; but when he got there, instead of Tenorino saddled up and waiting for him, he found the paddock empty. He peeked into the stable, wondering where Kevin was, and heard him moving around inside. Stepping into the dimly lit stable hall, he saw that Kevin was inside Tenorino's stall, forking the hay out.

"What are you doing?" Danny frowned, bemused.

"Cleaning," Kevin said quietly, not looking up.

"Where's Tenorino?"

"Gone."

"Gone?!" Danny was alarmed, "What happened? Is he sick?"

"He's gone," Kevin stopped working and leaned against the pitchfork handle wearily, then looked up at Danny, tears in his eyes, "Someone came this afternoon and took him away."

"What? How?" Danny was completely shocked, unable to understand what the man was saying, "Was he stolen?"

"No, not stolen."

"Where is he?" Danny shouted.

"I don't know," the stable-hand wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist, "You'd better ask your father."

"My father," Danny repeated, stunned.

He turned and left the stable, his mind reeling in confusion, and walked as fast as he could back to the house, slapping his riding crop against his leg in his agitation; something had happened to Tenorino, and his father hadn't said anything at all about it during dinner.

He entered the house by the kitchen and went through the dining room into the den, which was empty; he wondered if they'd gone to bed already, or if they were just spending the evening in different parts of the house, as they sometimes did; he went out into the wide hall and then to the room next door, his father's study.

"Where is Tenorino?" Danny demanded, walking up to his father's desk.

"You didn't knock," Taylor Vandervere said, not looking up from the blue-backed legal papers he was reading.

"Where is my horse?" the boy demanded, snapping the crop against his boot in impatience.

"I think you'll find," his father still didn't look up, "if you examine Tenorino's papers, that he was my horse."

"What do you mean, 'was'? Where is he?" Danny was terrified that something horrible had happened to the animal.

"On his way to Pasadena," Taylor answered simply, though Danny could hear a tone of smugness in his voice, "I sold him to a riding school."

Danny gaped at his father, shocked into momentary silence as he tried to wrap his mind around this news: his beautiful horse, his most prized possession and beloved pet, was gone — in a trailer on his way to a riding school at the other end of the state.

"But... why?" Danny finally asked, tears welling up in his eyes.

"Because, Marc-Daniel," Taylor set down his papers neatly and finally looked directly at Danny, "I do not wish to pay good money to stable, feed, and insure an expensive horse for the use and privilege of a filthy little faggot."

Danny blinked a few times in surprise, the venom in the man's voice shocking him like a bucketful of ice-water; and before he knew what he was doing, he'd reached out and slapped his father across the face with the riding crop. Taylor flinched at the pain and stared at Danny in outrage; but Danny didn't see the outrage, all he knew was that slapping the man had felt incredibly good — but it wasn't enough. He slashed at him again, harder this time and backhand, drawing blood on the other cheek.

"You dare!" his father hissed in that same venomous voice, and Danny launched himself across the desk, his hands at his father's throat, knocking him out of the chair and bearing him to the floor with the momentum of his leap; he swung again and again, with the crop at first but then with his bare hands, sometimes curled in a fist and sometimes flat, left and then right and then left again, screaming and howling like a furious child.

Danny kept swinging at his father's head, caught up in the catharsis of punishing the man, pushing his arms out of the way when he raised them to protect himself. But then suddenly, all the fight went out of him, and he just collapsed on top of his father, weeping brokenly, then rolled away and crawled into the corner, putting his back to the wall and pulling his knees up in front of his chest, rocking back and forth.

"Why can't you love me?" Danny finally wailed looking at his father huddled up in a heap by the desk, staring back at him like a wild animal.

"I'll have you arrested," Taylor Vandervere recovered himself sufficiently to stand up and move around to the other side of his desk, sitting in one of the visitor's chairs and pulling the telephone towards him.

Danny found that incredibly funny, though he couldn't say exactly why: only that the idea of a Vandervere writing out an official charge against another Vandervere, a family fight out in public where everyone could see, was so out of keeping with the family tradition.

"You think it's funny?" Taylor thundered, hitting the hang-up button and restarting his dialing, having lost track in his confusion, "You'll go to prison."

"Oh, sure," Danny shook his head, calmed by the laughter, emboldened by the power he felt after the attack, "I can just see you telling the police chief that a sixteen-year-old faggot cleaned your clock."

That struck Taylor silent, and he replaced the phone in its cradle and regarded his son narrowly.

"You think you can get away with attacking me, boy?" the man stood up and stared down at Danny in a pose calculated to awe an opponent.

"You think you can get away with treating me like a piece of shit?" Danny countered.

"I won't have a faggot in my house," the man said threateningly, thrusting out his chin, which was bleeding.

"But it's not your house, is it?" Danny stood up and dusted off his knees, then pushed his hair back out of his eyes, "It's the Trust's house. And you don't have any choice about who lives here. I am your son, like it or not, and the Trust doesn't allow you to kick me out."

"You think you know the Trust better than me?" Taylor challenged him.

"'Better than I,'" Danny corrected, stooping down to pick up the fallen desk chair and seating himself in it, reeling with a sense of power that he'd never felt before, "And no, I'm sure you're as well-versed as I. You are a lawyer, after all. So naturally you are aware that the Trust explicitly forbids such melodramatic gestures as disowning and/or evicting your children. It simply can't be done."

"Disowning isn't all there is," the man spat blood into an ashtray, "As I said, I can have you arrested and tried for assault."

"You could," Danny conceded, "But you won't. There would be a scandal, a Vandervere in Juvie; and not just any Vandervere, but the Mayor's own son. You would be seen publicly as a bad father. And it's only a step from thinking you a bad father to thinking you a bad Mayor."

"Nobody would ever run against me," Taylor stated as if he believed it, but Danny could see the doubts.

"Aunt Mathilda would, if she ever took it into her head to so do. And if I asked her to, she'd be on it like a shot. Send me to jail and she'll be out for your blood. Election year next year, isn't it?"

"Are you blackmailing me?" Taylor looked genuinely shocked.

"Just a little," Danny laughed, and tilted his head to look at his father thoughtfully, "I'm really surprised at you, I thought you were a better strategist than this. That you'd use up the only hold you had over me for something as trivial as my sexuality. Tenorino was the only thing you could take away from me, and you played your only ace this early in the game."

"I could take your car," Taylor reminded him, "That's my property as well."

"Yes, you could," Danny smiled at him, "But since you went out of your way to buy me the exact opposite of the red roadster that you knew I wanted, you rather pulled your own claws on that one. Take my car, I can get my own. You don't give me an extra allowance as you did Randy and Tay, all I get is what the Trust gives me, so you can't take that away, either. You've shot your only bullet, and we haven't even properly started the war."

"What war?" his father was starting to look worried.

"Well, for one thing, I'm not going to Harvard, I'm going to Stanford. I've already been accepted."

"I won't pay for Stanford," Taylor crossed his arms.

"You don't have to," Danny pointed out reasonably, "The Trust will. I already checked: Harvard is traditional, but not required. The Trust will pay for my education, wherever I choose to be educated. Sure, I'll have to do without you subsidizing my education with a flashy apartment and extra pocket-money, as you did for my brothers; but really, Dad, were you planning to do that for me, anyway? I somehow doubt it."

"Get out of my study," Taylor wanted desperately to be alone so he could evaluate all of what Danny had said. It was the longest conversation they'd ever had, and he could tell that something inside of Danny had broken: his meekness and sweetness were gone, replaced with hard steel that he might have admired if it weren't aimed at his own throat.

"As you wish," Danny stood up and sauntered arrogantly toward the door, "Have a pleasant evening."

~21~

When Danny got back to his room, he collapsed into the armchair and just sat there for the longest time, letting the numerous ramifications of what had just happened sink in: he'd lost his beloved horse, and a huge section of his life was suddenly gone, no more evening rides, no more dressage competitions; he'd physically attacked his own father, something he never would have guessed he'd do; and he'd challenged the man with a display of power of which he had no idea he was capable.

He grieved for Tenorino, but through his sorrow he could see that selling the horse was the best thing for him: Danny was going away to college in a few months, and wouldn't have been able to take the horse with him; and he didn't think he'd have made a good showing on the dressage circuit, with so many other things going on in his life — a string of third-place ribbons would hurt the horse's career as a champion and as a stud. Though Danny was going to miss the beautiful creature terribly, Tenorino was better off in a nice warm place, with professional riders taking him on the circuit, inspiring new equestrian students.

He was also sorry he'd hit his father: he deplored physical violence, and whatever the provocation, to beat a man savagely in anger was just plain wrong. He hated that he'd lost control of himself like that, and vowed to exercise his temper better in the future so such a thing wouldn't happen again.

Nevertheless, though he had no idea where all that cool, contemptuous back-talk had come from, he was very glad he'd been able to tap into it; he knew that his relationship with his father was forever altered, and altered for the better, due to that scene. He would no longer have to feel ignored and disdained by his parents, he now had the power to ignore and disdain them right back.

"Mijo, what is going on?" Mrs. Espinosa came into the room with his cheese and milk.

"Did you see my father?" Danny wondered, accepting the plate from her and indicating she should sit down in the other armchair.

"He looked like he'd been in a bar-brawl," the housekeeper was wide-eyed with surprise, and just a little bit of pleasure, "He's in there yelling his head off at your mother right now. What happened to him?"

"I beat the crap out of him," Danny hung his head with shame, "He sold my horse to punish me for being gay, and I'm afraid I lost my temper."

"Lost your temper?" Mrs. Espinosa scoffed, "I never thought to hear such a thing from you, mijo."

"I'm deeply ashamed of myself, letting myself be overwhelmed by anger like that," Danny admitted, "But what followed was right and necessary. I told him that I am going to Stanford, and that if he doesn't like it, he can blow it out his ass. Pardon my French."

"What's he going to do to you?" Mrs. Espinosa wondered, knowing that Taylor Vandervere was a vindictive man and would find some way to get back at his son for the humiliation of being beaten.

"He's already done all he could do, by selling Tenorino. He mentioned taking away my car, and I dared him to. I never particularly cared for the great hideous tank, anyway. And he threatened me with the police, but I pointed out that doing so would hurt him more than it would hurt me, so he backed down."

"He may have backed down tonight," the housekeeper frowned with worry, "But he's a snake, he'll find some way of hurting you."

"Do you think I should move out, Tia?" Danny asked her, "Go to the Aunt Ems'?"

"Perhaps, mijo," Mrs. Espinosa considered the idea, pulling herself out of the chair and leaning down to kiss Danny on the forehead, "But not yet. See what happens, and if you find that living under the same roof with him is uncomfortable or unpleasant, then go to your aunts. And in the meantime, be very much on your guard. I've worked for that man twenty years now, and I don't trust him."

"I will," Danny promised, "Good night, Tia, and thank you."

*****

For the rest of the week, Danny and his parents coexisted much as they always had: essentially in silence. But now there was no criticism punctuating the long silences, Danny could tell both his parents were too afraid of him to make a peep. And for the first time, without the criticisms and without Tenorino, without anything in particular to keep him there, Danny felt empty and unconnected. He was resolved, by the end of the week, to move in with the Aunt Ems if they would have him.

The emptiness of his home life made him cling more desperately to his life at school, holding tight to Jeremy and his little clique of friends. But even that felt empty sometimes; he'd be talking with Jeremy about little nothings after sex, or laughing with his friends at lunch, and he'd have this odd sensation of being behind glass, looking at his life from the outside. It frightened him, and made him cling even closer to everything around him.

And so it came as a horrible blow when he got a call from Mrs. Sinclair on Saturday night to tell him that Jeremy had crashed his car and was in the emergency room. Without even telling Mrs. Espinosa, he tore out of the house and got into his car, driving at breakneck speed to Vandervere Hospital; when he got there, he hugged his boyfriend's parents and asked them what was going on; they didn't know, so Danny armed himself with his Vandervere name and started throwing his weight around.

With a Vandervere breathing down their necks, the hospital staff went into high gear to take the best possible care of Jeremy; within minutes of Danny's arrival, Jeremy was in a private room with a team of specialists fussing over him.

While the doctors worked, Danny questioned the EMTs who'd brought him in; apparently, Jeremy had been driving on the River Road, a winding highway that ran alongside the Augusta River northwest of town; it was dark and raining pretty hard, and Jeremy's little car skidded through a guard-rail and down a fairly steep cliff, only barely avoiding going into the rushing river itself when the car's rear tires caught on some rocks at the river's edge. A logging truck coming down out of the mountains saw Jeremy's headlights below the road and CB'ed for help.

"What the hell was he doing on the River Road?" Danny wondered; there was nothing up there except logging camps and a few vacation cabins.

Nobody knew, and Jeremy had not regained consciousness; when the doctors finished with him, they came and reported directly to Danny, including Jeremy's parents in the conversation but automatically deferring to the Vandervere in their midst. Jeremy had a broken collarbone and two broken ribs, a fairly serious concussion, some bad lacerations to his face and forearms, and a dizzying array of contusions. The little car's airbags hadn't deployed, and though Jeremy had his seatbelt on, the downhill roll and the breaking glass had done a lot of damage.

On the bright side, he did not appear to have sustained any internal damage, no injury to his eyes or hands or ears, and his face would only scar superficially if at all. He would recover to complete fitness within a few weeks.

Danny broke down and wept when the doctors left, with Jeremy's parents comforting him as well as each-other. But eventually Danny realized he was being selfish and left the Sinclairs to themselves, allowing them to recover from the shock of the accident. He met with the hospital administrators on duty to ensure that the Sinclairs received every kindness and comfort the hospital could offer them, and then went out toward his car, intending to go stay the night at Pine Street and get comfort from his great-aunts.

"Here we are again, Mr. Vandervere," Officer Kelly stepped in front of him as he made his way through the hospital lobby.

"Officer Kelly," Danny greeted him with a handshake, "What do you mean, 'again'?"

"Somebody close to you was nearly killed," Officer Kelly explained, "The same someone as last time, even."

"But Jeremy had an accident," the boy pointed out.

"I don't know," the officer shook his head and opened his notepad, "It looks like he sideswiped a deer before he went over, but there was no deer on the road. And according to the phone company, he received a phone call from a public telephone booth, five minutes before he went out driving on a wet and dangerous road that he had no plausible reason to be driving on. That phone call came from a closed gas-station about two miles from where he went off the road. A phone booth with no fingerprints whatsoever on the telephone or the door."

"Oh, Christ," Danny breathed with horror, sinking down onto the nearest chair.

"This is the second time Jeremy has been attacked. We need to figure out who wants your boyfriend out of the way, before he succeeds in getting your boyfriend out of the way."

"But how?" Danny shook his head in perplexity, "Who in the world could possibly want to hurt Jeremy?"

"Did you see the movie The Fan?" Officer Kelly asked, sitting down in a chair across from Danny.

"Of course," Danny looked at him as though he'd asked if the sky was blue, "Lauren Bacall singing, for Christ's sake, how could I not see that?"

"You remember that the fan killed people he felt were a threat to the star, and people who stood between him and the star."

"Yes, but..."

"You're a star, Danny Vandervere. People worship you here. You're not just a Vandervere, but you're good at everything you do, incredibly nice, and beautiful. You excite passion and envy. You're as much a celebrity in this town as any movie star or pop singer could be."

"That's ridiculous," Danny looked askance at the man, "I'm just a kid."

"You're just a kid like Prince William is just a kid," Officer Kelly corrected him with a touch of exasperation, "And I believe you have a fan who's obsessed with you. I further believe that this fan is someone you know, probably someone you've had sex with, or who you have turned down for sex."

"Well, that certainly narrows things down," Danny said with some asperity.

"How many people have you had sex with?" Officer Kelly needed to know.

"More than two hundred. Maybe a hundred here in town and the rest were visitors or when I was out of town."

"And how many have you turned down?"

"Maybe five who've asked, three or four more who just hinted."

"Jesus," Officer Kelly shook his head, partly in admiration and partly in dismay for how many avenues of investigation that opened up, "How about exes? Who have you dated, or been at all serious with, besides Jeremy?"

"Well, I dated three girls last year," Danny thought about it, "And I had a sort of regular thing with Henry Ahern and Tommy Williams, who were on the list of people who didn't come out that I gave you on Halloween. And I spent a lot of time with Ash Phillips over Winter Break. But those were all just casual sex, not 'dating' per se."

"Henry and Tommy had alibis for Eric Bettancourt's murder, they were both at the dance same as you, same as everyone on your list — except for the two Christian kids, who were at church that night. I never questioned any of them. I'll have to have a look at Ash. He was the kid who was out in the woods with you when you found Janacek, too."

"Yes," Danny said slowly, wondering if that was significant. But he'd spent so much time with Ash, gotten to know him so well, and he couldn't imagine him hurting anybody.

"In the meantime, I'm putting a guard on Jeremy. He's in serious danger."

"And it's because of me," Danny said sadly.

"No, it's because of this crazy person who's obsessed with you," Officer Kelly leaned over and took Danny's hand, "This is not your fault, OK?"

"Maybe not my fault, but it is because of me," Danny contradicted him, but smiling and clasping his hand to show he appreciated the effort, "I'll do everything I can to help you find out who's doing this."

"I can't ask for more," Officer Kelly smiled and stood up, "You go home and get some sleep, OK? I'll talk to you again on Monday, hopefully I'll have some more information by then.

"Goodnight, Officer," Danny stood and watched the man leave the lobby, then sat back down and had a good long cry.

~22~

The following morning, after a good night's sleep in his Pine Street room and a huge breakfast served him in bed by Oscar, Danny went out to find Ash. The things Officer Kelly had said about him having an obsessed fan disturbed him, and Ash's name coming up in that context had worried him more, so he wanted to talk to the boy and reassure himself that Ash couldn't be responsible for these atrocities. Surely Ash had alibis for all of the dates in question.

"Oh, hi, Danny!" Mrs. Phillips answered the door when he knocked, dressed in a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, her usual Sunday attire.

"Good morning, Mrs. Phillips. Is Ash at home?" Danny asked in his usual courtly manner that made the woman smile indulgently at him.

"No, he's out at his studio," she answered.

"He has a studio?" Danny was taken aback.

"You didn't know? I would have thought he'd taken you up there already. I guess he thought it wasn't good enough for you. It's just a shack."

"I'm not sure if I should ask you where it is, if he didn't tell me himself; but it's important that I talk to him this morning."

"Oh, I'm sure he wouldn't mind you going to his studio," Mrs. Phillips smiled, knowing how much her son loved this beautiful boy, "It's up on River Road, about a mile and a half from the gas station."

"The River Road," Danny didn't like the sound of that.

"Yeah, you'll see his car, if he's up there," she chattered blithely on, "It's on the right hand side, between the road and the river."

"Thank you, Mrs. Phillips," Danny reached out and shook her hand, "Is there any message I can give him if I find him?"

"No, I'm sure I'll see him later."

Danny went back to his car and sat there for a moment, trying to decide if he should call Officer Kelly and tell him about this, or if he should go and talk to Ash first and find out what was going on. He didn't want to have the police question his friend if he wasn't involved, it would hurt Ash's feelings to think that Danny didn't trust him. And he just couldn't believe Ash would have hurt Jeremy, or anyone else for that matter: he was such a gentle boy, so quiet and always calm.

As Mrs. Phillips had promised, Danny saw Ash's car off the side of the road behind a thin screen of saplings; it was an old gray Ford Fiesta with rust stains around the bottom, recognizable by its Colorado plates and the swirling black patterns Ash had painted around the outside in latex paints that he could peel off and repaint whenever the mood took him.

Leaving his car behind Ash's, Danny climbed down and followed the narrow foot track that snaked through the trees, and in less than a hundred yards came out into a clearing with a small cabin sitting in the middle; it looked like a wooden box with a pitched metal roof, about fifteen feet long and perhaps ten deep, with four windows and a metal chimney, sitting up on stilts with three feet of bare space underneath. He could hear the river in the background, and the rain was still dripping in the trees, the muddy ground showing tracks going back and forth around the front of the cabin.

"Ash? Are you here?" Danny called as he stepped up on the little stoop, knocking on the thin wooden door, which opened at his touch, "Hello?"

Danny stepped into the cabin, which was very dim but apparently completely lined with photographs, sketches, and paintings. Danny couldn't see them very well, and wondered how Ash could work with so little light; but he found a half-dozen kerosene lamps scattered around the small single room, and lit the one next to the door with the book of paper matches that was lying beside it. In its light, he could see an iron bed up against the wall, a wood-burning stove on the right, some cupboards for food and water storage beside it, and a half-dozen easels and portable supply stands scattered around. Stepping further into the room, he raised the lamp to look at the pictures on the wall.

All of the pictures were of Danny: some photographs and sketches for which he'd posed, but dozens more that he didn't know had been taken. There were pictures of him running in the woods in his skimpy little shorts, and pictures of him riding Tenorino in those same woods; pictures of him at school, talking to people, rehearsing the play, kissing Jeremy in the halls; and even pictures taken with a telephoto lens through his bedroom window, apparently from up in a tree.

Some of the drawings were of Danny alone, but many more were of Danny and Ash together, some sexual but most of them more along the lines of comic-book illustrations, showing them engaged in various fantasy adventures: cowboys shooting at rustlers, spacemen defending themselves against aliens, pirates swinging their cutlasses at white-wigged naval officers.

And then there were the paintings, a score of them, mostly taken from the photographs but a few from the artist's imagination. The most beautiful and disturbing one was of Danny on his morning run through the woods, with Mr. Janacek's dead hand lying in the foreground. Below that painting were dozens of photographs from that morning, including distance and close-up shots of the dead body — apparently all that time Ash had his camera out, he'd been surreptitiously taking pictures.

"Danny!" Ash said in surprise, stepping into the cabin.

"Ash?" Danny turned to look at the boy, who was holding a huge green-painted gun in his hand. He raised the gun and aimed it at Danny, who didn't even have time to react before he heard a soft shwup and felt a stinging sensation in his arm. Looking down at the source of the pain, he saw a large tranquilizer dart sticking out of his deltoid. He reached to pull it out, but his hand missed. He gaped incredulously at Ash, who stared back at him with his usual gentle calm; but within seconds, Danny's vision fragmented into little dots that drifted apart from each other, and then dissipated altogether. He didn't even feel himself hit the floor.

*****

"Yes?" Mrs. Phillips answered the door in some irritation, having been torn away from the football game at an important moment.

"Officer Kelly, Vandervere Police," the policeman presented his wallet badge; he was technically off-duty and so wore civilian clothes instead of his uniform.

"What can I do for you, Officer?"

"I need to speak to Eugene Phillips," Officer Kelly replied.

"He's not here," the woman answered tersely.

"Do you know where I can find him, ma'am?"

"No."

"Can you think of anywhere he might be?" the officer insisted.

"What's this all about, Officer?" Mrs. Phillips crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the door sill.

"Are you his mother?" the officer asked, and when the woman nodded, he went on, "Your son is involved in an investigation, and I need to speak to him about two murders and two attempted murders. It's extremely important."

"You think my son killed those people?" the woman eyed the officer suspiciously.

"No, ma'am,” the officer lied, not wanting to put the woman’s guard up, “but I think he may have information about the murders, and that puts him in great danger. The killer is targeting people close to Danny Vandervere. Danny's boyfriend is in the hospital right now."

"I didn't know Danny had a boyfriend," Mrs. Phillips looked confused, "I mean, I thought he and Ash were together."

"Can you tell me where to look for your son, ma'am?" the officer felt a thrill of dread at those words.

"He might be up at his studio," Mrs. Phillips relented, worried about her son's safety, "It's up on River Road, on the right, a mile and a half past the gas station. Danny just went up there looking for him about an hour ago, you'll see their cars if they're there."

"Thank you, ma'am. I'll ask your son to call you when I see him."

"Thank you, Officer."

*****

Danny came to very slowly, floating in a feeling of immense pleasure; he could feel someone sucking his cock, and strong hands roaming his skin. He groaned and arched his back lazily, mildly concerned by his grogginess and wondering vaguely where he was and with whom; but the sucking was more interesting, and he concentrated on that instead, letting the orgasm mount with delicious pressure.

It was during his orgasm that Danny realized that he couldn't move his arms, but he was so concentrated on the pleasure he didn't think about it; afterward, as his breathing returned to normal and his head cleared a little, he pulled again at his arms and discovered that they were stretched full-length and his wrists were bound in some soft material; his ankles were bound together as well, his legs tightly immobilized. But it wasn't painful or frightening, just peculiar.

Opening his eyes, he was surprised to see a corrugated steel ceiling instead of plaster — oh, of course, Ash's studio he thought, closing his eyes again and drifting a little bit — but then he felt cold metal pressed under his chin, something squarish, and his eyes flew open.

Ash was sitting beside him on the creaking iron bed, leaning over him, his hair pushed back behind a dark purple bandanna, looking thoughtfully at whatever it was that was pressed under Danny's chin.

"Ash? What are you doing?" Danny whispered, his throat dry and weak.

"I don't want you to suffer," Ash explained equably, "But I don't want to make a mess, either."

"What?" Danny couldn't make any sense of that statement. He and Ash were both naked, and the air in the room was cold.

"If I shoot you here," Ash said slowly, smiling at Danny, "it won't hurt, but it will ruin your head."

Terror cleared the cobwebs out of Danny's mind, and his entire body stiffened: the metal thing under his chin was a gun. Ash was going to kill him.

"Why?" Danny cried out, struggling uselessly at his bonds.

"So we can be together," Ash said as if pointing out the obvious, then moved the gun down to Danny's chest, "If I shoot you here, it won't hurt much, but it might tear your chest muscles, it would ruin this beautiful line."

"What are you talking about? Why do you want to shoot me at all?"

"I told you: so we can be together," Ash repeated dreamily, "Oh, I know, I can shoot you under the arm. But if I miss your heart, it will hurt an awful lot. I don't want to hurt you."

"How can we be together if you shoot me?" Danny demanded.

"I'll shoot you, and then myself, and we can be together forever. Nobody in our way, nobody keeping us apart; we'll always be young, just like we are right now."

"That's not how it works, Ash," Danny tried to remain calm, hoping to reason with the boy, though his heart was thumping like he'd just run five miles, and his skin broke out in a cold sweat that smelled acrid with fear; but if had to die, he did not want to die begging and jibbering, "If you kill us, we'll just be dead. You can't do that."

"No, we'll be together in the afterlife. I know we will."

"No, Ash, we won't."

"You'll be beautiful forever."

"No, Ash, I won't. I'll be dead. All of this beauty, this wonderful body that I know you love, will die. It will turn into dead, cold meat and rot in the ground. You can't do that to my beauty, you can't take it out of the world and turn it into rotting meat."

"You don't need your body," Ash said after a long minute of reflection, "Your spirit is beautiful. You'll always be beautiful, no matter what happens to your body."

"All I have is my beauty, Ash: my face and my body and my cock," Danny looked away from the boy's sad, calm eyes; arguing for his life, he began to wonder whether or not it was worth arguing about, "Without my physical beauty, I'm nothing."

"That's not true," the boy seemed stumped by Danny's reluctance to die with him, "You'll see, when we're together in the next world."

"If you kill me, we will never be together," Danny said bitterly.

"Why not?" Ash felt his foundations crumbling fast, confusion picking away at the monument of his fantasy.

"Because I love my life, Ash," Danny said passionately, "I love my body, I love my friends, and my boyfriend, and my aunts. I want to go to college, and fall in love, and have a life. I'm only sixteen years old, I have so much left to do! If you take all that away from me, I will never forgive you, not in this world or the next."

"You'll forgive me," Ash assured him, stroking his armpit with the barrel of the gun.

"Ash, you can't do this," Danny said forcefully, hoping a sharp tone would snap the boy out of his delusion.

Ash sat back, shaking his head, unable to fathom why Danny was arguing with him. He got up and walked around the room, trying to understand Danny's reluctance, looking at the pictures he'd made of their life together in the next world. It was such a beautiful life, full of adventure and love, and he couldn't see why Danny didn't want it.

"Why don't you believe in my vision?" Ash asked sadly, turning to look at Danny; the gun, a huge black automatic, hung loose in his left hand.

"Because it's not real, Ash," Danny felt sorry for the boy, "It's all in your head. Your imagination."

"It is real," he insisted, moving back to the bed and sitting down on the edge, running his hand over Danny's torso affectionately, "It's just this world keeping us from it."

"Why did you kill Mr. Janacek?" Danny hoped to distract Ash from his intention by asking questions.

"I thought he was using you," Ash looked down, ashamed, "I made a horrible mistake. I'm so sorry about that."

"But how did you even know about us?" Danny had always been so careful about locking the door and making sure the curtains were closed.

"I saw you through the window in the door, a little tear in the paper over the glass."

"Why were you peeking through a little tear in the paper?" Danny wondered.

"I've been watching you since the first day of school," Ash smiled a little, embarrassed to admit it but also proud of his ingenuity in keeping track of Danny's movements, "When I saw what he did to you, I started following him. I tracked him to that disgusting cruising park. He came up to me and offered me a blowjob. I let him kneel down, and I pulled off my belt and looped it around his neck, pulling it tight, straight up, until he passed out. And then I used his own belt to finish him off. And I pushed him down to the trail so you could see that you were free of him."

"You were there, all that time?" Danny was creeped out by the idea of being watched during that horribly vulnerable moment.

"Yes," Ash leaned down and kissed Danny, "I've devoted myself to you, Danny. My every waking moment has been devoted to seeing you and protecting you. I love you."

"Is that why you killed Eric? To protect me?"

"You didn't hear the things he was saying about you," Ash's face distorted with anger, "He was maligning you to anyone who would listen. He even maligned you to me; I pretended to listen, pretended to believe his lies. I went with him when he wanted to slash your tires at the Halloween Dance, and cut the paint on your car. But I cut him instead. I shut him up for you."

"But I didn't want it, Ash," Danny said sadly, hoping he could convince the boy to stop what he was doing without hurting his feelings, "Eric was just a dumb kid. He could have grown up into a better man. But you took away his chance."

"I don't understand," Ash frowned, "He was bad."

"Do you think you're bad, Ash? You've done worse than spread rumors and tell lies. You killed two people."

"But they deserved it," Ash pointed out.

"So you punished them? By killing them?"

"Yes!" Ash said earnestly.

"And you want to kill me. To punish me?" Danny sprung a trap of logic.

"No," Ash cried, "To set you free, to set us free!"

"But it's the same thing, Ash," Danny said patiently, "It's the same act. It's killing, it's death, either way."

"No," Ash pleaded, tears starting in his eyes.

"And Jeremy?" Danny went on, "What did Jeremy do to deserve death?"

"He kept you from me," Ash sighed, "But I never meant to kill Jeremy, I just wanted to scare him away. And it worked at first, but then he came back. So I had to scare him again."

"That sword would have killed him, Ash."

"No, I watched you in rehearsal, I knew where you'd stab him, right here," Ash reassured him, pressing his finger into Danny's abdomen just under his ribs, "It would go through him, but not hit any vital organs."

"How could you be sure I'd hit him right exactly there?" Danny didn't believe him.

"You hit him in exactly the same place every time," Ash pointed out, "I watched you. You are always exact, always perfect."

"And how did you know that running his car off the road wouldn't kill him?" Danny demanded.

"It didn't kill him."

"But it nearly did. His airbags didn't deploy. He was only prevented from going into the river by a fluke. Jeremy is a sweet, kind, talented boy, and you might have killed him for no better reason than because he stood in your way."

"That's not what I meant," Ash wept.

"And what about that poor horse?" Danny suddenly realized it was Ash who'd killed the big black Arabian; the horse that had his name, with which Danny's mother had humiliated him, "Ashtaroth wasn't even in your way."

"I was angry," the boy lay down beside Danny, his head over Danny's heart, where he could feel the hot tears dripping onto his skin, "It was cruel of me. I led that horse up to the oleander tree and fed the leaves and flowers to him. He made the most horrible noises, it sounded like screaming. I am so sorry."

"Ash, you have to understand that killing is bad, no matter what. It doesn't punish anybody, it doesn't set anybody free. It's just death, it's destruction. Killing me, killing yourself, it's the worse thing you could possibly do."

"But it would be so beautiful," Ash wailed, curling against Danny.

"No, Ash, it wouldn't," Danny knew he'd stopped the boy, that Ash wouldn't hurt him now, and wanted to comfort him, "I know what you wanted, and your dream was beautiful, your pictures are so beautiful. But we can't have that, it isn't real."

"It should be real."

"Yes, love, but it's not. We have to accept and live with what's real."

"I don't want to," the boy wept like a child.

"Will you untie me, Ash?" Danny asked quietly after a bit, "And put down the gun?"

Ash pulled back and looked into Danny's eyes, his broken heart plain on his face, and nodded. He got a knife from one of his supply boxes and sawed through the silk scarves that he'd used to tie Danny up. As soon as his hands and legs were free, Danny sat up and pulled Ash into his arms, stroking his hair and rocking him as he cried.

They were curled up naked together like that when Officer Kelly kicked in the door and leaped into the room, his gun drawn. Danny held Ash tighter so he wouldn't be afraid, wouldn't be frightened into doing something stupid, and held out his hand to the policeman, gesturing for him to put away his gun.

"Ash," Danny crooned to the sobbing boy, pulling his face up to look into his eyes, "Officer Kelly has to arrest you. It's his duty. You understand that, don't you?"

"Yes," Ash agreed, sniffling and nodding, looking up at Danny with complete trust, "Do you think it will be hard in prison? For someone like me?"

"Oh, I don't think you'll go to prison, love," Danny kissed him on the forehead, "You'll go to a hospital where they can help you sort everything out."

"You think so?" the boy looked hopeful.

"I'll do everything in my power to make sure," Danny promised him, "But you have to go with Officer Kelly now. He's going to have to handcuff you, it's procedure; but I'll come with you, OK? Everything is going to be all right."

Officer Kelly stood stock still for a moment, marveling at the scene. When Danny gestured to him to take Ash away, he took the cue and was very gentle, helping the unresisting boy get dressed before putting the cuffs on, and wrapping a comforting arm around his shoulders to lead him out of the little cabin and back to the police car that he'd called as backup.

Danny got dressed, took a long last look around the little cabin with all its pictures of him, and swallowed his own terror in order to help the boy who'd nearly killed him; he shook his head at the irony of that, but decided the distraction was a welcome one — he'd have time later to let the fear he'd experienced work itself out.

~23~

"Hey, sleepy," Danny said when Jeremy opened his eyes.

"Hey, you," Jeremy started to smile, but winced when the smile disturbed the bandage on his face, "Do I look like I feel?"

"That depends. Do you feel like Boris Karloff in The Mummy?"

"Who's Boris Karloff?"

"'Who's Boris Karloff,' he says," Danny shook his head in mock seriousness, "I'm going to have to take your education in hand. Your knowledge of classic cinema is deplorable."

"I've got a DVD player here," Jeremy closed his eyes again, squirming in the hospital bed to get more comfortable, but stopping with a little squeak of pain when his squirming disrupted his collarbone and ribs, "I'm going to be in bed forever, you might as well bore me with your old movies while I can't move."

Danny laughed and took Jeremy's hand in his, and started talking to him about people at school, a subject of which Jeremy never seemed to tire. He also told him about various celebrities who were being featured on the internet, though he'd had to do hours of research to learn the comings and goings of the new famous, who had never really interested Danny.

And all the time he sat there chatting, he was riddled with pain and regret. Jeremy's face was going to be scarred, his sweet prettiness marred forever — not enough to disfigure him, and it was mostly covered by his fashionably floppy hair; but it was a mark that would always be there, a long jagged line running from his left eyebrow almost to his jaw. Danny grieved over it considerably more than Jeremy himself, who thought it would make him look mysterious and dangerous.

Danny felt incredibly guilty about Jeremy's injuries, knowing that Ash had done what he did on Danny's account — calling Jeremy from a payphone claiming that Danny had been hurt and was asking for him, then hauling a deer carcass into the road and waiting in the shoulder until Jeremy's car came around a bend and swerved to avoid the deer, finally laboriously hauling the deer back into the woods and burying it as soon as Jeremy's car went over the side.

He acknowledged that he wasn't responsible for Ash's insane actions, understood that nothing he could have done would have changed the boy from the paths he'd taken; he nevertheless still felt remorse for what Ash had done, because it was for Danny that he'd done it. That knowledge made him sad, just as knowing how Ash was suffering made him sad, seeing the boy struggling with his own remorse, his only relief the long spells of complete disconnect from reality that he experienced regularly.

In the weeks following, Danny split his free time between Ash and Jeremy, though he wasn't allowed to spend all that much time with Ash, who was confined to the County hospital in Redding; and after the first two weeks, Ash's doctor asked Danny to stop visiting, as it seemed to trigger the boy's episodes.

When he was arraigned, Ash pleaded 'no contest' to the charges of murder, attempted murder, and destruction of property and animal cruelty. He was remanded to a correctional psychiatric facility at Susanville, on the other side of the state near the Nevada border. Mrs. Phillips was able to get a job with the Lassen County sheriffs, and moved to Susanville so she could be near her son.

Danny kept in touch with Ash through his mother, whom he called twice a week; she reported that Ash was surprisingly happy in the "nut hut" (as she called it), he had access to art supplies and was encouraged to draw and paint. He still suffered delusions about himself and Danny, but they did not last very long and never featured violence of any kind.

Danny was seeing a psychotherapist regularly on his own account, working through his tangled feelings about Ash and his actions, but also managing to work through a lot of tangled feelings about his parents, his sex-life, and his self-esteem.

It helped his self-esteem even more when he moved out of his parents' house and took up residence with the Aunt Ems for the rest of the school year. They gave him a different room, at his request, a large empty space on the third floor with a tiny bathroom down the hall, which had once been a dormitory for housemaids.

He was allowed to furnish and decorate it to his own taste without disturbing the museum-like stasis of the rest of the house; he had the walls covered in dark green damask and stained the duckboard wainscots himself to a dark walnut color, then commandeered discarded odds and ends from the storage rooms in the attic and put together an exquisite 'shabby-chic' jewel-box of a room.

Danny and Jeremy broke up shortly after Easter, realizing that they didn't love each other sufficiently to justify ongoing mutual exclusivity. Danny had been reminded, when he was arguing with Ash for his life and said that he wanted to 'fall in love,' that he loved but wasn't in love with Jeremy; and Jeremy realized the same thing during his long convalescence, having a great deal of time in which to think.

They remained friends afterward, though, and Jeremy started dating Derrick, the blond trumpeter, with whom he did fall very deeply in love; Danny went back to his promiscuous ways, more comfortable with new conquests and casual fuck-buddies than with serious monogamy.

But for the rest of the school year, Danny was infected by a sense of artificiality. None of his life seemed quite real, except for the sex. Living with the Aunt Ems, studying and participating in committees and sports at school, hanging out with his friends, none of it seemed like a genuine and authentic experience.

What did seem real was planning for college: Danny realized, as he made the arrangements for his living quarters, transportation, and classes at Stanford that he had, in a very deep way, already said goodbye to his life in Vandervere when he was tied to that bed in Ash's studio with a gun nestled under his chin. The rest of the year was just an awkward period of delay, such as at a party when you have already taken leave of your hosts and are just waiting for your date to do the same so you can go.

Danny Vandervere's childhood was over. He was only waiting for life to begin.

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