I stared at Dex in shock, for several seconds before finally finding my voice, "Give the Data Stick back?" I gasped, "It's the only hope we have of figuring this all out."
At that point, I noticed Steve's relaxed demeanor, and knew I had to be missing something. Dex quickly filled me in, "Not exactly. Remember I gave you the make and model number so you could order me an identical one to experiment on? Why don't you order two, they are cheap enough. Then I can rig up a convincing copy of the data, but they will never be able to decode it, because it really isn't their data at all."
"But, wouldn't they just get another copy somehow?" I asked.
Dex shook his head, "They must be after it for one of two reasons; either they need it, or it's very incriminating, perhaps both. If they could get another copy, they likely wouldn't be so frantic to get it back. The way it is encrypted, they would be fairly safe in assuming that no one could access it. They might even be right."
Steve grinned, "Think about it. They need whatever is on there. We give them a fake, and let them go nuts trying to decode it. They won't be after us anymore, either. I like this."
I nodded, as the plan became clear, "Okay, but I don't get it. Wouldn't they know it was fake?"
Dex gave a rare laugh, "Nope, not if this is what I think it is. I think Eric was playing courier, and the pass phrase that unlocks it went by a different route. Total security that way. So, they get the data stick back, and try to decode it. It won't accept their code, so they'll try again and again. Finally, they will need to try to contact whoever they got it from because they won't think it is working. That might even be a way to find out what they are really up to. Like, you know, spy on them at the right time."
Steve chimed in, "My Dad might love this idea."
I had to agree, it sounded like just what we needed. I nodded, sealing the deal, "OK, I'll order two of them."
Dex shook his head, "Don't, just in case anyone checks your credit card statements. I'll do it, and have them shipped right to my house. I'll make a fake encrypted file, so they will just get errors when they try to decrypt. Hell, I'll just grab some crap off the internet and encrypt it."
"Won't they know it isn't encrypted the same way?" Asked Steve.
Dex smiled again, "Nope, because all they will have is the data file itself. All I need to do is copy the file off the real data stick, and preserve the first and last few lines. Then, I'll replace the rest with randomized junk, and put the new file on the new data stick. Then, you guys let Eric steal it."
"Sounds good to me, but how do we make this look convincing?" Steve asked.
Dex shrugged, "That's up to you guys. I handle tech stuff, not people stuff. I can get those data sticks for about twenty bucks, so give me forty and I'll take care of the rest."
I nodded, and dropped my hand to my hip, seeking my wallet. My hand landed on the side of my Speedos, and I remembered that my wallet was still in Steve's car.
Dex shook his head as I asked Steve, "Hey, got your wallet with you?"
Steve nodded, "Yeah, it's in my Levi's..." His voice trailed off and his eyebrows went up, "Which are in the washing machine. Oh, Shit!"
Dex doubled over, laughing hysterically, "Now I know why Veronica rags on you both about being blond..." He gasped.
Veronica walked in, and looked at Dex, who was still cracking up, "Okay, what did they do now?" She asked, crossing her arms and tapping her foot impatiently.
Dex filled her in, and she shook her head, starting to laugh, "Okay, more blond jokes on the way."
I was glad that I wasn't the one with his wallet going through a rinse cycle. I asked Steve if his car was locked, and he shook his head. I took a few steps towards the door, "I'll go grab my wallet out of the Charger..." I stopped at the door, remembering that I was only wearing one of Steve's racing suits, and blushed as I asked Veronica, "Hey, could I borrow a towel?"
Veronica smiled sweetly, shaking her head, "No, Chris, you can't."
"Then could one of you go get my wallet? It's in the back seat of the Charger, under my shirt," I asked, as the three of them began to snicker.
Veronica glared at Dex, causing him to shake his head. I looked at my grinning boyfriend, who also shook his head, "No, Dude, can't do that. Just go get it yourself. It's just a Saturday afternoon, and I'm parked at the curb, so plenty of people out there to enjoy the view."
"Paybacks are a bitch, bud." I mumbled, with a shrug of my shoulders and turned to open the front door. After opening it, I glanced around and saw that the street was pretty well deserted, so I walked quickly to the car. I tried the passenger side door and found it locked. I looked through the window and saw that the driver's side was locked, too. Glancing back at the house, I could see Steve, standing in the window, laughing, as the dark suspicions crossing my mind were confirmed. Noticing a car coming down the street, I jogged back to the front door. I got there just in time, and turned the handle, only to find it locked, as I'd half expected.
I stood there, ringing the bell and pounding on the door. I saw the drapes move as Veronica pulled them back, looking at me, and shaking her head, "You should have known he would do this to you." She said, loud enough for me to hear through the closed window.
I spun and raced for the backyard gate, already knowing that it was probably too late.
I skidded to a halt in front of the gate, but sure enough, it was locked. I peeked through the gap, and found Steve, Rob, and Joe looking back at me, laughing.
"Could somebody open the gate, or at least throw me a towel?" I hollered, feeling overly exposed and decidedly underdressed to be parading around in Veronica's front yard.
"Nope, no can do." My boyfriend's overly cheerful voice wafted over the high block wall.
I swore I'd get him for this, some way, some how. I wasn't all that shy, hell, I'd participated in plenty of swim meets and water polo games, but being stuck in Veronica's front yard, in full view of the whole damn neighborhood in just a tight pair of Speedos was making me feel decidedly uncomfortable.
I padded across to the other side of the lot, only to find that the space between Veronica's house and the boundary fence was choked by overgrown dry bush, baked by the sun due to their being no overhang, leaving me with no way through to the backyard. I remembered that her yard was surrounded by the high block wall, so even if I could get through the brush I'd still be faced with a wall.
After walking back to the front porch, feeling the hot, dry breeze on every inch of my abundance of exposed skin, I turned a plastic lounge chair around to face the house and sat down. At least that way I wasn't in full view from the street.
Climbing over the block wall was not an option. It wasn't that tall, just over seven feet by my guess, but like so many cement block security walls in the area, the top was festooned with shards of broken glass sticking out of the mortar. 'Poor man's barbed wire' they call it. At least it is less obvious than the real kind and didn't make the place look like a prison.
Steve pulled the drapes back and stood grinning at me, waving like some little kid. I swore again that I would get him, somehow. The fact that he was enjoying this so much had me craving for some way to get him back.
I wondered how long they would let me sit out here, and figured it would probably be a while.
Looking at another of the plastic loungers, I had an idea. Putting my plan into action, I carried the lounger from the porch to the corner of the house, then around the side and into the brush a few feet.
Standing it on end up the wall, I scrambled up it, high enough to hook my fingers over the edge of the roof. I heaved myself up onto the roof, which was very hot to the touch. I could feel it burning my feet as I hastily walked up to the peak and then down the side facing the back yard. Veronica's pool was only ten feet from the house, so after checking the distance, I dashed back up the roof, then turned and sprinted for the edge.
Carefully gauging my stride as I approached the edge, I planted my final step inches from the rain gutter. I felt by foot break contact with the burning roof, and I was airborne, the hot, dry air rushing over my skin, and I felt like I was flying, hanging weightless in the air, on a perfect course for the middle of the shallow end of the pool.
I tucked into a cannonball, rolling as I hit, and felt the cool water sting a little from the impact. I un-tucked as I grazed the bottom of the pool, and stood up in the chest-deep water, flinging my hair back out of my eyes, and turned to grin at everyone. Rob gave me a few claps, and I strode to the side of the pool and hauled myself out. Steve was careful to keep his distance, and I grinned wickedly at him to let him know that I'd find a way to get him back.
Steve and I were about evenly matched at wrestling, unless I resorted to tickling him, which he probably guessed correctly that I'd do. Unfortunately for me, tickling him didn't always work. I pumped myself a beer and sat down by the pool, enjoying the feel of hot air drying my wet body. I said to Dex, who was sitting nearby, "I'll get your cash as soon as I can get into Steve's car, it was locked."
Dex shook his head, "No need, Steve paid me. He fished his wallet out of the washer after locking you out. Two sopping wet bills, but he paid me."
I glanced over at Steve, "OK, truce, you can come sit down. I've got something serious to tell you anyway. I would have before but I didn't think you would believe me while I was locked out. You must have run over a nail; your left front tire is flat.
"Oh shit!" Steve growled, as he strode over to the gate, unlocked it, and headed for his Charger. I dashed over to the gate and locked it, before turning and announcing, "That was way too easy."
Veronica crossed her arms and muttered, "Blond."
I shrugged, "Yeah, he is. I didn't think it would be this easy though."
Veronica shook her head, "Not him you goof, you. Watch what he does when he finds he's been locked out."
Steve returned to the gate and didn't bother trying to open it. I heard him say, "When I saw it wasn't flat, I figured out what you were up to. Oh, I'm so embarrassed to be standing out here in just a racing suit. Whatever will I do?" He said, theatrically.
I heard him walk away, and I followed Veronica into her house. She went to the window next to the front door, looked out, and waved me over to her, "Just you look what he's done! Trying to get him like he got you won't work. That's why I called you blond."
I looked out the window and nodded. Steve had carried the plastic lounger to the middle of the front yard, and was now laying flat on it, stretched out on his back in the sun. I'd expected as much, so I opened the door and said, loud enough for him to hear, "Okay, you aren't shy, but the pool, the beer, and the food is all in here, and you are all alone out there. I win!" And with that, I slammed and locked the door.
Turning to a confused Veronica, I grinned, "You assumed I was just trying to embarrass him, but I do know better than to try that. Think about it, what is he going to do?
Veronica stared at me for a moment, "Probably get back in the same way you did, by climbing on the roof and jumping in the... Oh, I see! Okay, maybe turning you blond was a little premature after all."
I hurried to the backyard, and walked around the pool, looking for a place to hide.
Spotting a likely place behind a bush planted against the back wall, I dashed to it and squeezed between it and the wall. I crouched down, feeling the soft leaves brushing against my bare skin. Peering out through the branches, I found that I could see well enough. I did not have long to wait.
Steve came into view over the peak of the roof, hotfooting it across the searing asphalt shingles. He approached the edge and called down to Joe, "Where is he?"
Joe shrugged in response, even though he knew darn well where I was. Steve, bouncing from foot to foot on the hot roof, leaned over the edge to look down, probably searching for me.
Steve dashed back up the roof, and ran for the edge. The moment his feet left the roof, I jumped up and headed for the pool, just two paces away. Steve spotted me as he tucked into a cannonball, and I had the distinct pleasure of seeing his eyes go wide. Steve hit with a splash about a dozen feet from me, and I launched myself from the pool edge as he went under.
My timing, for once, was perfect. Steve kicked off the bottom and came up at an angle, pulling hard for the opposite side of the pool. But I was too close for him to evade me, and I grabbed his ankle.
Planting my feet on the bottom, I hauled him back towards me. He tried to kick free, and then he tried twisting around, but I was ready and countered both moves with ease. I dunked his head for a second, and when he came up, I said with my best evil grin, "It's much too shallow here. Let's go to the deep end."
Steve again tried to kick free, but I had him by both feet, and began hauling him backwards toward deeper water. As the water neared my shoulders I eggbeatered, with a struggling Steve in tow. He launched into a freestyle crawl with his arms, but could not keep me from reaching the middle of the deep end of the pool.
Steve tried to twist back around, while starting to laugh, "Come on Chris, you don't really want to drown me, do you?"
"Let's see. You tricked me into wearing Speedos again, and then to top it off you locked me out on the front yard and wouldn't even throw me a towel."
Steve chuckled, "I wouldn't have kept you out there too long, just long enough for everyone in the neighborhood to see you. It didn't bother me any, I laid down in the middle of the yard and stretched out."
I dunked laughing boy, then when he came up I chuckled, "Yeah, you did, but you like showing off. But guess what? So do I. It's fun to show off my skill in the water, such as by drowning my boyfriend."
I dunked him again, and kicked forward to put an arm across his torso and my knee in his back, then pulled him up to the surface.
He came up spitting water, laughing, "Come on Chris, you don't really want to drown me, do you?"
I dunked him again, just for a couple of seconds, then as he came up I said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Steve, don't you know that it isn't nice to embarrass your boyfriend? It's also not real smart, after doing so, to fall for his trick to get you into the water where you know he can drown you."
I heard Steve chuckle, "But you look so hot in that black racing suit. I knew it would go great with your new blond hair."
I pulled Steve under, and kept him there. I knew he could hold his breath for a long time, so I wasn't too worried. I felt him stop struggling after about thirty seconds, so I pulled him back up.
He took a deep breath and then laughed, "I know you won't really drown me."
I moved forward and stage-whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Yeah, but I can keep this up all day," and shoved him under again.
While he was under, I heard Veronica yell, "Titty twister!"
I grinned and pulled Steve to the surface, running my free hand over his chest until I found what I sought. I twisted and pinched, causing Steve to gasp, and dunked him again. This time he came up sputtering, and I dug my fingers into his ribs, making him laugh and squirm as I dunked him again.
While I held him under, I remembered something from the last pool party. I pulled my gorgeous, sputtering boyfriend back up, let him almost catch his breath, and then dunked him again. As he went down, I stayed behind him, grabbing the sides of his swimsuit. Steve pulled for the surface, leaving his racing suit in my grasp, and I kicked off the bottom and pulled hard for the side of the pool. As I neared the side, I held up the swimsuit like a trophy to my laughing audience, and tossed the suit to Rob.
I hauled myself out of the pool and looked back at Steve, who was treading water and grinning at me. I padded over to my chair and took a long chug of my beer, relaxing in the late afternoon sun.
Steve trod water as Veronica and Chad came up behind me. Before they could say a word, Steve shrugged and started swimming laps. Chad laughed, "He won't care. Wait and see."
It took no longer than the end of Steve's first lap to prove Chad right. Steve did a kick turn, and launched into a backstroke for his next lap, his dick often sticking up out of the water. Veronica laughed, "The submarine has a periscope, I see."
Steve couldn't hear her, but stopped at the end of the pool and hauled himself out, flashing all of us with his bare ass. Without a care in the world, he turned to face us and casually walked back to his seat beside me to sit down. Once seated, he stretched and took a drink of his beer.
Gales of laughter greeted his display, but Steve was unphased by it all. Veronica laughed, and then yelled, "Would you put some damn clothes on? Or are you just trying to show everyone that you are a natural blond?"
Chad put his arm around Veronica, looked down at Steve, "I think he's an au naturale blond right now."
"Glad to see you remember some French, Chad, and yes, he's naked, and on my damn patio!
Steve laughed and shrugged, "Chris took my swimsuit. What was I supposed to do?"
"How about staying in the water," Veronica started sternly, "like a normal person, instead of parading around stark naked?" Veronica continued, cracking with laughter towards the end.
Rob and Joe walked over as Dex sat by the barbeque, shaking his head disapprovingly. Rob still had Steve's swimsuit in his hand, and Veronica commanded, "Give it back to him, or he's just gonna sit there all day like that."
Steve stretched again, "Yeah, I kinda wanted an all-over tan anyway," he said, the corners of his mouth twitching up in a very familiar way.
I shook my head and looked him over. He was truly gorgeous, and totally self-assured. Rob turned to Veronica, "Would that really be so bad? Let the guy work on his tan." Rob chuckled, as Joe punched him in the arm.
Veronica snatched the suit from Rob, and tossed it into Steve's lap, "Blondie, put it on."
Steve stood up, and turned away from Veronica as he took his time pulling on the racing suit, mooning her in the process, as I am quite sure he had intended. Once he had pulled on the suit, he turned around again and stretched, then sat down beside me to finish his beer.
I hung our wet jeans on Veronica's clothesline, and hoped they would dry quickly in the hot sun so that I could have something to wear later that night. I returned to the pool and dived in, and Steve joined me. We played around a little, just splashing water at each other and Veronica when she was within range, but I resisted the urge to drown him, sorely tempting though it was.
Everyone was pretty well buzzed from the combination of the sun and beer by the time the sun started to sink below the horizon. We sat together, a group of good friends, watching the spectacular desert sunset painting the sky a million different shades of pastel.
The bugs came out, right on schedule, so we moved the party inside. Rob and Joe hauled the keg in, and I checked the jeans. They were still slightly damp, so I snagged a towel from Veronica's bathroom to wrap around my waist. Steve snickered at me, and proceeded to kick my ass three times in a row at pool.
Chad and Steve racked up for a game, and I sat down to watch. Steve was still in just his racing suit, as confident as always, and Chad was still in just flame-print boardies. Chad was eye candy in his own right, and I was enjoying watching the two of them play when Veronica sat down beside me. Soon she began to tell me about the problems she and Chad were facing. I already knew that Chad's parents did not approve of their relationship, but I was astounded to learn that she had been threatened with criminal prosecution.
Veronica was only a few months older than Chad, but she was over eighteen while Chad was still a minor, a month away from his eighteenth birthday.
After taking a long drink of beer, Veronica told me that she had left home as soon as she could due to not getting alone with her Mormon parents. I certainly understood that problem since close to half the population in my old hometown was Mormon, and they often treated their women as second-class citizens.
Veronica told me that soon after Steve had played matchmaker, Chad's Evangelical Christian parents had found out that she was from a Mormon background, and forbade them to see one another. That had not stopped them of course, but it did make life difficult. Once Chad's parents had discovered the continuing relationship, they had threatened Veronica with criminal prosecution due to Chad still being a minor. I was amazed to learn that in Arizona, there is not only no age of consent, but that there had been prosecutions based on an age difference of mere months. Only Chad's very vocal threat to disown his parents had managed to keep the legal threat from escalating.
Sighing, Veronica shook her head, "Chad will be moving in with me on his 18th birthday. He's here half the time now, but it will be great when we can finally be together for real, and not have to worry about all that religious bigotry nonsense."
I turned to look at Veronica, and arched an eyebrow, causing her to cough, "Oh, yeah, as if you and Steve don't have enough of that problem. At least all I've been threatened with is jail."
"What was it like when you first arrived here in Lonesome Valley? I didn't know anyone when I came here, and it was kinda scary." I asked.
Veronica nodded, "You and I are two of a kind, Chris. Neither did I."
"So, how did you end up meeting Steve and everyone else?" I asked.
"One day, I was driving down the road and blew a radiator hose on my truck. I was poking around under the hood when this hot rod pulls up, and out jumps a gorgeous, shirtless blond guy who offers to have a look. He does, figures we can't fix it without parts, so he drives me into town to Rob and Joe's, and they go get my truck with their tow truck. I didn't know anyone here, and they all seemed real nice. I also have to admit that I was very much taken with Mr. Hot, Tan, and Blond over there," she nodded towards Steve.
"I decided to go for it, and asked him to a movie. He accepted and we went, but he was the perfect gentleman. So, I get all gussied up and ask him out to dinner a few days later, and again he is totally hands off. Then, he asks me to a party at Rob and Joes, and I think he's warming up to me. After a few drinks, I guess my hands started to roam a little, and he gives me this funny look and asks me if I knew he was gay."
Veronica slapped her forehead, "You gotta remember, to me that was our thirddate. I was not too happy with him for not telling me sooner. But, he said he didn't know we were dating, and so I've been making blond jokes about him ever since."
I couldn't help it, I started to crack up, "You dated Steve?" I laughed.
Ruefully, Veronica nodded her head, "We all have skeletons in our closets, I guess. But, he made up for it by playing matchmaker between me and Chad. I love Chad so much it hurts. I just wish he would hurry up and turn eighteen so he can move in here without me having to worry about his folks calling the cops. Chad stays here every weekend and has half of his stuff here already, and I stress out about what his folks might do."
"At least that will end when he turns eighteen in a month. With Steve and me, I don't know if this Fundy crap will ever go away, plus all this crap with the Sheriff who tried to kill me." I said.
Veronica threw her arm across my shoulders, "Don't worry, Steve will be graduating in a few months and then the two of you can go off to college together somewhere a little less hostile. Have you talked with Steve about College?"
I nodded, "Sorta. We decided to find a university we can go to together. He wants to be a lawyer, and I want to be a doctor. Money would be tight, but we could do it. We checked on student loans, plus we both qualify for partial scholastic scholarships, and we could live together in a small apartment off campus."
Giving me a squeeze, Veronica asked, "Now how is that 'sorta'? Sounds to me like you have it pretty well planned out."
I shrugged, "Money is the big concern. It won't be easy. Worst case, we decided to toss a coin, and the loser would get a job while the winner got his degree, and then the loser would get his degree later on the winner's new income," I chuckled, "and that was before we came out to each other. We were planning on making a life together even back then." I laughed.
Patting me on the back, Veronica told me, "You two were a couple long before either of you realized it. I could tell, and that's why I kept ragging on Steve to come out to you."
I got up to see if my jeans were dry, but as I walked past Steve he spun around, snagged the towel I was wearing with his hand, then completed his pirouette, yanking my towel off in the process. Chad noticed and laughed, and Steve grinned in his impish way. I just stood there in my swimsuit and, for once, I didn't blush.
I looked at my grinning boyfriend, and laughed with him. Turning away, I walked out onto the patio and found that the jeans were almost dry enough to put on. Mine were still slightly damp, but Steve's tattered jeans were almost completely dry. I took them off the line and pulled them on. They were a little snug on me, just like they were on him.
I ambled back inside, where Steve was racking up for another game, "Hey, those are mine. Why are you wearing them?" He said, pretending to be upset.
"Mine were still too damp." I replied.
Steve gently wrapped his arms around me from behind, looking over my shoulder as he said in my ear, "That wasn't very nice of you. Now I don't have anything to wear, and I'm stuck walking around in just a swimsuit."
That comment elicited a major laugh from Veronica and Chad, with Chad adding, "Yeah, Steve, we know how shy you are."
I felt Steve's fingers tracing lazy circles on my stomach, "Aww, Chris, don't be selfish. Let me have my jeans back," I felt him playfully flick at the top button of the jeans, as his other hand teased my stomach. I felt the jeans suddenly grow tighter in front, and was very glad to have them on. Steve flicked at the top button again, tugging on it until I slipped from his grasp, laughing, and hoping that my sudden problem would subside before it became noticeable.
I laughed, "Steve, you can take them off me later."
Steve broke his act and laughed with me, "I'll take you up on that. You look hot in them, and your new hair looks great. Come here..." Steve tugged at my arm, leading me to stand in front of a full-length mirror in the hallway, "There, take a look."
I looked. I did like the highlights in my hair, it looked so much better than the plain flat brown hair I'd always had and never really liked. I also liked the way the afternoon's sun had darkened my tan. I even had to admit that I very much liked how I looked in the tattered tight jeans.
Unbidden, memories from my childhood returned, playing through my mind: My parents telling me I was useless, saying they were ashamed that I was such a runt, and that I'd never amount to anything.
The strongest memory of all: my mother sat in the living room of the tired old trailer, sipping her ever-present cheap whiskey, glaring at me as I sat doing my homework, and out of the blue she had told me I'd never get a girlfriend because I was too... She had ended with a word I could not understand.
She had poured herself another glass of bourbon, and I knew from long experience that I'd best retreat to my room. Once safe inside, I had dragged a dictionary from the shelf, and laid down upon my bed to read it. I paged through, trying to figure out the spelling of the unfamiliar word, until at last I'd found it: Homely.
I'd stared at it, only to be startled as my tears spattered upon the page. I'd curled up and cried myself to sleep, as that, along with the disparaging remarks that I heard daily, became too much for me, and that was how I spent the night of my twelfth birthday.
I winced at the recollections, and turned my mind away before I began to relive the many other similar occasions, the countless put-downs, and the endless degrading remarks.
The reflection in the mirror, that of a tanned and toned guy in tattered jeans, with a handsome face and sun-streaked hair, seemed at odds with my vision of myself; a plain looking guy who just didn't stack up. But mirrors don't lie, and in that moment, I chose to believe what I saw, rather than what I had been told for so much of my life.
Maybe I was just too buzzed, but I had to admit, I was feeling better about myself than I ever had. I glanced in the mirror at Steve who, as always, looked spectacular, and for the first time felt myself to be physically worthy of him. I understood, in that defining moment, that I'd always, until now, felt a little intimidated by his looks, feeling as if mine were inferior. I smiled, and I met his eyes in the reflection, seeing, to my surprise, understanding in them. I knew then that he had known this about me all along, and that was at least part of why he had done some of the things he'd done
It was a surreal moment, but epiphanies so often are. I turned to face Steve and said softly, "I know the hair bleaching was your idea. You set it all up in advance, and I even know why. Thanks, and it worked."
He smiled, as I was startled by a voice from close behind me, "Steve may be blond, but he's damn smart at times. The hair job and a few other things were his ideas, but the trial was all mine. So, what finally clued you in?" Veronica smiled at me, leaning against a doorjamb a few feet away.
"He picked black swimsuits for both of us. He knows I like him in a black racing suit because it goes so well with his blond hair and tan. Then in the pool he said he knew I'd look good in a black swimsuit with my new blond hair. But he picked out the suits before we came here, and that means he knew about the hair job in advance. Then, he tried to get these jeans off me before pulling me in front of a mirror. I can't really explain it, but suddenly I just knew, about this, and about what I'd been feeling too."
Veronica nodded, "I'm glad you figured it out. I thought I was going to have to ruin a perfectly good frying pan pounding some sense into that thick skull of yours."
I gave my boyfriend a big hug, and asked, "So, how did you know what I was feeling, when even I didn't?"
Steve held me tight, "The day you got shot at. You had a shirt with you, but didn't bother to put it on when you were chasing after me, or when we were at Rob and Joes. You left it off until we were about to go into the police station. But when I'm with you and shirtless, you are a lot less comfortable out in public without a shirt. I saw this a few times and asked Mom about it; she's a legal aide but she used to work at a teen counseling center, and she figured out what might be bugging you."
Steve hugged me so tight I could barely breathe, "Mom said you came from an uncaring home, with parents who were always putting you down, so had never had a family in the real sense of the word. She said that could cause trouble with self-esteem, and being a little intimidated by my appearance could be a symptom of it. Since I knew you had never liked your hair, and Veronica thought it would look great lightened and highlighted, we decided to do a few things to make you realize that you have nothing at all to be shy or self-conscious about."
I hugged him tighter, "That explains a lot, like why you tricked me into wearing Speedos. Hey, wait a minute, the first time you did that was before I was shot at..."
I felt his muscles twitch as he laughed, "That was just for fun, and my viewing pleasure. Today was for that too, plus the self-esteem stuff."
I said over my shoulder to Veronica, "And you made sure the yard would be a little muddy so our jeans would get messed up, didn't you?"
"Yep," she snickered, "I did. Blondie's idea, though."
"Thanks..." I said softly, "Both of you, thanks."
"That's what family is for, Chris," Veronica said, as she led us back to the den and our waiting friends. I felt a difference in myself now, subtle but powerful. I noticed that I was walking with my shoulders back and my head held high. I just felt right.
Rob, Joe, and Dex were content in the living room with their Vodka and video games, so Chad, Steve, Veronica, and I played a few more games of pool and drank more beer.
I kept the jeans on, but abandoned my earlier thought of retrieving my shirt from Steve's Charger. All the guys except Dex were shirtless and even Dex wore his trademark loud Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned. Steve, of course, was happy in just his racing suit, and for the first time I didn't feel a little inadequate with him by my side.
Chad scratched on a shot, and stood beside me as Steve took his turn, "I can see a change in you tonight, a good change. I hope you don't think it's just the beer, it isn't. You changed."
I felt good about that. I'd never had friends like these before, or, as Veronica had said, family. I hoped it wasn't just the beer talking, but somehow, I knew that it wasn't.
Veronica put her arms around Chad from behind, "A month from tonight, hun, and we can finally live together full time, instead of just on weekends." She said, as she began tracing her hands up and down Chad's defined chest, telling him softly, "Just a month, but I know it will feel like a lot longer."
Chad smiled, and caressed her hand, "I know, and I can't wait either. But at least we have weekends together until then."
Steve coughed softly, "Maybe Chris and I should head on home tonight. You two don't have much private time as it is."
They both shook their heads, as Veronica answered, "Don't worry about it. You two are at risk, and I still need my mailbox mounted, and no, Blondie, I don't mean sexually." Steve chuckled, and Veronica added, "Chad and I have all the privacy we need in our room, and I plan on making him earn his keep tonight. I'm sure you two have similar ideas, so just don't make a lot of noise, and everyone will be satisfied," she said, with a twinkle in her eyes as she said the last word.
Rob, Joe, and Dex, sobered up for a while, then left around midnight, leaving the four of us alone. Steve and I played another round of pool, and while we played, Veronica and Chad began a make-out session on the couch. Steve caught my eye, motioned to Chad and Veronica, and angled his head towards the spare bedroom next to Veronica's room. I nodded, and called out a goodnight to Chad and Veronica as we left the room.
We entered the bedroom and closed the door, as Steve started to giggle, "I'll bet we hear their door slam in a few seconds."
Steve hopped on the bed and bounced a few times, causing the old box springs to squeak. I winced, but Steve turned and shot me a wicked grin, "Wait until we hear their door close, and then start bouncing and groaning."
I cracked up as I realized what Steve had in mind, just as I heard the muffled thud of Veronica's door closing.
I hopped onto the bed, and began bouncing up and down on my knees as Steve did the same. The old springs creaked and squealed, and the headboard clattered and knocked against the back wall. Steve let out a very loud moan, and I added a few of my own.
Without warning, Chad, wearing just his underwear, opened the door and walked into the room, catching us by surprise. He laughed, "I knew it. Nobody is that loud. Veronica sent me over to get you two to quiet down. Or, as she put it, 'shut them up'."
We stopped our bouncing and noise making as Steve asked Chad, "You must have been really sure we were faking it, or you wouldn't have just walked in."
Chad shrugged, "I was pretty sure, but I figured if you guys were being that loud, you wouldn't much care anyway."
Steve's evil grin returned, "Get in bed with us, and do your best moaning."
Chad doubled over as he stifled a laugh, "She'll kill us, you know that, don't you?" He shrugged, and dived in between us, as we all started to bounce, moan, and groan.
I heard Veronica's door open, so I pulled the sheet over the three of us as the door swung open. Veronica stormed in, wearing a bathrobe, and proclaimed, "If you guys had succeeded in making me think this was real, I'd be decorating my wall with three sets of nuts right about now."
Slowly, her stern visage cracked, and she laughed, "Okay, good one, Blondie, and yes, I know this just had to be your idea. And Chad, if you don't get out of that bed, out of those briefs, and into my bed within the next thirty seconds, I'll spend tomorrow printing flyers and posting them all over town, to let everyone know that your real name is Chadwick."
Chad laughed, and made a very hasty exit. Steve smiled as he told Veronica, "You two go have fun. I'll behave until morning, promise."
Veronica turned to leave, pausing only to tell us, "Goodnight, guys. Have some fun, but please don't be real noisy," she hesitated, then added, "Though I may be making some noise of my own here shortly."
Veronica shut the door, leaving Steve and I alone together. We both lay back on the bed, and my hand found his. I looked over at him, and found his blue eyes staring back at me, "Steve, thanks for figuring out what was bugging me, and for doing so much to get me to realize it."
He gave me a soft chuckle, and I felt his hand come to rest on my chest, "That's part of it. But the other part is that I like looking at you, and want you to see yourself the way I see you. I noticed you were a lot more comfortable at this party than at the last one, and you got a killer tan from it too."
I rolled onto my side to face him, and ran my fingers through his hair, "I just wish this mattress wasn't so damn noisy."
Steve pulled me into a hug, "We'll just try and be quiet. It'll be fine," he said, as he slid his hand down my stomach and began unbuttoning the jeans I was wearing.
I reached for his swimsuit and a thought crossed my mind. I stood up and pulled Steve to his feet, "The backyard lights are off, there is no moon tonight, and we would have privacy in the pool." I said, as I shucked the jeans off, leaving them on the floor.
Steve nodded, and I lead the way through the darkened house and out onto the patio lit only by the arch of the Milky Way, and the thousands of stars that shone in the clear desert night. We joined hands, gazing up at the stars.
Together, we slipped into the dark waters, and under the myriad of stars, we became one.
(*) Ed Wooton encouraged, advised, and edited a very early draft of this story, quite a few years ago. The story has changed much since then, but Ed helped me in many ways, and I shall never forget him.
Many thanks to my editor EMoe for editing and for his support, encouragement, beta reading, and suggestions (and for thinking up a title!). Any remaining errors are mine alone.
Thanks also to Shadowgod, for beta reading and advice, and for putting up with me. Thanks also to the many, many people who have helped and advised me.
Thanks also to Graeme, for help, advice, and support, and also to Bondwriter for final Zeta-reading.