I came down to breakfast that morning to find Marc snuggled up against a boy at the kitchen table. Not that I'd expected his winter of celibacy to last forever, but it was odd to see him slobbering over someone else, someone who wasn't my arch nemesis, Bradley Hall, someone who wasn't me.
I stood in the doorway, waiting to be noticed, and when that failed, I strolled in, plonked myself down opposite the lovebirds, and swiped a piece of cold toast from the rack, gnawing the crust while Marc nibbled the boy's earlobe.
"Don't!" The word burst without warning from the boy's lips. He wriggled around in Marc's embrace and shoved an elbow into his chest. Marc winced, straightened up in his chair, and managed to give me a weak smile.
"Hey, Tez," he said, indulging himself in a long, muscular stretch while I eyed the coarse dark hair curling out from beneath his arms where his T-shirt parted from his biceps. The boy caught me looking and made a face. "How was your shift?"
"Fan-fucking-tastic." I grabbed a croissant from the plate, ripped it in half, and contemplated the flaky innards. There was no need to ask how Marc's night had gone. While I was hard at work pulling pints and mixing cocktails, Marc was hard at home getting himself laid.
"This is Dan, by the way," Marc said.
I lifted my gaze from the unappetising pastry on my plate. The boy studied me from beneath dark lashes, his fair hair contrasting with the black shirt hanging loosely from his shoulders. One of Marc's labels, I realised. Marc never let me within sniffing distance of his designer stuff.
"And Dan, this is Terry," he continued. "My housemate."
"And best mate," I added, seeing our fourteen-year friendship, formed in the long, dark days of our early teens, was worth considerably more than the four years we'd shared a lease.
"Yeah. Best mate too." Marc's smile warmed me right through, and I found myself returning it despite myself. I was still pissed off that he'd brought some random shag back to our home, but the guy would disappear soon enough. Then it would be just Marc and me again. Exactly how it should be. No point getting myself wound up over a one-night stand. "Oh, and by the way," Marc added, slipping an arm around the kid's shoulder, "Dan's going to be staying with us for a bit."
"A bit of what?"
"Of time. Dan's our new housemate."
New housemate? Did he mean this house? Our house? With us?
"Marc?" I cleared my throat. Damn, it was definitely too early in the morning for this. "Do you think I might have a word with you? In the hall?"
The kid glanced up from the pot of strawberry jam he'd been slathering over his spread-eagle croissant. His eyes, I noted, were a stormy shade of blue-grey. His face verged on the cherubic, with wide forehead, fat-padded cheeks, and a chin just shy of receding. To me he looked barely legal, though later I discovered he was nineteen and quite indignant if anyone mistook him for a minor. He gazed steadily at me like I was about to perform a morning floor show. I counteracted his attention with a derisive once-over of my own before standing to escort his newfound sugar daddy into the hall.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" I demanded into Marc's confused, sleep-deprived face soon as the door was firmly closed. "You don't know that lad from a turd in the park."
"Will you keep your voice down?" Marc cast a worried glance over my head at the door. I bet the kid had his cute, recently nibbled ear pressed flush to the wood.
"Who is he?" I demanded, lowering the decibel level more for privacy than to appease Marc's sensitivities. "Some strumpet you picked up in the pub last night?"
"No. I met him at work."
"Bullshit!" The time for diplomacy had long since past. "You're not telling me that kid is a trainee bricklayer."
Marc drew in a breath. "I met him last week. He's been hanging around that derelict property we're renovating on the Crosby Road. Me and the lads have been turning a blind eye, only now we're behind schedule, and the boss has started sniffing around, checking up on us. I offered him a place to stay until he can get himself sorted."
"Well, that's a pleasant enough story." I folded my arms in a hideous parody of my mother. "Now tell me the truth."
"That is the truth," Marc muttered, though he was lying through his teeth. He couldn't even look at me, choosing instead to speak to the door at my back.
"No, mate, it's not. And I like to think I'm entitled, seeing as I'm paying half the rent on this place. Not too much to ask, is it?"
"Guess not," he said through clenched teeth, like the truth would involve ripping his own guts open with a meat hook first. "Truth is...Dan's gay. His parents didn't take the news too well. They threw him out, and now he has no home to go to apart from this one. You might not realise this, but not everyone's parents are as accepting as ours."
Accepting? Mine had hardly jumped for joy when I implied I'd rather sit home with endless reruns of my Queer as Folk videos than escort a girl to the school prom, and Marc's relationship with his father has never recovered from the revelatory tidings he dropped into polite conversation over the Sunday roast a few years back.
"Solidarity to the cause is all very well," I told him. "But you can't go moving blokes in because they like dick. What if he turns out to be Jeffrey Dahmer?"
"Serial killer. He--Never mind."
"You think he's a criminal? He look dangerous to you?" Marc gestured towards the kitchen door.
I pictured those big, intriguing eyes and fat, sulky lips. That kid couldn't be more Marc's type if he'd created him from scratch, like a pizza.
"I think he's dangerous for you," I said carefully. "I think you saw a pretty face and a tight arse and ended up bringing home a replacement for Bradley."
"Dan's nothing like Brad."
"Not physically. But now you got someone warming your bed, you can close your eyes and imagine--"
"Fuck you, Terry." Marc took a step back. "I already told you this has nothing to do with Brad. It's about Dan. And him needing a place to stay. If you can't accept that, then keep out of our way."
Our way? What was this, a closing of ranks? I, his best friend since childhood, counted for sod all now Goldilocks had come to stay. Fair enough. If that's how he wanted it. He'd better not start haunting me when he woke up and found himself murdered in the night, missing his CD collection, his Armani shirts, and probably his dick too.
"I hope you know what you're doing," I said, deciding to let this go for a few hours.
"I do, Tez. Trust me?" He smiled, but I couldn't return it. Instead I stepped aside so he could go back to lover boy and those delectable ears.
The boy was poking around in the fridge when I came down from exile in my room later that afternoon. He still wore Marc's shirt and Marc's jeans, all baggy arsed and clownish, the ends pooling lavishly around his feet. I strolled up behind and caught a faint waft of camomile--my ten-quid-a-bottle, formulated-for-redheads shampoo--as his body bumped back against mine. He recoiled and spun round, a chilled carton of orange juice clasped tight in his left hand.
After a moment's confrontation, his lashes lowered, and he tried to sidestep. Resisting the temptation to grab hold of an arm as he passed, I stopped him with a question instead. "Where you going with that?"
The kid threw me a look instantly denouncing me as a half-wit.
"The juice." I gestured to it with a nod. "It's mine. Your boyfriend doesn't touch the stuff."
His eyes darkened, his neat Cupid's bow plumped into a stubborn pout before he relented and offered out the carton like a child forced to part with a treasured toy.
I grabbed it off him and took a long, deep draft while the boy watched on, sparks from his gaze prickling my skin.
"May I have a glass of water?" he asked, with clipped vowels polished as a public-school bell.
"Sure." I subdued a splutter. "The Evian is Marc's."
"Tap water is fine," he replied, removing a glass from the drainer, which he filled at the sink, then offered up for inspection. "Does this half belong to Marc?"
Sarcastic whore. My grip tightened on the carton. "Yeah, he keeps a special supply for freeloaders."
"I am not a freeloader. I intend to pay my way when I'm able."
"Of course you do, sweetheart," I said, flicking him over with a straight up and down. "I suppose in a way this is a promotion for you."
This kid faked innocence about as well as I faked orgasms.
"What I mean is it must be far more comfortable working on your back in a nice warm bed than on your knees sniffling for pricks in park bushes."
He paled. "You think... No...it isn't like--"
"What is it like, then?" I slammed the carton down on the table and moved close enough to the boy that my breath rippled through his fringe.
"What exactly are you doing here?" I reached out and plucked a curl close to his ear, unfurled it in my fingers, where it shimmered like spun sunlight. "What is Marc getting out of this, if not your arse?"
The kid flushed scarlet. "Nothing. Marc wants to help me."
"Help you how?"
He trembled beneath my touch. Was he scared? Of me? I hardly made for a foreboding figure, and in fact, he and I were more or less the same size. In a more charitable frame of mind I might have offered to lend him some of my clothing. However, as far as this kid was concerned, I'd never be in a charitable frame of mind.
"Help me to...to get my life back."
"You lose it somewhere?"
"I seem to have lost everything somewhere," he said, his eyes filming over.
I cleared my throat. If he was chasing pity with the kicked-puppy expression, he'd have a long way to run. "A word of advice. You won't find it again by bouncing up and down on my mate's cock."
"Oh, but I'm not--"
"No, of course you're not." I edged closer. "Pretty little thing like you, I bet you're pure as sh--" I stopped, feeling something I shouldn't feel nudge my hip. I reached down, pressed my palm over the solid stretch of muscle behind the kid's fly. He emitted a small, hitching gasp and squeezed his eyes shut.
"Wow, sweetheart," I said with a chuckle, delighting in a fraud so easily revealed. "Is that a copy of the Big Issue in your pocket, or are you just pleased to see me?"
"Don't." Anger flared in the depths of his eyes as he snapped them open. "Don't laugh at me."
I chuckled again, louder this time. "Why not? It's funny as fuck. I know you think I'm beneath you, but this puts a whole different slant on things, doesn't it?" I clenched my fingers tighter in his hair. "If you're after a threesome, sweetheart, you're out of luck. Marc's not into kink, and I'm not into you at all."
"Let me go. Please. It doesn't mean anything. I'm sorry..."
Shit, he was about to bawl. Couldn't risk tears, not with his great Lord Protector on the prowl. When I released him, he tore away across the tiles like a fox dropped by a rabid beagle.
I picked up the glass of water and waved it at his retreating back. "Goldilocks, you forgot your--"
The rest of that sentence turned to ash on my tongue. Marc stared at me from the doorway.
"Marc, I didn't see you there," I said. And never mind what I didn't see. What had he seen? Or heard, for that matter, while I'd been copping a feel of his boy's upstanding prick?
"I'm warning you, Tez," he said, his voice low. "Dan's going through a difficult time. You hassling him isn't helping."
"No hassle from me." I was relieved he'd only caught the tail end of our conversation. A fraction more and I'd be searching for a new set of balls or salvaging the old ones from my bowels. "Long as he keeps his thieving hands off my stuff."
"He taken something of yours?"
Yeah. You. "He's been using my shampoo," I said, aware of how petty that sounded. Wish I had something more substantial to back it up with. I could mention the orange juice, but technically, the boy hadn't touched a drop.
"I told him he could use whatever he liked. We'll start labelling our stuff, if it's going to cause a problem."
"He is the problem. You've never even given me a proper explanation for why he's here. All I've got so far is some crap about him staying in that old house with you and the fellas waiting on him hand and foot out of the goodness of your hearts. I know those guys from work. They're arseholes, most of them. They wouldn't think twice about flinging that kid out on his bum. Especially if they knew he was queer. And even if they all partied in leather hot pants at the Blue Oyster bar of a weekend, I'm sure if that kid had been in that house all this time, you would have mentioned it before now."
"His name's Dan," he said quietly. "Three letters. Easy to remember."
"Do you understand the question? Or would you like me to make it clearer?"
"I understand the question."
He ambled over to the kitchen table and leaned back against it. "And you're right. I would've told you. I just thought you'd accept him more easily if I said I'd known him awhile."
"How long have you actually known him?"
"Since late yesterday afternoon. Everything else is true, though," he said quickly before I could cut in. "His parents did throw him out, and he's got nowhere else to go."
He still wasn't telling me everything, which pissed me off to no end because Marc and me didn't have secrets, even as kids. I came out to Marc at fourteen, and even though it would be a further four years and several failed relationships with girls before he did the same, we always promised each other that whatever else happened in our lives, this friendship would always come first. I'd always kept up my side of the promise, even though Marc couldn't always say the same. He was keeping something from me now, and I didn't like it. Not one bit.
"It's lot to take in," he continued, breaking the silence between us. "I'd probably feel the same as you if you brought one of your...your..."
"Fuck buddies?" I supplied. "That the term you're after?" It probably was, but the comparison didn't fly. I never brought anyone back here. Never had, never would. This was our home. And Marc had no right to do this to us.
"Not everything is about sex," he said quietly.
"No? The boy kept you amused all night with witty rhetoric, did he?"
Marc seemed uncertain for a moment, as if I'd somehow outfoxed him. His jaw clenched, his usually soft brown eyes bored into my mind, and I couldn't think. Damn, he was blazing hot when he was angry. I knocked back the water Goldilocks had left behind and focussed on the weeds in the untended garden beyond the window.
"He cooks," Marc said after a while had passed in awkward silence. "I know you don't and I can't, but Dan, he wants to be a chef one day and--"
"No, thanks." I turned to face him once again. "I don't know where those hands have been."
"You're not going to give him a chance, are you?"
"It's not a case of giving him a chance. When you and Brad finished, you said you wanted us to go back to how we were. Just us. And now you changed the rules without consulting me. It's not fair."
"Life changes," he said, like all this was totally beyond his control. "Dan's here now. I'm asking you to treat him with some respect. Can you do that?"
"No, mate," I said. "I can't."
"Then you'll have to find a way to accept him, because he's going nowhere, mate." He spat out that last word, then stalked out, down the hall and towards the stairs, no doubt to treat Goldilocks to another portion of what he'd had the night before.
"You can tell your new pet he's going to have to get a real job if he plans on sticking around," I yelled, although of course he wouldn't be. Sticking around, that was. I was confident I'd have Marc's stray out of our lives within the week.