Previously:

As Devon’s birthday approaches, he’s already received one major present – a day at Disneyland courtesy Conner, who improbably kept secret the existence of the famous park on the other ship.

In other news, the political climate on the ship has calmed considerably, the summit between Eden Stranton and Steven Caine apparently successful at resolving a lot of the issues that were causing tension…and leading to things like the riot and the farm fire. Still, Devon knows through his connections with Reid in security force and Conner in medical that there are still suspicious activities – primarily the disappearance of large quantities of benign pharmaceuticals from medical, along with mysterious requests to bring even more over from the other ship.

As Devon’s birthday approaches, Conner comes to the group with somewhat shocking news – the flat they unofficially occupy is to be assigned as part of the immigration from the other ship. But Conner also has a plan – if the members of the wank club all sign on, and if they can get four new residents for the flat, Conner believes they can request staying there. The wank club boys all eagerly agree to try to make this happen.


Space Ship Boys

Chapter 21 – Transitions and Toys


“Best birthday ever! Best birthday ever! Best birthday ever!”

My chanting engenders expressions ranging from dubious to annoyed. This may partially be because I’m being quite loud, or because I’m running circles around a stack of boxes in the center of the living room – a stack that looks like it might topple at any moment.

“Could you please stop that?” Charlie asks, annoyed. He’s carrying a rather heavy crate from one of the bedrooms, which he sets down near the entry to the living room with a grunt and a “whomp.”

“Sorry, I’m just excited,” I reply. It wasn’t my fault that I’d been barred from working on the flat because it was almost my birthday, but Zane had insisted this be the case.

“Well, I’m excited too,” Charlie says in a tone that tells me a lecture is coming. “That said, it’s a little difficult to work with you....”

“Birthday kisses!” I interrupt, noticing that it’s past twelve-thirty. I leap across the room and embrace Charlie in the deepest, wettest kiss possible. He tastes salty, his lips damp with sweat; he’s been working hard all morning.

It had been Dog who’d suggested that I be allowed compulsory birthday kisses for the twenty-four hour period before my actual time of birth, an idea I’d taken to immediately.

“Do I get one too?” Mike asks, laughing. He emerges from the bedroom carrying another stack of boxes.

I release Charlie, sucking lightly on his lower lip as I do. And then I pounce on Mike, who offers a yelp of surprise when I knock him off balance, sending the boxes he’s carrying falling to the floor. One pops open, and several pairs of emerald green underwear fly out.

“Of course you do,” I assert, pressing the other boy up against the wall and kissing him passionately. He returns the favor – recently Mike and I had really gotten into practicing romantic kisses with one another, so much so that our displays were often rated and critiqued.

“That’s just great,” Charlie says, still annoyed. He puts the escaped underwear back into their box, shooting me a rather nasty glare. I can’t say that I blame him – he’s been up since six, most of that time spent carrying things in and out of the flat.

“Sorry, I was just doing birthday kisses,” I apologize, trying to sound earnest about it. I don’t release Mike, holding him firmly against the wall with the weight of my body. I can feel him grow aroused as I grind into him.

Charlie sighs. “I know,” he says, sounding less angry. “I’m just feeling overwhelmed – there’s a lot to get done.”

He’s right about that – the day after Conner had approached the club with the plan to move us into the unoccupied flat officially, we’d learned that this area was one of the first that was going to be assigned as part of the ship-wide shuffle occurring due to the emigration from EV1985. In an announcement that had been the subject of some initial controversy, a fair number of Topside residents were being relocated to the forward living sections. From what we understood, Eden’s office had been involved in working to ensure a proper demographic distribution throughout the ship. And while Steven Caine wasn’t elected to any official office, he’d been asked to work with Eden on the new living assignments, presumably so that there wouldn’t be any trouble as a result of new flat assignments. The two had quickly worked out a plan to incorporate those moving over from EV1985, one that had been announced the day after Conner came up with his plan for this flat.

Notices of “eviction” had gone out with the announcement from Eden’s office. These were being complained about in hushed whispers throughout the ship, but the end result of the plan was to create co-ed living areas throughout the ship, which did a lot to console the displaced.

So, the floor this flat was located on would soon be filled with guys moving down from Topside, along with a fair number of French girls from Léna’s group. No sooner had we gotten Reid, Patrick, Jacob and Beck on board with the idea – Beck rather enthusiastically so – than we learned that the flat had actually already been assigned to new residents.

Upon discovering this, Conner had immediately approached Eden about altering the assignments, dragging me along with him.

“I don’t know,” Eden had said in answer to Conner’s request.

“Oh come on, Eden,” Conner had replied. “You know that I work double – sometimes triple – shifts. And that’s on top of any studying I need to do, which is a lot. There are only four doctors on this ship other than Doctor Moreno, and the four of us make a lot of sacrifices.”

Eden thought about this, looking over some residency charts on his tablet. “That’s true,” he’d replied, “but the flat you’re requesting is already assigned. Does it absolutely have to be that one?”

Conner had nodded, explaining that we wanted that flat specifically. And then he went on, outlining everything he’d done to keep the ship’s residence happy and healthy. I eyed my boyfriend with pride – he was really committed to making this happen.

“Okay, okay,” Eden had eventually said with a sigh. “I’ll tell you what – you can have the flat, so long as you get everyone on this list moved in by tomorrow. And no one ever breathes a word about this favor, got it? Housing is taking up way too much of our time, and I’m not dealing with everyone coming down here asking for new assignments.”

“Deal. We won’t say a thing, I promise.” Conner had winked at me when Eden turned to access the computer system, making the flat officially ours.

Conner and I had left Eden’s office, triumphant. I’d turned to him, in the elevator, eyeing him with immense appreciation and love, not to mention lust. “What?” he asked shyly.

I smiled at him. “Nothing. I just love you, that’s all. Thanks for...thanks for everything. Living with you and the guys...best birthday present ever!” I’d embraced him in a loving hug, which he’d returned enthusiastically.

So the flat had been made ours, with the stipulation that everyone move in within a day. That shouldn’t be hard, right? It just meant that Mike, Conner and I needed to move our stuff into Charlie’s room. Oh, and Sean, Dog, AJ and Zane needed to get their things set up in the second room. And Beck needed to move all his personal things to the third room, along with a lot of equipment he was planning on filling the space with. Then of course AJ, Nick, Reid and Patrick needed to move over from our previous flat. Holy shit...this was going to be a busy day!

Conner and I had informed everyone of the news, and what ensued was a flurry of excitement, panic, and all-out rowdiness. So the day before my birthday became “moving day,” and the stacks of boxes cluttering the flat everywhere were now testimony to this.

“Holy shit!” Dog exclaims, entering the living room. He’s carrying what appears to be every article of clothing he owns, and apparently it hasn’t occurred to him to place the clothes in a hamper or bag. Socks and other miscellaneous items are falling from his bundle, leaving a trail behind him. “What happened in here?” he asks.

We’d made a rough schedule the night before – Sean and Dog, having relatively little to move in, were setting up their room this afternoon, then most of us were going to help move the new guys later, when everyone was off work.

“Well, what did you expect?” Charlie asks, snappish. “We have to clear out the work room so Reid and the guys can move in tonight. It’s a total mess in there.”

Charlie is right – the bedroom he’d started his business in had since been utilized as a general dumping ground for stuff we didn’t know what to do with, and clutter had filled the room. This was our first major chore – clearing out all that junk and cleaning the room so that it was ready for its new occupants.

“Sorry,” Dog replies apologetically, looking somewhat hurt. “I was just asking...oh fuck!”

The exclamation is made as his foot comes into contact with a box he hadn’t noticed, tripping him and sending laundry flying everywhere.

Mike and I erupt in laughter; Charlie looks less amused, and he can’t help but comment. “Oh my god – can you please try making less of a mess? And Devon...I know you’re not supposed to be helping today because it’s your birthday tomorrow, but why the fuck are there two hundred kilos of rice in here?”

“I, uh....” I start, not sure how to respond. He’s referring to a pile of bags sitting next to the couch. He’s right, they’re filled with rice. Zane had brought them here, and I’m not really sure why. He was probably supposed to take them up to the kitchens.

Before I get a chance to explain this to the cranky Charlie, Mike cuts me off. “Okay, I’m calling for a time out,” he says. “Charlie...mandatory nap. You’re way too grouchy.”

Charlie thinks about this for a second, then replies, “But I....”

“No buts,” Mike snaps back. “You’re cranky-pants, and it’s not helping.”

Dog and I shift uncomfortably, wondering if we’re about to witness a boyfriend blowout. Charlie sighs, and then agrees that perhaps he’s a little stressed.

“A little?” Dog laughs. “You look like you’re about to have a stroke.”

“There’s just a lot to do,” Charlie says. “I was supposed to go up and help Conner, and we also need to take all this junk down to the shop.” He eyes the growing pile of boxes with disdain.

I step up behind him so that I can massage his shoulders. “Tell you what,” I say, “I’ll go help Conner with his stuff. I know – Zane made you all swear not to put me to work today, but Conner doesn’t have that much to move. You go take a nap.”

“I don’t know,” Charlie grumbles. “There’s still a lot to do.”

Mike doesn’t relent on the nap idea. “Get at least an hour of sleep, and I’ll come wake you with one of my special...you know.” He uses his hand and tongue to make the gesture for a blowjob.

Charlie’s mood seems to immediately improve. “Nap time it is!” he exclaims, hopping off to his room.

“Thank god,” Mike sighs. “This move has him so flustered. But don’t think he’s not excited – he’s just worried Eden will go back on his promise. This place means a lot to him, and until we’re all moved in he’s going to be a bit of a grouch.”

“It’s fine,” I reply, stepping up on the arm of the couch and trying to perform a yoga balance pose there. “Hey, nice thong,” I say to Dog. The lean boy blushes, grabbing a pair of his dropped underwear off the floor. I fall off the couch, landing in Dog’s massive pile of laundry. “Oof!” I exclaim, laughing. “I think I’m going to head upstairs before I wreck anything else. You got everything here under control?”

Mike nods, but then asks if I’d mind carting a load of stuff to the shop with him on the way to Conner’s. We load up two rolling carts – Mike stacks his neatly and reasonably, where I pile mine with boxes until they start listing about ominously.

“That’s going to end well,” Mike sighs, rolling his eyes.

We manage to make it to the store without incident, although once we’re up on the third floor of the concourse I’m tempted to allow at least one box to fall over the rail. Mike seemed to sense this. “Don’t do it,” he warns, and I obey.

“Hey, cool outfit!” I exclaim as we enter the back room of the shop. In the center of the room a mannequin models one of Charlie’s new creations. He’s made a dark brown leather jacket, slim cut, with a baby blue and yellow “racing” stripe running vertically down the left side. Under that, dark distressed jeans are matched with a blue t-shirt. The pattern on it is wild, depicting monsters piled atop one another, pairs of gleaming red eyes staring goofy and angry back at me. They all seem to be either dancing or surfing.

“Hey...are those mambo dancing surfer zombies?” I ask.

Mike looks over from where he’s piling boxes. “Um...yeah,” he says slowly.

“This is really cool. Is this for his next collection?” The outfit is one of the best he’s ever made – sexy and sleek, but also funny.

“Er...no,” Mike says, walking over to the mannequin. “In fact...uh...you weren’t really supposed to see this. Just forget about it.”

It dawns on me immediately what he’s saying. The new design isn’t part of Charlie’s new collection – it’s for me. I reach out, gingerly touching the leather of the coat. It’s immensely soft, a feature I knew Charlie had been struggling to perfect. The manufacturing units tend to produce thicker, tougher leather. I have to laugh at the image on the t-shirt. When I was a kid I’d invented a Halloween character I called Zombie Mambo Surfer Zombie, a professional dancer turned zombie who’d taken up surfing.

“This is some gift,” I say softly. And it is – it must have taken Charlie forever to program the machine to make it, not to mention the thought that went into personalizing it.

Mike smiles at me, clearly happy that I like it. “I may be his boyfriend, but there’s nothing quite like the love he feels for you.”

I’m not sure whether this is meant to be a positive comment or not. “I’m not sure that’s true,” I say, trying to discern whether there’s a glint of jealousy in Mike’s deep brown eyes or not.

He shakes his head, asserting that he’s not complaining. “Don’t worry about it – I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Charlie and I – we’re soul mates, and I plan to be with him until the end. But there’s always been something between you two...the way you’re best friends. It means everything to him.”

I think about this, about how Charlie and I had become friends, and about how we’d later started the wank club. What Mike was picking up on – the bond to which he was referring – was most likely the way Charlie felt about how this had changed his life. He’d once confided to me that I’d stumbled into his life mere hours before he’d planned to kill himself, and that I’d been the factor that had changed his mind about that.

“It means everything to me too,” I whisper, feeling a little teary – over the outfit, over the memory of Charlie’s confession. I felt such a strong bond to him...Mike too. “You guys are like my brothers,” I say, turning to Mike and enveloping the boy in a hug. “Thanks for the clothes.”

Mike whispers in my ear. “Happy birthday...I so want to suck you right now.”

I laugh at the way he’s both serious and not at the same time, pushing him away. “Pervert,” I giggle. “There’s way too much work to do.” And there is; I make Mike settle for a deep birthday kiss before helping him unload the boxes, promising him a rain check on the oral sex. Then I head up to Conner’s flat.

“Where the hell did all this crap come from?” I exclaim upon arriving there.

Conner just stares at me sheepishly, and then he shrugs before dropping a box onto an already huge pile of others in the living room of his flat. He’d evacuated Earth with the clothes he was wearing and whatever was stashed in the trunk of his car. “It just accumulated,” he says. “But there’s room for it at the new place, right? I can get rid of some if I need to.”

“It’s not that,” I reply. “I just thought you’d have one trunk. I’m glad I brought a cart.” I unfold the dolly I’d brought up from Charlie’s store.

“Cool. I think it’ll all fit, and we can do this in one trip.” I’m not sure I agree with him – there are a lot of boxes stacked in his living room.

Conner begins placing these on the cart. I try to help, but he gripes at me, telling me that the only “right” way to do this is to start with the heaviest boxes, and that everything should be stacked with the labels facing the left side of the cart. When I mock his perfectionism, he kicks me to the bedroom, telling me to bring out the rest of his stuff.

“The rest? There can’t possibly be more!” I laugh, scuttling off.

As it turns out, there isn’t much. Conner’s area of the bedroom is almost entirely cleared out. A slight feeling of sadness passes through me, and I’m not sure why. Conner moving in with me is the greatest thing ever, but I had fond memories of this flat. It was here we’d cemented our friendship, and it was in the very spot that Conner had shared his secret stash of peanut butter with me – one of the few items he’d brought from Earth. I think back to those early days, when I was just a scared spazzy kid and Conner and I were just friends. Things were so...different then.

I notice a small wooden trunk nestled between some boxes under his bunk, and wonder if he’d ever finished that peanut butter. Maybe moving day combined with my birthday would warrant getting into it. I really miss peanut butter. I take the trunk from under the bed and open it. What I find inside isn’t peanut butter.

“Whoa,” I mutter under my breath.

“Dammit, Devon!” Conner snaps behind me. “You’re not supposed to get into that.”

I instantly feel bad for prying. “Sorry. I mean...uh...yeah.”

What I’d accidentally uncovered was Conner’s “toy” collection, the centerpiece of which I can’t take my eyes off. Inside the trunk sits the biggest freaking dildo I’d ever seen, looking ominous and threatening and...painful. “Oh my god...you use this thing?” I laugh.

Conner shoots me a glare and plops down next to me. “Sometimes,” he says, sounding grouchy. He closes the trunk abruptly, almost catching my fingers in the lid.

“Jeez...so sensitive,” I remark. “I was just looking. We don’t get to see each other’s toys?”

Conner’s face lightens. “It’s not that – your birthday present is in the other box, and I haven’t wrapped it yet.” I glance at a second box lying under the bed. Dammit – I’d peeked in the wrong one! “And secondly,” Conner continues, “we only get to share toys if you don’t make fun of me. I don’t like that.”

“Aww, Conner – I wasn’t making fun. I was just....” I open the trunk again, staring at the flesh colored dildo. “Uh...wow. It’s big.”

Conner blushes, but that doesn’t stop me from taking the faux penis from the trunk. Later I measure the shaft to be a good thirty centimeters long and almost twenty around – and that doesn’t include the balls or suction cup at the base. “I guess,” he says bashfully.

I swing the toy around, enjoying the way it wobbles. The fucking thing is almost as big as my arm! “I’m, uh, feeling a little inadequate all of a sudden.” It’s meant as a joke, but it’s also partially true. By volume, the thing must be four times as big as me.

Conner reassures me that I have nothing to worry about; when I ask where he got it he tells me he’d brought it from Earth. “What? I thought you went straight to the ship and only brought stuff you had in your car?”

“It was in my car when the evacuation started,” he says, blushing. Then he insists he’ll say no more on the matter. When he stands, I notice that he tries to covertly adjust himself, and I make a mental note to have him show me how he plays with his monster toy later, although I’m wondering if I should really encourage him to stick things in his ass that aren’t, well, me.

The rest of move day is busy, but there’s a general excitement that makes the bustle fun.

“Jesus!” Charlie laughs, carting a crate into Beck’s new room. His mood is considerably better following his nap, but it doesn’t stop him from ribbing Beck about the massive amount of crap he’s moving in.

“Sorry,” Beck says sincerely. I grin from behind Charlie and make a goofy face, gesturing to Beck that Charlie’s just cranky. The other boy seems to get it and smiles back at me. Charlie senses my making fun and shoots me a dirty look, although I’ve put on a completely innocent visage by the time that he does.

Of the new guys we’d invited to live here – namely Reid, Patrick, Jacob and Beck – the last boy was perhaps the “wild card.” We’d explained to each of the four about our group’s predilections, and in the interest of transparency we’d explained about our sexual congresses. This wasn’t much of a revelation to Reid and Patrick, who I’d already spent months talking to about this. Nor was it a surprise to Jacob, who, it turns out, Nick had been confiding in.

Beck, however, knew about our club only from what he’d pieced together, which turned out to be quite a lot. I guess as an alternative rocker guy it didn’t come as much of a surprise for his peers to be engaging in this sort of thing. In fact, Beck was of the opinion that our group wasn’t necessarily the wildest on the ship, although he did admit we were probably the most sexual. But apparently, now that pot and alcohol was more readily available, some of the parties could get pretty crazy.

Regardless, the invitation to live in the flat and get his own room was far too good an opportunity for the guy to pass up. He’d spent eight months listening to his roommates gripe about his music, which was constantly playing at high volume. Having his own space meant he could play whatever music he liked whenever he liked.

“Holy fucking shit!” I exclaim, entering the bedroom that had formerly been Charlie’s workroom. The space has been transformed into an ultra-urban bedroom slash nightclub. The desks in the rear of the room are piled high with shiny audio equipment, blue, green and red lights blinking in random patterns everywhere. I count at least twenty speakers positioned around the room, most of them hanging from newly installed ceiling fixtures.

“Yeah, pretty cool, huh?” Beck smiles proudly, following me into the room with some more stuff.

“This setup looks pretty sweet,” I say, looking at the complex audio equipment, but resisting the urge to touch anything.

Beck plops down on the sole bunk in the room. “I always wanted a place like this,” he says. “But obviously I couldn’t do this in the other flat. Hey, check it out.”

He punches some commands into his wristcom. Suddenly, the room is alive with music, a groovy beat thumping soundly behind melodic chill music. Beck’s audiophile expertise has served him well – rather that producing an overpowering, annoying sound, his placement of the speakers makes it seem as though the music is coming from both everywhere and nowhere.

“I haven’t adjusted all the settings yet,” he explains. “That’s why there’s that tinny undertone. But I wanted to wait until everything was set up before fine-tuning the acoustics.”

“Cool,” I say, grooving to the tune. “I wish my room had a system like this.”

Beck’s eyes light up. “I can totally put one in,” he offers. “I mean, not this elaborate, obviously. You don’t need amplifiers and all that, we can route through my stuff here. But with some speakers and a little programming, we can make it so each room has its own sound system, and you can run playlists off the server.”

“That would be totally awesome,” I reply.

“It’s the least I can do. I really owe you guys for inviting me to room here. I mean, I know you needed the right number of bodies to reserve this place and all, but it was really cool of you to let me have the single. Plus I would have been bummed back in the other place with no AJ or Charlie.”

We chat for a bit, mostly about Beck’s plans to convert the living room to a massive home theater. He shyly asks if he thinks anyone would mind that, and I just laugh in response, telling him that no teenage boy in his right mind would mind having a large, very loud TV system.

Leaving Beck to his work, I close the door behind me. The sound of the music almost completely disappears – knowing Beck’s preference for high volume, Charlie had hastily manufactured several sheets of a pliable soundproof polymer, which we’d lined the walls with. The room had been pretty sound resistant before, but now Beck could blast his tunes all he wanted without disturbing anyone. Brilliant!

“Wow, you guys work fast,” I say, entering the next bedroom over. Reid and Patrick smile at me. They seem almost completely finished setting up their bunks.

“Yeah,” Patrick nods. “I guess I didn’t have much stuff. No need to accumulate crap, you know?”

I chuckle. “Tell that to Conner,” I reply glibly, grinning.

“I heard that!” Conner calls from the living room. Oops, busted.

Being in this room is a little weird. Nick and Jacob had set up their side of the bedroom earlier, and now that Reid and Patrick were settled in the room felt like a replica of our former bedroom. This one was a little larger, maybe. Or maybe it just seemed that way because everything was put away neatly.

“Oh, hey, the robot poster,” I say, noticing that Reid has hung some artwork over his desk. It’s a pretty cool print, depicting several varieties of giant robots laying siege to an unnamed metropolitan area. It’d once hung over Reid’s bed at college, but I hadn’t seen it since.

“Yeah, I found it in some of my stuff,” Reid explains. “I never got around to putting it up before. Figured if I didn’t do it right away, it’d end up in a box again.”

“Cool.” Nick and Jacob seem to have wandered off, and there’s something I’ve wanted to talk about with Reid and Patrick. I pull the door shut. “Hey, can I ask you guys something?”

They both stop what they’re doing, looking at me with expressions of concern. “No, no, nothing like that,” I laugh, seeing that I’ve alarmed them. “I just wanted to say that it’s great that you two are moving in here. I just wanted to make sure you didn’t do that because of me.”

Patrick, always the logical one, thinks about this and then says, “Well, you’re the one who asked us to move here, so in a sense it is because of you.”

Reid laughs at this literal interpretation of my question. “You’re such a dork sometimes,” he says; Patrick shoots him a confused look. “Devon is asking whether we moved in here because we wanted to, or if it was more a favor for him.”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m asking,” I nod.

“It’s a lot of both, really,” Reid admits. “But mostly because I miss the old days, you know?”

“Yeah,” I sigh. There was a time when Reid, Patrick and I were a constant trio. Since coming to live on this ship – wait, no, that’s not the real reason – since coming into my sexuality I’d definitely started spending more time with other friends.

Patrick looks at a shirt he’s been folding, clearly annoyed. He decides to start over. “The good news about us wanting to spend more time together is that things are really changing,” he says. “Steven’s group seems to have calmed down since the summit. And I think having all the girls here is going to help. Tensions should be...relieved.” He grins at this last part. I know what he’s saying – sex keeps me calm and happier, so I’m sure the profusion of French girls will do the same for a lot of the heterosexual boys on the ship.

“That’s good to hear,” I reply. And it is – when we’d concocted the plan to get this flat I’d been concerned that Reid and Patrick would have to refuse our offer because of their involvement with Eden and Steven’s groups. As it turned out, they both felt that the time was right for them to semi-retire from spying. Reid was still determined to figure out what was going on with the pharmaceutical inventory, and Patrick was going to keep in contact with his friends in Steven’s group, but with things the way they were, two old friends making up and rooming together again seemed feasible, something I was quite glad of.

And then we change the subject, Reid unexpectedly producing a toy gun that shoots foam suction cup darts. He gets off three rounds before I notice what he’s up to – one hits me squarely between the eyes, sticking to my forehead.

“Oh, what a shot!” Reid exclaims. “Woodard can’t be stopped tonight, folks!” He mimics a sportscaster while tossing me another of the toy guns. We look at each other, devilish smiles creeping onto our young lips.

Patrick sees what’s going on. “Oh, wait, no guys...come on. We just set this place up, it’s clean and tidy and....”

He doesn’t finish, as Reid and I launch into a raucous all-out foam dart war, jumping from bunk to bunk in an effort to one-up each other with increasingly improbable shows of gymnastic prowess. We make a mess, but it’s worth it – playing with my friends like this really does make it feel like old times.

Once the room is appropriately trashed, much to Patrick’s chagrin, I pop my head into the third room. Sean and Dog’s side seems neat and orderly and mostly finished. Zane, on the other hand, seems to have utilized a strategy of bringing in everything he owns, then tossing it into one giant pile on the bed. My floppy-haired friend smiles at me as I enter, then goes back to working on the catastrophe he’s made.

“Wow, what a mess,” I laugh, trying with limited success to distinguish the individual elements of Zane’s crap pile. I think I spy a carrot somewhere in the pile of clothes, skating gear and possessions.

Sean and Dog are lying together on their bunk, watching Zane with the kind of attention you reserve for car wrecks or plane crashes. “Yeah,” Dog agrees. “But it’s sorta fun to watch. We’re really curious where he’s going with this.”

Zane, who surely knows he’s not the most organized guy in the universe, flips Dog off.

I sit on the edge of the boys’ bed. “So, you guys are really okay sharing your space with Zane and AJ?” Sean and Dog had never totally moved in here, at least not until today. Still, they slept here sometimes, and when they did they had privacy.

Sean nods. “Yeah. Believe it or not, Zane is actually a little cleaner than our previous roommates.”

I shoot Sean a dubious look. If what he’s saying is true, I can’t imagine the state of their former flat. Dog sits up and expands on his boyfriend’s statement. “Plus, we’re really excited about the new place. It should be cool – living with you guys.”

I agree. AJ walks in, carrying a stack of boxes. He seems to have done a better job keeping his possessions orderly. “How about you?” I ask the newcomer. “Are you excited to move in with these guys?”

AJ looks tired and sweaty. He glances about the room before saying, “Yeah, sure, whatever.” And then he excuses himself, saying he has more to cart up from the other flat.

I can’t help but notice that AJ’s mood is a little off. “What’s his deal?” I ask once I’m sure he’s out of earshot. AJ had seemed happy and excited to move yesterday.

Dog shrugs, and Sean mutters, “No idea.” Dog then suggests that maybe he had a rough day at work.

Across the room, Zane chuckles lightly. “You guys are funny,” he says.

I consider ignoring the remark, but then I can’t resist. “What? You have some grand insight you’d like to share?”

The other boy saunters over to the bed and plops down on the floor beside it. “Not really,” he says. “Other than the obvious – he’s upset about the room assignments.”

“What? No he’s not,” I assert, not really sure why I’m arguing – Zane is almost always right when it comes to matters of psychology and boy behavior.

My remark earns me a sound thump on the nose. “Yeah he is,” Zane retorts. The flick hurts a little and makes my eyes water; I try to hold back an involuntary sneeze.

“But I thought everyone was cool with Beck having his own room,” Dog sighs. He hates conflict, and looks rather perturbed at the suggestion that discontent might already be upon us.

“It’s not that,” Zane explains. “At first this room was going to be you two, me, AJ and Nick, but then Nick chose to room with Jacob over in Reid and Patrick’s room.”

I think about this. AJ had been our flatmate at the other place, but I don’t recall him being that close to Reid, Patrick or Jacob. I point this out.

Zane sighs heavily. “You’re such a doofus sometimes. It’s not that AJ wanted to live with the new guys – he’s upset because he thought he would be sharing a room with Nick.”

“Oh,” I say. And then I think about it. “Ohhhhhh,” I remark a second time, drawing the word out to be as long as possible. Zane was right – AJ had been spending more time with Nick, and ever since his birthday he’d seemed to have a crush on the other boy.

“Exactly,” Zane says. “Welcome to life with nine gay guys who are all sleeping with each other – we may be in for a bumpy ride.”

We laugh about this, and then turn serious. “So what should we do?” I ask.

Zane shrugs. “Dunno. We have to let those two work things out themselves – trust me, getting involved is a bad idea. But we should also consider that AJ was always a loner, and maybe part of his problem is that he still feels that way. We can try to make sure to include him, and make sure he knows he’s a part of the group.”

Sean, Dog and I agree to make an effort to include AJ.

“That reminds me,” Zane says. “I have a little surprise for you, Devon, something I want to try out on you. Call it an early birthday present.”

“Er, okay,” I answer uncertainly. He laughs at my hesitance and then guarantees that I’ll be interested in what he has to show me. We agree to meet up in the club room later tonight, and he invites Sean and Dog along as well.

“Can’t,” Dog says, “We have work tomorrow.” He sounds a little sad about this, as am I when my schedule forces me to miss club room play time. “You should ask AJ, though,” Dog suggests. Zane says this is actually a great idea – a way to include the other boy and maybe lighten his mood.

“And bring Conner,” Zane says as I turn to leave the room. I gulp. Conner is cool with the club stuff – cooler than I could ever ask a boyfriend to be. Still, he’s shy, and anytime Zane is involved...well. I decide to pass the invitation along and leave it up to my boyfriend.

Speaking of which, our new room turns out to be the neatest of them all, albeit largely due to a spontaneous dart gunfight in one of the others. Conner is putting away the last of his things when I plop down on the bed.

“I was just kidding you earlier,” I say, “about having all that stuff.”

Conner shoots me a sideways glance; I can’t tell if he’s annoyed or not. I pass on Zane’s invite, wanting to change the subject. He nods that he’ll go, but doesn’t say anything. “Are you mad at me?” I ask quietly.

“That depends,” he replies slowly. “Am I angry enough to hold a grudge and withhold sex for the next week?” I hold my breath. “No, I’m not that angry. But I am, perhaps, angry enough to pretend to be angrier than I am, and that can only mean one thing....”

“Wha?” I start to ask, but he cuts me off.

“Tickle torture!”

And then I find myself assaulted by my boyfriend, his fingers digging into my sides in all the right places. I shriek with laughter, my muscles immediately spasming and causing me to curl up into a little Devon ball. “No, no, no!” I protest, howling with laughter.

Conner pauses when Charlie enters. He’s brought a small plant for his bedside table. “Don’t let me stop you,” he says.

Conner shoots me a devilish look, one that tells me he’s about to attack once more. “No – I surrender,” I insist. “I surrender!” My words do me no good. Conner pounces, resuming the torture. He doesn’t stop until tears are streaming down my cheeks and I’m at risk of passing out.

For thirteen guys who came to the ship with only one trunk apiece, we sure seem to have accumulated a lot of crap. But this doesn’t stop us from accomplishing our goal – by dinnertime everyone is moved in. The entire group gathers in the living room, everyone looking a little tired from the day’s work.

“Anyone care to do the honors?” Conner asks, pulling up a program on his wristcom. He has a special code that will update the resident directory, which Eden had instructed him to input once everyone was moved. Doing so will “release” our former rooms for new occupants and list us as living here.

Zane plops down on the couch. “This was all your doing,” he says appreciatively. “Go ahead and make it official.”

Conner smiles, and then makes a show of entering his special code. His com dings, and our names appear as assigned to the flat. “It’s done,” he says, reading through the final screen.

“Awesome!” I can’t help but grin widely. For months and months this place had evolved into more of a home than anywhere else on the ship. Now 24E5 was truly ours.

Charlie produces a green bottle. “I think this calls for champagne!” he proclaims. He unwraps and pops the cork, which explodes from atop the bottle and shoots across the room to hit Reid squarely in the ass.

“Ow! Hey! Be careful,” Reid grumbles, not really hurt by the runaway cork.

I realize I haven’t been taking appropriate advantage of the birthday rules. “Birthday kiss!” I exclaim, hopping over to Reid. I grab him in a savage hug, then plant a big wet kiss on his cheek. Wow, he tastes so straight.

“Happy birthday, Devon,” he replies. He smiles at me, and I know he’s as happy to have this place as I am.

The night before my birthday is one of the happiest we ever experience together in the flat, and I think I realized even then that things would never be quite as good as they were that night.

We drink champagne, and bond over stories about the miseries of moving. Zane announces he’s forgotten something and hops up from his seat, almost tripping over Mike, who’s lying prone on the floor. With an acrobatic leap he clears the boy and regains his balance before dashing off. Dog, tipsy, doesn’t fare so well. Trying to move from a chair to the spot Zane has left on the couch, he trips over a side table, sending empty bottles skittering across the floor; this prompts Sean to send him off to bed. Others check the time and see that it’s late, and before long Conner and I are the last ones up.

“Wow, that was a lot of work today,” Conner sighs. He lies down, resting his head in my lap. I instinctively start playing with his hair, which is long enough that twirling it around my forefinger is comforting and amusing. If I keep doing this he’ll probably fall asleep in my lap, which is unbelievably cute.

Conner’s wristcom beeps lightly, and he looks at it. He looks up at me, smiling, and says, “Happy birthday, Devon.” December fifteenth has arrived – it’s officially my birthday. I can’t help but feel a surge of excitement – I’m turning eighteen, and it promises to be a great year. I have the best boyfriend in the world, great friends, and things are getting happier by the day. Conner, looking exhausted, closes his eyes, and I relish the way it feels to have a boyfriend slowly fall asleep in your lap.

Zane enters the room. “Where’d everyone go?” he asks. He’s carrying a small box – apparently what he’d forgotten.

“Bed,” I explain.

Zane looks a little dejected. “Oh,” he says quietly, looking at Conner in my lap. “Are you guys done for the night?”

I chuckle. “No, we’re just chilling.” I know that what Zane is carrying is probably the thing he’d spoken to me about earlier.

I rouse Conner, who sits up sleepily. I’d told him about Zane’s surprise, and he was actually okay with it – although I’m sure his guard is up, which is always wise around Zane. “Were you asleep?” I ask him.

“Dunno,” he shrugs, yawning.

Zane seems to consider whether or not he should interrupt my moment with Conner; before he decides either way I ask, “So, what do you have for us?”

He looks to the little box he’s carrying and them back to me, a smile spreading across his face, his pink lips belying his mischievous nature. “It’s probably better to show you this in the club room,” he says.

“Of course it is,” I say, grinning at my friend. A Zane surprise usually means food or sex, and I highly doubt he’d wait until after midnight to show us food.

Conner grumbles about having to get up, but follows us into the club room. He takes a seat next to me, holding my hand affectionately. But I have to wonder if he’s not being protective – Conner has warmed to Zane considerably, but he’s still not thrilled about Zane’s often over-boisterous side.

Once we’re seated, Zane opens his little box and fumbles around with whatever’s inside. “Okay, so I’ve been working pretty hard on this,” he says. “Mike actually helped – that kid’s an engineering whiz. I mean, I’m pretty good with physics and all, but Mike – tell him what you want, and the kid can build it.”

This piques my curiosity further.

“Hey, what are you guys up to?” a sullen voice asks from the doorway. We turn to see a sleepy-looking AJ. It strikes me that we hadn’t seen him since earlier in the day.

“Zane is showing us something,” I reply. “Did you get all your moving done?” I’m hoping this last part doesn’t sound patronizing – I don’t want AJ to think I’m concerned about him and asking questions to try to gauge his mood, which I am.

“Uh, yeah,” he replies, leaning against the doorframe. “Then I went down to Bottomside to blow off some steam. Six-wall always does it for me.”

Me too; six-wall, a high-energy varient of racquetball where all six walls were set to be gravitational “down,” always left me exhausted and happy.

AJ glances at his com, and then says, “Well, I won’t bother you guys then.”

“No, you should stay!” I blurt out, speaking a little too loudly. I look to Zane. “He should stay, right?”

Zane and I are good enough friends that I can read his body language. The sly sparkle in his eye tells me that he understands that my invitation to AJ is an attempt to do as he’d earlier suggested – to include AJ and make him feel welcome in the group. “Yeah, totally,” Zane says. He motions for AJ to enter the room and take a seat, which he does, looking happy to be included.

Zane continues with the unveiling of whatever it was he has to show us. “Okay, so, like I was saying – I worked pretty hard on these. You actually helped out, Devon, when we were talking about that big dildo....”

“Hey!” Conner exclaims, sitting up straight. He slaps me on the shoulder. “I told you not to tell anyone about my toys, Devon. That’s private!”

It’s one of the rare instances where I witness a truly annoyed Conner. Oddly, it’s one of the few times I don’t deserve it. Zane gets me off the hook. “Um, actually, Devon and I were talking about one of my toys – from some old photos,” he explains.

Conner turns red. “Oh. Sorry,” he says to me.

Zane, seemingly eager to show us his surprise, resists the urge to tease my boyfriend over his inadvertent admission, simply saying that Conner will have to show everyone his toy later. And then he moves on, reaching into his box and producing a thin black cylinder, about six centimeters long. “If I made them right,” he says, “you guys are gonna love these.”

Zane offers the object to AJ, who takes it from him cautiously. He then hands one to each of us. I examine mine – it’s a pretty simple thing, actually, just a black cylinder with two small arms extending from one end, creating a t-shape.

“Wow, these are great,” I mutter sarcastically.

AJ smiles and looks as though he’s going to say something, but when Zane shoots me an evil glance he resists. I’m usually the only person capable of talking smack to the older boy without fear of reprisal. “What are they for?” AJ mutters, examining his cylinder.

“I’m glad you asked,” Zane says, sounding quite theatrical. “These, my friends, are possibly the finest anal toys known to man.”

The news isn’t shocking, and most of us just nod at the announcement. Conner comically sets his cylinder in his lap and then wipes his hand on his pants, as though the toy he’s been given might be “used.” Zane rolls his eyes and then reassures him that he’s been given a brand new, clean item.

“They’re a little small for butt toys,” AJ points out. He’s right, using Zane’s new toy would be like taking the world’s smallest guy. I think about some of the mornings I’ve walked funny on the way to work, and consider that inserting smaller things might not be the worst idea ever.

“Most toys are a little more...substantial,” AJ continues.

Without thinking about it, I blurt out, “Yeah, no kidding! You should see the one Conner was talking about...OW!” I stop speaking when one of the cylinders hits me squarely between the eyes. My boyfriend gets up and retrieves his toy, offering me a glare that tells me he’s not really that angry about my tactlessness, but that he is rather proud at his aim.

“I knew I should have tested these on the guys downstairs,” Zane mutters under his breath. Then he tries to sounds as authoritarian as possible. “If we can all be serious for a moment, I really need feedback on these. If you’ll give them a chance I think you’ll like them.”

“Sorry Zane,” I say, still somewhat sarcastically. “We’ll behave. So what do you want us to do?”

The older boy smiles. “Well...I was hoping you’d help test them, of course.”

“You mean use them? Now?” Conner asks, uncertainty thick in his voice.

Zane just smiles. “Of course. How else will I know how to fine tune them?” A short debate ensues, Conner saying he’s not sure he wants to be a guinea pig...or I guess a guinea sex pig in this case. AJ and I are a little more enthusiastic, both curious to see what Zane’s thing does. Eventually we all agree to help.

Zane resumes his position in the center of the seating area and holds up one of the devices so that we can see it clearly. “Okay, so the first thing you do is turn it on. Press the button on the end.”

I look at my cylinder and discover a tiny power button. It glows blue when I press it. The other guys do the same. Other than the light, nothing else happens.

“So once it’s activated,” Zane says, “all you do is put it into place.”

We stare at him, each of us suspecting what he means but no one acting on it. Zane waits for a couple of seconds, and then when it’s obvious no one is going to go first he rolls his eyes. “It’s not rocket science,” he asserts. And then, palming his device, he reaches around his back and shoves his hand down into his pants. What follows is a comic dance, Zane squirming about a bit as he sticks his cylinder up his ass.

“You’re such a weirdo,” I laugh. Zane finishes and strikes a little “ta-da!” pose. “Easy as pie. Go ahead and put yours in, but let’s all keep our pants on for now.”

Again the room falls silent. “Oh come on,” Zane gripes when no one follows his example. “It’s not like there’s a lot of modesty that needs preserving.”

“Uh, it’s not that,” AJ replies. “I think we’re just...uh...a little concerned about sticking weird stuff...you know.”

Zane looks crestfallen. “Well I’m game,” I assert, not wanting to hurt Zane’s feelings. I follow his example and stick my hand down the back of my pants. Like an idiot, I don’t really consider the logistics and find it impossible to position the cylinder in a manner lending itself to insertion. Note to self – one should not be sitting on one’s ass when trying to stick something up it. Duh, Devon.

“Uh...oops,” I mutter, all eyes in the room on me. First I try lifting my butt up off the seat, and when that doesn’t help I lie over on my side. This would be the perfect position if I were naked, but instead it pulls my undies tightly against my body.

“Do you need some help?” Conner laughs.

I shake my head, putting on an expression of extreme concentration. Swiveling around, I wind up with my head on the floor, my crotch jammed into the cushion, and my feet up on the back of the couch. I’m able to bring the rounded end of the cylinder to my hole and then press it past the ring of muscle there. It’s not very long or thick, so it’s quite easy to insert. So easy that I find myself worried that it’s just going to shoot right back out.

It doesn’t though, and no sooner is it pressed into me than I feel something expanding and filling me. “What the fuck?” I yelp, jumping up off the couch in shock.

“Whoa! Calm down,” Zane says. “It gets bigger once it’s in, but the computer will map it to your individual physiology so it shouldn’t hurt.”

I cast Zane a dubious glance, very aware of the difference between “shouldn’t” and “won’t.” And then I stop to reflect on what I’m feeling. I can tell that Zane’s device has increased in size, but it hasn’t become uncomfortable. I’m surprised to also feel two pressure points outside my body. Instinctively, I put my hand down my pants and discover that the arms at the end of the device have also changed shape, so that two hard oval beads are pressed against my body, one pushing into a spot behind my scrotum and the other near where my tailbone culminates. It makes the insertion feel secure, and I relax about it shooting out.

Zane watches me get used to the sensation of having the toy inside me, a sly smile playing out on his pink lips. “See, doesn’t hurt at all, right?”

“Uh, no, it doesn't. It just startled me.”

“It’s a similar tech to the furniture,” Zane explains. I look at the couch where Conner is sitting. It had been a bed, originally – one of the bunks in this room. The polymer it was made from allowed it to be molded into virtually any shape, and once shaped you could also manipulate the texture and firmness. I flex my ass, and note that the object filling me feels softer than the cylinder had; there’s a slight give to it as I squeeze.

“Cool,” I say, shrugging my shoulders. I can’t say that having Zane’s toy up my ass is all that much fun – in fact, it feels a little weird, but I’m willing to try it.

Zane reaches into his box and pulls out a thumb-sized oval. “You’ll need a controller,” he says, handing it to me. “But don’t push anything until everyone else mounts up.” When he casts an expectant glare around the room, AJ and Conner look to their individual cylinders, still wary.

“Uh, okay,” AJ finally says, proceeding to insert the device. His efforts are less clumsy than mine, as are Conner’s.

“Okay, so now everyone gets a controller,” Zane says, handing them out. He then walks us through pairing it to our toy, and instructs us on its use. “First, you’ll want to lube up. Hold and press the top button for three seconds.”

We do so, and I soon feel something cool and squishy against my insides. Zane explains that the toys have a lubricant reservoir, and that they’ve just released it so that the device will function properly. He then instructs us to sit back, and to focus on getting accustomed to the sensation of having the thing inserted.

After a moment, I involuntarily flex my ass. I feel the toy slide a centimeter or two deeper into me, then back to its original position when I relax. There’s something comforting about having it snugly stuck up there, although I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be feeling other than a big thing shoved up in there.

“Is there anything in particular we’re supposed to be doing?” I ask.

Zane shrugs. “Just go with it – do whatever comes naturally. Flex if you feel like it...it should start to feel good after a bit.”

I somehow doubt this, and instantly feel bad for Zane. It seems like his invention is going to be a dud. “It’s not doing much,” I say after another minute. “What do you guys think?” I turn to the others.

I’m surprised to see that they both have silly expressions plastered across their faces. Conner’s green eyes are slightly glazed over, and he’s biting his lower lip. AJ has slid down in his seat a little further, and has his hand up his shirt, slowly rubbing his palm over his smooth tummy in little circles.

“Erk,” Conner squeaks in response to my question, his voice about three octaves higher than normal.

“Oh come on,” I groan, sure that these two are putting me on.

Zane interjects. “Some guys are more sensitive to prostate probing than others, Dev. Just give yours another minute. AJ, how’s yours?”

AJ looks a little jittery, as though he’s had ten espressos. “Uh, good. Yeah...uh...it’s working,” he chirps, his words coming in a comically rapid staccato. “I, uh, I may need to...I might need to...wow...is there a lower setting?” He brings his feet up onto his seat and then gets up into a squatting position, as though looking for the best position while using the toy.

I reflect on how the device is affecting me. It still feels slightly comforting to have it inside me, but I wouldn’t call it pleasurable. “You guys are just kidding around, right? Goofing me on my birthday?” I’m somehow sure they’re not – Conner is only wearing a pair of light shorts and a t-shirt, and as such is having trouble hiding the fact that he’s thrown a huge boner.

The guys don’t get a chance to answer my question. The door to the room opens, startling us; Reid enters, looking rather like he’s questioning whether he should have.

“Oh. Uh, hi,” he says, speaking slowly and quietly. “I got done with my shower and everyone was gone.”

Reid’s hair is damp, and he’s dressed in a pair of grey cotton shorts and a sleeveless tee, his customary before-bed wear. I recall that he’d told us he was taking a quick shower; I guess he expected us to be there when he was done.

“Uh yeah,” I say. “Everyone else went to bed...work tomorrow and all that.”

“Oh,” he says. He enters the room, taking a seat on the couch opposite Conner and me. “Wow, everyone? I thought they’d want to stay up and celebrate your birthday.”

I shrug. “I guess moving wore everyone out. I’m sure tomorrow night will be a little wilder.”

“Cool,” Reid says, sitting cross-legged in his seat. An uncomfortable silence descends; my friend has stumbled into the play room on one of the rare instances where we’re all clothed but still up to something naughty.

“So you don’t have work tomorrow?” I ask, the silence becoming uncomfortable.

Reid shakes his head. “Nah. I took it off to help set up. Hey, are you okay?”

He’s speaking to AJ, whose behavior would certainly seem weird to anyone ignorant of the fact that the boy is testing a sex toy. He’s squirming about, looking quite jittery. “Uh, yeah, yeah, yeah,” he says. “Too much coffee, I guess. Uh...yeah...like way too...oh!”

Reid glances at me, confused; I just shrug. And then he seems to notice that Conner is trying to position himself so as to prevent his erection from being too obvious, but anyone with Conner’s length is doomed to failure in a situation like this. Conner’s toy must be affecting him, because when he presses his dick down against his leg he involuntarily lets out a little moan, turning immediately red as he does.

“Hey, what’s going on?” Reid asks, suspicious.

Conner shakes his head, not wanting to answer, and then he turns three shades redder. I laugh. “Busted, caught red-handed...literally,” I say, watching my boyfriend go crimson all over.

Reid throws me a questioning glance. “Zane has us testing a new toy,” I explain. This may be a little blunt, but I don’t see a better option in this situation – Reid had stumbled on sex play, and the sooner he knew that the less embarrassing it would be for everyone involved.

“Oh?” he asks, as though not quite sure what I mean. He looks about the room, searching for what I’m talking about. He looks under the cushion he’s sitting on, making me smile.

“The toys are up their asses,” Zane explains, not at all shy.

“Oh,” Reid replies. Realization dawns on him, and although he tries not to appear flustered by the revelation, his face betrays him as his cheeks flush, soon looking like he’s been walking around in winter weather.

I feel really bad about embarrassing him, and on the first day too. “Sorry,” I say. “We try to keep the sexy stuff to this room, but you kinda wandered in.”

I shouldn’t feel too bad – Reid knew about our club activities, and I’d thoroughly explained to him that this room was reserved for naked, naughty play. The straight boys had all been warned – enter at your own risk.

Reid shifts in his seat. “I guess you’re kicking me out, then.” He sounds dejected, a bit like the odd kid out who doesn’t get picked for a team at recess.

“Not at all,” I answer. “It’s just...you know...what goes on in here....”

I trail off, and a silence descends that immediately makes everyone in the room feel uncomfortable. I wonder if inviting non-club members – especially straight boys – to live here was a mistake.

I decide to dig myself deeper. “It’s not that you have to leave. I just...you probably don’t want to be in here for the naked part, right?”

Reid shrugs. “I don’t know – I kinda thought you asking me to live here meant...I thought if I wanted to hang out for this part it would be cool...I didn’t know it was like only for...I thought a lot of the time it was all with no touching each other...never mind.”

He gets up to leave, looking like a rejected puppy dog. Zane shoots me a scolding look, as though I’d done something wrong. “Wait,” I say; Reid stops in his tracks. “It’s not like that. As long as everyone else is okay with it, you can be in here. I just never thought you would want to.”

Reid’s expression lightens, and he returns to his seat. “Cool,” he says. “I’ve always been kinda curious...I mean, if it’s okay with you guys that I’m staying?” he looks shyly over to AJ and Conner.

What ensues isn’t that bad, but I feel a little mortified watching my sex friends and my straight best friend work out the terms of his observation. Reid is told he can stay, and that he can remain dressed and leave whenever he wants, although Zane insists he has to try one of the toys if he sticks around.

“I...uh,” he says, flustered by this.

Zane doesn’t seem to care. “I know, I know,” he gripes, “straight boys are so squeamish about their asses. But trust me – this toy isn’t about penetration, it’s all about prostate massage, and that’s something all guys can enjoy. Besides, I can use more straight boy feedback.” He retrieves an additional toy from his box and offers it to Reid.

“Er,” Reid says, looking to the cylinder uncertainly.

Zane sighs. “Just stick it up your ass, already,” he demands.

I’m surprised when Reid proceeds without further goading. Watching is one thing – sticking things up your butt is quite another. But he goes for it, although he seems to have some trouble getting everything situated. “What?” he says to me defiantly when he notices that I’m staring. “You’ve had way more practice putting stuff there.” I blush and look away.

Ultimately, Reid gets up and walks over to the rear side of the circular seating area, sitting on the floor behind the couch so that everything but the top of his head is obstructed from view. He apparently wants a little more privacy; AJ sniggers, and then gasps lightly. Once Reid is apparently successful with the “insertion phase,” he returns to his seat, looking quite sheepish.

“This is supposed to feel good?” he asks, fidgeting awkwardly.

“It will,” Zane replies. “Just give it some time. Everyone reacts a little differently. Just sit back and relax. You might get the urge to squeeze...go ahead and do that gently. The toy has shaped itself to your body, and flexing will cause it to massage your prostate, which has a lot of health benefits...in addition to feeling awesome.”

“Okay,” he says, following Zane’s instructions.

Looking at my best friend, his brown puppy-dog eyes and all-American good looks standing out more than ever, I think about the fact he has an anal toy inserted, and I get an erection.

“Good, good,” Zane says, glancing in my direction. “It’s starting to feel good, right?” he asks, nodding at the tent in my shorts.

“Er,” I mumble, suddenly shy because Reid is in here. And then I answer truthfully. The toy isn’t creating much of a pleasurable sensation, other than a comforting fullness. “Don’t know. It’s not doing much.”

Zane takes a seat next to AJ. He holds up his controller. “If you want to kick it up a notch, push the button on the right. That might make it a little better for you.”

I do as Zane suggests. When I press the button, the device begins buzzing deep inside me. It feels as though it’s vibrating, but also moving slightly forward and back; it’s the same motion flexing was creating, but now the toy is doing this on its own.

“Oh, weird,” I say, trying to get a handle on whether I like these new sensations or not.

“Better?” Zane asks.

I answer truthfully. “Don’t know. Feels kinda like I have a parasite.”

AJ’s reaction to the new setting is a little more pronounced. He moans loudly at the vibration, and then leans over to Zane, wrapping his legs around the muscular boy’s frame.

“Well hello there,” Zane says smiling.

AJ maneuvers himself so that one of his legs is draped over Zane’s thigh, and then he brings himself closer to his friend, slightly humping Zane’s leg as though unable to resist doing so. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” he says in a jittery staccato. “I just...I just...I just....”

Zane smiles. “No problem, I’ll take it as a compliment. If you want we can strip down to our undies.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,” AJ squeals. He quickly sheds most of his clothes, right down to a pair of royal blue boxer briefs. To say that AJ displays a prominent bulge would be an understatement – the boy’s boner seems to be doing everything it can to break out of the confines of his underwear.

He goes back to humping Zane’s leg, and then apparently not satisfied with Zane’s pants he proceeds to unbutton the other boy’s jeans and slides them off. Zane just sits back, letting AJ strip him with a knowing smile.

“Is it really that intense?” I ask Conner as we watch AJ molest Zane.

He doesn’t answer, and instead proffers a pitiful nod. “Really?” I ask, curious about what has him so speechless. My boyfriend just nods again, not elaborating.

For my part, Zane’s toy still feels good, but not that good. But I decide not to let this get in the way of having a good time. I turn to Conner, who rather looks like he’s about to start crying, the pleasure apparently that intense. It makes me giggle. “Would you like me to take some of your clothes off too?”

“Uh-huh,” he moans, lifting his hips off the seat. I take this as a cue and pull his shorts down so that they pool around his ankles in a delightful pile.

“Whoa,” I gasp in surprise, staring at my boyfriend’s crotch. It’s no surprise that he’s erect in his underwear – a pair of dark blue and gold trunks I’d given him – but I’m shocked to see the extent to which he’s producing precum. A massive wet patch extends across the entire crotch of the undies.

“Good lord,” I mutter. Conner is producing so much boy lube that it has seeped through the cloth and is actually running down the mound of his crotch in a slimy trail.

“Sorry,” he says, squirming.

“It’s okay,” I whisper, “but I think we need to address the mess.” I place a finger at the base of Conner’s bulge and then run it up his shaft. Wow, his underwear is soaked.

Conner just whimpers and thrashes. Concerned about our newcomer, I look over to see if Reid seems uncomfortable with the progression of events. He actually doesn’t seem to notice, and instead has lain down face-first on the couch, his arms crossed under his chin and a dreamy expression on his face. He closes his eyes, sighing lightly, and I wonder if he’s going to fall asleep.

I turn back to my boyfriend. I pull the waistband of his trunks away from his body and then hook them below his balls so that his long, throbbing erection is displayed to the room; doing so completely coats my palm in his lubrication, and my dick twinges as my nostrils fill with the familiar, sweet smell of Conner’s sex. His cock is totally slick and swollen, and I can’t help but stroke it.

“Ergh!” he exclaims, jabbing his hips up off the seat violently. A long stream of clear liquid shoots from the tip of his cock, landing squarely in the center of his belly. For a moment I think I’ve made him cum, but when no subsequent ejection comes I realize he hasn’t had an orgasm.

“What the?” I ask, confused.

“Prostate stimulation rules,” Zane says in way of explanation. I notice that AJ has continued humping the other boy’s leg. Slyly – but certainly not covertly – he’s hooked a thumb in the waistband of his underwear. He pushes down each time he thrusts his hips upward, so that his shorts very slowly slide off his body. Ultimately his erection springs free, his tip wet and swollen and large.

“Nice,” Zane smiles.

“I uh, I uh, ergh!” AJ sputters, rolling on top of Zane’s muscular leg, humping away. His hole comes into view, Zane’s toy plugging it –it’s a sexy sight.

Zane sees me staring and suggests that I get naked. I pull my shirt off over my head and then go to remove my pants when I notice that Reid has opened his eyes and is looking lazily in my direction. “You okay over there?” I ask him.

He nods. “Yeah...this feels kinda...good.” And then, as though to indicate he’s okay that the others are getting sexual, he starts slowly humping the couch. It’s all the encouragement I need; I shuck my shorts, allowing my erection to spring free. Reid just smiles – he’s seen me naked before, but this is different, obviously. More intimate and intense.

I watch as Reid’s perfect ass lifts and lowers, grinding his crotch against the soft couch cushions. Later, he never joins the club, and it’s only on the rarest occasions that anything sexual happens around him, but I never feel bad about this. I’m just happy for the closeness I feel to my friend, and the fact we can be open around each other like this once in a while.

I get harder, and suddenly Zane’s toy is feeling a little better. Something is happening deep inside me, a sensation almost like taking a warm bath. I mention this to Zane. “Awesome, just go with it,” he replies, stroking AJ’s naked butt gently.

AJ, usually the shy, quiet one, starts chirping excitedly, moaning and humping away. He suddenly seems ravenous for sex, and tugs at Zane’s underwear roughly. Zane laughs and tells the other boy to go easy – he says that the shiny black micro-trunk he’s wearing is new, a gift from Charlie. I have little doubt they were made with Zane in mind – a silver zipper extends down the crotch, allowing for “easy access.” Zane helps AJ out; his thick, hard cock flops out into the night air when he pulls the zipper down.

About a half second after Zane is naked, AJ hops back onto his friend, jamming their dicks together and frotting the older boy manically.

“I...take it...the toy...works well,” Zane says, laughing as he tries to speak between thrusts.

AJ’s reply is frantic and loud, his words coming in short, barked expressions of pleasure. “I...I...I...I,” he says over and over. And then he switches it up. “Uh! Yeah...uh! Yeah,” he moans.

Conner and I stare wide-eyed at the way AJ is humping Zane, his long, thin legs splayed to either side of the muscular boy, Zane’s toy plunged deep into AJ, doing its duty for queen and country.

It isn’t long before AJ flies over the edge. “Zane...oh...Zane...I’m...I’m...I’m cumming!” he screams uncharacteristically loud, causing me to wonder if he’s going to wake the entire ship. AJ arches his back, offering a view of two very slick and swollen shafts pressing into one another. AJ’s throbs, his tip growing larger right before a long, sticky rope of boy semen shoots out, flying up into Zane’s floppy hair.

“Oh...oh...Oh!” he pants, shot after shot of semen bursting forth, the second landing on Zane’s lips and the rest coating the other boy’s chest.

I watch AJ grunt and groan and ultimately slide off of Zane and onto the floor, panting. I turn my attention back to Conner. My boyfriend looks like he’s ready to experience the same thing AJ just has. His dick is twitching, and each time it does a fair amount of precum comes gushing out. “What do you say?” I ask. “Should we let your toy do its thing, or did you want me to help?”

His eyes completely glazed over in lust, Conner moans and says, “Touch me, Devon...please.”

What can I say to that?

I take Conner’s cock in my hand, relishing the feel of the hot hard shaft against the skin of my palm. He’s super-hard, and I know he won’t last long. “I don’t know, maybe we should make you go on like this all night.”

Conner just moans and thrusts into my fist, his way of saying no to the idea. I grab him a little firmer and he thrusts a little faster, obviously eager to come. In a panting, gasping voice he says, “Squeeze my...squeeze my balls.”

I comply, using my other hand to palm his scrotum. Wow – it has to be because of the toy, but Conner’s nuts feel larger and fuller than I ever remember them being.

“Harder,” he pleads; I do as requested and squeeze a little harder. His shaft is slipping in and out of my fist; I relish the way that Conner’s long cock feels to my touch. I’m in love with it just as much as the first time we did it.

“Harder,” he repeats, meaning my squeezing. I’m concerned I’m going to hurt him, but I do as demands and grasp his balls even more firmly. I can feel the shape and texture of his testicles through the skin of his sack.

Conner’s eyes are tightly shut, a look of pain mingled with pleasure spread all over his face. “Devon...I want you to squeeze...way harder,” he gasps.

I find myself a little frightened, but immensely aroused. I’m tugging and clutching his balls so tightly that I’m afraid I’m about to crush them. I don’t want to go any harder, but he sure seems to want it. I consider that he probably never wanted kids anyway. I give him about the hardest squeeze I dare.

“Ergh!” he yells. “Devon! Oh, Devon...ungh!” My actions do the trick – Conner explodes. Like more than ever before. A massive spray of semen ejects from his tip, hitting him right in the eyes. I stroke his shaft furiously as he cums, reaching up with my other hand to wipe the semen from his face. His second shot hits my wrist as I do, and then a third lands on my forearm.

I lose count of how many times Conner shoots, but it’s a lot. By the end his chest and belly are covered in cum – like totally covered. “Uh, wow,” AJ says from the floor.

Conner’s breathing slows, and he smiles sheepishly. And then something weird happens. “Oh!” he gasps in surprise. His body convulses, and another thick rope of cum leaps from his tip, this time hitting me in the bangs. I cock my head curiously, wondering why this final shot was so strong, when another ejects from his tip, hitting me in the eye. Holy shit, he’s having a second orgasm!

“Oh my god,” AJ laughs, watching as Conner applies a second coat of semen to his smooth chest and tummy.

“Uh, yeah, right?” I marvel, trying to wipe the jizz out of my hair.

“Oh, uh, oh,” Conner moans. “Devon...take it out, take it out...I’m about to cum again.” He points to the spot where Zane’s toy is inserted into his ass. He seems earnestly in pain now. I quickly do as he asks, pulling the toy slowly out of his body.

This seems to have a profound effect. Conner arches his back, grunting. At first I’m concerned I’ve hurt him – Zane hadn’t explained how to remove the toy. But then his face contorts and he winces. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I mutter.

“Erk!” Conner exclaims, his dick throbbing as he begins ejecting his third load in five minutes. It’s less than the other two, but possibly still more copious than mine are on a good day. This time I’m the one who gets a cum shower – Conner had rolled over slightly so that his long cock is pointed at me. Five or six jets of semen land on my belly and crotch, warm and wet and awesome.

I remove the device and set it aside. “Thank god,” Conner gasps once it’s out, and then he collapses back in his seat, totally out of breath.

“You didn’t like it?” Zane asks, concern in his voice.

“Are you kidding?” Conner’s voice is husky and ragged. “It’s the best thing ever! But a guy can only take so much, you know?”

All the pheromones in the air are getting to me, and I decide I need to take matters into my own hands. And that’s exactly what I do, grabbing my cock and stroking it as rapidly as possible.

“Want me to help?” Conner offers meekly. I shake my head, grunting. I squeeze my ass, reveling in the way Zane’s toy feels inside me. It may not be having the effect on me it had on Conner and AJ, but it still feels nice.

When I come, my orgasm is simultaneously more intense and more mellow than usual, if that makes sense. I sit back against the seat and moan feeling the approach of a massive orgasm. “Here. I. Come!” I announce, stroking away. My knees buckle and I sit back on my haunches, my naked, hard cock pointing gloriously to the center of the room. To my surprise I don’t shoot much. My semen seems to dribble out lazily, a lot like the way Nick’s usually does. But it still feels fucking fantastic!

When I come down from my high Zane asks how it was, and I tell him.

“That’s interesting,” he replies. “Obviously it massaged your prostate, that’s why you came differently. I’ll have to think about how we can make it better for you. Maybe....”

Zane doesn’t finish what he’s saying; a low grunt interrupts him. In our play, we’d forgotten about Reid, and I’m shocked to see that he’s now mostly naked, his shorts down around his ankles and his t-shirt removed. His body is flushed red, as though he’s on fire.

I just stare – I’ve seen Reid naked before, but never naked and aroused. My straight friend is clearly deep in boy heat, making love to the couch. Every muscle on his perfect body is working together to push his muscular frame forward and backward in long, lustful strokes. His breathing grows uneven and husky as he pushes harder and harder into the couch.

And I can’t help but stare at what he’s pushing into the couch. Never before had I seen Reid hard. I stare at my friend’s glorious cock, which comes into view each time he presses forward against the seat. Reid’s dick is long and hard and wet, a swollen mushroom tip glistening as it peeks out from under him with each thrust. I judge it to be slightly longer than mine – and thicker, mostly straight, but with a very slight curve near the tip that gives my friend’s cock the appearance of the perfect probe.

Oblivious to the universe, Reid thrusts and gasps, sometimes making one long, slow stroke against the velvety seat and sometimes stopping to make three or four short, rapid jabs. The sight of his penis sliding all over the soft fabric is almost enough to make me want to cum again; the sight of the black toy sticking out of his hole is even sexier.

Reid’s breathing grows increasingly rapid, and I bite my lip, excited to witness what’s about to happen.

And happen it does. After another few grinds, Reid grunts with wild abandon. “Ah. Uh. Hengh!” he moans, his entire body tensing. He rolls over on his side, displaying his sexy front to us in all its glory. I take it all in – his muscular chest, and the way his six-pack flexes as his belly moves up and down with his ragged breathing. But what I am most interested in is his wonderful cock, which he strokes vigorously right before it erupts. With a grunt and a groan, he shoots a glob of semen out into the room, where it lands on the floor a meter away. He then strokes away, causing his semen to fly everywhere. Some of it lands on the floor, where some is flung onto the couch cushion in little white globs.

Awash with pleasure, he rolls onto his back, huffing and puffing in ecstasy. He squirms and grunts, firmly stroking his cock and writhing in agony at the sensation of post-orgasm touches. And then he smiles, both the boy and his fat cock looking content about what’s just happened.

AJ and I stare at Reid, and then at one another. Our dicks are both striving for maximum turgidity; in unspoken agreement we go to work, beating them furiously. Maintaining eye contact, we quickly arrive at a second orgasm.

“Ergh!” AJ moans, his dick spraying hot cum all over Zane’s thigh.

I tense, my body crying for relief. And then I shoot again. “Aurgh!”

The toys are universally proclaimed a success, much to Zane’s pleasure. He suggests the entire club get together to try them out next time, a prospect which rather excites AJ. Those of us covered in cum proclaim it to be shower time, our dicks deflating, sated for now.

Reid dresses quickly, and when we get up to leave he seems a little bashful about what happened. When the other three boys leave for the shower, I pull him aside. “You okay with all that?” I ask.

He thinks for a moment, taking a deep breath before he answers. “Uh...yeah, I think so,” he says. “I just...I just don’t want you to think I’m not straight.”

I laugh at his weird phrasing. “And I don’t want you to think I’m not gay,” I say.

He rolls his eyes, and then we laugh about the night’s events. It relaxes my friend, and pretty soon he’s comfortable with what had happened. I tell Reid that he’ll make someone a great boyfriend, pointing out how much likelier that is to happen now that the French girls are here. “We just need to find you the right one,” I say.

“Tell me about it,” he replies, adjusting his crotch as he does. When Reid heads to bed, leaving me to join the others in the showers, I slap his retreating ass playfully, and he waggles it at me in return.

What I’d thought earlier – about how it may have been a mistake to have the straight guys come live here – I’d been wrong.


* * * * *


The morning of my birthday, too few hours after we’d collapsed into bed, I see a side of Conner I never had before. I wake up snuggled close to my shy doctor boyfriend, enjoying the feel of his swimmer pecs under my arm, which I’ve lazily draped over him. He wakes up, an odd glint in his green eyes. What follows is rather surprising, even by club standards.

Later, in the showers, Charlie seconds this sentiment. “Wow, Conner...that was something this morning.”

Conner and I had elected to shower at the group faucets in the center of the room, and Mike and Charlie had shortly thereafter joined us. “Er, thanks,” Conner says shyly, going completely red. And I mean completely. Mike takes note of this, leaning back to examine the way Conner’s ass has flushed crimson. He giggles, causing my boyfriend to go a shade darker.

The boys taunt him a little further, and then I decide to intervene. “Okay, okay,” I say, stepping up behind Conner. “Enough teasing. Yeah, he has a wild side; it’s why I love him.” I wrap my arms around my guy, enjoying the way his wet skin feels against mine. When my dick finds its way into that oh-so-delightful area between his butt cheeks, I start to get a little hard.

“Whoa,” Conner says, noticing this. “One show only this morning, please. I have a lot to do today.”

“Aww,” I gripe, “I thought you’d be spending it with me. It’s my birthday.”

Conner chuckles. “Yeah, and that’s why I have a lot to do. I need to go make sure Zane is awake and working on the food for tonight, and then I have to go over some stuff with Beck. Nick was supposed to do something about decorations, and oh my god, I totally forgot about....”

Conner trails off, apparently speaking more for his benefit than mine. He was really into planning my birthday party, and although I’d told him we could stick to something small, especially given all the work put into moving everyone into the flat, he insisted that my eighteenth birthday party be special.

“So it looks like it’s me and you today,” Charlie says, rinsing the soap suds off his tan body. Although the party wasn’t a secret, I’d been banned from the “party zone,” and Charlie had been assigned to keep me out of mischief.

We finish up in the bathroom and then get dressed for the day. Charlie suggests I make us all some coffee; I yawn and heartily agree. I run into Reid in the kitchenette. He’s trying to figure out the fancy espresso machine Charlie had recently installed. He blushes when I enter, but when I don’t mention the night before things seem normal between us.

“So today’s the big day, huh?” he asks.

I shrug. “Dunno. Feels like any other, if you ask me.”

Reid chuckles. “You’re such a dork. You’re totally psyched, and you know it. Conner is planning quite the party.”

A huge grin spreads across my face, although I do everything in my power to contain it. I finally give in. “Okay, yeah, I’m totally excited,” I gush, giggling. “I never thought turning eighteen would be a big deal, but now I have a boyfriend, and great friends, and the new apartment...it’s just pretty cool, that’s all.”

Reid stops messing with the coffee and steps closer to me. “I’m really happy for you, Devon,” he says, with all the affection a best friend can display. “Happy birthday.”

Reid grabs me in a firm birthday hug, one that feels comforting but simultaneously a little too tight. “Ergh, thanks,” I groan, laughing. “I like you too.”

He doesn’t let go of me right away, making me wonder about the extra-long hug. “Of course, getting older means getting wiser, you know?” he asks.

“I guess,” I reply, not sure what he’s getting at.

“And one nugget of wisdom I can impart – always be wary of a rear ambush.”

“Wha?” is all that I manage to say before I feel four hands grab me brusquely from behind.

Before I can react, I find myself upside down, suspended by my ankles. I try to right myself by pushing up off the floor, but to no avail. “Okay, guys, okay,” I say, hoping reason will get my assailants to release me.

But it doesn’t. When Reid takes a seat at the small table in the nook, I find myself thrust across his lap and then held firmly in place. Reid helps hold me down, and then in a lecturing tone he says, “And avoiding a rear ambush is, of course, essential if you also want to avoid...birthday spankings!”

When I feel cold air on my ass, my shorts having been roughly pulled down to expose my round white butt, I realize what’s about to happen. “No, no, no!” I beseech, laughing as I do. I reach back to pull my pants back up, but my wrists are grabbed and restrained by Charlie, who flashes me an evil smile.

That means Mike is likely the other conspirator, who’s holding my ankles in place. I consider I could probably give him a good kick and wriggle free, but decide that accidentally breaking his jaw would be a bad way to start my birthday. Okay, fine, I’ll take my medicine and like it.

“One!” Reid exclaims, bringing his hand down against my bare skin with a tremendous slap.

“Ow!” I squeal, and not in exaggeration. Reid isn’t holding back at all.

“Two!” Mike says behind me. Again I’m spanked with considerable force, which makes me laugh but also really hurts.

“Okay, okay, enough,” I say, pleading. When I realize we’re going all the way to eighteen with this, I get a little desperate and try to wiggle free, to no avail.

After Reid smacks me soundly with spanking number eight, Dog enters the kitchenette. “Whoa, what are you guys doing to Devon?” he asks, smiling. I’m sure it’s quite a scene, my naked butt sticking up in the air, probably quite red by now.

“Birthday spankings,” Mike explains gleefully.

Dog smiles evilly. “Cool...I want a turn.”

“Et tu, Doggie,” I grunt, watching ruefully as the lean boy lifts his hand.

Once the requisite eighteen slaps have been soundly – and forcefully – administered, I’m released. “Jerks,” I bitch, although playfully.

Reid sticks his tongue out at me. “You know you liked it...and I know too – you were lying on top of me, after all.”

He isn’t wrong, the playful assault resulted in an erection, which I’m sure he noticed. On the way back to the bedroom, I pass Conner. “I had nothing to do with it,” he says.

I roll my eyes. “Uh-huh, I’m sure.”

The required torture and humiliation complete, Conner corrals his helpers and sends each of them off to complete their appointed pre-party tasks. Before long, I’m left alone in the flat with Charlie.

“So, we’re barred from the main lobby today,” I point out, making a show of rubbing my sore ass, hoping perhaps he’ll feel somewhat bad about the part he played in the affair.

He doesn’t. “Yup,” he replies simply.

“So what should we do today?” I plop down on the bed – my bed now.

Charlie folds some of Mike’s dirty laundry and places it in a hamper next to their closet. The fact that he bothers to fold the dirty laundry too makes me laugh. “Whatever you want,” he replies. “Conner wants you staying away from the party zone, but other than that I’m up for anything. What are you in the mood for?”

I think about this, and while doing so decide to take the opportunity to broach another subject. “Hey...I’ve been meaning to ask you. Are you okay with all the changes? I mean like really okay?”

My friend looks at me, his big brown eyes curious and cute. “What do you mean?” He sets about cleaning up some of Mike’s things, which the other boy had left out on the desk in a careless clutter.

“You know,” I answer, “the moving in and all that. I know we didn’t have much of a choice, but you’ve lived here a long time and I feel kind of bad about invading your flat.”

Charlie laughs at this. “That’s funny, I kind of always thought of this as our flat. You’ve been using it about as long as I have.”

I sit cross-legged on my bed. “I suppose that’s true, but still...you’re okay with everything?”

Charlie stops tidying and crosses the room to sit next to me. “I totally am,” he reassures me. “And even if we hadn’t been about to lose this place, having everyone move in would have been a great idea. Can you keep a secret?”

The question is rhetorical, but I nod anyway. Charlie continues, “When I was a kid, my house was always loud and full of commotion – with four boys it was bound to be. My brother Matt hated it, living together in a small house like that. My other brothers and I used to joke that he wanted more space so he could whack off all the time – and that was probably partially true. Anyway, even though there were drawbacks, I loved it, even though I never would have admitted it.”

“That’s cool.” I smile, imagining four pubescent “Charlies” running amok in a small house.

“It was,” he says. “And to me it all felt very natural. In fact, when I was in high school two of my brothers went off to college and suddenly it was just Matt and me at home. Matt was happy that our bedroom went from four to two, and he actually may have been plotting ways to poison me to get it all for himself. But anyway, my point is that it started to feel a little lonely to me, and I remember daydreaming about my group of high school friends. I thought maybe some day we’d all get a place together – you know, work during the day, and come home to video games and pizza every night. Now that I think about it, maybe that was my gay side coming out – dreaming about living with guys instead of a girlfriend.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I agree.

“Sorry, I’m rambling. The point is, when Conner suggested everyone move in, it was like all of a sudden all those old daydreams were coming true. I was happy when this was our secret place, but now that everyone is living here permanently I like it even more. So yeah, I’m okay with everything.”

“Awesome,” I reply, not knowing what else to say.

Charlie just smiles, displaying his slightly crooked upper tooth, a minor defect that makes his smile ten times as adorable as it would otherwise be. I think about the fact that the very bed we’re sitting on is the place where I first got together with Charlie – he’d been passed out, drunk, and I’d rather unadvisedly decided to feel him up. I mention this.

“Yeah, good times,” he replies. And then he leans over and kisses me, a peck at first but then more substantially. And I kiss him back, enjoying the way he tastes subtlety of mint from brushing his teeth, and reveling in the way there’s a comforting familiarity between us.

And then, before you know it, shirts are being pulled off young torsos and pants are being dropped. Charlie introduces the idea of the birthday blowjob, and I make no arguments as his pink lips find their way over my rapidly expanding cock.

“Uh, that’s so good,” I moan.

After a few minutes I come, squeaking and gasping my way through an orgasm made more intense for Charlie’s refusal to take his mouth off me during it. “AHH, ah-ha-ha, okay, enough,” I gasp as he twirls his tongue over my tip.

He sits up, licking his lips and smiling. I’m about to go down on him when he begins furiously jerking himself off. He cums quickly, making me laugh when he cups a hand under his erupting cock in order to prevent soiling my sheets.

“Whew, that was fun,” he says as he gets up to locate a tissue. After he cleans up he collapses back onto the bed, naked, lying next to me. I snuggle up close to his warm body.

“Okay, well, that wasted twenty minutes. Now we just have to figure out how to pass another nine hours,” I laugh, looking at my watch.

As it turns out, we don’t have to do any more brainstorming, although I’m not certain our brains were the organs responsible for the first idea. My wristcom dings, indicating a priority email has come across. I retrieve my com and access the home screen, thinking that perhaps Conner has some questions about the party. Instead, I’m surprised to find an email from Léna. She asks if I have time to meet her at the cafe. I reply that I do, and then tell Charlie about the message. He grumbles about having to get dressed, but does so, his long brown cock flopping about comically as he searches for his pants.

We find Léna sitting at one of the cafe tables, looking rather troubled. “Devon, thank you for coming,” she says in her thick, beautiful accent.

I take a seat. “Yeah, of course. What’s going on?”

Léna takes a deep breath, her alabaster brow slightly furrowed. “I am having a problem, wiz Sebastien,” she says.

“Oh brother,” I mutter. Sebastien was Léna’s younger brother, who I’d briefly met. He seemed rather moody.

“Yes, my brozzer,” Léna replies, my comment not quite translating. He was supposed to be coming over today, moving his things, but now he messages me to tell me zat he eez not coming.” She proceeds to explain that Sebastien is the only family she has on the other ship, and that she can’t bear the idea of leaving him behind. At the same time, she feels compelled to stick with her fellow students, who she’s come to see as something of a family. I nod, completely understanding what she’s saying.

“Um, okay,” I reply, trying to think up something helpful to say. “Can security bring him over?” I ask. Léna looks rather disturbed by this idea, and I consider that the image of armed guards forcing the other boy to his new home might not have been as comforting as I’d meant it to be.

She shakes her head. “No, Sebastien is past zee age of consent. He turned eighteen last month...zee move isn’t mandatory, and he has zee right to stay if he wishes it.”

“So what can we do to help?” Charlie pipes in.

Léna seems to notice my friend for the first time. “You are Devon’s friend, yes? Michel?”

Charlie shakes his head. “Uh, no, Mike’s my boyfriend. I’m Charlie.”

“Oh yes, now I am remembering,” Léna replies. “I am sorry, I am very...how do you say...upset.”

“It’s okay,” I reassure her. “It’s understandable, but was there something you thought we could do to help? I don’t really have anything to do with the immigration.”

Léna sips her coffee, looking as though she has something to say but is reluctant to do so. I reassure her that I’ll do whatever I can to help. This seems to encourage her to continue. “I know zat we are just new friends,” she says. “I hate to be asking favors of you, but I feel I must. Sebastien...things are not so good for him over on zee ozzer ship. He has few friends, as I have said. I know zat...well, when he met you and Conner at Disneyland, I know zis had an effect. After, he seemed to...how do you say? Lighten? Brighten to the idea of moving?”

“I know what you mean,” I assert, nodding.

“Zis ship, although it is not French, there are so many more boys Sebastien’s age. I know he would be happy here.”

“Probably,” I agree, thinking about our experience on the other ship. Forget boys his age – just having a little elbow room would probably make Sebastien happier.

“I know zat it is your birthday,” Léna says apologetically, “but zee migration for our group, it eez closing today. If Sebastien does not come over, I am not sure zat it will be allowed later. I was thinking that perhaps if you could talk to him...if Sebastien could see zat there are nice boys on zis ship....”

Léna trails off, and I find myself feeling rather uncomfortable. The prospect of approaching the sullen French boy isn’t my idea of the best way to spend my birthday. And to be honest, Sebastien hadn’t made the best first impression. Besides that, I knew he didn’t speak any English.

“I don’t know,” I reply uncertainly, not wanting to hurt Léna’s feelings but not sure I can do as she’s asked. “For one thing, I don’t have a pass to go over to the other ship.”

“Oh!” she exclaims, her mood seeming to lighten. “Zat is not a problem,” she insists, producing a pass that she says will allow passage to the other vessel. “It eez meant for those who are helping us move.”

I take the pass from her gingerly. “Uh, okay. But still, I’m not sure I can do anything that will make Sebastien want to move over here.”

I immediately regret saying this. Léna looks as though she’s about to cry, and crying girls are something I generally try to avoid. “But can you not at least try?” she pleads. “You are my last hope, Devon. The idea of Sebastien staying on zee ozzer ship...to spend all those years apart, it is too horrible!”

Later I suspect that Léna was being a little overly dramatic on purpose, but regardless her begging works. I agree to travel to the other ship and speak with Sebastien, rather sure that doing so will result in a complete failure of the mission and cause Léna to forevermore blame me.

“How am I always getting involved in stuff like this?” I ask, grousing about my predicament, as Charlie and I make our way toward the space bridge.

He laughs. “I have no idea. But I’ve wanted to visit the other ship. Did you know the space bridge is over a mile long?”

The hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. “Don’t remind me.”

Somehow, being annoyed about this ridiculous mission makes the walk over the bridge less scary. That and brainstorming what to say to Sebastien when we find him.

“Frankly,” I say dryly, “if he doesn’t agree to come I say we tranq him and drag his skinny French ass over here.”

“You’re the boss,” Charlie laughs. Then he thinks about what I’ve said. “Still, let’s try not to get thrown into the brig for kidnapping.”

“Deal.”

Léna had provided us directions to Sebastien’s room, and we make our way there, crossing the massive main lobby of EV1985 as we do. “Oh wow,” Charlie whistles, marveling at the scale of the larger ship. “This place is so cool.”

I nod. “Yeah, but tell me what you think about it after you’ve seen the living quarters.”

As I thought, Charlie’s opinion of the Orange County vessel drops when he sees how crowded the dorms are. The halls are as crowded as they’d been before, people sleeping or just milling about. We push our way through the crowds, quickly becoming annoyed, and Charlie points out a general bad smell, which he voices in hushed whispers. He’s right – the cramped quarters make the halls smell like B.O. and poo – gross.

We follow Léna’s directions and locate the correct flat. Entering, we find the space empty. “Jesus, finally some elbow room,” I groan.

The flat seems abandoned, but has clearly been occupied until very recently. We can see outlines on the floor where furniture must have recently sat, and here and there we spot evidence of recent residency.

We hear a noise from the rear of the apartment, which startles Charlie and makes him jump. I turn to see that a raven-haired boy our age has entered from the back of the flat. It’s just who we’re looking for – Sebastien.

“Est-Ce que je peux vous aider?” he asks. Charlie and I look at each other uncertainly – neither of us speak French.

“Um, hi,” I say, realizing that I’ve probably just spoken the only English word he knows. Why did I agree to this plan? I continue, “I’m...um...Devon. And this is Charlie. Léna sent us over here.”

Sebastien stares at me blankly. “Je ne parle pas anglais,” he says. “Et en bon américain, je suis súr que vous ne parlez rien d’autre.”

“Uh, okay,” I say, having no idea what Sebastien has just said. I turn to Charlie. “Any ideas? This is going to be really hard if ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ are the extent of our communication capabilities.”

Charlie just shrugs. “Dunno, this is your thing. But you didn’t tell me Sebastien was so cute.”

Charlie is right, the other boy is rather adorable. He has deep blue eyes and large ears that give him an intelligent appearance, and his French heritage makes him look a little more exotic than he otherwise might. Still, his being cute isn’t of much help in this situation. “Great,” I say. “We should have brought Conner. Hey, maybe he’d come help.”

Sebastien’s face lightens, and he seems to remember something. “Hé, je te connais. T’es un des mecs que j’ai rencontré á Disneyland,” he jabbers. And then he mutters something to himself. “Ton petit ami est craquant.”

“This was such a dumb idea,” I groan.

Sebastien accesses his wristcom, pressing in a series of commands. “Voilá, ça devrait nous aider,” he says. He holds his wrist at chest level, and a few seconds later holographic letters appear, seeming to float in the air. “Perhaps this will help,” they read.

The “trick” seems to delight Charlie instantly. “Oh my god, he’s subtitled – that’s so hot! I so want to slide him up and down my dick right now, and those ears are perfect handles!”

I laugh at the joke, and then also at Charlie’s horror as a set of French words appear in the air under Sebastien’s statement, clearly a translation of what he’s just said. Sebastien confirms this when he arches an eyebrow in Charlie’s direction, looking rather angry.

“Uh, oops, sorry,” Charlie apologizes.

“Anyway,” I mutter, taking over. I explain to Sebastien what we’re doing here, speaking slowly to give his wristcom program enough time to translate and display what I’m saying. I decide to be honest with the boy, and explain how distraught Léna is about his opting to stay behind. “I know moving can be tough – you’re probably leaving some friends behind and all that.”

Sebastien reads my statement and then shakes his head before replying. An English translation is promptly displayed. “It’s not that,” he says, “I warned Léna that I wouldn’t move to the other ship without the painting.”

“This is about a painting?” I ask.

Sebastien assumes a rather cranky expression. “Yes,” he says, “but you wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me,” I reply. I get the sense this doesn’t translate correctly, since Sebastien seems confused by my response. I elaborate on my meaning and he gets it.

“Here, let me show you,” he says, gesturing to the rear of the flat. We follow him, entering the kitchenette. We’re both surprised to find that the space has been converted into a bedroom, clearly a boy’s space. A cot is set up where the table usually sits, and the refrigerator has been removed to make space for a small closet.

“You live in here?” Charlie asks.

Sebastien nods. “Yes. I was assigned here with my sister and many of the other French students. They gave me this room. It’s small, but better than sleeping in a room with forty giggling girls.”

“Totally,” Charlie agrees. I smile at him crookedly, knowing he’s trying to get back in Sebastien’s good graces after his faux pas.

The space is cramped with the three of us in here. Sebastien presses past us, and I notice a moderately large crate sitting on the counter we use for coffee in our flat. Sebastien flips a latch and then lifts the lid of the crate, allowing us to look in but insisting we be very careful.

What we find is a painting – presumably the one Sebastien had mentioned. It’s clearly an impressionist work, portraying a thoroughfare decorated richly in colorful French flags. Pedestrians, ethereal smudges of color and texture, walk the street, their garb that of an age long past, probably the nineteenth century. In the lower left corner a one-legged man in a blue cloak and black beret hobbles along on crutches. The work is beautiful, but mournful, the colorful figures forever frozen in time, a snapshot of a Parisian past long forgotten.

“This is Rue Mosnier with Flags,” Sebastien explains. And then he speaks in English, his accent thick but understandable. “It is by Manet. Manet, not Monet. Vous ne connaissez sans doute pas le différence.”

When the translation of this last part displays, Charlie scoffs at the French boy. “We totally know the difference,” he asserts, examining the painting. “Édouard Manet was one of the most important painters of the late nineteenth century. His approach to real-life subjects was revolutionary, and marked a transition point from realism to impressionism. This particular work reflects his propensity for political statement...a very French trait, I suspect. Here we see Parisians enjoying a national holiday while a war veteran suffers, ignored and abandoned.”

Sebastien’s com busily displays a scrolling translation as Charlie speaks, and Sebastien’s eyes widen in surprise at my friend’s knowledge, which is apparently spot-on. I’m glad he spoke up – frankly I’d misunderstood Sebastien, and wondered why he was talking about mayonnaise.

“Okay, so art lessons aside, what does any of this have to do with where you live?” I ask.

Sebastien explains that the painting was rescued from a museum in Anaheim, where it was on loan. Apparently Sebastien learned about the presence of the painting on the ship shortly after leaving Earth, and that had led to the discovery that it had been stored in conditions that he claims were unacceptable.

“A painting such as this,” he says, “it needs to be protected, cherished. It is one of the most important French works to survive, and it is part of our heritage. The warehouse where it was shoved – it was damp, and too warm sometimes while too cold others. I spent weeks requesting it be moved, to no avail. Eventually Léna was able to have it moved here, which is not ideal, but at least I could watch after it.”

“Uh, okay,” I say. “So what are you saying?”

Sebastien closes the crate and then slumps down on his cot. He looks annoyed, but more at the situation than us.

“I told Léna that I would live on the other ship if we could bring the painting – to protect it and ensure that it survives the journey. So little of France is traveling to the new world – so much art and culture lost! But the officers on this ship, they say this is an impossibility.”

“They won’t move it, huh?” Charlie asks, commiserating.

Sebastien shakes his head. “No! And it is senseless! They don’t care for it at all, then when we offer to take it into French custody they balk. Why should they have ownership rights over us? We are French, after all, and we’re the ones who want to take care of it properly.”

I think about what Sebastien is saying. “Soooooo,” I mutter thoughtfully, “if we can find a way to move the painting, you’ll come too?”

Sebastien nods emphatically. “Of course! The idea of living on the other ship is very appealing, but I can’t leave this behind. It’s my responsibility.”

“Interesting,” I say to myself.

Charlie senses danger. “Devon...what are you thinking?” he asks fearfully.

“I think I have an idea.”

An hour later, I’ve donned a tuxedo, dressed Charlie in a frilly pink plantation dress, complete with hoop skirt, and found a Russian bear costume for Sebastien.

No, just kidding, although that would be awesome. After outlining my plan to Charlie and Sebastien, we make our way to the hospital, where we locate Doctor Eleanor Hardy, a physician I’d met on my last visit here.

“Well, if it isn’t Derrick!” she exclaims when we enter her tiny office. I think she means me.

“Er, it’s Devon, actually,” I say.

Doctor Hardy looks confused, and then accesses her tabletop workspace, shuffling through a maze of files that are lying all over the virtual desktop in a chaotic mess. “Really?” she asks, scratching at her bushy brown hair. “I could have sworn it was Derrick.”

“Uh, no, I’m pretty sure it’s Devon,” I reply, looking down at the desk, curious to see if she’s actually going to find some evidence that my name is Derrick. I hope not...I don’t want to have to change the labels inside my underwear.

“Hmm, that’s odd,” she says. “I made a note, because I have this theory that guys named Derrick are always good lays. Not that being named Devon eliminates this possibility!” She lets out a nervous, loud laugh that sounds a little like an emu imitating a foghorn. I can’t help but blush at being sexualized by someone twenty-five years my senior, and a woman to boot. Maybe I put out some sort of doctor-attracting pheromone.

“So anyway,” the doctor says, closing her file system. “What can I do for you today?”

I take a deep breath, about to tell a lie that will almost assuredly evolve into a ball of lies. “I was over here on leave today, and Doctor McLaglen asked if I might retrieve one of the shipments he’d requisitioned. It’s for something called Aderalan.”

Doctor Hardy looks confused, then reactivates her desktop. I consider asking whether her brain is literally stored in her computer, but resist. “Well,” she says, flipping through her notes, “usually we don’t do that sort of thing for medical supplies.”

My heart increases pace slightly. I’d taken a risk with this plan – when Conner and I had been here before we’d noticed some irregularities with the orders for this substance. Conner says we didn’t need the drug at all, but he was locked out of altering the request. I was gambling that this was the case for Doctor Hardy as well.

“Yes, but if you pull up the order for that particular drug....” I start.

Doctor Hardy cuts me off, laughing her weird, barking laugh. “Well, you’re right,” she says. “It says here to move as much Aderalan over as possible, and that it’s to be couriered in individual crates. Sorry about that – let’s go get your supplies and send you on your way.”

A short trip to the ship medical stores later, our little trio is in possession of a large crate of the aforementioned pharmaceutical. Doctor Hardy does as promised, helping us pack up the Aderalan, but making sure we depart only after she’s imparted some additional innuendos and half-hearted sexual advances, this time aiming them at Sebastien, who shuts off his translator and pretends not to understand what’s going on.

“Okay, so now we have a big box full of medicine,” Charlie says as we push the crate back toward the dorms on a cart.

“Yeah, but with a little work it will be a big box full of medicine and French impressionism,” I say, marveling that my plan actually seems to be working.

Once back in Sebastien’s flat, we bring the crate with the medicine and the painting into the living room. I remove almost all the bundles of Aderalan from the medical crate, and then begin to place the painting into the larger crate.

“Stop!” Sebastien barks, startling me. “Je vais le faire,” he says. When I stare at him blankly he realizes he’d forgotten to turn his translator back on. He does so, and then says, “Let me do it, you look clumsy.”

Charlie laughs. “He’s got your number.”

“Shut up,” I retort.

We stand back and watch. Sebastien very gently lowers the crate with the painting into the larger medical crate. It’s a near-perfect fit, leaving just enough room at the top for two layers of Aderalan bundles.

“See,” I say to the boys. “It’s a good plan, right? We sneak the painting over inside the medical crate – they’ll think it’s medicine.”

“I don’t know,” Charlie says, sounding nervous.

“I like this plan,” Sebastien says, smiling. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen the boy display a genuine smile, and I can’t help but note that it makes his eyes look rather mischievous, and it suits him far better than sulking.

Once Charlie is on board with my scheme, we get Sebastien to pack up his things and then make for the dock. Assuming all goes well, Sebastien will succeed in sneaking the painting over and I will succeed in sneaking Sebastien over. I try not to look nervous, although I have to admit my heart is beating a thousand beats per minute, or at least it feels that way.

“This is such a bad idea,” Charlie says when we enter the airlock room. Two officers stand to either side of the portal leading out onto the space bridge.

The French migration mostly completed, the line to travel to EV5997 is relatively short, and before long we come to the front. “Papers,” one of the officers says to us, nodding at Sebastien. The French boy produces his relocation paperwork, and then the officers make a routine but careless examination of the duffel bag he’d packed.

“We’re from the other ship,” I say once Sebastien has been waived through the airlock door. “We’re moving these medical supplies over.”

“Medical supplies?” the other officer asks. “I don’t have any orders for medical supplies today.”

The first officer opens the crate, looking over the rows of Aderalan. My heart feels as though it skips a beat or two, and Charlie goes pale. “Uh, if you want to look at the order in the system,” I say.

“That’s okay,” officer one says. “They’ve been moving this stuff all week. Go ahead.”

A wave of relief washes over me, and I don’t wait for the officer to ask twice. Charlie and I go to join Sebastien in the airlock.

“Hold it,” officer two says. We stop in our tracks, and I briefly wonder whether peeing myself will be helpful. The officer continues, “Crates go on the belt. You can remain in possession of it if you like, but it needs to stay on the belt while on the space bridge. Safety and all that.”

The officers help lift the crate up onto the conveyor belt leading onto the bridge. Once it’s in place, they punch a series of commands into a nearby terminal and send the crate on its way. We’re then ushered into the airlock, and a moment later the three of us find ourselves on the space bridge walking back to EV5997.

“That is the last time,” Charlie starts, then pauses, apparently not sure what to say. “It’s just the last time, that’s all,” he laughs nervously.

“Devon Chasen, master art thief,” I say, assuming what I mean to look like a martial art pose.

Sebastien, who insists we walk along with the crate, which is very slowly making its way down the belt, smiles. He seems much happier than he had before, even though I’m sure he’ll be nervous until we pull this off.

“Do you think they’ll miss it?” I ask him. “The painting, I mean?”

He huffs, laughing sardonically. “No. It took me three weeks to find it the first time – it was listed in a totally different location. I think the only reason they refused to let us move it is because of the paperwork. Idiots.”

I smile, considering that my initial impression of Sebastien may have been wrong. He seems like a pretty cool guy.

“Okay, one more checkpoint,” Charlie says as we approach the airlock leading into our home ship. The walk had taken about three times as long as it would have had we not been accompanying the crate.

“No checkpoint, actually,” I reply, and then explain that there’s no customs checkpoint on our end. Turns out I’m only partially right. We exit the airlock to find two very annoyed looking guys, one dressed in a security force uniform.

Sebastien freezes, not sure what’s going on. “Uh, hi,” I say, my voice squeaking slightly.

“See, I told you Charlie wouldn’t keep him out of trouble,” Reid says firmly, a slight smile on his pink lips.

Conner looks less amused. “Dammit, Devon. What the hell are you doing here?”

“I...uh...field trip?” I smile meekly. “What are...uh...what are you guys doing here?”

Reid is looking at Sebastien curiously, probably wondering why everything we say is being holographically projected in French.

Conner sighs. “Reid and I have been watching for unauthorized medical shipments all week. I’ve been monitoring the Aderalan supply on the other ship, and it’s clear that a lot of it is making its way here – but it’s not going through the hospital.”

“Yeah, the customs guys said a lot of this was being couriered over in individual crates,” I mention.

Conner continues, “So Reid and I flagged the substance so that we’d get a page if any was moved over. We thought it was all being smuggled under another listing, but then we got a page an hour ago. We thought...well, whatever. Why are you sneaking Aderalan around, Devon?”

I laugh sheepishly, rather like a little boy who’s about to try to explain himself out of trouble. “Uh, funny story,” I start. “So, I assume you’re all familiar with Édouard Manet, one of the most influential painters of 19th century France?”

I can see that my story isn’t getting me out of trouble, so I make it rather more convoluted than it need be. “Okay, okay,” Conner finally exclaims, sounding exasperated. “Obviously this has nothing to do with anything other than Devon’s antics. I have a party to plan...you too, Reid.”

Reid seems to realize Conner is drafting him into service. “Oh yeah, right,” he says. And then he fidgets uncomfortably in his uniform. “Dammit, Devon, it was my day off. I ran all the way to Topside to put this on.”

“Sorry,” I say.

Once our two friends have left, Charlie, Sebastien and I breathe a huge sigh of relief, Sebastien’s sigh in French, of course.

“Well we did it,” I say, nodding toward the crate.

I’m surprised when Sebastien grabs me by the shoulders, embracing me and then planting two rough kisses on either cheek. “Yes!” he exclaims. “I can now be sure this painting is protected. How can I ever thank you, Devon?”

After reading the translation, I laugh. “Well, if I’d failed I’d probably be subject to Léna’s wrath for the next twenty years – getting me off the hook from that, one might say I actually owe you.”

Sebastien smiles his wide, white smile. “Yes, an angry woman is one thing...an angry French – do not even dare to imagine such a thing.”

Of course, there is no need to imagine Léna being angry because we’d succeeded, both at smuggling a priceless work of art over and getting her brother here. No sooner do I text her the news than I get a gushing, glowing reply of thanks, and a promise that I’m to be bestowed the secrets to all Léna’s family recipes. French food? Secret French food recipes? Score!

It’s ultimately decided that Rue Mosnier with Flags should be stored in Charlie’s shop, the back room being a place with limited access. Sebastien isn’t sure about this idea, but agrees when we point out that he doesn't have a room assignment. I tell him we can brainstorm better storage places later, which he seems to accept.

I consider what Léna’s told me about the other boy, particularly that he doesn’t have many friends. Before we part ways, I ask him, “Hey, we’re having this sort of party thing tonight...would you like to come?”

At first he seems reluctant, but Charlie goads Sebastien into agreeing to attend. He insists that it will be a good way for Sebastien to meet some of his new shipmates. When the French boy agrees to show up, I shoot a quick email off to Conner with a request, hoping that my boyfriend isn’t annoyed enough with me to ignore it.

Time passes slowly in the hours before my party, and although Charlie does his best to keep me away from the areas Conner had proclaimed “off limits,” I eventually go stir crazy and insist on a trip up to the kitchens.

“Okay,” Charlie reluctantly agrees, demanding that we take a route that avoids the main lobby. He also insists that we text Zane before heading up, just in case there are any birthday surprises out in the open up there.

“Birthday surprises?” I ask, my eyes gleaming. “I just suggested going to pass the time, but now we totally have to go!”

“Okay,” Charlie replies. “But just let me text...Devon! Get back here!” I make a beeline for the exit to the flat, not waiting for Charlie to clear my visit with Zane.

Turns out, there were no birthday surprises out in the open.

“Well this is disappointing,” I say, eying Zane’s workstation. Trays of cannoli shells are lined up, waiting to get stuffed with chocolate chip mascarpone filling and then dipped in bittersweet chocolate at the ends.

Zane eyes me wryly; his apron is covered in multicolor blotches, evidence that he’s been working hard at preparing the food for my party. He dips his tasting spoon in a large bowl of the white cannoli filling, but rather than put it in his mouth he uses a finger to pull back on the spoon. When he unexpectedly aims it at me, I have virtually no time to react before being hit square in the face with the sweet mixture. “Is it disappointing now?” Zane asks dryly while I splutter; cannoli filling has gone up my nose.

“Not the food, dork,” I mutter, wiping my face with a towel. “I thought there might be presents up here.”

Mike emerges from the back. He’s carrying one of the giant commercial pots, which looks almost completely full; Mike looks hot and tired. He sets the pot down on the workspace noisily, grunting as he does. “Oh hey Devon,” he says, noticing me.

“You got corralled into helping, huh?” I ask. Mike works in engineering, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in the kitchens before.

He nods. “Well, I volunteered, actually.” He explains that Zane had mentioned that he could use some help, and that when he’d accepted he hadn’t realized what hard work cooking could be. And then he says, “You have food in your eyebrows,” his brown eyes curiously examining me; he’s probably trying to figure out how I’d managed to do that. I explain about the cannoli facial and he laughs.

“So...Charlie and I were getting pretty bored downstairs. Anything we can do to help?” I offer.

Zane goes to work filling the pastries, and replies with a smile and a chuckle. “No way. If Conner catches us putting you to work on your birthday he’ll kill us.” He might be right about this, and when Charlie and I are unceremoniously kicked from the kitchens we don’t take it badly.

Needless to say, I’m not one to handle boredom well, and the three hours before my party crawl by at an agonizing pace.

“Devon, put your pants back on,” Charlie grumbles at one point, discovering that I’d gotten into one of his boxes. “And get those off your head...they’re for my next collection.”

Finally the appointed hour arrives, and Charlie’s babysitting duties come to an end. I shower and change into some nice clothes, which Conner had picked out for me, insisting that I dress a little better than shorts and a t-shirt. He’s picked some dark jeans and a long-sleeve cotton sweater for me. “You look really nice,” Charlie says when I emerge from the bedroom. “Ready to go?”

“Almost, I just have one more thing to do.”

Growing up, my mom had placed about as much importance on birthdays as Conner was now, and a rule in my household was that I had to look presentable. Mom would always insist that I go with my natural hair color, something I’d detested ever since I was nine. It had been blonde when I was younger, but over time had darkened into a muddy brown.

Vibrant arguments would usually ensue in the days before my birthday, sometimes resulting in door slamming and pouty behavior (on my part, not my mom’s). She always got her way, of course, and if you were to look through the birthday photo album you wouldn’t find a single lock of blue or red or orange, just my natural ugly brown – blech.

Asking Charlie to wait, I run to the bathroom and pull my hair dyer off the shelf. Although there’s no one forcing me to do so, I set it to return my hair to its natural color. Hey, it’s a tradition, and sometimes traditions are important, even the ones you hate.

It doesn’t take long to run the device over my head. When I look in the mirror again, gone is the dark chestnut I’d favored recently. Back – for a limited time only – is the not-quite-blonde-but-not-quite-brown muddy looking hair I’d been born with. I sigh, reflecting that I still hated it, but that it was comforting to have it on my birthday.

But you know what? Some traditions can stand a slight modification.

I make an adjustment to the dyer and then take a lock of hair from just above my right ear between my fingers. I dye this one lock bright blue.

“Better,” I say, looking in the mirror, smiling. I can’t believe it – I’m eighteen!

“That’s what you went with?” Charlie asks when I return to the living room. “It’s kinda tame for you...and a shitty color too.”

“Er...thanks,” I grumble.

Once Charlie is done apologizing for the hair comment, he checks with Conner to make sure they’re ready for us, and they are!

On the way to the main lobby Charlie says, “I hope it’s okay it’s not a surprise party like AJ’s.”

I shrug. “Wouldn’t have been much of a surprise. I mean, Conner isn’t the most covert guy in the world, you know?”

Charlie laughs and agrees that Conner would be hard-pressed to keep a big secret. “We talked about pretending like we’d all forgotten, then surprising you, but frankly we were afraid of the repercussions if things went wrong. You know...if you really thought we’d forgotten.” He clasps his hands and then makes a gesture simulating a huge explosion, apparently a metaphor for a hypothetical reaction on my part.

I offer a hurt expression. “Repercussions? I’m like the nicest guy in the world.”

Charlie arches his eyebrow at me. And then laughing he replies, “Yeah, whatever. You’re an angel.”

When we arrive at the main lobby I spot Sean and Dog walking into the empty restaurant space on the far end. Conner had procured this spot for the evening, recalling what a great time we’d had on our date there. Actually, a couple of dates. The normally shuttered doors are open, revealing a warm orange glow emanating from within. I smile, curious about what all Conner has planned for the night. I almost break into a jog, eager to find out.

“Oh, hey, Devon...wait,” Charlie says behind me.

I stop in my tracks, offering him an exasperated expression. “Oh come on!” I gripe. “I waited all day, and I’ve been really good.”

I get an eye roll at this, probably owing to the fact that my definition of “being good” seems to include an art heist and prohibited visit to the kitchen. But Charlie doesn’t give me flak, and instead agrees with me. “Yeah,” he says. “I just wanted to give you something first.”

He reaches into his pocket and produces a small square box. “I mean, Mike and I have another present for you later, something I think you’ll like...hopefully a lot.” I don’t mention that I’d already seen what the boys had tailored for me, but silently agree with his assessment – the clothes they’d made were really cool. Charlie continues, “But I wanted to give you something just from me...er...so here.”

He hands me the small box, receiving an eager smile in exchange. I don’t have to ask whether he wants me to open it now, and in fact it wouldn’t really matter if he said he wanted me to save it. I open the box, the lid coming off with the delightfully raspy sound of cardboard rubbing against cardboard.

“Oh...wow,” I say when I see what’s inside. It’s a round silver pendant, with an intricately detailed carving of a tree in a Celtic knot design. The center of the pendant is encrusted with a green gem, which is mounted at the point where the tree’s trunk extends into a swirling pattern of silver branches. I take the pendant from the box; it’s attached to a brown leather cord.

Charlie is staring at me with an expectant expression, as though the fate of all mankind rests on me liking this. I play with the cord between my fingers and the pendant twirls at the end, its little green gem twinkling in the light.

“I, uh, hope it’s okay,” Charlie says.

“Okay? It’s fucking amazing!”

My profane adulation gets a big smile, and then Charlie’s expression softens. “It’s supposed to be the tree of life,” he explains about the design. “I hope you don’t think this sounds too corny, but you’re always so full of life, Devon. It has an effect on everything around you. At the risk of getting emotional, it saved mine – literally. I wanted...I wanted something that we could both look at and always remember that.”

There are moments in your life where you just don’t know what to say. How do I explain to Charlie what he means to me? How do I express the bond we share? He’s my first lover, and although there are others – some would say many – and although Conner is the most important person in the world to me, Charlie will always have a piece of my heart that no one else does, and fuck me if I can figure out how to put that into words.

Instead I just lean into my friend and kiss him lightly on the lips, enjoying the way they feel warm and wet against mine. When I pull back, our eyes meet, and I know that my kiss has said everything I ever could have wanted to put into words.

I strap the pendant around my neck, vowing to never take it off. “Okay, so are we going to a party or what?” I ask gleefully.

The night turns out to be a testament to Conner’s party-throwing abilities. Charlie and I enter the restaurant, and my jaw immediately drops.

The unused space was usually dirty and cluttered, particularly the downstairs, which had never benefited from the tidying we’d done upstairs before date nights. Now it was immaculately clean, every fleck of dust or dirt suspiciously missing; I have to wonder if Conner dragooned an army of nurses from the hospital to bring the space up to hospital sanitation standards.

The perimeter of the room is lined with tables, each covered in a starched white tablecloth and each displaying a centerpiece of exotic flowers. Well, not that exotic. A second glance reveals that they’re comprised of orchids and birds of paradise and blossoming desert sage, little towers of purple flowers popping against the white tablecloths. They’re all familiar plants – I recognize them immediately as the things that grew in our gardens back in San Diego.

The table decorations don’t hold my attention long. No sooner have we entered the dining room proper than our presence is noticed by the fifty or so people milling about the center of the room.

“Happy Birthday!” comes a mighty cry, a bellowed greeting that echoes off the walls in happy sentiment.

Conner emerges from the center of the crowd, looking a little flustered from the day’s activities, but also rather proud of himself and quite happy to see me. I notice that he’s dressed in my favorite outfit of his – a black leather jacket and blue button down shirt.

I can’t contain my excitement. Perhaps acting a little too much like a teenage girl, I run to my boyfriend, embracing him in a huge hug and a big sloppy kiss to the cheek. Conner almost topples over. “Oof!” he exclaims. “I’m happy to see you too.”

“Everything looks so great!” I gush, holding Conner in my arms.

This seems to make him think of something. “Oh...hey...check it out,” he says, pushing a button on his wristcom.

Overhead, the room erupts in bright roiling flames of blue and purple. I flinch at first, even though I immediately know the fire is holographic. The flames twist and contort, ultimately shaping themselves into flickering letters that read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEVON.”

I stare at the display. “Oh. My. God. That’s so cool!”

Conner laughs. “Yeah, it is. Mikey outdid himself...again.” He shows me the program on his com. “See, you can write out anything.”

I grab Conner’s wrist playfully, and before he realizes I’m not just looking I manage to type in a replacement message. Overhead the words “Hey, who farted?” hang in blazing letters. This gets a couple of laughs from the room.

“Ha ha,” Conner says sarcastically, pulling his wrist away from me and restoring the message to the original setting.

The next hour is a blur. I’m approached by most everyone in attendance, each wishing me a happy birthday. All the guys from the club are here, of course, along with all my old flatmates. Everyone I work with has also come, and as the evening progresses more and more people arrive, until we have quite a party on our hands. Beck, as one would expect, sets up his equipment, and before long the party is set to a soundtrack of grooving, thumping tunes.

Eventually, I realize I haven’t eaten in quite a while. “Oh my god, I’m starved,” I tell Dog and Nick, who’ve wandered over to tease me about getting old. We make our way to the rear of the dining room, where the feast Zane has prepared is laid out. Speaking of whom, my floppy-haired friend is standing next to the food table. He’s dressed in a rather hip t-shirt and black leather pants, and I know that he has turned over all the kitchen duties to some volunteers for the night, but that apparently hasn’t stopped him from watching over things to make sure everything is perfect.

“Happy birthday, Devon,” he says, smiling.

I look him up and down with mock curiosity. When I’m sure he’s noticed my examination, I say, “Wow...I almost didn’t recognize you. It’s not often you wear clothes to a party.”

As usual, teasing Zane results in the opposite of embarrassment. “Oh right,” he says playfully, “there should definitely be more exposed cock at a party for you.” He unzips his pants, exposing the tan, fuzzy skin of his lower abdomen and the base of his shaft.

Someone clears their throat loudly behind us, and I turn to discover Conner, who’s shooting Zane a nasty glare. Without a word exchanged between the two, Zane shrugs sheepishly and zips up, apparently resigned to good behavior tonight. “Later,” I mouth, causing him to smile.

“Okay, so what all do we have here?” I look the food table over. Zane has prepared an assortment of hors d'oeuvres and appetizers, most of them clearly screened for “Devon approval.”

“Try one of those,” Zane says, nodding to a platter piled with fried balls of some sort, each about the size of a small plum.

“What are they?” I ask, curious. Zane refuses to say and insist I just try it. I take one of the fried balls and bite into it gingerly. It’s hot, but not overly so. My mouth immediately begins watering as the crispy breading crunches between my teeth. And then I reach the filling, which rolls onto my tongue in molten, cheesy glory.

My eyes wide and my mouth stuffed with food, I exclaim, “Oh my god...is that?”

Zane nods. “Deep fried macaroni and cheese. Try dipping it in the marinara sauce there on the side...makes it even better.”

I do as he suggests, doubtful that anything could taste better than hot cheddar and gruyere, held together by tender pasta that’s been fried in a zesty shell of oily goodness. But he’s right – the marinara does make it better. “Oh wow, that’s so good,” I say, taking an appetizer plate from the table and piling it with macaroni balls. I don’t stop until the stack threatens to topple and send my food rolling all over the floor.

“Here, have a mini-burrito,” Zane says to Nick, offering the boy a plate.

Nick doesn’t fall for it. “Um...yeah. I was there at Halloween, remember? I think I’ll pass on the burritos, and the fiery skitters that come later.” He opts instead for an appetizer salad of spinach and arugula with feta, red onion and pecans.

“This all looks great,” I say of the food. “Thanks for putting this together.” I try to convey to Zane that it means a lot that he cooked for me, especially on this occasion. He smiles, getting it.

Before he can reply, a sputter gets our attention. Nick coughs, his eyes watering. In a raspy voice he exclaims, “Fuck!”

Zane puts on his sly grin. “The pecans were soaked overnight in Tabasco and diced habanero peppers.”

“You are such a fuck-tard,” Nick asserts before excusing himself, presumably to find a gallon-sized glass of water.

Across the room, I notice Jon from work. He’s carrying a small box wrapped in green paper, which he takes to a side table I hadn’t noticed until now – a table piled with presents.

I take a theatrically long inhale of surprise and delight, and then make a beeline for the present table. Nick and Dog follow. “Presents, presents, presents,” I chant in a delighted, childlike mantra, taking several into my arms. I jump when I feel someone flick my ear.

“Not until later,” Conner says. Dammit, caught again!

“But....” I whimper.

“Later,” he asserts firmly.

I slink off, doing my best Charlie Brown impersonation, dragging my heels trying to look dejected. Conner laughs, but doesn’t offer to let me open even one stinking present. I decide to reward myself with a glass of sangria, which I finish quickly once I realize how thirsty I am.

“This is really good,” I say.

Mike wanders over to me. “It better be,” he replies. When I look at him curiously, he holds up his hands, four of his fingers wrapped in band-aids. I guess he’d proven clumsy at cutting fruit, one of the perils of the novice chef. When I show concern he just laughs and explains they’re all superficial.

“That’s my guy, a total klutz,” Charlie sighs, joining us. He looks over my shoulder at the gift table. “Oh shoot,” he says. “I forgot to get our present.”

“Want me to go get it?” Mike asks.

Charlie shakes his head. “Nah. I still need to wrap it. I’ll be right back.” When he leaves to retrieve my birthday present from his shop, I involuntarily finger the pendant around my neck, feeling a wave of affection for my friend.

The sangria starts to enter my bloodstream, and the party goes from fun to really fun.

“Oh my god, you came!” I can’t help myself, when I see that Sebastien has accepted my invite. I rush over to the French boy, hugging him firmly. He allows me to do so, but offers me a questioning look when he steps back. “Sangria,” I explain; Sebastien just rolls his eyes.

Okay, so when I drink I’m not big on personal space. I grab Sebastien’s hand, telling him that I want to introduce him to my boyfriend. We wind our way through the partygoers, looking for Conner. I find him standing with Ian over by the food table.

“Sebastien, this is Conner, my boyfriend,” I say, speaking slowly so that the French boy understands what I’m saying. “Conner, this is Sebastien. He just moved over to this ship today.”

Sebastien looks at me, confused. “Oui, j’ai déjà rencontré Conner,” he says. I have no idea what this means, of course, so I ask him to turn on his nifty translator program.

“He said we’ve already met,” Conner interjects. Oh yeah, Conner speaks French. Turning to Sebastien, Conner says a few words in Sebastien’s beautiful, lilting language. The other boy laughs, and then replies.

“What’d he say?” I ask.

Conner arches an eyebrow at me. “He says you’ve had too much sangria.”

I reply with my best “pshaw,” and then to make my point I take a fresh glass of the fruity wine from the table. As I do, something dawns on me; I turn to Conner. “Oh hey – did you do that thing I asked you to in my email?”

Conner nods, and a surge of excitement shoots through me. I ask him to tell Sebastien to turn on his translator, which the other boy does. Then I hop up on a chair, standing high enough so that everyone in the room can see me. Taking a spoon to my glass, I start clinking it to get everyone’s attention, which it does. After a few seconds the room is quiet, most eyes on me.

I clear my throat, and then try not to fall off the chair. Damn – sangria is strong! A few chuckles waft up from the crowd at my behavior, and then I begin speaking. “Hey everybody,” I say, speaking a little too loudly. Softer, I continue. “I just wanted to say thanks for coming. This is an awesome party, and I really appreciate it.

“I also wanted to introduce you to someone. As you know, we’ve recently had a few French immigrants move over....”

“Yeah!” a rather boisterous guy in back yells, resulting in another round of laughter.

“Yeah, thanks,” I call back to the boisterous guy. “Anyway, I wanted to introduce you to one of our new shipmates. I just met him a couple of days ago, but he seems like a pretty cool guy. He only speaks French, but he has this really neat translator thing. Hey...Sebastien – come up here a second.”

I reach a hand down to the French boy, who refuses to take it. But I rather insist, wanting him to step up on the chair with me so that everyone in the room can see him. When he realizes that I’m not going to relent, his oversized ears flush red, but he steps up on the seat.

“This is Sebastien,” I say. “His birthday was actually last week, so as a way of celebrating that and welcoming him to EV5997, Conner and I have put together a little surprise for him.”

I signal Conner, who rolls his eyes. What I’d asked for was a little silly, but then how could it not be?

My boyfriend punches some commands into his wristcom. The lights in the room dim, and soft orchestral music fills the room. It’s probably unfamiliar to many, but Sebastien certainly instantly recognizes it as La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France.

“Welcome aboard, Sebastien,” I say, smiling. Although his wristcom flashes an English translation of this for him, there’s no need for one.

“Oh, wow!” I exclaim when overhead my birthday message transforms into a holographic image of a fluttering French flag. This time I do fall off the chair, taking Sebastien with me. We land on our feet, fortunately, laughing. “You didn’t tell me about the flag thing,” I say to Conner.

“Mike’s idea,” he explains.

Sebastien seems to enjoy the silly welcome, if only in his shy, French manner. “Thanks Devon,” he says in his thick accent, his large ears flushing deep red. And then he speaks French to Conner, visibly grateful to have someone to converse with in a way that doesn’t require subtitles.

Before long the party is in full swing, the room filled with not only invited guests, but people wandering in from the main lobby, curious to see what the empty space has been opened for. Hey, the more the merrier, that’s what I say. I’m glancing between Conner and a row of glasses filled to the brim with sangria, trying to judge how hard it would be to retrieve one without my boyfriend noticing and scolding me when I’m approached by a guest who was very much invited.

“Devon!” Léna exclaims, her voice happy and sensual, reminding me of the sorts of bells used in Christmas carols. I’m greeted warmly with a kiss to both cheeks. “But you have been in the wine, I think,” Léna says, smiling. “Your cheeks are so warm!”

I instinctively reach up to feel my face. Yep, the wine has me feeling pretty hot to the touch. Léna takes my hands into hers, looking deeply into my eyes. I feel a little fluttery in the tummy staring into hers; the expression on her face tells me she’s about to say something, and the intimacy of the moment has me growing slightly uncomfortable.

“I have to thank you – for what you did for Sebastien,” she says.

“Oh, that,” I reply, breathing a sigh of relief. “It was nothing.”

“It was not!” my French friend exclaims, going on to gush about how I’d convinced Sebastien to move over, which meant everything to Léna, and then how I’d taken the time to welcome her brother. She speaks so fast that I have trouble understanding some of what she says, but I get most of it. She lowers her voice, and then says, “I am very hopeful that zis place will be better for Sebastien. Eet is not a French ship, but he will have more space and be around boys his age. I think this will be good for him, no?”

“Probably,” I reply, trying to sound more certain than I am. Looking across the room I see that Sebastien has finished his conversation with Conner and retreated to a corner at the rear of the room, where he’s examining some of Zane’s snacks.

Léna seems to sense what I’m thinking. “I have asked so much of you Devon, my newest friend, I hate to impose further, but....” She trails off.

“It’s okay,” I assure her, gesturing for her to continue.

She glances at her brother, then looks back into my eyes, and I know that I’ll do whatever she asks, even if it’s to pilot the ship straight into a black hole. Fortunately, it’s nothing so dramatic.

“When we moved onto zee ozzer ship, back when we left Earth, I was hopeful then too that Sebastien would adapt, that he would make friends. He did not, and over time zis made him more sullen and depressed. I am hopeful things will be different, but I can use all zee help in this.”

“Er, okay,” I reply.

“I know that Sebastien can be...how do you say...sullen and cranky sometimes, but I was hoping, Devon – do you think that you and your friends could try to include my brozzer? I think if he had a friend like you, then things would be better for him, you know?”

An image flashes through my mind of my friends “including” Sebastien. I’m pretty sure what I’m envisioning isn’t what Léna means, and I consider that agreeing to her request is going to require quite a balancing act. I’d need to get the guys to be friendly to the new boy, but not too friendly, lest Sebastien – and Léna – become offended.

Léna takes my pause as hesitation on my part. “I am sorry,” she says quietly, sounding sad. “I should not have asked zis of you, it eez too much.”

I snap back to reality. “What? No, it’s not that. I’ve just...like you said, too much wine. Yeah, of course I’ll get the guys to include your brother – he doesn’t seem that cranky to me. We’ll start with some six-wall...we do that a couple of time a week.”

“Superb!” Léna exclaims, smiling. I get the sense that she’s a really, really good big sister, and make a mental note to make sure to live up to my end of the agreement.

I spot Conner and Ian across the room – Conner is chatting about something, smiling, when his wristcom apparently rings; he puts the device up to his ear. I try to figure out whether or not I can really tell that his eyes are green from this far away. I think I can, but it may be the wine.

Conner walks over to the exit and then leaves the restaurant, probably wanting a quieter environment to take his call. Ian follows, and I wonder if he’s leaving for the night – I hadn’t talked to the nurse yet, or thanked him for the present he’d placed on the gift table, a small box wrapped in lavender paper.

Speaking of presents, when do I get to open them? I eye the gift table greedily.

“You’re wondering when we’re opening presents, aren’t you?” Dog asks, coming up from behind me.

I grin sheepishly – busted. “I...er....”

Dog smiles. “You’re so predictable.”

He runs his fingers through his hair, making me realize something – ever since I’d known him, he kept it almost buzzed. Dog’s hair was by no means long, and in fact still looked like a military cut, but it was about twice as long as I’d ever seen it.

“Hey, did you change your hair?” I ask.

My friend nods and says he’d been thinking about growing it out. I tell him it would be cute, although it would be weird seeing him with a full head of hair. Across the room, I spot Reid and Patrick leaving the restaurant. I consider that there hadn’t been a gift from Reid on the table...er, not that I’d checked. Anyway, it’s typical, Reid having to go back for a forgotten present.

I head to the food table for some more sangria – if Conner’s not around there’s no one to stop me.

“Whoa, Devon...dude,” Chris says, approaching me. He’s speaking as through we’ve been having a conversation for ten minutes, although this is the first I’ve seen of him all day. Peter is in tow, as usual. I think about the fact that I do kinda miss my old flatmates, even if living with the guys is a dream come true. And then I realize I’m not really listening to what Chris is saying. “So is it true?” he asks.

“Er, what?” I reply. I offer a sheepish grin and explain that I’ve had a little too much sangria.

Chris seems to understand. “Did you put laxatives in Steven Caine’s lunch a couple of weeks ago. What was it? Oh yeah – his chimichanga. Did you lax up his chimichanga?”

I have to laugh at this. “Nah,” I answer truthfully. “Anyone who eats a deep-fried bean and beef burrito is asking for a little bowel trouble...I didn’t need to put laxatives in it.”

The guys laugh, still suspicious that I’d done something to that jerkwad Steven.

Lukas joins our little group, gift in hand, looking like he’s just arrived at the party. “Oy! Happy birthday, Devon,” he says, shaking my hand in greeting.

“Thanks,” I reply, smiling. He tries to hand me the present, but I point him to the gift table.

“No rally tonight?” Chris asks, his tone flat. “No political backbiting? Arson? I’d hate to think you’re missing something important by being here.”

Lukas shoots Chris a rude look. “Get bent,” he says brusquely before walking away.

“What’s that dick doing here?” Peter asks.

The party is in full swing, the room more packed than I’d ever seen it. Still, this doesn’t stop me from spotting Mike and Zane leaving. I’m instantly curious about this – all my best friends are sneaking out one by one. I try not to smile, but I can’t help myself – what kind of birthday surprise do they have planned? Naked boy in cake? Nah, that’s probably too cliche.

“Wait, what?” I ask in shock, realizing what Chris had just said.

The other boy nods solemnly. “Yeah, you didn’t know?” he asks. “Lukas is Steven Caine’s flatmate...and a big supporter. We investigated him after the fire on the farm...had a solid alibi, but I don’t buy that he’s clean.”

I glance across the room at the Australian boy, who’s joined another conversation cluster. Lukas’s gaze meets mine and he smiles. I’d become friendly with Lukas after the cafe had opened next to Charlie’s shop, and I rather liked the guy. We’d even taken to surfing together sometimes. I had a hard time believing he supported Steven, let alone had anything to do with the various acts of violence over the past few months.

“Yeah, I had no idea,” I mutter, meaning that I’d never known Lukas lived with Steven. This was something he’d failed to mention.

There are perfect nights, and then there are perfect nights. A happy haze of wine upon me, I revel in the way the holographic message casts a blue, sultry glow about the room. AJ and Nick are seated on a couch near the gift table, Nick laughing at something AJ has just said. On the other side of the room Sean surprises his boyfriend with a violent, happy hug from behind. Beck and a few helpers are setting up a DJ station near the entrance of the room. All around me are friends, co-workers, and then the guys who I’ve come to think of as family. It’s a perfect party, and the perfect way to turn eighteen. I sip my wine, almost giggling involuntarily – okay, so I have had enough – at the thought of the presents to come, and of the sex I’m probably going to get when we all go home. Should I spend the night alone with Conner, or get all the guys together for wet, dripping sweaty boy sex? Maybe both?

I’m noticing that my hands smell of desert sage – I’d absent-mindedly rolled some of the leaves between my fingers earlier; the smell is familiar and comforting, but I wouldn’t say that it reminds me of home. Yeah, it reminds me of San Diego, but San Diego is rapidly becoming a place resigned to old memories. Home is now...here. Here on this ship, here with the guys, here with Conner. This is my home now, and I love it more than I love anything.

Zane enters the restaurant, looking rather serious. He scans the crowd, and then when he spots me he motions for me to come to him. I cross the room, a little tipsy.

“Zane-o!” I cry, wrapping my arms around the other boy’s brawny neck. I make a mental note to never call him “Zane-o” ever again.

“Hey Devon,” he says quietly. “Can you come with me a minute?”

“Er, okay,” I laugh, following him toward the exit.

Zane leads me out of the restaurant and into the main lobby, which is considerably quieter than the party. I grow increasingly eager, sure that some sort of birthday surprise awaits me. What could the guys have planned? I envision Zane leading me to a dark chamber, Conner handcuffed to a table, clad in leather bondage gear. Nah, probably not – that’d be a gift more suited to Dog.

We come to a secluded corner of the massive lobby, back behind the elevator banks. Zane stops and turns to me, looking rather...rather...well, I’m not sure how he looks. His expression is lacking his sly smile, something I rarely see him without.

I look over his shoulder, wondering if Conner and the others are hiding on the other side of the elevators, but they’re not. Zane looks at me wistfully, his eyes sad somehow. “Is something wrong?” I ask him, becoming alarmed.

“Did you have a nice party?” he asks, his voice quiet; I think I hear a slight tremble to it.

“Er...yeah,” I reply. “It’s going pretty well. Zane, what’s going on?”

He reaches over and places a warm palm against my cheek. “Devon Chasen...eighteen years old,” he says. “You should never have to grow up, you know? More so than most boys...you should get to stay a kid forever, Devon.”

There’s something odd and off-putting about his tone, and there’s something odd and off-putting about what he’s saying. Something’s the matter. “Zane, I....”

I don’t finish what I’m about to say, the other boy grabs me in a firm hug – too firm. “Ow, you’re hurting me!” I squeal when the pressure he’s exerting feels about the same as that required to crack my ribs...seriously.

He lets go, and when he pulls back I see that he’s started crying, two wet tracks streaking his tan cheeks. “I’d never do this to you, you know? In a million years...not on your birthday...you know that, right?”

Suddenly I’m scared – terrified, in fact. I look Zane in the eyes. “What’s wrong?” I ask. Now my voice is the one trembling.

“I’d always protect you if I could...all of the guys,” he mumbles.

My tone is terse when I reply, terse and fearful. “Zane, you’re scaring me. What the hell is going on?”

Zane tries to take my hands into his but I brush them away. He looks at me, his eyes glistening with a new set of tears. He takes a deep breath, and then tries to speak without sputtering. “Devon,” he says. “I need you to come with me...right now. There’s been an accident. It’s Charlie....”

I involuntarily finger the pendant around my neck when Zane trails off. “I don’t understand,” I whisper, adrenaline entering my bloodstream and colliding with the alcohol that’s already there. “Is he okay?”

Zane shakes his head, he shakes it and then he’s crying in earnest. Again he hugs me, and immediately I find that tears are streaking down my cheeks too. “No,” he answers, his face buried in my neck. I can feel the wet warmth of his tears against my skin.

He releases me, and this time I let him hold my hand when he tries to. I look at him, my eyes large, confused and fearful. Zane, a boy I’d known to always be in control of his emotions, tries to collect himself. And then he says, “We need to get to the hospital. They’re doing everything they can....”

My perfect birthday, my perfect night. Suddenly I get the sense it’s all coming to an end; the sangria in my tummy doesn’t feel so great anymore.

“....they’re doing everything they can,” Zane explains, clearly trying to remain calm. “But C-Conner thinks...they all think...Devon – Charlie probably won’t live through the night.”

Zane takes me by the hand, leading me toward the hospital as my body goes numb. Any doubt that my friend was serious about what Zane has said disappears when a buzzer sounds overhead – a klaxon reserved for emergencies and general alarms. My world immediately goes spinning out of control.


To be continued



Author’s End Notes

I’m not fluent in French…in fact, I’m still learning to count to ten. Needless to say, therefore, I did not translate Sebastien’s French in this chapter. Thanks to my French friend, who being a native has a better command of the language than I.

Soundtrack: I assign a song for each chapter. If you put them together, you have a soundtrack for the story – the same soundtrack I listen to when running, which is where a lot of the ideas for the story develop. The song for this chapter is Le Disko by Shiny Toy Guns. I felt like it fit the sex scene in this chapter, and I also felt like this chapter is a turning point in the story – this being the case, I wanted to include a song from the same group that first inspired a soundtrack when I included their Don’t Cry Out as the song for chapter one. In many ways, the change in tone between the two songs probably mirrors the change in Devon since we met him way back then.

Never say I don’t listen to feedback. This chapter was partially written when I conducted some polls in the group – you said you wanted to see more of Reid, and I thought this was a good opportunity for that to happen. I went back and put him in the sex scene – I hope this is appreciated by the Reid fans out there.

Boys and toys – Conner’s toy in this chapter was modeled after the Chad Hunt Supercock, just about the biggest dildo I could find on Adammale.com, lol. Whether this toy will make subsequent appearances is unknown…just thinking about writing those scenes hurts. Zane’s toy is a souped up high-tech version of the Aneros Progasm, a protate massager. The idea of Zane developing something like this came after a friend told me about the…er…explosive effects the toy had on him. I thought the idea of the toy affecting some more than others was humourous.

The Rue Mosnier With Flags is a real painting, a personal favorite. It currently resides in The Getty Center in Los Angeles, where I view it any time I visit. The thought of including it in the story was appealing.



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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