"Stop yelling at me!." Duo held the phone away from his ear. "I didn't tell him to write...I KNOW! I told him the same thing! Because he's a grown man, that's why. What did you want me to do, break his fingers so he couldn't type? No, he doesn't want to talk to you again. He says his ear still hurts. Okay, okay."
Duo cupped his hand to the mouthpiece of the phone. "Your father wants to berate you some more."
Rylan groaned and took the phone back. "Look, what's done is done. No, Papa, I guess I don't sound very sorry. Maybe because I'm not. I know...Papa I...yes, I know that. I'm not a child! No, no, I don't want to talk to...Hi Dad. Well, would it make you happy if I have myself lashed? Maybe a trip to Tom's Torture Emporium and Ice Cream shop? Yes, well, he rubs off on people! I am not changing the subject! I'm not listening any more either. Goodbye Dad!" He hung up the phone, which began to ring again almost immediately. Duo frowned and turned off the ringer on the side.
"Sorry about that." Rylan tried to smile. "I guess they're a little upset with me."
"A little?" Duo shook his head. "I'm not too happy with you either, you know."
"You said you'd support me on this." Rylan reminded him. "You all did."
"Supporting you is one thing. Supporting you getting your head blown off is another. And you've heard this all already so there's nothing I can say or do, is there?"
"Nope." Rylan was firm. "Just wait for them to make a move. I promise, no one's going to get hurt. We've got a plan."
"What do you mean, you've got a plan? Rylan, what are you up to?" Duo demanded.
"I can't tell you that. But trust me, it'll work."
"Trust him." Someone said dryly from the doorway. "Trust him to get us all killed, in other words."
"Luke..." Duo threw up his hands as his younger son entered the living room. "This isn't the time..."
"You're right. I have things to do." Luke pulled the hood of his black jacket up over his head and stalked toward the transporter.
"You're going out?" Duo was surprised.
"Yes, I am allowed to do that you know." Luke snapped.
"Luke, come on." Duo rang his hand through his bangs in exasperation. "Let's not fight, please. There's enough tension in the house right now."
"Well, good thing I'm leaving then, isn't it?"
"When will you be back?"
"Whenever I feel like it!"
"You know, he's just worried about you." Rylan interjected. "It wouldn't hurt to treat him with some respect for once."
"Oh, don't you even start!"
"Are you at least going to the party tonight?" Duo wanted to know.
"Well, I would, but you know I just don't have a thing to wear. I've got better things to do than watch some weirdo spend a ton of money to impress my ex-girlfriend."
"Joey's a nice guy. You really should meet him."
"Well, birds of a feather, I guess." Luke lips twisted. "Meishel's a big girl. If she wants to throw her life away, that's her choice. Later."
"Rylan, I'm sorry." Duo said after Luke had vanished into the transporter.
"You're worried about him, aren't you?"
"Yeah. And I don't have a clue how to help him. He's changed so much..." Duo stared at the transporter.
"At least he's going out of the house." Rylan pointed out. "That's got to be a good thing, right? He's not sitting alone in his room right now."
"True." Duo tried to look on the bright side. "But I wish I could read his mind sometimes. Maybe I could figure out how to fix whatever's eating him alive like that."
"I'm glad you came."
"I didn't have a choice."
"Look, lady, I was blackmailed into coming here today, okay? My older brother got it into his head that I'm going crazy. If I didn't agree to come see you, he was going to try and talk my parents into locking me up somewhere. So all you need to do is decide that I'm perfectly sane, write him some kind of letter telling him that, and we can forget this entire thing ever happened."
"It sounds like your brother is worried about you."
"He doesn't know how to mind his own business, that's all."
"Why do you think he's worried?"
"Because he's an idiot!"
"Okay, not really. He's just...Jazz and I, we're polar opposites. Nothing alike, nothing in common. So what's okay for me...it wouldn't be okay for him. He can't understand how I can be happy. Does that make sense?"
"Very much so. Can you tell me about some of the differences between the two of you?"
"Jazz loves being around people. He doesn't like being alone; he says it's boring. And everyone is crazy about him. I like being by myself. I design computer programs, and I love it. I like sitting in my room all day doing codes. It would drive him nuts, but it's normal for me. He doesn't get it."
"Do you have any friends?"
"What are they like?"
"They're okay. They don't understand me either. Look, this is a waste of time."
"Luke, you've paid for the full hour. We should be able to at least tell your brother you gave it that long."
"So what about your parents? Are you close to them?"
"Sometimes. I mean, I love them and all. But there's things about me they don't know. Things that might upset them if they ever found out."
"What kinds of things?"
"Luke, don't you think it's likely they already know that?"
"I'm guessing there's more to it than that?"
"I found out some things about my background, that's all. Things about my biological father. And no, I'm not going to talk about what I found out. Just that it wasn't good."
"So you're afraid that if they find out these things, they might look differently at you because of them?"
"Are you afraid that the not-good things might be true about you as well?"
"They might be. But I'm not going to take a chance on finding out."
"This must be hard to take. Does anyone else know?"
"My brother. I told him."
"What would your friends do if they found out, do you think?"
"One of them...his mom is a real piece of work. One night we were all drinking, and he started talking about her, how he was afraid that no matter how hard he tried, he was going to end up just like her someday. So he might understand."
"Do you think it might help to talk to him?"
"No. Because he can't keep his mouth shut. He'd decide that he needed to tell everyone `for my own good'."
"Do you have a girlfriend or a boyfriend you could talk to?"
"I had a girlfriend, but we broke up. And I don't want to talk about that."
"Can you tell me more about your family then?"
"Big. Nosy. Loud. But I love them. I'd do anything to keep them safe."
"Is there a reason they need to be kept safe?"
"It's complicated, but yes. Right now, definitely yes. I don't know why, but we just seem to be magnets for trouble."
"Sounds like you'd do anything to protect them."
"Whatever it took."
"Maybe we could try putting a pillowcase over his head."
"It's how they get horses out of burning buildings. They put something over their eyes so that they don't see where they're going."
"I am not a horse!"
"I didn't say you were. It was just a suggestion." Gage shrugged.
He, Shan, and Meishel had arrived at Joey's apartment earlier, to try and work on getting the young man at least as far as the hallway. So far they hadn't had much luck, and everyone except for Gage was becoming, in his opinion, discouraged far too easily.
"Well, scrap the pillowcase part. We could set his apartment on fire. Don't look at me like that; it worked on you! What about poisonous gas?"
"Just ignore him." Meishel advised Joey.
Her friend laughed. "Actually I'm about ready to try his ideas. Nothing else as worked."
"We should get going." Shan glanced at his watch. "I want to get a shower before the party. Joey, it was really nice meeting you. I'm not as afraid now that you're going to hack my sister to bits."
"You're not? But you promised!" Meishel wailed, and Joey laughed again. "Hey, why do you think I'm having this party?" He asked with a wink.
"Go on." Gage nodded to his mate and sister-in-law. "I want to talk to Joey alone for a moment."
The twins exchanged a worried glance, and Gage rolled his eyes. "Your faith in me is amazing."
"Sorry." Shan put his arms around Gage's waist and kissed him. "You know I trust you. I'm just...concerned."
"Okay, so maybe I have had a few lapses of judgement in my ill- begotten youth, Dearest One. But I give you my assurance as the man who knows all your ticklish spots that I won't hurt him."
A moment later the twins had left, leaving Gage alone in the apartment with Joey, who was looking both amused and uneasy. "If you start singing `Give Peace a Chance' I'm calling the police.'"
"Sorry, I left my singing voice at home." Gage was looking over the computer. "You know, all kidding aside, I was serious about what I said earlier."
"About setting my home on fire?"
"It wasn't throwing Shan in the middle of a fire that got him over his fear." Gage shrugged, not looking in Joey's direction. "It was the fact that he was afraid for me. In the end, he was more afraid for me than he was for himself. It gave him the motivation he needed. Now, somehow I don't think that Shan would be too thrilled with me dumping his sister in the middle of a bog or something for you to rescue. Not to mention we'd never be able to get the smell out of her. So we need to find something else you care about."
Joey had turned red. "We're just friends!"
"Whatever you say." Gage grinned. "Okay, close your eyes."
"I want to try an experiment."
Giving him a doubtful look, Joey squeezed his eyes shut. "Now what?"
"Won't be a minute." Gage called, and Joey heard him rummaging around in the other room, muttering to himself. "Now where does he keep...ah, here we go. This should do the trick."
"Can I look now?"
"Not yet. You want this to work, don't you?" Joey heard the front door of the apartment open, and then close a few moments later.
"Okay, open your eyes."
Joey looked around suspiciously. "What did you do?"
"I threw all your underwear out in the hall."
"You did WHAT?"
"Your underwear. It's all over the hallway. Along with the pillows from your bed."
"You know..." Joey glared. "I usually like to know someone a little bit better than this before they go through my underwear drawer!"
"Me too. Very rude, I'll admit. Oh, I have to run."
"Don't you dare! Go get my stuff."
"Well, that would kind of defeat the purpose. Look, most of it is lying right near the door. All you have to do is reach out and grab it."
He darted for the transporter and slammed the door shut before Joey could stop him. "See you later!" He called brightly. "Have a good time."
"Son of a..." Joey went into his room to access the damage. The drawers were lying open, but nothing except his underwear appeared to have been removed.
He considered calling Meishel, but how exactly was he going to phrase this? Not that she wouldn't do it, but...
It was ridiculous. He was a grown man!
He marched toward the front door angrily, and yanked it open.
There outside the door sat all his underwear, piled neatly on the pillows, along with a note.
"It's a start." Was scrawled on it. "Good job."
He glanced down the hall, left and right, and the panic returned. Grabbing the pillows, he yanked them back into the apartment, and slammed the door shut, spilling his underwear on the floor around him, panting. A minute later he was laughing so hard he thought he'd vomit.
"What's your name?"
A grunt. "What are you doing here?"
"I heard some things, that's all. I heard that you and I might have a lot in common."
"Like wanting to clean up Dera and Seta. Making it safe again."
"Same from who?"
"You know who I'm talking about."
"Not a clue."
"I'm not a cop, if that's what you're thinking. I'm just a man they pushed too far."
"Yeah. Can I come in."
"No. So what's your beef with them?"
"One of them knocked up my kid sister. He ran off and left her when she was 8 months pregnant. My parents had disowned her when she ran off with him, so she was too scared to let us know she needed help. She and the kid died. Not that I give a damn about her kid, but family is family."
"And who told you that I could do anything to help you?"
"I've heard a few things."
"Well, suppose tonight a few friends might be getting together for some beers? And those friends happened to start discussing some strong feelings. Nothing illegal in that, is there?" "Nothing at all."
"Right. Well, Tad, you come by here about 8, and maybe we can find a spare beer for you."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world."