may girl

DISCLAIMER: Blaze Union © Sting. I do not seek monetary profit from this writing.

(a gentleman can have it allI'll meet you loitering at the windowsill)

It was afternoon of the final day of classes of their junior year of high school—the final day of the month of May. It was already brutally hot out, nearly ninety degrees, but even so they sat out on the highest row of the metallic bleachers, watching the last clusters of students milling about on the school grounds. They seemed to belong in a quite different world, and Gulcasa wondered what could possibly be keeping ordinary kids around here a second longer than they had to be. Perhaps they were making good on their last chance to gossip with friends who would be going on vacations, or perhaps they had more attachment to this building than most. Or the tedium of summer was already setting in, and no one really wanted to move that quickly.

He and Siskier had retreated to the bleachers for the sake of distance. The things they had to talk about were a little more serious than gossip about other students or teachers or popular TV shows.

In those days he was still wearing his hair ponytailed up, and even though it still hung hot and heavy against the hairband that kept it there, the fact that it was at least off the back of his neck was a relief. He was wearing long pants—heavy jeans—after all; he had stopped wearing shorts back in middle school when everyone had hit puberty. The thick scars across his body where hair wouldn't grow were too obvious on his legs, and he hated having them stared at. He hid in the showers or the bathroom stalls to change clothes for gym, a habit picked up after a few weeks' worth of extreme awkwardness, and never regretted it.

As for Siskier, she leaned back against the back of the bleachers' stand and balanced her sandaled feet on the seats one row down. Gulcasa, watching her from the corner of his eye, supposed that she just didn't want to burn herself against the metal. She was wearing a thin-strapped tank top and tiny short shorts that were probably five or six inches tinier than the dress code allowed, and he was dead sure the only reason that no teachers had flagged her down about them was that it was so hot and no one wanted to bother on the last day.

"It still just feels too weird—I can't get used to it. It makes me kind of anxious."

She jiggled her ankle as she spoke, and the thin gold bangles she wore around it made noise.

"It's not so bad—the college classes. I don't think it'll be that bad. It's just a couple nights a week each month, and this way I won't have to take so much and it'll be easier to get out of college fast. The businessmanagement part of a Business Management major is something I can bypass with real-world experience, so I've just got to do the theory classes and I'm set. And then in my spare time I can take some fun things too, maybe do a minor."

Siskier was frowning. Her ankle continued to jiggle, and the bangles sounded like a faint bell choir.

"I just—I don't know. All this hurrying through college. I dunno if it's really something you should do. It feels like—like you should just either go straight into work or go to college, not do both."

He made a face. "It's not like I can just leave Luciana and Aegina and Emilia alone in the house—I'm the one the deed got left to and they're too far underage, even with the older Albelts managing all the financial crap. And I can't really get any good positions without a degree, I'd have to shake the family name and money around too much to get taken seriously."

"See, I knew it. I knew you felt the same way." She pushed at his side. "It's the money. God, I'm just still not even used to the money. We could get into anything we wanted to, but it just doesn't feel right."

He did know. "I don't just want to sit on it forever, is all. I've got to protect my sisters' share, and I want to put more of it into paying back everyone who's helped us. Into helping everyone else that I can. We're lucky. We can remember that it wasn't always this way, so we know how lucky we are. I don't know if you are, but there are times when I'm scared of believing it even now."

(The nights were still frequent when the sound of footsteps in the halls woke him, and he would fling himself upright, lungs tight with terror. He could never sleep the rest of the night afterward, too tense, never sure in the dark where he was, too afraid to leave the bed and grope for a light to show himself what was real.

Sometimes it was Emilia out there, and she would know, and she would open his door and come in, silhouetted against the faint hallway nightlights taller than she had been then—and she would leave that door open a crack when she slipped into bed next to him and they would lean on each other wide-eyed and wait for dawn, wait for relief, and she would leave for a while and use the phone and come back to say authoritatively that he could stay home today, and he would curl up exhausted in the light.


"Yeah," Siskier told him in a quiet voice. "I get that feeling too sometimes."

They sat there for quite a while, Siskier staring out over the track, Gulcasa leaning back to squint up at the sky. It was cloudless and deep blue, beautiful and unreal.

"And, well, it's a waste," she said suddenly.

"Hm? What is?"

"Well—you work on weekends and you'll be doing classes weeknights. It's summer. We won't have as much time to hang out together."

The jingling stopped. Gulcasa looked at Siskier's feet. She had stopped wiggling them and was steepling her toes through the soles of her shoes, pushing back and forth so that her feet leaned to one side and then the other.

"Don't be stupid. The classes are only like a week long, we'll see each other at work anyway, and the rest of the day's always free for me. We can still go out and terrorize the town as much as we want."

Siskier turned to face him, wide-eyed, and started to laugh.

"Yeah," she said, "yeah, we can."

And she stood up.

"I should probably get ready to head out—everybody's out, and the staff's busy with the house, so it's my turn to stop. If I want to be back by the time Jenon gets home, I should hurry."

She smiled at him for a moment, framed by blue sky, and in that moment three things occurred to Gulcasa with all the suddenness and subtlety of a lightning strike:

First, that Siskier's cheek dimpled just a little when she smiled like that;

Second, that the way she'd stood up suddenly meant that her shirt was still askew, and there was a tiny perfect sliver of her stomach showing, just enough to let half of her navel peek out;

And third, that it wasn't only the sounds of her jewelry that made music whenever she moved.

"I'll call you tomorrow," she said brightly, and then she was off and running down the seats by twos and threes, all graceful legs and glinting light.

Gulcasa sat utterly dumbfounded and watched her until she vanished into the crowds.

Later that night, he leaned against the wall of his shower, forehead to the cool tile, and waited until his ragged breathing got back to normal. Behind the sliding door, the wide stall smelled strongly of soap, the vaguely peppery shampoo Aegina had said was best for long hair, and freshly cut grass; the heat and the combined scents were making him woozy and the exertion was wheedling his knees to give out.

But he leaned against the wall and panted, eyes closed, hot water drumming against his upper back and the full length of his hair clinging to his skin.

"There's something really wrong with me."

He wasn't entirely stupid, so he waited for a few days until there came a late morning where only he and Emilia were in the house. The twins had departed to shop with friends—there was some early-bird sale at some store or other that they liked, which left the house blissfully bereft of anybody but him and his pajama-clad littlest sister.

"Make monkey bread," she whined, and because it was summer and the air conditioning was sweet, he pulled his hair back and did—and fried it instead of baking it for good measure, rolling it in cinnamon and brown sugar for them both to eat.

Gulcasa waited until she was smiling and nodding over her glass of milk, took a deep breath, and forced the question out.

"Emilia," (and there was a nervous quaver somewhere in his voice that he couldn't do anything about), "how do you test to see if someone you like actually likes you back?"

She blinked at him, her eyes more green than gold in the early light, and he could just see the cogs turning behind them. But no matter how unbearable she might get, he trusted her advice much more than the twins'.

"Well," she said slowly, dragging out the el"you can ask them out without actually calling it a date. And you can see if they actually treat it like a date."

He asked questions, and she explained, and miraculously she did not pry. The wonderful thing about eleven-year-olds was that they were always much, much more sensible about these things than people usually gave them credit for.

If I let this sit for any longer I'll just wind up too nervous to do anything, he reasoned, and so he was dialing Siskier's number before the week was out.

It wasn't until she picked up that he realized that it might have been better to at least make something of a more concrete plan.

All he could do now was say it, anyway, so he went for the frontal attack: "Want to go to the movies sometime?"

She reacted, of course, with bemusement. "What, in the daytime?"

"It's when we're both free, and it costs less. Besides, that way the theatres will be less crowded."

"Sure. Was there something you wanted to see?"

Like this. Planning this far might have been nice.

"…Not in particular. Any movie is fine, I just thought I wanted to go with you."

Gulcasa could feel his face reddening even as he said so and quietly blessed the fact that this was a phone conversation and they weren't actually staring at each other.

"Oh. Okay." Did she sound happier? Or was he just imagining things? He had no idea. He was out of his depth here. "I guess if I can't pick out something that won't bore you silly, we can argue about it when we meet up there. Tomorrow at noon?"

"Sure," he managed, and they said goodbye and hung up on each other, which left him staring at the cell phone in his hand bewilderedly, not entirely sure what he had just managed to do.

Already feeling lost, Gulcasa made sure to get to the appointed spot about fifteen minutes early so that he might lean against the wall and try to collect his wits even slightly.

Emilia's advice had been helpful, but he didn't have any idea what he was doing—he didn't know the first thing about romance; he wasn't Jenon and could never understand the kind of guy who only ever cared about getting into girls' pants the way that Jenon did. Crushes and relationships weren't ever something he'd bothered with, and were something he'd (foolishly, he now knew) always assumed would sort themselves out when the time came.

It wasn't as though he'd never fantasized. It wasn't as though he'd never used the goddamn Internet for its intended purpose. There was a modest stash of artistic nude and erotic photographs buried in the depths of his hard drive, protected by multiple passwords lest the girls ever use his computer. But those vague fantasies of intimacy and the desire to be touched and held by someone else were fantasies. They were distant daydreams of a that-might-be-nice-someday future. And above and beyond that, those fantasies had never been attached to any person in particular.

But now he could never get Siskier out of his head. He knew that for anything to change about these feelings of "like", this crush, this attraction, he had to pursue them—but it felt bad, felt wrong to think about a friend like that. Like a violation of her trust.

And once he'd added guilt to the rest of the discomfort and embarrassment he already felt, all Gulcasa could do was wish that these feelings would just goaway already.

"Oh! Were you waiting long?"

He looked up, and there she was.

Siskier had a tiny little purse in one hand, her hair was windblown and her face was slightly flushed, and she was wearing a faintly flower-patterned blouse with puffy babydoll sleeves and her usual so-tiny-as-to-be-nearly-nonexistent shorts.

He couldn't even look at her anymore—staring her in the face made him go red, and he didn't want to make her angry by staring only at the rest of her—so he gazed downward instead, at the sidewalk and the toes of his shoes.

"N-no. I just got here a little bit ago."

She laughed, and the sound of her voice was clear and beautiful. He had to have been deaf before not to have noticed the depth of that sound. "You're making it sound like this is actually a real date."

His face was getting even redder, he could tell. He didn't dare look up—she'd notice and things would just get awkward.

"Gulcasa?" Her voice was much closer than it had been before, and he startled, jumping slightly, head swinging up to face her instinctively. She was less than an arm's length away, looking up at him like a puzzle she had almost figured out, all big sky-colored eyes and slightly furrowed brow.

"I," he said, paralyzed, and "uh," and fell silent. Siskier's eyes widened slowly, and she smiled a little secretively and moved just far enough back that he could breathe.

"So did you ever pick out a movie that you wanted to see?" she asked brightly.

"I—no. I just thought—if there was something you wanted to see maybe." God, he sounded like a complete idiot. He couldn't stop staring at her.

"Well, I didn't have anything I wanted to see that bad either, but I have another idea for something fun to do."

"Something—fun?" She'd gotten something into her head, maybe figured something out, and he didn't know what to expect anymore and was left parroting her like his brain had shorted out.

"I'll give you a hint," she said, and leaned in to touch her lips softly to his cheek.

They took the bus, which was largely empty aside from some people up towards the front who seemed to be going about their daily business, and sat in the back. When Gulcasa asked in a low tone where they were going, Siskier replied that she was taking him back to her house.

"Is that—a good idea? I mean, if your parents and Jenon—"

"Jenon's mom and dad are at work," she interrupted, "and Jenon left this morning saying that he was going to be doing a special job until late. He's been a real workaholic these days and I don't really get it."

"Hmm." All of them worked at the same place—the metallurgy firm that the Albelts, Jenon's family, and a number of other rich groups supported. Maybe because of the Albelts' love for charity, there were workers from all walks of life in just about every position you could imagine, and the company had a lot of strong business ties with other groups, like the local café chain Medoute worked for as a barista and a few designer outlets that Emilia and the twins were interested in. Jenon specifically worked in the hiring division as an assistant, and did a lot of figure-checking more out of meticulousness than because it got him more money.

Since being adopted, both Gulcasa and Siskier—and Gulcasa's sisters for good measure—had grown up used to the idea that they were probably going into the company or one of its business affiliates. For Gulcasa, who hoped to get into a leadership position somewhere, it was going to be a way to give back. Siskier had always seemed to think of it more as a job, if a nice job; something that would support her hobbies and a place where she had friends.

"So basically there might be one or two of the house staff around, but other than that we'll be alone in the house and nobody's going to bother us." There was something almost predatory about how Siskier was smiling now, and even when Gulcasa tried to look away out of embarrassment, she kept touching him lightly—her shoulder brushing his arm, her palm and fingers feathered over the top of his thigh.

He spent the rest of the ride with his hands laced together in his lap, trying so hard to control his hammering heart that his knuckles went white.

The bus took about twenty minutes to make its way down to the station in Siskier's neighborhood, and both of them tipped the driver as they got off. It was early June and hot as anything, but since most of the elementary schools had let out for the year, there was still the occasional kid playing with a sprinkler or hose in their houses' vast gardens—or joyful shrieks from the directions of the backyards that suggested people's playing in their pools.

Gulcasa followed Siskier. He'd been to her and Jenon's house before, as they were his best friends, but he always felt slightly awkward around here. This was where honest-to-goodness rich people lived—not like the Albelts, who lived in a modestly large and airy, well-furnished house while giving most of their excess money to various charities, but the people who could afford the upkeep of three-story buildings and whose landscaping looked like a vicious contest of one-upmanship.

When the Albelts had still been alive, they'd made sure that Gulcasa and the other kids had never wanted for anything, but still maintained normal things like chores and allowances. At Siskier and Jenon's house, there were actual butlers and maids and cooks and things like that. It was still the suburbs, but it was a far cry from what Gulcasa was familiar with, let alone the narrow townhouse where he'd spent his childhood.

The walk didn't even take five minutes. Siskier went up and unlocked the front door, the both of them took off their shoes on the mat, and she beckoned him to come along with her up the stairs. Her room was on the third floor, facing the side of the house; Jenon's was on the same floor facing the backyard, and their parents' was on the second floor. The entire house was thoroughly air-conditioned, and Gulcasa felt almost cold with the sweat he'd worked up earlier still chilling his body.

It felt like it took an eternity to get to Siskier's room, and when she locked the door behind them, Gulcasa was left standing with his hands clasped, feeling even more awkward than he had yet today and feeling like an idiot besides for all his awkwardness. He'd been in this room countless times before and never had a problem with it.

It was just that now, he couldn't help but be aware of the bed with its messed-up sheets, or the dresser with the drawers pulled slightly askew, or the open closet, or the desk. Siskier lived in this room. She slept in this room. Her underthings were in one of those drawers. Anything she did that she didn't want her family to see or hear her at would happen here, where she could have privacy. He kept picturing it, over and over, and feeling dirty for picturing it.

I am the single worst friend there has ever been in the history of anything. And for god's sake I can at least not stand here getting a goddamn boner in my best friend's goddamn room. This was probably easier thought than done, especially since he had no idea how long they would be here, but he was going to give it his damndest.

"You don't have to be so embarrassed," Siskier said, and then she was in front of him and had gotten her arms around him, hugging him close. "You've been acting a little funny since just before school let out, so I should be the one who's embarrassed about how long it's taken me to be really sure."

"I," Gulcasa began, not knowing what he was going to say—apologize, maybe—but Siskier shushed him, and she was still smiling.

"I've been hoping this might happen for a really long time," she told him, and he felt the impact in his chest like he'd been hit with a sledgehammer.

While he was still struggling for an answer—an explanation—something, she kissed him.

She had more idea of what she was doing than he did, apparently, and since she was the one who had initiated the surprise attack, Gulcasa was at her mercy in moments. He didn't know where to put his hands, had no idea what to do with his mouth, and all his resolve couldn't stop his body from reacting to her anyway. By the time she pulled back, eyes roving over his expression as if to gauge his response, his breathing was a wreck and he was shaking.

Siskier's grip was light—he could pull away from her if he really wanted to, and he was sure that she meant for him to know that. And even Gulcasa wasn't stupid enough to mistake what she'd meant by "something fun" at this point. If he wasn't ready, if he wanted to stop here, this was his chance to say so.

Because he'd known her for so long, he knew that her decision to bring him here wasn't a frivolous one. Siskier took romance seriously, took her body seriously. She'd been the target of a lot of people's admiration, but she'd never had a boyfriend. She made her choices herself, so there was no way she was just being flighty now.

But there was a chance that she was being impulsive, and besides, with the prospect in front of him Gulcasa was every bit as nervous as he was eager. He trusted Siskier, cared about her as a friend, was attracted to her as a girl. But this would be his first time, and was probably going to be hers too, and that was kind of a really big deal.

"If—if you're really okay with—with me," he said falteringly, and Siskier smiled at him with mischief and confidence, which made the sentence he'd been trying to force out wither away.

"By now I won't be satisfied with anybody but you."

She kissed him on the mouth, gently this time. He was glad, because his mind was already about to stop working as it was, and his lips felt hot and weirdly swollen from this unfamiliar new use. They throbbed in time with his heartbeat. Siskier touched them lightly, then lifted his left hand up and kissed the space between his first and middle knuckles.

His heart stuttered and he had to struggle to breathe, and he knew that he was not going to back out of this even if he could.

But. There was still at least one problem. "Um—uh. Siskier, I don't. Protection. I don't have anything for, I-I don't have condoms." He had to close his eyes to force the words out, and even then it was so embarrassing he felt faint.

Siskier was silent until he was able to look at her again, and when he opened his eyes she was smiling, her lower lip tucked beneath her teeth as if trying not to laugh. "I'm actually on birth control, so it's okay, but I've got a couple of boxes if you'd rather be super safe."

He just stood and stared at her, utterly staggered; she kept looking up at him with that fearless, dimple-cheeked smile.

Gulcasa reminded himself to breathe. His hands were shaking. "I—I guess we're doing this, then." Somehow, he felt like he still had to apologize, felt as if he shouldn't be here. He didn't know what he was doing. Siskier at least deserved someone competent, someone who wasn't damaged. But if he said so, that would only bother her more, because she didn't really think of him like that.

He loved her, and those feelings were so bright and shiny that they were terrifying.

Siskier looked at him, her expression confident and tender and reassuring, and she reached up to stroke his cheek, leaning in to kiss him once more.

Then she stepped back so that they were arm's length apart.

"Watch me," she told him, and began to take off her shirt.

He hesitated just once, staring down at her with their bare bodies parallel on the bed: Him on hands and knees, all scars and panic and frantic heartbeat, his hair loosed from its ponytail forming a loose kind of curtain about the two of them; her on her back, nothing but soft curves and perfect white skin and deep wise calm like the surface of a lake at dawn.

He hesitated just once, shaking suddenly because he really couldn't after all, because he would inevitably do something wrong and then—

"You aren't going to hurt me," Siskier murmured to him, giving voice to his fear without having to hear him say it. "It's all right."

And she guided him down into her without once breaking eye contact.

It was—later. Gulcasa didn't know how much later, just that the angle of sun through the blinds was drastically different and that he literally could not move from where he lay sprawled across the mattress. It was taking everything he had to just keep breathing, he was so exhausted—and yet his mind was far too busy to let him go to sleep, racing to affix names to entirely new sensations.

He could tell, vaguely, that he was still a little clumsy and lacked stamina—even taking everything he'd learned online with a right and proper grain of salt. And yet this was—this was more immense than he'd ever dared to hope it might be. Both the pleasure of sex itself and the emotional rush of really being held, really being accepted entirely by someone else, someone whose acceptance mattered.

And the simple fact that Siskier was here, was lying naked and breathing hard next to him, was enough to shut down all of his rational thinking. His emotions were a mess; he was overwhelmed enough to hold onto her and never let go, enough to cry like a child.

The bedsprings creaked quietly as she levered herself up on her elbow to smile at him. She looked self-satisfied and every bit as relaxed as he felt; her hair stuck up at weird angles wherever it didn't cling to her reddened face. She was beautiful and he couldn't even deal with it.

"I'm really glad," she said breathlessly, "I can't really thank you enough for this—for caring about me, for doing this with me."

It took a while to find his voice. "I should—I should be the one thanking you. Siskier." He wanted to reach out, to hold her hand, but his body was infinitely heavy. He felt like a goddamn beached whale.

She just kept smiling. "You know what? I've liked you literally almost from the day we met."

He stared at her blankly, unable to comprehend, and she laughed and bent down to kiss him.

It took him until seven to actually make it home. He definitely wasn't going to be able to make it to his class, but as long as this didn't keep happening he'd be able to call in sick. At least Siskier's prediction that neither her parents nor Jenon would make it back in time to see him leave had been accurate. Dazed, he tried to sort out the mundane trappings of things, moving slowly through the house, nearly forgetting to take off his shoes.

Emilia was at the table, flipping through a magazine. When he staggered into the kitchen, she set it down and stared at him for nearly a minute.

"I guess the date went good, huh?"

He didn't dignify that with an answer, just swiping the phone off the wall so that he might deliver his professor a white lie involving heatstroke. That was close enough to the truth to count.

Summers were usually a time for work and for laziness, alternating like a pendulum, but this year couldn't have been any more different.

He was with Siskier in almost every moment he could spare. Nights were no good—he had class, he had to take care of the girls—but every morning or afternoon that he wasn't busy, he was with her. When they weren't actually out on dates, they generally stayed at her house—its size was more convenient, and there were fewer people who might actually come in and spot them.

At least Gulcasa's sisters had accepted his relationship with remarkably little fuss. To the contrary, the twins had just nodded at each other when Emilia brought it up—apparently they had been expecting this to happen literally for years, a fact that left him utterly poleaxed.

"If you have to go out with anyone, it's probably best that it's her," Luciana informed him loftily, with both Aegina and Emilia nodding beside her. Gulcasa just shook his head at all three of them and held his silence.

Even so, his house was no good for their stay-in dates. As to why it was no good, that was because he and Siskier simply could not keep their hands off each other.

It was to the point where most of their real dates ended early, with their sneaking back to her room to have a few hours of uninterrupted time together. They'd spent most of their lives doing things together, and none of those things held much excitement now that they'd become a couple. Certainly nowhere near enough excitement to make them seem more appealing than sex.

The intense physical and emotional pleasure was as bright and new and bewildering as Gulcasa's actual feelings for Siskier, and unused to that pleasure as they were, it was almost impossible to hold back. There were so many different ways for them to fit together, and everything felt slightly different, sometimes in ways that were genuinely surprising. Foreplay, positions, and pace all yielded different results in different combinations—and some were even more or less effective based on what mood they were in. The more new things they tried, the better they got to know each other's bodies, as well as their own. And there were so many new things to try that Gulcasa was sure they could go on experimenting for years and not get bored.

By the end of July, their desire for each other still had not calmed down at all. The only change was that they knew a little bit more about sex and about each other by now.

Siskier's sexual appetite was every bit as voracious as Gulcasa's own, and she was nigh fearless about anything new. Despite that, she was more than willing to alternate and take the time to hold him and do it slowly, since his craving for close physical contact was as strong as their lust itself and couldn't always be slaked alongside it.

It took him three weeks to finally ask her, during one of their brief rests, how she'd managed to be so confident the first time, how she'd been able to say with such certainty that he wouldn't hurt her. Siskier stared at him for a while and then began to blush and grin at the same time, triumphant and mischievous and something like sheepish.

"Okay, um, so it turns out that you don't actually have to be eighteen to go to a sex shop, you just have to be eighteen to buy stuff there, and if you have somebody who's legal buy things for you then it's perfectly fine. That's how I got the condoms, by the way." She nodded towards the dresser, which was where the little boxes were lined up, out of sight in a fake-bottomed drawer. "Uh… to make a really long story short, Medoute owed me one, so I made her go shopping with me once, and it was even all on her dime."

Gulcasa stared at her, not sure that he had ever seen anything like her. "You seriously made Medoute help you buy sex toys."

Siskier nodded, still red-faced, starting to giggle. "She owed me like ten favors. I'd been keeping track of her tab just in case I ever needed something big. That's the only way I was able to actually get her to do it."

She got up off the bed, perfectly relaxed in her nakedness, and dragged the closet doors open, digging out what looked like an ordinary shoebox. "Basically I'd used this enough that I was pretty sure I'd be okay when it was for real, even if it's a little small."

Gulcasa looked from the box to Siskier's devilish expression and back. "You've, uh. Put a lot of thought into this."

"Well, even though my parents probably wouldn't mind that I'm sleeping with you—I had to get their consent to start taking the pill since I'm underage, after all—I am pretty sure they'd squawk if they knew I have a condom stash and an actual vibrator, so I'm careful about where I hide stuff. Like, you wouldn't let the twins and Emilia into your porn stash, would you?"

"I assure you that it's not as grand a stash as you think it is, but I guess you have a point." He kept his line of sight on her face, trying to ignore the box. He'd only start thinking of embarrassing things if he actually acknowledged it.

"They say it's good to be prepared," Siskier said proudly, and then she grinned and shook the box to make its contents rattle. "You wanna see how this thing works?"

Aside from protecting his innocent sisters' eyes and ears, Gulcasa only had one worry about his relationship with Siskier, and that was Jenon.

As Siskier had said, her parents might be blue-blooded and uppity, but they hadn't shied away from the fact that their adopted daughter might one day have sex—and their blue-blooded pride might at least decree that Gulcasa, as the child of a reasonably wealthy family connected to their own, would be a better partner than any old person. But Gulcasa wasn't so certain that Jenon would share his parents' viewpoint. Beyond the fact that the three of them were close friends and Jenon was bound to feel abandoned, Gulcasa had the sneaking suspicion that Jenon might always have considered Siskier a girl, never a sibling.

But when he hinted to Siskier that Jenon might wind up getting jealous, she had just looked at him blankly, so he decided not to tell her as much. He wasn't at all positive, and the looks Jenon had occasionally given Siskier might just have been Jenon being Jenon.

Barely had he thought so when Siskier huffed angrily. "Not like he'd have half a chance to find out. We live in the same house, but I barely ever see him at all these days."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he leaves at like six in the morning and doesn't come back until ten. At work he's always sitting with his computer and he gets bitchy if you try to go say hello. Even when I say hello or the people working here try to do things for him, he just ignores us completely. Whatever work he's doing, it's way more important to him than his friends and family."

She was right, he realized. Last summer, Jenon's job hadn't taken this much out of him at all. And it wasn't like he'd gotten any especially big promotions since. He'd always returned home at five or six, and last year when Gulcasa and Siskier had been messing around playing games or watching TV, he'd often joined them. Gulcasa had been too busy worrying about how to explain his and Siskier's relationship to their friend and relieved that he didn't have to do it yet to actually think about how weird this was.

"So nobody cares about Jenon. Let him do his own thing, and if he gets all pissy about how we're going behind his back, then all we have to do is say that it serves him right."

Siskier crossed her arms as she said so, and she sounded so hurt that Gulcasa couldn't help but to reach out and reel her into his side. They didn't talk about Jenon again.

He did, however, ask a few questions at work the next weekend. The things that his friends told him lined up with what Siskier had said—over the course of summer vacation, Jenon had completely withdrawn into his tasks, getting so absorbed in them that he sometimes wound up ignoring his coworkers and not going out on lunch breaks.

Gulcasa thanked them and told them not to worry too much. Most likely, Jenon was about to get promoted, and looking extra devoted would help him secure his new position. By the time he surfaced—well, hopefully Gulcasa would have enough of a plan to actually take his friend aside and talk to Jenon about him and Siskier before Jenon found out on his own.

And July turned to August. Compared to most summers, this one especially seemed to have gone by in the blink of an eye. Gulcasa got good marks in the courses he'd taken, was complimented by his grandfather—the head of the Albelts—over the leadership he'd shown, and was praised by both Baldus and Velleman for his hard work. All there was left to do was buy textbooks for his last year of high school and get the rest of his supplies together.

"But now our time together is going to get cut down," Siskier complained, walking alongside him as they shopped for school things. "Nights are free now, but with homework…"

"Either we figure out a different time to do homework, or we'll just give in to senioritis at the end of each term when homework stops mattering," was the only suggestion Gulcasa could make. It was true, though. After this entire summer, it would be pretty weird when he and Siskier couldn't be together quite as often.

"Well, we still have the rest of August and the beginning of September," Siskier said, and shrugged. "We'll come up with something."

Somehow when she said that it was incredibly reassuring. Gulcasa reached out to hold her hand, and Siskier squeezed it.

Neither of them was willing to let go, and so they went the rest of the trip like that. By the time they'd checked out, followed by people smiling and shaking their heads at the young couple, their layered palms were hot, and Siskier was running her fingertips up and down the back of Gulcasa's hand impatiently. These little touches turned into bigger gestures and an awkward, sideways game of footsies on the bus, and by the time they were let off, all they could do was run for Siskier's house, despite the heat.

The shock of the cooler temperature was harsh on Gulcasa's skin as always, especially after he'd already exerted himself, but even that was irrelevant in the face of his mingled arousal and anxiety. Shoes and bags of books were discarded by the door, and he and Siskier made their way up the stairs, kneading each other's hands.

The slam of the door behind them was a relief, and Gulcasa immediately turned to hitch Siskier up against the wall; in the same moment, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him hard, squeezing his hips with the insides of her thighs.

"Hurry up," she said plaintively into his shoulder, but her hold on him was too tight for him to get at his pants or her shorts, so Gulcasa just rolled his hips up against hers over and over. His clothes were stranglingly tight, and everything between his legs was throbbing in protest—he could only assume it was the same for Siskier, who was whining low in her throat and writhing fitfully against him.

"Hurry up, hurry up," she moaned again, and leaned back, her hips and legs still moving shallowly as if she couldn't control them. "I don't want to wait anymore—"

And then there was a loud knock on the door.

Gulcasa's heart felt like it ceased beating for a moment, then thudded hard as he and Siskier leapt apart like startled cats.

"Siskier? Siskier, open up—"

It was Jenon's voice. Gulcasa frantically tried to arrange his clothes, and Siskier did the same; at least the shock had shaken him out of his state of arousal. If Jenon was coming in here to confront them, then at least he didn't need to walk in on them like this—

"It's open," Siskier called, and Jenon let himself in. He was still in his work clothes, but his hair was disheveled and his eyes were rimmed with red. He closed the door behind him, paced, and then pulled out Siskier's desk chair and sat down heavily. There was something like a thick manila file folder in his hands, filled with papers, and he hadn't reacted to Gulcasa's presence at all.

"Jenon, this is—" Gulcasa cut himself short. He didn't know what to say or do. This was very close to the worst possible situation.

But Jenon looked up at him with a bleak expression as if noticing him for the first time. "You're—you're here too. I guess that's good. It's better than, than having to explain this to you separately." He rested the folder in his lap and ran both hands through his hair. "Yeah. Gulcasa, you're nearly family. You have the right to hear this now, too."

Gulcasa looked at Siskier, who was frowning back at him in confusion, then turned back toward Jenon. "I can leave, if…"

"No. No, it's all right. I'm going to have to tell this to everyone else at work, too. I just—even with how long I've been investigating this, I still can't—really believe it." Jenon's eyes fell to the folder, and he shook his head numbly. He looked a mess—now that Gulcasa actually had his friend in front of him, Jenon's face seemed a little more hollow, and he had shadows under his eyes like he hadn't slept well for quite some time. "I thought it was—just a calculation error at first. Just something the president and everyone had missed. But when I looked back over the numbers, too many things just weren't right. And the deeper I looked into sums, the more it was—it was like a well filled with oil, or poison. The water's clear on top and ugly at the bottom."

"Jenon," Siskier told him in a slightly raised voice, "you're not making any sense. Are you saying something's wrong at the company?"

And Jenon laughed. He held out the folder to her. "You read it, you're better with numbers than Gulcasa—"

"There's too much in there to look over quickly. Jenon, what is it?" Even as Siskier began to flip through rows and rows of spreadsheet printouts, Gulcasa laid a hand on Jenon's shoulder and shook him gently. At least this wasn't what he'd been worried about, but if something was really wrong—

"I've been double-checking my parents' bookkeeping for practice, and it's just—" Jenon buried his face in his hands. "I've found out where it all goes. They've been taking it. Dad's been stealing huge sums of money from our profits."

After that, there was absolute silence in the room.