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Kurt woke up slowly, with strange sensations he couldn't place. He opened his eyes. There was Galen in his briefs cuddled up to his left, in the same position he'd fallen asleep in. But on his right was snuggled up a naked Marcus, pressing tight to his side and with one leg draped across Kurt's thigh. Beyond Galen in a loose spoon position was Scott, one arm draped protectively across the younger boy. His hips and legs were relaxed away from the others, and bulging his briefs and poking out above their waistband was evidence that Markus had not been exaggerating much in his impish comment of the previous night.
Kurt's first reaction was, 'This is not good.' But as his mind cleared, he realized that it was simply evidence that the boys loved and trusted him, and needed the affection they were certainly not getting from their parents. Arriving at that conclusion, he decided to relax and enjoy the unfamiliar warmth of the two young bodies cuddling against him, and catnapped until they too woke up.
Getting underway, they ran down U.S. 301 a few miles until Kurt found what he wanted: a diner open for breakfast with a children's playground outside and visible from the dining room. They went in, and he shepherded the boys into a secluded booth towards the back, abutting on the window overlooking the playground.
"Scotty," he started after they ordered, "I want you to tell me what you know about Galen's home life."
"I haven't done anything bad!" Galen said.
"Well, since Aunt Sonya was named Executive Director of the Foundation back in July," Scott began, "she's been totally wrapped up in it. She lives it, breathes it, eats it, sleeps it, for all I know she probably poops it too." Marcus giggled. "She doesn't exactly *neglect* Galen - she makes sure there's food in the house, she cooks meals when she isn't out at dinner meetings, she brings him over to our place on weekends. But she doesn't seem to treat him like a *person,* more like a household chore that a proper person needs to take care of sometimes, like putting out the garbage. It's kind of like Deacon in the Kenny and Kevin story, except that sometimes she notices he's around."
Galen's face grew sadder and sadder. Both Kurt and Scott reached out to wrap an arm around the younger boy, then Scott gave way to Kurt.
"I try to be good and not get in her way," Galen quavered. "I'm not a bad kid, am I?"
"You certainly are not," Kurt said, putting as much reassurance in his voice as he could muster. "Your mother, on the other hand, I'd like to bonk over the head with a rubber mallet.
"You're entitled to be treated like a real kid, to be able to have fun and friends - and the occasional cuddle too.. And she seems to not give a good god damn whether or not you do.
"Scott, you did the Declaration of Independence in school this year, right? What's it call our inalienable rights?"
"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
"Right. Gale, nobody can give you happiness. We can try, but nobody can guarantee we'll succeed. But what you *do* have is the right to pursue it, to chase it with whatever you can muster, wherever you think you can find it."
"Quick, Unk, grab it!" Scott said, grinning.
"Grab what?" Kurt said.
"Happiness. It's trying to sneak out past Marky. Get it before it escapes!"
Adopting Scott's game, Kurt played along. "It's headed back your way, Scott. Quick; grab it!"
They continued this banter for a few minutes, as Marcus and Galen started giggling uncontrollably. "We can stop now," Kurt said. "I think Gale captured it." A big smile from the latter met his remark, and a nod. "Finish eating, guys," Kurt said. "Then you two can play on the swings for a few, and give me a chance to talk to Scotty."
The two younger boys ate up and ran for the playground. "Walk until you're out the door," Kurt called out. He motioned the waitress over. "Another coffee for me, please. Coffee, Scotty?"
"Um, Mom doesn't..." the 14-year-old demurred.
"You're with me on this trip. Would you like some coffee, or another milk, or what?"
"Coffee, please, ma'am. Cream and sugar, if you please." Scott said firmly to the waitress.
As she walked away, Kurt began, "I've got a couple of things to talk with you about, Scott. But I think the most important one is to ask you to, I don't know, speak up, be on top of things, when it's needed, just like you did last night. You're right, I *don't* know what's been happening with you guys the past few months...."
"That's all right," Scott said. "We know you've been busy." Kurt cringed. "No, not like Dad or Aunt Sonya. Just that you've got a job and you gave them the extra time they needed when they cleaned house on the Center staff."
"I'm sorry I neglected you guys," Kurt said.
"You didn't, Unk. We weren't *your* prime responsibility, and we knew you were doing the right thing for what was needed then, and you'd be spending time with us as soon as you could. There's a difference."
"Anyway, Scott, what I'm saying is that you've always been respectful and all that, but what I need now is that new maturity you're showing. I don't know what's been happening like I should have, and I'm counting on you to clue me in, like you did last night. Kind of moving from 'staff' to 'junior partner,' sort of."
Scott was beaming. "You bet!"
"Keep blushing; I'm about to deliver a compliment. You know, left to myself, I'd have been pontificating a few minutes ago about how Gale deserved to have fun and try to find some happiness in life. Instead, you took it and turned the idea itself into fun. That was a pretty astute thing to do, and I'm really proud of you."
Conversation lapsed for a minute as the waitress delivered the coffees.
"The other thing, though, is that we're going to be living cheek by jowl, practically on top of one another, for a week, either in the car or sharing a series of motel rooms. And I was 14 once, back in the later Jurassic. And I had two big sisters who refused to allow me any privacy, which I needed badly to have in order to, uh, deal with a recurring issue that kept coming up. So you need to let me know you need a little private time, and I'll make sure the other two leave you alone." Kurt blushed.
"To jerk off, you mean," Scotty said, blushing too but staying serious. "Thanks for thinking of that, Unk. But it's not necessary. Marky plays with himself even more than I do..." Kurt registered shock "...and Galen does too occasionally when he's sleeping over. We're pretty open about doing it in front of each other if there's no chance a grownup will walk in. And, Unk, I don't think any of us would care if you saw us."
"I think I've just gotten a really large compliment," Kurt responded equally seriously. "There aren't too many kids I know who would put that kind of trust in me, or in any adult."
"Um, I was hoping to get a chance to talk with you sometime on this trip about something else," Scott said highly tentatively. Kurt nodded a go-ahead. "Promise me you won't get mad or anything?"
"You got it, Scotty. I couldn't get mad at you anyway."
A wan smile. "Well, a couple of weeks ago, Dad bestirred himself to have a talk with me and Marky. It was a pretty dorky one, but at least he actually tried to communicate. The last year or so, he's been like a big furry stuffed animal that Mom for some odd reason decided to decorate the couch with, that gets up and goes to work but doesn't much try to do anything else."
"If you quote this, Scotty, I'll claim you made it up - but if you were somebody married to your mother, would you do much of anything else?"
"Yeah, I take your point. Not that I'm likely to get married.
"But anyways, Dad had apparently watched one of those TV shows on child predators, and decided to put a bug in our ears about it. And he was like, don't trust anybody. The garbageman is secretly lusting after you, and all that kind of crap.
"And he warned me about you, Unk. In his train of thought, that you're single and don't date means you must be secretly gay, and everybody knows that all gay people are really lusting for kids." This last was delivered with the most sarcastic tone Scott could manage.
Kurt was keeping his cool, but his jaw was clenched and his fists tight.
"What he didn't know, though, Unk, was that he was insulting me too, right there to my face."
"The reason I'm not married and don't date," Kurt responded, "is that I've never met anybody I'd want to get serious about. And I'm not the kind of guy who has to do social dating to enjoy life. Stuff like this trip is as fulfilling to me as taking somebody to the movies or to a club."
"But if you *did* meet somebody where it could get serious," Scott asked, "what kind of person would it be? Who would you find attractive, inside and out?"
Moments of truth are a lot more common in fiction than in real life, but Kurt knew one when he ran into it, and he realized this was one. He looked his teenage nephew in the eyes, and found nothing there but respect, affection, and acceptance. He drew a deep breath.
"It would need to be somebody serious," he began. "I'm not the kind of person who enjoys frivolity - unless it's having fun with kids. That's completely different from what adults do to kill time together. And it would have to be someone who genuinely cares about me as a person, and who I could care about in return. But I think what you're really asking is something different.
"Yes, it's much more likely to be a guy than a girl - a masculine strong-but-compassionate kind of person. 'Gay culture' is pretty much not my thing. But while I've met a few women that I found quite attractive in a sexual way, I'm quite a bit more attracted to men. That doesn't upset you, does it, Scott?"
Scott breathed a sigh of relief. "No, of course not. It means that I can still talk to my Unk about stuff that's on my mind, just like always. And I've got some real issues to deal with.
"I've been coming to the realization that I was gay for the last couple of years. I tried to deny it, make it go away, at first, but that didn't work." Kurt nodded rueful agreement. "I finally admitted to myself that I was, and there was no changing it, last summer."
"While I was working that overtime," Kurt said.
"Yeah," Scott responded. "But... you saw me this morning?"
Kurt read in Scott's gaze what exactly he meant about seeing him this morning. "Yes," he answered. "You're ... quite impressive."
"'Hung like a donkey' was the comment in the locker room," Scott said ruefully. "And that's kind of a problem." Kurt's face asked a silent question. "Mmm... you remember old Mr. Lunfurst?"
Kurt's expression turned stony. "I remember him - from when I was about your age," he said. "Did he...?"
"Yes and no," Scott answered. "Remember, you promised not to get mad.
"I don't know how things were when you were a kid," Scott continued, "but the rumor now is just that if you go see him, he'll give you a blowjob. He doesn't seek anybody out, but some of the guys, uh, make use of his services.
"I did that once. I was horny, and I wanted to get sucked off. And he did it, and I enjoyed it. But that wasn't the problem. As soon as I got it out, he was all kinds of freaky about how big I was. And that creeped me out. I wasn't upset about the idea of an old guy giving me a blowjob. I'd gone there expecting it, I liked him sucking me off, a lot. But I never went back.
"Because I don't want to be the freak with a big dick. I want somebody to love me for who I am, not because I've got eight inches between my legs." Scott's blush would have lit a room by itself, but he continued earnestly, needing to get this out.
"It gets worse, Unk. You see, I'm, uh, well, I'm the kind of guy who wants to be the one doing, not the one getting it done to."
"A 'top'?" Kurt supplied. "You want to, well, stick it in, not have it stuck in you?"
"Yeah," Scott blushed. "And I don't want to hurt anybody."
"It's OK, Scotty," Kurt said. "I understand exactly what you're saying, and I think you're pretty brave for opening up to me like this.
"I assume you weren't planning on running off for wild monkey sex with the busboy or something this morning?" he grinned.
"Not hardly," Scott managed a chuckle.
"Then I'd like to think about this for a while instead of rattling off some pat answer, and give you the best I can come up with. You've got a couple of serious issues there, not to mention what Gus and Marj are going to have to say when you finally come out."
"Shit, I haven't even been thinking about that," Scott said.
"So let's round up the rugrats and head south. I'll make time when we can talk privately some more."
"Kewl," Scott answered. "I knew I could count on you."
The speed limit rose as they entered North Carolina, and they breezed along.
"Micro?" Galen said. "Would you live in a town named 'Micro'?"
"I dunno," Kurt answered straightfaced. "They shot some famous historical films there; they have them in the library archives back home."
It was almost a minute before one of the boys got it - Scott, as it happens. "Micro films?!" he exclaimed. "Unc, they oughta toss you in the pool!" Kurt just grinned.
"From Raleigh, the state capital, you're listening to WRAL News, coverage you can count on," said the radio. "Turning to national news, the deaths of two boys in a California campground have been ruled an apparent homicide by the medical examiners. The father of one boy, reportedly in the hospital suffering from head wounds, could not be reached for comment, but the foster parents of the other boy said they had apparently run away. Captain Jason Morrow of the Dixon, California Police declined comment, explaining it was department policy when an investigation is continuing. The boys' names have not been released, and no motive has as yet been publicly suggested."
"That's weird," Galen commented. "That sounds almost like D.J. and Tanner's story."
"It does," Scott agreed. "Except that Russ and Sara apparently weren't there for them, and somebody caught them instead."
"You guys were picking on me yesterday for forgetting those stories are made up," Marcus threw in. "Now listen to you."
"It certainly is an odd coincidence," Kurt allowed.
"'Entering South Carolina'," Galen read the Welcome sign. "I'll sure be glad to be rid of those Pedro billboards."
"Look at that park," Marcus said. "Lots and lots of rides."
"Well, Disney World is going to be even better," Scott said.
"Unc?" Galen asked.
"How far is Charleston from this road?"
"Probably a hundred miles or so; why?"
"Oh, OK, then. I'd kind of hoped we could stop and see the Battery."
"Hey, I left time for some side trips if we wanted them," Kurt replied. "If that's something you guys would like to do, I see no reason not to swing over there."
All three boys voiced their agreement. "And we get to see Rainbow Row too," Scott added from the shotgun seat. Kurt smiled and winked at him; he smiled back.
"Charleston's choice for a radio voice," said the radio, as they approached town on Route 26. "Now, news you can use. The controversial plan for a new state seashore on Sullivan's Island appears to be a done deal; state officials exercised eminent domain over the last few seaside houses needed for the project. A veteran Natural Resources staffer has resigned and is suing the state over losing his home to the project. Jonathan Owens, whose son David was found dead after a nationwide search two years ago, has threatened to take the state to the Supreme Court if necessary."
"Sullivan's Island?" said Scott. "Wasn't that where...?"
"It was," said Kurt. "And Jerry Owens's father was named Jonathan, and worked for the State Department of Natural Resources. And further, what that story was about was what Cory saved their home from. Somebody did some excellent research for that story, or had an 'in' with state government."
"This is getting spooky," Galen commented.
"Is the Battery what you expected?" Kurt asked the boys as they walked across the grass.
"Pretty much," Galen answered, pointing to the cannon and monuments. "There's a lot of history here. If I close my eyes, it's like I can see it happening: sea captains, Civil War battles, couples promenading on the bluff.... It gives me cold chills - like 'a disturbance in the Force,' sorta."
"Or it could be your breakfast backing up," Kurt said to him with a grin.
"No, Unk. It's kind of a sense that something is going badly wrong somewhere, and it's connected to here and to us. It's an odd, spooky feeling. And it feels like we gotta help fix it, whatever it is."
"Check out this plaque," Scott said, squatting down to read it.
"What's that thing?" Markus asked, gesturing to a white monument covered with flowers near the bluff.
They walked over and read the inscription:
In memory of
James R. Legette
Who died near this spot
September 30, 2004
Erected by his loving parents
Judge Donald and Margaret Legette
"Death, be not proud."
"That was only a few weeks ago," Scott mused. "Hey, who's that?"
A boy about Scott's height with long auburn hair stood looking out over the water. "Hey, dude!" Scott called out to him.
"Oh, hi. I was just...."
"That's cool; we just wanted to stop and see the place, because it figured in some stories we read that were set here."
"Yeah, I always wanted to see the Battery before I die, too."
"You look bummed out," Galen told the new boy. "What's up?"
"Oh, Mom's down here for a seminar on a job she's looking into taking. I came along for the trip. No reason to stay home, anymore."
"Well, I had two brothers up until last year. Now it's just me and Mom. One of 'em got killed in a car accident, and the other one's in an asylum. And it doesn't look like he's ever gonna get better. And we were real close."
"Hey, dude, don't ever give up. There's always hope," Scott said. "Our parents are nothing to write home about, but we've at least got each other, and our Uncle Kurt here. And we learned that no matter how bad things get, something comes along to make things better."
"I wish I could believe that," the new boy said.
"Trust me, it will," Galen reassured him. As if to echo his sentiments, the radio in a car going by was blaring Wilson Phillips's 'Hold on for one more day.'
"Hey, look at this cannon!" Markus called out. Scott and Galen excused themselves to see what he'd found; Kurt remained talking quietly with the boy.
After walking down Rainbow Row, at Scott's behest, the four strolled back to their car, and drove back out of Charleston.
"Wow, that was almost like a Clan Short intervention, giving hope to someone with troubles," Galen burbled.
"You don't know how ironic that comment is," Kurt said ruefully. "Did you notice anything about his accent?"
"He didn't really have one," Scott said.
"Yeah," said Kurt. "And that's what first clued me in; Charleston natives have a good old molasses-and-honeysuckle Southern drawl. I talked with him a bit after you guys went looking at other stuff.
"He and his Mom are down here from their home, outside Des Moines. His name is Sean."
All three boys had wide eyes and open mouths.
Kurt decided to take U.S. 17 to Savannah, picking up Interstate 95 again there, rather than backtracking across the state. Newscasts continued dreary, reporting cases of gay bashing, child abandonment, and a popular fundamentalist preacher leading a demonstration at the State House in favor of an anti-gay-marriage amendment to the state constitution. They stopped for a meal in Temassee, and then located a motel room outside Savannah. The group was somber.
Scott turned on the room TV, flipping through the channels. He paused on CNN. "In Des Moines, a fire at an orphanage has reportedly claimed nine lives. Authorities have established no connection between the orphanage fire and the two boys found dead in a restaurant dumpster there yesterday. The two, apparently twins, appeared malnourished, and authorities speculate that the dumpster lid fell down while they were scavenging, trapping them. Their identities have not been established. In Minneapolis, a 13-year-old boy was critically injured in a mugging at an airport. His name is being withheld pending efforts to reach his parents, who have not returned official calls. And in Missoula, Montana, an 11-year-old was killed in a vain effort to save another boy in a wheelchair from an apparent gang shakedown. And in Utah, a raid on a suspected child pornography production site erupted into a gunfight."
"This is getting positively bizarre," Galen said. "That sounds just like Brent and his friends, Jamie and Jacob, Deacon, and Sammy. Whoever they are, somebody is not giving them the help they needed."
"Tell you what, guys," Kurt said. "We'll make it to Orlando tomorrow with loads of time to spare. Tomorrow will be Sunday; why don't we go to a church service before we leave, and at least pray for those kids?"
"I'd like that," Scott said. "It's not much, but at least we can feel like we're doing *something* for them." The other two chorused agreement.
Without much ado, the four weary travelers climbed into one bed, duplicating the 'puppy pile' of the previous night. All four drifted off to sleep rapidly.