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So what if sometimes he feels like a whore?

 

He can live with that, he tells himself, staring into the dark. Lying next to Bryce, it shudders through him, the slow crawling knowledge that she has bought him. She thinks his price was ten thousand dollars. He knows that it was Dexter's life. Beside him she stirs her long body, mumbling in her sleep. He makes himself lie still, trying not to let his breathing betray the fact that he's still awake. He can live with this, he tells himself. He can. He really can. Even though Dex will never realise what has happened, never understand the price he's had to pay.

 

Because, after all, Bryce is a beautiful woman. And he had wanted her, when he first saw her. Still does. Who wouldn't want her? And who would believe him if he ever said that sometimes when he touches her his skin creeps? His body still responds, after all. When they touch he closes his eyes, and thinks of Robin, her ash grey eyes, her golden hair. Robin will never look at him again. Like Dexter, she will never understand the bargain he has made. When he touches Bryce he closes his eyes and thinks of...

 

He's Bryce's pet now. Like a trained dog he springs to action on command, and if Bryce knows that's all it is, she's not complaining.

 

Sit. Fetch. Roll over. Good dog.

 

Whore. He's her whore.

 

He'd do anything though, to keep Dex safe.

 

Dex had been so little when they first met, though he caught up. Much littler than TJ, even though they were about the same age. Dex was skinny, and there were bruises on his arms, when his sleeves lifted and you could see the skin. His mother had tried her best to look after him, but when she tried to help him change his clothes, Dex had keened, rocking backward and forward, hunched and hunching over his knees. TJ had sat beside him, put an arm around him, because he couldn't think of anything to say. Dex huddled sideways onto his shoulder and carried on keening, until TJ's mother backed off. "You can sleep in your clothes tonight," she'd told the stray child. "Don't worry."

 

Of course, TJ had been little too, at the time. All he knew was that he'd never had a brother or sister, and he'd asked for one... then Dex appeared. And, for years, that was what they had been. Brothers.

 

Dexter's father turned up, after three days, and Dex hid and cried. TJ crawled under the bed with him, and put his finger to Dexter's lip, 'hush', hoping that nobody would figure out where they were hiding. The two of them clung onto each other in the dark, and tried to be as quiet as quiet. But maybe the man had heard them breathing, or maybe hiding under the bed was a bit obvious... Because, of course, they were found, and, of course, Dexter was lifted up and taken away, so frightened he wasn't even crying any more. TJ had cried though. Wouldn't talk to his parents, wouldn't eat, wouldn't sleep, until two days later, when Dex turned up at their door again, in the same old clothes, with new bruises.

 

Nothing was said. Nothing was ever said, but gradually it became normal for Dex to spend time with them. Sometimes days on end. TJ's parents never complained. Not really. Sometimes Mom raised her eyes to heaven, but there was always an extra plate on the table, and she washed and ironed Dexter's clothes. And Dad would grunt, and shift up on the couch so they could sit and watch the game together. After a long time Dexter started to relax enough to smile when TJ's Dad was in the room.

 

So, Dexter was his brother, until... well, until there was something more.

 

Bryce rolls over beside him, throws a chilly hand over his abdomen. TJ flinches, then makes himself relax. He wonders what Dex is doing now. He knows what Dex would think, to see him in bed with a beautiful, sexy, rich woman. He'd be thinking, 'Teej gets all the breaks.'

 

The first time anyone touched him that way, it had been Dexter.

 

TJ's parents were working the night shift, and Dexter came over with pizza and beer that his father would be too drunk to miss.

 

“Mom's gonna kill us if she finds out,” TJ said, grinning at the beer.

 

“So, she won't find out,” Dex replied, grinning that goofy grin of his.

 

They set off out of town, hiking up the back end of the ski slope, and lay on their backs, looking at the stars. The pizza had gone cold, but it was still good. It was all good. The beer was good, and their breath frosting on the air was good, as they talked.

 

“I'm gonna get out of this town,” TJ confided.

 

“Where will you go?”

 

“Anywhere.”

 

Dexter folded his arms across his chest, and stared up at the sky, angry, all of a sudden. “I'll never see you again.”

 

“You'll come with me.” Silence. “Won't you? Won't you come with me?”

 

“You'll change your mind,” Dexter told him. “You're too smart and pretty for me anyway.”

 

TJ wasn't quite sure what to say to that. He was pleasantly muddled from the beer, but he knew there was something important there... Dexter felt bad about something, and TJ had to figure out how to make it better. Tell him that he'd never leave him, perhaps, even if that sounded a bit girly. But before he could figure out the right thing to say he said the wrong thing, though he didn't realise that till later.

 

“You think I'm pretty?”

 

Dexter laughed. “Have you looked in the mirror?”

 

TJ grinned, and looked up at the sky. If he was a character in a book, he thought, Dexter would be a girl, and he'd move up next to her, put his arm round her, and tell her all the names of the stars. But he didn't know the names of the stars, except for the Big Dipper, and Dexter wasn't a girl. If he was a girl, then TJ would have bought flowers. Or maybe chocolate. He would turn his head toward her, put his fingertips on her face, look into her eyes and...

 

TJ turned his head, to discover Dexter gazing at him, intently. A jolt ran straight through him, from head to toe, to cock. He turned his head sharply, looked back up at the sky, his heart slamming against his ribs like a hammer.

 

“What?” Dexter's voice had dropped. It slithered through him, revulsion. Once, a couple of years ago, TJ had gone round to see his friend. Dexter hadn't been to school for a few days, and TJ was worried. He'd let himself in the back door, hoping Dexter's father wasn't in, or that if he was he'd be passed out drunk. It was a risk he'd been prepared to take at the time. He'd never take it again.

 

He'd seen them through the doorway. Three men, and Dexter on his knees in front of one of them, while the others watched. Dexter's back and legs were bruised. The man's fingers were clenched through Dex's hair, and he was jerking his head up and down. Dex had been making choking sounds. After a moment the noises stopped. Dex looked up, swallowed, and said something in a tone of voice TJ had never heard before. “You liked that?”

 

That was the tone he was using on TJ now.

 

“You... you're not a girl,” TJ said, stupidly, his head full of that ugly image, and chocolate and flowers. He looked sideways at his friend, and Dexter's face had changed. A moment earlier, he had looked terrifying... a little bit wild. Now, he just looked miserable. TJ rolled on his side, looked at Dexter again. (Not a girl, he reminded himself, but didn't say.) “What's wrong,” he asked him. (And maybe that's what he should have said first, instead of being so flattered that Dexter thought he was pretty.)

 

“You're gonna go.”

 

“We're kids. We're not going anywhere yet.”

 

“You'll go to college, you'll get yourself published. You'll be famous. You'll meet famous people. I'll not do any of that.”

 

“You'll come with me.”

 

“No I won't,” Dexter scowled. “I'm not a girl.”

 

What did that mean? Did Dex think TJ would meet some woman one day, and forget he'd ever had a best friend? Before he could stop himself, his hand reached out, and stroked Dex's cheek, tucking a scraggle of hair behind his ear. There was a broken look on his friend's face. He had to figure out how to fix it. “Look, Dex...” he began, then faded. There had to be a right thing to say. He tried again. “You know that...”

 

Whatever he was going to say died on his lips, with the kiss.

 

Dex's lips were dry, but when he opened his mouth, it was wet. TJ's eyes stayed wide open with fright, as Dex's hand skilfully unpopped his jeans, and pulled his hard-on toward him. “Stop,” he tried to say, but then Dex's tongue was thrusting into his mouth, and it was fierce, and angry. TJ struggled at the intrusion, tried to shove Dex off, but Dex had him by the cock, and TJ's legs had turned to water, and he knew, he knew that he wasn't going anywhere. He whimpered in the back of his throat as fear and arousal clawed at him. He was too close to the edge to stop, too terrified to come.

 

Dexter pulled his head back from the kiss, looking anxious, looking tearful. “Don't you like it,” he whispered. “You're meant to like it. You gotta relax.” He licked his lips, and his voice changed. “I know I can make you feel good.”

 

“Please,” TJ groaned, feeling sick at the images the voice brought back to his mind. He didn't need to see that, he didn't need to hear that, he didn't need to...

 

Dex's face was hovering above him, and he was Dex, still Dex. His best friend.

 

Oh God. TJ didn't know what he was groaning for. Stop... don't stop? “Please, Dex... please.”

 

Dexter stared at him, like they were sitting at the kitchen table trying to figure out their homework, like TJ was a puzzle, and he hadn't worked him out yet. His hand was still moving, jacking TJ roughly, as though by squeezing harder he could make him come. It was actually beginning to hurt. TJ let out a cry of pain, and Dexter stopped, looking alarmed. TJ realised, all at once, that he was sobbing. His throat was sore with it.

 

He should get out of here, he thought, numbly. He needed to...

 

Dexter was grabbing his hips now, pressing him down against the earth. Shit... He started to struggle, but before he could do anything he was engulfed by...

 

His eyes rolled back in his head. He didn't even know what that was... wet and warm. Something... something strong, something slippery flickering against him and...

 

He looked down, and saw the top of Dex's head bobbing up and down.

 

A blow job. This was what a blow job felt like. Dex was giving him a blow job. Dex was giving him... giving him...

 

He flooded with need, and pain, and shame, thrusting into Dexter's mouth, and screamed at the sky. His hands scrabbled at the dirt, body bucking, like an electrocution, like an epileptic fit.

 

And then there was just the sky, and his breath drifting, and the thud, thud, thud of his heart, beating in time to the pain in his head. He must have bashed it against a rock when he came. Shit. His cock was lying out like a flat fish, damp, and going cold in the night air.

 

For a long moment he did nothing. He didn't even tuck himself in.

 

“Teej?” Dexter's voice was uncertain. “Why, uh... Teej? You're not crying?”

 

TJ sat up, put his hand to his hair. It came back sticky, the blood nearly black under the starlight. That wasn't why he was crying. He pulled his pants up, buttoned, zipped, scrambled to his feet. Dexter stood up, looking frightened now.

 

“Teej?”

 

TJ stumbled down the slope, picking up speed. Dexter started running alongside him.

 

“Hey, wait up, we've still got some pizza left, where are you going?”

 

TJ was shaking. It was like nothing had happened. Dex was carrying on like nothing had happened. Like...

 

“You're so stupid,” he shouted, suddenly. “Why you gotta be so stupid? What did you do that for?”

 

“You...” Dex stopped, stricken. “I thought you'd like it.”

 

TJ turned on him, hands clenched. “Well, I didn't like it. I'm not like that. What made you think I'd like that?”

 

“Oh.”

 

Just a little noise, and TJ raised a fist. Because if Dexter said one thing, if he did just one more thing TJ was going to kick the shit out of him. His fist was clenched, his arm pulled back for the blow when he saw...

 

Dexter wasn't even defending himself. He was looking at his feet, and something wet was shining on his face. A silver bead gathered in the starlight, and dropped off his nose.

 

Shit. It wasn't Dexter's fault he was stupid. He hadn't meant... he'd only been trying to...

 

TJ shuddered. Sudden recognition struck him. Every line of Dexter's body radiated fear. TJ never saw much of Dexter's Dad, even before that... that time. But when he did see the man around, Dexter looked like he did now. Standing there clenched and tight, and frightened.

 

What the hell was he thinking? He released his fist. He wasn't going to hit Dex.

 

“I'm sorry, Teej,” Dexter whispered. “I didn't mean to...”

 

“It's okay,” TJ managed to say. “Just... it was kinda... it was a bit of a shock, that's all.”

 

Dexter looked up at him then, frightened, hopeful, and TJ managed to smile. “You wanna finish the pizza?”

 

It's never gonna happen again, TJ told himself, as they trudged back up the hill to their abandoned picnic. It'll be okay. It was just a one off.

 

Of course, it did happen again. He even learned to return the favour. Even learned to admit that he liked it. But...

 

It was okay. Because, of course, they weren't gay. They were just helping each other out until some real women came along. Until they got away from this dump, together. Until their lives began.

 

Beside him Bryce is stretching out, taking up too much space in the bed. TJ wonders if he can get out without disturbing her, but after last time he's not sure he wants to annoy her. She doesn't like waking up to an empty bed. Damn... He wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for Dexter.

 

Dexter wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for him.

 

He'd been frightened to leave town without his best friend. That's what he says when people ask. People always ask, and unspoken behind the question is another. 'What do you see in him?' And behind that, a judgement. 'He's not like us, he's a loser.'

 

They didn't put it like that though. 'Why'd you bring him with you,' they'd ask. 'I was frightened,' he'd reply. But he was frightened for Dexter, as much as himself. He'd never wanted to leave him alone. He thought, if they travelled together, maybe he could keep Dexter safe. Protect him from the bad men. Because Dexter was like a magnet for trouble. He was always getting into some shit or other. Bad people seemed to see him coming a mile off, and Dexter didn't know how to say no. I'll keep him safe, TJ thought. I'll take him with me, get him away from all this shit, and keep him safe. It will be better. It will be all right.

 

A moment of pure fury wells up in him as he thinks of Dexter, despite every warning, getting mixed up in damned drugs, again. Thinks of how stupid, how absolutely stupid he must have been to get into that mess.

 

But damn. The bastards nearly killed him.

 

Bryce is waking up, slowly, and he's rigid, so as not to trigger any arousal. If he's lucky, she'll fall back to sleep, and he'll have another hour or so of peace.

 

Not peace. Not with these thoughts. He closes his eyes, and there he sees him, again. Dexter, stumbling naked through the snow. The bastards... the bastards nearly killed him.

 

“How much do you owe them?”

 

“Ten thousand dollars.”

 

And TJ knew, at that moment, exactly what he'd have to do to save Dexter this time.

 

Go to Bryce, ask her for the money, and in return...

 

Dexter has no idea. No idea at all what he has done to him. And TJ wants to scream at him, tell him what a fucking idiot he is... but more than that he wants never to have seen Dexter naked, at the mercy of bad men. Not as a child in his living room. Not as an adult in the snow. He'd do anything to wash those pictures from his mind.

 

Some nights, as he lies here, looking at the blank ceiling, TJ tells himself that it's Robin's softness and warmth that he misses, that he wants her lying beside him. But now, tonight, he admits that what he really misses is his friend. God... he'd exchange Bryce's soft bed, and beautiful house, and swimming pool, and spreading vista... he'd exhange all of it for living in that stupid shitty van with Dex, or that dump they were renting before it all went to hell. Just to hear the guy laugh at his dumb jokes.

 

Last time he'd talked to Dexter, he did the one thing he'd sworn he'd never do. He'd hit him. They'd thumped and wrestled and bashed into walls, and in between that, and hating himself, he'd wanted to kiss the stupid bastard senseless. Which would make him what? Another bad man, taking advantage of a broken boy who never learned how to say no. Because TJ has grown up a lot in the last couple of years. He's an adult now, and he understands now, as he hadn't before, that Dexter never really had a choice when he first kissed him. That he'd done what he thought he had to, in order not to lose a friend. And even if TJ knew for a fact that Dexter really wanted it, he can't ever kiss him again. Because now, TJ belongs to Bryce.

 

Besides. Dexter is safe now. Isn't he? Because TJ's seen that Robin is looking out for him. Maybe it's for the best then, after all.

 

Bryce finally wakes up, and snakes her hand down to his groin. He's flaccid, and she looks at him, expressionlessly. He smiles back, knowing that she never looks behind his eyes, and won't see that this is no more a real smile than her kisses are real love. She wouldn't even care if she knew. One hand rests on his dick, and she spreads her legs, starts rubbing herself with her other hand. That should turn him on, he knows that. He watches, breathless, waiting for something to happen. Nothing. Her eyes narrow, and she continues to wank herself, just watching him, as though it were a command. 'Get it up,' she might say, 'now.'

 

He closes his eyes. Robin, he thinks, imagining blond hair, soft breasts. He imagines Robin dipping her head down, and...

 

It's not her head, bobbing there. In memory all the times that Dexter's been down there blur into one clear image and sensation, and his groin floods with remembered heat. Despairingly, he flings his forearm over his face, hides his eyes, so she can't see it. Because Dexter would never have done any of that if he hadn't been hurt as a child, and it's wrong for TJ to feel this way about him. He knows how broken his friend is. He's known it for a fact since he found him in the snow.

 

“Ooh, good boy,” Bryce murmurs appreciatively, squeezing his erection. He rolls her over onto her back, and settles into position. Business, he tells himself. It's just the terms of the job. He's so hard it hurts, but he doesn't want to be inside her. He starts to go down on her, shamed by the memory of other thighs, their strength and warmth. She grabs his hair and pulls him back up. “I'm ready," she says, coolly. "Fuck me now.”

 

He closes his eyes, and sinks into her, all the way in. She starts to thrust toward him, and she clutches his ass, digs in her nails, setting the rhythm.

 

He's a whore. He knows he's her whore.

 

He knows, but... Nobody else ever will. Nobody else will ever see this.

 

Dexter is safe. That's all that matters. TJ knows that he can't fix things for him, there's too much broken. And he knows that he can't save him from everything. But his friend is alive, at least, living in the clean air, on the fresh mountain.

 

Bryce comes, shouting into his face, and he lets his own mechanical orgasm go. He rolls off her, and she gets to her feet, pads to the bathroom. He pulls the pillow over his head.

He can live with this, he tells himself. He can live with this. Dexter is alive, after all.

He mightn't be much of a friend, but he has bought him that much freedom, at least.