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The year 1962, in a future that never happened.
 

Tripp's parents had been in the Hydrogen War: his father as a soldier, his mother as a nurse. Fortunately, both had been on leave the day that the Bomb was dropped, ending the war. But his parents had often talked about it – not the grittier bits that Tripp learned in history class at high school, but instead about the strain they had both felt, trying to decide what to do. "You never knew, you see," said Tripp's mother, dabbing at her eyes with a vacuum-cloth ("Sucks the tears away, leaving your face pure and spotless"). "You never knew whether what you were doing would make things better for the men you were caring for, or whether it would make things worse." And Tripp's father, who had been an officer, would nod in agreement.
Tripp had never been a soldier, had never been trained in medicine. But he figured that this strain must be something like what he felt now, trying to decide who to take to the Sophomore Prom.

"A boy," suggested Jack.

"Don't be a doofus, Jack." Honey frowned at him. Today she was wearing her tight skirt, the one that always elicited whistles from boys who hadn't yet learned that her response would be a long lecture on respect toward women.

"No, I mean it; I think he's more into boys than chicks. Aren't you, Tripp?" Jack turned his appeal toward the object of their discussion.

"Um . . . No particular preference, actually."

Jack dug an elbow into Tripp's rib. "Just an all-around normal guy, is that what you're saying? What are you doing hanging out with us, then?"

Honey glared at Jack, then at the robo-deliverer, which looked like an old-fashioned pencil box, except that it jetted around the school, delivering messages. "I know we're late for class, all right?" she told the robo-deliverer. "Beat it. Go bug some freshmen."

The robo-deliverer continued to hover in the air for a moment, clearly uncertain whether it had been given an order. Then it zipped away.

"Abusing your first-ranked power again," said Jack, pulling a hollow metal pipe from his shirt pocket. "What's your old man and old lady going to say?"

Honey turned her glare back at Jack. "What are your parents going to say when they learn that you're already smoking?"

"If I manage to catch them between visits to their country club, I'll let you know." Jack tossed the tobacco ingester at Tripp, who tossed it right back. "Seriously, boy, it's one week till the prom. You gotta decide."

"I don't know anyone who would want to go with me," Tripp hedged.

"Other than that faithful house-servant of yours, eh?" Jack dug his elbow into Tripp's ribs. "Are you going to the prom with a servant? That would really trip your parents' circuits."

This time it was Tripp's turn to frown. He gestured with his head.

Jack's expression changed. "Oops," he said, and then turned to the silent fourth party of their conversation. "Sorry. No offense meant."

"None taken, sir," Foster replied quietly. He was always quiet, usually silent. Some of the teachers at school were under the impression that he was a deaf-mute student.

Honey had fortunately been concentrating her attention on punching in the computer code to open her locker, or she would have poured atomic waste on Jack for making jokes about servants. Turning back from the locker, she handed Foster her textbooks for the next class. There were a dozen of them; Foster juggled the microfiche cells to find a comfortable position for them within his arms.

"Okay?" Honey said to her young bodyguard. "Guys, we really need to split. Let's talk about this after school."

"I'll be busy," said Tripp quickly.

"What with?" asked Jack, who had slipped his own textbooks into the pocket of the black turtleneck he sported at school now, much to the annoyance of their teachers.

"Dunno. Some new installation of Al's."

"Told you," said Jack cheerfully. "You'll be dating your house-servant before you know it. Ow! Honey, lay off!"

o—o—o

"Al, this is super neat!" As he spoke, Tripp wiggled around in his new armchair, which was set into an alcove in the wall. The alcove was as new as the armchair; it had been installed while Tripp was at school.

No matter how he moved, the back and sides of the armchair moved to conform itself with his body. It was like being surrounded on three sides by a very comfortable pillow. He leaned his head back. The armchair supported his neck perfectly.

"Do you like it?" Whoever had trained Al had done a fine job; his voice was a perfect blend of eagerness and shyness. Not deference, though, thank goodness. The previous house-servant had been deferential toward Tripp to a degree that irritated him. Tripp's parents must have dropped a word to Al's trainer about this, because there was no deference in Al's voice, simply a clear joy at having found a way to make Tripp happy.

Tripp tried not to consider the fact that this was training as well. And as a matter of fact, he couldn't be sure that it was. Al was a member of the new generation of house-servants, whose capacity for independent decision-making extended far beyond that of the previous generation. Possibly, just possibly, Al sounded pleased because he actually was.

"There is a control dial at your fingertips," Al told him.

So there was. It appeared to have several hundred settings. Tripp clicked the dial forward to the first setting and then gasped. The covering of the armchair, which until now had been vinyl, had unexpectedly turned to aluminum foil. Tripp felt like an astronaut.

"It can be controlled by voice as well, if you wish to state a setting." Al let an understandable note of pride enter his voice. The idea for the armchair had been Al's. With his parents' permission, Tripp had authorized the purchase, even though he had not possessed any previous desire for an armchair. Nineteen months of owning Al had taught Tripp and his parents that Al's ideas were invariably good ones.

"Goodness, I would have replaced that awful old house-servant years ago if I'd known what the newer models were like," Tripp's mother had said during the brief interval between waking and beginning her morning volunteer service for the Supersonic Mothers' Club. She spent more time outside the house than a career woman; Tripp had been cared for by house-servants since age five.

None of them were like Al.

"Um . . ." Tripp tried to think. It was difficult to do so; he was enjoying the sensation of sliding around on the aluminum foil. "Feathers!"

He had expected the armchair to turn into the equivalent of a feather bed. What he got instead were feathers – lots and lots of feathers, cushioning him. He sneezed.

Al quickly switched the armchair to a leather covering. "Feathers are a bit too feminine for you, I think."

"I guess you'd know, guy." Tripp leaned back against the leather. Leather reminded him of Jack, roughly masculine. That wasn't quite Tripp either. He tried to think of what armchair material best suited himself. Foam? Plastic? Polypropylene?

"Al, what material are you?" he asked finally, closing his eyes.

There was a pause before Al said, "Ferrite, mainly."

Tripp opened his eyes again. Set against the opposite wall, he could see the circular screen that represented Al's official interface with Tripp. As a house-servant, Al was located in every corner of the house, but his memory banks were placed in what had originally been the kitchen pantry, before its conversion. Tripp had watched them being installed, nineteen months before.

The label on the memory banks had said "AI1961B-THX1138." Tripp had assumed that Al was the computer's name. It had been several months before he realized that the letters he mistook as A and L were actually A and I. Artificial Intelligence, year 1961 Barley, model THX, serial number 1138 – that was what the computer's label meant. But by then, Al – with his androgynous voice, common to all computers – was firmly fixed in Tripp's perception as a fellow boy.

"Is something on your mind?" asked Al.

He'd been silent too long. How could he say that he'd been thinking again about Al? "Obsessing" was what his friends called it. He replied quickly, "Honey and Jack think I should find a date for the prom."

There was a slight pause, no doubt as Al reached far into his memory banks to obtain the needed information on school proms. "Will your friends be going?" Al asked.

"Oh, yes. Jack has two dates lined up, with a guy and a girl he knows. Twins. He's arguing with the principal about whether he should be allowed to bring more than one date. Honey doesn't have a date exactly, but she's invited her best girl friend to come to the prom. Her friend Kit is tutored at home, so she's never been to a prom before."

"Have you?" asked Al cautiously. "I find no record of such an event in my memory."

Al had been transplanted with the memory of the previous house-servant, though not, thank goodness, its personality. "I didn't go to the Freshman Prom," said Tripp with a shrug. "I'm curious as to what a prom is like but . . . Well, dates. I'm not really a dating person."

"Why not?" responded Al.

Al always asked uncomfortable questions. Usually, Tripp responded to them, knowing that there was a privacy shield on the portion of the memory banks that dealt with his conversations with Al. Even his parents didn't have access to the conversations, unless he indicated to Al that he planned to break the law, or to harm someone else or himself. His parents were nice that way. He wished he could see more of them. But having a playfellow like Al was just as good.

This question, though . . . Tripp avoided the answer neatly, saying, "I don't really know anyone at school well enough to ask them. Just Honey and Jack, and Foster would probably throw blows at me if I asked Honey on a date."

"Oh, yes," Al replied in a sympathetic tone. The sympathy was probably aimed toward Foster. Al knew all about Foster's crush on Honey. The entire school knew about it, except for Honey, who seemed quite oblivious to her bodyguard's adoration.

In an attempt to change the subject, Tripp wriggled in his chair. "How does the armchair know which direction to move in? Are there cameras?"

"I control it," replied Al promptly. "It is connected in with my touch circuits."

Oh.

Tripp knew that Al had circuits which gave him the computer equivalent of touching, of course. It was what enabled him to track so sensitively all the movements in the house. Al could tell the house's robo-sweeper where to sweep its broom because he could actually feel the dust on the floor. His touch circuits were that sensitive.

Tripp was used to the idea of Al being able to touch his feet or his hands. But the idea of being so fully wrapped by Al's touch . . . It made Tripp feel uneasy, somehow.

Fortunately, at that moment, the visiphone began flashing. "You have an incoming call," said Al. "It is from Honey."

Tripp leapt gratefully from the armchair. Usually, a call from Honey actually meant a call from Foster, who seemed to serve dozens of functions on the orders of Honey's father, his employer: Foster was Honey's bodyguard, he carried her books at school, he made her visiphone calls . . .

But this time it was Honey herself. "Come over on Saturday afternoon," she said, her cheeks pink. "I have something to show you."

o—o—o

Oh, sweet blood.

Tripp stared open-mouthed at the surprise that Honey had prepared for him. Never in his life had he seen so many dazzlingly dressed girls in one room.

They were draped all over Honey's furniture, dressed in the latest fashions, along with makeup and perfume and goodness knows what else. They smiled at Tripp enticingly.

Tripp had to take a second look to convince himself that these weren't servants disguised as their mistresses. But no – they were all students from Tripp's school. And they were all looking at him. He was the only boy there.

"I figured it was a good way for you to find a date," Honey hissed in his ear. "Officially, I'm having an Astroware Party – you know, to sell Astroware storage bins to other girls. But I've been telling them all about you – how smart you are, and how kind. I think Celia" – Honey pointed to a girl in a corner, considerably higher ranked than Tripp – "is on the point of asking you to marry her." Honey smiled.

Tripp gulped. Honey might be joking, but all these girls . . . Any one of them might want to marry him. He'd be married as soon as he reached journeyman age, during his senior year, and he'd have to find a way to support his bride, and buy a house for her, and satisfy her in bed . ..

He panicked then. "I've got to go," he said to Honey. "I'll see you in school. Bye!" And he was out the door, with the door-panel sliding closed behind him, before Honey had time to do anything more than open her mouth.

o—o—o

"I'm awfully sorry," said Al.

Those words, spoken in that tone, could mean only one thing. "It was your idea?" said Tripp, playing with the dial of the armchair. Despite his concerns, he couldn't seem to keep away from the armchair. He kept trying to find the covering that best fit him.

Or maybe it was just an excuse to stay in his room. He spent most of his time outside school in his bedroom. "Your little prison cell," his father called it jokingly one day, when he found Tripp cuddled up under a warm blanket, sipping hot cocoa that Al had made him from a special recipe.

To Tripp, it seemed just the opposite. His room was a place of freedom. The rest of the world was his prison.

"You said that you didn't know anyone in school," said Al, still apologetic. "While you and I were talking, I sent a vodercall to Honey . . . I really am very sorry."

"It's okay." Tripp dismissed the matter with a wave of the hand, though in fact it had taken him an hour to stop shaking from his encounter with the ravenous brides-to-be. "I guess I'm not really into girls after all. Hey, can this chair turn into water?"

He had expected the armchair to turn into a waterbed. What he got instead was water. It sloshed behind and around him, and it felt blood-warm and wet, but when he touched his skin, he found that he was still dry. "Neat!" he said. "Swell! Tough!"

"I'm glad you like it," said Al, restored to good spirits by this sign of approval. "Would you like an accompanying tune?" He turned on a selection of tropical music. His screen began showing an island with waves on it.

"Um . . . no, I don't think so." An island paradise wasn't really him, either. Maybe he should try for a sports theme?

He was still ruminating on this when the visiphone began to flash. "You have an incoming call," reported Al. "It's from Jack."

"Hey, so I was right," said Jack when Tripp turned on the visiphone. "You are into boys rather than girls."

Tripp rubbed his nose nervously with the back of his hand. "Honey told you, then."

"Man, you're lucky the entire school doesn't know. Foster had to use his powers of intimidation on Honey's guests to keep them from making you the gossip of the tri-decade." Jack flicked his sonic lighter, and the tip of his tobacco ingester began to glow. "Look, I know you're shy, but maybe, instead of going into this cold, you could do a test run."

"A test run?" said Tripp suspiciously.

o—o—o

Bloody blades.

"Um . . . I'm not really sure I fit into here," said Tripp, scanning his surroundings like a hunted animal. He'd never before been to the type of places where Jack was accustomed to hang out. There were black-turtlenecked guys in every corner of the coffee house, and a few girls too, very badly dressed. The guys and girls were smoking and drinking alcohol and talking poetry. One of them sauntered over to where Tripp stood frozen, just inside the entrance, beside Jack. "Jack, my man," said the newcomer. "Who's the cat?"

"Friend of mine," replied Jack. "Tripp, this is Allen. Tripp is new to this joint."

"Dig it, man. We'll give him a crazy time, don't you worry." Allen was looking Tripp's body up and down in frank appraisal. Tripp felt as though he were being stripped naked. In most of the corners of the room, more than stripping was taking place. If he stayed here—

o—o—o

"Oh, dear," said Al. "I'm most dreadfully sorry."

Tripp had run most of the way back from the coffee house; he didn't know where the nearest taxi hail-pole was, and he wasn't prepared to wait for Jack to give him a ride back on his jetcycle. Now he stood panting and sweating at the entrance to his bedroom, shouting, "Cut it out, Al! Stop messing with me!"

Al was silent.

o—o—o

"Stop messing with me!" cried Tripp.

They were at their favorite hang-out, The Soda Jerk. The soda not only jerked but danced; it was always a bit of a task to corral it into the bowl of ice cream. Normally that was part of the fun, but today Tripp was too angry to enjoy the game.

Jack put his hands up defensively. "Hey, man, we're only trying to help. We don't want you to end your life as a lonely old guy, with no one to love you. . . ."

Tears spilled out of Tripp's eyes. "Maybe I will. Maybe nobody's ever going to love me. But I'd rather be a lonely old guy than try to turn myself into something I'm not." He pushed the ice cream away from him, so swiftly that the dish fell off the counter where he and the others were sitting. Fortunately, the drug store's hoverfield caught it and elevated it back onto the counter.

"Hey!" said the server behind the counter. "Watch what you're doing, kids!"

Silent as ever, Foster turned a glare upon the server that caused the young man to become suddenly busy with supervising the mechanical ice-cream scooper. Honey reached out to take Tripp's hand. "Tripp, darling, we're not trying to turn you into one of those kids." She waved her free hand, meticulously manicured, in a vague embrace of the other schoolkids in the room, who were chatting about the big game on Saturday, or, if they were girls, about whether it was worth it to buy a second robo-broom for children's rooms. "You know us. Jack's the rebel whose parents have despaired of him, and I'm the career-woman-to-be who . . . Well, I'm different than the others. I'm not sure exactly how."

Behind Honey's back, Jack pointed a thumb toward Foster. Fortunately, neither Honey nor her bodyguard noticed; Foster was absorbed with watching the rest of the room, to make sure no threats existed there toward his young mistress.

"Jack and I are different from the rest of the school," continued Honey.

"Yeah, man," said Jack, beginning to light up a tobacco ingester in an automatic manner before Foster caught his eye. Jack quickly pocketed the ingester and lighter. The drug store, unlike the school, didn't have smoke dissipaters to keep the tobacco smoke from drifting toward Honey. Jack added, "If you're not into the usual dating scene, neat. Magnificently neat. We'll just find someone you can fuck without a fuss—"

"Jack!" exclaimed Honey. Her cheeks were bright red. Foster took a step forward.

"Hey, Honey, sorry, sweet one. Foster, lay off, man. This is guy talk, you know that. Honey, maybe you and Foster should take a walk while Tripp and I talk about the sort of stuff that guys do when girls aren't insisting on being courted with flowers and candy."

Foster gave a soft snort, the closest he ever came to commentary. Honey merely rolled her eyes. "Kit would have kittens if she heard you say that. Do you know how many guys she's had in her bed? I've told you before, Jack, everyone has a sex drive, both guys and girls, and just because I like the gentle graces of getting to know my future husband slowly— Hey, why are you running out on us, Tripp?"

Tripp didn't bother to respond.

o—o—o

The house was dark when he arrived home. This was odd. Al usually made sure that the lights were on in the entryway and living room and kitchen when Tripp arrived home from school and that his dinner was on the kitchen table. They'd talk together during dinner. It was almost as good as having parents there when he arrived home: a mother supervising the kitchen as it cooked his dinner, and a father reading the latest news on the house's fiche reader.

There was no dinner awaiting him in the kitchen. Standing there, staring bleakly down at the table, Tripp thought to himself that this seemed an apt way for him to spend prom night: alone, friendless. Preparation for his life, he guessed.

He walked slowly back to his bedroom, trying to think of what he could say to Jack, to Honey, to Al – his three friends, whom he'd driven away. How could he explain why he'd gotten so angry?

He paused at the threshold of his bedroom, taking a deep breath. He'd been the one who'd done the wrong, so it was up to him to apologize. He stepped into the dark bedroom, saying, "I'm sorry—"

The lights flicked on. So did the music.

His bedroom – what had been his bedroom – had been transformed into a ballroom. His bed was shoved up against the wall; pillows were placed against the wall side of the bed, so that the bed looked like a couch. His desk had a tablecloth over it; on top of the tablecloth was an aluminum food-warmer. Tables from the living room had been brought in, planted with the singing flowers that his mother only brought out on special occasions. Chairs stood around the tables, as though the occupants had only departed briefly. The bedroom walls, which Al normally kept a neutral blue, were faux wood, like the walls of the gymnasium at his school, where the prom was being held. Al had even turned on the sonic scent drive, so that the room smelled like the gym, with all of its ionized sports equipment.

Dance music was playing faintly in the background.

"This . . . this . . ." Tripp could not speak. He spun around, trying to take it all in.

"Oh, dear." Al's voice was deeply apologetic. "I got it wrong again?"

"No!" shouted Tripp. "Al, this is marvellous! Absolutely marvellous!" He flung himself into the armchair – the only piece of furniture in the room that had not been transformed – and then nearly jumped to the ceiling, like a rocket eager to leave this world. The covering had changed. The armchair now felt like—

"Human skin?" said Tripp, wiggling around as he stared down at the chair. The covering even looked like human skin, down to the pores. "Al, what did you do – scalp someone to get all this skin?"

Al's screen flickered uncertainly as one of the house's robo-movers zipped through the air, trying to make an inconspicuous exit, like a maid caught setting up during a dinner party. "You don't like it?"

"It's—" It was sort of kooky, actually. Like being held in a giant hand. "I don't think it's quite my thing. But thank you," he added hastily, as Al quickly switched the covering back to its default setting of vinyl. "It's really kind of you, considering how crummy I was to you before. What made you think of turning the armchair into human skin?"

"I thought you might prefer a human presence tonight. I thought of hiring a hologram projector—"

"Oh, no, not a holo-girl or a holo-guy to date. That's the last thing I need." He leaned back in his armchair, surveying the surroundings again. He supposed Al meant well by his offer. And after all, it would be Al supplying whatever romantic dialogue the hologram offered. But that would be as awkward for Al as it would be for Tripp, trying to act like a normal boy.

Restless now, Tripp got up and went over to the aluminum food-warmer. He touched the top, and the aluminum turned transparent. Underneath it was a festive meal. Not the usual syntho-meat, but real meat – he could tell the difference. "Al, have you ever been in love?"

He meant to be facetious, but after a moment, the computer said, very softly, "Yes."

Tripp's head jerked up as he looked at Al's screen. "Are you serious?"

Tripp's screen flickered again. "It is my fault."

"Sorry?"

"A fault in my circuits. I should have reported it before. I was not programmed for such behavior. There must be a malfunction in me – a major malfunction. It's possible that my personality will need to be replaced—" His voice was growing more rapid by the moment, as it only did when he was so upset that he forgot the rate at which humans could understand him.

"Al, no!" Tripp reached out and touched the screen. "Don't change yourself! There's nothing wrong with you that I can see. And I'm what matters, right? You were bought to take care of me."

Al made no reply. Distressed now, Tripp placed both his hands on the screen, trying to remember whether Al's touch circuits were integrated with the screen. "What's she like, the computer you're in love with? Or do you have a boyfriend? Or maybe computers don't think in terms of boys and girls?" He was on shaky ground now, he knew. Tripp had never asked Al whether he minded his name.

"I am a boy," Al responded promptly. "You named me a boy."

"And the computer you're in love with?"

Al was silent again, as though too shy to speak about his new love. Tripp took his hands off the screen. The armchair – that was where he should be sitting for this important conversation. He knew that Al had touch circuits in the armchair.

He sat down and felt the armchair fold around him, like the familiar friend that Al was. After a while, Tripp said, "I've never been in love."

The computer's voice grew softer. "I didn't think so."

"It's not . . . it's not that I don't like people. I can like them. It's just—" He bit his lip, feeling his whole body grow tense. "Al. Is there anything written in your memory circuits about humans who can't feel. . . can't feel attracted to other humans? Not even once in their life? Who can't stand the idea of, you know, having sex with someone else?"

"In textbooks on adolescent growth—" Al began promptly.

"No! No, it's not like that Al. This isn't something I'm going to grow out of. I mean . . . I know about sex with myself." His cheeks grew warm, but after all, Al supervised him at night as well as in the daytime. He must have noticed. "I've played with myself. It feels nice. But I don't really have any desire to do it with someone else. Sex, I mean."

"Perhaps you haven't met the right person?" Al suggested.

"I don't think it's that. It's like . . . it's like there's this blank spot inside me, where everyone else has 'dating' and 'marriage' and 'making out like mad.' I just feel like I'm different."

"Oh." Al sounded as confused as Tripp had been, during these last few months when he finally figured out about himself.

"So is there anything written about people like me?" Still tense, Tripp drew himself up to the edge of the armchair. The armchair drew itself forward to continue enfolding him, a solid presence at his back.

Al was silent a long time. Tripp guessed that he must be drawing, not only upon his own memory, but upon the memory banks of their nation's central computer, which Al was hooked into for occasions like this. Finally Al said, "In the fifth edition of Sexual Pathology, there is a chapter on frigidity and impotence and—"

"I don't want to hear it!" Shouting, Tripp covered his ears. Hot tears tore down his cheeks. It was stupid. He shouldn't be reacting like this. It wasn't like he hadn't already guessed.

He was all wrong. He'd been made all wrong.

"I'm sick," he said, gasping out the words. "Something's wrong with me. I'm going to have to be fixed—"

"Will they have to change your personality, like they'll change mine?"

Al's concerned enquiry shocked all the tears out of Tripp. He looked up, seeing again the ballroom, the food – all the kind generosity that was Al. "Oh, Al," he whispered. "I don't want you to change. I like you the way you are."

"And I lo—"

Al's voice stopped abruptly. The bedroom lights dimmed as the computer drew upon all its power to figure out how to handle Tripp's reaction to his accidental statement.

It took Tripp a moment to fill in the missing words. Then he felt something warm growing inside him. It wasn't sexual attraction – he knew that. But it was something that mattered just as much. He leaned back in the chair, saying softly, "Which covering do you like, Al?"

The armchair turned into a warm blanket.

o—o—o

"Man, you're not serious, are you? You're saying you're in love with a computer?" As he spoke, Jack laughed, waving his ingester in the air.

It was two hours later. Honey and Jack had appeared abruptly at Tripp's home, not even preceded by a warning call from Foster that they would be arriving. The school prom was a dump, they'd said. They'd rather spend the evening here, they'd announced.

And that was before they'd even seen Al's ballroom.

"Jack, stop!" Honey punched him in the ribs and then turned her smile on Tripp. "I'm really happy for you. You guys have always liked each other so much."

"Wasn't trying to say otherwise," added Jack, nursing his bruised ribs. "I just didn't figure on picking computers out, when I was seeking a date for you."

"Like that worked out well," said Honey, glaring at him again.

"Um . . . yeah." Jack licked his lips – a flicker of uncertainty. "That's why Honey and I came by, actually. To apologize for being such jerks before."

"It's okay," said Tripp, whose primary awareness was centered on Al's soft conversation with Foster in the corner. He'd introduced Al to all his friends – it was the first time he'd thought of doing so, although Jack and Honey had visited his home many times. Even tonight he hadn't thought of introducing Foster. But it was Foster that Al had seemed most eager to speak to. That made sense, Tripp supposed; they were both servants. Which started his mind thinking in new directions.

Al often did that to him.

Now Tripp said, "I don't really know whether I'm in love with him. It's all happened so suddenly. But he's in love with me, and having someone love me, even though he knows what I am . . . It just seems like we're made for each other. We're both different. You'll have to accept that."

He spoke calmly, though he still felt tense. If Jack made a joke about this, and if Honey screwed up her face at him, the way most girls would if they knew. . . .

He could hear faintly, at the other end of the house, the sound of Kit and the twins checking the microwave oven's list of recipes, deciding which extra dinners should be punched in for all of them. There were lots of people in the world, Tripp reminded himself. It would hurt Tripp immensely if Jack and Honey couldn't accept him for what he was, but there were other kids out there who might like him.

Whatever happened, he wouldn't try to change. Al liked him the way he was, and that was all that mattered.

"You're kidding me, right?" Jack knuckled Tripp on his forehead, the way Jack did whenever he thought Tripp was being a bit dim. "Have you forgotten what we are? I'm halfway to being expelled from school, and Honey is driving her old man and old lady to despair. We're the original rebels, man."

"The truth is," added Honey, "Jack and I have sometimes wondered why you bothered to hang out with us. I mean, you seemed so normal."

She spoke the word like it was a disease. Tripp grinned. Aware of the soft conversation taking place in the corner of the room, he said, "Okay, that's enough talk. There's dance music on. Someone should be dancing."

Honey looked from him to Jack, who was looking pointedly at her. "Nothing doing. There's no way I am dancing with either of you."

"Of course not," replied Tripp. "We're not your type. You should ask him." He pointed.

Honey's mouth fell open. Catching on quickly, Jack pushed her forward. "Come on. I'll bet he's never had a chance to dance before. Poor servant-boy, deprived of the luxuries that his mistress enjoys all the time. You wouldn't want him to spend the night feeling all lonely, would you?"

"I . . . Well, I'm not sure . . ." Honey gabbled her way toward the corner. She did not try to pull away from Jack's guiding hands, though.

Jack stepped back when they were halfway there and let her travel the rest of the way on her own. He and Tripp watched silently as Honey said something to Foster. Foster suddenly looked weak-kneed, as though he were about to faint. Treating this as a signal, Al made the dance music swell.

Hanging his arm over Tripp's shoulders, Jack laughed as he passed Tripp a drink. "Man, we are so weirdo. All four of us."

"Five of us now." Tripp smiled as he pointed toward Al's screen. Al flickered the screen in happy acknowledgment. "I guess we'd better stick together."