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On a normal Friday afternoon, Peter Burke, a junior at Manhattan’s finest high school—Collegiate School—was just passing by the principal’s office after he’d gotten out of class and was making his way to lunch. He happened to witness something he’d only ever seen on television. Of course he knew it was a reality as well, but he’d never personally seen it.

A young man was slumped over while sitting in a chair, giving off the impression that he was upset. Not too far away from that young man was a woman who was chattering away with the principal, but the older man—perhaps in his mid to late twenties—beside the young man threw him off until he watched the young man, a brunette, begin to gesture with his hands. His lips weren’t moving and the man beside him was gesturing in return.

Peter watched them in fascination until the brunette stood abruptly and stormed out of the office, which, unfortunately, led him right into Peter. The young man looked startled after bumping into him upon exiting the office. The moment their eyes met, however, Peter’s breath was taken away. The eyes of this young man were a beautiful, piercing blue that held a depth of emotion that Peter couldn’t even begin to understand. “Hi,” he said lamely, feeling like he needed to say something.

The brunette looked upset before turning to the man who’d been sitting beside him. It seemed like he knew the other man was going to follow him. Intently, the man watched his gestures before speaking. “He said: I apologize for running into you. It was an accident and won’t happen again.”

All Peter did in response was smile at first. “It’s okay. I’m just fine.” The brunette with the beautiful blue eyes watched Peter speak to him before looking at the other man. This was such a fascinating experience for Peter, but he didn’t want to give off the impression that he thought the young man in front of him was a circus act. Reaching out to gently touch his shoulder, he waited until the young man looked at him again. “Are you okay?”

The brunette glanced at the man beside him and they seemed to have a silent—without gestures—conversation before the other man nodded. The brunette began to sign again and the other man, his interpreter, spoke. “I’m fine. I’m just having a really frustrating day. My mom is trying to make me go to school here.”

It seemed like the young man appreciated the fact that Peter made direct eye contact whenever he spoke in return. “I can’t imagine how frustrating that is,” he said sympathetically. In his peripheral vision, he could see the other man shifting to sign so the brunette could understand him, but the brunette’s eyes were watching Peter’s lips. “You don’t want to be here, do you?”

After a few moments, the young man shook his head. He glanced at his interpreter and signed. “Tell him my name.” The man said it aloud out of habit before signing an apology to the brunette. “This is Neal.” Peter watched the way the man signed Neal’s name. He’d gestured towards his eyes before lowering his hand towards his heart. It almost seemed as if Neal’s eyes were something special, which Peter believed without a doubt.

Peter tried to mimic him as he asked, “How does this mean ‘Neal’?”

The man smiled and signed for Neal’s benefit as he said, “His mother loved his eyes when he was young. She already knew how to sign before he was born, so she signed his name and used his eyes as the basis for the special sign that became his name.” Neal’s face heated up. “It’s a personal sign he was given by her and, conveniently, by a teacher he had in kindergarten.”

Nodding, Peter asked, “Can you tell him my name is Peter?” Peter watched the man spell out his name to Neal. “If he stays here, will he have to sign my name by letter every time he refers to me?”

Shaking his head, the man said, “If you two become good friends, he’ll probably give your name a personal sign as well. It’ll take time though because he wants to get to know you. In a way, the personal sign is like his gift to you.” Without signing he added, “Which is very special because he rarely, if ever, creates a personal sign for anyone.”

Peter smiled a little. “That sounds interesting. Unfortunately, I need to get some lunch…” Glancing at Neal, he asked, “Do you want to get lunch with me?” Neal seemed to immediately understand as he nodded excitedly without interpretation. He gestured for Peter to wait as he returned to the office and began to converse with his mother using sign language.

Neal’s mother glanced back in Peter’s direction as Neal spelled out Peter’s name. She nodded and signed something to him that clearly made him happy. “He likes you.” The interpreter laughed a little as he said, “He very rarely likes people who can hear.” Peter looked mildly surprised by that. “Neal has never had a close friend. He was, unfortunately, bullied in the multiple schools he attended for one reason or another.” The interpreter looked at Peter and added, “The fact that you look directly at him when you speak rather than at me also gave you bonus points.”

Peter’s smile became a little sadder. He couldn’t imagine living without his hearing, much less living without his hearing and being bullied for it…

Neal returned to him with a bright smile on his face. As soon as the other man looked at him, Neal began to sign something. Peter didn’t quite understand, so he asked, “What did he say?”

The man was staring at Neal concernedly as he signed a quick response. After a few moments more, Neal looked determined to do something and his interpreter had, evidently, given in to whatever Neal had requested. “He wants to eat lunch with…just you.” Peter’s eyes widened. In all honesty, that bothered him because he didn’t know how to sign or understand Neal’s signing.

“He…does?” He shook his head and focused on Neal then. “You do?” Neal nodded. “But… I don’t know how to sign.”

Neal waved off Peter’s concern as the man handed Peter a card. “Call me if he suddenly gets upset or frustrated.” Peter could see that this man cared about Neal very deeply. “Please be kind to him…”

Peter only nodded silently. He wasn’t going to tease or bully Neal. Neal seemed like a nice young man—among other things. He gestured for Neal to follow him and began to lead him to the cafeteria. Moments before they were about to enter, Neal grabbed his hand and startled Peter. “Don’t be afraid of me.” Peter’s eyes were wide and he was gaping at Neal now. “I can’t hear you, but I can speak to you. I just…prefer not to…” Peter could see a deep sadness within Neal that he desperately wanted to understand so he could destroy that sadness and make sure Neal was happier more often than not. “Talk to me slowly and I can read your lips.”

“I didn’t think you’d sound so…normal.” Neal looked a little hurt by that, so Peter was quick to respond with an apology. “I’m sorry. It’s not that your way of speaking is abnormal. You just speak a lot better than I thought you would.”

Neal let go of his tension and nodded, accepting Peter’s apology. “Lots of therapy. I’m seventeen, but I’ve spent years trying to develop a voice that hearing people have.”

Peter squeezed Neal’s hand gently and said, “Well, I think you sound great.” That seemed to elevate Neal’s mood significantly. Deciding to turn the conversation towards their lunch, he said, “We have a lot of things on the menu here.”

He began to thoughtlessly list all of the food in the cafeteria without realizing that Neal was struggling to keep up with his lips. “Salad,” Neal said in frustration. Peter looked apologetic immediately, realizing that he was going to need to slow down if he and Neal were going to become close friends. “Just...show me where to go.”

Neal was relieved by the fact that Peter humored him and held his hand as he led him through the cafeteria. Neal was looking around at all of the people and designed posters on the walls. It was a bit distracting, but he trusted Peter to guide him along. Peter even proceeded to squeeze his hand just as they were about to arrive at the salad line. “I’m sorry for talking too fast.”

Once again, Neal waved off his concern. “It’ll be fine.” He reluctantly released Peter’s hand and went to grab a tray. Looking up at his new friend, he asked, “You’ve never actually been around someone who’s deaf, have you?” Peter swallowed hard and shook his head. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure things out.” He lifted his hand and was about to touch Peter, but Peter saw the hurt expression on his face as he dropped his hand and turned away so he could work on his salad. Even after Neal’s display of internal pain, Peter wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt Neal’s feelings or frustrate him. Neal honestly appreciated that Peter rested his hand on his back just to reassure him that he hadn’t wandered off and abandoned him.

Peter watched Neal as Neal made his salad. He didn’t mind standing behind Neal. Apparently, Neal didn’t mind either. “Who’s that? Your boyfriend?” Peter set his jaw firmly as he heard one of his friend’s snickering while approaching him. “Didn’t catch your name, bud. You new here?” Neal didn’t realize someone was talking to him and the other individual thought Neal was ignoring him, which aggravated him. Lifting his hand, he reached out to grab Neal’s shoulder roughly while saying, “Hey. I’m talking to—”

Peter was quick to remove his hand from Neal’s back so he could grip his friend’s wrist before he had the opportunity to hurt Neal. Neal spun frantically, believing Peter had left him alone, and then realized why Peter stopped touching him. “He can’t hear you. Don’t be an asshole.”

“He can’t hear me?” he asked incredulously. “Why not?”

Neal watched Peter, knowing Peter was protecting him in a sense. “He’s deaf. He couldn’t hear you, so leave him alone.”

His friend looked appalled. “Why is a deaf kid here? He’s only going to complicate things in the classroom and how do you even know he’s on our intelligence level? I mean, isn’t he a little stupid because he can’t hear someone who’s trying to teach him?”

Peter’s expression was fierce then. He felt the need to defend Neal and Neal’s intelligence, so he did just that. The only problem was that Neal couldn’t keep up with what was being said. It was upsetting him because he knew they were talking about him and he didn’t know what they were saying about him. He tried to focus solely on the movements of Peter’s lips, but the obvious anger in his expression told him that whatever was being said wasn’t particularly kind. “Stop it!” he pleaded. Peter immediately stopped speaking and, once again, gave Neal an apologetic look. “I can’t understand what you’re saying, but stop talking about me!”

Peter took Neal’s hand then and nodded to let him know that he was listening to Neal’s request. Unfortunately, Neal couldn’t hear what was said by the other young man. “I didn’t realize we let deaf gay guys into our circle, Peter. We’re jocks! We can’t just drag his dumb deaf ass around with us.”

The anger returned to Peter’s expression, so Neal figured something was said to elicit that response from Peter. “Fuck off,” Peter snarled before he refocused on Neal and asked, “Are you done making your salad?” Neal didn’t like the way Peter was looking at him and he honestly didn’t know what Peter just asked him, so he opted for a nod and was grateful when he recognized Peter saying, “Good.” Peter picked up Neal’s tray with his right hand, keeping Neal’s hand in his left. “Come on.”

Neal didn’t hesitate to stay at Peter’s side. He knew Peter was really upset and he wished he knew why. He followed Peter until Peter halted and gestured into an empty hallway, asking him to take a seat somewhere. As they sat against a wall underneath the staircase, Neal couldn’t tear his eyes away from Peter. “You’re upset. What did he say?” Peter shrugged as he shifted Neal’s tray over and onto Neal’s lap. “Peter, you didn’t get your own lunch. What did he say to you?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said sadly. He made sure he looked at Neal so Neal could read his lips. “He’s an asshole. Don’t even waste your time worrying about him and the stupid things he says.”

Neal decided to let it go, so he began to eat his salad while knowing Peter’s eyes were locked onto him. Normally, he’d feel really uncomfortable with that level of scrutiny, but Peter didn’t make him feel uncomfortable. “Do you, personally, think it’d be a bad idea for me to attend your school?” He looked at Peter and, upon doing that, noticed the immense sadness in Peter’s eyes. “Do you think anyone would actually be willing to hang around with someone who can’t hear them?”

“I’m willing,” Peter whispered. “It won’t be easy for you here… People will probably make fun of you…” Neal nodded sadly because that was what he expected. He knew he didn’t fit into the hearing world no matter how hard his mother tried to intertwine his world with theirs. He was taken by surprise when Peter gently gripped his chin and guided his face until their eyes met again. “I’ll kick their asses for you.” Neal smiled genuinely at him, appreciating that. “I like you and I won’t let anyone ridicule you.”

“Thank you,” Neal said softly. “I…like you, too.” He hesitated before tentatively leaning over just enough to rest his head on Peter’s shoulder. It was a test because he’d had a very bad experience with the last person he’d done this with. He’d discovered right away that the other individual wasn’t attracted to him in the slightest. The last thing he wanted was to be manipulated and led on like that again. Instead of having Peter shrug him off violently and look at him in disgust, Peter actually rested his head against Neal’s. This was something Neal wasn’t used to, but he believed he could get used to it. “We’re friends, right?” He felt Peter nod against him. “You’re the…the first friend I’ve had in a while.”

Peter was able to smile at that because he does like Neal and he was glad Neal liked him in return. He finds Neal interesting, likeable, and…attractive. One thing he planned on doing the moment he arrived at his home was research. He wanted to learn how to communicate with Neal without risking the possibility of frustrating him further. He also hoped that it may show Neal that he’s interested in this friendship and interested in proving that he can be accepted by hearing people just the way he is.

•◊•

Peter glanced at his phone as he was leaving school a few hours later. He’d exchanged phone numbers with Neal after Neal had finished eating his lunch and proceeded to ask how things were going since Neal was set up with the school psychologist and his interpreter. Not entirely to his surprise, Neal had texted him back. “I’m pissed off, quite frankly. I want to go home, but my mom just told me that she can’t leave work to pick me up. AKA: I’m stuck here until she gets out.

Almost immediately, Peter responded with, “I can drive. If you want a ride, I would be happy to give you one.” He blushed after sending that text to Neal because he felt as though he were trying too hard—and insinuating things far too quickly. While he’d been in his gym class, he’d imagined what Neal would look like while playing basketball…and what he’d look like while glistening with sweat on his bare chest. Even though he knew Neal wouldn’t be bare chested, he wanted to imagine Neal that way nonetheless.

A few moments passed before Neal asked, “Which parking lot?

Smiling, Peter answered with, “The back lot. I’m standing in front of my car now, so it should be pretty easy to spot me.” Neal didn’t respond, but Peter was thrilled when he saw the door open and watched Neal emerge from the school building mere minutes later. He raptly watched Neal approach him and said, “Hey, you,” as soon as Neal stopped in front of him. The little smile on Neal’s face made Peter’s heart skip a beat. “Where do you live?”

Neal was hesitant to respond and Peter didn’t understand why. Neal had to know that Peter would need his address if he were taking him home. “Would it be okay if I stayed with you for a little while?” Peter nodded, furrowing his brows because Neal had suddenly changed his plans and looked so sad. “I don’t like being home alone. I let my interpreter go home, but I hate sitting in an empty house in complete silence.”

Peter understood to an extent and imagined that would be hell on Neal. “No problem. I hope you know I honestly don’t mind spending time with you.” He felt like he was coming on far too strong for someone who just met Neal a few hours earlier, but he loved the fact that happiness sparked in Neal’s eyes. “I’ll drive. While I do that, do you feel like venting a little? I don’t mind listening to you and I won’t interrupt you.”

There was yet another moment of hesitation before Neal said, “I guess. I don’t want to bore you though.” Peter gave him a look and Neal smiled sheepishly. He wasn’t used to others letting him vent. He was used to having others vent to him simply because he couldn’t hear them. Sliding into Peter’s car, he tossed his backpack to his feet before buckling up. He patiently waited for Peter to get in, buckle himself up, and smile at him with a single nod to let him know he could speak. “The biggest problem I have with today and with being in the hearing world in general is that pitiful look I get whenever someone finds out that I’m deaf. They piss me off and, honestly, they hurt my feelings.” Peter glanced over at the frustrated brunette, sympathizing for him, before he began to drive them away from the source of Neal’s frustration. “I hate being treated like I’m some stupid kid. Like, for instance, when I asked the shrink to slow down because I wanted to be able to read her lips without having her words interpreted for me, she spoke way too slowly.”

Peter reached out without thinking about it and rested his hand on the back of Neal’s head to gently stroke his hair. He just felt compelled to do that as he was driving and didn’t realize he’d done it. Neal stared at him in stunned silence until Peter realized he’d been quiet for far too long. Upon seeing his hand behind Neal’s head, a look of apology flashed across his expression. He retracted his hand and placed it on the wheel. “I’m sorry.”

Much to Peter’s surprise, Neal asked, “Did I complain?” Peter bit his lip as he let Neal tentatively grab his hand and replace it on his head. “I like when people touch me—like this, I mean. It…relaxes me.” It also made him feel normal and like he was acceptable. Peter began to stroke Neal’s hair slowly, loving the fact that he glanced over and watched Neal smile. “You’re the first hearing person to actually touch me without thinking being deaf is a disease I can spread to you.” He paused for a moment and amended with, “Well, aside from my mom.”

Neal had to intently watch Peter as he spoke while driving, but he didn’t mind all that much because he could lose himself while staring at Peter’s lips. “Your mom seems very warm and accepting.”

“She’s a little overprotective considering what happened to my mother.” Peter’s brows furrowed, so Neal explained further. “Ellen is my adopted mom, but she’s my mom nonetheless.” Peter hadn’t expected that, but he nodded because he understood now. “She’ll never let me drive since that was how my mother died.”

Peter stopped at a light. Glancing over at Neal, he asked, “What happened to her while driving?”

“My mother was deaf and I, unfortunately, inherited that from her and was born deaf myself.” Neal seemed to grow very bitter as he said, “My father didn’t agree with that and he got fed up with having a son who wouldn’t listen to him. He kicked my mother and me out of our home, so she was upset and decided she was going to drive us—somewhere.” Peter noticed how Neal had suddenly gripped his own left arm and he wondered if Neal had been harmed somehow during the event he was describing. “A firetruck was responding to an emergency call. She didn’t hear the sirens or see the flashing light to indicate an emergency vehicle was coming through.” Peter’s heart broke on his face then because he knew where that was going. “She was killed instantly in the collision. My left arm and leg were both broken in the process and I came out with a concussion, but I survived somehow.”

Peter whispered, “How old were you?”

Neal’s brows furrowed. “Did you ask how old I was?” Peter nodded when he resumed driving and Neal was relieved that he’d read Peter’s lips correctly. “Five going on six. My mother died a week before my birthday. As it turns out, my father wanted nothing to do with me. So, for my sixth birthday, I was given a hospital stay and simultaneously abandoned and put up for adoption.” Peter felt awful. All of that sounded like a nightmare. And a wild nightmare at that considering he didn’t think that could ever possibly happen in his own life. “What’s worse is that they couldn’t tell me my mother was dead or that my father wasn’t going to be taking me in.” His fingers curled around the armrest tightly as he said, “I couldn’t hear anything they said to me and no one signed anything because they didn’t realize I was deaf. I didn’t know how to speak at the time…” He closed his eyes for a moment and Peter figured he was recalling something very upsetting. “I spent three horribly frightening months recovering in the hospital, waiting for my mother or my father to come get me. Neither of them ever came for me, so I was eventually taken in by an adoption agency that the hospital had contacted once they were certain that my father wanted to give up his rights to me. I stayed with that agency until I was ten.” Opening his eyes, he whispered, “And then Ellen came into my life.”

Peter swallowed hard. He could hear the resentment whenever Neal spoke about his father. His voice gave off the impression that he had no fond memories of his biological father. To be honest, he couldn’t really blame Neal for feeling that way. As far as Neal was concerned, he was abandoned just as he said. His mother had tragically died and his father didn’t want to take responsibility for him.

As he pulled into the driveway of his home, he parked and slowly turned to look at Neal. “I know you probably don’t want me to say it, but I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine being as frightened as you were or having to go through what you went through.”

“My life is better now,” Neal said softly. “Ellen and Sam love me as though I’m biologically theirs. I’m only referring to them by name because I’m introducing them to you in a way, but they’re my mom and dad.” Peter nodded and was able to smile at him. He was glad things had turned around for Neal. “We had to move away from there because I had severe anxiety problems whenever we drove remotely close to the house I lived in or the street my mother had died on.” He finally released the armrest and sighed. “And I never intend on going back. That place isn’t my home any longer. It’s simply my mother’s resting place.” Peter lowered his hand and took Neal’s hand, intertwining their fingers. Neal rubbed his thumb over Peter’s skin. “I’m sorry. That was a long-winded and completely unnecessary rant.”

“Have you ever told anyone what you just told me?” Neal shook his head while frowning. Peter squeezed his hand to reassure him that that wasn’t a bad thing. Well, he thought it kind of was, but he didn’t know enough about Neal to determine whether or not he could handle holding everything in. “Thank you for feeling comfortable enough to open up to me.” Neal’s frown transformed into a small smile, which warmed Peter’s heart instantly. “You can talk to me about anything and everything. There’s absolutely no need to apologize for speaking your mind, Neal.” He signed Neal’s name as he said it and was thrilled when that elicited a broader smile and a gentle laugh from him.

After Peter turned off the car, he led Neal towards the house. “I like your place. It looks really nice.” Peter chuckled as he unlocked the door.

Peter paused mere seconds before opening the door. “Do you have any pets?” Neal’s brows furrowed as he shook his head. Had Neal not been deaf, he would’ve heard a dog barking on the other side of the door. “I have a dog. He won’t hurt you, but I wanted to let you know just in case that makes you uncomfortable.”

Neal bit his lip and nodded. “As long as he doesn’t bite, I guess it’s all right. I’ve never actually had a dog, but I was bitten by one once.”

“I promise he won’t bite you.” He opened the door and a golden Lab emerged. Neal stiffened as the dog watched him, but he followed Peter after a few moments. Peter kept his eyes on Neal and the dog after shutting and locking the door. “Satch, this is my friend.” Neal stared at the dog as it began to sniff him. He then looked at Peter. “You can pet him if you want.”

Crouching down a little, Neal gently began to pet Peter’s dog. It took a few moments for Neal to warm up to the dog, but he was eventually smiling and began to laugh when the dog licked his face. Peter watched the two of them with a smile on his face. His dog, Satchmo, was a good dog. He seemed to know when people were good or bad. Judging by the way he’s acting with Neal, Peter figured Neal was on the ‘allowed to enter with their ankles’ list. The mailman wasn’t nearly as fortunate as Neal. The second Satchmo saw him while he was outside with one of the Burkes, he immediately attacked the man’s ankles before he could approach the house. Peter, personally, felt bad, but his father always laughed his ass off after the mailman took off. Peter was honestly surprised that charges hadn’t been pressed against them since the dog attacked him nine times out of ten.

“What’s his name?” Neal asked as he looked up at Peter.

“Satchmo.”

“Sashmo?”

“Sat-ch-mo.” Neal’s face heated up and he looked away from Peter. In that moment, Peter knew somebody had hurt Neal before. It wasn’t necessarily a physical kind of hurt, but it definitely had to do with the fact that he didn’t understand something correctly. “Hey,” he said thoughtlessly, forgetting for a brief moment that Neal couldn’t hear him nor did he realize he was being spoken to if he weren’t looking at Peter. Crouching down beside Neal, he took Neal’s hand in his, waiting for Neal to look at him. “Hey,” he whispered when Neal finally met his gaze. “It’s all right. He doesn’t care if you mess up his name. You could be like my dad and call him a dumbass and he’d still run to you happily.” Neal forced a smile. Peter knew it was forced. “Are you okay?” Neal nodded silently. “Neal…”

Neal pulled his hand away from Peter and said, “I’m fine. Stop pestering me about my feelings.” He was flustered now and Peter didn’t quite understand. He thought it was all right to talk to Neal as though they’d been friends for a long time. Neal abruptly stood up and walked a few steps away from Peter. In a way, Peter felt like he could feel pain and regret emanating from Neal’s being. He didn’t know what happened before, but he hoped he could prevent any further pain Neal could experience. “Peter, stop looking at me,” he muttered. His back was to Peter, but he could feel Peter’s eyes on him. “I’m fine. Just had something stupid on my mind, so I had to clear my head a bit. I’m fine now.”

When Neal turned towards him, Peter held out his hand. In a way, Peter was surprised by the fact that Neal didn’t mind holding his hand. Granted, Neal started this little interaction between them, but still. Neal seemed so comfortable and Peter wondered why his interpreter told him Neal didn’t get along with hearing people—aside from the obvious reason. “Do you want something to eat or drink?” he asked after leading Neal over to the couch where he watched Neal sit down and look up at him. “Hungry or thirsty?” He felt like an idiot because he spoke without remembering Neal couldn’t hear him. He had to wait for Neal to look at him and he knew he was going to have to get used to that if they wanted this friendship to work out.

“No. Thank you though.” Peter sat beside him and began to rummage through his backpack so he could get started on homework. He wasn’t exactly used to having someone over and he normally did homework when he came home. Neal watched curiously. When Peter observed his homework assignment, he let out a sigh and began to pull out a textbook. “Can I help with this?” Neal asked. Peter paused and looked at him. “It’s music. I know a lot about that.” Peter’s brows furrowed. “I can’t hear what you hear, but I can feel vibrations.”

Peter scooted closer to Neal and they went over the paper together. It was a lot of fun for Neal. Peter noticed how interested Neal was and he thought that was pretty nice. His own friends thought he was ridiculous for signing up for a music course. It was essentially a history class, but Peter found it kind of intriguing. If Neal thought the music homework was fun, he had a blast when Peter pulled out homework for his art course.

Those assignments would’ve taken Peter a lot longer if he’d done them alone. He finished an hour and a half earlier than usual. “I knew that asshole was wrong about you,” Peter said quietly. Neal gave him another curious look. “That guy from the cafeteria—the one who was harassing you. He made a comment about your intelligence.” Neal looked a bit hurt by that. “I didn’t agree with what he said, which is why I got so pissed. But, Neal…” Once again, he got Neal to laugh and smile by signing Neal’s name since that was the only thing he knew. “You’re so intelligent. I mean, hell. I couldn’t remember any of this if I tried. You find this interesting and fun. I could tell.”

“Well, I don’t excel at math, so that’s one thing I could improve upon.”

Peter was a bit disappointed by the fact that Neal seemed to completely disregard his compliment about Neal’s intelligence. “I’m good at math.” Neal raised an eyebrow. “Seriously. Look.” He pulled out his most recent trigonometry test and showed Neal that he’d aced it.

“You’re intelligent yourself,” Neal whispered. “Not to say that I thought you were a dumb jock or anything, but—”

Peter laughed, which made Neal silence himself immediately. “I play football and a little baseball. I’m fairly certain I’ll blow out something or get a major concussion eventually. At that point, I’ll be a dumb jock.” He paused before asking, “How did you know I was a jock?”

Neal shrugged. “You just gave me the impression you were at least a football player. You have an athletic build and I would only assume you work out quite a bit to keep yourself in shape.”

Smirking, Peter said, “Or you saw my jersey when we came in.” Neal grinned at him. Peter chuckled and shook his head.

When the door began to unlock, Peter glanced over his shoulder. He knew his father was home, but Neal didn’t know who was coming in. Neal shifted closer to Peter as though he were hoping Peter would protect him if something weren’t right. He wouldn’t know if someone had broken in or not, so he trusted Peter. “Hey, son.”

“Hey, dad,” Peter said when his father came into the living room.

Neal stared up at Peter’s father and knew right away that he was Peter’s father. “Well, you don’t look like a football player.” Neal wished he would slow down a bit. “New friend, kiddo? Group project or something?”

Peter felt Neal’s distress right away. “Um,” he said quietly. “He’s new to the school.” Neal looked at Peter, watching him speak. “His name is Neal.” Out of habit, Peter signed Neal’s name. He bit his lip and met Neal’s gaze.

“Boyfriend?”

“Dad!” Neal didn’t understand what was being said because he hadn’t been looking at Peter’s father. “He’s just a friend. He’s also deaf.” Peter watched his father’s eyes widen and he knew that affected Neal instantly. “If you talk to him, talk a bit slower. Not as slow as you talk to the idiots you work with.” His father chuckled and nodded. “Just…don’t speak too fast. He likes to keep up with what’s being said and it frustrates him when he can’t.”

Peter’s father nodded and glanced at Neal. “I’m James, Peter’s father. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Neal swallowed hard when James extended his hand towards him. He had to force himself to shake the older man’s hand, but it was obvious to both of the Burkes that Neal was uncomfortable. “It’s nice to meet you,” Neal whispered.

James smiled at his son’s friend. “How long are you planning on sticking around? Do you want to stay for dinner?” Neal’s brows furrowed. “Uh… Do I have to repeat that?” Neal shook his head. He’d comprehended what Peter’s father said to him, but he wasn’t quite sure why this man was asking if he wanted to stay longer. “My wife will be home soon. I’m going to get started on dinner and you’re very welcome to join us.”

Peter was watching Neal the whole time and gave him an encouraging smile when their gazes met. He didn’t mind having Neal stay. Shrugging, Neal said, “I think that’ll be okay. I have to let my mom and dad know where I am though.”

“Certainly,” James said quietly. Both of the Burkes watched Neal pull his phone out of his pocket as he stood up and moved into another room. “He’s…deaf?” Peter nodded. “Well, he seems like a decent kid. He’s no Vincent—that’s for sure.”

Sighing, Peter said, “Vincent was harassing Neal at lunch. In a way, I’m grateful for the fact that Neal couldn’t hear or understand what Vincent said.”

“I never did like him...”

“That’s because you found him in my bed.” James just stared at his son with a raised eyebrow. “Hey. I’m not proud of what happened, but it happened, okay?” Peter became very flustered as he said, “He’s playing the ‘I am straighter than everyone else’ game right now just because he doesn’t want the team to find out he and I hooked up.”

James shook his head. “I’m glad you two aren’t that close anymore. He’s an arrogant prick.” The older man was well aware of the fact that his son is a homosexual and he accepted him with open arms. It was just the young man Peter had been with that he didn’t accept. Nonetheless, Peter had figured out firsthand that his relationship had been toxic. James had to let him go through that discovery and experience on his own, but he had given his input multiple times. “Is Neal gay?”

Peter shrugged. “I have no idea. I can’t tell if he’s a hands-on kind of person when he’s around hearing people. We…held hands…and were actually pretty close when we were with each other. He wanted lunch with me—without his interpreter, so I’m not sure what that means exactly.”

“Well, if he is gay, how do you plan on making this relationship work? You certainly have a thing for guys who may not fit in with the crowd. Vincent tries too hard and I can’t make any comments about Neal yet…”

“I want to learn sign language,” Peter whispered. “I like him and I think he’d be thrilled if I tried to communicate with him in his own language.” James smiled at his son and nodded. He’d been hoping Peter would say that.

As Neal returned, the Burkes glanced up at him. “My dad said it’s fine for me to stay and my mom said she wants me to let her know when to pick me up—or if I’m getting a ride.” He bit his lip as he glanced at Peter. “Thank you for inviting me to dinner in your home, Mister Burke.”

James chuckled. “Son, you can call me James if you’d like.”

“…I would prefer to call you Mister Burke, sir,” he whispered in response.

Peter wondered why that was. “All right. Well, if you’re going to be a frequent visitor, you’re more than welcome to call me James or Jay.” Neal nodded silently in response. Peter found all of this—Neal’s sudden silence and apprehension—a little alarming considering they’d carried out full verbal conversations earlier and Neal seemed absolutely all right with that. “I’m going to get started in the kitchen. You two just relax for a little bit.”

Neal took a seat beside Peter and smiled up at Peter’s father, giving off the impression that he appreciated all of this. James waited until Neal was distracted by his phone for a moment before winking at his son. He left the two teenagers by themselves, knowing his son was trying to be kind to Neal so they could develop a decent friendship before he considered asking if Neal were interested in him, too.

Gently, Peter touched Neal’s hand. Neal immediately looked at Peter to see the other teenager smiling at him. Neal couldn’t help returning the smile. Peter’s warmed his heart and gave him incredible feelings, which led him to believe that Peter’s smile was infectious since he couldn’t resist smiling himself. “I don’t mind driving you home afterwards and I’m actually glad you’re hanging around for dinner. You’re going to love my dad’s pot roast.”