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The first thing I noticed when I started to wake up, even before I opened my eyes, was the arms around me.
I opened my eyes to find Kevin right in front of me, facing me.
He was smiling.
This little boy who had been so neglected all of his life was now in a place where he was happy and loved. Even as he slept, he felt it and the joy could clearly be seen in his sleeping face.
As I came more awake, I noticed Ken snuggled against my back.
Even while he's fast asleep he can make me feel completely loved.
Before I could dwell on those thoughts anymore, I noticed a slight discomfort.
My bladder was letting me know that I needed to get up... right now.
I turned myself a little to look at Ken, to wake him to help me when I noticed my wheelchair beside the wall, just a few feet away.
I turned a little more and saw the angelic beauty of Ken as he slept.
'Am I worthy of his love?' I asked myself as I looked at him.
The answer to that question came a lot easier than I would have expected. I'm worthy in Ken's eyes, and that's all that matters.
I looked again at the wheelchair and knew what I had to do.
Maybe I don't have a 'logical' reason that I can explain, but regardless of that, I still knew.
I had to go to the bathroom by myself.
This wasn't something I needed to do for Ken to make him proud of me or to make me worthy in his eyes. This was something I needed to do for myself.
With slow and deliberate movements, I wriggled and scooted so that I could get out of Ken's embrace without waking him.
I don't know how long that took because I was so focused on my task.
I was finally able to scoot myself down enough that my head was by his legs.
Okay, I guess I can't deny that I was tempted to give Ken a 'good morning' while I was down there, but my bladder reminded me that I had more urgent business that needed to be attended to.
Using my hands to pull me, I was able to pivot myself on my hip and ended up about a foot away from my wheelchair.
It had been a little over a year since I had needed to do this for myself. I wasn't entirely sure that my arms were strong enough to handle it.
After dragging myself a little bit closer, I made sure that both the wheels were locked, then I lifted the foot pads to clear the way for me.
As I started to lift myself, I heard movement from behind me.
I froze in place and looked at the sea of naked, sleeping boys.
A pair of eyes was watching me from across the room.
It was Kyle.
There was a part of me that was wishing that he would come over and help me do this because lifting myself with my arms was difficult.
But there was a bigger part that was resolved to do it myself, to prove that I wasn't completely helpless and dependent.
Kyle gave me a slight nod, then put his head back down and closed his eyes.
I smiled at the action, then went back to work, trying to lift myself into the wheelchair.
There were a few times when I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to do it.
My arms weren't used to having to lift my weight anymore and were barely up to the challenge.
It was everything I could do not to grunt and groan at the effort, but I didn't want to take the chance of waking any of the others and ruining my chance to prove that I could do it all by myself.
Finally, with a last burst of effort, I was able to pull myself up to the point that I could just roll a little and my butt would be on the seat.
Once I reached that point there was no stopping me.
I guess I can't call it a habit because I haven't done it for so long, but the process of turning and getting myself settled properly into the chair was almost automatic.
After unlocking my wheels, I turned the wheelchair and made my way out of the room.
* * * * *
"Good morning Rory. Did you sleep well?" Helen asked as I entered the kitchen.
"Yeah. I slept great. Um... where is the bathroom?" I asked shyly, then realized that I was still naked.
Helen didn't even seem to notice that I wasn't wearing any clothes. I guess with all the naked boys in the other room, that she was probably used to it.
"Right over there. Do you need any help?" Helen asked casually.
"I think I can do it myself, but I'll call if I get stuck." I said quietly, trying to sound just as casual as she did.
Helen nodded that she heard as she went back to her breakfast preparations.
* * * * *
I hope whoever designed their bathroom was appreciated for the excellent job that he or she did.
Ever since I've been sick, I've had problems going to the bathroom by myself because the fixtures are usually packed into the bathroom so tightly that I can't get the wheelchair near the toilet.
Whoever designed this bathroom obviously took 'special needs' into account because I had enough room to maneuver. But at the same time, it looked like a normal bathroom, just a little more spacious.
Moving from the wheelchair to the toilet was a little bit tricky. Then again, I suppose moving from the wheelchair to anywhere is.
A knock on the door broke me out of my thoughts.
It was Ken's voice.
I guess I wasn't as sneaky as I thought.
"I'm fine Ken." I said, loving the fact that he came to check on me.
"Um, that's nice, but are you about done? I need to use the bathroom too." Ken said quietly.
"Oh, yeah. Sure." I said quickly as I reached behind me and flushed the toilet.
Ken opened the door and had a beaming smile.
"Just a second." I said as I shifted myself quickly back to my wheelchair.
"Okay. Sorry to interrupt, but I really gotta go." Ken said shyly.
"We bathed together Ken, so it's really no problem." I said as I unlocked the wheels of my wheelchair.
"If you'll hang on for a minute I'll go with you." Ken said as he moved in front of the toilet.
"Sounds good." I said as I rolled over to the sink, then stretched up to turn on the faucet.
As I was washing my hands, I noticed that Ken had finished with his business.
I turned and saw him watching me with such a look of love in his eyes that it nearly made me cry.
'Love you.' He mouthed at me, but I could clearly see his pride for me burning in his eyes.
He must have realized that I had been trying to prove something to myself.
I didn't want to spoil the moment by giving voice to what we both knew, so I quietly asked, "Would you hand me a towel?"
Ken smiled and took a hand towel from beside the sink and handed it to me.
As I dried my hands, Ken quickly washed his.
When he was finished, I held out the hand towel to him.
"Thanks." Ken whispered, then dried his hands and put the towel away.
Ken opened the door, then looked at me with question.
It took me a moment to realize what he was silently asking.
He wanted to know if I wanted him to push my wheelchair.
If it were just about anyone else, I would have decided to do it myself.
"Since we're going the same place, you can drive if you want to." I said quietly, hoping I was interpreting his question correctly.
"Sounds good." Ken said with a smile, then moved behind me to push.
Given my nature, it would be very easy to push Ken away and not let him help me do anything that I could do for myself... and then resent him for the things that I actually did need help with.
It's an ugly thought, but I know that after being out of control of everything in my life for so long, that it would be easy for me to go to the other extreme... except for Ken.
Seeing the joy that he feels from doing such simple things for me keeps me from trying to do everything for myself.
And considering what I just saw, I have no doubt that Ken will completely support me in anything that I do choose to do alone.
He'll be right there with me, cheering me on... being proud of me.
* * * * *
"Would you boys like some juice to get you by until breakfast? It's still going to be a while." Helen asked cheerfully.
"Be right back." Ken whispered from behind me, then rushed away.
Helen looked at me curiously, obviously waiting for an answer.
"Sure. I think we'll both have some juice." I said, then realized that I was still naked.
I was sitting in the kitchen... naked... with a woman I barely knew.
"Here." Ken whispered as he dropped a pair of shorts into my lap.
"Thanks." I said and realized from the prickly sensation on my skin that my face was probably as red as my hair.
"Need any help?" Ken asked as I started to pull the shorts up my legs.
"I think I can get it." I said as I worked the shorts up and up with pulls and tugs.
As soon as I was finished, Ken swooped in and gave me a big kiss.
It lasted longer than I expected and if Helen hadn't placed the glasses of juice on the counter beside us, there's no telling how long or how far it might have gone.
"Good morning." Ken said as he pulled back to look at me.
"Yeah. Good morning." I said as I was lost in his chocolaty brown eyes.
"Since you're up so early, how would you like to help me with breakfast?" Helen asked curiously.
Ken looked at me with question, obviously letting me decide for both of us.
"Yeah. I think we'd both like to help." I said happily.
* * * * *
All I did was mix pancake batter. I don't know if it was that much help, but I really felt good knowing that I was able to do something to contribute to the meal.
When the breakfast was nearly ready, Helen sent us in to start waking up boys and telling them to come and eat.
I don't think she really needed for us to do that. The smell of cooking food obviously reached them before we did and over half of the guys were ready to eat before we entered the room.
What happened next was a blur.
People were coming and going so quickly that it was impossible to keep up with who was doing what.
Kevin, Reuben and Ricardo joined Ken and me as we ate our breakfast.
"Give it a try. I took some of your mother's recommendations and added a few of my own touches." Helen said gently as she placed a plate of food in front of me.
I looked down and noticed that I was getting something different from everyone else.
At first I was disappointed at not being able to eat the same food as the others, but after a few bites, I had completely forgotten.
It was delicious.
My next surprise was when I took a drink of milk.
It wasn't really milk, but it also wasn't the putrid swill that mom usually served me.
The next time Helen walked into the room to resupply the banquet of food in the center of the table I asked her, "What did you give me to drink?"
"That's soy milk." Helen said, and waited for my reaction.
"This is great! It doesn't taste anything like the soy milk that my mom gets me." I said honestly.
"I'm glad you like it. I added a little bit of vanilla so it was a little bit more palatable." Helen said with a happy smile.
A little vanilla? Is that all mom would have had to do to make that hideous glop that I've been drinking taste like this?
Helen really needs to give mom some tips on how to cook.
"How is your food?" Ken asked quietly from beside me.
"It's all great. Even though I know this is health food, it doesn't taste like it. Even the fake eggs are awesome." I said happily.
"Good. Mine is good too." Ken said with a contented smile.
"So Rory, now that you've had some time to think about being the Clan representative on Vulcan, are you feeling a little better about it?" Cory asked casually as he took a seat across the table from me.
I thought for a moment, then said, "Sure. As long as I can call you if I have any questions, I don't think I'll have any problems."
"That's what I had hoped. In the beginning there probably won't be much for you to do. But as people begin to realize that the Clan has someone on Vulcan that they can talk to, you'll start to get busier." Cory said between bites of food.
I nodded, unable to speak around my own mouthful.
"Hey guys. How is everyone doing this morning?" A familiar voice asked cheerfully.
I turned and smiled when I saw Billy standing in the doorway.
"Hey Billy! Everything is great!" Ken answered before I could begin to formulate a response.
Since Ken had said what I would have said if I had been quicker, I just nodded my agreement with his statement.
"Good. I'm glad you had a good time. If you guys don't already have plans this morning, I'd like to go ahead and get the photo shoot started." Billy said cautiously as he looked around the room.
"Well, normally the whole Clan will spend Saturday morning doing something together. It's kind of our time to be together as brothers, but since we really don't have anything planned, I don't see any problem." Sean said, then looked at Cory with question.
Cory smiled and said, "That's right. I have some idea of all the things that Rory needs to do before he leaves for Vulcan, so it would probably be a good idea to get started."
"Thanks guys. Whenever you're ready, we'll go." Billy said casually.
"I think we're almost done. We just need to get dressed." I said as I looked at my nearly empty plate.
"You really don't need to dress too much. The photo shoot is for a clothing company, so you'll be changing clothes all morning." Billy said frankly.
"That sounds kinda fun." Eli said speculatively.
"I'll let you know." I said to him with a grin.
"You finished?" Ken asked quietly from my side.
"Yeah. Let's take our dishes to the kitchen, then we can go get dressed." I said as I picked up my plate.
"We can get that for you." Reuben said from my other side.
"Thanks Reuben, but it will only take me a minute." I said as I stacked mine and Ken's plates in my lap, then gathered our silverware.
"Ready?" Ken asked as he handed me his glass.
I made sure that I had a firm grip on everything, then said, "Yeah."
Ken unlocked my wheels, then pushed me out of the dining room and to the kitchen.
* * * * *
"So did you guys have fun last night?" Billy asked casually as Ken pushed me out to the parking lot.
"Yeah. It was lots of fun. Not only was Rory made a member of the Clan, but Cory asked him to be the Clan's representative on Vulcan." Ken said proudly.
"That's great. I bet that it'll be good for you to have something to do besides just thinking about your treatments." Billy said, then opened the back door of his car.
"Is your trunk big enough for Rory's wheelchair?" Ken asked as he looked at Billy's car curiously.
"I was planning to bungee it to the boot rack. We're just going next door." Billy said as he opened the trunk and pulled out a small canvas bag.
"That's a boot rack? Why do you need a rack for your boots on the back of your car? Do your feet stink that bad?" Ken asked cautiously.
Billy gave a hearty laugh and said, "No Kenny, the boot rack is a rack that is placed on the boot of the car. Boot is another name for trunk."
"Oh. Okay." Ken said shyly as he moved me to the passenger side of the car. He obviously felt that he had just made a fool of himself.
"He never did answer your question about his stinky feet." I whispered into Ken's ear as he helped me into the back seat of the car.
Ken giggled, and I was glad to see that my little joke was enough to get his mind off his misunderstanding.
I turned in my seat and watched as Ken took the wheelchair to the back of the car and helped Billy strap it down.
* * * * *
When Billy got into the car, he had his cell phone out and was dialing.
After a moment of listening, he quickly said, "Marsha? Were you able to get everything lined up?"
I glanced over at Ken to see if he had any idea of who Marsha was.
His puzzled expression was all the answer that I needed.
"Are you serious? I don't ask her to help me for over a month, then just when I need her she goes and gives birth. How inconsiderate." Billy said playfully, then looked over at me and winked.
"Well, is he any good?" Billy asked more seriously, then waited.
"Good point... Well, if he sucks I guess we'll find someway to manage... How long before you get here?" Billy asked, now in a completely 'business' tone of voice.
"That works fine for me. I'll need a few minutes to scout the locations."
"See ya then." Billy said with a smile, then a moment later closed his phone.
"Problems?" Ken asked cautiously.
"Not really. The woman I wanted for make-up is out of action for a month or so. Marsha is going to bring someone with her to do the job. But since I haven't worked with him before, I don't know how he'll work out." Billy said in a distant voice. I got the feeling from his expression that he was plotting out about a dozen different scenarios in his head as he started the car.
"Make-up?" I asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Don't worry about it Rory. Basically all we'll need to do is make sure that you're skin isn't too shiny under the lights. Since you're so photogenic, I doubt that we'll need to do much more than that." Billy said casually.
I looked at Billy uncertainly, not feeling particularly assured by his statement.
"It comes with the job, Rory. Trust me, I know." Billy said frankly.
Of course. Billy was a model before he was a photographer. So he knows exactly what I'm worried about. I may not be able to get over my nervousness completely, but knowing that Billy understands will help me to deal with it.
"Oh, there's one other thing that might make you uncomfortable." Billy said as he glanced over at me.
"What's that?" I asked cautiously.
"Well, since this layout is basically a fashion shoot, you're going to have to change clothes a lot. I don't know how shy you are about your body, but some of the wardrobe changes may be made in the open." Billy said cautiously.
"You mean I'm going to be getting naked in front of a room full of people?" I asked in shock.
"No, no. Not naked, and not a room full. But I may decide to do the same shot with two or three different outfits. It will just make sense for you to change on the spot, you know, change into a different shirt or pants then do the shot again." Billy hurried to explain.
"But I don't have to get naked." I said slowly, wanting to be sure of that one point.
"Not in this shoot. If they were promoting a line of underwear or swim suits, then it might be a different story." Billy said frankly.
"Did you have to get naked in front of people like that?" Ken asked Billy curiously.
"Yeah, a few times. But by the time that I did those shoots, I knew all the crew and felt comfortable enough with them that it wasn't a big problem." Billy said as he pulled up to a huge, beautiful house.
I was so caught up in our conversation that I didn't even notice us approaching this house which could only be described as a mansion.
"You guys might want to stay here for a minute while I make sure that everything is alright for us to set up. I know Chip and Josh said it would be okay, but I don't know if they passed the message along." Billy said before getting out of the car.
"This place is huge." I whispered to Ken as I pressed my face against the window to see all of it.
"Yeah, and it's really pretty inside. This is where Justy, Jamie and Jacob live." Ken said happily.
"Wow. I couldn't imagine what it would be like to live in a place like this." I said in wonder.
You've got to realize, I've spent most of the past year in my bedroom. I would only get to leave to visit the doctor or to do my hydrotherapy.
Being at the Short Compound didn't give me this feeling because I never really felt like it was someone's home. It was more like... I don't know, like it was a lot of people's homes and there was a doctor's office and Federation Youth Services building. It was a compound, just like the name said.
But Southcrest was a home.
A big, huge beautiful home.
The sight of Billy walking around the corner caught my attention and snapped me out of my mental wandering.
He hurried to the car and opened my door before saying, "Chip made sure everyone knew what was going on before he left. So if you guys want, you can go around the house with me and we can pick out a few locations before Kai gets here with the equipment."
"Who's Kai?" Ken asked before getting out of the car.
Billy stood so Ken could hear him and said, "He's a college student who works as my assistant when I shoot locally. He's probably loading up the equipment now."
"Wow, so we've got a make-up person, an assistant... who is Marsha?" Ken asked as he brought my wheelchair around the side of the car.
"She's my agent. She scouts out photography and modeling jobs for me and contacts me if she finds something I might be interested in. She came to me with this fashion shoot about a month ago, but I refused it because I didn't have a decent location or a model with a fresh look." Billy said as Ken helped me into my wheelchair.
I just have to take a moment to mention again how totally cool Billy is.
The way he talked about his work while Ken was helping me into my wheelchair made me feel like I was just a normal, everyday person. Billy doesn't stare or do the wide eyed 'poor little guy' thing that some people do.
He makes me feel normal.
"What kind of a name is Kai?" Ken asked casually as he moved me a few feet from the car, then went back and closed the car door.
"He's Hawaiian." Billy said casually, then looked toward the road and continued, "Here he is now."
Ken turned my wheelchair and we watched as a van pulled up beside Billy's car.
"Did you have any trouble finding the place?" Billy asked with a smile as he walked to the side of the van.
Kai stepped out and I got a good look at him. He was a stout guy, but sort of handsome in an exotic way. His hair was black and sort of long and wavy.
"Are you kidding? I could have found this house the first week that I moved to Orlando. I can't wait to see inside!" Kai said with boyish enthusiasm.
"Then let's go and do a walk through. They're already expecting us." Billy said, then gestured toward the back of the house.
"Hazel suggested that it might be easier for Rory to go in through the patio entrance with his wheelchair." Billy said casually as he started walking.
Kai looked at me and Ken, then timidly said, "Hey guys, I'm Kai. I'll be helping Billy today."
Billy stopped and said, "Sorry about that. Kai, this is Rory and Ken. Rory is going to be the model today... although Ken might be able to step into a shot or two if he wants."
"Cool." Kai said with a warm smile at us both.
* * * * *
"First of all, I'd like to do a few of the main shots in the living room. You know, the more formal stuff. Do you think the piano will be any problem for lighting?" Billy asked as he walked slowly through the room.
"I don't think so. We may need to go indirect to keep the glare down, but we won't know for sure until we set up the shot." Kai said seriously.
Billy nodded, then gestured toward the huge picture window at the front.
"I was thinking that if we can catch a few shots in front of the window before it gets too bright out, it would make a great background." Billy said frankly.
"Yeah. It's a beautiful view. Are you planning to do any outdoor pictures?" Kai asked with interest.
"I'll have to see the clothes before I can decide that. I know generally what the styles will be, but I don't remember each thing. There may be something that needs to be displayed in an outdoor setting." Billy said in slow, careful thought.
"Right... by the way, is JC here?" Kai asked, trying to sound casual.
"No. He and his husband are out of town on their second honeymoon right now." Billy said, then gestured toward the door.
I glanced at Kai in time to see a fleeting look of disappointment ghost across his face.
* * * * *
As we entered the family room, Billy suddenly stopped in front of us.
"Sorry guys. I didn't know anyone but Hazel was here right now." Billy said quickly.
I was surprised to see that one of the people in the room was Vincent.
He seemed to be too busy on the computer to notice that we had entered the room.
"No problem. Joe is walking Vincent through some of the training sims on the Starfleet Simulator. Ethan and I are sort of providing moral support." A young man said casually.
"That's Keith. Commander Dodds is his father." Ken whispered over my shoulder.
Billy glanced around the room, then said, "If it won't be too much of a distraction, we'll probably be doing a quick shoot in here later. It shouldn't take more than a few minutes."
"We probably won't be here that long. Keith is going to take us over to the Starfleet Complex so that Vincent can do some more tests." Joe said cautiously, watching for Vincent's reaction.
"I don't know what else they're going to test. They've already poked and scanned everything that I got." Vincent grumbled without looking away from the computer before him.
"Today they'll be looking at that winning personality of yours." Joe said with a barely restrained smile.
Vincent looked away from the computer long enough to glare at Joe and convey the message that he didn't appreciate the joke made at his expense.
"Come on guys, I want to look at the study, then the dining room before we start hauling stuff in." Billy said with a fond smile directed at Joe and Vincent.
"Good luck on your tests." I said to Vincent quickly as Ken turned my wheelchair.
"Good luck on your pictures." Vincent said in return, then flashed me a quick smile.
I blinked with surprise as Ken pushed me out of the room.
It was the smile of a friend.
The smile only lasted an instant, and yet I seemed to feel it in my heart.
By the time I had come back to my senses, we were in a completely different room.
"Nice room, but I don't know. We'll just have to see if any of the clothes would fit into such a... 'formal' setting." Billy said speculatively.
"We might be able to get kind of a classroom feel over by the computer." Kai said as he moved further into the room.
Billy slowly nodded, then said, "I'll keep it in mind."
* * * * *
As we entered the hall again, a small elderly woman approached and said, "Good morning, Mr. Pierce, was it?"
"Yes Ma'am... I'm sorry but I don't think anyone ever told me your name except to call you 'Aunt Jackie'." Billy said shyly.
Just so you know, Billy looking shy... nice.
The elderly woman chuckled and said, "That's what I expect everyone in my nephew's house to call me. All of you are to call me 'Aunt Jackie'. Do you understand?"
"Yes Aunt Jackie." All of us said obediently.
"Good." She said with satisfaction, then continued, "Chip told me that you were going to be taking some pictures around the house today."
"Yes Aunt Jackie. We were just looking around the different rooms to plan out the shots." Billy said frankly.
"Oh, well have you been up on the balcony yet? It has a lovely view, that might be a good location." Aunt Jackie suggested enthusiastically.
"No, I don't think I've seen that. It'd be worth a look." Billy said frankly.
"Come on, it's right up these stairs." Aunt Jackie said as she began to lead the way.
The bane of my existence.
You don't even know how much easier my life would have been the past few years if I didn't have to put up with stairs... hell, I could have kept my old bedroom.
"Would you mind if I carry you?" Kai asked cautiously.
"Um, yeah. Thanks." I said reluctantly.
God! At times like this I absolutely HATE not being able to walk.
Just when I'm starting to feel good about myself, reality has to show up and kick me in the balls!
I glanced over at Ken with aggravation as Kai carried me up the stairs.
He didn't seem to notice because his eyes were focused on something else.
I followed his gaze and, even though I fought it a little, I began to smile.
Ken was totally checking out my butt.
The expression on his face gave away every single thought that was going through his head.
I'd have to say that it would be completely impossible for me to feel anything less than beautiful with Ken looking at me like that.
As we were walking down the hallway, Aunt Jackie was telling Billy about how this house caught on fire back in 1999.
When we came to the end of the hall, there were double doors that opened out onto a HUGE balcony.
My breath caught in my throat at the expansive view.
"I see what you mean." Billy said as he looked around.
"Would you like to sit down?" Kai asked me gently.
From the stability of his grip and the tone of his voice, I would guess that Kai could have continued carrying me for the next few hours without being bothered by it.
He was simply asking my preference, not hinting at anything.
"No thanks. I don't think Billy will take that long." I said quietly.
After another moment of looking around, Billy finally said, "It's a beautiful view, but I don't think it'll work for this shoot. If the balcony faced to the North, then... maybe."
Jackie was looking at Billy inquiringly.
"The background would be too busy and detract from the point of the picture, which is to display and promote the clothing." Billy said frankly.
Jackie smiled and said, "I like your style Mr. Pierce. I think that if I have need of a photographer, I'll be giving you a call."
Billy chuckled and said, "Please call me Billy, and if you like my work, I'd be happy to do a photo shoot for you sometime."
"I might just take you up on that Billy." Aunt Jackie said as she led the way through the double doors, back into the house.
* * * * *
"Mr. Pierce. There is someone to see you. She is in the living room." Hazel said from the bottom of the stairs.
"Thank you, Hazel." Billy said casually.
"Billy, how long is this going to take? We've been here over 15 minutes and you still haven't taken a picture." Ken asked curiously as we finally reached the bottom of the stairs.
I looked at Billy with question as Kai placed me in my wheelchair.
"Somewhere between one and sixteen hours." Billy said seriously.
Ken's eyes went wide with surprise.
Billy broke into a smile and said, "We've finished scouting the locations, so once everyone gets here we can get started and things will really start to get moving."
Ken automatically moved behind me to push my wheelchair.
"He didn't really give you an answer." I whispered over my shoulder.
"Yeah. Just like with his stinky feet." Ken said, and I could hear the smile in his voice.
* * * * *
"Latisha? God! I haven't seen you for... it must have been a couple years! Where have you been?" Billy asked as he ran to a woman and hugged her.
"My husband got a promotion and transfer to San Antonio so I decided to do the housewife thing for a while." The woman said as she happily returned the hug.
"Since you're back, does this mean you didn't like it?" Billy asked as he released her from the hug.
"I think I made a pretty good go of it. I wasn't miserable or anything. But my husband and I discussed it and decided that it wasn't the type of lifestyle that we wanted. We both missed being able to compare our days and brainstorm over each other's problems. It's like we were losing the ability to relate to each other as equals because the most exciting thing that happened in my day had to do with the size and texture of the lint ball that was clogging the vacuum cleaner hose." Latisha said frankly.
Billy chuckled and seemed to be about to say something when Latisha said, "We may have a problem. Someone must have gotten their lines crossed because there is NO WAY you're going to fit into the clothes I brought."
"I'm not the model, Latisha, I'm the photographer." Billy said with a timid smile.
"Wait. Seriously? Oh, that's wonderful!" Latisha said happily.
"Yeah. And this young man is Rory. He is going to be our model today." Billy said as he gestured toward me.
Latisha looked me over with an appraising eye.
It's funny, in a way I'm kind of used to people staring at me. Or pretending not to look at me. I guess after a while you start to get numb to it.
But the way Latisha looked at me was completely different. It wasn't anything bad, I just wasn't sure how I felt about it.
"His green eyes might be a problem with the b-line and the k-line. It looks like you may have to do some re-touch work." Latisha said professionally.
"It won't be a problem, Tish. His eyes have at least three different colors in them. They change to match just about anything that he's wearing." Billy said happily.
Latisha gave an inelegant snort of amusement, then said, "That's handy."
"That's only the beginning. Just wait until you see the test shots. You won't believe your eyes." Billy said seriously.
"You've got my attention." Latisha said frankly.
"Then I think we can get started. Marsha should be here with the makeup guy by the time we're finished setting up. We're going to do our first few shots in this room." Billy said as he looked around.
That sounded like they were going to start bringing in cameras and stuff, so before they could leave I hurried to ask, "Do you need us to do anything?"
"Yes." Billy said as he looked at me, then broke into a smile as he said, "Sit there and look cute."
I glanced to Ken at my side when I heard his giggle.
"Kenny, you help him. Everyone else, let's get to it."
* * * * *
"Excuse me?" A woman asked from the doorway.
"Hi Grandma Karen." Ken said happily as he unlocked my wheels.
"Hello Kenny. How are you doing this morning?" The elderly woman asked as she moved in to give Ken a warm hug.
"I'm good." Ken said happily, then when she released him from the hug, he continued, "Grandma Karen, this is Rory... my boyfriend."
I smiled at Ken's shyness.
He's just so cute.
"It's nice to meet you, Rory. I'm Karen Chasez, but you can call me Grandma Karen." She said, then swooped in to give me a quick hug.
It was a little weird to have this complete stranger hugging me, but at the same time, it was kind of nice.
"I see that you're in a wheelchair. I hope it's nothing serious." She said as she straightened.
That was blunt.
I can't remember anyone just blurting it out like that, so I couldn't think of what to say to answer her.
Thankfully, my knight in shining armor came to my rescue.
"Rory has a nerve disease thing that makes it so he can't walk, but he'll be going to Vulcan next week and they're going to take care of it." Ken said seriously.
It's hard for me to believe how Ken can make my condition sound no more serious than a broken leg.
It's kind of shocking, actually.
But the most wonderful thing is that I know, without a doubt, that Ken really does see it that way.
He doesn't see the poor little crippled boy in the wheelchair. He just sees me, his boyfriend, who has a condition that will soon be healed.
It's going to take me a while to get used to that.
"Josh was telling me that they were going to be doing a photo shoot here this morning. Are you two here to see that?" Karen asked me with interest.
"Yeah." I said as I looked away.
I couldn't think of any way to explain what was really happening without it sounding like I was bragging.
"Rory is the model for the photo shoot." Ken said proudly.
I love him.
When I hear him say something like that and sounding so proud of me, I absolutely love him.
"Isn't that wonderful. Well, I hope that Billy will allow me to stay and watch for a while. I think watching a professional photo shoot should be interesting." Karen said cheerfully.
Before Ken or I could answer, Kai walked into the room carrying a stack of boxes.
Immediately following him was Latisha carrying a bunch of suit bags. Right on her heels was Billy, loaded down with a bunch of suitcases and laptop bags.
"Tish, I want to do the first shot in front of this magnificent window before we lose the light." Billy said professionally.
"I like it. I have just the outfit for that." Latisha said as she looked out the window.
"Then if you want to start on getting Rory dressed, we'll concentrate on the setup." Billy said quickly as he started opening up his cases.
Latisha looked at me for a moment, then said, "Right. What do you want to do about his wheelchair?"
"It'll be in the shot." Billy said frankly.
Latisha looked at me and it seemed that she had a million things running through her mind at once.
"Can you take that pouch off the back of the wheelchair?" Latisha asked cautiously.
"Sure, it's just held on by snaps." I said quickly.
"I can take it off if you want." Ken offered gently.
"Yes, go ahead. We don't need any clutter in the shot." Latisha said as she opened one of the suit bags, then another, obviously looking for one particular outfit.
"Sorry I'm late. I hope I haven't held you up." A woman said as she hurried into the room.
"No, you're right on time. I was just about to get started." Latisha said with a smile.
"Troy! Front and center! It's time for you to earn it." The woman called out into the hallway.
"Oh Marsha, you haven't changed a bit." Latisha said with a giggle as she walked over to me, carrying clothes on a hanger.
"Why should I change what works?" Marsha said happily, then turned to the door and called, "Troy! Get your bony butt in here!"
A guy rushed into the room carrying something that looked like a tackle box. I was surprised at how young he looked.
"Who am I doing?" The young man asked frantically.
"Him." Latisha said as she gestured toward me, then continued, "Get yourself organized and be ready to jump in as soon as he's dressed."
"Right." Troy said nervously.
"You're not ready yet? We're going to lose the light at this rate." Billy said as he rushed back into the room.
With everything going on, I didn't see him leave.
"Can you get that shirt off while I get this ready?" Latisha asked me, drawing my attention away from Billy.
"Do you need any help?" Ken asked quietly.
Before I could answer, Latisha said, "Pants too."
"I'll get the shirt if you'll get the pants." I said as I started to take off my shirt.
"I like the sound of that." Ken said as he knelt down in front of me.
After pulling off my shirt, I looked down at Ken who was unbuttoning my pants and said, "Maybe I should have you do the shirt next time. Seeing you down there might give us both some ideas that we shouldn't be having."
I heard a chuckle from behind me and began to blush when I saw Grandma Karen smiling at me.
"There'll be time for that later. Let Latisha help you dress." Billy said quickly as he set up a tripod.
As soon as Ken had the pants off my legs, Latisha nudged him out of the way and started putting a pair of khaki pants on me.
"Do you need me to help?" Ken asked quickly.
"No." Latisha said as she somehow seemed to put my pants on without even lifting me. She was moving so fast that I couldn't keep up with what was going on.
"Not bad." She muttered under her breath.
I glanced at Ken with question, only to receive a shrug in reply.
"Hold your legs still while I do this." Latisha said absently as she pulled a box of pins out of her pocket.
"No problem." I said, trying to keep the chuckle out of my voice.
"I'm ready here." Billy said as he did something quickly on his laptop.
"One minute." Latisha said, then I felt a jab in my leg.
"Ouch!" I said automatically.
"I told you to hold still." Latisha said harshly.
"I'm paralyzed. I couldn't move it if I wanted to." I said, not very nicely, as I felt my 'red headedness' rising.
Latisha froze, and from the expression on her face, she was mortified at the mistake she had made.
Up to now I suppose she had been treating me like any other model, but now that I've pointed out my condition, she was probably going to treat me like some 'poor little thing' and be awkward around me.
I don't want to be pitied. I think you know that about me by now.
I'm just not used to censoring what I say before I say it. I don't know if it's because I'm not that used to being around people, or maybe it's my red hair.
For whatever reason, now that I've slipped up, I've made it so that I'll be treated like a crippled 'non-person' by her for the rest of the day.
"I finally have proof that it isn't the model's fault. You stuck me enough times and always blamed it on me." Billy said with triumph.
Latisha blinked at the words, then her horrified expression reluctantly gave way to an amused smile.
"In your case, it always was your fault, you hyper little shit." Latisha said with a chuckle as she began buttoning my shirt, back to full speed.
"I can do that if you want." I offered uncertainly, feeling bad for putting her in the awkward position to begin with.
"It'll be faster if I do it." Latisha said without slowing down.
Billy's little joke had diffused the situation and she was back to her former attitude.
Although he may act like he's carefree and just living in the moment, I think that he's a lot deeper than he lets on.
In an instant, he determined the problem and found exactly what to say to put things back to right.
"She's right, Rory. Just let her get the clothes on you and pinned the way she wants them so we can get this shot." Billy said professionally while fussing over his equipment.
Hearing Billy use such a professional tone brought me back to the right frame of mind.
"Just let me know if you need me to do anything." I said quietly.
"Hold on..." Latisha said in concentration as she took a step back.
After a moment to look me over, she continued, "I think that's it."
* * * * *
"Do you want me to do something about those freckles?" Troy asked with a nervous tone in his voice.
"Just keep him from getting shiny under the lights. If I need you to do something more, I'll tell you." Billy said as he seemed to be checking to see that he had everything that he needed.
"I think you're going to need a gel on the lighting." Kai said, seemingly oblivious to what anyone else was doing.
"Do you think so?" Billy asked with surprise.
"Just a little yellow to bring out the golden hue of his hair." Kai said in a considering tone.
Billy looked at me for a moment, then said, "Go get it. I'll do some shots with and some without and we'll decide which is better when we look at the prints."
Kai nodded, then rushed out of the room.
"Are you alright?" Troy whispered as he started to apply powder to my face.
"Yeah, I'm fine." I said as I looked up into his eyes, then cautiously asked, "How about you?"
Troy gave me a timid smile, then whispered, "This is my first real job since I got out of cosmetology school. Aunt Marsha said I only get this one chance so I'm kinda scared to death."
I couldn't help but smile at the nervous admission.
"Billy is really cool. Just listen to what he says and you shouldn't have any problems." Ken said from over my shoulder.
Troy nodded that he heard, then backed away to look at my face critically.
"I think we're ready to do it. Rory, move over to the window and face me." Billy said with intense concentration.
As I reached down to release my brakes, I encountered Ken's hand doing the same.
"Sorry." Ken whispered.
I smiled up at him and said, "I'll let you drive if you want. I'm probably going to need to focus on holding poses and stuff."
"Sure. I got it." Ken said warmly, then moved my wheelchair over to the window.
"How are you going to deal with the wheelchair?" Marsha asked as she walked to Billy's side.
"I'm not." Billy said frankly, then stepped over to me and held up a little gizmo, just over my head.
I don't know much of anything about photography, but I think what he was doing was checking the light level with a light meter.
"You ready for the gel?" Kai asked as he rushed back into the room.
"Not yet, I'm going to get a few shots without, then you can set it up." Billy said, then squatted down a little to look through his digital camera.
"Tish, are the clothes to your liking?" Billy asked without looking away from the camera display.
Latisha took a moment to look me over, then said, "Yes. Having a model who will stay in the position you put him makes my job a lot easier."
"Enjoy it while you've got the chance." Billy said with a chuckle, then in a more serious tone he continued, "Everyone stand back. It's time."
* * * * *
We went through that same routine, over and over again for hours.
I have no idea how many rolls of film Billy used, but it had to be over a dozen.
Change the clothes, change the lights, chin up, look right... I guess you just had to be there to get an idea of how mind numbingly boring it could be.
Billy must have noticed because just when it seemed like I couldn't stand it anymore, he'd take a break and let me and Ken have a few minutes to relax.
The freakiest thing that I discovered after going through all of this was... modeling is work!
I've gained so much respect for the people who do this for a living.
It's not like I'm saying that I regret doing this or anything like that, but I don't know if I could do this all the time... you know, as a job.
But as boring as it was for me, I know it must have been even worse for Ken.
He was right there with me every step of the way, but all the attention was directed at me.
I'm so glad he was there with me. I don't know if I could have held my 'red headedness' back without him.
But if Latisha sticks me with one more pin, I am going to run over her toes.
* * * * *
"Mister Billy, I have prepared a buffet style lunch on the patio for you and your guests." Hazel said from the study doorway.
"You what?" Billy asked as he looked up from his camera, then looked down at his watch.
"Crap! I didn't realize it was so late." Billy said with aggravation, then looked over at Hazel with apology.
"That was very kind of you, Hazel. I really didn't expect for you to feed us. Thank you." Billy said quietly, then looked around at everyone in the room.
Hazel smiled at the sincere thanks, then rushed out.
"That's it, folks. Let's go have lunch and we'll pack this up when we get back." Billy said as he started turning off his electronics.
"That's all of it?" Latisha asked cautiously.
"We've done the whole clothing line, haven't we?" Billy asked frankly, then gestured toward the door.
Latisha considered for a moment, then reluctantly said, "Twice, I think."
"Right. So we can go through and cherry pick the best shots for each style." Billy said frankly.
Ken automatically moved my wheelchair so we were following Billy and Latisha out of the room.
"Besides, I have another appointment in just over an hour. I don't think taking more pictures would produce anything better than what we've already got." Billy said casually.
Latisha nodded slowly as she considered his words.
"And Billy's model isn't going to look 'morning fresh' if the shoot goes much longer. Troy did a great job, but I wouldn't want to put him to the test of trying to make an exhausted model look rested." Marsha said as she moved to Billy's other side.
Billy glanced around and found Troy tagging along behind us.
"Good job, Troy." Billy said and gave him a thumbs up.
I twisted around to see his reaction and saw Troy break into a proud smile.
As we approached the patio door, Hazel ran up to our group and said, "Mister Billy, there is a phone call for you. It is Mister Chip."
Billy seemed to be surprised for a moment, then he broke into a smile.
"Come on, guys. this might be good." Billy said to me and Ken, then followed Hazel out of the room.
* * * * *
We ended up in the study.
I knew it was the study because we had spent some time in here earlier, taking a few dozen pictures.
Billy picked up the phone and pressed the button to take it off 'hold'.
"Chip. Is it okay if I put you on speaker phone? I've got Rory and Kenny here with me." Billy asked as he glanced at us with a smile.
He must have said 'yes' because Billy hit a button on the phone, then hung up the handset.
"So Chip, what do you think of the vacation spot that we picked out for you two?" Billy asked with a big smile.
"If you would have asked me that when we found out that we were going to Branson, Missouri, I would have said that all of you were nuts." Chip said frankly.
"And now?" Billy asked knowingly.
There was a moment of silence, then Chip responded in a quieter voice, "There are special moments that are of such importance that we carry them with us for the rest of our lives."
Ken and I looked at each other with surprise at the serious statement.
"Last night, I had one of those moments and it was thanks to you, Mona, Allen and Brady." Chip continued.
"We found the tickets to the show when we arrived at the hotel room, but we didn't look to see exactly what it was. After sightseeing and dinner and what-not, we remembered the tickets just in time to make it to the show."
"We were having a great time, relaxing and enjoying the music and the atmosphere when they announced the next band... an *N Sync tribute band." Chip said distantly.
"I thought Josh was going to fall out of his seat from the shock of it." Chip said in a chuckle, then continued more seriously, "The tribute band did a great job. It really was a 'tribute' and I don't think I've ever seen Josh so moved by anything. He couldn't have been more proud if he had been receiving an award."
"I'm glad. That show was what made us finally decide on Branson as your honeymoon destination." Billy said warmly.
"It's perfect. After the show, Josh and I spent some time backstage with the tribute band. I could tell that it meant the world to them that Josh appreciated their performance." Chip said thoughtfully.
"I hope the rest of your weekend is just as enjoyable." Billy said with a smile.
"I think it will be. I remembered that you'd be at Southcrest doing the photo shoot this morning, so while I had a minute, I wanted to be sure to call and thank you... and please pass on my thanks to your co-conspirators." Chip said with a smile evident in his voice.
"Sure thing." Billy said with a chuckle.
"Josh is ready, gotta go. Bye." Chip said in a rush.
"Bye." Billy said, then looked at Ken and me.
We both said 'bye', then Billy hit the button to disconnect the call.
Ken and I looked at Billy with question.
"I'll explain after lunch." Billy said with a grin at us, then gestured toward the door.
* * * * *
I'm glad Hazel had a buffet style meal for us because that let me pick out some 'healthy' things to eat.
Okay. I admit that I was tempted.
But the price that I would have to pay for 'being bad' was too high. One stupid choice could end up destabilizing my condition so that Solak couldn't treat me when I got to Vulcan.
The chocolate cake didn't look quite as good after I thought about that.
Ken and I both made our selections from the buffet, then I carried our plates while Ken pushed me over to the patio tables.
Before we could choose one, Kai was motioning for us to join him.
"Kai, do you think you can handle breaking everything down by yourself?" Billy asked casually as he also joined us at Kai's table.
"Sure, no problem." Kai answered quickly.
"Good. I'm a little behind schedule so I won't be able to hang around for the break down." Billy said seriously, then seemed to remember something.
"Excuse me guys. I'll be right back." Billy said, then fished a cell phone out of his pocket.
As Billy hurried away, Ken and I looked at Kai.
None of us really had any idea of what to say.
Finally Kai hesitantly said, "I think your photo shoot went really well."
"Do you really think so?" I asked hopefully, then hurried to explain, "It was my first one, so I didn't know if it was going right or not."
Kai smiled and said, "You did great, the clothes looked good, Billy is a fantastic photographer, and this house... I can't believe that Billy got permission to shoot here. It's like the perfect backdrop. Elegant and stylish without being stuffy. It's exactly the right mood to promote the quality and style of the clothing."
I considered Kai's words carefully.
There was a lot more to this than just taking pretty pictures.
Before the conversation could continue, Billy hurried back to the table.
"I think I've got everything worked out now." Billy said in a rush as he took his seat.
After taking a bite of his food, he noticed that all of us were looking at him with question.
Billy smiled, then hurried to swallow his bite of food before saying, "The limo should be here to pick us up in about... ten minutes."
I didn't know anything about a limo, and from the surprised look on Ken's face, neither did he.
"We're going to the airport to pick up some people, then we're going to Kenny's old house." Billy said as he glanced at Ken.
"My old house?" Ken asked cautiously.
"Yeah. Allen sold it to me so my friends will have a place of their own. It's being remodeled." Billy said to Ken, then looked at me and said, "Deacon and Lawrence will be coming with him."
"Okay." I said, not knowing what to think about this new development.
"So basically, Allen will pick you up at the house and take you back over to his place, or back to Rory's house... you can decide what you want to do after that."
I thought about it, then nodded.
My parents had a lot of things planned for me to do, so this would work out fine.
And Ken and I would get the chance to ride in a limo... how kewl is that?
"So you guys had better finish up so we can get Rory changed back into his own clothes." Billy said frankly.
I looked down at myself and was surprised to see that I was still wearing one of the outfits that Latisha had dressed me in.
"I'll see that everything here is taken care of. JC won't even know that we were here." Kai said seriously, breaking me out of my thoughts.
Billy smiled and said, "Thanks, Kai. And when JC gets back to Orlando, I'll see if I can arrange for you to meet him."
"That'd be great." Kai said timidly as he looked down at his plate.
I felt movement on my arm, then saw that Ken was holding his hand out to me.
I took hold of his hand and held it firmly as I looked into his eyes.
'Love you', he mouthed silently.
I mouthed, 'Love you' in return and reveled in the peace and tranquility of the moment.