Hey everyone. It looks like we're finally here: the final chapter of 'Could I Be...?' This story has taken me four months to complete and all 453 pages and all 192,000 words have been worth it. I owe this story to all of you that have given the your wonderful support. Thank you all.

When I was writing 'Am I...?', I never expected myself to write a sequel to the story of Josh and Leo, but you all convinced me to write the story of Eric and Zane, and I'm incredibly grateful for that.

Let me know what you've thought of the story of Eric and Zane. Comments and emails are always read and appreciated. Thank you all again. I've already started to work on 'Is It Possible...?', which is starting with a prologue that leads up to the main story. I'm hoping to post the first chapter in two weeks, but if I don't post a new chapter, please understand.

Thank you all one more time. Here's the final chapter of 'Could I Be...?'

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Epilogue

Goddamn, my shoulder is killing me. Nine straight innings of throwing and it feels like my arm is about to fall off. But I suck down the pain and focus on the dark center of the brown leather glove that's calling out to me. I pick up my leg and let my screaming shoulder rotate forward and the ball leaves my fingertips.

A second later, I hear the sweet sound of leather colliding with leather. "Strike!" the umpire yells. "You're out!"

The crowd roars and Ben Judi, a Yankee, takes his bat and jogs back to his dugout. Two more outs and we've won. I gaze around the stadium and see orange, black, and white filling the seats, the fans cheering at the top of their lungs. I see my teammates ready for whatever comes their way, pure determination in their faces.

My catcher motions to the umpire, who holds his hands up and steps back from the plate. I sigh to myself, thankful for a bit of a break. "How you holding up, Swanson?" Jack asks with his glove over his face.

"My arm is fucking on fire, Jack," I say, holding my glove over my own face. "I'm not sure how much longer I can hold out."

"Yeah, I can tell. And I think the Yankees are noticing it too."

I glance over at the Yankee dugout and see the team members talking to one another and looking at me with a knowing look. "Damn," I whisper. "We need to end this quickly."

"Do you think you'll be able to throw another few pitches?"

"I'll have to. We're up by one right now and there are runners on second and third. If they get a good hit, they win the game. So we need to end this."

Jack lowers his glove, grins, and holds out his fist for me and I bump it. He jogs back to home plate and gets back into his position. The next Yankee batter steps up to the plate and takes a few practice swings. Jack gives me the sign for a curveball and I nod once. I rotate my shoulder once and stand on my plate, feeling my fingers find the right grip on the ball.

I take in a deep breath and pick up my leg and let my arm fly forward. The ball sails out of my hand and flies toward the plate. It starts to dip just before getting to the plate and it sails into the glove of Jack without the Yankee swinging for it. "Strike!" the umpire calls.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I catch the ball as Jack tosses it back. Just five more strikes and we've won. The roar of the crowd shakes my body with nervousness and excitement, but the excitement clouds the nervousness. I mean, we're just five good pitches away from winning the World Series! My body shakes again at the words.

Jack punches his glove twice before holding it open and giving me the sign for a change-up. I glance at the batter and see he's completely focused on me and not the ball in my hand, so a change-up is a good choice. My fingers surround the ball and I stand up straight and tall, feeling more than eighty thousand eyes on me.

Ready for whatever's coming next, I tighten the ball and raise my leg. My foot slams onto the mound and my arm flies forward, blood rushing to the tips of my fingers as I release the ball. The ball's speed quickly drops and the batter starts to swing his bat. Just as I think the ball's about to land in Jack's glove, I hear a wooden crack.

Time slows to a crawl and I see the ball start to move in my direction. Pure instinct taking me over, my body jumps back and I raise my gloved hand in front of my chest. Less than a second later, I feel a hard thud in my glove and I manage to keep my footing. I feel the ball in glove and I quickly reach for it.

I gaze at the runners and see they're still on their bases. The stadium erupts in cheers and yells at the knowledge that we only need one more out. The Yankee who hit the ball, Diego Cruz, takes his bat and heads back to the Yankee dugout and the next batter comes out and heads to the plate.

I raise my head to the sky and scream at the top of my lungs. "ONE MORE OUT!!"

My teammates follow my war cry with each of their own and the crowd does the same. The Yankee batter, Arnold Gobs, steps into the batter's box and watches me with fire in his eyes. This kid's a rookie who started at the beginning of the season and has done some pretty great things, but his time to shine will come on a later date. Right now, I'm here to win.

I stand firmly on the plate and I scratch my left cheek with my finger. Jack punches his glove in response, exactly like he did before. What everyone in this stadium doesn't know is that what we both just did is a sign that we both came up with a long time ago and that what we're about to do has such a risk with it that we can only do it when we're desperate.

Jack gives me a fake sign for a fastball and gives me a second sign that I recognize that tells me the Yankee on second is leading off the base. I see in my peripheral that the Yankee on third is leading off a good amount too. Jack readies himself and I get my arms and legs ready for the coming play.

Just as it seems like I'm about to throw the ball toward home, I pivot on my heel and take a step toward second base and feel my arm start to rotate toward second. The Yankee, Ian Helix, dives back for second and my teammate, Satoshi Nakamura, holds his glove open for the ball. Ian slides back into second and Satoshi looks around frantically for the ball.

Right on cue, the Yankee on third, Carter Meyer, sprints for home. The stadium erupts in screams of protest, but everything's going according to plan. I quickly spin back to face home and see Arnold has moved out of the way for his teammate, cheering him on, and Jack is still in the exact same position as before.

I tighten the grip on the ball that still sits in my hand and bring my arm back behind me again. Carter is about hallway home when he sees I'm still holding the ball and his face pales at seeing it. My shoulder spins forward as a blinding speed and I feel the leather burning my fingers as it rockets toward Jack's awaiting glove.

The beautiful thump of the ball in Jack's glove fills my ears and he turns toward the third base line and holds the glove with the ball in front of his chest. Carter charges as fast and hard as he can at Jack and their bodies collide a second later, both of them landing in the dirt as a cloud of dust flies up.

As the dirt settles, I see Carter's hand on the plate. But as I look at Jack, I see him holding his glove above his chest and the white ball is still tightly clutched in Jack's glove. The umpire tightens his hand into a fist and holds it high above his head. "YOU'RE OUT!!"

Me, all of my teammates, and every fan in the stadium explode. I throw my glove high in the air and charge for home plate, where Jack is rising back to his feet. He holds his arms open for me with a gigantic grin on his face and I run into them. Our teammates surround us both and within a second, there's a giant huddle of orange, white, and black on the field.

The stadium is going crazy with all the fans in the stadium screaming at the top of their lungs. I feel myself being lifted above my teammates and see Jack on their shoulders as well. The screams and cheers of joy continue and I see fans pouring out onto the field. They surround all of us and join us in the celebration.

As I cheer, there's a single voice I can make out. "Eric!"

I look down and I grin at the man I'm looking at. Zane returns my grin and one of his and my teammates hoist him up as well and I pull him into a tight hug before giving the hardest kiss I've ever given him in my life. I try to start to talk to him, but my teammates start to carry me in the opposite direction of Zane.

I watch Zane be set back down on the field. "Zane!" I call to him. "I'll meet you back at the apartment in about an hour and a half!"

"Okay! I love you, Eric!"

He smiles at me and is swept into the crowd a second later. I continue my celebration with my teammates, hugging all of them and cheering along with them. Once the energy manages to ease just a tad, we all thank the Yankees for a good series and I exchange a few good words with several of them before going back to my teammates.

Within no time, I'm back in the locker room with my teammates and coaches popping bottles of champagne and letting them soak every surface of the room there is. As the high from winning starts to calm down, the river of reporters and photographers starts to pour into the room, the flashes from the camera temporarily blinding us all.

But we regain our composure and slip on our 2022 World Series Champions t-shirts and caps and pose for the cameras. Jack and I stand close to one another and grin broadly for photographers, both of our faces dripping in champagne. As I smile for all the cameras, I start to remember everything that's gotten me here.

Yeah, it's 2022 and in case you hadn't noticed, Jack and I are Giants. The Giants recruited Jack a few months before he graduated Stanford and he accepted the deal Randy offered him almost immediately (with the exception of being able to play in the 2015 College World Series).

I graduated Stanford a little more than five years ago with a degree in business law and a minor in economics (just so I can stay safe after my career with the Giants eventually ends nowhere in the near future), and a bit of new muscle and height, finally stopping at six foot four and two hundred and five pounds, but my physical appearance has stayed pretty much the same.

Although I look a bit older and am 27 now, I still have the same hairstyle I did back in college, I keep a permanent five o'clock shadow on my face, and my eyes are the same brown color they've always been. After graduation, I went right back into training with the Giants and, just two months after I started training, I was the starting pitcher.

Jack, who had been training with the Giants for the two years we weren't playing together, was the backup catcher when I first came back. But after a bit of negotiation with Coach Mersin, the Giants head coach, he relented and allowed Jack to start in a game. The second the game ended Coach Mersin made Jack the starting catcher.

Ever since, he and I have always played together. If one of us was out, the other was out too. And if one of us was on the field, the other was on the field too. Jack and I were named the best Pitcher/Cather duo in the nation four years running, and we're projected to keep that title until one or both of us step down from baseball.

The camera flashes start to ease and as I start to regain my vision, a hand falls onto my shoulder. I turn and see Coach Mersin standing next to me. Coach Mersin is a man in his mid-fifties with absolutely no hair on his head (which he always hides with a cap, to no avail), a few wrinkles nest to his eyes and mouth, and is about half a foot shorter than me.

He gets close to my ear so I can hear him over the noise. "Swanson, there's a request for a press conference for you."

"Really?" I ask. "Jack too?"

"There's a separate one for him. C'mon. Can't keep the reporters waiting."

Coach Mersin weaves us through the locker room and we make it to the press conference room connected to the locker room. Within a second, the reporters start screaming questions and the camera flashes return. I just smile and walk over to my seat with a dozen microphones positioned in front of me.

I look out at the sea of reporters and point to a woman a few rows back. The noise quickly quiets down and everyone pays close attention to me. "Erica Belle," the woman says. "Fox Sports Network. First off, I'd like to say congratulations on your World Series win."

"Thank you," I reply.

"Now, what does it feel like to have won the World Series?"

"This is probably one of the greatest days of my life. I've wanted to win a World Series ever since I was 6 years old, and now that I've finally done that is unbelievable. I'm on cloud nine right now and there's now way my mood can be ruined now."

With that answer, the other reporters find their voices again and scream for me to choose them. I point to a man in the front row and the noise dies again. "Paul Daniels," the man says. "ESPN. About that last play you did with Jack Christian, how did you two accomplish something like that?"

I smile to myself. "Jack and I had been planning that play for some time now. It took us a lot of time to get it exactly right and it's only possible under the circumstances that we were under. But Jack and I needed complete trust in one another, him to trust me that I would throw the ball right to him and me to trust him that he would catch the ball. And it looks like we trusted each other perfectly."

And cue the reporters again. I point to a woman in the middle of the room. "Samantha Crosstie," he says. "People Magazine. During the celebration after your victory, you kissed another man. Was that Zane Mercer?"

My smile relaxes into an easy one. "Yes, it was. As many of you know, Zane Mercer is my boyfriend of exactly nine years today. Yes, I do count the days. He and I are very happy together, very much in love and, despite our busy schedules, are as close as two people can be."

"How is Zane doing, if I might ask?"

"He's doing amazingly well. He has a gallery showing in Los Angeles in a few days and I'm extremely proud of him. I'm going to be there and I'll be supporting him the entire time, even if I embarrass him by making myself look like an idiot. That's all I'm saying on the gallery. If you want to know more, you'll have to go and see it."

The reporters smile and laugh a bit before yelling more questions at me. I'm about to choose another reporter when my reflexes suddenly kick in. My hand reaches up in front of my face just in time to catch a thrown water bottle. Looking at where it came from, I see a man who appears to be in his mid-forties with slightly greying black hair, a tall, muscular frame covered by a suit, and an angry look on his face at the back of the room.

Within seconds, two security guards swarm the man on both sides and hold him tightly by the arms. The reporters and cameramen turn toward the man, capturing every second of him struggling against the security guards. "Faggots should stay off the field and burn in Hell!" the man yells at the top of his lungs.

Yeah, it's 2022 and we still have people like that in the world. Don't get me wrong. I never expected the attitudes of Americans to change overnight ever since I first started with the Giants, but it still kind of hurts to hear people directing words like that toward me. The commotion in the room gets louder and louder and I see the security guards trying to pull the man toward the exit doors.

But I lean forward toward all the microphones. "Wait," I say. "Security, please wait a minute." Everyone turns to me with pure confusion on their faces. "Could you please bring that man toward the front of the room? I'd like to talk to him."

A quiet whisper goes throughout the room and the cameras follow the security guards as they carry the still struggling man toward the front of the room. After a bit of effort, they manage to pull him to a stop on the other side of the desk and microphones. He and I stare at each other in silence for several second, his face seething.

I set the water bottle down in front of me and look back at the man. "Did you throw this at me?" I ask, gesturing to the bottle.

"So what if I did? Faggots like you deserve to burn in Hell."

I sigh to myself. "But seriously? A water bottle? You could've done a lot more damage with your cell phone. This bottle isn't even half full."

The reporters and cameramen chuckle a little, but the man seems to get a bit angrier. "You want to say that to my face, faggot?" he snarls.

I scoot my chair back and rise out of it. "Actually, yes. I do. I feel a bit awkward with all of these microphones in front of me." Several more security guards rush out of nowhere, but I hold my hand up and they all stop. "Don't worry. I'll be fine."

They all nod and go back to where they came from. I step off the stage and my cleats find the carpet. I walk over to the man and two security guards holding him. "You can let go of him," I say to the security guards. "He looks to be in a bit of pain from the way you're holding him."

The security guards glance at one another before slowly letting go, ready to grab him at any moment. Now, it's just me and the man. "May I ask how you got in here?" I ask.

The man rubs his upper arm, where one of the security guards was holding him. "I snuck in when no one was looking," he says. "I'm here on business and I just...stopped by."

"Now, back to what I was saying a minute ago. Why throw a water bottle that had barely any water in it? If you really hated gay people, you would've thrown something a lot heavier. So why didn't you?"

I see the man turn a light shade or red. "B-Because the Bible condemns violence against others! 'The LORD trieth the righteous; but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth.' Psalms 11:5. "

I nod understandingly. "I know that verse. I've read the Bible a few times myself, although I'm not a religious person. It was mainly out of curiosity. But didn't the Bible also say 'The mouth of the righteous is a well of life; but violence coverth the mouth of the wicked.'? Proverbs 10:11. The Bible condemns verbal violence as well as physical violence."

The man turns a darker shade of red. "May I ask for your name?" I ask.

"J-John. John Marshall."

"John, why is it you find gay people so horrible?"

John's teeth clench together. "Because it says so in the Bible! 'If a man lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them'! Leviticus 20:13!"

I nod again. "Yes, the Bible does say that. But John, do you hate gay people because of who they are? Or is it that you just don't agree with the actions they engage in when they're in the bedroom? John, remember that the pornography industry today glorifies lesbian porn. And I can say with confidence that you've watched lesbian porn more than once."

John face suddenly blanches and he looks to be at a loss for words. "John," I continue, "also try to remember that this isn't ancient times. It's the twenty-first century. The attitudes of people have changed and the world is becoming a much more accepting place. Can't you see that you're spreading hate with your words?

"Couldn't you be spreading words of love and acceptance instead? Remember 'He who is without sin cast the first stone.' John 8:7. 'Love thy neighbor as yourself.' Mark 12:31. 'Do unto others as you would have done to you.' Luke 6:31."

I start to see John's face fill with what appears to be a hint of shame. "Tell me, John. Do you have kids?"

He glances at me before tuning his head away. "I have a son: Thomas. He's two days away from turning 17."

"Let me ask you this: what kind of example do you think you're setting for your son by acting like this?" John's mouth opens a little, but not a single word comes out. "Do you love your son, John?"

His head snaps to me. "Of course I do! He's my son! I'll always love him!"

I breathe in a deep breath, take a step closer to John and lower my voice so the reporters and microphones can't pick it up. "Even if he were to tell you he was gay?"

John's breath stops short and he stares at me like a deer in headlights. "M-My son can't be gay..." he quietly says.

I notice a slight change in John's eyes. It looks like he's unsure of what I'm saying, debating my last comment in his head. I take a step back and look at the reporters. "Could you all please leave the room for the next ten minutes? I need to have a private word with John here. We can pick up the press conference when we're done."

The security guards start to lead the reporters and cameramen outside the room and after a minute, there's no one but John and me. "It's good to know you got that anonymous invitation," I say. "I was worried you wouldn't show up."

John snaps his head to me. "How did you know that?!"

I just smile innocently at the question. "And you haven't answered my question, John," I say. "Would you still love your son even if he were gay?"

John takes a seat in one of the reporter chairs and rubs his palms against his face, clearly unable to come up with an answer. I walk over and take a seat next to him. "You're scared that you might not love your son anymore if here were gay, aren't you?" I ask.

"I-I don't know. I love Thomas more than anything. His mother passed away when he was 4 years old after a car accident. He and I only have each other..."

"I'm sorry to hear that, John."

He turns to me. "B-But how do you even know if Thomas is gay or not? You've never even met him!"

"No, I've never met him in person before, but he has talked to me."

John's eyes widen and his mouth hangs open. "What? How?"

I reach behind me and slide my hand into the back pocket of my uniform pants and pull out a small, folded-up, paper square. I carefully unfold it and reveal it to be two stapled pieces of paper. "I got this letter from a fan about a month and a half ago," I say. "It was signed by a Thomas Marshall, who is a soccer player that attends Foresthill High School in Long Beach. Is that your Thomas?"

John's face goes white again. "Y-Yes..." he quietly says.

"Thomas sent me this letter and when I first read it, I almost wanted to go to his house and talk to him personally. But when I read the circumstance he was in, I decided against it."

"What circumstance?"

"How about I read you what Thomas wrote to me? And afterword, I'll ask you again if you'd still be able to love your son if he were gay."

I look at the start of the letter and take in a deep breath. 'Dear Eric. My name is Thomas Marshall and I am probably one of your biggest fans (or at least I feel that I am). Ever since I first saw you step onto the baseball diamond five years ago, I've been inspired by how you play and it made me want to become a better athlete. Well, I'm a soccer player, but I still wanted to play better.

'When I first found out you were gay, I was so surprised that I didn't think it was true. I didn't think it was possible for a gay guy to be able to play. Yeah, I know Josh Rusden's gay too, but that's a different story for a different day. Eric, I think of you as my idol and you inspire me to try and work my hardest at everything I do, and it's really paid off over the years.

'I'm the top-ranked student in my grade at my high school, I'm the captain of my varsity soccer team, and I volunteer at a local animal shelter on the weekends and help out at my church youth group once a week. My dad always tells me he's proud of me and my accomplishments, but I keep feeling like I'm lying to him because of what I'm hiding.

'To be honest, my dad doesn't like you because you're gay and he doesn't know that I'm such a big fan of yours. I'm actually afraid to tell him that all I really want for my birthday in a little more than a month is a jersey with 'Swanson' on the back. But if I were to tell him that, I'm scared of how he'll react.

'Don't get me wrong. My dad has never raised his hand to me in all of my life and is probably one of the greatest dad's in the world to me and I love him more than anything. But he's never been a fan of gay people, and I don't think he ever will be. He's super-religious and I always hear him talking to his friends over the phone about how all gays should burn in Hell for their sins. And whenever I hear him talking like that, I want to pull my hair out and scream at the top of my lungs.

'You can see where I'm going with this, can't you, Eric? I'm telling you I'm gay too and that I'm too scared to come out of the closet to my dad. My dad's the only person I have left in the world. My mom died when I was little and it's always been him and me. If he were to kick me out, disown me, or stop loving me because I'm gay, I'd be crushed.

'Even worse, I'm even more afraid about him finding out about me through someone else. A lot of my friends know about me and they're all okay with it, especially my best friend, Cody. He's a soccer player with me, a wrestler, and we've been best friends since we were in kindergarten. And he's...the epitome of handsome.

'He's about two inches taller than me, about six foot one, with wavy dark brown hair, a really nice body from constant hours at the gym, and probably the most beautiful smile I have ever seen in my life. He was the first guy I came out to and, to my surprise, he kissed me, told me he's been out to his parents for three months already and we've been secretly dating for the last six months.

'He and I aren't afraid to come out at school or at our church. There are already about a dozen gay and lesbian students at school that are out and no one harasses them about it. And there are a few gay people go to church with my dad and me and everyone at church accepts them, but my dad doesn't know about them. If he found out, he'd probably find us a new church to go to, one that's much less accepting...

'I hate lying to my dad more than anything and I want to come out to him so badly, but I'm scared of what will happen to us if I do come out. So I'm incredibly torn here, Eric. I know it sounds like I'm dumping all of my problems on you, and I know I kind of am. But I don't have anyone else to talk to about this. I only wish I had someone to help me with this, maybe talk to my dad about how being gay isn't a bad thing. But I doubt he would even hear it.

'But I don't want to end this letter on a sad note. I'm mainly here to tell you that watching you defy every stereotype there is makes me feel a lot more confident in who I am as a person. You've shown me how to not be ashamed to be gay. I was born this way and I'll never change, and I owe all that confidence to you.

'I hope you read this, Eric. I don't expect a response, but I just hope you think about it every so often. Thanks you for giving me the strength to carry on, Eric. I feel like I owe you so much, despite us never meeting. So, I'll watch every single Giants game there is and I hope you bring home the World Series title.

'Thank you, Eric. Your semi-closeted biggest fan - Thomas.'

I set the letter by my side and quickly wipe my eyes dry. I've read that letter enough times to know it word for word and it still gets to me. But how did John take it? I look over at him and find him hunched over in his chair. His shoulders are quivering violently and I see water leaking between his fingers as they press against his eyes.

He slowly lowers his hand and I hear shaky breaths escape his throat and more tears drip to the carpeted floors. "H-How could Thomas tell all of that to a random stranger and not tell me? His own father?"

"Because he was scared, John. He was afraid of how you would react to your own son being gay. And judging from how you were when you and I first met, I can't say I blame him."

John wipes his eyes dry, only for them to gloss over again. "I never want Thomas to be afraid of me. I'd be a failure as a parent if that were to happen. But...it looks like I've already failed him..."

"You haven't failed him, John. At least not yet you haven't. But if you keep acting like the way you do, I can see a very bad end result that leaves both of you devastated. Thomas would be left without a father and you would lose your son. Do you want that to happen, John?"

John lets out a few soft cries and looks over at me. "N-No...I would never want that to happen to me and Thomas."

"Then try and fix your attitude about gay people. You've been casually talking to a gay guy for the last ten minutes and nothing bad has happened to you as a result now. I'm not going to tell you to do a full 180 right away. But try and start to understand gay people and start to show your son that you're beginning to change for the better. Can you do that?"

John sniffs his nose and wipes his eyes dry a second time. "I...I really don't know..."

I sigh to myself. "Well, think about it. Because you and I both know that Thomas will come out to you at some point and how you take it will be entirely up to you." I rise out of my seat and look down at John. "I'm not going to press charges against you for throwing that water bottle at me. But be aware that your son may see what happened here tomorrow. You're going to have some explaining to do to him if he asks about it."

John nods dismally before getting up from his chair. "I know. But I'll figure out how to cross that bridge when I get to it. Um...thank you for not pressing charges against me."

I nod once and lead John to the door. I push the doors open and am met by several camera flashes and microphones being thrust at me and John. The security guards push their way to the front of the reporters and cameramen. "It's okay," I say. "He'll leave peacefully."

John keeps focused on the floor as the crowd parts for him. He slides his hands into his pocket and walks past the crowd and out of sight, the cameras following him as he leaves. They all turn to me, wondering what's going to happen next. But I just smile for all of them. "Do you want to continue to press conference?"

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About forty-five minutes later, the press conference comes to a close and I'm finally able to go back to the locker room for a long-awaited shower, rinsing all the leftover dirt and sweat from the game. Most of the team has already left and gone back to their apartments to get a good night's sleep for the victory parade tomorrow.

Once I'm cleaned up, I dress back into my casual white V-neck, dark jeans, sneakers, and place my cap backward on my head over my freshly washed and gelled hair. As I'm packing up my stuff, I see a familiar pair of feet standing by my side. I look up and smile at Jack, freshly showered, in his casual clothes, with his bags and bright and shiny World Series MVP trophy in his arms.

I rise out of the leather chair I'm sitting in and pull the strap to my bag over my shoulder. "Congrats on the trophy, Jack," I say.

"Thanks, Swanson. But I don't feel like it should be mine. I think it should be yours."

"Jack, you've had the best season you've ever had this year and you've done shit in this series that people could only dream off. And that last play couldn't have been done without you."

"And it couldn't have been done without you either. Eric, you're the star pitcher of the National League, even the star pitcher of the entire Major League! Your name should be on this trophy, not mine."

I take a step forward and place my hand on Jack's shoulder. "Jack, think about it for a minute. You don't have complete control of your left arm after what happened eight years ago and you're still five times better than any catcher in the country. Your name has every right to be on that trophy.

"And don't worry. My name will be on it when we win again next year. You better help me keep that promise, Jack."

Jack grins to himself and glances down at the carpeted floor before meeting my eyes with a small fire behind them. "Count on it, Swanson."

I return his grin and secure my bag on my shoulder. "I'll see you tomorrow at the parade, Jack. Right now, I've got a boyfriend to get back to."

I give Jack a hard pat on the shoulder and a wave before heading toward the team exit. Thanks to some genius architects, the team is able to walk to the private parking garage underneath AT&T Park and drive out without any fans or reporters seeing us. Don't get me wrong, I love my fans, but there's someone more important I need to get to right now.

After walking a bit, I walk into the cool parking garage and find my car almost immediately: a 2022 Porsche Phoenix. I unlock the car, stuff my bags into the trunk and climb into the driver's seat. The engine roars to life and the sound echoes throughout the garage. I shift my car into drive and head to my apartment.

It takes me a little while to get through the fan-congested streets of San Francisco, but I manage to pull into the parking garage of my apartment building. I find my usual parking spot and shut off my car. I climb out and grab my bags from the trunk, I give my car a good pat before shutting the trunk, knowing I won't see it again for a few months.

Once my car's locked, I walk over to the elevators and walk in, pressing the top button. The doors shut and the low rumble of the elevator fills my ears and I feel myself start to rise. After a minute, the elevator comes to a stop and the doors open once again and I step out and turn to the right.

I walk down the hallway and get to my apartment door. Finding my key in my pocket, I slide it into the lock and swiftly unlock the door. My door opens and as soon as I step in, I kick the door closed, drop my bags to the floor, and hold my arms open for the man running at me. Zane jumps into my awaiting arms and I give him the hug of a lifetime, spinning him around several times.

Zane's arms lock tightly around my neck and he plants a hard, electrifying kiss on my lips. "Hello to you too," I say.

"Hi..." Zane quietly says. He and I stand in complete silence for several minutes, just holding one another. Zane's really changed since college. For one, he's put on a few pounds of muscle and has grown another inch. He's kept his hair dirty blonde and still keeps it buzzed on the sides, but slicks it back, has a few more tattoos on both arms, two more on his back, one more on his chest, and often only keeps two or three earrings in each ear and none in his eyebrows. While he looks a lot different, he's still the same Zane that I love with all my heart.

Zane looks up and meets my eyes and grins broadly. "I'm so proud of you, Eric. You were a star out there tonight and...and...you were just...amazing." I smile and give Zane a loving kiss. "And I wasn't the only one that thought so. There's someone here to see you."

Zane turns me around and after a second, I hear small footsteps running across the hardwood floor. And as soon as I see a tiny little demon run into the room, I feel myself smile brightly. "Daddy!"

"Orson!"

I drop down to the floor and let my son run into my arms. I hold him tightly and rub his head as his small arms wrap themselves around my neck. "Daddy, I missed you!"

"I missed you too, buddy! I'm so happy to see you!"

I get back up to my feet and keep holding Orson tightly. Yes, Orson is Zane's and my son. He's 3 years old and is going to be 4 in January. He really takes after me, with my light brown hair, jawline, nose (before mine broke), and a bright smile that always lifts my mood no matter how upset I am.

But while he got a lot of traits from me, he managed to get one from Zane: Orson's eyes are blue and black and they shine with the same brightness as Zane's. When Zane and I asked Meg to be a surrogate mother for us, she immediately said yes and we got DNA samples from both me and Zane and nine months later, our own little bundle of joy was born. I don't think I had been happier than I had ever been in my life when I first held him in my arms.

Orson finally releases my neck and I give him a big kiss on his cheek. "What're you doing here, buddy?" I ask.

"Daddy brought me with him! I went with him to see the baseball game! It was really fun to see you play, Daddy!"

I smile and look over at Zane. "I love you so much. I don't think I could've spent another day without him. But...when the crowd was taking the field and you were with the mix, why wasn't Orson with you?"

"He left him with a few friends."

I turn around at the voice and grin widely and laugh. Standing in the doorway to the back hallway with their two kids are Josh and Leo. I hand Orson over to Zane and Josh and Leo set their kids, Aiden and Jade, down and I rush over to them. We all meet with a giant group hug filled with laughter and several backslaps.

We let go of each other after a minute. "God, it's great to see you guys!" I say. "It feels like it's been months!"

"Two weeks, but it was the same for us," says Leo. "You were amazing tonight, Eric."

"You really were," says Josh. "That last play was something for the history books. There's no way I'd be able to do something like that this season."

"Josh, you're having a fantastic season so far!" I say. "I bet my life that we're going to be seeing you at the Super Bowl making an amazing play that will win it for the 49ers!"

Josh smiles and I hear a few giggles fill the room. We look down and see Orson, Aiden, and Jade laughing and chasing each other around the living room coffee table. Seeing as Orson is just ten days older than Aiden and Jade, they've all been together ever since they all were born, and it looks like they're going to stay that way for years to come.

We all walk into the living room and take a few seats on the couch and easy chairs. We watch our kids play on the carpet and join in their laughter after a minute. "Sorry it took me a little longer to get back here," I say to Zane. "I got caught up at the press conference."

"It's okay," Zane says with a smile. "I think they might be showing it on TV now. Want to watch?"

"Uh..." I start to say, but Zane has already grabbed the remote and turns on the TV.

Orson, Aiden, and Jade immediately turn to the TV, watching with shining eyes. Zane gets to ESPN and the press conference has just started. We all watch the reporters ask me a few questions and I answer them, but after a few minutes, a familiar water bottle flies onto the screen and I snag it out of the air.

The camera spins and I see John (well, I know it's John. His face is blurred out) trying to get out the room and the room erupts into chaos. I glance over at Josh, Leo, and Zane and see pure shock in their faces. I look back at the screen and see John being pulled to the front of the room and I hear our earlier conversation, but after a few minutes, the screen cuts back to the sportscaster.

She shakes her head in disgust. "In case you haven't heard, that was the press conference of San Francisco Giants pitcher Eric Swanson,' she says. "A water bottle was thrown at Eric and the man who threw the bottle, who we have not identified at the request of Eric himself, starting screaming very insulting words at Eric, targeting his sexuality.

"However, Eric didn't get mad in the least. He calmly talked to the man, even disputing the man's biblical quotes with biblical quotes of his own. All the reporters and cameramen were asked to leave by Eric for a few minutes so he could speak to the man alone. And when the two came out of the press conference room, the man looked to regret what he had done.

"None of us know what happened in that room when we all had left, but it seemed that the man had some things to think about. We continued the press conference and Eric was much the same as before, cracking a few jokes, answering every question honestly, and even discussing his relationship with world famous artist Zane Mercer."

Zane glances over at me and smiles brightly. "I think we can all agree that Eric was the bigger man tonight, both on and off the field. Once again, here's the final play of game seven of the World Series."

I take the remote from Zane and press the mute button. There's a shuffle in front of me and I see Orson walking up to me. "Daddy, why was the man mad at you?" he asks.

I lean forward and pick up my son and set him down on my lap. "Well, you know how your dad and I love each other very much?" I ask. Orson nods. "Well, that man didn't like that your dad and I love each other."

Orson makes a disappointed face. "Does he not like how Uncle Josh and Uncle Leo are?"

I glance over at Josh and Leo, who Orson started to call their uncles when he first started talking. "Yes," I say, answering Orson's question.

"But why?"

"It's what he believes is right. Now, I respect his choices and am okay with him thinking like that. And you should too. If there's someone who has a different opinion from yours, you should respect their choice even though you may think differently. Okay?"

"Okay, Daddy!"

"Now, if I were to like the color red more than the color blue, what would you think?"

"I like blue better, but if you like red, that's okay!"

I smile and give Orson a tight hug. "I love you, buddy."

"I love you too, Daddy!"

I set Orson back down on the floor and he runs back over to Aiden and Jade and the three go back into their own little world. Zane scoots over to my side and rests his head on my shoulder. "You've managed to teach our son about acceptance in less than a minute," he says.

"It looks like I did," I reply.

Zane leans over and gives me a light kiss. "I love you so much..."

I return Zane's kiss with one of my own. "I love you too."

Josh suddenly hops off the couch and claps his hands. "Okay! Who wants to head over to Confection and get some treats to celebrate Uncle Eric winning the World Series?"

On that note, all the kids jump up and run over to Josh's legs, all of them begging him to take them to get some chocolate. I smile and rise off the couch with Zane and Leo gets off the easy chair. I grab Orson and hoist him up and sit him on my arm, giving him a kiss on his forehead. "You can get two treats for being my favorite buddy," I say.

Orson grins, showing his baby teeth. Zane steps by my side and gives Orson a kiss on the side of his head. "And for being my favorite little man," he says.

"Hey..." I whine.

Zane smiles up at me. "You? You're my favorite man."

I give him a smile in return and give him a kiss. Josh and Leo grab Aiden and Jade and walk over to the door and my family follows closely behind them.

----------------

The parade was amazing. The feeling of confetti falling on me, hearing the cheers of the crowd as we drove through the streets, the sensation of being with my teammates on top of the world, it was all perfect. Once the parade ends, I meet up with the Zane, Orson, and Josh and Leo's family and we head to the airport for our flight home.

No, I don't live in San Francisco. I live in Santa Ana now, mainly because I like the weather, the great schools for Orson, and the fact that I'm living about two blocks away from Josh and Leo. The apartment we were in yesterday is the one I own so I can stay in the city during the season. The rest of the time, I'm home with my family. But it's not smooth sailing getting through the airport, mainly because we have a famous baseball player, a famous football player, a famous artist, and a statewide known business owner in the same group. Good thing we got to the airport five hours early.

So for the next four hours, Zane, Josh, and I sign autographs while Leo's on babysitting duty with the kids. He doesn't mind. He likes playing with his son and daughter and Orson. And once we get all the autographs photos done, it feels like my hand is about to fall off. But we get on the plane and head home without any more interruptions.

Once we touch down in Santa Ana, we're all exhausted after a long day and mainly want to get home and just get some rest. We part with Josh Leo, Aiden, and Jade with a few hugs and tell them we'll see them at Zane's art gallery in a few days and we'll watch Josh play the Chargers tomorrow night before heading home.

But the rest and relaxation I wanted looks like it won't be coming any time soon. We pull up to Zane's and my home, a nice two story, stone and wood house, in my second car, a 2023 Ford Glider, and I see two cars in the driveway. I groan to myself, knowing whose cars those are. "Grandmas and grandpas are here!" Orson cheers.

Where he gets all that energy from I have no idea. But once I'm parked, Zane and I go to the trunk and pull our bags out while we let Orson charge toward the house and bursts in the front door. Zane and I trudge up the front walkway and walk through the open front door into our home, me taking in the smell I've missed.

We set our bags down and walk into the living room, where we find Orson sitting on the couch with two people and two other people sitting in the remaining seats. "Hi Mom, Dad, Richard, Monica," I tiredly say.

They all smile when they see us and rise out of their seats, Orson in Dad's arms. They all walk over to us and give us firm hugs. "We're so proud of you, sweetie," says Mom.

"My son's a World Series champ," says Dad. "I always knew I'd see this day..."

Mom and Dad are still happily married and are still living in Seattle, but often come down to visit us. Dad's still a lawyer and Mom's still a real estate agent and are still enjoying their jobs. They're both now in their mid-fifties and it's barely showing at all. Mom has a wrinkle or two more, but that's pretty much it with her. Her hair's still the same strawberry-blonde it's always been, her figure is still slim, and her smile is still warm and comforting.

Dad's hair is a bit greyer on the sides, but he still has that rugged look he's always had. His body's still the same fit look to it, his eyes are still the same shade of dark brown, and he has a few more wrinkles by his eyes and mouth from smiling so much. Dad's pretty much been attached to Orson ever since he was born and he really enjoys playing with him whenever we visit him or he visits us.

Mom and Dad keep Orson occupied while I give Richard and Monica hugs. "I wish we could've been there to watch the game live," says Richard. "It would've been a blast."

"But we were working, unfortunately," says Monica. "But we did manage to watch on the private jet ride here. We both screamed so hard, the pilot thought we were being hijacked."

Richard, despite now being 55, still has the body of someone half his age. His dirty blonde hair now has a light shade of grey to it and he has the same wrinkles Dad has now, but his impressive figure helps people forget that he's about ten years away from retirement. Monica is still beautiful with her light brown hair retaining the same shine it's always had, her frame still slim and her skin wrinkle free (she refuses to tell anyone her secret).

Richard and Monica are still working hard with Mercer Industries, but Mercer Industries has had a significant makeover in the last eight years. For one, it's not an oil and gas company anymore. Mercer Industries is now the biggest solar, wind, electrical, and geothermal energy company in the world. The shift came after the Mercer's saw that the amount of oil in the world was dwindling. It took some time to close all of their gas stations and replace them with electric car charging stations.

The change was finished three years ago and the Mercer's are now making twice as much money as they were when they were working with gas and oil. Their schedules are still a bit busy, but whenever they have free time, they come to Southern California to spend time with us.

We all find seats back in the living room and Dad sets Orson down on his lap and bounces him up and down on his knee, making Orson giggle uncontrollably. "You both look tired," says Monica.

"We are," says Zane. "We were attacked in the airport by fans. It took us hours to sign autographs and pose for pictures. I thought my jaw was going to fall off from smiling so much..."

Our parents chuckle a little. "Oh the problems of being famous," says Dad. "Hannah and I are thankful we don't know what it's like."

Everyone rolls their eyes. I even see Orson doing the same. "How about we all go out tomorrow and spend the day together before we head over to Jacob and Rachel's to watch Josh play?" suggests Richard. "It's been ages since we've all spent some time together."

"Sounds like fun," says Zane. "It'll be nice to just spend a day to relax with everyone."

"I'm in," I say. "But it will have to be in the late morning and the afternoon. I'm taking a morning trip to Long Beach tomorrow."

Everyone looks over at me confused. "Why're you going to Long Beach?" asks Mom.

"There's someone I need to talk to. Don't worry. I'll be back before noon. Then we can spend the afternoon together before we all watch Josh play tomorrow night."

Zane gives me an odd look. "Are you hiding something?"

I look him dead in the eye. "Don't worry, Zane. I promise you I'm not doing anything behind your back. This just deals with the guy at the press conference last night. I'm just going to set a few things straight. I promise you that if I come back home a minute after noon, I'll get on my knees and beg for your forgiveness and let you rip my balls off and feed them to me."

Don't worry. Dad covered Orson's ears for the last part of that sentence. All of a sudden, Zane breaks out laughing, leaving me a bit confused. "Eric, I trust you completely. I was just messing with you. And if you ever cheated on me, I'd know immediately. Remember, I still have connections to the Mercer name, so I have ways of getting information without you knowing."

"And I've known you long enough to know when you're bluffing. I know you're just going to get Jason to follow me tomorrow and relay any information back to you."

Zane turns bright red immediately, making everyone in the room laugh (yes, everyone knows about Jason). "Daddy's a tomato!" Orson laughs.

I wrap my arm around Zane's back and pull him close to me, kissing his temple. "I wouldn't expect anything less from you," I say.

Zane smiles and gives me a kiss. "You're just lucky I won't ever actually have someone physically follow you and instead ask our ghost friend to float around you."

I laugh and give Zane another kiss. We slowly fall back into the casual conversation with our parents, my arm still snugly around Zane's back.

----------------

As much as I wanted to sleep a little today, I have a 7:00 wake-up call. It takes me over an hour to get to Long Beach and if I want to have plenty of time to get this done and get back in time to spend time with my family. Once I'm showered and dressed, I grab the bag I packed last night and my keys and wallet and hop into my car and start for Long Beach.

Halfway along the ride, there's a snapping sound in the car and Jason appears in my passenger seat. Unsurprisingly, he hasn't changed a bit (ghosts don't age). Jason makes for good driving company and my car is filled with laughter and conversation the whole ride to Long Beach (I probably looked like a crazy person to other drivers).

After about an hour and twenty minutes, I pull up to my destination: a modest two story wooden house with a bright green lawn and cobblestone driveway and walkway. I park my car in front of the house, slip on my cap and sunglasses (can't let anyone recognize me right now) and grab my bag from the backseat.

I look over at Jason, who nods, snaps his fingers, and disappears. I shut off my car and step out, feeling the warm Southern California air on my skin. Taking a deep breath, I walk up the walkway and step up to the front door and ring the doorbell. After a few seconds, the door opens and a familiar six foot three man with a severe face and muscular body covered by a collared shirt and jeans meets me.

John stares in complete shock at me for a few seconds. "Good to see you again, John," I say.

He comes back to reality and steps outside the door and shuts it behind him. "Eric, what're you doing here?" he asks.

"I came up from Santa Ana to see how things were going with you. Have you thought about what I said two days ago?"

John gazes down at the cobblestones underneath his feet. "It's the only thing I've thought about," he says. "What you said to me really shocked me to my core, Eric. So...when I got home yesterday, I immediately went to my office and started to research gay people. I discovered some very...scary things..."

"Like what?" I ask.

"Like...gay people being attacked because of their sexuality, some even being killed. I read that when the people that attacked them were caught, a lot of them said it was because they were following God's will. But what they were doing was not the will of God. What they did was cowardly, their actions were fueled by their hate, and they took the lives of innocent men and women.

"I've been taught ever since I first went to church when I was young to never harm someone and I still follow that to this day. What I did with you was a temporary lapse of judgment and I begged God for forgiveness. I'm so sorry about that."

"It's okay, John. Remember John 1:9. 'If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.' I forgive you as well. I was never mad at you to begin with."

John smiles a bit. "Thank you, Eric. But I'm more thankful for what you did with the reporters. When I saw my face was blurred out and heard it was at your request that it be blurred out, I thanked you for your compassion. I don't know what Thomas would've thought had he seen that."

"Um...has Thomas...?"

John shakes his head a bit. "No, he hasn't. I wouldn't expect him to come out to me anytime soon with the way I've been talking about gay people his whole life."

"But my question is how would you react him Thomas coming out?"

"I-I'm still not sure at this point. I'm scared that I may say something that will make Thomas hate me. That's the absolute last thing I want to happen..."

"Well, have you talked to anyone about this? About how you see gay people?"

John nods a bit. "I found an organization online that helps parents come to understand what it's like to have a gay child and called them. I think it was Parents of...oh I forget the rest..."

"Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. PFLAG. You found a good source."

"Well, I called them and there was a man on the other side of the line who was very nice and answered every question I had. When I mentioned the Bible and my beliefs, he told me that he was the same as I am now. He used to believe that all gays and lesbians were to burn in Hell for all eternity for their actions.

"He actually had kicked his daughter out of the house when she came out to him, calling her an abomination. But he too called PFLAG back in 2014 and they helped him to understand what it was like to have a lesbian daughter. He spent the next three days looking for his daughter, not stopping for rest and barely eating anything.

"He eventually found her and he begged for her to come home and now his daughter is happily married to a wonderful woman and they have two children together. He now spends a lot of his time volunteering at the PFLAG organization near his home, helping people and telling them not to make the same mistake he made.

"He said that he's still a Christian and believes that God loves all, no matter who they are. He and I talked for two hours, just about our beliefs and what it's like having a gay child. He really helped me to see that having a gay son is really no different from having a straight son, but..."

"But while you see the similarities, you still aren't sure how you'll react to Thomas coming out to you."

John nods dismally. "I love my son more than anything, and if the bond we have is broken because of me, I'll never forgive myself. And I know my son's starting to suspect that I know about his sexuality. I'm taking him and his friends out to breakfast in a few minutes to help celebrate his birthday and I'm afraid I'm going to give off the impression that I know about Thomas being gay. And if he comes out, I'll mess everything up..."

I lightly place my hand on John's shoulder and look him straight in the eye. "John, you've made leaps and bounds since two days ago. You're talking to a gay guy like you've known him for years, you've come to accept that gay people and straight people, while they have different attractions, are no different from one another, and I can see that the feelings of hate you had two days ago have completely vanished.

"So, John. I feel that you're able to accept Thomas for who he is and will handle it perfectly well."

After a second, I see John's mouth slowly turn upward into a soft smile. "Thank you, Eric," he quietly says.

"Now, I have one favor to ask you," I say. "May I please come in? I'd like to speak to someone."

John nods. "He's in the living room with his friends."

He turns and opens the front door for me and I step into the house. Within a single breath, I can feel that this house is definitely a home. The smell of cedar wood from the hardwood floor fills my nose, family photos adorn the walls and furniture, and a well-loved small cross with a crucified Jesus hangs on the wall. John's raised his son in a wonderful environment.

John leads me through the house and stops me just short of the corner. He walks around the corner and I head about a half dozen voices fill my ears. "Son," I hear John's voice say. "There's someone here to see you."

"Who is it, Dad?" says a voice (Thomas).

"You can come in now," I hear John's voice call to me.

I take in a breath and step out from behind the wall. In the living room, I see six teenagers, four boys and two girls, seated on the couch and in the chairs. But I see one with the same black hair as John with a blowback hairstyle, a square jaw, a blemish free face, light blue eyes, and confusion in his face.

I look at Thomas and smile. "Hi, Thomas, I say.

He glances at John before looking back at me. "Um...do I know you?" he asks.

"Not personally, no. But I really enjoyed reading the letter you sent me a month ago. It must've been hard telling someone you didn't know all that."

I reach up and slowly pull the sunglasses off my face and look back at Thomas. Within milliseconds, I see his face fill with shock and it's the same with all of his friends. Thomas shoots off the couch. "ERIC FUCKING SWANSON?!!" he shrieks.

"Thomas!" John scolds. "Watch your mouth!"

"Sorry, Dad. But it's Eric Swanson!" He walks around the couch and up to me, pure amazement in his eyes. I see he's about four or five inches shorter than me. "What're you doing here?!"

"I came by to talk to your dad about a few things and came in to say hi. I also wanted to see how you were doing." I reach into my back pocket and pull out Thomas' letter and hold it in front of me. "I read your letter a month ago. It must've taken you a lot of courage to write all that down."

Thomas' smiling face fills with a bit of sadness and he looks to the floor. "Yeah...it really did..."

"But I thank you for opening up so much to me. You should know that I carried that letter in every game after I got it. I felt that it gave me just a bit of a boost of strength."

Thomas smiles a little, probably a bit uncomfortable that his dad is hearing all this, unknowing that he's already heard the letter's contents. I look past Thomas and see his group of friends, but one catches my eye. There's a boy with a very impressive body packed with muscle, a head of dark wavy brown hair, and, with his mouth hanging open, I see perfect white teeth.

I smile at the boy. "I take it you're Cody?" I ask.

Cody jerks from my words and jumps off the couch, revealing his muscle-packed body. "Y-Yes, sir..." he says.

"Nice to meet you. Thomas has told me a lot about you."

Cody nods a bit and I can see the nervousness in his face. I look back at Thomas. "Thomas, do you think maybe...you and your dad have some things you want to talk about?"

Thomas turns dark red. "I-I think I do..." he quietly says. He turns toward John and walks toward him, unable to meet his eye. "Um...Dad? I really have to tell you something..."

John nods a bit. "Yeah, I have to talk to you as well, son."

Thomas looks up at his father and I can see his eyes are a bit shiny. "Dad, you know much I love being a Christian and how much I love God. And I feel that He loves me in return. So...no matter who I am, I feel that God will always love me. Even..." Thomas coughs a bit, a nervous cough to try and collect himself. "Even...when He knows...I'm..."

Thomas stops again and I see a small tear fall out of the corner of his eye and very quiet sobs escape his throat. "Dad...I'm gay..." Thomas barely whispers.

I glance over at Cody and Thomas' friends and see concern in their faces as they watch Thomas quietly cry to himself. "I-I know how you feel about gay people, Dad," Thomas stutters. "I know you think they should all burn in Hell. And...and if you want me out of the house, m-my bags are already packed upstairs and your fag son will be out of your life forever."

John suddenly moves forward and tightly wraps his arms around Thomas, pressing his son close to him. "Don't you fucking dare leave this house," John quietly says. "You're going to stay right here with me. You're all I have left, Thomas..."

I can see Thomas looks to be frozen in shock. "B-But, Dad..."

"No buts, son." John lets go of Thomas and rests his hands on Thomas' shoulders. "Thomas, Eric read me the note you sent to him when I was in San Francisco on business and I already knew about you being gay." Thomas looks over at me for a second before looking back at his dad. "And let me just say that I still love you no matter who you love.

"You're right. God does love all. But I know that I love you more than even He does. I know I've said some pretty harsh things about gay people in the past, but I've seen how much I was hurting you when I was saying them. Now, I see gay people in an entirely different light, a very good light.

"I called PFLAG and the man I talked to really helped me to see what it was like having a gay child, but I really owe my realization to Eric. He made me see that I was spreading hate and violence with my words, and I've repented my sins. Now, I'm going to work hard to stay on the right path, a path of love and acceptance.

"Thomas, nothing will ever change the fact that you're my son. I love you more than anything. I always will."

Thomas' eyes clench shut and I see several more tears leak out of his eyes before he reaches around his dad and hugs him tightly. John returns his son's hug and the two silently rock back and forth, neither letting go for several minutes. The finally do let go and Thomas wipes his eyes dry and smiles a bit. "I love you, Dad..."

"I love you too, son."

John gives Thomas' forehead a light kiss. Thomas turns and walks up to me. "Um...thank you, Eric. You've helped me in more ways than one. And..." Thomas grabs the sides of his head and laughs to himself. "And I still can't believe you're here! There's a fucking Major League baseball player in my house!"

"Thomas!" John scolds a second time. "Language!"

"You already said 'fucking,' Dad. So I can say it too!"

Thomas looks up at me with a bright shine in his eyes and I smile down at him. "And there was one part of the letter you sent me that I didn't forget," I say. I take the bag in my hand and hand it to Thomas. "Happy birthday, Thomas."

He gawks at me for a second before reaching inside the bag and staring at the gift I've given him. The bag falls to the floor and the jersey with my last name on it sits in his hands. Thomas stares at the jersey for a minute, looking at the autographed message.

'Thomas. Your letter really touched me and I thank you for opening up to me. You're a bright and talented kid and I see great things in your future. Keep it up and never change who you are for anyone. Your favorite gay baseball player - Eric Swanson.'

Thomas looks back up at me in amazement. "Y-You bought me a jersey and signed it?" he asks.

"No, I didn't buy you a jersey," I say. "I took the jersey I wore during game seven of the World Series, signed it, and just gave it to you as a birthday present. I hope you like it."

I see Thomas' jaw hit the floor and his eyes shine again. I look past him and see the same look on everyone's face, including John's. Thomas shoots his arms around me and hugs me tightly, me returning his hug a second later. "You're...fucking awesome, Eric..." Thomas quietly says into my chest.

Thomas hugs me for a minute before letting go and wiping his eyes dry. After a second, his friends walk over to him and get a better look at the jersey. Cody steps up to Thomas' side and slowly sides his arm around Thomas' waist before kissing the side of his head, causing Thomas to blush. I look over at John and see him smiling at his son, love in his eyes.

And after another second, the room explodes into Thomas' friends yelling for autographs and photos. I smile and relent, putting on my best smile for all of them. It takes about ten minutes to sign everything the kids want me to sign and pose for a few dozen photos, even taking a few pictures with John.

With one last photo, John steps up. "Okay, I think it's about time we let Eric go. We've kept him here long enough."

"Awww," Thomas whines. "You can't stay for a little while longer?"

"Sorry, guys," I say. "I have to get back to my family. I'm spending the day with my parents, my boyfriend's parents, my boyfriend, and my son."

They all nod understandingly. "I'll show you out," says John.

Thomas, Cody, and their friends thank me again and I give them a wave before starting to follow John to the front door. We step outside and John and I stand in silence for a minute. "I really owe you a lot, Eric," John says. "Had you not given me that talking to two days ago, I would've blown up at Thomas for being gay. I would've lost him..."

"I may have talked to you about it, John, but you made that change all on your own," I say. "You handled Thomas' coming out like a champ and now, you and your son are probably closer than you've ever been."

John nods a bit. "Yeah, I got that kind of feeling. I still believe that the act of homosexuality to be a sin, but hey, we all sin at some point. And if Thomas sins for something he was born as, then I don't see it as a sin. To me, he's still my perfect little boy."

"Good thing I didn't read you that middle part of the letter Thomas sent me. You'd be singing a song of a different tune right now."

John's head snaps to me, his eyes wide. "What?!"

I burst out laughing and hold my sides. "I'm kidding!" I say. "God, you should've seen your face!"

John punches me in the shoulder, laughing himself. All of a sudden, John wraps his arms around me and hugs me, resting his chin on my shoulder. "Thank you, Eric. And I'm sorry about what happened when we first met. But from now on, you can count on me wearing a Swanson jersey whenever there's a Giants game on TV."

"Thanks, John. Now go get that breakfast with your son and his friends and boyfriend. I can feel your stomach rumbling."

John chuckles a little before letting me go. I give him a pat on the shoulder before turning and walking down the walkway and climb into my car. John waves from the front door and I wave back before turning on my car and starting the hour and a half drive back home. "Nice work."

Jason once again appears in the passenger seat, a smile on his face. "Thanks," I reply to my ghostly friend. "I was a bit worried that John wouldn't accept Thomas at first, but it ended really well."

"It did. By the way, you have a little less than two hours to get home and there's an accident on the freeway that will take a little while to get past. So...good luck with that."

Jason snaps his fingers and disappears, leaving me a bit baffled. I quickly turn my car on and start to drive like a man possessed, praying I'll get home in time to keep my balls.

----------------

Eric's a lucky man. I was actually contemplating ripping his balls off before he got home. But his car was barreling down the street and pulled into the driveway just a few minutes before noon. He looked incredibly relieved that he actually made it back on time, but I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't going to be any ball ripping.

But we managed to spend a nice afternoon together with our parents and son. Getting lunch, spending some time in the park, teaching Orson how to throw a baseball (we're not pressuring him to be a baseball player like Eric is, we just think it's a skill he should learn), and just having fun together as a family.

A little before 8:00, we all head over to Josh and Leo's house to watch the 49ers Chargers game. We find that Josh and Leo's parents are already here, along with Ryan and Nate and their son Cole, Brian and Justin, Mark and his wife Julie and their daughter Ally, Josh and Leo's friend Danny Walters and his fiancée Selena, and even Governor Shawn Leif and his wife Heather (it's still hard to believe that Josh and Leo are close friends with the Governor of California).

The game turned out great, though. The 49ers kicked the Chargers' ass, winning 28-3. The night was a fun one and it was great to spend the day with my family. But right now, I'm stressing the hell out. My gallery showing is fast approaching and I can already feel myself start to sweat.

Don't get me wrong. I've had dozens of art showings since I graduated from Stanford, but this is the biggest one since my 19th birthday. I have one hundred and nineteen paintings, sketches, and drawings going on display. If that doesn't raise my blood pressure, the gallery is sold out and is being held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, one of the most notable art museums in the country.

It took me five months to get all the art pieces done and by the time I was finished, I wanted to rip my hair out. Thankfully, Anthony was able to do all the business for me and he convinced the LACMA to put my art on display with little effort. Anthony became my private art agent after I graduated from college and he's worked with me every step of the way (bad choice of words right there, huh?).

Anyway, the gallery showing is in just three days and I feel like I'm about to explode. Some of the art world's biggest names are coming to see my art, and if I don't live up to the expectation they have of me, I could be blackballed. That's the absolute last thing I want to happen to me.

Right now, I'm sitting in my kitchen in the tank top and sweatpants I slept in, rubbing my hands on the back of my neck, trying to relieve the knots I have. Eric's out dropping Orson off at preschool, telling me to try and relax a bit or I'll get an ulcer. I probably already have two with the amount of stress I'm feeling right now, maybe even three.

I try to distract myself by reading the newspaper in front of me (yes, some of us still read the newspaper), flipping through the pages and trying to find something that will peak my interest. Same old stuff: recovering economy, declining unemployment, underhanded, lying politicians, an extremely talented, but hot-headed, L.A. Kings hockey player (I've heard of him a few times), and more debate over same-sex marriage (it's legal in thirty-one states now, so we're getting there).

As I continue to flip through the pages, I finally find something that catches my eye. A photo of Leo sits on the front cover of the lifestyle section of the newspaper and his workshop sits behind him. I read the headline.

'The God of Motorcycles Continues to Impress! The Most Sought-After Workshop on the West Coast!'

Leo's really come far with his workshop. I remember when he first bought the place five years ago. The workshop looked like it was about to fall to pieces. But Leo turned it around in just a few months and opened Leo's Custom Motorcycles. Business started out a bit slow, but after a huge executive from Harley Davidson came by Leo's shop and got a custom motorcycle, he put in a very good word and Leo had to hire a dozen workers to keep up with demand.

I read through the interview between Leo and the reporter who came by his shop. "So, Mr. Trigon," the reporter starts.

"You can call me Leo," Leo replies. "But my last name is Rusden-Trigon."

"My apologies. I forgot you were married to Josh Rusden. Anyway, Leo, you've become a statewide name in the motorcycle industry. How do you feel about this?"

"I'm more surprised than anyone. It's only been a little over five years since I've opened my shop and the success it's had has put me on cloud nine."

"So your shop creates custom motorcycles?"

"That's what the name implies. We use top of the line materials from the best motorcycle part producers to create our motorcycles."

"Is it difficult to create a design for a new motorcycle?"

"Sometimes. You have to think about what the customer wants and incorporate that into a motorcycle's design, all while keeping the motorcycle high-performance and efficient. I sometimes have to explain to customers that we can't do some of the things they want because they're too far out there to achieve. I remember a guy wanted me to add a nitrous fuel tank for a faster bike, but the engine wouldn't have been able to take the toll."

"So how do you keep your customers happy while giving them what they want?"

"We have a face to face meeting with the customer and go over what they want, what it is we can and can't do, and reach an agreement after a lot of discussion. Then I assign some of my employees to work on the bike together and we get the customers their fresh new motorcycle in a little less than a month.

"A lot of people have called you the God of Motorcycles. Do you consider yourself that title?"

"I just like to see myself as a guy who likes to work on motorcycles. I first started working on motorcycles when I was 15 back when I used to live in Maryland. I learned quickly from my mentor, Larry Hander, and got my first motorcycle after a client came in to get a tune up on his motorcycle and gave it to me after I finished working on it.

"I moved out to California in the summer of 2012 with all my knowledge on motorcycles with me. And...moving out to California was probably one of the best things that had ever happened to me..."

"May I ask what happened?"

Even without seeing Leo, I can tell he blushed when asked the question. "I met Josh Rusden on my first day of my senior year of high school."

"Your husband?"

"Yes. Josh was, and still is, the most beautiful man I had ever seen when I first saw him. He just had this air of confidence around him that I found amazing, but he wasn't cocky in any sort of way. He had a heart of gold and he warmed up to me immediately and I was drawn to his warm personality. And within a second of us shaking hands, I was head over heels for him.

"But there were two problems with my infatuation for Josh: I was in a pervious relationship that ended very badly and left some emotional scars, and I didn't know if Josh was gay or not. But thanks to me being stupid at a Halloween party and having a bit too much to drink, I kissed Josh in my drunken stupor and passed out a few seconds after.

"When Josh told me about what had happened the next day, I was scared out of my mind. I thought I had ruined my relationship with Josh and was afraid he'd never want to speak again to me. But when he told me he was in love with me, I felt my heart soar and our first kiss was one I'll never forget as long as I live."

"That's a very sweet story."

"Thank you."

"Now, do you feel that your sexuality is a problem when it comes to business?"

"I used to. Josh was already famous when I first opened my shop and much of the nation knew about our relationship. I was afraid that people wouldn't want a gay guy to build them a motorcycle. But now, I don't care what people think about me. I have new customers coming into my shop every day, and none of them care about my sexuality. They know I can make bikes and that's all they care about."

"I've seen several pictures of the bikes you and your shop have produced. Did you come up with the designs on your own?"

"Most of the time, I come up with the concepts myself. But sometimes, I get the help of my good friend Zane Mercer to come up with a design with me, at the customer's consent of course."

Did Leo just say that about me? "Zane Mercer?" I read the reporter's next line. "The world famous artist?"

"That's the one."

"How did you and he come into contact?"

"Zane and I met in our freshman year of college at Stanford University and we were roommates. He was a bit shy at first, but he really opened up after a little while. He and I were roommates the next year, and for our last two years of college, we shared an off campus apartment with Josh and Zane's boyfriend, Eric Swanson. Zane and I are still great friends to this day."

"Wow. Is it hard to convince Zane to help you with the bike designs?"

"Not even. Zane was a graphic design artist before he switched fully to art. He loves helping me with the bike designs and jumps to the task whenever I ask. But I only ask when he has free time and not when he's busy working on new pieces or if he has a gallery showing coming up, which he does."

"I've heard about Zane's gallery showing through a few colleagues. It's said to be his biggest showing in years. Are you planning on attending?"

"Of course. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Zane's art has taken my breath away ever since I saw his first sketch nine years ago. I'd go even if both of my legs were broken and I had to crawl to the gallery."

"It's wonderful to see that you see Zane as such a friend."

"He's one of my best. If you're reading this, Zane, I hope you like the shameless sponsorship I'm giving you."

"Well, thank you for your time, Leo. I wish you and your shop the best."

I stare at the newspaper in silence for several seconds before I set it down on the table. My hands rub across my face in exasperation. Yeah, I'm happy Leo said all those things and I'll thank him later for it, but dear God, did he have to make it sound like I'm supposed to be on a fucking pedestal all the time?

Now I'm freaking out even more. Thousands of people read this newspaper and I know a lot of them are already coming to my gallery showing. Now, they're going to think of me at a higher standard. If my artwork doesn't live up to the expectations they have of me, goodbye art world, goodbye life.

I'm such a fucking basket case right now that I don't know what to do with myself. I don't even hear the front door open and close as I sit at the kitchen table with my face in my hands. "Zane, I'm home!" I hear Eric call. "And I smell coffee!"

Eric's heavy footsteps walk across the hardwood floor and I hear him step into the kitchen. "There's my favorite man." I want to respond, but my throat is completely clenched up. I can't even make a tiny squeak to let Eric know I'm listening. "Zane, what's wrong? Are you okay?"

After a second, I feel something warm and callused fall onto my shoulder. My body starts to feel warm all of a sudden and my hands slowly lower from my face. I turn to my left and find Eric's beautiful face just inches from mine, pure concern and worry in his dark brown eyes.

I blink a few times and smile after a minute. "Yeah...yeah, I'm okay..."

"Your skin is freezing and your pupils are huge. Are you sure you're okay? You look like you've seen a Jason."

I laugh feebly at Eric's lame joke. "Eric, I'm fine. I was just...thinking about my gallery in a few days."

Eric rubs my shoulder a bit before standing straight up. "C'mon. Let's go take a seat on the couch." He helps me up from my chair and guides me to the living room before taking a seat on the couch. "Come and rest your head on my lap."

I crawl onto the couch and carefully lay my head on Eric's lap. After a second, I feel Eric's fingers running through my hair, a gentle and comforting gesture, and I see his warm eyes looking down at me. "I know you're worried about the gallery, Zane," Eric softly says. "But I can say with confidence that everything's going to go even better than you hope.

"The world knows the name Zane Mercer and holds it in the absolute highest regard. Your art has the ability to make people happy, makes them feel at ease, and can move people to tears. Even when you're just casually sketching your every day thoughts, just seeing what you're putting into a piece of paper or canvas is absolutely wonderful.

"So, Zane? You don't need to worry about a thing. This gallery is your night and your night alone. So don't let the fear of worrying what everyone else will think ruin it. I'll be there, Orson will be there, Josh, Leo, their kids, their parents, my parents, your parents, Charles, Jason, Courtney, Meg, Jack, Ty, Shane, Damien, Brian, Justin, Mark, Shawn, Danny, Ryan, Nate, everyone that loves you is going to be there supporting you. Remember that, Zane."

Eric bends down and lightly presses his lips to my forehead and continues to comb his fingers through my hair lovingly. In no time, my heart rate starts to slow, my hands feel less clammy, my body starts to warm up and I find my breath again. I reach up and delicately touch the palm of my hand to Eric's scruffy cheek.

I smile up at him and his warm smile brings me back to life. "I love you so much, Eric."

"Not as much as I love you, Zane."

Eric bends down and softly presses his lips to mine. He rubs my head a few more times before helping me sit up. "Now how about I make you some breakfast, get you in the shower, relax a bit, then we can pick Orson up from preschool together and head out to lunch with Josh and Leo?" Eric asks me.

"I'd love that. Eggs benedict with caviar, lamb sausages, and baguette French toast please." Eric raises an eyebrow at me and gives me an 'are you kidding me?' look. I laugh at the look. "Or scrambled eggs with some bacon and toast."

"There's the man I know and love."

Eric gives me another kiss before helping me off the couch and we walk into the kitchen, my head resting on Eric's shoulder the whole time.

----------------

Yeah, Eric really did help me to relax a lot, but I still have a small bit of nervousness in the pit of my stomach. But of course I would have that. Hundreds of people are seeing my art in about an hour. It would be weird if I weren't even a little bit nervous. But at least I know a lot of people I love will be there supporting me.

I slip on my black suit jacket over my grey dress shirt and adjust my clothing in the mirror. Taking a bit of hair gel, I run it through my hair and leave not a single hair out of place. And with a splash of cologne, I'm ready to go. "You guys about ready?" I call out the bathroom door.

"Almost!" I hear Eric call back. "Orson wasn't listening, so I tickled him into putting on his nice clothes!"

I laugh to myself and hear Orson laughing hysterically, Eric probably ticking his sides again. I walk back into my bedroom and start to slip on my shoes when I hear footsteps walk up to the doorway. "Daddy, my shirt feels weird!" Orson whines.

"So does mine, but you'll get used to it," Eric replies.

I look at the doorway and see Eric in his dark grey suit with black dress shirt underneath with the top button unbuttoned and Orson in his arms, wearing a dark blue child's blazer, black dress pants, a white dress shirt and a black tie. I smile at the two and rise off my bed. "You look very handsome, Orson," I say, taking him from Eric's arms.

"My neck itches..."

"Hey, my butt itches, so we're in the same boat."

Orson laughs at the word 'butt' and I kiss his forehead. "What? No love for your boyfriend?" Eric whines.

I roll my eyes and give Eric a very light kiss. "I give you enough love already," I say.

Eric gives me a pouting face before smiling again. We head downstairs and Eric grabs our cellphones, wallets, and the car keys and we head out to the car. I slip Orson into his car seat before walking around the car and climbing into the passenger's seat. Eric starts the car and he and I turn and look back at Orson.

He meets our gaze with an innocent look. "Now, Orson," Eric says. "We want you on your best behavior tonight. We're going to a very nice party and tonight is a very important night for Daddy, so please behave."

"Okay, Daddy," Orson says.

"Now, how are you going to speak when we're at the party?" I ask

"With my inside voice."

"If you get hungry, thirsty, or have to go to the bathroom, what are you going to do?" Eric asks.

"Tell you what I want and don't throw a tantrum if it takes a little while."

"What will you do if you get separated from Daddy?" I ask.

"Stay where I am and wait for Daddy to find me. If a stranger tells me they'll help me find Daddy, tell them no. If they try to grab me, scream 'I don't know this person' as loud as I can."

"And what are you not going to do with Daddy's paintings?" Eric asks.

"Touch them."

"And who loves their favorite little man more than anything?" I ask.

"My daddies do!"

Eric and I both grin at Orson and give his legs a squeeze. We turn back around and Eric carefully backs out of the driveway and we're off to the gallery.

About forty-five minutes later, Eric drives the car up to the front of the LACMA. Eric slows to a stop and the doors on both sides of the car open. "Welcome to your showing, Mr. Mercer," says a gentle voice.

I take in a deep breath, unbuckle my seatbelt and put on my best face. I slide out of the car and am met by dozens of camera flashes. Even though I was expecting a few cameramen outside the main museum entrance, I didn't expect Anthony to get so many! There must be at least fifty cameramen alone!

But I stay perfectly composed and pose for a few shots. After a second, Eric appears by my side with Orson in one arm and he holds out his other arm for me. "Shall we?" he asks.

"We shall."

I take Eric's arm in mine and we walk up the front steps of the museum, the lenses of the cameras following us. As we walk up the steps, I see giant banners hanging on the front of the museum.

'Zane Mercer's 'Progression.' A Story of Zane's Life Through His Art'

I smile up at the banners, as cheesy as they are, and walk into the museum. "Zane!"

I look to my right and see Anthony walking over to me and I smile. "Hey, Anthony," I say. "You've really outdone yourself this time."

"Only the best for my client. I'm just glad everything was finished in time. Did you know we didn't get the pamphlets until about three hours ago? I was damn near about to kill someone with my bare hands."

I chuckle and give Anthony a pat on the shoulder. He may be a bit greyer, but his smiling face puts me back to when I first met him over eight years ago. "How're my favorite homosexuals?"

We all turn and see Charles walking up to us, wearing a nice suit. "Hey, Charles," I say. "It's great to see you after so long."

I give Charles a hug and Anthony and Eric follow, Charles giving Orson a light pinch on the cheek. Charles is in his early seventies now, but I don't see any signs of him slowing down in the least. His hair is now fully white and is a bit thinner than before and his face has a few more wrinkles, but he's still the same Charles that I know and love.

Charles gazes around the gallery, taking everything in. "It's hard to believe you did all these pieces, Zane," he says.

"I've had a lot of free time some months ago," I reply. "And before I knew it, I had over a hundred pieces ready to be sold off." I look past Anthony. "Hey, Anthony. I think I see someone trying to sneak into the gallery."

Anthony whirls around and sees the man attempting to walk into the gallery. "Not on my watch..." he grumbles.

He reaches for the walkie-talkie on his hip and starts for the man, pressing the walkie-talkie to his mouth for security. "That guy really doesn't take a day off, does he?" Eric says.

"Not as long as we pay him," I reply.

With a sudden snap, Jason appears to Charles' left side, wearing his formal army outfit. "I love it when I can put this thing on," he says, running his hands over the medal-adorned blazer.

"I haven't seen you wear that since 2014," Eric says.

"That's because there hasn't been a night as important as this one since then. How're you holding up, Pop?"

"Boy, I may be old, but I've still got a lot of kick in me," Charles replies. "Can't say the same for your mother, though. She's always been one for staying at home with a good book." He looks back at me. "Sorry I couldn't get her to come this time, Zane. But she sends her best regards"

"It's no problem at all," I say. "Tell Susan I said hi when you get back home."

"Zane!"

I don't even have time to turn around as two bodies slam into my side. "Meg! Courtney! I can't breathe!" I plea.

The girls laugh and let me go before hugging me again, with less suffocation this time. "This is amazing!" Meg says. "God, you've still got the same magic touch even almost ten years later!"

"It's a shame you stopped sketching tattoos," says Courtney. "But I guess you're your own canvas for that!"

Meg and Courtney graduated from Stanford with me. Now, Meg is a bestselling comic book artist. Her comic series, Grey Hawk, has sold over seventeen million copies around the world, and she's currently working on the fourteenth comic in the series. Courtney is now an English professor at Stanford, inspiring kids the way she was when she was a student. She loves her job more than anything and the kids seem to love her just as much.

Meg looks over at Eric and sees Orson smiling at her. "Mommy Meg!" Orson says.

Meg smiles brightly at Orson and walks over to him. "How's my favorite little man?" she says, taking Orson from Eric arms.

While Orson may be me and Eric's son, Meg was the one who gave birth to him. She often comes and visits him so Orson gets the chance to grow up with his birth mother and he loves her just as much as me and Eric. Orson started calling her 'Mommy Meg' after he learned that he came out of her. Meg loved the nickname and it's stuck ever since.

As I watch Orson laughing in Meg's arms, there's a sudden tap on my shoulder and I see my ex-boyfriend standing next to me. "How's my favorite artist doing?" Damien asks with a smile.

"Hey, Damien!" I say, giving him a firm hug. "It's great to see you!"

I let him go a second later. Damien's still as handsome as eight years ago, but I mean that as a friend. Damien's also a professional baseball player, playing with the Washington Nationals as their starting pitcher. Just like Eric, Damien's out and proud and couldn't be happier with his life.

Standing next to Damien is a man who is just about two inches shorter than me with bright blonde hair, deep blue eyes, a handsome face and a fairly slim body. "Hi, Trevor," I say, giving the man a hug. "It's great to see you too."

"Thanks, Zane."

Trevor is Damien's husband of three years now. He works as an accountant in Washington D.C. and the two are very happy together. The two met during Damien's second year of college and really hit it off before they started dating. It was a bit awkward talking with him a first, seeing as I used to date Damien, but we pushed that aside and we're now good friends.

As I catch up with my friends, a few more of them arrive. A lot more, actually. Yeah, there's Josh and Leo and their old friends, but there's also Jack, Ty, Shane, some of Eric's old college teammates and some of his Giants teammates, all of my old friends from the art department, Xavier, Blake and Cassadee, Travis and Brandon and Luke and his family.

Mom, Dad, Todd, Hannah, Josh and Leo's parents, and Ryan and Nate arrive a few minutes later, Sebastian arriving with Mom and Dad. Sebastian's hair is just a touch greyer, but that's the only difference about him. He's still working for Mom and Dad and still enjoys his job. He and I stay in touch and, now that I'm older, he's dropped the 'Master' and just calls me Zane.

Once I'm caught up with all my friends and family, Anthony comes back, huffing as he steps up to me. "Thanks for catching that guy for me, Zane," he says. "He was a homeless guy who was trying to get to the food we have set up for the guests."

"Did you give him some food and send him on his way?"

"That and $500 cash so he can try and start his life over again. I just hope he doesn't spend it on booze or drugs or some shit like that." Anthony looks down at his watch before smiling. "Time for you to shine."

I smile and look at Eric, who's grinning down at me. "Go and show off, Mr. Artist."

He bends down and gives me a kiss before I walk with Anthony through the gallery. As we walk, I look at all my paintings, sketches, and drawings that adorn the walls. This gallery has a specific way you need to walk through it or else it won't make sense. You need to walk through from the first piece and follow the pieces by number in order for my story to be told.

The pieces start out very dark, showing how I was when I was younger, how I was angry with everybody and how I felt about the torment I put up with through high school. The pieces depict the torment in abstract detail, finally leading up to my attack in the locker room. I see the group of people that are looking at this painting with worried and scared looks on their faces.

But as we continue through the gallery, the works start to become lighter after a single sketch: a life-sized depiction of a younger Eric, radiance behind his beautiful face and body. The pieces continue to brighten, showing how I started to open up more to people, how I made friends, and how all the hate I felt was starting to disappear.

We reach the final third of the paintings and these are my favorite ones. They seem to breathe life and love and I can tell by several faces that the patrons feel it too. These pieces show my life after Eric changed me for the better and how happy I was an am. My favorite one is of two abstract figures holding a bright blue bundle with a small face, me and Eric holding Orson just hours after his birth.

The final picture is a large twenty-foot sketch that took me two weeks to finish, but it's by far my favorite piece out of everything here. The sketch is of my family, all my friends, and me together, smiling without a care in the world. This piece isn't for sale and is just there to being the story of my first twenty-seven years to a close.

Just past the sketch is a leather chair meant for me. Anthony and I stop and he turns to me. "You know what to do, right?" Anthony asks.

"Sit here, look pretty, answer every question honestly, and smile," I reply.

"You got it. I'm going to make sure everything's going perfectly. Go ahead and take a seat. At 10:00, there's going to be a small press conference that's open to all the guests here tonight, so that's a little over three hours from now. Good luck. If you get in trouble, security guards will be close by. Good luck."

Anthony gives my shoulder a pat before going through the gallery, leaving me alone. I take a seat in the leather chair and wait patiently for anyone to walk up to me to ask any question, which shouldn't be for a while as the gallery just opened. I ease into the chair and sit back, listening to the echo of the patrons.

But something catches my attention after a minute. It doesn't match the soft dialogue of the patrons in the gallery or the light music playing. No, it sounds like...whimpering. I rise out of my seat and listen for the source of the noise. I see a hallway in the back of the gallery and I can hear the echo of the whimpering from there.

The security guards arrive and stand on both sides of my chair. "Excuse me," I say to the guard on my left.

"Yes, Mr. Mercer?" he responds.

"Tell anyone that finishes walking through the gallery that I'll be right back. There's something I need to check on."

"Of course, Mr. Mercer."

I rise from my chair and walk slowly to the hallway. As I get closer, the noise slowly gets louder and louder. My feet quietly walk into the hallway and I peer around the corner. Sitting against the wall is a small boy, about 7 or 8, with dark blonde hair and fair skin, with his fists pressed against his eyes and tears sliding down his face.

Concerned, I step over to the boy and kneel down in front of him. "Hey, are you okay?" I ask.

He lowers his hands from his eyes and green irises meet me. "I-I don't know where my dad is..." he feebly says.

I look down at the boy's clothes and see he's in a plain t-shirt and jeans. Judging from that, I can tell the boy snuck in here (we really need better security at these things). "Why're you in here?" I ask. "Did you and your dad get separated?"

The boy nods his head and wipes his eyes. "Dad and I got in a fight and I ran off," he says. "I ran in here and I got scared because I was lost."

"Do you know how long you've been here?" The boy shakes his head. "What did you and your dad fight about?"

The boy sniffs his nose a little. "D-Dad and I were about to get dinner together when he got a phone call and said that we weren't going to get dinner. He'd promised me we would and I got mad, and he got mad back at me, and I ran off. Now, I'm here."

If they were about to get dinner, he can't have been here long. "Well, how about you come out of this hallway and we can wait for your dad together?" I say. "There's a comfy chair just around the corner you can sit in. You want to sit in it?"

The boy stares at me for a second and I smile. He nods after a moment of silence and I help him up to his feet. I hold my hand out for him and he carefully takes it. "I'm Zane," I say. "What's your name?"

"M-Max."

We walk out of the hallway together and walk over to my chair. The security guards give me a weird look as I walk up to them. "Call the police," I say. "Tell them that a missing boy has been found at the LACMA. He has dark blonde hair, is about 7 years old..."

"I'm 8," Max protests.

I smile down at him for a second. "Sorry, 8 years old, and has green eyes. His name is Max."

The security guards nod and walk off. I hoist Max up and set him down in the chair. "Thank you," Max nervously says.

I can tell that he's a bit scared. "Max, do you know what to do with strangers?" I ask.

He nods. "If someone I don't know tells me to come with him, scream as loud as I can and try to get away."

"Then why didn't you do that with me?"

Max reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small pamphlet. I see that it's one of the pamphlets for the gallery tonight and I'm on the front. "You're the same man as the one on this thing," he says. "You look like a nice man and you look like you want to help me."

I smile at Max. "I do want to help you, but you really should be more careful. Would you have screamed and tried to get away if you didn't know I was the one on that pamphlet?" Max nods. "Then okay. Just try to be careful in the future."

Max nods and looks down at his lap. All of a sudden, I hear a small grumble and see it's Max's stomach. I reach into the inside of my suit jacket and pull out the candy bar I put in there earlier and hold it in front of Max. "You're hungry, aren't you?" I ask.

"A little..."

He takes the candy bar from me and unwraps it and hungrily devours it. Once he finishes the candy bar, he goes right back to looking down at his lap. God, this kid must be terrified. He doesn't know where his dad is and he's talking to a stranger. I scratch the back of my head, trying to think of what to do until the police get here.

As I gaze around, I hear a small voice come from the chair. "Um...are you an artist?" Max asks me.

I look down at him and smile. "Yes, I am," I say. "All of the paintings in here tonight are mine. I drew all of them." All of a sudden, Max's face lights up and he stares at me in awe. "Do you like to draw, Max?"

He nods with a small smile on his face. "Art is my favorite class in school. My teacher always tells me that I draw really well and I like drawing a lot."

I smile and reach into my jacket pocket and pull out a small sketchpad and pencil (just in case I come up with an idea for a new drawing or if I get a bit bored). I hand the pad and pencil of Max. "Do you want to draw a little? Maybe it'll make you feel better."

Max waits a second before taking the sketchpad and pencil from my hand. "Thank you," he politely says.

He opens to the first page and immediately goes into drawing. On Max's face, I see complete concentration, nothing but him, the pencil, and the paper. I stand to the left of the chair and continue to wait for anyone who finishes walking through the gallery, but several minutes pass and no one seems to be even close to the end.

I glance back at Max and see him still working on the first piece of paper in the sketchpad. "What're you drawing?" I ask.

Max glances over at me and I see his face turn a bit red. "Um...it's a dragon..."

"May I see?"

He slowly turns the sketchpad to me and I feel my eyes widen. This is...good. Really good in fact. It's only been about ten minutes since he started his drawing and there's so much detail in this. "Max, this is amazing," I say.

"I-It's not that good..."

"Yes, it is." I look away from the sketchpad and look down at Max. "Why don't you think it's good, Max?"

He turns away from me. "Because guys aren't supposed to be good at art. They're supposed to play sports, get dirty, and make fart jokes. But...I'm not like that. I like to watch sports more than play them, I do get dirty sometimes, but I don't like getting dirty, and I think fart jokes are stupid."

I move a bit closer to Max. "You don't like that you're good at art, do you, Max?"

Max nods a bit. "My classmates make fun of me for it. They say it's stupid that I want to draw more than go and play kickball with them. But I can't help it. I hate that I'm the way that I am. I just...I just want to be normal..."

Max lets his head go limp and stares into his lap. I stare at the young boy next to me, who reminds me of me when I was his age (God, I've gotten old, haven't I?). I lightly place my hand on Max's shoulder. "Max, there's nothing wrong with liking to draw," I say.

He looks up at me and I see his eyes are a bit shiny. "Then why do people make fun of me for it?"

"Because they don't understand how fun drawing is. Max, do you ever just lose yourself when you're drawing? Like...there's nothing but you and the pencil and paper in front of you?"

It's just for a split second, but I see a flash behind Max's eyes. "Y-Yeah?"

"I get that all the time. It's one of the most wonderful feelings I experience. Whenever I sit down to draw or paint or anything involving art, it feels like the world around me just disappears. And what's left is just me and my canvas. That's what I love about drawing. Just that little bit of time when I can escape the hectic world around me makes drawing all the better.

"Now, Max. Look at me. What do you see?"

Max gives me an up and down look. "I see a tall man with a really big body, but it isn't the kind of big like my teacher. I see a really cool hairstyle on his head and a blue eye and a black eye. I see drawings on your wrists and jewelry in your ears that I sometimes see people on the streets having."

"And I'm a guy that really likes to draw. Is there something wrong with that?"

It takes a few seconds, but Max slowly shakes his head. "No. It looks like you could beat anyone up that tries to make fun of you for liking to draw."

I smile a bit. "I might be able to, but you shouldn't try to beat anyone up. And if someone says it's stupid for a guy to be drawing, I don't care what they say. They may be allowed to say what they want about it, but their words don't hurt me. And it should be the same for you, Max.

"Don't let those kids from your class, or anyone, tell you that what you like to do is stupid. Show them that you don't care what they say. You like doing it, and that's all that matters. And if it continues, then tell someone, your teacher, your principal, or either of your parents. They can make it stop for you.

"You have a gift, Max. Embrace it, love it, and keep drawing. Maybe in twenty years, you'll be in a gallery like this."

Max stares at me in silence before a smile splits his face. "You think I can be in here someday?"

"If you work really hard, I'm sure you can." Max continues to smile and I return it with one of my own. Out of my peripheral, I see a few guests finishing up walking through the gallery. "Excuse me, Max. I need to talk to some people. May I see your drawing when you finish it?"

"Yeah. I want you to see it. Um...thank you, Mr. Mercer."

"Just Zane is fine, Max."

I look back in time to see the group of patrons walking up to me. I put on my best face and smile as the guests walk up to me and I give them my hand to shake, thanking them for coming tonight. A few of them ask me a couple of questions and I answer them completely honestly, getting a few laughs in the process.

This continues for the next twenty minutes, guests coming up to me and asking questions and me answering them and shaking hands. I keep an eye on Max, but he doesn't move an inch from the chair or even look up from the sketchpad. As I'm talking to a group of guests, I feel a noticeable change in the air of the gallery.

The noise seems to have gotten a little louder and the calm, echoed conversations I've been hearing have turned concerned. I look down the hall of the gallery and see several uniformed officers walking in my direction. As they got closer, I see a man in a dark blue suit is following them closely.

The officers walk over to me and flash their badges. "Good evening, Mr. Mercer," the officers say.

"Evening," I say. "I take it you're here about Max?"

"Yes, sir," says the officer on the left. "We had to get the boy's father, Mr. Turin, before we could get here. We apologize if we took too long."

"It's no problem. Max was keeping me company."

"Max!"

The man in the dark blue suit pushes past the officers. I see he looks to be in his early forties with short brownish blonde hair, green eyes covered by frameless glasses, an average frame, and is about an inch or two shorter than me. He steps past me and stands in front of the chair where Max is seated.

Max continues to look down at the sketchpad and keeps drawing, not acknowledging his father is standing in front of him. "Max," Mr. Turin says, "where have you been?"

"Here," Max replies in monotone. "I ran in here after you yelled at me and I've been in here ever since."

Mr. Turin's lips press into a thin line. "Max, I-I know what I said was really mean, but...but I was just stressed and you getting mad at me only made me even more stressed."

"I only got mad at you because you broke your promise to me. You promised me last week that we would go out to dinner tonight, just you and me. But when you said we weren't going out to dinner anymore, I got mad."

"Because I said we couldn't go out to dinner? Max, we could've gone out on another day."

"It's not that," Max growls. "It's because you and I haven't spent a day together in a really long time. It's always just me and Mom. When you promised that you and I would go out and spend some time together, I was really excited. But you broke that promise, and I got mad and you yelled at me."

I see a look of regret pass over Mr. Turin's face. "M-Max, please. I'm sorry about what I said, but..."

"You said that me liking to draw was stupid," Max quietly says. He stops drawing and sets the sketchpad and pencil on his legs and stares down at his lap. "You called what I like to do stupid..."

Without warning, two small tears fall out of Max's eyes. I see his father is at a complete loss about what to do, a look of sadness and confusion on his face. "Excuse me," I say, stepping forward. "Mr. Turin?"

He turns toward me. "Kenneth Turin," he says. "Uh...you're Zane Mercer, right?"

"Yes, sir. I'm the one that found your son in the back of the gallery crying to himself. He was really scared when I found him."

"Um...thank you for finding him. I'm sorry if there was any trouble caused by..."

"There was no trouble at all, but I must say that, as a parent myself, you need to start spending more time with your son."

Kenneth gives me an offended look. "Excuse me?" he says. "I spend time with my son."

"But how much time do you spend with Max? When was the last time you and he spent more than an hour together?"

He starts to open his mouth to reply, but no words come out. "Let me tell you something, Kenneth," I continue. "I've known Max for not even an hour and I've learned that he's being bullied in school by his classmates for liking to draw and that he has a gift that maybe one in a million people have.

"Tell me, Kenneth. Did you know any of that?"

Kenneth stares at me in complete shock for several seconds before turning to Max, who's still letting his tears run. "Max, why didn't you tell me that you were being bullied in school?"

Max sniffs his nose and looks up at his dad. "I tried," he says. "But whenever I tried to talk to you about it, you told me to leave you alone because you were working..."

Kenneth continues to stare at Max and, little by little, I see his face breaking. "Kenneth, what do you do for a living?" I ask.

He turns to me, still in a bit of shock. "I-I'm an investment banker at United Liberty Bank on Central Avenue."

"Tough job. The hours must be long."

"They are. Not to mention the clients I deal with. It gets really stressful at times. I'm actually working more hours than I normally do now so I can get a promotion I've been working for months to get. But my boss hasn't made a decision yet."

"Excuse me for a second."

I reach into my pocket and pull out my cell phone, tapping the screen a few times before I hold it to my ear. The dial tone rings through my ear for several second before the line clicks. "Hello?" says the deep male voice on the other side of the line.

"Hi, Tim?" I say. "It's Zane Mercer."

"Ah! Good to hear from you, Zane! Sorry I couldn't make it to your gallery tonight. But my wife's sick and I need to take care of her."

"It's no problem, Tim. Listen, I've heard from someone that there's a promotion up for grabs at your bank."

"Yes, there is. I'm currently torn between two of my workers: Kenneth Turin and Gary Baugh. Both are good bankers and I can't seem to make a decision."

Alarm bells start going off in my head. "Gary Baugh?" I say. "Isn't he your really sleazy banker?"

"He may look sleazy, but he's good at his job."

"I'd advise against Gary, Tim. Through my connections, I've heard of numerous counts of sexual harassment being filed at your bank because of the actions of Gary, but none of them have gotten through."

I hear a sharp intake of a breath through my phone. "Excuse me?"

"And I also have several friends that work at your bank. I've been told that there are numerous holes in some of your files of complaints in recent months and some are even missing. And all signs point in the direction of one Gary Baugh."

"You're not kidding me, are you, Zane?" Tim asks through gritted teeth.

"You're too good of a friend for me to kid about stuff like this, Tim. I'd get an investigation going through your bank and get to the bottom of this. But I've also heard some reports about Kenneth Turin."

I glance at Kenneth and see he's as white as a sheet. "Dear God," Tim says. "Please don't let my two best bankers be deceiving me."

"Thankfully, Tim, it's only Gary. I've heard a lot of good things about Kenneth through some friends who have accounts at the bank. He's always a friendly and approachable person, he's on time, he's courteous, and he gets the job done without any problems. If I were you, I'd give Kenneth that promotion."

There's silence on the other end of the line. "Hmmm," Tim hums. "Kenneth is one of the best bankers I've seen in my years at the bank. He seems to enjoy his job, he's nice to our customers, and a lot of people like him, including myself. He's even added more hours to his schedule to show that he's a hard worker. Zane, I have to thank you. You almost made me make a bad decision."

"I'm just glad you're going to make the right decision, Tim. Tell Mary I hope she gets better soon."

"I'll do just that. Thanks again, Zane. Good luck with the rest of your gallery."

I hang up my phone and slide it into my pocket and look back at Kenneth, who's staring at me with a wide-open mouth. "You should be getting that promotion by next Monday," I say.

"H-How did you do all that?"

"It was easy. I've made connections over the years and Tim and I grew to be friends after I started an account at Liberty United Bank a few years ago. I have a few friends that work at the bank and some other friends that have accounts at the bank. When you have friends in higher places, you have a large web of knowledge.

"I think you can reduce your hours at the bank after the weekend."

Kenneth lets out a large sigh. "You have no idea how grateful I am to you right now, Zane. With Gary maybe being fired for those sexual harassment complaints you said, I can stop doing his work for him."

I quickly put two and two together. "Wait, those extra hours at the bank. Are those Gary's hours?"

Kenneth nods. "A few years ago when I first started out at the bank, I made a small mistake with a few clients' bank accounts. I almost made them lose all of the money in their checking and savings accounts. But thankfully, I managed to correct this mistake and left the secret under wraps for no one to find out.

"But Gary came up to me a few months ago and told me that if I didn't start doing his work for him, he'd somehow make it look like that mistake I made all those years ago was me embezzling money from the bank. I was stuck and I couldn't risk my career, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to take care of Max with my wife, so I had to listen to Gary. It was the same tonight.

"I was going to get some dinner with Max when Gary called me and told me I had to fill out some of his papers by the end of the day. I knew the papers would take a long time, so I had to tell Max we couldn't go out to eat and that I had to get back home to work on those papers. Max got mad and all the pent-up anger over the last few months just...exploded out of me. And Max ran off..."

"So all the work Gary's done over the last few months?"

Kenneth nods a second time. "It was me doing his work for him."

"Sounds like you and Tim have some things to talk about next week. I think it will involve Gary and the police." Kenneth cracks a smile. "And it also sounds like you and Max need to talk too."

He nods and turns back to Max, who doesn't seem to have been listening to the conversation and is still staring into his lap. "Max, please look at me," Kenneth begs. It takes a second, but Max slowly lifts his head. "Max, I know I haven't been the best dad lately, but it was because I was scared that something bad was going to happen to me if I didn't work all the time."

"You were being bullied too?" Max asks.

"Yeah, I was being bullied too, Max. But I'm not going to be bullied anymore and I'm going to start spending a lot more time with you. I'm going to start working less and I'm going to be home a lot more. I'm sorry about what I said earlier. I really am. If you like to draw, then I'm going to get you the best art classes I can find.

"I'll make sure those kids at your school stop bullying you and, most importantly, I'm going to start being a better dad for you, Max. And that's a promise I'm going to keep."

Max wipes his eyes dry and continues to stare at his father. "Can we please go get dinner together?" he asks. "I'm really hungry and I want to spend time with my dad."

Kenneth smiles at his son. "We can get whatever you want, buddy." Max returns Kenneth's smile and holds his arms out. Kenneth takes Max under the arms and lifts him out of the chair, holding him tightly against his chest. "I was so scared when you ran off, buddy. Please don't ever do that again."

Max holds his father in silence, just holding him around the neck. After a minute, Max lets go and Kenneth lightly kisses his cheek. Max looks over at me and holds the pencil and sketchpad out. "Thank you letting me use this," he says.

I look down at the sketchpad and see that Max's dragon is complete. And I'll be damned, it's freaking amazing. "Keep it," I say with a smile. "I want you to fill that sketchpad with all of your drawings, Max."

Max smiles and takes the sketchpad back. "I will."

Kenneth turns toward me and extends his hand. "Thank you for taking care of my son. And thank you for helping me."

I take Kenneth's hand and give it a firm shake. "I'm just glad everything's okay with you and Max. Now, go and spend some time together. You two need it."

Kenneth smiles and secures Max in his arms. The two leave after talking with the officers for a minute or two, Max resting his head on Kenneth's shoulder. After answering a few questions with the officers, they leave and I fall back into my chair, suddenly exhausted. I rest my head on the cushion behind me, closing my eyes for a minute.

After what feels like a minute, a voice appears in front of me. "Is Mr. Artist a bit tired?"

I slowly open my eyes and see my six foot four, incredibly handsome boyfriend standing in front of me, our son in his arms. I smile at the two. "You have no idea," I say. "I'll explain when we get home. It's a bit of a long story."

----------------

A few hours later, about all of the guests have walked through the gallery, and all of them have given me positive feedback, even some of the hard critics that are here have said they enjoyed my artwork. And throughout the evening, people have been purchasing my pieces at a much higher price than I had anticipated.

I was expecting to maybe take in about a hundred thousand from my pieces. I had hoped to get two hundred thousand, but no. The hundred and ten pieces sold tonight have brought me a staggering final amount of over five million dollars. When Anthony told me how much I had made tonight, I thought I was going to shit myself.

The final nine pieces had been given large offers as well, but they aren't for sale and are coming home with me. And now, I'm walking up onto a stage in front of a little over a thousand people. I feel every eye on me and while I can put on a strong face, I'm screaming on the inside. Finally, Anthony walks onto the stage and relieves me of some of the pressure.

He produces a microphone and holds it to his mouth. "I would like to thank everyone for coming to this gallery showing tonight," he says. "I hope you enjoyed Zane's artwork as much as I did. And I would also like to thank all of those who had purchased Zane's works. Now, I'm taking all the air out of the room. Here's the man I know you're all here to see: Zane Mercer."

The gallery fills with applause as I step over to Anthony and take the microphone from him. I look out at the audience in front of me and take in a breath. "Wow," I say. "I've been doing this for years now and I'm still not used to it." The audience laughs. "As Anthony said before, I would like to thank you all for coming to my gallery showing tonight.

"Some of you are my close personal family and friends, but many of you are seeing my art for the first time. I hope you have enjoyed seeing my artwork tonight. Some of you are also some of the biggest names in art and I've even look up to some of you. To have you see my art in person is a blessing.

"I just want to take this moment to thank each and every one of you personally for seeing my artwork. Now, I see a few people twitching in the audience, so I think I'm going to open for a few questions."

Almost immediately, several hands shoot up in the audience. I pick the first one I see. "Zane, what was your inspiration for you gallery tonight?" a woman asks. "I'm especially curious about the first thirty-seven paintings and drawings."

"I wanted to show people my life first hand and the first third of the gallery showed my life growing up. Growing up, although privileged, was a difficult one. I was a very small and shy kid growing up and I was constantly bullied for it growing up. My parents, Richard and Monica Mercer, constantly worked and I didn't see them very often so it was a bit sad.

"During my high school age, I started to get tattoos and piercings and began to dye my hair in order to try and get a reaction from someone, to get someone to at least talk to me. Yeah, I was that desperate for a bit of human interaction. But the only thing that happened was that I was bullied even more for it."

I gaze out at the audience and spy Damien. In unspoken word, he nods and smiles at me. "During my senior year of high school, that was when my life took a turn for the worse. I entered a relationship with Damien Branson, who was a classmate with me at the time. He and I secretly dated for two months and it was nice at first.

"But in March of 2013, I was found kissing Damien in my high school locker room by Damien's baseball teammates. I don't like to talk about what happened next, but let's just say it ended with me in the hospital. My parents came by the hospital and, while I wanted them to at least hug me and tell me it was going to be okay, my parents kicked me out of my house because of their fear that me being gay would hurt their business."

The audience quietly murmurs. The country knows the story of what happened between me and my parents, but it's still a bit of a shock to this day. "I lived in a homeless shelter for about two months after I was kicked out of my house and, after I was accepted into Stanford University, I left Dallas without letting anyone know.

"That was the basis for the first third of the paintings and drawings here tonight."

"What about the second third?" I hear a man's voice call out.

"The second third helped to depict my time in college. When I first arrived at Stanford, I was angry with everyone and didn't want to be close to a single person. But about three months after I first arrived at Stanford, I met my first real friend when he came into our dorm room.

"Leo Rusden-Trigon, Leo Trigon back then, was my roommate. And when I first saw him, I honestly thought he wasn't real. I mean, you've seen him, right?"

Much of the audience nods understandingly and I see Leo blushing harshly. "I was actually intimidated by Leo at first, but I was able to open up a little while. Later that same day, I met Leo's now husband, then fiancée, Josh Rusden. I thought he was a tank when I first saw him. He was seriously huge. But his light-hearted and calm personality told me he was a nice guy.

"But there was a third man I met that day who would change my life forever, and he was still as handsome as he is today: my boyfriend, Eric Swanson." I find Eric in the crowd and see he's smiling brightly at me. "To be honest, when I first met Eric, I hated him on sight because he reminded me so much of my ex-boyfriend.

"On top of that, he was a bit of a jerk, so I wasn't interested in getting to know him in the least. But luckily for me, Eric was interested in getting to know me. We started talking a lot more and I started to like him. And when he confessed to me that he liked me, I was actually so surprised that I ran out of the bathroom he told me in.

"Things were pretty tense between us afterword, but Eric and I talked again and we had our first kiss about nine years ago. Since then, Eric and I have stayed together and he's helped me with so much. Back at Stanford, he helped me with my art, gave me a boost of confidence, and I started to make lifelong friends.

"Eric even helped me to reconcile with my parents after almost a year of not seeing them and even gave me the confidence to confront my old high school bullies. I can't ever thank him enough for all he's done to help me and I love him every day for it. I always will."

The audience suddenly starts applauding and I feel myself blushing at it. "I take it the final third of the gallery is your life after college?" a woman calls out.

"Yes," I say. "After college, Eric started playing for the San Francisco Giants and I began to work as a professional artist. I had a bit of credibility after a gallery showing when I was 19, so it helped me get a start in the art world. Eric and I lived together after college and about two years after we graduated, we decided we were ready to start a family together.

"So we asked my good friend, Meg Schultz, if she would be a surrogate mother for us. She immediately said yes and nine months later, our son, Orson, was born and that was one of the proudest days of my life. Since then, our lives have been absolutely crazy. With Eric playing in baseball games, me working on my art, and us raising Orson together, we often looked like two people who belong in a nuthouse.

"But we've raised a wonderful son together, and we love him more than anything. We've stayed good friends with all of our friends from college and have made numerous new friends in the process. I feel absolutely blessed to have my life going the way it is, and I wouldn't want a single thing to change."

I look around the crowd and try to find my boyfriend, but he seems to have disappeared and Orson is now in Josh's arms. Suddenly confused, I look around the room, but I can't seem to find him anywhere. But a sudden pair of footsteps to my right tells me differently. I see Eric stepping onto the stage and I'm left very lost.

Eric walks over to me and smiles down at me. "May I borrow that microphone?" he asks. I hand Eric the microphone and he looks out at the audience. "Hi, everyone. Hope you all don't mind me stealing the show for a few minutes."

What the hell is he doing? I'm left standing on the stage, confused as all hell. "You've all heard how Zane feels about me," Eric continues, "but a lot of you don't know how much Zane really means to me. To me, Zane is...everything. He's the first thing I see when I wake up in the morning, he's the last thing I see before I fall asleep, and he's the one person I want to see every day for the rest of my life.

"I've loved Zane every day since we first got together, and I'll love him until the day I die. He's the most wonderful man in the world to me and I'll do anything just to see him smile. And...and I want to spend the rest of my life with him."

My heart suddenly stops at the words. Eric tosses the microphone to Anthony, reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small, black velvet box. And when I see him slowly fall to a knee, my tears fall without any warning and I choke back a cry, pressing my hand to my mouth. Eric slowly opens the box and sitting inside is a bright, gold wedding band.

Eric smiles up and me while my tears leak onto my hand and a grin hides behind my fingers. "Zane," Eric says. "Will you give me the honor of being my husband? Will you marry me?"

The audience to my left erupts into cheers and applause but I can't hear them at all. I'm too busy crying tears of joy. I finally pull my shaky hand from my lips and manage to smile past the tears. "YES!!" I yell. "Dear God, yes!"

Eric's smile splits into a full-blown grin and I see two tears of his own fall from his eyes. He rises back to his feet and pulls the wedding band from the box and takes my left hand. I hold out my hand and Eric slides the band onto my finger and I feel it's a perfect fit. Eric takes my face in my hands and presses his lips to mine.

I hear the audience continue to cheer, but right now, it's just me and my fiancée. Eric pulls away after a minute and wipes my tears from my eyes before wiping his own. Eric keeps an arm around my waist as we turn and look out at the crowd. I find Mom and Dad almost immediately. Mom's smiling brightly while wiping her face dry and Dad has the biggest grin I've ever seen on his face. Sebastian, who's standing close to them, claps along with the crowd, all the while smiling.

Todd and Hannah both grin widely at us, holding each other closely. Josh and Leo cheer along with the crowd, Orson, Aiden, and Jade cheering with them. Meg and Courtney are screaming at the top of their lungs, jumping up and down like maniacs. Jack, Ty, Shane, Travis, Brandon, and Eric's former and current teammates are whooping and pumping their fists in the air.

My old college art department friends, Xavier, Blake and Cassadee, and some of my high school classmates and are a mix of cheering, hollering, and crying, but they're all smiling. Damien and Trevor are both smiling brightly at me, Damien's arm around Trevor's shoulders as they both cheer. Charles and Jason and Luke's family stand close to one another as they smile and cheer for me and Eric.

The crowd is filled with smiles and the cheers continue to what seems like forever. Eric holds me tightly against him as we look out at the crowd filled with our families and friends. Nine years ago, I never would've seen myself where I am today: a successful artist with dozens of great friends and a family the loves and cares about me and a wonderful son and a beautiful fiancée.

----------------

The me of nine years ago would never have expected that I'd be engaged to the most amazing man I've ever known. I probably would've punched someone who even joked about that. Now, I couldn't be any happier than I am right now with Zane. I guess life can make you go through some pretty crazy things, but the crazy things I've gone through have been nothing but for the better.

I turn and look down at Zane, who meets my gaze with his beautiful black and blue eyes.

----------------

Eric smiles down at me and I smile back at him. He and I wrap our arms around each other and just hold each other tightly, neither of us saying a word, but the love between us saying everything that needs to be said.

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I rest my forehead on top of Zane's head and breath in deeply and slowly, never wanting this moment to end. But as I hold Zane, thoughts pop into my head. Could I have been a straight man and gone and been in a relationship with a woman? Sure, I could have, but now I can't see myself doing anything else besides marrying Zane.

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Could things have gone well for me growing up and I would've stayed in Dallas with my family and old high school classmates and gone to college back home? Yeah, it could've been like that, but I'm so glad that it didn't.

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Could I have never met Zane and we would have never gotten together? Of course that could've happened, but I thank God every day that I met the love of my life.

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Could I have never met Eric and I would've stayed the angry, hate-filled guy I used to be? Yeah, I guess it could've been like that, but I'm so glad Eric changed me for the better.

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Zane wraps his arms around me tighter and I can feel his heart beating against my chest.

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Eric presses his fingers into my back and I feel happiness spread over me.

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Zane pushes his face into my shoulder and I feel his easy breaths putting me at ease.

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Eric lifts his forehead off my head and looks down at me and flashes his prefect, white teeth.

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Zane grins up at me and his beautiful eyes flash in the light.

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"Do you know how much you mean to me?"

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"Not as much as you mean to me."

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"I love you, Eric."

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"And I love you, Zane."

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Eric presses his lips to mine and goes back to resting his head on top of mine.

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Zane lets his head sit on my shoulder and we continue to sway slowly back and forth.

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And at this very moment in time, standing here on this stage with my friends and family watching...

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With the love of my life in my arms as I squeeze him tightly...

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I feel absolutely and perfectly...

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Complete.

 

RichardAdams

[email protected]

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