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My dreams over the next week were unusually vivid, and even more unusually sensual. Most of them featured Sarah, of course. A good number had Sam in them too, though a few paired her up with Nicky instead. Wednesday morning, my alarm jolted me out of one that just featured Sam. I spent a few seconds cursing it for waking me up before he got his belt off, and the rest of the day being puzzled by that reaction.

It’s not that I’m any kind of homophobe. The cool crowd tried to tell me I should be, back in high school, but since they harassed me for my lunch money on a semi-regular basis, I wasn’t terribly inclined to respect their opinions. I’d always seen it as sort of a stronger version of, oh, preferring blondes over brunettes – one of those things that some people liked and others, myself included, didn’t.

But that was just it. I’d never been attracted to guys, and I’d known some of all shapes, including some big, muscular ones. I’d never had dreams of a guy before that left me panting with lust when I woke up.

I wasn’t going to delude myself here, though; I was crushing hard on Sarah, and even if I didn’t see myself acting on it with any guy, even Sam was kind of neat to think about. No, I was quite honest with myself. That didn’t make it any less a bitch, though, that my dreams had to fix on someone married.

Oh, well. At least they seemed to find it flattering rather than threatening, and they were fun to hang out with.

The night before, I’d dumped a few things into the crock of the slow cooker and tucked it in the refrigerator. It was as I’d left it – including the note taped onto it promising a dire fate to anyone who messed with it – so off I went to work.

I was a bit anxious, but at least I wasn’t as distracted as the week before. I made it home without incident, washed up, and moved the crock out of the fridge and into the slow cooker proper.

The weather was mild enough that even with that to burden me, walking wasn’t any trouble. I hadn’t got more than a hundred feet away from my door, though, when a honk drew my attention to the road and, specifically, a cobalt-blue station wagon.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Sarah called as the window slid down. “I knew you lived close, but I still thought the odds were against passing you on the way home!”

“Small world,” I agreed with a laugh.

She popped the trunk and had me put my burden there, giving me a ride the rest of the way to their place. Close as it was, that was about enough time for me to reveal that it contained a mild chili and for her to applaud the choice.

Sam was ready to go when we got there; he got the slow cooker installed on some free counter space and put it on High, and as soon as Sarah had got out of her suit and into another revealing dress, this one a deep wine-red, we were on our way. This time, we went on foot and got a few seats at the bar, having some mixed drinks over a plate of stuffed mushroom caps.

I’ll never forget the look of amused surprise on poor Enrique’s face when Sarah asked him, in a voice dripping with sensuality, for a Sloe Comfortable Screw. He took it like a trooper, though – didn’t even bat an ear, damn him, even as I blushed to hell and back – and laughed right along with them, whipping the drink up in moments.

“Oh, stop teasing the poor man,” Sam laughed, when her next request turned out to be a Screaming Orgasm. At least she’d said it in a normal, conversational tone… actually, that didn’t really help at all, come to think of it.

“Nah, it’s okay. Keeps life interesting,” the chinchilla laughed, setting a glass down on the mat.

“She does this all the time,” Sam mock-complained to the man. “I swear, she’s trying to see if I have a jealous nature or something. Only three people haven’t been offended that she was just teasing, and one of them was gay!”

We shared a chuckle over that little faux pas, and as it died down, something possessed me to cut in, “Well, what about me?”

“Oh, are you gay too, then?” Sarah asked, all innocence.

I almost choked on my drink as a fragment of the morning’s dream flickered through my mind. Was she kidding, or was she serious? Either way, what could I say? If I said no, that could be taken as denial; if I said yes, they might take it seriously.

On second thought, what did it matter? If worst came to worst, they might try to set me up with a guy. I’d just say no, and that’d be it, right?

Or… “If it protects me from that kind of teasing, maybe I should consider it,” I laughed.

Another round of laughter went up. Sam gave me a light dig in the ribs with his elbow, saying, “Wouldn’t work. Gay guys might not be so strongly affected, but she’ll try anyway.”

“Maybe that’s the sort of protection I meant,” I shot back, reaching for my Caesar. “Who said I was just talking about claiming to be? Maybe I should give it a shot. It’s not like I’ve had any luck with women anyway; if I branch out, maybe I can actually get some instead of being stuck with the eternal F-word.” I poured the drink down the hatch, alcohol and Cayenne pepper vying to be first to burn through my throat lining.

“Whoa there, Tiger!” Sarah put a hand on my thigh, all too far north, and I couldn’t help but tense. “You’re either taking that even lighter or way more seriously than I meant, and I’m not sure which.”

“Sarah…” Sam’s warning voice was almost a growl as his hand came to rest, very deliberately, on my shoulder. There was a moment of strained silence.

“Sorry,” she murmured, pulling her hand away.

I set my glass back down on the bar. “Me, too,” I sighed. Why couldn’t I just enjoy myself for once? “Thought I had it under control.”

Ric pulled that glass out of the way and set a shot glass on the bar top. “Anyone else, I’d think he’d had one too many,” he observed, moving to collect a brown bottle. “But you, I don’t think you’ve had enough. Have some old Reisler’s on me, huh?”

As I reached for the glass, the chinchilla gave my hand a squeeze around it. Looking up at him, the questions forming in my head were just as quickly silenced by the look in his dark eyes. Been there, those eyes said; and, I know your pain.

“Thanks, Ric,” I murmured, and surprised myself by only taking a small sip.

“So.” Sam gave my shoulder a light pat before he, too, drew his hand away. “Just so we’re on the same page, can I ask how serious you were?”

“I don’t know,” I groaned. “I’ve never tried anything like that, but I guess on some level I’m kind of curious. I mean, gay guys enjoy it, so it can’t be all that bad, right? But no guys have really caught my eye, and I guess I haven’t caught theirs either, so it’s a moot point.” More scotch.

“Maybe they’re scared off,” Enrique suggested.

“Scared off?” I repeated. “By a short, scrawny, unglamorous, and thoroughly unexciting thing like me?”

Three drawn breaths let me know I’d gone a little too far there, and Sam was the first to speak up. “Actually, the fluffball has a point. Up close, you’re actually kind of striking. You’ve got that natural contrast, and your eyes are intense. Besides, if they’ve seen you go for women, it’s not surprising that they’d assume you’re straight and back off, thinking you wouldn’t be interested. They might even worry that you’d be offended.”

“Come on.” Another swallow. “Occam’s Razor. Wouldn’t it be simpler to say that they’re not any more interested than the girls are?”

“Except,” said Sarah, “that at risk of sounding like I’m teasing, there is at least one girl who thinks you’re quite attractive.”

I almost demanded to know who, but my brain caught up in that span of time between my mouth opening and the words tumbling out, for once. “Oh,” was about all I could manage at that point.

“Maybe we should head out for dinner?” Sam suggested. “It’s been ages since I had a good chili, and I swear I can smell the pot simmering from here.”

“Maybe we should,” Sarah agreed. “We’re out of mushroom caps, after all. Thanks for the drinks, Enrique, it was nice meeting you.”

“Yeah.” I drained the last of my drink and managed a crooked grin. “Thanks for listening to me bitch, too.”

“All part of the job,” Ric chuckled, waving us out.

The talk turned to safer things on the way to their place – namely, our respective pastimes. I already knew Sam practised judo, and was unsurprised to learn that he did strength training, but discovering that both of them were as avid gamers as I was – video and pen-and-paper – was more of a shock.

“Well, that leaves some more things open for us to do,” Sam chuckled. “Especially if Sarah makes good on her promise to get a network running so we can both be online at the same time. We’d have a few options that don’t need a full evening’s commitment.”

“Just pick it up whenever,” Sarah agreed.

“So what about you, Tim?” Sam enquired. “What else do you do? The shape you’re in, I’d guess some sort of martial art, too.”

“Swimmer,” Sarah corrected. “He’s got the tone for it. Easy to miss because of a layer of insulation – if not, I think, enough of it.”

I chuckled. “Actually, I have a green belt in taekwondo – “

“Ha,” Sam interjected.

” – And I was regional champion one year at school for the fifty-meter freestyle.”

We walked up their front steps in silence. Then Sam asked, “Who the hell won that one?”

“I think that goes to Tim,” replied Sarah, pushing a key into the deadbolt. “Again. Oh, my, that smells heavenly!”

We’d come back at just the right time. The flavours had had some time to blend together and the meat was so tender it almost didn’t need to be chewed, but the vegetables still had some texture to them. So over chili, toast, and iced tea, I learned that Sarah also did some swimming, though not competitively. They’d both been angling for their particular sports, apparently looking for a partner.

“Well, that’s almost got all combinations covered,” I observed. “I imagine you’ve got something in common to do when I’m not available? Something,” I hastened to add on seeing Sarah’s incipient grin, “that wouldn’t make me blush?”

“But it looks good on you!” she protested with a laugh.

Sam supplied a meaningful answer: “We spot each other with the weights. I’m not into power-lifting, so there’s not that big a gap in what we do; close enough that if I do slip, she’s still able to help without finding an overhead hoist.”

“I’ll pretend I know what you’re talking about,” I offered. Lifting weights had never really appealed to me; if I was going to be doing nothing productive, I preferred to at least be in motion.

“Well, are you up to anything this weekend, say, Saturday?” Sam enquired. “Sarah’s on call,” she nodded, “but I wouldn’t mind a bout or two. I’m a green belt myself, though it’s been a while since I stepped onto the mat.”

I bit my lip. On the one hand, the thought of trying to knock over a living mountain like him was somewhat daunting.

On the other – props if I pulled it off. Besides, it’d give me a chance to be social with him – perhaps without the distraction of his wife, though I was starting to feel that he’d be distracting enough.

“You’re on,” I said. “Tentatively. I have practise until three, but I doubt my instructor would mind if I tied up the mat for a bit after.”

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