The Price of Friendship

Chapter 4

“I’M HOME!” I yelled as I entered the front door.

“AND I’M NOT DEAF!” Mum yelled back.

I grinned at Brandon’s apparent surprise. “Thanks, Brandon. Thanks for everything. I really mean that.”

He cocked his head to one side. “You’re not going to invite me in?”

“Of course! Come on in, if you want. I just didn’t think you would want to.”

His smile confused me. I thought we had settled on a relationship in which he would keep a cautious eye on me, while maintaining a distance.

“We’ve still got some things to sort out, and I’d like to meet your parents.”

I didn’t like the sound of the last part. It seemed as if he was checking up on me, and I suspected he was doing just that.

We headed into the lounge room where Mum was reading a magazine and Dad was watching television. They both looked up as we entered.

“Mum, Dad, this is Brandon. He’s the one with the home gym where Angus took me this morning.”

Dad stood up and walked over to shake hands. “Pleased to meet you, Brandon. You can call me Ian, if you like.”

“Sorry, sir, but my parents would kill me if I started doing that. Pleased to meet you, Mr. …” A blank, helpless look appeared on Brandon’s face as he glanced at me.

I chuckled, as did Dad.

“If you won’t call me Ian, you can call me Mr. Wakeland. Just don’t use that ‛sir’ term too often. It makes me feel like I’m in the army.”

“Thank you, Mr. Wakeland.” He glanced over at my mum. “Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Wakeland. You’ve got a nice place here.”

Mum smiled sweetly. “That’s very nice of you to say, Brandon, but we’ve only just moved in. There’s still a lot to do.”

Dad sniffed the air. “Did you two guys run back here?”

I took the hint. “Not exactly, but I do think I need a shower.” I then realised I was being rude. “Uh… Brandon, I’d offer you one, too, but I don’t think I’ve got any clothes that’ll fit you. I’m sorry — I didn’t think this through very well.”

Brandon winked, which shocked me. He wasn’t acting the way I had expected. “No problems, Rick. I’ve got a few things with me in the backpack. Why don’t you show me where everything is?”

“This way,” I said, indicating the hallway that led to both my bedroom and the shower. I waved to my parents as we left, but they were already returning to their activities.

When we got to my room I remembered something important, so I closed the door behind us. Brandon immediately frowned.

“What the fuck is that for? Privacy so you can do something you don’t want your parents to know about?”

I appreciated that my action looked suspicious, but the matter couldn’t wait. “Yeah, but it’s not what I think you’re thinking. Mum and Dad don’t know about Drew yet. They also don’t suspect anything about me.”

“And you don’t want me to out you. Is that it?”

I nodded. Brandon walked over to the window and peered out. A second later, he turned around. “I won’t say anything.”

“Thank you!”

He grunted and then pointed to the floor. “Lie down on your back and put your hands behind your head.”

“Huh?” I slowly did what he ordered, wondering what it was all about.

He seemed startled and then grinned. “You must have a dirty mind. You need to stretch, or your muscles could start to cramp. Since I don’t think you’ve done this before, I’m going help you. What did you think I was going to do?”

“I had absolutely no idea.” I relaxed as I realised his instructions had been perfectly innocent.

“Yeah, right.” He grabbed my left ankle, knelt on my right leg and lifted my left up to his shoulder. “Try to keep the leg straight, and tell me if it becomes painful.”

We stretched for almost fifteen minutes, and he had me help him the way he’d helped me. I then suggested he have a shower first, so he disappeared.

While he was gone, I sorted out a change of clothes. That was a mindless task, so I thought about Brandon’s odd behaviour. I wondered if he had a mental problem, because his mood swings were extreme. He could go from friendly to antagonistic in a fraction of second.

He returned, wearing an old tracksuit. The top was only done part way up, and I could see his bare chest underneath. I guessed that his ‛few clothes’ only meant the tracksuit, but there was no way I was going to ask if he was wearing anything underneath the pants. I picked up the clothes I had selected and started out of the room.

Pausing at the door, I glanced back. “If you can find some clothes that’ll fit you, you’re welcome to wear them. I won’t mind.”

He gave me an odd look. “You won’t mind me going through your things?”

“Feel free. I’ve got nothing to hide.” I smiled encouragingly and then left for my shower.

When I got back, he had found an old shirt to wear. It was tight on him, but not extremely so. I recognised it as one that fit me very loosely. It gave me a new appreciation of how much muscle Brandon carried across his upper body.

“What would you like to do?” I asked. I didn’t know what he was looking for. I certainly hadn’t expected him to stick around after seeing me home.

“Talk, for now. There are still a few things to sort out.”

I glanced at the open door. “Should I…”

He laughed. “Not about that. About training. Firstly, do you own a bike?”

“Yep. At least I think so. I haven’t ridden it for maybe a year, so it may have gotten lost in the move.” It had been one of the attempts by my parents to give me more social opportunities, but it turned out there was nowhere in riding distance where I wasn’t blackballed.

“I think riding to my place and back will be better than jogging. It’s longer than you should be running at the moment, if you’re going to do weights as well. We walked that last five minutes because I heard you panting.”

I hadn’t realised. I had been grateful when he had dropped to a moderate walk, but it hadn’t crossed my mind he had done that for me.

“When would you like to come over? You need to get into a routine, or it’ll be a waste of time. You should be exercising at least four times a week.”

“Four times?” I nervously considered four times a week with Brandon, with me never knowing if Bad Brandon would make an appearance.

He must have read my mind, because he laughed. “You don’t have to be at my place four times a week. Four lots of exercise is what you need. Two times at my place working weights and two times doing something like jogging or an extended bike ride will be enough for now. We’ll get you toned up slowly.”

“I think I can do that. When would it be suitable to visit?”

He glanced at the door before responding. “I think it would be best if you came over when Angus was training. Besides Saturday mornings, that’s Tuesday and Thursday immediately after school. Which ones would suit you?”

“Can we start with Saturdays and Tuesdays?”

He nodded. “Done! Next, I’ll give you some simple exercises I’d like you to do on the other days. They won’t take long to do, but it’ll help.”

We spent the next thirty minutes discussing various things. Some I remembered from classes at school, once I was reminded. Others were new to me. We were talking about diets, with Brandon talking about the different types for different purposes, when there was a knock at my door.

“Sorry to interrupt, boys, but we were wondering if Brandon was staying for lunch, or if he’d like a lift home.” Dad looked apologetic. “I couldn’t help hearing your conversation, and I’m afraid we’ve only got unhealthy foods in the house at the moment. Jess is making macaroni and cheese.”

Brandon laughed. “Unhealthy’s fine. I’m not a fanatic on the subject. I haven’t had macaroni for years.” He licked his lips.

Dad smiled. “I’ll take that as meaning you’re staying, so I’ll let her know she’s cooking for four. It’ll ready in about ten minutes.”

I stared at the empty doorway for several seconds after Dad left, and then turned to find Brandon staring at me. His expression was neutral.

“Why are you here? Really. I didn’t think you thought much of me.” I tried to make my tone as calm as I could, but his stare was unnerving me.

“That’s not quite true. I said…” he glanced at the doorway and lowered his voice “…that I didn’t think you were right for Drew. I’ve never said anything about you as an individual.”

“But you made it pretty plain…”

“I made it plain where I stood on one issue and one issue only. I still don’t trust you, but I’m giving you a chance. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

I nodded, not really understanding the distinction. If he doesn’t trust me, why’s he being so nice?

“Despite what you might think, I’m sympathetic to what you went through. I’m not sure if ‘friend’ is the right word, but I’ll be around if you need me. If anyone hassles you, just let me know.”

“Thanks, Brandon.” I wasn’t sure if that would extend to being hassled by Drew’s other friends if something went wrong, but I didn’t want to find out.

* * *

“That was scrumptious, Mrs. Wakeland,” Brandon said, as he put down his fork.

“My pleasure, Brandon. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Definitely. If you’re going to make it again, I think I’ll be visiting more often.” He smiled at me. “That is, if Rick doesn’t mind.”

“Me? No, I wouldn’t mind…” I let my voice trail off as I realised I’d effectively just given Brandon permission to drop in whenever he wanted. I didn’t know if that was what he had intended, but it was the result.

“You’re friends with Angus and Drew, aren’t you?” Dad asked.

“That’s right. Drew’s been introducing Rick to everyone, so I suspect you’ll be meeting more people soon. He’s fitting into the group really well.”

My parents exchanged grins. “That’s great. We’re really impressed by how friendly the young people are around here,” Dad said. “And you’re going to help Rick with some weight training?”

“Mainly fitness training. He hasn’t said if he wants to bulk up, so we’re looking at just getting him fit again. I’m hoping he’ll join my rugby team.”

“Rugby?” Mum was startled. “Is that kind of dangerous? I’m sure I heard of a school kid breaking his neck playing rugby.”

“Any sport can be dangerous. Rugby’s no worse than a lot of the others.” He grinned. “The alternative is Angus trying to get Rick to play soccer, and I have a philosophical objection to letting him do that.”

“Do I have to play either? Drew and I were talking about doing swimming in summer,” I said.

A cloud seemed to flicker over Brandon’s face before a smile returned. “No, you don’t have to play. Just be aware I’ll be really disappointed if you play soccer.” There was a coldness in his eyes, though the facial expression was cheerful.

“You didn’t mention taking up swimming,” Dad said. “When did this crop up?”

“Last night, when Drew and I were talking. I mentioned that I really enjoy swimming. I don’t know if I’ll do it competitively, but I like to swim. Drew does, too.”

Mum was about to say something when we heard a mobile phone going off. In a second I realised it was mine. “Excuse me,” I said as I rose from the table.

I glanced at the caller ID as I took a few steps away, and narrowed my eyes when I saw an unfamiliar number.


“G’day, Rick. It’s Joe. Have I caught you at an inconvenient time?”

“No, we were just finishing lunch.”

He laughed. “We’re just about to start ours but Sue reminded me I had to call you first. We were wondering if you’re doing anything tonight, since you won’t be going out with Drew.”

I couldn’t believe it. Drew’s friends were going out of their way to help me fit in. “Joe, that’s a great offer, but wouldn’t you prefer to just be with Sue? You don’t need a third person hanging around.”

“Nah, we’ve already invited Claire along, and she was the one who suggested asking you. We’re thinking of going to see the new Narnia movie. What do you say?”

“That would be great. The Narnia movie sounds fine. I really appreciate you inviting me along. Thank Sue for me, too. When and where should we meet up?”

A shadow had me looking up to see Brandon standing beside me. “Is that Joe?” he asked.

I nodded while listening to Joe suggest that we meet at Sue’s place.

He held out his hand. “Can I have a word with him, please?”

“Okay, Joe. Sue’s place at seven. Brandon’s here and he’d like a word. Just a sec.” I handed Brandon the phone.

“Joe? Would you mind if I tagged along, too? Great! I’ll see you then. Nah. I’ll head straight from my place and meet you there. Here’s Rick again.”

I took the phone. “Thanks again, Joe.”

“No problem. We’ll see you tonight.”

After hanging up, I looked at Brandon, who was staring at me again. I felt he was trying to tell me he would be keeping an eye on me, no matter what.

* * *

I knocked on the door and then fidgeted with the gift. I had thought of it after Brandon had headed home, and my mum had helped me put it together.

Sue answered the door. “Rick! Come in.” She glanced at what I was holding. “Are they for me or Claire?” She sounded doubtful.

“Neither. They’re for your mum. Is she home?”

Sue seemed surprised. “Yeah, she’s out the back. I’ll introduce you.”

I was nervous. I thought I was doing the right thing, but I didn’t know what the consequences would be. Sue’s mother was in the kitchen with Claire and Joe, sipping on a cup of tea. Joe was holding a mug, while Claire had a glass of water.

“Mum, this is Rick. He’s the new guy at Drew’s school we told you about.”

I smiled tentatively at the middle-aged lady in the pastel dress. She smiled back and then put her cup on the table.

“Pleased to meet you, Rick.” She eyed the bunch of flowers in my hand. “Are they for me?”

Mum had found some pastel wrapping paper for the cuttings from our garden. We had denuded a few plants in the process of making the bouquet, and I hoped it was going to be worth it.

“Yes, Mrs. Sandler. I wanted to apologise, and I thought you might like them.”

Sue’s mother was reaching for them as I spoke. She paused and gave me a perplexed look. “What do you mean? You’ve got nothing to apologise for, have you?”

I pulled a face. “I do. I’m sorry, but I was with Drew last night when we stepped on your daffodils. I’m really sorry for that. If there’s anything I can do to fix them up, please let me know.”

I caught Joe’s and Sue’s looks of horror and had a sinking feeling that I had just made a major mistake.

“You’re the other boy? HOW DARE YOU! I’ve got half a mind to have you arrested for trespassing and criminal damage. You have no idea what you did last night! You probably thought it was just some sort of game. A lark. Well, I can tell you right now that it was no such thing. It was wanton and malicious, and a sad reflection on today’s youth. At least I brought up my girl properly.” She turned and glared at Sue. “Get him out of my house, and I don’t want him back here, ever again.”

Mrs. Sandler stormed out of the room, leaving a stunned silence in her wake.

“Nice idea, Rick, but I don’t think it worked,” Joe said, giving me a sympathetic smile.

“No kidding, Einstein,” Sue said to Joe. She smiled at me. “Don’t worry too much. You couldn’t have known that she was getting those flowers ready for a show. Mum gets a bit irrational at times like this — anything that affects her entries sets her off. She’ll get over it, but I think we should get out of here.”

Claire stepped over and put her arm through mine. “It’s the thought that counts.”

I smiled my thanks at Claire before turning to Sue. “Have you got a vase for the flowers before we go?”

Sue glanced at me and then at the flowers. “Well… I think so. Give me a sec.” She left in the same direction that her mother had disappeared.

Joe leant against the wall. “What made you decide to ‘fess up?”

I shrugged. “Because it was the right thing to do. I didn’t know there was a flower bed there when I jumped the fence. I just followed Drew because he seemed to know what he was doing. I felt really bad this morning when he told me Sue’s mum was upset.”

Joe chuckled. “Following Drew can make for an interesting time, but he definitely doesn’t always know what he’s doing.”

I rolled my eyes. “Now he tells me.”

Claire laughed. “Drew’s a wonderful guy and a lot of fun, but we know he’s not perfect.”

Sue came back with a medium-sized ceramic vase. “Do you think this will be okay?”

“I suppose so.” I went to the sink, where I put some water in the vase and added the flowers. I glanced around the kitchen. “Where should we leave them?”

“In the middle of the table,” Joe said. “That way Sue’s mum will see them. She might be upset but it’ll remind her that you did apologise, unlike someone else who shall remain nameless.” Joe tilted his head in the direction of Drew’s house.

“Good idea.” Sue gave Joe a kiss. “I knew I kept you around for some reason. Interior decorating seems to be a forte of yours.”

Claire snickered while I placed the vase where they suggested. We then headed out. I stopped when we were outside and thought about what Joe had said.

“I haven’t heard from Drew since this morning. I wasn’t sure if I should ring him.” I left it as a statement, since I wasn’t sure if it was right to ask their advice.

“Don’t bother. When he’s grounded, they take his phone and Internet access off him. He’ll get them back on Monday morning,” Sue said.

It sounded like he got into trouble a lot. “But he rang me this morning, after he was grounded.”

“We know.” Joe rolled his eyes. “He rang all of us — he got me out of bed at some ungodly hour to tell me. He was allowed to take his phone when he went to work, but as soon as he got home it would’ve been confiscated.”

I glanced at Drew’s house. “Since I’m here, do you think…”

“If you want to see him, not a chance. His parents are pretty strict when he’s grounded,” Sue said.

“Is there any harm in trying?”

Sue laughed. “Nope. Go ahead. We’re early, anyway, since Mum kicked us out before I expected.”

I headed up the driveway, leaving the other three behind. I slowed down as I passed the outside seat where Penny and Scott had been sprinkled, and then headed up to the front door and rang the bell.

After a minute, the door opened to reveal Drew’s mum. “Rick! I’m sorry, but I thought Drew had told you he’s grounded. He’s in his room studying and he won’t be able to see you.” She smiled. “Don’t worry. He hasn’t forgotten about you.”

“Hello, Mrs. Canter. I know he’s grounded, but can I have a word with him? Please? Just for a minute — no more. It’s about something important.”

She considered my request. “Okay, just one minute and just this one time. And down here, not in his room.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Canter.” I followed her inside.



Mrs. Canter winked at me. “OKAY. I’LL TELL RICK TO GO HOME, THEN.” She started whispering. “One, two, three…”

Drew was sliding to a stop in front of us before she got to seven.

“You’ve got one minute,” she said and then left us alone.

Drew had me wrapped in his arms before I could say anything. His lips were pressed against mine as if it was going to be the last chance he ever had. I let him have his way for a few seconds, and then pushed him back.

“Sorry, but there’s something I need you to do for me, Drew.”


“Can you ring Sue’s mum and apologise? Please? I’ve just come from there and she’s still very upset about the flowers.”

Drew gave me a cocky grin. “Don’t worry. She doesn’t know you were there.”

“Yes, she does.”

“How? She wouldn’t have recognised you — it was too dark.”

“I told her.”

My simple statement wiped the grin off his face. “Why did you do a stupid thing like that?”

“Because it was the honest thing to do. I don’t like people hating me, Drew. We did something wrong, and I want to make it right. Will you ring and apologise, please? For me? I know it may not make any difference, but it’ll make me feel better.”

Drew stared at me for a long moment, then smiled. “I think I’m going to have trouble with you, Rick. You’re going to make me change. Okay, I’ll do it. Because you asked me to.”

He wrapped himself around me again and gave me another kiss. I made a mental note to tell him to shave more frequently, but I thought I would do that later.

A loud cough was a welcome interruption. I looked over Drew’s shoulder and saw his mother watching us. “Your minute is up. Time to go, Rick.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Canter.”

“No, thank you. I think you’re going to be very welcome here.” She smiled at me. “Drew, the phone’s in the living room. You can ring from there.”

“Yes, Mum.” Drew managed to make it sound like he was being asked to carry a bucket of manure to the top of Mount Kosciuszko.

Mrs. Canter winked at me again. “Have a good time tonight, Rick. You’ll see Drew on Monday at school, unless he has a heart attack from being made to be responsible for his actions.”

She ushered me through onto the porch and then followed me out and closed the door. “And I really meant it when I said thank you. I think you’re going to be a good influence on my boy.” She patted me on the arm. “Now go and have some fun. It’s too nice a night to be stuck inside if you don’t have to be.”

I blushed at the compliment. “Thank you.”

I headed down to join the others. Joe noticed me first. “Rick! You were gone longer than we expected. Does that mean you got to see him?”

“His mum gave me one minute.”

“And?” Claire asked as she slipped her arm through mine.

The grin I gave her was mainly for the wonderful feeling I was getting from the linking of our arms. “I’ve asked him to ring Sue’s mum and apologise.”

“You didn’t!” Sue and Joe spoke at the same time, and I wasn’t sure which one was more shocked.

“I told him I don’t like people hating me, so he said he’d call her.”

Sue glanced at Joe. “This one’s definitely a keeper.”

Joe grinned at me. “While you’re doing miracles, can you make sure I pass my history test on Monday?”

I laughed. “You’re on your own on that one.”

We started strolling back along the quiet street, Joe and Sue followed by Claire and me. To anyone watching, we would have looked like two couples out for an early evening walk.

“Rick, I’ve got a favour to ask. Well, more like an idea I’d like to run past you,” Claire said.

Sue glanced back over her shoulder. “Is it what you spoke to me about before?”

“Yep. I think I’d like to do it, if Rick’s willing. Drew shouldn’t mind, but if he does, we can call it off.”

I was lost, and I noticed Joe was staying out of the conversation. He was listening, but not participating.

“Rick, now that I’ve broken up with Phil, I really want a break before I start another relationship. As you said last night, it’s going to take me some time to settle down.”

“Yeah, I can see that, and I think it’s a good idea.”

“But I don’t want to turn down guys that I may want to see later, when I’m ready.”

“If they’re good guys, they’ll understand and they’ll wait.”

Claire and Sue exchanged glances. Something was communicated between them, but I had no idea what it was. Claire was leading up to something, but I had to let her get to it in her own way.

“It’ll be easier if they don’t ask in the first place. So, I was wondering, and if you turn me down I won’t be offended, but would you, do you think you… Will you be my boyfriend?”

The last flurry of words took me by surprise. “But…” I didn’t know how to complete that sentence.

“Not for real, of course. You’re already spoken for, but it’ll help you, too. People won’t suspect you if you’ve got a girlfriend. And I really like your company, anyway, so we could hang out when Drew’s not available. If he gets upset, we can call it off, but I’d really like it if –”

“Yes.” I was grinning, not only at the buzz I was feeling, but at the avalanche that Claire had thrown at me. Claire wanted me as her boyfriend! Then reality hit and I sobered up. It was only pretend, and I didn’t have a chance of being her boyfriend in truth.

That didn’t stop a flush reaching my face as she hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

I felt like a fraud again, but, again, I couldn’t bring myself to end it. I enjoyed Claire’s attention too much to break it off. I knew I was going to end up torturing myself, but I couldn’t stop. My one saving grace was that Claire was the one who had asked for the sham, though she thought she was also doing me a favour, helping me to hide in the closet.

We chatted about inconsequential stuff during the rest of the walk to the shopping centre. The night air was cool, but having someone walking arm in arm with me warmed me up.

Brandon was waiting for us at the cinema entrance. He raised his eyebrows at the sight of Claire and me with our arms interlinked. I got the impression that he thought I was betraying Drew, so I quickly let go of her.

“I hope we haven’t been keeping you long,” Sue said.

Brandon smiled. “Nah. Not long.” He stepped forward and gave Claire a hug. “And how are you feeling?”

“I’m well, but I need to breathe.” She hit him on the chest with the side of her fist. “Loosen up!”

He laughed and let her go. He bumped fists with Joe and gave Sue a light kiss. He then turned to me. There was a short but noticeable pause before he said, “Good to see you again, Rick.”

“Same here, Brandon.”

Claire slipped her arm back inside mine. “You should also know that Rick’s my new boyfriend.”

Brandon looked like he’d been hit by an axe. “But… but…”

Claire dragged me forward so we could lower our voices. “Only in name. This protects him, and means I can take my time before I look to start a new relationship.”

Brandon grinned. “You had me going there for a moment, girl.” His stare at me was cryptic, but I thought it was because he was still trying to work me out. “What did Drew say about it?”

Claire answered him. “I only thought of it this afternoon. I’m going to speak to him on Monday. If he doesn’t like it, Rick and I will drop the pretence.”

I would have been happy to turn the pretence into reality, but I didn’t think that was going to happen.

“Fair enough.” Brandon gave Claire a kiss on the cheek. “Congratulations, then.” He stuck out his hand and we shook. I tried not to let him know he was squeezing too hard.

“You’ve caught up now?” Joe asked sarcastically.

I jumped, as I had momentarily forgotten about him and Sue. “Yeah, I think so.”

“Claire’s told me about the situation. I’ll play along,” Brandon said.

Sue grinned at him. “Your name was on the list that Claire and I discussed. Just consider yourself lucky she didn’t pick you. You’re everyone’s big brother already; you may have gotten the job.”

Brandon blushed and stared down at the carpet. “I wouldn’t have done a good job.”

Sue stepped forward and gave him a hug. “Maybe, but we all know you would’ve done it if she asked.”

Joe interrupted. “Okay. Enough of that. Time to get the tickets. Who’s getting the popcorn?”

* * *

“I really enjoyed that. The guy who played Prince Caspian was a real hunk,” Claire said.

I hadn’t noticed. I had been more aware of Claire sitting next to me with her hand in mine. I had wanted to put my arm around her, but had thought that would have carried the ‛pretend boyfriend’ thing too far. She might have gotten suspicious, so I let myself be content with holding hands. The movie was good, when I noticed it.

“I preferred Edmund,” Sue said. “Give him a couple of years and he’ll be drool-worthy.”

Joe grinned at Brandon and me. “Okay, guys. Who was it in the movie that we can talk about? I think Susan. The name’s nice, and she’s really good looking. I think I’ve got a thing for girls called Susan.”

Sue laughed as she walloped him. “You idiot.”

Brandon chuckled. “Well, to be honest, there wasn’t a lot of choice for the guys. I think I’d have to say the White Witch. She was easily the best looking female in the show.”

The five of us left the centre and headed across the car park, still discussing the movie. Brandon finished the drink he was holding, looked around, and jogged towards a distant rubbish bin. The rest of us kept strolling towards the road to Sue’s place.

We were close to the edge of the car park when three figures slipped out of the shadow of a large van.

“Look what we’ve got here, guys. It seems that little Claire couldn’t wait to get into someone else’s pants.” The middle guy, a tall but thin one with frizzy red hair, glared at Claire and me as he tossed away a beer can. “Did you even wait until we were through before you jumped into his bed, Claire?”

The guy on his left finished his beer and then gave me an evil grin as he slammed his hands together to squash the can. He tossed it behind him before polishing his right fist against his left hand.

“Leave her alone.” I stepped forward to put myself between Claire and the three guys. I knew if it came to a fight, I was likely to be trounced, but I wouldn’t let them get to Claire if I could help it.

“Look at that. It talks!”

“You’re drunk, Phil.” Claire sounded disgusted, but I didn’t turn to look at her. My concentration was on the three in front of me.

“What do you want?” Joe asked. “Claire’s not your girlfriend anymore. Get over it!”

“Maybe I don’t want to get over it. I saw you guys at the cinema, and it sure looked to me that she’s got herself someone new. We only broke up yesterday, and she’s already with someone else. I think she’s been fucking around behind my back, and I’m not going to stand by and let someone do that to me.” His glare at me was, I guessed, supposed to intimidate me, but my expression didn’t change. For the first time, I was glad about the years of practise at pretending that I didn’t care. Phil’s comments were poor cousins to some of the insults that had been thrown my way.

I was extremely glad when Brandon stepped up beside me. “You’re outnumbered, Phil, two to five. Why don’t you just give up now and slink away?”

Phil sneered. “You’re counting the girls? Anyway, there’s three of us, not two. Are you as thick as you look?”

Brandon took a step forward, stretched out his arms in front of him and then rolled his shoulders. “I wasn’t counting the girls. I’m worth two of you. Rick and Joe are worth one and a half each. That’s five. And you’ve got one mate either side of you. That’s two. Two to five, as I said.” He began rocking his upper body from side to side.

Brandon’s lazy summary and his start of what looked like loosening-up exercises seemed to intimidate Phil. “What about me? You left me off.”

Brandon’s chuckle wasn’t nice. “You? You’re just a minor obstacle on my way through to the guy beside you. Shouldn’t take more than a millisecond or two.” He paused. “But I’ll give you a chance by evening up the odds a bit. Rick and I will take care of you and your mates while Joe takes the girls away. We don’t want them getting upset at the sight of all your blood. Rick?”

I stepped up next to Brandon and put on what I hoped was an eager, aggressive grin. I tried to crack my knuckles, but I didn’t hear anything. “Ready.”

“Er… Phil. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,” one of the guys stammered.

Phil glanced at his mates and then back at Brandon and me. “Bah. You’re not worth the trouble.” He glared past us at Claire. “I’m happy to be rid of you. You’ve spent too much time with that faggot friend of yours to know a real man when you find one.”

“You shouldn’t have said that.” Brandon took another step forward. I again quickly moved up next to him, hoping my pounding heartbeat wasn’t audible to everyone.

The three guys backed off and then turned and disappeared, seemingly as fast as their legs could carry them.

Joe laughed. “I think they pissed themselves just before they ran. Thanks, Brandon. I’m glad you’re on our side.”

Brandon shrugged. “The other two really didn’t want to fight. Phil was the only one who did, and he’s a coward. It wasn’t hard.” He grinned at me. “And I had Rick to help me. You did well.”

It was probably the adrenaline still pumping through me that made me do what I did next.

“Thanks, Marlon.”

Bad Brandon appeared in an instant. “Don’t you ever call me that!”

“Why not? Angus explained it to me. Brandon. Brando. Marlon Brando. Marlon. You were acting — scary acting, but still acting. You didn’t really want to fight them if you could scare them off. Am I right, Marlon?”

Brandon took a step forward, looming over me, but I was confident in what I had worked out. He wouldn’t hurt a friend, and I thought I’d done enough, barely, to qualify as one. I felt a quiver in my knees, though, as I maintained eye contact with him.

“Bah!” Brandon turned and stormed off. He didn’t go far — just out of earshot.

Joe clamped an arm across my shoulders. “You, mate, are one of the bravest guys I’ve ever met. You won’t catch me calling him Marlon, but you did it, and stood up to him afterwards.” Joe shook his head. “Man, you’re one hell of a dude.”

I grinned while reminding myself that I was still a fraud.

Copyright Notice — Copyright © November 2008 by Graeme.

The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.

Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.

A special thank you to Ray, Kel, C James and Shadowgod, and also to everyone at The Mail Crew. The help they have given me with this story has been fantastic. Special kudos go to Aaron and Rain of The Mail Crew for doing a brilliant job of editing. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.