The Price of Friendship

Chapter 18

“Rick, can you ask Brandon if he’s got a copy of the chemistry homework assignment? I can’t find mine,” Drew said.

I ignored him and concentrated on eating. It was the first time that week that it hadn’t been raining at lunchtime, and we were enjoying the fresh air at one of the outside tables.

“Sharon, will you please tell Drew that I’ll email him a copy as soon as I get home?” Brandon said.

I glanced at Sharon and caught her rolling her eyes. I smiled.

“Brandon, you can tell him yourself. Don’t you think this game’s gone on long enough? You two have been doing this for a week,” Sharon said.

Brandon and Drew grinned at each other. “Nope,” they said in unison.

“I promised I wouldn’t talk to him, so I’m not,” Drew said.

“And I wouldn’t want Drew to break his promise, so I’m not talking to him,” Brandon said.

“Anyway, it hasn’t been a week. We started on Monday and today’s only Thursday, so that’s a lot less than a week,” Drew said.

“They’re like a pair of little boys with a new toy,” Claire said.

Sharon rested her head on Brandon’s bicep. “I don’t know about little… but you’re right. Maybe they just need something different to play with.” She whispered something in Brandon’s ear, making him go bright red.

“That sounds like a good idea,” Drew said. “Oh, Rick…”

I gave him a warning stare. “Forget it. If you want to play with something, go pick on Keith.”

“Hey, that’s not fair. I’m new here! Why doesn’t he pick on James?”

James shook his head. “Not a good idea, Keith. I’m still on probation. Right, Brandon?”

Brandon gave James a cold look. “You’ll be on probation for as long as you live, and probably longer. Drew might be willing to forgive and forget, but I’m not.”

James winced. Drew turned to me for a moment, as if he was asking permission, and then reached across the table to touch James’s hand. “It’s okay, mate. If he gives you too hard a time, we’ll just tell everyone about the incident at the swimming pool.”

“What incident at the swimming pool?” Brandon asked, glaring at Drew.

“Nothing.” Drew smiled angelically, fooling no one.

“While I enjoy fiction, Drew, I much prefer real life drama,” Claire said. “Speaking of which, good luck for tomorrow, Rick.”

“Tomorrow? What’s happening?” Yvonne asked, looking over from where she and Mike were sharing a salad.

“I’ve got a doctor’s appointment to get my cast removed.” I glared down at the piece of plaster that had been there for almost three weeks. “I’m going to be really happy once I’m finally off my crutches.”

“That appointment also means that Rick gets to finish school early for the week,” Drew said.

“And that he won’t be able to cheat at DDR tomorrow night.” Peter winked to show he was only joking.

“I don’t think he should be playing DDR if he’s just got the cast off. His ankle is probably still going to be weak.” Claire gave me a smile that had me grinning back.

If it hadn’t been for her, I would have been putting more effort into turning gay for Drew. I was going to do something, because I owed Drew too much not to try, but Claire’s existence kept reminding me what I really wanted, while Keith’s presence kept reminding me why I had to sort things out quickly. I was still confused, though. The situation with Peter and Sharon had told me that what I wanted to happen with Claire might not occur, and perhaps I would be better off putting more effort towards being the right one for Drew. I had been vacillating between the two choices all week.

Sharon glanced at her watch. “Sorry, everyone, but I’ve got to go. There are a few things I have to do before lunch is over.” She gave Brandon a quick kiss. “Everything’s still okay for tonight?”

Brandon nodded. He seemed embarrassed as Sharon waved to the rest of us and headed away.

“Have you got a hot date tonight?” Angus asked, grinning at Brandon.

Brandon didn’t meet his eyes. “Sharon’s coming over to my place for dinner for the first time.”

“Way to go! If your dad goes off again, just have Sharon deck him,” Angus said.

A movement had me looking to the side. Peter turned away, and then grabbed his school bag. “Time for me to go, too. Bye!”

Before anyone could say anything, he was gone.

“Angus, you’re an insensitive bastard.” Claire glared across the table.

“Hey, how was I to know he’d get upset? It’s been a couple of weeks, and he’s been fine until now.”

“Leave him alone, Claire. He couldn’t’ve known that Peter would get upset. Anyway, Angus has got enough to worry about, without you loading guilt onto him.” Brandon winked.

Angus looked surprised. “Me? What have I got to worry about?”

Brandon frowned and glanced at James. “Don’t you two have a hot date tomorrow night?”

Angus leapt to his feet. “NO WAY!”

Brandon grinned before looking apologetic. “Sorry, James. Did I let the cat out of the bag?”

James shrugged and played along. “Que sera sera. I’ve almost resigned myself to being dumped by Angus after less than a week.”

Angus glared at James. “You’re not being dumped… we were never going out!”

“Come on, Angus, give it a go. You might enjoy it.” Drew grinned at me. “Life’s good on this side of the fence, isn’t it, Rick?”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know how.

* * *

It was time. I glanced to my side where Drew was polishing off the lamb stew that Mum had cooked. Thursday night meals with all four of us were becoming a regular occurrence. Drew caught me looking and gave me a big grin, not realising he had some meat stuck between two of his front teeth.

“Mum, Dad, I was wondering about next Friday night…” My courage deserted me.

“What about it, dear?” Mum asked. “If you’re worried about the party, we’ll have all day Saturday to get things ready, so don’t feel you have to stay home.” She smiled at Drew. “Go out with your friends, like you normally do.”

After only three weeks, Mum considered going out on Friday night to be normal for me. It reminded me how quickly I had settled in and how much the guy next to me had helped in that. Some of my courage returned.

“Thanks, Mum, but I know there’s a lot that’ll need to be done. Drew’s already told me he won’t be working that Saturday morning, so I was wondering…”

Everyone was watching me. Even Drew had stopped eating to stare at me. I gulped once, and reached over to take his hand. I looked him in the eye as I started again. “I was wondering if Drew could stay here that night.”

Drew’s eye went wide. His mouth moved, but no sound came out. I knew what he was thinking, though, and could easily read his lips: Does this mean…?

“I don’t know, Rick,” Dad said. “I think it’s too early.”

“Way too early,” Mum stated forcefully.

“Too early for what? If you think we’re going to have sex, we’re not.” My lips twisted into a smile at Drew’s perplexed expression. “But I do want Drew to stay the night. With me. In my room,” I added quickly, as I suspected they would propose that he sleep elsewhere.

“Why?” Dad asked.

I kept my focus on Drew. “Because he means a lot to me. I like having him around. I like spending time with him. I want to get to know him better, without being rushed for time.” Drew squeezed my hand and smiled. I returned the smile and glanced at my dad. “And because I’m asking you to trust me. If Drew were straight, there wouldn’t be a problem, would there? So why can’t my best mate stay the night?”

“Because he’s more than your best mate. He’s also your boyfriend. You might have the best intentions, Rick, but your mother and I don’t think this would be a good idea. We’d be just the same if it was a girlfriend you wanted to have stay the night.”

“I’ve already told you that nothing like that is going to happen. Why can’t you trust me?” My volume had gone up, and I was starting to get angry.

Something passed between my parents.

“Do you promise that nothing untoward will happen?” Dad asked.

“I promise,” I said, while Drew nodded his head.

“Okay, then. Your mother and I will talk it over and let you know what we decide. You’ll know either tomorrow or Saturday.”

The rest of the conversation shifted to the shopping that would have to be done. Mum seemed to be going over the top in the food department, and that wasn’t allowing for the snacks that Drew said his mother would be preparing. I didn’t say anything, because it was making Mum happy. I knew I had to tread carefully if I wanted them to let Drew stay over.

After dinner, Drew and I went to my room. I made sure the door was shut before hobbling over to join Drew on my bed. He pulled me into an embrace and started to nibble on my ear.

“I know you promised nothing would happen, Rick, but was that just to keep your parents happy?” Drew murmured.

“No. They’re right — it is too early — but I want you here, anyway.”

Drew stopped what he was doing and lifted himself up on one elbow so he could look at my face. His expression told me I needed to explain myself.

“Do you remember when you first came over here, and what you wanted to do?” I asked.

He leered. “I didn’t think I ever told you.” He licked his lips as he let his gaze wander down my body.

I grinned and clipped him on the back of the head. “Be nice. You said you wanted a Babylon 5 marathon session. Well, we can’t do that if my parents won’t let you stay the night. I’ve already spent a night at your place, so I think it’s only right you spend a night here.”

Drew lost his playful attitude. “But you insisted I spend the night here, in your room, with you.”

I rolled away so I wouldn’t have to look him in the eye. He dropped down and put an arm around me.

“That’s because you’re my best mate, Drew. I want you to be happy. I…” I couldn’t say the next part. I couldn’t tell him that I needed to find out how gay I could be for him, and having him spend the night in my room was part of that process.

“What about you? What will make you happy?” he asked.

I didn’t answer. I just lay there and pulled his arms in closer to me. As I had hoped, he took that as my answer and resumed nibbling on my ear.

* * *

Dad looked across at me. “Now, Rick, if you get tired, just call me and I’ll pick you up.”

“Dad, I’ll be fine.” I had already opened the car door, because I was angry enough to lash out at someone, and I didn’t want it to be my dad. He and Mum had tentatively agreed to let Drew stay the night before the party and I didn’t want to jeopardise that decision.

“Okay. Have fun!”

I grunted and got out of the car. Rain was falling, but I only had a short stretch to cross before I was under cover at the shopping centre entrance. I paused for a moment and glared at the cast on my ankle. It hadn’t been in my plans.

I took a few deep breaths, trying to calm down, and then made my way into the building.

“Rick!” Drew’s voice implied a mixture of surprise and disappointment.

I glanced around and spotted Drew and Claire coming towards me. I thought they must have guessed which entrance I would be arriving at and planned to surprise me. The surprise ended up going both ways.

“What happened?” Claire asked. “I thought the cast was supposed to come off.”

“It was, and it did. The…” I paused and decided that I wasn’t quite angry enough to swear “… doctor failed to tell me that I would be getting another cast put on to replace it.”

Claire raised an eyebrow and gave me a knowing smile. “He didn’t tell you, or you had forgotten?”

I ran a hand through my hair. “She, actually, and yeah, I probably hadn’t paid enough attention. I’d heard the part about the cast coming off and not needing crutches, but missed the part about a walking cast being put on.”

Drew reached out to touch me on my arm. I thought he wanted to be more demonstrative, but he knew doing so in public would bother me. “Cheer up, mate. At least you no longer have to hop everywhere.” He winked. “And I’m still willing to help you get your pants off if the cast makes it difficult for you.”

I had to laugh, and doing so released a lot of my mad-at-the-world attitude. “Thanks, but no thanks, Drew. I think I can get myself dressed.”

“It was more the undressing part that I was talking about.” Drew licked his lips as his gaze moved slowly up and down my body.

I rolled my eyes. “Claire, is there anything we can do about him?”

Claire slipped her arm through mine and contemplated Drew. “We could try castration.”

Drew’s hands shot down to his groin. “You leave them alone! No one touches them except for me… and maybe Rick, if he’s nice.”

I grinned. “Then it’s settled. I’ll be nice to Drew while Claire finds me a castration knife.”

Claire laughed while Drew gave me a dirty look. He then smiled and hooked his arm through mine, leaving me between the two people I liked most.

“Well, come on, then. Let’s join the others,” Drew said.

After we joined them, I had to endure a few minutes of repeating the misunderstanding I’d had about the cast, but with Drew on one side of me, Claire on the other, and no Keith in sight, I wasn’t upset.

Peter grinned. “Does this mean you won’t be challenging me at DDR tonight?”

I shrugged. “Probably not. It wouldn’t be fair for you to win when I’m under this much of a handicap. You might get the mistaken impression that you’re good.”

He laughed. “Okay, then. I’ll wait until you’re better before we play. How long before that new cast comes off?”

“The doctor said up to five weeks. I have to have an X-ray in three weeks’ time and she’ll decide from that when I can go castless.”

“Castless? Is that a real word?” Joe asked.

“It is now,” Drew said. “If Rick said it, it’s real.”

“I think you might be biased,” Joe said. “Probably comes from wearing his underwear too often.”

“Joe!” Sue clipped him over the back of the head. “Anyway, when did you become an English expert?”

“Since I got a B on my last test. That’s star quality, that is. Me pretty good, yes?” Joe gave her a goofy grin, which he cut off when she tried to tickle him. “Hey, that’s not fair!”

While Sue and Joe had a mini tussle, Angus turned to Claire. “Where’s Keith?”

I surreptitiously crossed my fingers. I wasn’t sure what I was wishing for, but I would’ve been happy if he had been shipped off to Western Australia for a couple of years.

“He’s shopping for a birthday present for his younger sister and will be along later. He asked me if I wanted to help, but Drew and I had planned on surprising Rick.” She smiled at me. “I think we were more surprised than he was.”

I uncrossed my fingers. Overall, I believed I had come out ahead. Keith was still in the same state, but she had turned down time with him so she could spend time with me. The situation would have been a lot easier if Keith wasn’t such a nice guy, but then Claire wouldn’t have had much to do with him if he wasn’t.

“He’s not being too pushy, is he?” I asked.

She considered the question for a moment, and that alarmed me. “Not really. He knows I’m not looking for a boyfriend, but he just wants to be there when I change my mind.” She patted my hand and then gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “Thanks for being concerned, Rick, but I’m fine.”

We all sat and chatted for a while. I joined in at times, but I was mostly just absorbing the atmosphere and enjoying being with friends. I was startled to realise that my earlier bad mood had vanished, and I wasn’t even upset when Keith showed up.

I hadn’t noticed Peter slip away and only became aware of it when he returned waving a packet of textas. I then endured the good natured defacing of my new cast with lots of writing and drawing. Drew’s contribution pushed the boundary of common decency, but he whispered to me that he would draw over it before my parents saw it.

The decision had just been made to get some dinner — Chinese takeaway, as usual, with a couple of pizzas for variety — when we were surprised to see Sharon and Brandon stroll up.

“G’day.” Brandon was grinning broadly.

“What are you doing here?” Joe asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be working?”

Brandon shrugged. “Nope. I told them I was quitting, effective immediately.”

Sharon smiled as she nudged him. “Tell them the rest.”

Brandon gave her a quick kiss. “Okay, but only because you asked.”

There was a pause before Drew broke the silence. “Well?”

Brandon grabbed a nearby chair and put it by the table. “Would you like a seat, Shazza?”

Sharon smiled as she sat down. “Thanks, Brandon, but you should tell them before you get lynched.”

“Lynched? Why would they lynch me?” He looked towards the far end of the food court. “I think I see another empty chair over there. I’ll be back soon.”

Joe jumped up and grabbed a seat from the table behind him. “There’s an empty bloody seat right here. Now sit and spill!”

Brandon laughed. “Since you asked so nicely.” He moved the chair next to Sharon and sat down. “The boss asked me why, and I explained about the rugby tryouts that start tomorrow, and how I wanted Fridays free. He told me I could have leave without pay for as long as I needed it. He then told me I’d better make the team, too, or he’d find all the worst possible jobs for me to do when I got back.”

Drew nodded. “And if you do make it into the team, he’ll get lots of free publicity.”

“Yep, but I think that’s a fair enough exchange. He’s been really good to me over the last year.”

I was hesitant to speak up, but I was confused. Everyone else seemed to understand. “Excuse me, but I’ve never asked. Where do you work?”

Brandon’s eyes widened for a moment. “I’m sorry, Rick, but I guess I never said. I work at the sports store — that’s why I’ve got so much stuff at home: employee discount.”

It all became clear. “And if you make the state squad, the local paper will probably do an article on you, and you’ll mention where you work.”

Brandon shrugged. “I’ve got to make the team, first.”

Sharon rested a hand on Brandon’s bicep. “You’ll make it.”

“Uh… Brandon?” Angus said. When his friend looked across the table at him, Angus continued. “What about your dad? Didn’t he say that you had to have a job?”

Brandon made a poor attempt at looking innocent. “And he also told me I’d have to make sacrifices if I’m going to play for the state. I’ve made my first sacrifice. I just don’t think I need to tell him, at least not yet.”

He paused and stared for a moment at Sharon, with an odd look on his face. I would have understood a smile or some other indication of his feelings for her, but his expression was more contemplative.

“I knew he was right. I couldn’t do school, work, rugby training, and date Sharon. Something had to give, and I decided it was work.”

Brandon then grinned. “I think he meant giving up dating, based on his comments. He’d heard about Wayne being KO’d after the game last weekend, and I don’t think he was impressed.”

About half the group laughed. I smiled, but I caught Sharon’s worried look before she smiled, slipped her arm through Brandon’s, and rested her head on his shoulder. I tossed up for a moment, but decided to leave them alone. Unless they asked for help, if there was an issue, then it was up to them to sort it out. It appeared that the dinner with Brandon’s parents hadn’t gone particularly well.

“Did you say that the tryouts are tomorrow?” Keith asked.

“Yep. Nine o’clock in the morning, so I can’t have a late night.” Brandon grinned. “Only up to the time I would normally work to.”

“What about tomorrow? Would you like us to come and cheer you on?” Angus asked.

Brandon opened his mouth, but then closed it and shook his head. His gaze dropped to the tabletop. “I’d like it, but no. I think it’ll be easier if you’re not there.”

“Your father’ll be there, won’t he?” Sharon asked.

Brandon nodded, not lifting his head.

“But there’s no reason you can’t go out tomorrow night,” Drew said cheerfully. “I was going to ask Rick out for dinner — I still owe him one from when we first started going out — but how about you and Sharon join us? We can either celebrate or commiserate, as required.”

Brandon’s head snapped up. “What?”

“Dinner. You. Sharon. Me. Rick. Eating. You know, as in food?”

Drew was playing it up, and it worked. Brandon evidently fought and lost the effort to keep a smile from his face. He turned to Sharon. “Excuse me, young lady, but are you free for dinner tomorrow night?”

Sharon pursed her lips. “I’m afraid not. I was planning on going on a double date with my boyfriend and a cute gay couple we know. Just me and three hot guys.”

Drew looked offended. “I’m happy with the hot part, but I’m not cute. Fluffy toys are cute. Guys aren’t.” He turned to me for support. “Isn’t that right, Rick?”

I thought quickly. “I think you’d make a good fluffy toy, Drew.”

Drew waited for the chuckles to die down before giving me a wicked grin. “Just make sure you spend lots of time with me, or I might become a very sour fluffy toy. If you’re stuck for games to play, I’ve got plenty of ideas.”

A new round of laughter was aimed at me, but, while I was embarrassed, I didn’t really mind. It felt too good to be part of the group.

* * *

Drew glanced down at my cast. “I know you want to walk home, but I don’t think it’d be a good idea.”

I’d made the comment earlier in the evening, in a spur-of-the-moment decision. I had quickly realised it wouldn’t be practical, but I hadn’t taken the words back. Claire had thought it was good that I was becoming more mobile, and that was that.

“I’ll have to do it eventually, so why not tonight?” I knew I was being stubborn for the wrong reasons, but that didn’t stop me.

Joe squinted at the glass ceiling high above us. “Because it’s still raining.”

“Good point, Joe!” Drew said. “You’ll ruin the cast, if nothing else.”

“I don’t think any of us will be walking home tonight,” Brandon said. He hesitated and then gave Sharon an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Shazza. I’m going to have to run to catch the bus. Will you be okay to get home by yourself, or do you want some money for a taxi?”

A frown crossed her face momentarily. “I’ll be fine. Mum’ll pick me up.”

“That’s good.” Brandon gave her a quick kiss and then lifted a hand to wave goodbye to everyone. “See you later!”

While everyone else wished him good luck, Claire moved up next to Sharon. I was close enough to hear some of their hushed conversation as Brandon strode away.

“Don’t worry about it. That’s just Brandon,” Claire said.

“I know, but when is he going to learn I can look after myself? I don’t want him to look after me, just to be with me.”

I turned away, feeling embarrassed by what I’d heard. It looked like Brandon and Sharon had a few bumps in their relationship that needed to be smoothed out.

Keith stepped forward. “Claire, would you like a lift home? I was about to ring my brother for a ride.”

“That’s a bit out of your way, isn’t it, Keith?” I asked, trying to keep my jealousy out of my voice.

Keith shrugged. “Not that much. Since Vic’ll be coming to collect me, it’s no real trouble to take Claire home, too.”

“Or, my dad can take her home on the way back to my place after we’ve dropped Drew off.” I turned to Drew, who had a cynical smirk on his face. “If you don’t mind?”

He grinned. “No, I don’t mind, though I was thinking I could go back to your place for a bit before heading home.”

“And how are you supposed to get home? It’s raining, remember.”

Drew shrugged. “It’s only water. Anyway, I usually need a cold shower after leaving your place, so it’s all good.”

Joe covered his ears. “Too much information!”

Claire leant over and kissed Keith on the cheek. “Thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll go home with Rick and Drew.”

While not perfect, life was good.

* * *

“Well, how did you go?” Drew asked, as Brandon and Sharon sat down at the small table, Brandon on my left and Sharon opposite.

Drew and I had arrived at the Indian restaurant early, and Drew had been on edge the whole time that we’d waited for the other two to show up.

Brandon snorted. “And it’s good to see you, too, Drew. How’s things, Rick?”

“I’m fine, but we all want to know how you went at the tryouts.” I knew Drew had sent at least ten text messages during the afternoon, but Brandon hadn’t responded. From the messages Drew had received from Peter, Angus and Claire, it was obvious that Brandon hadn’t told them, either.

Sharon rolled her eyes. “He did well, but he’s too modest to say so.”

“It’s still early days. This was just the first training session, and there are some very strong players going for the same spot that I am.” Brandon was trying to downplay his performance, but it was clear to me that he was pleased.

“Then why didn’t you reply to any of the SMSs I sent?” Drew asked.

Brandon tried to look innocent. “I knew I’d be seeing you tonight, so I thought I’d wait.”

Drew pulled out his phone and started punching buttons. “You could’ve let us know earlier.”

“Who are you texting?” Sharon asked.

“The rest of the gang. Everyone’s been waiting to hear what happened.” A few seconds later, Drew grinned and looked up. “Done!”

“What did you tell them?” Brandon asked.

“I told them that you’re a bastard, but you’re still in the squad.”

Brandon shrugged. “You’re entitled to your opinion, even if it’s wrong. Enough of that. I’m starving.” He picked up a menu, but glanced at Sharon before opening it. “And I meant what I said before; I’m paying.”

Sharon smiled. “Okay, but next time it’s my turn.”

Drew had already told me that he was paying, and had even gone to the extent of making sure I left my wallet at home, though I suspected that was more so he would have an excuse to frisk me. Regardless, the wrestling had been fun, even if there had been an edge to it that I’d tried to ignore.

It didn’t take us long to agree to one of the banquets on the menu. Sharon and I exchanged glances when the other two pushed us towards the most expensive option, but Brandon and Drew eventually got their way — both claiming that they were hungry and needed lots of food.

Brandon had just finished telling us about some of the training he had done that morning, when Sharon glanced up. “Isn’t that James over there?”

“Is he stalking me?” Drew asked as he craned his neck around.

I looked over my shoulder and saw James and another guy talking to the person at the front counter. Their waiter picked up a couple of menus and escorted them to a table at the other end of the room.

Sharon smiled. “It looks to me like he’s on a date.”

“Could be. The two of us came here a few times when we were going out — the food’s good, not too expensive, and there’s no hassles.” Drew glanced across at Brandon. “Do you think I should say hello?”

Brandon raised an eyebrow. “How do you think James will feel if his ex, the one he cheated on, shows up when he’s out on a date?”

“Rotten. So you think it’s a good idea, then?”

Brandon grinned. “Yep! Go for it.”

“Drew –” I started, but he was already up and moving away.

He glanced back and winked. “Trust me.”

I knew that trust wasn’t the problem I had with what he was doing, but he had snookered me with his comment. He’d trusted me enough times that I had to return the favour and let him have his way.

“That wasn’t nice,” Sharon said to Brandon.

Brandon was still grinning. “Maybe, but it’s fun, and James deserves everything he gets.”

“Don’t you think he’s paid enough for what he’s done?”

Brandon scowled. “Never. He ripped the heart of one of my best friends to shreds, and I’m never going to forgive him for that.”

Sharon stood up. “People make mistakes, Brando. If they try to learn from them, to try to make things right and not make the same mistake again, then they deserve a second chance.”

Brandon looked uneasy. “You’re not leaving, are you? It’s not really that big a deal. I’m sorry, but James just rubs me the wrong way.”

Sharon shook her head. “I’m going to the ladies’. We’ll talk about this later.”

She stalked off, passing not too far from where Drew, James and the other guy were chatting. While I shared some of her reservations, it didn’t look like Drew was messing up James’s date. I twisted back around and looked at Brandon. He looked like he had retreated into a shell — his face had gone totally blank.

“Are you okay?” I asked, realising as soon as the words were out of my mouth that it was a stupid question.

Brandon looked like he was going to say something, and then he gave a laugh that to my ear sounded forced.

“Sorry, Rick, but I was about to ask you for advice, and then realised you probably don’t know anything more about girls than I do.”

My lips twisted into a wry smile. “Probably not.” I didn’t mind that he assumed that was because I was gay, but it was still true. I hadn’t had enough to do with girls, or guys for that matter, to understand them. “Then again, I don’t know how many guys really know much about girls, anyway.”

“True. Very true.” Brandon stared past me in the direction Sharon had disappeared. “Do you think I’m wrecking things with her?”

I was on shaky ground, but I thought I should try to be honest with him. “Some time ago, Sharon asked me about you. I said no girl could want a better protector.”

Brandon’s gaze snapped to meet mine. “You said what?”

I took that as a rhetorical question and continued. “She then asked what if she didn’t want a protector. What if she wanted an equal partner?”

Brandon thought about it. “Am I being too aggressive?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, but don’t assume she’s someone who is weak. She’s independent and able to take care of herself — we saw that last weekend. She likes you for who you are, but sometimes I think you’ve put yourself into a role she doesn’t want you to have.”

“Does she just want a friend, then?”

“You’ll have to ask her that, but I don’t think so.” I leant forward and rested my elbows on the table to make sure he looked at me. “Look, Brandon. You’re probably as independent and self-sufficient as she is. Treat her as an equal, someone who can give and take. Let her see that you care for her, and don’t be afraid to show your emotions. She won’t think you’re weak.”

“What do you mean?”

While it could have been a delaying tactic, I took it as an honest question. “If people get too near, you push them away. Even Angus can’t get close to you when you clam up like that. I don’t think Sharon has a chance to get past that mask of yours unless you let her. Don’t be afraid.”

“Mask, what mask?”

Masking the inner hurt was something I knew a lot about. I’d done that for so long, but it was good to be where I no longer needed to.

“Like you’re doing now. You’re putting up barriers, keeping me out. I don’t mind, but I think Sharon does. If you can’t show a person how much you like them — not just on the surface, but deep inside, then what hope do they have?”

For a moment, I saw a look of longing appear on Brandon’s face as he stared past me. It was quickly gone, but it was enough to tell me that I might have gotten through to him. I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see Sharon returning, but my smile faded when she wasn’t in sight. All I could see was Drew standing next to the table where James and his date were sitting. A strange conclusion jumped into my mind.

I turned to Brandon and blurted out what was I was thinking before I could consider the consequences. “You’re gay!”

I left off the part about him having a crush on either Drew or James, as I wasn’t sure which one he had been staring at, though I suspected it was Drew. My thoughts were in a spin as I re-evaluated everything I thought I had learnt about Brandon.

Bad Brandon grabbed my shirt and pulled me close until our noses almost touched. “I’m not gay!” he snarled through clenched teeth.

I was terrified. I had the feeling that he was close to punching my lights out. It wasn’t long, but it seemed like an eternity before Bad Brandon retreated a bit and his expression softened ever so slightly.

“Keep your mouth shut, or I’ll shut it permanently.” He pushed me back slightly and then sighed. Bad Brandon disappeared and he gave me an imploring look. “I can’t afford to be gay. Not now,” he whispered.

I was still too scared to speak. When Brandon released me, I grabbed my glass of water and gulped it down.

“What’s wrong?” a familiar voice asked.

I glanced up to see Drew standing behind me, scowling at Brandon.

Brandon crossed his arms and stared back impassively. “Nothing.”

Drew looked down at me. “Rick?”

I tried to give him a smile, but I didn’t know how successful I was. I patted the chair next to me. “Sit down.”

Drew dropped into the seat, but the only time his gaze left me was when it flicked across at Brandon. “Well?”

I tried another smile as my heart rate slowed down. Brandon was watching me with narrowed eyes, and I could see that his weight was forward, as if he was prepared to attack if I said the wrong thing.

“Drew, can you please stop me if I ever start to tell Brandon that I think soccer is a better game than rugby?”

Drew laughed, and I could see out of the corner of my eye that Brandon had relaxed.

The rest of the dinner went well. The earlier tension was gone, and we had fun chatting, eating, and just enjoying ourselves. All through it, though, I felt a slight tension between Brandon and me. He seemed to be on edge, as if he expected me to say something, and I kept wondering why he couldn’t tell the others.

Copyright Notice — Copyright © May 2009 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.