The Price of Friendship

Chapter 3

I knew that would happen, but still, I was unprepared. I had never kissed anyone, not properly, and my first time was going to be with a guy. I swallowed once and then closed my eyes.

Drew touched his lips to mine, lightly at first, but then with some pressure. I knew that meant he was being passionate. I tried to respond in kind, but I found myself distracted by the scratching from the slight stubble on his chin. Instead of considering the merits of kissing, I was wondering if I would get a rash.

Realising that I was showing no enthusiasm, I ran one hand up along Drew’s spine, and slid the other down over the back of his jeans. He seemed to like that, as he pushed his groin into mine and caressed me in a similar way with his hands. Just as I was wondering if I should do anything else, he stopped the tongue-in-my-mouth stuff and pulled his lips away.

“Oh, Rick…”

That happy murmur seemed to say he had liked it. It had been okay for me, but not something I expected to ever get excited about. I decided to stay quiet and just keep holding him. After a moment’s thought, I moved the hand on his back from side to side a bit, to show that I was still conscious and aware that he was there. I wondered if I would be able to get some suggestions from the Internet, for future reference, because I had no idea what Drew would like.

He put his mouth back to mine and I endured another session of skin burn, while trying to make it seem like I was having fun. That ended after what seemed an inordinate period of time, but was probably less than a minute. I resolved then and there that I would remain clean shaven throughout my life. If I found it irritating, I was sure any girlfriend I might ever have would feel the same.

“I’d really like to stay here and do this forever…” Drew began.

I tried to keep my body language from revealing my horror. With his arms around me, he would know if I stiffened too much.

“… but I have to get you home or your folks won’t let me take you out again.”

I sighed with relief, but I then I froze, thinking I’d stuffed up.

“Yeah, me too.” Drew sighed and rested his head on my shoulder. “But I promise we’ll do this as much as we can.”

“Th…thanks, Drew. I’ve had a really good time tonight.” That wasn’t totally honest, but I had enjoyed the evening. Even the kissing hadn’t been that bad, just not what I would have preferred.

I expected him to let go, but he just stood there, holding me tight. I released him, but it was several seconds before he moved, and then only to start nuzzling my neck. I felt the irritating rub of his five o’clock shadow against my cheek.

“Drew…” I whispered, trying to work out how to tell him to stop. I brought up a hand, put it on his chest, and gently pushed. It wasn’t enough to move him, but he got the hint.

“I know. You’re right.” Drew opened up a space between us, but he caught my hands as he did that. “You’re a lot more sensible than me, so if you think I’m taking things too fast or too far, you just stop me, okay?”

Me? Sensible? If I was sensible I wouldn’t be in this mess. I knew he meant well, which just made it that much harder for me to end the pretence. I really didn’t want to hurt him, even ignoring the likely reaction of his friends if I did so.

“Okay, Drew.” I decided to be brave and leant forward to give him a kiss on the cheek, only to feel that damned stubble again. “Now, I think we should get going.”

I started to move off, but I was brought up short by his hold on my hands when he didn’t move. I glanced back to see why, but he was just a shape in the shadows.

“Just a few more minutes? Please?”

He sounded so plaintive that I almost gave in. Almost. If I had been attracted to guys, or if he’d been a girl, I would have. “We’ll have more times, Drew, but I don’t want to get grounded for staying out too late.”

“We can’t have that!” He practically leaped across the arm’s length between us, pushed his lips hard up against mine for a moment, and then released me. “Now, let’s get going. We’ll make sure we plan things better tomorrow night, so we’ll have more time.”

The movie date had slipped my mind. I wondered how I was going to cope, even though the kissy-face stuff wouldn’t be as much of a surprise the second time.

We strolled back to the path. I sensed that Drew wanted to hold hands again, but we were almost out of the park and it would have been easy for anyone to spot us.

The idea of others seeing us as a couple reminded me of something I had been thinking about before Drew’s actions had forced it out of my mind.

“Drew, can I ask a favour?”

“Sure, Rick. Anything you want.” He sounded eager to please me.

“You know how you’ve called me your boyfriend…” I paused when he jerked to a halt. I glanced across at him to see an expression of shock.

“But…” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Aren’t you? I thought you said you were. Didn’t we just…” His voice trailed off as he stared at me, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.

I quickly smiled. I realised I was on dangerous ground and I had to be careful.

“Would you mind if you called me your partner, instead?” I stepped forward and rested a hand on his bicep in what I hoped was a reassuring way. “Please?”

“Partner?” His forehead wrinkled for a moment before he flashed me a grin. “Sure, if that’s what you want. But why?”

We resumed our slow walk. “I just find it more comfortable, that’s all. It’s less likely to… you know.” His quizzical expression told me he didn’t know. “Boyfriend makes it obvious, while partner is more ambiguous, if the wrong person hears it.”

“Of course!” He chuckled. “I keep forgetting you’re not out, and I’m going to stuff up big time if I don’t get my head around that.” He draped his arm across my shoulders. “Partner is good, but how about mate? No one is going to think anything of it if I say you’re my mate.”

I grinned. Drew really was a fantastic friend. “And I’ve got no problems with telling people you’re my best mate.” I took a chance and put my arm across his shoulders.

He chuckled. “Now, can you pretend to be drunk? We’re all set up for the ‘two mates who have had too much to drink’ routine.”

I laughed. “I’ll give it a go. I know I can do the singing out of tune part.”

“I bet I can do it better than you.” He gave me a cheeky grin. “Or should that be worse than you?”

“You’re on!”

We kept the noise down to reasonable levels, but we probably managed to scare a number of neighbourhood cats and dogs.

* * *

I woke up the next morning to the sound of my phone going off. I glanced at the clock and saw it was just before eight. As my brain kicked into gear, I frowned. There were only a handful of people who knew the number.

I picked it up just before it kicked over to voicemail. “Hello?”

“Rick, mate — I’m practising to make sure I remember that. Sorry if I woke you up, but I had to call you before I get to work. I’m not allowed to ring from there.”

“Drew? You didn’t need to call. I’ll be seeing you this afternoon.” I was touched that he’d called, but I was also concerned that it made him seem obsessive.

“Yeah, that’s what I had to ring about. I’ve been grounded. Penny got onto Mum and Dad about last night, and then Mrs. Sandler arrived and complained, and that was that. Either one I would’ve gotten away with, but not both. I won’t be allowed to see you all weekend. I’m really, really sorry. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

My brain wasn’t in the right gear to handle that speed, so I tried to put things into reverse. “Who’s Mrs. Sandler?”

“Sue’s mum. It seems she saw us in her yard last night, and this morning she found where we walked through her flowers. She went in to see Mum just after Penny had complained. Dad tore strips off me, telling me I need to be more responsible. Some people have no sense of humour.”

“What about your footy game? Maybe we can still catch up then.” I paused, only half listening to the answer, as I questioned why I was suddenly so keen to see someone who thought of me as his boyfriend.

“Sorry, I won’t be there, either. Dad made me ring the coach to tell him, and why, and he tore strips off me, too. Work is the only thing I’m allowed to leave the house for, and no visitors.”

“Okay, Drew. Thanks for letting me know, though. I really appreciate it.”

“Thanks, mate. You’re one in a million. I’ve got to go — I start work in two minutes.”

He hung up before I could respond.

Since I was awake, I decided to get up. Mum and Dad usually let me sleep in on weekends, but there were still things to do around the house, so I was sure I’d find enough to keep me busy.

Twenty minutes later, I was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and heading out of my bedroom. I paused when my bare feet hit the polished floorboards of the hallway, but I decided to ignore the cool sensation. I couldn’t be bothered going back into my room to find a pair of socks. Both of my parents were in the kitchen. The breadmaker had been unpacked and the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the room. I grinned as I joined them at the counter bench.

“Smells nice!”

Dad raised an eyebrow. “How are you feeling? You’re okay?”

I tilted my head as I pondered the strange question. It didn’t sound like a perfunctory question. “Yeah, sure. Why?”

Mum answered. “It was just that you sounded very drunk when you came up the driveway last night. That friend of yours sounded pretty bad, too.”

They waited for me to respond. I thought it was odd that if they had believed I was drunk, they hadn’t accosted me as soon as I’d gotten home. I noticed that while Mum sounded disapproving, she didn’t say anything about Drew apart from that one observation.

“We weren’t drunk. We were just pretending to be drunk. Drew bet me that he could sound more drunk than I could.”

“And you expect us to believe that?” Dad asked. He leant back, crossed his arms and stared down his nose at me.

“It’s the truth. Honest!”

My parents exchanged glances before they returned their attention to me. I wasn’t fussed. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I then dropped my eyes to the counter top. Nothing wrong, apart from deceiving my new best mate.

Mum took over. It seemed she had the job of being the sympathetic parent, while Dad was trying to be the stern taskmaster. “Look, Rick, we know how important it is for you that you’ve got friends. But some friends are worse than having no friends. We’re not going to stop you, but we want you to be careful. If Drew turns out to be the wrong type of friend, you’re better off without him.”

I winced. I wasn’t concerned about Drew. I was more worried that I was the wrong type of friend for him. I looked up and met Mum’s gaze. “Drew is a great guy, and he’s got great friends. He’s a bit impulsive, but I really like him and he seems to like me.” I should have won some sort of understatement award with that line. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We just spent the night at the centre, and then we went back to his place before he made sure I got home. Indeed, he made a point of making sure I got home when we said we would, because he didn’t want me to get into trouble.”

They exchanged glances again and then relaxed. Dad smiled at me. “Okay, Rick. Just let us know if you need any help. It doesn’t matter about what — if something’s going wrong, we’ll be there for you.”

“Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mum. Can I have some of that bread, now?”

Mum narrowed her eyes. “We’re not going to get it for you, if that’s what you mean. You’re not in nappies anymore.”

I laughed and headed to where the bread was waiting. Things were back to normal.

“What did you get up to? And who did you meet?” Dad asked.

I looked back over my shoulder at him. “Can I have something to eat before I get the third degree?”

“Of course. Eat first. Torture later.” Dad winked. “You’re allowed to keep some secrets. We just want to know how it went, not every detail.”

With thirty minutes of almost nonstop talking, I managed to give them the impression that I’d had a good time. There was enough to mention without bringing up the topic I didn’t want them to know. I decided that if Drew kept coming to visit, certain things would become obvious, so I told them about the prank on Penny and Scott. Mum looked horrified. Dad started to chuckle, but swallowed it when Mum glared at him.

“I think that’s terrible. One day that could be you. Would you like something to happen to you when you’re on a date?” Mum asked.

I sobered. Dates weren’t something I wanted to think about. “Scott didn’t mind. Anyway, Drew rang me this morning to tell me he’s been grounded. He’d invited me to watch him play football, and then to a movie, but that’s all been cancelled.”

“Probably for the best.” Dad winked at me. “It sounds like you should be taking him in small doses at first, before he leads you to doing something completely crazy.”

“I’m not sure I’m happy with him in even small doses!” Mum crossed her arms and frowned at Dad.

Dad stood up, flicked a glance at me, and then stared at Mum. “He’s seventeen, Jess. He’s a sensible kid — no, a young man — and we have to trust his judgement. He’ll make some mistakes, but they have to be his mistakes. We discussed this last night when we thought he was drunk. He’s going to learn about friendship and what that means, because he’s missed out on that education for the last two and a half years. If he wants our advice, he can ask us, but as much as we can, we’re going to keep our noses out of his personal life.”

My chin just about hit the floor. Dad rarely laid down the law, but it was clear he wasn’t going to budge on that subject.

Mum had the decency to blush. She gave me an embarrassed smile. “Sorry, Rick. Your father’s right. I’ll try to stay out of things as much as I can.”

I stepped over and hugged her. While doing that, I caught Dad’s eye and smiled. “Thanks, Mum. Thanks, Dad. You’re the best.”

The conversation after that was mainly between my parents. Dad was starting his new job officially on Monday, though he had already brought some things home to study. He was to be the new financial controller for a small business and there were a lot of things he needed to be familiar with.

I listened for a bit, but budgets and forecasts didn’t interest me. It did remind me about how much I had spent, but there wasn’t an immediate urgency in earning some more money.

Breakfast was winding up when my phone rang again. I thought it might be Drew on a break, but the display showed an unfamiliar number.

“Hello?”

“G’day, Rick. It’s Angus. Drew sent me a text to let me know he’s grounded. He gave me your number and suggested I give you a call.”

“Thanks, Angus. You didn’t have to do that.” I was aware that my parents were watching and listening, so I walked towards the lounge room to give myself a degree of privacy.

“It’s no problem. Say, how fit are you?”

“Not very.” The DDR machine had shown me the truth the night before.

“I was thinking of going around to Brandon’s house and doing a workout with him. He’s got a home gym. Why don’t you join us?”

“Brandon… is he the one that plays rugby?”

“That’s him. You don’t play rugby, do you?”

I laughed. “No way. I don’t think I would know the first rule.”

“Good. I could use someone on my side. You know how to play soccer of course.”

Angus couldn’t see the grin on my face. I remembered the conversation I’d had with Drew about those two sports. “Sorry, no.”

“Philistine!” There was no rancour in the statement. I thought Angus was more hopeful than really expecting me to be able to play. “I’ll have to teach you at some point. So, what do you think?”

“Sounds good to me, but I’ve got to warn you, I’m really not fit.”

“We’ll get that fixed soon enough. You leave it to Marlon and me.”

“Who’s Marlon?”

“Brandon. Brando, for short. Marlon Brando when he’s doing his acting for the ump, so Marlon’s his nickname. I’ve been trying to get everyone to call him that, but the rest won’t bite. The idiot has them all intimidated. They think he’ll rip their arms off or something if they call him that.”

“Will he?” Angus seemed confident, but my vague memory of Brandon was that he was a walking bundle of muscle.

“Nah. He’s a pussycat. He plays rugby, for God’s sake! How tough can he be?”

Angus, I decided, was mildly deranged, but in a nice way. “Where do I have to go?”

“You live near Drew’s place, but closer to the school. Is that right?”

“Close enough.” The direct route to Drew’s house didn’t go by my place, but it wasn’t far out of the way.

“How about I come to your house, and then I’ll take you to Brandon’s? We can jog — it’ll take us about twenty minutes and it’ll be a nice warm-up.”

I was having second thoughts, but I knew he meant well. I didn’t want to look like a wuss. “Okay,”

“Right. Give me the address — Drew only gave me the phone number — and I’ll be there in about thirty minutes. If you’ve got a backpack, take a light jacket and some water. If you don’t, we’ll just have to make do. Be prepared to go as soon as I get there, because I don’t want to cool down waiting. Is that okay?”

“About thirty minutes. I’ll be ready.” I was mentally picking what I’d be wearing while I gave Angus the address. I had an old backpack I could use, and I could ring my dad if I needed him to pick me up or drop anything off.

A couple of minutes later, I stuck my head into the kitchen. “I’m going out soon. Angus is going to take me jogging and then around to Brandon’s place. Brandon’s got a home gym and they’re going to show it to me.”

Mum looked surprised. “Jogging? And a gym?” She gave Dad a worried glance.

Dad frowned. “Don’t try too hard, Rick. You can hurt yourself if you’re not careful.” He then grinned. “But have fun. Give me a call if you need me to pick you up. I can still remember what it was like when I went to the gym. Sometimes I had trouble walking afterwards.”

“Thanks, Dad. I’m just going to get changed. Angus said he’d be here in about half an hour.”

* * *

Angus led me through a garage to an area at the back. I barely noticed the equipment as I collapsed to the floor. I struggled to get the backpack off, but I had trouble moving between my gasps of breath. I was relieved when someone stripped the pack off for me and then gave me the bottle of water.

“Steady. Don’t gulp it down too fast.”

I looked up and saw a broad, muscular, dark-haired guy smiling down at me. I tried to say hello, but the word didn’t make it past the panting.

“What did you do to him, Angus?”

“Not much. We just jogged over here as a warm-up. I was leading the way and he was right behind me.”

“Your jog is not that much slower than a sprint. Didn’t you think to check to see if he was struggling?”

Angus shrugged. “He kept up. And I went slower than I normally would, because he told me his fitness level wasn’t that high.”

The guy grinned while shaking his head. “Congratulations. You’ve impressed me if you managed stay with this fleet-footed fairy. Hi, I’m Brandon. No, don’t bother trying to say anything. Take your time and get your breath back. I believe you’re Rick.”

I nodded weakly. I had wondered if there was something desperately wrong with me when I was having trouble keeping up with Angus, so it was good to learn that it wasn’t my fault.

“If I’m a fleet-footed fairy, then you’re a …” Angus paused for thought. “… musclebound troglodyte.”

“Why thank you! That’s a great compliment.”

“It wasn’t a compliment.” Angus was grinding his teeth.

Brandon laughed. He glanced down at where I was lying prone and contemplated me for a moment. “I should explain that we’re usually insulting each other, and as far as I know, Angus isn’t a fairy. Don’t think too much about what we say to each other.” He stepped over and clamped an arm around Angus’s neck. “This guy just doesn’t understand what it means to play a real sport.”

Angus slipped out of the grip and skipped away. “I know what it means. I just don’t know why Marlon here thinks that rugby is a real sport.”

Brandon gritted his teeth, changing his expression to a more menacing one. “Don’t call me that!”

I could see why no one else would use that nickname; Brandon could be scary.

Angus was unfazed. “Anyway, I’ve brought Rick over to get him started on some exercise. He says he’s not very fit. What do you think we should get him working on?”

Brandon looked down at me. I shuffled myself up to a sitting position, and my breathing was almost under control, so I tried speaking. “Hi, Brandon, and thanks for this.”

Brandon chuckled. “Don’t thank me too soon.” He reached down and helped me over to one of the benches. He then retrieved my water bottle and gave it back to me. “Just small sips, still. Not too much at once.” He glanced at Angus. “Some light weights and a bit of cardio. He looks like he’s done some exercise in the past. Swimming or rowing, I’d say.” He smiled, giving me the chance to respond.

“Swimming, in summer. Haven’t for a few months now.”

Brandon nodded. “Thought so. You’ve lost most of your fitness, but overall your body has kept a reasonable muscle tone. We just need to get you back to where you were.” He looked at Angus. “If you’re going to run him back and forward, he’s not going to need much more than that.”

“He knows where you live now, so he can come and visit without me.”

Brandon raised an eyebrow. “Somehow, I don’t think he knows the way. You would’ve had him going too fast to remember directions.”

Angus looked down at me in surprise. I nodded.

“Hmm… in that case, I’ll just have to jog him back when we finish.”

Brandon laughed. “Nah, I’ll do it. We want him alive at the end. He can’t play rugby if he’s run off his feet.”

“Soccer.”

“Rugby.”

“Soccer.”

“Rugby.”

Angus gave me a wink. “Anyway, there’s other news.” His smile vanished almost immediately. “Oh, fuck. I wasn’t supposed to say that. Sorry, Rick.”

Brandon’s forehead wrinkled as he glanced at Angus and then me. “What are you talking about?”

Angus ignored him and stared at me. His lips were twisting, as if he was trying to work out what to say. I didn’t understand what was going on.

“Rick, can I tell Brando about some of the things we talked about last night? The only reason he wasn’t there to hear it himself was because he was working.”

I gulped as the light dawned. I glanced at Brandon and tried to think. I didn’t know how much he could be trusted.

“What’s going on, Angus?” Brandon was clearly puzzled by his friend’s behaviour.

“Rick, let me tell you a bit about Brando. Back when Drew first came out, there were a few problems. At the time, his only friends were Sue and Joe, and they don’t go to our school. Then a rumour went around about Drew, and some guys decided to pick on him. Brando was the first one to step forward and stop them. He said there’s nothing wrong with Drew and that if they wanted to pick on him, they’d have to go through Brandon first.”

I glanced across and saw, even though he was looking away, that Brandon’s face was red.

“Because of that, Brando’s one of Drew’s oldest friends and strongest supporters. That hasn’t been easy for him, either. He’s come home from rugby practise with bruises galore — because he’s mates with a gay guy. He stood up to the other guys on the team, all for Drew. A lot of them still don’t like him because of that, though they tolerate him.”

“Shut up, Angus. He doesn’t need to hear this.” Brandon’s voice sounded awkward, as if he was trying to keep his composure.

“Yes, he does. He needs to know this more than most.”

Brandon turned around. “Why?” He looked down at me.

Angus was also staring at me. “May I?”

I nodded. If they were that close, Drew would probably tell him anyway. I wasn’t comfortable, but from Angus’s story, I didn’t think I had anything to fear from Brandon.

“Rick’s Drew’s new boyfriend. They were supposed to go out on a date tonight, but Drew got himself grounded, so he asked me to look after him. I brought him over to introduce him properly, since you weren’t there last night.”

Brandon opened his mouth and then snapped it shut. His forehead wrinkled and his eyes narrowed. “Boyfriend, eh? You only started at the school on Thursday, didn’t you?” He took a step towards me.

I edged away, only to slip off the bench and end up with my feet in the air and head resting on a medicine ball.

“Brando! What do you think you’re doing?” Angus stepped up next to me, staring at Brandon in confusion.

“Don’t you remember James? That bastard snared Drew in a few days, too. I knew there was something wrong with him from day one, but it took the rest of you way too long before you accepted the truth. How do we know that Rick’s not another James?”

Angus and Brandon were in a staring contest. Brandon was angry, but Angus was calm and determined.

“We don’t know, but he deserves the right to show his true colours. Drew likes him, and is very happy. I haven’t seen him this happy for more than a year. For that, I’m willing to take a chance. You’re Drew’s friend, Brando. You should give Rick a chance, too.”

Their gazes locked for several seconds more, before Brandon capitulated. He sighed and glared down at me.

“Have you been told about James?”

“A little.” I cringed at how weak my voice sounded.

“James was a cheating bastard. He played with Drew’s affections and then ripped them to shreds, by fooling around behind Drew’s back.” He leant down so his face was close to mine. “If you even think of hurting Drew, I’m going to turn you into a bloody pulp before flushing you down the toilet. Drew deserves the best, and I’m not going to start by assuming that that’s you. If you want my respect and friendship, you’re going to have to earn it. Got that?”

I jerked my head up and down. Brandon was scaring me. I had just been given one more reason for keeping up the pretence of being gay.

“Brando, lighten up. We all know you’ve given yourself the job of keeping Drew safe, but he’s older now. He’s also got a lot more people looking out for him. You don’t have to come over so heavy.”

Brandon gave Angus a glance. “Sorry. You know why I do it, though.”

Angus was serious as he nodded. “Yeah, I do. And I think you should tell Rick, after what you just put him through. He might need your protection, too.”

Brandon was caught by surprise. He opened his mouth and then shook his head. “No. Not now.”

“Would you mind if I told him?”

Brandon grabbed a jacket that was hanging from the corner of a rack of weights. “I'm going inside for a drink. You do whatever you want.” He stormed out the side door and up to the house.

Angus and I stared after him. I thought there was more to Brandon’s reaction than was immediately obvious, so I turned to see what Angus would do.

He ran a hand through his hair. “I think you need to know some of it, but the rest has to come from Brandon. He’s right about it being quick for you and Drew to get together, and that the same thing happened with James, so I suppose he’s got a reason to be negative. Drew’s got his faults, and one of them is that he’s very impulsive.”

I had to smile. “Tell me about it.”

Angus laughed. “Yeah, I suppose you already saw that. Anyway, Brandon mistrusted James from day one, but it took a lot longer before we found out how right he was. But that’s not what this is about.”

I waited. The way Angus was pacing around made it look like he was trying to get up the nerve to say something.

“I’m just going to give you the bare bones. You can ask Brandon for the rest, but I wouldn’t advise doing that until he knows you a lot better. Also, don’t tell anyone else.

“When Brandon was ten, a couple of years before I met him, he attended the funeral of one of his older cousins. That cousin was one of Brandon’s favourites. The truth came out over the following months — he had killed himself because he was gay. That hurt Brandon a lot. I don’t know how many people he’s told the full story to, but I think it’s just me and Drew. At first, I think he defended Drew because he didn’t want what happened to his cousin to happen to anyone else. Afterwards, he got to know Drew better, and became his de facto defender. Drew gained a lot of confidence from that, and his circle of friends grew rapidly, but it was Brandon who started it, and Brandon still feels responsible for him.

“Brandon hasn’t had it easy, doing all of that. I’ve already told you about his rugby team. Life here at his home isn’t good, either. His parents don’t mention his cousin at all. I’ve heard them mention all the rest of his cousins, but not that one. It’s like they’re treating him as if he didn’t exist. When they found out that Drew’s gay, they tried to stop Brandon from seeing him. Brandon refused. As a consequence, things can still be tense. Brandon’s loyal, though. He’s not one to give up just because life is tough. He’s there for his friends through thick and thin, and pity the person who gets in his way.”

“Thanks, Angus. That makes things a lot clearer.” Even though I’d found Brandon scary, I could appreciate how he wanted to protect his friend. I wished I could have had someone like that at my old school, someone who would have stuck up for me.

* * *

“I’ll take Rick home, if you like. I’ll even walk it, though it’s a waste of a good run,” Angus suggested.

Brandon shook his head. “No, I’ll do it. I said I would, and…” He smirked. “… I don’t trust you. You wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from jogging the whole way.”

Angus clutched his chest dramatically. “I’m hurt. I’m dying at the vile insinuation.” He straightened up and gave me a wry grin. “Especially as it’s probably accurate.”

I smiled. I didn’t know them well enough to allow myself to chuckle, but the two guys could be very funny. Brandon had come back about ten minutes after Angus had told me his story, and acted as if nothing had happened. He wasn’t as friendly as when I had first arrived, but he seemed to be giving me a chance to prove myself.

The workout was tough, but between Angus and Brandon, they made sure I didn’t overstrain myself.

“Okay, I’m going to jog home. If I don’t see either of you tomorrow, we’ll catch up on Monday.” Angus waved as he jogged out the door.

“Bye!” I called out, raising a hand even though I was sure that Angus wouldn’t have seen it.

I turned, and the smile fell from my face as I took in Brandon’s expression. Good Brandon was gone, and while Bad Brandon hadn’t returned, it looked like he wasn’t far away.

“I won’t trouble you. I’m sure I can find my way back. I know roughly which direction to go.” My words were running over themselves as I snatched up my backpack and threw my water bottle inside.

“I think we need to talk.”

That was all he said. A flat monotone statement, and then he stood there, arms crossed, waiting.

I paused and looked at him. He stared back, with no change to his expression. While there was nothing to justify it, I had the impression I wasn’t in any danger. I slowly lowered my backpack and nodded.

The left side of his mouth twitched up. “Put your backpack on. We can talk on the way to your place. What’s the address?”

I gave it to him while thinking that I would be safer out in the open, if things turned nasty.

“Let’s go. We’ll take it at a slow jog so we can talk, while we let our bodies cool down slowly. You don’t want to stop abruptly after exercising.” Brandon picked up a backpack from the corner and put it on. He then led me outside and onto the street.

His jogging pace was a lot slower than Angus’s. Despite his initial statement, we didn’t say anything to each other for five minutes.

“Some gay guys just like sex. They’ll take whatever they can get. Is that you?”

I stumbled at the blunt opening. I stared at him jogging on the spot a couple of paces away. “No, that’s not me.”

Brandon waited until we had resumed jogging before asking the next question. “Are you going to cheat on him? Use him and then dump him?”

That question hit close to home. When I didn’t answer immediately, Brandon stopped and grabbed me on the bicep. He squeezed hard. “Well?”

“I won’t cheat on him. I promise!”

Brandon pushed his face closer to mine. When I dropped my gaze, he used his free hand to push my chin back up to maintain eye contact. “And using him?”

“Can I take some time to explain? Please?”

“So you are using him!”

“Sort of. Look, it’s complicated. I can explain, I can, but it’s not something I can just say.” I heard the partial confession leave my lips and I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Just like the last school, I was about to fuck things up. I knew, though, that if I did, it would be all my own fault.

Brandon let me go. “Start talking.” He glanced around. “Let’s keep moving so we don’t get stiff.”

For the next ten minutes, I told him about my old school, and how I’d had no friends, not only at school, but in the entire community. I didn’t give him any real details about why, except to say I’d upset some people who turned out to have a lot of influence. I told him how Drew had almost thrown himself at me, and that I was so desperate for a friend, I would do anything to keep him happy. He asked a few questions for clarification, but he didn’t give away how he was reacting to the revelations.

I managed not to admit that I’m straight, but I told him more than I was willing to tell anyone else. Some of that was from fear of failing to convince him that I wouldn’t hurt Drew, but some of it just kept rolling out of my mouth. Once the dam had burst, there was a lot to get off my chest.

“What did you do to get everyone so offside?” Brandon asked as I slowed down.

I pulled a face. Those events were something that had been running through my mind a lot over the previous couple of years. Mainly wishing that things could have been different.

“It really wasn’t much. It was a misunderstanding that they blew up bigger than the battle of Minas Tirith.”

“Yeah, but what?”

I didn’t want to say, but I had told Brandon so much already. “It was at a party. I was wishing the birthday girl a happy birthday, when I accidentally spilt my drink on her.”

“Accidents happen. Surely they weren’t that unreasonable?”

I felt myself going red. “I tried to clean it up. Her boyfriend showed up just as I started to use a napkin on the front of her dress. She was protesting, and he took it the wrong way.”

I glanced across and saw a small smirk on Brandon’s face.

“It’s not funny! That incident, and afterwards when I tried to apologise, ruined my life for more than two years. I was only fourteen!”

I explained to Brandon that no one had been interested in listening to my side of the story. The word had gotten around that I had tried to grope the birthday girl, and that story spread quickly. Some of the guys probably would have high-fived me for doing what I was accused of, but not when the most popular guy at the school was bad-mouthing me. The incident got so distorted that several adults in town thought I had tried to rape the girl. In a school of only a couple hundred kids, I was the one pegged as a molester, and no one wanted to know me.

Brandon grunted, but the smirk disappeared. “Drew knows all of this?” I wasn’t sure, but I thought he wasn’t as aggressive as he had been earlier.

“No, and I don’t really want to tell him. I can’t stop you from saying anything, but I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone what I’ve said. Drew’s worked out some of it, but I don’t think he knows how desperately I need him.”

“No, he probably wouldn’t. Drew’s a bit na├»ve at times.” We jogged a few more steps before he spoke again. “So, you started by using him because you needed a friend. What about now? Do you love him?”

I had thought about the L word. Not to use it myself, but to work out what to do if Drew used it. I knew I had to be honest, if a little misleading, with Brandon. “It’s too early to say that. I like him. I like him a lot. I think he’s the best mate anyone could want. But I don’t know him well enough to say I love him.”

“But in the future?”

“I may come to love him,” I said, knowing it was unlikely, “but I can’t say I will. I don’t think I will ever want to hurt him, though.”

Brandon grunted. “You’re not good enough for him.”

We jogged in silence for maybe half a minute before I responded. “You may be right. But I’m here. I like him. He likes me. Until someone better for him comes along, why mess things up?”

It was Brandon’s turn to be surprised. He stared at me.

“What are you saying?”

“I’m not perfect. You said I’m not good enough for Drew, and you may be right. But until someone better shows up, I’m what Drew wants. If you can find someone who’s better for Drew, then I’ll step back and let them in.”

Brandon narrowed his eyes. “Why?”

“Isn’t that what you want?”

“Yes, but why would you step aside? Don’t you love him?”

I shook my head and gazed at the ground. “I’ve already said it’s too early to say if I’ll love him. If I do, then… I don’t know.” I looked up and met Brandon’s confused stare. “But if I don’t, then I want him to have someone who does. I’ll be there for Drew until they show up. And you can make sure I don’t hurt him in the meantime.”

Brandon stood there for a moment and then stuck out his hand. “Deal?”

I took his hand and we shook. “Deal.”

Copyright Notice — Copyright © October 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 and Kel, 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.

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