Lovers with Open Minds, Friends with Benefits

Anthony sat in the front room waiting for Sasha to get home from work and Jerrett to return from his errands. At any other time in his life he would have been pacing, but the leg still bothered him and he’d already paced himself out. Instead he stared morosely at the beautiful polished wood cane Sasha had given him, twirling it in his hands, watching the brass top wink in the sunlight.

It was time to go home. He tired easily still but got around all right. He could drive short distances, get up and down steps if he had the cane, and really no longer needed someone to look after him. The return to his independent, unimpeded life should have made him happy. So why am I sitting here feeling like my dog just died?

Didn’t matter. He’d been a burden on Jerrett and Sasha too long, on their time and their privacy. As soon as Jerrett came home. Yep, that’s when he was going to say he was going home. And smile when he did it, dammit.

Jerrett got home first and he seemed to be in a good mood. He kissed Anthony hello and asked about his day, apparently oblivious to Anthony’s forced cheer and fidgety discomfort.

Finally, Anthony took a breath and said, “Sir, I need to talk to you about something.”

Jerrett usually granted his attention when he was asked for it, but this time he held up a hand. “All right, but I have something I’d like to discuss first.” He watched those owlish eyes blink in surprise. Anthony was fun to sidetrack; it was so easy. “Anthony, I know you don’t always like a submissive role, but…I want you to be mine, like Sasha is mine.”

“Oh.” Anthony’s legs gave way and he sat back down on the couch with a thud. He blinked, feeling stupid, trying to get his brain to change gears. “Um…I…that is, are you sure, sir?” Once started, his mouth took off before his brain could turn the corner. “I mean, I do love you so and it’s not like I wouldn’t kneel at your feet. When I can kneel again, that is. And if there was anybody, well, it would be you. But I’m kind of, you know, a handful. When I’m better. And bouncing around. Annoying, even, I know. Though I know I’m a mess and it would be better if I had someone to keep me in line, take charge, rein me in. But are you sure you want that to be you?”

Part of him couldn’t believe he was saying all this when Jerrett wanted a simple yes or no. Defensive, perhaps, because no one in their right mind would truly want him. Not like that. “Sir?”

Jerrett waited patiently for him to run out of words. “Well, since you put it that way I guess I should change my mind. After all, I am so very fickle that I would ask such a thing and then recant after serious consideration thirty seconds later,” Jerrett said dryly. He waited until Anthony’s eyes got large again and a small smile tugged at Jerrett’s lips. “Would you be mine, Anthony? Or shall I continue asking until you answer yes or no?”

Anthony ruffled both hands back through his hair, his hands shaking. “I’m sorry, dammit, sorry. I just, see, my train of thought got all derailed, completely off the tracks – whoosh! Straight down into the gorge. Here I was waiting for you with this speech all set about how it’s time for me to go home and I’ve been imposing on you too long and I was gonna pack my stuff up and say thank you, thank you, I don’t know what I would’ve done without you and all that and–”

He cut off and swallowed hard when Jerrett’s fingers drummed once on his forearm. The twitch of the panther’s tail – he recognized it by now. A huge lump in his throat, a hundred things warring in his hyperactive brain, he looked into those sharp, dark eyes.

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

Anthony forced the breath in and out of his lungs. He felt more than halfway to tears and a complete nervous collapse and he wasn’t even sure why. He wasn’t afraid of Jerrett anymore, afraid of his displeasure, maybe, afraid of not living up to expectations. It wasn’t that the idea upset him or that it wasn’t what he wanted. But it was all so unexpected and…unreal.

“Yes, I want to be yours,” he whispered. The cane rattled against the floor and he realized he was shaking. He put it down. “I want to give myself to you.”

Jerrett sat and pulled Anthony over into his lap carefully, mindful of his leg despite remarkable progress in healing. He took his chin gently between his fingers and kissed his lips very softly. “I want you to be mine or I would not have asked you, Anthony, and I’m glad you said yes,” he said on a warm purr, and nuzzled at the side of his jaw just under his ear.

A little shiver ran up Anthony’s arms. “Thank you, sir,” he murmured as those strong arms wrapped around him. Despite the confusion and the sudden feeling he no longer understood the universe in any useful way, Jerrett’s touch still caused a rush of heat to his middle.

He traced a finger over Jerrett’s ear and slid his arms around his neck when Jerrett began to nibble at his throat. Bravado and bluster, that’s all he truly was. Inside he was still the skinny, anxious little boy whose father had walked out without a backward glance, whose teachers claimed he had a learning disability because he could not concentrate on the boring, pointless things they wanted him to do, whose mother had despaired that he would never survive his childhood between his nervous stomach and his night terrors.

Any second now, that little boy whispered to him, Jerrett will tell you it’s all a big joke.

He realized he’d escalated from a gentle embrace to clinging desperately.

“Sorry…sorry…” he murmured, easing up before he cut off Jerrett’s air. “I guess…there’s still the other thing…”

A smile, yes, he managed one. Good. Better. “About whether I should go home?”

“I’ll tell you the same thing I told Sasha. You can keep your place if you want to, go there if you need to, but I like having you here and you can move in and treat this as your home if you want, too,” Jerrett said, then he suddenly set Anthony aside. “There is one more thing.” He rose and went into the hall where he’d left a small shopping bag. He returned and sat back down, pulled a box from the bag and handed it to Anthony. “This is for you.”

With a quick glance up at Jerrett’s face and then down at the velvet box, Anthony took it in both hands and eased it open, his bottom lip caught between his teeth. “Hells shiny, pointy gates…” he breathed out in stunned amazement.

Inside the box was a custom-made collar. The two-inch wide neckband was made of tiny circles of silver woven into a fine mesh resembling chainmail. At the very center of the front of the collar the mesh pattern opened in a circle about the size of a quarter and from the top hung a diamond pendant set in platinum that looked to be enough karats that any socialite debutant would have wet themselves had it been presented to them on a ring.

“Oh, sir…it’s…dear gods…” The backs of his eyes stung and he felt completely ridiculous but so full of joy as well, as if someone had poured a pitcher of light into his body. “Thank you. Would you…did you…want to put it on?”

“Well, I don’t think it will fit me…” Jerrett said, and the expression on Anthony’s face made him laugh. “I’m sorry hon, I don’t mean to tease.” He lifted the collar from the box and put it around Anthony’s neck, fastening it in the back. He had to smile; the design suited him well.

One long-fingered hand crept up to Anthony’s throat. The collar fit so perfectly it melded with him, as if it had always been there. “It’s so beautiful, sir. Puts me to shame,” he said on a shaky grin. “And all the girls at the Faire will be so jealous. Some of the boys, too.”

He squared his shoulders as a more determined look joined the glistening in his eyes. “I’ll try my best for you, sir, not to embarrass you or aggravate you too much. I mean, you will have breaks from me, at least, when I’m back on my feet. Out of the house from dawn to dark most of the Faire season. I travel a lot during the Winter and stuff, to the studios for documentary work and playing weapons coach to pampered actors who don’t know which end of a sword to hold. But I’m a good cook, though, sure, my food’s a lot spicier than Sasha’s, which is good for a little variety, and–”

He cut off abruptly, leaned forward to take Jerrett’s face between his hands, and seized his lips in a fierce, heated kiss.

“Isn’t it supposed to be me who cuts you off with a kiss?” Jerrett said playfully when they broke for a moment, then he returned the kiss with melting heat, wrapping his arms around Anthony and pressing him back against the sofa.

“Thought I’d save you the trouble,” Anthony whispered when Jerrett let him up for air. He wished he could be well and strong again, right that second, images of Jerrett flipping him over and taking him hard ricocheting around in his brain in the most distracting ways.

Jerrett was thinking along the same lines, but he was still gentle with Anthony, still careful as he undressed him and picked him up to carry into the bedroom. He left the door open and a trail of clothing behind. He spread Anthony out on the bed and sank down next to him, claiming his mouth again and caressing over his body in a sensual assault meant to inflame, without bringing either of them too close to the edge. He could keep this pace up for hours, and he sometimes did, driving Sasha or Anthony or both to distraction. Tonight his intent was only to keep the flame on simmer until Sasha got home.

Humming to himself, Sasha arrived a little after four, work done for the day and shopping complete. He came in through the garage, put the groceries away, and only then began to wonder why no one had come to say hello.

He peeked out into the living room and spotted the box on the sofa. “Oh, he did it!” His excitement turned to laughter when he saw Anthony’s shirt draped over the arm of the sofa, then his shoes a little farther towards the door, then Jerrett’s shirt draped over the banister.

The trail led, as he knew it would, to the bedroom, where his two gorgeous men were already locked in each other’s embrace. “I’m home,” he said with a soft smile.

Jerrett lifted his eyes to Sasha, their dark depths lit with inner fire. His lips released the nipple he was nibbling on long enough to say, “Welcome home, sweetheart. Why don’t you take your clothes off and come up here. I’ve held off for about an hour now and if one of us doesn’t get inside that beautiful body of yours soon I think we will both expire.”

Sasha wriggled out of his t-shirt and jeans in record time, took two running steps and did a swan dive onto the bed. He gave Jerrett a tender, lingering kiss and then broke off to take in Anthony’s new accessory.

“Oh, hon, it’s incredible. It’s so perfect.” Sasha ran a gentle finger over the silver links and rolled to his stomach to give Anthony a kiss as well, giving Jerrett a perfect view of his ass.

Jerrett couldn’t resist giving those pert upturned cheeks a swat, bringing his hand down with a crack somewhere between playful and painful.

Sasha let out a little gasp and then moaned as the sting settled into spreading warmth. He lifted his butt in invitation while he licked at Anthony’s jaw.

Jerrett smacked him again, just to see him squirm, and caressed his hand over those smooth cheeks. His fingers teased along the crease and slid between his legs to fondle his balls and rapidly expanding erection then back up to knead the firm mounds of his ass again. “Such a beautiful little ass you have, sweetheart.” He breathed over Sasha’s ear and kissed the back of his neck. His finger had slid between his cheeks and pressed, lightly teasing, at his tight little hole. “I can never decide if I want to spank it, eat it, or fuck it.”

A little shiver of delight skittered up Sasha’s back and he smiled as he rolled his hips in invitation. “Why choose, sir, when you can have everything your want?”

Jerrett’s warm chuckle was a vibration at the base of Sasha’s skull where his lips pressed. “Why indeed,” he agreed. He withdrew his finger though, and patted Sasha’s butt. “We are celebrating something special though. Would you like to show Anthony how happy you are he’s agreed to join our household?”

“Oh, yes, sir.” Sasha threw his arms around Anthony’s neck and hugged him tight. “I’m so glad you said yes.”

“Me, too, sweetie,” Anthony said with a soft smile. “You don’t even know.”

Sasha kissed his nose and turned back to Jerrett with a little twinkle in his eyes. “And what would you like, sir?”

Jerrett ran a hand over both sleek bodies before him as if contemplating a lunch selection. What shall it be? Ham on rye? Ruben? Roast beef?

He finally shifted around, moving to Anthony’s other side and putting him in the middle. He reached for a bottle of oil and spooned up to Anthony’s backside. Reaching over him, he tipped the bottle and let a drizzle of the oil spill over the crack of Sasha’s backside. “Why don’t you work that in, get him nice and slippery for you.” Jerrett purred under Anthony’s ear.

“Yessir,” Anthony replied with a serious nod. He slid his hand down Sasha’s back, kneading the muscles along the way, and then slid his fingers into the crack between those beautiful globes, teasing at the entrance. With a soft moan, he slipped one finger inside.

Sasha wriggled and pushed back against the gentle intrusion, lips parted in desire. “How do you feel, hon?” he whispered into Anthony’s chest.

“Capsized,” Anthony said on a grin. “Completely swamped and overturned.”

Jerrett nipped lightly at the back of Anthony’s neck and his oil slick fingers teased between Anthony’s cheeks. He had already spent a considerable amount of time warming them both up before Sasha joined them, and he was less than exceedingly patient now. First one, and then two fingers slid inside his tight, warm channel, moving them in and out and twisting them around to loosen him up.

Anthony’s cock twitched and his eyes crossed. Hard to concentrate on anything with that going on behind him and inside him. He bit down on his bottom lip, the slight pain helping him focus, and took a firm hold of Sasha’s erection while he added another finger and then another to his plundering of Sasha’s entrance.

He knew their little Sasha well. A decisive, resolute assault would edge him up much faster than a gentle approach. As if to prove him right, Sasha moaned and arched, his beautiful body going through undulations as graceful as any willow as he silently begged for more.

Watching Sasha squirming and Anthony trying to simultaneously hurry and hold himself in check was getting Jerrett really hot. He wanted them both right now, at the same time, his beautiful lovers. Anthony’s healing leg prevented him from being as aggressive with him as he might have been, and each time he had to remind himself to be careful and rein himself in added to the growing backlog of passion that brewed under the surface like a fine wine waiting to be aged just perfectly. He could almost feel sorry for when Anthony was finally completely healed and pain free. He was going to have to be wary of sudden attacks from pouncing panthers.

The thought made him smile, his lips curving and tickling where he nuzzled behind Anthony’s ear. Withdrawing his fingers from him, he pressed the head of his very erect cock at his entrance and pushed, he teeth sinking lightly into the muscle of his shoulder as he groaned heavily at the pleasure squeezing him.

“Oh…sweet, holy…” Anthony panted as that thick member penetrated him. Always took a moment to accommodate Jerrett, though the feeling of being stretched like that was incredible. He put a finger under Sasha’s chin to lift his face. “Turn around for me, sweet thistle pie.”

Jerrett pushed in a little farther, not rushing but insistent, and Anthony knew he’d better keep up. He let out a desperate moan when Sasha pressed his butt up against his cock and Jerrett pulled out and thrust in harder at the same moment. He could die from an overdose of pleasure, he was sure of it.

With a shift and Sasha’s able assistance, he lined himself up and gasped hard as the head of his aching erection popped past Sasha’s heavenly tight ring.

Jerrett slid his hand down the back of Anthony’s thigh and lifted his leg. He knew exactly what would hurt Anthony and what would not, and as long as the leg was supported he would be fine like this. He eased him forward just so his slightly bent knee rested on Sasha’s hip, and spread Anthony a bit. Jerrett’s pace picked up and he drove into him deeper, thrusting hard as his hands roamed over Anthony’s body, pinching and tweaking his erect little nipples.

In response, Anthony yanked Sasha close, impaling him hard enough to pull a little cry from him. Sasha relished the bit of pain, though, writhing in Anthony’s tight grip and shoving back even harder. Impaled and clutched tight, he wasn’t in a position to move too much without hurting something, so he opted for letting the two bodies surrounding his ride him like a rodeo bull.

“Ohgods…yes…sir, you feel so incredible,” he gasped out as Jerrett’s teeth closed harder on his shoulder. “That great big spear…damnohdamn…harder, sir, please, please…”

Jerrett’s body curled around Anthony’s, his hips thrusting harder into his tight heat. He was going to leave teeth marks on the boy but he didn’t care, he felt so damn good. His breath was hot across Anthony’s skin as he panted. “mmm…baby…you feel so good.” He sucked hard on the tender skin of Anthony’s neck just below his new collar, a low growl rising in his throat as the pressure became unbearable and he pistoned in and out his body in hard driving thrusts. When the dam finally burst Jerrett saw stars behind his eyes with the intensity of it, his pulsing cock buried deep within Anthony’s body as he came.

The teeth, the strong arms clutching him tight, the hard body slamming into his, Anthony had an odd moment right as his balls drew up tight where he thought there truly was a panther at his back, a sleek, powerful, sexy panther.

“GodsohgodsohsirI’myoursI’myours!” he cried out as Sasha’s channel tightened around him and his body reacted in an extremity of ecstasy, bucking and jerking between his partners as he came.

Jerrett rode his bucking body until he slowed and then stilled, kissing and nuzzling the bite marks on his neck almost as if in apology. He was in no hurry to move and lay with his arm wrapped comfortably around him, a sleepy contented look on his handsome face. “Yes, mine. Don’t you forget it.” He rumbled, a little smile curling his lips.

With his breathing slowed enough to allow a soft sigh, Anthony pulled Sasha closer and snuggled contentedly against the hard body behind him. “No, sir,” he said on a little chuckle. “Not on your life.”

Kind of hard to forget a thing like that with a rock the size of Gibraltar nestled at his throat. “Tap your heels three times,” he murmured sleepily. “I must have found those ruby slippers.”

Sasha turned his head to kiss him with a little laugh. “What in the world are you babbling about?”

Anthony gave him a wink and a soft smile. “I’m home. And there’s no place like it.”

It really was a stupid thing to get upset over. Derelict kept telling himself so. There were things Brandon needed to be cautious about. That was that. Too bad the scene insisted on playing over and over in his head.

 

Dinner out at a nice restaurant had been Bran’s idea, a little celebration just because. Dressed and pressed, they sat at the intimate little table at the window, chatting and laughing softly, until a couple approached.

 

“Grant! Hey, what’s up?” the man called out and reached for Brandon’s hand.

 

They both rose in deference to the cute little blonde with him.

 

“Oh, hey. Der this is Mike. Same profession, different ladder company, and his wife Lisa. Guys, this is my friend, Der.”

 

His friend.

 

It had felt like Brandon had kicked him in the stomach but he kept the smile frozen in place and kept up the charm long enough for them to go away and for dinner to be over. Once home, he shed the finery and locked himself in the bathroom, unable to lie to Brandon and unable to tell him what was bothering him. It was simply too ridiculous.

 

Brandon didn’t need Der to tell him something was wrong, nor did he need to guess what was wrong. He’d known the moment Der had shut down at the restaurant, and exactly why, although he didn’t know what to do about it now.

 

He sat on the sofa with Smoke on his lap and envied the contented way he purred as if all was fine with the universe. Occasionally he glanced at the closed bathroom door and wondered if he should knock. What was he going to say to Der though? ‘I’m sorry I’m too much of a coward to tell everyone about us’? That was the truth of it really, and it didn’t matter that he had good reason to be afraid.

 

It was more than just a fear of the harassment and hazing he might have to put up with if everyone knew. Being completely out in his line of work was more than just risking his job; it was risking his life. Every firefighter depended on his fellow firefighters. Every one of them would risk his life if another was in trouble. It was almost unimaginable that a firefighter might do less if, say, he did not approve of the other guy’s ‘lifestyle.’ Almost unimaginable, but Brandon could imagine it, and it was not entirely unfounded.

 

Still, he had never felt more ashamed than he did now. To deny what Der meant to him like that… Funny how one little thing could totally fuck up your happiness. He supposed it all came down to choices. He had choices, certainly.

 

Option one was to give up Der and any thought of ever having a relationship with anyone to protect his job. That was never going to happen. He’d rather shoot himself now and get it over with.

 

Option two was to ignore what happened, give Der a bunch of hollow reassurances, live with the guilt and the knowledge that he was a total coward, and of course that little fear in the back of his head that someday someone at work would find out.

 

Option three was to quit. Find a job where it didn’t matter if the world knew he loved another man. As painful as that option was, it was the cleanest. It was also completely unfair, but that was just life.

 

Der sat on the bathroom floor in his boxers, wiping away the occasional silent tear. Any minute now, he was going to get up, go to Brandon, and tell him he was sorry for being such a drama queen. He understood. Truly, he did.

 

It had nothing to do with the fact that everyone Der knew was made to understand that Bran was the love of his life, that even the boys down at the body shop knew, that even the greengrocer down the street knew.

 

No, he couldn’t think like that. Brandon was in a dangerous profession. He’d almost lost him once. If sharing such things would put him at risk, Der didn’t want him to. He could be Brandon’s dirty little secret. He could.

 

At the moment, though, he couldn’t get up off the bathroom floor.

 

A moment later, he heard a soft knock on the door.

 

“Der? Can I come in?” Brandon asked hesitantly.

 

“Yes…no!” Der snagged the towel off the rack to dry his face. “All right.”

 

Der might as well have not bothered. Brandon opened the door slowly, took one look at him and wished more than anything that he could turn back the clock a few hours. Just this once. His gaze dropped to the floor, unable even to look at Der. He felt like the biggest jerk on the planet. “Der, I’m sorry,” he said in an anguished whisper.

 

“No, no, love!” Still on his knees, Der flung himself at Brandon to wrap his arms around his waist. “No…you…you did what you had to. I’m an idiot for getting all worked up over something…like this.”

 

“No, you’re not an idiot. You have every right to be upset. It was a shitty thing to do,” Brandon said, putting his arms gently around Der. “It’s not right, Der. I love you more than anything. I’ve never been more ashamed of anything than what I did tonight. You deserve better.”

 

Der sniffed and buried his face against Brandon’s hard stomach. “I don’t want better. I want you.” Now that hadn’t come out right at all but he was so jumbled and flustered.

 

A short bark of laughter tinged with bitterness around the edges escaped Brandon. “I didn’t mean it like that love. I meant you deserve to be treated better, by me. You’re not getting rid of me that easy.”

He sighed, and since Der didn’t seem to want to get up he lowered himself to his knees and wrapped his arms around Der. “I can’t do this, Der. I don’t ever want to do that to you again. I don’t want to hide who I am, and I certainly don’t want to hide you.” He took an unsteady breath. “I don’t care what the consequences are. I won’t ever do that again. I want everyone to know I love you.”
“You’re just determined to make me cry tonight, aren’t you?” Der got out in a choked whisper. He wrapped his long arms tight around Brandon and tried to get his stupid tears under control. “Gods. I love you so.”

 

He let Brandon soothe him, rocking and shushing him. It felt so good.

 

Finally, he could raise his head to look at Bran again. “Maybe…it’s not as scary as you think. I mean, Chris knows. And he doesn’t think any differently of you.”

 

Bran gave Der a little smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Chris is a good guy. He’s also got a brother that’s gay. He’s more open minded than some, a lot more than others. Der…” He shook his head and sighed again. “Yeah, you’re right. Maybe it won’t be so bad.” He didn’t believe that, but he wanted to. He really wanted to, for Der’s sake as much as his own. He knew some of the guys he worked with would be OK with it if they knew, and he knew which one’s were going to be trouble, maybe in a big way. But, he said it, he’d made his decision, he wasn’t going to go back on it now.

 

“Hon, it’s not like you need to stand atop the ladder truck and shout it to the world.” Der ran his claws through Brandon’s hair. It made him uneasy, that he had driven Brandon to this. “Not like you have to wear a sign or anything.”
A grin that was a little more genuine curled the corner of Brandon’s lips. “What? You mean I don’t have to plaster the back of the truck with rainbow stickers? I don’t have to get ‘Homo’ tattooed on my forehead?” He stopped because he could see his joking was not putting Der at ease.

 

Bran slid his hand to the back of Der’s neck and leaned in until their foreheads touched. “Let’s say a week or two from now we’re out someplace and we run into someone else and I introduce you as my partner. That guy goes to the bar with some buddies and says ‘Guess what? Grant’s a fag’. Those guys go to work and tell their buddies. Then for the next few months, I got to put up with the looks and the whispers and those brave enough, or worried enough, to ask if it’s true. Believe me, middle school girls got nothing on the gossip mill a fire station can generate.”

 

“I don’t want it to be like that. I’d rather just put it all out on the table and that way there’s no question.” He paused for a second and kissed Der. “You should know I don’t do things halfway, love.”

 

Der nodded, putting on a shy smile as he watched one claw trace a pattern in the bathroom rug. “So you are planning on standing atop the ladder truck and shouting?”

 

“Well, maybe something a little more subtle…that is, if…um…well, there’s this picnic coming up. Maybe that’s not a good idea though. I don’t want to put you through any crap if someone gets ugly.”

“Right. And kids. There would probably be kids. Moms get a little freaked out around me.”

 

Now Brandon was confused. He didn’t know how to do this. On the one hand, he wanted to protect Der, on the other he wanted to be sure Der knew he didn’t want to hide him. He sat back on his butt, knees bent and arms draped loosely over them. He tipped his head back until it hit the counter behind him and he sighed. “I don’t know what to do.”

 

Der’s sharp teeth flashed in a little grin. “Wanna throw a party?”

 

Bran thought about it for a moment, trying to picture what it would be like to have their friends mingling together… best not to think on that too much. He looked over at Der. “All right.”

 

“Good.” Der pulled him close again. “You invite the firehouse and I’ll invite a few of my less…extreme friends.” He kissed the side of Brandon’s throat. “And now I think you better take me to bed, hon. I’m exhausted.”

 

#

 

“And this should offend me, it seems?” Elric’s soft voice sounded amused. It was hard to tell.

 

“I just didn’t want you to hear it somewhere else, my Prince, and wonder if I no longer loved you,” Der said into the phone with a soft smile.

 

Ach, no, mein schatz. No need to frighten the nice firemen,” came the dry answer. “Truly. I do understend. This shall be difficult enough for Brandon as it is.”

 

The calls to non-invited guests had been difficult but everyone was in a cooperative mood, more or less. Syren seemed a bit hurt, though she said not, and Chrys explained in a later, whispered phone call that she had a thing for firefighters. Imagine that. And Anthony had sulked but someone had come to distract him during the call, presumably Jerrett since there had been some mention of him needing to use his mouth for other things right then.

 

The night of the party, Der braided his hair back, kept his jewelry small and understated, and dressed in a pair of black slacks and a wine red button-down shirt. Not really his style but for Brandon he was willing to make sartorial sacrifices.

 

Ethan and Quinn arrived first, and Chris and his wife Angie were next. They sat and talked and kept Brandon occupied while they waited. Cody and Victor arrived at the same time as Dave and Xavier. Brandon glanced around the room and had to wonder if this was really such a good idea. The urge to tell everyone to forget it and just go home was eating at him. Not because he was ashamed of Der or them, not because he was worried about what anyone would think, but because he was worried for them.

What if one of the guys from the station started making stupid comments? What would he do? He could not shake the feeling that he had set all his friends up for an ambush, only he wasn’t sure which side was doing the ambushing.

Then it was too late, as some of the guys from the station started arriving, some of them with their girlfriends or wives. Brandon played host, made introductions, and felt like he was a million miles away from reality. He had no idea what he was doing or saying anymore.
Jonathan arrived alone, fashionably late, with apologies. Vincent had managed to pick up some sort of food poisoning from the take-out salad Drew had brought him for lunch. Naturally, Drew felt it was entirely his fault for not protecting Vince from invisible microbes, so he had stayed home as well to play nursemaid.

 

This was perhaps a mixed blessing. After the fire at the condo, Jonathan had sent flowers to the station as a thank you, then went one better and handed out cards to each of the fire fighters so they could send a bouquet of their choice to wives or girlfriends. Most of the people Brandon had invited knew Jonathan and of course, it was no secret that he was gay. That was no problem when he was simply a victim of a nasty arson or the friendly, grateful florist.

 

That he was here though, on a personal level, created a bit of confusion. His professional charm firmly in place, Jonathan had no problem mingling, mostly with those same wives and girlfriends who had been the recipients of his floral creations, and he had them talking and laughing within moments. The atmosphere began to feel more like a party and less like a formal gathering, but a hard to define undercurrent of tension crackled in the air.

 

Brandon stood talking with Chris but he kept an eye and an ear on the rest of the room. He could almost watch it happen, as if Jonathan’s arrival made things click for the straight people. If he were a little more removed from the situation, it would have been funny. Barring Jonathan, most of the gay guys in the room could ‘pass’. Vic worked construction, Ethan was a vet, neither one of them threw off any serious gay vibes. The first thing people noticed about Quinn, other than he was remarkably handsome, was that he was blind, and then they focused on the dog. Der was big and had a lot of other distractions going on. Dave looked like the boy next door. Cody might have raised a flag or two but he was playing it very low key. Xavier was the only one who had ruffled a few feathers, but he seemed to be an equal opportunity flirter and so walked that line of ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he’?

 

Jonathan might as well have walked in and pressed a buzzer that sent the guys racing for their gear and sliding down a pole. Only this pole was more likely to be found at the club Xav worked at than the one these guys were used to. Oh god, he was going to start laughing, he couldn’t help it. Gene, the guy who had been talking to Xavier suddenly got a look on his face like someone had mooned him. Jim was looking around with his brows together like he was working on a particularly difficult puzzle. Al was slowly turning his head, scanning the room, and all he was missing was a cartoon balloon over his head saying “Leaping lizards, Batman! Everyone here is g-a-y!”

 

Brandon started to snort, and coughed to keep the hysterical giggles in check.

 

Chris elbowed him. “Keep it together, Grant.”

 

That did it, sent him right over the edge. With his hand over his mouth, he nearly ran into the kitchen busting up laughing. Just when he got the laughter back under control, Der came in and his arched brow and puzzled look sent Brandon off into another hysterical gale of giggles.

 

Der put his arms around him, grinning. “I’m that funny? I haven’t even told a joke yet.”

 

Brandon wiped his eyes, holding his sides and pressing his cheek to Der’s chest. “Sorry…sorry. It was just so damn funny, watching them figure it out.”

 

“Figure what…?” Der chuckled when he understood. “I see. So apparently, you have to have defective gay-dar to qualify as a firefighter. Interesting. Learn something new every day.”

 

Xavier was simmering slowly but so far he’d managed to be a good boy. Gene, the guy who had been talking to him, needed to shut up. He was acting like Xavier had just sprouted a second head or something.

 

“Hey, are you a fag or what? Cause I’m not into that, so just…” He made a little gesture meant to ward Xav off.

 

Xavier rolled his eyes. As if. “Don’t worry sweetheart, big and stupid isn’t my type.”

 

The comment either went over his head or he chose to ignore it. “Yeah, well, whatever, just stay away from me.”

 

Xavier smiled, he heard Cody draw a sharp little breath and call his name in a soft warning, but he ignored it. He’d had just about all he was gonna take from this asshole. “I wouldn’t fuck you with someone else’s dick,” he said, sugary sweet.

 

Gene curled his lip in disgust. “Ugh! Shut the fuck up, you little faggot pervert!”

 

That might have been the end of it since Xav had pushed the buttons he wanted to and got a spectacular reaction out of it. Unfortunately, Dave stood within earshot. He whirled and stalked over to Gene, aggression oozing from him.

 

“What. Did. You. Call. Him?” He spat out each word as if it were poison but he wasn’t waiting for an answer. Index finger stabbing at Gene with each syllable, he stood nose to nose with the fireman. “You apologize to him or I feed you your own fucking testicles.”

 

Gene backed up a step, but only so he could get a better shot. Brandon, who was coming out of the kitchen at just that moment, caught his arm before he ever got a chance to swing.

Xav had come up behind Dave. He didn’t grab his arm, he knew better than that, but he put his hand on his back lightly. “Let it go, hon. Not worth your time,” he said softly.

 

The growl he got in response told him Dave’s hackles were up way too far for soothing words. His eyes remained locked with Gene’s. “You got a problem, man? You some kinda queer basher? Maybe get your kicks rolling people half your size?”

 

“Fuck you!” Gene spit back. “I don’t give a shit what you diseased homos do, just keep the little fucking fairy away from me! Don’t breathe in my air space unless you want a problem!”

 

If Gene had been looking for the worst possible thing to say at that moment, he managed to do a damn good job. With a fierce cry, Dave launched, swinging with little regard to who might be in the way.

 

“Dave! Oh, for fuck’s sake…” Xavier grabbed him, only because Brandon still had hold of Gene. The shove Dave gave him sent him flying backward until he came up hard against the wall. “Vic!” Xavier shouted. He was probably the only one who could stop Dave at this point.

Now Brandon had a dilemma. He’d grabbed Gene to keep him from swinging, but he wasn’t going to hold him back so Dave could beat the shit out of him, even if he did deserve it. Instead of letting go, he turned, putting himself between Dave’s charge and Gene.

 

Half the room had lunged towards the combatants while the other half scrambled away. Consequently, Victor’s interception of Dave was delayed for a crucial half-second, and Der, closer and terrified Brandon would be injured, hurled himself in harm’s way.

 

In the flurry of fists and flailing limbs, pain became inevitable. Dave got in one good shot at Gene’s jaw before other bodies got in the way. Whose fist slammed into Der’s eye was more difficult to puzzle out. Victor reached them and seized Dave in a hard bear hug from behind, trapping his arms to his body and dragging him backwards, kicking and bellowing.

 

When the proverbial smoke cleared, Victor had Dave sequestered in the bedroom, Brandon and Gene stood glaring daggers at each other, and all six and a half feet of Der lay unconscious on the floor.

 

“Get out!” Brandon snarled at Gene. “Just get the fuck out!”

“Hey, that dude got in my face first!” Gene shot back.

“Oh yeah? And why is that? Because you’re a bigoted asshole? Because Xavier was fine to talk to until you realized he was gay?”

“Bi, actually,” Xavier said with a little cough. “I like girls, too.”

Neither man said anything to that.

“Whatever, Grant. You can hang out with your little queer friends, don’t expect me to be around ’em,” Gene said as he headed toward the door.

“Hey, Gene…” Brandon called after his retreating back. “You better get used to it, cause I’m one of those ‘queers’, too.”

Gene stopped at the door and looked back at him with a glare of shock and disgust, but he said nothing and slammed out.

The room was particularly quiet. Brandon looked down at Der, wanting nothing more than to gather him up in his arms, but Ethan had him already and Brandon had a room brimming with people staring at him. He rubbed the back of his neck with an agitated hand and blew out a breath. “So, uh… that’s my little announcement of the night folks. Anyone else doesn’t like it, well, there’s the door,” he said with a tired sigh.
“Oh, my God!” Jonathan called out from across the room in his best TV drama queen voice, his hands on either side of his face. “Brandon’s gay?”

 

When all eyes turned to him, as he knew they would, he strolled to the center of the room, his most charming smile in place. “Seriously, ladies, who here’s really surprised by that? Show of hands…”

 

One older woman put up a hesitant hand and put it back down with a sheepish look.

 

“Right.” Jonathan held up a finger and prompted. “And that’s because…?”

 

“The nicest, hottest guys always are,” Angie supplied with a shaky grin.

 

“Why, thank you,” Jonathan beamed, hand fluttering over his heart. All the women in the room giggled; they couldn’t help themselves. He knew the sitcom version of gay had its uses, especially with a straight audience.

 

“So, that means Der’s, like, Brandon’s boyfriend and stuff?” One of the blonder girlfriends said with evident disappointment. “Aw, man….”

 

That got a bigger laugh and Jonathan decided the bad moment was over. “All right, let’s get cleaned up here. Everything’s all right, folks.” Go about your business, nothing to see here… He almost had a hysterical fit of giggles himself at the thought of a social traffic cop. “Ethan, maybe Der might like to rest a bit in quiet?” He turned toward the wall. “Xav, you OK?” He got a nod and continued directing as Ethan gathered Derelict‘s long frame up in his arms. “Get some ice, hon, bring it along.”

 

Xavier retrieved the ice cube tray from the freezer and a dish towel and followed Ethan into the bedroom which was where he wanted to be anyway. Brandon came too and as soon as they were through the door Xavier handed him the ice and went to go check on Dave, who seemed to have settled down, though Vic still had a hold of him.

 

“You OK?” he asked.

 

Dave gave a tight-jawed nod, eyes squeezed shut. Settled, yes, but with the fight taken from him, he still had to fight the battle inside. “I’m sorry, sweets…” he got out between clenched teeth. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“He’s just realized what he promised Katya about these sorts of occurrences,” Vic said in a dry tone.

 

“What he promised…?” Xavier’s puzzled expression suddenly cleared. “Oh…oh, that…um, that guy really had it coming though, you know? I mean, we don’t have to tell Kat, do we?” Xav asked, looking hopefully between Vic and Dave.

“Yes. You. Do,” Vic answered sternly. “For David’s peace of mind if nothing else. He could have just had words with the cretin. He didn’t have to go after him. Not as if you were in any physical danger.”

 

Except from Dave himself. Xavier crumpled a bit, but he stopped and tried to blank his expression, caught between wanting to be mad and not wanting to hurt Dave.

 

Despite being in the teeth of adrenaline shakes, Dave didn’t miss it. He pulled loose from Vic and fell to his knees at Xavier’s feet. “Love…I’m sorry…that creep…I couldn’t stand him talking to you like that. Xav…do you wanna slug me?”

 

Xavier put his arms around Dave, leaning into him and holding him. “No. Although, I reserve the right to change my mind after Kat’s done.” He sighed and kissed the top of Dave’s head. “I love you, babe. You didn’t need to go after him like that. It was just words. I’ve been called worse.”

 

“But you shouldn’t have to put up with it…” Dave sighed and nuzzled at his stomach. “I love you, too, sweets. And I’ll give you a free shot when Ms. Kat’s done.”

 

A soft moan came from the bed followed by a muttered phrase that sounded suspiciously like, “Death before dishonor but neither before breakfast.”

 

“I think he’s alright.” Ethan said dryly.

Brandon leaned down from where he sat on the edge of the bed and kissed Der lightly. “How do you feel, sweetheart?”

“Dizzy.” Der reached up to cup Brandon’s face, the eye not covered in ice full of concern. “Are you all right? Did they hurt you?”

 

Brandon smiled. “No, not at all.”

 

“There, see what I told you? This wasn’t so bad.”

 

Brandon gave a small, incredulous laugh. “Oh no, not at all. Just a heap of sneering contempt and an all-out brawl. No problem.” He looked over at Dave and Xavier. “I’m sorry to have put you guys in that situation. I knew Gene has…issues, but I really didn’t think he’d say anything nasty, not out loud, not here in front of everyone. I’m sorry.”

Xavier gave a little shrug. “It’s OK, Brandon. Don’t worry about it. If you go around apologizing for every asshole and his big mouth, you won’t be doing anything else but saying you’re sorry. It’s not your fault.”

“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!” Der raised a finger towards the ceiling. “And it was just one idiot, after all. He’s probably a closet queen anyway.”

 

Not too much longer after that they all rejoined everyone else in the living room. Brandon was somewhat surprised, pleasantly, that no one else had left, and everyone seemed to be getting along just fine. A couple of the guy’s he’d invited looked a little uncomfortable at certain points in the evening, but there were no further hostilities.

 

Edie, the Lt’s wife, a mature woman with grown children of her own, fussed over Der and made certain Dave had ice on his hand as well. “I’m just glad you finally found someone, Brandon,” she said at one point. “And someone so sweet, too. Trying to protect you like that. I was starting to worry that you’d always be alone.”

 

“Well, um, thanks…” Brandon said, blushing just a little bit. He looked over at Der and smiled. “You don’t know how glad I am I found Der.” He said in a soft voice meant for her ears alone. “He is the most incredible person I’ve ever met.”

Der sat on the sofa with his feet up on the coffee table and Electra in his lap, talking to Jim, who was on his fourth beer.

“So, um, can I ask a personal question?” Jim picked at the label on his bottle.

“No, I will not give you the name of my manicurist,” Der said with a mock-offended sniff. He relented with a grin. “Of course. Ask away.”

“Who…I mean which one of you…” Jim rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “God. Which one of you is the guy?”

Der blinked his one visible eye slowly, his expression completely serious as he answered, “We take turns. Brandon has us on a strict schedule. Whoever has on the lace panties that day is the girl.”

“No shit?” Jim breathed out, doing his best impression of a carp.

“Yes, complete bullshit. I was kidding.” Der chuckled. “Sorry. Couldn’t resist. We’re both guys. Not like we can be anything else. I think you mean who takes top.”

His face fire-engine red, Jim ducked his head and nodded.

“Do you always do the same thing in bed with your girlfriend?” Der prompted gently.

“Well, no, but…”

“So it’s not that different. It’s not as if we have to do things one way or another. You just do what strikes your fancy at the time, right? Well, so do we.”

“It’s just kinda, you know…weird. Trying to picture Brandon kissing another dude,” Jim said quietly.

 

Brandon dropped onto the couch beside Der, kissed the corner of his mouth gently, and handed him the drink he brought over for him before turning his attention to Jim. “One man’s weird is another man’s hot,” Bran said. “If you don’t like it you don’t have to picture it.”

 

“Don’t get defensive Brandon, I’m not judging,” Jim said quickly.

 

Brandon wasn’t so sure, but he relented and tried for a reassuring smile. “Nothing’s changed, Jim. I’m still the same person. I don’t ogle the guys in the shower any more than you do. I’m not going to start hitting on everyone over pizza and beer when we go out. What I do in my personal life didn’t make a difference in how I do my job, and it won’t change how I do my job now that you know.”

 

Jim’s smile was a bit rueful. “I know that, Brandon, and I’m sure the LT knows that. Not everyone is going to feel the same, though.”

 

“You think I don’t know that?” Brandon asked. “I think we had proof enough tonight that it’s not just going to go smooth as pie.”

 

Jim looked at Brandon seriously. “I wish I could tell you that Gene’s the lone asshole at the station and that’ll be the end of it, but that wouldn’t be doing you any favors.”

 

“I know, Jim.”

 

“Then why did you say anything? I mean, you kept quiet about it before now. Why couldn’t you just keep it to yourself?”

 

Brandon started to bristle but he knew Jim wasn’t trying to be an asshole, he genuinely was concerned and thought Brandon might have been better off keeping his mouth shut. Brandon could hardly blame him when he’d had to think long and hard about it himself.

 

“Don’t ask, don’t tell? That about it?” Bran asked mildly. “What if I told you the same? What if someone made a rule that said you weren’t allowed to talk about your girlfriend or even acknowledge her existence in front of other people? Would that be okay with you? Could you pretend the person you loved didn’t exist?”

 

Jim went quiet, and so did several others who had been not-so-unobtrusively listening to their conversation. In fact, pretty much everyone in the room had gone silent and was now looking at Brandon thoughtfully.

 

Until Xavier slowly started clapping his hands. “Bravo, baby! You tell them, if they don’t like it, they can fuck right off!” He laughed, and suddenly the living room burst into applause.

 

Brandon looked pink around the ears but he lifted his beer and drank to that.

His eyes huge, Der couldn’t recall how to speak. This man had been afraid to introduce him in the restaurant as his lover mere days before. The thought came to him that he had better not ever ask Bran to do any home improvements. The whole building would end up in renovations. When his Bran made up his mind, he sure as hell didn’t do things by halves.

“Sweetheart,” he said in a small voice. “You can’t go around making speeches like that.”

Brandon looked at him in shock. “Why not?”

“Because it’s just about the hottest thing ever, and I don’t think you want me falling on my knees, begging and pleading, in front of company.”

Brandon leaned in and claimed Der’s lips for a longer kiss. “Who says I don’t?” he asked with a teasing smile. He stopped Der before he actually moved to do it, though. “When you’re feeling better, that is.”

 

Der grinned. “And here I thought my sweetheart was such a good boy, bashful and polite.” He rested his head on Bran’s shoulder with a gusty sigh. “What a relief. I don’t have to hide the whips and chains anymore.”

 

Ever the consummate flirt, Xavier leaned over the back of the couch to stage whisper in Der’s ear, “Shh…you’ll scare the straight people.”

 

Der clapped a hand to his cheek in mock horror. “There’s straight people here? Why didn’t somebody tell me?”

 

Jim, so uncomfortable a moment before, convulsed with laughter.

 

Brandon smiled as he looked around at his friends. Despite his uncertainty and hesitation about coming out, he was glad now that he had decided to do this. It was the sort of relief that only came after carrying a secret so long and finally unburdening yourself, the kind of happiness that came when you stopped living a lie and told your truth to the world. He felt wonderful. Whatever else might come, at that moment he didn’t care, he couldn’t be any happier with who he was and whom he loved.

** Author’s note: This is a longer one, dear readers, but we felt it important to keep the whole thing together. **

“Is it possible? To do vell?”

“Yes, sir, it’s not tough to do with the right equipment.” Cody tamped down on his curiosity. Elric had handed him this marvelous photo of himself as a younger man wrapped in the arms of two gorgeous people who obviously adored him. He asked for a reprint since it was torn but his tone implied he was in no mood for questions.

Cody closed the portfolio and placed it on the table. “Tomorrow afternoon. I’ll bring it by.” He dared to reach out to stroke the white hand lying on the back of the chair. “Are you OK, sir?”

“Soon, my dear,” the Prince answered softly. “Soon I think I shall be.”

Elric arrived home to the quiet of his house and the storm inside him. Something wild brewed in his heart which he didn’t understand and wasn’t entirely sure he trusted. Before he could banish the disorienting turmoil, though, Keit appeared to greet him.

He seized the boy by the upper arms and backed him up to the wall where he captured his lips in a frenzied, searing kiss.

Keit was so shocked he didn’t respond at first. He had no idea what had come over his usually steady, composed Dom. He did not waste much time wondering though, before he let himself melt into the tight hold Elric had on him, his eyes sliding closed and his lips and tongue caressing back against his heated assault. Whatever it was, Keit was putty in Elric’s hands, caught up and willing to flow with his passionate demands.

“Downstairs.” Elric broke off to growl in Keit’s ear. “Strip and present.” He eased his hold and kissed Keit’s forehead gently, the message clear: I need you.

Keit slipped from his embrace with half-closed, smoldering eyes. “Yes, sir,” he breathed out. He managed to keep to an even pace until he was out of sight, then took the stairs two at a time, pulling his clothes off as he went. By the time he stood naked and ready for Elric, he was already standing at attention in more ways than one.

A few slow breaths later, Elric followed. Girded in the armor of his icy calm again, he found the steady center necessary to proceed. To approach Keit with anything less was madness. Passion, yes, that could be shared but uncontrolled ferocity would bring disaster. The boy would push and plead and believe himself in heaven while he drove his Dom to acts of brutality.

He descended the steps and walked slowly around Keit, his fingertips trailing along his skin as he circled. “Mein herz, my beautiful boy,” he murmured. “I give you the choice, as ve used to, vhen you came for sessions.” He leaned in close to Keit’s ear. “Vertical or horizontal?”

Keit shivered as the tip of Elric’s finger traced slowly down his spine. Unfortunately his brain had a short circuit to his mouth at that moment. His breath caught in his throat as a fingertip touched the little dimple at the very top of his ass. Denial definitely was a potent aphrodisiac, he couldn’t even form coherent speech he was so keyed up. “I-I’ll stay standing, sir,” he finally got out in a hoarse whisper.

“I said nothing about stending.” Elric nipped at the top of Keit’s ear. “But vertical it shall be.”

He stripped off his shirt and hung it on one of the hooks, then strolled up and down his equipment wall with slow, deliberate steps. The ritual steadied him, pulled him into the rhythm of the session. He made his selections just as deliberately and placed them on the table while Keit fought his shivers of anticipation.

When he approached again, he held only two items, both intimately familiar. No need for commands. Keit held out his hands for him to buckle on the padded suspension cuffs and spread his feet farther to ease the fastening of the leather cock and ball harness.

Everything proceeded as it would have during one of their client sessions with a few notable exceptions. Elric did not pull on his gloves as he would have then, his bare fingers caressing and petting where he would have refrained before. His lips touched down here and there as well, teasing and leaving trails of heat and when Keit was in harness, he took him into a tender embrace.

Keit trembled with anticipation. He had held things together during Orion’s discovery of who he was and the subsequent traumas and anxieties they had all faced. Even such upsetting, potentially life altering events rarely ruffled him beyond immediate emergencies. He was steady, he was a rock, he didn’t let the stress show…until he was allowed to. The build up behind his emotional walls had been almost at critical mass, and even the simple act of preparation had him shaky with need and giddy with relief. He moaned softly as Elric brushed his lips with his own and his body swayed into his.

“Steady, herzchen,” the Prince murmured gently before he bent to slide an arm under Keit’s knees and sweep him up in his arms. With a soft smile, he repeated the words he had spoken so often, “You are safe vith me. I shall not let you fall.”

He carried Keit over to the suspension rig and held him tight with one arm while he pulled the chains into reach. When the chains had Keit’s weight, he finally let go. Most subs would have needed a warm-up, a slow build to the more serious implements. Keit needed more and his desperation signaled a need to dispense with the preliminaries. Elric reached first for the bamboo switch and laid the first stripe across Keit’s left hip.

Upstairs, Orion wandered in from his workshop. He had finished the second frame as the Prince had requested, this one more suited to something one would find in a child’s room with little horses, sheep and rabbits carved all around. The open basement door stopped him, though, and the sounds…

He thought maybe he should start dinner instead. The frame could wait. Not that he was a gifted, instinctive cook like Sasha or Keit but Sasha had said anyone with a little patience who was able to read could learn to cook. Patience, at least with everyone but himself, he had in abundance now, something he had never had in his previous life. The doctors said it was due to ‘changes in the brain’. They hesitated to say brain damage but he knew they meant it.

Elric switched to a heavy cat. The variety in the pain was almost as important to Keit as the pain itself.

Keit lost track of how many times the flogger fell across his skin. His shoulders were in agony, the skin across his back and buttocks licked in flames. He could have so easily slipped into the calming ecstatic trance that came with this level of pain. He fought it though. He wanted to stay right here, experience every swish and stroke of the cane and the whip.

For the most part he was quiet, only a soft moan occasionally parting his lips. When the flogger wrapped around his thigh from behind and the very tips of two of the braids landed neatly on his balls though he couldn’t help the quick indrawn yelp. His head lolled back and the movement sent ice and fire through his shoulders. He cried out when the flogger landed again and sent more shards though him. He was in such agony and his gently curved cock stood like a flagpole from his body.

He cried out again with the next stroke, like a dam that once broken could not be stopped.

The Prince switched again, to his whip, the final implement he would only use to top off the sensations. He let it flick and kiss across Keit’s skin, starbursts of sharp pain, but he would never truly lay into him with it.

He sensed when Keit had reached the limit of safety and sanity, even though the boy would have begged for more, and he lowered the chains until Keit’s feet touched the floor. The chains still kept him standing as he lowered them a bit more and nudged Keit’s feet more than shoulder-width apart with his boot.

Mein herz,” he whispered as he eased lubed fingers inside Keit’s back door. His harnessed cock twitched and the boy moaned “You vill beg me for release. Plead for it prettily enough and I may grant it.”

Although his feet now touched the floor Keit doubted his ability to stand if the chain had not held him up. His legs trembled and he let out a heated moan as Elric’s fingers breached him. He murmured sweet encouraging things, letting his Dom know how much he enjoyed every touch and stroke, but he did not beg. Not yet.

He waited until Elric was pressed up behind him, his fly opened, the smooth head of his cock pressing into him. He begged for more, and he got it. His lithe body was slicked in sweat, he regained the use of his legs enough to push back and roll his hips, little whimpers and cries of ecstasy wrung from his lips as he built higher and higher.

“Uhh…oh, please sir… please, I’m so close now…please let me come,” he finally panted out.

Elric reached around to unsnap the harness in three swift tugs. The desperate groan he received when the blood rushed back in fully sent shivers of delight through him. He drove in for a few more strokes, letting Keit’s soft pleas wash over him like a cleansing rain.

He wrapped his arms around Keit and rested his head on his shoulder, his own climax imminent. “Now, herzchen,” he whispered. “Now. Give me vhat is mine.”

Keit’s body arched and shuddered on the last word Elric spoke. Molten streaks seemed to flow in his veins he came so hard and the release was so intense black spots danced behind his eyes.

The hard clench and release of Keit’s orgasm hurled Elric over the edge as well. He fastened his teeth onto Keit’s shoulder and clung tight, his soft moans muffled by skin as he rode out the heavy pulses of ecstasy.

He waited until he could draw a full, steady breath again before he eased out, took Keit’s weight more firmly against him, and released the cuffs. Keit slumped, deadweight, and he wondered if the boy had fainted. Ah, well, not the first time.

With a tenderness most people were never allowed to see, he carried Keit to the bed in the little room off the main one and slid in beside him, curling his body around him protectively.

Keit’s breathing slowly returned to normal, yet he did not stir, blissfully content to remain in Elric’s arms. The ache of soreness was starting to set in. Not the same as the sharp bite of pain that stirred his lust, but he would savor it nonetheless for the memory it would bring of this session. He was so happy, feeling absolutely loved and protected.

Herzchen…” Elric paused and lifted his head to sniff. “Ah. Pork chops, I think. Somevone is making us dinner. Do you think you can sit at table, my love, or vould you like to take dinner in bed tonight?”

Keit smiled lazily but said, “If Orion’s gone to the trouble to make dinner for us the least I can do is sit at the table, sir.”

They relaxed a little while longer and then Keit rose to go take a quick shower and dress before heading to the kitchen to see if Orion needed any help with dinner preparations.

Orion’s answer was to take him into a gentle embrace and kiss the top of his head. “It’s almost ready, little one. Is he coming?”

Keit nodded against his chest.

“Was it wonderful?” Orion whispered.

Keit gave a weak little chuckle. “Oh yes, more than wonderful.” He sighed happily and snuggled into Orion’s arms.

Five minutes later, their Dom appeared, showered, perfectly coiffed and pressed, and completely composed, the storm quelled. He settled in one of the kitchen chairs and rested his chin in his hand, watching his boys plate dinner.

“This Saturday,” he said softly. “I need them all here.”

Keit helped Orion carry the plates over and sat gingerly. “All, sir?” he asked, guessing that Elric meant their friends and already mentally creating the guest list and preparations that needed to be completed for such a large gathering on short notice.

Ja, alle,” Elric confirmed. “I shall make the calls myself. I esk only that ve hef enough food and drink on hend. A semi-formal occasion, I think, for vhich I expect you to make yourselves presentable. I shall do the rest.” He glanced over at Orion. “It is ready for me, liebchen?”

“Yes, mein herr.” Orion pointed over to the shelf by the door. “I brought it in to show you.”

Elric rose slowly to examine the picture frame, his fingers running over the little carved animals. “It is lovely. Marvelous. You hef such talent…thenk you.”

Throughout the city and farther up the coast, schedules were shuffled and reshuffled to accommodate the Prince’s request. Some of the invitees owed him, debts that could never be repaid, but all of them felt some strong connection to him and could not resist the call out of love or curiosity.

Leather and lycra left at home, a small horde of well-dressed, beautiful people descended on the house, Vincent a vision in velvet and silk, his boys in their best suits, Katya in a lovely green dress, cut scandalously low in the back, Der in his antique dress uniform jacket and so on. Even Anthony had opted for a suit and tie, things he normally wrinkled his nose at.

They milled about, waiting and speculating, no one quite sure what the occasion meant. Der leaned against the wall outside the dining room, a hand on Brandon’s shoulder. Bran looked so delicious in his double-breasted suit. Too delicious for words. Der pulled him close for a deep, languid kiss, his cock stirring at the barely leashed heat between them, his hand stealing down to…

“There’s my sweet pea!” An all too familiar voice called out beside him. “You could have come to say hello. But I see you’re busy. I suppose this is Brandon.”

“Um… hi, Mom,” Der got out in a sheepish murmur.

Brandon smiled bemusedly at the lovely lady scolding Der. He felt a bit like scolding Der himself for not telling him that his mother might be there. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Schiller, and yes, I’m Brandon,” he introduced himself.

Elisabet shook his hand while she looked him up and down. “Very nice. Much more handsome than some of your choices and much more polite.”

Der hid his face in his hands with a groan and looked like he wanted to sink into the floor.

She stood nearly nose to nose with Brandon, taller than any other woman in the room. “And what are your intentions regarding my son, young man?”

Brandon’s lips twitched. He adored her already. “Is it too cliché to say that I intend to keep him so happy he won’t think about going to find someone else?”

“That…” She smiled at him, her gray eyes twinkling. “Is the wisest answer I have ever gotten to that question.” With a pat to Brandon’s chest, she turned back to Der. “You hang onto this one, sweet pea. Someone with sense.” Then she was off again to greet Vincent and fuss over Drew and Jonathan.

Der raised his eyes to the ceiling. “Someone shoot me now. I’m sorry, Bran. I’d no idea she’d be here, too.”

Brandon smiled, slipped his arms around his waist and tugged him closer. “It’s alright, I’ll let it slide this time…sweet pea.”

“Please don’t call me that,” Der said in a pained voice. “I really don’t want to start thinking of you as my mother.”

Brandon laughed. “No, we wouldn’t want that,” he agreed and kissed him.

Upstairs, Elric knotted his tie for the fourth time. Lillana sat in the chair by the window, patient, silent for the moment, waiting, it seemed to him.

“I don’t seem able to do this today,” he said to her reflection as he undid the knot yet again. “My hends…wie sagt mann? I am entirely thumbs.”

Lilly stood and moved to his side, moving his hands gently out of the way when he turned to her. She deftly tied a crisp Half Windsor knot and smoothed the collar of his shirt. “You tied it perfectly the first time,” she said in her softly musical voice.

He let out a slow breath. “I go to strip the veil from things long hidden. To rip down the shutters and let the light in.” He caught her hand and pressed it to his heart. “And I delay…and think of changing my mind.”

She lifted her eyes to his and held them for a moment, then leaned up on tiptoe and kissed the tip of his nose. “I know, my dear Prince. I know. You shall be ready, when you are ready.”

He chuckled softly at her indulgence and the corner of her lips lifted in a little smile. “Now… should I go announce that you’re very sorry and have changed your mind?”

His forehead wrinkled and it was her turn to chuckle softly. “No? Then, perhaps you should make an appearance?”

“So. Yes.” He settled his jacket, smoothed back an imaginary stray hair, and tucked her dainty hand into the crook of his elbow. “If you valk on my arm, beautiful fairy princess. To give me courage.”

“I would be delighted, sir,” she said, and let him lead her out and down the stairs into the hall below.

Lilly had known, by the low murmur of voices, that there must be many people gathered, but she wasn’t quite prepared for the actual number that greeted them. The Prince’s ‘small gathering’ was a rather large crowd and she was actually glad for the firm arm she held onto now.

They did make quite a stunning entrance, even for such a sober affair. Him with his snow white locks pulled back into a neat single plait and her raven dark tresses floating about her like an inky curtain. Her habit of keeping her eyes lowered when first entering a room made the attention of their arrival fall upon Elric, until she looked up at him as well.

“Oh, dear gods,” Der whispered as he rose from his chair. “He’s reached up and plucked a star from the heavens.”

Several of the young men had followed suit out of instinctive respect for this vision.

“My dear friends,” Elric began in a voice pitched perfectly for the gathering. “This is Lillanna Willows, our counselor and friend who has been assisting in the household’s… recovery.”

Lilly hadn’t expected him to do that either, but she supposed she should have. She only knew Keit and Orion here; it would be easier to introduce her to everyone this way. Elric would have no way of knowing she was painfully shy in crowds and even more so with public speaking. Of course, the fact that her peaches and cream skin suddenly bloomed with pink roses and a whispered “Hello” barely made it past her parted lips only made her more endearing to many in the room at that moment.

Brandon poked Der gently in the ribs. “Wipe the drool off your chin, hon,” he whispered.

In an automatic gesture, Der lifted his hand to do just that and then shot Brandon an amused look. “Sorry.”

Richard leaned close to Katya’s ear. “Where, oh where, do you suppose he found that little gem?”

Kat smiled and patted his cheek. Where, indeed? She was certain the beauty on Elric’s arm had the attention of even the most determinedly ‘male only’ worshipers in the room. She glanced over at Jonathan and hid a small smile. Yes, that expression was just a shade too deliberately cool, even with his eyes transfixed. Not that he was likely to be interested, but certainly he could appreciate the aesthetic beauty. She chuckled as Vincent reached over without looking and closed Drew’s mouth.

Elric leaned in to whisper in Lilly’s ear, “I shall make proper introductions later, vhen all eyes are not cemented to you.” In a gallant gesture, he handed her into the empty chair next to Keit before he strode to the front of the room.

Once there, he swept the cloth off the little table to reveal the picture frames Orion had made. The ornate, inlaid one held the repaired photo of Elric with his Kurt and Annalise. The photo with the children occupied the newer frame with the little animal carvings. Between them sat a bowl full of rose petals and a black pillar candle, which Elric now lit.

Es war einmal ein mann,” he began, his voice steady and calm. “This is how all German fairytales begin. ‘There once was a man.’ But the stories from the Bleck Forest are often gruesome and the endings are not alvays heppy.”

He straightened and stood with one hand resting on the table as if he needed the contact. “In my previous life, I vas Joachim Wilhelm Sebastian Hohenzollern, the last Baron of Edelwald. The last because there are no more kings in Bavaria to name a successor and vhen I left, there vas no male relative remaining to take the title.”

He went on to describe his privileged childhood on the rambling estate, a strictly scheduled childhood filled with tutors and lessons, one which would have been unbearably lonely had it not been for Kurt. It was Kurt who comforted him when his father had been cruel and Kurt who had been there when his parents died, his lifelong friend whose love had blossomed into something more in their teenage years. He described their search for a Baroness, their first enchanted meeting with Annalise, the beautiful bride she had made, how happy the three of them had been.

He told them of his joy at the birth of his son, Johannes, and then the doubling of that joy when his daughter, Kara had been born. He had been a nervous father, afraid he would make mistakes, but his spouses were there to reassure him and calm him, both of them loving, instinctive parents.

“And then the day came vhen it all vas ripped avay,” he said softly, one finger running over the children’s picture frame. His words faltered and slipped now as he came to the day when he had lost them all, the fear, the horror, the numbing grief all crashing back in on him again. When he had finished, he leaned on the table with both hands, eyes shut tight, as if any movement might cause him to shatter.

Lilly noticed that all the people gathered held expressions of sympathy, some looking as if they wanted to go and comfort Elric, especially Keit and Orion, but none moved to do so. Perhaps they simply did not want to intrude on the careful walls he put around himself, or perhaps they were cautious since he was more than likely to lash out rather than accept any ‘coddling’. Well, emotional walls had never been a barrier to her, and she was not afraid of backlash if it helped him. She moved to his side and placed a delicate hand over his.

The curled lip, the beginnings of a snarl, came automatically, but someone began to sob softly. Elric heaved a ragged breath. He turned his hand to take Lilly’s fingers in a gentle grip as he faced his audience again.

“I hef kept them hidden all this time. Denied who they vere and all they meant to me. This vas not right.” He waved his free hand at the pictures, his voice cracking as he went on, “I give them beck. To the vorld, to the light. For all to see, for all to share in the joy there vas. For my new family, the vones who took a foreign stranger to their hearts, I share this, so you vill know. So you might help me remember.”

Keit finally broke, and moved forward. He wrapped his arms around Elric in a fierce hug that let him know he was not only moved by what he said and proud of him for it, but that he was there for him as well. A moment later Orion’s large arms enfolded them both.

It was a near thing. The Prince nearly wept in front of all those gathered. He wrapped an arm around Keit, leaned back against Orion and battled his errant emotions long enough to say, “Please, stay, everyone. Enjoy the night. Enjoy each other. I shall rejoin you soon.”

When he moved to leave the room, head held high, the three people who had dared to touch him went, too, Lilly’s hand tucked back in the crook of his arm, Keit’s hand gripped firmly in his, Orion’s on his shoulder. In the den at the back of the house, he broke and cried in their arms but no one else was there to see.

Drew sank down into Vince’s lap. He needed a bit of holding after that. He felt so bad for Elric; even if it was so long ago, the pain was obviously still raw.

For a moment, Vincent had his hands full. Drew rarely cried in public but he trembled against Vincent’s chest and Jonathan sobbed beside him. He wasn’t the only one, of course. Sasha had climbed into Jerrett’s lap, face hidden against his neck while Anthony knelt at their feet with his head on Jerrett’s thigh. Brandon did his best to comfort Der, though the tears crept down his own cheeks, and Victor rocked Cody in his arms.

“Here now, poor boy.” Elisabet moved her chair beside Jonathan to take him in her arms. Poor motherless boys. She half expected to be pushed away but Jonathan collapsed against her, heaving with wrenching sobs. “Sh, sh…such pretty eyes shouldn’t shed so many tears. Hush, dear.”

Amazingly, Jonathan quieted for her and let her dry his tears.

“Now,” she said more crisply. “Der Prinz has put this evening together for his friends to celebrate the ones he loved, not to have them flood his house and ruin his carpets. Come help me, dear. People need drinks, they need to get up, to talk to each other.”

There was perhaps no better way to pull Jonathan out of hysteria. He got up, kissed Vincent and Drew and followed Elisabet around the room playing host.

Drew pulled in a deep breath to steady himself. “I like Der’s mom,” he said softly in Vince’s ear.

Nearby, Brandon silently concurred although he hadn’t heard Drew’s whispered sentiment. He got Der to dry his eyes and he stood sniffling with Bran’s arm around him.

Katya and Richard joined Elisabet and Jonathan to help get everyone settled.

In the den things were settling as well. Lilly soothed and comforted all three of the men gathered. She stood next to where Elric sat and kissed the top of his head, smoothing her hand over the white silk of his hair. “You did very well, my Prince.”

There was no sarcasm, no irony in his voice when he answered softly, “So, ja, I am glad you approve.” He leaned his head against the back of the sofa. “I feel so…drained. But so light. As if I am not connected properly. Perheps I am coming down vith something…”

Lilly sat down next to him, a smile lighting her face. “That would be what it feels like when you are healing, sir.”

“Is it?” The corner of his mouth twitched as he took her hand. “It feels rather more like being turned inside out.” With his free hand, he reached down to where Orion knelt at his feet to stroke through his hair. “Are you all right, liebchen? Perheps I should hef prepared you better.”

“I’m all right.” The big man nuzzled Elric’s Armani-clad thigh. “I was worried for you, my Prince. It…it’s hard to see you hurt.” They sat in silence for a few moments and then Orion lifted his head to look up at Lilly. “I think I know what I need to do now, though.”

“I thought you might,” she said, leaving it up to him whether he wanted to share what he wanted to do or not.

Mein herr, I’d like to…think things through first.” Orion came up on his knees to kiss his Dom’s cheek. “Before I say anything.”

“As you vish, my love,” Elric reassured him softly. “Vhatever you need, you shell hef.”

Orion thanked him and was pulled in for a soft, searching kiss, which might have caught fire if footsteps hadn’t sounded in the hall.

“Sir? I don’t want to intrude, I mean, I know I am, but I wanted to make sure you’re OK. Not that you need me, not with all the help you have, and it’s not–” Anthony broke off with a foolish, crooked smile when Lilly looked at him. “Um, hello…”

Elric tamped down on a chuckle. “I’m recovering, thenk you, my dear. You look so hendsome tonight. Even a tie. This is an occasion.”

Anthony ducked his head on a grin. “Jerrett likes it. I think he likes having a leash built into the outfit as much as he likes the look but, well, you know…” He trailed off again, blushing furiously.

Lilly watched the exchange quietly. Privately she was a little surprised. Had she met Anthony on his own she wouldn’t have thought he was a submissive, but then, he wasn’t ultra dominant either. Not with the way he blushed when he looked at her.

After a moment they all rose and left the den to rejoin the rest of the gathering. As they walked down the hall, Lilly braced herself. She avoided crowds usually. Not out of any kind of phobia, but because all the emotions one found in large groups played havoc with her own balance.

A steady, rhythmic thump came from ahead of them and Elric stopped as they rounded the corner to avoid running into Vincent.

“Ah, there you are,” Vincent said softly with a little shake of his head. “Sweet spirits, the things you never told me. You may as well prepare yourself. They will swarm you when you walk back in.”

“I am prepared, brüderlein, never fear.” Elric patted his shoulder and turned to Lilly. “My apologies, my dear. The young gallant to your left is Anthony Dupree, affectionately known to his friends as ‘Mad Anthony’ and this handsome vision is Vincent Lastrada, of whom you have heard me speak so often.”

Lilly inclined her head politely to Vincent in greeting. Anthony took her hand and brushed his lips across the back of her fingers in a courtly gesture.

Vincent’s expression remained unreadable as he studied her. Finally he murmured, “You are hataa’lii. A healer. Which Way do you follow?”

Unblinking blue eyes regarded him steadily, studying him just as he had studied her. A small smile touched her lips. “My training was not the most traditional, but would be considered the red path. My father was Lakota, I learned from him when I was very young.” This small bit of information she knew would actually tell Vincent a lot. The path of the red meant she was an herbalist and spiritualist. The Lakota were one of the eastern nations, so she was probably not from this area originally

Vincent’s smile transformed his face. “Welcome to California, elder sister. I haven’t spoken to one of the People, of any nation, in so long.”

“Thank you.” Lilly said graciously. She glanced at Elric and he inclined his head slightly as if to say she was free to go off if she wished. She walked beside Vincent as he returned to his comfortable high backed chair, talking amiably as they went. Vince had not missed the subtle byplay between them.

He had to wonder how it was that she reached the Prince, made him see that he needed to release this long held grief. He hesitated to ask, it seemed vaguely improper, but his curiosity was stirred and he finally did ask.

“I didn’t reach him. Orion did.” She said simply.

“Oh?” Vincent’s brow creased and then smoothed as realization hit. “Ah. I see. It’s always been one of his favorite teaching points. Never ask those who belong to you to do what you would not.”

He gazed across the room to where Sasha flung himself into Elric’s arms, more open about offering his condolences than some. “How are they doing, the three of them? That first day…oh, sweet gods…I thought my heart would break.”

“They are…healing.” She answered, her head tilted slightly in contemplation as she watched Elric, Orion, and Keit together. She turned her gaze to Vince, cerulean blue eyes seeming to peer right into him, past every shield and barrier he so carefully kept between himself and the world. “And how are you, and your loves doing? Are you better now?”

An automatic evasion was on Vincent’s lips when he stopped himself with a little sigh. “We are…healing,” he echoed softly. One hand rubbed his chest absently, recent memories constricting his lungs. “So many disasters heaped one atop the next. It feels as if we can finally catch our breath again.”

“Mmhm…” Lilly said, and averted her gaze, knowing she had disquieted him. “If you like, I have something that might help you breathe easier… literally, that is. Something that won’t make you jittery and tense and keep you up at night like the inhalers can.”

The long fingered hand stopped its restless motion and he let out a soft laugh. “That obvious, is it? Yes, gods, yes, if you have something that will ease these tight bands around my chest, I’d be eternally grateful.”

She nodded, the silk of her hair falling forward a bit. She lifted a hand to push it back.

“Do you plan on keeping the Prince’s lovely guest to yourself all evening, Vincent?” A deep rich voice with hints of amusement asked. Having been abandoned for the moment by both Anthony and Sasha, Jerrett had wandered over to meet the lovely girl that had more than half the room wondering how long a wait would be polite before making their move.

“It had occurred to me, yes, but I suppose that would be selfish,” Vincent answered softly. “Lilly, this is Jerrett Hawthorn.”

Lilly looked up, and up, at the man standing over them. He was not ‘looming’, or at least she didn’t think he was trying to, but she supposed the impression was from the way he sort of stood so straight and regal and looked down on nearly everyone. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hawthorn,” she said softly.

“The pleasure is mine, and please call me Jerrett.” he said, smiling his most winning smile. Despite the innate arrogance, he was still breathtakingly handsome and charming when he chose to be.

“Hey, handsome, you feeling all right?” A deep voice of a different timbre issued from Vincent’s opposite side. Der crouched by the chair to take Vincent’s hand in his. “I saw you rubbing.”

“I’m quite well, dearheart,” Vincent smiled and kissed his fingers. “And this, Lilly, is the dashing Derelict Schiller.”

Der looked up to meet those incredible eyes. “Hi,” he said eloquently.

A little smile lifted her lips, “Hello.” She replied, and couldn’t help thinking that for all Jerrett Hawthorn’s carefully exuded charm, Der, as she’d already heard his friends calling him, was twice as endearing.

Drew came up behind Jonathan as he handed out a last glass of champagne he’d been circulating with. He slid his arms around him and kissed the nape of his neck, smiling as he turned around to put his own arms around him. “Are you alright?” he asked softly.

Jonathan nodded, “Much better. How ‘bout you, sweetie?”

Drew gave a little shrug, but he nodded reassuringly. “You know, I was thinking… do you remember that episode of South Park, when all the boys started acting like grunting animals beating up on each other because one of the girls in their class had sprouted boobs?” He tilted his head slightly to where Vince, Jerrett, and Der were clustered around Lilly and David and Xavier were making their way over. “I keep having flashes of that every time I glance over there.” He snickered.

Jonathan laughed, causing several people to glance over. He didn’t care. “You’re not gonna get involved in the testosterone rush to piss on her beautiful leg?”

Drew looked almost startled by the question. “Are you kidding me? No way!” He said just a little too vehemently.

A little sound caught in Jonathan’s throat, then another, and he nearly choked on trying to swallow the guffaw that wanted out. He took Drew’s face between his hands and kissed him tenderly. “Christ, I love you. You’ve got to be the sweetest thing on earth.”

Drew unexpectedly felt a flush of heat at the tender kiss and Jonathan’s words. He melted inside and pressed closer, completely forgetting the roomful of people around them. Jonathan just had that effect on him. He kissed him back, just as tender and sweet, but the kiss lingered a bit longer.

A light feminine laugh drifted over to them and Drew glanced at the growing circle again. Lilly had laughed at something Xavier had said, which was not all that unusual. If the dark scowl on Jerrett’s face was any indication it was something at his expense. Drew shook his head, amused. “Do you want to take bets on which one she picks?” he whispered in Jonathan’s ear.

“We should get two choices, since it’s such a broad field,” Jonathan said with a too-serious look of concentration. “Now, if she has any taste at all, she’ll pick Vincent. But he’ll gracefully and regretfully decline, so I have to count him out of the running. Hmm…there’s beauty over there and brains and drop dead, charming dominance, grace and wit and…I bet she picks the goofball.”

Drew was just as carefully going over the selection although silently. Xavier had made her laugh, that tinkling bells sound that was so sweet he nearly heard a collective sigh from the group of admirers. And Xav looked exceedingly hot this evening… ok, stop checking him out. Was Jon right maybe? Der was just as good at coaxing a laugh, but he was more mature than Xav. She was so quiet she might appreciate that. Or was he just being biased because it was Der and Drew couldn’t see anyone resisting Der?

His eyes went to Jerrett and then back to Lilly. She had politely cut her laugh short and she was looking at him, those bright, bright blue eyes still sparkling. The dangerous, arrogant prick? “She’s gonna pick the most dominant, if any of them. I say Jerrett.” Drew said in a hushed voice to Jonathan.

“She’s a fool if she does,” Jonathan growled and then shrugged. “But there’s no accounting for taste, I guess.” They watched a moment longer, Drew’s head nestled on Jonathan’s shoulder, until Jonathan chuckled. “Oh, now, there’s a wrench in the works for you.”

In a black kilt, leggings and dress boots, Chrysalis slid through the larger bodies to claim the chair next to Lilly since all the admirers were standing. Chrys took her hand, obviously making introductions, and lifted Lilly’s fingers to kiss them.

“Shame on you both. Putting bets on a girl like that.” A voice scolded from behind Jonathan and Drew, making them jump a little, although his voice had been as low as their own. “And you’re both wrong.” Keit said, the scolding tone giving way to amusement. “Now, Drew if you would be so kind, go wrap yourself around Der and get him back to Brandon. He’s looking a little bewildered over there. And Jonathan, please go and distract Xavier before Jerrett decides he’d rather have him and we have an all out brawl. I’ll go get Jerrett.”

“Um, ok. But why?” Drew asked.

“Because, honey. She’s going to want to talk to Chrysalis and the others are just going to frustrate her.”

Jonathan’s forehead crinkled in an endearing way. “So the boys are making all that fuss over her and she’s gay? Um, or maybe not…since I still don’t know about Chrys.” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “Dammit, I’m confused.”

“No, as far as I can tell she prefers men, at least I’ve never seen her with a woman, but then I’ve never asked.” Keit gave a little wave of his hand. “I just think she’ll be interested in Chrys, that’s all. Now scoot.” Keit headed off to gather Jerrett up, which was a bit of a task, but as soon as he discreetly got his attention over to Sasha and Anthony, who were looking awfully cuddly together, it was easier to move him off in that direction.

Drew moved toward Der and got him talking about music, although he definitely seemed distracted during the conversation.

Another silvery sound caressed over the gathering and Drew nudged Der gently, nodding to how Lilly laughed at something Chrys whispered in her ear.

“Oh…um…” he cleared his throat and swept Lilly a courtly bow. “Such a joy meeting you, Ms. Lilly. But I do need to steal Vincent away to hash through some graphics questions.”

Vincent arched a brow. “Now?”

“Yes, now. You know how my sieve brain works. If I don’t talk to you when I’m thinking of it, I’ll forget.”

Then Vincent caught the hint as well and rose to follow Der to a quiet corner across the room while Jonathan wrapped his arms around Xavier and distracted him quite thoroughly.

Lilly noted the tactical scattering of the circle that had formed and silently thanked Keit. She smiled at Chrysalis. “Keit must think highly of you, you’re the only one he didn’t chase away.”

Chrys chuckled. “The Prince is the undisputed master of his house but Keit is what keeps the household running.”

Lilly’s eyes found Keit for a moment and then came back to Chrysalis. “He’s happier now.” Her lovely heart shaped face tilted slight, regarding Chrys intently for a moment. “You have…unusual energy.” She said softly. “You are sensitive to… things, no?”

Chrys looked at their joined hands, then back up with a little smile and a wink, whispering, “I see dead people.”

Lilly smiled softly as if something had just clicked into place. “Ah, you are a Spiritwalker.” She searched her eyes for a moment, trying to determine something else. “One foot in this world, one in another. Neither one or the other…” She blinked and took a breath, looking down as if embarrassed that she might have intruded where she was not welcome. “Do the spirits trouble you?” she asked quietly, hoping she hadn’t offended him.

A long pause followed where Chrys regarded her carefully, that brittle, fragile look Syren knew so well creeping in. The smile returned on a little sigh. “Not…usually. I know they’re there. Most of the time they go about their business and I go about mine. It’s only when there’s a terrible concentration of negative energy. Those frighten me sometimes, when there’s hate and rage and violent intentions. They tell me I’ve had…seizures…”

Across the room, Syren wrapped an arm around Keit. “You’re such a little manipulator, you know that?”

Keit gave her an apologetic look and nodded towards Lilly. “Does this bother you?”

“Watching Chrys courting? Gods, no. It’s not something I get to see often. Lilly’s the first person Chrys has approached in, oh, I can’t even tell you how long.”

Lilly’s brows pulled together in a tiny frown. “You can keep them out, if you want. Do you know how?”

“I do.” Chrys nodded. “But sometimes people come to me. They need help. I…try not to say yes anymore but they can be so desperate, so frightened. It’s hard to turn them away.”

Lilly’s small smile turned rueful. “I know just what you mean.”

Warmth lit up Chrys’ gray-green eyes. “Somehow I knew you would.”

~*~

Xavier followed Jonathan off a ways from the mingling group of people gathered. A glance told him Dave had wandered over to talk to Vic and Cody. When he looked back Jonathan was leaning close and Xavier gave him a soft smile. “You didn’t stay long enough for me to say good morning the other night.”

“You,” Jonathan tapped the end of his nose. “Sleep way too late for me. And besides, I had to go get myself in trouble at home.”

“I do not sleep too late, you just get up way too early.” Xavier said. “I’m almost afraid to ask… what did you get in trouble for?”

Jonathan tried to look serious and contrite. It almost worked. “I surprised the lord of the manor in bed with another lover. I was…caught off guard and he was very annoyed with me. So he gave me to his new lover and forgave me because I’m so beautiful.”

One arm looped lightly around Jonathan’s waist Xav gave him a knowing look. “Mm, so you pitched a hissy fit and Vince figured the best way to shut your mouth was to put a dick in it. Such a smart guy, that Vince.”

Jonathan poked him in the ribs. “So crude.” He tsked.

Xavier grinned and leaned closer to his ear. “You like it, don’t try and pretend.”

“Doesn’t mean you’re not crude. And it wasn’t in my mouth, anyway, so there.” His green eyes danced with amusement, wondering why Xav didn’t ask the obvious question about who it had been.

The answer to that of course was that Xav had already guessed who it must be. Vince wasn’t likely just to pick up a total stranger, and the only one close to them right now that wasn’t already sharing their bed was Der’s new dreamboat.

“Well, I owe you breakfast sometime anyway,” Xav said. “I didn’t want you to have to sleep on the couch.” Which was his way of also saying he was sorry things hadn’t exactly gone as planned with Dave coming home early.

“I know that, babe,” Jonathan said softly. “Don’t worry about it.” He gave Xav a little kiss before he moved off to talk to Elric.

 

Drew stepped out into the hall and looked down toward the end where he saw Xavier step into the bathroom. He walked down the hall and leaned up against the opposite wall, arms crossed and hands cupping his elbows while he waited for Xavier to emerge. A few moments later when the door opened and Xav looked up and smiled at him he almost lost his nerve. He took a deep breath. “Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

Xavier took in Drew’s stance, noted the slightly nervous tone and determined expression and thought, uh-oh. His smile didn’t fade but his eyes took on a slightly more guarded cast. “Sure, sweetheart. What’s on your mind?”

Drew tilted his head, indicating they should move somewhere more private and Xavier followed him down the hall a ways further. They stepped through an open door into the now empty den.

“Please don’t tell me you’re secretly in love with me and want to run away. That might complicate things,” Xavier joked.

Drew didn’t even crack a smile, and Xavier had to wonder how bad this was going to be.

“Xav…I don’t want to stir up any shit, but can you… couldn’t you just leave Jonathan alone?” There, he said it.

Xavier blinked at him, for once no immediate response coming to mind. Then the surprise settled into confusion. “Um…ok. Drew, what’s this about?”

“Nothing. I just…just don’t want you taking him home again, ok?”

Xavier’s expression softened a bit. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, because he could tell Drew was a little upset, but he couldn’t resist teasing him a little. “Well honey, if you’re jealous I could ask Vince if you can come with us, too.”

Drew rolled his eyes. “I’m not jealous.”

Xav grinned. “Sounds like it to me.”

“I’m not.” Drew said, exasperated. “Look, just don’t, ok? Leave him alone. Don’t you have enough to choose from?”

Xavier arched a brow at him. While he was perfectly willing to grant his request if it was bothering him, now he felt like being contrary. “Drew, what’s the problem? You didn’t mind before.”

Drew stared at him for a moment, wishing now that he hadn’t gotten into this. He sighed. “He came home after being with you and was so upset he started snapping at everyone and was just an emotional mess. I don’t want him upset like that, and I don’t want you to use him like that.”

Xavier went very still, his expression frozen and for a moment they just stared at each other. Drew finally looked away, feeling uneasy. “Xav…”

“Fine.” Xavier cut him off tersely. “I’ll stay away from him. Happy?”

“Xav, I didn’t mean…”

“I said fine.” Xav snapped. “Get lost, Drew.”

Drew looked at him again, thought about saying something more and thought better of it looking at his shuttered eyes and hard expression. “Okay…thanks,” he murmured and turned quickly to leave. He hurried back down the hall.

“Yeah, sure. No fuckin problem,” Xavier muttered to the empty room. Instead of going back out to rejoin the others, he crossed the room to the window and looked out over the back garden. He crossed his arms and leaned against the window enclosure. He hadn’t used Jonathan. Not anymore than Jonathan had used him. They both wanted each other and went off to go fuck like mad and then return to their normally scheduled lives. What was the big deal?

Sitting in the corner with Der and Brandon, Vincent hadn’t missed all the comings and goings. When Drew reappeared, looking fetching in his suit but as if someone had just slipped ice down his back, Vincent waved him over.

“My kestrel.” He waited until Drew’s hand settled in his. “Someone has upset you.”

Not for the first time, not even the hundredth, Drew cursed his inability to keep whatever he was feeling off his face. No matter how hard he tried, if he was angry, or upset, or horny it was like a beacon turned on to broadcast exactly what he was feeling. He leaned close to Vince’s ear, knowing already that saying ‘nothing’ was wrong would not be accepted as an answer. “Can we talk about it later? It’s not a big deal.”

“All right, my love. As you wish.” Vincent pulled Drew into his lap and wrapped his arms around him.

Victor had already had enough of socializing. True, he was fond of almost everyone there but after Elric’s memoriam, he felt raw and emotionally drained. Not really the right state for him to be in to engage people in light conversation. He left Cody chatting with Quinn and wandered down the hall for a few minutes of quiet…

…and came upon a too familiar scene. Xav with his arms wrapped tight around himself, staring out the window.

“Xav? Sweets? What’s wrong?”

“Huh? Oh, hi Vic.” Xavier said, looking up, obviously coming back from somewhere distant. “What’s up?”

“What’s the matter?”

Xav lifted one slender shoulder in a shrug. “Nothing. Just thinking.”

 

“Mm, yes, I see that much.” Vic stepped over to stand beside him and share the view of the garden.

 

This time both shoulders went up, the shrug a little more defensive and his arms still wrapped around him tightly. “Really, Vic. It’s nothing. I don’t want to… I don’t want any kinda problems stirred up, especially not here and not today. Anything like that happens and you know everyone will think it’s all my fault, right?”

 

“Well, it generally is,” Vic answered deadpan. He turned to Xavier and opened his arms when his teasing fell flat. “Come here, sweets. God. Telling me what’s wrong isn’t ‘stirring up’ anything. There’s no one else here. Just you and me.”

 

Xav hesitated only a moment, and then leaned closer, letting Vic’s strong arms close around him. It felt so good he relaxed a little more against him, turning his face to lay his cheek against his chest and suddenly he felt his throat close up like he was about to cry or something. It was ridiculous. There was nothing to cry about.

 

“Drew asked me to stay away from Jonathan, that’s all.” He murmured, feeling like he was six years old tattling on the class bully, which was even more ridiculous because it was Drew, who couldn’t bully his way out of a paper bag if he had to. “He thinks I used him. Dave did, too. And since Drew said he was upset when he went home, Jonathan thinks so, too.”

 

“There now, that wasn’t so hard,” Vic murmured into the top of his head as he held that lean body tight. “Though I do think you’re jumping to conclusions. Evidently so did Drew. Jonathan gets upset about a lot of things. Most of them having to do with things he doesn’t want to remember. It may or may not have had anything to do with you.”

 

He stroked Xavier’s hair. “And this whole ‘using people’ nonsense you keep getting so hung up on…everyone uses other people. To greater or lesser degrees. I think what upsets you is that you’re not always quite sure why.”

 

Xavier frowned slightly but he didn’t pull away. Even if Jonathan hadn’t gotten upset because of him, and even if Drew was making assumptions, that didn’t explain why Dave had questioned his motives for bringing Jonathan home. He remembered Dave quite venomously accusing him of using that guy they’d ended up picking up on the ski trip. He’d pretty much accused him of the same thing again, albeit more gently this time.

 

He lifted his head and looked up at Vic. “Well then why are they all acting like I did something wrong? I didn’t do anything wrong, I followed all the rules, and I still get treated like a fuck up.”

 

Victor took his face between his hands, his dark eyes sad and tired. “Has Jonathan said you upset him?”

 

Xavier shook his head.

 

“And has David implied, said, or acted in any way that makes you think he is anything but concerned for you?”

 

“That’s just it, Vic. He’s concerned.” Xav blinked and the teardrops clinging to his lashes finally fell. He took a ragged breath. “He goes out and finds someone else and it’s a mistake, he just let his libido get in the way. I bring home someone he knows, someone he’s ok with, and it’s gotta be because there something wrong with me. Like I wanna get back at him, or I wanna drown everything out with sex.”

 

“Xav…” Vic pulled him close again and let him cry. The problem was that with Xavier, both of those things were probably true on some level. But that was an issue for his therapist, not for a well-meaning friend. “You might recall that he tried to kill himself over his ‘mistake’, my sweet. It’s not as if he just shrugged it off. And if he worries over your motives, it’s partly because his own can get pretty tangled.”

 

~*~

 

Drew put his head on Vince’s shoulder. He was silent for a while, watching the room. As the minutes started to slip by and Xavier didn’t reappear he thought about getting up and going to find him. He kept thinking about how he looked, eyes slightly hooded, a blank stare. He’d thought Xav had been pissed, but…maybe he’d been hurt. The more he thought about it the more he fidgeted and chewed on his bottom lip and fidgeted some more. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore and heaved a sigh. “I think I hurt Xavier’s feelings,” he blurted out to Vince.

 

“Ah.” Vincent’s hand stroked his back in soothing circles. “And why would you do such a thing, my love?”

 

“I-I didn’t mean to.” Drew said, his cheeks heating now with shame. “I just…I asked him to leave Jonathan alone.” He said so softly even Vince had to strain to hear.

 

“Drew, my darling, my own…” Vincent kissed his cheek with a little sigh. “If such a thing were necessary, who do you think would be the most appropriate person to say it?”

 

“I know…I know. But, I wanted him to leave him alone. Jonathan doesn’t think he did anything wrong, and you don’t think he did anything wrong, but I know something wasn’t right, I know Jonathan came home upset and he felt like Xav used him or something. I just didn’t want him to see him upset again.”

 

Vincent wondered if another Dom would have been angry at such a breach of authority. Probably. Most likely. He simply felt…what? A little sad, a bit tired, perhaps. He smoothed a curl out of Drew’s eyes. “I love you,” he murmured. “I love that you want to slay dragons for Jonathan. To protect him and keep his heart safe. But perhaps if Jonathan was hurt by what Xavier did, it should be Jonathan who says so.”

 

Drew slid his arms around Vince’s neck and buried his face at the side of his throat. “I’m sorry, Vince.”

 

“My love, I’m not angry with you. And you’ve done nothing to hurt me.”

 

Drew pulled back to look at him. “Should I go… should I say something to him?”

 

Vincent kissed him softly. “I suppose that depends on what you say.”

 

“I’m sorry? I didn’t mean it? Please don’t be a bitch and snap my head off?” Drew cleared his throat. “Well, not that last part.”

 

“Not a bad start.” Vincent gave him a little smile and a nudge. “Though, the last I looked, I’m not Xavier.”

 

“Thank god,” Drew said under his breath. “Or we’d be in big trouble.” He kissed Vince and rose, taking a deep breath as if girding himself, and headed back out and down the hall where he’d last seen Xav.

 

The door to the den was still open and Drew stepped in, at first only seeing Vic’s broad back and just as he thought he’d ask him if he’d seen Xav, he turned slightly and saw that he had him in his arms. He also saw that Xav had his hand up over his face and his shoulders were hunched and… oh, god, Drew felt about as low as he could get. Damn.

 

His face crumpled and drained of color as he moved closer. Both Vic and Xav heard him and turned at the same time. “Xav… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

 

Xavier swiped an arm over his eyes and glared back at him. “I told you it was fine, Drew. Just go away.”

 

“No, it’s not fine. I didn’t have any right to speak for Jonathan. I’m really sorry.”

 

“Oh, so the first time you weren’t really sorry?” Xavier said, just to be spiteful.

 

Drew took it in stride, though. “I meant it both times. Please Xav, it was a stupid, shitty thing to say. I was a total jerk to even bring it up. I know you wouldn’t hurt Jonathan on purpose.”

 

There was a tense few moments and then Xavier sighed. “Yeah. You’re a stupid jerk. Aren’t we all.” He lifted his arm and made a beckoning gesture until Drew came over and he put his arm around his shoulders, bringing him into the circle of Vic’s arms as well.

 

Victor heaved a shaky sigh as he wrapped them both close. This better be the end of the drama tonight. I can’t take any more. “Stupid jerks or not, our hearts are in the right place.” He kissed the top of Xavier’s head and then Drew’s. “You’re good boys. There are reasons why people love you that have nothing to do with the physical.”

 

He gave them a few minutes since they both clung to him fiercely. “Now, then. I know several people who might get worried and come looking for the two of you. And here I am with you snuggled in my arms. From a territorial standpoint, how do you think that would look?”

 

“Dave would want to know if anything was going on, then watch, or join.” Xavier said without batting an eye.

 

Drew nodded. “Yep. Jonathan too.”

 

“Hm, four beautiful boys, all for me,” Vic said with a wistful sigh. “Nice thought, maybe another night.” He gave them each a little smack on the butt and sent them on their way.

 

Drew and Xavier walked back in together, but separated almost immediately. Xav, because he wanted to go see Dave, and Drew because he saw Vince and Jonathan talking and walked over to them.

 

Neither one asked if everything was settled since the entrance together said it all. Jonathan wrapped his arms around Drew and pulled him close, though he murmured to Vincent, “Look, Vince, my own knight in shining. Can we keep him?”

 

Dave turned from where he was talking with Ethan. “Hey, sweets! What’s–” He broke off and took Xavier’s face between his hands. “Love? You’ve been…” His eyes hardened as he asked, “Who made you cry?”

 

“Nearly everyone here’s been crying. It was a sad thing.” Xavier evaded.

 

Dave’s eyes told him a storm was brewing and he wasn’t buying it. Xavier sighed. “Not the time or the place, hon. And I’m alright, so please, later. OK?”

 

“I don’t much fucking care about time and place,” Dave growled, so low no one else could hear. “Someone’s hurt you and he’s gonna pay for it.”

 

“Christ, Dave,” Xav muttered under his breath. He looked around at the room full of people. “C’mon then.” He took Dave’s hand and led him out. He headed toward the conservatory where at least it would be private and quiet. They walked and he told him about what Drew had said, and that he’d already apologized.

 

Drew…well, that put a damper on Dave’s fire. He listened, wide-eyed, and slid swiftly from ferocity to pensiveness. He stopped at a bench and sank down, staring at his hands.

 

“Well, I guess I can’t really slug the little guy. I mean, not again.” He looked up at Xavier who still stood, arms wrapped around himself. “Especially since…it wasn’t just Drew who made you cry, was it?”

 

Xav sank down next to him and pulled his heels up onto the edge of the bench, wrapping his arms around his legs so he could rest his chin on his knees. “No. I guess not,” he finally said.

 

“And here I was all set to go after that Hawthorn creep. I was so sure it was him.” Dave rubbed a hand over the back of his neck. “And it’s me instead.”

 

He let out a hollow bark of laughter that made Xav wince, surged up and started pacing, his hands scrubbing through his hair. “Fuck, fuck, fuck…dammit, Xav, even when I’m trying to do the right things, I hurt you.”

 

Xavier closed his eyes, suddenly very tired. “Yeah, and you’ll probably do it again. And I’ll probably do something to hurt you again. It’s just how things go.” He opened his eyes again. “It’s not your fault, Dave. Maybe Vic is right. Maybe I get so upset ‘cause you hit too close to the truth and I just don’t see it right away. Or don’t want to see it.” He stayed just as he was, arms wrapped tightly around his up drawn legs. For a moment or two he felt like he was going to cry again but he swallowed it down and blinked any tears back. He didn’t want to upset Dave anymore than he was.

 

“Xav…don’t…” Dave got out in a choked voice and flung himself back onto the bench to wrap Xavier in a fierce embrace. “Don’t shut down, swallow everything whole. I’m here… I’m here… I love you so. I worry…I’m sorry…I can’t help it. I’ve spent most of my life worrying. And sometimes the stuff you do is gonna mean something and sometimes… sometimes a banana is just, you know, a banana.”

 

Xavier put his head on Dave’s shoulder, his face pressed against the side of his throat. He made a strangled sound, half chuckle, half sob, at what Dave said. He took a shuddering breath. When he lifted his head, he brought a hand to Dave’s cheek, fingers caressing lightly. He touched his lips to Dave’s in a tender kiss, and another, softly seeking more.

 

A little moan, as much relief as desire, rose from Dave’s chest. He cupped the back of Xav’s head and tilted for a better angle, tongue caressing Xavier’s lips in a silent plea. Xav opened for him, their tongues caressing slowly. There was no desperation, no guilty, hurried spark of lust. Instead, the tender heat grew slowly, building on soft touches and sweet murmurs.

 

“I love you…” Xav murmured between breathless, heated kisses.

 

Dave pulled back, his eyes wandering over the beauty of Xavier’s face. “And I love you, sweets.” He combed through Xav’s hair. “But you were right about time and place. It does seem kinda…disrespectful to take you here, in his orchid garden, after his eulogy and everything. Maybe we should make it an early evening, though, yeah? And when we get home, you can do whatever you want with me.”

 

“Anything I want, huh?” Xav said, his voice taking on that husky edge that Dave knew so well. He kissed a soft line of kisses down his jaw until his lips touched the base of Dave’s ear. “How about if I strip you naked, tie you down to the bed…” He breathed in a soft whisper. “And then paddle you until you’re brick red with a plug deep inside you…would you like that?”

 

Dave’s head fell back on a dizzy moan as all the blood rushed from his head. “Christ… yes…oh, yes.”

 

Xav took his earlobe between his teeth and nipped him, hard. “Let’s go back then, have to be polite and stay for a while, no?”

 

“Yeah,” Dave managed on a gulped breath and straightened his tie. When he stood, he held out both hands for Xav with that heartbreaking little-boy smile. “Do I get to have the gag, too?”

 

Xavier slow smile was full of seduction and heat as he slipped his hands in Dave’s and stood, but he shook his head slowly from side to side. “Oh, no… I want to hear you scream.”

 

“”K.” Dave laughed. “But you’ll have to explain things to the cops when the neighbors call them.”

 

Xav chuckled. “Well, maybe just a little gag.”

 

“Oh, good,” Dave stage-whispered to the nearest orchid. “He does love me.”

 

Back in the massive dining room, Orion kissed his Dom’s cheek and left his side to wander across the room. Ethan stood talking to Cody, with Quinn tucked under his arm, Cricket lying at their feet. Orion crouched down to pet the pretty dog. He did love dogs, though he knew the Prince would never allow one to live with them. Too messy.

 

Cricket thumped his tail but otherwise stayed where he was, giving Orion’s hand a little nuzzle and a lick of greeting.

 

“Keit told me you hand-carved the frames for the pictures of the Prince’s family, Orion. They are really beautifully done,” Ethan said with the warm appreciation of someone who understood working with their hands and the genuine craftsmanship involved.

 

Orion raised his head, a hint of anxiety lurking in his bright blue eyes. “Thank you, sir. Could I…speak to you a moment?”

 

Ethan’s smile was kindness itself. “Of course. Here, or is it private?”

 

“I…suppose it doesn’t make much difference.” Orion shifted to one knee, his gaze returning to Cricket as he went on, unaware how much the supplicant he looked. “Your house, sir…it has beach access, doesn’t it?”

 

“Yes, it does.”

 

“I’d like to….to use it as a staging point. For…” He heaved a breath. “For Jake’s farewell.”

 

“Sure you can, Orion. Is there anything Quinn and I can do to help?”

 

Orion shook his head, struggling. Just saying Jake’s name still caused him to break down. Dear God, would it always be that way? “Not until then,” he finally forced out. “I may need help…carrying something.”

 

“All right.” Ethan said. “You just let us know when.”

 

The little gathering began to break up around ten. Dave and Xavier had left first, which was a little surprising, but Der had seen the embers smoldering in Dave’s eyes and decided it wasn’t surprising after all.

 

Now he stood in the front hall with his mother, just the two of them, wishing her a good night.

 

“Do you really like him, Mutti?” he asked softly, feeling twelve years old again.

 

“Oh, he’ll do, I suppose,” she said with that too-serious face. When he rolled his eyes, she laughed. “Yes, yes, I like him. He’s able to laugh at himself. And he adores you. Much better than that T–”

 

“Don’t, Mom, please,” Der interrupted softly. “No comparisons.”

 

She leaned in to kiss his cheek. “I’m sorry, sweetpea. If this is more than just a fling, I’m very pleased.”

 

“You think Papa would have liked him?” Der couldn’t help the question.

 

“I think he would have preferred you pick the nice, handsome vet.” She smiled at his exasperated sound. “He would have teased you and grumbled about this and that, but, yes, I think he would have liked Brandon very much.”

 

Der stood at the door and waved as she drove off, a warm glow around his heart.