Lovers with Open Minds, Friends with Benefits

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.

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