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Not Always Easy

by Kit

Chapter 14 - Changing Friendships

When Sue announced that Rob and I were queer and that she'd seen us both kissing, I was looking across the room toward her, so apart from John who was standing next to me, everyone in the room was in my field of view. Sue had been looking directly at me as she made the announcement, and I was shocked by the depth of the hatred I saw in her eyes. My first thought was that it was fortunate that I'd already come out to my parents, so Mike's mum was the only person there who didn't already know I was gay.

If Sue had expected me to feel afraid or guilty, then she would have been disappointed because my first real emotion was concern for Mike, whose face was a mask of horror and pain. He pulled his hand away from hers as if he'd been burned, and he looked at her as if she'd suddenly turned into a complete stranger. If Sue had expected everyone to stare at me, then she would have been mistaken, because the only person looking at me was Mike's mum. Everyone else, including myself, was staring at Sue until Mike's mum broke the silence.

"Is that true?" she asked. "Are you gay, Paul?"

I nodded 'yes', and all eyes turned to her as we wondered what her reaction would be.

"Oh, well," she said after brief pause. "I never would've guessed."

From her expression and the calm way she spoke, she gave the impression that she'd just found out something new and unexpected about me, but that the information was only mildly interesting. She was surprised, but not shocked, and I might have expected the same response if I'd told her that I enjoyed playing soccer. Sue's face flushed as she looked around the room, obviously surprised, angry, and frustrated at the lack of reaction to her accusation.

"Don't you care that your son's best friend is a poofter?" Sue said, almost shouting.

"I've known Paul more than half his life," Mikes mum said sternly, frowning at Sue. "He's one of the nicest kids I know and he's like a second son to me. He and his family have always been there to help Mike and me whenever we needed it, so why should I care if he likes boys or girls?"

My mum, who was sitting opposite her, smiled and reached across to squeeze her hand. As Sue's eyes looked around the room, searching for support, John put his hand on my shoulder as a sign of solidarity.

"Doesn't anyone care that he's a disgusting, wicked, sinful homosexual?" Sue almost screamed in frustration.

"He's gay, but he's certainly not disgusting and he's neither wicked nor sinful," my dad said, his voice shaking with suppressed anger. "But even if he were sinful, he's our son and we'd still love him."

Though I never really doubted that the people I loved would be so supportive, when I heard Dad's words I could feel tears of happiness begin to form in my eyes. However, that happiness was soon dimmed when I saw the pain and confusion on Mike's face as he sat stunned and immobile. Sue stood up and was visibly shaking as she turned her back on the rest of us and looked down at Mike.

"We have to talk!" she hissed loudly at him.

Without waiting for a reply, she strode purposefully out of the kitchen and into the living room. For a few moments Mike didn't move, and he looked like a lost child as he just gazed helplessly around the room. I wanted to go over and hug him, but under the circumstances I didn't think it would be a good idea. Then Mike took a deep breath and followed Sue into the living room, and as he was leaving the room my mum looked over at me with concern in her eyes.

"Are you alright, Paul?" she asked.

"I'm okay, Mum, but what about Mike?"

"We'll soon find out," Mike's mum said with a worried frown.

I was shaking, and John, who still had his hand on my shoulder, must have felt this, because he guided me to the table and sat me down. My parents and Mike's mum began to talk very quietly and intensely, but I was too emotionally shocked to listen to what they were saying. Mike's mum spoke the only words that filtered through to my consciousness.

"I thought she was such a nice girl... so friendly and polite..."

Despite the support I'd just received, I began to feel very depressed and guilty because it seemed that my best friend's birthday had been ruined. I wondered if perhaps Sue wouldn't have caused this upset if I hadn't given her ammunition by kissing Rob. When I heard raised voices coming from the living room, I began to feel even worse, and my heart became heavier as the voices became more and more angry.

The discussion around the kitchen table died away, and Mike's mum stood up, possibly intending to go to the living room. However, before she could step away from the table, we heard the sound of the front door being slammed and Mike, red faced and eyes brimming with tears, returned to the kitchen. I don't remember ever seeing him so unhappy, and despite the spectators, this time I couldn't resist the urge to go and comfort him. As his mum was already standing, she reached him first and we ended up standing on either side of him, holding him between us.

"Where's Sue?" my dad asked.

"In the driveway, phoning her dad," Mike responded hoarsely. "She's gonna get him to pick her up and says she'd rather wait outside than stay in this house any longer."

His mum and I hugged him even tighter as he tried to fight back the tears, obviously embarrassed by his public show of emotion. Dad, equally embarrassed, said that he'd stand outside and keep his eye on Sue so that he could make sure she was safe until her dad arrived to collect her. Seeing that Mike might need a little privacy now, Mum and John went home. As soon as they were gone, Mike allowed himself the luxury of crying, and as the floodgates opened and tears flowed down his cheeks, his chest heaved with heavy sobs.

His mum led him to the table where he sat down, resting his arms on the table and hiding his face on his forearms. I sat on one side of him with my arm over his back while his mum sat on the other side, gently stroking the hair on the back of his head. Apart from the sound of Mike's sobs, we sat in silence for several minutes, then his mum stood up, saying that she'd make us some tea. By the time the tea was ready and she'd placed three mugs on the table, Mike's sobs had subsided. Although his face was still hidden, I guessed he was still crying because I could hear him sniffing back the tears.

"I'm sorry," he said eventually, in a voice that was barely a whisper.

"What for?" his mum and I said almost simultaneously.

"For Sue. What she said. I didn't know she could be like that... so full of hate. She's always been so loving and sweet, and I thought she loved me like I loved her." Mike's voice cracked and he heaved a deep sigh before continuing, "She said she hated me when I said I knew you were gay and you were still my best friend."

"It's not your fault, Mike," his mum said. "I misjudged her as well. This is just a part of her that never came out before."

All this time his voice had been muffled because his head was buried in his arms, as if he was afraid or ashamed to face the world, but now he raised his head and looked at his mum.

"But she seemed like a different person, Mum. Really vicious."

He looked at me with red-rimmed eyes, and seeing him like that, I felt my own tears begin to flow.

"And she made all sorts of weird threats, Paul," he said. "She said she knows how to deal with queers and she had friends in your school."

He frowned, and an expression of confused worry competed with the look of misery on his face. My heart sank as I had visions of meeting the same fate as Dan, but at my school I knew that I would have no best friend like Steve to come to my rescue.

"She was emotional, just making silly, idle threats," his mum said. "Just ignore them."

I thought to myself, 'I'm not so sure.' Unfortunately, the thought was vocalised and escaped my lips, so they both looked at me questioningly. I hoped that if I kept silent they would ignore my words, but that hope was in vain.

"What d'ya mean?" Mike asked after a few seconds of silence.

For a few more seconds I didn't respond because I didn't know what I should say.

"Yes, Paul, what do you mean?" his mum asked with a frown.

I was tired, upset, and emotionally drained, so my brain wasn't functioning well and my judgement was impaired by the guilt I felt at ruining Mike's birthday and spoiling his love life. So when his mum repeated the question, my only option seemed to be the truth, and I told them what Dan had told me about Sue's involvement in his beating. As the tale unfolded, their expressions showed several emotions including surprise, shock, and horror. When I finished speaking and my words sank in, I was taken by surprise by Mike's final emotion, a violent anger directed at me.

"You knew and you didn't tell me!" he yelled at me as he stood up.

He towered over me and I was afraid, even though I knew he would never get physically violent with me. In all our years together, no matter how angry we occasionally were with one another, the only blows we ever exchanged had been in play. On the other hand, I don't think I'd ever seen him so hurt and angry, at least not with me, and I instinctively cowered down and shrank away from him.

"You're s'posed to be my best friend and you didn't tell me!" he shouted angrily, and then groaned as if in pain. "You could've told me about her before I got so involved. Before I could be hurt so much."

With that, he ran upstairs, and I looked helplessly at his mum, only to find her looking accusingly at me.

"I only found out on Monday afternoon!" I protested. "When could I have told him without hurting him? If Sue hadn't said anything he need never have known."

Her look softened, but she didn't seem as understanding as I'd hoped.

"Even if Sue had never said anything, you would've had to tell him eventually, before he got even more involved with her," she said.

Knowing me so well, she could see how miserable and guilty I already felt, and she knew how difficult it was for me to reach quick decisions, so she took pity on me.

"Paul, I do understand that you couldn't really have told him before today, but you do realise that you would've had to tell him soon. You're his best friend and you owe him the truth, even if you think he won't like it."

With my eyes fixed on the table and silent tears running down my cheeks, I nodded my head 'yes' and sighed. I knew she was right, and I felt like a little child being scolded by a parent.

"But will he still be my best friend?" I asked as the terrifying thought came into my mind.

"Of course he will!" she said gently, patting me on my head.

I looked up to see her smiling at me, and knew that at least she was still my friend.

"Now go up and talk to him," she said as she stood up. "I'm sure he knows already that you'd never deliberately hurt him, so explain to him what you just told me. As for me, I'm going to bed now... it's been quite a day!"

She smiled again, ruffled my hair, and went upstairs. After a couple of minutes, during which I gathered together my courage, I went up to Mike's room and knocked on his door. When there was no response I knocked again, opened the door a crack and called his name. Greeted only by silence, I went in uninvited to find Mike on his bed, fully clothed and lying on his stomach, with his face turned away from me. I sat down on the side of his bed and tentatively spoke his name but he didn't move or speak.

When I gently touched him on his shoulder, he flinched but didn't pull away, so I stroked his back. I knew he was awake and could hear me, so I told him that it had been less than a week since I'd found out about Sue. I explained that I'd still been working out how to deal with the information when Sue had made her outburst that night. Still there was no response, so I told him how much I cared for him and valued his friendship and how I'd never hurt him on purpose.

From his bedside clock I could see it was almost two o'clock in the morning, and I was very weary, so as I spoke I lay down on my side, facing him, and rested my arm on the small of his back. I don't remember when I fell asleep, but when I awoke with the dawn about three hours later, we were still in that position. Thinking that I'd better go home and wait until Mike had time to consider things properly, I began to get up off the bed. Either Mike was already awake or my movement woke him, but whatever the case, as I sat up on the edge of the bed, he turned over to lie on his side facing me. He gave me a small, almost shy smile and reached out to grab my arm, pulling me back. I fell on my back onto the bed and he put his arm over my chest.

"Let's get some more sleep," he mumbled as he closed his eyes.

He cuddled up to my side and seemed to fall asleep very quickly. We'd not slept together like that since we were about fourteen, and as I relaxed into sleep, I realised that we were still best friends.

The next thing I remember was being awakened by a tapping on the bedroom door and Mike mumbling something incoherent that was probably 'come in'. His mum entered the room and placed two mugs of tea on the bedside table, at which point I noticed that Mike still had his arm draped over me. I was relieved that she could see that both of us were fully clothed and lying on top of the bed covers.

"It's nine o'clock and I thought you might like a wake-up call and some tea," she said with a big smile on her face. "I'm glad that you're both friends again."

"We never stopped being friends," Mike said as he sat up and looked at me. "I was just upset and didn't understand."

"Are you still upset?" his mum asked as Mike and I sipped our tea.

"Yeah," he replied, "I s'pose I am, but not as much. Maybe Sue's calmed down now as well. I'm gonna have to talk to her."

Startled by those words, I looked sharply at him. I couldn't believe he might intend to give their relationship another chance, and I was just opening my mouth to question him when he pre-empted me.

"I still love the person I thought she was," he said. "Maybe the person we saw last night wasn't really her. Maybe it was some kind of... aberration. But I can't just give up without finding out, and I should give her a chance to explain, now that we've all had time to calm down and think."

I didn't know what to say, but after I'd told him about Sue and Dan, I couldn't see how he could believe that her behaviour last night was an 'aberration'. As I struggled to express that thought, and tried to find words that wouldn't hurt him, he must have seen the doubt and disbelief on my face.

"You do understand, don't you, Paul?" he said looking at me pleadingly. "I've got to at least try to sort things out, try to get her to change her mind, make sure she didn't mean those threats..."

His voice trailed off as he saw the doubt in his mums face and the fear in mine. When Sue had made him choose between her and me the previous night, he'd chosen me, but that was in the midst of anger and tears. Deep down inside myself I believed that if she was sweet and loving when she gave him the same choice again then he would still choose me, but there was a tiny nagging doubt. Also, I wondered if it was fair of me to expect him to choose me over the girl he apparently still loved.

Absorbed with those thoughts, it took me a few seconds to notice that Mike and his mum were both looking at me expectantly. I'd thought that Mike's question was rhetorical, but now I realised he was waiting for me to give him an answer.

"Yes," I sighed. "I understand. You've got to try..."

Feeling physically and mentally uncomfortable, I got up off the bed and added, "I'd better get home for a shower and change of clothes. I'll be back with John in an hour or so to move the furniture back."

His mum escorted me downstairs, and before I left the house I gave her a big hug.

"Thanks for your support last night," I said. Then as I turned to go I smiled and added, "Oh, and thanks for the tea!"

She just smiled and waved goodbye.

When I got home, my parents and John were in the kitchen and had already finished breakfast. They asked if I was okay and wanted to know how Mike was, so I updated them on the situation. They, and especially John, were shocked to hear about Sue's involvement in Dan's beating, and I think they all shared my doubts about Mike attempting to fix things with her.

"One other thing," I said at the end of my report. "I really appreciate the way you all stood by me and defended me."

"Did you expect us to do anything else?" Mum asked.

"Nah, I guess not."

Mum offered to cook me breakfast but I wasn't really hungry and I headed straight for the shower.

"Oh, Paul!" Dad called as I was leaving the kitchen. "Maybe you should be a bit more careful where you do your snogging in future?"

Although he was smiling as he said it, I could tell he wasn't really joking, and nodded my agreement. Mum and John grinned at my embarrassment as I blushed and left the room.

When John and I went over to Mike's house to move back the furniture, Mike clearly wasn't his usual cheerful self. John tried to raise the mood with a few jokes but he didn't really succeed, and much of the work was carried out in silence. Before John and I returned home, we told Mike and his mum that our parents had invited them for lunch. Politely declining the invitation, Mike told us that he intended to go and see Sue, and his mum said they would just snack on the leftover party foods.

It was another warm spring day, and I realised that the morning's exertions had left me in need of another shower. When I'd finally cleaned myself up and spent several minutes deciding what to wear, it was time to go and collect Dan. In my eagerness to see him again, I arrived at his house a few minutes early, and while he finished getting ready upstairs, I got to meet his parents in the living room. Although Dan's parents were very charming and welcoming, I was relieved when Dan came downstairs to rescue me from their questions. While I appreciated that parents are naturally curious about their child's friends, I wondered why they often seemed to try to extract the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of time. With that in mind, I decided to do whatever I could to mitigate Dan's ordeal when he met my parents.

During the drive back to my house, I gave Dan a summary of the party and the subsequent events precipitated by Sue. He made sympathetic and supportive comments throughout my tale, but when I mentioned Sue's threat, he became very concerned and insisted that something be done about it. I pointed out that Mike was going to try to defuse the situation and that until we heard from him there wasn't much we could do except enjoy our lunch and the rest of the afternoon.

"What time do you have to be home?" I asked.

"Well, as it's the first day of school tomorrow, I told my parents I'd be home by about eight. Do you have any plans for after lunch?"

"I'd almost forgotten about school!" I groaned. "But yes, I thought we might go for a drive up into the hills and maybe park up somewhere for a chat."

"Sounds good to me. Anything particular you want to chat about?"

"Well, yes and no," I replied hesitantly. "I mean, of course I just enjoy talking to you, but I do have a particular topic in mind, and I'd like to chat somewhere a bit more private than our dining room!"

"Oh, okay," Dan said, clearly intrigued.

When we entered the house, John greeted us both with a friendly wave then followed us to the kitchen, where I introduced Dan to my parents. They made him very welcome, and having been assured that they didn't require any help, we went to the living room to await the call to lunch. After Dan and I sat on the sofa, John perched himself on the nearest armchair.

"Look, Dan," John said, "I'm sorry I was nasty to you at the cafe when you tried to tell us about Sue."

"No need to apologise," Dan replied with a wry smile, "cos even if I'd told you and even if you'd believed me, what difference would it've made? It was only a week ago. What could anyone have done about it?"

"Was it only a week?" I said, and then groaned. "Somehow it seems much longer than that!"

Lunch was roast leg of lamb with all the trimmings, followed by Mum's wonderful homemade trifle. Sunday lunch was always the big meal of the week at our house, but it seemed that this week Mum had made a special effort to make things even better than usual. I wondered if that might be related to the fact that I'd told her all about Dan's culinary skills. The meal was made even more enjoyable because my parents, though clearly very interested in Dan, were relatively restrained in their questioning. At the end of the meal, we all complimented Mum on the food, and she seemed particularly pleased when Dan asked her for the trifle recipe.

After clearing away the dishes, we all sat around the living room chatting for about an hour before John said he was going to phone Marie and I said that Dan and myself were going for a drive. I'd expected my parents to be a little disappointed at my cutting short their opportunity to interrogate Dan, but they just made a fuss about how much they'd enjoyed meeting him and told him that he must visit us again soon. Before we left for our drive Dan went to the bathroom, and as I waited for him by the front door, Mum came up to me and gave me a hug.

"What's that for?" I asked, surprised.

"Do I need a reason?" she asked. "But anyway, I've got lots of reasons. After last night I thought you might need all the hugs you could get, and I wanted to thank you for sharing your friend with us. We always knew you had good taste in friends, and Dan just proves that."

As usual under such circumstances, I blushed profusely and hoped my face would return to a more normal colour before Dan came downstairs.

"He'd make a good boyfriend," she continued with a twinkle in her eye.

"Muuuuum!" I whined feeling my cheeks burn even more.

"But what about you and Rob last night?" she said, growing more serious. "Has he become your boyfriend since we last talked about it?"

"No, it was just a friendly kiss!" I protested in a whisper.

"Okay, I believe you. You're a good boy, but all this is new for you, so be careful you don't mess with people's feelings. Mike's one of the strongest people I know, and you saw how much he was hurt last night. Strong emotions like love can cause a lot of pain if you play around with them."

"Yeah, I know," I said sadly.

Mum gave me a final hug as Dan came downstairs, so at least I had a good excuse for my red face when he saw me. We said goodbye to my parents and drove off toward the hills.

The day was warmer than usual for an English spring, so we drove with our windows down, and despite the recent emotional upheavals, I felt light-hearted with the wind blowing through my hair. Although I'm a careful driver, I couldn't help sneaking glances at Dan, who had a carefree smile and looked particularly cute in his pale-blue button-down shirt. For the first few minutes on the road we just relaxed and enjoyed the day without speaking.

"Your parents are really nice," Dan said after a while. "They seem much more easy-going than mine."

"If they weren't so easy-going then John, Mike, and myself probably would've driven them nuts by now!" I said with a smile.

"You're lucky having a brother. Well, almost two brothers really."

"Yes I am, but you've got Steve," I pointed out, "and he's better than most brothers."

"Anyway, I like your family. And your mum makes a great Sunday lunch!"

"My mum definitely likes you as well," I said wondering if I should tell him more.


"Yes, she thinks you'd be a good boyfriend."

I glanced sideways to assess his reaction and saw him blush a deep crimson. For some reason I was totally delighted to have found someone who blushed even more than I did. However, the blush was his only reaction, and he made no verbal response. A couple of minutes later, I pulled into the same lay-by where I'd previously had two long talks with Rob.

The choice of this particular spot was probably not random, though I don't remember any conscious decision to make that our destination. When I'd been there with Rob it had been at night and quite deserted, but on that sunny day there were a couple of other cars there. Fortunately, the lay-by was large and the other cars were far enough away from us that we could talk privately. As I turned toward him, Dan smiled at me and waited for me to speak, but it was several seconds before I could decide what to say.

"D'ya, erm, d'ya still feel the same about me?" I asked looking into his deep brown eyes.

"Ya mean do I still love you?" he said bluntly, returning my gaze. "Yes, more now than ever before."

"Well, I think I feel the same about you," I said and felt my face flush.

Because I hadn't thought this out in any great detail, I don't know what reaction I might have expected from him. If I'd expected anything, then it probably wouldn't have been the frown I actually saw.

"You only think?" he asked, not looking very happy. "And what about Rob?"

"Well, I thought I was in love with Rob, but now I don't think it was the real thing." As I searched for the words to express my complex emotions, I waited to see if he would say anything, but he just studied me with an intensity that made me uncomfortable. "I mean, I love Rob as a friend, and the sex was great, but that just got me all mixed up..."

"You had sex with him even though he doesn't love you?" Dan interrupted, trying to hide the hurt in his voice.

"Yeah, but not all the way. Only as far as you've gone with Steve," I replied, adding the last part because I felt a need to justify myself.

"And now you think you love me?" he asked, emphasising the word 'think'.

Though his attitude wasn't actually unfriendly, it was cooler than it had been during our drive, and at first I couldn't understand why. Then I realised that for months he'd loved me and not had that love returned. For months he'd probably felt both pain and hope as he tried to gain my love. Then just a week ago I'd offered him a mere crumb of comfort when I told him that I might give my heart to him when I gave up hope that Rob might love me.

Suddenly, I saw things from a different perspective and realised how much I'd unconsciously been hurting him. It became clear to me why he was now so cautious about accepting that I really did have strong feelings for him. As I obviously wasn't sure myself, how could he be sure that I really loved him, and if he couldn't be sure then he couldn't risk being hurt even more in future.

All the time he'd been waiting patiently for me to answer his question, he'd been studying my face and gazing into my eyes with an expression of mixed hope and fear. In that moment my usual indecision vanished and I knew exactly what I wanted and what I would do. Maybe I'm just weird, but there are times in my life when things look confused and unclear for ages, then suddenly and for no apparent reason, everything clicks into focus. There are moments in my life when I'm in a state of indecision, and then I suddenly realise that my course of action is so obvious that it doesn't require any thought at all. That was such a moment.

Not caring if we were being observed or not, I quickly reached out and took his hand in mine, clearly startling him with the speed of my action.

"Dan, when I said that I only think I love you, it was because I'm new to all this and maybe I'm not sure what love is. When I was a kid, I had crushes on other boys, but it wasn't love, and now I realise how I love different people in different ways. I thought I was in love with Rob, but now I see it was just friendship mixed with sex."

He didn't appear to be reassured in any way by my words so far, so I took a deep breath and tried to express myself better.

"What I do know for sure," I continued, "is that I like being with you a lot. I'm happier when I'm with you than when I'm not with you, and I miss you when you're not with me. I know for sure that you are one of the sweetest, cleverest people I know, and you're very cute. No, you're gorgeous! And I've never felt this way about anyone else before."

We both smiled then, and when I squeezed his hand gently, he squeezed back harder.

"But," I continued, and he began to frown again, "I've made mistakes. Like thinking I was falling for Ben, then thinking I was in love with Rob. Those mistakes just hurt me, but if I make a mistake with you, then I hurt you as well. And I never want to hurt you."

"And what does that mean for... for us?" he said with a confused expression.

"It means that for both our sakes I want to be sure before rushing into anything."

"So I have to just keep waiting?" he asked, beginning to look sad.

"Depends what you mean by waiting," I said, eager to explain the decision that I'd reached just a few moments earlier. "If you mean waiting by doing nothing, then I don't want us to do that. What I'd like, if you want it, too, is to get to know one another better and spend as much time as possible together. I want us to become closer and closer until we're both sure that we're really in love and really ready to take things further."

"But I'm already sure that I'm in love with you!" he protested. Then after a pause he continued, "And what do you mean by taking things further?"

"You may be sure, but after my recent mistakes I've lost confidence in myself and I need to be able to trust my own feelings again. As for taking things further, I mean sex..."

My voice trailed off as I said this and I could feel myself blush, so I moved my gaze from his face to our hands, which were still clasped tightly together. With my Catholic upbringing, this was not a topic I found easy to talk about, but I knew that we needed to discuss it.

"So ya mean no sex until you're sure you love me?"

I couldn't read the emotion in his voice and I hesitated to look at his face. Then he took my chin in his free hand and raised my head so that he could gaze into my eyes. He was smiling as he took his hand from my chin and I continued to look into his beautiful eyes.

"Look," I said, trying to explain, "I don't know about other people, and it doesn't really matter to me what other people do. Maybe I'm just odd, but sex with someone has a strong effect on me. It makes me feel a very close bond and confuses my other feelings for them. That's what happened with Rob, and I don't want it to spoil things with you."

"But you're still friends with Rob," Dan pointed out. "So it didn't really spoil things, did it?"

"Yeah," I said, "but I think it might've spoiled things for me if we'd gone all the way."

I hesitated, wondering if saying more would be giving away a secret, but then I decided that I needed to be totally open, and I was sure that Rob wouldn't mind me sharing this with Dan.

"Rob wanted to," I continued, "well, to go all the way that is, but then I realised it just wouldn't feel right with him. It didn't seem. erm, appropriate for our relationship, and that's when I first realised that I wasn't really in love with him."

Dan smiled, and I was relieved when he nodded his understanding.

"So how would you like things to go between us?" he asked, stroking the back of my hand with his fingertips.

"Well, it's not just up to me is it? I can't just dictate terms. That wouldn't be fair."

His eyes sparkled and I couldn't understand why he started to laugh quietly.

"No, it wouldn't be fair," he said, "and I know you would never do that. But tell me what you'd like to happen and then I can agree or disagree."

"Okay, I guess it would be nice to gradually get, ya know, get physical, as we got closer and closer. Eventually I want a boyfriend who I can stay with forever, but to do that we need to know if it's real love. When I've found someone like that to commit myself to, then I can feel ready to, erm, go all the way..."

My voice trailed off as I wondered if my words sounded as pathetic to him as they did to me. While I tried to assess his reaction, his smile widened into a grin.

"That all seems very reasonable to me, and I agree," he said, then his tone became deadly serious. "But I already know I love you, and if you'd have me I'd commit myself to you now."

Knowing that he blushed easily, just like me, I was surprised that he didn't go red or show any other sign of embarrassment when he spoke those words. In contrast, however, it felt as if my face was positively ablaze.

"But," he continued, "if that's where we both want to go, where are we now?"

"Now? Now, I'm certain that I already love you as a friend and that I want to be with you as much as possible. I know that I feel something special for you that I've never felt for anyone else, and I believe it's what people call being in love. Soon I hope that my belief will become a certainty."

Dan leaned across and hugged me for several seconds, and I began to worry in case someone saw us and tried to cause trouble. Eventually, he pulled away and I could see tears in his eyes.

"This is the happiest day of my life," he said simply and quietly. "Thanks, Paul."

"Let's go home," I said, unable to think of any other response.

We drove back toward town in comfortable silence, and I felt as if a new phase of my life had just begun. Although I hadn't forgotten about Sue's threat, or the other more minor problems in my life, I felt light-hearted and free. The only cloud on my horizon was my concern about Mike and the hurt he must still be feeling.

"Hey!" Dan exclaimed as we drove past a road junction. "My house is that way."

"Before I take you home, I thought I'd take you to meet my parents."

"But I already met your parents!"

"Yeah," I said with a grin, "but they've not met my boyfriend yet!"

As we drove home I felt nervous and excited, like a little boy going to see Santa, and when we entered the house I felt happy and proud, like a kid going to show off his brand new bike to his friends. Dan also looked very happy and slightly nervous, and he was also rather bemused by my sudden hyperactive behaviour. Maybe it was silly and childish for a seventeen-year-old, but I just couldn't help myself.

"Mum! Dad!" I shouted as I dragged Dan into the living room.

My parents, startled by my sudden and noisy entrance, looked up from the Sunday newspapers to see Dan red with embarrassment and me flushed with excitement.

"Where's the fire?" Dad asked with an amused expression.

Dan was hanging back behind me, so I took a deep breath, grabbed him by the hand and pulled him forward.

"Mum, Dad," I said, "I want you to meet my boyfriend, Dan."

Neither of my parents looked particularly surprised as they both stood up slowly. Dad walked over to us and shook Dan's hand.

"Nice to meet you, Dan," he said, smiling and pretending that they'd not met before.

Before Dan could respond, Mum rushed up to him and gave him a big hug.

"Welcome to the family, Dan," she said.

"Thanks," Dan mumbled through his embarrassment.

"Oh," Mum said as she finished the hug, "Mike stopped by a few minutes ago. He was very upset, so maybe you should go right over and see him."

My good spirits quickly faded and I began to feel guilty that I should have been so happy when Mike was feeling so miserable.

"Okay, we'll go over right away," I replied.

"And boys," Dad said as Dan and I turned to leave the room, "maybe you should try and keep your, erm, affections discreet. We don't want people like Sue causing more trouble, do we?"

"Don't worry, we'll be careful," I said as Dan turned an even deeper shade of crimson.

We arrived at Mike's house to find him looking both sad and worried. After I introduced Dan to Mike's mum, she left us in the living room while she went to make us some tea. Mike told us that he'd spoken to Sue on the phone but she'd refused to meet him in person until he dropped his 'queer friend'. After trying to reason with her for several minutes, he came to realise that on the subject of 'disgusting homosexual perverts' she was incapable of being rational. He'd then gone to Sue's home, hoping that she might prove to be more reasonable in a face-to-face discussion, but her father answered the door and told Mike she'd refused to see him. As Mike turned to leave, Sue's father had poured insults on him, accusing him of being a 'fag-lover', so it was clear where she'd learned to hate gay people.

While Mike was finishing his report, his mum rejoined us with the tea and sat with us as we drank it.

"Well, at least you have your friends, Mike," she said, "and you've had other girlfriends before Sue, so you'll soon find another one."

"I s'pose, Mum. But I loved her more than the others."

"I'm sorry, Mike," I said, feeling his unhappiness.

"It's not your fault Sue's the way she is," he replied, "and I s'pose it's just as well I found out now rather than later. What worries me most, though, is that she repeated her threats and said she knew people at your school."

"We can't let her do anything to Paul!" Dan said to Mike.

Both of them were obviously concerned, but anger appeared to be Dan's predominant emotion.

"Of course not!" Mike responded. "But what exactly can we do?"

There was silence for a couple of minutes as we all took stock of the situation.

"Mike," Dan said eventually, "can you meet me at morning break tomorrow, at the main entrance to the Sixth Form block?"

"Yeah, why?"

"I think I may have an idea," Dan replied, "but I'll talk to Steve about it first."

Seeing our puzzled expressions, Dan smiled and put his hand on my shoulder.

"Don't worry, Paul," he said. "We won't let anyone hurt you!"

Seeing Dan's gesture and hearing his tone of voice, Mike and his mum gave him a curious look, and that reminded me that I hadn't yet told them the news.

"Oh!" I said. "I forgot to tell you. As of this afternoon, Dan's my boyfriend!"

Mike's mum smiled and raised an eyebrow, obviously unsure what the appropriate response should be.

"Congratulations to both of you!" Mike said with a grin.

He stood up, moved over to me, and put his arm over my shoulders, then his expression grew more serious and he turned to look at Dan.

"Be good to him, won't you?"

I was surprised by the edge in Mike's voice, and I was concerned that Dan would interpret it as some kind of veiled threat. However, Dan just smiled and seemed not at all upset by Mike's tone.

"Of course I will!" Dan said.

Mike grinned, and as I felt his tension dissolve, I was relieved that there was obviously such good will between my best friend and my boyfriend. 'Yes, my boyfriend', I thought to myself, gleefully savouring the words in my mind. 'My boyfriend!'

Dan wouldn't tell us any more about his idea for dealing with Sue, and as it was after seven o'clock and we were going back to school the next day, we decided that I should take him straight home. When we got back to his house, he invited me inside. Although I was tempted to accept, I knew there was a lot to do to prepare for school, so I regretfully declined.

Because we found it was really difficult to say goodbye, we sat in the car and held hands for a few minutes. The only thing that I could think of to make the parting easier was to suggest that I meet him at his house after school the next day. He eagerly agreed to my suggestion then before he got out of the car, he leaned over and kissed me, completely taking my breath away. It was a gentle kiss, and his tongue merely brushed against my lips without entering my mouth, but it expressed a love that I'd not felt in all the most passionate kisses that I'd exchanged with Ben and Rob.

As I drove home I was so high that I felt almost drunk, and in retrospect I wonder if I was really in a fit state to be driving. My euphoria must have been evident when I entered the house and greeted my parents, who both gazed at me in wonderment as I grinned inanely back at them. It seemed to me that I floated upstairs, and I'd just got into my room when I remembered that I'd not given John my news, though I supposed my parents would have told him. When I went to his room and knocked on his door, he opened it with his mobile phone held to his ear. Seeing that he was busy, I just whispered 'Talk later' and returned to my room.

Of course I guessed that John was talking to Marie, and that reminded me about Rob, so with a mixture of emotions I decided to phone him. As it happened, he seemed very happy when I told him that Dan and I were now boyfriends.

"I guess that means we won't be having any more fun together," Rob said a little sadly, though he was trying to make it sound like a joke.

"Afraid not, but I'm sure someone as cute as you will find someone soon."

"But we're still friends, right?" Rob asked, sounding more than a little worried.

Ever since the night of Ben's party he seemed to have asked me that question a lot, and before he'd told me about his brother, I might have wondered why he seemed so insecure. Now I realised that he was terrified of losing the people who were close to him.

"Of course we're still friends, Robbie, and we'll stay friends."

"And Dan won't mind you helping me with my maths?"

"Of course not!" I said instantly.

Though that hadn't cropped up in my conversations with Dan, I was certain that it wouldn't be a problem.

"So you'll come over on Tuesday?"

"Yeah. Why don't I drive you home from school? We can drop John off here then go straight to your place and work on your maths till dinner time."

"That's great!" Rob enthused.

"Okay. Well, maybe I'll see you tomorrow at school, but if not I'll see you in the students' car park after classes on Tuesday."

Rob was happy with those arrangements, and for a while we discussed what had happened with Sue after Rob had left the party. He felt a bit guilty that our kiss had caused such turmoil, but I assured him that sooner or later something else would have exposed her hatred of gay people. I didn't mention her threats because I didn't think they would affect him, as she didn't really know what school he went to.

Soon after my conversation with Rob ended, John came into my room with a cheesy grin on his face. Apparently, my parents had given him the news and he was very pleased for me. His cheesy grin got even bigger and cheesier when he told me that he was getting on so well with Marie that he was hoping that soon she would become his first girlfriend.

As I got my uniform and other school things ready for the next day, my mind ran through the events of the past week. That week, and especially that last weekend of my Easter holidays, so many things had happened that my once simple life seemed to have changed beyond all recognition. The last few days had been so eventful and so full of emotional upheavals that, possibly for the first time in my life, I was actually glad to be going back to the relative quiet and order of school.

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