The Sad Blanket

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by r_a_parker

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/205726.html)

Alone in the command center Richard sat, his elbows braced against the shiny black roundtable, leaning forward into his clasped hands, resting his lips against his steepled index fingers. The machines around him buzzed and hummed, but he paid them no mind; he stared straight ahead at nothing, though even his expressionless face told its own story. He’d changed back into his civilian clothes, a shirt and slacks so expensive they looked cheap. His graphite-grey helmet lay on the table next to him, cracked up the left side, and a half-patched wound up his left cheek toward his ear told of where the helmet had been when it had suffered that damage. Alone, he waited, and he’d wait as long as he had to, impeccable and patient.

The heavy metal doors swooshed open (or at least they would, after foley got through with them), but Richard didn’t flinch, not even as Brandon stormed in, his own blond hair matted with blood. “What the hell was that?” shouted Brandon, bringing down his gloved fist on the metal railing. He was still in costume, though the star-spangled pattern up the sleeves was burned and torn in artful places, exposing his golden-tanned, muscled body beneath.

“Oh, good, you survived long enough to complain.” Richard moved nothing more than the muscles necessary for speech. This wasn’t amateur hour, not by any means, but even amongst professionals, Richard was a professional.

Brandon’s entire body was tense with fury and betrayal, his jaw set firm enough that it might have put his teeth in danger of shattering. “You knew the thrusters would fail. You set us up.”

“No,” said Richard, and now a cloud of real anger bubbled up through his ice-cool voice, “you were so intent on being a hero that you couldn’t wait for–”

You set us up!” Taking powerful, echoing strides, Brandon walked around the empty comm station to the short set of steps that would take him from the center’s upper level of control stations to the sunken center where Richard sat. “You couldn’t stand knowing that your idea wouldn’t work, so you sabotaged the only way we AAAUGH!”

If any crew members there hadn’t already been watching the proceedings like a hawk, Brandon’s shout surely got their attention, and thus nearly two dozen people — to say nothing of the cameras, microphones, and various other recording devices — witnessed as the poorly bolted ‘metal’ railing by the staircase gave way, sending Brandon pitching forward ass-over-endtable in an ungainly sprawl down the few remaining steps to the sheet-metal floor below. The crash was spectacular, augmented by how kicking over the chairs arranged at the table overloaded the microphones and send all the headphone-wearers into frantic fits of trying to free their ears.

Richard, ever the real-life hero, was out of his seat and over the table in a heartbeat, landing at Brandon’s side barely a second after Brandon met the ground. The set medics arrived fractions of a second later, both of them swarming in with Olympic speed. “I’m okay!” shouted Brandon, unseen beneath the level of the table and the crush of people. “I’m … okay.”

Surrounded by wires and expensive equipment, and not in the best shape even as forty-six went, Josh took significantly longer to make his way over to the crash site, and by the time he’d gotten there, the number of people surrounding the downed actor had tripled. “No, that’s just makeup,” Richard said to a medic who was expressing concern over what appeared to be a significant head injury.

Across his lap lay Brandon, who looked sheepish and a little startled, but otherwise fine. As Josh approached, Brandon pressed his lips together and turned a shade of red to match the stripes across his chest. “Please tell me that’s not going in the final print.”

Well, if he was able to joke about it, Josh figured, he was probably going to be all right. “Of the blooper reel, maybe,” Josh said, making Brandon wince as Richard laughed. “We’ve all heard of method acting, but can you please not use your Major Amazing superhero strength to destroy my set?” He gave Brandon the sternest, fiercest scowl he could to let him know exactly how much he was joking, and was gratified when Brandon smiled back.

To Josh’s fair surprise, it turned out that Brandon hadn’t been exaggerating to seem brave — he was all right, according to the medics, save a few bumps and bruises that he’d probably feel more tomorrow than he did right then. But the commotion had disrupted the flow of things and there were still carpenters to be called, so despite Brandon’s solid assurances that he could do it again, really, Josh declared what little was left of the day a wash, at least as far as filming went. Major Amazing and Carbon Man could pick up their argument tomorrow as though nothing had happened, and maybe this time the place that was supposed to be a multi-million-dollar top-secret government agency’s war room wouldn’t fall apart under an actor’s too-heavy grip.

Well, nobody’d ever said making movies was easy. In fact, when he’d made his transition from the small screen to the big one, everyone he’d talked to had promised just the opposite. As the medics saw a protesting Brandon off the set and Richard went the other direction to get his scar makeup removed, Josh returned to his DIRECTOR chair to see what the day, before its untimely end, had left him.

~*~

Under normal circumstances, Josh would never have been so rude as just to walk right into Brandon’s trailer, revised shooting script in hand, without so much as bothering to knock. However, working on the film had robbed all circumstances of normal for the foreseeable future, and distraction was the new order of the day. Movie-making always involved a fair amount of angry input from high-strung people in uncomfortable-looking suits, but the scope and magnitude of this project had apparently turned all their concern dials to eleven. He didn’t hate Detroit, but he was coming to the conclusion that he didn’t like it either, when what should have been a balmy June day felt like a Los Angeles Christmas — even if the unseasonal coolness was better for the actors, especially the ones who, in true superhero and -villain style, weren’t exactly dressed for the heat. And to top it all off, his phone had lit up during a production meeting with a typical afterthought text from Marni, telling him that the tubes in Lainie’s ears had gone in just fine, when Josh hadn’t even known such a thing was happening at all.

Thus, his usual lack of social graces had been replaced for the time being by a new and improved lack of social graces, and Josh didn’t even listen for a response to his knock before barging inside. Brandon was sitting with his back to the door, facing the table where he kept his laptop. “Hey,” said Josh, waving the pages so they rustled, “brought you the–”

Brandon laughed — not a polite chuckle of greeting, either, but a full-throated funny-joke laugh, lovely and resonant. “You’re the worst.”

Josh stopped a few feet in and frowned, looking first at the pages in his hand, then at his ratty UCLA sweatshirt and jeans, checking for obvious flaws. “…Okay, little harsh, maybe, but nothing I haven’t heard before from–”

“Yeah, but she’s just like that. When they develop the technology to just graft phones to the side of your face, she’ll be the first in line.”

It wasn’t unlike the time he’d gone to Austria for a month’s exchange in high school and met two boys who practiced their English by reading Beckett plays aloud. For once in his life, he chose not to respond to something he obviously didn’t understand, and instead stepped closer in silence, crossing the narrow distance between the door and Brandon’s chair. As he neared it, the screen on Brandon’s laptop emerged from behind the eclipse of Brandon’s broad shoulders, until Josh could see that the image on the screen wasn’t static — it moved, though at a jerky, low-quality pace, showing a very attractive black man with a shaved head and his arms around a great brown dog. No sound came out of the computer, though, and Josh’s curiosity begged him forward with such focused interest that when Brandon jerked his head around, the resulting yelps of surprise from both parties were comic in the extreme.

Brandon recovered first, reaching up to yank one of the earbuds from his ear. “Hi! Sorry!” he panted, while the man on the screen laughed and the silent dog barked. “Sorry, I had these in, I–”

“No, it’s fine, I just–” Josh stopped, unable to think of what he had just, anyway. Walked in unannounced to someone else’s personal space and scared the living daylights out of his star? Something like that. “I can come back later.”

“No! No, it’s totally cool, we were–” Brandon turned his head toward the side with the earbud still in, listening as the man said something. “Yeah, director calls! Talk to you tomorrow? …Love you too. And love you,” he added, in the tone of voice humans generally reserved for communication with newborn humans and pets of all ages. “Be good boys, both of you. …Okay, bye-bye.”

“I seriously didn’t mean to interrupt,” said Josh, who found himself walking the Tightrope of Mind Your Own Business over a wilderness of new and interesting information. Despite having the standard agency profile available for all interested parties, Brandon was still something of a mystery to Josh, evasive in the few interviews of his Josh had seen and never appearing in any of the usual sources for gossip. And Josh loved gossip.

Brandon shook his head as he closed the laptop and turned in his chair to face Josh. “No, seriously, it’s cool. I was just, you know … Skyping home, like a giant loser.”

And that, Josh knew, should have been the end of the matter. Oh, he should reassure Brandon, calling home was nothing to be ashamed about; being away from loved ones was always hard, even for the shortest of times and under the best of circumstances; here’s the new script, have a nice day. It was what any regular, decent, privacy-respecting person would have done.

But Josh had never been regular, he wasn’t entirely sure he’d ever been decent, and as the cast of Kitty the Werewolf Stabber had said in the last-day-of-shooting card they’d all signed for him, he’d never butted out when he could butt in. And they’d meant it as a compliment, he was sure. Probably. That was what they’d said, anyway. “Little homesick, huh?” he asked, placing the script atop the mini-fridge next to a half-depleted six-pack of Mountain Dew; it could wait.

A weird look crossed Brandon’s face, half concern and half suspicion, but it faded with a sigh into embarrassed resignation. “Yeah. A lot homesick. And I keep trying to tell myself not to, that I’m not a ten-year-old at his first Boy Scout Camp weekend or something. It’s ridiculous. I’m twenty-nine, I can sleep without my Transformers night-light, but….” He stopped and cleared his throat. “Anyway! Um, wow, that got pathetic real fast. Sorry.”

Josh’s brain heard the apology and processed the words, but it had gotten hung up a few sentences back. “Do you seriously have a Transformers night-light?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” said Brandon, laughing — but the laugh faded as fast as it had risen, replaced by the sheepishness from before. “…No, because it broke about three years ago, and I couldn’t justify at the time paying two hundred bucks to get it fixed, but it’s sitting in a box in the top of my closet, and now I’ve got the money but I just haven’t gotten around to it, and wow, this is not something I usually tell people. But it’s true. In a box. In its original box. Had it since I was five.”

“Come with me,” was all Josh said in reply, and as he turned to leave the trailer, he could hear the sound of baffled-but-compliant Brandon’s rising and following.

~*~

Less than thirty minutes later, Brandon was sitting Josh’s trailer with a blanket around his shoulders, a knit dinosaur hat on his head, and a huge mug of cocoa between his hands. The casual observer might have been forgiven for not recognizing the contents of the mug, however, as the top was covered with a layer of assorted miniature pastel marshmallows. To be fair to Josh’s sense of appropriate sugar content, he’d asked how many to put in, and Brandon had said ‘all of them’.

“And then they made me their chief,” Josh concluded his admittedly aimless tale about his last trip to a comic store, catching Brandon with a giggle in the middle of his taking a sip. “Well, temporarily. But I think I’d get a discount if I ever went back without a disguise. …You look better.”

With the long green stegosaurus tail draped over his shoulder and an unmistakable moustache of spun sugar and chocolate powder, Brandon may have looked ridiculous by general standards, but nobody could have missed that million-watt smile. He didn’t have a movie star smile, and that was the first things that Josh, skeptical about the studio’s casting choice, had noticed when he’d seen the first dailies from Major Amazing: The First Vengeancer: that good-looking kid in the patriotic suit grinned like he meant it, all big and just this side of dopey. “Yeah. Yeah, I am. A lot.” Brandon tugged at the tattered beige blanket. “Guess your Sad Blanket really works.”

illustrated by r_a_parker

“One hundred percent effective or your money back. Efficacy doubles when you combine it with the Happy Hat.” A jingle bell was hidden somewhere in the hat’s narrowest point, and Josh gave it a flick, drawing its little fairy sound out into the room. “Whenever we had a really emotional episode of Kitty to film, I’d always have them on set — sometimes for the actors, sometimes just for me. A lot of times for me to physically put on the actors, because seriously, even though you know it’s your job and you know it’s their job, it’s tough making a little girl cry.”

“I don’t know if I told you, but I loved Kitty.” Brandon smiled, looking down into the sugary Sargasso Sea in his cup. “Seriously loved it. And I’m not just saying that like, oh, you’re my director, I have to be your biggest fan now. I’m saying it like, I had a TV and VCR in my room, and that VCR was programmed to record every Tuesday night like clockwork, and I had a whole bookshelf in my room that was just Kitty tapes with handwritten labels.”

Well, that was a kind of flattery Josh hadn’t expected to meet in Hollywood proper. Being the king of the geeks may have earned him the occasional declaration of fealty from comic-store patrons and convention-going enthusiasts — and he was grateful for every inch of that, no lie — but Josh had learned that devoted fans usually meant niche appeal. The Vengeancers cast was an amazing group made up of wonderful people, all of whom had thus far been just delightful to work with, but Brandon was the first one, Richard notwithstanding, who’d said anything about having more than a passing familiarity with Josh’s previous work. Kitty tapes, laughing at comic store stories, Transformer night-light, acceptance of both the Sad Blanket and the Happy Hat with reverent solemnity…. “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

Brandon nodded, making the dinosaur hat’s bell jingle. “Nerdy as charged. Also not something I tend to tell a lot of people.” He shrugged, and as he did, the blanket draped itself even more securely around his shoulders.

“I seriously had no idea.” Josh sat down across from Brandon on one of the trailer’s long cushioned benches, then pulled his legs up beneath him and braced his elbows against his knees. “I mean, there are places where everyone’s never more than twenty minutes away from showing up at Dragon-Con in full garb, and there are places where all sensors show Nerd Levels at zero, but even putting ‘comic book’ in front of ‘blockbuster’ doesn’t somehow magically change one to the other. Except Richard, I mean, but I know the second he got he role, he went out and bought the half of all the Carbon Man comics in the world that he didn’t have already.”

“That was the other bookshelf in my room growing up: Carbon Man comics.”

“I figured an all-American boy such as yourself would gravitate toward Major Amazing.”

Laughing, Brandon shook his head. “Nope. He was too much of a goody-goody. All squeaky clean and boring.” He took a sip of his cocoa, then added, as he chewed through a mouthful of marshmallow icebergs, “And I think you’re overestimating how Major Amazing I was back in high school. Way more Major All-State One-Act Play Competition. You need a different kind of superhero team to pull off a forty-minute adaptation of Our Town.”

Josh made a low, non-ironic whistle of impressedness. “This AV Club nerd salutes you.” Brandon smiled back and made another valiant attempt at vanquishing the sea of cocoa in front of him.

Realizing the extent of Brandon’s inner nerd life made a lot of things make sense, to the point where Josh felt a little embarrassed he hadn’t noticed the telltale closet nerd signs before: Brandon’s puppy-like enthusiasm for all things, his deep interest in what motivated a character that was in essence what would happen if you crossed an action figure and a whole troop of Boy Scouts, his utter lack of ego when it came to surrendering the spotlight to his costumed co-stars, the way his whole face had lit up the first time Richard had walked onto the set in full Carbon Man gear. Hell, had Josh been paying better attention, the homesickness would have been the final piece of evidence in his case, not the first. Nerds needed their space, and anyone who doubted this, Josh felt, did not have a sufficient understanding of how key Batman’s Bat-Cave was to the entire process of being Batman. (He was grateful, though, that he’d passed out of his earlier life stage where he hadn’t always understood when was and wasn’t a good time to expound on theories like that.)

While Brandon was drinking and batting absently at the Happy Hat’s jingly tip, Josh reached under the bed and pulled out a red suitcase. It was about the same size as a briefcase, though it was far deeper and had a combination lock across the top that hadn’t worked in years; since as long he could remember, it had been his, as evidenced by the wide purple JOHSUA crayoned along one short side. “Okay,” he said in preamble, resting it shut across his knees, “this is Suitcase.”

“…Hello, Suitcase,” said Brandon, giving it a little wave.

Any anxieties he’d had about revealing its contents melted in the face of that response. “It’s half-empty now,” Josh explained as he flipped open the latches, “because the Sad Blanket and the Happy Hat usually go in here too.” Josh expected some sort of inquiry there, but Brandon just nodded with a gravitas equivalent to that with which Josh was handling the situation. Josh watched him carefully, ready to abort the viewing the second Brandon expressed anything that wasn’t genuine interest; when Brandon leaned forward on his knees to get a better look, though, Josh took a deep breath and opened the case.

The contents were a bit jumbled, given that Josh had taken out their customary padding while writing the night before — or, rather, while trying to write and failing miserably, which is why they’d come out in the first place. “Here,” he said with all the didactic gusto of a museum tour guide, “is the entire crew of the Enterprise-D in action figure form. These are the seven comic books I would take with me to a desert island, assuming I could only taken seven. This is my first Game Boy, even though the only game I still have for it is Tetris. These are my emergency chocolate bars, which have to get eaten and re-stocked every so often, because the chocolate dries out, and … well, that’s its own emergency. And this is a picture that my mother painted on a little canvas. …She wasn’t a very good painter.”

“It’s nice, though,” said Brandon, and when Josh finally dared to look up at him to gauge his reaction, he was beyond gratified to see Brandon’s expression wide and impressed by Josh’s soul-in-a-box collection

“It’s supposed to be a sunset.”

Brandon paused, then tilted his head to the left. “Oh, I was looking at it from the wrong angle.”

“See, the green part goes on the side.”

“I was getting a bit of an O’Keefe vibe there.”

“And then you turn it ninety degrees, right?” Josh smiled and picked up the playing-card-sized canvas from the pile, then handed it over to Brandon so the tiny M.W. was in the bottom right corner. “That was one of the things I loved best about Mom, that … well, she was a crap painter, and more than that, she knew she was a crap painter. But she loved to paint! So she wasn’t going to let the fact that she wasn’t any good at it stop her.” He should stop there, he knew — he’d tripped all his own hard-earned people-don’t-care-about-this sensors — but he’d been wearing the Sad Blanket himself not too long ago, and some things, once started, couldn’t stop being said. “So there have been times when I’ve been scared too, you know, that I’m a crap director and that I don’t have any thing to give or make or say, but then I think … man, what would Mom do? And the answer is, she’d keep on trucking and she’d make the best crap that she could.”

With his eyes fixed on the painting, Brandon rotated it back and forth from one orientation to another. “Okay, honesty time: do you think we’re making crap now?”

“Nope.” Josh shook his head, and when Brandon smiled, he couldn’t keep from doing the same. “I mean, it’s not high art or anything, but we’re telling a story, and we’re doing it in the best way we can, and we’re having fun while we do it. …At least, I’m having fun. Guess I shouldn’t speak for anybody else.”

“No, I’m having fun too,” said Brandon, and he sounded so sincere that Josh decided to ignore that those words came from a professional thespian still wrapped in the Sad Blanket. “…Say, what’s that?” He pointed into the suitcase to a child’s drawing, visible now beneath the place where the tiny oil painting had been before.

Josh pushed aside the comic books and pulled out the plastic-protected sheet of construction paper; he hesitated a moment before handing it over to Brandon. “That is a picture that my eldest did of me as a superhero. With a megaphone.” It took a little imagination to apply that interpretation, but the focal point of the picture was definitely a fat pink circle with legs, holding a green triangle and flying through the air. “I am saving the Eiffel Tower from burning down, and she’s never been able to explain adequately why.”

Despite the fact that he was quite a talented actor, Brandon couldn’t quite keep all the surprise off his face, and Josh pretended not to notice that, either. “So … you have kids?”

“Well, yes and no. On the yes side, yes! Three of them. On the no side, no, they live with their moms, and I’m kind of more of their strange uncle than their dad, but … still their dad.” Josh reached into his back pocket and pulled out his phone, leafing through the various options for the photo album as he talked. “Their mom is my sister’s oldest friend, so she’s kind of like my little sister too, so when she and her wife wanted kids, I volunteered the stuff.” Josh pulled up the snap he’d taken on his last visit, nearly three months ago, and turned the phone so Brandon could see. “The big one’s Kendra, the artist, and that’s Harper, who likes frogs, and that one’s Lainie, who … well, she’s a champion at getting ear infections and putting her feet in her mouth.”

“God, they’re adorable,” said Brandon, who — completely unprompted by Josh — slid the picture to the side with his fingertips to reveal the other photos from that visit. It had been the first time Josh had met Lainie in person, so most of the shots were of her tiny bald baby head against various backgrounds, but there’d been no way he was getting out of there without indulging the elder pair’s love for the camera. “I mean, they look just like you. Especially Harper.”

“Well, for his sake, I hope his mom’s Italian-Chineseness manages to balance out my Irish-Irishness as he grows older, saving him from my redheaded indignities of never being able to tan and having a forehead that grows larger every year.”

Brandon tapped Josh in the center of his forehead with Josh’s phone before handing it back. “Means you’re brainy.”

“Means by the time I’m fifty, my forehead will have pushed my entire face down into my chin.” Josh squished his features together with his hands, making Brandon laugh. “And then I won’t have to blow the budget on makeup for the next Vengeancers movie. I’ll just play the villain myself.”

“Foreheadio, Master of Evil,” Brandon said in a fine dramatic movie-trailer voice. “He’ll conquer the world for love … and a hat that fits.”

Josh wrung his hands together and did his best villain cackle. “What’s the matter, little heroes? Did you think you could get … ahead?”

With a mighty groan, Brandon fell back against the couch, clutching his hands to his chest and letting his tongue loll out the side of his mouth. “My … one … weakness!”

“Cheaper than Kryptonite.” Josh laughed, setting Brandon off as well, and when Brandon sat up again a moment later, the Happy Hat was still fixed to his head, but the Sad Blanket had fallen unnoticed off his shoulders. “Hey, though, thanks for letting me brag a little. It’s not a secret or anything, my kids, but I don’t like to horn in on their moms’ territory, even when they’re not around.”

Brandon shook his head, making the bell jingle. “No, hey, I get it, I totally do. I mean, you heard me talking to my baby, and I bet I sounded like a total idiot.”

It had already been an evening of easy confessions and quiet surprises, and Josh supposed that he’d already shown more than he’d planned of his own soul — but this one still knocked him for a bit of a loop, especially since he always tried to keep an eye out for other queer cast and crew members, and he’d heard nothing that had suggested that of Brandon. “No, hey, not an idiot,” he promised to fill the space as he tried to decide where to go next from this unexpected personal revelation. All things considered, he opted for light and information-based, respectively: “He was pretty cute! How long have you two been together?”

“Well, I got him when he was about two months old, and we had his fifth birthday party right before I left to come here! So, you know, a good long while.”

Despite the obviousness of the misunderstanding, Josh had been chewing so firmly over Brandon’s casual admission about his sexuality that the answer took several silent, embarrassing seconds to process. “…Your baby the dog. Got it.”

Brandon managed to choke on his cocoa — an impressive feat given that the mug had been empty for several minutes. “Oh, you–! No, no, no! No, no, that’s– God, no, Ace! Ace the dog! Who stays home when I’m away, with my brother, who house-sits for me and punches in the numbers, because dogs aren’t good at Skype.”

“Brother?” asked still-confused Josh, looking at Brandon’s pale skin and golden hair, and thinking back to the dark-complected man on the monitor.

“Technically, stepbrother.”

“And the fog lifts. They’re both pretty cute, though.”

“That’s how he and Ace get all the ladies when they’re out walking together, or so I’m told. He’s my dog at heart, though. I’m a complete dork about him; I’ve even got a picture of him in my wallet.” Brandon reached into his back pocket and pulled out a battered brown leather billfold, then flipped it open to the middle section; there, in the first plastic sleeve, was a picture of Brandon kneeling next to Ace, hugging him in some grassy park. “And I have pictures of him as a puppy on my phone. He’s who I’ve got waiting for me at home.”

Even Josh, who’d never had a dog as a child due to his mother’s allergies, and then who’d never bothered interrupting his solitary lifestyle by adding a second dependent lifeform to the house, had to admit that Ace’s handsome face had broken into his chest deposit box and stolen his heart. “You two make a pretty handsome couple.”

“Best relationship I’ve ever been in, period.” The words were a joke, of course, but beneath them ran a colder current that reminded Josh of the way Brandon had sounded earlier, back in his trailer, lost somewhere between playing his role and playing himself. His smiles were never fake, Josh felt sure by now, but neither were they always the whole story, and little quips like that were the cracks that showed through the veneer of easygoing happiness. There was more to Brandon Moore than anyone was giving him credit for being — and, Josh was embarrassed to admit, up until that evening, he’d been as much a part of that anyone as anyone else.

~*~

Two days later, Josh became aware of Brandon’s crush on Richard.

Brandon’s mood seemed a thousand times improved after his spending an evening with Josh, and though Josh wasn’t ready to take full credit for that change, he was glad he could have helped out. Their time together did make Josh more attentive to Brandon at all times, though, in the same sort of mothering way he had with his most beloved actors — and part of which this increased attention alerted him to was the fact that Richard’s presence made Brandon swoon.

To be fair, Richard’s presence made everyone swoon — he was just that kind of man. Were he a D&D character, he’d have come into the world with his charisma maxed out and just gotten better from there; Josh had met his fair share of dedicatedly straight men and gay women who had admitted that, if given the opportunity to get into Richard’s pants, they’d make an exception. And yet he was also about the nicest person Josh had ever met, which meant that Richard had somehow managed to spring into a triple backflip of fame and make a perfect landing in the narrow Venn diagram strip caused by the overlap of Crazy Sexy Perfect and Gosh-Darn-It Likeable. Josh could only assume that Richard’s firm footing in the latter camp had more than once kept him from getting his crazy sexy perfect nose bashed in.

But Brandon had special sparkles in his eyes whenever Richard came around, and the fact of their playing the focal points of an ensemble cast meant that Richard came around him often. From a director’s perspective, it was sort of a dream come true — after all, only the most pig-headedly hetero-minded fans could read the relationship between Major Amazing and Carbon Man as anything but romantic, but Josh had known that pitching the script with that element in the foreground would have gotten it (and him) pitched out of the studio. Thus, the extent to which the script reflected those two characters’ closeness was limited mostly to tense encounters and intense apologies afterward.

Subtext, however, was another matter entirely.

Interviewers often asked Josh about his writing process, looking for some little nugget to pass on to fans and future writers alike, that secret key that, if it could be mastered, could grant an ordinary mortal the powers of a real Hollywood scriptwriter — which was like having the powers of a radioactive spider, Josh supposed, only a million times lamer. Josh stuck to the mundane variations on ‘write what you know’ and ‘just keep writing’, not because he was afraid that telling other people about his habits might somehow increase his competition, but because he didn’t really feel like getting into all the intricacies of ‘I drink lots of Mountain Dew and play with toys’. Best, he thought, to preserve at least some of the magic.

At present, he was sitting at a table in one of the lounges, surrounded by two dozen or so Major Amazing and Carbon Man action figures, most of which he’d bent into various heroic poses. He’d meant to work something out with the two heroes’ big fistfight — the one in the penultimate act, the one that had originally led to Major Amazing’s tragic and noble death before the studio’d told Josh he couldn’t just kill off one of their major properties in a film that was already looking good for some sequels — but trying to stage fight scenes with easily toppled plastic men lent itself less to choreographing action sequences and more to creating a tiny, costumed middle school dance. Resigned to the fact that there just wasn’t enough articulation in the Major’s molded arms to make it look like he was trying to choke Carbon Man, Josh settled for resting them on Carbon Man’s shoulders. “‘Would you like to dance?'” he asked, dropping his voice for his best impression of Richard. “‘Oh, yes,'” he replied in a falsetto far above Brandon’s real tone, “‘you’re so strong, Carbon Man!’ ‘Let’s not fight.’ ‘No! Let’s be allies forever!’ ‘I brought you this corsage.’ ‘Thank you, but I’m afraid you can’t get a pin through the titanium mesh of my shirt. You’ll have to stick it in my flowing golden hair.’ Let me push back your strange cap-mask-hat thing, Major.’ ‘Oh, yes! Behold my rugged good looks!’ ‘Only if you behold mine as well, my darling.'”

“Uncanny!” said a voice from behind him, and Josh turned to find Richard, who was giving a slow clap as he walked through the door. “Are you my new understudy? How did you know my lines?”

“I was going to replace you with this guy,” Josh said as he pulled the Carbon Man figure away from its stiff, romantic embrace, “but damn it, you actors have a union or something.”

Richard wrinkled up his nose in an exaggerated show of pique. “I know. I blame Obama.”

“Hey, are you–” Brandon stopped mid-sentence as he poked his head in the other door, looking back and forth between the two of them. “Oh, hey! Hi! I was actually…. Am I interrupting?”

With a smile, Richard folded his arms across his chest and leaned against the doorway. “Our fearless director was just giving me a preview of the scene from Vengeancers II where Carbon Man asks Major Amazing to the senior prom.”

Once upon a time, Josh had possessed what society generally considered the appropriate amount of shame regarding nerdy pursuits, which included the impulse to disguise any action taken with doll-like figures, up to and including fantasy-casting them in John Hughes movies. Once upon a time, too, he’d had a rat-tail and Converse hi-tops, but some things were just meant to be outgrown. “I’m thinking he flies in with a iPod, also powered by a jet pack, hovering above his head, playing a little hey-hey, you-you, I don’t like your boyfriend. It’ll be a hit with all the kids.”

Richard just stared at him for a long, uncomfortable minute — just stared, not moving a single muscle in his face, not even blinking — before turning on his heel and striding out of the room with a walk of extreme dignity. Josh, who’d never been very good at staring contests, shut his eyes and howled with laughter. Richard wasn’t the best for nothing.

By the time he’d composed himself and sat up straight again, Brandon had picked up a pair of the action figures and was studying the miniature Carbon Man’s feet. “So, no, you’re not interrupting anything,” said Josh. “But if you were looking for Richard, well, you can go catch him and tell him that as long as he pays for the rights, he can have Carbon Man do his Say Anything impression to whatever song he likes.”

“Oh, no, I–” With a bashful smile, Brandon glanced over to the direction of Richard’s exit, then looked back down at the toys in his hand. “It’s okay, I was mostly just sort of wandering, anyway.”

Josh gestured to the other end of the other end of the couch. “Well, you can hang out in here with me while I’m being a disgrace to my profession.”

“Well, at least we get to go home Friday, right?” Brandon made the little Carbon Man doll bounce up and down on his knee. “Are you heading back Friday?”

Josh shook his head, then went to tidying up some of the papers around him; he hadn’t been getting any work done anyway. “Nah, I’m here through Saturday, and then I’ve got to fly to New York, so I won’t be back home until Monday night. Keeping the world safe for democracy and making sure all the shit winds up back where it’s supposed to be, that’s Director Man’s superpower — and with it comes great responsibility. This big-scale stuff is … well, I’m still getting the hang of it. The biggest field trip we ever took while filming Kitty was a little jaunt to the beach, and some of my camera crew and I made an Arizona road trip to get background footage for Dragonfly, but having to hop planes to appease folk in completely different states is….” He caught a glimpse of Brandon’s hands out of the corner of his eye. “Did you just make them kiss?”

While Josh had been able to shed most of his old nerd shame the way a shake shed its old skin, Brandon was still clearly deep in the throes of his own, even around Josh. “No, I….” He looked down at the action figures in his hand, which were tilted so that their mouths could meet despite their idealized chest proportions. Caught, he sighed. “Isn’t that the first thing anyone does with action figures?”

“Depends on the action figures, but usually yes.” Josh gestured to the awkward pairs of plastic men who’d been subject to his own whims. “Or you make them slow-dance.”

With a nervous little laugh, Brandon separated the dolls from their embrace, then went about making them hold hands as best as their plastic joints would allow. Romance was rough when you were eight inches tall and made by Mattel. “So, uh, can I ask you a question about how you write Carbon Man and the Major?”

“Did I make them kind of gay on purpose, or are superhero bromances just doomed by the very nature of their existences to a kind of romanticism we usually associate with ‘chick flicks’?”

“Well … I might not have worded it that way….”

“As it turns out, the answer to both halves of my complicated guess at your simple question is: yes.” Josh chanced a cautious look in Brandon’s direction. “That cool?”

The look on Brandon’s face was hard to read, trapped somewhere between skepticism and honest confusion. “No, it’s fine, it’s just, you and Richard were joking, and I thought….”

“Richard’s good. Good enough to read between the lines I write.” Josh nudged his bottle of Mountain Dew toward Brandon, who refused with a polite shake of his head. “You can do whatever the hell you want with it, cross my heart and hope for pie. But yeah, it’s there in my head, even if they don’t let me put it on the screen. These two guys are oil and water, and when you mix those two, good things can happen, like mayonnaise, and bad things can happen, like explosions. But it’s the twenty-first century now, and everybody’s looking at this with modern eyes, so you can’t just take a relationship where, if one of them was a girl, they’d have to be kissing by the end of the movie, and then say, oh, but they’re dudes, so it’s all dude-bro dudeness, dude, bro, dude. …Make sense?”

Brandon’s mouth curled up to one side in a sweet little smile, the kind that people sometimes put on to bite down a laugh beneath. “I have no idea what it’s like inside your head most of the time, but I want to build a summer house in there.” He reached up and tapped Josh’s temple.

Josh laughed as he swatted Brandon’s hand away, and when Brandon kept poking, Josh picked up one of the Carbon Man figures from the table and zoomed it through Brandon’s line of approach. Brandon retaliated by grabbing the closest Major Amazing doll and swooping it down with great swishing sounds. “A challenger appears!” said Josh, back in his Richard voice. “But Major! You can’t even fly!”

Brandon looked at the doll in front of him and his eyes grew wide. “Oh no!” he gasped, turning the tiny Major Amazing doll belly up and staging a slow descent. “My terrible hubris has led me to ruin! Save me, Carbon Man!”

“Damn, it feels good to be a hero.” The Carbon Man figure swooped down beneath Brandon’s fake-falling Major Amazing doll, until Josh was holding both of them in his hand and having them fly around his head. Brandon applauded and Josh took a bow, then grabbed a figure in each hand and forced them to bend at the waist, a movement which was easier to pull off one-handed than having them straighten back up. “I’m pleased you enjoyed my little one-act play. I call it, Why Josh Did Not Date In High School. I’m taking it off-off-off-Broadway next season.”

“Now make the sequel as a musical with a public-school budget and you can call it Why Brandon Did Not Date In High School, only with more being skinny and snaggle-toothed and singing showtunes in front of bathroom mirrors with Mom’s hairbrushes.”

Josh shook his head. “Nope. I firmly refuse to believe anything but that you came straight from the stork all tall and muscley, fully tanned and catnip to anyone with a pair of eyes and a pulse.”

That made Brandon laugh, at least, but the sound was quiet and mostly breath, and his eyes dropped down to where one of the Carbon Man action figures stood all alone on the table, hands on some approximation of his hips, looking as regal as Richard ever did, if at 1/12 scale. “Not anyone,” he said with a sigh.

Thus it hit Josh like the proverbial fist of an angry god: Brandon had a thing for Richard, and okay, true, everyone had a thing for Richard, but Brandon had a Thing for Richard, the kind of Thing that wasn’t just a little thing, but was a but Thing, the Thingiest kind of Thing. Not even the kind of Thing that was a one-off thing, the way that no matter how singular a person’s sexual orientation was, there was always that one person who’d convince them to bat for the other team — more of a thing that was in line with all other expected things, as least as far as Brandon must have been concerned. A straight man would have made jokes about wanting to do him; a gay or bi man would have made those jokes without having to have them necessarily be jokes. But a closeted gay man wouldn’t — couldn’t — say a thing.

This wasn’t Josh’s first lap around the Hollywood pool, after all, and he knew — both from his own observations and from talking to Noel, one of the newer additions to Josh’s little stable of well-loved and oft-used actors — that for an actor, coming out of the closet was like playing a game of Russian Roulette with three bullets in the cylinder instead of one: it might go well, but it had an even chance of blowing your head off. Being a young, good-looking action-picture actor poised and sold as a heartthrob raised the number of bullets to five. No wonder Brandon was so homesick. No wonder a lot of things.

So Josh did the only thing that he knew how to do: he took the Carbon Man doll he was holding, returned the Major Amazing doll to Brandon, and said, in his sultriest voice, “Dance with me, bro!” And together they waltzed, the two plastic men, clinging to one another as though they were the only things in the world, oblivious to the two grown puppetmasters on the couch that pinched their plastic hips between thumbs and forefingers while laughing themselves silly.

~*~

To Josh’s great consternation, playing matchmaker for Brandon and Richard was harder than it looked. For starters, though they were in a lot of scenes together, they were also not in a lot of scenes together, which meant getting them both on set at the same time wasn’t always a thing that happened naturally. For another, returning to LA meant that most everyone was back on home turf, and thus less obligated to hang out together in the evenings for sheer lack of knowing anyone else in the vicinity.

The real challenge, though, Josh had come to realize, was that this was a plan that by necessity had to be worked through Brandon. Josh could have just gone up to Richard and said ‘he’s into it, go for him’, but not only did that make Josh feel a little like an exotic game warden, he was sure from experience that the road to propositioning a closeted gay man was not the Aggressively Forward Highway. No, he had to talk Brandon into this, get him ready, soften up his mind-putty in Josh’s warm, pudgy hands until Brandon was ready for love, or at least for arts and crafts night.

Step the first: let Brandon know that Josh knew that Brandon was gay.

Step two, of course, would be to let Brandon know, immediately after enacting step one, that Josh thought being gay was a perfectly fine and dandy lifestyle choice, so as not to allow the situation to descend into some comedy of terrors. A few quick rounds with some gossip site search engines showed Josh several photos of and short news items about Brandon-and-some-girl, though the -and-some-girl changed every few months, starting from around the time Brandon had really attracted nerd attention for his role in the high-budget but ill-fated Bionic Six movie. In all of the pictures did Brandon look polite, and in none of them did he look particularly interested. Were he a betting man, Josh would’ve laid down money that these pretty young things had been arranged publicity marriages of a sort, quick and low-commitment couples contrived by interested agents that convinced the public eye that everyone involved was hetero-unremarkable. (He’d been unaware that such things happened at all until half the cast of Dragonfly had informed him otherwise in the process of explaining why Seth had suddenly acquired such a boring girlfriend.) That meant that Brandon was pretty invested in the appearance, and that Josh would do well to take it slow. Make him feel comfortable. Start with something personal.

“Richard’s really attractive, isn’t he?” said Josh one day as he and Brandon stood off to the side of the motion-capture set, watching as the various special-effects technicians got Richard in place. Both stars were outfitted in form-fitting black leotards with ping-pong balls stuck to them at what Josh could only assume were not random intervals. “I mean … that’s a nice view.” In a harness that left little of his exceptional backside to the imagination, Richard dangled suspended a few feet off the floor, laughing at some unheard joke the tech supervisor made.

Brandon didn’t even look as he yanked at the cuffs of his own outfit. “Um … yeah. I mean, you know, he comes by his Sexiest Man nomination honestly.” He kept his voice low, though the dimensions of the room meant that the two of them were far away from any eavesdroppers.

Josh watched as Richard struck a heroic aerial pose, one that would become the basis for the computer model of Carbon Man in flight. “Not really my type, though,” he said, watching Brandon out of the corner of his eye for a reaction; he was gratified when he saw Brandon freeze mid-tug. “Well, I wouldn’t disqualify him on the basis of his terminal case of the handsomes. But he’s the kind of guy that loves the nightlife, and I’m already asleep before the evening news. He’d need someone younger, someone who could keep up with him.”

“Uh-huh.” The fabric around Brandon’s waist now seemed to be in dire need of his immediate attentions.

“Of course, I’m not really his type,” Josh continued. “I’ve known him for a few years, and I’ve seen the kind of people he’s with, and they’re all the kind of attractive that makes airbrushing redundant. Definitely not mere mortals like me. More like … well, like you.”

Those ping-pong balls by his hips might have been the center of the universe, as focused as Brandon was on them. “Oh, I…. Isn’t he dating? Someone? Now?”

“Broke it off a few weeks ago, apparently. Wasn’t anything serious. Some model from Italy or thereabouts; I never met him.” Josh kept his eyes straight ahead on Richard now, letting Brandon hear the full weight of that pronoun without having his reactions observed. “Good-looking guys like that, though? They never stay single for long. Say, I know!” He snapped his fingers, as though the thought had just popped into his head, unbidden and certainly unplanned in its arrival. “Why don’t you invite him to my barbecue?”

“Barbecue?” echoed Brandon, frowning as though Josh had suggested that they all meet for frog tea on Josh’s purple moon base patio.

“Saturday afternoon after next, I’m having a couple people over. Actors and crew I’ve worked with before, and some of their families. Totally informal, come as you are, wear something you don’t mind getting barbecue sauce on or pushed in the pool in. Bring Ace!” Josh gave Brandon his most supportive, confident grin. “Get Richard to give you a ride, or you give him a ride, or something, and it’ll give you guys a chance to talk somewhere you don’t have a hundred cameras pointed at you every second.”

One of the wirework experts whistled to Brandon from the other side of the room and waved him over, and Brandon gave her a wave of acknowledgment back before pushing away from the wall. “That … would be really awesome, actually.” Maybe it was Josh’s imagination, but after even the short conversation they’d just had, something about Brandon seemed … calmer. Josh couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he had a good feeling nonetheless. “Are you sure it’s okay for Ace to come?”

“Are you kidding? Inviting you is just a way to ensure Ace gets there. If you can’t come, just send the dog with a twenty tucked into his collar for cab fare.”

“Deal, boss.” Brandon fired off a quick salute before jogging off to get harnessed up. Josh watched with a smile as ropes hoisted Brandon thirty feet into the air to where Richard was waiting; Richard held out his hands as Brandon got close, and Brandon took them, using the momentum from his ascent to get chest-to-chest with Richard. Even three stories above the ground, they made an handsome couple, and Josh smiled as he saw the way they grinned at one another. It wasn’t a great match, he had to admit, and maybe it wasn’t the groundwork for a happily-ever-after, but at least Josh trusted Richard to follow the campsite rule and leave Brandon better than he’d found him. In a world of closets and agents, that sweet kid deserved at least that much.

~*~

“God, she’s adorable,” said Josh, leaning over the table to see the bright-eyed, curly-haired girl in the picture on Brandon’s phone. He was a little bleary from the incredible number of beers he’d consumed that evening, but he’d been awake so long that he was starting to see the cracks of sober on the other side.

Brandon nodded and flipped to a second picture, where the same girl now sported a sparkly pink tutu. “She’s got a big brother, Marc, but Jamia’s my sweetie. She’s four now, and she just hard-core hit the princess stage where Disney basically grabs your wallet and takes everything out of it forcibly.”

The server walked by with a pot and refilled both their cups of coffee, and Josh gave her a quiet round of applause for her noble gesture. They’d been two of the only people at the wrap party without dates, and as such they’d wound up talking mostly to one another as the evening went on, and then exclusively to one another as the majority of attendees petered out in pairs and groups; after last call, they’d made it out of the club together, walked half a block south, and taken up a booth in a 24-hour Denny’s. If anyone recognized them here, waning drunks not too far off from seeing dawn, no one was rude enough to mention it.

“She doesn’t know it,” Brandon continued, shaking out four packets of sugar and dumping them into his coffee, “but Uncle Brandon is going to take her to Disneyland for her next birthday. There’s a thing where you can get a whole princess makeover, and get to meet all the other princesses there and have tea with a talking candlestick, and do something else too, I’m fuzzy on all the details….”

Josh’s jaw dropped progressively with each word Brandon said, until he was left gaping in wonder at what had just been described. “…I want to come.”

Brandon laughed. “Do you want a princess makeover too, Josh?”

“I do. I secretly really do.” Josh looked around at the few fellow late-night diners around them, all of whom appeared to care a negative amount about what was transpiring in their booth. “Maybe not so secretly now.”

“Maybe for your birthday, then.”

Josh lifted the fork he’d been using to eat his coconut cake and pointed it at Brandon. “Don’t tease.”

“I’m not! Cross my heart!” Brandon punctuated that last sentence by tracing an X over the left side of his chest.

With a sigh, Josh sank back into the hard plastic of the booth seat. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll never be as beautiful as Belle.”

“See,” Brandon gestured with a french fry, “I think of you more as an Ariel: fishy friends, big dreams, giant nerd, the mermaid equivalent of a manga collection, the type to stage impromptu pirate battles with found objects….”

“Belle’s a nerd too,” Josh pointed out, delighted at the realization; he’d never thought of it that way before. “Why, who’s your favourite?”

“Totally Ariel. And okay, maybe she didn’t actually have pirate battles in the movie, but you know she would have. Turn on the deleted scenes, and there she is, wearing a jackboot for a hat, threatening sea life with a bottle opener.” Brandon paused for a moment, then laughed self-consciously over his coffee. “So I’ve seen that movie, like, a thousand times between my sister growing up and my niece, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about things. Like why there aren’t any mermen except for Triton, and he had no nipples. That’s kind of creepy.”

“And there’s Ursula! That’s why I never watched any of the straight-to-video sequels: no Ursula. She was the best, all fat and sexy and tentacles. And you know something was up with her and Triton.”

Brandon sat back in his seat, gobsmacked. “You just blew my mind. You just blew my mind out the back of my face.”

“Squeezed your mind-grapes,” said Josh, making frankly pornographic grabbing gestures just above the level of the table — just as their server walked by. She, like most late-night diner waitstaff, had the face of a woman who’d seen it all, but even she couldn’t keep from arching an eyebrow at the display in front of her. Josh just grinned right back, pleased that he’d reached the point in his life where he’d ceased to feel guilty about being caught doing anything stupid in public, and after a beat, she walked off, smiling and shaking her head.

As soon as she was out of earshot, Brandon added, “She’s also the only one of the sea-women in that movie that doesn’t have the Mermaid Problem.”

“Sure, if you like your lady-holes surrounded by tentacles.”

“Maybe Triton does!” Brandon shot back, and Josh laughed, inwardly pleased at how downright proud of himself Brandon looked every time he managed to crack Josh up. “…Are we thinking too hard about this?”

Josh shook his head. “We as nerds live in a word where no one thinks hard enough about this; thus, we have to compensate.”

“Well,” said Brandon, placing his hands palms-down on the table in a definitive sort of gesture, “this is officially legitimately the best conversation I’ve ever been a part of.”

“Then you’re going to love the barbecue this weekend. Nerds as far as the eye can see! People who make a living overthinking things! Plus, grilled meat.” Josh wrung his hands together mad-scientist style. “And my ‘special sauce’, if you know what I mean.”

“I sincerely hope I do not,” said Brandon, and that was when their second round of pancakes arrived.

As they made their way through the short stacks, Brandon brought up his niece and their baby-sitting Disney-watching adventures again — and then just kept talking, wandering away from family stories to tales from other aspects of his life. Josh, contrary to all his instincts, shut up and let him go; he tossed in an odd quip or a cute answer when Brandon’s storytelling suggested a response was necessary, but otherwise he just smiled and nodded and let Brandon share. And if Brandon seemed a little desperate or prone to oversharing, well, Josh didn’t imagine he’d had much opportunity before just to talk.

Brandon was a sweet man, Josh thought as he listened, always ready to believe the best in people. Even the stories he told of the times he’d been wronged were sympathetic to the injurious party. He was always willing to laugh at himself, too, and he had such a beautiful laugh. When it was real, it sparkled up out of his chest, and the smile that went with it lit up his whole face. Of course Josh knew how attractive he was — he stared at the man’s face for hours sometimes, trying to find just the right shot — but it was different seeing it like this, unselfconscious, real.

And then Brandon slipped. He didn’t notice, Josh figured, because he just kept on going with the story about the time he’d accidentally called Ace’s name in his sleep and been rewarded with eighty pounds of excited dog on the bed, but the bedmate in the story, who’d been none too happy about the sudden dog, had definitely been a ‘he’.

“So you broke it off with him?” asked Josh during an appropriate pause in the telling.

Brandon nodded. “It seems stupid to be all ‘love me, love my dog’, but Ace has been my best buddy for a long time, and that’s just what dogs are like, so I said to him, if you can’t–” Mid-word, Brandon’s voice made a choking noise that Josh knew well, that one that happened when one’s brain filter caught up to what was coming out of one’s mouth two seconds too late. His mouth opened, then shut with a nutcracker’s click, and he stared wide-eyed down at the syrup-soaked pancake remnants in front of him.

Remembering the importance of step two, Josh smiled and plowed on forward. “Hey, from what I’ve seen, Ace is definitely worth breaking up with a guy for.”

“I….” Brandon swallowed and took a deep breath, then combed his sandy hair back from his forehead with his fingers, his eyes still downcast. It was another three deep breaths before he spoke again: “Nobody knew.”

“And they won’t hear it from me.” Josh mimed pulling a zipper across his lips. “…You know why I like superheroes? I’m going to guess it’s the same reason you do.”

The corner of Brandon’s mouth tugged up in a shy smile. “Why’s that?”

“Because they’re big damn heroes with big damn secrets. They’ve got something about them they can’t tell anyone, something that makes them different — but the same thing that makes them different is what makes them heroes. Even when they’re using their ‘real’ names and identities, they’re usually just pretending to be themselves, so they put on their outfits and they get superhero names just so they can be themselves. Even the Vengeancers that have civilian identities that are a matter of public record still use codenames. They’ve still all got something that they could ignore and go on being regular, or they could acknowledge and become extraordinary. And when they find other people with the same secrets, they don’t have to hide it anymore.”

At last, as Josh fell silent, Brandon looked up again, and when he did, Josh could see cracks of red peeking out from the corners of his eyes, little scarlet lightning bolts that threaded across the whites of his eyes toward the blue center. He balled up the napkin and put it under his nose, then shook his head. “Sorry, I — shit, sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about.” Josh shook his head, then speared his leftover strawberry with his fork and transferred it to Brandon’s plate, leaving it there as a little peace offering. “You’re still my Major. Hell, you’re even more my Major for it. You can trust me not to tell anyone the entrance to your secret lair.”

Dabbing the corners of his eyes, Brandon laughed. “Thanks,” he said, and then his smile faded. “I just … wish all the attention that comes from being the Major made it less difficult, and not more.”

Josh had no real response to that, so he nudged the strawberry with his fork again until Brandon chuckled and ate it. Outside, the sky had already begun to shade away from night; he could see the black outlines of the palm fronds in relief against the charcoal-blue pre-dawn light. He hoped that Brandon would actually bring Richard to the barbecue, so that they could be together in an environment where Brandon felt safe. Josh would do everything up to and including pressing all the other guests into service for a rousing rendition of ‘Kiss the Girl’, if that was what it took. Even the bravest and most resourceful of the princesses didn’t have to do it alone, and Josh had always been far more the talking animal sidekick anyway. Sometimes true love just needed a push.

~*~

Josh was literally up to his elbows in charcoal when he heard the first bark. He jerked his head back in the direction of the house just in time to see a furry missile come streaking out of the back door, tearing around the pool in wide circles and weaving in and out of the various guests with slalom precision. After the third circuit or so, the blur came to a halt in front of the grill, where it appeared in its still state as a shaggy, flop-eared, black-and-tan monster with the world’s stupidest grin. “Ace!” Josh guessed, and the dog barked once before wagging his tail with so much enthusiasm that it hit the deck with percussive force. “Where’s your daddy, good dog?”

“Hey!” called Brandon, who had come in a pair of nicely snug jeans and a t-shirt with a Dragonfly logo across the front — and who also, it seemed, had come alone. Well, alone if one didn’t count both the dog and the case of Sam Adams that Brandon toted with a single hand as though it were a case of feathers instead. When Josh glanced down at the beer, impressed, Brandon grinned. “Oh, should I have brought enough to share?”

“Ice chests over there.” Josh pointed to a pile of poolside coolers. “Grab a cold something already if you want, and food should be happening any minute now. Did you let yourself in?”

From behind him, Joy laughed, and as Josh turned to greet her, she kissed him on his cheek. “He was standing on the doorstep when I got here, all lost and helpless. He followed me in; can I keep him?” She had been the one who’d given Josh the apron he was wearing now, the black one with white Klingon lettering issuing the demand that anyone who could read it kiss the cook.

“I don’t know,” said Josh, looking Brandon up and down. “He’s a pretty big responsibility for a girl your age.”

Joy, who was well into her thirties and thus older than Brandon by a fair margin, laughed and fluttered her eyelashes at Josh. Her husband had already made a beeline for the pool and was hanging out on one of the wide neon noodles; Josh had been uncertain about him when Joy had first started dating him, but by the time they’d announced their engagement, he’d been enthusiastic. Josh liked most of the actors he worked with, but a very select few became his good friends by virtue of his developing sheer mama-bear protective instincts toward them. Joy, with her sweet face and burgundy-dyed hair, had gotten that reaction within five minutes of their first meeting. Most of Josh’s former cast members at the party had taken longer to earn that kind of affection, but not by much.

Except, that was, for Brandon. Josh now felt that fierceness when he thought about anyone or anything that might cause Brandon to be sad, but Brandon had taken longer to get there than the rest of them combined. For the most part, by the end of his first full day working with someone, Josh could tell whether or not he was going to go all Mother Wharton on an actor and nudge him or her into the coop with all the other chicks. He’d been making the picture with Brandon for nearly two months before their night with the Sad Blanket. Brandon, it seemed, was something special.

By the time Brandon got back from icing the beers and chatting with some of the guests (who also appeared impressed by his one-handed beer hauling), Josh was about to slide the first round of hamburgers off the grill. One of the rarer patties split on the spatula, sending half of itself toppling to the ground below. “Is Ace allowed to spoil his dinner?” Josh asked, pointing to the dirty meat.

“No, but it’s a special occasion.” Brandon whistled and Ace came bounding over from the deck, excited to hear his master’s call and thrilled beyond reason to realize that the dead burger was, in fact, for him. He scarfed it down in one enthusiastic bite, then took up position near Josh’s feet, sitting at attention and looking up, watching every movement of Josh’s hands just in case some other little morsel chanced to fall. Given the way Josh had seen Brandon eat entire mammoths at the catering tables, he wasn’t surprised that man and dog were best friends. “So, um, did you hear from Richard?”

Josh shook his head. “Not since the wrap party. What’s up?”

“Oh.” Brandon shrugged and shoved the hand that wasn’t holding a beer into his pocket. “He said he might call you. Anyway, he said sorry, he wanted to come, but he had a thing already, something with producers. Next time, though, he said, he’d love to come.”

Josh’s response to that was pre-empted by a baby’s sob, which was how Josh knew Noel and Daniel had arrived. He waved them over and they came, each one with an identical baby girl in his arms; Josh kissed all four of them on their cheeks, even little Gracie, who was fussing up a storm. “Okay, looks like someone’s big entrance part two is coming after a diaper change,” said Daniel, taking a cloth bag from Noel’s shoulder and draping it over his own. “Is it okay if I temporarily repurpose one of your bedrooms as a changing area?”

“Hey, a lady’s got to look her best. Up the stairs, and you can use any one you want.” Josh smiled as Daniel and Gracie headed back in the direction of the house, then turned back to Scout, who unlike her sister was delighted to here. “Well, now we all know which one of you is going to be the drama queen, don’t we?” He poked her on her nose.

Noel sat Scout up so she could see over his shoulder, and her little baby eyes went wide as she was confronted with so much motion and sound. “Oh, we’ve known it since they were born, when Scout just popped right out and Gracie made us all wait another forty-eight minutes.” He patted her on the back, and she slapped her four-month-old hands against his shoulder; Josh envied being that small and easily entertained. “And this must be Brandon.”

Josh glanced behind his shoulder at Brandon, whose expression of bewildered delight was not unlike Scout’s. “Um, yes, that’s me, I’m Brandon. And you’re Noel.”

“I am,” Noel confirmed with a smile. “Pleased to meet you. Josh has been telling me all about you.”

“Only the good stuff,” Josh promised, though that wasn’t strictly true. The same day that Josh had been struck by his revelation about the nature of Brandon’s sexuality and situation, he had called Noel for advice. Of all the gay people Josh knew in the business — and he knew a fair number, relatively speaking — Noel was the only actor he knew personally who’d had a career, come out of the closet, and managed not only to keep that career going, but to improve upon it. If anyone in the entire world could be a guiding light to Brandon, that anyone would be Noel, a man who knew how to keep a secret.

Noel shifted Scout so his left arm supported all her weight, then stretched his hand out to Brandon for a quick shake. “And this is Scout, our little Buddha,” he said, turning her so she faced Brandon.

Brandon had certainly noticed the baby before — she and her sister were both hard to miss, being the only miniature humans at the party, and half-noisy ones to boot — but actually coming face-to-face with her transformed him. His whole expression took on the angelic glow it had possessed when Josh had seen him talking to Ace through the computer screen, that bright, fascinated, wide-mouthed smile that seemed almost too wide for his head. “Hi!” he said, extending his finger; Scout took it in one chubby hand and stuck the tip straight into her mouth, which, judging from the way his eyes formed perfect circles of amazement, appeared to be the best thing that had ever happened in Brandon’s whole life.

Noel smirked in Josh’s direction, then turned back to the man who seemed to have fallen in love with his daughter. “Do you want to hold her for a minute while I get a bite to eat?”

“C-can I?” asked Brandon even as he reached for her, making his move before Noel could change his mind. Noel, however, forked her over with no hesitation beyond that needed to make sure that Brandon had a good grip on her. He needn’t have worried, though; Brandon held Scout with the careful attention others might have reserved for the Hope Diamond or a particularly unstable bomb. He looked at her for a moment, then drew her close to his chest and sniffed her head as she grabbed fistfuls of his shirt and marked her territory with drool.

Divested of his baby, Noel stretched his arms above his head, then scratched his scalp, sending his short ash-blond curls every which way. “I think this is the first time in four months I’ve had my hands free. Almost forgot what it felt like. I’m going to go get a beer; you want one?” He looked at Josh as he gestured over to the impromptu icehouse.

“Ah, you know the way to a man’s heart.” Josh grinned and pulled out the sauce again; it wouldn’t do to have the chicken go dry.

Daniel came out a few minutes later with much-happier Gracie in tow, and not thirty seconds after that did Brandon wind up with babies in both arms, both of whom looked as swept off their feet by the experience as Josh imagined any two young ladies would when placed in a similar situation. Ace was also quite interested by this development, and proved himself indeed the best dog in the world as he handled them as gently as Brandon did, never once barking or showing his teeth. For their own part, Noel and Daniel looked thrilled to have an unexpected babysitter descend upon them, and celebrated by necking like a pair of teenagers by the side of the pool.

Though he didn’t actively stare, on account of not actually being a creepy old man, Josh couldn’t quite take his eyes off them in his spare moments between having to be the Klingon Grill Lord. They were happy and stable and so much in love, and they were both great guys who deserved all those good things. It wasn’t their fault that seeing them like that made Josh’s heart ache.

There was a run on burgers that kept Josh busy for some time after that, especially with the differences between beef, turkey, and veggie patty cooking times, which he juggled with expert skill; there were a few things in his life Josh took great pride in being able to manage like a boss, and the precise and excellent cooking of flat, circular meat and meat substitutes to specification was way up on that list. Doing so, however, took a fair bit of concentration — to say nothing of how Elliot had challenged him to a spatula duel, which had led Josh to proclaim that despite Elliot’s success in his role as the indefatigable leader of the unsinkable Tranquility, Captain Skinnybritches was going down — and thus Josh lost track of what Brandon was up to, how he was faring at a party where he’d known no one before walking in the door, or how he was making out riding herd over a set of infant twins.

He needn’t have worried. As the Great Utensil Wars drew to a close (the warring parties were in the middle of declaring a truce when Joy stabbed them both with a pool noodle, this earning through her backhanded treachery both the victory and the undisputed title of The Noodlenator), Josh looked over to the far side of the yard to an isolated set of lawn chairs. In one sat Noel, leaning forward with a bottle of beer dangling from his fingertips as he said something Josh had no hope of hearing; in the other, Brandon half-reclined with a baby in each arm and a dog by his feet, all three of whom napped as the grownup humans talked. Brandon didn’t look happy, necessarily, but he didn’t look upset either as he listened, nodding at points with a gesture just slight enough so as not to disturb the little ones cradled to his chest.

One of the things Josh had learned early on in his career was that a director’s job was not to tell the actors what to do. The actors knew what to do; it was their job to know. His job as a director was just to set everything up, pass out all the relevant information, and give everything that push to get it going. Sometimes it even worked in real life too.

~*~

The main reason that Josh scheduled his barbecues at noon on Saturdays was that most everyone there had something else to do Saturday night, and thus mid-day was the best time to catch them before letting them go to fluff and puff before whatever more photogenic occasions demanded their being there. True to form, by four-thirty, everyone had wandered off — everyone, that was, except for Brandon.

He hadn’t asked to stay, but Josh hadn’t wanted him to leave either, and thus when things had started winding down and Brandon had offered help cleaning up, Josh had said, sure, you can take in all the heavy things! And he’d meant it as a joke, the way he meant most things, but Brandon hoisted the grill and took it back to the garage without so much as breaking a sweat, while Josh stood, impressed, and watched him go. There wasn’t a part of that man that wasn’t nice-looking, but the seat of his pants in motion was definitely a sight to behold.

Afterward, he’d excused himself to go take a quick shower, and when he came back down he found Brandon in front of his DVD bookshelf, beholding the scope and magnitude of Josh’s collection. “That … is a lot of movies,” he said.

“I just hate it when I want to see something and I can’t. Thus, my monument to instant gratification.” Josh sat on the couch, which Ace took as a cue that he should come over and put his front legs across Josh’s knees; Brandon opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Josh carded his fingers into the fur on either side of Ace’s head and brought his face down so that Ace could lick at will. “Hey there, good boy! Did you and your big human friend have fun at the party?”

“With all the people food he begged off various plates, he’d better have had fun,” said Brandon, and right on cue, Ace belched. “Oh, Ace, that’s not attractive.”

“I’ve done worse myself,” said Josh, giving Ace a kiss on the nose — while holding his breath. “How about you? Did you get any scraps?”

“Only a few.” Brandon smiled and sat at the other end of the couch. “But I had a good time anyway.”

“Good! Shame Richard couldn’t come, but, well, there’s always next time. Maybe we should do this again soon, give you guys a chance to talk. And then maybe, air quotes, ‘talk’.”

Brandon watched Josh’s gestures with a skeptical eye. “You know, you don’t have to say ‘air quotes’ when you make them.”

“…Well, maybe I wanted to make sure my meaning got across. Like wearing a belt and suspenders.”

“To hold up your verbal pants.”

Josh patted his thighs, which were not covered in pants, verbal or otherwise, but were instead clad in over-the-knee shorts with an impressive multi-hued pastel pattern. They were his special Saturday shorts, worn only on days when he wasn’t required to give two hoots about looking presentable. “I’m always wearing my verbal pants! Well, okay, maybe not always. I take them off when I go to bed so I don’t talk in my sleep and let all the ideas escape.”

“I talk in my sleep,” said Brandon, and when Josh laughed, he nodded. “It’s true! Apparently I said something once about mice. Like, the three blind kind.”

“And who told you this?”

Brandon took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “The other person who was in the bed. That I was sleeping with.”

Josh found a spot to scritch behind Ace’s ear that made his front paw wiggle, then gave up and patted the couch cushion next to him. The doggy belly flop that followed immediately after spoke of a hound who’d spent more than a little time on human furniture. “And is that person still around?”

“It wasn’t, um, a long-term thing. So no.”

“See,” said Josh, looking at Ace’s dog-grinning face so he didn’t make Brandon feel any more uncomfortable than the conversation already had, “if I wound up in bed with a man who had chatty dreams about rodents, I would give serious thought to proposing marriage, so … I don’t know what that guy’s problem was. I mean, I’m assuming there was some other probl–” Josh interrupted himself mid-word. “Sorry, I won’t be Buttinsky Brown, all interrogating you about your personal business.”

“No, it’s okay, it’s just….” Brandon sighed and reached for Ace’s tail, which had flopped somewhere in the vicinity of his knee; he stroked the fluff there as Ace looked quite delighted to be loved on at both ends. “I haven’t had a a very good romantic history. And I know part of it’s the problem of having to keep it secret, which always sucks, but relationship trouble just loves me.”

Josh shook his head, not disagreeing but commiserating. “Well, I’ve kind of got the same background there, so. More of a tragedy in your case, though.”

Brandon frowned. “When I met you, I thought you’d have, like, lots of girlfriends. Boyfriends. Whatever. At least one of something.”

“Not even a pet — though I’m thinking about kidnapping this guy here.” Josh bent down to kiss Ace on the nose, and Ace responded by licking at Josh’s cheeks and mouth. “I mean, I’ve had lots of have-sex-with benefriends in my life, and I still do, and that’s fine and nice. But I’m kind of not the guy someone puts up with for very long. I don’t give exit polls on my relationships, but if reasons to break up with me were a Family Feud category, I’m pretty sure the number-one answer would be ‘his personality’.” At most times, Josh could keep his chin up about his lack of sustainable couplings, but sometimes the little threads of bitterness snuck in despite his best efforts to keep them out. Maybe he was still a little sore from seeing Noel and Daniel so in love earlier; maybe he was even a little touchy about the idea of Brandon’s crush on Richard. Everyone else got to be happy.

“But … you’re so funny and cute and sweet and wonderful!”

“And you’re handsome and charming and adorable and … I may double up on ‘handsome’ here, but I think I’m well within my rights to. But even good things can’t save bad decisions.” Josh frowned. “Not that dating you would be a bad decision. Like, at all.”

A little sparkle lit up behind Brandon’s eyes, and he turned on the sofa until he and Josh could see one another more clearly. “So … you’d date me?”

“Oh, sure!” Josh said, and Brandon’s mouth lifted into a smile. “I mean, I’d be stupid not to.”

“And … you’d take me out on a nice first date?”

“Totally. You deserve only the best, after all.”

“So where would we go?”

Josh loved games like this: hypothetical fun time, ‘would you rather’ battles, epic rounds of fuck/kill/marry — anything that required judicious application of imagination. “Let’s see … you’re a guy who does black tie events all the time, so I’m not going to try and impress you with something swank and dressy, because you’ve probably already put on a tuxedo a minimum of ten times this month already. So I’d probably go the other route and say something excruciatingly normal. Something you can wear sneakers to, or at least not look too weird in loafers and khakis and a shirt that’s been ironed sometime in the current century. I guess that means dinner and a movie — no, wait, movie and then dinner, so we can talk about the movie.”

With each successive element Josh described, Brandon’s smile edged more into a full grin, until by the time Josh paused, Brandon was the picture of pure delight. “Can the movie be stupid and full of things blowing up and dinner be bad for us?” he asked with a hopeful little wiggle that nearly knocked Ace’s back half out of his lap.

“The worst and the worst. Only fools take a first date to something they actually want to see; you either like the date and miss the movie, or like the movie and ignore the date. So: lots of explosions and a plot with moon-sized holes in it, and then somewhere with milkshakes they’ll put two straws in.”

“That–” Brandon’s voice caught mid-word, and he buried the hitch in a breathy laugh as he looked down at his hands. “Can … we really? Do that?”

“Oh, sure! Heck, we can go this evening if you’re free. Let me get out my phone and see what’s playing when.” Josh dislodged Ace just enough to get at his back pocket.

“No, I mean….” Brandon took a deep breath. “Can we really go on a date?”

For one of the few times in his life he could remember, Josh Wharton was at a loss for words.

He recovered quickly, though — and just in time, too, because the proper response to a question like that was not to gape quietly like a caught fish, lest the other person do what Josh’s own brain was prone to and stick in all sorts of horrible untrue things into the silence. However, what he tossed into the gap was arguably not much better: “But don’t you … like Richard?”

Brandon made a noise caught halfway between a laugh and a sigh, and he closed his eyes as he raked his hair away from his face. “That’s what Noel said you’d told him and … I seriously have no idea how you got there. I mean, Richard’s great, he’s … well, he’s really sexy, and that sort of goes without saying, but I don’t want to go on a date with him. I want to go on a date with you.”

A list of possible causes for these sentences’ coming out of Brandon’s mouth flashed through Josh’s mind, though all of them sounded like his best recollections of Kitty plots. Brandon might have been abducted and replaced with a body double while Josh was in the shower. He might have been under the sway of a mind-controlling puppetmaster parasite. He might have been reciting a script while somewhere far away, a kidnapper watched the proceedings via camera and held Brandon’s niece hostage. Josh himself might have fallen into some fugue state where his brain played out strange scenarios, and any minute now, Elliot would come bouncing through the door on a pogo stick, singing the Dragonfly theme. Literally all of these seemed more likely to him than the idea that Brandon Moore might actually, literally, presently be asking him out.

“You have … seen me, right?” Josh gestured to his body, taking special time to point out how his belly pooched out under the lower half of his polo shirt. “You haven’t been miraculously concealing your crippling blindness from us all these years?”

Brandon laughed and grabbed Josh’s hand with his own, which was as large and warm and handsome as the rest of him. “Growing up, I was the skinny theatre arts kid with braces, glasses, bad skin, and the worst haircut known to man. All my crushes were from the guys I hung around, who were all nerds like me. I didn’t want the captain of the football team to take me to prom, I wanted the captain of the debate team. Richard’s hot, but so are you.”

“Oh, no. He and I aren’t even in the same class.” Josh squeezed his hand back, but Brandon wasn’t inclined to take that as a sign to let go. “You and he are in the same class. You’re both in the advanced class. Me, I’m down the hall in Remedial Attractiveness. We’re taught Basic Hair-Brushing and How To Make Sure You’re Not Wearing That Shirt Inside-Out 101.”

“See?” Brandon laughed again and scooted closer, and Ace shifted to accommodate. “That right there? That’s what makes you attractive.”

“My recently brushed hair?”

“The funny. It’s the new sexy. Hell, it’s the classic sexy.” Brandon brushed his thumb across the back of Josh’s hand, making all the little hairs on Josh’s skin stand on end. “Skinny drama nerd, remember?”

Josh knew he should just shut up and go with this, but there was some evil little monster in his head, some terrible spinning gear that just wouldn’t let him shut up and accept when he had a good thing coming. “Even,” he said, and he swallowed, looking down at Ace, “even skinny drama nerds have dreams of handsome princes.”

Brandon shook his head. “Got to follow your heart.”

A little lump crept up into Josh’s throat, and he cleared it away; he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders and told that little monster to shut the hell up. “Let me double-check this here: what I hear you saying is that you want to go on a date with me, and not just a friend date, but an actual date-date, with more-than-friends implications and even the promise of later sexy times, with me, and you are not doing this under the influence of drugs or money or vague promises of future benefits, and you aren’t feeling a crushing sense of impending horror all the while?”

“I like blowing chubby guys because their bellies make a nice little pillow for my forehead,” said Brandon with as conversational a tone as he’d said anything else that evening, and Josh felt compelled to get up, fill a glass of water, take in a mouthful, and spit it out again just to capture the extent of his reaction to hearing those words come out of Brandon Moore’s mouth. Absent any nearby liquids, Josh settled on making a choked noise somewhere in the back of his throat, one that made Brandon smile to hear.

“I.” Josh swallowed. “I want that stitched into a sampler for my living room.”

“I’ll learn needlepoint,” Brandon said with a smirk, and he leaned in to kiss Josh.

Disney couldn’t have animated it better — it was perfect, the two of them on the couch together, contented dog across their laps, about to take the plunge into that magical first kiss moment where anything could happen. And, as so many things tended to be, it was ruined all by Josh’s ever-churning thought processes. “Wait!” he said when their lips were barely six inches apart, causing Brandon’s eyes to snap open into wide worried circles. “You were talking about that date — have you ever, you know, been with a guy you were actually dating?”

Brandon looked baffled for a moment, then slightly embarrassed. “Um … no. Not since, like, high school. I haven’t even had a real, adult, not-sneaking-out-of-the-house date.”

“Well, then, we can’t just–” Josh gestured back and forth between the two of them, and then between their still-close lips. “I mean, there are protocols! There are date things! Romance!” He leaned back from the kiss and flapped his hands not unlike a busy cartoon bird might flutter its wings. “Going out! Picking up at a house! Bringing flowers! Or not bringing flowers! Bringing something that isn’t flowers and then apologizing that it’s not flowers! Good-night kisses! Or not, as you feel appropriate. I should get a whiteboard. I need to do this right for you.

It was a testament to how serious Brandon’s offer was that not only did he not look put off by Josh’s sudden spastic display of anxieties, but his smile seemed to indicate he was genuinely touched. “Okay,” he nodded, sitting up straight again without letting go of Josh’s hand. “You probably don’t need the whiteboard, though. I trust your instincts.”

“Great. I’ll pick you up at seven. Wear a tie. I don’t care how you wear it. Points for creativity.”

“So….” Brandon looked from Josh to Ace and back to Josh again. “Ace and I will just go home now, and you pick me up later?”

“Yes! This is how a date works!” Josh slapped his hand against his thigh. “And I need time to prepare. I am an artist! And I have to think of a movie. I’m picking it right now. In my mind. You don’t even know.”

Brandon nodded as though this were a sound course of action. “I will be surprised.”

“It … may be the new Objective: Unattainable movie, that cool?”

“My arched eyebrow and knowing smile indicate that it is,” said Brandon, pointing to the appropriate parts of his face in turn.

“And this from the main who said I don’t have to say ‘air quotes’. Fantastic. Go home now. I will be by to pick you up with flowers or not-flowers, depending.”

“Do … I get a kiss now, or do I have to wait?”

Stopping to consider the question sent a thousand more anxieties barraged the fortress of Josh’s confidence — what if he was a bad kisser, what if he had bad breath, what if an asteroid hit the planet right as their lips touched — but he held fast despite them; Brandon was worth it. “How about we decide that we should wait for later, but I kiss you now anyway just to make sure you won’t hate it later?”

“Deal,” said Brandon, and he leaned in to press their mouths together.

It was a stupidly perfect kiss, though Josh supposed he expected nothing less from someone as stupidly perfect as Brandon. The pressure was just right, the anticipation had made it even better, and Brandon’s lips were shaped in a way that felt even better than they looked, and that was saying something. Their only points of contact were their clasped hands and their mouths, but that was plenty. Josh parted his lips and Brandon’s tongue found its way inside Josh’s mouth, and that was just obscene how good that was, as startling as hearing comments about fellatio from Brandon’s clean-cut mouth and equally as sexy. He hadn’t been kissed like this in a long time, possibly ever, and he just wanted more.

At last, after a moment’s good, deep contact, Brandon pulled back and pressed their foreheads together; he shut his eyes, and Josh followed suit. “No, I’m really not going to hate that later,” he said, his voice so deep and breathy and sexy that it short-circuited something in Josh’s brain. Whatever it was, Josh decided he could live without it.

“Can I check one more time?” he asked, reaching with his other hand for Brandon’s shoulder. “Just to be sure?”

“Yes, very yes, we should do that.” Brandon barely got to the end of the sentence before they were kissing again, lips and tongues tangled together. Brandon smelled like some dark, woodsy aftershave and beer and barbecue sauce and sunlight and truth and justice and the American way and all those other things superheroes were supposed to smell like, except he was better than a superhero because he was real. He was real and here and kissing Josh, and something in the universe for once seemed to have gone very, very right.

With a chuckle, Brandon pulled away again, pecking Josh once on the tip of his nose before relenting and nudging Ace back to the floor so they could both stand. “Okay, if you’re going to send me home, you better do it now, or that date part is just getting skipped in favour of the after-date part.”

“Nope.” Josh folded his arms and shook his head. “Date will happen! Shoo! Your coach and footmen will arrive in two hours. Just don’t be surprised if they look like a silver Civic hybrid.”

“Just as long as the prince looks the same,” said Brandon, giving Josh one more quick kiss before turning and heading for the door with Ace at his heels, laughing all the way.

~*~

Flowers, it turned out to be, and not not-flowers. Short on time and ideas, Josh stopped by the local supermarket and plucked from the center of a display the most ridiculous bouquet he’d ever seen, one full of red roses, white carnations, and dyed-to-be-cobalt-blue daisies. The Major would have loved it unironically, and the look of delight on Brandon’s face as Josh presented it to him at the door led Josh to believe that Brandon did as well, and to an equal degree.

The movie might actually have been good, or it might have been terrible; either way, Josh wasn’t paying attention. He was focused on only two things, the first of which was a mantra of don’t screw this up don’t screw this up running loud enough through his head to drown out the movie’s soundtrack, and the second of which was the way Brandon’s hand felt twined with his atop the armrest. It was quite a testament to how amazing that second part was that it more than once managed to overpower the first. Well, and the unpleasant third, which was his attempts to control, by sheer force of will, how much his palms were sweating.

He’d been on dates before. He’d been on dates with guys before. They tended to be fewer and farther-between than his times out with ladies, but they happened. Sometimes they were even successful, even if the subsequent attempts at relationships never lasted long. He was supposed to be the expert here. This was just embarrassing.

But he liked Brandon. He was in like with Brandon. And every time Josh thought about the way Brandon’s mouth had felt against his own, he had to then devote some part of his brain’s processing power to make sure he didn’t throw up and die out of sheer excited nervousness.

He recovered a little over dinner, because he could talk then, and Brandon could talk back, and they could make one another laugh, so that was pretty much situation normal. They didn’t hold hands over the TGI Fridays’ wobbly, slightly sticky table, but Josh moved his feet so his left one and Brandon’s right one were pressed together for the whole meal. The movie had been as plotless and full of explosions as promised, which meant every time one conversation thread pulled to a close, another popped right up and kept the evening going. They both ordered burgers with heart-attack-inducing levels of fried things on and beside them, and when Josh couldn’t finish more than two-thirds of his, Brandon gladly made short work of the remnants. Dessert was, as promised, an Oreo cookie milkshake with two straws — which they never successfully managed to coordinate enough to use at the same time, but it was the thought that counted.

Even so, Josh was prepared to accept the date as a failure, or at least as only a partial success, until he pulled into the driveway of Brandon’s house and Brandon put a hand on his knee. “Come on in and stay a while,” he said with a grin, and that was an offer Josh couldn’t refuse.

He supposed Brandon’s house was nice — smallish by Hollywood star standards, maybe, but cozy and tasteful all the same — but he didn’t have long to look at its interior before Brandon was kissing him, which was far more interesting. One of Brandon’s hands cupped the side of Josh’s face and the other grabbed his hip as Brandon pressed Josh up against the closed front door, so Josh put his hands wherever he could find space on Brandon, which turned out to be around his waist. Ace came trotting up to greet them, but upon seeing the two humans engaged in something else, he sat down on the stairs. Truly, this was an animal that deserved recognition in the Best Dog category.

“I’ve always liked redheads,” Brandon said against Josh’s mouth as he reached up to run his fingers through Josh’s hair. “Especially when they’re real red. All the way down.”

Josh laughed, though the sound turned into a choked gasp as Brandon kissed his way from Josh’s mouth along his jaw, all the way to his ear. “I really, really hope I haven’t oversold you on what’s under my clothes.”

“A dick, I hope?” Brandon chuckled.

“Yes, well, but … on the way there.”

Brandon took the hand he’d been using to hold Josh’s waist and tugged at his shirt, untucking it. “Arms, chest, belly, maybe with some more red hair on them?”

Josh shrugged as he nodded. “And, um, freckles.”

“I love freckles,” Brandon said, and the initial L in love was a long lick of his tongue up the side of Josh’s ear, making Josh feel unsure about how much more of this his knees could be expected to take before they just gave out and sent him pitching forward. “And hair and bellies and chests and cock. Yours, specifically, even sight unseen on that last point. And if you don’t believe me, I’m just going to have to work to convince you I do.”

The way Brandon pressed against Josh’s body made refusing this next door to impossible, but damn it, Josh’s stupid brain seemed bound and determined to try. “Just don’t feel any pressure, um, to put out on a first date….”

“Oh, but I want to. I really want to.” Taking advantage of Josh’s loosened state, Brandon pushed his hand up beneath Josh’s shirt, petting his bare chest. “It’s been a while.”

Josh nodded in sympathy; he hadn’t even had friends-with-benefits sex in months, and the length of time since his most recent end-of-date sex could be measured in years. “So, uh … the couch? Or somewhere else…?”

Brandon tugged Josh to the stairs, letting go of him enough to swat Josh on the ass and indicate that up was the current direction of choice. “Bed.” He smacked again, a pleasant sort of punctuation to his command.

“And … we’re still talking about sex, right?”

“I am going to suck your dick until your eyes cross, and keep sucking until they go back to normal, so … yes.”

Of all the spectacular things Brandon had to offer that evening, somehow it was his dirty talk that most threatened to stop Josh’s heart. Josh was by no means a prude, and though he wasn’t much inclined toward non-family-friendly language of his own, even during sexy times, he’d certainly heard it all before. But Brandon had always seemed so sweet, so wholesome, so all-American that Josh was now having to do some serious reassessments of how much of that was Brandon himself, and how much Josh had projected onto him because of the role. Hearing his notions disabused was about the sexiest thing in the universe. On shaky, excited legs, Josh made his way up the stairs and through the open door to the bedroom.

The bed was unmade and there were clothes strewn about the place, but again, Josh didn’t have long to get a sense of the scope and quality of the interior design. Brandon turned him around and kissed him again, and then held him as they both fell onto the bed, side by side, mouths and arms and legs tangled together. Brandon’s shirt pulled up from his waist in the fall, and Josh reached out to touch the curve of his hip above his jeans, causing Brandon to gasp and kiss harder. If he had a goal of making Josh feel sexy, well, he was well on his way to achieving it.

A moment later, Josh became aware of something very furry on top of his head, which didn’t make much sense, because all parts of Brandon were currently accounted for. Curiosity got the better of him, and he looked up to find himself face-to-face with a fluffy tan ear. “…Oh, Ace.”

Brandon stopped for a moment and sighed, then wrapped his arms around his admittedly good-sized dog and swooped him into his arms like he was a baby; Ace, for his own part, seemed delighted by this development, and didn’t struggle at all. “Hey, buddy!” said Brandon, and Ace licked his face. “We’re going to do some people stuff in here, and then I’ll let you back in, okay? I promise.” He put Ace down on the landing at the top of the stairs and shut the door, and Ace, bless him, didn’t so much as yap or scratch at the door in response.

Dog properly sexiled, Brandon turned back to Josh and grinned. “Where were we?” he asked, and before Josh could answer, Brandon took off his shirt and tossed it in the same direction where all the other discarded shirts in the room lay. That done, he reached for his jeans, unbuttoned the first two buttons of the fly, and stopped, looking thoughtful. “…You know, there’s a whole tumblr devoted to me taking my pants off.”

“Sorry, what?” Josh sat up a little, propping himself up on his elbows behind him.

“A tumblr. Devoted to me. Taking my pants off. Like so.” Brandon undid another button. “Little weird, not going to lie.”

Josh shook his head. “I’m sorry, you’re telling me there’s an entire website out there devoted to pictures of you taking your clothes off–”

“Pictures and animated .gif sets,” Brandon added.

“Devoted to preserving still and moving evidence of the phenomenon that is you divesting yourself of your pants, and I’m not looking at it right now?”

Brandon just stared at him for a moment before cracking up and starting to push his jeans off over his hips. “Because I’m taking off my pants right now. Here. In person.”

It was as though some fat baby angels had rolled back the clouds and let a ray of heavenly light shine down directly onto Josh’s brain; he might’ve sworn he even heard some accompanying celestial choir to mark the occasion. “…Dear God, I’ve one-upped the internet.”

“Livin’ the dream,” said Brandon, who kicked his pants off his feet, leaving himself wearing nothing but a pair of boxers with the Hogwarts logo on them, giving Josh yet another thing to be envious of. Instead of continuing with the striptease, though, he got back into bed, took one of Josh’s hands, and slipped Josh’s fingers beneath the waistband. Josh tugged as directed, and was surprised to find a little triangle of fabric poke out from beneath. He kept tugging, and the triangle revealed itself to be a long strip of striped fabric, until Josh had Brandon’s boxers well down around his thighs and could see that his earlier instructions to wear a tie had not gone unheeded. Points for creativity indeed. “That audience didn’t see that coming,” he said, impressed.

“So … I’m naked now!” Brandon announced, and though he did technically still have a bit of fabric about his person, Josh decided he wasn’t in the mood to split hairs about it.

“You are,” Josh agreed, brushing his fingertips over Brandon’s muscled stomach. This part, at least, wasn’t anything Josh hadn’t seen before, but that had been all waxed and oiled and and smoothed into a uniform consistancy by makeup artists; here, in the dim, real light of the bedroom, he could see that Brandon’s skin was actually far paler than his time on the screen had made him out to be, and he had a trail of dark blond hair that started across his chest and crept down to — well, Josh wasn’t entirely sure he could let his brain go there just yet, lest it completely dismantle his ability to talk. “And I’m … not, and unless presented with a compelling argument otherwise should probably stay that way so as not to spoil the effect.”

“I’ll blow you.”

“A stunning rebuttal!” said Josh, though as soon as the words got back to his ears, he laughed and buried his face in the duvet. “And now I have the giggles because I said ‘butt’. Okay! In bed with a gorgeous man, working my way up to the sexing, time to stop acting like I’m five.”

Brandon laughed and kissed him on the tip of his ear. “I like it,” he said, nuzzling Josh’s cheek with his lips. “I like all of it. And I was promised that I would be having sex this evening with a man with freckles, and by God, I expect you to make good on that.”

“Okay, but….” Josh started to wriggle out of his shirt. “You may want to get a pair of sunglasses to defend your vision from this pasty whiteness of this sexy hunk of man-jello.”

Brandon rolled back on his side — which made Josh feel at least a little better from knowing that his awkward attempts at undressing himself wouldn’t accidentally put out Brandon’s eye — and surveyed the scene before him with a lecherous grin. “I know you’re doing the self-deprecating thing, but you seriously, seriously are my type.”

“Flan of your dreams, huh?”

“Look at my penis!” Brandon pointed downward, and Josh couldn’t help following with his gaze until he beheld said penis in all its glory. And it was glorious: upright and stalwart and justice-loving and all those good things, sticking out at a stiff angle from Brandon’s body, bright pink for the top part above his circumcision scar, and then a duskier brown the rest of the way to the root, where it disappeared beneath a forest of curls. “Look at what it’s doing! It’s realizing I’m going to get my mouth on you very soon and it’s really pretty psyched about that.”

“I….” Josh took a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. He could feel that his cheeks were already tomato-red, and suspected the rest of his body was following suit. “If I take my pants off and it’s some kind of dealbreaker here, I’m going to shower in my clothes for the rest of my life.”

“Please take off your pants. Please take off your pants. I am going to get of my knees to encourage you to take off your pants.” True to his word, Brandon got on all fours and positioned himself around Josh’s knees, which perhaps should have been goofy, but instead was about the sexiest thing Josh had ever seen. “The Major awaits.” Brandon wiggled his eyebrows.

Well, with an invitation like that, how could Josh refuse? Taking that final deep, confidence-inspiring breath, he unfastened his pants and slipped out of them, his (Batman) boxers, and his socks all in one none-too-graceful move. Grace didn’t matter, though, because all at once meant he couldn’t stop in the middle and have second thoughts. Stripped bare, he lay back against the bed, panting; his own cock didn’t tend to be quite so perpendicular as Brandon’s was, but it lay against his belly all the same, insistently hard.

With a bright smile, Brandon bent down to kiss at Josh’s thighs — which were, as promised, freckled and furry. Josh wanted to make some quip about it, but it seemed all the breath had gone from his lungs. This, though, was more important than breathing. Brandon kicked his way upward, pausing and kissing, taking his teasing time; he paused long enough to suck a red hickey into Josh’s hip that Josh knew wouldn’t fade for a month at best. That, though, didn’t matter, not when Brandon was still going. He stopped a few inches from Josh’s erection and blew on it, then laughed with delight as it twitched and rose from Josh’s stomach, trailing precome behind it. “I’m going to blow you now. Is that okay?”

Josh nodded. “It’s okay. It’s spectacular. And I do not use that word lightly. I learned how to spell it when preparing for my second-grade spelling bee, and it has remained dear to me ever since.”

“Well, if you can still spell it when I’m done, I haven’t done my job,” said Brandon, and he opened his mouth and sucked Josh’s cock all the way in.

Within the first few seconds, Josh realized that he needed to develop an entirely new mental Blowjob Scale, because nothing in his entire life had prepared him for this. Brandon sucked cock like a champ, keeping the maddening balance between driving Josh fast toward the edge and pulling back just before the point of no return. He teased and licked from time to time, but mostly he kept his lips tight and his mouth around Josh’s shaft as he bobbed his head up and down. It was obscene — it was beyond obscene, in fact, so far over the edge that Josh might have been inclined to create a new word for it if he’d been capable of using his higher brain functions. As he was, he just gasped and groaned as he watched Brandon’s beautiful face move up and down over his cock.

But it didn’t seem fair, having them arranged like this, and after a few solid minutes of this assault, Josh began to make grabby hands. Brandon stopped mid-stroke and made a questioning noise, and Josh pointed toward the rest of Brandon’s body. “Here,” he said, hoping that Brandon would get the message, and relieved when Brandon, like the good actor he was, turned his body so that he lay alongside Josh’s, putting his own cock not close enough to Josh’s mouth to do any good, but well within reach of Josh’s hands. Josh tugged off the loose tie and debated scooting over before realizing that he had enough anxieties as it was without having to add worries about his own blowjob skill to that pile.

So instead he stroked Brandon’s cock, and was delighted to feel it respond to his touch — and was doubly delighted to hear Brandon gasp as Josh’s fingers made contact. Well, if Brandon really did want to make Josh feel sexy, he certainly knew the correct way to go about it, bless that sweet, sexy man. Josh didn’t bother with the tease; he went straight for the touch, invested as anything in being able to bring Brandon off. He felt Brandon’s whole body shudder and twitch in response, and whatever got the biggest reaction, Josh just did it again and again.

This was so gratifying that after not too much longer, Josh leaned forward and dragged his tongue across the salty, slick head of Brandon’s cock. That, it seemed, was all it too — despite his headstart on Josh, Brandon came first, gasping and crying out as he shot come all over Josh’s chin and chest. A line of it even splashed Josh’s lower lip, and he flicked his tongue out to get a taste. Oh, he sincerely hoped Brandon would let him do that again.

Brandon trembled as he lay there for a moment, just long enough to catch his breath, before diving back onto Josh’s cock. He pushed his lips straight down to the root and left them there, letting his tongue and throat do all the work. The assault was merciless, and try as he might to keep some level of composure, Josh couldn’t; he grabbed at the sheets and gasped, and was fairly certain he said things, though he wasn’t entirely aware of what was coming out of his mouth. Anything outside the immediate vicinity of his dick was extraneous; that was where his world was centered at the moment, and its center was deep in Brandon’s mouth. At last, he couldn’t hang on any longer, and he arched his back off the bed, coming hard and fast into Brandon’s mouth.

The aftermath of this was so fuzzy, he was only aware at the very edges of his perception when Brandon wiped him off, pulled back the covers, and tucked them both beneath. “S,” he muttered as he stroked Brandon’s side, “s … p … spee … r … jeff … n…. What was the word again?”

Brandon laughed and kissed the top of his head. “Yep, mission accomplished.”

“Because I’m sure the letter blue was in there too.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you take home all the prizes today.” Brandon pulled him close until they rested chest-to-chest, with Josh’s head pillowed on Brandon’s formidable bicep. “This year’s All-American Spelling Bee and Blowjob Champ, right here.”

“That’s got to be an impressive trophy,” said Josh, and Brandon laughed. “I … um, I hate to say it, but … I’m really tired.”

“Oh, God, me too.” Brandon let out a lungful of air in an exhausted whoooo. “Round two in the morning. …If, um, you’re going to stay.”

“Is that okay?”

Brandon hugged him and pressed their foreheads together. “That’s more than okay. That’s perfect. That’s the most perfect ending to the most perfect date ever. …There’s just one thing.”

Josh, who was already halfway into a sex coma, cracked open one eye. “What? What?”

“Just stay here a second.” Brandon kissed Josh on the bridge of his nose and slipped out of bed.

Josh heard the sound of the door’s opening and a slapped thigh, and then there was another body in the bed, a third one that wanted to be exactly where Josh was. A big sloppy dog kiss smeared the side of his cheek, and a paw stood on his belly in a way that wasn’t quite pleasant. “Hey, Ace,” said Josh, reaching up both to scritch the dog and to move him half a foot to the side. “You sleep in here, huh?”

“Yeah.” Brandon started to crawl back under the covers, but stopped midway. “If, um … if that’s okay?”

“Just perfect,” said Josh, which was how he wound up sound asleep shortly after, having become the middle of a Josh sandwich between a piece of very handsome bread and a piece of also very handsome but somewhat furrier bread. In all his life, he’d never felt quite so loved.

illustrated by r_a_parker

~*~

Brandon went to the premiere with Rose on his arm; everyone was delighted to see Major Amazing and the Preying Mantis walking the red carpet together, and no one suspected that they were bearding for one another. Josh followed along shortly behind, holding out his elbow for Kendra to take. Her mothers had been a lot more supportive of his offer to take her than he’d thought they’d be, and Kendra herself couldn’t have been more thrilled — it was nice enough that she might get to meet some movie stars, but when Josh had told her she’d get the chance to meet some famous comic artists, she’d nearly had a preteen heart attack. She wore a lovely blue pantsuit she’d picked out herself, and she grinned and waved every time a flashbulb went off. She called him ‘Uncle Josh’ and he introduced her as a friend of the family, even though by now she knew the score. As with everything else, it was all about who was watching.

In the press area, Josh found himself talking to a reporter from one of the more comic-focused media outlets there tonight, an adorable young thing with kinky black hair and a Carbon Man tank top on over what looked otherwise to be a fancy red dress. “Can we get you to spill any secrets about what The Vengeancers is like?” she asked, hanging back just out of the camera’s frame.

Josh looked at the camera and held up a pair of fingers. “Two words: Explosions.”

The reporter muffled a giggle into her fist. “And what about our heroes? Do you think the fans are going to be pleased?”

“I think they’re going to be thrilled.” Josh glanced over his shoulder to where other cameras had caught the other actors; Richard had his arm over Brandon’s shoulders and was at that moment telling a camera something that made Brandon cover his face and laugh. “I know this isn’t necessarily the direction everyone wanted the story to go, and I know there are lots of fans out there that are going to be wondering, ‘Why did he do that? Why did he change that?’ And the answer is, because I wanted to make sure I was telling the best story I could and having a good time. Obviously this isn’t the only story out there about these characters, and it’s definitely not going to be the last story, and it may not even be the best story, but it’s my story, and I’m lucky I got this opportunity to tell it with such a talented bunch of people.”

“And here’s the Major himself right now,” said the reporter, and Josh had just started to turn when he got hugged from behind by Brandon, who looked equal parts handsome and goofy all done up in a tuxedo, and somehow managed to make the combination devastatingly sexy. “Got any dirt to spill about your first time with Josh Wharton?”

Brandon made a funny expression that he just barely hid under a laugh, and Josh only managed to keep a straight face by biting the inside of his cheek. Someday, Brandon had said, and he’d meant it — someday he’d come out and be out, and he’d be ready for whatever followed. He wasn’t sure he was brave enough yet to face the whole array of consequences that might arise from such a disclosure, and he had a lot of family and friends to tell before he started broadcasting it all over the world, but it would happen, he promised, and when it did, he wanted Josh to be by his side.

“Total slavedriver,” said Brandon, draping his arm around Josh’s shoulders in a protective way that was just this side of romantic — and it would stay on that side for now, until he was ready. He tucked Kendra under his other arm, and she threw her arms around the waist of the man who had that night become her new instant best friend, just add water. Josh suspected she may have known the score on that one too, and if so, well, that was all right too. “We all hated him. He made us cry. And work. And work while crying.”

“Yes, that’s why you should come see this movie: because it’s directed by the man that made Major Amazing cry,” said Josh, sending the reporter into another bout of giggles.

They made their way through a few further interviews and on into the theater, where Josh managed to use his powers as the director to finesse a seat between Brandon and Kendra — or he had, until Kendra realized the movie wasn’t going to start right away and demanded that Josh trade seats with her so she could show Brandon how to play Plants Vs. Zombies. When the lights went down, she just settled in right where she was, and Josh exchanged a smile with Brandon over her head. “Something stupid with things blowing up?” Josh asked, nodding toward the screen.

“You know what I like,” said Brandon as the projector roared to life and the movie began.

Author’s Notes

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