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All The Effects Of Love (ch.12)

Title: All The Effects Of Love (12/15)
Author: honestys_easy
Rating: PG-13
Disclaimer: I have nothing to do with any of them, and in no way responsible for creating the awesome that is Brace. I don’t even live in New York anymore so I can’t even claim that!
Summary: Through the years of first glances, first kisses, first loves, Brandon Rogers and Ace Young had the perfect relationship. But when tragedy strikes, the couple discovers how much they truly mean to one another.
Author’s Notes: This is the sequel to my Chris/Blake New York AU Smile A Smile For Me, telling the story of Brace’s relationship that was a side story just dying to be expanded. The first story doesn’t have to be read to understand this one, but there are recurring characters and relationships among them in both. I hope you like reading this as much as I’ve loved writing it: I haven’t put this much into two characters and a storyline perhaps ever.
Huge thanks and much love to my beta, dreamerren, for the ideas and the planning and the squee and for “Duh!” nine months ago that brought all of this to life. ♥



          Chapter 12

          October 2006


"These are Knicks tickets." The envelope weighed heavy in Brandon's hand, each of the little blue and orange ticket slips fanned out between his fingers, gleaming bright and gaudy in his grasp. The last time he held something this valuable was when he cradled Ace's newest nephew in his arms last Christmas.

Ace was practically beaming, toned arms crossed in front of his chest with pride, smile so bright he could light all of TriBeCa with its shine. "That they are."

Brandon couldn't help but stare at them in shock, his face frozen in surprise ever since he discovered the little envelope from Madison Square Garden underneath the loaf of bread in the fridge. This certainly derailed his thoughts of an uneventful yet pleasant lazy Sunday breakfast with his boyfriend. He counted the tickets quickly in his head, eyes widening as the number grew. "They're...season tickets, Ace."

"I couldn't get courtside," Ace explained; those had all been snatched up quickly by senior partners, though he suspected Mr. Lythgoe preferred discounted tickets to the ballet than to basketball. "But they're only a few rows back. You could spit on Jack Nicholson if you wanted...not that I think you want to spit on Jack Nicholson, but..."

For the first time since finding the tickets Brandon tore his gaze away from them, up to the satisfied face of his boyfriend, eyes scrutinizing to tell if this was a joke. "It's not my birthday," he said warily.

"Well, of course it's not your birthday, that's in December," Ace replied, rolling his eyes. Did his boyfriend really think he didn't know when his birthday was?

"And it's not our anniversary," Brandon pressed.

Ace narrowed his eyes, the grin growing larger. "That's in June, sweetie."

Brandon looked down at the tickets again, little slips of card stock he had coveted since he was a child and thought he could rationally hike to the Garden from his parents' home and trade in the new sweater his grandmother bought him to see at the very least the toss-up. Now he had them, here, coupled together like a full set of Topps cards, and he couldn't even fathom how they got there.

Taking the shocked expression on his face as a sign of silent amazement and gratitude, Ace puffed out his chest in pride, knowing Brandon's reaction was what made it all worth it. "I got them through a contact at the firm - you're not the only one with contacts, you know." He tilted his head to the side, trying to catch a glimpse of a smile on Brandon's face, his voice going softer with his plans revealed. "There's no special occasion; I just wanted to get them for you. I knew you'd love it."

But the look on Brandon's face was far from a smile, and loving the gift was not the first thing on his mind. He knew from many a year of longing that these tickets were both expensive and hard to come by, they were a vision from his dreams that Ace plucked out of the ether and handed to him over breakfast coffee. It was so easy for him to give this to Brandon, without even a second thought about its price; one of the many benefits to being a well-paid contract lawyer. The spacious apartment, the elite restaurants and exclusive plays Brandon never even dreamed of attending.... For years Brandon had been on his own, working hard to stay in college, keep his apartment, and occasionally have money remaining for food; it was difficult but rewarding in the end, knowing that all he had and what he accomplished was his own. Now, living with Ace after the younger man graduated from law school, it was evident that while they liked to say everything was theirs, the signature on the checks to pay the bills told a different story.

Brandon couldn't throw money around and spend impulsively; he never could, though there wasn't anything he wished for more than to shower his lover with lavish gifts and tokens of his affection. The season tickets in his hand were a startling reminder that where Brandon could not, Ace could, and did, without even needing a reason.

"I can't take these," he said numbly, gaze transfixed on the tickets, refusing to look up and see the startled look in Ace's eyes.

"Of course you can," insisted Ace, brows furrowing together. There hadn't been one season since he had known Brandon that the older man had missed a Knicks game on television, even through the dry spells when most fair-weathered fans moved on to greener pastures. "They're good seats, right? I can try to get better ones if you want -"

"No!" Brandon interrupted, in a tone more forceful than he usually ever took with Ace. The younger man just wasn't getting it, didn't understand that the quality of the tickets wasn't the problem but the act of gifting them itself made Brandon uneasy. He repeated, holding the tickets in an outstretched arm back at Ace. "I said I can't take them!"

Ace's smile fell; Brandon never acted this way and he couldn't understand what was going on. Was there something wrong with the tickets...or was it the fact that Ace was gifting them to him that was the problem? "I thought you would like them," he said, failing at masking the hurt in his tone.

Brandon did like the tickets but not the situation they were presented to him. For years he and Ace had emotionally been on an even keel, neither man pressing any kind of superiority over the other, and Brandon wished to keep it that way. If Ace gave him these tickets - a gift that Brandon couldn't reciprocate both in terms of price and sentimental value - it could change that dynamic between them that had worked for so many years. It could change everything. "But now I've got to get something for you," he shook the tickets in his hand, not noticing the intensity with which he held them or the volume of his voice, and Ace stepped back suddenly, as if the tickets were dipped in poison.

"You don't have to get me anything!" Ace exclaimed, frustrated, his hands in the air and away from the tickets in Brandon's possession. He hadn't meant to shout, his voice reverberating off the walls in strange ways that were foreign to the apartment, it having never heard either man raise his voice in anger. Running anxious, frustrated fingers through his hair, he took another step away from Brandon until his back hit the cold, painted wood of the front door, its brass doorknob sticking into the small of his back, feeling like a loaded gun. He couldn't fathom how this had all gone so wrong, how wanting to get something nice for the love of his life turned into such an issue. All that he could think about was how he had never backed away from Brandon Rogers before; only towards him, towards that love.

"Yes, I do!" Brandon persisted, feeling uneasy just holding the tickets in his hand without anything to show his love for Ace in return. Their relationship had grown to be one of deep love and mutual respect, two vital and, as Brandon thought of it, equal balances on a scale. The tickets in his hand were threatening that scale to tip, topple, and possibly come crashing to the ground. He didn't want to lose the loving stability they had developed for years; he didn't want to change anything. "No one gives presents like this unless they're expecting something in return. I don't know what you were thinking -"

The frustration inside him and the shock of seeing his gift almost thrown back in his face by the man he loved turned quickly to anger; Ace's temper was rarely tested but when it was it burned hot as fire and just as intense. He reached forward and snatched the tickets roughly from Brandon's hand, the tickets that seemed to be the cause of a ruined calm Sunday morning. "If it's this much trouble," he said gruffly, "I'll return them."

His hand was halfway to the doorknob despite the fact that the tickets were sold non-returnable, and there wouldn't be a self-respecting ticketing agent in the country who'd be open on a Sunday, when Brandon spoke up, his own blood pressure rising from the argument. "It's not about the tickets!" He wanted to tell him what it was really about, his insecurities, his fears; how those little slips of paper could mean a shift in their relationship Brandon wasn't willing to make. But the words wouldn't come out, he couldn't form them in his head fast enough to rationalize his actions. And he couldn't bring himself to utter the cliche "it's not you, it's me," not to Ace.

Ace looked over his shoulder, waiting for the explanation or apology; his heart sank when there was none, only Brandon, a defeated look on his face, hand still outstretched from when he held the tickets and refused to accept them as a token of Ace's love. "When you figure out what it is about, then, call me, because I'd really like to know." With that he stepped out into the hallway, slamming the door behind him and leaving Brandon in the living room, grasping for words.

It wasn't until the cool October winds hit his face somewhere on Canal Street, cooling his temper and sweeping sense into his mind, that Ace realized he and Brandon had never left a room angry with each other before, in over five years since that first night at the Delacorte. And by the time he reached the destination his feet chose - across the languid Hudson River via PATH, to the Daughtry's house in Jersey City - he feared he might not have the chance to make up for it.

***


Chris Daughtry eyed the little slips of card stock in his hand with the scrutiny of a criminologist, eyes squinting in the light of his living room, investigating every ink blot short of biting them for authenticity. "Can I have the tickets?" he asked, quirking an eyebrow towards the young man on his couch, head in his hands.

"What?" Ace picked his head up, a scowl on his face. He had come here for consolation and advice, not as a scalper.

"Well, I'm more a Devil's fan myself, but if he doesn't want them -"

Shaking his head, Ace returned his gaze to the carpet, Daughtry's phrase "he doesn't want them" repeating on a loop track in his mind. "No, you can't have them," he managed, trying to will that last image of Brandon shoving those tickets back at him out of his memory.

He had come all this way - under a river and through the urban woods of downtown Jersey City, but this certainly wasn't Grandma's house - for a sage, the only man he knew in the Tri-State area with a better track record at love than his own; his father, of course, being the pinnacle of such success to him, but he didn't plan to wake the old man up across the country to talk about his love life. Chris Daughtry was a green newlywed when Ace met him over six years ago, when he grinned at the sound of his wedding band clinking against a bottle of LaBatt and didn't hesitate to pull out the wallet full of photos of toddlers that weren't yet his. If anyone could help him decipher just what was going on in Brandon's mind, it was Daughtry.

"I just don't understand," he said; he had ran it through all theories of logic in his mind on the subway ride in, scrutinizing Brandon's words and actions, trying to find their meaning. "I know he'd want these tickets; he loves the Knicks. I had to fight off three other junior partners to even get the chance to buy these." Ace was going to hide the tickets in his office until Brandon's birthday in two months, but he didn't want to take the chance that his boyfriend would make irrevocable plans on a playoff date, and besides, the imagined expression of joy and gratitude on Brandon's face, it had been too deliciously tempting to keep stashed in a desk drawer.

He hadn't in his deepest thoughts considered Brandon would throw the tickets back in his face.

"But he said it wasn't about the tickets," Daughtry recalled, mulling the details Ace had relayed to him over in his mind. Ace could nearly see the gears churning in his friend's head through cloudy brown eyes.

Nodding solemnly, Ace put his head in his hand again, running his fingers through hair that had grown greasy over the hour from his nervous habit. "Yeah, so?"

Daughtry shrugged his shoulders, tattooed arms crossed against his chest. For all the critical and logical thinking his best friend prided himself upon, there were times he really couldn't see the forest for the trees. "Have you thought, maybe...it's not about the tickets?"

He had thought about it, of course, he had a lot to think about on the train ride out to Jersey City, but it was the one point he didn't dare entertain in his mind. If this whole thing wasn't about the tickets, he thought with a sinking heart, then it had to be about him, and he didn't know if he could stand that. But he also knew that Brandon never lied to him, not about something important; Ace would rather this be a lie than it be the terrifying alternative. "I just wanted to get him something nice...something special," he admitted. "I didn't want anything in return, I don't expect him to get me anything. I gave it to him because I could...because I love him."

Digging the heel of his hand into the muscles above his brow - an attempt to massage the negative thoughts and doubt out of his head but instead only bringing on a dull throbbing that was sure to be a headache soon - Ace didn't even notice the slump of the couch's weight until he felt Daughtry's arm reassuringly over his shoulders. They stayed like that for three minutes - Ace could count the seconds from the ticking clock above the mantle, it was easier than ruminating on the dark thoughts in his head - until Daughtry finally broke the silence. The officer didn't waste much time with frivolous words, Ace learned this early in their friendship, so when he felt the need to speak up, people listened.

"When Deanna and I first started out," he began, "times were tough. You know we had a lot on our plate. Money was a big issue."

Ace's brow knit together in confusion. "What are you talking about? Deanna always had the business, didn't she?" He knew Daughtry when he was first married, and got to know his bride Deanna fairly well in time. A newly single mother of two with a bright smile and a deceivingly high aptitude for poker, Deanna had been far from a damsel in distress when Daughtry had met her, and he far from a knight in shining armor. She had been working in the office at her father's landscaping business since she could hold a pen, and when the old man retired the company was handed down to her. Thriving underneath her watchful eye, the business allowed them to find a spacious apartment in Jersey City, close enough to Manhattan for Daughtry to get to work yet still within a decent distance to the suburban lawns Deanna depended upon. As far as Ace knew, money had never been an issue with the family.

Daughtry rolled his eyes; Ace had dated women at one point in his life, he figured the other man would have retained something from that time. "Yeah, she had the business," he explained, "and that was doing great. But I was still a rookie then, right out of the Academy, making a shit salary and giving most of that back to pay for my uniform. There I was, finally a cop like I always wanted," he took a big sigh, a smile on his face now that revealed reminiscent frowns from years before. "But my wife was paying rent every month, and the bills, and daycare. I wasn't providing for the people I loved; hell, I wasn't even providing for myself."

A swath of memory sprinted across Ace's mind: Brandon, proudly presenting his first paycheck from the radio station in the infancy of their relationship, beaming over the fact that he could once again afford heat in the winter months. Brandon, constantly griping about all the things that went wrong in their first little apartment, but secretly loving it for being all his own. Brandon, who struggled for years on his own after his family abandoned him, and loved independence second only to loving Ace.

"I knew working together was how our marriage would last - what's yours is ours, and all that - but at the time? I thought I wasn't pulling enough weight, and it was eatin' me up inside." From the stoic, grumpy exterior Ace knew Daughtry to have when he wasn't in the best of moods, he wondered how anyone would have noticed the other man's inner turmoil at the time. "All I'm saying is...back then, if Deanna got me a gift I had wanted my whole life - and for no reason, other than she could - it would have made me feel damn awful I couldn't do the same for her."

It was like a gauzy veil had been lifted from the mystery of Brandon's reaction in Ace's mind: it finally made sense why the man who had always prided himself on his independence and self-sufficiency felt so strongly about his gift. He had been thinking about it from the entirely wrong perspective: his own. He should have known from the years of adjusting his logical thinking pattern to Brandon's emotionally-fueled one that his take on the events would be wildly different from Ace's; he chided himself for seemingly not knowing enough about the love of his life to realize this.

"Do you think..." he asked, thinking back to the small shifts in their relationship like the movements of the ocean after he graduated law school and started receiving a salary at the firm, "Do you think that's how Brandon's feeling right now? I never meant to hurt him or to make him feel bad about the tickets..."

Those words certainly did not need to be said twice; Daughtry had known from the first time Ace had talked to him about Brandon that he would never want to hurt the other man. "There's only one way to find that out for sure," he said, rising from the couch with a quick pat of encouragement to Ace's shoulder. "And you know what it is." Leaning casually against the doorframe to the Daughtry's living room, the officer hiked a thumb through the empty space; Ace had a mission now, and any later would be overstaying his welcome. "I'm kicking you out," Daughtry declared, much to Ace's amusement. "Get your ass back home where it should be."

Ace rose to his feet, grinning at his friend with gratitude and snatching back the set of Knicks tickets in his hand and followed the path of that thumb out of the Daughtry's house, through the streets of Jersey City and across the Hudson back to New York.

***


He was waiting when the door opened; sitting on the edge of the couch they had found on a rare trip to Park Slope and couldn't live without; like he had never left the room, nothing more important in his life than waiting for that front door to open again. He rose slowly, eyes locked to Ace's in the doorway, his steps metered and deliberate until they were only standing inches apart. Like a sole body acting as one, the pair embraced, familiar arms encircling Ace's chest and coming to rest below his shoulder blades, Brandon's cheek alongside his.

Later they would discuss the argument, the one fight beyond a simple disagreement either man could remember having with one another, until late into the night when they could barely keep their eyes open from exhaustion, like the first night they had met. They would talk about how Brandon saw insurmountable dollar signs where Ace only saw a demonstration of his affection, how change and transition inevitably approached their relationship and the different ways each man came to greet it. They'd cry, they'd laugh, they'd make love and make promises about keeping conscious of each other's feelings and never letting money come in the way of their relationship again. They would agree that, despite what they represented in their relationship, Ace and Brandon were keeping the tickets.

But for now, in these arms that felt like home and with a kiss that asked for nothing but to love and be loved for the rest of their days, Ace knew there were no words needed between them.

***


          May 2008

"There you are! I've been looking for you for-fucking-ever!"

Brandon knew the voice, that confidence that bordered on cocky in the timbre, before he could even see the figure rushing towards him down the hall. He had been wandering in a haze, eyes trained to the ground and hands balled into frustrated fists, fingernails digging into the heel of his palms to take his mind off other pains. He couldn't go back to the hospital room, not after he was kicked out, though his heart ached with every beat to be back there, by Ace's side. And while the plan his friends had so altruistically concocted was a success, he felt he couldn't go back without feeling, at least in his own heart, that he was a failure. He left the man he loved, lying in a hospital bed and fighting for life, because a nurse kindly asked him to. How could he explain that away to those in the waiting room - or to himself?

The one thing Brandon knew was that he was definitely not in a mood to talk with Danny Noriega right now.

Bounding up in a flurry of black and violet, Danny stretched his arms out wide, his breath labored but exaggerated over his search. "You could not have been here this whole fucking time, I've looked up and down this whole place for you," he complained - and he always complained, the thought inching its way to the front of Brandon's mind. Danny was a special case, his cattiness and passive-aggression usually more than most people could stand. Brandon had particularly calm and effective methods of dealing with one of Danny's moods, which usually changed faster than the traffic lights, but today was not the day Brandon planned to focus on alleviating Danny's attitude problems.

"Danny," he started, exasperated, his voice coming out choked; he hadn't spoken since he left Ace's hospital room, and he was surprised he even had a voice with which to speak.

"No, seriously. Seriously? This is important," Danny's eyes widened with excitement, ready to start up his brisk walking pace once more; after all, he had been on a mission, and unlike most of the tasks set in his teenage life, this was one he wasn't planning to shirk. "See, there's this plan. Blake's total example of an authority fetish is chattin' up the night nurse right now, and I thought this would be the perfect time to sneak you in so you can see Ace!"

Brandon's face fell, his gaze returning to the floor, once again ashamed to tell anyone that he had left his lover's side. Even with Danny, who had always shown an exaggerated and rather noisy distaste for their relationship and how seemingly perfect their affection was for each other, Brandon felt like he had let the world down, let himself and Ace down, and worried that he may never see him again.

Danny didn't seem to notice, his eyes rolled to the ceiling and his mouth moving a mile a minute: the quintessential self-absorbed New Yorker. "I just can't believe they're doing this to you two," he groaned, eyes rolling at the injustice like the hospital had merely stopped two teenagers from sneaking into an R-rated movie. "You are like, the most couple-y old married couple ever, and they're being total assholes about it because one of you doesn't have a vagina." Brandon cringed at Danny's callousness, and for the fact that he was right. "It's sick. I tell you, leave me in a room with that nurse and we'll see who's the biggest fucking diva here -"

"I saw him." Brandon had to blurt it out, just say something so maybe Danny would stop talking for a few moments. He definitely had a soft spot for the teenager - when Danny had come into the Chelsea House searching for Brandon's mentoring program, Brandon had taken his case on himself, with help and companionship from David and Blake, because he knew no one else would be able to stand him - but his patience for Danny's attitude was wearing thin. He didn't need this, not today, not when his whole world was hanging by a thread. "I found him, I went in to see him. He looks..." Brandon closed his eyes, unable to escape the vivid memory of Ace's broken, wounded body in that hospital bed, and the thought that all the love he could give him in the world couldn't help. "It's not good," he said, unable to put into words the severity of Ace's condition.

"Wait, you already got in?" Danny asked. "Then why are you here?" He waved an arm out in the empty corridor; Brandon had to flinch at the harsh accusation. "Shouldn't you be chained to his side right now? I mean, with how much you're sickeningly in love with each other -"

"Danny!" Brandon said forcefully, his hands balled into fists at his sides, frustration finally boiling up to the surface. He had been in the dark for hours, hours, and he held all this emotion inside and didn't dare let go, but Danny pushed his tolerance to the limit and he just couldn't do it anymore, he couldn't. "I don't need this right now, least of all from you!" He could hear the buzzing of the machines in his head, smelled the antiseptic on the gauze that masked Ace's scent; he felt the hard, brittle plaster underneath his hands where there should be flesh. "I tried, dammit, I tried, and I don't know what else I can do..."

His burst of anger left as quickly as it came, deflating Brandon in one large burst like the air escaping a punctured tire. Slumping back against the wall behind him as the energy and sheer will to stand left him, Brandon held his head in his hands, never before feeling so helpless. It wasn't Danny he was angry with; it was himself, and how he could have let all this happen. A notarized note, a simple legal document could have changed the outcome of everything...or, the answer "yes."

Stepping back in shock, Danny's eyes widened at Brandon's outburst. The older man never raised his voice to Danny, though the teenager was pretty sure he did a hell of a lot over the years to deserve it. There had been fire in Brandon's eyes, a quick, hot temper that was so very unlike him, he seemed like a different person. Danny Noriega routinely took things three steps too far without batting an eyelash, but even he realized this was a more delicate situation than most. "Oh, shit," he muttered, his mood sobering immediately, watching the energy drain out of Brandon as he leaned against the wall. "I'm being a real bitch, aren't I."

"You know, not everything is about you," the words didn't even sound like Brandon, like all of the emotions he had kept buried in order to function that day changed him, brought him past a breaking point no man should ever have to face. "And this isn't some joke or something to comment on, this is real life. This is real, this is Ace, and -"

Brandon's words were cut off by a deafening sob, and it took him a moment to realize it came from his own chest. All the walls he had built up over the past few hours, all of the defenses he stored to cope with the day were crumbling, and he couldn't hold the emotions flooding forth like a breaking dam. He had avoided those words for so long, knowing he wouldn't be able to handle hearing them aloud much less by his own voice...that this was actually happening, that Ace Young had began his day with a marriage proposal and ended up in a hospital bed, and might end with consequences far worse. After the first came another, and another, his lungs thick with the sobs he had held back all day, pushing past his chest to finally escape. With hot, unfettered tears streaming down his cheeks, Brandon held one hand to his brow, the other above his heart, the rush of feelings hurting physically as well as emotionally.

Suddenly Brandon felt a presence of black and purple before him, arms encircling his shoulders and pulling him into an embrace: Danny. Too physically and emotionally exhausted to do anything but cry, Brandon let himself be hugged but found no comfort in the teenager's gesture. His cries came from deep within, down from the pit of his stomach where his fears took residence, the pressure only building as his tears fell. Brandon sobbed into Danny's shoulder, chest heaving with emotion and letting everything break down as Danny began to speak.

"I am so sorry," he said, his tone somber and more sincere than Brandon had ever heard it before. "I didn't mean...I know this has got to be so hard for you, I didn't mean to make it worse." It seemed he had crossed the line - a line he had stomped upon many times before but never to hurt someone close to him, never against Brandon - and now the older man looked near inconsolable, with someone who definitely wasn't high on the comforting list. If Danny only had Blake near, or David; they would know what to do, they had known Brandon longer. In the time that Danny had met the older man - when he was seventeen and confused, and bitterly, blindly angry - to this day, he had never seen Brandon look so despondent, so broken.

"I can't lose him," cried Brandon, his breath coming in ragged bursts, his grip clenching in the fabric of Danny's shirt, desperate to hold onto anything. "I can't..."

Leaning him against the wall to prevent him from possibly collapsing from his exhausted body and mind, Danny held Brandon tightly through the worst of his cries, like his mother used to in their small apartment on Orchard Street when he had been terrorized at school, before she knew exactly what they were bullying him for. They stayed that way for what seemed like hours until the shoulder of Danny's shirt was nearly soaked through, and Brandon's sobs quieted down to exhausted whimpers that echoed through the empty hall louder than his cries. Danny had to speak in low tones, near whispers, or else he felt he would shatter that silence - Blake and David would never believe his voice existed at such a low volume.

"You won't," Danny said confidently, with both the wisdom of a timeless sage and the naiveté of a child Brandon thought Danny grew out of around the same time as his diapers. "You can't lose him, ever. He's in your heart, and he's always going to be there. That's the one thing you can count on."

His words proved little comfort to Brandon but he was silently awed that the teenager was even trying; compassion was not Danny's strength and Brandon commonly had to remind the teenager the situations where his bluntness would not be appreciated. Almost anticipating his thoughts, Danny chuckled low, his eyes rolling. "I know I'm not the best at this," he said, though Brandon had a feeling in his heart that Danny had believed every word he had said to him. "But I mean it. I say a lot of shitty things but it doesn't mean I don't know what you mean to each other." The caring words, the glances between each other...Danny was admittedly self-centered as a defense mechanism but he wasn't blind and he was far from stupid. "You're actually the most functional couple I know."

Brandon waited for the snide yet playful comment that Danny needed to find better friends, but it never came; this was a side to Danny the teenager wanted to show existed, the serious, sensitive part of him he very rarely let peek through, even to the older men who started out as volunteers but developed into his close friends. He was well aware how much the mentoring program had shaped his life and changed his view of himself and the world, and Brandon was a big part of that, going the distance with him when so many others in his life gave up. Giving back to Brandon in his time of dire need was the least he could do.

Patting the older man on the back, Danny pulled away from the hug as he heard the sobs subside and felt the flow of tears dry up against his shoulder. He looked Brandon in the eyes: red and puffy from crying, pained and still watery with tears, the turmoil in those eyes far from over for the day. Brandon looked like he had aged a decade in one evening, the bags under his eyes dark and heavy, filled with worry, creases and wrinkles in his brow where there were none the day before. It was a complete turnaround from the easygoing Brandon that took a chance on Danny and never let the teenager's sarcastic comments break past his smile. It was Ace that kept him together for so long, they had become the light in each other's lives that they both knew would never flicker out or fade. What Danny saw in Brandon's eyes was love and fear, emotions so vivid and true and devastatingly on the brink he didn't know how he could be coping.

"Do you want to go back to the waiting room?" Danny asked as Brandon regained his composure, forcing his breathing to slow by sheer will. There was no sarcasm to his voice, no biting remarks or any other defenses the teenager routinely put up against the world. Had he been in a different state of mind, Brandon would have wished he had a camera to record the feat; David and Blake would never even believe him.

Brandon nodded, and opened his mouth to respond in assent, but the words that came tumbling out were not what he expected. His defenses down and his emotions raw, Brandon admitted to the person he least considered a confidante with a shaky voice, "He...he asked me to marry him."

That certainly stopped Danny in his tracks, his eyes widening in shock not at Brandon's words but the fact that he was telling this secret to him. "Shut, up," he said dramatically, taking in a deep breath and holding his hand to his chest. He would have had to be blind not to have seen the news headlines or heard the buzz settling over the coffeehouses and cafes of the Lower East Side this morning, the one court decision thousands of miles away, across an entire continent, that changed everything, even in the tiny space of the world Danny Noriega occupied. "When did he ask?"

"This morning." Brandon wasn't going to bring up the fact that this was the second time Ace sent the proposal his way, not when he hadn't breathed a word of the first to any of his friends, never feeling the need to inevitably defend himself and his answer. Besides, proposing to marry someone off the cuff over beers and a basketball game wasn't what Brandon had considered a serious endeavor. He simply didn't think he was being that serious about it, or that it meant so much to Ace, until that morning when he asked again and Brandon saw that sparkle of hope in Ace's eyes that he might actually say yes.

Danny could only stand patiently for long, waiting for Brandon to elaborate on the proposal, kneading his hands in anticipation of the juicy details. He had never been terribly attentive when Brandon talked about his boyfriend before, considering the pair to be boringly monogamous and less interesting than his soap operas, but he had always had a weakness for gossip and this was just too good to pass up. Blake was going to shit pink unicorns when he discovered Danny found out about the engagement before him. "So??" he asked, waving his hands around excitedly, deeply parted hair falling into his face but he didn't care. "When's the date going to be? Are you going all the way to Cali? Oh man, I've never been to Hollywood, I bet the guys there are too much to fuckin' handle..."

He was about to go off on one of his monologues again, the endless stream of words that never seemed to even require breath much less a content filter, and if he went off on this subject - blathering on about endless beaches and golden-tanned surfers, and how San Francisco must be a wonderful place for a summer wedding - Brandon didn't know if he could take it. "I didn't -" he interrupted quickly, spitting the words out because they tasted bitter on his tongue, like unsweetened coffee or moments he could not take back. "I didn't say yes."

The teenager's words stopped short, his face dropping to a look of saddened surprise, watching the misery of that decision dawn over Brandon's features. It was something none of their friends would have predicted: Danny knew Ace and Brandon to be so in love - so much to the point Danny had to at times look away or lose his lunch - and he would have never thought that Brandon would turn down a marriage proposal. They were already Ward and June Cleaver with five o'clock shadows; the only logical next step was to make that relationship official.

But even Danny realized this wasn't the time to point out the obvious. Brandon had his head down again, looking down and away from Danny, trying to hide as best he could the fact that he was crying. He stayed silent but didn't resist against the arms enfolding him again, the damp shoulder soaking anew. Ace's smile had been disheartened but understanding that morning, knowing that mere time and a cup of coffee weren't going to change Brandon's answer to his proposal or his perspective on marriage in general. But in that small, significant moment between Ace's kiss goodbye to him and bounding out the door for his fated run, Brandon saw the glimmer in Ace's eye, his face, of deep regret; of doubt. He had never seen that look in Ace's eyes before, not when it came to their love, and it hit Brandon like a swift knee in the gut that it might have been the last thing Ace had thought of him before the city bus collided with his frame.

"Oh, God," he choked out, heel of his palm pressed against his forehead, his body and his conscience aching. "Why didn't I say yes?"

It was a question that begged not to be answered, whose answer could only truly be found inside Brandon Rogers's heart. If he had made that one decision, if he had one change of heart when he saw that look in Ace'e eyes before he left...perhaps the whole day would have been different.

Danny Noriega never really grasped the understanding of rhetorical questions.

"Do you love him?"

The question was abrupt and blunt; classic Danny. Brandon's tears had subsided but his heart still hung heavily in his chest, the outburst doing nothing to calm the hurt that only had one resolution. It caught him off-guard, his haggard breath hitched in his throat from the crying and the content of Danny's question. There was no one way to answer him, no words yet invented to truly describe how he loved Ace, or how much his heart yearned to be with him again. Like a subway car menacingly careening through tunnels, threatening to teeter off its track, Brandon's mind kept going back to the images of Ace in that hospital room, frail and broken and not like the Ace he had known for so many years. But Danny's question brought his mind to one track, to the joyful and loving memories he and Ace shared, from the moment they met to the kiss they shared that morning that felt as beautiful and intense as their first. All the images, all the emotions assailed him at once until Brandon felt he had to answer the question in order to breathe again.

"More than..." He felt his whole body tremble when he said the words, his voice weary but the meaning behind them truer than gold. "More than anything."

"And he knows this?" Brandon was hesitant to answer this particular question but he nodded into Danny's shoulder, knowing deep in his heart that Ace knew that he meant the world to Brandon. He forced his mind to think back to the moments when touching Ace's skin felt like a blessing, when he would trudge through a terrible day with ease because he knew Ace's smile was waiting for him when he got home. Brandon wanted to think of those memories, almost seven years full of warmth and love, instead of what he had seen in the hospital room.

Danny was nonplussed, almost unaffected by Brandon's answers; although Brandon was in no emotional condition to analyze, Danny's line of questioning had an obvious purpose. "And you know that he loves you, right?"

He thought of the way the younger man's entire face lit up with a smile when he was with Brandon, unable to hide his joy. He thought of the first time Ace said his name, an inaudible whisper against the summer breezes of Central Park, cherishing the name with his lips. How, despite his best efforts to hide it, Brandon still saw the flash of disappointment in Ace's eyes when he had said no that morning, a pain on his face that spoke volumes more than the indifferent shrug he gave as his reaction. He remembered how tightly Ace held him in his arms when he promised never to throw him away, and how Brandon's name was on his lips every time he brought him to climax. He remembered everything.

"Yes," he whispered, trying not to let the tears flow again.

Brandon had been so strong for so long: not even just for that day, but for years, steeling himself against outside forces and the own emotions assailed at his heart from the time he was eighteen. Letting all of that go that night was like opening up the floodgates, releasing his resistances and reminding him how vulnerable he was, how Ace was; how they all were.

"How long have you been together now?" Danny was but a boy when Brandon and Ace first met, the walls of the Chelsea House and the friends he'd meet there all years away; he knew that their relationship had to be solid, lasting, if it spanned years where Danny could hardly remember the dates, much less names and faces.

The typical answer would have been seven years; it was so close to their anniversary, that seven-year itch Marilyn Monroe had warned them about, that most couples would have just rounded up for the sake of saving time, or because the actual dates were fuzzy to them. But Brandon knew, almost to the hour, and he closed his eyes, remembering the warmth of the summer sunset on his face as Ace turned to him in that theater and smiled. "Six years," he sighed, feeling the wetness of a tear escape his eye. His last words were whispers, not knowing or caring if Danny truly heard them; they were only meant for him. "Ten months. And twenty-three days."

After a moment of silent contemplation, Danny concluded as he led Brandon back to the waiting room, "You have your own reasons for why you didn't say yes." He wasn't going to pry, even Danny knew there were topics that simply couldn't be discussed without the presence of a well-paid therapist. "And, probably, Ace already knows them. But you love him, and he loves you; that's really all that should matter, right?"

The older man thought about the clandestine mission to sneak in and see Ace, even just for a moment; he thought of the head nurse's stern face when she told him his love wasn't good enough. Brandon knew in his heart that was all that should matter, but in the world outside of those two, the walls and expanses outside of their apartment that stretched to St. Vincent's, the West Side Highway and beyond, there needed to be more. He realized there was no way to take any of it back, no way to undo what had already been changed in their lives, but he prayed he be given the chance to make it right.





Author’s Notes:

I’ve said in previous chapters that Brandon, who grew up as an impressionable young kid in 1980s New York City, would be a big Knicks fan and would stay loyal to the franchise despite its recent shortcomings in the basketball world. Being a Knicks fan and getting tickets to a game, however, are two entirely different things, and while I bet Brandon had splurged once or twice on nosebleed seats in Madison Square Garden, he would not have gotten season tickets and surely not so close as to spit on Jack Nicholson, who is one of the most notable courtside fans of the Knicks, apart from Spike Lee.

Chris Daughtry lives with his family here in Jersey City, New Jersey, which is right across the Hudson River from Manhattan and a popular place for commuters into the city to live. Although Daughtry’s favorite team, the New Jersey Devils, are an NHL team while the Knicks are NBA, it’s customary for a New Jersey native to be a Devils fan, and no one’s actually a Nets fan. :P

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