It was another ordinary day, another azi design challenge. In this case, frequent distractibility was threatening to tank an otherwise promising new application for a well-established Gamma set. Justin closed his eyes for a minute, resting, trying to get his own focus back. It was the last hour of his work day, and he felt strong sympathy at the moment for problems of the azi in question.
"I can tell you that being a Special is a lot like being Councillor or holding any office," said someone outside the office. "Very little privacy, very high security … ."
It was a voice he knew like he knew his own skin. It drilled through his eardrums into his brain. Was that the taste of oranges in his mouth? He felt a moment of vertigo and a wave of nausea.
Logic asserted itself. It had to be a recording. Short-term memory returned, bringing with it the answer: a very private briefing, today, with Jane Strassen talking about The Project, for a very exclusive Reseune audience. Staff on the need-to-know list had been encouraged to listen at their desks if unable to attend in person. And someone had thought it a good idea to set the stage by playing an old interview with Ari. There: now he could hear Strassen, talking about the challenge of being Olga Emory for the new infant Ari. Neva, at the reception desk, must have her vid speakers turned up. That's all it was.
Grant, returning three minutes later with their refilled water bottles, found him huddled in his chair, staring at his hands. "Justin?"
His voice was worried, almost plaintive. You're an alpha supervisor, thought Justin. Act like one. He straightened up and made himself breathe. "It was just … that damn Strassen interview. I'll be fine."
"Damn. Yeah, I heard it. We could leave: we have less than an hour."
"No. Not a good idea. 'Listen at your desk if unable to attend.'"
Grant handed him his bottle. "Yes, guess it might draw attention. Can you actually get anything done?"
"I ought to, right? It's that attention deficit issue with the 224s."
Grant gave him a quick grin. "Your concentration is usually excellent. Want me to take a look at what you have so far? Maybe a little extra input will get you going."
He pulled his chair over to Justin's desk and gazed into the screen. "There," he said, after a moment. Justin passed him the keyboard. Progress was made over the next fifty minutes, but it was all due to Grant, which meant that his own project had fallen behind.
"Look at the time," said Grant. "Let's call it a day, all right?"
Justin rubbed his eyes. "I should put in another hour. I haven't been processing anything."
"Give it up," said Grant. "Come in early tomorrow, if you really think so. Just let go for now."
"Who's supervising who, exactly?"
"The way I see it, part of my job is making sure my Supervisor doesn't make any stupid mistakes. Staying here when you're like this would be exactly that."
"Damn it, you're so smug." Justin took back to keyboard, saved the workspace, and shut down his system. "What do you want to do about supper? Go out?"
"The way you look, I think we should just go home. I'll cook something."
"It always seems a waste of your talents, having you cook."
"What about when you cook?" asked Grant, as Justin locked the office door and they left the lab.
"I don't have any talent at it, so there's none to waste."
"Not true," said Grant.
"Look, it just doesn't seem right, having you put up with me this way."
"We put up with each other," said Grant, firmly. "We always have. Where is this coming from, all the sudden?"
Justin shook his head. They walked the rest of the way the apartment in silence. "Sit down," said Grant, as soon as they were inside. "Relax. Put your feet up."
"I've been sitting all day," said Justin, as Grant rummaged in the sideboard in the dining area, coming up with a bottle of wine and two glasses.
"Just do it. There's a corkscrew in here, somewhere … ."
Justin sat down on the sectional and watched as Grant found the corkscrew, looked at it for a moment, and then began to open the wine bottle. "Since when do you know how to do that?"
"Paul showed me. On Ser Warrick's birthday, last year."
Jordan blinked, eyes blurring with tears at the sudden memory: going out to Ramirez's for dinner, and coming back to a cake with fresh berries, fruit ice, and wine. Wine for all four of them, because his father had said that Grant and Justin were now old enough. "What's this 'Ser Warrick' crap? You know his name."
Grant, filling the glasses, did not reply. "Here," he said, holding one out to Justin. "Drink. Relax." He took his own into the kitchen.
Justin sat and sipped, but after a moment, the emptiness of the room was too much for him. He went into the kitchen and perched on one of the stools from the breakfast bar, watching Grant beating eggs. A block of cheese, some mushrooms and tomatoes, and a bag of lettuce sat on the counter. Grant turned around and raised his eyebrows. "Well, if you're going to insist. Go ahead, make salad."
Justin set down his glass, slid off the stool, and pulled out the salad bowl, a knife, and a cutting board. Grant grated the cheese and started a skillet on the stove, adding a pat of butter, Cutting up the tomatoes and mushrooms was soothing, and when Justin was finished, he laid the table without being asked. He hadn't felt hungry all afternoon, but the smell of the mushrooms in the butter suddenly made his mouth water. By the time the omelets were ready, he was happy to sit down and eat.
"So what set you off this afternoon — just the interview?" asked Grant, at last, buttering a second roll.
"They started it off with a clip of Ari being interviewed. Neva must have had her speakers turned way up."
"Yes. Leon and Babak had come out to watch it with her."
Justin pushed his plate away. "It sounded like Ari was right out in the hall. I just … I lost it. After all this time."
"Not that much time. Not to get over something like that. Sounds like you had a hell of a shock." Grant munched in silence for a couple of minutes. "Do you want to watch a vid for the rest of the evening? Play something: chess?"
"Maybe a vid." It would fill up the void in his head, and he didn't think he had the concentration to be any kind of an opponent for Grant in a strategy game.
"OK. Go pick one out."
"Let me help clear, at least."
Grant rolled his eyes. "Did it ever occur to you that I like doing things for you?"
"Of course you do," said Justin. And then wished he hadn't.
If Grant had been a cit, he might have thrown something. But as it was, he put the plates and cutlery into the sink with delicacy and precision and went back for the glasses, his face an azi null mask for once. Justin put the salad bowl and bread basket on the counter and retreated to the living room to rummage in the media cabinet.
Grant came in a few moments later, the dishwasher humming gently behind him. "Acknowledge my autonomy, born-man," he said, throwing himself onto the sectional. "I'm an alpha by a very appreciable margin. I don't do only what's ordered, as ordered. What did you pick out?"
Justin showed him: a classic Earth fantasy-comedy. He started it up and dropped onto the sofa next to Grant, who dimmed the lights. Gradually, as the unlikely situations unfolded on the screen and the warmth of Grant's body reached him, Justin started to relax. Grant put an arm around his shoulder, so that his chuckles at the funny parts rumbled against Justin's ribs. Before the hero found his princess again, Justin's head was sinking onto his chest, and his eyelids were drooping.
"That's it," said Grant and snapped off the player. "We need to put you to bed."
Justin sat up and rubbed his hand across his face. "Don't you want to see … ?"
"I can quote every bit of dialog for the remaining thirty-five minutes," said Grant. "We must have watched this one six times before we were thirteen, Justin. He gets the princess, the swordsman doesn't die, they ride off into the sunset. Come on. I could probably carry you, but I'd rather not."
Snug at last in their bed, Justin drifted. He concentrated as well as he could on small things, peaceful things. River water. A kite in the sky. Green plants and cool moisture in the Earth conservatory down in AG. It seemed to be working. What could be nicer than this? Quiet, dark, good … .
This is as good as it gets.
HIs eyes opened wide in the darkness, his gut was cold, and his mouth gaped in a soundless shout. He reached out for the warmth beside him: a solid body, known scent and shape.
Grant put strong arms around him, murmuring sleepily. Justin pressed himself against Grant as he had done dozens of times, a hundred maybe.
And to his shame and horror, he felt his body react to the earlier thought, that awful pleasure. His hips moved of their own accord as his groin sought more pressure.
He rolled away, disgusted with himself. "No," he said hoarsely, heedless of the electronic listeners they always suspected.
"Justin … "
"No. You're asleep. Go back to sleep."
"Justin — " It was a warning, this time.
It was so dark. Why couldn't they hide here in the dark? The injustice and the shame roiled in his belly. He rolled over until he could whisper in Grant's ear, his body carefully held away from Grant's. "I didn't mean to, I was remembering — ."
"I wish you did mean to," whispered Grant, very faintly.
Justin's lips shaped the words over again, disbelieving what he had just heard. "You can't," he breathed, at last. "You're … you're my brother."
"Don't," murmured Grant, and there was pain in his voice.
"It's, it's just what she did. I don't want … ." He was so confused and ashamed. Because they couldn't discuss this, here in the dark, with the unseen listeners hearing all the things that no one else should hear, that he couldn't even say to himself.
Because he was lying.
"Hell with her," said Grant, in the faintest of breaths but still so clear that there was no way to be mistaken. "It's not what she did. It's Jordan and Paul, what they showed us. All those years. All that love. That's what it is. Justin, I want it. And I want it for you."
You couldn't say love. Not that kind of love. Paul was azi, like Grant. He was a supervisor, like Jordan.
Another memory: himself at thirteen, prickly and a wiseass, arguing with Jordan. Over what? A class, maybe; yes, which biology elective to take next term. And he had stopped shouting and instead said something truly nasty, something cruel, about how it hardly mattered, because he didn't want to be like Jordan anyway. And Jordan quietly, firmly, refused to argue anymore. But later, when Justin went back, he'd seen something he wasn't meant to see: Jordan with his face in his hands, and Paul next to him on the arm of the sectional, a hand on Jordan's shoulder. And Jordan had looked up, the skin under his eyes shining wet, and Paul had smiled at him. The warmth of that smile must still be here, in this apartment, it was so strong and plain. And Jordan's face had changed, and he had turned to embrace Paul.
And thirteen-year-old Justin had turned and slipped away, burning with the confusion of his adolescent emotions: jealousy for what Paul had that he didn't, and disgust with himself for feeling that way.
And he knew that Ari had been wrong, last year. Or perhaps, more simply, that she was lying. Because it suited her. Because anything she did was all right with her, because she was Ari.
In that moment, on that thought, he felt such a rush of gratitude toward Grant that he had to roll over again and take Grant in his arms. And Grant held him, too, kissing the top of his head as he began to cry.
The tears stopped as suddenly as they had started. Grant pressed a cluster of tissues to his face, and when Justin cast them away, blindly, Grant kissed him. On the mouth, for the first time.
It wasn't like what he'd done with Julia, that was awkward and made him feel stupid. It felt so blessedly normal and right, to feel Grant's lips opening for him, to feel Grant's tongue against his, to feel Grant's body responding to his. Grant's hands were strong and sure of what they were doing, the way Grant always was, at everything he did. But now, tonight, all that was for Justin: Grant's beauty, his intelligence, his dexterity, and his patience. All the things that had made him envy Grant not so long ago were now his, in every way.
It wasn't until they were both finished, sated and sticky and attempting to clean up without letting anyone know what had happened, that Justin thought of Ari again. He froze, sitting on the side of the bed, a clean pair of briefs in his hands, and ran through the past quarter hour in his head, over and over again.
How did I not think of her once?
But he hadn't. There was only Grant, his body, his scent, the way he made Justin feel.
"It's OK," he said then, very quietly, and pulled on the briefs and got under the sheet. Grant curled up behind him, as close as a thing and its shadow.
"I love you so much," he breathed into Justin's hair. It tickled, so that Justin had to scratch his head, and Grant kissed his fingers.
"I love you too," said Justin, softly, and closed his eyes again. He pulled Grant's hand to his chest, tucking it under his chin, holding it safe as they went together into the quiet dark.